Scandinavia Travelogue

In which our hero sees six European cities and a fjord in 16 days, and manages to enjoy them all immensely.


In August 2008, I had the opportunity to go to Amsterdam for the annual Human Proteome Organization (HUPO) conference. Just as with our Korea trip the previous year, Laura and I decided to make it into a vacation. Since neither of us had been to Scandinavia before -- and since, as it turns out, Laura's face lights up whenever someone says the word "fjord" -- we decided to go to parts north.

Here's the itinerary... it was rather complicated, I won't bore you with why:

Picture Links

On the whole, I'd rather have had a simpler itinerary with more time in each place. Our feeling, though, was that this was quite likely the only time we'd be in striking distance of these places for a long while, so there you have it. And since we stayed healthy and our energy level stayed high, it worked out pretty great. So, here we go.

Copenhagen Part I: The Copenhagening

All of the cities we flew into on this trip had quick and efficient airport connections by train. Jet lag was no big deal. We checked into the Cab-Inn City, whose motto, "Sleep Cheap in Luxury" is funny on a couple levels. The room was sort of humorously small, with bunk beds, but it did the job.

The statue of Hans Christian Andersen greeted us on our way into the center. Radhuspladsen (main town square) was hopping, with a big stage and a crowd. There was a big gay pride parade, which we watched for a while. Then we strolled down the Stroget, the crowded pedestrian street with great people-watching. That dumped us out into Nyhavn, the impossibly cute harbor. We indulged in a bit of the fine Copenhagen tradition of legal public drinking; beer prices in bars are prohibitive, but it's quite reasonable in stores.

We took a little canal-and-harbor cruise, which was pretty, and walked down to Kastellet Park, which contains an old military installation. The statue of the Little Mermaid sure was a statue of a mermaid , yup. Nearby was beautiful St. Alban's and the statue of the goddess who made the island that Copenhagen is on.

HC Andersen Brygge Reflection Goddess and St. Alban's

Our first Scandinavian hotel breakfast: bread, cheese, jam, butter, coffee. That was the breakfast menu for pretty much the entire trip. Amazing how many people show up at breakfast when the hotel rooms are the size of shoeboxes.

Rosenborg Castle was pretty small, but it was stuffed with Danish royal tchochke; I especially appreciated the giant wine barrels in the basement, and the silver lions were gorgeous. King Christian IV really sort of got things going in Denmark, so he was well-represented.

We walked past some pretty lakes that used to be the city wall or something, to the Norrebro neighborhood and checked out a microbrewery, Norrebro Bryghus, which was pretty good. Turns out Garrett Oliver from Brooklyn Brewing collaborates with them a lot, which is kind of a coincidence since we ran into him at Oktoberfest in Munich a few years ago . We spent some time in some very pretty gardens around the conservatory, and that was it for this stretch in Copenhagen.

Danish Lion Copenhagen pond Norrebro beers


After a quick flight to Amsterdam and a train to the center, we shlepped our bags a mile or so to our hotel just off Rembrandtsplein, on the Amstel river. We had some pretty good tapas on Utrechtstraat -- tapas places were pretty common everywhere we went on this trip.

The next three days were pretty much all about the conference, for me. I won't say much about that; it was pretty good, in worky ways. I presented a poster on Tuesday, and in addition to the usual indignity of the vertical poster orientation (which forces authors to stand close together to try to show off their work) they used an accordion layout this time (which forced us really close together). Amsterdam has a great tram network, and taking the tram from the hotel to Amsterdam RAI (convention center) let me feel a bit like something other than a tourist. There was a neat park behind RAI, Beatrix Park, that had some fun sculpture.

Laura did a lot of sightseeing during this time, and if she writes it up I'll put a link here. Suffice it to say that by Thursday she was pretty familiar with Amsterdam.

In the evenings, we had some pretty good meals and walked around a lot. We had a rijstaffel, a production involving a dozen or two Indonesian dishes that's so de rigeur for tourists that they should just give you a coupon for one with your flight. Some of them were very tasty, like the chicken skewers with a sauce that was like a hybrid of Thai peanut sauce and hoisin. That night we walked down to de Pijp , a pretty happening neighborhood, for some beers.

