A night in the Snow Hotel

When you go on holiday to a place like Lapland in December, where temperatures can fall below -30°C, you’d think that your reward for a day out in the Arctic conditions would be a nice warm hotel room to sleep in. But some choose to then spend the night surrounded by ice and snow too. Of the five nights we spent in the area we slept for three of them in an airbnb apartment in the town of Rovaniemi, but then for the last two nights we headed 30km north west to the site of the Arctic Snow Hotel.

This small resort offers two types of accommodation: the snow hotel and glass igloos, and we spent one night in each. There are also a few ancillary buildings: a large reception/restaurant in a normal, heated building, another restaurant in a large yurt-type structure, and some sauna facilities. The snow hotel from the outside is nothing much to look at: a one-storey white oblong with no windows and only two doors. They build it every year, starting in November, and it takes about six weeks to complete. The entrance is fairly unassuming, although I did like the furry doors.

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Inside most of the corridors look like this, but the layout is fairly simple so getting lost isn’t a problem.

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There are individual rooms, family rooms, and suites. Here’s our family room, with two double beds and one single. The beds are blocks of ice but inside them are proper mattresses covered with reindeer hide. The LEDs in the base are the only lighting in the room.

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Adjoined to the snow structure are a couple of temporary wooden structures housing toilets/showers and a locker room/changing room. As the snow rooms are pretty small and dark, the idea is that you put all your stuff in a locker, get changed into a couple of thin layers you’ll wear in bed (for most people this means pyjamas with thermals underneath), and then take a pillow and sleeping bag back to your room. The bunks you see here are then available to sleep on if you decide during the night that you really can’t stand sleeping surrounded by snow.

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You are free to wander around the rest of the structure and even visit other people’s rooms, which is safe since no one leaves anything valuable in there anyway. There are no doors as such on the rooms, but you can draw a curtain and hang a “do not disturb” sign outside. There are a lot of LEDs to add some colour to the surroundings.

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The suites are a lot more elaborately decorated, and probably have a price tag to match. You don’t get any extra facilities or services, but a bit more space and light, and something to look at.

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You can also just visit the hotel and look around the rooms even if you’re not staying there.

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If the cold gets too much you can always warm yourself by the fire. The ICE FIRE, ha ha.

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There’s a small chapel where you can get married. Or pray, or whatever.

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There’s a restaurant where we ate dinner one night, and a bar where you can, er, chill out.

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My shot of cloudberry liqueur in an ice glass was very pleasant, and we bought a bottle in the airport on the way home.

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But of course what you want to know is, what was it like to sleep in? Well that depends who you ask. The rest of my party slept just fine. I barely slept a wink. Maybe it was because I found the sleeping bag uncomfortable and restrictive (I haven’t used one since scout camp over 30 years ago). The hood part of the bag came right up over and covered everything except a small area of my face. At a minimum my eyes were exposed, and I tried a couple of times just covering my head completely but that got too stuffy and claustrophobic, so I had to put up with my eyes and/or nose feeling chilly. Either way I just couldn’t get comfortable enough to drop off, although I think I eventually managed to get about an hour of sleep towards the morning. Staff members come and wake you up at 7:30am, but I was already up and dressed and keen to get out for breakfast by then, much to my family’s sleepy-eyed bemusement.

On the second night we slept in a “glass igloo”, which was much more to my liking. Essentially they’re individual cabins with domed glass roofs to allow you to see the Northern Lights if and when they appear (there’s also an alarm in the igloo which rings to let you know when the lights could be seen).

We’d been to Lapland once before in 2001 and seen nothing due to overcast skies, and by the last night of this trip I was resigned to having missed them again, in spite of having paid for an aurora notification app during our nights in Rovaniemi. And then, on our way back to the igloo from the restaurant on our final evening, just before 8pm, something started to happen in the sky. Nothing like as bright or spectacular as the images we saw every day on postcards in the gift shops, but it was there nonetheless. For about 20 minutes we saw several wavering bands and shimmering blobs of green. The photos don’t do them justice; I should have had a tripod for starters, but they should give you some idea.

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The next morning we woke at our leisure after a good night’s sleep, and saw our igloos in the daylight for the first time.

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Prompted by seeing the Japanese tourists from the next igloo doing it, we boiled a kettle of water and threw it into the air outside to see how it reacted to the chill morning air which was getting below -30°C (-25° Fahrenheit).

And finally, the aurora borealis wasn’t the only unusual atmospheric phenomenon we saw in Lapland. One morning while on a husky safari we saw these strangely coloured blobs on the horizon. They’re nacreous clouds, whose mother of pearl colours are caused by the light being diffracted by ice crystals. They’re also bad for the ozone layer.

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Mellow fruitfulness

We spent Sunday morning picking fresh vegetables on a farm just east of the edge of Brussels. La Finca runs a farm specialising in local organic vegetables. They have a shop and a small restaurant and run activity weeks for kids. Once a year they open to the public and let you pick your own produce and watch demonstrations of apple-pressing and the manufacture of woollen goods.

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Even though summer is lingering, Indian-style, the gourds were already out on display:

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We brought home a basketful of tasty veggie goodies, but I was more interested in the visual aspect of many of the plants. The swirl and bulge and violet hue of these leaves.

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These alien purple tubers.

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Basically anything with a hint of purple in it caught my eye.

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Later in the day we visited a see-through church in Flanders, and on the way passed by fields of corn…

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…and orchards bursting with ripening apples.

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The hedgerows nearby were also full of less familiar seeds, berries and blooms.

