As is the mantra of this blog that I repeat ad infinitum, better late than never, good things come to those who wait, etc etc etc. This as-usual horrendously overdue blog post really IS a good’un if I may say so myself, as I have finally been on some more intrepid adventures, the whole point of what is supposedly a travel blog after all . More importantly, there are A LOT of pictures!
Without further ado, let’s cast our minds back to mid-February, when my parents came to visit – the first time we had seen each other since August 2015. They had both been to Lyon before and had covered most of the tourist essentials, so we had a pretty chill weekend of mainly wandering and eating. Lyon was really just the gateway to the main holiday:as the title of this post suggests, two weeks in Scandinavia. Why would anyone in their right mind leave New Zealand in February, the only time of the year when there’s any hope of it being ‘summer’, for the *literal* polar opposite? Read on to find out…
Step one on the Scandi itinerary was Copenhagen. Mum and dad headed there on the Monday, and I joined them there on the Thursday. The trip was based around the one week of winter break I had from work, which I managed to stretch into about 12 days with some timetable juggling. My visit to Copenhagen could be described as ‘fleeting’, at best. I was there for a total of approximately five hours. My day started at 4am, with a walk to the tram to the airport, a 40 minute wait to get through security at 6am, two flights with an hour in Brussels, finally arriving in downtown Copenhagen at midday. As is always the way, after mum and dad had two days of cloudless skies, my short stay coincided with extreme dreariness.
Nonetheless, I was determined to make the most of it, and off we marched. Mum had found a route that took us through lots of little streets filled with interesting – and colourful – buildings. Our first pitstop was, basic as it may be, the little mermaid statue. From there we wandered through Amalienbord to Nyhavn, the pièce de résistance of Copenhagen sightseeing. Around Nyhavn were all sorts of artsy little streets full of classy looking coffee shops and design stores but alas, no time for serious browsing. Though my time was limited, what I saw of Copenhagen definitely confirmed that it was somewhere I’d like to spend more time. It definitely had a ~sophisticated Northern Europe~ vibe about it.
So why go to all that effort? Copenhagen is somewhere I’ve been wanting to visit forever, and though I knew this wouldn’t be a sufficient trip it was better than nothing. The main reason though was that we were taking the train across the Øresund bridge, an engineering marvel that links Denmark and Sweden.
At least, that was the plan. As you can tell from the above photos it was a miserable day, and by the time we were on the train it was total pea soup. As it was, the train ride was only half an hour long, and the bridge not even the whole trip. It was only by looking at a very specific angle out the train window that we could see some black stripes whizzing by and thus determined that we were in fact crossing the bridge. So that was a shame. But, life is not all about ‘#doitforthegram’, and it is still an experience I can say I’ve had, even if it wasn’t perfect.
The train ride brought us to the city of Malmö, Sweden, around 5pm. For those keeping track, that’s FOUR countries in the space of twelve hours. What a day! Malmö was just as dreary as Copenhagen, and I was fading by this point, as was the light, so all we did that evening was find dinner. The highlight was the little ‘tea room’ that our hotel had, where was once the city’s public library:
The following day we spent the morning wandering round, and that was quite sufficient. Malmö is Sweden’s third city, after Stockholm and Gothenberg, but it really doesn’t have a whole lot to offer the average tourist. Nonetheless, it did have some interesting modern architecture, AND tiny little houses on cobbled streets in the old town, the combination of which was Quite Interesting.
Stockholm is where I feel the trip really kicked in to full swing. We arrived on the Friday night, in time to make it to late night at the modern art museum before it closed (despite the worst luck getting in from the airport and making it to our hotel). As we arrived in the dark though we didn’t really have any idea for the feel of the place that day. The following morning we were up bright an early with a lot of ground to cover (literally and metaphorically). A vast improvement on Copenhagen and Malmö, Stockholm was chilly, but beautifully crisp and clear – perfect weather for a winter holiday! The ‘we’re in Scandinavia and it’s winter’ really hit home as we set off for the day past the sea (?) which was frozen, but in a totally textured way. This Antipodean had never seen anything like that!
