© 2013 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
In the first installment in this series we visited Italy. This time, we'll take a quick trip around Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden.
In each installment, I'll borrow from my diaries. I'll also add other commentary. I've deliberately chosen to not include any photos, as you can see pictures (and plenty of other information) by following the on-line links.
Official Name: Kingdom of Denmark (Danmark); Capital: Copenhagen (København); Language: Danish (dansk), also Faroese (føroyskt), Greenlandic (Kalaallisut), and Bornholmian (bornholmsk); Country Code: DK; Currency: Danish krone (kr. or DKK)
From my first visit in Denmark more than 20 years ago, up to my most recent, I've very much liked this country. My main reason for being there has usually been to attend conferences in Copenhagen, and I've used that as a springboard to go off and visit the countryside. Most often, I've flown to the capital and taken the train out to the Jutland Peninsula, to the island of Funen, or to the north of the main island. Once, after a week in Copenhagen, my family and I took the boat train south to Germany, then we trained across Northern Germany, spent time on a Christmas tree farm in Jutland, visited Lego Land, and spent time in Odense (Hans Christian Andersen's home town), before getting back to Copenhagen.
Denmark is a country of islands. On one trip, we spent a delightful weekend on the island of Avernakø, off the south coast of Funen. We stayed with a host family who were renovating their house, and all materials were brought onto the island on a small ferry. About 100 people lived there and that island and a neighboring one used the local school. We were there for an annual festival for which a village from somewhere else in Denmark was invited to come and play against the locals in a game of soccer with much beer drinking (a favorite Danish pastime).
You might know that Denmark has long been active in providing peace-keeping forces in various hotspots around the world. One day as I was driving around Jutland with my Danish friend Paul, we came over a hill and there ahead of us was a group of huge tents with the Red Cross symbol on each roof. When I asked what this was, my friend told me that it was a camp for Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka. Yes, really!
My dear friends Hans and Anne Lise come from Ollerup, a town on the south coast of Funen. I first met them when I hosted them in Virginia. They were leading a retired group of Danes on a folk-dancing trip. I've since visited them numerous times. Each morning at Hans' house we lowered the pennant—a very long and narrow rendering of the national flag—that flies overnight, and we raised the Danish flag. Then in the evening, we did the reverse. (This same flag design has been in use for more than 700 years, and was since adapted by all the other Nordic countries.)
There are a number of "must see" places in Denmark: Roskilde for the Royal Tombs and Viking ship museum; Hillerød for its castle-in-the-lake and gardens (one of my all-time favorite places in the world); Copenhagen for its pedestrian shopping area, Tivoli, and Little Mermaid; and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art.
I've long been interested in Queen Margrethe II who is a very capable monarch. She's a talented painter and illustrator, and some of her work was used in the Danish edition of The Lord of the Rings. According to Wikipedia, she is fluent in Danish, French, English, Swedish and German. And for me, there is a royal Aussie connection: Crown Princess Mary hails from Tasmania.
During my most recent visit to Copenhagen, I joined a group for dinner right in the heart of the pedestrian zone, Strøget. The maître'd showed us to our table and she proceeded to tell us, in English, the specials of the day. When she was done, I asked her if these dishes were "just like Grandma used to make", and without hesitation, she replied, "These are like your grandma wished that she could make!" It was an excellent answer, we got great service, and we left a big tip.
As you may know, Greenland and the Faeroes are also part of Denmark. Up until 1917, what are now known as the US Virgin Islands (St. Croix, St. John, and St. Thomas) were owned by Denmark, which then sold them to the US for $25 million in gold.
While giving a lecture in Copenhagen on "internationalization", the process of designing and implementing computer software for multi-cultural and linguistic environments, I made the mistake of saying that "the Danish alphabet has three extra letters". One attendee politely raised his hand and informed me that there were in fact no extra letters, they used and needed them all. Of course, what I meant was that the Danish alphabet was the basic 26-letter one used by English with three more letters (å/Å, æ/Æ, and ø/Ø).
[Diary] … Ollerup is the home of a world-famous gymnastic school, and each semester, they take in several hundred students, including some from other countries. I had visited the school on a previous trip, but the students were on break, so nothing was happening. However, this time, they were putting on an end-of-semester show for the locals, free of charge. We got front-row seats to watch 250 young men and woman aged 18–21 go through dance and gymnastic routines. It was awesome. Afterwards, there was coffee and cake, and community singing from books that were passed around to the guests. A choir of 45 students gave a performance. (Some years ago, via the same program through which we'd hosted Hans and Anne-Lise, we hosted two lots of gymnasts from that school.) By the time we left the school, it was after 22:30, and we stopped off on the edge of a forest to hear nightingales singing. Back home, we each had a small glass of port to round out the day. Lights out at 22:45 after a great day.
