Date of Trip: July 2012
As those of you who are regular home exchangers know, I am a convinced home exchanger. In July-August 2012 I did two home exchanges in Scandinavia paired with a pretrip visit to the fiords of Norway. The trip was 6 1/2 weeks and cost $6600 including airfare and the fiord business at the beginning. I used Five Stars of Scandinavia in Seattle, Washington, to assist with booking the pretrip fiord bit of the journey.
If you speak English traveling in Scandinavia, you need to learn nothing beyond “tak” (“thank you”). Scandinavians all begin studying English at a very young age. Anyone under 50 is going to speak it well. Some are totally fluent and without an accent!
I booked my transatlantic ticket on Icelandair. Reykavik is the easiest airport in which to change planes and Icelandair allows you to fly to one city and return from another without financial penalty. The cost of a one way ticket is the same as half of a round trip. I flew to Bergen and returned from Stockholm. The trip included only Norway and Sweden plus a brief trip to Riga, Latvia, on the Silja Line ferry from Stockholm and a one night overnight stop in Riga at the Tallink Hotel.
I left the US on July 3rd and arrived in Bergen on July 4th in time to celebrate the Queen’s birthday over there (a low key affair as no one mentioned it). I spent two nights at the Augustin Hotel in Bergen visiting the old Hanseatic wharf area known as Bryggen, the fish market and the cable car view point. I had only 1 1/2 days in Bergen and could have used more, but the effort was to get to “taste” a fiord and get to my first home exchange in Fredrikstad, Norway, so as not to break the bank at Monte Carlo. On July 6th I took the fast boat to Balestrand and spent the night at the enormous Kviknes Hotel. If I had it to do over again, I would have stayed at the smaller less pretentious Balestrand Hotel. There were just too many large groups at the Kviknes for my taste. I did have the much ballyhood buffet in the evening (salmon prepared so many different ways it would make your head spin) for $100. It was my most expensive meal of the trip.
When I arrived in Balestrand, I did take the boat out to the glacier and the glacier museum. The trip is mostly worth it for the views of the fiord although quite expensive (about $100). I have been to the glacier in between Banff and Jasper which was much more expensive. I just had a look at the glacier. No glacier walking. I am still suffering from the very bad arm smash up that occurred on my Roman Holiday from Hell. The arm had refractured just before I was set to leave and had to be very careful the entire trip as a result (no whitewater rafting or anything like that!). The refracture did not heal until I returned to the US. Not fun. Cancelling was not an option because–with both home exchanges–I had 8 people from Scandinavia with nonrefundable tickets. So, despite concerns, I just went.
After my one night stay in Balestrand, I took the train to Flam and the narrow gauge railroad to Myrdal before changing for a regular train into Oslo. The scenery was spectacular but unfortunately it was rainy. On a long trip, you know you will have ups and downs with the weather! Just before Oslo we changed to a bus due to construction on the line.
Hotel in Oslo was the Thon Opera–adjacent to where the bus got in. It worked as the bus got in at 10:00pm. I spent the next day in Oslo (almost entirely at the Opera House–tour and concert) before heading to Fredrikstad–the location of my first home exchange. Fredrikstad is a little over 1 hour south of Oslo by train.
I was in Fredrikstad for a little over 3 weeks. It is a location more known for its access to areas where Norwegians have cabins that they use during the summer months. Many Scandinavians have these and they are often spartan affairs. I did visit some of the islands–including one that does not allow cars. To get groceries home the vacstioners have wheelbarrows near the boat dock with their names on them. You pick up your wheelbarrow and schlep the groceries home. Not my idea of a vacation but it does work for Norwegians. Some very pretty scenery, but not as dramatic as the fiords.
I went to Oslo on 3 occasions and visited all the tourist sites–spending a solid day on the museum island with highlights being the Norwegian Folk Museum and the Viking Boat Museum. My favorite site in Oslo, however, was Vigeland Park. I went on a day when I was totally exhausted and expected to run in, take a photo and leave. It didn’t work that way. I ended up staying a very long time and taking a lot of photos. Oslo is more like a large town than an city. The central core is much smaller than Stockholm.
My focus with home exchanges is to max out the area where I am. While in Fredrikstad, I visited Stromstad, Sweden, in a day boat trip. Norwegians use this trip to shop because everything is cheaper in Sweden than in Norway. I ended up going to a small museum in Stromstad and then buying an ice cream. Nice harbor area but that is about it.
