Alice in Scandinavia II.ii: Uppsala

15.11.16 Kiruna to Uppsala – night train

Kiruna sits close enough to the open countryside for it to be an ideal hub for endless walking adventures in summer. In November, on the other hand, you don’t really need much more than two full days to explore it. But since my sleeper train (!!!) to Uppsala wouldn’t be leaving until 17:30, I had a third. There was not much to do.

The sole entertainment at the bus station that evening was watching a daredevil driver performing feats of skidding on the packed snow around the deserted bus stops. It seems they have white van drivers even in Sweden. At length the bus did arrive, and deposited me back at the railway station a few minutes before the train was due. I therefore had time to contemplate the journey that lay ahead: nearly sixteen hours, and well over 1000km, nosing all the way down Sweden’s east coast to Uppsala, about 70km north of Stockholm. I would arrive at around 9:30 the next morning.

kiruna uppsala

When the train arrived, I boarded and manoeuvred myself and all my bags with difficulty down the narrow train corridor, lined down one side with heavy doors. I knew from when I’d booked my ticket that each compartment contained three bunks, which would mean that this introverted solo traveller now faced the very real possibility of sharing a sleeping space with total strangers. Hoping against the evidence of my eyes that the train might be quiet enough for me to have a compartment to myself, I found the correct door just as another woman walked through it in front of me. There was a third woman already in the compartment. I tried to keep smiling.

Thankfully for me, they both spoke good English, so (thankfully for them) they didn’t have to decipher too much of my own tortured Swedish. One of them also turned out to be a fellow knitter, so we were soon chatting as the train began its long journey. It was nonetheless a very surreal bonding experience, knowing that we, total strangers to each other, would shortly be stacked on bunks one above the other in a vertical space whose floor area was roughly equivalent to that of a normal-sized single bed.

Having procured food and successfully folded myself into my pyjamas and into bed without injuring myself in the narrow space, I found myself assessing the probability of passing a sleepless night being shuffled around by the movement of the train. Although the general rocking was quite soothing, I was physically forced up or down the mattress every time the train rounded a bend – and peculiarly, given the flat landscape, these were many. Nonetheless, I am forced to conclude that I did sleep, because of the number of times I woke up.

One short moment made it all worthwhile, though: having been woken for the nth time, I noticed a sliver of bright light over my feet. Raising the blind, I peered out of the window to see the kind of landscape I had thought was confined to fantasy novels: a nearly-full moon blazing over endless snow-covered black pine trees, turning the snowy landscape to silver. Even with the brightness of the moon, the sky was so dark that the nearest constellations were impossibly bright and sharp. Unable to tear myself away, I watched the icy scenery sliding silently by for several minutes, before eventually lying back down, bewitched.

16.11.16 Uppsala

On the last of my subsequent awakenings, I also saw a similarly fantastical sunrise: a seemingly identical foreground, but this time illuminated in pink and gold. As I rose and dressed, the fairytale landscape started giving way to the first signs of urban habitation, and before long the train pulled at last into Uppsala, barely a minute behind schedule after nearly sixteen hours. I said goodbye to my compartment companions and stepped out onto the platform. Poorly rested and blinking in the sunlight, which was much brighter and higher before 10am than it had been capable of at noon in the town I’d left behind, I had to pause to get my bearings.

I was soon perked up by Uppsala’s architectural prettiness, by its liveliness compared to battened-down Kiruna, and by the fact that the temperature was above zero! Knowing I wouldn’t be able to check into my hostel yet, I had breakfast in a bakery, did the rounds of the tourist office and spent the next couple of hours performing some preliminary explorations of the pedestrianised town centre, until a time that felt more appropriate.

After walking past the well-signposted entrance twice, I checked myself into the hostel, checked my laundry into a washing machine, and keeled over for a nap. This restored me slightly, despite being rudely awoken by the testing of the fire alarm. However, I couldn’t go anywhere without outdoor clothes, so was at the mercy of the laundry cycle for some time.

With the second knitted sock well under way, I did some more targeted research and discovered, at last, that this might be a place where I could join others in playing folk music. Uppsala University had its own folk music group, the Västmanland Dala spelmanslag, whose weekly rehearsal happened to fall the following evening. Their website assured me that newcomers would be warmly welcomed, so I decided that, if my boldness held out, I would take them at their word.

I had come 1000km south, but it was still November, and so darkness had still already fallen by the time I was able to venture out again in the late afternoon. Fortunately, I had arrived in the midst of a light festival (akin to Lumiere in Durham and London) called All Lights on Uppsala. This meant that the trees were full of fairy lights, the river (cleaving the main street in two, à la Amsterdam) was brightly lit, and the Cathedral was masquerading as a spaceship. The wet ground and the misty drizzle (for which, in coming south, I have swapped inches of snow) enhanced the light, turning what might otherwise have been a miserable walk in the rain into an enchanting and sparkly adventure.

When the recommended local restaurant I’d selected turned out to be full, I ventured instead to one in the Old Town: a delightfully mazelike network of cobbled lantern-lit side streets. I found the restaurant snuggled in what used to be the arms room of the Cathedral, making this the oldest building in Uppsala to contain a restaurant. The ancient candlelit space made me feel excitedly medieval, and the food was highly pleasing.

