Northern Exposure: Much more than just snow and Lego
When the cold recedes, the far north of Sweden is a welcoming wilderness, the ideal place to get away from it all
Saturday 31 July 1999
Arctic Sweden seemed a sensible answer. It was certainly far away; and with a landscape that boasts such lofty landmarks as Europe's most northerly railway (it runs between Kiruna in Sweden and Narvik in Norway) and ski resort (Riksgransen), northern pride is not so much an issue here as a marketing strategy. As for cleanliness, the country's spick reputation is well justified and appears to expand right into the landscape. Not in a bland, sterilised kind of way; it's just that the scenery is amazingly neat.
Flying above the Swedish part of Lapland, in a sky streaked with soft grey cloud and lit up by pale sunbeams, the ground appears to stretch out below in a swirl of dark greens. Every so often this organic pattern is broken by such orderly, opaque pools of water that it looks as though someone has poured out puddles with giant measuring spoons. And, at each meeting place between land and lake, sky and soil, there are no smudgy gradations - just neat, clean seams.
Since almost 20 per cent of Sweden's population lives in the country's capital, Stockholm, about 1,000km to the south, I was confident of finding plenty of space and I hoped that the beer would take care of the friendliness.
Decision made, I found myself in Abisko, close to the Norwegian border in the far north of Sweden, searching for the midnight sun. Abisko is like a village made of Lego with pieces (mostly human) that are tacked on or off depending on the season. Its permanent components are a shop, some houses, a railway station and - huddled rather secretively on the other side of the road - a scientific research centre. A mile or so further on is a "mountain station" (a kind of upmarket youth hostel), operated by the Swedish Touring Club and this is where the (un)stacking process gets really frantic. In early spring, the population undergoes a temporary bulge as telemark skiers come to improve their technique and, when the ice is solid, to swish their way across neighbouring Torne-trask lake.
Next, as summer and constant light arrive and the skiers depart, the hikers appear, by train or by caravan, eager to strike out with borrowed backpacks and flasks of fruit "soup" and conquer the Kungsleden ("King's Trail") that trips south into nowhere for 500km - or at least far enough to work off the porridge, muesli, meat, cheese, sour cream and bread they scoffed at breakfast and get back before the sauna shuts.
Then, except for a few brief busy spells, the tourist station is peaceful again, closing in on itself for the long winter - either that or turning into a huge party zone for bands of debauched scientists, half-crazed by the longs hours of darkness.
When I visited, it was the height of the hiking season, so I found myself climbing into a pair of waterproof trousers (only in Sweden could my hips slither into anything made of rubber and labelled "small"), ordering my flask of fruit soup and hopping onto the bus bound for Riksgransen. This is known to many people as the hip Swedish resort where punky kids with snowboards and off-piste ski fanatics zip down the slopes with gusto, but it has another side too.
In the summer, stripped of its winter snow, the town is a rather less adrenaline-filled location. The stark grey and red cabins, some of which are part of the village's very comfortable hotel, are bleak - but deceptive. The village, whose name translates as "state border", feels a bit like a wild west town should do: wind rattling through by day, sociable Swedes dropping by for a beer in the evening - but with fewer cowboys and more reindeer.
Riksgransen may be an outdoor kind of place but it's here because of a very indoor kind of activity. When iron ore was discovered 75 miles away at Kiruna, the Baltic sea was too unreliable a means of transporting the product, since it regularly froze up in the icy Arctic winters. Thanks to a well-publicised gulf stream off the coast of Norway, cargo ships could pull up to the (relatively) nearby Norwegian port of Narvik all year round and so a railway was built from the mine at Kiruna (worth a visit if you've time) right through to Narvik.
After several years in the making, and a hitch on the part of the Brits involved, the railway was finally finished in 1902. At one time, there were more than 500 people living and working in the area. The old black and white photographs on display at Hotel Riksgransen show a solemn bridal couple (posing for their wedding photograph on the rails of the track), work-wearied families standing outside their flimsy wooden homes and rows of anonymous manly faces.
Life had undoubtedly been hard. I walked along a track that followed the railway through the wilderness, from the Norwegian border just eyond Riksgransen to the tip of a silent fjord at Rombaksbottn, near Narvik. When the sun shone, it picked out blissful summer scenes of harebells and silvery birch forest. But when the sun retreated behind low mist, it was easier to understand why the navvies had risked their jobs for the liquor they could occasionally buy from the entrepreneurs who doggedly followed them.
One of these was a woman who, like a human maypole, apparently kept a circle of bottles dangling secretly beneath her petticoat. Then there was the man who meticulously stuffed similarly illicit bottles into the stomachs of fish. After a surreptitious order from a bridge downstream, the navvies would then hook up their catch, inconspicuously, from the water.
On a guided walk such as this, or the one that I took first by boat across the lake from Riksgransen and then by foot into the squishy flower- and moss-covered terrain of the Lapps, it feels as though you're the only person in the world. It's hard to believe that, in about an hour, you can fly up to Kiruna from Stockholm, or spend a comfortable night letting the country roll by underneath you aboard the "Northern Arrow" sleeper train. Suddenly you are here - half an hour's walk from the road (which was only built 15 years ago) and the railway - completely surrounded by space and, if you're lucky, with the company of a hunky blond guide.
When the sky is clear, apparently, the same guides will take you up on the nearby chairlift to sip chilly champagne and enjoy a rolling arctic panorama from the top of the mountain. I had visions of furry mittens, cosy blankets and clinking flutes sparkling in the soft midnight sunshine, but it wasn't to be. Arctic Sweden was enjoying its worst summer weather for years and, dramatic though it was, the scene was more drizzle at dawn than constant sunshine. I had a sudden urge to be somewhere hot and dirty. Somewhere, possibly, like London in the summer.
A guide for hiking, biking or boating in Lapland costs between Skr1,200- 1500 (pounds 90-120) per day for up to 20 people. Or you can join (almost) daily guided outings from Hotel Riksgransen and Abisko Mountain Station. Hotel Riksgransen is at SE 981 94 Riksgransen, Sweden (00 46 980 400 80). Double rooms with breakfast cost from Skr390 (pounds 30) per person. Facilities include a swimming pool, shop, bar and an excellent restaurant. Abisko Mountain Station is at SE 981 07 Abisko, Sweden (00 46 980 402 00). Double rooms cost from Skr220 (pounds 17) per person plus Skr50 (pounds 4) for non-members. The station includes a National Park Visitors Centre and shop
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