[Diary] … All too soon, it was lunchtime, and we ate in the gazebo in the garden by the pool. It was a traditional frokost (lunch) in the style of a smørrebrød (smorgasbord), with dark bread that contained all our daily vitamins, with all kinds of meat and vegetable pieces to pile on top, including, of course, pickled herring. We washed that down with cold water into which had been squeezed just the right amount of lime juice. The only thing missing was a string quartet playing Vivaldi's Four Seasons!
[Diary] … The sun was streaming down and all was right with the world, at least in our little corner. We got in the car and drove off to Christiania, an alternate lifestyle community on an old unused military base near downtown Copenhagen. We walked around there for some time taking in the sights and smells. From there it was on to the waterfronts of several islands where we walked around the new opera theater and watched the water taxis and tour boats go by. We also parked downtown and walked along a canal looking at all the private boats and barges tied up there. We finished up on an old pier where we ate ice cream while watching a large cruise ship leave its berth.
[Diary] … Back home, Lene began preparing food to be cooked on the outdoor grill. [It's very likely someone coined this phrase before me, but, a few days ago, it occurred to me that the Danes not only eat to live, but they also live to eat! Food and drink certainly play an important part in their everyday lives.] We ate in the gazebo out by the pool. To start with, we had sticks of hot asparagus, which we dipped into butter and salt. Then came ears of BBQ'd corn smothered with butter and pepper, a peppered steak and a salad. Sometime later, we drank some Hungarian sweet wine with ice cubes, and, to finish off, we ate some chocolate. Afterwards, we walked around the neighborhood. Lights out at 22:30 after another great day.
Official Name: Republic of Finland (Suomi, Finland); Capital: Helsinki (Helsinki, Helsingfors); Language: Finnish and Swedish (suomi and svenska); Country Code: FI; Currency: Euro (EUR), formerly Finnish markka (mk or FIM)
Finland is the 6th largest country in Europe. 10% of the country is covered with water and there are more than 187,000 lakes and 160,000 islands in those lakes and offshore. 65% of the country is forest and about 8% is cultivated. For many years, Sweden and Russia fought over what is now Finland, with Russia last having control. However, when the Russians were distracted by their revolution in 1917, the Finns declared independence and formed a new country. Given the Swedish history, the Constitution makes the country bilingual with a 5% Swedish-speaking minority.
My first visit to Finland was in 1992 with my family. From Helsinki, we took a new Finnish train to St. Petersburg, Russia, where I gave a series of lectures and workshops over a 2-week period. When we came back, we had a 1-week Finn Rail pass. We headed north to Rovaneimi and the Arctic Circle, where we visited Santa Claus, in person! He spoke quite a few languages and received more than 500,000 letters each year from kids all around the world. From there, it was on to Savonlinna, the home of the famous castle and opera festival. And, you guessed it, we arrived during the festival without any reservations for a place to stay. However, we found one 500 meters from the castle. From there, we went back to Helsinki and to Turku, the old capital nearby. On the day we flew out, international leaders from the G8 Group (or some such) were arriving, and airport security was, shall we say, over the top!
I returned 10 years later to attend a conference hosted by the Finns. However, instead of holding it in Helsinki, which would be convenient for everyone, especially the Finns, they held it some distance north of the Arctic Circle.
[Diary] … We boarded a Finnair DC9 for the hour and a half flight north. Seating was open, and we managed to get the bulkhead with plenty of legroom and a spare seat between us. A snack was served. If you look at a map of Finland you will immediately see that it is covered in glacial lakes, and I mean covered, especially in the east toward the Russian border. And there was no shortage of trees; this was lumber and paper country.
We landed at Ivalo at 9:45 pm. This was the main airport for Lapland, and we were more than 250 km north of the Arctic Circle. The plane had its own staircase, which the flight attendant operated. It came from the belly of the plane and unfolded quickly. I had never seen such a thing before on such a large commercial plane. We had a short walk to the terminal, which was a large log cabin. The luggage took all of two minutes to arrive, and we stepped outside and loaded it right on to the bus. Standing right there was a large reindeer, complete with a full rack of antlers. He posed for photos and wandered about the parking lot.
