I never thought crossing back the Arctic Circle would feel so southernly…
This is Part 5 of our North Cape to Gibraltar series. You can also check out Part 1: Stockholm and Central Sweden, Part 2: Kustvägen to Finland, Part 3: The journey to North Cape and Part 4: To the Russian border. We are looping the loop with this 5th part and coming back to Stockholm. The 1.700km-long journey takes three days but the most interesting part of the trip is the first 550km section from the Russian border in Grense Jakobselv to Rovaniemi, crossing the iconic Lapland region of northern Finland.
We are back in Finland to explore the northern tip of the country.
After watching the sunset in Grense Jakobselv metres away from the Russia border, Björn and I take the 215km journey to Inari on the shore of Inarijärvi (Lake Inari) at night. The scenery is magical: a constant succession of lakes and immense forests, with the almost full moon bathing the landscapes with a surreal glow. The temperature goes down to a lowest-for-this-trip 2 degrees Celsius, which in fact isn’t that low given how far up north we are: above Iceland and almost as far north as where we started our U.S. North to South adventure, in Barrow Alaska. The reason behind this relatively mild climate is weather systems warmed by the northern Atlantic Gulf Stream drift into Northern Europe. Driving in darkness is the best opportunity to test Björn’s headlights. In contrast with the particularly weak lights of the two Ram pickups I drove in the U.S., the Volvo XC90’s lights are so strong I often though the trees were either illuminated artificially by street lights and I was entering a village or they were lit by a car coming my way behind the bend. Talk about powerful.
Inari is every bit the quiet, unassuming fishing village I thought it would end up being. With a population of only 550 people, it’s a peaceful nature retreat where life flows in slow-motion. Inarijärvi (Lake Inari) is a constant calming presence throughout the village. It is Lapland’s largest lake at 1.153 sq-km and contains over 3.000 islands. The endless forests surrounding the village give the impression to be cut out from the rest of the world. The locals are laid back and friendly, the Hotel Inari is so perfectly comfortable I decided to stay another night to recharge batteries that were starting to go low after almost 4.000km driven in five days. Here I saw my second aurora borealis, but once again it was so fleeting and faint that I had no way of bringing back a photographic proof. It’ll have to be next time I’m in this neck of the woods as we are almost at the southernmost point where auroras can be seen at this time of the year (mid-September).
Although it is a fantastic location to unwind, Inari’s main pull is its status as Finland’s most significant Sámi centre. The best place to learn about the Sámi culture is the Siida museum in town, which I strongly recommend you visit while in Inari. The Sámi, totalling 137.500 people, are the oldest remaining indigenous people in the whole of Europe. Since prehistoric times, they have lived and worked in an area covering the present-day northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Russian Kola Peninsula. In order to acquire aboriginal rights, the Finnish government claims the Sámi must “prove” their land ownership, an idea incompatible with the traditional reindeer-herding Sámi way of life. In 1973, the Finnish Sami Parliament was established in Inari and Finland recognized the Sámi as a “people” in 1995, but they have had very little representation in Finnish national politics. The Siida museum is a fascinating display (indoors and outdoors) of the past and present Sami traditions and culture.
Björn warns me of herds of reindeers coming up on the road and achieves its best fuel autonomy.
We are now back on the road towards Rovaniemi, driving through one of Europe’s last great wilderness areas. There are 326km between Inari and Rovaniemi, and roughly halfway is Sodankylä with its bustling population of 5.540 souls. This is the main service centre for one of Europe’s least-populated areas with a density of just 0.75 people per sq km. There were herds of reindeers wandering on the road, but I knew about it beforehand thanks to on-point warnings from Björn’s GPS system. Impressive. Some pretty constant driving at 120km/h pushed the autonomy to 1.030km on a full tank of fuel during this stretch of the trip.
8km before arriving in the capital of Finnish Lapland, Rovaniemi, lies the Arctic Circle – the southernmost line at which the sun doesn’t set on at least one day a year. I never thought it would feel so southernly to cross the Arctic Circle again… But most importantly this point is the official residence of Santa Claus! I was bracing for an unhealthy dose of cringeworthy attractions but the Santa Claus village is actually quite tastefully executed. You can visit the Santa Claus Post Office and, wait for it, actually meet the real Santa Claus every day of the year in an impressive grotto. There is a massive photo board showing all celebrities and politicians that have paid Santa a visit (pretty much every head of state). Did I meet Santa? Of course I did! And it was a pleasure: he acted as an ambassador to the region and inquired about my travel itinerary, while never getting out of character. Santa Claus must have a degree in public relations! An experience I recommend also, especially if you are visiting with kids!
