To Northern Climes

20-22 September 2008

(Note: This blog has been republished in 2019)

Changing climes

Starting where we have ended is probably the easiest way for us to track back over the past few days. In summary, 7 hour flight, day in Singapore, 12 hour flight and 6 hour drive.

So here we sit in the Formula 1 Motel in Bremen. Not our finest hour in motel selections by any means but, as we always say (by way of justification?) you only sleep in a motel/hotel, so it doesn't matter much what the quality is like, as long as it's clean. Well the Formula 1 is clean, but ... it has 'shower and toilet down the hall', swinging a cat would mean the demise of said feline and check-ins are done at a self-service kiosk. Tomorrow will tell just how this cheapie (30 euros!) meets our simple criteria. Given the lack of sleep we have had since leaving home and what we have done, we suspect tomorrow's report will be positive on the sleepability scale!!?

Entering the EU today was a bit of a revelation in the post 9/11 era, especially in comparison to 'breaching' the borders of the good old US of A. We are not 100% sure but we didn't see any passport scanning or data entry as we 'strolled' through immigration on arrival in Amsterdam. If it's this easy to get in, it's little wonder there are major illegal immigrant problems! Let's not forget that once in the front door of the EU, all Europe is accessible without immigration controls.

Picking up our Peugeot-leased vehicle and driving out of Amsterdam and into Germany today was relatively uneventful. Having survived the horrors of being driven around Vietnam in mini-vans last December-January, we feel much more confident with the 'other way of running' than we usually do. We have no plans for playing tourist for the next few days of this trip. We are simply driving to Norway. Nothing is ever that simple but, so far, our plans are holding.

Singapore has a familiar feel to us now, as it probably does to most Australians. It's a vibrant and exciting city but HELL it can be hot! Our visit in transit was pleasurable as it usually is (and AS HOT!)

Language is such a powerful link between nationalities and cultures. Perhaps that's where some of the comfort we feel in Singapore comes from. It could also have something to do with the increased exposure Australia has had to different cultures over the past few decades. Just catch a bus in suburban Brisbane to really appreciate how culturally mixed our country has become. Large shopping centres in suburban Singapore are just like Sunnybank- EXACTLY like Sunnybank. Singapore is easy to travel to and around because of the lack of a language problem and the increased exposure the people of Singapore have had to Australia and Australians through tourism and the large number of students who come to Australia to study.

From the perspective of language, some parts of Europe are not as accommodating of our poor language skills as some might like to have you believe. Sure everybody has a go at the French and their 'refusal' to speak anything other than French (why should they by the way?) but the fallacy that western Europeans 'all' speak English is simply rubbish! You have to wonder which parts of western Europe the purveyors of this fantasy have travelled in? We have never had trouble finding non-English speaking Germans – (and why should they speak English by the way?) Five Star hotels are full of multi-lingual Germans, Dutch and other western Europeans but roam off into the 'burbs or try your luck at the local supermarket and see how far your 'Aussie-English” gets you.

23 September

On the Road Again

We said last entry that we would report on the 'sleepability' of the Formula 1. It was excellent. Neither of us moved for 8-9 hours. Throw in a 3.5 euro breakfast ($6) and you have a true Europe-on-the-cheap experience. This is particularly satisfying for two dumb Australians who foolishly sat down at the Garden Bar at Raffles in Singapore and drank a couple of beers each. 75AUD!!!!! later (yes you read the number right) two very surprised Australians slunk out of said bar.

Australians are such crap drivers! Just slip down an on-ramp on any US or European motorway and see how it really should be done. For example- the relatively new Brisbane to Gold Coast highway is probably equal to, or even above the standard of most European roads. Four lanes, good surface, well contoured: so what the hell are people doing driving in the outside lane doing 70km per hour? AND why do most drivers think they can pass on the left? In the past 2 days we have driven more than 1000 km on European motorways and seen BMWs hitting 160+, traffic like you wouldn't believe - but it all works. There are rules! And they are followed.

From Germany we drove to Denmark today. Sadly it was misty this morning, but once we crossed into Denmark the sun came out, the temperature hit 19C and all was good again. We often think that Europe is crowded and highly urbanised. And it probably is in many places. The northern plains of Germany and Denmark are not so crowded. Open country with 'to the horizon' vistas are common. Even at 120km+ an hour, one can appreciate the rolling hills of Denmark.

