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Trip Report Scandinavia Does NOT Have to Be Expensive: A Songdoc Trip Report

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This trip—August 8 – 30—was built around my teaching seminars and having business meetings in Stockholm, Oslo, and Bergen. My partner accompanied me. We’re well-traveled, active men in our fifties. FYI, I’ve listed prices in U.S. dollars.

We started with five nights in Stockholm. I’d heard that Scandinavia is prohibitively expensive. But actually, eating in restaurants is the only thing we found to be expensive—and it is indeed VERY expensive. The cost of hotels was on par with most major cities—and possibly even a little lower. Transportation within—and between—cities, and most of the attractions and museums, were quite reasonably priced—and the gorgeous scenery doesn’t cost a kroner ;-)

STOCKHOLM

I knew little about Stockholm and was completely taken by surprise at its beauty. The architecture and the waterfront views are absolutely stunning. I couldn’t stop taking photos. This is definitely among the most beautiful capitols in the world and I understand why it’s sometimes called the “Venice of the North.”

Flight:
Continental Nashville to Newark.
SAS Newark to Stockholm was packed and getting any serious sleep in coach was tough. But at least we arrived 25 minutes early, and it took virtually no time to pass through customs.

Ground Transportation:
Taxi Kurir was running a summer special – Arlanda airport to any downtown Stockholm location: (1 – 4 passengers) $65 U.S., and it was well worth not dealing with dragging luggage on trains or buses after flying through the night.

Lodging:
The Clarion Tapto Hotel was chosen primarily for value. $135 per night included breakfast & dinner buffet and free WiFi. The other guests were all European – mostly Swedes.

I was concerned that the Ostermalm location seemed a bit out of the way, but it was only a 15 minute stroll to downtown (Norrmalm), the waterfront, and Gamla Stan attractions. We were actually a bit closer to the Djurgarden attractions than if we had stayed in a more touristy area. We were pleased with the hotel and the quiet, residential area. The hotel is not 5-star luxury, but was a pleasant 3 star. The room was large (by European standards); the bed was quite good; and the shower was HEAVEN. The breakfast buffet was excellent and the dinners were fine. We’re not gourmet “foodies” – and it was good for us to be able to eliminate the expense of dinners. The main course changed every night (burritos; chicken; spicy lasagna …) but there were always nice salads and wonderful artisan breads and cheeses were offered.

We love our coffee and were pleased that the hotel had a free coffee/espresso/cappuccino machine, as well as tea and hot cocoa, available 24 hours in a pleasant lounge. There was also free cake and cookies in the afternoon.

The only meals we bought were lunches. Our favorites were at the Saluhall Food Hall. The quantity and variety of selections were overwhelming--and everything looked beautiful. We had several delicious, reasonably priced lunches there. Highlights included potato pancakes with lingonberry jam, roast chicken, and fresh baked rolls. Another good lunch was at the outdoor café at the Royal Palace.

Attractions:

Historiska Museet ($11) presents Sweden’s history from prehistoric times till the present. Enormous exhibits of medieval art and church altars, and gold jewelry and treasure from Viking times were the highlights. Unfortunately, the displays were dark (for preservation) and we were hideously jet lagged (our first full day). Not a good combination. This is a good museum—but not at the top of our list.

The Vasa Museet ($17.50) held no appeal for me but I went because I’d heard so many rave reviews. Those reviews were well-deserved. The wooden war ship sunk during its 1628 maiden voyage and was recovered, astoundingly intact in 1961. The ship’s intricate carvings were incredible, and the displays and exhibits were superb. This is an absolute must-see.

Skansen ($19) is an open-air folk park; a collection of homes from throughout Sweden, dating as far back the 1200s, that have been reassembled in a beautiful setting. Many of the homes were open and the original furnishings were displayed. It was a wonderful way to get a sense of how people lived throughout the ages. Costumed guides remained in character, welcoming you to their home, and telling you about themselves as if they were the original inhabitants. We also enjoyed the mini zoo, and traditional folk music and dancing. We vote this as a “must-see” attraction.

