After touring Berlin, it was off to visit Scandinavia! Over two weeks, we’d visit Sweden, Denmark, and Norway as part of a Rick Steves’ Scandinavia Tour. Was this tour in May 2017? Yes. Am I writing this in September 2018? Yes.
Not all of this trip was new territory: I previously explored Stockholm and Copenhagen in 2011. The rest of the journey, including all of Norway, is going to be my first time.
The itinerary started in Stockholm, and spent a night in Kalmar before heading off to Denmark. Urban and progressive Copenhagen was contrasted with the idyllic island of Ærø. Tracing our steps back to Copenhagen, we took an overnight ferry to Oslo. Spending a few days in the bustling capital of Norway,
May 14th, 2017: Arrival in Stockholm
Germany has the reputation of being an orderly and well-managed country. This perception should be examined in light of the Brandenburg Airport project. During the Cold War, Schönefeld Airport served East Berlin, and Tegel fulfilled the same role for the Western part of the city. After reunification, 15 years of planning culminated in ground being broken in 2006 for the new Brandenburg Airport that would replace both aging facilities. With a targeted opening year of 2011, we certainly flew out of Brandenburg. Being 2017 and all. Right?
Well, not exactly. 2011 turned into 2012, and then 2013. And now somewhere in the range of 2020 or 2021. A combination of corruption, poor planning, management, and many other un-germanly traits has doomed this airport into perpetual delay.
All this to say, the flight to Stockholm left from a terminal in Tegel airport that was a glorified warehouse with some seats bolted onto the concrete floors.
One fast train later, and we were in downtown Stockholm.
There were a few hours to use up until the tour introduction meeting at 1700, and an impromptu visit of the stations of the Stockholm Metro was in order. While I’m always in the mood for exploring a new transit system, the Stockholm Metro is particularly special because it’s essentially a large transit art project.
Each station had a different theme. Some had detailed “graffiti” on the walls.
Others embraced their subterranean nature by using the rough-hewn walls as a canvas for colorful patterns and colors.
This stationeries featured matching walls and floors while retaining a plain rock ceiling.
Harsh lighting beckoned travelers to the escalators that climbed into the rock.
Public transit is a necessary part of urban infrastructure, but the Swedes managed to turn it into something more than just a utilitarian place to travel.
Each station retained a level of familiarity while exploring new facets of art.
Even the above ground stations weren’t exempt from this treatment. This location utilized tiles as pixels recreating ideas from video games.
The effect could be subtle. If you look past my extremely tired face, you’ll notice the rainbow escalator.
We hurried back to the initial tour meeting, met our fellow travelers, and had a group dinner before ending the way with a night walk.
May 15th, 2017: Stockholm City and Archipelago
The day met us with a walking tour of the Stockholm old town. Swinging by the Parliament, Palace, and the historic Gamla Stan core, we traced the history of the city before going to explore the outskirts. 37 miles wide, and featuring 24,000 islands, the Stockholm Archipelago is the nearby recreation center for city Swedes hankering for a rustic island vacation. A series of ferries wander their way through the islands. We grabbed one of the boats and made our way to the transportation hub of an island: Vaxholm.
Vaxholm isn’t the most rustic—it allows cars, nor is it particularly remote. Although normal used as a jumping off point to take even smaller ferries further afar, we instead opted to wander around this island.
Sweden is located in a particularly interesting and valuable strategic place, and Stockholm is vulnerable to seaborne attacks. Reminders of the defense efforts are often found in surprising places, such as this small bunker smack dab in the middle of this island.
May 16th, 2017: Stockholm, Canals, and Kalmar
The day began with visiting the Stockholm City Hall. An iconic symbol of Stockholm, I had walked around outside of it on my previous visit to the city, but ever actually made inside. Hosting the Nobel Price banquet as well as serving as the home of the Stockholm council, the building features mosaics and artwork chronicling the history of Sweden throughout the ages.
