Sunday, May 30, 2010

Line Dancing In Norway

From Oslo it was due west (when I say that I mean geographically, because due to the country's steep topography, there's no such thing as a straight road in Norway) to Bergen, Norway's second city, erstwhile capital and important Hanseatic trading town (those Hansa guys again). Bergen is renowned for the Bryggen, a neighbourhood of wooden wharfside buildings that date from the Middle Ages, although much more of the downtown area is made of quaint, wooden houses stacked up on the city's steep hillsides.

View of Bergen's Bryggen from across the harbour.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


When going on holiday it's always nice to plan stays to coincide with local festivals and celebrations. With this trip, however, I am where I am when I am and there's little I can do to alter that, as I move inexorably onwards towards my final goal (wherever that may be). I therefore often just miss out on various events that I would dearly love to experience but just can't reach in time. For example here in Norway I missed out on the National Day festivities on the 17th of May, which is supposedly the biggest celebration of the year, where people go a little bit crazy, wrap themselves up in their flags, and get horribly drunk in the streets (the latter is a common theme in Scandinavia). I was also wanting to do a fair amount of hiking whilst here (the landscapes of Denmark and the Netherlands don't really lend themselves to mountaineering), especially in the Jotunheimen national park, which is said to contain some of Norway's most spectacular mountain scenery and highest peaks. Since I would be doing this alone it is imperative to get properly informed, so I made my way to the DNT office (Det Norske Turistforening - Norwegian tourist association specialising in trekking) here in Oslo to enquire about conditions and about getting a map. The guy at the office said that this would be difficult for two reasons: firstly there is still a decent amount of snow from about 1000m and above (i.e. pretty much the entire park) - he even showed me a real-time webcam to prove his point; and secondly that the temporary bridges that are removed over winter have not been replaced, and so all rivers, which are now high with meltwater, need to be forded. Needless to say I will be revising my plans in light of this and will have to opt for lower altitude hiking.
Oslo's funky new opera house, whose roof has become a favourite public space.

Friday, May 21, 2010


Stockholm is, for the immediate future, the eastern limit of my travels - I now had to make an about turn and head almost due west towards Oslo, as I am hoping to circumvent the Gulf of Bothnia via Norway and Finland. My dilemma, therefore, was to devise an itinerary to get me there. My first stop was easy to choose: not only is Uppsala an erstwhile Swedish capital, but more importantly (for me), it was home to a certain Carl Linnaeus. He may not be a household name, but to biologists he is up there with Darwin and David Attenborough, for having devised the binomial system of classification of all living things which is still in use today. The town is cashing in on its famous son and there are a myriad museums and sites connected with his life and work. From Uppsala there are no obvious stops before Oslo and so I consulted The List. I find UNESCO world heritage sites a useful way to form a rough outline for a travel itinerary, which can then be fleshed out with more places as I do more research. I'm not overly dogmatic about them and do not feel I have to tick every single one off in each country that I visit, but I do feel that they are a useful starting point from which to begin investigating potential places to visit. They are invariably unique places and often they are either aesthetically beautiful or culturally and historically important or maybe even a combination of the two. Northwest of Uppsala (so roughly in the right direction) are two such sites, at Ängelsberg and Falun, that characterise Sweden's unique industrial past.

Even Falun's slag heaps (the detritus from the copper smelting process) are considered part of the World Heritage area.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Food In A Tube

Spring finally arrived yesterday with a bang: out of nowhere a balmy, sunny day with nary a cloud in sight. You could almost see the buds burst open in front of your eyes and by the end of the day most trees actually had leaves and were a beautiful, vivid green of fresh growth. I even managed to ditch my jacket and jumper and wear just a T-shirt for the first time as well (a memorable event which was duly noted in my personal diary). Café owners rushed to dust off their outdoor furniture as the sun-starved Swedes came out in force in their skimpiest clothing to take advantage of every last second of sun as if it might be their last, which, according to one particularly pessimistic countryman that I met on a bus, it well could be (at least for this year).

People are beginning to come out on Stockholm's streets as the sun makes a tentative appearance.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Desperately Seeking Spring In Sweden

From Copenhagen I crossed the Øresund, over the mighty Øresund bridge, to Sweden. Unfortunately my hitching exploits didn't get me far and I got stuck in Malmo and had to continue by train (the Swedes are notoriously reticent in picking up hitchers). The difference in landscape is immediately visible as so far the countryside had been dominated by flat farmland with the odd hill here and there, but now forests were holding their own against the agricultural hegemony and brick and cement houses have given way to brightly painted (mainly red or yellow) timber. And although the scenery might have changed a bit one thing that has remained constant during my trip has been the weather. I have been making my way steadily northeastwards and so have remained one step ahead of spring. Wherever I have been the signs of its imminent arrival have abounded: pre-spring flowers like daffodils, snowdrops and forest anemones are everywhere; the buds on the trees are awaiting to explode into leaf; and the weather's more changeable than a teenage girl deciding what clothes to wear to a party. The one constant has been the cold weather, with it barely ever exceeding 10 C so that my one jumper and thermal long-johns have become a permanent fixture of my daily wardrobe.
I headed quickly to the east coast towns of Karlskrona and Kalmar, which are interesting as they chart two tumultuous phases of Swedish history. Kalmar, the older of the two, used to mark the border between Denmark and Sweden and is famous for the treaty that was signed there which united the kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and Sweden. It was never really popular in Sweden though as they felt they were getting a raw deal from the Danes (with whom they have fought numerous times over the years and have a love-hate relationship) and it only lasted for 125 years. During that time Kalmar was at the centre of the Union, afterwards it withered away to a provincial backwater, albeit one with some nice old bits. As Sweden rose as a regional power (to the detriment of Denmark), with possessions on both sides of the Baltic, it decided to build a super-duper new naval base from scratch on a deserted archipelago on the south coast which became Karlskrona. Built in the latest baroque style the main town was off limits to civilians well into the Cold War era, but with the decreasing importance of the military it is now diversifying into a student and IT town.

Kalmar castle, at one time the capital of the short-lived union of Sweden, Denmark and Norway.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

To See Or Not To See

Denmark occupies a strategically important position at the entrance to the Baltic Sea that has been its major trump card throughout much of its history. At its narrowest point the Øresund straight that separates Denmark from Sweden and the Scandinavian mainland is less than 4km wide. In the 14 hundreds the wily Danish king Erik (good name that) decided to make use of this interesting geographical feature and decided to levy all passing ships to help supplement his coffers - a clever move which funded the kingdom for the next 400 years (during the Middle Ages the Sound Dues provided two thirds of Denmark's state income). To back up his toll requests he carried a very big stick in the form of two castles built on either side of the straights at Helsingborg and at Helsingør, which is also known in English as Elsinore. To classical literature buffs the name of Elsinore is indelibly etched together with English literature's most quoted and most popular character: Shakespeare's tormented Hamlet.
The imposing Kronborg castle defends the Øresund Straight, once the main source of Denmark's wealth.