If you’ve never heard of Kemi before, it’s way up north in Finnish Lapland. As you would imagine, it is covered in snow for roughly half the year. But there’s something special about this sleepy little Lapland town. It’s famous for constructing the world’s biggest snow fort every year. The Kemi Snow Castle in Finnish Lapland draws tourists from all over the world. As I found out when I heard more people speaking Cantonese and Mandarin than English while I was there.
Introduction to Finnish Lapland – Kemi
My photographer friend and I had taken an overnight bus from Helsinki to get to Kemi. The change between the two cities was quite stark. While Helsinki’s sky was perpetually overcast, there was very little snow. Kemi’s sky was still quite overcast, but the ground was white from snow cover. There were no roads and footpaths. Only snow. I suddenly saw an image in my head of me ending up on my butt because I’m totally inept at walking on snow. Luckily, I narrowly avoided hitting the ground by grabbing my friend and nearly making him fall. It just seemed like the right thing to do! As Canada, Kazakhstan and now Finland have taught me, walking on snow sucks.
The snow made everything surprisingly bright, despite the overcast sky. I had always heard that Lapland region was perpetually dark in the winter, so I wasn’t expecting much daylight or brightness. I needed to wear my sunglasses because the glare from the snow was hurting my eyes! We had arrived at 10am and noticed a nearby food place. We thought we could go and grab some breakfast and use the WiFi, but it was closed. Okay, plan B, check at the supermarket across the road. Although the staff were really nice, they seemed quite clueless as to where stuff was in their town. They did advise us that most businesses wouldn’t open for another hour at least. Time for a walk then.
Walking Through Kemi
As you would expect of somewhere only 90 minutes shy of the Arctic Circle, the town of Kemi on Bothnian Bay near the Swedish border is rather small. Both in area and population. I don’t know if it was because of that or because of the cold, but there was almost no one around. Come to think of it, I’m not even sure I saw many cars driving around. I did see quite a few parked cars with a substantial amount of snow on them though. You really couldn’t blame people if they wanted to hibernate at home for the whole winter. Given the daily subzero temperatures the town offered. It was hovering around -4°C when we were there. Yuck!
Lumi Visio/Snow Vision
The people that had ventured out had found an interesting way to keep themselves occupied.
We had stumbled upon some kind of snow carving competition in the centre of town. Note I said snow, not ice, carving. To be honest, this was somewhat of a novelty as I’d never seen anyone carving snow before. Given the copious amounts of snow around Kemi, it totally makes sense to turn it into art. But I did wonder how the huge blocks of compacted snow collected from the bay found their way to the centre of Kemi.
The competition, called Lumi Visio or Snow Vision is an annual event in Kemi. During the competition teams race against the clock to build a sculpture to a theme. I’m not entirley sure what the 2020 theme was but if I had to guess, I’d say cartoons.
As much as I wanted to stay and check out the sculptures for a bit longer, I found that, even with winter gloves and shoes, my hands and feet started to hurt after several minutes of no movement. Seriously, how do people live in these temperatures?
Kemi Snow Castle in Finnish Lapland
I got some feeling back in my extremities as a walked but wasn’t sure how much more of the cold I could take. That was why I was so happy to this sign. It meant the Snow Castle was near! Lumi Linna is Finnish for Snow Castle.
A team of architects and engineers spend months planning and building the castle using a different theme each year. Looks like the castle’s 25th year was ‘Igloo Style’. Even though the shape and size of the castle may be different each year, there are some things that are always included in the design. Like the Ice Bar and the chapel.
I was told that people come from as far afield as Hong Kong to get married in that chapel. Being from Hong Kong, this sounds like an absolute crazy concept to me. Considering our winter temperatures rarely fall below 10°C and most Hong Kongers start wearing polar jackets when the temperature gets below 20°C. I guess they do it more for the gimmick factor.
Inside the Kemi Snow Castle in Finnish Lapland
After walking through a hallway from the entrance, you’ll find yourself at the Ice Bar. Of course they make the bar the first thing you come across and the lovely bar tender will definitely try to entice to grab a drink to warm up. But maybe the carvings on the wall above you will distract you enough to make you not care about having a drink.
As we walked further into the castle, there were a few different coloured caves with sculptures you could sit on and pose for photos. Unfortunately my camera just couldn’t deal with the green and blue lighting in those rooms. To be honest, my camera was having issues with the cold by this point. Clearly it’s a warm weather camera! Anyway, walking to the end brings you to what looks like a meeting room.
There was a dining alcove that split off from the main area. The ‘chairs’ were made of ice and covered with reindeer fur. I had to try one out and I didn’t freeze my butt off. So that was nice.
Rooms in the Kemi Snow Castle
As we were walking back out, I noticed a hallway off to the left that we hadn’t explored yet.
Coming off that hallway were several rooms. Some just for sitting down and hanging out.
Then others for sleeping.
As warm as that bedding looks, I could never see myself being able to sleep there. Especially seeing as the temperature inside the castle was colder than outside. Which was already bloody cold enough!
Outside the castle there is a permanent building, called SnowCastle365, that acts as the reception for the castle hotel and glass cabins. It’s also the place to book other adventures, like reindeer sledding, snowmobiling and dining in an ice restaurant. I gave all of these a miss, because as you would expect, they were prohibitively expensive. There is also a cafe in that building as well as public amenities and some comfy couches to sit on before you head back out into the cold.
Kemi Snow Castle in Finnish Lapland – On to Oulu
Once we finally got up the courage to brave the cold, we headed back to the bus station to get the bus to Oulu. We were slightly perplexed when the bus hadn’t showed up five minutes past it’s departure time. We spoke to a local lady who was also waiting and she confirmed that we hadn’t missed the bus. She told us not to worry because it often runs late.
The bus ended up being about 15 minutes late and we were surprised that we recognised the driver. He was the same driver who had driven us from Oulu that morning. It was his second run back to Oulu that day.
Will we see the Aurora Borealis in Oulu? Stay tuned for the next installment
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