Along the border with Finland, the lush, gentle slopes of the TORNE VALLEY (Tornedalen in Swedish) are among the most welcoming sights in northern Sweden. Stretching over 500km from the mouth of the Gulf of Bothnia to Sweden’s remote northern tip, the three rivers, Torne, Muonio and Könkämä, mark out the long border between Sweden and Finland. The valley is home to Swedes, Finns and Sámi, who speak an archaic Finnish dialect known as tornedalsfinska (Torne Valley Finnish, an official minority language), though Swedish is widely understood and is the language of choice for the youth. Refreshingly different from the coast and the heavily wooded inland regions, the area is dotted with small villages, bordered by flower meadows. To either side of Route 99, the main road along the valley, lie open fields providing much-needed grazing land for the farmers’ livestock.
Arriving from Gällivare or Kiruna, you can enter the valley by bus at its midway point, Pajala. From the south, buses also run daily from Haparanda.
The predominance of heavy labouring jobs in the north of Sweden has produced a gender imbalance here – around three men to every woman (a fact which also explains the ridiculously macho behaviour that seems to prevail in these parts). So, to celebrate the village’s four-hundredth anniversary in 1987, the local council in Pajala placed advertisements in the national papers inviting women from the south of the country up to Lapland to take part in the birthday festivities. Journalists outside Sweden soon heard of the ads, and articles about the unusual invitation began to appear in newspapers across Europe. Before long, busloads of women from all over the continent were heading for the village. The anniversary festivities proved to be a drunken, debauched bash that tiny Pajala wouldn’t forget in a long time, but they did help to redress the gender problem: dozens of East European women lost their hearts to gruff Swedish lumberjacks, and began new lives north of the Arctic Circle. Naturally a succession of winters spent in darkness and in temperatures of -25°C takes its toll and some women have already left; to date, though, about thirty have stayed the course.
Over time we understood that Pajala didn’t actually belong to Sweden… we’d made it by chance. A northerly appendage, desolate swampland where a few people just happened to live, who only partly managed to be Swedish … no roe deer, hedgehogs or nightingales. Just interminable amounts of mosquitoes, Torne Valley Finnish swearwords and Communists.
Mikael Niemi, writing in Popular Music about growing up in Pajala during the 1960s and 1970s
The valley’s main village is pretty PAJALA, a place that has earned itself a reputation and a half throughout Sweden on two counts: first, the locals’ need of women led to the town hitting the headlines across Europe in 1987 (see box, p.000); and second, the inordinately successful book, and later film, Popular Music, is set here. In order to appreciate the latter claim to fame, you really need to have read the book (one in eight Swedes owns a copy) or seen the film, which played to sell-out audiences in cinemas across the country in 2004. Based around the life of Matti, a teenage boy who dreams of becoming a rock star, the book offers a rare insight into the psyche of the northern Swede and life in the remote Torne Valley. Dotted across town, striking yellow signposts proudly point the way to some of the most infamous locations to feature in the dramatization: Vittulajänkkä, Paskajänkkä and slightly more sedate Strandvägen, all plotted on the free map available from the tourist office.
Having dealt with Pajala the film location, there’s little else to do in this unprepossessing town other than rest up for a day or so – take a walk along the riverside, or head off in search of the great grey owl (strix nebulosa) that sweeps through the nearby forests. The huge wooden model of the bird in the bus station will give you an idea of its appearance: lichen grey, with long, slender tail feathers and a white crescent between its black and yellow eyes. Close by, on Torggatan, is the largest sundial in the world, a circular affair with a diameter of 38m which tells the real solar time – always 18–25 minutes different to that of a regular watch or clock.
Taking place in Pajala in the last week in September, the Römpäviiko (“romp week”) cultural festival, featuring live music and street stalls selling food and handicrafts, is undoubtedly the liveliest time to be in the village. The second weekend after midsummer is another good time to visit, when up to forty thousand people flood into town for the Pajala market, one of the biggest in northern Sweden, selling everything from chorizos to reindeer antlers.