Journey Up North
München – Frankfurt Hahn
0100 HR 2nd Oct. The plan was to leave Munich at early and head out for Frankfurt-Hahn airport. We’d booked our flights on Ryanair to Oslo, Norway, a week and a half back, but apparently not early enough to get promotion prices. According to Falkroutenplaner (www.falk.de), we needed about four and a half hours (with an average speed of 140 km/h) to drive up to Hahn, but we decided to take no chances, so Karthik and I promptly left shortly past one, picked up Bengkong from his place, and got onto the Autobahn. Cruising down the autobahn in the middle of the night was quite a pleasure, especially since we managed to rent a Citroen Xsara Picasso (we wanted a small Skoda to suit our budget, but Europcar gave us the Citroen for the same price anyway), and the fact that few cars were on the road in the middle of the night, meant that we made good time by our first rest point. Frankfurt-Hahn was another hour and a half drive away, before we finally found where this Airport was.
Frankfurt-Hahn Flughafen is nowhere near Frankfurt, being actually somewhere between Frankfurt and Cologne, and it’s a really small airport. But I suppose associating it with Frankfurt helps the appeal of budget airlines like Ryanair, which in a way, streamlines its operations to run at minimum cost, I mean, Boarding pass was a plastic tag that had nothing printed on it.
Oslo, capital of the Kingdom of Norway
The flight from Frankfurt-Hahn to Oslo Torp took two hours, but that wasn’t the end of the journey. We still had to take two-hour long bus ride to the city center, which took us to the international bus terminal, situated right beside Oslo Centralstasjon. Like always, we headed first for the hostel. Lonely Planet recommended Haraldsheim as a budget hostel(www.haraldsheim.oslo.no) to stay for the night, and it wasn’t difficult to understand why they did. The rooms/showers were clean and pleasant, and definitely worth the thirty Euros (it’s reasonable by Scandinavian standards).
The rest of the day was spent exploring downtown Oslo, walking down Karl Johans Gate (pronounced “gatter”, meaning “street”) to the Royal residence, where we watched the change of guards, and then to the harbour. Interestingly, the city center is actually surrounded by woods, lakes and some forty islands in the fjord, something which isn’t too obvious till one goes atop the military barracks not too far away from harbour to catch the splendid paranomic view. The next day, on Karthik’s behest, we visited the Viking Ship Museum, which had on display an array of different Viking ships which were used in Viking last rites. It wasn’t a big museum, but it did have many write-ups and artefacts which gave an informative insight into the lives of the Nordic Vikings. Thereafter, it was mostly walking around the city center, taking photographs, sipping Cappuccino along the main shopping district, and dining in fine Restaurants where a single glass of still water costs 5 Euros. Maybe it’s because Oslo is so pricey, or perhaps the city lacks a certain aura around it, but we all agreed that Oslo isn’t one of our favourite European cities, which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not worth visiting, but considering that we’ve been to that many cities among the three of us, oh well…
Later that night, we took the night train to Bergen, for our main purpose in visiting Norway.
Bergen, the Fjords
We arrived very early in the morning at the Bergen train station. The Fjords were what we came for, but having done neither reading up on the tour schedules, nor know how we should actually proceed to the Fjords, there was little else to do so early at 0730hr except to head for the nearest Mc Donald’s for coffee, till we discovered that Mc Donald’s does not open till 10am. Thankfully there’s always 7-Eleven, and the Fish Market.
The stallholders at the Fish Market start business early in the mornings, but it’s not a wholesale market, more like a fresh-catch market selling all kinds of seafood. There we met a lady stallholder who was Chinese, and she started giving us tips on what we should see, and where we should eat in Bergen. After which, she gave us some of her stall’s fresh prawns (cooked and slightly salted already) as well as introduced the various types of fresh seafood, from prawns, to crabs to salmon to caviar etc. Just seeing the rows of ready-to-eat crabs and prawns is more than satisfying, but I guess we just wanted more, and promptly bought half a kilo of prawns to snack along the way.
