#17 - Scandinavia
Jeff Willner - 7 November, 2001
(Copenhagen, DENMARK) - Seven days, seven cities in
four countries. Another week of hyper-tourism, this time through Scandinavia.
Last week we had an unexpected party in Estonia as a highlight. This
week it was unexpected black ice that coated the roads through Norway's
western mountain passes. I rather enjoyed the two nights of steering
wheel gripping fun as the Land Rover shimmied sideways through the corners.
However, the women didn't appreciate me yanking on the handbrake and
yelling "Look at this baby go!" Still, we made Copenhagen safe and sound.
I enclose a brief summary of our Scandinavian adventures for your review…
Our itinerary changed three times in a week and Gulin
had a hard time catching up with us. Finally we settled on her rejoining
the expedition in Helsinki, and we drove up from St. Petersburg on November
1 to rescue her from the grasp of the airport arrival lounge. Helsinki
is a nice little capitol city, hemmed round by water in all directions
but manageably compact. Our biggest challenges were the temperature (windy
and below freezing) and the outrageous Scandinavian prices - our temperature
and pocketbooks would continue to suffer throughout the week. In the
spirit of keeping the show on the road, we budgeted only the morning
to explore the city. Helsinki's museum of modern art had some really
interesting stuff (it gets better as you climb floors) and we managed
to catch a Star Wars exhibition that had only previously been in London,
England. Goot? Ya, ya.
In the afternoon we loaded onto a twelve-hour ferry
across the sea to Stockholm. With four restaurants, a cabaret show, shopping,
sauna, and kiddie care room, we were quite looking forward to a night
of effortless travel. We didn't realize that on Friday nights the ship
was Helsinki's unofficial party barge. Finnish revelers loaded up on
duty-free alcohol as soon as the ship left the dock and commenced two-fisted
drinking. Gulin, Jody, Sally, and Janet were sharing a cozy four-person
cabin. I was sharing a 'man cabin' with three strangers, and after wandering
through the merry masses, started getting a bit concerned about my luck
of the draw. No worries though, except for the totally inebriated Swedish
geezer who really wanted to have a long conversation with his four English
words, the cabin was quiet and the sleeping was good.
Stockholm is a city built on islands, actually over
12,000 of them make up the capitol area of Sweden. It has the reputation
of being the prettiest city in Scandinavia and I would likely add my
vote to that - but then I only saw a little corner of the old city island.
Insides of a couple churches, an internet café, the royal palace apartments,
and a very nice Italian restaurant called "Sally's" (because I was walking
with Sally). Once again, we only had four hours to wander before piling
into the truck to move on yet again, this time a six hundred kilometer
drive to Oslo, Norway. Someone remarked that we must go through a lot
of maps since we average a new country every two days. But actually we
have been able to muddle through using only the disgustingly inaccurate
Lonely Planet maps - and a secret technique taught to me with much effort
by the women on the trip. It is effective and cheap, but remains unused
by virtually all men because we are genetically encoded to ignore the
technique. I am speaking of course about, asking for directions.
We left Stockholm looking for any highway sign (of
course no highway numbers are shown in the guidebook), followed a particular
highway because it 'felt right', u-turned onto the city ring road based
on the direction of the sun, and then Janet and Jody ran into a McDonalds
to verify that we actually were right on target. Our Land Rover strains
along at a maximum of 120kph (we really should be going at 100kph for
the sake of the gearbox) and with five people crammed in the cab with
a year's worth of expedition gear, cold weather coats, food, and souvenirs
- it makes for a claustrophobic ride. So the frequent requests from the
women for a bladder break are a good excuse to get out and stretch. It
took eight hours to reach Oslo, and it was our luck to arrive on the
eve of the biggest football (soccer) game of the year, the national finals.
Driving through downtown Oslo to our hostel, the streets
were crammed with masses of blue Viking and red Farmer shirts. It was the
city team vs. the country team, and the country supporters rang cow bells
in defiance of their urban competition. It was even odds whether we would
find any place to stay, fortunately the hostel turned out to be a gigantic
affair (of course it was not shown in the guidebook so we found it by trailing
a streetcar and then asking directions from a taxi driver) and one room hadn't
yet been claimed. A familiar theme the next morning, only a couple hours
to explore downtown Oslo in the freezing rain. There were two surprises though,
the first was city hall. Even though it was a weekend, we were welcomed inside
where virtually the entire premises were available to tour. Norway has quite
a bit of money from its oil in the North Sea, and Oslo had put some of it
to good use with generous commissions to painters, tapestry makers, and other
craftsmen to decorate the city hall. Quite a democratic idea, the politicians
'borrow' the building for their meetings, but otherwise it is the domain
of the public. Oslo's City Museum was the second surprise, a terrific collection
of Modern art with some little known Scandinavian artists and a feature section
of Munch (famous for The Scream). Once again, we loaded up in the early afternoon
and took off on another eight-hour drive. Everything was deserted, it seemed
the entire country was riveted to the football match in progress. I was secretly
rooting for the Farmers but they got hammered, three to nothing.
Why the insane schedule? A couple reasons. First, the
weather was freezing and it got dark at around 4pm, not a good combination
for late afternoon sightseeing, we figured we might as well drive in the
afternoon dark. Second, we wanted to leave a few days to enjoy Norway's western
fjords, and the guidebook warned of narrow roads and slow progress. It proved
correct. An hour out of Oslo we turned onto a narrow mountain road that began
gaining altitude. Dinner was at a roadside cafeteria in a ski lodge town
- very cool with it's pine walls and ski run guides tacked to the wall. But
shortly after leaving, the sun set and the slush on the road froze. I got
frustrated going only 60kph and decided to push a bit harder but as soon
as I did the truck broke loose on a corner and started sliding off the road.
