Further North Than Before.
I thought I’d organised everything for the summer holidays trip, but it’s surprising what one can overlook. Or what I can overlook.
Like my electric razor. Realising this on the bus halfway to the next town meant a return bus ride and an infuriated with myself hard walk to back my place. Even when I got there I still forgot my travelling alarm clock.
And the delay led to one “looking at” a £20 increase in the train fare which kicked in at Reading just in time for late afternoon commuters and myself, I was told by the fellow there I normally got on well with. A train avoiding that by going the long way round had just left of course and the next one wasn’t due for an hour. A friend I was staying with for a day or so wouldn’t appreciate that so I coughed up and left quickly before I said too many nasty things. Don’t you hate the market forces morality of the commercial world? The mentality of vultures picking out the easy meat or making the most of one mistake.
My friend picked me up at Swindon and from that evening in Faringdon I was able to relax – beginning with a pub and pub quiz – and mull over the journey to come. Although I’d travelled worldwide I’d never been further north overland than the north coast of Scotland. This time though I was doing Scandinavia and the Baltic states; flying to Bergen, Norway; then making my way to Oslo, Sweden and Stockholm. Originally I was going to cross the Baltic Sea by ferry to Finland but Mike, my travel agent friend had calculated on a complicated deal that led to a cheaper result going all the way round the top of the Baltic as far as the Arctic Circle! Had my doubts but it was undeniably an adventure and I was supposed to like adventures. Anyway from there I’d travel down through Finland to Helsinki where the world science fiction convention was. The journey was pinned on that. There I’d meet up with a friend, then travel some distance at least back towards home with him. Together or alone that would mean a journey through the Baltic states and central Europe.
The first part of that journey involved bus rides on my free bus pass to Heathrow Airport. The plane wasn’t leaving until the days end so I should be okay as long as I got going in the morning. All went well until I reached Reading where I learned there was no bus to Maidenhead because the railway went there and I would have to do more of a dog leg through Bracknell. The Bracknell bus was late. Which enabled me to miss the one leaving there for Heathrow and the next one would arrive at Heathrow uncomfortably close to the plane leaving. So to speed things up I took a train to the Thames where – thankfully without too much trouble – I linked up with a bus. Trouble was the bus peeled off into a housing estate with Heathrow almost in sight; that’s the problem with local buses. And it was a particularly grotty housing estate, but the bus seemed to enjoy it, taking ages to get through it. It was like some weird law of physics: the closer one is to ones destination the more time or ones ability to move seems to slow down.
By the time Heathrow was reached it was worthwhile keeping in mind that Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy saying; ‘Don’t Panic’ while calmly considering what to do about a missed plane. It worked since the plane was delayed. Very delayed. Which led happily to a enjoyable session at a bar conversing with an Irish lady who declared herself to be an evil Celtic princess. Her plane was earlier so after a good while she left while – under the influence of a few – I considered a free layed on stopover by the culpable plane company in a Copenhagen hotel. Happily I was staying in Bergen for a day so a days delay didn’t matter.
Eventually I finished my drink and decided to amble over to wherever the embarkation lounge was but my flight was in red! Last warning for departure! The amble became a marathon stampede but I still got there earlier than other similarly flustered people who could well have had the same alcoholic idea as me.
The plane had no onboard entertainment system and it became dark outside so the flight across the North Sea tended to be one to be endured.
There was no stopover in Copenhagen. Instead there was another flight to Bergen, also without onboard entertainment, to be endured.
Bergen Airport reminded me of the one at Puerto Princesa, the Philippines: an expanded village hall. This time in the dead hours of night with no staff. I managed to find a small group of people waiting for the bus I was supposed to get on. A hotel by the airport could have been booked instead, which I judged prudent after a flight to a place one hadn’t experienced before, especially in the black confusing region of half past one am., but Mike had insisted on lining me up for a long wait and a long bus ride to a cheaper place.