After touring the city hall, the trip was off for the first day traveling through Scandinavia! Lunch break was taken at the small “city” of Söderköping. This village once was the host of royal coronations in the Middle Ages, and later evolved into an economy that focuses on the 380-km Göta canal that runs along the flank of the main town center.
Looking beyond the real ducks, a small piece of artwork shows a group of rabbits helping saved a waterlogged companion.
Söderköping isn’t lacking in the runestone department. During a mid-20th century renovation of a medieval church, a runestone was found in the walls. Recovered, it was let to rest outside.
The destination for the evening was the southeastern city of Kalmar. Located on the Baltic Sea, this city is mostly known for the Kalmar Castle. Originating in the 12th century, the castle was steadily improved throughout the ensuing years. In 1397, the Kalmar Union was formed in this castle, which united Sweden along with Denmark and Norway. Intended as a block to German expansion in the area, the union ultimately failed as the nobility of the two other countries didn’t fully come on board with the idea of a cohesive state.
Wandering around the streets of Kalmar on the way to viewing the castle at night, the scene was peaceful as the cobblestones crunched underfoot.
Suddenly, a burst of activity occurred in the distance. A small rabbit jumped across the road and was closely pursued by a large black cat. The cat ended up in an open yard nearby a patio, and it seemed like there wasn’t much we could do to to save the bunny without stomping around the backyard of the house. Turning to continue the walk, this decision didn’t settle well.
Looping back, we tried to make noise and distract the cat to allow the rabbit to escape. Taking our cue, the bunny ran off and started hiding behind a traffic sign as we kept the cat occupied.
May 17th, 2017: Copenhagen
After a morning tour of the Kalmar Castle, we were off again to Copenhagen. The Øresund Bridge was part of the scenery we passed on the way. Spanning the strait between Sweden and Denmark, the Bridge actually consists of a 5 mile long bridge and a separate 2.5 mile tunnel. With both road and rail links, the bridge is a vital part of transportation infrastructure for these countries.
Today is the Norwegian Constitution Day! It was celebrated with cake.
After arriving in our hotel in Copenhagen along the picturesque Nyhavn waterfront, we embarked on a walking tour. As the group had a brief sit as our guide explained the history of the city, a Hans Christian Andersen impersonator suddenly appeared and gave a much-cooler-than-it-sounds talk about fairy tales and the city.
May 18th, 2017: Copenhagen
Something I noticed while reviewing this portion of the trip is that I didn’t take many pictures. It seems that the first visit to Copenhagen mostly eliminated my need to document it! The afternoon was a repeat of the harbor tour that we took back in 2011, and then finished off the day with a visit to Christiania. As usual, Christiania was vibrant and lively, with an excellent vegan food scene amidst the barely tolerated free wheeling cannabis trade.
Copenhagen has seen a lot of transformation in the past decade. New pedestrian bridges are springing up across the water, and newly renovated warehouses now host food markets filled with hipsters of all types.
May 19th, 2017: Viking Ships and Ærø
Leaving Copenhagen (briefly) in the rear view mirror, the trip was off to the city of Roskilde and their Viking Ship Museum. Situated at an important sea channel, the Roskilde Fjord was subject to a fortification effort by the residents of the area around the year of 1070. As part of this project, a series of seemingly retired ships were purposely sunk in the sea channel to block hostile sea movement. A local route was retained by the locals, and those who had knowledge of the blocking ships could successfully navigate around this navigational hazard.
Knowledge of these ships were passed down throughout the years, until the 20th century when information about them was just barely above the static. Excavations began in 1962. Separating the remains was no easy task: the ships were purposely sunk on top and around each other and the action of shifting currents and rotting of the wood itself created a jumbled puzzle. Nevertheless, a series of five different ships were found, including those of multiple types. In addition to a seagoing warship, a large cargo vessel, a small warship, and two others of unknown purpose were found.
Reconstructions of the ships were located outside the museum.
The museum space is designed glorious sparse 1969s architecture, and the main exhibit hall highlights the five hulls. Other than the supporting metal beams, no reconstruction was done on these ships: preserving their details as they were found.