Motel accommodation costs in Scandinavia are well beyond our budget. So tonight is our first night in 'camping cabins'. Imagine what you stayed in on school camps. Bunk beds. Wooden buildings with very basic fittings. Now think whether you would pay $70 to stay there for one night. Aside from the possible nostalgic value, it would be a bit rich. Never mind. Just to top it off here in Aalborg, we are surrounded by kids – yes, believe it or not! They ARE on a school camp! Free wireless Internet softened the blow a little as we have been able to check our email and book the ferry for our 'voyage' to Norway tomorrow. The other softener tonight has been some very classy beer. Carlsberg Elephant beer is 7.2% compared with normal beer at 4.8% it packs a pachyderm size wallop. Good night!

24 September

Norwegian Wood – isn't it good? Oh, yeah!

As the sun headed towards the horizon (it is Norway – land of the midnight sun) we had climbed to the top of a small rocky wooded hill just above the small inlet where our 'summer cabin” is located. In a flash we realised that we were indeed in a “Norwegian Wood”, Beatles 196?. While the room rate for what is basically a garden shed with bunk beds is sinful, not to mention the $5 token for a 3 minute shower, (and the hot water cuts out precisely at 3 minutes!) the view from the front deck alone is worth the money.

Our ferry trip from Hirtshals (Denmark) to Kristiansand (Norway) was near billiard table smooth. As usual we got lost leaving the ferry terminal. Our trusty Sat-Nav system, affectionately known as NavGirl was of little help! “She” sometimes gets confused and we have lost faith in her, particularly in foreign countries. Well this time she was almost right. We had missed the turn-off to our intended camping cabin site. In our defense we had found our way back on track before she realised we were lost. If this makes no sense, then you have never used a SatNav system in a foreign country – SO - you just don't know!

So far Norway is just astounding. We have travelled all of 20kms into the country and we have been stunned with the natural beauty. Mind you the weather has helped. Clear as a bell and 18-20C.

We had our first experience with the fabled 'outrageous' costs travellers face in Norway. A visit to the local supermarket near our ''summer hut' was a bit of a horror, especially for us beer drinkers. What we bought for 50c in Germany a few days back would have set us back around $7. However, we were alerted and with innocent looks at the customs officers at the ferry terminal, we were able to land enough wine and beer to do us for a week or so.

More excitement awaits us tomorrow, because while waiting in line for the ferry today, we discovered that our flash little Peugeot-leased vehicle has a sun roof. How cool will that be in the warm autumn sun of Norway!

25 September

French drivers

Becoming acquainted with left-hand drive cars is one of the most stressful parts of driving holidays in Europe. This trip things have not been too bad. Except for a few minor mistakes our driving has been hassle free. Whatever sins we have committed have probably been attributed to some crazy French people. The reason being that our lease vehicle has French plates. This means that we can sin with relative anonymity while the locals continue to curse and blame the French for our driving and almost every other woe facing the Continent.

Norway has continued to awe us. Around every bend is another picture perfect scene that looks as though some 'exterior' designer laid it out. Even the sheep are artistically placed to best complement the landscape. We have made slow progress today through beautiful small western Norwegian towns like Mandal, which boasts Norway's best beach. The Norwegian Casablanca according the the guide books?? Well nice it was, but the northern Europeans really have no idea about beaches, do they! But they sure have a near monopoly on picturesque townscapes!

Tonight we are settled into a very up-market cabin in a beach-side camping area at Brusand, just south of Stavanger. We have our own shower, toilet and kitchen so a cooked meal is in order for the first time in Europe. Because we have been staying in, firstly a VERY basic motel and then in campgrounds, cooking has not been an option. Tonight it is so we are celebrating. As is the norm for our trips, we have the place much to ourselves. We even had to phone to get the receptionist to come out to register us! With such beautiful weather, one wonders why people think Europe in Autumn and Winter is not worth the trouble.

Not very many people know this but Brusand is famous for 'Hitler's teeth'. Not what you might expect to find in a very small town, but we did notice them before we found out what they were. Lining the road near this small coastal town are rows of angular concrete blocks. Yes they do resemble teeth. What might they be?? Well, they were part of the coastal defences that the Germans put up during the second world war to stop the allies landing in Norway. They now line the coast road looking very much like teeth.

26 September – 27 September

For whom the bell Tolls

Stavanger is the oil capital of oil rich Norway. The North Sea wells have pumped billions into the Norwegian economy. And with the record prices of the past year it has been all the better for Norway. The city shows all the signs of a boom town. For a city of around 100,000 people it has its fair share of new high rises and infrastructure. However the the old centre of this city, that once boasted more than 70 sardine canneries, retains much of its 17 Century character.