The bus came. I waited patiently while others got on. Then the driver declared the bus was full up, no more room, goodbye. WHAT! Marooned I texted Mike along the lines of WTF didn’t you listen when I said I wanted an airport hotel!? Then I realised there would be another bus although I had to wait another hour.
Luckily there were night staff at the cheapo hotel who told me that not only would there be a snack breakfast outside the door of my single room in the morning but I could have a lie in.
Another day dawns and with that things seemed to improve when I got up well after dawn. Sure enough there was an okay breakfast deposited in a bag outside the door.
Outside it was overcast but dry. I had a look to the left along the street. The first crossroads was a broad thoroughfare with a tall steepled church on a ridge to the right and the other stretch leading towards the docks or one of them which was where I should be tomorrow at dawn. Later I found that the other end was a major shopping precinct complete with band playing. For the time being though I went back to the hotel, to the right and right again, navigating through the backstreets of Bergen finding a small park formed out of the grounds of what looked like a city hall sitting on a low knoll; but it was actually an Art Nouveau theatre. And there in front was a statue of the great Norwegian playwright himself: Ibsen. The sculptor had given him a forbidding scowl. Well I guess he was controversial in the sense of his plays dealing with hypocritical morality but just then it looked as though he was outraged at the seagull squatting on his head. Plus it seemed a safe bet that the bird didn’t get the message of his work.
Time spent on reconnaisance is never wasted. That’s what a fellow who’d been in Sandhurst told me and I found the dock where I was to embark easily enough. It was not more than a quarter of a mile from where I was staying but distances seem longer in an unknown place.
Then it was across the end of the dock inlet, lunch in a place overlooking that and up to a station. A mountain railway took me straight up to the top of what would be a called a mountain in Britain but would be more of a steep hill in Norway. Except it wasn’t so much a hill as the edge of a hummocky forested plateau with small lakes. A very handy recreation area for the locals complete with cafeteria tourist complex with a great view out over Bergen.
Mike had advised me to come up here and going somewhere high – usually a tower or skyscaper but in this case a mini mountain – was the best way to see the layout of whatever city was being visited for the fist time. It was only about 1,000 ft up but Bergen was laid out like a model below. Docks, city centre, park with big formal lake and fountain near where I was staying, main road leading back out through the suburbs and around the hills to the airport and far beyond: where I’d come from. The UK. Bergen was pretty unspoilt in fact in the sense that there were few if any high rises and plenty of attractive, solid older buildings.
Having taken the easy way to the top I could walk back down. Down a wide track that zigzagged down a steep forested slope past mossy boulders and wildflowers, past art exhibits near the town that were somewhat makeshift. Still down through the alleys and backstreets of white clapboard houses hugging the bottom of the plateau slopes.
There was a natural history museum near the big church I’d seen but it began to rain. Then I found – in the rain – that the dam place was being refurbished. Refurbishments are the enemy of the tourist and I retreated to my room but not before slipping outside the church when seeking shelter and bruising myself on its masonry.
There was also a challenge to meet tomorrow. I had no alarm clock and had been told I couldn’t depend on the staff to wake me up since it was half hotel half hostel. I got an early night trusting to luck I’d be up and at the dock in time to catch the boat early tomorrow morning.
It worked. I was up very early with the early dawn at this latitude, having not trusted myself to go back into a doze and get up on time. So often a cause of oversleeping. The drawback of course was that nowhere was open and when I got there I had to shelter under a small eave from an intermittent drizzle.
For a long time I was the only one there but little by little others showed up the terminus was opened up and at long last we were allowed on board the boat. Opportunities for photography? Most of it was enclosed but there was still a good view, plus an exposed deck at the back for those who could brave the elements.
The route was northwards along a coast composed of mountainous or rocky peninsulas and islands, occasionally wooded with the odd villa with a view. One of those regions where one wonders what it would be like to live there. It was impossible to tell what was island or mainland.