We spent half the morning that way, and finally made our way back to the Tourist Information (which opens at 9am) just as it opened, only to discover that the only Fjord cruise in Bergen left an hour ago. The only alternative left for the day was to take the “Norway-in-a-Nutshell” package, which would take us halfway back towards Oslo, towards Myrdal, where we would have to take another train to Flam, the starting point of the package’s cruise. All the hassle was soon forgotten, however, once we arrived in Flam, partly because the clouds cleared, but mainly because the view there was simply breathtaking. It must have been the most scenic cruise ever, as our small ship cruised through the water, with the Fjords clearly reflected on the smooth calm water surface, whilst the sun rays glistened off the circling eddies. The weather held through till the end of the cruise, and it was such a glorious experience just to sail through the fjords that many passengers, ourselves included, were reluctant to leave the ship, and the Fjords behind. We took a train back to Bergen, and had dinner at a harbour-front restaurant, before settling in for the night in a private accommodation we found through the tourist office.
Early next morning, we took the first train back from Bergen to Oslo. I guess we could have taken the night train the night before to save half a day on travelling, but we were told that the route between Bergen, which by the way is the second largest city in Norway, and Oslo is the most scenic of routes, and that we shouldn’t miss it for anything. This was one advice that we were glad we took. It was simply beautiful. We passed by the fjords once more, passed the rolling hills, or should I say mountains, and watched as the sun slowly rose above the horizon. It wasn’t just your Frankfurt-Köln route on a beautiful summer day, but indeed a few notches higher up the scenic scale.
Stockholm must be one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, at least, that was the consensus we reached, and one of those places where we would probably visit again. As usual, we travelled by train, and reached Stockholm late in the morning. Thereafter, we set out to explore the city. We first headed for Gamla Stan, literally meaning “old town”, which is actually a small island in the middle of Stockholm. This charming area is like the typical “Altstadt” with stone streets and old buildings. The city center was bustling with life, not unexpected for the Swedish capital. We walked down the main shopping streets, acquainted ourselves with some Swedish sights and sounds, and eventually bought some souvenirs to bring home.
The next “attraction” we had in mind was the Stockholm City Hall, as seen on the left. It must have looked pretty ordinary, as least compared to the “Rathaus” in Munich. However, this city hall is where the post-prize presentation banquet for the Nobel Prize is held. The city hall tour took us through the banquet hall, chambers, and conference rooms as well as introduced various historical backgrounds of the capital. Perhaps even more spellbinding than the Stockholm-stories is the view of Gamla Stan across the river from the banks of the City Hall. Somewhere in the middle of the Stockholm is the Nobel Museum, where we spent the day drinking coffee, reading articles of Nobel Prize-winning works, trying out the different set-ups which were used for the various prize winning researches, and surfing the Museum Intranet to find out who the prize winners of the last decades were. The Royal Swedish Palace was another place we really had to see. There were plenty of different museums (armoury, treasury, residence etc) for us to spend the day there, and it’s worth noting that the combi-ticket we bought (for all museums) were actually multi-visit passes valid for a month, which of course wasn’t of much use to us, especially since we had already planned for the next highlight of the trip.
Stockholm-Helsinki on a cruise
It was probably a stroke of luck that we even went on the cruise. We didn’t even plan for it, until we met three other Singaporeans in Bergen, whilst on the “Norway In a Nutshell” trip, who when told we were headed for Stockholm next, promptly recommended taking the cruise from Stockholm to Helsinki. It sure sounded good, though Karthik had some initial reservations about taking his ‘maiden-voyage’, but the three of us quickly agreed that we could rearrange the schedule and put Helsinki in the plan. After the huge liner left the Swedish harbour, we were quickly rewarded with paranomic views of Stockholm and the surrounding archipelagoes. The cruise was every bit as good as we imagined it to be, and it didn’t even cost us 200 Euros for a return trip with buffet and cabin included. In fact, the cabin on board must have been the best lodging we’ve had so far in Scandinavia, albeit on the sea. It was perfect for viewing sunset on the Baltic Sea. We had a great time on the highest deck, enjoying the winds, till it became a little too cold for comfort, before heading down to the Viking Restaurant for a sumptuous buffet Dinner. Our dinner table was shared with two other gentlemen of Indian origins, and we learned to our surprise that they actually run a chain of Indian restaurants and eateries in Stockholm, and they even offered us discounts, and all we had to do was to present their name cards at their restaurants!
