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Norway (and northern Swedish interior)

NORWAY | Thursday, 10 July 2008 | Views [1249]

First thing that happened after my last post was my birthday, which was nice.  For my meal, Emma and I decided to make Anders and Agnete a traditional Aussie meal, so we whipped up some rissoles with 3 veg and gravy followed by a pavlova.  I had to make the meat rissoles since for some reason Emma's vegetarian principles prevent her from being up to her elbows in mince (go figure), but it did mean that I got to make them my way (using Mum's recipe) and they were delicious.  The pav was fantastic too since Emma and Chris made the meringue from scratch, and I gotta tell you it makes a huge difference - it just melts in your mouth and gradually bonds with the topping in a way that the shop-bought bases just can't do.  And I got lots of nice pressies from the family (new and old).  A good time was had by all, especially me.

Next day we left Rockhammar again to drive to Mora to catch the Inlandsbanan.  Mora is in Dalarna, the traditional heart of Sweden, and I finally found out why - the land around lake Siljan is very fertile, as evidence by so much being cleared for agriculture, which supports a large number of towns in a (traditionally) fairly remote part of southern Sweden.  Mora is also the finish line of the Vasaloppet, a cross country ski race held every year from Salen (about 100km away) celebrating the time when the leader of the resistance against the Danes and future king Gustav Vasa did the same race (but uphill) into exile before the locals had a change of heart and caught up with him to form the start of the Swedish fightback in the 1500s.

Agnete drove Emma, Chris and me up to Mora (tusen tack) so that we could start the Inlandsbanan journey.  The Inlandsbanan ("Inland Railway") is a stretch of track built up the middle of Sweden to the north (Mora to Gällivare - Google maps might be useful) to open up the interior.  After deregulation in the 1970s it became somewhat unviable and was in danger of closing until the local councils along the route formed a company to buy the track and run it as a tourist line (yay for the little guy).  The vibe is really nice, with an oldish train (the kind where you can open up the windows and take some good shots...with a camera) and the train stops at towns along the route for pre-ordered meals, so you feel like you're contributing to a local economy rather than being corralled by a tour company.  I had elk stew, smoked reindeer and "wilderness stew" which may have been whatever the driver managed to run down during the trip, but was quite nice (like a stroganoff). 

And there are a few animals along the way too, with the odd family of suicidal reindeer trying to outrun the train (it took a few minutes of them trying to escape the train by running along the track before they realised that getting off the track into the forest was a better tactic) and a young fox that I saw trying the same technique but less successfully as he disappeared under the train (though it was seen running off the track as the train passed).  The single line tracks meant the train was always close to the forest, so we saw a lot of pine forest with an under storey of either bright green moss and lichens or a web of low bushes that will be full of berries (mostly blueberries) in August - all similar to the forest we walked through in Finnafallet (moss is so soft to walk on too, like a foam mattress).  There were also patches of more marshy country with sparser, scrawnier trees and lots of a sort of grass that grows a cottonbud-like ball on top.  These sections were great because it meant we were able to see longer distances into the remote interior.  Oh and there were also lakes up the wazoo.

First stop overnight was in the largish town of Östersund on the lake Storsjön ("Big Lake"), the 5th biggest in the country.  Östersund was a damn fine town, with lots of wooden buildings that must have escaped the great fire of 18__, arranged on a grid of streets rising up from the lake shore.  We stayed 2 nights in the appropriately named Hotel Emma to give us time to really look around.  Next day we went for a cruise along the lake in an old steamship (not quite as gorgeous as the one in Savonlinna, but good fun nonetheless) to see the lakeside villages and get to the end of the big lake to discover that it was actually the entrance to the main (bigger) lake.  We also spotted the winner of the over 70s division of the Jan Lazzarini look-alike competition, an Australian lady whose husband was heard to remark of the bridge over the lake (that looks a bit like the Derwent bridge in Hobart) "It's a bit drab, it's got nothing on the Sydney Harbour Bridge" (ugh!).  The Storsjön (the SJ is pronounced like the SK in Skellefteå) area has been inhabited since the stone-age and it really has an eternal feel about it.