A tour of the Royal Palace ($22) is yet another “must-see.” Spectacular—and on par with Versailles. The collection of royal crowns, scepters, and clothing was smaller than expected, but fantastic. While we were there we caught the changing of the guard. It was quite an elaborate, impressive ceremony, with horsemen and a marching band. It was rather crowded and we would have been pleased with a lot less of it.

We got a taste of the archipelago by taking a ferry to Vaxholm ($35). The ride was lovely—but not the kind of spectacular scenery that would await us in Norway’s fjords. It was a beautiful day, and nice to stroll through the town. I also walked along a trail that took me past beaches where families sunned and swam. This was a nice way to spend a pretty, summer day – but I wouldn’t put it at the top of my list.

Hallwyl Museum ($8) is a grand old house that displays art exhibitions in addition to the stunning furnishings. We were able to see it in approximately 30 minutes and we enjoyed it.

Several evenings, we strolled through the park in Ladugardsgardet—an area mostly filled with local joggers and pleasant, but not especially scenic.

Strolling through Gamla Stan and enjoying the old buildings and narrow alleyways was wonderful. Yes, it’s “touristy” but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the architecture and wandering the streets.

We enjoyed all the attractions we visited, but our favorite thing was just strolling through this beautiful city. Walking through Djurgarden, with the Rosendal gardens, gorgeous buildings and restaurants, and exquisite views of the waterfront was a definite highlight. We enjoy walking and found Stockholm to be a perfect “walking” city. We probably walked 6 – 10 miles each day! We only rode the subways when I had business meetings in Sodermalm.

There was a big difference between upscale Ostermalm, where we stayed, and the funky vibe of Sodermalm. To use some NYC analogies, Ostermalm was 5th Avenue or Park Avenue; Sodermalm was Greenwich Village.

The weather was mostly gorgeous. Except for a few brief rainy spells, we enjoyed bright blue skies and highs in the low 70s.

I’d heard that the Swedish people were beautiful and I found that to be true. With few exceptions, statuesque, stunning, blue-eyed blond women seemed to be the norm, and the men were equally fit and handsome. They were as beautiful as their city. Everyone was able to speak English—and did so the moment they looked at me with my dark hair, eyes, and complexion ;-)

NORWAY

Oslo

We flew from Stockholm to Oslo on Norwegian Air for $84 per person. I’d worked in Oslo previously. But this was DP’s first trip to Norway. Oslo was mostly work for me, but we managed to squeeze in some sightseeing, too.

Ground Transportation:
We took the train from the airport ($30) to within two blocks of our apartment.

Lodging:

We spent eight nights at the Villa Park apartments ($162/nt including free WiFi) in the chic Frogner area, next door to the prime minister’s residence—just behind the Royal Palace. It was a great, central location, and we were able to walk everywhere. It was a basic, cramped studio apartment with a tiny kitchenette equipped with the bare minimum. But it was quiet, had a good bed and shower, and served our purpose.

Meals were almost all eaten at the apartment – or we packed picnic lunches. We mostly reheated prepared foods purchased at “ICA,” an upscale market chain. Delicious roast chickens; salads; and fresh vegetables allowed us to eat healthfully and not spend a fortune. The food we bought was more expensive than in the U.S., but not outrageous. The artisan breads were exceptional all throughout Scandinavia.

Our one dinner out was a business dinner at Mucho Mas, Oslo’s only Mexican restaurant. A shared appetizer of chips and dip, and a burrito ran about $40 – no drinks or desserts – and that was reasonable by Oslo standards. (Now you see why we ate in the apartment!)

Oslo is pretty—with its waterfront and lovely old buildings. I just wish I’d seen it before visiting Stockholm.

Attractions:

The Akershus (stone fortress and castle built in 1299) is marvelous. It’s a beautiful place to stroll with views of the waterfront and lots of photo ops. We picnicked on a bench beside centuries-old cannons, overlooking the harbor. We rate this a “must-see.”