Long ago I’d been inspired to begin modelling planets by Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’s Slartibartfast: an old father time type of man who was part of an industry that actually built planets, including the Earth! So the story goes. Slartibartfast had – it was said – won an award for designing the coast of Norway. He had a thing about fiords. I had a thing about eccentric tales like that and planets, including seeing as much of this one as I could on my limited funds. So at some point Norway was a must. So now I was finally here in Norway.
And approaching one of the most spectacular fiords of all. Under a sombre sky the rock masses cladding the mountains and hills had become especially gaunt. Perhaps forbidding but the landscape had definitely taken on a look of bastions guarding the gateway to something. The boat curved right towards the east and into Sogne Fiord.
The 2 biggest fiords in southern Norway are Hardanger Fiord and Sogne Fiord. Hardanger Fiord slices into the mainland and back again at an angle and no doubt possesses scenic wonders including a spot where a massive slab of rock projects outward over what looks like a fatal precipice, a dizzy drop and view. Judging by photographs tourists seem to like walking along it and sitting on the edge for some reason: to wind up health and safety perhaps, or is it just tourism advertising? Anyway unlike Hardanger Fiord Sogne Fiord snakes and branches – like some root pushing through soil – right into the heart of the biggest mountain mass in Norway. When I saw this in a school atlas I wanted to go there decades before I ever heard of Slartibartfast.
The further the boat proceeded though this massive fiord the more the weather brightened up but the spectacular scenery was everywhere; with snow on the central mountains and even the sighting of a glacier high up there. The forested lower slopes plunging into the fiord left little room for settlements: sitting on lighter green aprons of relatively level agricultural land hugging the fiordside or nestling in the woods along the shore, pylon lines hung between them across a branch of the fiord as insubstantial as single strands of a cobweb under construction. The boat was a bus of sorts, calling at minor village docks around the branches of this enormous deep flooded valley. There were also mountain streams and waterfalls: thin silvery trails of cold cascading water finding their way down mountainside and falling into the fiord, seen from miles away.
This kind of scene would have been the home of those troublesome Vikings. Although sheltered,being hemmed in by mountains everywhere meant cramped opportunities for population growth, farming and even transport. It was much easier to build boats and travel between local shores rather than along them or up and down the high steep slopes between arms of the fiord. Expand the scope of boat transport and one could get a lot out of Russian rivers in one direction and that big fertile island across the sea in the other. As our British ancestors realised to their cost.
All awe-inspiring of course. No wonder Slartibartfast loved fiords. What would it be like to live here with that landscape becoming a background to ones daily life? It’s not that I was about to find out but I was going to stop for a night in a valley right in the heart of this terrain with a day’s adventure in this land after that.
The end of the voyage was a place called Flam which was at the end of a long side fiord stretching to the south. There I was picked up by a woman with a chalet for hire that Mike had already made arrangements with and – after picking up a few provisions – driven a couple of miles up this classic glacially carved ‘U’ shaped valley and up a short slope by track to a wooden chalet. Behind that was a railway. Mike had also given me exhaustive detail on the timetable of this line that went from Flam all the way up the valley to the main line from Bergen to Oslo, but I didn’t pay much attention. I wanted to get some hiking in.
The following morning I was up by 8. A train going by just up the slope behind my wooden hut helped to wake me. It had been a pleasant enough night in the chalet and now I was ready, Hopefully there wouldn’t be much of an incline until near the end.
Almost immediately there was. A massive forested rocky hill across the valley floor around which the valley river thundered over rapids and the lane climbed. Probably a terminal moraine from the glacier that had carved out this steep to sheer sided trench of a valley, so it should flatten out on the other side.
It didn’t. There was though a huge plume of a waterfall some way ahead to the right looking like something straight out of Yosemite National Park. The ongoing incline was tough exercise but it’s what I wanted. Unlike my tropical cave adventure the year before I had a heavy backpack and at least 9 miles to hike with a really steep climb out of the valley at the end; but on the other hand this wasn’t the tropics during summer and there was no terrain underfoot to conquer, difficult or otherwise, just a lane that would turn out to be mostly quiet. The weather was cloudy but showed signs of brightening. The scenery was breathtaking, cloud or no cloud, like Sogne Fiord. In fact the drifting cloud obscuring the valley slopes added to a sense of mystery about the place that I liked. The lane continued more or less uphill mostly through forest. Later it crossed the river just before it disappeared into a shoulder of rock, reappearing on the other side in a foaming torrent. Somehow the railway became apparent again on the other side from where it was.
