So much beauty out there

October 7, 2006

Sweden/Norway, 2006

Filed under: All,Travel — Josh @ 12:50 pm

Summer trip to play korfball in Stockholm, visit friends in Oslo and admire fjords.


Part 1 

The first time I was in Stockholm it was only for a few hours, mostly spent in the Central Station. I left feeling it was a ridiculously inadequate time to see the city. This time I was there for 4 days, and still thought it was a ridiculously inadequate time to see the city.

I was there nominally for a korfball tournament, we came third, I top scored for us, the other teams were cool, and it was all rather fun. The social was fun, we ate loads of crumble and drank copious quantities of alcohol as it was cheap by Swedish standards. But despite Stockholm’s attempts to launch us into drinking songs and downing shots the fact that the social room closed at 12 meant we got a fairly early night. Unlike de Parabool who went off to drink a large bottle of vodka and were last seen getting attractive Scandinavians (tautology, surely) to pose for photos with them and their trophy. Bloody students, eh?

The food was most notable for a smorgasbord (sort of) that I had for breakfast, and Dave eating and then claiming to enjoy) a banana curry pizza.

After the tournament we did manage to look around the gorgeous old town, and decided that melon ice cream is delicious and that hills, cobblestones and tall heels don’t go well together (I should note it wasn’t me wearing the heels). Despite 20 minutes close scrutiny of a statue of St George slaying a dragon we weren’t able to decide his nationality. After that we decided to sample authentic Sweden by going to a tapas bar and then rejoining Supernova and Stockholm at an Irish pub.

Then we had Monday available to go sightseeing, with James’ friend from Stockholm Amy kindly agreeing to act as tour guide. But first we had to find her, more tricky than it sounds as we were unable to find Stockholm’s Central Station (a huge building) from the hotel (500 metres and 1 street away).

When we did locate Amy, she took us on a boat trip across the Baltic to one of Stockholm’s many islands where we admired the view from the top of the hill, then took in several buildings representing Sweden’s architectural history before finally getting to the real purpose of the trip – seeing a moose. It was part of a collection of Scandinavian animals, including a wolverine (hyper), eagle owls (statuesque), otters (cute), seals (not cute), brown bears (large) and reindeer (smelly). I do have some qualms about seeing animals in zoos, even where there pens seem quite spacious, and they did look a little restricted. Except the male moose (or elk, depending on if you’re American or not) did seem very content with life, despite the irony that Taff noted between a moose with its reputation for looks sharing its pen with a strutting male peacock.

There was also a petting area where there were some kittens looking cute for the small children. They had loads of dummies/pacifiers dotted all around the cage – apparently this is a trick used by Swedish parents who want to wean their kids off them by persuading them to give them to the kitties. Later I mentioned this to my friend, Elin, and she told me that her (Swedish) cousin gets her kids to give their dummies to Santa one year in exchange for presents. This seems a great idea, although I’d suggest parents extend the custom to every year, getting their offspring to give their most loud and annoying toy to Santa in exchange for a new pile of loot.

After that we went to see the ship, the Vasa, which sank in 1628 on its maiden voyage and was then lifted up – very well preserved – 40 years ago. It’s a spectacular sight, a colossal size which proved its downfall as it was just too tall and heavy for its base. It didn’t even manage as much progress as the Titanic, slowly keeling over before even getting out of the harbour area. Amy said that it was particularly sad because the ship contained many wives and children of officers and dignitaries who were to be disembarked on a nearby island and replaced by soldiers. However, I think its refreshing for once that soldiers who are always getting killed for the sake of women and children got to be on the right side of the deal for once. The rest of the museum was pretty good too, some imaginative designs as well as a bit of cheesy reconstruction. I have to say I was a bit underwhelmed by the focus on how it was restored though. They should try and keep that sort of scientific mumbo-jumbo out of museums of historical interest.

Overall, I think Stockholm is such a great city. It’s got a lot of things in its favour from the start – loads of water (mainly the Baltic, plus some lakes and river) and a good climate so there’s plenty of greenery. Plus the benefit of having avoided bombing during World War 2 or any civil wars. In addition, there are hardly any tall buildings which means you don’t feel too enclosed and the general views are better. Its not quite as low rise as Helsinki but not far off. Also its managed to keep the differences in architectural design within limits so that buildings don’t jar horribly with their earlier or later constructed neighbours. This conservatism does sometimes mean it can be a little non-descript, but it’s never ugly. There aren’t any buildings that are truly magnificent, but there are plenty that are very impressive – particularly the City Hall. According to the tourist information it began construction during World War 1 when there was a lot of poverty and food scarcity, and was thus criticised as a waste of resources. At least, until it was completed, when everyone agreed that such a fine building was worth a little deprivation. Maybe I live in a cynical age, but I do have a little smidgen of scepticism at that conclusion.

