Thursday, March 08, 2018

Adventures in Arctic Europe - Part 1: Sweden

Last week I had the opportunity to visit an entirely new corner of the planet that I hadn't been to before. While I've always dreamed of visiting the Scandinavian countries, I hadn't quite gotten around to making that happen just yet. On top of that, getting above the Arctic Circle was another bucket list item of mine, as I always enjoy a good cold weather adventure. Lucky for me, my friends at Visit Arctic Europe were kind enough to invite me to visit the area, where I found an astounding number of opportunities for adventure.

My journey began with a flight into the Swedish town of Luleå, a lovely little city that sits on that country's northern coast. When I had left home some 18 hours earlier, it has been warm and sunny, with temperatures approaching 80ºF (26ºC). But when I reached Luleå things were a bit different. The actual temperature hovered around -8ºF (-22ºC), with windchills dropping close to -40ºF/C. On top of that, there was plenty of snow everywhere, giving the city a proper Arctic feel, even though we were still well below the Arctic Circle.

Of course, this is exactly what I had come to experience, and I had brought plenty of good gear to test during my adventure (Thanks Fjällräven!). You'll hear a lot more about the clothing that kept me warm on this trip later, but needless to say it didn't take long to break out the layers. We were going to be spending a great deal of time outside on this excursion, and warmth was going to be the key to comfort.

After arriving in Luleå we barely had enough time to swing by the Clarion Hotel to get settled in and make a quick change of clothes. First up on our agenda was an outdoor concert, and we would definitely need our warmest apparel to enjoy the setting. Before long we were off to a hidden little park to watch the Band From Snowhere perform. The group wowed a small, but supportive crowd that braved the weather to hear them play a guitar, banjo, and violin made of ice, while they harmonized through a litany of their own songs. It was a chilly night to be outside to say the least, but  everyone was in great spirits and enjoyed the show.


Later, we would retire back to the hotel for some excellent food and fine wine, before climbing into bed for some much needed sleep. The trip was just getting underway, and we would need to be well rested for the adventures ahead.

The following morning we took a quick tour around Luleå to get a further sense of the city before venturing out. Temperatures remained very cold, but the charming town was still fun to wander around. Its shopping area was filled with quaint little stores to explore, and there were several other nice hotels to be found too. But, we had other things on the agenda, and before long we were zipping off to see some of the other local attractions, which included the nearby Gammelstad church town, a UNESCO World Heritage site that did not disappoint.

Gammelstad is the home to the world's largest and most well preserved church town. It includes more than 400 small cottages which encircle a beautiful cathedral that was built back in 17th century. At the time, most of the region was populated with farmers who usually lived a long way from the closest church. In order to make it to mass on important dates and holidays, the local residents would build small cottages which would serve as their home while attending the services. This would often be a time of celebration and happiness, as it served as a bit of a vacation from the day-to-day drudgery they would face while working their farms. Several times a year, they would make their way to the church, stay in their cottages, and spend time with their friends and family, creating quite a communal atmosphere.

Today, Gammalstad is one of only a handful of church towns that still exist in Sweden. We had a chance to not only duck inside the church itself, but get a look into a cottage as well. These small, yet cosy, huts were designed to be a home away from home, and were surprisingly comfortable. While not particularly large, the cottages were warm and inviting, and it was easy to see why people enjoyed these escapes from their regular lives back at the farm.



After our tour of the UNESCO site and a quick lunch, we were off once again, this time heading to Brändön Lodge, which would serve as our home for the second night in Sweden. The place sits just 35 miles (56 km) outside of Luleå, but it felt like we were a world away. While the city was a bustling little metropolis filled with lights and people, Brändön was a secluded retreat situated on the shores of the frozen sea on the Bay of Bothnia.

The Lodge features 15 different cabins, a large teepee tent, a sauna, and a restaurant. Essentially, everything you need to be comfortable in the wilderness. The lodge also offers an array of adventures for visitors to embark on as well, including snowmobile tours of the surrounding area. We embarked on just such a tour, riding over the frozen waters of the bay, weaving in and out of wooded islands, and even making a brief visit to Brändön's sister lodge at Pine Bay.

Riding a snowmobile through that environment was a great deal of fun. While out on the sea, we were exposed to the wind and cold, but when we drove into the forests it was like visiting another world. The pine trees hung thick with snow, which only added to the beauty of the place. It was a fantastic way to explore this part of Sweden and the ride was one of my favorite activities of the entire trip.

After we wrapped up the ride, it was back to the lodge for dinner before turning in for the night. The following day we would set off Finland, where other opportunities for adventure awaited. But before we left, I wanted to stretch my legs a bit more. So, after a good night's sleep in my cabin and Brändön Lodge, I awoke early the next morning, layered up with my warmest clothes once again, and borrowed a pair of snowshoes for an early morning hike. My walk took me back out onto the frozen sea and into the pine forests once again, giving me a chance to see a small part of the area on foot. It was the perfect way to start the day, punctuated with a sunrise over the Bay of Bothnia itself. It may have been cold, but it was nevertheless a beautiful site to behold.

Following breakfast, we loaded up onto our trusty Sprinter Van and started the ride to Finland, where we found a host of other interesting things to keep us busy. Along the way, we would also cross the Arctic Circle at last, but that is a story for Part 2.

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