Paul Kilfoil's World of Travel, Technology & Sport

England, Sweden & Finland : May 1992
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This page describes a trip by Paul Kilfoil to Europe in 1992.
Check out my travelogues page for details of other trips I've done.

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[Saturday 9 May 1992 : Cape Town, South Africa] Flew British Airways from Cape Town to London Heathrow, non-stop.

[Sunday 10 May : London, England] Took the Underground ("tube") from Heathrow Airport to Tower Hill and checked into the apartment that had been arranged for me. A nice place, although the area (part of the financial district) is completely dead after 6 PM during the week and all weekend. Strolled round to Petticoat Lane and browsed round the multitude of stalls there.

[Monday 11 May : London, England] Spent the week working, mostly until very late.

[Friday 15 May : London, England] I was booked on one of the first flights out of Heathrow Airport on Saturday morning - a 7 AM departure meant I had to check in at about 6 AM. There was no guarantee that taking the Tube from the city at that hour of the morning would get me to the airport in time (it's about a 90 minute ride on the Underground to Heathrow from the city, and unlike the New York Subway, London's Underground does not operate 24 hours a day). So I went to the airport late on Friday night and found a place in a corner to sleep. I was amazed at how many other travellers were doing the same thing, although when the cleaning staff came in with their vacuum cleaners at about 2 AM there wasn't much chance for any more sleep.

[Saturday 16 May : Stockholm, Sweden] After an uncomfortable night on the floor of Heathrow Airport I boarded the early-morning Scandinavian Airline Systems (SAS) flight to Stockholm in Sweden. The plane was three-quarters empty, presumably because it was so early, which meant it was a very comfortable, relaxed trip. SAS served a great breakfast.

At Arlanda airport outside Stockholm I took the bus into the city centre and then walked a short way to the Skeppsholmen youth hostel on Skeppsholmen island. Moored at the island was the Af Chapman, an old sailing ship that is now also a youth hostel (a permanent floating one). Stockholm is an incredibly beautiful city - it comprises 14 islands and over 50 bridges, with fast-flowing water everywhere, lots of parks and open spaces, clean Scandinavian architecture and fresh air. Unfortunately the people aren't at all friendly ... I haven't yet figured out what it takes to make a Swede smile.

Stockholm, Sweden

[Sunday 17 May : Stockholm, Sweden] I strolled around Gamla Stan, the medieval centre of Stockholm and now packed with restaurants, bars and clubs. Gamla Stan has incredibly narrow, winding streets and still contains the winter home of the Swedish Royal family. Storkyrkan, Stockholm's 700-year old cathedral is nearby. Later I visited Skansen (an open-air museum on the island of Djurgarden) and admired the graceful lines of Stadshuset, the imposing City Hall building. Down at the waterfront is one of the few ugly buildings in Stockholm - the Opera House, just off Gustav Adolfs Torg (which is a city square reduced to nothing much more than a traffic island by the sheer volume of cars on the road). Unfortunately everything here is incredibly expensive.

[Monday 18 May : Östersund, Sweden] I humped my gear to the train station and caught a mainline train north-west from Stockholm to Mora, where I changed trains to the scenic inland railway to Östersund. There are two rail routes north from Stockholm - the main, heavily travelled line along the east coast (which is not at all scenic, as it mostly passes through cities, industrial land and is not directly next the sea) and the alternative inland route through rural areas of forests, lakes and remote villages. I took the inland, scenic route (called the Inlandsbanan), which is non-electrified, consists of a single track and is quite slow. The train was a "railway bus" - a single diesel-powered coach. We chugged north through endless forests and lakes, stopping at tiny villages along the way. It was the most relaxed train trip I've ever done, and also one of the slowest ; the driver would stop somewhere and tell the passengers he'd be back in half an hour, and we'd stroll around the village until it was time to go again. With such slow progress we only got to Östersund at about 10 PM, but this far north it was still light at that time. The train continued north the next day but all passengers had to spend the night in Östersund.

Rail Gauges in Europe
Finland Railways uses broad gauge tracks (1524 mm), similar to those used in Russia and all former Soviet republics. That is the main reason why there is no direct rail connection between Finland and anywhere else apart from Russia - all of the rest of Europe (except for Spain, Portugal and Ireland) uses standard gauge rail tracks (1435 mm).

Broad gauge railways are suited to countries such as Finland and Russia which are flat; mountainous terrain generally dictates the use of tracks which are closer together, such as "Cape gauge" (1067 mm, used in most of Southern Africa and various other countries) or "Metre gauge" (1000 mm, used in most of South-East Asia).

