Norway

 

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Despite similarities with the rest of Scandinavia, Norway is unique & distinct, marked in particular by breathtaking beauty of landscape. No hyperbolics therefore, just a photo diary so the pictures do the talking. I will share itinerary, nitty gritty facts, place – experience only.

A country of fjords, building bridges is impractical. Connecting people & places, simpler by far is the ubiquitous ferry, which I used a plenty. A country of mountains & tunnels too. Only 167 kilometers separate Bergen & Flam for instance but there are 35 tunnels between them. Some even have windows & roundabouts, some remain close for repair – a fact no traveler can afford to either ignore or neglect. With almost 24 hours of daylight summer is especially to be experienced.

The Bergen rail connecting to Oslo is a 497 km passenger train that traverses both the Longfjellenethe mountains & Hardangervidda plateau, a height of 4058’ before descending to sea level. The trip offers spectacular views. In the blink of an eye a mountain or a glacier will most certainly slip by. Its best therefore to put aside the camera & enjoy kaleidoscopic views of snow covered mountains – rivers – streams – waterfalls – rocks –stones -trees- cabins – fields & lakes. Never ending, the beauty does not pall. There are temperature variations, the outside temperature dropping to 0 around Myrdal for the snow never melts, not even in summer. A seven hour ride, there is NSB for sustenance. Wine, beer, coffee, the onboard café has it all.

I took the night train from Oslo getting off at Myrdal next morning. A beautiful mountain stop 2844’ (I will be the only one saying so), it was bitterly cold that early & there was nobody else in sight. A cosy waiting room/toilet thankfully open & a souvenir shop/café that was not. A vending machine with hot coffee & snacks, proving useless as it accepted Kroners only.  The station was deserted & unstaffed yet charming & sweet. Myrdal has three platforms but if you get there morning 4.30 as I did, the first train to Flam will always be a long wait (departure 8.30 am.) With 4 hours to kill I could have walked or cycled down as it is downhill all the way but the sensible thing was to stretch out on one of the long wooden benches & go silently to sleep.

Flamsbana, the Flam – Myrdal line is said to be the most beautiful train journey in the world. It runs on steep gradients across a high plateau & valley, covering the 20 km distance in an hour. Halting at 10 stations, past a bridge & 20 tunnels, eighteen of which excavated by hand, it crosses the Flamselvi thrice – but not once over a bridge. The river has instead been diverted underground. At Reinunga, it passes a ‘window’ thoughtfully cut out in a tunnel to enable a peek at the magnificent valley floor & at Kjofossen it halts for a photo – op. Passengers can get off on to the platform which in fact is a promontory. The lines main attraction is the thunderous Rjourndefossen, a waterfall that has a vertical 140 metre drop.

As for Flam, imagine an extremely picturesque village of 450, over – run by 4000 tourists on a daily basis. Alas for the plight & misery of the local. A 17th century cruise ship port it has a Stave church, a railway museum dedicated to the Flam line, a hotel, shops & eating places. It gets so crowded that I would not advise staying for the night. Cross over to Balestrand instead & spend not one or two but several nights.

Besides being a cruise ship port Flam is gateway to the world heritage Naeroyfjord  (Flam at one end & Gudvangen at the other), the narrowest & in parts the shallowest of the many arms of the Sognefjord. While the over land bus makes the trip in 20 minutes, the ferry takes 2.15 hrs. Passing steep mountain sides, hanging villages, peaks & waterfalls there are small communities & centuries old Stave churches along the way. A landmark for miles around is the Linden tree at Bakka, unique for sprouting yellow leaves in Spring, shedding green leaves in Autumn. Naeroyfjord  must not be missed. It is an ethereal out of world experience, where the immense beauty of the land is mirrored in the waters.

