David and Ginna Zoellner love to travel. We live in Nice, France, half the year; the other half we live near Chicago, Illinois. We do 'home-exchanges' to explore other areas as well as taking normal trips. We'd like to share some of our experiences with you.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Scandinavia, June 2004

On June 7, we left the USA, flying to Amsterdam (we never saw any place so flat!) and on to Bergen, the capital of Norway in the 12th and 13th centuries. It was a most spectacular landing place with the water, islands, rock formations, hills, distant mountains, and even a nuclear submarine. After finding our hotel we walked all over the city until we were nearly dead. We stopped for lunch - salmon open-faced sandwich for me, fish soup for David, and blackberries and ice cream to share for dessert and a carafe of wine: $75! Boy is this place expensive! Luckily the hotel price includes a huge breakfast. We were in bed by 7:00 and slept for 10+ hours.

Norway, the "Land of the Midnight Sun", is a democratic monarchy, home of Erik the Red, Leif Eriksson. Their King Harald was defeated in 1066 in England, ending the Viking period. They are a neutral country and have joined NATO but not the EU. The average income is $35,700 per capita (!); they have free university education, hospital treatment, and guaranteed pension. We probably don't want to know what their taxes are!

The next day we did our "Norway in a Nutshell" tour of the fjords. We boarded a train from Bergen to Voss, admiring the scenery en route and the lovely Norwegian blond, blue-eyed girls in the car (ages 7-11). At Voss we boarded a bus to Gudvangen, making mid-route photo stops at waterfalls and great valley views. We drove down a windy road, worse that Lombard Street in San Francisco, in some places at a 20 degree decline. In Gudvangen we boarded a boat for a 2-hour cruise of the fjords, beautiful waterways with steep mountains (up to 1800 meters high) lining them. The narrowest part is 250 meters across. There are charming villages along the way (including Undredal, with 130 people and the smallest stave church in Scandinavia, built in 1147 and seating 40 people) and waterfalls everywhere feeding the fjords. The sights were spectacular and we were accompanied along the way by hundreds of seagulls.

Next we boarded the Flam Railway - the interior is beautiful wood, even the curved ceiling. We enjoyed the gorgeous views of snow-covered mountains, more waterfalls, remote farms, and wild flowers in purple, yellow, white, and blue. The railway has the steepest grade of any normal gauge railway in the world - 1 in 18. We were very lucky to have a perfect day for this tour, sunny and warm.

The next day the weather was more normal - a huge cloud covered the mountains around Bergen and there was a light rain most of the day, except when it was pouring. They have rain on average 275 days a year! Nevertheless, we caught a bus to Fantoft to visit the stave church built in 1150. It was burned to the ground in 1992 by an avowed satanist (still in jail) and has been meticulously rebuilt. The stave churches are all in wood, decoratively and elaborately carved inside and out and crowned with dragon-headed gables like prows of Viking ships. We noticed a small window near the altar and were told that this was where the lepers listened to the service and received communion.

We returned to Bergen - actually hitched a ride back in the rain with a lovely fellow who lived in the States for a while. He told us NO ONE hitches here. In the Bergen Art Museum we admired artists from Baade to Gude, enjoying especially the large collection by Edvard Munch whose early works are very much in the Impressionist style.

Friday we headed for Stockholm and found our fabulous hotel, the Esplanade, built in 1910 in the Art Nouveau style. It wasn't inexpensive, but seemed quite reasonable after Bergen. We went out to dinner - not having eaten since breakfast - at Riche, a charming bistro-type restaurant. David had smoked salmon with creamed cabbage and potatoes; I had a cold salmon plate with creamed asparagus and potatoes. Dessert was a truffle and petit four plate. We walked a bit around this beautiful city and fell into bed.

The next day we explored Gamla Stan, the old part of the city. We toured the fabulous State Apartments in the palace, built in 1748, and visited the wonderful Cathedral, built in 1279 but enlarged in the 14th and 15th centuries and dedicated to St. Nicholas. Then we headed across a couple of bridges to catch a boat tour of the city. There is water everywhere, the city built on a series of islands, and the views from the boat were lovely. After a quick lunch, we toured the Town Hall, built around 1920 but built to look much older. This is where the dinner is held each December 10 for the Nobel Prize winners. The dinner is for 1300 people, including 250 students as Nobel dictated, as they would be "our future". The building is very interesting, the final room - the Golden Hall - made up of over 8 million pieces of mosaic, mostly gold, in wonderful murals.

Sunday we went to the Djurgarden, another island near our hotel. We wanted to see the Vasamuseet, a museum dedicated to the ship Wasa which sank within minutes of being launched in 1628. It was raised around 1960 and the museum is built around it. The ship is enormous. No one is sure why it sank, but it seems that the design was terribly flawed. The king kept making demands of the Master Shipbuilder.

We headed back to Gamla Stan for lunch and then to the National Museum. We explored for about an hour but our feet said "enough" so we headed back to the hotel for a rest.

Monday we flew to Copenhagen where we had arranged a 2-week home exchange. We found our place, a small apartment on the fringe of Copenhagen in a town called Hvidovre (pronounced Ville-Our!) and settled in. Some of the highlights of our long stay here were a visit to Frederiksborg Slot (castle), now the National History Museum, a beautiful place built in the early 1600's by Christian IV; Helsingor (Elsinore of Hamlet fame); Roskilde for the Viking Ship Museum that included the history of the Vikings in Ireland and their explorations to North America and as far east as Turkey; Rosenborg Slot, another 17th c. castle by Christian IV and the surrounding Kongens Have (King's Garden) and the nearby Botanical Gardens; and a day in the charming town of Odense, the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen. Everyone said we must see the Louisiana Museum of modern art, which is lovely, set right on the bay. But our favorite museum was the Statens Museum for Kunst (Danish National Gallery), one of the best museums we've ever visited. The art is wonderful, with interesting juxtapositions of older and newer works with commentaries by the newer artists relating the pictures to each other. The modern addition (1998) is joined to the original building (1889-1896) by a lovely glass-covered sculpture street, a most successful addition.

Copenhagen is definitely favorable to bikers. There are bike stands everywhere (thousands around the train station) and even a separate 6 foot wide lane for them on almost every street. One has to be careful crossing the street not to get run down by the speeding bikers! The only not favorable thing for them is the weather. It rained every single day we were there and it was quite windy on many of the days.

We spent a lot of time watching the European Championships and learing a lot about the game of 'football'. In Europe they count UP for the time! Instead of setting the clock at 45 minutes for the half, they start at '0'. They don't stop the clock, but keep separate count of injury time or penalties and add that on at the end. A little strange, to say the least, since you never know how much time is left. Anyway, last night, Greece won the Championship.

We've had many wonderful meals, but one of our favorites was at a Danish place in Helsingor where finished up with their "old cheese" served with onion, diced gelee, and rum poured over all. The young waiter, who had lived a while in the States knew we wanted to experience the real thing, so he suggested we accompany the cheese with Gamel Dansk (Old Danish), a bitter, a very distinctive taste and fun to try.

And we enjoyed several meals of smorrebrod (lit. "buttered bread") - open-faced sandwiches of wonderful, very fresh ingredients: salmon, roast beef, potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, caviar, and on and on. Our dear friend Anne-Marie Hansen came down to Copenhagen from Stavenger, Norway, for a day and introduced us to her favorite spot where the locals go! Delicious!

Then on to Nice for the rest of the summer, our first time to spend the summer there.


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