Late every afternoon, a rake of carriages gets shunted backwards into Stockholm's main station.
Shades of blue and black on some, beige and grey on others. The train nudges up beside commuter services bound for Uppsala and other spots in the hinterland of the capital. Across the way, the city chic make haste for home. But another kind of passenger makes for the overnight service to Narvik, in the northern reaches of Norway. People wearing fur hats and sheepskin coats, soldiers on their way to one of the bases in the far north, families with skis. The train to Lapland is one of Europe's most engaging train journeys. Perhaps not for the faint-hearted, but few other night trains offer that same beguiling combination of comfort and a heady sense of adventure.
The adventure of course is to a good degree all in the imagination, for in truth the first 15 hours of the journey are mainly a matter of watching the birch trees get smaller and the snow get deeper. Or eating and sleeping. The restaurant car offers reindeer stew with creamy mashed potatoes, Swedish beer and decent wines with nicely retro table lamps and a feast of fake mahogany, all presided over by an ebullient attendant who has crossed the Arctic Circle more than a thousand times. Images of the Swedish royal family adorn the walls of the carriage, which, with its blue curtains and imitation gold antimacassars, provides a perfect spot to linger over a slow dinner.
Proper night never really comes. Just a dreamy bluish twilight. Time for some hours of fitful sleep with an occasional twitching of the curtain to glimpse the rocks and the trees, and see the birches sink ever deeper into the snow. A moose watches the train lumber by in the night, and the veteran of Arctic train travel who presides over the restaurant car locks the bar for the night.
After hours of gently sliding through rocks and trees, the train slithers at six in the morning to a halt in Älvsbyn. The ebullient bartender is up and about and there is a smell of fresh coffee. Outside, winter snow has been bulldozed into neat piles. Men in fur coats chat on the platform, their breath making a hoary mist that hangs steady in the still air. A white van speeds up to the train and delivers the morning newspapers. Within a few minutes, every table in the restaurant car has a copy of Norrländska Socialdemokraten, one of those old-style dailies that speak to local values in this land of rocks and trees. There is news of the spring thaw, adverts for flights that hop over the Arctic Circle and obituaries for men and women who lived long lives and never left their northern homeland.
We take our places at the fake mahogany tables and settle down for breakfast. Settle down, too, to enjoy what is one of Europe's most engaging rail journeys: the seven-hour run from Boden through Swedish Lapland to the port of Narvik in northern Norway.
We cross the Arctic Circle without great fanfare and almost at once see our first reindeer, standing around rather aimlessly in the snow. During a short stop at Gällivare, a Sami woman climbs on board. She has wrinkles that tell of three score winters spent in the far north, eyes that sympathetically survey the restaurant car, and clothes that tune to the climate. Dark brown leather trousers, and a long sheepskin coat in a delicate shade of bluish-grey, reaching almost to her ankles. Notwithstanding her age, this is a creature of exquisite grace and all eyes are on her as she carefully positions her coat on an empty chair and sweeps back her long dark hair. She sits down and orders coffee.
The railway route over the hills to Narvik was built just over a hundred years ago
to export iron ore. Valuable deposits of iron ore were found in the hill country of northern Sweden in the 17th century. Pioneer miners used to drag sledges laden with the valuable ore over the mountains to the ice-free waters of the Norwegian coast. In the late 1880s, the Norwegian railway engineer Ole Lund marked out possible routes for a railway, and English investors provided the capital — on the condition that the marine terminus of the railway on the Ofot Fjord should be named after the then English monarch: Victoriahavn. The company went bankrupt and English aspirations to create an Arctic monument to their queen were quickly eclipsed as Swedish and Norwegian engineers moved in to finish the task. Victoriahavn was renamed Narvik, and the entire route across the mountains to the Norwegian port was completed in 1902.
Exporting iron ore is still the railway's main purpose. The few passenger services always give way to the powerful freight trains that thunder through the wilderness. The railway traverses some of Europe's remotest terrain and for the modern traveller enclosed in the cosseted comfort of the train, it is difficult to imagine the hardships endured by the navvies who for a dozen years laboured to build the railway line. Much of the atmosphere of those early days on the railway is captured in recordings of the Rallerviser (ballads of the navvies).
There is a lyrical quality to these northern landscapes, ever more so as the railway skirts the shoulders of mountains and creeps up narrow valleys where the hillsides tilt sharper and sharper. For over 50km, the train runs along the south shore of Torneträsk, a magnificent glacial lake that is frozen for more than half the year.
In the lakeshore resort of Abisko, most of the passengers alight. Now it is just the old lady with the sheepskin coat and us who keep watch in the restaurant car. As the railway heads up into the hills at the western end of Torneträsk lake, there is a little cemetery beside the tracks with the remains of the navvies who died in the construction of the Ofoten railway. Simple white crosses recall those who died in accidents or perished from typhus. This stretch of line is the most northerly passenger railway in the European Union. There are lines in European Russia that are even closer to the North Pole.
At Riksgränsen, a station that balances on the border between Sweden and Norway and the highest point of the route, the Sami woman alights. The train tunnels through snow and then begins the long and winding descent to the Ofotfjord. Avalanches and landslides play havoc with the line and the route has been rebuilt many times. Away to the right there is a glimpse of the old Norddal bridge, which once carried the railway but now stands protected as a national monument. Then there are views of the great fjord in the distance, more tight curves and steep drops until bang on time, the sleek carriages of the night train from Stockholm to Narvik come gently to a halt at their final destination.
End of the line, but there are plenty of onward bus connections. Head west over a spectacular series of new bridges to the Lofoten Islands, or south along Norway's fjord coast. More adventurous travellers might opt to continue 'round the top' of Norway to the Russian border, a bus journey of two days. Narvik may 'feel' a long way north to those arriving by train from the south, but distances are deceptive; there's still a lot of Norway beyond.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries are the editors of Hidden Europe magazine, hiddeneurope.co.uk
The overnight rail service from Stockholm to Narvik is operated by SJ (Sweden's main national rail operator). Departure from Stockholm Central Station is at 5.50pm with arrival in Narvik at 2.58 pm the following day. One-way fares from 675 SEK (around £63.55) for a seat, 727 SEK (£68.45) for a couchette and 909 SEK (£85.60) for a berth in a sleeping car. Book online at www.sj.se or through Railbookers
Tel. 020 3327 0800 / www.railbookers.com
Sunvil Discovery Offers tailor-made holidays to Sweden, Norway, Denmark and the Faroe Islands, year-round. Tel. 020 8758 4722 / www.sunvil.co.uk
Taber Holidays offers one-week holidays, including a night in Stockholm, overnight train to Luleå, Kiruna and a direct flight back to the UK. Tel. 01274 875199 / www.taberhols.co.uk
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