Tram to HUPO Fists at Beatrix Park img_1924.jpg

On Wednesday night the conference let out pretty early, so we had more time. We had some beer on Rembrandtsplein and ate some decent Indian food. We took a canal tour, which was pretty fun. Then we spent some time at In de Wildemaan , a fantastic beer bar . Interesting to see which American beers they carried (Anchor, Flying Dog, Great Divide; all great choices). I had some great beers, including one from a brewery called Texel that was pretty unique.

Canal view Under canal bridge Rain on cobblestones

On our last day in the Netherlands, we locked up our luggage at the train station and caught a train to Haarlem, about 15 minutes away. It's a beautiful little city. St. Bavo's church, on Grote Markt in the center, is awfully pretty; lots of people buried there, some marked with cool-looking skulls.

In Amsterdam and in Haarlem, there are these places called hofjes , beautiful little courtyards that are well-preserved and somewhat open to the public. We saw a couple of those, and a beer store that had the best selection of Belgian beers I've seen outside of Belgium. We walked east to the Adriaan windmill; two extremely nice ladies plied us with tea and showed us the windmill, respectively. Apparently the position of the "wings" of the mill when at rest conveys information: short rest, long rest, happy, sad, or emergency. They were in "happy" mode right then because of a birth of a girl in the building right across the river.

Back in Amsterdam, we wandered around the Jordaan neighborhood and tried Dutch pancakes -- big and thin, crepe-shaped but greasier & flakier, both sweet and savory types.

St. Bavo's Grave marker in St. Bavo's Adriaan Windmill

Amsterdam Observations

Oslo Part I: $10 beer

We got into Oslo pretty late and eventually found our hotel, which was off the map a bit. There was a huge thunderstorm that first night, but the weather held for the rest of our stay, with big beautiful puffy clouds.

In the morning, we headed to Karl Johan's Gate -- "Gate" means "street", and Karl Johan's Gate is a big pedestrian-only street that stretches east-west across the center of town. We went down to the harbor and hopped on a ferry to Bygdøy, a little peninsula west of the center with posh houses and big museums.

Karl Johan skies Karl Johan skies 2 Pretty pissoir

The Folk Museum had about 150 old buildings, many with sod roofs , that had been moved from different parts of the country. The Viking Ship Museum had three viking ships that had been found under kings' burial mounds. The Kon-Tiki museum had the ships that Thor Heyerdahl used in his journeys around the world. The Fram museum had a big polar exploration ship housed in a big A-frame building.

In the Folk Museum, we talked to a sort of docent who was hired to look all 1800s-y and tell us about traditional Norwegian life. Naturally, she was from Minnesota. She told us some interesting stuff:

Us in Oslo Harbor Stave church in Oslo museum Laura and Viking boat, spiral

Back to the harbor, and we grabbed some mercifully cheap chicken skewers at some kind of middle eastern festival that was going on. I think it's time for a word or two on the prices in Norway, and Oslo in particular. The best way to describe it is probably to list some prices of things. Drip coffee in a coffee shop $5, espresso $8. Mediocre beer $5/bottle in stores, $10 or more in bars, $12 on the train. Pizza fit for dinner for one person, $20. A full dinner for one in a regular restaurant, with a beer, would probably run you $50. My personal favorite for sheer ridiculousness: Big Mac, $13.

One more observation: blue laws. Apparently Norway had a huge perceived problem with alcoholism in the 1800s. For a while they were encouraging beer consumption, because the problem was perceived to be with hard liquor. Nowadays it seems alcohol is taxed like crazy, by the % alcohol they contain; wine and hard liquor are only sold by the Vinmonopolet, the state liquor store. No alcohol sales after 8pm, when stores will tie zipties on the cooler doors. Despite the high prices, though, college students never disappoint: at one point we passed a small college party whose apparent beer supply must have represented several hundred dollars' worth of devotion.

