Postcard from the Edge of a Thermometer – 2

The second part of our Ice Extravaganza (part 1 available here) was spent in Sweden. We drove from Santa-land to the town of Pajala (4) to see the largest sundial in the world (well, it was on the way). Eclipsing the previous record holder, Disney, by over a meter these stumps of wood 38.33 meters apart were very brown. Still, I have to question the wisdom of building a sundial in the artic circle where it is dark for half the year, but that is Sweden for you.

From there it was on to our main destination of the trip Kiruna (5), 200 kms inside the artic circle and with an area of 19,447 sq km (about 7,508 sq mi) making it Sweden’s largest city. This mining town was founded in 1900 after the local Sámi tribe showed settlers a huge rich iron-ore deposit which maintains the viability of the town, but sadly it is doomed. The town itself is build directly on top of the angled iron-ore seam – over the next 10 years if more ore is mined, the town will collapse. Either half the town will have to be moved or the mine shut down. Time will tell – but the mine tour we took I am sure was fascinating (if you speak Swedish).

But this was not the main attraction around Kiruna. The main attraction is a hotel in neighboring Jukkasjärvi. Now, call me old fashioned, but some people may call us stupid for spending 320€ for a hotel room without toilet, shower, door or heat – but that is just the appeal of the Ice Hotel. 208 people can sleep in the 70 rooms and 18 suites. The suites are spectacular – each one has huge ice sculptures designed by international artists. One suite had a replica of Da Vinci’s the last supper with 13 life-sized ice people with a 2 meter high ice Vitruvian Man. Another has an ice bed shaped like a guitar and an ice stage, complete with ice instruments and a karaoke machine. I have never seen such spectacular hotel rooms. And believe me, ice sculpting is not that easy – I took lessons and my beautiful mushroom came out looking like something totally different.

The hotel has an ice church, ice globe theatre replica (playing Romeo and Juliet) and the stunning Absolut Ice Bar – where the glasses are ice blocks with a hole drilled in and we danced the night away. This is all made possible by the neighboring Torne River – an exceptionally slow moving river with very pure water. This combination makes the crystal-clear ice form evenly and uniformly. Each year about 400 tons of ice blocks are harvested from the river and kept chilled for the following year’s hotel. This coupled with “snice” (a mixture of snow and ice that is sprayed in moulds) form the walls and ceilings. Even so the weight of the snice make the hotel shrink, it looses about 50cm in height during it’s lifetime from December to mid April. By July it has totally melted.

The beds in the hotel are wooden constructions on pillars of ice, covered in reindeer skins. You are issued with a heavy duty sleeping bag and instructed to wear thermals, socks and a hat. You close the curtain, turn off the light and sleep in the -5°c (23°f) temperature. Although we had booked a normal room, some of the suites were empty so we snuck out after lights-out and slept in these huge rooms enjoying the view in the morning. However, waking up in the middle of the night for a call of nature is problematic. The toilets, showers and lockers where your baggage is kept, is some distance away in the “warm wing” and necessitates a quick dash through the ice corridors. Rather exhilarating at 4:00 am.

After a good nights sleep we were on for more adventuring on a snowmobile hunt for the elusive moose. After seeing 17, the novelty wore off and we tore up the snow on our snowmobiles for a couple of hours (moose are not the brightest animals, they think if they stay still you will not be able so see them as their brown coats camouflage them in the trees, however, if it has just snowed the trees are white so they stand out like a sore thumb).

Our penultimate port of call was Jokkmokk (6), where the 400th Jokkmokk craft fair was being held. This attracts thousands of visitors from all over Sweden and is apparently the place to find a husband or wife. Expecting a riotous time we were a little disappointed – the merchandise on offer – bits of leather, knives and socks did not live up to the promised “crafts” and the implied orgiastic behavior we had heard from so many did not materialize. However, I did purchase a rather fetching silver-fox hat and some thick socks.

And so with heavy hearts we returned to Lulea (1) for our final night. There is a World Heritage Site here in the Gammelstad Church Town. The first church was built in 1339, people flocked to it, but its distance from anywhere else meant that the congregation had to spend the night, so they started building cottages around the church and a market sprung up. There are still 408 cottages build around the church and it is very picturesque.

We flew back to a non-white landscape of central Europe. The -6°c cold of Malschenberg was relatively warm arriving back, and the sun rising at 7:00 am is a little perturbing. It was a real Ice Extravaganza – my only regret was not having seen the northern lights, but that is an excellent reason to go back one day…

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