Alice in Scandinavia II.i: Kiruna

So the attempt to keep posting these entries in real time may have derailed slightly since Narvik. Let’s see if I can get the train up and running again…

12.11.16 Narvik to Kiruna – Arctic Circle line

Having eventually managed to negotiate the novel situation of there being no one in my strange Narvik hotel whose responsibility it was to take my money, I trudged once more in the direction of the railway station, there to await the train on which I would leave Norway.

After a short wait, I successfully caught the pleasingly 1920s-looking train to Kiruna. This line is rather excitingly known as the Arctic Circle line, and was originally used only to transport iron ore between these two mining towns. It’s a two-and-three-quarter-hour journey that passes between snowy peaks and remote, ramshackle buildings. The iron ore trains also still use it, meaning that my comfortable passenger train ran more than once alongside seemingly endless processions of lumbering trucks.

I’d become just about blasé enough about this kind of scenery to spend much of the journey winding wool and knitting, with pauses every now and again to decipher parts of the Norsk knitting pattern. Which is not to say I didn’t look out of the window at all.

When the train pulled into Kiruna and I stepped onto the snow-covered platform, I was totally unprepared for the paralysing drop in temperature. Having been informed that owing to building works in the town centre this was in fact a temporary railway station, those of us who had disembarked staggered to the bus stop to wait for the Kiruna equivalent of the rail replacement bus service, to shuttle us into the town proper.

It turned out that, as a mining town, this ‘building work’ is in fact the gargantuan process of relocating the entire town, as the ore seams move closer to where it currently is. This is something of a sore point with some of the locals, who don’t appear to have had much of a say, and for whom the plans for urban regeneration are little consolation. On the other hand, it’s a far cry from the way I can too easily imagine British developers undertaking this kind of work: the 100% government-owned mining company is smoothing the transition by converting the intervening space into a continually shape-shifting public ‘mining park’ as they demolish and rebuild each structure.

Exploring this now wasn’t my priority, however, as I’d realised that in erroneously assuming the train would have wifi, as others had done, I had neglected to download either the map of the region or the email containing the name of my hostel. I never learn. Thankfully the tourist office was easy to find and its internet easy to connect to, so I soon set off again, adequately equipped, past a lovely-looking mini winter festival involving paths lined with candles, winter barbecues and three Sámi huts, populated by an adorable number of small children in snowsuits.

The short walk to the hostel took me through a network of Christmas card-like residential roads, lined on both sides with detached houses clad in warmly-coloured clapboard. The blue sky and the slanting golden sunshine on the snow made this a very happy walk, and the idle thought occurred to me that this would be a nice place to live.

Reality returned with a small bump when I had to wait half an hour for the hostel reception to open, but shortly after that I was comfortably installed in my nicest (and least noisy) room yet. However, having again missed breakfast I was starving, and so ventured into the darkening town only to discover that I’d hit the yawning gulf between the 4pm closure of cafes and the 6pm opening of non-fast food restaurants. In my grumpiness it was rather harder to appreciate anything, least of all the bitter, face-numbing cold.

Eventually restored by some chips, I sat reading in the pleasant lounge of the local Scandic hotel until 6, then ventured to one of the guidebook’s recommended restaurants that served local food and good cocktails. I tested out both claims to my thorough satisfaction, taking my first opportunity to sample reindeer stew (quite strong, but tasty), then rewarding myself with a Grasshopper cocktail (perfect). Equilibrium thus restored, I plodded home, far more appreciative now of the Christmas card-like nature of Sweden’s northernmost inhabited area.

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Kiruna is 200km inside the Arctic Circle. It shows.

This included snow that had clearly been on the ground for several days but that hadn’t turned to the slush, black ice and unusable crunchy mess to which we English are accustomed; on the contrary, it was as powdery as the stuff the machines on the Narvik ski slope had been manufacturing. I therefore had a lot of fun irresponsibly walking through snowdrifts and untouched snow rather than sticking to the roads.

13.11.16: Mining Park

Had my illusions about how nice it would be to live here rudely adjusted by the realisation that everything – cafes, the tourist office, laundrettes (badly needed), any indoor pastime one could name – would be shut on Sundays. Having had a disconcertingly upsetting conversation with an employee of another hostel whose conversational opener was a thoroughly unfriendly ‘Yes?’, I gave up on seeking a washing machine.