OK, one more observation. On Norwegian trains, even more than elsewhere, passengers are silent as the grave.

In the afternoon, we took the tram over to Frogner Park, where pretty much the entire life's work of the sculptor Vigeland is on display. Laura and I both really liked his style -- every sculpture contained some number of humans, naked, interacting in some way; and there were hundreds of sculptures. A fair amount of bitterness, but a lot of tenderness, too. The centerpiece of the park, though, was disappointing. Vigeland's giant "The Monolith", a single granite obelisk made up of contorted human forms, was covered in scaffolding and sheathed in plastic. I'll let you assign whatever metaphorical significance you like to that. Oslo's cathedral was also covered in scaffolding while we were there; bummer.

Oslo Clouds Look to the Skies! img_2032.jpg

Next we went back to the center of town and strolled north, past the cemetary where Ibsen and Munch are buried, and then along the Aker river, a wonderful greenbelt in the middle of Oslo.

Cemetery in Oslo Bridge over Aker River in Oslo Troll house?

We walked back south through the Grünerløkka and Grønland neighborhoods, which were trendy and a bit sketchy, respectively. It was nice to see parts of town where real people live.

Fjordy Goodness

Bright and early, we got ourselves to the train station and started our three-part journey to Balestrand, a lovely little town on Sognefjord. We took a regular train to Myrdal, then a special train that goes down a crazy steep slope down to Flåm, then a boat across the fjord. The steep train to Flåm passed a whole bunch of waterfalls, including one right next to the tracks. They did this kind of hokey thing where we all got out after a warning about legends of sirens behind the waterfall, then they played some music while a woman in a dress danced in the distance (look for her in the pic below). It was a little too cute, but the waterfall was fantastic.

The boat ride was great, with amazing scenery all around. It was thrilling actually being on the fjord, but it was also a highly competitive game of Take the Best Photo, with 50 tourists all jockeying for the best position on the boat's rear deck for an hour and a half. We passed several little towns clinging to the small flat spaces near the water, with farms crawling up the steep hillsides.

Waterfall on the way to Flam Beautiful fjords 2 Beautiful fjords 8

I have a ton of fjord pics... if you just can't get enough, here are a few of my favorites and here are all of our pics from Sognefjord .

At the Balestrand harbor, there were vans waiting for guests of the two swankiest hotels, Kviknes and Balestrand. The Kviknes van was particularly silly since the rear entrance of Kviknes is literally about 200 feet from the dock, around the corner. The van is only there so rich people can be driven around the block the other way to the front entrance. Classy! We weren't quite that classy, so we walked 5 minutes across town to our place, Midtnes (for the grammarian's being driven batty about now, the 's' without an apostrophe indicate's possession in Norwegian).

The three nicest hotels in Balestrand (all mentioned above) share a common structure: a gorgeous old wooden building out front, and a serviceable, ugly concrete structure behind that most people actually stay in and that is mostly hidden from the angle they use on their websites. It turns out that there's a good reason for the ugly buildings: a while back, there was a high-profile fire in a big tourist hotel in Norway, in which some foreigners died, and the government tried to make the owners of all the old wooden hotels tear them down and replace them. These places refused to tear down the old ones, but they did use concrete in the new buildings.

We got into Balestrand on a Saturday evening, after everything had closed for the day. Everything was closed on Sunday, too, so it was pretty quiet for most of our stay. We checked out the cute, old little church on the property of our hotel. Services there are in English, and technically it's part of the Gibraltar diocese. In the evening, we walked over to the tumuli (burial mounds) a bit to the west. The view from just about everywhere in Balestrand is very pretty, right at the edge of the water and surrounded by towering hills.

English church at Midtnes From the English church in Balestrand Tumuli

The next morning, we started the day with a guided kayaking trip on the fjord. The guide was a newly-minted Dartmouth grad named Elizabeth, and the other tourists were a British couple named James and Christine. James is a member of the military band that plays for the Queen on formal occasions, and his job takes him all over the world.