I also drove around to various Viking sites with which (so I discovered) Norway and Sweden are littered. One day I drove into Sweden from Fredrikstad and came upon a huge Stonehenge like site in the shape of a Viking boat. Really has to be seen to be believed! I also did a day trip (via a car ferry) to Tonsberg, Norway, where I watched people carving an exact replica of the Viking boat in the Viking Boat Museum in Oslo. One of those working on the boat was an American (married to a Norwegian).
To get to Stockholm, I took a Flybuss to Gardemon Airport, Oslo, and then SAS to Stockholm. There I was on the plane looking up my instructions as to where to meet my Swedish exchangers and I realized that all my travel sheets were dropped somewhere in the Oslo Airport. Not good. After picking up my baggage and getting some Swedish kroner (neither Norway nor Sweden use the euro and Norway is not in the EU), I found a computer and looked up my account for the directions. I then followed the directions, got off the Flybuss at the designated stop and my home exchange family was there to meet me. Whew! There is often a lot of problem solving on trips.
The next day the Swedes left and I began negotiating my way around Stockholm and the surrounding area. The house was located in Taby, a suburb to the NW of Stockholm. The supermarket was in walking distance along with a pizza/kebab joint (Norway and Sweden are full of these places) and a Thai restaurant. Stockholm has a lot of immigrants and a more diverse racial mix than what I observed in Oslo.
Stockholm is built on a series of islands and I enjoyed getting out on the water. There are tons of museums. My home exchangers had gotten me a month long pass on the subway and buses (for which I reimbursed them at the end of my stay). That made life very easy. While I had a GPS for driving (unlike in Norway where I just had to use maps–remember them?), due to all the islands I often had to go through downtown Stockholm to get anywhere. Summer road work also meant that the GPS was very confused at times.
I visited a number of palaces. In Norway the only real palace is the royal palace in Oslo. Stockholm has many in the surrounding area. The most notable ones I saw were Drottingham and Gripsholm. I also visited Drottingham and Uriksdahl (another palace) for operas done in very old theaters that are attached to the palaces. Very atmospheric. I also saw a theater version of “Fanny and Alexander” in downtown Stockholm (English surtitles).
There are tons of tourist boats that go to various places inland or out into the Archipelago. I took one to Birka, regarded as the first town in Sweden used by the Vikings and then abandoned; it is now an archeological site. I took another to Vauxholm in the Archipelago; very nice fortress museum there.
Again the Viking sites are all over–and the Historical Museum in Stockholm has a lot of items from Birka. The day after I went to Birka it seems as if half the people from the boat journey were in that museum!
I did one side trip from Stockholm–to Riga, Latvia. The Silja Line operates an overnight ferry from Stockholm to Riga. Cheaper if you go during the week. I just turned up and booked the same day. I went over one day, spent one night at the Tallink Hotel (associated with the Silja Line) and returned the following day. Unfortunately, the weather was less than stellar, but I still managed. Getting off I headed for the Central Market–supposed to be the largest in Eastern Europe. I saw everything from whole cow tongues to all sorts of pastries (I am on a diet now that I am home and you can guess why). I also saw extreme poverty. Outside the market there were old ladies begging you to buy bad versions of Russian house dresses–the sort of clothing I would not buy if it were free. “Ni doroga, ni doroga” [“not expensive” in Russian) they begged. What is left of my limited high school Russian got a total work out (still works but as limited as ever). Very sad.
Please note: Except for hotels and English language tours, people in Riga speak Latvian and Russian, not usually English. English will make inroads but not yet.
Downtown Riga has a huge shopping mall (shopping malls have taken over Europe everywhere) and a Stockman’s (Finnish upscale chain), but only a small portion of Latvians can probably afford to shop in those places. On my next day in Riga I concentrated on the Old City. I took a walking tour, went up in a church for a view and had a nice lunch (much, much cheaper than in Scandinavia) and went to the Museum of the Latvian Occupation (sad story of what both the Germans and Russians did to the locals). I did not have time for anything else. I wish I had planned to stay an additional day, but such is life.
Back in Stockholm I continued my intensive Stockholm sightseeing–visiting a coffee shop on the edge of the old city (Gamla Stan) enough to almost feel like a regular and what I wanted to see most of all the museums and other main sites. Most notably I drove to the new Artipelag Museum on the Archipelago in Gustafsburg to the East of Stockholm. The Museum itself is a work of art (much more interesting than what is in it). Since it is new and was not in the GPS, I ended up needing assistance from kind local police officers to find it!
On August 19th I cleaned the house and spent my last night in a hotel near the Arlanda Airport–more relaxing at the end of a long trip than worrying about getting to the airport the day you fly. My flight home on Icelandair went without incident. My Scandinavian exchanges were sadly at an end.