It was the waterfalls that made this place truly magical though. None as big as the first one I saw but white trails of cascades down sheer rock and steep slopes glimpsed through forest mist and cloud. More substantial ones like long living bridal veils and heavy torrents thundering down on the rocks below. One dwarfed a small home the size of one of the smaller UK ones on the other side of a pasture. Fancy having that at the bottom of your back garden!
It was like walking through a fairytale. There were enough waterfalls here for Rivendell. Then I realised where I was. Middle Earth of course! If this wasn’t Rivendell it was very likely the Misty Mountains what with all the cloud and mist which was clearing now. Because I was in my 60’s it was my ambition to wind up like Gandalf: to still be capable of hacking it through the Misty Mountains despite being ancient. Now here I was putting in a seriously good attempt to fulfill that fantasy.
The lane continued up the valley, still mostly uphill, splitting when it seemed to drop down to a settlement by the river, the alternative being almost a track which became a lane again going past a opened platformed station. Not to be found in Middle Earth perhaps. Now and then trains went by on what must be one of the most scenic railways anywhere, each engine looking like one of the intercities back in Britain.
Further on was a steep climb and a picnic spot with a long view back down the valley through clearing weather. A water and snack break with a view for me. A French family showed up in a car asking whether this was the way to Flam. As the only way down this valley was this lane which ended there directions were simple: follow it until you can’t go any further because of the boats and driving into the fiord.
The lane leveled out and dropping down in a few places while cyclists and the odd car or even hiker came past, nearly all from the other direction downhill it seemed. I was the only idiot hiking up this valley, not that I cared. I’d became camera happy of course. As well as the scenery one can get fascinated in the terrific detail and miniature worlds of moss, lichen and rock. I even found what looked like an ammonite high up on a rock overhang. Most if not all the rock around here was old enough to predate the Dinosaurs but Ammonites lived as far back as the Devonian period beyond the Coal Age: when these mountains were formed in an upthrust caused by seas disappearing between closing continents and ancient sediments changing into mountains perhaps higher than the Himalayas. So I could have been looking at one of the oldest specimens.
Speaking of rock the road went through it at some point I’ve forgotten in an unlit tunnel. Luckily it was straight with light at the other end guiding me.
Finally I crossed a roaring rocky river into the flat sunlit upper end of the valley which held another experience like Middle Earth. A beautiful stream with wildflowers perfect for soaking ones feet in with a meadow beyond. Where a solitary tree golden with sunlight appeared to be one of legendary magic much sought after. That’s the way it looked in stunning contrast to the mountain wall beyond black with shadow.
I took a photo but got rid of it when returning home because of a blemish caused by sunlight; because I was fed up with having to doctor so many from SE Asia on Photoshop because of overcast skies, being underground or pollution. I didn’t want more but I regretted that decision, later finding a handful of others in the same state. Like fishing, the best photos always seem to be the ones that got away.
Just over the stream was a grass roofed place offering local produce. Perfect when faced with a tough climb and no food. I had a chunk of goats cheese: sweet but salty. Could have given a doctor a fit if one had borderline high blood pressure as I did; but exercise was also good for one in that condition and I was about to get plenty more which would work off the cheese.
Just beyond that I met the goats. Some of them sitting amongst a jumble of quarried rocks. It didn’t look comfortable but their white tawny and black fur was actually an effective camouflage. One on the lane took too much of a liking to me, sauntering up behind my bum and following me for some distance.
