hidden europe 15

Night train to Narvik

by Nicky Gardner


It is all a matter of watching the birch trees get smaller and the snow get deeper. Twenty hours on the train from Stockholm to northern Norway affords some moments of quiet reflection.

Outside the window there are just rocks and forest. Pines and birch trees with a tumble of lichen covered granite boulders that poke up through the last remnants of winter snow. Every now and again, glimpses of lakes in the evening sunshine. Dusk comes, but seems to linger forever.

Overnight, little changes. More rocks and forests. But the trees have thinned out, the birches have shrunk and the snow has become much deeper. The lakes have frozen. Dawn comes before anyone awakes. Those who stir in the small hours stare out into the dim of the northern night and might glimpse moose, deer or a fox.

Train journeys are like psalms. Some are short and sweet. But still very impressive. Take the hop over the Øresund Bridge from Copenhagen Airport to Malmö. A dead ringer for psalm 117. Stunning, but over and done with almost before you have really got started. About twenty words in the psalm and about twenty minutes for the train journey.

Psalm 119 is another kettle of fish. A fabulously long psalm, one that seduces the faithful into an intense calm, and somehow contrives - after 176 verses, making it by far the longest psalm in the entire psalter - to deliver them in a state of contemplative calm into another world. It finds an obvious parallel in the regular night trains that link Stockholm with Swedish Lappland and northern Norway.

Late every afternoon a rake of carriages gets shunted backwards into Stockholm's main station. Shades of blue and black on some carriages, 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 Norrlandståget - as the five o'clock departure from Stockholm to Narvik is called. 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 Lappland is one of Europe's most engaging train journeys. Like psalm 119, perhaps not for the faint-hearted, but few other night trains offer that same beguiling combination of comfort and a heady sense of adventure.

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