After the boat we went to the local outdoor museum Jamtli, which is a bit like Skansen, but aimed more at Swedish kids.  I have no problem with that, but it did make it a bit less accessible for adults (such as we are) whose Swedish still takes a fair bit of effort.  The main reason we went though was to see the Överhogdal tapestries that were unearthed in a church storeroom in 1910 that turned out to be about 1000 years old, the oldest existing weavings of their type in Europe (Chris is an eager weaver).  They show figures from Norse myth in a style not unlike early Atari games from the 80s (I guess that comes from both being created from large blocks of colour).  It's unclear exactly what the tapestries are about but they may be using elements of the Norse apocalyptic myth of Ragnarok (the death of the gods) to tell of the coming of Christianity to the area.  Cool.  The museum also had a cool Sami exhibition where I got to hear some recordings of Yoiking, the traditional Sami singing of the song of different animals, people or even things, which sounded a bit like Native American chanting with an odd Tarzan-style pitch jump thrown in fairly often.  They also had video of the traditional slaughter and processing of reindeer that was interesting if a bit gruesome.  For those interested they used a knife-to-the-back-of-the-skull method that didn't seem that effective (a bit of twitching for a while after) - they seemed to want the throat to remain intact for some use.  Yucky but real.

Next day we were back on the Inlandsbanan for the 7am till 10pm leg to Gällivare.  I forgot to mention that their logo is a cartoon of a bear dancing with an elk across a train track, which kind of sums up the experience and the vibe (the bear is leading BTW and seems to have a jerky lead because the elk's arm is a bit stretched).  Along the way we saw the forest gradually be replaced by more marshes (possibly due to permafrost keeping the water table high or due to the build up of peat due to the long winter not allowing the vegetation to decay quicker than it's deposited), and the lakes to start to give way to the faster flowing streams to the north.  Many of these are "regulated" for hydropower producing about a third of Sweden's needs (good for the atmosphere, not so good for the river and its ecosystem - the continuing conundrum of hydro power).  One stop in Storuomen found us in the middle of the local fair (it was a Saturday).  It had the usual stalls and foods, but the interesting local variation was the arm wrestling competition on a stage near the station.  They had a boys’ event and a girls’ event with the competitors looking in their late teens and many wearing the T-shirt of their local arm-wrestling club.  One match-up resulted in hands slipping apart, so they brought out the strap and tied the hands together for the rematch.  It was really interesting to watch (I like watching a bit of local amateur sport, even if I don't participate myself). 

I also noted the number of people up there walking around in snowboard pants (with waterproof areas over the knees and bum), reminding us of the usual weather there for most of the year.  Travelling further I wandered up to the driver’s cabin and got to have a fun multilingual conversation with the driver (his English was only slightly better than my Swedish).  The eventual crossing of the Arctic Circle was a nice event with the train stopping so we could all get out and take photos in front of the sign.  There was a local souvenir seller who had the CUTEST little puppy that ran around like crazy so excited to be patted by so many new people ("Arctic Circle? What Arctic Circle? Look at the cute widdle puppy!").  Then after crossing a river and seeing a local man playing a violin nude (except for a green wig) on a rock far below (I think he does it most days), we rolled into Gällivare.

Arctic Sweden is home to one of the biggest iron ore deposits in Europe, and most of the people and infrastructure in the region is devoted to its extraction.  The main mining centres are Gällivare and Kiruna, and the railway from Narvik to Luleå connects both to the coast, with Narvik in Norway the departure point.  The area was also the scene of most of the Scandinavian fighting in WW2 with the Germans trying to get access to the iron for their war machine and the Allies trying to stop them.  As a result, Germany invaded Norway and Narvik was mostly destroyed in the fighting over it.  On the other hand, Sweden's declared neutrality allowed them to make a packet selling to both sides (though this was partly out of necessity rather than profiteering, with the Nazis more than happy to invade if they didn't get their ore).  Gällivare seems to be the smaller of the two mining communities and when we arrived they were having some sort of town party with a live band and lots of drinking and carousing.  After dumping our stuff at the hotel, we rushed back through the so-small-you-might-miss-it CBD and the drinking tent to catch the midnight sun bus up the nearby hill at 11pm.  The hill, Dundret, is apparently the highest lowland hill in Sweden - which seems to rank up there with the title of Sweden's oldest teenager (or fastest walker for those who think race walking is as silly as I do), but probably refers to the parts of Sweden that haven't been uplifted by the collision of the North American plate that formed the mountains along the border with Norway.  One thing we noticed while waiting for the bus is that the mosquitoes in the Arctic really are HUGE and EVERYWHERE (I saw a bawdy T-shirt for sale next day that read "Lappland mosquitoes are so big it's nice when they suck") - something to do with all the water lying around in the Arctic summer I guess, though one wonders what they traditionally fed on.  Anyway, we went up the hill and saw the sun not set at midnight, and it was a wonderful experience.  It was only a few days ago that we realised that with daylight saving we really only saw the 11:00pm sun (by the same logic, anyone can have midnight sun if you put your clocks forward by 6 hours) but it was still cool (and cold) being above the tree line with a view of 11% of Sweden in daylight in the middle(ish) of the night.  As we walked back to the hotel we saw the same people that we'd seen drunk at dusk still going hard at it at dawn - Chris was a bit appalled until we pointed out the solar realities up there.