Then it was across another bridge over roaring rocky waters to an extreme zig zag climb up the lane which had become a track at the back end of the valley. I expected a bare exposed mountain slope but instead it was wooded with insubstantial trees like birch, allowing plenty of shrubs, bracken and wildflowers below them. So one couldn’t tell how many hairpin bends there were above. A stream churned by below on the right in a series of waterfalls. I was soon sweating more than usual and incautiously drank some water dripping down a mossy rock face: it tasted gritty but I had no ill effects. The hairpins went on. Always another one above. I became aware that this could be dangerous not only for cars but for cyclists. Some braked in what looked like plenty of time only to skid down the loose grit and gradient of the track.
Eventually I could see a structure sheltering a railway above. Then a house of sorts. Must be near the top. Some time after that it levelled out quite suddenly around a bend with a danger notice for cyclists there: a mountain stream stretched through birch and shrubbery to an uphill sparse scatter of a handful of houses, with mountains patched by snow beyond. That could be Myrdal; where I should be able to catch a train to the rest of Norway. I celebrated with a footbath in the stream.
The station was up on the left. Strangely for such a bare hamlet it was the most substantial thing there, with booking office, waiting room and restaurant area. I had to wait a long time for the train for the nearest town to the east and I didn’t know how expensive a hotel would be; but it was now near the days end and the hike just completed rivalled my SE Asian experiences in toughness and exhaustion so I wanted luxury now at any cost.
The train I was in threaded it’s way past a lake and barren tundra piebald with patches and swathes of snow. On some high ground the snow coalesced to form a small icecap seemingly with hardly any division between that and a sky pale with cloud. Everything else was rock, moss, grass and an occasional stream or lake. This was not a mountain range in the sense of jagged fold mountain peaks and ridges, more of a high bare rocky plateau of hilly granite masses cut into by the occasional gorge, being very old hard rock, worn down, then uplifted again for more erosion.
As soon as a depression became wide enough for the railway to follow it into a valley there was more vegetation with some trees; also the town where I was going to look for a hotel.
There was a small but snug one right on the station. Perfect, or it would have been but for it being booked out. What now, what with it raining. Then I was directed to a more expensive one under a railway bridge and up a short slope. As soon as I saw it my heart quailed on the price. A massive white wedding cake edifice sprawled before me. It looked as though they’d custom built it for a visit by Donald Trump!
When I got there it was indeed a luxury hotel, converted from a hospital I later found, but the price – considering the grandiose nature of the place – was surprisingly reasonable. As for my room it was just about the best one I would stay in on this trip. Landed on my feet again. All the luxury I wanted after that hard climb.
Next day I was on another train going onwards down the valley chiselled into a trench though descending uplands to other valleys leading to Oslo. Like travelling through a Norwegian geography lesson: forests, pylon lines, a power station and lake narrowing into a river, broadening into a lake, more lakes, more agriculture, farms and settlements the closer the train got to Oslo. Finally a succession of lakes and towns joined up by housing estates, flats on a forested ridge and Olso itself.
The city centre of the Norwegian capital was like many other city centres: high rises, a maelstrom of roads and traffic skirting modern buildings, half of them being refurbished. Where I was headed was on the northern edge of that by a small river landscaped like a sunken winding canal, I found it despite heavy backpack, wind and occasional rain.
I was going from one extreme to another. Luxury hotel to hostel, but it would really be cheap and tomorrow I was off to Sweden. Another expensive Scandinavian country. Meanwhile since it was early afternoon I could have a look round.
I knew where I was headed, getting a bus most of the way there and walking back. Frogner Park to the west. A remarkable place for 2 reasons: it was largely a sculpture park. It showed up in one of SF writer Ian Banks ‘Culture’ novels, ‘The State of the Art.’ The sculptures were the work of Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland and consisted of 212 statues of nude stocky humans, apart from a few man sized monsters grappling with a few of them. The layout is along an axis with a huge lawn and sundial at one end, a bridge at the other, a fountain and a formal garden tiered plateau on which stands a monolith covered with human shapes writhing their way to the top. Below and besides flights of steps are many more of them sitting, though some are wrestling. Running, wrestling, dancing, hugging, statues holding hands. Naked grey forms engaged in these pursuits are everywhere along the central axis.
