Travel from the heart of Sweden up to the Arctic Circle, with stops for bears, berries and wild swimming. Ben Love takes the trip.
It’s a hot day and our train, which is clattering along a bumpy line beside the lakes and rivers of Sweden, suddenly judders to a halt. Is there a points failure, a problem on the track or an overheated engine? No, it seems it’s the train driver who needs to cool off — he strips to his swimming costume and invites us to join him for a dip in the lake’s pellucid waters.
It’s not what you’d expect on a normal train trip, but then the Inlandsbanan, or Inland Line, which runs once a day from the forests of Dalarna in central Sweden to the arctic tundra, is far from ordinary. The slow train is so chilled as it trundles along that it stops for moose and bear watching, and makes regular calls at restaurants for passenger refuelling. Even the station in the town of Mora, where we board, is little more than a platform by the lakeside, with children jumping into the water.
Snaking through the interior of Sweden, the 800-mile railway line was finished in 1937 and was mainly used to transport timber and iron ore to the south. Yet with the growth in road transport it became redundant and in 1992 the line was mothballed. However, local communities along the route have worked together to run the company as a passenger service from mid June to the end of August.
There are two sections: one north of Östersund, the other south. You could do both in two days though that would defeat the point of this wonderful line, where you can hop on and off at various stops. If you buy an Inlandsbanan card, you have unlimited train travel for 14 days. Some of the stops are simply a sign and some steps in the middle of a forest, where passengers alight for hiking or fishing adventures. I get off at Bäckedal, a small stop on the outskirts of Sveg, because I’ve spotted a great place to camp and fish by the Ljusnan River. Sweden has a tradition called “every man’s right” that allows people to roam and camp pretty much anywhere; so that’s what I did.
On the second leg, north from Östersund, there is a definite change in the landscape, with occasional glimpses of snow-capped mountains to the west. This is reindeer country and I must have seen hundreds from my window. The conductor is a jovial woman who sings local folk songs to us while pointing out the many interesting things that we pass; the driver entertains the children by helping them to spot wolves.
Every time the train host announces another food stop I get excited. Although there are no refreshments on board, the train stops frequently for food at restaurants or from a stall on the platform. This line could easily be marketed as a local food tour and as we head farther north the cuisine evolves from the delicious home-baked cinnamon buns of the south to flatbreads, foraged berries, smoked fish and traditional reindeer dishes of the north.
Arriving in Jokkmokk, at the centre of Laponia — traditionally a meeting and trading place for the Sami (Laplanders) — I spend the morning in the museum learning about the people whose land extends across four countries and is now a world heritage site.
When the train stops at a little signpost saying that we have reached the Arctic Circle, we are absolutely in the middle of nowhere. Yet it seems perfectly normal to be climbing down from the train to stretch my legs on the track and to pick some berries. This slow train is a brilliant way to see a secret side of Sweden — a quirky and sociable way to reach this beautiful country’s wild heart.
Need to know
The Inlandsbanan runs from Kristinehamn to Gallivare. A 14-day travel card costs 1,995 krona (£169) and is valid from June 20 to August 28. Children aged 15 and under travel free when accompanied by an adult.
In the north you can transfer to a sleeper train on the main east coast line back to Stockholm. You can also fly from Kiruna to Stockholm.
British Airways has return flights to Stockholm Arlanda from about £60. The direct train from Arlanda to Mora costs from 265 SEK one way and takes three and a half hours
Great trains in Scandinavia
Around Norway from Oslo to Bodo via Trondheim
Try to spot the northern lights on an 11-day trip organised by Ffestiniog Travel. The break begins in Oslo, with a train ride that sets off through the Gudbrand Valley before moving on to Trondheim. The next day another train journey takes you across the Arctic Circle to the port of Bodø, from where there is a ferry to the Lofoten Islands. A final train journey is included: from the port of Narvik to Kiruna. The price is from £2,250pp, including hotels and flights. Ffestiniog is also planning a Southern Sweden: Steam, Trams and Trains trip next year for rail enthusiasts; details are yet to be fixed.
From Copenhagen to Stockholm
The highlight of a four-night holiday offered by Railbookers is a journey by train from Denmark’s capital to Sweden’s capital, crossing Europe’s longest combined road and railway bridge into Sweden at Malmö. The four-night trip is from £679pp, with hotels, flights and trains.
Denmark, Sweden and Norway
Start in Copenhagen and travel by train to Gothenburg, then Oslo and finally Stockholm on a tremendous eight-day break created by Railbookers. The trip costs from £979pp, including stylish hotels, train tickets and flights.
Norwegian rail passes
Voyages SNCF offers month-long rail passes allowing three separate days of travel in Norway from £139.
Ben Love is the author of Wild Guide Scandinavia, charting the best wild adventures in Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Denmark. He also writes for the Times.