Sweden – January 2011
Previously, we took a sleeper train to Italy and I at least was introduced to the idea of travelling what would take a plane 2 or 3 hours. It was warm and cramped in the cabin what with 5 other people and luggage. However, once you co-ordinate with each other (often via more than one language) and wear ear-plugs, you can get a good night’s kip – which is more than you can say for a red-eye flight. Plus there’s no jet-lag upon arrival. It is also not a huge cultural jump when you get off the train as you have to communicate with the other passengers and staff during the journey.
Why Sweden, and why in January? Well – for the Aurora Borealis. It’s about the nearest place you can get to without flying that gives you a good chance of seeing them. Firstly we got to London (unfortunately with me misreading the Shrub Hill / Fore Gate station name and having to go via Birmingham). There was time for sandwiches in London before the Eurostar to Brussels, which despite being January was only a little colder than London (about 5c).
At Brussels we found the ICE train to Cologne to be cancelled! The Belgians refused all the stranded passengers to go on the only slightly faster Thalys, so we had to take the next available Belgian train to Liège, and then a surprisingly small local to Aachen. Deutsche Bahn was a lot more sympathetic, allowing us to board the previously-mentioned Thalys to Cologne. The original plan was to get there in time to find a restaurant – but this was no longer possible, so it was a snack tea in the station instead. It was a little colder, just above freezing when the sleeper from Amsterdam arrived at 9pm. The cabin was already occupied, and set for the night, so we read a while before turning in.
By the grey morning light somewhere near Ringsted in Denmark we awoke to find the cabin to ourselves, and had plenty of time to get up before arriving at Copenhagen at around 10am.
Here we had arranged to coach surf with a local family, who were very happy to regale us with stories about Denmark. Although the air temperature was just above freezing, there was ice on the ground, and all the waterways of the beautiful city were frozen.
On the following day we took the Oresund train across the oresund between Denmark and Sweden. It’s a massive bridge that runs into a tunnel half-way across, to allow really big ships into the Baltic. At around 4 it was already getting dark in Lund, where we changed trains and got Swedish Kroner from a cash machine near the station. We were taken to Stockholm 4 hrs north-east by a flash silver train with nice upholstery and plenty of space, noticing for the first time that the Swedes seem to travel with their dogs much more than we do. There was a little time in Stockholm to pick up food before the next sleeper to take us north departed. Now we had longer beds – and only had to share with 2 others. In the lit areas around stations along the way we could see that there was snow everywhere.
In the morning far north, we had the cabin to ourselves and got up at a leisurely time, found a plush blue upholstered dining car for tea and coffee, watching the northern snowy wastes roll by. By 10 we had to change trains for the last time, at Boden. On the platform it was -10c and we stood on snow. A snowplough fitted freight rolled by first, then our northward train arrived to take us over the arctic circle to Kiruna – where we arrived at about 2pm. The sun was just setting.
There are buses this far north, but there are few and far between, and also only take cash – so you really need to carry plenty else you are a bit stuck. Suffice to say we hung out with the reindeer, did some cross country skiing, and dog-sledging a la White Fang.
This is perhaps a lesson in the art of building in slippage time into a long-distance journey. We departed Gällivare above the arctic circle early evening on a through train to Stockholm (about 900 miles away). Again, waking pleasantly late and strolling to the nice dining car for breakfast, to find that we were on time. At 11am in Stockholm we walked around for a couple of hours delighted to find it only around freezing (much warmer than up north). In between ice floes on the many river channels through the city there was water – something else we had not seen in the arctic, where you can drive over a river in a pick-up. Everything was fine on the express to Mälmo until Hässleholm at around 3pm where a wheel failure up the line forced all the trains behind to wait – for an hour. Unfortunately we only had an hour spare at Copenhagen, so by the time we arrived there the sleeper to Germany had left.
We grabbed the next train heading west at 5pm anyway and hoped for the best. At Odense I recognised the German sleeper on another platform, and we hastily packed our food and bags to run across the station, jumping aboard as soon as we could. It was the right train, and was scheduled to wait around for some time.
This train arrived very early at Cologne (6:30) with plenty of time for breakfast under the station. The 7am ICE train pleasantly cruised through the Ardennes, only lightly sprinkled with snow as we dozed through to Brussels. There we waited in a station café reading dutch newspapers before grabbing baguette sandwiches for lunch on the Eurostar to London. From there the Worcester line was closed for engineering, so it was an afternoon virgin train to Birmingham and from there to Worcester. Everything was pleasantly green and way above freezing – but still felt cold (possibly due to us not wearing all the arctic winter kit).