The old town is almost entirely captivating, even if it is over-populated by souvenir shops. Of course this means it looks rather less pure than a less touristy equivalent (say, the ancient ville in Rennes) but it’s been done in such a way that only the merchandising really intrudes, signs and advertising are minimal so the overall effect isn’t spoilt. In fact the least attractive part of the whole area is probably the royal palace, which is really rather rubbish. This in itself makes me warm to the Swedes for not being arsed to build a dramatic chateau for its parasitic tyrants. Because it must always be remembered that every monarchical splendour from the Pyramid of Cheops to the Palace of Versailles is also A Testament To The Oppression Of The Poor. Apparently the Swedish royal family do actually have a nicer palace elsewhere which they spend most of their time at, but as that is inconvenient we shall ignore it.

Still haven’t had a chance to see any galleries, and only one museum so I’ll be delighted to get a chance to go again. Next Stockholm tournament is only 24 months away!

Part 2

Next was an overnight bus from Stockholm to Oslo. Not a huge success as I utterly failed to get any sleep, and there wasn’t much in the way of scenery either, at least not visible because of the trees that flanked the road.

Wandered around Oslo city centre as I still had several hours to kill before meeting Elin. Apart from everything being eye-poppingly expensive, there wasn’t much that caught my attention – Oslo’s a well-organised and pleasant city, but it doesn’t really quicken the pulse. And there really is only a week’s worth of things to see. Elin kept on suggesting things we could do, and then realising that we’d done them last time.

When I met up with Elin she had her baby daughter, Nora with her. I still struggle with the pronunciation of her name, but I think “Nour-a” is closest. Anyway, she’s extremely cute and was very friendly. Or at least she was until she discovered I couldn’t understand either part of her Norwegian/baby talk vocabulary and wrote me off as a dead loss.

Elin had to go to an exam presentation by her (extremely cute) friend, Lotte, during the afternoon, so I spent most of it in the Vigeland Park. I actually dozed through most of this, but more on the park later. After Lotte passed with an A, I gatecrashed the presentation party for some free wine (in Norway, you take anything free that you can!) before living up to stereotype by finding the only other historian in a party of archaeologists and ignoring the rest.

After that, me and Elin walked Lotte to the train station where she was heading back to her dig. To while away the 3 hour trip she intended to drink her celebratory bottle of champagne. She and Elin wouldn’t open it though, so I had to try and do it on the station platform. It was going well until we realised that the train was about to leave. Attempting to hurry, I fired the cork off the platform roof. The guard did turn around quite sharply, but there weren’t any other repercussions. I did think that if I’d done the same in London I’d probably have been shot.

Wednesday, I went to the National Gallery where I’d been on my last visit. There was a fair bit of stuff that I hadn’t seen the last time. I liked Christian Krohg’s work as well as Roault’s Rocky Horroresque Cleopatra. I think my favourite was this photo by McAlinden, while the other painting that (unwillingly) caught my eye was Bjorn Carlsen – Kadaver Suges . On the one touch boards we had a thread for grimmest paintings and I think this qualifies – partly for the subject matter, but mainly for the vile lime green.

I meant to go to the Henie-Onstad collection in the afternoon (as it had free entry on Wednesday after 3) but it was a little way out of central Oslo and while waiting for the bus, I fell asleep and missed the trip. Still recovering from going 36 hours without sleep earlier, I guess.

Went out in the evening with Elin, and Julia who I also was friends with when they studied in Cardiff. I’ve not managed to keep in such close contact with her, so it was good to catch up for a bit – particularly as it coincided with the first good beer I’d drunk all holiday.

Thursday was really sunny, and I went back to the Vigeland park to chill for a few hours. It’s definitely my favourite place in Oslo, the park is nicely set out, there are hills and a river and plenty of grass. But obviously the main attraction is Gustav Vigeland’s sculptures.

In general, I tend to be underwhelmed by sculptures in galleries and museums where they never seem to be individually pretty enough to compete with the paintings. Plus the vacant eyes in all those classical busts freak me out. However in the context of a park designed to show them to best effect, Vigeland’s work is hugely impressive, particularly the massive fountain. Part of the appeal is also in the simple, basic but powerful emotions that he deals with – there’s little subtlety here but that doesn’t really need to be when your subject is the joys and grief of familial love.

Part 3


Despite the failure to sleep on the Stockholm to Oslo bus, my enthusiasm for overnight journeys remained undimmed – particularly as the Oslo-Bergen railway is reputed to be one of the most spectacular in the world and I was in the time of midnight sun in Norway. This may be a bit of a PR slogan, it was more the midnight twilight this far south, but still the scenery was clearly visible.

The view began to get impressive on the Hardangervidda Plateau, which comes after the amusingly named station of Gol. If I was employed as a platform announcer, I’d have to say it like a Latino football commentator: “we have just arrived at Goooooooooooooolll!!!” With lots of snow, mountains (and, irritatingly, tunnels) this was a pretty bleak place to live, however impressive the scenery. I did fall asleep for the next bit, descending from mountains into fjords, but woke up for more fjords and even more tunnels as we came into Bergen.