I liked the abandonment of inhibition; though I wasn’t sure about the message.
The bridge was where 2 of the characters in ‘The State of the Art’ met. Both were from an alien galactic civilisation known as the ‘Culture’ surveying planet Earth. The culture was a civilisation many of us would find desirable enough to dream about. I felt I’d fit in well. One of the characters felt he didn’t and wanted to live in the deeply flawed existence that could be found on planet Earth. The other, a woman, was horrified by this, trying to persuade him out of it by going over what he was giving up and the disadvantages he would gain here from the irksome to the soul destroying, to the crippling that are familiar to most of us citizens of Earth.
The sky in the story had that clarity of cloudless blue that hinted of great stretches of unspoiled wilderness and arctic sea to the north. While I was there though it was overcast and hemmed in with rolling cloud. It was almost as though the sculpted statues owed something of their existence to it.
A walk back through a suburban neighbourhood led to ‘The Rudolf Steiner University College’ which was at the corner of the academically named thoroughfare of ‘Professor Dahls Gate.’ Professor Dahl was a political theorist at Yale University. Rudolf Steiner – perhaps better known – could be called a free thinker. Architect, social reformer and philosopher with an interest in linking science with spirituality. Despite dying in 1925 he was influential in post WW1 Germany. Not surprisingly Adolf Hitler and the Nazis didn’t like him and Steiner – on hearing about Hitler’s attempted coup at Munich – prophesized correctly that he and the Nazis would be disastrous for the country.
My walk continued through a less salubrious neighbourhood where one abandoned building sported a graffiti display of flames and skulls with ‘WE KNOW YOUR CAPITALISTIC PARADISE’ and ‘RESISTANCE IS PRICELESS.’ An anarchist movement with a good command of English set against the stoic solidity of Scandinavian society? Then it was across another park to the city proper.
Another day another country. Sweden. More forested and less hilly than the Norway around Oslo from now on. I was heading by train for one of the bigger Swedish lakes. Lake Vanern. Unlike many Scandinavian lakes it was more of an expanse than a valley flooded strip and I wondered if one could see the other side? There was a town on its northern edge, Karlstad, which should be big enough for me to find a place for a few nights. I intended to get more hiking in.
Karlstad was a town well endowed with shops on a grid street plan with a river on the northern edge of its centre. I hiked beside a motorway where it crossed the river and ahead on rising ground was a hostel, but the closer I got the more I realised it wasn’t like an ordinary hostel. The imposing main building and what was behind looked like a University campus! I was sweaty from hiking in the sunshine so I was relieved at its size. Ought to be a place to stay at here. I relaxed and had a meal at a cafeteria waiting for opening time.
To my disbelief the whole lot was booked up! Phone calls though led to a place back in the town centre. Back I hiked. I preferred not being tied down by booking places once I got into one of my journeys proper so this was one of the drawbacks I had to take a chance on.
The ‘hotel’ in the town centre wasn’t cheap but it was one of the more interesting places I’d stayed in. Actually a combined mini hotel along a windowless corridor leading from a fully fledged restaurant and theatre, which added to the colourful furnishings. The room was also windowless but it was nothing like the holes in the wall I’d stayed at in SE Asia. Very modern and spotless and self contained. The theatre was closed but the restaurant wasn’t. Neither was the bar. I relaxed, having a conversation with the blonde Swedish barmaid, complimenting her on her fluent English. The English are so lucky our language is so widely spoken abroad.
In due course there was a hike down to the lake. The town itself wasn’t on its shore. One had to take a bus down through a muddle of river, access roads and further settlement to get within striking distance of where I wanted to hike: what was a blemish of detail on the map was a forested peninsula sticking out into the lakes’ immensity.
I was dropped off and stayed at the bus shelter; it began to rain and I hadn’t brought along the right gear for that. My instincts for the weather though were correct in the long term so I didn’t have to wait there too long before it gradually brightened into the sunny day I would be hiking through.