Next day we wandered around the Sunday markets and down to the Sami church near the (slightly swollen) river.  I did think it was funny that the part of town on the other side of the river was called Andra Sidan ("The Other Side").  Finally we went back to the train station for a parting of the ways.  Chris was heading down to Luleå before heading south to the Höga Kusten (see previous post), while Emma and I were going further north through Kiruna to Narvik.

The train to Narvik was the most comfortable of the trip, with a 6 seat compartment to ourselves and seats that sort of slouched down in a very satisfying way rather than reclining back.  This was a bit of a shame as the scenery was so bowel looseningly beautiful that I spent almost the whole 5 hour journey standing next to the open window with my camera, snapping away like a beatnik in a bebop bar.  After a 20min quick stop in Kiruna the train rolled through a gloriously empty landscape of rolling, glacier-smoothed hills.  The trees down near the track had now shrunk to a low wattle-scrub size and the hills were mostly above the tree line with patches of snow still on them.  This gave a wonderfully vast and remote feeling to the region, broken only by the little Swedish cottages dotted here and there.  The weather turned more cloudy with patches of rain as we entered the mountains proper, heralded by the almost continuous line of cliffs that (I assume) marks the weathered extremity of the Lauentia plate (around Hudson Bay and the St Lawrence River in Canada) as it folded over the Baltica plate (Sweden, Finland, etc) to form the mountain chain before opening up again to form the Atlantic. 

Next we moved up past the long Torneträsk lake onto the high plateaux of sparse dwarf birch shrubs, rocks and moss to the top near Abisko national park, the start (or end) of the Kungsleden hiking trail that nutters use to walk the 500km back down to Hemavan below the Arctic Circle (or more sensible people use to do short bits of).  We weren't quite hard core enough for that though as we continued up to the border near the bleakly gorgeous ski town of Riksgränsen ("The Country's Border" - gotta love the nomenclature up here), though I did catch a glimpse of the U-shaped glacial valley that is one of the main attractions of Abisko.  After the border (marked mostly by a change of some train personnel and the change from Ö to Ø in the town names (Norway and Denmark use Å,Æ,Ø where Sweden uses Å,Ä,Ö - same sounds though), we descended a windy, mountainous path through steep sided glacial valleys.  Suddenly, marked only by a pebble beach and some Sami style huts, the valley went under the ocean and we were travelling alongside a fjord - a real goddam fjord (and it was way better than those hjoldens we'd seen earlier)!  So after a half an hour of watching blue water lay between high snow-capped mountains we finally rolled into Narvik.  I would thoroughly recommend that trip (maybe even starting at Luleå) - none of the guidebooks seem that interested in it, but it was the best train trip we've had so far.

Narvik (as mentioned earlier) exists almost solely to take iron ore off trains from Kiruna and put it on ships to the Atlantic - and heavy fighting over it in WW2 flattened it so most of it is relatively new.  So how did they manage to make a new remote industrial port town so freaking charming?  It doesn't hurt that it's between a fjord, and lots of islands and snow-capped mountains.  It's also got lots of public art (a lot of it devoted to war memorials) and streets of cute Scandinavian houses.  We went up the cable car to the top of the local ski-hill to see the view and maybe catch another 11pm sun.  The view was exhilarating (picture a sea so still that a lone boat created a V-shaped wake right back to where it started) but the sun was behind clouds and we were a bit tired so we headed back to the hostel.

