European Christmas: Finland

Kids,

We said early on that we were going to leave Europe off our list of destinations because it was such an easy flight from the United States, and after living on the exact opposite side of the world, an 8 hour flight is nothing. But, after hearing about some amazing Christmas vacation options to visit Santa Claus at his home in Lapland, we had to go.

I should note that many of our friends from Europe tell us that the real home of Santa Claus has been under debate for centuries. After some research we decided to head to Finland to meet Santa in his home town of Rovaniemi, a part of Lapland.

We quickly realized that if we were going to spend the time, and money, to travel all the way to the arctic circle we would be crazy to not stop through Europe on our way back home. So, we spent hours planning out our first European Christmas Vacation through Finland, Austria, Germany, Belgium, and The Netherlands with the goal of visiting as many European Christmas Markets as we could.

Given the duration of our trip, and the many places that we visited, we decided to split this post out by countries.  In total our trip covered 25 days, 15,000 miles, 5 Countries speaking 4 languages, and 6 cities.  As mentioned, our first stop was the arctic circle in Finland.

Before we get started I need to mention that on the day of our departure Christopher came home from school with one of the most impressive shiners I’ve seen.  We’re told that he was running through his classroom, tripped on a friends foot, and landed face first on the corner of a desk.  That’s our Christopher, living life at full speed…and face first.

The swelling was bad for the first 48 hours and then reduced, leaving a really nice black eye for basically our entire trip.  I think we were asked about it at least 3 times a day while out and about.

European Christmas: Finland Day 0: Thursday December 13th: Travel Day

After a full day we put you kids down for bed at 6:00 pm, to try and get some sleep before having to head to the airport at 11:00 pm. All I can say is that we’re all getting used to this lifestyle because you all did amazing and the 18 hours of travel went really well.

We landed in Paris after a relatively pleasant 10 hour flight from Mumbai, although I have to add that the plane was very poor quality.  So much so that it’s really the only thing I remember from the flight, and that’s saying something.

The Paris airport was relatively easy to get through, although signage was lacking a little. We did take a few wrong turns and incorrect escalators, but we found our way to Terminal 2D in less than an hour after landing.  After finding our gate, we headed straight to the nearest lounge to grab some food, drink, charge electronics, and hit the restrooms before boarding our final plane to Helsinki.

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Arriving in Helsinki we quickly de-boarded the plane and flew through customs, which was the easiest process we’ve encountered while traveling the globe. So much so that we asked an airport police officer to make sure we didn’t accidentally take an incorrect door that bypassed customs. But nope, just that easy.  We later found out it has to do with the Schengen Agreement, which is the reason you can travel around Europe without getting checked at every boarder.  If you’re really interested, check out a an awesome YouTube video by CGP Grey.

We booked a room at the airport Hilton because we were leaving for Rovaniemi and later Vienna from that hotel.  When at the hotel we upgraded our stay to include breakfast and access to the Executive Lounge so we didn’t have to keep you three in the room after 14 hours of travel, mostly on an airplane. After dropping off our luggage in the room we headed to the lounge to grab some snacks, drinks, and play card games that we brought to run off the clock before dinner. The cards were an amazing idea that you’re mother had, and these were used daily on our trip.

Dinner was amazing, and the reindeer burger was phenomenal. A friend of ours, Yuri, was from Finland and his only advice was to make sure we tried the reindeer. He was right…Thanks Yuri.

The hotel room was great and the staff had the room setup for us before we got there, with the pull out couch already out and sheets on. This kind of service and preparation is not something we typically see when we travel East.  This was the first sighting of a sauna in a hotel room, which continued while in Finland.

European Christmas: Finland: Day 1: Friday December 14th: Helsinki Toumaan Christmas Market and Night Train to Rovaniemi.

When you go to Europe you get around using the train system. That’s just what you do, or so we were told. It had a romantic appeal and we thought you three would love it because both boys had an intense infatuation with trains when little. Madelyn not so much, but she’s a joiner.

So we did our research and purchased a Eurail Global Pass which allowed for unlimited train travel on any 7 days over a 30 day period.  The best part was, given your ages, we received a free kids pass with the purchase of an adult pass.  This allowed Johnathon and Christopher to travel under your mother and my ticket, while Madelyn didn’t need a ticket at all since she was 2.