First on the agenda for the day was climbing the Monteliusvagen hill in Södermalm for a superb view back over the city centre. We then went on to Gamla Stan, the old town centred on one island, where we explored the wee streets. We even stumbled across the changing of the guard at the palace. This was interesting as it felt a lot more ‘informal’ than others we had seen – with the poor guard having to step outside of his little box every couple of minutes to tell endless tourists that NO they could NOT stand in the middle of the gate, and had to stand behind the roped off sections along with EVERYONE ELSE. What was great though is they had an announcer giving information about the history/traditions/regiments of the guards involved/different pieces of music that they played throughout the whole thing. It went on for quite a long time and we had to leave before the end.
Our plan was to go to the parliament tour, however that didn’t end up happening. I shall recount the whole saga when we get to part two, because it turned into a two-part saga. Instead we made the most of our now-free afternoon to tram over to the island of Djurgården, in the pursuit of several museums. The first was the Vasa Museum, home to the Vasa warship which sank on its maiden voyage in 1628, and wasn’t salvaged until 1961. It was certainly an impressive museum, and I especially enjoyed learning about the salvaging and conservation processes that are still ongoing. However, there was a lot of information to take in, and we had had enough after a couple of hours. I also felt like it wasn’t that well organised – while some people might like a museum that has no ‘correct’ way to go around it, I wanted to follow the ship’s construction/launch/what went wrong (for example) in chronological order, which wasn’t evident. Nonetheless I would definitely recommend a visit if you’re in Stockholm.
From the Vasa we went to another museum which couldn’t have been more different…THE ABBA MUSEUM! This was expensive, even for Stockholm, but so worth it. I don’t know if I could really say I’m an Abba fan, as I like their music as much as the next person, but I really didn’t know anything about the group, so the museum was very informative. It was super modern, packed with information about every imaginable aspect of the band and their life, and all sorts of paraphernalia. There was a LOT of interactive stuff to – recording yourself singing/dancing/performing with holograms of the band, so I’d definitely recommend going with someone who’s going to be up for all that to really make the most of it.
By the time we left the Abba museum it was already dark (and of course, cold), but no fear! We had some Very Important Business to attend to underground. Much like Moscow, Stockholm’s metro is known for its arty stations. Unlike Moscow, the trains are not every 30 seconds, which meant one had to make a quick decision about whether hopping off at any given station was worth the wait, especially as we were there late on Saturday evening, and early on Sunday morning (before and after everything else was open, to maximise efficiency). Nonetheless, with some meticulous planning we managed to get round the most renowned/recommended ones, stopping at about 15 all up. Here are some highlights:
After the metro tour on Sunday morning we headed to the Nobel museum back in the old town. Once again, very different to the other museums we had been to, and again, fascinating. From there I headed back to parliament for my second crack at the tour, only to have all my hopes and dreams cruelly crushed. The day before we had turned up at 1pm, for the tour at 1:30. We couldn’t find where we were supposed to wait though, so went and asked some ‘guards’ (not really guards but idk what to call them) who were hovering round talking. They told us which door to wait at, but that it wasn’t today, it was tomorrow, and at 2:30, so to come back then. Which I duly did. Only, as you have probably guessed from the buildup, that was not the end of the story. I waited at the spot they had showed me, and thought it was quite weird that I was the only one there. Eventually another group turned up and asked me about it and I told them what I knew from the previous day’s discussion. They then went to talk to the same guards and came back to report that the tour had been at 1:30, that day AND the previous day, and they had already let a big group in so weren’t doing any more. I was LIVID. It was the exact same guards, so I went to talk to them. Not looking to pick a fight, but to be like um what’s the story. The guy seemed to remember me, but claimed not to remember what he had said, then said he had said ‘half two’ which in Germanic languages means 1:30 not 2:30. Which was a fair point. HOWEVER, we had been there at the right place and the right time the day before and he had literally told us to go away because it wasn’t then!!! Then he was like ‘anyway, you shouldn’t trust wha I say, you should read the signs’. THERE WERE NO SIGNS. DO YOU THINK WE DIDN’T LOOK BEFORE WE CAME TO TALK TO YOU IN THE FIRST PLACE? I was so mad, because of the injustice of it all first and foremost, because I’d come from so far away of course, but also because we had now arranged both of our full days in Stockholm around this visit that didn’t end up happening.
Due to that spanner in the works I now had a whole afternoon ahead of me and really not much to do, as we had been so good with our time so far. I made the most of my metro pass and headed to the history museum, which was disappointing. Not really surprising though as I was in a bad mood. It was a good quality museum with decent exhibits, but the vast majority of it was focused on the medieval period which at that point I just felt like I could not care less about. I wanted to learn more about the modern history of the nation of Sweden, as a constitutional monarchy like NZ, and there was not much about this (you know where I could have found out that info? On the parliament tour…). From there I poked my nose into a couple of shops before they closed, maxed out the last few hours on my metro pass to visit some more stations, and even made the most of the hotel gym before bed.
