I think I should title this picture “How I Spent My Year in Europe”: (Note: as always, you can click on the thumbnail-sized images to see them larger.)
We set out Monday morning, which let us have the weekend to get ready for our trip and let Ted adjust back to our time zone after his trip to Taiwan. German highways are good even when you’re not on the actual autobahn; we made good enough time the first day that we decided to pass Hamburg and stay in a small beach-resort town, Timmendorfer Strand. It appeared to be a well-heeled sort of place, with shops selling Armani and Swarovski, but had some character anyway. Parking was a bit tricky and most of the hotels seemed to be small private ones. We found one with some parking but got no answer when we knocked, so we left the car there and walked around the corner, where we found a slightly bigger hotel that did have a room available. It was very convenient, right near restaurants and the beach. There was a charge for the beach; we didn’t intend to stay long enough to want to pay it, but we walked out on a pier and then down to the water’s edge just long enough to put our feet in the Baltic Sea. After that we found real soft pretzels (!) in a market (one advantage to being in Germany), then left them in our hotel for later and headed for dinner. It was early but a cafe with a nice second-floor deck seemed to be serving food. We sat in its snug corner with a canopy over it and a big window beside us, instead of a more open section; this proved to be a good decision as it unexpectedly started to rain hard. We watch the people strolling by first ignore the rain then begin to look for shelter. My dinner, described as “Dorado Royale”, was possibly not such a good description; it can be difficult to know what fish to order here because some of the species are different than ones served in the US, so often there isn’t a familiar English name for them. No idea what a Dorado-fish is, but this one was served whole, with its head (and eyes) intact and all its bones in place. It was slit open and cooked with lemons inside and had a nice grilled flavor, so at least it was tasty, if tricky to eat.
Once we found our way back to the main road, it was only a short drive to Puttgarden and the ferry to Rødbyhavn, Denmark. This was a short ferry, only 45 minutes long, and ran frequently. All we had to do was show up and buy a ticket, and wait for 20 minutes. The ferry also had food and a handy ATM that dispensed Danish kroners or Euros. After that it wasn’t too long a drive to Copenhagen where we’d reserved a room at the Carlton Hotel Guldsmeden. It was probably the prettiest room we’d had on this trip, with white, white linens on a four-poster bed. From there it was walking distance to the center of town, if a bit farther than ideal. Still, a lot of the hotels closer in wouldn’t have had parking.
Copenhagen seems to be a modest town, not giving to bragging about itself:
. It’s got a splendid city hall, and some nice pedestrian-only shopping streets. The highlight there was meeting Maria, whom I’ve known online for at least ten years, but had never met in the flesh. She showed us around town and we went up the Round Tower, where Tycho Brahe had his observatory before he packed up and moved to Prague. Maria also fed us a home-cooked dinner, a very nice change. We especially enjoyed having turkey, which we hadn’t had since leaving the US – apparently it’s common there though rare in the Netherlands. And of course we enjoyed getting to talk more with Maria and her husband. The next day we met up with Maria again to take a boat tour along the canals and out into the harbor. The Scandinavian countries have a seafaring history, of course, and you never seem to be too far from the ocean. Here’s one of the many tall ships we saw and one of the few towers we didn’t get around to climbing. (It would probably have had a wonderful view though; the steps are on the outside.)
This tour let us get a quick view of parts of the city we didn’t need to see in more detail, especially the Little Mermaid statue. She’s no bigger than life-sized and would be wonderful as a local secret, the sort of thing you only see if someone tells you about her. Unfortunately she’s no secret and the tour buses make a regular stop:
After that we went through the National Museum, which has very good ethnographical collections from all over the world (that means stuff, basically, artifacts from all sorts of cultures). We’re a bit museum’d out this year, as you might imagine, but the Inuit collections were something we hadn’t seen before and of course there were Danish collections too. Unfortunately the prehistory exhibit was closed, but the exhibits from Viking times up until the year 2000 were excellent. From there we walked to Rosenborg Castle to see the Danish Crown Jewels, which are as spectacular as the English ones but much less crowded. Afterward we walked back to the water to Nyhavn (“new harbor”), where restaurants line a colorful street, to get some food.
The next day we took a train to Roskilde. A Dutch friend of mine had recommended the Vikingeskibsmuseet (Viking Ship Museum) there. Good thing she told me about it – no one mentioned it in Copenhagen, but the Cathedral there, where most of the Danish kings and queens are buried, is a World Heritage Site, and the museum displays remains of five Viking ships that were buried there to block the harbor in the 11th century. They also build replicas of the ships, and had sent one of them this summer on a two-month cruise all the way to Dublin. They’ve got great exhibits on how the ships are built and sailed, the types of wood and building techniques used, and so on, and the cathedral with its ornate tombs and elaborate altar is also well worth seeing.
On the other hand if you ask a Copenhagen native what to see, Tivoli will lead the list, so we had to see it as well. After returning Roskilde, we grabbed some food at a brewpub (brewpub food and US-style burgers, yay!) from and walked around Tivoli a bit. We decided to skip the rides, but the gardens are very pretty. I really wanted to see it at night, when it is said to be a fairyland, so we went to our hotel to rest and then headed back after dark (which still comes at 9PM or later, in Denmark in August). I think we’re a bit spoiled by all the lights in places like the Phoenix Zoo at Christmas; I can see how the lights at Tivoli would have been amazing in the gaslight era, when it was opened, but I think I prefer it in daytime.