Then I got lost, something I actually enjoy as a navigational challenge and regarding chance encounters; unless discovering after awhile that one’s wandered around in a circle. Never mind, the weather was holding and I found the right road south.
The road was quiet with nothing more than an occasional car or gentle decline and incline. The weather developed into sunny and stable, bringing bright colour into a lot of pine woodland with the odd picturesque property I was hiking past. Very pleasant and easier too when contrasted against that tough Norwegian climb.
There was a school at one point with a lifelike representation of a child for a warning roadsign set on a bend. An idea worth taking up perhaps and I recorded it all with my camera.
It was best to get off the road though if I wanted to see the lake, a side lane took me to a glimpse of it stretching to what looked like a port in the distance with the lakeshore stretching further before going south. But it was a dead end and it was back to hiking through forested lanes.
Further along the peninsula one could get more views south if reaching the lake. This time I had more luck. There was a bit more rain but I could hide under the trees and it didn’t last. There was an uninhabited hut and further on a tiny inlet with a motor boat. Out in the immensity of the lake the clouds were back lit by the sun. There was a wind farm out there but also there was a real expanse where – yes I was right – one could see nothing but lake without a sign of the other side.
The sunlight dazzled the lake and the sheets of ancient rock ground down by ice age ice sheets. It was everywhere here. I got some brilliant photos of all this and a few of the miniature strange landscapes of rock, moss, lichen and pockets of vegetation growing in crevices.
There were also properties. I became aware that I was working my way around the back of what could well be private patches of lakeshore, finding a small sandy beach used as a volleyball or badminton court at one place, complete with net. Some of the houses were very stylish and a gentleman approached me. I tried explaining – lost or whatever- and he was a gentleman being very relaxed about it. Thanking him I made it clear I was going back inland, turning back at that point. Then I came across the remains of a small Slow Worm in the lane. They were this far north.
That was the part of Sweden I took time to explore. The rest of it fairly flew by. I’d planned to spend at least a night in Stockholm but Mike had found a special deal for a night train so I had more or less an afternoon in Stockholm after views sweeping by of Swedish countryside between Lake Vanern and the city.
Impressions of Stockholm. A city of solid to ornate buildings. Although the masonry ranged from white to brick red the overall impression of colour was brown under an overcast sky. I don’t remember any high rises. Scandinavian cities all seemed to have a character of traditional solidity. It was also a city of waterways being close to the Baltic, the coastline of which had a fragmented nature. I’d checked Google Earth for ferry routes to Finland from Stockholm and they had to thread their way through an incredible mess of outcrops of land emerging from the sea for want of a better description. Anything from islands to shards of rock with a few trees on.
I headed for an Abba exhibition but it was grossly overpriced so I did a nearby museum.
I had a shared sleeping compartment of 3 berths on the train. Oh well I’d done China and Vietnam in such a fashion and it was likely to be less of an ordeal than that. I was first there and chose the bottom bunk.
The train moved out of the station and nobody had joined. Surely this couldn’t last I thought as the train rolled north through farming plains and woods towards Uppsala.
It didn’t but that was still interesting; because the youngish guy who joined me at one station was not only black and from Tanzania but somehow he’d wound up working in a power station in this part of the world. He had a bag of provisions that included beer and kindly offered me some! All I could repay him with was conversation – such as visiting Tanzania when I was 28 – while the beer was giving me a feeling of euphoric unreality that things were going this well.
Sadly it couldn’t last. Suddenly my friend took it into his head that he couldn’t sleep on the top bunk and before I could finish saying something like “Hold on maybe we can work out someth” he’d swept up his bag saying he’d find somewhere else and left the compartment closing the door. Extraordinary fellow.
Oh well. On my own again and it was darkening outside. Time for bed for lack of any better idea.
