To the north!
To the north, to the north! There could be no delay if we wished to fulfil our plans and make it on time for the Stockholm-bound train. It was simple: from Horsens in Denmark we’d only have to transverse Jutland, navigate the Kattegat, arrive in Sweden and hey presto!
More specifically, we’d catch a train north to Aarhus, do a little sightseeing, take a second train north to Frederikshavn, change for a bus to Skagen, see that, take the bus back to Frederikshavn and be in time for the ship to cross the Kattegat to Göteborg in Sweden. Once there it’d only be a matter of making our way from the port to the train station for the night service to the Swedish capital. It was all timetabled. It was the plan. What were we thinking?
Perhaps the focus was on the train at the end. Perhaps I was imagining sleeping cars with polished brass handles, with cheery blue-capped conductors to welcome us in Swedish, with fluffy pillows and starched creaseless white sheets on the berth, with complimentary snacks on the small table in the carriage, all just waiting for our arrival. With a mere six changes of transport along the way, what could possibly prevent us from waking up, well-rested, to the beauty of Stockholm on the following morning?
My school friend Lachlan and I were eighteen, we had the energy, so what did it matter if our travel plans were ambitious? Besides, the point of counting on the night train was that it doubled as accommodation which suited our budget of almost zero.
With an eye on the clock, we knew that hesitation would mean failure.
To the north, to the north! The first train stopped a little too often but it did take us the first forty kilometres to Denmark’s second largest city, Aarhus. The city features the world’s oldest open air museum, called the Old Town, which is a collection of more than seventy buildings built between 1550 and the late nineteenth century and moved there from various locations across Denmark. We walked in haste, took photographs and visited each of the exhibits, from clocks to silverware; and we thought of Hans Christian Anderson, quickly. Set in a pleasant garden it would’ve been nice to stay a while: but apart from on the clocks there was no time.
The second train, 143 kilometres to Frederikshavn became in actuality the second and third trains as we had to change in Aalborg. We checked the ferry times for Sweden and raced to get the bus for the thirty-two kilometres to Skagen.
To the north, to the north! In Denmark, there’s no further north one can go than Skagen. The very tip of the Jutland Peninsula, Skagen is said to be where two seas, the Skagerrak and Kattegat, meet. Both parts of the entrance to the Baltic Sea from the North Sea, across the former is Norway while across the latter is Sweden; and where they actually meet is a long sand spit with water on both sides. The spit is called Grenen, meaning ‘the branch’ and it’s the very end of Denmark. There, waves from the one crash against the waves of the other, as if Norway and Sweden were having a perpetual water fight with Denmark the international observer. The problem was the sand spit was 4.5 kilometres from Skagen bus stop; but we had energy so we half-jogged there and back, sweating, sweating, with just a few minutes to take photographs and catch our breath at the junction of the seas. It would’ve been nice to stay a while, but enough looking already: we’ll miss the boat, we’ll miss the boat!
To the east, this time, for the north! We were just in time for the day’s last ferry to Göteborg. The vessel was large and modern, and wasn’t it fun to be leaving one country to arrive in another just ninety kilometres away?
We’d done well, I remarked, having made the first five planned transport connections, with just one remaining. These were words spoken in haste.
It wasn’t only Denmark we’d left behind but also the sun which had fallen unceremoniously into one or other of the seas. Sweden was dark. Still, all was not lost. The train left at a late hour. There was time to find the station; and fortunately the train was waiting when we arrived. Surely it was not as nice as I’d imagined it but surely it looked every bit as nice after the hectic day. In any case it didn’t matter.
The train was sold out.
Suddenly stranded, we asked at a few hotels but the room rates seemed astronomical, so we wondered if we couldn’t just wait at the station until morning. The night was more than half done by then. What’s more there seemed to be other stranded passengers reclining on the benches, preparing for sleep, inside the glass-enclosed terminal area. The problem: by the time we returned the glass enclosed area was locked. It must’ve been for passenger safety; and would’ve been ideal had we been inside.
What to do? What to do? As it happened, Göteborg railway station was undergoing some renovations and just around the corner from the glassed-in area were a few other benches in what was really part of the construction site. It hadn’t looked appealing initially. It was a bit dark that side; but as our eyelids grew heavier we first sat, then lay, and finally dozed off, a bit away from the rest of Sweden.
As it happened I awoke to the sound of a dog barking and footsteps and a torch being shone about, here and there. It was scary. Fortunately it was just the security guard and he didn’t seem bothered that we were borrowing the benches for a bit. Fortunately his German shepherd was on a leash.
The worst was yet to come.
It can’t have been much beyond first light when I woke, stretched and looked about. Everything seemed a bit shivery, a bit achy, but otherwise fine; until my gaze fell upon the adjacent bench where Lachlan had been sleeping. The bench was empty! I told myself not to panic. It didn’t work. My mind was racing. I pictured explaining to his parents, describing exactly how it was that their son had vanished! It was probably only for several minutes but it felt as hours, until….
There he was! Sound asleep on another bench inside the enclosed glass area. I tried the door and found it open: I think it’d actually been open the whole time. Breathing heavily with relief, I thought not to wake him and found another bench inside, where thankfully there was heating, for although it was summer the night had been chilly, and went back to sleep.
I got my revenge. When he woke again a little later he went to the bench where I’d been sleeping to find it empty! His turn to picture a little awkward conversation with my parents! ‘I last saw him on a bench in the construction site area at the train station in Göteborg…..’
I’d thought not to wake you, Lachlan explained, as we sat consumed by the Swedish countryside, exhausted, on the day train bound for Stockholm. The train engine sounded: to the north, to the north, to the north. And we fell asleep….
Lesson one: when in Denmark and Sweden take the time to enjoy it. Lesson two: a train station is not suitable accommodation. And I promised myself I’d never sleep at a train station again. And I never did, unless of course you count that one time in Bucharest.
- the photos in this article of 'Aarhus Old Town' and the 'End of Denmark at Skagen' are from wikipedia.