The next morning we left Denmark and headed across the very long bridge to Malmö, Sweden, then drove up the coast. Along the way we stopped in Helsingborg to see its tower, Kärnan. (The sky was too gray for our pictures to come out well.) We also stopped at Fjärås Bräcka, to see the view of Lake Lygnern and to see a hillside dotted with Bronze Age graves.. We stayed that night in Särö, formerly a fashionable sea townand still very nice, with a luxurious old hotel that has pictures of kings and queens visiting there. One of the things I liked best about this trip, really, was getting to spend so much time by the ocean.
. The hotel also had an indoor pool and spa, where you could draw yourself a bubble bath (in the common area, wearing a bathing suit), then shower off with all kinds of salt scrubs and potions.
Not too long after leaving Särö, we crossed into Norway. While still in Sweden, we stopped at Tanumshede (another World Heritage Site) to see the carved rocks there at the Vitlycke Museum. They were carved in the Bronze Age, so roughly three thousand years ago, and were deliberately carved on rocks that were under running water at the time, so the carvings are faint, but the museum had painted them with red to make them visible. There was also a Bronze Age farm at the museum, complete with ancient breeds of sheep and pigs.
When we got to Oslo, we had the first hotel trouble of the trip. I’d booked a room at Hotel Bristol via booking.com – I’ve been really happy with them, booking hotels all over Europe, but this time I’d booked it only the day before and they hadn’t got the reservation. Ted babysat the car (in the hotel’s ten-minute parking area) so it wouldn’t get towed while I printed out our confirmation email in the hotel’s business center, and then the hotel magically found a room for us. (Actually, their desk person was very nice about the whole thing, even delicately hinting to the man previously using the computer there that it might be good to hurry up.) It was a nice old hotel, though, with a very good breakfast.
Oslo is even more of a maritime city than Copenhagen:
There’s the royal palace and a fort not far from our hotel so we took a look at the outside of those the evening we got there, then indulged in some American-style food and ale at TGI Friday. In the morning, we took a ferry to the Bygdøy peninsula, where all the museums are concentrated. We made the mistake of not buying “Oslo cards” before paying for the ferry, but even getting them at the first museum they were a good deal – we got admission to six museums and the ferry home for one price. On the peninsula, we visited the Maritime Museum covering the full history of Norwegian shipping; the Fram museum dedicated to Roald Amundsen and the Fram, the ship he took to Antarctica; the Norwegian Coastal Shipping Museum; the Kon-Tiki museum with Thor Heyerdahl’s famous raft and also his reed boat, the Ra II; the Vikings Ship Museum; and the Norwegian Folk Museum. That last was overrun with hordes of children celebrating the 100th anniversary of Astrid Lindgren’s birth and of course we were very tired by then, so we skipped a lot of it, which was probably our loss. Any of those museums are worth a visit; all together they’re a must-see, and two days would be better than the one we spent there.
For dinner that night we went out on a sailing ship (no sails up, all run by motor) to see the Oslo fjord and eat a prawn buffet. Entertainment was provided watching the English girls next to us dealing with the prawns (with heads and often eggs) and trying to impress the Aussie guys they’d come with. The fjord was beautiful, though the evening got cold and two hours would probably have been better than three.
I was having a hard time resisting the gorgeous traditional Norwegian sweaters; I finally ended up buying only a pattern in case I ever get really ambitious. (And then I gave in later on the ferry leaving Norway, which had excellent prices – but I did get one light enough that I might be able to wear it in Taiwan!) After leaving Oslo, we turned inland; Ted had planned the route so we’d see a variety of terrain, and we did. The mountains in Norway were spectacular – as Ted said, like Alaska but less so, and with more settlement. It’s a different feeling, though, to know that people have been living in those towns among those mountains for a thousand years. We stopped twice to see stavekirkes, the all-wooden churches dating back to 1200 or so – very unique and not something you’d see elsewhere, and you get a feeling the craftsmen who build them were as dedicated as any cathdral architect. Then we drove down the beautiful Setesdal valley, all the way to Kristiansand where we stayed overnight to await a morning ferry.
I thought the hotel in Kristiansand was overpriced (I was wrong, as it turned out when I actually looked up the conversion rate and did the math) and the people there were helpful and sent us to a restaurant that served me a wnderful seafood platter (Ted had to help). The hotel was more aimed at business people, though, and a touch shabbier after the fancy old hotels we’d been at.
This ferry only ran a few times a day so it was lucky we’d checked the times. We had to get up earlier for it (on vacation! such tragedy!) and since it was longer they had assigned seating, like in an airplane except that there was plenty of room to waonder around, and shops to wander into. (This was where my resistance finally crumbled and I bought the sweater.)