We took this plan one step further and decided to take a night train from Helsinki to Rovaniemi. Our two options both left after 6:00 pm and arrived in Rovaniemi between 7:00 am and 11:00 am the following day. We decided to pick the first train so we could see some of the Finland landscape and grab dinner before heading to bed. What we forgot to account for was the shortened daylight hours, and found out that the sun sets around 3:00 pm during the time we were there.  So no sightseeing on our first day from the train.

With an evening departure we had all day in Helsinki to explore the city before heading to the train station. We checked out of the hotel and made our way to the Helsinki Central Station and dropped our luggage off in a luggage locker.

We decided to visit the Toumaan Christmas Market in Senate Square. The temperature was -4 C, or 25 F, which was cold enough to limit our time in the market but not so cold we couldn’t make time to see everything.

The market was amazing and really excited us for the future markets we had planned in Vienna, Salzburg, and Munich.  I could tell right away that I was going to be stressed out figuring out how to get all our purchases in our luggage.  I should explain why…

Spending three weeks in Europe has one immediate challenge, clothes.  I did some research on the best way to travel for this duration without taking 4 huge suitcases.  The flights wouldn’t have been a problem but I was concerned that with the numerous train transfers we needed to keep our luggage to a minimum.  I found some great articles, most directed towards college graduates touring Europe, and followed the general theme. Each of us had 2-3 pairs of pants, 4 shirts, 4 socks, 4 underwear, along with a jacket and a single pair of boots.  All of our cloths fit in two carry on sized suitcases and two backpacks.  So, we did laundry in the bath tub each night and machines when they were available.

After making our first and second rounds of the market, and riding the carousel, we headed to a local Mexican restaurant, Maya Bar and Grill, and enjoyed some amazing Mexican dishes. We really miss authentic Mexican food in India.

When the restaurant started to pickup around 4:00 pm, and it had already been dark for an hour, we took the opportunity to walk back down the Helsinki city center to take pictures of the Christmas lights. The lights were amazing and we found a grocery store to purchase some fruit and snacks for our train ride. Unfortunately, we didn’t do very well at taking off our gear in the restaurants so when we went back outside we all started shivering immediately. We’re amateurs again.

The waiting time at the train station was a struggle. You would have thought we spent the entire day in a hotel room with no room to run. You three were all over the place, and your mother and I were at our limit worrying you’d knock into other people who were getting on or off the trains. But to be fair, it didn’t seem to bother anyone else.

We reserved two compartments, with bathroom and shower, which slept two people on the top level of a double decker train car. The double decker car was something you all loved, and asked about it before each and every train ride for the rest of the trip. Madelyn, Christopher, and I slept in one car while Johnathon and Mom slept in the next room.

After dropping off our luggage in the rooms we headed to the dining car to grab some dinner and play cards for a little while before heading to bed.

The overnight train experience was amazing and we are very happy that we decided to take the time to check this one off the list. The only down side was that most of us didn’t sleep very well that night.  We think the train stopping at multiple stations along the way, and the coach vibrating over the rails were the culprits.

European Christmas: Finland: Day 2: Saturday December 15th: Santa Claus Holiday Village

We arrived in Rovaniemi about 30 minutes late at 7:45 am. The Santa Express bus service was waiting at the station so we hopped aboard, and made our way to the hotel.

Our reservations were at Santa Claus Holiday Village, a cottage type hotel located in Rovaniemi. Check-in wasn’t until 4:00 pm, so we checked our luggage at the front desk, grabbed lunch, and spent the day playing cards, walking the grounds, and taking naps.

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After checking in we found the cottage to be amazing. The room had a bedroom and pull out couch with in-floor heating and a drying machine built into a closet. Basically a dryer with no cylinder, the clothes dry by running warm dry air over the clothes. It wasn’t fast but it was more than we expected, and we used it day and night.

European Christmas: Finland: Day 3: Sunday December 16th: Sick Day

On our first day at the village we booked a Reindeer and Husky day, but starting out the day Christopher was noticeably sick. He started mentioning this the day before, but we thought it was from sleeping on the train since your mother was feeling the same.

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But, on this morning there was no questioning he was sick. We went to breakfast, testing the waters, and quickly contacted the counter to see if we could shift back our booking to Monday. Luckily they were able to accommodate and we now had a full day of rest.

