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 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.”
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 (about $2.46). Lunchtime visitors could leave the fee 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 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.
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 U.S. 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.
Over the next two days, we crossed from Rodby, Denmark, to Puttgarden, Germany, on one of the few European trains carried by a ferry; took a fast German InterCity Express to Cologne, where we viewed Roman ruins and drank kolsch; and rode a high-speed Thalys train to Paris, where we visited museums and had two lovely meals. One was lunch at La Bulle, an elegant and yet homey spot on Rue Louis Blanc in the 10th Arrondissement, where we had excellent ratatouille and lieu, a white fish. We even did laundry at a French coin-operated lavarie before taking a TGV, or train à grande vitesse, to Barcelona for two nights. There, we ate tapas, attended Mass in the 12th-century church of St. Anna, wandered through the Barri Gòtic and took a walking tour of the architectural marvels of Antoni Gaudí.
There were times when it paid to be patient. A few hours north of Cologne, the German ICE train air-conditioning failed as the temperature outside hit 97 degrees. Passengers were taken off at Dortmund, Germany, and placed on other trains. Ours pulled into Cologne 70 minutes behind our original schedule — the only time in 14 long-distance and local train segments that we arrived significantly late. (Match that statistic by flying!)
Two days later, in the Gare de Lyon in Paris, the platform for our train to Barcelona was not announced until 12 minutes before departure, leaving hundreds of people scurrying to find their cars. Boarding stress dissipated, however, as the train sped along at 185 mph, and we watched for landmarks — the 13th-century cathedral of Béziers, France, the beaches near Sète — while listening to a member of the train crew do Donald Duck impressions for the children onboard.
We didn’t see everything we would have liked in the cities we visited. After congratulating ourselves for getting to view 10 Picasso paintings on loan to the Prado Museum during a brief stop in Madrid, we realized we had missed the artist’s anti-war masterpiece, “Guernica,” at the nearby Reina Sofía Museum.
Overall, though, we were heartened to find that by choosing hotels close to center-city train stations, we had designed a trip especially suitable for anyone who likes to explore cities by walking, and for older travelers who may find it a challenge to move around. In Copenhagen, for example, the Savoy Hotel was three blocks from the train station and a two-minute walk from Mikkeller, a convivial craft beer bar. In Cologne, we were delighted to find that the relatively inexpensive and ever-reliable Ibis chain had a hotel in the train station.
For the final international leg of the trip, from Madrid to Lisbon, we boarded the Lusitania Trenhotel, operated by the Spanish rail company Renfe. We had reserved an ingeniously designed first-class, two-berth cabin with a sink. The Lusitania’s cafe was open all night, and we passed midnight there, sharing red wine and savoring the cheerful hum of conversations.
Such delights are dwindling. There is no longer a sleeper train between Paris and Madrid. Amsterdam has lost a direct overnight route to Warsaw, Poland. The Paris-to-Rome sleeper John took in July 2013 was discontinued the following winter.
One reason is that high-speed trains have eliminated the need for overnight travel on routes such as Paris to Zurich. And yet Mark Smith — whose website, the Man in Seat Sixty-One, is an indispensable guide to train travel — points out that there remain routes with no good daytime high-speed service, including Nice to Rome (more than eight hours) and Paris to Madrid (about nine hours).
Smart marketing, Smith said, could bolster demand for sleepers as an alternative to low-cost airlines. Instead of spending four hours to take a one-hour flight, he said, travelers could leave in the evening and wake up refreshed at their destination, having saved the price of a hotel room.
“Why should you have to go to an airport as if you were flying to the States just to go a few hundred miles down the road? I think the market is there.”
Well-rested after our overnight trip from Madrid, we took a three-hour walking tour of Lisbon’s older neighborhoods. We then heeded our guide’s advice to seek lunch in a nondescript place that seemed oblivious to tourists, and we found it in the Reviravolta, where we sat at a decidedly unglamorous Formica table and devoured plates of expertly grilled sea bass and sardines.
But Lisbon was not quite our final stop, as it lies on the Tagus River.
To complete the journey, we rode a suburban train 45 minutes west to the beach town of Cascais, where a cabdriver cheerfully agreed to take us 4 1/2 miles to Praia do Guincho, a rocky beach on the Atlantic Ocean. Gusts of 40 knots or more blew sand into our eyes as we made our way gingerly to the water. A windsurfer told us he was giving up for the day because the wind was too strong.
We touched our toes to the sea and then headed back to the waiting taxi. We had one more train trip to make, back to Lisbon. We looked out the windows on that final journey, satisfied that we had solved the conundrum of European travelers with limited vacation time: Is it better to cover a lot of ground or focus on relaxing? Over nine days, watching from comfortable second-class seats as the countryside changed from birch forests to olive groves, we had done both.