My post-prandial walk took me through more parts of the Old Town, which I resolved to explore again in daylight, because old buildings are for me the best part of city holidays. When I eventually came to the university district on the other side, however, I decided that, light installations or no, the drizzle was starting to get down my neck, and that it was therefore time to head damply hostelwards.

17.11.16: Dinosaurs and the V-Dala spelmanslag

Sweden’s answer to station cafes

My research came to the surprising conclusion that one of the best places for breakfast was the cafe in the railway station. When I got there, I understood why: the building comprised a cafe, a restaurant and a bar, all furnished in astonishingly luxuriant style, with a supremely appetising selection of breakfast pastries on offer in the cafe section. I partook, seated in a leather armchair, watching trains pass to and fro outside the window.

Armed with my information from the tourist office, I commenced a walking tour of the historical district, including the Gustavanium and a peek in the Cathedral. However, I quickly realised I wanted a walk that was a scenic route in itself, rather than just joining the dots between scenic buildings, so started my own wanderings.

These took me up a very picturesque hill, past Uppsala Castle, in order to investigate the imposing Carolina Rediviva, the main library of the University of Uppsala (and Sweden’s oldest and largest university library). Unfortunately I ran into the same problems as the library in Oslo, wherein the advertised public access turned out in fact to be non-existent.

So, descending the wooded hill again, I decided instead to make friends with some dinosaurs at the university museum of evolutionary biology and palaeontology – supposedly the largest collection of dinosaurs in Scandinavia. This involved a longer walk than I’d anticipated, along some extremely pedestrian-unfriendly streets and a thoroughly muddy diversion around some roadworks. Eventually, however, the expedition reached its goal, and I spent a couple of hours learning that there are such things as pentaceratops and supersaurus, and doing the customary gaping at the absurd size of the things.

Uppsala university district

In returning to the town centre and seeking a late lunch, I had the usual problems with cafes being closed for the winter/daytime/arbitrary days of the week. Eventually, however, I tracked down the Guntershus Konditori, a large bakery for which I’d read multiple recommendations. Having had a sensible and nutritious wrap for actual lunch, I succumbed to curiosity and sampled an intriguing Pink Blob, which turned out to contain cream and raspberry jelly. Strange, but yummy.

As afternoon drew towards evening, the time came to talk myself into actually following through my plan to investigate the V-Dala spelmanslag, and spend an evening playing music with strangers whose language I barely knew. Eventually, filled with premonitions of how much I would kick myself subsequently if I didn’t go, I succeeded in chasing myself out the door before my anxious brain realised what I was doing.

The rehearsal venue wasn’t far away, and in a short time I had crossed the bridge into the university district, and tailgated my way into the student union. After that, I had only to follow my ears.

A word of context for readers not familiar with folk music sessions as they tend to work in England. Most commonly occurring in pubs, or anywhere that whisky can be had, they are informal gatherings of musicians who play music together and occasionally know the same version of a folk tune. You do not need, and often do not have, more than a few musicians for spontaneous sessioning to occur.

In Uppsala, I was able to follow my ears because the V-Dala spelmanslag consisted of upwards of thirty people, preparing to rehearse in a space the size of a sports hall.

My innate unease abated slightly once I’d managed to explain who I was and why I was there to the spelmanslag members, who may have been slightly bemused, but were without exception friendly and welcoming. My solo travels now being in their third week, it had been some time since I’d last spent time with people my age, and much longer still since I’d been to a folk session.

The rehearsal was of course conducted in Swedish, but given that most of the time was given to actually playing the music, this didn’t present as much of a problem as it might have done. And the music itself was wonderful. Even in bands, I’d never played in folk ensembles this large, and the sound of each tune and its harmonies played by upwards of thirty musicians, many of whom had been playing folk music for far more years than I had, was something quite incredible.

There was (in the nature of traditional music) no sheet music, but (also in the nature of traditional music) each tune was played with enough iterations that I was able to pick up a fair idea of it before it finished. That is, apart from the polskas. As a fan of French Canadian reels, I’d previously thought I knew a crossed rhythm when I saw it. But I hadn’t seen nothing yet.

My tune comprehension was soon put to an unexpected test, when a small group at dinner next door, overhearing the rehearsal, asked if the group might give them a tune. I don’t think they were quite expecting a band of thirty to assemble in front of their table of six, though, judging from their laughter as more and more musicians piled into the otherwise empty dining room. Feeling that my evening had now reached the apex of surreality, I joined the spelmanslag in performing the tunes that I’d half-learnt ten minutes earlier. Fortunately everyone else seemed to find the occasion just as amusing as I did.

After this came the universal tradition of the post-rehearsal session, attended by a few of the members who hadn’t had enough yet. I joined them, keen to share the small handful of Scandi tunes I knew. To my pleasant surprise, we did have a tune in common (the gloriously happy Trondheimsfjorden), and a couple of the Irish tunes I played seemed to be familiar too. Apart from that, though, either because I’d exhausted my tune-learning faculties or because they were playing polskas approximately 24 times more difficult, I soon found myself flagging, and had to call it a night and bid my new friends farewell.

The next day would take me the short hop further south to Stockholm. With plans already afoot for further music-making when I got there, I spent my final hours in Uppsala feeling the most musically fulfilled I had been so far.


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