Driving on Norwegian highways takes enormous patience! Speed limits change every km or less. But never above 80km per hour. Add to this the Tolls! They are frequent, although not crippling. What is difficult is paying them. Virtually all booths are automatic, but most don't take credit cards and the change required is difficult to obtain when travelling. The real thrill comes when you hit the 'no stop tolls'. No payment options at all. You either have a 'tag' or you have to pay at the next petrol station. Sounds difficult and inconvenient – and that it is. Now try to pay at the next or the next or the next..service station. No. The stations that accept toll payments change from Kommune to Kommune, now ESSO, next Q8, then Shell. As you might imagine, missing a toll payment in a country where a takeaway pizza costs $30, could easily cost you your inheritance. And let's not forget the beer index. Today, a six pack (admittedly of 500ml cans) cost 131 kr (about $26). And then there's the wine! We found a state-run wine store yesterday where the cheapest bottle was $15. Scary stuff when the wine we brought from Germany cost about $4!

Ah the joys of travel! It all comes to nothing though when you turn the next corner and see yet another biscuit tin scene or gape in amazement at the difficulties involved in building an 8 km tunnel under a fjord.

We are in a small village outside Bergen now for four days (see photo, ours is the little white place in the middle) – not a bad spot!

28 September – 29 September

“Stopp Motoren Under Overfarten”

Language is an interesting thing isn't it? Generally travelling in Scandinavia poses no real problems for we of the mono-lingual persuasion. Reading and interpreting signs and other written material can however be a challenge. The title of this blog was over the deck of one of the ferries we caught today. Best we can figure is that one should either.. not pass wind while under your running car.. or .. turn off your motor while on the voyage?
After a full day 'doing' the small city of Bergen yesterday, including some great little museums and a fantastic 16th century seafront, today we plotted our own driving and ferry tour of Hardangerfjord, south-east of Bergen. Driving along beside the fjords on a 'partly' sunny day with the temperature hovering around a civilized 12C, we were oohing and aahing at every bend. Neither our photographs nor our words can capture the splendour of the the fjords. Small villages line the water's edge, dotting the edges of the fjords. The area we drove through today took us through some of Norway's best farming land. Only 3% of this country is arable. Around Hardangerfjord, they grow more than 40% of Norway's fruit, but it must be hard going for the orchardists. With short growing seasons and steeply sloping land.
Worthy of note are the many people - of all ages – who are striding – or skateboarding – around the towns/villages with ski poles. Are they preparing for a very difficult winter when they can't get out of the village except via skis – or just training for some sort of cross-country ski competition???
The afternoon's weather declined rapidly into heavy rain which caused local flooding on the road home. We just hope that tomorrow provides with us with at least as good a morning as we had today. Who knows? This is a part of Norway where it rains 275 days a year. So far we have been lucky!

30 September – 1 October

A Different World

Fewer than 5 million people live in Norway, so in comparison to its neighbours, particularly those who live south of here, Norway has large areas of close to pristine country. Not quite wilderness in the true sense, but heavily-wooded, open country with little or no human impact. Granted much of this is rock and frozen Arctic wasteland, but all this creates a vastly different world to Europe on the whole. Rightly or wrongly, they still hunt large animals here. Furs and pelts are on sale everywhere. The air is clean and the water crystal clear. Is there some of that Viking spirit still left in Norway?

We very rarely do formal tours when we travel, but this trip we had planned to do organised Fjord trips. Fortunately for us, the lateness of the season meant that there were no tours that suited our schedule and our needs. Instead, both our fjord trips to Hardangerfjord, described previously, and the one we did yesterday to Sognefjord, were managed using local regular vehicle ferries. A fraction of the cost and just as spectacular. What we appreciated, as we drove along beside the fjords, were the frequent rest areas beside the road, (note – some of them are actually bus stops!) designed to contemplate the serenity. If you ever have to wait a long time for a bus – just hope it's at a Norwegian bus stop. They have the best views in the world!

Today, 1 October, we headed off from our rented cottage near Bergen, towards Oslo. On the way, we took a ride on the Flam (pronounced Flum) railway, 20 kms into the hills through some of the most rugged countryside in southern Norway. As usual for Norway, every turn on this hundred year old line took our breath away. Let's acknowledge it, Norway does good scenery!

After several very full days, we discovered tonight that we have a spare day before we move into our rented house near Oslo. What a relief! We have been ''working” fairly hard lately, so a day just cruising about will be a bonus. Tonight, at Laerdal, we are in an “apartment”, read “motel style room with cooking facilities” right on the Sognefjord. Note – all the cabins were booked!! We foraged in the local supermarket for our dinner, then wandered down to the fjord to contemplate said serenity and marvel at the clarity – and chill!! - of the water. Gotta love it!