The next morning we bade Sweden farewell in favour of Tromsø, Norway. Tromsø was the real focus of the trip, and the reason for the winter holiday. Why go to the Arctic Circle in winter? Northern lights chasing of course! After our first attempt to see them was unsuccessful (unsurprising, due to the snow blizzard we landed in), we got really lucky two days later with a whole day without a cloud in the sky (during which time none of us wanted to say anything to jinx the situation, and were really trying not to get our hopes up only to have them dashed again). Luckily, the clouds stayed away that evening as well, and we had success! Such a relief, first and foremost, but of course an incredible experience in its own right. We ended up at a spot in one of the fjords, overlooking the water and the mountains. We pretty much carved out a trail and set up camp in the snow for the evening. To start with, we could just see variations in how ‘dark’ the sky was. These did turn out faintly green on the camera. But, over the course of the evening, they got stronger and stronger until we could eventually see the green lights shimmering and dancing with the naked eye. They lasted about an hour and a half all up before they faded again, during which time I took about a million photos. You can imagine what fun that was to cull down…here’s a wee selection:
While the northern lights was the reason we went to Tromsø, it’s not the only thing the city has to offer. We were there for four full days, and made the most of the winter activities available. Day two was a fjord tour around Kvaløya, unfortunately tempered by inclement weather (we mutinied against our guide and voted for lunch inside the shuttle, rather than ‘on the beach’). I could appreciate the fjords, especially in the snow, and I really enjoyed the little coloured houses dotted around the place, but I couldn’t help feeling like they would be more impressive to people who aren’t from New Zealand and, er, more accustomed than the average joe to this kind of thing.
Day three started with dog sledding, which at the time was the highlight so far. We started with a talk about the dogs (which are Alaskan huskies who like to run, not huskies who are more like wolves and avoid spending energy unless hunting for food – the more you know), had a brief instruction about how to manoeuvre the sleds, and then were thrown into the proverbial deep end. Luckily everything went figuratively, if not physically, smoothly. Brake downhill, lean into the corners, and give the dogs a hand on the uphill. Simple, right? Of course our dogs were the ones that decided just to sit down when they felt like it and not budge, holding up the rest of the group behind us. At least they stayed on-piste though and we didn’t have any mishaps. Overall we were out with the dogs for about an hour and a half. That night was the second, successful attempt at the lights, so definitely the best day overall.
The following day we had another ~wildlife excursion~, this time…reindeer! After the northern lights, I think this was the highlight for all of us. It was with Tromsø Arctic Reindeer Experience, a new company set up by local Sami people to a) share their culture with others, and keep it alive, and b) show its importance (not least as a tourism moneymaker) to the government in the hope that they will allow the Sami people to stay on the land rather than using it for other developments. We started by feeding the reindeer, who were quite aggressive until they got some food in them and calmed down; then there were a few activities like lasso throwing and a short reindeer sled ride, before lunch time. Guess what was for lunch? Reindeer stew. We knew this would be the case, and they were very upfront about the irony of it, but it is a traditional way of life for them. It was very tasty, but quite unfortunate for those of us trying not to eat meat (though that totally went out the window on this trip, which I was prepared for). After lunch we had a talk from Johan-Isak, who had started the business, about Sami culture and traditions. He was such a genuine person, and seemed so humbled that we had come to learn about his people, it was quite a moving experience.
In between all these excursions we did have time to thoroughly explore Tromsø itself. It’s actually a fairly decent ‘city’, and even has a university, though the centre city is quite small. It reminded us of Queenstown – not just being by the water and mountains, but the whole vibe of the place. From the moment we stepped out of the airport it was snowing full-on, and it was such a novelty for us to be in that much snow, everyday. The average daily temperature was probably around -3, which was not much colder than the weather we’d been experiencing in Lyon the week or so beforehand, and dropped to around -10 when we were out chasing the lights. Luckily all of the activities we did (apart from the reindeer) provided full snow gear, so it really didn’t feel that cold. Sunset was around 4pm, at which point we usually had a wee siesta before dinner. Overall our stay in Tromsø was definitely a success, and I would definitely recommend a visit there for those looking for an Arctic experience!
