6 European Countries, 9 Days, 0 Planes


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The train station in Copenhagen.

Credit
Susan Keith

We traveled more than 3,000 miles from the Arctic Circle to the Atlantic Ocean in nine days, visiting six countries. We saw nine museums, sang on a live television show, went on three walking tours and lingered over glasses of red wine while hurtling past grassy hills in the moonlight.

And once we started our trip, we never stood in an airport security line. We did it all using Europe’s exemplary train system.

The excursion was inspired by a 2011 rail adventure. After traveling to Istanbul for work, Susan, a university professor, celebrated a professional milestone by taking trains west to Paris. We initially thought of redoing that trip from the opposite direction but decided a less familiar route might be more fun. If not Europe from west to east, how about Europe from north to south?

Consulting rail maps, we decided to start about 90 miles above the Arctic Circle, in Kiruna, the northernmost town in Sweden with regular passenger service. Where to conclude? We considered various southern European destinations but settled on Lisbon.

The pleasure, we decided, would be in the process. We would think of trains not as mere modes of transit but as relaxing destinations in themselves. During our stops — in Stockholm, Copenhagen, Cologne, Paris, Barcelona and Madrid — we would resist the urge to hit every tourist destination. But in each city we would take in culture and eat or drink something typical.

We landed at Kiruna’s tiny airport on a Sunday afternoon. Beginning our travels then made perfect sense — until we learned that we had missed, by a day, Kirunafestivalen, a three-day event that attracted pop acts known throughout Europe. Ah, there was a reason that a city of 23,000 felt as if nearly everyone had just left. It was true.

Once settled into our hotel, we put on jackets — the end-of-June high was 53 degrees — and walked to the russet-red Kiruna Church, completed in 1912 in a park of birch trees south of the city center. The late-afternoon sun, which never quite set, brilliantly lit the interior of the church, designed by the architect Gustaf Wickman to evoke a goahti, the wooden-arched hut used by the Sami people of northern Sweden, Norway and Finland into the 1800s.

Someday, however, the church will go to pieces.

It stands between the center of Kiruna and the reason for the city’s existence: the world’s largest iron-ore mine, which is slowly encroaching on the ground beneath the town. In 2004, the mine’s owner, Luossavaara-Kiirunavaara AB, notified the city that mining would eventually render part of the town unstable. There was a choice: close the mine or move the center.

“The town can’t exist without the mine,” said Niklas Siren, the 42-year-old deputy mayor. “We would lose half the population within just a few years if the mine closed down.”

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Along a canal in Copenhagen.

Credit
Susan Keith

So the church will be disassembled and moved, beam by beam, as part of a gradual shift of the city center estimated to displace about 3,000 homes.

Susan saw part of the mine the next day, on a hard-hat tour of a section preserved as a museum that would satisfy almost any traveler’s quest for information about the “sublevel caving” method of ore extraction. Meanwhile, John headed to the basement Sami Museum, a collection of cultural artifacts from as long ago as the 17th century. The mine tour, at 345 krona (about $42), was not for the faint of wallet — or the claustrophobic — but the museum visit was a bargain: 20 kronor, which lunchtime visitors could leave in a wooden honor box.

By midafternoon, we were at the Kiruna station, waiting for the train to Stockholm, eager to meet the strangers we would sleep with that night.

We had hoped to book a private, two-bunk compartment for the 16-hour trip, but by the time we made our travel arrangements, those accommodations were sold out. So we had selected two bunks in a couchette.

The compartment had six seats, which converted to padded bunks. We and our travel companions — an Austrian couple who appeared to be in their 60s and two Swedish college students who had been camping at the music festival — each received two clean sheets, a blanket, a pillow and drinking water.

For the next eight hours, we enjoyed the passing landscape, chatted, read and made trips to the cafe car, which served drinks, snacks and simple meals. The Austrians, the first to turn in, converted the seats. So by the time we finished a last glass of wine as the cafe car closed at 11 p.m. — with the sun still well above the horizon — all we had to do was climb into our top bunks.

No one snored too loudly, and we wished our travel companions good journeys as we parted in Stockholm at breakfast time. Our hotel room was ready immediately, so we were able to get a shower before heading to Djurgarden Island to lunch on smorgas, open-faced salmon and shrimp-salad sandwiches, and tour the Vasa Museum. There we spent hours marveling at a wooden ship retrieved from Stockholm’s harbor in 1961, more than 300 years after it sank on its first voyage.

When John headed to the ABBA Museum — dedicated to the 1970s pop music of Agnetha Faltskog, Bjorn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad — Susan chose a walk around the island and found herself at the entrance to Skansen, a park sheltering historic buildings from throughout Sweden.

The ticket-seller said that admission included “a concert,” which turned out to be “Allsang pa Skansen,” an hourlong variety show that takes place every summer Tuesday and has been broadcast live since 1979. John caught up to watch some of the musicians we had missed in Kiruna, including Tomas Ledin, a singer-songwriter whose career is well into its fifth decade. We heard girls and their moms scream for the 29-year-old singer Mans Zelmerlow as he performed “Heroes,” the number with which he had just won the annual Eurovision Song Contest. We bought the “Allsang” songbook and sang along enthusiastically and phonetically to a tune called “Trettifyran,” which we learned was a Swedish version of “This Ole House,” recorded by Rosemary Clooney in the 1950s.

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Journey’s end at Praia do Guincho, near Cascais, Portugal.

Credit
Susan Keith

The next morning, we continued south to Malmo and Copenhagen over the stunning 10-mile Oresund Bridge — inspiration for the hit Swedish-Danish TV police drama “The Bridge,” which has spawned British/French and American remakes. In Copenhagen, we took a guided walking tour of the Christianshavn neighborhood that ended at an alternative community, Christiania, and learned that climbing 250 steps to the base of the spire of Our Savior’s Church would, for the next week, exact a toll on our hamstrings.

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