The Resistance Museum ($9.50) within the grounds of the Akershus, wasn’t a “great” museum, but very educational, and we were both glad we visited. I knew nothing about the German occupation of Norway, and had no idea that there had been concentration camps within the country, nor that half of Norway’s small population of Jews had been exterminated. I learned that many of the buildings in the Frogner area, that are now foreign embassies, had been owned by Norwegians Nazis, and occupied by the Germans. I had a meeting in one of those exquisite old buildings.

Vigeland Park (aka Frogner Park) was probably my favorite place in Oslo. I’d been there on a previous trip, and returned twice this time. It’s a huge park that houses provocative, stunning sculptures in a beautiful setting. There are gardens, a café, and a museum there, as well. Admission to the park is free—and this is another “must-see.”

Oslo Cathedral (free) was built in 1697 and is worth a visit. Quite beautiful. Our visit was four weeks after the horrific bombing and shootings, and there were exceptionally touching memorials of flowers, flags, stuffed animals, and more outside the church.

The Norwegian Folk Museum ($18.50) was wonderful. Similar to the Skansen open air collection of homes in Stockholm, this was different and unique enough to rank high on our list. We wandered in and out of homes that had been moved from all over Norway to this park. The oldest homes were from the 1200s. The stave church was a highlight. This is another “must-see.”

We reached the Norwegian Folk Museum by taking a pleasant ferry ride from City Hall to Bygdoy ($13). A bus was also an option.

We checked out the new, highly-touted opera house that overlooks the waterfront. It’s stark, angular, modern looks aren’t my taste.

We enjoyed strolling through this beautiful city and admiring the old buildings. Because of the location of our apartment, we regularly walked through the gardens and park that surround the Royal Palace. Unfortunately, the palace was largely obscured by scaffolding. Tours were available, but didn’t fit into my busy work schedule.

The weather was cooler than in Stockholm – highs in the low 60s. Unfortunately, we had quite a bit of rain, but most days it rained only part of the day.

We took the train from Oslo to Bergen – 6-1/2 hours. Booking in advance we were able to get the “mini pris” which was only $37. (See, everything’s not expensive in Norway.) The scenery was beautiful, passing between fjords and mountains most of the time. It was a pleasant, stress-free way to see the countryside en route to Bergen.

We walked to the Basic Victoria Hotel—chosen for its price ($140) and proximity to the train station. The hotel is indeed “basic” – no frills, but the room was large by European standards; and the bed and shower were fine. We were only there for one night—until we could pick up our rental car and head to the Western fjords.

In between rain showers we admired the Bergen Cathedral (from the 13th century) across the street and enjoyed the two buildings that are included with one admission to the Hanseatic Museum (can’t recall the cost – but it wasn’t much). It was interesting to see how the seafaring merchants lived hundreds of years ago. Their sleeping compartments were fascinating.

That evening I attended a lovely 4-handed piano recital in an old church—part of the Grieg Festival ($36). It was a perfect setting to enjoy the music.

The rental car ($356 for 4 days) was rented (arranged in advance) from Budget’s city location at a special AARP rate. I loved the mini Fiat. Looked like a toy—but drove well. We’d estimated 4-1/2 hours to drive to Nes Gard (just outside Luster). HAHAHA. Not sure where I got that figure, but with my nonstop photo stops and a visit to the Stalheim Hotel, it took all day. The scenery at the Stalheim Hotel is as good as it gets. I’d been there before, but simply could not believe my eyes. Gorgeous! Most of the drive was beautiful, between the water, and mountains studded with waterfalls, and the weather was perfect.

We stopped at Gudvangen, where the ferry leaves to traverse the Naeroyfjord, but we had already missed the 2:55PM last ferry of the day. The views from the shore were picture-perfect Norway. Our only ferry ride that day was from Fodnes to Manheller ($18). It was very pretty -- just too short.