Roskilde isn’t just home to Viking Ships: it’s also the site of the 12th century Roskilde Cathedral, which is the primary resting place for Danish monarchs.
Arriving at a local ferry port, we walked on to a local ferry. Destination? The Danish island of Ærø and the town of Ærøskøbing.
Signs of human settlement are traced back to 8000BCE the island: passage graves, burial mounds, and a meeting place still exist. Ærø experienced split rule for much of its history, and in the 19th century was a hub for smuggling. With a strong maritime tradition, sailors are still trained on the island and the children of Ærø still ply the Earth’s waters.
The entire population of the island is less than 7,000 inhabitants, and the ferry port–as well as the town where we will be staying–contains under 1,000 residents. Walking through the narrow streets, it’s easy to imagine that this place has changed little since the smuggling days.
Housing stock in Ærøskøbing is old. The B&B where I would be staying was constructed in 1784. Conveniently, this construction year was also easily noted as it was incorporated in the tie-downs visible on the building exterior!
Dinner that night contained a dessert of berry pudding with cream. It’s supposedly a Danish tradition, and in theory one possible way for serving it is to get a bowl of berries and then you pour the cream on top in the way of a cross: the end result should look like a Danish flag.
The beaches of Ærø are dotted with small brightly colored vacation cabins.
May 20th, 2017: Ærø
The first full day in Ærø started with a bike ride around parts of the island.
Hugging the coast for the first part of the ride, we glided by small harbors and then slowly started ascending towards the center of the island. Despite being, as Wikipedia phrases it, “gently undulating,” it’s a consistent elevation gain to the center of the island!
After the bike ride, the group reformed for a small journey around the island. First step was , a (small) manor house built in 1580. Surrounded by a small moat filled with croaking frogs and recently restored, it was ringed by rolling hills and a distant bay.
Or were those hills?
After clambering to the top of some nearby hills, we were informed that they were actually 12th century castle mounds designed to fortify the surrounding areas from incursion.
Continuing on, Ærø revealed its beaches.
…and even neolithic relics!
Almost everything in Ærø is adorably cute. Even the small ads for a local sightseeing flight is unreasonably attractive.
Nightlife in Ærø isn’t exactly bumping’, but the Nightwatch of Ærøskøbing was a nice excuse to get outside and explore the town as the sun set. If you peer closely at the town, the seafaring past revealed itself in the local architecture.
This house featured a second door above the main entrance. The purpose? It permitted access to an area where sailing cloth could be stored in a dry location.
This house certainly has a small dormer (window structure in the roof). Look familiar? It’s scavenged from the cabin of a sailing ship!
May 21st, 2017: Ferries Forever
Packing up from Ærø, the tour retraced its steps back to Copenhagen. Winding our way through the Copenhagen marathon, we stopped by Rosenberg castle for a visit before cutting loose from the tour for lunch at the local vegetarian buffet of RizRaz.
Fueled up, it was down to the Copenhagen waterfront to get on a DFDS overnight ferry to Oslo. When I say it’s a “ferry,” it’s not like a normal ferry we see in Washington State. This is a legitimate small cruise ship with restaurants, cabins, terrible bands, and a very lively duty-free shop.
May 22nd, 2017: Oslo
As the ferry made its way up the Oslofjord, relics from Norway’s past glided past. On April 9th, 1940, Nazi Germany invaded Norway. German warships entered the fjord and headed towards Oslo. One of the last lines of defense protecting the capital city was Oscarsborg Fortress, a complex made up of various islands in a part of the straight where it narrows. Last updated in 1890s with new guns and a torpedo battery, the complex was largely obsolete by the time World War II arrived.
Norway looked to be lost, but they were not depleted of fighting spirit. The military was tasked with delaying the invasion to give the royal family time to evacuate. As the heavy cruiser Blücher sailed past Oscarsborg, a salvo of 40 year old torpedos were launched from an underwater cave. The Norwegian’s aim rung true, and the Blücher, mortally wounded, rolled over and sank. Lützow, the second heavy cruiser in line, was damaged in the attack and forced to withdraw. The invasion force was delayed long enough to preserve the core of the resistance that would fight back at the Nazis for the duration of the war.
