Norway Plus Plus

Pushing on North to Hamburg I spent a most enjoyable train ride in the company of a couple of German businessmen who were determined to make me see the opportunities for amusement presented by my homeland’s current predicament. “You come from that tiny country somewhere out in the Atlantic Ocean? You won’t be travelling over here for much longer, you’ll have to write to Uncle Boris. ‘Please , Mr Johnson, can I go to that awful Europe?’ While you still have enough money left for a ticket?“. And it got worse. They tried to ask me how our politicians had convinced so many people that they could “have their cake and eat it” and through tears of laughter I answered that I absolutely no idea how things had got so bad, so quickly. They were both firmly of the opinion that, no matter the difficulties, there would be a second referendum before the UK allowed itself to go farther down the path to self destruction. I told them not to hold their breath.

Following this most convivial trip I spent the evening journey from Hamburg to Copenhagen in a carriage completely empty but for a single, silent Dane. I’d noticed that with, only three carriages, this train was exceptionally short for a high-speed Inter-City journey but it wasn’t until we reached the tiny town of Puttgarden, near Kiel, that I was sure we were going by the sea route. Something I hadn’t done for more than forty years and probably only half-believed at the time (which, if memory serves, was some time in the middle of the night). Only the Scandinavians could drive a train onto a ferryboat for a forty minute crossing and only a country like Denmark would continue to run such a service for the benefit of a handful of passengers.

Decanted onto the boat-deck I tried to overcome a rising bout of motion sickness by reading all about the new-style hybrid ferries. It’s a “closed loop scrubber”which we are told removes more than 90% of the sulphur and particulate matter out of the exhaust with the help of added NaOH and a patented “sniffer”. Well, you live and learn and the remainder of my trip traversed the island chain by means of a series of bridges. When I got to Copenhagen I also learned that they have not yet repaired some of the suburban lines that were out of commission on our last visit (that’s the one of two years ago, not forty). Station displays are still showing various non-existent services and the “railway-replacement bus services” are beginning to have an air of permanency, so perhaps the Danes are starting to feel the pinch like the rest of us.

Nonetheless, I managed to get myself onto another train, this time crossing over to Malmo in Sweden but by 0020h realised I could go no further for the night. Despite the by-now freezing temperatures outside, this station was warm and comfortable and even supplied toilets and electrical power points; all the same, when the opportunity to get on the 0404h Express to Stockholm came along, I jumped at the chance. A uniformed Swedish giant on this next train gave me a hard time about not having a reservation and was deaf to my explanations about the fact that all the booking offices were closed or that late running trains would probably have invalidated any reservations anyway. To suggest that a Swedish train might be running late was clearly an offence to both his country and his manhood.

I snoozed in comfort on an almost empty train for three hours until I was suddenly awoken at Lingkoping by a rush of commuters who took up every available seat and complained loudly about how they were going to be late for work. Given that I had four hours to kill in Stockholm and that I’d spent a few days exploring this city not so long ago I found my way to the tourist office to check on an appropriate way of spending my time. Bingo! A new Viking museum had recently opened down on the waterfront next to the Vasa. The city was chilly and overcast and a lot less photogenic than when I was last here and, perhaps because I was on on the clock, the distance from the station to Djurgarden island was quite a bit further than I remembered.

There were so few signs for this new attraction I suspected that the only taste of “Viking Life” I was going to get was a call of nature behind some bushes when all the local facilities proved to be shut for the Winter. I wasn’t going to give up now though, even when I finally spotted a sign for the museum and it said “forthcoming attraction”. “Oh No! Don’t tell me I’ve come all this way for nothing.” Finally I rounded a corner to the entrance and discovered that the museum was (1) open (2) looked interesting and (3) offered a reasonably priced taxi service back to the station. So finally I was able to relax and enjoy the experience. Fortunately, I had arrived just in for the English speaking tour and the young historian taking a small group of us around pitched his talk at a level rather above the recent Netflix TV series although some of the the displays borrowed heavily from its award winning design and atmospheric musical score. I guess it’s no use being too dismissive of popular culture, that particular film production may have been a bit sensational but was firmly founded in fact and there wasn’t a single horned helmet to be seen.

Even though the term “Viking” is a verb which means to go raiding and only a small proportion of these Norsemen actually went out on the plunder circuit, it seems it has now become completely acceptable to gather the whole community (I hesitate to call it a civilisation) under the description of “the Viking Age”. That this is dated to between 793 and 1066, two especially violent incursions into my homeland, reminds us that the British did not always hold mastery of her shores and that British women, Celtic ones in particular, were sometimes dragged off never to see their homes again.

Back at Stockholm Central, I was in plenty of time to pick up supplies for my seven hour journey on the 1508 to Oslo. Here, I only had one hour to wait before the overnight express to Trondheim, upon which (despite my lack of a reservation) I received a friendly greeting and found plenty of space to make myself comfortable for the night. Norwegians leaving the capital for the “real Norway” like to travel in plenty of the latest branded sportswear, often carry their skis with them and are frequently accompanied by pet dogs of all shapes and sizes. Even in an almost-empty train, a midnight trip to the bathroom has to be negotiated with care if the clatter of an upset stack of skis or the squeal of an accidentally stepped upon animal is not to rend the night.