Kayaking was a lot of fun. Laura and I are utter novices, so it was a pretty relaxed trip. Elizabeth was the one who told us about the hotel fire and the concrete buildings, and she also told us why there were both red and white buildings on the fjord. Apparently red paint was cheaper than white paint back in the day, as it was made from a mining byproduct, so it was used on barns and white only on the houses.

Also, in small towns in Norway, everyone tends to have the same last name, the name of the town (we saw this later, on the gravestones in Vik). When new people move to the town, they take the name. But by law, if there are fewer than 200 people in the country with a particular last name, in order to change your name to that one you have to get the written permission of every single person with that name.

And one more thing, out there everyone brews their own beer, because the alcohol prices are so high; the hardware stores all sell kits.

We paddled around and enjoyed the conversation and the close-to-the-water perspective on the great views (these pics are from Christine).

Ready to kayak Fjord blending to sky Kayaking away

Then we decided to go hiking together with James and Christine. We ended up hiking all the way up Mount Munkeggi (1275 meters). The hike was beautiful and the weather was glorious. I ate a couple dozen wild blueberries on the way up.

Laura postcard Fjord hike 4 Fjord hike 11

Craggy cliff fjord peak kiss Peak

After our hike we decided to splurge on the smorgasbord at Kviknes hotel. And it was a splurge. Overall the food was just so-so. We tried smoked mackerel and pickled herring in three different sauces. The monkfish was quite nice. We had the best view you could possibly want. In addition to the regular cheeses, there was this brown, hairy-looking... thing... I guess they consider it a cheese, but a better word would be filth ... called Gamalost. I put a picture here so you can make sure never to let it anywhere near your mouth. It's made in Vik, just across the fjord, by some very inhumane people. It tasted like it was made entirely of the mold that makes blue cheese blue and possibly some earwax.

After the meal (which aside from the Gamalost was quite nice) we sipped coffee in posh chairs in rooms that smelled of fine wood and polish, and generally felt like obnoxiously rich people. Out on a table on the deck, we enjoyed the last of the light on the water. Some rich idiot had discarded the most ridiculous luxury item I've ever seen: a half-egg-shaped husk that looked a bit like a kiwi skin, half-filled with tiny, bright-red caviar and a toothpick. It probably cost him $100. This was clearly not a place for our kind, but it was fun to be there for an evening.

Smorgasbord reservation One of these things is not cheese, it is the DEVIL Fjord lights from Kviknes

That was it for Balestrand. The next morning, on the advice of the hotel manager, we took a bus, then a ferry, then another bus, and ended up in Vik, across the fjord. Vik is a bit bigger than Balestrand, with some industry, and it has a stave church and an old stone church. We had most of the day there; we dropped our bags at a hotel that doubled as the tourist info place, and headed up to Hopperstad Stave Church. Nearly everyone buried in the churchyard was named Hopperstad .

Unfortunately the church had a bunch of scaffolding around it -- the roof was being repaired. But the interior was pretty cool, and the guy who sold us a ticket told us a lot about it. It was built in 1140. He told us about the gallery and the lepers and the pregnant women. Apparently, too, the churchgoers would have had no view of the service whatsoever -- it was blocked by a tapestry, and of course it was in Latin anyway. Church would have been the main social outlet for people who lived so far apart. The big grave near the door was that of a German colonel's wife who died in the 1700s. She was literally "stinking rich": she paid a huge sum of money to be buried there, and everyone smelled her for months. Apparently the stench would peak in a couple of weeks.

We cut across some fields past another burial mound , and up a road to the Hove Stone Church . Everyone buried there was named Hove. We walked back down, past the place where they make Gamalost out of lumps of pure evil , and checked out the group of small, historic houses built close together near the waterfront. It was a nice afternoon.

Happy Fjordy Laura Scaffolding on Hopperstad Stinking rich

Bergen: a night and a morning

From Vik, we caught the express boat to Bergen. As we got closer to the coast, the weather got worse and worse. Bergen gets just 60 days of sunshine a year, and this wasn't one of them. The boat ride was pretty, with lots of little islands and more and more luxury houses as we got close in. They sold hot dogs wrapped in bacon on the boat. The boat dropped us at the harbor in Bergen right at dusk, in steady rain and some pretty high winds. We trudged to our hotel and were soaked by the time we got there.