Eventually I cobbled together a sort of breakfast/lunch in the local supermarket, then explored the ‘mining park’ that I’d walked past on my arrival. This had the particular loveliness that only snow-covered trees gilded by low sun against a blue sky can possess, and, immensely cheered up, I took full photographic advantage.

The whine from the iron ore mine could be heard all over town, and it was a strange contrast to look across from this winter wonderland onto the towering slag heaps and columns of smoke on the other side of the road.

Even the town’s architecture and public art is strongly connected to its heritage; the old town hall, deserted now, has a clock tower straight out of a steampunk fantasy, and the streets are full of rusted iron statues – of miners as well as other miscellaneous works of art.

Having thus exhausted all that there was to do by the time dusk started to fall at 2pm, and deciding that in these circumstances Kiruna was maybe not somewhere I wanted to live after all, I took refuge in the seating area on the first floor of the tourist office/Folkeshuset (theatre), and continued my rediscovery of the wonderful world of Thursday Next.

Headed home some time later for a quick family skype, only to realise that owing to a temporal miscalculation I was two hours early, so spent the time regaining mental equilibrium with knitting. Post-skype, I ventured out for dinner at the campsite/hotel/thing that I really should have stayed at, with apparently one of the best restaurants in town, a whole 150 yards downhill from the hostel. There was a well-trodden path of packed snow, which I naturally elected not to use in favour of marching through the adjacent snowdrift.

I decided that, having had an iffy day, I deserved a treat, and so had crayfish soup followed by fillet of beef, and they did not disappoint. My mood lifted at the first (bright orange) mouthful of soup. As the restaurant was almost empty, the service was unhurried, but so was I, and so the time spent there with good food and Kindle passed thoroughly pleasantly.

The return journey up the hill was rather more effort, full of food as I was. I therefore took a moment outside my hostel, with powdered snow blowing along the ground like spindrift around me, to both catch my breath and also assess whether the clear night had any potential for Northern Lights hunting. Unfortunately the otherwise unlit sky over the countryside that rolled out from the far side of the hostel was brightly moonlit, so instead I retired into the warm, content.

14.11.16: Café Safari and snow angels

Finally made it back to the tourist office today through breathtakingly bitter winds. Because the snow has remained so powdery, it behaves more like sand than I would have believed possible – blasting the face, and swirling in eddies along the street. Eventually, with my face just about intact, got to the office in order to make a reservation on the sleeper train (!!!) that would take me all the way down the spine of Sweden to Uppsala the next day.

Then took myself to the delightfully homely-looking gift shop against whose windows I’d had my face pressed for two (closed) days, and resisted buying a bottle of lingonberry-flavoured glögg, but did allow myself some Christmas-flavoured tea.

The feels-like temperature was around -15°C at this point, so there was really nothing to be gained by being outside, and also I felt I’d seen most of what there was to see. I therefore headed instead to the conveniently close Café Safari, and marvelled at their adorable cakes but sensibly had a proper lunch first. Then, even more marvellously, I discovered their perfect upper floor – complete with mismatched dining chairs, sofas bedecked with overstuffed cushions and the armchairs I had been fruitlessly seeking for so long. I duly got out my Kindle and knitting, ordered more tea and a square of blueberry and chocolate cake, and settled in for the afternoon as the wind and snow continued to lash the darkening windows. It was glorious.

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Glorious.

There is an inevitable balance to these things. Dinner, taken later in a nearby restaurant, was slightly less glorious – the fabulous international cheese plate for starters was somewhat marred by the fact that the two waiters were serving a very large party in the next room and so (quite understandably) forgot about me. And I was too full to properly enjoy my veggie burger by the time it eventually arrived anyway. Apparently there is in fact such a thing as too much cheese.

However, I still left in a good enough mood (and enough in need of an extensive post-prandial stroll) to indulge in some snow frolicking, as no one else was deluded enough to be outdoors. I walked in all the deepest bits of snow (I hadn’t known the meaning of ‘snowdrift’ until now) and made a snow angel on the hill leading up to the hostel, mainly because I don’t want to be the kind of adult who consciously passes up the opportunity to make a snow angel.

I would be leaving for Uppsala the next day, aware that I had been able to do little here other than play in the snow and drift between cafés and restaurants. At times it felt rather like a waste of my precious travel time, and I had been aware when booking that this would be more of a stopgap than a destination. But, in its remoteness and the strange rusty juxtaposition of its natural beauty with its mining heritage, as well as its stupefyingly low temperatures, I’ve never experienced anything like it. I probably won’t return there, at least not in winter, but I’m glad to have included it.

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