IT'S WHITE, IT'S COLD; WHAT MORE DO I NEED TO KNOW?
Are you kidding? An entire tourist industry has been built around the stuff. From skiing to sleigh rides, ice sculpture festivals to snowmobiling, winter brings endless opportunities for the wellinsulated traveller. And this year you don't even need to wrap up warm . . . the less hardy can see snow-covered landscapes from across the world all snugly collected under one roof in Italy.
A vast exhibition at Turin's Promotrice delle belle Arti museum at 11 via Balsano Crivelli has the appealing title of 'The Impressionists and Snow' (00 39 011 442 95 18). The first section of the show explores images of snow from Sweden, the UK, Russia and Italy, including some haunting pieces by the Norwegian Expressionist painter Edvard Munch. The second, and much larger, collection offers a series of luminous French winter landscapes from a panoply of great painters, including Cezanne, Gauguin, Manet, Monet, Sisley and Van Gogh. The exhibition opens 9am-7pm daily except Monday (and with late opening to 9pm on Friday and Saturday) until 25 April, making it tempting to combine with a ski trip to the slopes of north-west Italy. Admission is 10.
HOW CREATIVE CAN YOU GET WITH FROZEN WATER?
Very. Head to Belgium to see the works of Rubens recreated in ice. Over 1,200 tons of ice and snow have been used in Antwerp's annual ice sculpture festival, Snow & Ice. It is scheduled to melt on 17 January but until then is open 10am-9pm daily.
This year's theme, 'The World of Rubens' brings together sculptors from China, Canada and Sweden to depict the life and work of the Flemish artist. The exhibition at Antwerp's Gedempte Zuiderdokken square sees patrons enter through an icy version of Rubens' Monument at the Gate of Adam and Eva, his first major work. Next it's a chilly gallery of Rubens' life as a painter in the Venetian court, with ambitious sculpted pieces aiming to illustrate his characteristic integration of Romanesque and Flemish Baroque styles.
Alongside iconic masterpieces, scenes from Rubens' life will be hewn out of snow and ice including likenesses of Antwerp's own Cathedral of Our Lady, the market square, guild houses and his 17th-century town house. Admission is 8.
ANYWHERE MORE EXOTIC?
One of the oldest ice sculpture festivals is held in the Chinese city of Harbin, where the tradition dates back to the early Qing dynasty, some 350 years ago. Today the festival is held in Harbin's Zhaolin Park which, for the first two weeks of every year, is taken over by huge sculptures of plants, animals and mythical creatures, all lit from within to resemble Chinese lanterns.
Situated in north-east China, near the Russian border, there is little chance of Harbin's creations melting, so at the end of each festival patrons are invited to smash the intricate works into tiny pieces, which they do with considerable abandon. This year's festival runs from 5 January. . .5 February.
Running Harbin a close second when it comes to traditional atmosphere and ingenuity, the Sapporo Snow Festival in Japan attracts around two million people with sparkling ice sculptures on show across the city's parks and in Susukino (Sapporo's main shopping district). What started in Odori Park in 1950 as a small show of student sculpture has spread throughout the city to become one of the world's most hotly contested ice art contests. Ice sculptures the size of buildings several storeys tall dominate the skyline, and even food features in the creative process.
Blocks of ice containing whole lobsters and seafood are cooked up in front you, plus plenty of stalls selling hot, spicy noodles to keep the chills at bay. The big freeze continues right through until 13 February.
CAN I GO WEST?
Yes: take a trip to Breckenridge, Colorado where the International Snow Sculpting Competition brings together 16 teams from around the world to create works of art from 20-ton blocks of packed snow. This prestigious event attracts sculptors from the Netherlands, England, Italy, Argentina, Bulgaria, Canada, Switzerland and the USA . . . all hoping to beat the Russians who seem to clean out the trophy cabinet every year.
Breckenridge also hosts the annual Ullr Festival, a week-long carnival tribute to Ullr, the Norse god of snow. Nordic fancy dress shows, snow 'Ullympics', skating and children's parades all take place in the week running up to the snow sculpture competition, which will be held from 7-14 January.
The Budweiser International Snow Sculpture Championships will be staged in Breckenridge from 25 until 29 January.
THAT DOESN'T SOUND VERY NORSE
Then head for the northern Swedish town of Kiruna. Its annual celebration of winter involves dog-sledding, reindeer and snowmobile races, snow-sculpting and vodka-fuelled piste parties . . .all within glimpsing distance of the Northern Lights.
Don't miss the chance to warm up in one of Kiruna's giant igloos, big enough to accomodate up to 200 people. The Kiruna Snow Festival takes place 25-29 January.
DID YOU SAY NORTHERN LIGHTS?
I certainly did. Northern Scandinavia is one of the most accessible places on earth to watch the aurora borealis. And one of the most atmospheric ways to reach it is aboard the Hurtigruten Coastal Express. A fleet of passenger ships plies the waters between Bergen and Kirkenes, passing some of Norway's most spectacular scenery en route.
The most popular time to take the journey is during the midnight sun of summer, but during the long snow-bound nights of the Arctic winter the Northern Lights can sometimes be glimpsed from the ship's deck. Aurora activity is at its best from NovemberFebruary, when almost continual dark Arctic skies act as the perfect backdrop.