October 2

Bring a packed lunch

Our day of cruising was just as expected. The road across the mountains of central Norway through small ski resorts to the small town of Geilo was simply spectacular (again!). This high and this far north, the autumn leaves have definitely started falling, yet the russets and golds still provide splashes of riotous colour among the evergreen pines, as well as congregating together to create scenes of their own, softening the greys of the mountain rocks. And on the hill tops, a dusting of early snow tops off the panorama.

Well so much for the obvious beauties of Norway!

Gloves off? -

Those intending to travel to Norway (and everybody should at least once in their lifetime!) should bring a packed lunch! Everything is expensive beyond belief. It has little to do with value for money or paying for quality. Sure, locally manufactured products like clothing and some food items are very high quality. However, one has to wonder why products commonly available all over the world, most of which are made in China, are often two to three times the cost of anywhere else.

Don't even think of drinking here! Australian wine is widely available here (but we don't drink it when travelling, preferring to try local product). An average wine that would cost $8-$9 at home would set you back $20 - $25 in Norway. The 'beer index' is right off the scale! A 500ml can will cost $6 - $7 in a supermarket, compared with $1 in Germany or $.50 in Vietnam! Don't even think of drinking in a bar! For another comparison, we noticed a common brand of soy sauce that is available at home in a deli today, it was $10 + - at home exactly the same product costs $2.50 - $3.00!

But... if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. - so we grin and bear (beer!) it! Just think of it as an over-priced, but high-quality adult amusement park!

3 October – 4 October

Wink and a Nod

Arrived at our house just outside Oslo last night (3 October). Great place with a fantastic location beside the Oslofjord, about 30 minutes' drive from Oslo. We have a frig/freezer, stove, dishwasher, washing machine, underfloor heating and a fantastic view. We also have cable TV including BBC World News so we can understand what is going on in the real world. What more could we ask for? Today, after debating the merits of driving into a smallish city like Oslo, as opposed to taking the train, we drove. Lesson one. Central Oslo parking is even more expensive than everything else in Norway. We may have done better on the bus. $40 for 5 hours' parking was a bit of a sting.

All that aside, Oslo is a very pleasant city and rather easy to get in and out of by car -as long as you don't get lost - and of course we did!. Not a large city by today's standards, but one with a lively centre that boasts all the usual shopping opportunities – if you are game, that way inclined and are earning Norwegian kroner!

The National Gallery has a great collection of 19th century landscapes - predominantly Norwegian of course. Most come here to see the Scream by E. Munch. With this classic and a small collection of other classic 19th century European Impressionists, and of course the landscapes, this is a great gallery. And FREE.

Unfortunately, the 'must see' Oslo Cathedral, was shrink-wrapped for renovations and we couldn't go in. The City Hall was an ugly, red-brick building, but had some interesting frescoes relating to the Norwegian resistance during WWII inside and wooden reliefs of scenes from Nordic mythology on the outside. All in all, a successful “Tommy Tourist” day.

Norwegians are generally extremely helpful and friendly. However, one aspect of their character, or ours, is their reluctance to recognise people in one-on-one encounters. If one encounters someone walking down an isolated forest track, most Australians, and probably many other nationalities, would say hello or at least nod in recognition. Such behaviour in Norway will bring a range of quite bizarre reactions. Some shrink away in fear. Others scowl. Many just ignore the contact. On odd occasions, the response can be an almost aggressive glare. Ah well, viva la difference!

5 October

Norway in a Nutshell

Only a couple of days remain for our Norway portion of the trip so it is probably time to summarise Norway in the way that they market short trips around the country. “Norway in a Nutshell.”

Toilets: - Use them, they are free, ubiquitous and always extremely clean.
Outdoors: - Go there! The scenery is spectacular, the air is clear and clean.
Bargain shopping: - Absolute no-no.
Drinking in pubs: - only if you don't drink.
Roads: - Good for the level of traffic, although alarmingly narrow in the mountains. But be warned. It will take twice the time you expect to get from A to B with speed limits of 80km on motorways and 70km on the open road.
Driving: - Good drivers who obey the rules and are patient with foreigners.
Eating out: - See Bargain shopping and drinking in pubs.
Supermarkets: - Beware! Credit cards don't always work when you hit the check-out. No hard and fast rule about this – some supermarkets are fine, others refuse every card you own!
Security: - Very safe but always exercise caution.
Language: - English universally understood and mostly very well spoken.
Accommodation: You get what you pay for. But here you'll pay a lot for even average accommodation.
Weather: - It IS Norway! Changeable.
Highlights: Everything outdoors! Small villages and farms. Western Fjords. Oslo city centre. The Norsk Folke Museum in Oslo. Hunting lodges in mountain passes.

