SCANDINAVIA and St PETERSBURG and ICELAND
July and August 2015
In 1991 after a week of skiing in Austria and a week with family in Munich, there was a requirement by my airline company to spend 24 hours in Copenhagen. Of course I was out and about all evening, as it was the only one I had. Bitter cold ! First thing I noticed was all the nicely dressed people, women in dresses, men in business suits, pedaling home during rush-hour on their bicycles in the winter slush. How sensible ! How Danish ! Later I begin to poke my head into the local fast-food places, thinking about dinner. It became obvious that most of the teenagers working in these joints were tri-lingual ! I'm thinking, How will I ever learn Danish when everyone's English is already so excellent.
Thus began a 25-year long love affair with the idea of Scandinavia. And who doesn't want to see the fjords of Norway ? While ascending a 14'er near Denver a few years ago, I met a woman on her way down, who had a slight accent and copped to being Norwegian. When she learned of my interest in her country's coastline, she told me about this ferry system that also carries passengers, from Bergen all the way north, around the top to where Russia, Finland, and Norway meet at the little port city of Kirkenes. I will never forget, as we continued in our respective directions, her wagging her finger at me … "Now, you be sure to do this !" Fairly strong recommendation.
Sharing this encounter with my cousin, we did enough research to get he and his wife excited about the idea. Several years later, we pick a month and start putting the adventure together. Then, of course, scope creep begins to take control of the plan. You know, that phenomena which is forever adding elements to any given task. Of course, I wanted to return to Copenhagen to measure my affection from so long ago, and especially to check out their world-class bicycle infrastructure. Then he pipes up with, 'Let's rent a car in Kirkenes and drive to St Petersburg'. Not practical given the available time, but that did segue into a Russian ferry line that operates between Helsinki and St Pete, and allows for 72 hour visits in this famous old city, without requiring an expensive visa. Then, of course, we must spend several days in Stockholm, and we cannot do any of this without spending time with family in Munich and Udenheim. A week for Iceland and the Ring Road will make this a fairly intense month.
First stop, three days in Copenhagen. One of the best things we did was visit the Viking Ship Museum in the nearby town of Roskilde. Five vessels from the 11th century were salvaged from the mud flats, preserved, and displayed. Castles and palaces and old City Hall, and the Nyhavn wharf area and a cruise of the harbor ... Only one day in Oslo, then a beautiful train trip over the mountains to the coastal town of Bergen. The fishmarket and the UNESCO World Heritage site of medieval Bryggen were excellent.
Our ferryboat trip up the Norwegian coast started here in Bergen, and the 7-day trip included 35 stops ! This is, more or less, the coastal highway system. Every day there was time in a village or small town that allowed an hour or two of wandering about: Trondheim, Bodo, Tromso, and Honningsvag were the biggies. At Honningsvag we were within a few miles of the Nordkapp, or at 71° the northernmost point in Norway. The spectacular fjords are mostly located between Bergen and Trondheim, and we were able to cruise up one of the deepest, the Geirangerfjord, on the second day. It was stunning. As we got further north, above the Arctic Circle at 66°, the terrain mellowed into rolling hills, absent forest as we are now above the Continental treeline. I'm very glad to have done this trip, but I don't see more cruises on big boats in my future. It's a very sedate thing, really, where one mostly just eats huge meals.
Next were three very fine days in Stockholm. What a beautiful city ! Friendly, open people who seem to have a lighter-hearted approach to life than most. We had an apartment in Gamla Stan, which was the entire city until sometime in the 16th century. One of my more memorable events of the entire month was visiting the Vasa Museum. The Vasa was a 17th century warship which was, obvious even to my untrained eye, absurdly top-heavy. This vessel, on its virgin voyage in 1628, made it about 20 minutes from the wharf, then was swamped and went down in a light breeze ! For 333 years it sat on the bottom of the harbor. In the early 1960s it was raised, intact and complete, and preservation efforts commenced. The museum built around this ship is worth at least one day, if not more.
We took an overnite ferry to Helsinki, in order to hook up with our ship to St Petersburg. Leaving Stockholm on the water was an amazing visual treat. Island after island, beautiful and inviting, for at least a couple hours. I found myself wondering, in the old days before navigation aids, how in the world did sailors find this place twice ? Seemed unlikely. St Petersburg is surely one of the world's finest architectural treasures. Gorgeous, massive limestone & marble buildings, stunning cathedrals too numerous to count and idyllic gardens right out of a Russian fairytale. The Hermitage has an excellent collection of art by famous people, and it is worth a day tromping through its many galleries. Tour buses were a huge problem here … there were hundreds of them. But, again, it is August.
There were several memorable encounters with locals, including the well-dressed businessman who interrupted his day to assist us, as we were clearly lost, dragging our bags up and down the wrong street, trying to find our apartment. Then there was our waitress in a Lebanese restaurant, who's English is better than mine, home for the summer from her college in upstate New York. She is studying international relations, and hopes to work in a diplomatic situation, but she says, "Definitely not for this country !"
The number of tourists who visited Iceland in 2016 was about 1.5 million. The population of the country is only 300,000. Needless to say, many residents are growing weary of the onslaught, including the new Prime Minister. But damn, they have such a beautiful country ! The language, now, is a challenge. This is the name of the volcano that erupted in 2010 and disrupted air travel all over Europe -- Eyjafjallajökull. I'm not making that up. One young woman told us, "As soon as we pass our exams in Icelandic, we all learn English. It is so much easier !"
Several years ago, I purchased a trailer for my bicycle, with the intent of biking around Iceland with the Hasselblad and camping gear trundling along behind. The 500-mile 'Ring Road' goes around the perimeter of the island, mostly right on the coast. It is, for much of its distance, basically a dike, with steep dropoffs on both sides and no shoulders. Spontaneous bicycle camping simply cannot happen. It was often difficult just to find a place to pull over to make a photograph. REI graciously refunded my money for the trailer. If you wish to visit Iceland, do it sooner rather than later.