[Diary] … I was wide-awake at 3:30 am, and it was between twilight and daylight outside. I got up at 4:30 am, and went for a brisk walk around the resort village. It certainly was fresh out. A few people were also out, but I suspect they had not yet been to bed! The last eating-place had closed at 4 am. That weekend was some sort of motor cycle get-together here, and I counted at least 200 bikes parked nearby. They sure came in a multitude of colors, shapes, and sizes, with many of them being very fancy touring bikes.
[Diary] … Once I went off to work, Jenny and friends went on an organized trip to a reindeer herder's farm. The herder, Maarco, was dressed in traditional costume. All the Sámi people (the Lapps) had the colors red, blue, green, and yellow in their dress. Blue was the dominant color, and represented the water. Red was for fire, green for the trees, and yellow for the sun. Firstly, they saw, up close, the five reindeer he had fenced-in close to his house. The large male had an enormous rack of antlers. The others were younger or female and had varying size antlers. Reindeer were trained to pull sleds, but were really not tame animals. Even though these five see people several times every day, they were still quite skittish. They enjoyed a snack of freshly cut silver birch leaves.
Next, the women were invited into the wooden teepee where they enjoyed tea and cake. They asked questions of their host and learned about life as a reindeer herder. This was most informative and interesting. Then they enjoyed a reindeer roping demonstration. They all tried their hand. Jenny was the only one actually to rope the stationary, wooden reindeer; the others had the right idea, but just didn't throw hard enough. They concluded their visit in the home of the herder. They saw reindeer skins, shoes filled with straw for warmth, costumes worn by children and adults and different means of transportation used in the snow.
[After a week in the Arctic, we took a high-speed boat from Helsinki to Estonia, where we spent 8 delightful days mostly staying with host families.]
Eight years later, I returned for another conference and an extended holiday.
[Diary] … Around 10:15, I bought a 3-day Helsinki Card at the front desk, and headed down to the waterfront to where 3 large cruise ships were tied up. I walked along to the ferry terminals at Market Place. My next ferry was scheduled to depart in 10 minutes, and soon we were on our way to the Suomenlinna island complex. The ferry ride and all museum admissions were covered by my travel card.
Construction on the fortifications was begun by Sweden in 1748. However, in 1808, the Russians took control and ran the place until 1917 when Finland declared its independence. The weather was overcast with a stiff breeze blowing, but I was well prepared with outer coat, cap, and hood. I started with the church and then moved to the visitor's center where I saw a 25-minute film about the history of the complex. Next came the two huge dry docks where many of Sweden's warships were built. I climbed down stairs to the bottom of one dry dock.
I stopped off to tour a submarine built in 1933. Yellow and purple flowers were everywhere and the tall grass swayed in the breeze. Several places looked and were idyllic. For the most part, I took the back paths poking around all kinds of back street places. Some 800–1,000 people live on the island and a Naval School still operates. However, in 1991 the military parts were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The stonework certainly was impressive and the tourists were out in force as were locals having picnics on the grass. There was even a nice little secluded beach well out of the wind.
I dropped by a small art exhibition and then visited the Customs Museum where I had a long chat with a pleasant young woman who was studying museum management at university. My final stop was a military museum.
I was back at the ferry terminal at 16:30 and my legs were very much looking forward to a rest. The ferry arrived 10 minutes later and we were on our way back to the mainland. As I got off the ferry light rain fell, and by the time I got back to my hostel my jacket was getting damp.
[Diary] … I decided to start out with a 90-minute bus tour of the city, which departed at a tourist kiosk not far from my hostel, at 11:00. We had a full bus and each of us could listen to the audio guide in a selection of 12 languages, including Latin (yes, you read right) and two dialects of Finnish.
The bus was almost full, but no one cared to sit next to me despite the fact that I'd put on deodorant. [Perhaps I should have put on some trousers as well!] I sat at a left-side window while following the directions of the audio guide. The bus had a video camera mounted on top of the dash and several TVs throughout the bus, which enabled us to see what was happening ahead as we went along. I'd not seen that before, and I thought it was a good idea.