Norwegian Coastal Voyage (www. norwegiancoastalvoya ge. com) offers dedicated Northern Lights voyages on board the Hurtigruten Coastal Express between November and February.
AND ON DRY (-ISH) LAND?
Those hearty Nordic types rise to the winter occasion with uniquely stoic displays of snow sports. In Norway you can enjoy some crosscountry skiing through fairytale scenery . . . or more specifically the brooding landscape depicted in Henrik Ibsen's play, Peer Gynt. The uplands of southwest Norway, around the town of Gala, offer dramatic ski scenery: bruised skies, hushed, fir-tree lined tracks and frozen lakes. Ski resorts here are a rather retro affair, often amounting to no more than a handful of traditional log cabins plus one or two luxury lodges of the sort favoured by the Norwegian royal family. Take a long leisurely shush along Gudbrandsdalen, or Peer Gynt's valley (named after former resident Per Olson, on whom Ibsen is thought to have modelled Peer) and reward yourself at the end of the day with a traditional buffet of sauna-smoked reindeer. Alternatively, just have a sauna.
SAUNA? DO I HAVE TO ROLL IN THE SNOW AFTERWARDS?
You don't have to but it is something of a tradition in this part of the world.
Avanto (ice-swimming) is gaining an increasing number of devotees in the Nordic countries; some 30,000 Finns took the plunge in 2001 alone. There are currently more than 200 avanto sites (officially registered holes in the ice) in Finland but if you like your swim to be preceded by a warm sauna, try the Finnish Sauna Society's HQ on the island of Lauttasaari, Helsinki. The society's pretty clapboard house contains six saunas: one electric, two wood-burning and three traditional smoke saunas. After a good heat-up and thrash-down with birch leaves, convention dictates that you take a naked jaunt down a wooden jetty to plunge through a neatly maintained hole in the ice, for a 'swim' in the frozen Baltic.
A swim from the icebreaker Sampo is gaining popularity among tourists, but is considered something of a cop-out by locals thanks to the protective clothing (a hermetically sealed spacesuit) worn by swimmers. This 3,540-ton ship tours the Gulf of Bothnia, which is within the Arctic Circle.
To see breathtaking displays of Nordic endurance head to Finland's Ice Marathon (16-20 February) in the lakeland at Kuopio. This 125-mile iceskating race is held annually, and is open to anyone who thinks they're capable of speed-skating for long distances in sub-zero temperatures. Shorter courses cater to those who don't . . . with an eight-mile mini-marathon making this a fun-for-all-the-family event. That is if your family is mad and/or Finnish.
ONLY IN FINLAND, HUH?
Actually, no. If you want truly wacky winter events, look no further than the Polar Bear Jump-Off and the Ugly Fish Toss in Alaska (21-23 January). What began in the town of Seward as a one-day event in 1986 has become a state-wide festival.
The fishy bit of the equation involves pairs of competitors chucking an ugly old salmon at one another, sliding a step further apart with every throw. The last one to catch the increasingly slippery fish wins. But the surreal highlight of the festival is the Polar Bear Jump-Off, when volunteers dressed as bears dive into the icy waters of Resurrection Bay, all in the name of charity of course.
WHAT ABOUT REAL POLAR BEARS?
Wildlife lovers take note: there is life out in the snowy North American wilderness besides Vaseline-covered extreme sports enthusiasts.
To watch real polar bears take a dip through the ice, you need to travel to snowbound Manitoba, Canada. Between October and December, polar bears gather around the town of Churchill, waiting for the Hudson Bay to freeze so they can resume seal hunting. At the same time some 10,000 visitors gather around the bears, earning the town its title of Polar Bear Capital of the World.
Frontier Canada (www.frontier-canada. co. uk) offers polar bear watching breaks, staying at the Tundra Buggy Lodge.
HAVEN'T WE FORGOTTEN SOMETHING? LARGE, POINTY, CENTRAL EUROPE?
The Alps. There's nowhere quite like Europe's mountainous backbone for snow shows. For starters, Switzerland hosts what has to be the poshest snow date of all: the Cartier Polo World Cup (27-30 January) in St Moritz. The hedonists and extroverts of the European aristocracy gather annually around a frozen lake in the Upper Engadine Valley to watch some of the highestrated players from Italy, Switzerland, Argentina, France and the UK try to remain dignified as they and their horses chase a speeeding puck across the ice.
St Moritz also stages slightly more conventional fun in the shape of the Schlitteda (16 January).
This annual sleigh ride sees the local menfolk drag old sleighs out of the garage, dust off traditional costumes and seek out a good horse. The next bit of essential kit is a local fraulein who is willing to be taken for a breakneck ride through the snow - all accompanied by folk dancers and musicians.
If this all sounds a bit high octane, try the ski resort of Crans Montana for some ballooning. This Valais village hosts the International Ballooning Meeting (5-7 February), an annual gathering of ballooning enthusiasts who, early every morning, launch their colourful craft above Lac Leman and out over the Swiss Alps. For more information contact the Switzerland Travel Centre (www. myswitzerland. com).