Friday, 28 August 2015

Stop 20: Oslo, Norway

With Oslo, we're right into Viking ship territory - not the fake stuff as in Dublin, with open top buses with tourists in fake horned helmets and plastic swords yelling loudly, but the complex information about farmers and traders with huge connections around the world.  And burial ships preserved in mud and clay, with evidence of everyday life.

But Oslo is also the home of an adventurous and brave record company, Kirkelig Kulturverksted (KKV), whose music I've enjoyed playing for many years, and I was delighted to meet up with Hege from them and visit their offices in the Jakob Church.

It turned out that we were staying only 400m from the KKV offices, in an Airbnb apartment billed as in 'the most beautiful little street in central Oslo'.  The little winding dead-end side street probably fulfilled this promise; the apartment was over a guitar shop in the street (yes, with all of those implications during the day ... mainly) but accessed through a track off the side street, past wooden houses, down some stairs, then into the building and up a short flight of stairs. We settled in after leaving the car in some free parking on the street near a cemetery (hmmm St Olof again).

Just up the block is a large food hall beside the river. This is one of a number of converted factories in the area, now restaurants, studios, stores, apartments etc. Some are very 'alternative' and grungy; the Mathallen is more organised and even 'commercial', a large semi-open space with both market-style stalls, and also eat-in or take-away food locations.  Some party for Master Chef Norway was happening there as we arrived.

We ate there a couple of times, and once in a burger restaurant nearby, when the Hall was closed on Monday.  And once in an Indian restaurant around the corner.

During our stay in Oslo, we found out that there was a Gypsy Music Festival happening at the Jakob Church, where KKV is located. This started on the Friday evening that we arrived and continued through the weekend. We went along on the Saturday night, intending to see Serbian band Kal, amongst others. Unfortunately, Kal hadn't made it (which the English website failed to mention) but we saw/heard a Django Reinhart style group (Winterstein and Lagrene Group, from France), a local Rom quartet (Raya and Gypsy Legacy), and a flamenco outfit (Puerto Flamenco, from Seville). Interesting but somehow not really engaging - it seemed a bit 'in group', playing to each other rather than to an audience.  (On other nights, maybe there was Romano Drom from Hungary, and Sare Roma from Lithuania ... maybe ... I was told that a couple of the bands hadn't been able to make it...)

We also headed off on the #30 bus to the Bygdøy Peninsula - which contains several museums. One of these is the Viking ships museum, which is basically just that: a museum around the findings of three ships that had been used for burials ... the ships and the jewellery and artefacts involved. One of the ships, the most complete one (with some restoration) was the grave of two women - lots of unanswered questions.  But good interpretative signage.

Nearby on the same peninsula is an open-air museum, with farms, buildings and houses from various parts of Norway.  It is quite big, though not as extensive as similar examples in Stockholm and Tallinn, but as always fascinating to see and a good place for wandering around in for a few hours.  Not really anyone to talk to in the buildings however, though some people wandering around in costume.

A local map, with some quirky commentary, provided a couple of walking tours of Oslo, and so we headed off on one of these - the eastern part, basically. Though we started just behind our apartment by climbing to a park that provided a high-point overview of the city.  The final bit of sun for the year provided some excuses for sun-baking...

Then for a 5-hour walking tour through some of the gritty and less gritty neighbourhoods of the city: 

... including coming across an interactive installation and interpretative display about Viking life in the Botanic Gardens:

Finally, after wandering briefly into the harbour-side fortress, we took a two hour cruise of the Oslo Fjord late one afternoon, out on the open water and round lots of the islands. This provided another useful perspective on the city.

When we got back to the harbour we were struck by how quiet everything was - few crowds ... in fact an almost deserted down-town area. Was this the end of summer?

Overall a pleasant time, but we didn't engage with Oslo in the same way we had with other cities. Maybe that was not having the personal contact there; maybe it was the reserve of the Norwegians; maybe it was us ...  We packed up and left the apartment keys for the next visitors.

Stop 19: Heidal, Norway

This was a very short stopover on the road from Trondheim to Oslo ... and hence will be a short blog entry...

