Once a strategic port town, Kemi is now home to the most magical castle on earth
This Finnish town near the border with Sweden might not be big but it has packed a punch in shaping the history of Lapland and Finland. It was founded in 1869 by Russian Emperor Alexander II due to its strategic location and its deep water harbour at the mouth of the Kemijoki River.
It then played a key role in Finland’s complex involvement in World War II. Initially Finland fought the Russians during the Winter War of 1939-1940 before then fighting alongside the Germans in the Continuation War 1941-1944. However, following the signing of the Moscow Armistice at the end of 1944, they demanded the Nazis leave Finnish Territory, which in turn, led to the Lapland War of 1944.
Kemi was brought into the global spotlight after Germans captured 132 Finnish civilian hostages from the town and threatened to kill them unless the Finnish army released German prisoners of war. A standoff ensured, and after the Finnish said they would execute the Germans in retaliation, the hostages were eventually released unharmed.
Finland’s northern-most deep water harbour was strategically attractive during the war and is still today used as a major commercial port. However, it is best known today as the home of the Icebreaker Sampo. Built in 1961 to keep shipping lanes open along the Baltic, today it takes cruises along the Gulf of Bothnia. The Sampo attracts thousands of tourists who sail aboard the vessel as it crashes its way through the ice. Guests can go ‘ice floating’ from the ship – a brave experience that involves swimming in the icy waters – or they can go on a snowmobile ice-breaker safari.
In the centre of the town is the neo-Gothic church that was built in 1902 by Josef Stenback. The church is famed for its soft pink external colour and gothic spires giving it the effect of a church straight out of the pages of a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale.
But it is the SnowCastle that draws most visitors to Kemi. Built every winter, this vast snow fort is often built over three stories and although it is created to a different design every year it always has a restaurant, hotel and chapel where couples can marry. Ice sculptures adorn the award-winning restaurant with reindeer furs covering chairs and a play area can entertain kids. The castle is set up for performances and often operas are performed amidst the lights that bounce off the myriad ice sculptures.
Visitors to the SnowCastle can stay overnight in one of the different crafted rooms that feature intricate ice frescos on the wall, with beds covered in sheepskins to keep the cold at bay. Guests drink vodka from ice glasses at the translucent ice bar before dining in the alfresco restaurant, with views of the Northern Lights. There is also an Arctic Market where visitors can buy local reindeer and other products and even a sauna to relax in for when it all gets a bit too much.