Apologies in advance for what is about to be a somewhat hyperbolic and unrepresentative reflection of how amazing studying abroad is, but, still riding the high of recent travels, I want to endorse seeing life in a different country as a unique experience to exploit your new geography and travel to places more accessible than from the UK.
Before coming to Sweden, I’d only a very vague understanding of what and where Lapland is, and had never considered it to be somewhere I’d prioritise travelling to. I had visions of lots of snow, extreme cold and perpetual darkness in the winter months, which wasn’t entirely unappealing, but also didn’t do much to sell the idea to me. When my newly-found friends decided to book a trip advertised at the welcome fair, however, the fomo hit, and I too signed myself up for 5 days in the far north on the ‘Lapland Express’ tour.
As a budget tour catering for students, compromises were made to keep prices low, including taking an overnight coach to spare expenditure on accommodation and transport. Laden with a rucksack filled to the brim with every piece of warm clothing to my name, I was collected from town, and we began the long drive north. Amazingly, despite what seemed to be the entirety of the UK being coated in a generous blanket of snow in previous days, Uppsala had been distinctly free from wintry weather, which I soon realised wasn’t a reflection of the situation in the rest of Sweden… Once we were outside of the city, the scenery changed dramatically, with every road, house and tree obscured by thick layers of snow. I won’t lie, the reality of spending 17 hours cooped up on a bus was as unpleasant as it sounds, but the excitement of what lay ahead (and occasional drama on the road – stopping the bus to avoid collision with a baby elk etc.) kept spirits high.
Our first stop was Kiruna, Sweden’s northernmost city, famed for its enormous iron-ore mine, which – fun fact- is causing the entire city to be gradually relocated 3 km east to allow for further extraction. After a quick change into warmer clothes, we were bussed to a local activity centre, where we immersed ourselves in the full tourist experience, driving snowmobiles across the snowy plains and being taken by husky sled back to base. It was a fantastic way to begin the trip, and definitely succeeded in waking us up after such a long journey!
The afternoon was spent touring the city, but we didn’t have the energy for much more. The darkness isn’t totally complete, as you can see from the photos, there’s a degree of light at midday, but we’d arrived right in the middle of the polar night season, meaning that for the entirety of our stay the sun never actually rose above the horizon. Regardless of how often you check the time, your body can’t keep up with such a dramatic change, and I spent most of the afternoon bus journeys napping and then waking up, disorientated, to see that it was pitch black at 3 pm…
On Tuesday, we left our hostel and headed further north, stopping at the Ice Hotel on route for a tour of the production rooms and a nose around the ice suites. I can confirm that the beds are very comfortable, but the visit did nothing to help me understand why people willingly pay £150 to sleep in the extreme cold, despite the attraction of some seriously stunning artwork. Before arriving at our accommodation, we made another stop to visit a Sami community, who continue to practice their traditional livelihood of semi-nomadic reindeer herding (though nowadays with the aid of snowmobiles and helicopters). After feeding the reindeers lichen, we warmed up inside a lavvu, a tent heated by an open fire, and drank a broth made from reindeer antlers. All very touristy, but bucket-list activities for any trip to this corner of the globe.
We were meant to be staying in Abisko National Park for the remaining days, but a twist of fate in the shape of a vomiting virus meant we were relocated to a ski resort in Björkilden, and rather than having hostel rooms, we enjoyed the luxury of wooden cabins with lakeside views, a kitchenette and PRIVATE SAUNA! Smug is probably an understatement to describe the general sentiment, and I have to say that, standing outside our cabin watching the Northern Lights that evening, life felt pretty damn good.
Wednesday happened to fall on the 13th of December, an important day in the Swedish calendar, also my name day, Luciadagen – Saint Lucy/Lucia’s Day. This page gives a nice introduction to the general idea. I was gutted to miss the celebrations in Uppsala, but we got a taste of the festivities when a local school came to perform Swedish carols in the hotel lobby, dressed in traditional attire with the ‘Lucia’ donning white dress and crown of candles. There were also free festive snacks, which I exploited as breakfast: lussekatter (buns flavoured with saffron) and pepparkakor (hard gingerbread biscuits).
Fortune was shining on us again, as the weather was declared good enough for a trip across the Norwegian border to Narvik to be given the go-ahead. We drove across the snowy landscape listening to Christmas songs, stopping at a fjord on route to take photos before being dropped off to explore for a few hours – the longest our guide was willing to risk waiting before returning, for fear that the heavy snowfall would close the road back. She wasn’t being paranoid: a group the previous week had delayed their return by 10 minutes, and found themselves stranded in Narvik for two days thanks to extreme weather, with only the possessions they’d brought for the day with them. I can’t really speak much for the city itself, but, as a true history student, I can wholeheartedly encourage a visit to the war museum. Military history isn’t usually my style, but it turns out that I was amazingly ignorant when it came to Norway’s role in WWII, which is well worth a look into if you’re interested.
Wednesday evening was spent in possibly the most stereotypical Swedish fashion imaginable. Not only were we drinking glögg (Swedish mulled wine, can taste uncannily like Ribena, take care) in a cabin in the snow, we were lounging in our very own sauna, and even slapped on an ABBA mixtape to complete the picture. When the heat of the sauna became too oppressive to cope with, we all dashed outside, straight into a fresh pile of snow. I kept telling myself my muscles would thank me for the rapid changes in temperature, but I can’t say it felt like they were appreciating it the next day.
Thursday was our final day in Lapland, and, having decided not to join the excursions for ice climbing and cross-country skiing, we spent it ticking off all the wintry activities we hadn’t found the time for before. We borrowed sleds, and half walked, half slipped down to the lake, taking in a magnificent frozen waterfall on our way.
The journey back to Uppsala was as painfully long as the first, but broken up with stops – such as a visit to the ‘Arctic Circle’, which, as shown on the above map, we’d crossed days before without the slightest notice or mention. We were warned not to get our hopes up too much, which I’m grateful for, considering that it is quite literally an inflated road sign, obscured by the dark and a generous layer of snow.