We didn't want to do the long drive from Trondheim to Oslo in one day, so cast about (when planning) for something about half way in between.  And the Heidal Hotel came up, looking cute.

So we headed down the highway from Trondheim, the scenery becoming more mountainous, the gorges deeper and longer, and the rivers wilder. There was snow again on the peaks, in late summer - and the run-off rolled down in small and large waterfalls, finishing up contributing to the river in the valley we travelled along.

Part way down, we stopped in a ski town for lunch before pushing on and eventually leaving the main highway to follow another river, the Sjoa, off to the west. And this too surged and boiled with a large volume of fast water ... no wonder this is an area for white water rafting.

The Heidal Hotel appeared abruptly, right on the road, and with some 20 km left on Jane's projections. Hmmm.  Were we wrong, or was she?  A sign at the hotel said that check-in began at 4 pm so, with an hour to spare, we allowed Jane to lead us onwards - first to and through Heidal itself, some distance further up the valley, and then on a side road ... but then drew the line when she directed us up a dirt track. Where on earth did she think this hotel was?  An unsolved mystery. We turned round and trusted our own visual recognition skills.

The hotel is an old wooden building, recently (apparently) renovated (maybe still being renovated). It sits on the road, looking over and down the valley. The most dramatic photos show it surrounded by snow. We had it surrounded by mist and rain.

We had a very small and plain wooden room on the first floor, with a valley/river view.

Initially there seemed to be only one other 'mature age' couple booked in, but another couple turned up after dinner (elk steak and elk patties!) and were given the room next to us ... out of 14 total available...  Thin walls is what we're saying here ... conversations clearly discernible ... but thankfully not going on into the small hours.  We slept.

Breakfast in the morning and check out and onwards. At this point Jane decided that the main highway to Oslo was blocked and unpassable and attempted to direct us further into the national parks to the west. This seemed unlikely, so we (again) over-rode her, returned some 20 km to the major highway and headed south. The 'unpassable blockages' turned out to be a couple of minor deviations around current roadworks. Jane has neither apologised nor, in fact, mentioned the whole incident again...

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Stop 18: Trondheim, Norway

Trondheim was the most northerly point of this trip - and, we calculated, the farthest north we've ever been. It was also our first stop in Norway, and a discovery of another pilgrimage route: St Olaf coming across the mountains from Sundsvall in Sweden, basically along the road we had driven, to christianise Norway. And get martyred for it. It's a pilgrimage route that parallels the idea of the Camino to Santiago de Compostela, with walking trails, refuges ,,, and its own symbology:

The road from Viskan started with rolling hills, but mountains loomed ahead, still with patches of snow in very late summer. We climbed higher and eventually, on a windswept high plain or pass, stopped for lunch at about the border. Then swept down into Trondheim.

We were staying in a lovely old wooden-housed quarter (Bakklandet) just across the river from the city centre: three rooms right on the street, giving us plenty of space to spread. But no room for the car, so it went into a commercial carpark along the same road.

The area is very trendy now (ex-working class residences, with river-side warehouses nearby), with lots of cafes, and people wandering past to ooh and aah at the houses - but quiet at night. Part of the road in the area is being dug up - the perpetual European roadworks.

And an old bridge over the river to our quarter, from the warehouses:

After settling in, we walked downtown for some cash and dinner at a recommended Thai restaurant - OK but, as with Norway generally, a little expensive. Then walked back to our apartment.

The next morning we climbed the hill near this area, going away from the river, to visit the Kristiansten Fort on the hilltop overlooking the town. It provided a good view, albeit a little obscured by trees; we wandered around it for a little while, but not tempted to visit its (17th C military) museum.

Of greater interest was the 'bike lift' up the hill; an embedded rail beside the road. You hop on your bike at the bottom, put one foot over the slot (on a sort of stirrup), press the button, and a cable-driven little platform pops up under your foot and pushes you up the hill.  At the top you take your foot off, and the platform vanishes back into the slot and returns to the bottom of the hill.  All free.  A great idea ... for Rucker's Hill!

