Richie and I just returned from a week-long jaunt through Scandinavia. Geographically, that’s technically not true – we went to Norway and Sweden (which is considered part of Scandinavia), Finland (which is not part of Scandinavia, but of the Nordic countries), and Estonia (which doesn’t belong to either the Nordic OR the Scandinavian countries but together with Finland is a Baltic state). Whew. Anyway, for the purposes of simplicity, I’m going to say we went to Scandinavia. Cool?
This trip was originally going to be just a minor addition to a trip to Russia (St. Petersburg and Moscow). However, the Russian visa process requires you to surrender your passports to the embassy for the entire time they are working on your visa paperwork, which could be anywhere from 10 days to … who knows. Since Richie had to make a return trip to the U.S. in late June, we looked at the timing and decided it was just not going to work. We decided to postpone the Russian segments, and so with the assistance of our trusty Rick Steves’ Scandinavia (hereafter referred to as “the Rick book”), we began to plan our trip to Oslo and the Sognefjord in Norway; Stockholm, Sweden; Helsinki, Finland; and Tallinn, Estonia.
We started our trip on Friday the 13th. Those superstitious folks amongst us would gasp at starting any vacation in such a way, and while I’ve never thrown salt over my shoulder or walked warily away from black cats, I now have a respect for those who are friggatriskaidekaphobians. (Yes, I had to look that up.)
First, our flight was delayed by more than an hour due to employees of the Oslo airport just deciding they weren’t gonna go anymore. During the flight, we consulted our trusty Rick book and found that Oslo had a quick and affordable train service that would take us from the airport to a mere 3 blocks from our hotel. However, upon boarding that train, the conductor announced that the train was stopping in just a few minutes as the central train station in Oslo was not receiving trains for the summer due to city improvements. Instead, we would have to stop at this alternate station and take a bus to the central station, then buy a metro ticket for the rest of the trip. Undaunted, we ran through the rain with our luggage to the bus, threw my luggage on and I boarded to save us seats. I then glanced out the window to see Richie’s face getting really angry as they told him there wasn’t anymore room on the bus, despite the obvious 5 or 6 empty seats around me. I frantically gestured to him to figure out whether I should get off the bus. He mouthed “No, stay”. So, my bus departed and Richie was left to stand in the downpour without an umbrella. Luckily, the next bus was right behind ours, so we ended up at the central station just a few minutes apart.
Then, all we had to do was buy some metro tickets and be on our way, right? Yep. Except that all of the machines for the metro tickets in this particular station were broken except one, and this one only accepted credit cards with chips in them. All of our chipless cards were tried in vain. Finally, Richie realized that the sign on the 7-11 nearby, despite being in Norwegian, might mean that they sell metro tickets. Success!
Until we emerged from the metro with absolutely no idea where we were, and it was still raining. None of the streets had street signs, so we ultimately just picked a direction and started walking. It ended up being mostly right, and we checked into our hotel without incident. By this time, it was nearly 11 pm, it was still raining, and we hadn’t yet eaten dinner. We trudged from restaurant to restaurant only to be told that the kitchens were closed. We finally found a place close to our hotel that was still open and decided it was our best shot. I remembered about two bites into my food that I had checked this restaurant out online while trip-planning and it had gotten awful reviews. My food was decent, but Richie’s face while eating his was not a happy one. And did I mention that he was recovering from being sick, possibly from food poisoning?
Needless to say, after that we hightailed it to the hotel and quickly went to sleep, hoping that Friday the 13th really was responsible for all of this yuck and that the sun would come out tomorrow. Literally.
Before our trip, I had zero knowledge of Norway beyond the fun little troll ride at the Epcot Center of Disneyworld, so I had no expectations going in. There were two things that immediately struck me, and I kept repeating them throughout the whole trip (I’m sure to Richie’s annoyance). The first is that Norway, and all of Scandinavia, really, is so CLEAN. And it smells like roses and hyacinth everywhere. Budapest is a beautiful city, but it has been through some really tough times, and it shows. There’s a lot of graffiti, and the streets generally smell less than pristine. Oslo seemed like it had some sort of magical anti-graffiti and dirt force field.
The second thing that struck us both is that Scandinavia is incredibly expensive. We knew that going in, but it really was emphasized over and over through the trip. First of all, prices in general are high. Then, a 25% VAT tax is added to all goods and services (it’s supposed to only be 14% on “foodstuffs”, but that actually doesn’t include a lot of food in markets and stores). Luckily, the VAT is included in prices on menus and tags in stores, so it’s not a surprise when you go to pay. They obviously have great things to show for it – an incredibly clean city with fantastic public transit, greenspace everywhere, public art everywhere, apparently a good healthcare system – but their taxes are among the highest in the world, and no one is exempt from VAT due to lower income.