Yikes. I hadn't realized how bad it was - the road was covered in a solid
sheet of ice.
Imagine a black winter night, mountain peaks of snow
glowed in the starlight. A frozen lake lurked off the cliff-edge on our
left side. And the road, unsalted, wound out of the headlights like a
menacing test. And then, a warm yellow glow appeared on the valley wall.
We pulled into a short tunnel - and stopped abruptly at a white barricade
door. What to do? Automatically, the door began to disappear into the
ceiling, and in front of us stretched a rough rock tunnel, blasted directly
through the mountain, lit by kilometers of yellow lights. Ladies and
gentlemen, the Bat Cave! It was very, very cool. Norway's western region
has always presented a challenge to land transportation, drivers had
to either endure long ferry rides across the long fjords, or challenge
the windswept mountain passes which were frequently closed by storms.
No longer. Short tunnels led to longer ones, and longer ones still, 3km,
11km, we passed one that was 22km long! After slipping around the snowy
passes it was a relief to dive into dry tunnel roads.
Flam is at the center of "Norway in a Nutshell", a
one-day highlight tour of the steepest railway line and the narrowest
fjord in the country. On a three hour ferry ride through the fjord, the
boat churned through cold black water hemmed in by sheer cliffs on each
side, exquisitely beautiful. It was windy and quite cold on the ferry
deck, but inside the boat cabin an Italian girls choir was belting out
pop tunes - pick your poison. Another drive to Bergen on the west coast
of Norway, the most picturesque town in the country (and this I can confirm).
Old houses and guild halls huddle on the harbor road, the cobbled downtown
is cut through by alleys of restaurants and shops, and surrounding it
all are cliffs reached by funicular or cable car. We'd hoped for an easy
over-night ferry from Bergen to Copenhagen to allow us a couple days
to unwind, but it was not to be - no boat, we had to drive.
So we headed back into the icy heights of the Norwegian
mountains. Skidded around the roads, ate gas station food, took the occasional
ferry, and generally speaking just sat in the truck for two days. Copenhagen
was reached across several dramatically long bridges. Another city built
on the water, its downtown is rent by canals and an incomprehensible pattern
of one-way streets. After two days of driving I figured street signs were
optional and we wandered across 'bus only' and pedestrian streets with the
impunity that comes from 2.5 tons of 4x4. Hooray, our reward for finding
the "Sleep in Heaven" hostel was a bed in the two hundred and fifty bed dormitory
room - bed linens an extra $5. Sometimes traveling on a budget just sucks.
Still, we had our usual couple of hours worth of exploring the next day,
a nice dinner, and that sense of accomplishment that comes with 'doing' Scandinavia
in seven days. Tomorrow morning we are off again, this time to Berlin and
a one-week dash down Western Europe to Spain where we will ship the truck
to South America.
I always did find it hard to keep the Nordic countries
separate in my head. After the trip it is so much easier. Since you are
probably reading this while contributing to the productivity of your
nation's economy and have no intention of 'doing' Scandinavia in seven
days, I have compiled a handy guide!
Knowing Your Scandinavian Countries
Finland: Sits up above Russia and shares a long
border. Has been kicked around a lot through history, first dominated by
Sweden and later by Russia. In fact, just before the communist revolution
the Tsar was getting serious about removing Finland's semi-autonomous status
and integrating it completely into Russia. Fortunately it got independence
in the peace settlements after WWI. The Finns are outdoorsy, neat, love unfinished
pine furniture and are quite proud of Nokia, their national success story.
And for a good time, take the Friday night ferry from Helsinki to Stockholm.
Sweden: Was the major power in the north for
hundreds of years and still retains a constitutional monarchy. It lost
territory in Russia and Finland in a series of ill-advised wars and then
decided that war was bad, business was good. Stayed neutral in WWII and
sold to both sides. The country boasts a host of world-class companies
and the strong economy allowed the government to implement a cradle-to-grave
form of social security. Unfortunately, enlightened social policy demanded
the world's highest taxes and by the early 90's the economy was staggering
along. It has bounced back, but not before taking some of the shine off
the Swedish system. The surrounding countries resent Sweden's sense of
economic and social superiority, in fact when Sweden played Italy in
the World Cup the surrounding countries rooted for Italy. And the other
thing is, in Sweden virtually every car on the road is a Volvo.
Norway: Was also one of the countries that
got abused during the Middle Ages, was last ruled by Sweden (explains
the sporting bias). Norway has a beautiful and rugged landscape, but
unfortunately very little farming land. It's economy was tiny until,
wonder of wonders, oil was found in the North Sea. Norway has the entire
North Sea coastline, it even stretches above Sweden and Finland. So,
voila, Norway was rich. With money to spare and concerned about preserving
their traditional (and picturesque) ways of life, Norway opted out of
the European Union - that way they could continue to heavily subsidize
their small farmers and not worry about fishing quotas. Of all the Scandinavian
countries, Norway is the most beautiful, and the money hasn't gone to
Denmark: Before Sweden, Denmark was the power
of the north, with the fighting and the knights and the conquests. But
then the monarchy weakened and land was lost all over the place, so now
the country is quite small (its perched on top of Germany). But for all
that ancient conquering, it has good relations with the neighbors. In
fact, when Norway got independence from Sweden they asked Denmark to
provide a suitable royal to be king (but he had to change his name) -
so Norway's royalty is actually originally from Denmark. I noticed quite
a few cute Danish women, there is a large dog called a Great Dane, and
Hans Christian Andersen (children's stories) is from Denmark. Oh, and
the statue of the Little Mermaid is in Copenhagen, but it is really small!