Then when I was sliding off the edge of conciousness into the darkness of sleep the door suddenly opened. We’d just gone through another station and my “Wha’s this?” was completely ignored by a guard who sounded as though he was telling a big bearded man that this was his compartment. Both seemed to make a point of completely ignoring me in fact; the beard exuding a spirit of disappoval that I existed. Like some sort of mental halitosis. And the negative atmosphere wasn’t all because when he chose the middle bunk I was almost closed off from the compartment. It was like sleeping in a coffin.
Although it was still more comfortable than overnight Asian train journeys this journey developed into one of the more difficult ones I’d undertaken. There were complications along the route threading through the forests and lakes of northern Sweden. I’ve forgotten the names of the towns and stations involved but I was supposed to get a bus, another train and another bus into
Finland. The morning begain with a stuck train while a Swedish argument between the train driver and a station controller was heard over the intercom as to what track the train should be on. It didn’t help that I needed the loo, hoping there’d be enough time at the station before the bus left.
Only just. One also had to pay for the loo by card since cash was virtually outlawed in Sweden. Try doing that in a hurry while trying to follow instructions in an incomprehensible language.
Only just made the bus after doing that. So did the disapproving beard whose presence was to be endured until Finland. Then there was a text conversation with Mike about progress and instructions. Had I claimed my special nitpicking bus deal which was the whole financial point of the journey round the top of the Baltic?
I’d forgotten; what with all the fun of Swedish arguments and toilets!
There followed a text debate that stretched across the border all the way up to my Finland destination, getting heated by then. Mike sent 3 texts for every one I sent. I was wearing my fingers out, not my idea of fun and I didn’t come abroad for this. But I was kept busy while in a train with a view to the rear, normally a treat for me, while getting a deal that came close to breaking even and small savings that might have made the difference after all but I’ve no memory of the details, catching sight of an Ikea superstore at the last bus station in Sweden, just about catching sight of the Baltic or rather an inlet. It’s difficult to see because of the indented nature of the coastline. And finally a more relaxed train ride once inside Finland up to Rovaneimi.
Rovaneimi was over 66° north. Almost on the Arctic Circle. What struck me when I got there was how much of it looked like a converted industrial estate. I had to register at a posh hotel to get a room in a cheaper one up the road but for a change there was no hassle and half a miles’ hike up a gentle gradient got me there. Rovaneimi was actually the capital of Lapland but it was just about shirtsleeves weather and it was surprising how lush the surroundings looked, at this time of year at least. A view over a duel carriageway in the evening light could have been on the edge of of town in Britain, but for there being much less traffic and more forest.
The following day I visited a museum complex from where the Aurora Borealis could be seen during winter through its glass roof. Forest ecology and management was prominent and was a big thing in Finland, understandably. The town centre at least was new because the Germans had destroyed it during the war although Finland was on the same side, at least to begin with. The most surprising thing was still something I haven’t got to the bottom of. According to a map the river and lake system at Rovaneimi – 60 miles from the Baltic now – was the edge of the Baltic in the 1600’s! The town was in a similar geographical situation to Portsmouth now. Scandinavia has been rising ever since the Baltic Ice Sheet melted but I wondered if the date was a misprint?
My fascination with the museum and lakeside park led me to cut it fine with getting food – Mike had warned me – for the next stop. By the time I saw a supermarket I was almost running for the bus.
Across the river 4 miles to the north east was ‘the official home of Santa Claus’. The ultimate family tourist village.
4 miles further on and just above the Arctic circle was my furthest point north. A bus stop across the road from a holiday camp by a lake. A comfortable chalet with a television and reading matter for me, a laundry and even a sauna. But the sauna was used my middle aged couples instead of the Scandinavian blondes Mike had tried to tempt me there with and remnants left by the previous occupants comprised all the food. Never mind. Although that meant a fast of over a day, that and the solitude would be good for me, amidst the lakeside forests and birchwoods. There was still a lot of forest with even some fields on the other side of the road. No sign of tundra. And as the photo from my bedroom shows;- the evening light in the middle of the night when I was light headed anyway from lack of food was an interesting experience. © D Angus 03 18