The first impression must have been one of astonishment, especially as we made our way through the city center to the different places of ‘interest’. Helsinki didn’t really feel like a typical west-european capital, probably because of the country’s close proximity to its Russian neighbour. The Uspenski Cathedral and the Helsinki Cathedral were first on our to-see list, and they didn’t disappoint. The most impressive however, was probably the Temppeliaukio Church (right), which was wholly made of a huge rock. It was meant to be a day trip, and we probably made the most of the short stay to see as much as we could of the Finnish Capital, before we had to make our way back to our cruise liner,which was docked at the harbour.
On the return cruise trip back to Stockholm, we shared our dinner table with an elderly couple. The gentleman was from Norway, and his wife from Finland. We shared some pleasant conversations throughout the meal, speaking both german and english, since the couple spoke german as well. At the end of the meal, they bought us each a round of hard liquor, a certain french Dram Buie, if I remember correctly, which certainly brought about the high point of the evening. Breakfast next morning was again greeted with much anticipation, what with such a great spread of delicatessen. There wasn’t however, much variety for Karthik to choose from, but he received a specially prepared vegetarian platter from the chef himself, and his delight was for all to see.
On this last leg of our Scandinavian trip, we took the night train from Stockholm to Mälmo, and from there we took a short train ride to Copenhagen. We arrived in Copenhagen a little too early, and the accommodation we booked through the tourist office wasn’t ready for check-in yet. With our backpacks and all, we walked through the town center, and stumbled upon a beautiful lake, in the middle of the city. Swans and water ducks completed the picturesque view, just as a rainbow formed across the surface of the lake. It was the perfect place to take a rest, and to enjoy the sunshine. The accommodation wasn’t so perfect however, and we had to search for new lodging, settling for a budget 86-bed room hostel Sleep-In-Heaven that was a little far from the city center. Unless absolute necessary, or unless there’s a strong preference to sleep in an army-barrack styled hostel, alternative locations would be better, because it really was a room with 86 beds. Thankfully, the rest of Copenhagen was a delight, and we pretty much covered most of the major attractions that it had to offer. The Royal Danish Residence (left) was quite a sight, although unfortunately, we missed the guided-tour due to our misplaced trust in the Lonely Planet. We went up the City Hall towers as well and from there, it was great place to view the city, to take in the sights of the Danish capital, and to listen to the security guards stationed up there who periodically tell their stories of the city. A riverboat cruise through the canals of Copenhagen was another thing we didn’t miss. It brought us to various places, including Nyhaven (new harbour, below left), the ‘mermaid’, and in and around the city. It was a pretty good ride, something like the canal-cruise in Amsterdam. Of course, in the city of Carlsberg, how could we pass up the chance to check out the Carlsberg Brewery? It was a short bus ride away from the city center, and upon entering the main office, we were warmly greeted by the receptionist who asked us, in english, if we were here to visit the Carlsberg museum. Upon saying yes, he promptly handed us two coupons each to redeem free beers at the bar at the other end of the museum, which we used of course, to exchange for both the Tuborg and Carlsberg beer each. It was definitely a pleasant way to end the Carlsberg tour, though an Augustiner would have, without a doubt, been a better choice, so went the consensus, as we took our last swigs.
Back to Germany
We left Copenhagen early next morning, taking the Danish trains to Tinglev, before changing at the borders to finally arrive at Flensburg, using the last available date on our “Scanrail” passes. There, we rented a VW Polo and drove down to Cologne, before heading back for Munich, where we went our separate ways. It was a great trip, to have spent the last two weeks in Scandinavia, but more so in the company of two great guys, whose stories, laughter and companionship made these fond moments all so more memorable.