Nes Gard is a very special place; I highly recommend it. The only disappointment was that from the photos, I’d assumed it was right on the edge of the water. The reality is that a road separates it from the water, and although the views are still great, there is some traffic noise that detracts. The hosts and staff were superb, going above and beyond, providing detailed directions and suggestions for hikes and sightseeing.

There are rooms available in the main house that serves as a B&B, but we opted for a larger room with a kitchenette in one of the separate buildings on the grounds. The breakfast buffets were wonderful and included mini croissants and homemade jams made with berries from the neighbors’ gardens. Candles burned in lovely silver candelabras and the dining room was quite pretty. Guests congregated and chatted in two beautiful sitting rooms (one with a lit fireplace) and for those with a laptop, free Internet access was available in these rooms.

Dinner was served at an additional fee, but we chose to eat more simply on our patio, overlooking a waterfall and a quaint old church, while listening to the sheep on the hillside.

This was a good base from which to explore the natural beauty this area offers. We took the 15 minute drive to the trailhead to Molden, which promises the “best views in Norway.” On a clear day, I have no doubt this would have been true. The top offers a spectacular, iconic, 360 degree view of the fjords radiating out below. I recognized this spot from several travel magazines and websites.

Our morning started crystal clear, but soon became increasingly cloudy. With temps in the 60s and exertion of hiking, I wore only a T-shirt beneath a hooded windbreaker. The hike up the mountain was demanding, and at times, muddy and more strenuous than I’d have liked. The trail was perfectly marked. We reached the top exhausted, almost three hours after we’d begun. At the summit, the wind was intense and we were FREEZING! We stayed only a few minutes for photos. Even gray and cloudy, the views were amazing – but I sure wish we could have seen that in sunshine.

And then the rain began, making the descent even muddier than the challenging ascent had been. I was glad to have a hooded windbreaker. We ate our picnic lunch in a huge, hollowed-out rock, overlooking breathtaking (albeit cloudy) views. Parts of the hike were not fun. The mud and steep ascent made it more of an endurance test, but we were still glad we got to see those views.

The following day, more clouds and rain were predicted, but it would be our only chance to visit the Jostedalsbreen Glacier. The forty-five minute drive from Nes Gard was beautiful, following gushing rapids, a milky blue/green like no other color I’d ever seen. We stopped several times for photos.

The visitor center had recently burned down, but there was a temporary replacement nearby where we bought coffee ($5.00 – which was typical -- and no refills!) and got the info we needed. My knee was aching from the previous day’s hike, so we decided to forego the guided hike on the glacier, and just walk up to its face. One can walk most of the way—or take a boat for approx. $5.00. We could see the glacier in the distance, and it seemed like a short, easy walk, so we chose that option. Forty-five minutes later, after climbing over uneven, rocky paths, and my knee wishing I had taken the boat, we came face to face with the glacier.

Wow. The views as we approached gave us no indication of the majesty, beauty, and power we would find. The sound of the water gushing from below the blue ice was intense and the peaks and tunnels were pure art. I’d visited glaciers before—in Alaska and the Alps. They were nothing compared to this. My photos didn’t do it justice—but this was a peak experience, not only of this trip—but of all my travels … and that says a lot! Needless to say, we took the boat back to the parking area.

The drive back to Bergen was timed to include that ferry ride I’d missed on the Naeroyfjord. While waiting for the ferry we enjoyed the Fjord Museum (free) more than we would have imagined. It was amazing to see the tiny ships that were used to sail such long distances—without modern navigation aids and conveniences.

I had ridden this ferry six years ago, as part of Norway in a Nutshell—but it had poured during my entire time in the fjord. This time, we had a mix of clouds and glorious sunshine! The 2-1/2 hour ferry ride through the fjord was peaceful, relaxing, and very beautiful—a nonstop photo op.

Driving in Norway was easy. You’re on the “right” side of the road (for Americans), things are clearly marked, and the roads are wide and well-maintained. I was surprised at all the tunnels in the Bergen area. The thought of building them is mind-boggling. We drove through one that is the longest man-made tunnel in the world – 15 miles!!!