Bergen is a bit of a disappointment really. It’s not helped that its bucketed it down ever since I’ve arrived, but as its notorious for its being wet that wasn’t much of a surprise. It was just picturesque without actually being that pretty (rather like Shrewsbury actually). The wooden buildings at Bryggen are nice enough, but distinctive for being unusual rather than impressive. The rest of the architecture is fairly functional and the best view is of the mountains that flank it, where the top houses seem to be stuck in the clouds. There were also some very nice churches – at least externally, they charged admission to enter, which was obviously out of the question, who knows who’d end up with my money.

The big cultural attraction is the art museum, rather inconveniently located in 3 separate and non-adjoining buildings – rendered still more awkward by suckiness at signposting (seemingly a general malaise in Norway) and the rain. There were a lot more works here than at the Oslo gallery, but there was far too much (I initially wrote munch here in some kind of Freudian slip) romantic landscape painting for my liking. This was exacerbated by the fact that they largely ignored the dramatic potential of Norway’s topography to produce images that could have been depictions of 18th C Worcestershire. Ok, some paintings were nice, such as Dahl’s Dresden by Moonlight, but it got a little wearying. As usual, I preferred the more modern stuff – another by Krohg, Sleeping mother, (particularly after recent witness of how exhausting babies can be) and stuff from Strømme. I also liked Kleiva’s American Butterflies,yes the political symbolism is heavy-handed but who cares … it’s purty.

Night in a hostel. Went to bed very early with the aim of getting plenty of sleep to compensate for the night before. Luckily this meant I got some sleep before the guy in the bunk below me turned in. This was a world class snorer, scoring highly not just in volume, but also stamina, tempo and most of all variation. There were splutters, growls and snorts all thrown in before he spent 20 minutes muttering (I think) Polish imprecations. (I was wrong, they were actually Russian).

Saturday, and a day long fjord trip. It began with a return up the last section of the Bergen-Oslo railway that I’d slept through (mostly tunnels as it happened); then a bus trip past some waterfalls. These were great, though I was slightly alarmed at the tendency of half the passengers to charge from one side of the bus to the other to get the best view while the driver was negotiating delicate hairpin bends.

The trip really began to get going with a 30 minute boat trip. It’s amazing the difference in how much the view improved without a window in the way, and the atmosphere on top of the boat was much better than that inside. It was still mainly cloudy, but this added to the grandeur of some of the crags, particularly when interspersed with the odd burst of sunshine,

When we landed at Eidfjord I decided to go on a bit of a hike. This just got better and better, going along the river until I got to a lake, with cliffs always looming on each side. Then uphill on the way back as the sun came out, as I went through hilltop farms that seemed straight out of Heidi. Finally I got back above the fjord a couple of hundred metres up. You shouldn’t need me to tell you how beautiful it is to see a large expanse of clear water with green covered cliffs in each direction rising to snow-tipped peaks, with waterfalls cascading down. But if you do, the answer is – so beautiful it almost made me cry. No images, because they just don’t do it justice.

The water was a very green shade. If it had been in the UK I’d have assumed that it was full of pollutants, but Norway’s got a decent environmental record – except of course when they make the sea run red with the blood of ickle baby seals – so I guess it’s natural.

We then spent 3 hours back on the little boat cruising around the Hardangerfjord. It was fucking stunning and the various places we stopped at were lovely, particularly one called Utne, which had such an incredible view that if there had been an estate agent handy I’d have put in an offer straight away. Probably miserable in winter though. 

Back in Bergen, eat then bed as I’ve spotted the snorer is still around. Actually he was pretty considerate this time, waiting until 3am before getting going. Sunday in Bergen, raining again and everything is shut. Plus I think my sense of smell is returning as my cold wears off, because the pungent odour of fish is omnipresent.

Actually, wandering around it is nicer than I thought – better than Shrewsbury at least. But any idea that I was going to have a pleasant relaxing day exploring it disappeared when I tried to book my bus to Haugesund for the flight on Tuesday morning. Despite what the tourist information people had told me, the early Tuesday bus wasn’t running as it was a holiday of some sort.

So, I had to go to Haugesund straight away, and hopefully find somewhere to stay once I get there. It was a lovely trip down the coast by bus and ferry with the weather improving all the time. I know I’m getting a bit repetitive here, but the west coast is truly amazing – in the unlikely event of me getting rich then I’ll get a yacht and sail along it every summer.

I did find somewhere to stay fairly easily in Haugesund. It was a fair bit more expensive than the hostel in Bergen, but as I’d already decided to use an entirely fictional conversion rate to avoid contemplating the horrific expense of everything here, I could ignore this too. By now it was a gorgeous evening and I spent a couple of hours wandering around Haugesund. Generally Ryanair airport towns aren’t noted for their glamour or charm but its really rather an agreeable town with a very pretty quay – decorated somewhat incongruously with a statue of Marilyn Monroe, who’s father apparently was born here. Marilyn would have been 80 this year. Blimey.

The airport itself has a nice location too, though in accordance with Douglas Adams’ maxim (that no language has ever coined the phrase “as pretty as an airport”) the building itself is typically soulless. Which is unfortunate, as I’m stuck in it for a while as the plane is delayed. If I think if any jokes or educational aphorisms I will share. In the meantime I shall gaze vacantly into the middle distance.

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