We drove around to the waterfront to see pleasure craft, parks, and the special platforms where the locals go to wash their large rugs in the sea each summer. At a large shipyard nearby, 60% of all icebreakers are built, along with numerous cruise ships. We stopped for a look at the Rock Church, a Lutheran Church built into a large rock formation with a dome full of windows providing natural light. Much of the ceiling was fitted with 22 kms of copper wire wound around. We heard about the various levels of education in the country. School is compulsory between 7 and 16, and is free with a hot meal served at lunchtime each day. As Finland is a bilingual country, everyone is taught Finnish and Swedish.
There is a large park dedicated to the world-famous Finnish composer Sibelius, and we stopped there to look at the abstract monument built in his honor. Three students from the Sibelius Music College were performing for the tourists playing trombone, cornet, and horn. We drove past the national parliament where we were told that the Finnish women were the first in Europe to vote, back in 1930. After that, we ran into a long procession of people in folk dress, and the police stopped the traffic for quite some time to let them cross the street.
[Diary] … and soon I was in my hostel kitchen making milk coffee and snacking. A young Russian woman dropped by, but had difficulty figuring out how some things worked. She spoke no English and I can count my Russian vocabulary on one hand, but we managed to communicate. It's all in the hand gestures. Besides, if they don't understand, you simply talk louder, right?
[Diary] … I headed for the Olympic Stadium. I found the entrance to the stadium tower and rode an elevator the 11 floors to the top for a great look over the city. Japan had been awarded the 1940 games, but as it was at war with China, the games were given to Finland instead. However, the Soviet Union invaded Finland in 1939, so the 1940 games were cancelled, as were those in 1944. London hosted the 1948 games and, in 1952, they were held in Helsinki by which time some of the facilities were 12 years old.
[Diary] … The trip involved many activities, the highlights of which were sea kayaking in a 2-man kayak with Juha, and then spending four great days with him and his wife, Johanna, at their cabin in the country for the longest day/St. Juhannus Day festival holiday. Each day, I cut wood and we enjoyed an hour in the wood-fired sauna. Ask a Finn and they'll tell you that the way a house is built is to start with the sauna and build around that!
Official Name: Iceland (Ísland); Capital: Reykjavik (Reykjavík); Language: Icelandic (íslenska); Country Code: IS; Currency: Icelandic króna (kr or ISK)
Back in 1987, I had to attend a conference in Paris, France, and I wanted to take my wife and 3-year-old son. Back then, one of the cheapest ways to get to Europe from the east coast of the US was with Icelandair. However, that required being routed through Reykjavik in both directions, which adds on quite a few hours to the flying time. However, not having been to Iceland, we stopped over in the capital for three days on the way over, but just changed planes on the way back.
We arrived around 6:30 am at the brand new Keflavik international airport. We drove by bus to the (now) domestic airport near the capital. Although I should have expected it, I was startled to see lava fields in every direction with house lots literally carved out of the lava. Of course, the only trees were those planted near houses.
As it was summertime, it was twilight all night, with cars driving around with parking lights only.
One day, at great expense we rented a 4-wheel drive vehicle and set off into the countryside to a famous geyser. We saw beautiful fields of grass with Icelandic ponies grazing. Another day, we lazed in the hot, thermal pools, although I could only stand in very shallow water in the third-to-hottest one.
By the way, Iceland is green and Greenland is icy; you figure it out!
Official Name: Kingdom of Norway (Norge); Capital: Oslo; Language: Norwegian (norsk) and various Sami dialects; Country Code: NO; Currency: Norwegian krone (kr or NOK)
Although my first visit to Norway wasn't until 2003, I went three more times over the following four years. And I very much enjoyed each visit. The first time, after my business ended, my wife and I spent a delightful week driving across to Bergen with Gunnar and Sonja (who we'd met in St. Petersburg in 1992), staying in self-catering cottages.
[Diary] … Plenty of traffic slowed our journey towards their cabin on a lake two hours to the north, but the picturesque scenery kept us occupied. On the way, we stopped at an orchard and picked 8 kg of plums and 5 kg of apples. Their cabin was comfortable, warm and in a pretty, rustic setting and ideal for relaxing. It came complete with outdoor plumbing, and 12 volt lighting powered by a solar panel. Gunnar and I went fishing, and put in nets. We caught two fish by rod. After a fine dinner of stroganoff, Gunnar and I played backgammon. (This became an evening ritual, with three games being played each night for the next week.) We slept well under fluffy down quilts.
