I have twice travelled extensively by train in Scandinavia, taking in all four beautiful countries that make up the magical lands.
Whilst Denmark, Sweden & Finland are deserving of high accolades, it is Norway that really took my breath away, so much so that I still have a train trip there on my bucket list despite having made the very same journey twice before, albeit the last time in 1992.
Both Nordic adventures were part of an inter-rail experience with the same entry route through continental Europe and into Denmark via the Puttgarten to Rødby ferry, where the train miraculously boarded the ship that was to transport us across the sea to the main Danish island of Zealand, where Copenhagen is situated.
After a day and night in Denmark’s capital, the train took us north to Helsingor (made famous by Shakespeare’s Hamlet) and from there a short ferry hop to Helsinborg in Southern Sweden.
The 1989 trip took us onto Norway via a fleeting visit to Stockholm for England’s Italia ’90 World Cup qualifier against the Swedish national team (a drab nil-nil draw made famous by England’s Terry Butcher playing in a shirt covered with his own blood following a clash of heads). In ’92 we stayed a little longer in the Swedish capital, sleeping on the af Chapman youth hostel, a three masted ship moored on one of the waterways surrounding Gamla Stan (the largest of the islands that make up the large archipelago that is Stockholm).
For both trips, our first experience of Norway was Oslo, on each occasion taking the overnight train from Stockholm (first time was without a reservation or sleeping berth and found us incredibly lucky to nab the only two unreserved seats, lest we would have stood for the entire journey)!
So what did we make of Norway?
Starting in 1989, once we (I travelled with a school chum named Poll) had got over the shock at just how mind blowingly expensive the country was, we set about enjoying a few hours in Norway’s capital, which stood aloft a huge fjord with the North Sea lapping right up to the city streets.
We had arrived on a drizzly September day and the inky dark blue waters and foaming surf made for a brooding spectacle.
Despite the rain, we wandered the streets until it was time for our next train northwards. I remember little else of the city apart from the brightly coloured wooden buildings and a gothic style wooden church. My only other fleeting memories are of devouring a coffee and cake costing a day’s wages and being amazed at how clean Oslo station was.
Our next destination was the university city of Trondheim, eight hours north by overnight train (we had to save hotel fees somehow!), another settlement situated at the mouth of a stormy fjord.
We arrived very early in the morning and with our next train not due to leave until nearly midnight, had plenty of hours to kill. We found Trondheim a little boring and with the weather once more against us, wondered how we should kill the time.
A leaf through the Thomas Cook timetable (our bible!) revealed that there was a town called Hell, around half an hour away by train. You guessed it, we went to Hell and back, just for the hell of it!
With little to occupy us in Hell, we returned to Trondheim still with a few hours to kill. As the weather was still bad we eventually decided to take the plunge and buy a half-litre of lager each at a bar fronting the waves.
We nursed the ludicrously expensive drink for a couple of hours before boarding the overnight train, destination across the mythical Arctic Circle.
This was to be the start of a truly memorable Norway experience.
We slept fitfully in our upright seats. A sleeping berth would have eaten a weeks worth of spending money – out of the question in those low wage days.
Jerked awake for the fifth or sixth time, we saw that the darkness had lifted and the murky early hours were breaking through.
We rubbed our eyes and made out the majesty of our surroundings as we cut a swathe through the rocky mountain terrain.
The powerful engine pulled us up the mountainside as we traversed tunnels cut into the rockface. Stunning feats of engineering performed in treacherous surroundings. As we progressed, the rain came down in torrents, slapping against our picture windows like we were in a huge carwash.
Impromptu waterfalls borne of the heavy precipitation crashed over our carriage and down the other side, aspen & conifers bent in the wind and the black glacial rock glistened in the wet.
The scene from our cosy warm pew was jaw droppingly beautiful. The moody conditions a perfect accompaniment to the wild landscape.
We celebrated by sharing a coffee from the buffet car and cracking open the Rich Tea biscuits we had purchased in Trondheim.
As the sun rose ingloriously, the view got brighter and the rain eased. We were surrounded by evergreens & jagged rock and were still climbing up towards the snowy peaks.
We did not want the train journey to stop but sadly of course it did. We had arrived at Fauske, the end of the line for us. We could have continued on to Bodø on the Norwegian Sea, but we were headed for Narvik, deep inside the Circle.
It was noticeably colder here, despite the fact that it had hardly been less than bracing down ‘South’. It was a bus for us to take us onto Narvik, a road journey that still ranks as my best ever.
We clambered aboard the busy coach having deposited our rucksacks in the hold and made for the only free seats at the back. Lucky once more, as usual we had not made a costly reservation.
With a cassette of Peer Gynt primed on my Walkman (remember them?) I sat back to enjoy the ride. What a ride!
The landscape was simply sublimely beautiful. Gigantic mountains, verdant pine forests, raging rivers, crashing waterfalls, wooden cabins with smoke emanating from their chimneys. As I listened to Grieg’s enthralling music, it was not difficult to imagine trolls, sprites, goblins and fairy queens. Just magic.
At one point we boarded a ferry and braved the freezing conditions on deck to see transparent jellyfish billowing in the icy white waters.
Narvik was another mystical place to us, ever since we had learned about the place during our geography O-level course. The town had thrived due to it’s North Sea port remaining ice-free thanks to the Jet Stream that naturally warms its waters. This made it a vital port so far North for exporting timber, fish and iron ore.
Neighbouring Sweden was not so lucky as their coast was on the Baltic Sea that froze in Winter. This saw the building of what was then the world’s most Northerly railway, the 43 KM Ofoten Line, which was completed in 1902.
This allowed Sweden to continue exporting iron ore and other minerals mined in the region.
The Ofoten Line ran to the Swedish border where the line continued as the Ore Line to Kiruna, Gallivare and Lulea.
After a couple of days staying in the beautiful (but even more expensive) town, the line was to be our route out of Norway and down through Sweden and eventually on to roasting Nice on the French Riviera – some contrast indeed!
We had stayed in Narvik’s wooden youth hostel, which handily had a kitchen so we could cook fishfingers and baked beans bought from the supermarket. I seem to remember that back in 1989 six fishfingers and a can of baked beans was around £6 – never have I chewed and savoured so purposefully!
The train journey to the Swedish border pretty much followed a fabulous fjord, whose bright blue waters sparkled in the Autumn sunshine that shone over the mountainous terrain. I was truly in love with a country! To be continued……..