Leaving Finland to return into Sweden means it’s time to share a few notes about the car landscape in Lapland. Here too, there is a very strong bias towards station wagons, but one segment smaller than in Sweden: the Toyota Auris SW is particularly successful, as are the VW Golf and Kia Cee’d. I also spotted a handful of Honda Civic Tourer: the first time I saw this variant in the flesh. Last but not least, I saw the very first Tesla of this trip – a Model S. You may wonder why I have not seen any in Norway, a market where it ranked #1 in September 2013, December 2013 and March 2014. The explanation is simple: the charging stations don’t extend that far north (see map above) and I spotted the Model S near the second northernmost grey point on the Finland map.
Over 4.800 km later, Björn is back home in Stockholm…
We cross back into Sweden, and the trip to Stockholm swallowed in a little more time than I would have wished for, due to low speed limits and a constant flow of trucks making any passing attempt perilous on this one lane “highway” After a 4.821 km loop that saw us reach North Cape, it’s now time to (reluctantly) return Björn home, hop on a plane to Paris and take delivery of our Mercedes C-Class Coupe responsible for stretching this trip all the way to Gibraltar. But first, a quick review of Björn, our Volvo XC90, awaits.
Time to (reluctantly) give the keys back.
- The entire driving experience is utterly comfortable and sophisticated. All sound indicators/alerts are gentle, piano-like notes. The ride is plump and the seats are plush. The Volvo XC90 is an optimal mix of luxury and liveability.
- Very intuitive and practical touch-screen console. Able to monitor all elements at once while zooming on a particular one such as the GPS function for example. Pinch and zoom function great to use.
- Line-assist aid is faultless and deeply reassuring. It progressively nurtures a more relaxed way of driving and, interestingly, a faster drive: no hesitation while passing trucks at high speed as you know the car will stay within its lane no matter what. You can watch beautiful Finnish lake landscape a little longer than you normally would, and you can also change clothes while driving as you can remove your hands from the steering wheel with no impact on the car’s trajectory for a few seconds (don’t do this at home!). It’s like driving on rails.
- The car “won’t” let you overtake unless you indicate (it will gently resist the lane change). Puzzling at first, but a great way to ensure safe driving.
- Discreet night lights throughout the cockpit, under seats and inside the door knobs ensure visibility of all essential functions at all times.
- Fantastically coordinated stop-start system that restarts the car just
- Very strong and effective headlights.
- Incredible Bowers & Wilkins sound system. Sound doesn’t abruptly starts or stops, it always comfortably phases in and out.
- Aggressive yet classy exterior design.
- Driving aids can become overbearing over long periods of driving (such as 5.000km in a week, but who in their right mind would do that?). It’s impossible to do something out of the ordinary without being told off: overstepping on the opposite lane to check the road ahead before passing a truck will invariably trigger a “time for a rest” alarm for example, even if you are just starting your day of driving. The tricks of computer-assisted driving, which Volvo will without a doubt iron out as this technology becomes even more sophisticated.
- GPS (seemingly based on Google Maps) had a few inconsistencies in really remote areas of far north Norway, which made me lose one hour on Day 4. This is probably more of a Google Maps issue but Volvo needs to carefully double-check and iron out the interaction between Google Maps and its own GPS.
- Wobbly rear end at high speed on dirt track is a little disconcerting for an SUV.
- Cruise control sometimes quits abruptly and wouldn’t set back. Needs a car restart to function again.
- Windscreen wipers aren’t always reacting to rain automatically.
- Some speed limits weren’t correctly read by the car’s cameras – tricky ones such as roadwork-specific limits, or superseded limits that were still indicated on the side of the road. This potentially something Volvo could work on in cooperation with Scandinavian road networks to ensure all signs are displayed in a way that can be read by a computer, not just a human.
Stay tuned for the second part of this Europe series taking us to Gibraltar!