Scandinavia is proud of their city halls, and Oslo is no exception to this rule. Construction finished in 1950, and this building serves as the home of city government as well as the location of the Nobel Peace Price ceremony.
The City Hall featured various bits of art, including these two disconcerning portraits of what I presume are a king and queen. (The art was unmarked)
And here I am in front of the Norwegian Parliament, or as the call it, the Storting. “Ting” is a word you’ll see frequently in Scandinavia in various forms. A Ting is a unicameral representative body. Small towns to large countries all had Tings, tracing back to the times of the Vikings. Many ancient locations that we know of today were once Tings.
The legacy of the Nazi occupation dwells heavily on the Norwegians, who are proud of their efforts in repulsing the occupiers through resistance.
The lovingly maintained Norwegian Resistance Museum tells the stories of guerrillas who waged asymmetric warfare throughout the occupation. Targeting troop movements, supply convoys, and resource extraction, they delayed and continually harassed the Nazis
In perhaps their most famous effort, the Norwegian heavy water sabotage was an operation by Norwegian agents to prevent the Germans from acquiring Norwegian heavy water. Instead of regular hydrogen atoms, heavy water instead contains two deuterium atoms. Vital in the production of nuclear weapons, the allies recognized that the plant at Denmark was a critical component in the German weapon research effort.
Operation Freshman, the first effort, was unsuccessful, and all members were killed in either crashes or executed. The second operation, Gunnerside, was a success. With heavy water production crippled, the German nuclear weapon program ground to a halt.
Before dinner, we explored Frogner Park, which contains a large collection of sculptures created by Gustav Vigeland.
Dinner was a traditional dish of salted fish. It’s more-or-less what it sounds like. By salting fish, Norwegians were able to preserve it throughout the winter without refrigeration. Then the time came to eat it, they rehydrated it and cooked it up “normally.”
Since it was late May and the latitude high, daylight was plentiful. Oslo is in the midst of a construction boom and gentrification effort, and our group went on a walk along a redeveloped part of the waterfront.
Gentrification isn’t all fun and games, as this creepy statue dude proclaims.
Artwork frequently dotted the landscape.
May 23rd, 2017: Maritime Oslo
After a short taxi ride from downtown Oslo, we arrived at the Bygdøy peninsula. Originally an island, it was the site of the earliest known Norse settlement in the Oslofjord, and today boasts a number of maritime museums.
First order was a visit to the Viking Ship Museum. No, not the Viking Ship Museum in May 19th, but a different Viking Ship Museum. While the museum in Roskilde features a number of workaday boats in various forms of repair, the museum in Oslo contains ships of a different nature: burial ships. All three featured ships were previously discovered in burial mounds, and the Oseberg Ship is the most well-preserved Viking ship currently known.
Norwegians are still roaming the seas, and the other museums on the island feature more contemporary examples of their exploits. The Kon-Tiki museum chronicles the adventures of Thor Heyerdahl and his ship the Kon-Tiki. Constructed in 1947, the Kon-Tiki was designed to be a possible construction of a raft that South Americans could have made to settle Polynesia. Using materials from the time, he sailed the raft 4,300 miles before landing at the Tuamotu Archipelago 101 days later.
Prior to their raft building years, Norwegians were busy exploring the Northern and Southern ends of the globe. The Fram Museum primarily houses the Fram, a wooden ship constructed in 1892 to support arctic expeditions. With a reinforced hull and thickened beams, the ship was designed to survive multiple years locked in ice. It never reached the North Pole, but did greatly contribute to the charting of the Arctic,
May 24th, 2017: Norwegian Folk
Our bus left at 8am and we departed towards the Norwegian hinterlands. Over the next few days we’d be journeying through troll country: the heart of the mountains and fjords.