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Across the fjord from Flam is Balestrand where I arrived in pouring rain. Unhappy at the prospect of having to walk to the hotel, lo & behold there was a car waiting for me at the pier. This is what is so special about people in small places. They will go the extra mile to make one welcome & at home. I had requested a room with a view & got one with the most astounding sea view. ‘Midtnes’, is a family run boutique property. An excellent host, the public area has a library, billiard & snooker room & a scattering of interesting bric a brac. Breakfast next morning was homely & wholesome, a variety of fresh bread, home made jams, goat cheese, catch of the day. Herring, shrimp, trout & sardine in a range of traditional sauce. The coffee was great as was the ambience, soft music, sea view, personalised – village girls in service.

 

I was not paid to write praises. A word about another, larger, more famous hotel therefore to give balance & perspective. Family owned, Kviknes is a 19th century, Swiss style, 200 room luxury hotel that has been popular with historic European visitors. Bang on the fjord, the water around sparkling clean with algae & jelly fish visible down to the depths. Roam free, the area is not restricted, Balestrand in any case being a village where one may wander at will.

It is a sparsely populated, 260 acre village on the northern shores of the Sognefjord. Popular with artists for scenery that inspires it has an active art scene. An interesting food & pub scene too with cuisine from around the world. What does one do but eat, drink & rest? Enjoy the view, breathe clean mountain air, fish, swim or walk. I for one could live here forever.

The sweetest walk, a 2 mile culture trail along the shoreline takes you past the old harbour, 19th century dragon head, red Swiss villas, St Olaf’s church, statue of King Bele & 2 Viking age burial grounds.

There is another, longer 10 km walk around the bay. In search of an enamel jewellery store near Dragsvik, I inadvertently sauntered into an arbour of gigantic trees & bushes.  Meticulously marked & labeled there was Beech, Fir, Pine, Cedar, Redwood, Aspen & Oak. The Himalayan Deodar too, spindly & shrivelled, unlike its magnificent cousin in India. Poncho clad, I continued in the drizzle, learning later that the six acres by the fjord was ‘Lunde Arboretum.’ It had free entry & free camping. Pays to be nosy sometimes! While the enamel shop was never found, Tjugum church was – Ordinary & unimpressive, it housed the village graveyard.

Navigating Norwegian fjords is both relaxing & pleasurable. Wind & surf, sea & sky & never a care. No hurry to get anywhere either. Everything aboard perfect to a T the ship negotiated a passage through the Sognefjord exiting & turning south along the west coast to Bergen – a 4 hour journey from Balestrand.

Situated between seven mountains, with museums & art galleries Bergen is a city of culture. I had planned 5 lazy days, doing things at my pace in this most beautiful of cities. It is one of the wettest places in Europe with nearly 266 rain days in a year. It drizzled all the time I was there but undeterred, life went on as usual. I had a studio apartment walking distance from Bryggen a heritage site but that was for 3 days only. I would move to a hotel near the train station later. Sleeping under the same roof, night after night  drags, you will agree.

Bryggen’s crooked wharf & colourful wooden houses along the dock have long captivated visitors. It is a cheery sort of place except that the over hyped fish restaurants quoth prices going through the roof.

Alongside Bryggen is Floibanen. I took the funicular up to Mt Floyen – seven minutes  up – and came down walking (30 minutes) The view from on top stunning, it was nippy despite the sun. An ideal quiet afternoon haunt, to walk, read, lie down or gorge on Rudolph’s hot dogs.

And then to my very own version of the ‘Bergen Walk,’  starting at Bryggen – Floibanen – Train station – Public Library – Park /Lille Lunge – -Torgallmenningen – Vagen Bay – Begenhus Fortress.

Torgallmenningen is the main city square/street, vehicle free & full of cafes & shops while Vagen Bay & Bergenhus offer splendid views of sail ships & old Hanseatic buildings.

I later moved to a hotel adjacent to the train station. I mention this for several reasons. The area around interesting & beautiful, the train station is the grandest in Norway & building laws forbid any kind of trivial renovation.

As for the hotel, ‘Zander’ is an ode both to the cold & wet city of Bergen & to one of its most prominent citizens. With a plain, dull exterior you could never imagine the inside décor. Not ostentatious. Far from it. Do check it out yourself.