6 October – 8 October

Swedish Meatballs

Crossed the Norwegian border into Sweden a couple of days back. In fact we crossed it a couple of times, much to the puzzlement of the Norwegian Customs Officers who had pulled up the usual van-load of suspect Eastern Europeans who were probably just on a family holiday. Or??

We have had such a hard time with tolls in Norway that we were not confident that we could spend our remaining currency until we knew there were no more toll booths! Within 5kms of the frontier we were about to head to a shop to spend up the coins we had left, (those of you in the know will remember that Janita cannot leave a country without spending every last cent of that country's currency! She left the last Norwegian shop with 50 ore [about 10 cents], which Paul promptly threw on the ground) when we saw a sign saying Toll Ahead. We were not at all surprised that the Norwegians might extract yet another pound (or krona) of flesh for driving on their fairly average roads. However, we did the good people of Norway an injustice. “Toll” also means customs and so we crossed the border – not much of an issue these days – did a U-turn and drove back to Norway to spend up our leftover change. By the time we crossed back to Sweden, the boys of the Customs service had had their fun for the day with the hapless immigrants from 'the new Europe' and had retired to their heated office.

Open rolling plains have predominated in our drive down to Stockholm - much like northern Germany but far less crowded. Great roads and no TOLLS.

Our Stockholm rental house is in the countryside near the small city of Sodertalje (try pronouncing that!). Again a very comfortable place with all the mod-cons including wireless internet. The city itself seems to be the home of Scania. A huge plant sits on the fringes of town but, like most Swedish industry, it is very clean.

So far this trip we haven't talked much about our Sat-Nav, better known as “Nav Girl”. She has done better here than she did in the USA, where the multi-layer freeways threw her a little! Her main problem here has been the number of new roads that have been built in the last couple of years. (Her maps are 2006) As a result, she sometimes gets quite lost and we are sure she just blurts out directions so as not to appear foolish. Our favourites are the “Turn Left's” which she hits us with while we fly along a motorway at 120 klm/hr. Yes, in Sweden, we are actually allowed to travel at the HUGE speed of 120, compared to the max of 80 in Norway! Yesterday, in combination with our poor instructions to her and her poor directions, we managed to drive about 60 klm to a supermarket that was about 7-8 klm up the road!

Oh yes: and the meatballs – we had them for dinner.

9 October – 10 October

Some Swedish myths

Myth one: - Swedes are universally blond and gorgeous. Well perhaps we have been in the wrong places at the wrong times? Blond? - Not all that often. Gorgeous? Rarely. It has to be said that Norway seems to have retained far more of the Viking – Nordic stock than Sweden. Not that diversity in a population is a bad thing, but it can dilute what has traditionally been seen as the classic “Scandinavian look”.

Myth two: Sweden is expensive. Depends on the value of your currency! When we arrived, our AUD was worth 5.7 SEK. At that rate, Sweden was far cheaper than Norway and Denmark. Beer - the only real international comparison! - in Sweden, is about half Norway's prices. Most other costs, food, transport and entry fees seem much the same as at home. However, the financial crisis of the last week has driven our dollar down by 30% so things are a bit 'out of whack' at the moment.

Myth three: Sweden is all clean lines and design perfect like in an IKEA product promotion. Not at all. Grot and Grunge are just as “in” as in most other places in the world. The air is clean and the environment is probably far cleaner than most of Europe. But cities have the same degree of graffiti and grunge as anywhere else. Dress sense falls far short of chic. Trakky daks are not uncommon in the cities. Relaxed this may be, but haute couture it is not.

However, it is not all negative. Far from it!

The Scandinavians do great open air museums. Today we went to Skansen, the world's first open-air museum, opened in 1891. It is touted as Sweden in miniature as it contains sample houses, summer houses and farmsteads from all over Sweden. There is also a small zoo. Very well done. We have also been impressed by the museums and the old parts of towns. And the people have been so friendly and helpful to us poor mono-linguals. And let's not forget Gus, the very friendly bloke who has rented us this place, plus the very accommodating person who has supplied us with wireless internet for the last four nights! in Sweden – whoever they may be?

We should also mention, and thank, Ikea which has been used by many of our rental landlords to furnish/supply our houses with everything from taps to toilet-paper holders. What would Scandinavia and the world be without the ORLAV shelving system or the MONIJEI throw rug?

We leave Stockholm tomorrow on one of our 'forced drives'. 700 kms at full motorway speed to Copenhagen.


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