[Diary] … Next morning, we had nine fish in our nets, mostly bass and trout. (Many of them became dinner that evening.) After Sonja's "cowboy breakfast" of kidney beans, bacon, eggs, bread and coffee, we packed up and left by noon, a civilized time to be starting the day's adventures. We traveled northwest towards the mountains, and saw many, very long, narrow lakes. We visited a very old wooden church (stavkirke) built in 1188. There had been an event there that day, with people in period costume. A lady entertained us by playing an old stringed instrument. At 3 pm, we had a late lunch at a picnic table by a creek. We stayed in two fairly basic cabins by a rushing river next to a sheep farm. Many of the sheep wore metal bells, which tinkled constantly as they grazed. The shower was in a separate communal building. We ate fresh fish with potatoes and salad.
[Diary] … Instead of taking the new (not to mention expensive toll) 24 km tunnel through the mountains, we decided to take the windy, narrow road 43 km up and over them instead. The scenery was spectacular! At the town of Flåm, we took a railway trip 20 km, rising 800 meters through 20 tunnels; it was stunning.
[Diary] … After leaving Bergen our trip took us south and east towards Oslo. We rode across the fjords on two ferries, and then drove along the shore of one fjord until we reached a small town called Sundal. We took a 45-minute (each way) hike to the glacier that was visible from our cabin. It was a great walk. The view of the glacial lake and the glacier itself was worth the effort.
My second visit was to the beautiful city of Trondheim.
[Diary] … The Norwegian Air flight from Oslo to Trondheim took 50 minutes. We broke through the clouds to see rolling hills with forests and small farms, whose barns were all painted blood red. (Although such small farms are not economical, the government encourages traditional farming by providing generous subsidies.) The airport is small, but busy with budget airlines flying both domestic and international, as far away as the Greek islands. Trondheim is the 3rd largest city in Norway, and a former capital. It is more than a 1,000 years old.
[Diary] … That evening, our hosts provided a formal dinner at a rather up-scale restaurant called Credo. There was no menu; the chef decides each day what to serve, and you eat whatever he has decided, although in my case, being allergic to shellfish, they did make some substitutions. There were many courses; fortunately, most were quite small, but even then, I really didn't need the main one. Then came some disgustingly smelly cheese and a nice desert.
[Diary] … Once again, our host provided a social event. A large bus pick up partners at the hotel then picked us up at the meeting site, and we drove to a village out of town. There, we were given a tour of a museum that consists mostly of wooden buildings moved there from towns and farms in the area to recreate times gone by. Our host was quite entertaining and sang traditional songs. An exotic dinner of old-style wild game followed.
[Diary] … Once we reached the Norwegian coast, the ground was about 10% covered in snow as far as the eye could see. And the mountains to the west where white. We followed the big fjord right up to Oslo, and out my window, I got a great view of the downtown area and royal palace. As the Gardemoen Airport is some 50 kms north of the city, we flew over the suburbs, then forests and farms, complete with their classic blood-red painted barns. Most lakes and a few narrow sea inlets were still frozen. The airport is rather new and very nice, in the usual Scandinavian style architecture of wood, glass and steel. There was a long walk from the gate to the baggage hall, but once I got there, my bag came out right away.
Official Name: Kingdom of Sweden (Sverige); Capital: Stockholm; Language: Swedish (swede); Country Code: SE; Currency: Swedish krone (kr or SEK)
My first visit was in 1990, and it was a quick trip over on the ferry to Helsingborg from the Danish town of Helsinor. I was on Swedish soil all of four hours. I noticed that while the Danes had all the good food and wine, the Swedes had all the furs, cars, and jewelry. Because of this, the ferry crossing the narrow straight between the two countries was loaded with each group crossing over to buy the other's specialties.
It wasn't until 20 years later that I returned, this time to Stockholm. It was wintertime with very low temperatures and cold wind. As it was not conducive to playing tourist, I added only one personal day to my business trip. I spent quite a bit of that at the museum for the famous warship Vasa, which sank in 1628 and was raised, largely intact, in 1961.
I'd be happy to go back to any country in Scandinavia; however, I must say that during my most recent trip to Denmark I fell in love with that country all over again. So much so that I have two trips on my Bucket List. Trip 1: A circle starting in Copenhagen, across to Sweden, then to the Danish island of Bornholm, to the German island of Rugen, and back to Copenhagen. Trip 2: A walking trip around the island of Aero, off the south coast of Funen, and possibly around some other islands in the area.
The taxes in Scandinavia may be high, but the countries have excellent social systems, strong currencies, and a high standard of living. They can serve as a good model for others.