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Bryggen Bergen

Balestrand, window view

I was in & out of Oslo thrice. For a short duration every time, the city practically covered piecemeal. Which, coming to think of it is not a bad idea at all. Karl Johans gate is a good place to start. A kilometer long, it is the main street that connects Central station to the Royal Palace – Parliament, National Theatre & Grand Hotel/ Café somewhere in between. The entire city appears to be heading in that direction, strolling or lounging in one of the many cafes. I too settled down to a beer, kicked at the thought of having it sitting in front of Parliament House. Come to think of it this is the most striking feature of Norway/ Scandinavia. The freest of societies, it does not have a ‘touch me not’ culture. Beautiful public spaces are created for people to experience & enjoy. The same was apparent at the Opera House & Vigeland park where space was designated not only for children but also dogs to run unleashed. The concept is appealing. So here was Parliament house with a few sundry cars parked out in the open. Did the lawmakers walk to work or did they not work at all? Another striking feature was zero to minimal security. Even at the Royal Palace. Makes for a great first impression.

Most visitors use either the hop on – hop off or its Ruter equivalent. There is really no need, for Oslo is made for walking. One certainly needs transport coming in from the airport. Flytoget Airport Express gets you into town in 20 minutes but at Nok 190 is a trifle expensive. NSB, the regional train is a better option – 23 minutes, Nok 100. Or a taxi if you prefer, Nok 1300/ 45 minutes.

Vigeland park is the only site where one may perhaps use some form of transport as it is a little way out – about 4 kms from Central station. Tram 12 will get you there. A part of Frogner park, Vigeland has 212 life size nudes depicting the wheel of human life from cradle to grave. The statues of granite, stone & wrought iron were made by Gustav Vigeland over a hundred years ago. Entry free & open 24×7 round the year it is the most popular destination.

The Akerselvi river running through the city makes for a nice walk since most of the sights are located along it. My personal Oslo walk took me via:

Central station – Opera House /Bar Code Area – Akershus castle – City Hall – Nobel Peace Centre – Aker Brygge Harbour – Karl Johans gate – Vigeland Park.

Not a foodie by any count, I prefer what restaurants call ‘child portion,’ both for quantity, taste & nutrition. What may I ask is wrong with a meal consisting of a fruit platter, scrambled eggs, ham – cheese sandwich, pancake with chocolate sauce?

And for the curious, no, I did not taste Smalahove which – for the uninitiated – is dried, salted & steamed sheep head. I did try Voss sausages with bacon & boiled vegetable. To each his own. ‘Hugge’ to me can never mean food. In Norway at least it was the luxurious warmth of a heated bathroom floor.

 

Bar Code district Oslo ( view from atop the Opera House)

Tallinn

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To be in Helsinki & not go over to Tallinn is sin unpardonable. Two hours across the waters it is every Finns watering hole. Ferrying me there was ‘Finlandia,’ nothing less than a floating hotel with restaurants, bars, casinos, live music. The shore line had barely receded when those not hitting the bottle hit ‘duty free’ – a riot either way.

I had lodgings in the historic centre – a 15 minute walk from the harbour. It is the most happening & buzzing of places. Car free, a few horse carts, E Ricks & almost everyone in medieval attire. Tallinn was quaint & profuse of atmosphere. Like a scene out of Cantebury tales. Troupes from one or another guild regularly entertained & performed. A procession of musicians sometimes or an artisans market selling genuine Estonian ware. All part of the summer madness, great fun nevertheless. Tallinn is believed to have started the European tradition of X’mas celebrations around a tree placed in the city  centre. Rest of the year sees sundry markets, colourful canopies & tables laid out for food & drink. Saku ( a local brand of beer) overflows. As the day advances & evening chill creeps in, out come blankets & brazier. But, it is never too cold for beer.