Back in Denmark again, we drove down to Billund and booked a hotel not far outside the gates of Legoland. We’d made good enough time on the previous day’s driving that we decided to stay two nights and have a whole day at the park. I was afraid we wouldn’t be able to fill the time, especially as we’d gotten a 3:00 time for the robotics lab, but it wasn’t really a problem. Our favorite ride was one where you get to program your own ride – you pick a series of motions, then are slung around in those motions by a large robot. There were a couple other good rides, though in general the park is aimed more at kids. Ted also liked the shopping section where you can buy Legos in bulk, and we both liked the Miniland area, which has Lego replicas of buildings all over Denmark and some from other countries as well. The Space Shuttle was especially impressive – it even had a “launch”, with countdown and smoke rising.
It was a fairly long drive back home from there, and we wanted to see a bit of the northern part of the Netherlands anyway so we ended up staying at a hotel just a bit east of Groningen. For once we remembered to ask if they had one big bed instead of two small ones and as a result, for €10 more we ended up staying in what may have been the bridal suite – why anyone would want a honeymoon suite along the road there is beyond me but it had a waterbed and a big tub, and the tub and his & hers sinks were sort of on a marble platform opposite the bed with small lights and a few bigger spots above that made it seem like a stage. There was a skylight too, fortunately with a shade that could be pulled across it so the light didn’t wake us early. At least the waterbed was a lot firmer than the one we have in our apartment.
We’d planned to stop in Leeuwarden on the way home but it didn’t sound exciting enough to brave the rain that was falling the next morning (and besides, museum, cathedral, old house. Seen museums. Seen cathedrals. Seen old houses. Quite a lot of each) so we skipped it. We did get to go over the Afsluitdijk but unfortunately the museum there was only open on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and this was neither. It’s an impressive piece of engineering, though.
Some general notes: of course we were taking pot luck at the hotels since we’d only booked rooms in advance in the two big cities, but there were many more pairs of single beds than we’re used to. Even when there appeared to be one bed it was usually two small ones pushed together, and even when they were or when there was one big bed, there were two smaller thick comforters side by side instead of one large one. This was actually very nice if you like having your feet sticking out from under the covers, as we both do if it’s not too cold.
We got to have some of the food we’ve been missing; pretzels in Germany (both hard and soft), ales and good hamburgers in Denmark and Norway, and what Ted said was the best roast beef he’d tasted in a long time in Sweden. It’s odd how much difference there can be among countries so close together: terrain, customs, people’s physical characteristics, food. Also languages – not just the difference between native languages you’d expect, but the fact that in the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden most people speak pretty good English, in Germany people often don’t speak more than a little (more than I speak German, so I’m still not complaining) and in Denmark not only my friend Maria (who’s lived in New Zealand) but also several others we met speak English with nearly native fluency. People tended to be less blond than we expected, except for the little kids, especially in Norway, who often had white-blond hair. People tended to be shorter and heavier than in the Netherlands, though Ted commented that he saw several women here and there who were extremely tall and solidly-built.
All three countries use kroners – not the same currency but three different ones with nearly the same name (Sweden spells it kronor, actually) and different values. They range from 7 to 10 per euro, so we felt like we were spending vast sums though we weren’t. (Well, we were, but only because we had nearly two weeks of staying in hotels, not because they were terribly expensive.) We were surprised to realize that Norway’s not a member of the EU, though Denmark and Sweden are. The three countries have intertangled histories and have all shared rulers at various times. (Finland, which we didn’t get to, has a similar history but with much more Russian influence and a language that’s not related to anything else.) There was a definite continuum; Denmark is a bit hillier and a bit more sparsely settled than the Netherlands, and I saw a lot of related words. By the time we got to Norway, the language and the terrain were both much different. Also the roads were much narrower and often had steep grades – 12% on what were relatively major highways was common.
We did appreciate having much quicker service in restaurant, generally, than we do in the Netherlands; this seems to be a peculiarly Dutch thing. Most European countries we’ve visited expect you to take longer in a restaurant than Americans are used to, but the Dutch take it to an extreme. Another difference from American is in less commercialism; legoland is the most famous attraction in Denmark but there were no signs from the major highway to it, none at all until within 20km or so. There was also much less stuff available for sale in the park; no Lego T-shirts (the staff had extemely nice lego sweaters; I wouldn’t have minded getting Ted one) and a lot of products I know they have weren’t available (I’d have liked to see the latest Hogwarts castle and Ted would have liked more robotics).
It was quite chilly a lot of the time, though we had some weather inthe middle that had me glad I’d brought shorts. But I wore the jackets I’d brought and even the sweater I bought along the way. I think fall has already started, that far north, though the days are still very long. Overall the trip worked very well; Ted picked an itinerary that less us get a good taste of all three countries and our strategy of only pre-booking hotels in the big cities worked well (I should have booked sooner for Oslo, though) and less us stay flexible. We covered the road faster than we’d expected, partly because it was all scenic enough and mostly the traffic was light enough that driving was enjoyable. (We had horrid traffic at the very end, from Amsterdam all the way home, for no apparent reason.) Knowing a bit of Dutch does help a little with other Germanic languages, even though I can’t really converse in Dutch. It helps with menus, especially.
We sure are going to miss Europe when we leave.