After four full days in Tromsø it was on to our final destination: Oslo. We hit the ground running, making the most of the clear skies to head to Frogner park, home to 212 sculptures by Gustav Vigeland, largely considered one of Norway’s greatest sculptors. I really liked his stuff. After that we managed to make it to the Nasjonalmuseet before it closed. It wasn’t huge, but had an excellent collection spanning antiquity to the 1950s. Its most famous drawcard is of course Munch’s Scream. I thought the museum was actually organised in a great way that made it hard for people to make a beeline straight for that without taking in the rest of what the museum had to offer.
The following morning we were up bright and early with one thing in mind: redemption (aka, a tour of the Stortinget, Norway’s parliament). This didn’t make up for the Stockholm debacle, but it was the best we could do. Let the record show that the Norwegians had VERY clear information, diagrams, and signage about where and when one should go for the tour. The tour was quite short, only an hour all up – including the security processes – but quite interesting. One fun fact: MPs sit according to the geography of the electorates they represent, not their party. So round the outside of the chamber are ‘whispering couches’ where they can get together to discuss things during sessions.
After parliament we met up with Marianne, a colleague from my former life as retail superstar at a certain outdoors store. We hadn’t seen each other since 2013, but it felt just like old times. She was our own personal guide and knew just the right shops to take us to for what we were looking for (now that we finally had a bit of time for such leisurely activities). The next day we ended up going round to her place to meet her family and had some traditional waffles with jam and sour cream – surprisingly tasty!
It was lucky we went to the sculpture park when we did because the rest of the weekend was pretty wintry. This didn’t matter though as pretty much all I did was go to museums. The Munch Museum was a must, and surprisingly interesting. From the get-go we had to go through a whole security shebang, and it seems to routinely change up its exhibitions. The one it had going was showcasing his paintings as their themes related to those from Madame Bovary, but specifically Madame B, a 2014 film with a modern and honestly, particularly weird, take on the classic story. To my own extreme surprise, I actually really liked it, and came away wanting to watch the whole film, weird as it was! The exhibition was really innovative with its juxtaposition of the paintings with clips from the film, and even the layout was quite different to anything I’d seen before.
The next museum on the list was the Viking ship museum, which does what it says on the tin and houses three Viking ships that were excavated around the 80s. This museum came very highly rated, and while I wouldn’t say it was disappointing, I wouldn’t rate it as a favourite either. The whole thing was quite, well lacklustre. BUT the information they did have on the excavations, and especially the sheer volume of stuff buried with the ships as part of the ritual, was fascinating. It’s a shame the basic museum didn’t really do its artefacts justice.
What WAS a highlight was the Fram museum, which we decided last minute to go to. We had learnt about the Fram at the little polar museum in Tromsø, so it was quite serendipitous that was discovered there was a whole museum about it in Oslo. The Fram was a ship built specifically to become frozen into pack ice, in the hope that it would drift to the North Pole. While it didn’t quite meet this goal on its first expedition with Fridtjof Nansen, it had been fascinating to read about what he had planned, and what he ended up achieving. What’s more, the boat was later part of several other important voyages in the Arctic, as well as Amundsen’s successful voyage to the South Pole. Not your average ship, in other words! The museum in Oslo was excellent. Similar to the Vasa museum, the museum was built around the ship itself. It was very modern, with all sorts of interactive exhibits, and very clearly presented information. Best of all, we could actually go on board the ship – not just on the deck, but several levels down below too. This museum was a highlight because it was such an unexpected success. Again, definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area!
That evening it was time to bid au revoir to les parents as I was off to stay at the airport hotel before flying out at the crack of dawn the following morning. My 6am flight sat at the gate for about 45 minutes before taking off, which meant that I made my connection in Brussels, but my suitcase didn’t. This led to the worst experience I had EVER had in an airport back in Lyon, with incompetent staff successively directing me to a new wrong person and each one getting ruder and ruder :) :) :) by the time I actually made it to the right desk the guy was very nice, and apologetic, and actually did his job as I was reunited with my bag that evening (not without a fair amount of disruption to my day though). Luckily I had all my essentials with me, as I had to go straight to work and teach a class.
Et voilà! That brings us to the end of February. The next instalment of what I’ve been up to since then is hopefully just round the corner…à suivre.