Oddly enough, the rail gauge used in Russia is 1520 mm, slightly less than that of Finland. But the difference (4 mm) is less than the tolerance allowed so trains are able to run on both sets of tracks without modification. Similar minor differences exist between the gauges used in Spain and Portugal.

[Tuesday 19 May : Gällivare, Sweden] Bright and early the next day I strolled back to Östersund's tiny train station and continued north on the Inlandsbanan train through more seemingly endless forests. You don't realize just how big Sweden is when you look at a map of Europe, but it is a LONG way to the Arctic Circle - the distance from Stockholm in the south to Gällivare in the north is nearly 2000 kilometres. Eventually the forests gave way to more hardy arctic tundra and near the town of Jokkmokk we crossed the Arctic Circle, which is marked by a line of white stones. I saw reindeer walking next to the tracks a few times.

Some way north of the Arctic Circle the Inlandsbanan rail line terminated at the town of Gällivare ; Gällivare is a junction with the railway that traverses Sweden from east to west and goes all the way to Narvik on the Norwegian coast via the mining town of Kiruna. Even though it was mid-May and broad daylight at 10 PM there was still a lot of snow around. From the train station I walked through town to the youth hostel, and crossing a bridge over the Vassara River I saw huge chunks of floating ice ; the river obviously freezes over in winter and was now in the process of thawing. Gällivare is a fair distance north of the Arctic Circle so it was tough getting to sleep that evening - it didn't get dark at all and there was bright sunlight blasting through the thin curtain at my window most of the night.

[Wednesday 20 May : Helsinki, Finland] In the morning I trudged back to Gällivare station through the snow and took a local train south-east to Boden, a busy junction with the main north-south coastal railway through Sweden and the branch line north-east to Haparanda and Finland. At Boden I caught the first train to Haparanda, a fairly scenic ride through wild country. The train was nearly empty, just me and three gormless Australian backpackers who were clueless as to where they were or where they were going (I guess that's not entirely true - one of the three, a girl, seemed to make all the decisions while the other two just followed in a semi-permanent state of foggy confusion).

Haparanda railway station, Sweden.
The station is actually the border between Sweden and Finland

Haparanda is about as far north-east as you can possibly go in Sweden. It is a nondescript town on the Gulf of Bothnia, dramatically sited next to the River Torne ; the river forms the border between Sweden and Finland and is crossed by an impressive arched rail bridge. We chugged slowly into Haparanda's grand old train station, a monument to misplaced optimism - the station was built when Haparanda had pretensions of becoming a major trading centre in the north, but this did not happen and the throngs of people and freight that were expected to use the station never materialized.

Shortly after I travelled this route the Boden-Haparanda train service was withdrawn completely. A summer-only service was introduced in 2000 but it also proved unsuccessful and was discontinued. Freight is still carried by train on the 165-kilometre line but all passengers now have to travel by bus.

Stepping onto the Haparanda station platform I was met by a sleepy-looking border guard who glanced at my passport cursorily and waved me through - the Sweden-Finland border post was actually on the train station itself, and if you walk off one end and over the bridge you're in Sweden while the other end is Finland. I stepped off the platform into Finland (the town of Tornio) and consulted a bus timetable pinned to the wall of the bus station. I needed to get a train south to Helsinki but at that time in 1992 there were no trains on from Tornio - I first had to take a bus to Kemi, the nearest Finnish train station. I thought it was about an hour and 15 minutes to the next bus (in fact, the ONLY bus that day), but forgot about the fact that Finland is in a different time zone, one hour ahead of Sweden. So I found some grass nearby, lay down and relaxed ; next minute a bus turned up and I realized my mistake - it wasn't an hour and 15 minutes, but just 15 minutes! I frantically packed my kit and sprinted after the departing bus, shouting like crazy. Thankfully the driver saw me in his rear view mirror and stopped, otherwise I would have been stuck in Tornio until (probably) the next day. The three gormless Australians were also on the bus and thought this was very funny, so maybe they weren't so gormless after all - at least they got the time zone change right. I set my watch an hour forward during the short bus ride from Tornio to Kemi, glad not to have been stranded in such a remote outpost.

Waiting for a train in Finland

At Kemi I caught a train all the way south to Helsinki, which was more endless miles of forests and lakes. There are apparently over 188 thousand lakes in Finland ... and I think I saw most of them. However, the Finnish train was extremely comfortable and I enjoyed the ride south to warmer climes. We got into Helsinki quite late, after 9 PM.

