Right by the Finnish border, at the very northern end of the Gulf of Bothnia, HAPARANDA is hard to like. The signpost near the bus station reinforces the fact that the town is a very long way from anywhere: Stockholm, 1100km away; the North Cape in Norway, 800km; and Timbuktu 8386km. Viewed from the south, Haparanda is at the end of a very long road to nowhere. However, turn the map upside down, look a little wider and it’s easy to see why IKEA took a strategic risk in late 2006 and opened its most northerly store in the world in Haparanda – a town of barely 10,000 people. The gamble paid off and shoppers from the whole of northern Scandinavia, even from as far afield as Murmansk in Russia, now travel here to get their hands on those famous flat-packs. Other companies have followed the retailer’s lead and set up business here, giving the local economy a long overdue kickstart. Other than the IKEA store, there are only two real sights in town: the train station, and the church.
The key to Haparanda’s late coming of age is the neighbouring Finnish town of Tornio. Finland was part of Sweden from 1105 until 1809, with Tornio an important trading centre, serving markets across northern Scandinavia. Things began to unravel when Russia attacked and occupied Finland in 1807; the Treaty of Hamina followed, forcing Sweden to cede Finland to Russia in 1809 – thereby losing Tornio. It was decided that Tornio had to be replaced, and so in 1821, the trading centre of Haparanda was founded on the Swedish side of the new border, which ran along the Torne River. However, the new town was never more than a minor upstart compared to its neighbour across the water. With both Sweden and Finland now members of the European Union, Haparanda and Tornio have declared themselves a Eurocity – one city made up of two towns from different countries.
The train station
The disused train station, a grand-looking structure built in 1918, was the result of the town’s aspirations to be a major trading centre after World War I and still dominates the suburban streets of southern Haparanda from its location at the junction of Stationsgatan and Järnvägsgatan. Constructed from red brick and complete with stone tower and lantern, it provided Sweden’s only rail link to Finland until 1992 when it became another victim of SJ closures. From the platforms, you’ll be able to discern two widths of track – Finnish trains run on the wider, Russian, gauge in front of the station; the Swedish tracks are behind the station building. The track between Haparanda and Luleå has now been upgraded and electrified which, in theory at least, will make it possible to once again operate trains via this route to Tornio in Finland, though it’s likely to be some time yet before services resume. Until then, the empty sidings, overgrown with weeds and bushes, give the place a strangely forlorn air.