An eclectic variety of cuisine was on offer with ‘Italian’ the favourite & ‘Indian’ catching on (ever heard of ‘moose kathi roll’?) Eating places sporting the egg – saucepan image meant the food was Estonian while ‘vanaa’ attached to a name indicated grandma’s kitchen. Life made easy, like the animal drawings at street junctions in Finland. One may not recall long unpronounceable names like Hietaniemenkatu where I stayed but will never forget a reindeer image, especially in search of bearings.

A word about Lauri’s apartment – in the heart of the old town. Formerly part of a medieval bishop’s house it was done in muted tones of white, grey, pale blue. The creative use of space & retention of historic features lent it character & style & spoke of Lauri’s good taste. I was lucky to have it.

Mariannes’ walking tour started at ‘Tourist Information’ in down-town, leading to middle & upper, the old town being at 3 levels. It was history encapsulated – 2 hours walking a heritage site. St Olaf’s spires, visible from every part of town offered the best birds eye view as did the viewing platforms on 14 century walls. Freedom Square had a cenotaph made of a glass like material that could withstand a nuclear blast. The only one of its kind in the world. ‘It did not survive the first winter,’ laughed Marianne.

Tallinn was planned as a last stop before heading back home. A place to recoup after crisscrossing Scandinavia using every mode of transport. Taking it easy, I wandered at will, making friends, chatting up folks or just hanging around & having a nice time. It felt good. I loved Catharine’s passage with its array of cafes & antique shops. Its walls encrusted with ancient tomb stones so that they are preserved, not lost. A haunting thought. Also a novelty.

Memories aplenty …..The woman inviting passers by to try sweet, roasted almonds  or the trinket seller who insisted I buy a Ganesha ear-ring. Women pretty & demure in a way those from advanced societies are not.

A brick red building in a far corner of the Town Square housed ‘Raeapteek,’ Europe’s oldest apothecary. It has remained in business since 1422 & houses a small, well documented museum with exceedingly interesting displays. Samples of medical prescription down the ages:

Hollyhocks, highly recommended for a variety of ailments.

Fried deer penis

Earthworms in oil

Sun bleached dog faeces

Check it out. Entrance is free.

( A bar of hand made cannabis dark chocolate was all I bought.)

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Catharine’s Passage

 

 

Sweden

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In retrospect, the hours spent in Sweden seem like a flash in the pan. Wish I’d had time to linger & pause.

All it took was a dash across the Oresund from Copenhagen to Malmo, getting there in less than 45 minutes without any need of booking or reservation. There is a train every half hour. The Oresund link connecting Denmark & Sweden is a massive bridge – tunnel – bridge structure. An exceptional piece of engineering, it is an awesome travel experience that feels like skimming over the surface of the waters. (Return fare DKK 182)

 

Why Malmo is ‘fallafel’ city is anyone’s guess. Because of its cosmopolitan & multi cultural character perhaps. With Griffins head the logo, it is small in terms of area & size.

It was on a late June afternoon that I made my way from Malmo Central to Lilla Torg (450 m) & Stortorg, the Small & Large city Squares. Lilla Torg is cobble stoned & picturesque & bursting with antique shops selling local handicraft. It is full of cafes & beautiful old, half – timber houses. Prominent, overlooking the Squares is St Peter’s, a brick red Gothic church dating back to 1300. Gamla Vaster/ Old Malmo is full of interesting old architecture as is Malmo proper with its blend of the old & the new.

 

It was a very hot June afternoon & I was thirsty. Lunch turned out to be Vegan Burger, fries & beer followed by a post lunch stroll through lush green city gardens. I could have laid down right there, under the trees. I almost did.

At the corner where the gardens ended was an old prison converted to a pre – school & opposite it the castle. Malmo Castle is a 16th century fortress surrounded by a moat. It has nature exhibits & houses a history museum. Standing tall, in the distance is the Twisted Torso. One look & I was compelled to walk in its direction – not a short walk by any reckoning. At 190 metres, this sculptured tower stands out against the horizon. It was built on the promenade near the western harbour in 2005 & has upscale home & office space.

It is evening & time to return. The ride back to Copenhagen something to look forward to once again. Via the Oresund link. Do try it sometime. Difficult to accurately describe but it is as if one were flying low, above the surface of the sea.

