The Importance of Ghost Towns

Travel planning is great fun and the anticipation of a long holiday makes it all the more exciting. Still, even the best laid plans don’t always work out as intended. Online timetables sometimes just don’t get it right, and promises of beautiful hostels in lovely locations can be disappointing.

The first half of our 5-week family backpacking holiday around Scandinavia went about as smoothly as it could have, all reservations were kept, trains, coaches and ferries left on time and any inconvenience experienced was part of the planning. Yes, we really did plan to sleep on the floor of the restaurant on that night ferry from Stockholm to Turku, and yes, it was an adventure for the kids and adults alike. Similarly, we knew the bus journey from northern Finland to Tromsø in northern Norway was going to take about 14 hours so we made sure that the iPods were fully charged before we set off.

stamsund3.JPGWhat was not expected, was the fact that despite our careful planning there was no ferry to take us from Norway’s Lofoten Islands back to Narvik on the mainland on the day we had intended to travel. It was our first little hick-up and taught us to always check with the locals. Roar, the fabulous owner of the hostel in Stamsund was much more reliable than the online ferry schedules and helped to rearrange our travel. Roar, by the way, is also a reliable alarm clock and rumour has it that he will wake up all his guest if there is any sign of Northern Lights. It’s good to know if you’re planning a winter visit to the Lofoten Islands. The YHA in Stamsund is the place to be!

End of the line….

A place perhaps not to be (for long) is Gällivare in Sweden, although our memory of it is clouded by our rather random experiences. The train journey from Narvik to Gällivare was beautiful and took us across the Norwegian mountain range into the flat-lands around this end-of-the-road town. Other travellers have likened it to old American mining towns and have retrospectively reminded me that a car would have been great and would have ensured a better experience. However, as backpackers we had no such luxury and we were only able to go where our feet could take us. Located just north of the arctic circle in Sweden, Gällivare is a small town which dates back to the 17th century and has a population of just about 8500. We had good reason for coming here, since Gällivare is the start (or end if you prefer) of the famous Inlandsbanan, a fabulous train which connects towns along the full 1300 kilometres of its tracks from Kristinehamn in the south all the way to Gällivare in the north.

Anyone there?

Part Sami, part settler and heavily influenced by the mining industry, the centre of Gällivare turned out to be quiet and seemingly deserted. To make matters worse, our hostel was located across the river, about 300 metres outside of the town and (more importantly) less than beautiful! A series of dilapidated wooden shacks surrounded a tumble-down old house and none of it made us feel particularly safe.

Inlandsbananen - boarding.JPG

It is entirely possible that after two-and-a-half weeks of backpacking our judgement was heavily clouded by the fact that we were a little travel-weary. However, if we were, Gällivare was not about to pick us up. Having locked up our belongings, a stroll around an eerily quiet town centre made us wonder where all the people had gone. A lone singer performed on a big stage to an audience of a hand-full of people, the music sadly echoing through deserted streets. A little fun was had on the crazy golf course, but even then we had difficulty locating the teenager employed to dish out the clubs, notepad and pencils. Needless to say, we were the only ones playing… 🙂

The Specials today…..

The hostel offered little possibility for cooking supper and in all honesty we were not keen to be there. The Grand Hotel Lapland provided respite and over a drink we seriously discussed whether we should stay at the hotel instead. As we were only due to stay in Gällivare for one night, we opted for dinner at the hotel but to stick to our original plan and stay at the hostel. Dinner proved to be excellent, though the squeamish among you might not like the sound of fillet of reindeer, reindeer burgers and reindeer stew – all of which were on the menu, and all of it delicious.

The weird atmosphere of the town was further heightened by the background music in the hotel’s restaurant. Ten tracks were played on a loop and included ‘Our House’ by Madness (were we a little homesick perhaps?) and ‘Ghost Town’ by The Specials. We never quite worked out whether this last one was just a coincidence, or whether the hotel manager had a great sense of humour. Either way, we laughed a lot every time the song came up… 🙂

Noises in the night….

The night was spent in the hostel as planned and despite considerable commotion and noise levels outside the cabin, we slept reasonably well. It was only at the train station the following morning that we learned that the noises we had heard in the night had been caused by police raiding our neighbouring cabin, where a local man had threatened his girlfriend with a kitchen knife! Such excitement!

Travelling makes you think. Perhaps the most important thing we learned in Gällivare is that sometimes it is the weird and wonderful that makes for the very best memories. We certainly think of Gällivare every time we hear ‘Ghost Town’ or ‘Our House’, and have a giggle at our experiences there. There are many beautiful places in the world and many awe-inspiring experiences to be had – but don’t disregard the things that don’t quite work out or perhaps don’t live up to your expectation. There has to be room for ghost towns too!

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  1. Amber McPhetridge
    Posted November 1, 2012 at 1:07 am | Permalink

    wonderful experience!!

  2. Brian Staines
    Posted November 1, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    I love it when music brings back memories and Ghost Town is great

    Try IMBER in Wiltshire.A bit ghostly.Taken over by army in early 1940s, villagers moved out, signs removed etc, and closed because its now a firing range but
    for 2 weeks in the summer you can visit.The church is lovely

  3. Aleida Brinkman
    Posted November 3, 2012 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    memories are wonderful and last a lifetime !

    Very interesting story!

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