We didn't have much time in Bergen -- our train was at 10:30 the next day -- so we went back out, crossed town in the deluge, and had a great little meal at the Opera Cafe. We walked through the Brygge, these old, long buildings very close together along the harbor. The next morning, we headed out across town again, this time in wonderfully clear weather.

Bergen rain Us, Brygge 2 Brygge

This time we had a destination -- we had to find the totem pole that Ballard had given to Bergen. Seattle and Bergen are sister cities, and Ballard has a nice little park called Bergen Place. We decided that the part of Nordnesparken (Nordness Park) that contains the totem pole should be called Ballardparken. Bergen was fun, and the touristy area was very much a part of the real city -- we were part of the morning commute as we headed across town.

That was about all we had time for, so we grabbed our bags and hurried to the station to catch the train back to Oslo.

Ballardparken 10 Nice shadows Brygge alley with Laura

Oslo Again: an evening

Not much time in Oslo this time around; just an evening. It was nice, though. We ate at a restaurant on a floating dock, then went to the Grand Cafe, which was frequented by Munch and Ibsen, and spent an hour or so just soaking up the atmosphere.

Back at the train station, we got on our overnight train and headed for Stockholm.

Gnome and 2 trolls Fortress, Oslo 2 Coffee in the Grand Cafe


We got into Stockholm at 7AM and met up with our friends Steve and Catherine at the hotel. They had just gotten to Stockholm a couple days before -- Catherine was in an academic program in town for a couple months. We walked around town and eventually over to Djurgarden, a pretty island with lots of greenery.

We spent a few hours at the Vasa museum, a tribute to what must be one of the stupidest boats ever built. It was built in the 1600s to be the biggest, baddest warship around, with two gundecks and obscene amounts of ornamental woodwork. It also had about half as much ballast as it needed, and 15 minutes into its maiden voyage, it sank, killing 30 people. The museum is pretty fascinating as a sort of cautionary tale about absolute power. The boat actually failed its stability test, but no one dared tell the king. Holy crap, what a stupid boat.

Steve & Catherine Vasa, World's Stupidest Ship 3 Damon and Vasa, World's Stupidest Ship 2

Then we walked to Gamla Stan, the medieval city center of Stockholm, and tromped around. The little Iron Boy statue was pretty neat. Some houses had golden phoenix emblems above the door; those indicated that the medieval owners had paid their money to the fire department and should have their house rescued.

We checked out the Södermalm neighborhood, much less touristy and pretty dense, and rode up an outdoor elevator from the 1930s that was used as part of the commute from Södermalm. Back in Gamla Stan, we navigated the river of tourists and found the Glenfiddich bar, recommended by Rick Steves. What a find! The bartender figured out right away that we were beer people and gave us tastes of a bunch of Swedish microbrews and told us about beer in Sweden. It turns out there's a burgeoning microbrew industry in Sweden, with at least 20 different microbreweries going strong; their microbrew revolution happened just a few years after ours did, in the early 90s. We tried some really good beers.

Iron Boy Gamla Stan alley Glenfiddich bar beers

The next day, Catherine had a math conference to go to, so Steve went exploring with us. We started with City Hall -- didn't take the tour, just paid to go up the tower. What a cool tower. It had a bunch of statuary halfway up, then the stairs stopped and we continued up on a ramp that spiraled all the way up. It was totally the sort of place where you expect to have to dispatch an orc or two.

Cool cloud reflection Laura in Stockholm city hall tower

We checked out Riddarholms kyrkan, with its 230-ton iron steeple, but didn't go in. Then, fika struck. Fika is the Swedish tradition of coffee-and-snack break that, according to Rick Steves, can strike at any moment during the day. We all liked the idea of a break for tasty snacks that can attack out of nowhere at any time.