IMG_5701The Twisted Torso

IMG_5685Old half timber houses

IMG_5700Malmo:modern architecture

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Small towns across Denmark & Sweden not only have easy connectivity but can be accessed in a myriad ways. This makes for an unusual & interesting travel experience. The train chugging into Helsingor (Denmark) halted on the platform adjacent to which was the ferry station. Absolutely whacko & least expected. Not to mention the convenience of it all. One disembarks from the train, takes the elevator up, buys a ticket & comes down to board the ferry. It is a 20 minute/37 DKK crossing to Helsingborg (Sweden). Probably the shortest between any two countries as the Strait is narrowest here (4 kms).

 

It may be the briefest of passages but ‘Forseas’ ensures every entertainment & facility. With calm seas & stunning views it is a super hit, especially with the Swedes who come aboard for duty free liquor shopping.

 

However, my destination is not Helsingborg but Gothenburg & I must figure a way of commuting from ferry to train station. GPS estimates a 20 minute walk, a full 360 degree circle if I were to follow it blindly. But I believe in taking risks & talking to strangers is one of them. Just as well, for it turned out to be a 2 second ride down the elevator. LOL! Helsingborg ferry station on the top floor & train terminal at the bottom. Got to hand it to these guys. Who could have imagined it. Look at the convenience once again.

 

There was nothing remarkable about the 4 hour trip to Gothenburg except that the onboard Wifi & superfast train had speeds to match.

With only a day & half in Sweden’s second largest city it is obvious that time & activity are both at a premium & both need management. The first evening was spent in Haga, a Bohemian suburb with shops, charming cafes & a respectable night life.

Goteborg (as the Swedes call it) has a cluster of islands on its periphery. The Northern & Southern archipelago that are car free but can be accessed by ferry & traversed on foot. I decided on Donso, Vrango & Styrso, the islands of the south. Fishing villages with granite cliffs, sandy beaches, beautiful old houses & unique flora fauna. The weather was balmy & Sunday crowds added to the fun of getting a peep into big & small neighbourhoods from the comfort of a tram. A lovely city.

The ferry from Saltholmen to Stryso Bratten takes 20 minutes. There is a café at the pier & a gradual walk through the woods that leads to Stora Ros the summit. Grand views here, also strong winds to knock one off. There is the Great Cairn at the pinnacle, a mound of stones with objects of flint & bronze dating back to the pre historic.

And there is Stryso Tangen, the equally beautiful smaller island preferred by many. I do a beach walk then hop on to the ferry for Donso & Vrango (380 inhabitants). Time for lunch too. Beer – Sandwich will do.

Incidentally, Sweden – the little I saw of it – came across as different & apart in an unexciting sort of way. The use of ‘English’ was limited & English language road signs practically absent. It was also as expensive as its neighbours. Toilet use always had a fee. Never less than Euro 3, unless one coughed up SEK coins. Then it was 10 only.

Yet, to judge any country on the basis of a 3 day/2 city stopover would be grossly unfair. I would not presume to do so. Another time……….Until then – No comments !

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Crossing over, Helsingor – Helsingborg

 

 

 

 

 

 

Denmark

IMG_5783Kronborg Castle

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IMG_5707This colourful street was once a stinking sewer

Goodbye Oslo                               Hello Copenhagen

Nothing like a twist for that extra zing to travel. What better than a voyage by sea? There were flights to Copenhagen, train & bus connections too but this looked to be an interesting option – zara hatke.

 

‘The Pearl’ would sail at 4.30 pm & arrive 17 hours later. I joined the motley crowd around the Skybar on Sun deck. Solo travelers, who clinked glasses as Oslo receded from view, Opera House & traditional wood cabins still clearly discernible on the shore. A soft drizzle accompanied the ship’s passage through the fjord.

‘The Pearl’ was on 11 floors, a floating city with a pulsating life of its own. Sailing the narrow Oresund at 16 knots it had a capacity of 2000 passengers. The cabin small & comfortable, I settled for the night. Next morning was bright & sunny with everyone on deck for a first glimpse of Denmark.