As the dawn began to rise, I noted that the illuminated display showing the outside temperature was registering minus 5 degrees C and that a fine powdering of snow that had managed to penetrate the corridors between carriages. I had been aware of the fact that I was taking something of a risk by coming so far North (63.43) at this time of year but had checked the weather conditions carefully before leaving Hamburg. As long as I didn’t have to spend a night in the open, I would be able to manage provided I layered my unfashionable, charity shop bought and hand-me-down winter clothing carefully. No one would be accidentally mistaking me for a native. I also knew that cloud cover would prevent it being worthwhile to stay out at night in search of the Northern Lights and, as for my daytime excursions, I ended up actually shedding clothing as the temperatures quickly climbed to just above freezing.

So what is the appeal of Trondheim, more than half way up this long thin country and situated on too great an inlet to be possessed of much of that fabled fjordic scenery? Founded in 997, this was the ancient capital of Norway and its rich history and 700 year old Gothic cathedral make it an essential piece of my European jigsaw. Just as I needed to go to Uppsala to get a handle on Sweden and to visit Helsingor and Roskilda to properly comprehend the Danes, so here in Norway I had to leave the tourist tastelessness of the modern capital behind. I must admit to getting confused with some of the monarchs between the brutal Harald Hardrada. who fought Harold of England in 1066, and the courageous Haakon VII, who resisted German invasion during two world wars. The ebb and flow of conquest and liaison means that the map of the northern countries was re-drawn many times but there are some fascinating characters to be met along the way.

At the Bishop’s Palace, a special exhibition on the Queens role in the Middle Ages introduced me to 13th C poetess and philanthropist Eufemia of Rugen and to Margrete Valdemarsdatter who became Maragret I of Denmark and effectively ruled the whole of Scandinavia until her death in 1412. A helpful curator informed me that the display of Norwegian Crown Regalia, normally kept on show here, was closed for refurbishment: a bit of a shame but not a disaster since it dates only from the early 20th Century and contains no particularly historic jewels. There were also some very helpful exhibits cataloguing the long history of the cathedral, whose many stages of building and re-building following a number of fires had employed artisans from all over Europe and great steadfastness from the people of this remote city. It does seem, however, that an 18th C. fundraising scheme selling burial plots inside the church had to be abandoned when overcrowding and the action of freeze/thaw weathering caused the floors to collapse during a service and the congregation to find themselves unexpectedly re-introduced to their deceased relatives.

It seems I’m going to be looking at a lot of cathedrals on this trip (what has changed? I hear my offspring ask) so it’s nice to visit one which can be so firmly fixed in the mind. Its green. Various building stones from nearby quarries have been used at different stages and a cold, northern light reflects off of the green gneiss and other metamorphic rocks complementing the copper roofing to great effect. Rows of statues of the saints are a later addition to the 15th C. West front but the challenges of maintaining external stonework in this climate make this an understandable revision. The comparison to Lincoln cathedral is perhaps a touch of an overreach but, nonetheless, it is spectacular and the people of Trondheim have a great deal to be proud of.

There are heated malls in this pocket-sized city where a hot chocolate drink makes a very welcome break and so I wandered around a bit until I made my way back to the station where I collected my rucksack and navigated my way uphill to Vandrerhjem, the only hostel in town. Here I spent a comfortable and inexpensive night before taking the 0818 morning train back to Oslo, or “Ooschlu” as the conductor tried to teach me to pronounce it. We arrived in the early afternoon and I decided that I had enough time to make it to the Nobel Peace Centre, an exhibit which I’ve always managed to miss on my previous visits to the Norwegian capital. In the event, a brisk walk through sunny, tourist filled streets probably did me more good than an exhibition of stuff I already know about such worthy Peace Laureates as Bishop Desmond Tutu and Malala Yousafzai, not to mention a couple of the more controversial choices such as Barak Obama and Aung San Suu Kyi.

The 1802 to Gothenburg and my journey onwards to Copenhagen meant negotiating not one but two rail replacement bus services, a few wee small hours in one of the Swedish railway stations (I forget which) and some snatched intervals of sleep. I managed to find a convenience store and used up some Dansk Krona on a healthy, if pre-packaged, salad and some fruit and continued onwards down through Denmark and Hamburg to finally finish up in Strasbourg at just after midnight this morning. I think I may have visited a bar in Offenburg for a hot cup of tea at some stage between trains and had to fend off the complements of an over-exuberant Frenchman but the details are none too clear.

By the way; “Norway Plus Plus” is the name given to one of the more absurd options being discussed at home in the Brexit negotiations. What does it mean? Well, your guess is as good as mine. To suggest that there is any comparison between the way our two countries can arrange our relationship with the EU is to show a scandalous lack of understanding of the geographical and economic differences between us. Discussion of the UK’s problems seems to have reached the furthest North of Europe and I was even told that travellers had been advised to stay away from Britain due to increase of xenophobia. And this in a country that is still in two minds about eventually joining the EU itself.

So, exhausted as I now am, were my five days of frenetic travel in Scandinavia worth all the trouble? Undoubtedly: if only as an exercise in joining up impressions with those of previous visits, of filling in some of the gaps in my itinerary while the opportunity for solo travel remains and in providing a counterpoint to travel in other parts of Europe. Luckily, I have a comfortable bed here in France for a couple of nights – I’m going to need it.

Categories: Arctic, Europe

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