We started our sightseeing with a self-guided tour down Karl Johans Gate, the main street in Oslo leading from the train station to the royal palace. This was probably one of the less exciting walks that we’ve found in the Rick books, but it was a great way to get oriented in the city. Flags were flying on both the Parliament building and on the Royal Palace, which means that Parliament was in session and the royal family were in residence.
We took a little detour from the walk to check out the area that was bombed in 2011. It wasn’t what I had expected. Several buildings were closed and were in the process of being repaired, but overall it looked much like ordinary buildings undergoing renovations. A little placard at the entrance to the construction barricades explained what happened and the process the city was going through to reconstruct the area. Several memorials were set up, both here and at the main cathedral on Karl Johans Gate, to honor the victims.
We then continued on a bit to the Cemetery of Our Saviour, where several famous Norwegians are buried. I wanted to check out the grave of Edward Munch (famous for his painting The Scream – which, I did not know until this trip, but did you know he actually made four of them? And they’re all just a little bit different?) Sadly, my lack of directional sense, combined with Richie’s not really being interested in where a guy might have been buried, meant that we just wandered through the graveyard for about 20 minutes before giving up.
We backtracked to our Rick walk, passing the main park where lots of families were out playing and lots of children were playing in a fountain in the nude. I made sure my photo avoided said nudity.
After an expensive-yet-unmemorable lunch. we visited the City Hall. Rick mentions in his book that due to the extremely high taxes Norwegians pay, they expect a lot from their governments, and this is reflected in the design and decor of the buildings. This was seriously the most beautifully decorated governmental building I’ve been in. All of the walls of the various rooms were covered in murals representing the history of Norway and its government, some with more allegory and metaphor, and some with outright depictions of said government. One wall showed the effects of communism through a painting of angry worker bees; another showed a princess being held captive in a cave to represent the limitations of the royal family, I think. It was all beautiful and ornate. The building itself wasn’t as impressive to me, but even the outside was covered with carvings and artwork that continued the themes from the inside.
After City Hall, we started walking in the direction of the metro stop so that we could go to a park that was high on our list of attractions, when suddenly we heard odd groaning, moaning, and panicked screaming. Somehow it didn’t occur to us that we might want to walk away from these noises, and so we continued on, right into the midst of a zombie walk. I had never heard of such a thing, and was frankly pretty shocked that Richie had. Some of the costumes were really tame, and some were incredibly grotesque, including a girl who had somehow managed to turn fabric into a masterful version of entrails spewing from her mouth. It was as attractive as it sounds. Luckily for you, I did not get a photo of this girl.
My favorite of the group was a girl who had managed to paint her face so that it looked like it was completely rotting, and she held a sign that said “Free hugs!” It made me think of Copernicus from the Bloggess (warning: profanity) and I laughed hysterically. I think Richie was a little worried for my sanity.
Once the bloody parade had passed, we headed via metro to Frogner Park. According to our guidebook, Gustav Vigeland, a Norwegian sculptor, bargained with the city of Oslo to essentially give him a lifetime salary and a sweet apartment in this park, in exchange for Vigeland creating sculptures for said park. If that is true, he should have also been teaching a course on salary negotiations. The park has hundreds of sculptures: a walkway with men and women playing with children, a fountain showing the circle of life from birth to death, and a monolith showing 121 human figures rising towards the sky in their pursuit of spirituality and God. This park was gorgeous. In addition to the sculptures, there were flower gardens, fountains, and areas perfect for sports or simply basking in the sun. I could’ve spent days there.
After we finished wandering through the park, we took the metro back to the harbor and stopped in the Nobel Peace museum. It was closing shortly, so we couldn’t tour the exhibits, but we had a lot of fun poking through the gift shop.
Since we were on the harbor, we decided to take advantage of the fresh seafood and chow down. It was definitely the best meal that we’d had to that point on the vacation, but once again – expensive.
At this point, it was nearly 9 pm, but the sun hadn’t yet set (another thing I could not get over – the constant daylight), so we trekked over to the newly built opera house. It was built on one side of the harbor, with roofs that you could walk on and that sloped all the way down to the water. It was a truly unique design and it was really neat to be walking on the rooftops! We also happened to stumble upon some sort of television spot for a singer who was going to be performing in town, complete with backup dancers in skimpy costumes huddling in blankets until just before their performance.
We were getting up early for our trip through the Sognefjord the next day, so we headed back to the hotel in hopes of getting some sleep.
Up next: the misty fjords of Norway! Via train, bus, and boat.