With Christopher down and out, Johnathon, Madelyn, and I went out and explored some more and took the opportunity to play in the snow. The hotel provided sleds for their guests to pull kids around and for them to play with on any slope they could find.

European Christmas: Finland: Day 4: Monday December 17th: Reindeer and Husky Combo Day and Northern Lights Safari

On Monday Christopher was back to normal and Madelyn jumped on the struggle bus. Fortunately it was one at a time, all vacation, and not everyone at once.

After breakfast we hung around in the lobby area to meet our guides for the Reindeer and Husky Combo Day. Our first stop was downstairs to put on proper thermal gear for the day. This was a major benefit, and we learned that the tour company provided the gear, not the hotel. One lesson we learned was to keep on our coats under the thermal outer gear, which we didn’t do on the first tour and  all of us were freezing at some point.

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The tour started with a bus ride to the Reindeer farm about 5 minutes down the road from the hotel. When we arrived we met one of the farm hands who introduced us to our first reindeer, who the kids were able to feed.

The guide walked us through two rules. 1) Make sure the reindeer stays at the end of the rope, so she can’t lunge, and 2) When you hold the branches make sure they are 1 meter above the ground so she can’t raise her head and hit you with an antler. I must have missed the part where he said, “Ah just kidding do what you want”, because no parent there made sure their kids followed the rules.  Except us.  I was sure if we followed suit we would be the ones getting an antler to the eye so we sat back and waited for everyone to get bored before feeding her alone…worked like a charm.

After waiting for the rest of our group, we made our way to the sleighs, which were already in line and ready for our ride. The sleds were large enough for 2 adults or a single adult and a few kids. The guides split us up and showed us to our sleds.

After getting situated in the sleighs I noticed that the teams were tied together with 4 reindeer and sleigh configurations to a team. This reminded me very much of a horseback riding experience I had in Okoboji, Iowa before Papa had horses of his own. Those horses were not tied together, but were basically automated as they wouldn’t go any other direction accept for forward.  Fortunately the reindeer were not as automated as those horses were, and lucky for them I didn’t have any reins.

During the ride Madelyn fell asleep, which is exactly what she needed to get off the struggle bus. She woke up when the ride was completely over surprised that she wasn’t in a sleigh. It was cute.

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After the ride we were freezing. Siting for 30 minutes in -9C / 15F weather, even in thermal gear was not wise. We walked, jogged, and did jumping jacks down the road to our next stop at the Husky Farm. Unfortunately Christopher was past cold and would not take any of our advice to warm up, but we made it through.

Next up was the Husky Ride.  When we got to the track area we all took turns riding on the sled for what turned out to be 3 minutes. This might sound bad, but after sitting outside for 30 minutes I don’t know if we could have lasted any longer. These dogs move fast.

The dogs were amazing. They acted exactly like what you hear about sled dogs…all they wanted to do was run. They pulled at the ropes, barked, and whined. We didn’t get all the photos that we wanted, mostly because they asked for us to wait until the end of all the rides, but also because they offered to let us go inside where there was a fire to warm up. It was an easy choice. We did make a quick visit to the dogs after some warm up time. Along with me, Christopher is our dog person, and although he was frozen he had been looking forward to seeing the dogs all day.

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The guide took the next 20 minutes or so telling us all about the dogs there at the Husky Farm. Topics included the differences between Alaskan and Siberian Husky’s, typical work days, naming philosophy, training, sled team members, etc…

A soup lunch followed, which was enjoyed by Madelyn, Mom and I.  The boys wouldn’t even try it, we’re still working on “being a risk taker” as Christopher’s teacher tells them, to try new things.  It was Salmon soup and it was delicious. After lunch we headed outside, now warmer from the soup and fire, to get in some sledding before getting on the bus back to the hotel.

Naps were a must have on a day like this, so we headed back to the cottage and everyone took a nap. We woke everyone up at 5:30 pm to head to dinner before heading back out on a Northern Lights Safari. The Safari made it very clear that there was no guarantee we would see the northern lights when we booked, but it was an experience that we had to do while in the Arctic Circle.

We loaded up the bus, grabbed our thermal gear (this time keeping on our coats), and headed north of Rovaniemi to a private patch of ground to try our luck. The view was beautiful and the sky was colorful, but I can’t say that we actually saw the Auroras. The sky had been cloudy the entire time in Rovaniemi, which is the main reason people don’t get to see the Northern Lights. Either way, we were very happy about the experience and are very glad we did it.