We walked over to the main tourist attraction of the town - the Nidaros Cathedral and its complex of buildings. This church was built over what was supposedly the site of St Olaf's grave (now taken to Belgium and lost), and has grown to be the northern-most Gothic Cathedral.  It has a great façade, but then you realise that its mostly reconstructed after demolitions and fires and rebuildings over the ages. But still impressive.

We did a guided tour of the Archbishop's Palace nearby (with a long lecture from Knut on Norwegian history), had some lunch, dropped in to see the Norwegian Crown Jewels in a dim underground room, and booked for the afternoon Cathedral tour in English.

In the meantime, we wandered further down town to visit the basement ruins of an old church under a bank (plus an art installation - barely visible sculptures in an entirely blacked-out room - still not sure what that was all about).

Then back for the Cathedral Tour - Knut again and in full-length brown robes this time - for another explanation of pilgrimages to and at the church, and a bit of a wander around. No photos inside ... including of the mermaid that may have (amongst other symbols) defined sins. Into the crept and some gravestones.

There were a few other things we could have seen in Trondheim ... but this was enough. We left the Decorative Arts Museum, the Royal Residence (Stiftsgården), the Folkemuseum (an open air museum outside the city) and the Ringve music museum (also some 3 km outside town) for another visit.  It began to rain and we scurried up the street for a light classy meal ...

Stop 17: Viskan, Sweden (Stöde/Gösunda)

How do you write an extensive blog describing a day doing not much at all? Well, maybe some photos will tell the tale.

We drove out of Stockholm and up the east coast of Sweden, turning inland at Sundsvall.  All routine.  We'd booked into a small B&B in a hamlet called Viskan, near the village of Stöde, and somewhere the name of Gösunda gets thrown in as well.  Beats us.

This B&B is Sweden Slow Living, inspired, the owner says, by the slow food movement. It's an old two storey wooden building on the small road that runs along between the river and the railway line, close to one of the occasional bridges across the river. If we once knew the name of the river, it's ebbed away ... and is immaterial anyway.  It's just the river ... Such is the slow life on the river.

We were in the downstairs part of the house - a bedroom at one end, a large bathroom at the other, separated by what will, one day, be a public area, but is now a semi-construction site.

All looking out onto a long verandah that, in turn, looks over the river. Two cats ...

We spent an evening and a full day there, doing not much at all, as indicated above.  On Monday, we drove into the town of Ånge, some km further along west, to find an ATM and have a Thai lunch. Then we drove back again.  Such are the highlights of life on the river.

Hans, the owner, teaches chefs at a senior college some distance away. He wasn't round during the day (well, we arrived on Sunday, so he was there then), but cooked us dinner each evening and we sat on the upstairs balcony, ate, drank, talked about the world and Viskan.  Hans' brother-in-law paddled past in his canoe a couple of times. We read, blogged a little ... not much....

Slow living on the river.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Stop 16: Stockholm, Sweden

With the ferry from Turku in Finland arriving at 6.30 am, we managed to crib an extra day and pretty much have five full days in Stockholm. And it still wasn't enough, with many things planned left undone. It's a great city and easy to get around ... we'll have to return.

The ferry trip was totally uneventful, not the party boat that some mention. Apparently, says Arto, that's Friday night's voyage ... and Monday is quiet for us non-party crowd. Maybe there was a disco; maybe there was karaoke - who are we to dispute such allegations? We were in our double cabin with an enormous port-hole, watching the islands drift past until it was too dark to see them (late at night),

and then again in the early morning light. Silently, ripple-less ... woods and coves moving past, close enough to touch it seemed.

And disembarkation was smooth. Jane was confused as always, thinking us all at sea still, but recovered in time to send us through some tunnels, from which we emerged within a block or so of our apartment. We were about an hour earlier than we'd arranged, so nothing but to settle down and wait and eventually knock on the door, be welcomed and shown round, and hey presto, there we were ... somewhere south of the centre, in an industrial/residential suburb of Stockholm.

But it turned out not to be so far out anyway - or the central part and suburbs are relatively small.  Our modern apartment, on the top floor of a 3-storey block of flats from, what, the 1960s? had a large lounge/dining room/kitchen, bedroom, bathroom and hallway. Comfortable, good cross-breeze possible from the small balcony off the lounge, all provisions...