Next day, after a sweaty walk around town (it was a humid 26 degrees...Celsius) we hopped on the bus to the Lofoten Islands (loh-FOO-ten), an island chain that juts out from northern Norway like an oronic fern frond or a skeletal finger pointing ominously up the gulf stream (or yet another Scandinavian peepee depending on your similic tendencies).  The bus wound its way around the fjord, over the bridge near Steinsland where highway 83 to Harstad branches off from the E10 (I only mention this because it's the furthest north we went, and will probably go on this whole trip), through the Vesterålen Islands and under Trollfjord to the start of the Lofoten.  The scenery so far was a spectacular mix of fjords, and mountains, with some lovely inland valley spots as well.  We changed drivers at Svolvær at about 8pm and continued through some OK, but not terribly inspiring rural scenery on the first couple of Lofoten's islands to Leskenes where we changed busses.  Thinking that we were just tired and no scenery was going to inspire us, we were unprepared for the vocabluary-defeatingly spectacular final two islands, with more snow-capped mountains, valleys, inlets, channels and widdle fishing villages with red painted fishermens huts (rorbuer - from the words ro="to row/fish" and bo="to live").  We finally got off the bus at 11pm at the end of the road, the laconically named town of Å (or, "Å i Lofoten", presumably after someone says "Wha?").  We checked into our rorbu, which was nicely situated on an inlet with a running stream at one end and the sea at the other.  Upon investigation (remember this was the Arctic summer so it was still light) it turned out that this stream came from the most gorgeous lake cradled between towering peaks, and only about 50m from the coast (it is a small island). 

After rearranging the bedroom furniture and stopping being tired and cranky (my fault, by definition) we went to sleep on a perfect clear warm midnight day in an Å-some location...and woke up in a rainy arctic shack.  It seems that the Arctic deals with the ambiguity between days that aren't separated by night by simply making the weather completely different from one day to the next.  So we had a looksy in the town museum.  The towns on the Lofoten exist mainly to catch cod in the winter when they come south to spawn in the Gulf Stream waters between the Lofoten and the mainland.  The cod are gutted, beheaded, salted, and hung up on wooden racks to dry - and the racks are everywhere.  Oddly enough, the main market for the resulting "stockfish" is Italy and Spain where it's used as a delicacy to flavour soups and such.  Even more oddly, the heads are shipped off to Nigeria where they are used in a local spicy soup dish.  The fish were used as more of a staple in the middle ages where preserved fish was a good source of protein around Europe.  The only things really used locally nowadays are the tongues that are fried up as a local delicacy (I asked the fish what they thought of this, but they wouldn't answer me). 

The other main by-product is the cod liver oil which, before the petroleum industry, provided Europe with a lot of its oil needs, from lighting to polishing boots to acting as a solvent for the red paint used to paint all the fisherman's cabins (it was a self sustaining industry), as well as keeping a lot of old wives in tiptop shape.  Anyway, after an hour or so wandering around the old buildings in the village that made up the museum, being grossed out by the cod liver oil fermenting bucket and intrigued by the "ladies knives" the blacksmith had made, and generally waiting for the rain to ease, we finally decided that it was time to just don our arctic waterproof gear and have a look around.  We checked out the lookout/campground, where a young backpacker was having a one woman rave on her iPod (looked like fun, and great location under the sea cliffs).  We wandered up a hill or two and eventually wandered a bit of the way around the lake (there was a path but it was vague and difficult) to see some more of it.  All this time we were dwarfed by the mountains around us that managed to be quite spectacularly coloured despite the green and grey palette they were using (it was a bit like a black and white space movie played on a TV with dodgy colour).  The main mountain reminder me (and this gets a little obscure) of that bit in the first level of the computer game DoomTM where you look out a window and there's a rocky mountain in the distance that doesn't move as you move around the room (giving it the impression of being really far away and really massive).  Anyway, that's what it honestly reminded me of all day. 

