A young English woman was staying in my dorm in Jokkmokk. She was travelling with her Swedish mother who was staying in the same hostel, but had opted for a private room. As you do, I chatted to my room-mate and then later, in the kitchen, was introduced to Mum.
Mum had spent most of her adult life in England, returning to Sweden only for holidays and to visit family. On this trip, she and her daughter had been at a wedding and then decided to tag on some travelling time.
“Go to Luleå,” Mum said. “From there you can make a day-trip to Gammelstad, the old church village.”
“Church village?” My RE teacher ears perked up.
“Yes, in the old days when people would come together for church, many of them would have to travel from their farms miles away. They built tiny houses to stay in and these weekend communities built up around the church. Gammelstad is the biggest and best preserved of these church villages in Sweden.”
“And Luleå itself is a really nice city,” added her daughter.
I’d planned to head south by train the following morning, but after hearing this AND having the hostel owner also tell me how wonderful Luleå was, I changed my mind and decided to take a late-afternoon bus to Luleå instead.
I visited the tourist office in Jokkmokk to get help with sorting out accommodation. It wasn’t easy. The universities were starting back and all accommodation was filling up with students who tend to stay in hostels and guesthouses until they can find somewhere more permanent.
Eventually, the lady in the tourist office found me a bed in a hostel a couple of kilometres walk from the train and bus station.
She looked at me apologetically, “The only problem is that you’ll have to share a room with five young, male Swedish students.”
Hm, five young, male Swedish students? And that’s a problem because …?
Actually, I could see why it might be a problem, but it was only for two nights and I really had no other choice if I wanted to go to the wonderful city of Luleå and the amazing church village of Gammelstad.
It was evening by the time I arrived in Luleå. I hoisted my pack and looked around the bus station for a clue as to which way I needed to walk. I had a map, I just needed to orientate it.
Street names would have been helpful. A ‘this way into town’ sign would have been useful. Even a bus station map with a ‘you are here’ dot would have assisted me to hold my map the right way up. Did any of these exist? No.
Eventually I found the train station and with my back to it, was able to orientate my map. I set off walking in the direction of the city centre. The hostel was on the far side. I now knew I was going in the right direction, but had no way of knowing which street I was on. I wanted to be sure, so I didn’t walk right past the hostel on a parallel street.
The streets were quite busy with young people heading out for Friday night. I tried to stop a few to ask if they could tell me exactly where I was. The first couple of times, people just looked terrified, put their heads down and scurried past. When I did get anyone to stop, they would shrug and tell me they were newly-arrived students and they didn’t have a clue where they were either.
How could this be so difficult? I’d just spent the best part of a month walking several hundred kilometres in the Arctic wilderness and not got lost once. Finding my way round a city should be easy-peasy.
Eventually, I found a street sign, located myself on the map, made a slight adjustment and got to my hostel.
It was on a busy road leading out of town in an area that was starting to look quite industrial. I rang the bell at street level and the stooped manager came down in the lift to let me in. He complained about his chronic back pain that was causing him to walk doubled over as we went upstairs so he could check me in.
The hostel was a bit grubby and definitely in need of a bit of loving refurbishment, but it was good enough for a couple of nights. Clothes strewn around the dorm floor were the only evidence of my five young, male, Swedish student room-mates. Of course, it being Friday night and Freshers’ Week they were out on the town. In fact, apart from one young guy watching TV in the common room, I had the whole hostel to myself for the evening.
Next morning, the beds in my dorm were filled with zonked out young men. I got myself ready and studied the big map on the hostel wall to check where the tourist office was.
It wasn’t far, so I headed there first. I walked round in circles several times before I accepted that the tourist office was not where the map claimed it would be.
Back in the town centre, I found a street map that showed the tourist office was now located at the train station. I walked all the way down to the station, only to find it pretty much deserted and definitely no tourist office. I finally found it in the middle of town, in the same building as the library, theatre and art gallery. It was closed.
Saturday. Lots of new people in town. The tourist office was closed.
All I wanted was to know how to get to Gammelstad. I asked the lady in the box office and she thought the buses might go from the end of the street. Only thought, mind you.
Checking out the bus timetable, I decided she was probably right. As I was studying the timetable and trying to figure things out, I must have looked a lot more knowledgeable than I felt because people asked me for help.
“We’re students,” they told me, “we’ve just arrived and don’t know where anywhere is.” Then again, maybe they were just desperate.
The bus eventually arrived. Yes, it was the right one. Could I go to Gammelstad? No. Why? Because the buses in Luleå don’t accept cash. I could’ve paid with my debit card, but by the time I’d paid all the bank charges I’d incur for using my card outside of the UK, that would have been one very expensive bus journey.
I needed to find a newsagent that sold bus tickets and buy my tickets from there. Once I’d done this and had my bus tickets I realised I had to wait an hour for another bus. Rather than hanging around the bus stop, I took myself off to the art gallery.
It was surprisingly interesting AND it was free. At last, I’d found something positive about Luleå.
Finally, I made it onto a bus and headed for Gammelstad. So much for my early start, it was now the afternoon. Gammelstad had better be worth it!
I didn’t particularly like Luleå, mainly because I found it frustrating. And probably because it was the first big place I’d been to after my time in the Arctic wilderness and the small empty town of Jokkmokk. It did have a bit of a buzz about it though, and I imagine if you’re young and involved in the student scene it would be a great place to study and live for a few years.