 The owners about to have a baby, and living at a parent's place while we stayed there.  Such is Airbnb.

And close to transport: the tram immediately outside the apartment block, with a bus interchange, and a suburban line station ... all within 5 minutes' walk. Two stops to the centre; good cross-town links.

We oriented ourselves with a walk to a nearby suburb, where maps said (correctly) there was an ATM (to get some Swedish krone and lunch ... and then buy a weekly public transport pass ... and some groceries ... and then take the T-bahn and tram back to our apartment, just to show we'd worked it all out!  And later in the day we walked through some parklands near the water for a dinner on the dockside ... and bus back.

The next day, we'd arranged to meet the fabulous Josefina Paulson, nyckleharpa extraordinaire. She'd intended to be in Stockholm for a rehearsal, but had come down with a bad sore throat etc, so had cancelled that, but travelled 1.5 hours into the city to meet us anyway.

We took the train into town, wandered around Gamla Stan, found a science fiction bookshop that had titles in English (yay!) and then met Josefina at the station.  Then a most pleasant time wandering and eating and drinking with her - around Gamla Stan again, across to Slussen, up to the heights of the elevator, down the cliffs and finished up at the cafe at the Photography Museum.

It was brilliant just catching up with her again, finding out what was happening in her life ... and getting copies of her three recent CD releases ... hint, listen to the Global Village when we return.

Josefina also told us about a concert being presented by some of her friends, the group Sirocco, the next night, in a church further south of Stockholm. We resolved to go ... and did (see below).

Late afternoon, we took an 'Under the Bridges' tour by water around Stockholm.

For Phil Hayward

Homewards then, and across to the harbour side for a Thai dinner and conversations with the waiter.

Next day we went into town again and headed off to the museum island of Djurgården and, in particular, the largest outdoor museum, Skansen. Think Sovereign Hill crossed with Healesville ... but much bigger.  We spent, we think, about 5 hours there and didn't see it all. But we did see owls being fed, reindeer sleeping, elks lying about, bears scratching themselves and play-fighting ...

and talked with people about education (in the old school house), Sami life and politics (in the Sami camp), ironware (in the iron store), printing (you get the idea)...

and flatbread baking .... with lessons on how to do it, where to get the rolling pin and what it (the bread, not the rolling pin) tasted like.

So that was an exhausting day ... back via to ferry to Slussen and T-bahn and bus to the apartment.

But the train not taken ... nor, did it seem, going anywhere...

But that wasn't all, for the concert was on at 7 pm, some distance south. A couple of buses later (courtesy of the on-line public transport planner) and we were there, with about 50 people in a  church, listening to the group Sirocco and their repertoire from al-Andalus and the middle east. As one does in Stockholm.

We chatted to them after the performance, passed on Josefina's best wishes (and apologies), arranged for a copy of their CD to come to Australia (another program hint), then a quick pizza in the 'burbs and home.

Next day was shopping day - across to the SOFO area of Södermalm to wander for a while - and then back for a slower day.

And on the final day, with intentions of seeing a couple more museums before we departed Stockholm, it was across first to the Historical Museum, and then to Djurgården again for the Vasamuseet.  These are both brilliant displays, and we were knocked out as much by the presentation, as the content.

The first presents the history of both Sweden and Stockholm in particular - the gold room, with detailed collars and rings and bowls - and a fascinating video about the context of this; and further up the building, great presentation of medieval and baroque living, architecture and art. It was possible to spend much more time there than we had ... but we risked overload.

Overload wasn't really the case at the Vasamuseet, focusing on one ship and one event - its sinking 20 minutes into its maiden voyage, 400 years ago. It has been raised, stabilised (well, not entirely, as we hear that the timbers and bolts are in real danger of being leached away) and displayed.

We did an English language tour just after we arrived and this is a great introduction, allowing you then to examine all aspects of the ship - mis-structured and top-heavy - with portraits of the crew.  And another great video adding to the context. Again, this is a fascinating museum.

And home and off for an Indian meal near the water ... and that was Stockholm ... with lots of things undone. We leave with the intention of returning ...