My Rough Guide: A night with Greta Garbo... and a sauna with Santa

Best discovery

As a city boy, several months trekking through Finnish forests researching for Rough Guides had me yearning for just a bit of litter - some comforting graffiti perhaps or a smashed-in bus shelter to bring on thoughts of home.

One stretch of pure, natural wonderment, however, is the Punkaharju Ridge in Eastern Karelia close to the Russian border. This 7km thread of land has been a causeway for over 1,000 years and cuts through a vast lake studded with grapefruit-yellow water-lilies. The ridge passes the incredible Retretti Arts Centre, a concert hall of man-made caves gouged into 3 billion- year-old rock.

Bizarre Meeting

I took a bus ride 8km inside the Arctic Circle to the log cabin where Santa Claus spends his annual 364 days of unemployment. That day's Santa invited me to share food and a sauna with him when he finished ho ho hoing to a group of Japanese businessmen and a contingent of under- privileged Canadian adolescents. In the sauna, his beard and festive red carefully folded away, Father Christmas told me how the Germans systematically burnt down every house they came to in Lapland when they withdrew at the close of the Second World War. His whole family lost their homes. "It's good to retreat into magic sometimes," he mused.

Biggest Mistake

The shard-shaped Baltic island of Oland is the sort of place a Scandinavian Famous Five would choose for a holiday. Mysterious forests of gnarled oaks, flowery meadows, creaking windmills and golden braids of beach without a used condom in sight!

Karina, a jolly faced woman selling ice-cream from a van near Trollskogen (Trolls Forest) in the far north assured me it was seven miles to Eketorp in the south. She said it was too far to cycle. I smiled Britishly. Five hours later, when the thrill of 13th-century church spires had truly worn off, I came across Karina again. "Hello!" she offered. "You did understand? One Swedish mile is 10 British miles, yes."

Best Meal

Escaping westwards from the pretentious complacency of Bastad, Sweden's elite tennis centre, the idyllic Bjare peninsula boasts ravines of rhododendrons in nail varnish pinks and cliffs of vivid crimson rock sinking into crashing waves. Richard Gere had a summer romance at the hamlet of Kattvik here, but never found the fish smokery where a seasoned fisherman called Kal smokes the finest sea life in furnaces fuelled and perfumed by sawdust from a nearby clog-maker. I bought horngadda, a scaly fish with emerald green bones, and sjurygg, an extraordinarily ugly - but delicious - fish, and savoured them with dense black bread and strawberries on the cliff tops, surrounded by jealous gulls.

Biggest Let Down

It must have been an omen. Dashing naked to the loo during my 10-hour night-time journey to Lapland's Rovaniemi, my cabin door locked itself with a sickening click. I found a guard three carriages on, but not before meeting every Arctic-bound insomniac aboard. Rovaniemi looks as Lappish as Lancashire hot pot. Alvar Aalto's buildings are all uniform grey-white blocks like trays of ice cubes dipped in ash. Don't despair, the lappish landscape beyond is exquisite.

Favourite Souvenir

Behind the statue of Marshal Mannerheim in Helsinki is a flea market where I found a battered book of Finnish art from the late 19th century. The Finns have a characteristic known as "Sisu" - a sort of soulful, poetic resilience which does not exactly make for a party atmosphere but amid the city's glorious National Romantic architecture and the paintings of such artists as Pekka Halonen and Hugo Simberg does evoke the moody, melancholic and musical qualities of the life of this complex nation. I took the book down to the windy harbour, bought a Karelian pastry full of warm chopped eggs and felt blissfully transported.

fact file

Getting there

Flights are expensive, although charter flights can be picked up occasionally. The major airlines, BA, SAS (The airline of Denmark, Norway and Sweden) and Finnair all charge pretty much the same.

What to do

The Punkaharju Ridge and the Retretti Arts Centre are reached by train, running east from Savonlinna on the Parikkala line (a spur of the Helsinki to Savoninna line). The Retretti Arts Centre opens May-Aug 10am-8pm, rest of year 10am-7pm, and costs 65 mks.

The Santa Clause village is 8km north of Rovanlemi on Route 4. Take Bus 4 or 8, direction Arctic Circle. Four trains run daily from Helsinki to Roaniemi, and take around 10 hours.

Oland is connected by bridge to Kalmar, south-eastern Sweden. Hourly buses are free if you're taking a bike or hitching, as the bridge has no footpath.

Grand Hotel Ribbagarden is off Brahegatan in Granna (tel/fax 0390 108 21). Granna is 40km north of Jonkoping.

Neil Roland co-wrote 'The Rough Guide to Scandinavia'. Keep up with the latest developments in travel by subscribing to the free newsletter 'Rough News', published three times yearly. Write to Rough Guides, IoS offer, 1 Mercer Street, London WC2H 9QJ. A free Rough Guide to the first three subscribers each week.

There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
Billie Whitelaw was best known for her close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, here performing in a Beckett Trilogy at The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
people'Omen' star was best known for stage work with Samuel Beckett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'