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These seed pods were probably my favourite:

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Although these were a close second:

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Reading Between The Lines

“Reading Between The Lines” is the name of a sculpture located in a field just outside the small town of Borgloon in the Belgian province of Limburg. The satnav brought us to a small residential street where we saw a sign pointing along a path leading up the hill to the “Doorkijkkerkje” (literally the “little see-through church”).

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The path runs through apple and pear orchards, and after about ten minutes walking we came to another sign explaining that the church/sculpture is made of 100 layers of steel weighing 30 tonnes.

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And there it is.

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Because it’s constructed of horizontal layers of metal, its transparency varies with the angle at which you view it.

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As you get closer to it and look up at it the layers start to overlap, giving an impression of solidity.

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Inside, looking up at the ceiling, the layers overlap completely. Apparently the type of steel used “is a group of steel alloys which were developed to eliminate the need for painting, and form a stable rust-like appearance if exposed to the weather for several years.”

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Looking up inside the steeple.

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And of course even semi-transparent structures can cast solid shadows if the light is coming from a certain angle.

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Here’s a timelapse video of its construction in 2011.

Red Sea

A mid-August afternoon in Devon. An impromptu trip to Sidmouth. Warm enough weather that there were even people in the water.

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Sidmouth is part of the “Jurassic Coast” World Heritage Site, which includes the more famous Lyme Regis, known for its rich pickings for fossil hunters. I had to resist the temptation to do my best Dickie Attenborough impersonation. “Welcome…to Jurassic Coast!”

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But on this particular day in Sidmouth people seemed more interested in buying a little plastic nets and hopping across the rock pools in search of live specimens.

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Beaches all along this stretch of coast have cliffs made of distinctively terracotta-coloured sandstone. It’s soft and crumbly, which makes rockfalls common and puts cliff-top properties in frequent danger. It also makes it easier to carve a message of undying love into their surface.

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Climbing the set of steps known as Jacob’s Ladder to the top of the cliff allows you to see the extent to which the sea, particularly on a day like this with a bit of wind and a strong current, has been stained red by the eroded cliffs.

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In Piazza

Exeter, where I’m from, doesn’t really have one main, central public square. It has a large lawn in front of the cathedral, a long main shopping street, some parks and some open space down by the quay on the river. But if you wanted to hold a big event for a lot of people I’m not quite sure where you’d do it. Most Italian towns on the other hand have a principal piazza which can be used for any number of events, demonstrations, or just as somewhere to hang out and feel like you’re part of the life of the town.

This summer we experienced two different Italian squares, on two different scales. Campiglia Marittima, just inland from the beach where we were staying, is a fairly small place, but of course it has a main square.

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With an alliterative eatery.

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It also, we discovered, has an annual street theatre festival called Apritiborgo. For such a small town this was a pretty good event, with acts from all over the world. The streets and squares (there are several smaller ones apart from the central square) were packed, there was a market and a few food stalls.

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The Uruguayan jugglers were fun.

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This was the first time I’d seen someone spinning a hula hoop around their nose.

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Of course the advantage to events in public squares is that people who live there get a free show right outside their window.

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Whether they’re interested or not.

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A few days later we passed through Siena. We’d not been there for over a decade, but it was much as we remembered it. Siena, of course, has a large main square called Il Campo, which is the site of the town’s most famous event: the Palio. As luck would have it we were in town a few days before the event, so preparations were well under way. In fact there are several test runs before the big day, so we got to see all the decorations, crowds and horses in action, albeit a little slower and quieter than the real thing, which we saw on TV when we got home the following week. Most people crowd into the centre of the square, so that the horses race around them. Alternatively you can rent a seat on a balcony above the hoi polloi, for around €400.

When we arrived it was still quite quiet and they were spraying the sand on the ground to stop the horses kicking up clouds of dust.

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Colour-coded children from each ‘contrada’ (a team representing a town district) were seated in a prime spot in front of the town hall.

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An hour or so later there was standing room only. Usually I hate crowds, but this was a very relaxed atmosphere.

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Again there were cheeky peekers in various windows around the square, although not many people actually live in the buildings looking onto Il Campo.

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Each team’s supporters would take turns singing football-style chants.

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For some reason only the men sang, while the women sat in silence.

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Here’s a sample of the singing and general atmosphere.

Horses and their riders emerge from under the town hall.

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After much shuffling and faffing around they line up.

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And then they’re off for three circuits. The first turn was quite fast, but they slowed down for the next two. It’s basically just to let the riders and horses get the feel of the course.

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If you want a bit more detail of what actually happens on the day, I recommend Stef’s blogpost. And here’s the actual race:

Backwash

I like going to the beach, but rarely feel the desire to swim in the sea. When I do go in the water, I’m often happier just standing at the water’s edge, letting the waves lap at my feet and lower legs. If I do go in for a full immersion the water has to be pretty warm and even then I take it slowly, wading out and waiting a minute before ducking under.

But the area where the waves spill, plunge, collapse and surge is more fun. Like many people I can stand there and watch them for a good long while. Allowing them to swirl and pull at my lower extremities while I do so adds a sensual element. On the beach near San Vincenzo in Tuscany this summer I took to standing at the edge where the waves would slide up the gently shelving sand. They would crash up to around the middle of my shins and then wash backwards, creating gurgling vortices around my ankles.

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As they did so they also pulled at the sand under my feet, and with each passing wave I would be sucked a little deeper into the surface of the beach, heel first, which made it increasingly difficult to keep my balance.

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The power of the water was surprising, given that it was only a few inches deep.

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The glassy smooth surface of sand freshly washed by the sea is probably my favourite part of the beach, and I love walking along it and seeing it change tone and dry out under the pressure of my feet.

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