After fika, we walked over to Skeppsholmen island and spent some time in the architecture museum. Swedish architects of particular reknown are apparently given a special license by the government to write really atrocious poetry. We did learn about the Million House Project, in which 100,000 homes were built per year from 1965-1975 or thereabouts. It apparently explains a lot of the pretty atrocious, ugly buildings that you see all over the city, right next to the beautiful older stuff.

Walking around, we stumbled across a long pedestrian tunnel under a hill, about a quarter-kilometer long and done up in this horrible yellow color. The hill doesn't seem like it'd be that big a deal to walk over, but apparently the tunnel was never used for any kind of train, so it's sort of an enigma to me. Pretty cool, though.

Fika! Yellow pedestrian tunnel

Then we checked out the Observatory, which of course is completely useless now with all the light pollution. But when fika struck again, we were glad for the little cafe up by the Observatory. We met up with Catherine again, and after dinner we found a pretty decent pub and had some more good Swedish beer. Laura was discombobulated by the wacky way that European digital clocks express times in the midnight hour.

On our last morning in Stockholm we went back to Gamla Stan to the Royal Armory. Pretty neat stuff there... suits of armor, carriages, swords, guns, and some clothes that kings were wounded and assassinated in. Laura got to dress up as a tin can knight. Then we took the train to Copenhagen, about a 5-hour trip.

Brooding clouds, Stockholm It's CRAZY time! Laura as knight

It was a pretty nice train ride. The last bit in particular, the long bridge between Malmo, Sweden, and Copenhagen, was very cool, with the sun setting ahead of us and fields of windmills poking up out of the water on either side. We checked back into the Cab-Inn (with slightly larger rooms this time) and got a nice Italian dinner on Jorck's Passage, off the Stroget.

Copenhagen Part 2: A Bit More Copenhagening

After the standard bread-and-cheese breakfast, we walked north and ran into the start of a big swimming race in the canals, just in time to see a bunch of swimmers start. I can't imagine those canals are all that clean, but it looked like they were having fun. Then we walked farther north to the Museum of WWII Danish Resistance. That was a pretty fascinating but bleak way to spend a couple hours; the museum seemed to do a good job of presenting the (initially, at least) relatively small and sabotage-and-underground-press-oriented resistance effort in a neutral light, neither puffing up nor downplaying its importance. The coolest thing I learned was that in a couple of instances the saboteurs would spray the war factory machinery with stinky oil so that the factory would be shut down temporarily but the machinery wouldn't be permanently damaged. Laura demonstrated her own resistance to the Nazis by attempting to destroy one of their mines with a well-placed kick.

Swimmers in Copenhagen Canals 2 Laura tempting fate

We walked around a Light Ship in Nyhavn, a boat that had been essentially a floating lighthouse to warn ships away from reefs. Pretty neat, I had never heard of those before. Then we checked out Christiania , a sort of permanent hippie camp ( no pictures allowed ). The main drags were crawling with tourists, and the place was remarkably well supplied with beer, implying some significant financial involvement with beer distributors, at least. But it was a pretty fascinating place anyway, and fun to poke around.

After a nap back at the hotel, we checked out the Vesterbro neighborhood briefly and headed to Tivoli Gardens for the evening. That was pretty fun. We were too cheap to ride any of the rides, but just walking around was kind of neat. The juxtaposition of kid and adult pleasures was interesting -- I don't know too many places where you can see a sign with a pair of boobs advertising a beer bar, half a block from a place selling gigantic lollipops and cotton candy. We watched a gloriously silly light show and then ended the evening with some 7-11 beers out on the square.

Lighthouse Boat Tivoli light palace Tivoli light show

The last day of our trip was pretty chill. We hung around the gardens near Rosenborg Castle a while, saw Steve and Catherine off on their train, and enjoyed one last cup of tea and glass of beer, respectively. It was a wonderful vacation. The screaming babies on our flight did their best to ruin our trip, but we took comfort in the fact that they will grow up to be ugly, somewhat dull children whose small lives will never include even the merest sliver of joy.