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Friday, October 7, 2022

Rail route of the month: a midsummer odyssey across Norway’s Arctic Circle | Norway holidays

It is rare that I willingly forgo the comfort of a proper bed on an overnight train journey. But a midsummer foray across the Arctic Circle in Norway is one of those rare occasions where an overnight vigil in a regular seat really matches the mood of the moment.

Some trains are perfect for meditation, and the overnight run from Trondheim to Bodø certainly allows hours of gentle rumination or purposeful reflection. There’s no high drama here. The muted beauty of the Nordlandsbanen (Nordland Railway) doesn’t demand neck-craning concentration. Just sit back and watch the passing rocks and skerries, observe the trees getting smaller as you head north and let communities like Majavatn, Mosjøen and Mo i Rana slip away in the night.

If you’re lucky enough to be on a fairly empty train, you can expect a night of monastic calm. There is the merest hint of dusk. Believe me. It is a fine way of marking the solstice. Take along mood music and a good book for the slow cruise north on the 10-hour ride to Bodø.

Sunset and dawn

Soft light and low mountains en route to Bodø.
Soft light and low mountains en route to Bodø. Photograph: vvvita/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Trondheim isn’t an easy place to leave. With its atmospheric central area defined by a loop in the River Nid and dominated by one of Scandinavia’s most remarkable cathedrals, it cannot be rushed. But the sun is slowly dipping and the night train to Bodø is ready to depart. It leaves each evening at 23.05.

This is a journey I have made both by day and by night. And it really is worth staying awake to savour the quiet drama of shifting shadows during a night which subtly dims but never darkens. On midsummer’s day, the sun sets over Trondheim Fjord at 23.30, when the night train is passing through the inauspiciously named and inevitably much photographed railway station at Hell. Darkness never comes.

Less than three hours later, as we glide further north through a soft landscape of fjords and gentle hills, the upper limb of the sun peeks above the horizon for an early sunrise. The appeal of this midsummer journey is witnessing this solar cycle in a shifting landscape where every dell and ripple in the rocky terrain is flattered by low sun angles. There are no great mountain peaks, and even the summit of the Nordland Railway is at a modest elevation of 680 metres above sea level.

A train passes through sub-Arctic ‘taiga’ scenery.
A train passes through sub-Arctic ‘taiga’ scenery north of Trondheim. Photograph: rafax/Getty Images

The journey is entirely on Norwegian territory, but since summer 2020 this service north from Trondheim has been run by an offshoot of Swedish State Railways called SJ Nord. There’s a choice of both daytime and overnight services. The night train has standard class seating and sleeping cars. The day train offers standard class and premium class, the latter with generous space and an unlimited supply of coffee and mineral water. Both trains have a simple bistro car, offering the inevitable meatballs with mash and other light meals. There’s decent beer from a boutique microbrewery in Bodø and half-bottles of French wine at eye-wateringly high prices.

Beijing or bust

The line nears Saltfjell and the Arctic Circle.
The line nears Saltfjell and the Arctic Circle. Photograph: Franz Aberham/Getty Images

The first train left Trondheim’s Central Station on the line that now leads to Bodø in the summer of 1882. The Norwegian folklorist and engineer Ole Tobias Olsen intended that the railway from Trondheim would run up the coast to Mo i Rana and then track east through northern Sweden and Finland to Russia and China. That first train 140 years ago only ran as far as Hell, barely 20 miles out of Trondheim. It took another 60 years to extend the line to Mo i Rana (reached in 1942, 18 years after Olsen’s death), by which time all thoughts of a route to Beijing had long evaporated. At the railway station in Mo, a fine bust of Ole Tobias Olsen acknowledges his status as the father of the Nordland Railway, a line acclaimed as one of Norway’s finest domestic rail journeys.

Over time, this railway up the Norwegian coast has been extended north. Through trains from Trondheim to Bodø – 455 miles in all – were introduced in 1962, and now there’s a plan to extend the Nordland Railway to Narvik and Tromsø. The Norwegian Railway Directorate is expected to report on the plan in summer 2023.Most passengers on the overnight train opt for the comfort of a sleeping berth in the train’s two rear carriages. When I travelled, only a handful of people made the end-to-end journey in regular seats. Most passengers were making short hops, though it’s hard to fathom why anyone really needs to take a train from Grong at 02.05 in the morning.

Hell station.
Hell station. Photograph: Noll/Alamy

The train crosses the Arctic Circle at around 6.30am against a backdrop of the most striking scenery on the entire journey – the gaunt Saltfjellet mountain away to the west, its dark mass offset by patches of snow even on Midsummer Day. Here, just a few kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, is the highest point on the Nordland Railway. Arrival in Bodø is bang on time. I opt for a hefty dose of black coffee and wait for the onward Hurtigruten boat to the Lofoten Islands, which is ready for boarding in Bodø at lunchtime.

Travel notes

Trondheim station.
Trondheim station. Photograph: Ruben Ramos/Alamy

An Interrail pass is a good option for this route. A pass allowing five days’ travel within a month in Norway and 32 other countries is £234 with good discounts for youths (up to 27) and seniors (60 and over). The fully flexible one-way standard class fare from Trondheim to Bodø is 1,274 Norwegian kroner (£106). But there are non-refundable advance tickets which offer savings of up to 50% on the regular fares. There are sometimes real bargains on this route. Since Easter, for example, SJ Nord has been offering a one-way fare from Trondheim to Bodø for just 199 kroner (£17). It’s valid only for Tuesday departures until mid-June. The full range of tickets for SJ Nord services in Norway can be booked online at entur.no or sj.no.

Nicky Gardner is co-author of Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide. The 17th edition of the book is available from the Guardian Bookshop for £16.52. Delivery charges may apply

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