FYI, the gas for the roundtrip from Bergen to Nes Gard (and driving to the glacier and Molden) totaled $105.

Back in Bergen driving was very frustrating due to construction and one-way streets. It seemed literally impossible to get to our hotel, although we were only a few blocks away. We eventually gave up; parked a few blocks away; checked in and left our luggage – then returned the rental car.

This time, our hotel would be the Comfort Holberg ($226/nt – including breakfast and free WiFi)—chosen because it was the location of my seminar. It was a convenient location. Actually, almost anything in Bergen would be convenient to tourist attractions; it’s a compact, easily walkable city.

One of my favorite things in Bergen was strolling through the Hanseatic district and admiring the colorful, beautiful old buildings.

Loved the Rosenkrantz Tower ($18.50) and Hakkon’s Hall ($9.25) —dating back to the 1200s. These are “must-sees.”

In addition to the Bryggen (the oft-photographed wharf area) the entire city is beautiful. Marvelous architecture in the old quarters, mixed with modern museums and big city shopping and dining in other areas.

We rode the Floibanen for breathtaking views of the city and did a nice nature walk at the top. Unfortunately, Bergen’s infamous rainy/cloudy weather made it less than ideal. While we were in Bergen there was rain every day – but not all day. Every day included some dry—and sometimes, sunny spells.

It was interesting to walk through the fish market, where free samples of whale steak and smoked salmon were offered. If I were a seafood lover, this would have been the perfect place for a fresh meal with great views.

Lunches were typically sandwiches from 7-11, or museum cafes, with veggies and fruit from a local market. One night’s dinner was hosted by the organization I was working with. We were taken to a restaurant attached to the art museum. Appropriately, the table settings were towering works of art – sculptures created from wine glass and silverware! I’ve never seen anything like it.

The food was also beautifully presented—although portions were small. A marvelous potato leek soup ($16) was served in an enormous bowl – that probably didn’t contain more than a cup of soup! As I’d come to expect, the bread was exceptional. The menu was primarily seafood, and not being a fish lover, I settled for the svinenakker ($43) – translation: pig neck. Yuk. Actually, I think it was a filet of pork shoulder. Very tasty—but again, a small portion served with a ridiculously tiny amount of vegetables. The vegs seemed like teaspoon sized dabs of paint on an artist’s palate. I left hungry—and glad I wasn’t the one paying $60 (with no salad, beverage, or dessert). FYI, we always stuck to tap water.

We enjoyed dinner at Bergen Kebabs (recommended by the hotel desk clerk). The “medium” kebabs ($12) were enormous, and we liked them enough to return a second time.

If we were gourmet food lovers, Scandinavia would have been a very expensive proposition. But we were perfectly happy with the wonderful breakfast buffets, and lighter lunches and evening meals.

Time to wrap this up before the trip report takes longer than my trip . I’d heard that Scandinavians are “cold, rude, and arrogant.” What I learned is that they are polite and helpful, but not effusive. Personal space and boundaries are valued. It would be considered an intrusion to sit beside a stranger on a bench and strike up a conversation. But the people I worked with were as warm and kind as people can be anywhere.

I also learned why things are so expensive to Americans. Norway’s minimum wage is $23/hour. A person working at McDonald’s earns the equivalent of almost $50,000/year. Things cost more – but people earn more.

We had a FANTASTIC time in Sweden and Norway and found that they do not have to be prohibitively expensive. I hope this will help others with their planning.

I narrowed my photos down from more than 1,500! Here are the links. I hope you enjoy them.

Stockholm photo link:

http://www.kodakgallery.com/gallery/creativeapps/slideShow/Main.jsp?albumId=891541393606&ownerId=51951334106

Norway:

http://www.kodakgallery.com/gallery/creativeapps/slideShow/Main.jsp?albumId=749630693606&ownerId=51951334106

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