A short drive of 39km northwest from Ivalo, Inari is to Finland what Karasjok is to Norway. Home to Sámediggi, the Finnish Sámi parliament, Inari (Anár in Sámi) is the centre of Sámi culture in Finnish Lapland. Although other Sámi groups and Finns have moved into the region for various reasons (people were resettled in Inari, for instance, when Finland lost the Petsamo region to the Soviet Union in 1944), the Sámi have historically always lived in the same place, around the rocky shores of Inarijärvi lake (Anárjávri in Sámi), and today constitute a distinct ethnic group within the Sámi community as a whole, with their own traditional costume and language. However, Inari Sámi is threatened with extinction since its speakers total barely 300, many of whom are elderly or middle aged, and few schoolchildren are learning the language.
Although Inari is a pretty enough place to wander around for an hour or so, there are several reasons that make it an ideal stop on the long haul between Rovaniemi and the North Cape: the best Sámi museum in the whole of Lapland is here; an enjoyable hiking route out to a wilderness church starts from here; and boat trips on the steely waters of the lake are available during the summer months.
What to see and do
Inari is not the sort of place where you hurtle from one sight to another, ticking them off as you go; there aren’t any. Instead, prepare to learn more about the Sámi lands you are travelling through and the intimate relationship between indigenous man and nature at the Siida Museum beside the main road and on the banks of Inarijärvi Lake, one of the best museums in Finland and Inari’s main attraction.
Although the Sámi community in Finland is considerably smaller than that in Norway, the professional, contemporary approach to the museum’s contents and layout is sure to impress and there are clear lessons to learn for other museums elsewhere in the region. Other than the museum, a boat trip on Inarijärvi lake or a hike out to the Pielpajärvi wilderness church are the main reasons to linger.
From the entrance hall, a sloping walkway leads visitors to the main exhibition area on the first floor. Here, in a modest-sized room, an easy-to-understand timeline runs the circumference of the room recounting Sámi history from prehistoric times to the present day, placing events in Lapland alongside their chronological counterparts elsewhere in the world: for instance, while Che Guevara and Ayatollah Khomeini were at large, the Sámi were rejoicing at the completion of their new road to Sevettijärvi.
The key theme of the museum, though, is nature and as you step into the main exhibition space it is as if you are suddenly immersed in the wilds of Lapland’s fells. A series of floor-to-ceiling photographs measuring a whopping 10m wide by 5m high span the room, conjuring up resonant images of Lapland’s landscapes and seasons. The sound of birdsong, the howl of the wind and the gentle trickle of mountain streams, played from surround speakers in the ceiling, add to the sensation of being out in nature and at the mercy of the elements. From displays on the variegated flowers that carpet the Lapland fells in spring to the fascinating life cycle of the brown bear, the exhibition is a real treat for the senses.
Diagonally opposite Siida on the southern bank of the Juutuanjoki River, Sajos is Inari’s pride and joy: the Sámi cultural centre here houses the Finnish Sámi parliament, a library of Sámi-language books, auditorium and a small café. Inspiration for the star-shaped building comes from Sámi handicrafts and the floorplan is said to resemble a reindeer skin or a Sámi man’s headdress, depending on your point of view.
The external walls are constructed from fire-resistant pine while inside spruce and birch are used extensively. Though as a visitor to Inari you’re unlikely to have much call for the Sámi administrative services available, the inspirational building, funded by the European Union’s regional development fund, is definitely worth a browse. Inside, you’ll also find Sámi Duodji, which has a wide range of tasteful souvenirs.
Covering an area of over 1,000km² and containing more than 3,000 islands, Inarijärvi is Finland’s third-largest lake. To get an impression of the sheer scale of the lake, it is twice the size of Switzerland’s Lake Geneva or Lake Constance on the borders of Germany, Austria and Switzerland and is consequently known locally as ‘the Sámi sea’. For some truly spectacular views, head 7km south of Inari along Route 4/E75 back towards Ivalo and take the right turn signed ‘Digita Oy Inarin radio-ja tv-asema’, which will lead you up a steep hill to the site of Inari’s radio and television mast.
From the car park at the foot of the mast, there are sweeping vistas out across the island-studded waters that reach all the way to the Norwegian and Russian borders. The lake empties northwards into the head of the Varangerfjord, part of the Barents Sea, via the Paatsjoki River. Of the 3,000 islands in the lake, the best known are Hautuumaasaari (graveyard island), which served as a cemetery for the Sámi people in ancient times, and Ukonkivi, a historical place of sacrifice.