One hundred and twenty-three kilometres northwest of Gällivare, KIRUNA (the town’s name comes from the Sámi word “Giron”, meaning “ptarmigan”) was the hub of the battle for the control of the iron-ore supply during World War II; ore was transported north from here by train to the great harbour at Narvik, over the border in Norway. Much German firepower was expended in an attempt to interrupt the supply to the Allies and wrest control for the Axis. In the process, Narvik suffered grievously, whilst Kiruna – benefiting from supposed Swedish neutrality – made a packet selling to both sides. Today the train ride to Kiruna, 200km north of the Arctic Circle, rattles through sidings, slag heaps and ore works, a bitter contrast to the surrounding wilderness.
Partly due to its proximity to the world-famous Icehotel in the nearby village of Jukkasjärvi, and partly because it’s the most northerly town in Sweden, Kiruna has become the destination in Swedish Lapland, the place that everyone wants to visit. However, don’t come here expecting monumental architectural delights, tree-lined avenues and big-city sophistication – it has none of that, at least not for the time being. All that, however, could change when the town ups sticks and moves location for, indeed, that is what is set to happen over the next decade. Ahead of the move, the present town still retains a strangely likeable down-to-earth feel. Although there are a few sights, it’s mainly attractive as a base from which to visit this corner of northern Lapland, with rail connections northwest to the start of the Kungsleden trail and Riksgränsen, as well as bus connections into the Torne Valley. Sweden’s highest mountain, Kebnekaise (2102m), is also within easy reach of Kiruna. It’s accessed from the tiny village of Nikkaluokta, the departure point for ambitious ascents of the peak.
When Swedish pioneers first arrived in what is now Kiruna in the early 1600s, they found the Sámi already in place here. Completely ignoring the indigenous population, the Swedes opened their first mine in 1647 at nearby Masugnsbyn (“Blast Furnace Village”), but it wasn’t until the beginning of the following century that the iron-ore deposits in Kiruna itself were finally discovered. Exploratory drilling began in the 1880s, which nicely coincided with the building of the Malmbanan, the iron-ore railway between Luleå and Narvik in Norway, and the first train laden with iron ore trundled out from Malmberget in Gällivare in March 1888. In 1900, the settlers braved their first winter in Kiruna, a year which is now regarded as the town’s birthday. Built on a hill to try to keep the temperature up (warm air rises), Kiruna was planned to withstand the coldest snaps of winter – even the streets are curved as protection against the biting polar wind. Sadly, though, much of the wooden architecture of Kiruna’s early days, gloriously painted in reds, greens and yellows, was ripped down to make way for today’s unprepossessing concrete structures; the town even won an award in the 1960s for its out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new policy.