We wanted to look for a few good places to go back to the next day if it was fine...and true to form, the next day was clear and sunny and warm.  Having only about 2 hours before we had to leave, we rushed over to get a good look at the lake again, and I managed to indulge in a quick arctic dip in the lake (OK, so I'm just bragging now, but it was cool, though I did get a brain freeze after the third dip, but it still wasn't as cold as Savonlinna's lake).  We then got a cab to Moskenes to catch the ferry back over to Bodø.  The view from the ferry as it left the islands was just fantastic, as we saw the "Lofoten Wall" of mountains stretching from left to right, with their lakes and snowy baseball-glove calderas (or whatever), and the calcium blue water churned up by the boat (must be a lot of limestone in the area).

As an aside, the number of tunnels on the road to Å was quite impressive.  In fact, they must have gotten so good at tunnelling that when you get to Å, the road tunnels through a granite hill to...a car park, where the road ends.  And there's a gravel road around the hill.  Someone must have left the tunnelling machine on over lunch or something.  And the car park is full of mobile homes that infest northern Norway - bringing the grey nomads from Germany and France up to get in the way of young(ish), fit(tish) travellers such as ourselves (though maybe out of the hair of the youngish fittish travellers in Germany and France).

We docked in Bodø and had a quick look around, before deciding that what we really needed was a takeaway curry and some hotel room TV (What was on?  It doesn't matter).  And we got a damn good arctic curry too, though I did feel sorry for the Indians running it, who presumably came to Norway and dutifully learned Norwegian...and then we rock up and start speaking English at them.  I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone in the world who has learned English as a second or third language.  It is still slightly embarrassing that almost everyone can speak our language and we can barely stumble through with one other, to the point where we just start talking English to people in countries that don't have any reason to speak it, except to help people like us.  So cheers (tack, kiitos, merci, dank, grazie, etc).

Next day we looked around some more.  Bodø is a smallish town with an industrial harbour that kind of detracts from the town in the way that Narvik's doesn't, and it doesn't have mountains around it to distract one.  I did get in the local paper in a vox pop piece about what people were doing on the weekend (I felt a little guilty saying I'd be in Oslo).  It would have been on the 4th of July, maybe for publication a few days later if anyone wants to try to find it (I haven't had time).  One thing that did catch our eye was that some of the shops had covered footpaths in front of them, Queensland style (with posts along the gutter holding up the roof), something that lots of places in Europe don't do (maybe the snow causes problems for it or something).  It makes for more spacious streets and focuses the attention more on the buildings, but kind of sucks when it rains.

We hopped on the train from Bodø to Trondheim at about midday, and immediately noticed how bloody hot it was in there with the sun beating through the windows (it was another 29 degree hot arctic day).  So we moved back and grabbed a free seat under an openable window.  The train trip was long (10hrs) but pleasant enough.  We saw locals swimming in the fjordly beaches, went up one river valley, across a lovely high mountain pass (about the same time as we crossed the Arctic Circle again, best crossing point yet) and down another river valley, alongside a wonderfully calcium blue river that expanded at each turn from the melt water streaming off the mountains like sweat from a sumo in a sauna.  After Mo-i-Rana (which might be named along the same lines as Å-i-Lofoten) we repeated the same deal before travelling down the long and fertile Trøndelag valley into Trondheim.  The scenery was more great Nordic-Alpine views of mountains, snow, valleys, running rivers and fjords.  Where Sweden has a calm stately way with its forests and lakes, Norway has mountains which both allow themselves to be seen above the trees (or allow the viewer to see over the trees from them) and give water a nice boost of potential energy to actually do something.  There's more of a sense of youth and movement.  It's a bit like Sweden squeezed (which is kind of what it is).

Trondheim is the third biggest town in Norway and was the capital in days past (under the Greek sounding name of Nidaros - meaning "mouth of the river Nid").  It is home to the original cathedral in Norway and played host to the interesting events surrounding King Olav (but I'm running short on time so you'll have to Wiki him).  The Nidaros cathedral is the biggest in Scandinavia and was built and extended over centuries in a few different styles.  The trancepts are Romanesque, the nave is Gothic and the end wall looks like Notre Dames end wall (i.e. dumb and square and hiding the lovely gothic and romanesque arches).  The whole effect is mildly impressive, but I can't help thinking that the amount of detail detracts from the size, making it look smaller than it is, where Turku's cathedral's plain stone tower looked huge.  In fact there is a Turku style church just up the road to prove the point and save you the trip to Finland. 