The first stop of the day was the open-air museum of Maihaugen. This is one of a collection of such museums around Scandinavia. There’s a small village of various buildings that are designed to teach about the history of life in Norway. However, the building locations aren’t original. Museum curators would find these buildings and move them hundreds of miles to a new location to create a seemingly cohesive scene. A stave church constructed 1150 was moved to Maihaugen in 1920.
Wandering around these buildings, it’s a good look at the construction materials and techniques used by villagers to create rugged and functional dwellings. Maihaugen doesn’t just preserve the distant past, it also has a series of houses built in every decade in the 1900s: each decorated with period designs, furniture, and appliances.
Maihaugen is located in the city of Lillehammer, the setting of the Netflix show Lillehammer and the host of the 1994 Winter Olympics.
Stopping in the town of Lom, we visited the extant Lom Stave Church. Originally constructed in 1150, it featured a triple nave and was constructed almost entirely out of wood. These heavy-set buildings relied on the strength of Norwegian lumber to support their height, and the interior decoration was woody.
Nestled just a few miles beyond Lom is the Elveseter Hotel. Located basically in the middle of nowhere in the mountains, this Hotel is a hodgepodge of wooden structures connected via interior corridors winding its way through the buildings.
May 25th, 2017: Jotunheim Mountains and Fjords
Under the watchful eyes of mountain trolls, we set off for the fjords!
Crossing through the mountains, the weather went from cold and clear to foggy and snowy.
Plying through the roads of the mountains, the snow depth continually rose as we reached the pass.
The road was typically 1.5 lanes wide, and featured many switchbacks that required nimble driving to navigate. It wasn’t great for those prone to motion sickness.
Our lunch stop for the day was by a fog-ridden Norwegian hamlet that was situated next to a similarly low visibility lake.
Making our way down from the hills, we arrived in Sogndal and waited for our ferry to arrive.
For the next few hours we’d be traveling along the Sognefjord. The largest and deepest in the country, Sognefjord makes its way 127 miles inland.
Scoured by glaciers, it’s not difficult to imagine the depths of this water. As the cliffs rise above the fjord, picture these slopes continuing downwards.
Waterfalls were omnipresent along the fjord.
There were even some seagulls coming to say hi!
There are few places that could support human settlements along the fjord, but those that did exist lead a small rural existence. Cut off by water, they largely are without any road connections to the rest of the country and must rely on ferry.
The ferry dropped us off at Gudvangen, the very end of a Sognefjord branch named Nærøyfjord. Gudvangen is connected via the 7.1 mile long Gudvanga Tunnel to other villages along the fjords. In places where road transport is possible, it’s made a reality through a series of extremely long tunnels. Route E16 passes by the villege, and E16 also features the longest road tunnel in the world, the 15 mile Lærdal Tunnel. The completion of this tunnel marked the start of a highway route between Bergen and Oslo for the first time without relying on sea transport or mountain passes.
Bergen, the second largest city in Norway, would be our destination for the day. An important trading post for the Hanseatic League, Bergen is still a major shipping and transport hub for Norway.
Dinner that night was the best of scarce options: a generic Chinese restaurant that featured a couple of vegetarian dishes.
May 26th, 2017
The small downtown core of Bergen can basically be seen entirely in this picture. A row of stores in buildings that formerly served as trading hubs adjoin the harbor, and in the distant is the Bergenhus Fortress.
Winding our way through the medieval buildings, we arrived at Bergenhus and toured the stone structure while learning about the defense of this port.
In Scandinavia, McDonald’s has something a little unexpected: a vegetarian burger! Paying $10 for a burger and fries (Norway is expensive), it was eaten along the waterfront.
After visiting downtown, there was only really one possibility left in Bergen: taking the funicular to the top of a nearby hill known as Mount Fløyen.
The main attraction of the mountain is the commanding view of Bergen and the immediate surroundings.
Popular with hikers, we traced our way down paths along the side of the mountain. The trails changed into narrow cobblestone roads as we descended.
May 27th, 2017: Seattle
Flying back! Nothing else happened this day.
You can view the entire collection of photographs for this trip on my Flickr Album.