 

Copenhagen again is not a budget destination. It is a compact city, easy to walk or cycle, map in hand. The challenge is to manage time effectively. The Copenhagen card helps, vis a vis transport & access to sites – Euro 77/48 hours. Cycle, DKK 30 rental.

 

The first day was entirely devoted toMalmo(Sweden). An awesome passage via the Oresund link that connects both countries. An experience in itself.

 

I had a booking with Sandeman’s at 10 the next morning. A free – tip based walking tour, 2 hours & half through 6000 years of history. We collected near Dragon fountain, City Hall, Soner the guide bursting with enthusiasm. One of the best in the trade.

 

He walked us through Stroget the oldest & longest pedestrian street in the world. Chok-a-block with designer brands & upscale stores, Stroget connects the City Hall to Kings Square the largest in the city.

Onwards to the area around the new Harbour via a bright, colourful street that was once a sewer. Nyhavn, with gabled houses has history, atmosphere & gastronomical delights. The oldest house # 9 built in 1681 remains unchanged as does #67 purported to belong to Hans C Anderson. Copenhagen started as a fishing village remember. From fishing village to national capital – modern harbour, all thanks to Bishop Absalom.

 

We were lucky to witness the changing of the guard outside Amalienborg palace. The tour perfectly timed to end at Queens Square.

 

On everyone’s wish list, the Little Mermaid can be approached strolling by the Marble church – Queens garden or along the water front. Beautiful options both, on an equally beautiful day. Which is why I have wondered at tourists coming in bus loads for a quick photo – op with Denmark’s beloved maiden. Forgetting she is indeed ‘Little’ many return disappointed while some others have tried to deface & harm her.

With empty churches converted to museums, yoga & play centres 82% non believers now have a new religion; Cycling. Consider this: There are over 400 kms of cycle tracks. There are cycle repair shops. People take pride in the brand they own, the fancy gear & accessories as well as the level of upkeep in much the same way most others do with cars. It is almost a sub culture with young & old alike. Consider yourself lucky if a bicycle never knocked you down. 63% parliamentarians are said to cycle to work. Can another country hope to match this? Denmark has flat terrain but that is not the only reason.

So, how does a nation make a quick & complete turn around & progress? “With laws shalt thou a country rule & make,” says Soner, taking pride in his nation’s history, culture & achievement. It is Europe’s oldest monarchy, has an 800 year old flag & a Crown Prince who is a legit Green beret. If taxes are high these are willingly paid. An investment for the future when health, education & social security continue to be taken care of.

A slow train meanders by little homes & hamlets to stop at Helsingor (45 minutes). One steps off the platform to the ferry & train stations adjacent to one another. Rather a neat arrangement – both terminals on either side of a single platform.

 

A sleepy old town Helsingor is charming none the less, with cafes, boutique hotels & 18th century lanes to aimlessly wander. There is a Carmelite Priory, several medieval monasteries & a harbour that makes for a nice seaside walk. Stretching out on a rock is the male version of the Little Mermaid – Han Estatua – minus the thronging hordes. Strangely enough the Elsinore walk, a self guided city tour does not mention him. Sadly alone & unheard of Han sits gazing out to sea.

Taking centre stage is 16 century Kronborg castle – scene of Shakespeares ‘Hamlet’ – A renaissance castle & Unesco heritage site, Shakespeare can take credit for putting it on the world map. The story goes that a troupe performing ‘Julius Caesar’ at the castle heard the story of the Prince of Denmark. It was narrated to Shakespeare with the plea that he adapt it into a play. And he did, using both Kronborg & Elsinore as backdrop to the tragedy of ‘Hamlet’.

The play is performed everyday from June through August. A live, inter active theatrical experience, it is a must for Shakespeare buffs as is the theatre festival hosted at the castle –  in August once again.. The bard comes alive like never before, attracting theatre aficionados. Rekindling emotions.