The view from the Nidaros cathedral's tower was quite impressive, even after my demonstration of why to watch your head to all in the group we ascended the tight steel stairs with.  Once again the serenity inside the (fairly gloomy) interior was broken by people talking in loud voices.  They were Germans this time - I eventually yelled at them in a side room to keep their voices down, more to freak them out and make me feel better than anything else.  German tourists have the reputation among Europeans that American tourists have in the rest of the world - maybe they should stay in Germany where they're lovely people.  Mind you, I can't imagine how many people have wished this loud Aussie would shut the hell up on our trips so I guess I can't cast stones (or I can and just accept being a hypocrite).  We went out that (Saturday) night for dinner and a few drinks (one can only afford to do that once in Norway - even the Swedes think it’s expensive).  Trondheim overall was very nice with lovely coloured wooden houses and a great go ahead vibe.

Time is getting away from me, so I'll have to rush through the rest of the trip.  The train ride to Oslo was nice, but we spent the whole trip trying to avoid 3 drunk skator (the Swedish word for loud obnoxious women, it means magpie).  Travel tip - the restaurant car is a good place to go on a train if your assigned seats are unsatisfactory).  I did manage to clock one of them in the head with my backpack at one point, so it's not all bad.  The scenery was nice, along the lines of the pervious trip.

The weather in Oslo finally turned rainy after a few days of sweltering heat.  In fact it can best be described as "bloody miserable".  As a result I don't feel I can give Oslo a fair assessment since it was cloudy and rainy and windy and cold the whole 2 days.  We did see the Vigelands sculpture park, which was nice.  It has lots of sculptures of nude men, women and children in various dramatic and slightly contemporary dance poses (well So You Think You Can Dance contemporary dance poses).  My favourites were the angry child (he's really throwing a tanty), the two teenagers that seem to have been caught in the act and the man fighting off a swarm of babies (this is a recurring theme, if slightly deviating from the otherwise naturalistic humanism of the rest of the statues).

Tempted to go back to the hotel, we soldiered on to the outdoor museum (it was definitely museum weather, possibly not outdoor museum though) to see a stave church.  These were built in the 1100s in Norway and have a distinctive style, looking like a cross between a Japanese temple and a Maori meeting house, two cultures one doesn't normally associate with Scandinavia (outside of the veal substitute industry).  We also saw possibly the best Sami exhibition yet - possibly aimed at kids, but therefore with descriptions that were brief and to the point.  Oslo has the largest Sami population in the world (for economic reasons of course, not traditionally) so it was probably a good place for the exhibit.  After that we really did pack it in and went back to the hotel at about 6pm to tick off another travel wish - watching a Wimbledon final at a sensible time (we picked it up in the 3rd set after a long rain delay - vindicating our decision of not going home earlier).

Next day we walked around the town centre and found not much to report.  It was rainy, but we liked Stockholm in similar, colder weather.  The palace was built for an absent Swedish king and has a combination of Swedish sensible design and roman columns out the front that doesn't really work.  The cathedral was under restoration and was completely covered with canvas.  The Rådhus (town hall) was interesting, even if it did look like the XXXX Brewery, though the carillon on the roof playing "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" was a nice touch.  The harbour is lined with newish buildings that look a bit like Melbourne's Docklands development.  The fortress on the point between harbours was nice, but we didn't have much time to explore it before we hopped back on the train back to Sweden.  Like I said earlier, the weather made it pretty hard to say really nice things about Oslo, so don't take this blog into account at all if planning a trip there, it's probably really nice normally, but by then we just wanted to get home to Rockhammar.

So after a few days rest, much of the first day spent washing clothes and watching Married With Children on Channel 6 (I loved that show, it was very groundbreaking for its time, providing an antidote to The Cosby Show and Full House and providing a beachhead for the Simpsons), we're off again tomorrow to the Herräng International Swing Dance Camp for a week, and then it's about 2 days rest before we go to the Alps for 2 weeks.  Next post may not be until late August.  It's all go.  We're still enjoying it, but are a little tired at the mo.  The old brain gets a bit full with new stuff and takes time to assimilate all the new sights and smells.  But enough about us, how are you going?

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