Before we bought this house we lived in a flat that looked out directly at the wetlands to one side of town, the side where the airport is. Seeing the planes coming in at scheduled hours twice a day felt like seeing the ferry come into port on an island. It’s a reassuring connection to the outside world.
It was our boast there that we could (and did) walk to the airport. The walk is along the imaginatively named ‘Airport Road’. No-one else walks there, and cars speeding past sometimes took pity on us and stopped to offer us a lift – but we weren’t tempted.
We see the planes from the house here too, though walking to the airport is less of an option. For most of the season there’s an airport bus service, but it only runs when the powers-that-be in Kiruna decide there will be tourists, and not before. We, and some tourists, often travel during those ‘no tourists in Kiruna’ periods, and then the only option is a taxi (efficient, but pricey). Earlier this year when our flight was later in the day and the weather not too challenging we decided to relive our walking to the airport experience, so we took a public bus to the bottom of Airport Road. We were the last people on the bus and asked the driver to drop us as near the road as possible. He looked at us through his rear view mirror. ‘I’m in no hurry,’ he said, ‘I’ll take you’. It was disappointing, but we could hardly explain that walking was the point.
An alternative way out of town is the train. It takes a minimum of 17 hours from Stockholm. So that’s an experience, more than a mode of transport. I know we should all be supporting the rail services, and in theory I do, but running at a similar price to the plane (for an adult over 25 without a InterRail pass), or more, if you expect a sleeper, for more than a one-off trip it doesn’t really compete.
It’s a shame, as it’s an important part of Kiruna’s history, running on the same track that has taken the iron ore to Narvik for over a hundred years. The navvies who built the track in extremely difficult conditions are commemorated in a life size sculpture, four men carrying a piece of rail track. When the station was recently moved further out of town to a temporary hut by the track, the sculpture was moved with it. There were next to no passenger facilities, but having the sculpture in the right place was a priority.
Planes can feel very anonymous, but here, when one flies low over the hill, you know where it’s come from. There used to be two companies flying in and out of Kiruna – Scandinavian Airlines, and Norwegian Airlines. Then a few years ago Norwegian pulled out of the market. It was a blow, maybe even the first blow of many, we feared, as Kiruna became a town too exclusive (in price) to appeal to visitors, and closed in on itself, handing its business over to some rival Finnish or Norwegian town with better air links. Many far-flung communities have experienced this gradual erosion of their links to the rest of the world, eventually leading to the shrinking of those communities to the few whose work can only be done in that one place.
However, it appears that the trend here is rather different. On Thursday we flew here on the first flight by Norwegian Airlines for three years. To celebrate, there was a free blueberry smoothie for all the passengers. The airline representative said that the company had reinstated the link because it was clear that Kiruna was an ‘increasingly important destination in Scandinavia’. ‘Lonely Planet’, she told us, have announced that Sweden came fourth in its top ten destination list for 2014.
We joked about expecting some celebratory bubbly on arrival, but as we stumbled off the plane into the cold air in Kiruna, there it was waiting for us, and a deep red rose for every passenger. No no, I wanted to say, no, thank you.