The perfect trip: Lapland
Pines stand beside the frozen Lemmenjoki River in Finnish Lapland’s Lemmenjoki National Park. (Philip Lee Harvey)
After embracing Finland and Sweden's bewitching scenery and culture by way of dogsled, retreat to your log cabin or treehouse to scan the skies for the northern lights.
Luleå: Best for activities
In Luleå, the gateway to the Swedish portion of Lapland, people do anything but wait out the winter indoors. Here, skiing and skating are less leisure pursuits than ways of life adapted to the ice-bound landscape. Until two decades ago, the indigenous Sami followed their migrating reindeer herds on skis from Sweden’s far north to Luleå. These days, local children learn to skate almost as soon as they can walk.
From December to April, the rivers and sea inlets that surround Luleå are turned into almost two miles of cleared ice. Sleds replace prams, dog owners ski instead of walk and young people skate across town to visit friends. Joining them couldn’t be easier – rental outlets for ice skates and skis abound, and gliding across the frozen sea is an exhilarating first step towards embracing the Lapland winter. But it is dog-sledding that gives the greatest thrill – sitting on reindeer skins draped over long wooden sleds, while expert mushers drive their teams of purebred Siberian huskies along trails is an invigorating experience.
‘Hanwi! Donder! Vixen!’ Richard Karlsson calls to his dogs as he steers the team on snowy forest tracks around Sörbyn, a quiet village north of Luleå. ‘Mush! Yipyip!’ He urges them onwards, slowing to describe each dog’s personality above the scrape of sled runners on the ice.
‘The lead dogs are the real extensions of my will,’ he says, pointing at blue-eyed Denahi with unrestrained affection. ‘There’s a mythology surrounding the huskies with blue eyes. They say that they can see the spirit world and the wind.’ The sled slides through snow, crossing lakes, cresting gentle rises and turning sharp bends that the dogs take in their stride.
‘This is the only way to travel,’ Richard says, easing to a halt. ‘You can get close to everything. You can hear the wind and see the wildlife. You become a part of nature.’ He pauses, the surrounding forests blurred by the visible breath of the huskies. ‘The longer you spend with the dogs,’ Richard says quietly, ‘the more it becomes a spiritual thing, something that connects you with the animals and the land in a profound way.’
Gammelstad and Harads: Best for architecture
The cottages that surround the 15thcentury stone church in Gammelstad tell one of Lapland’s more curious tales: this is a village where no-one slept for more than a single night in any given week.
At the time it was built, every person – even those who lived in isolated farms and homesteads many miles from the nearest place of worship – was required by law to attend church. The solution in this vast and thinly populated land was to build ‘church villages’ like Gammelstad. Parishioners could travel to these makeshift villages from far and wide, sleep overnight and go to church the next morning before beginning the long journey home. There were once more than 70 such villages across northern Sweden – Gammelstad is the largest and best-preserved of the 16 that remain, and today it’s a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Some 408 cottages survive here in their original form: red-timber façades with white-painted window frames, windowbox flowers and embroidered tablecloths visible through the glass. No-one lives in the old heart of the town now, but it’s as if the inhabitants are expected back at any moment. ‘The cottages have survived centuries,’ says Camilla Vikström, a local historian who was baptised in the church and whose family owns one of the cottages. ‘But the houses were built without nails so that the owners could dismantle them in an hour in case of fire. All of the houses are privately owned, and people still come here to stay at weekends.’