The below picture is the best shot I got during the tour.  I didn’t take along my DSLR, so my iPhone was all I had.  When we got there I learned that the typical exposure time needed to get a good picture of the Auroras was 20-30 seconds.  Something an iPhone doesn’t do.  Oh well.  img_6530

While waiting for the sky to open we piled into two small huts where fires were lit and sausages and marshmallows roasted.  One of the guides was very talkative and your mother had a great time talking with her about the Finish culture.  The only insight we had to the popularity of Saunas was during this conversation.

There were plenty of kids there to see the lights so you three took no time at all making friends and playing in the snow. Madelyn made her first ‘friend’ of the trip and they were inseparable.

The last stop on our safari was a frozen lake north of Rovaniemi, not to see the lights as much as showing a member of our group a frozen lake. They had never seen one. Even though your mother and I grew up around a lake this was a fun experience because you three couldn’t believe we could walk out onto the ice. It was funny.

European Christmas: Finland: Day 5: Tuesday December 18th: Finland Train Travel Day

With the change in plans to make sure Christopher got better we lost around a day of exploring the village. So, we had 3 hours to visit Santa, drop off a letter at the post office, and buy souvenirs. I was stressed out all morning.

We woke at 7:00 am to pack all of our things and get breakfast before 9:00 am when Santa opened his doors. We got out of the cottage a little later than I was planning, but we were waiting in line at Santa’s Office before they opened. Santa was awesome, and he really had some great conversations with all three of you.

We had been telling Johnathon that last minute present changes really threw a wrench in a years worth of planning, and given that it was one week from Christmas it was unlikely Santa could make changes that quickly.  To support this, Santa did a great job talking with all of you but never asked exactly what you wanted for Christmas. That guy’s a pro.

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On our way out, while paying for the photo, I heard him speaking Chinese when a family from Shanghai came in to meet him. Truly amazing.

After a visit to Santa we headed right over to Santa’s Post Office, which receives 500,000 letters each year from kids just like you. Since we got to meet Santa in person we took the opportunity to drop off a letter from one of your friends in our building, Sikander.

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Next we took a pass at all the souvenir shops in the village. Ok, not all but this was our first time through them so it took a little time. We ended up having to split up and some of us headed back to the cottage to pack, while Mom and Johnathon purchased the remainder of the souvenirs.

We managed to barely get all these things completed and checked out by 10:40 am, or 5 minutes before the Santa Express was scheduled to depart the village to the rail station. If we missed this bus we would have to take a taxi because the next bus was 55 minutes later and would not get us to the station in time to make our train.

We stepped out of the lobby to three Santa Express buses passing the building and stopping about a half a block down the way at the village information center. We picked up our luggage, very happy we had carry on sizes, and hauled it to the stop where we ended up watching all three buses  pull away. The weird part was that the schedule didn’t show three buses and all left before the scheduled departure. Usually buses hang out if they are early so it didn’t make sense. But we watched them leave so what did we know?

I went into the information center to figure out our options and was about to check out the Taxi pickup location when another Santa Express bus stopped for us to board. We quickly got on, and made it to the rail station as planned. I was still stressed out.

The rest of our train travel was awesome. We made it to Oulu on schedule and had plenty of time to transfer trains to our final train to Helsinki.  We even figured out that we could get off the train three stations early and make it to our hotel almost 45 minutes ahead of the original schedule.

European Christmas: Finland: Day 6: Wednesday December 19th: Helsinki to Vienna Travel Day

A full travel day, we woke at 5:00 am to make our way to the airport, which was right next to the hotel, and board a flight at 7:25 am to Vienna, through Paris.  We walked to the airport and proceeded to security.  After getting through security we considered doing it again.  No seriously.  The security people in Helsinki Airport were awesome.  They were friendly, happy, and took the time to talk with all three of you.  Johnathon got picked for a random screening and the agent was really patient with him, made sure he was speaking in a language Johnathon understood, and got down to his level. I hope J doesn’t set that as the bar for airport security interaction.

Our layover in Paris was long, but again we leveraged our lounge passes and made the best of our 5 hours of free time.

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Our next stop, Vienna.

Love,

Mom & Dad

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