[Thursday 21 May : Helsinki, Finland] I explored the Finnish capital, another fine example of elegant Scandinavian architecture and planning. Mannerheimintie is the main boulevard into Helsinki, going past the grand old train station, the national museum, Finlandia Hall, the new opera house, the parliament buildings and the famous Stockmann department store. Down at the waterfront I browsed amongst the stalls of the open-air fish market, strolled along the tree-lined Esplanadi and admired the grandeur and open space of Senate Square, with its graceful buildings. Nearby are an imposing Lutheran cathedral (Tuomiokirkko) and a somewhat less impressive Russian Orthodox cathedral (Uspenski). After walking round for a while I took a ride on tram number 3T, which does a circular route round Helsinki's city centre, going past virtually all the major attractions - a good way to rest up while at the same time taking in the sights.

Helsinki, Finland
View of the city
Helsinki Cathedral
Central Railway Station

That night I stayed in the youth hostel in the Olympic Stadium ; the stadium was used for the 1952 Games but these days it's a bit run-down and decrepit. Outside is a totally nude statue of Paavo Nurmi, the legendary Finnish long-distance athlete. Nurmi competed in various events at three Olympic Games (1920, 1924 and 1928) and won a total of 12 Olympic medals (9 Gold and 3 Silver), a record that stood until 1960 ; to this day it is still the record for a track and field athlete. He would have competed in the marathon at the 1932 Olympic Games but was prevented from doing so by the International Olympic Committee because of an alleged infraction of the harsh and draconian amateur rules in force at the time.

[Friday 22 May : Turku, Finland] After travelling thousands of kilometres on trains from Stockholm north to the Arctic Circle, round the Gulf of Bothnia into Finland then south through the endless lakes and forests of Finland to Helsinki I'd had enough of trains. So I walked a short distance to the nearest on-ramp to the main highway west to Turku, put my backpack down next to the road and started hitch-hiking. The Finns are so friendly that I literally only waited a couple of minutes before I got my first lift, and in no time at all I was dropped in Turku town centre - three lifts and about 15 minutes of time in total spent waiting. Amazing! In Turku I checked into the youth hostel (conveniently located not far from the ferry port, right on the banks of the River Aura) then spent the rest of the day exploring this riverside town. There are many restaurants, cafes and bars next to the river, on boats as well as ashore, but the prices of meals at most of these had to be seen to be believed. However, I managed to find a relatively inexpensive place (Cafe Joutson) and had an excellent supper that night of fish and chips.

[Saturday 23 May : Turku, Finland] Turku was at one time the capital of Finland, but these days it's quiet and unremarkable. The River Aura runs through the centre of the city, with pleasant tree-lined walks on both sides. I spent quite a while exploring the Luostarinmaki Handicrafts Museum, an open-air museum of period-style wooden houses (circa 1775) depicting the methods used in traditional Finnish arts and crafts. Nearby is the 13'th century Tuomiokirkko (cathedral) and the Sibelius Museum, dedicated to the memory of Finland's most famous composer.

Turku Cathedral, Finland

In the early evening I boarded the Viking Line ferry to Stockholm, an overnight trip of about 12 hours. The ship was huge, full of Finns who partied all night. The entire ship seemed to be devoted to bars, discotheques, restaurants, movies and nightclubs, and all because liquor is taxed so heavily in Finland that taking an international ferry means you can drink tax-free. Most people on the ferry walked on (there were very few vehicles), stayed awake all night drinking and partying then when the ship reached Sweden they got off and climbed straight back on the next ship back to Finland! Incredible.

[Sunday 24 May : London, England] The ferry sailed through the night on a perfectly calm sea, dodging the multitude of small islands between Finland and Sweden in the Baltic Sea. These are the Aland Islands, which are officially part of Finland - there are over 6000 of them, although only about 80 are inhabited. It was a beautiful evening, with clear skies and no wind. I stood on deck for ages watching the islands slip by as the ship steamed past.

We docked at Stockholm quite early in the morning ; from the ferry terminal I walked to the train station, caught a bus to the airport and flew to England on SAS (Scandinavian Airline Systems). Back in London I went to visit my cousins in Putney (I'd left some stuff at their house) before going back to Heathrow Airport for my late-night flight to South Africa.

[Monday 25 May 1992 : Cape Town, South Africa] Arrived back in South Africa knackered after an exhausting trip - I made the mistake of trying to see too much and travelled too far. I'll try not to repeat this error when I visit the USA and Canada in 1995.

© Paul Kilfoil, 2024