by Lee Foster
Nowhere on the planet is the railroad such a viable means of travel as in Europe. The speed, efficiency, and pleasure of travel by train in Europe makes this option attractive. Anyone whose only rail experience is Amtrak will be pleasantly surprised to learn what train travel can be like. The Canadian cross-country trains are a taste of what Scandinavian trains deliver so well.
On this journey I decided to explore Scandinavia by rail on a two-week trip. Forgoing planes or rental cars, I would train across the countryside, adding some other public-transportation side trips, such as a boat tour of the Norway fjords.
I wanted to see Norway, Sweden, and Finland, stopping at their capitals (Oslo, Stockholm, Helsinki), plus a smaller city in each country (Bergen for its Norway fjords, Göteborg for its Swedish design, and Turku for a glimpse at medieval Finland).
As a strategy, I started by flying from the United States to Copenhagen, the main gateway city to Scandinavia. Then I caught a local flight to Stavanger in southern Norway to start my adventure. All the details were possible with my tickets from Rail Europe.
Riding on the trains proved to be a tranquil experience. I avoided having to be attentive to winding Scandinavian roads, as a rental car would have required. I also found it relaxing to omit the stresses of further airport departures.
The trains, whether local or high-speed for longer stretches, were dependably on time and clean. I watched the small towns and green countryside pass before me, enjoying food and drink service on some trains.
The development of high-speed trains in Scandinavia in the last decade is a pleasant part of the rail story. In Norway I took the sleek Signatur train from near Bergen to Oslo. In Sweden the X2000 train transported me from Göteborg to Stockholm. In Finland the Pendolino train carried me from Turku to Helsinki.
These three trains, traveling at 130 mph over regular train tracks, use a special “tilting” technology to negotiate curves. Such trains are sometimes called “premier” trains rather than “high-speed” trains to distinguish them from the 180 mph trains in France and Germany that operate on their own dedicated tracks. For me, 130 mph was plenty fast because I wanted to savor the landscape.
I found it easy to combine side trips with the trains, especially to see the fjords of Norway. From Stavanger I took a day boat to view the local Lysefjord. On the next day I boarded the Flaggruten boat up the coast to Bergen to see more of Norway’s rocky, mountainous shoreline. The most memorable day trip of all, not to be missed, is the “Norway in a Nutshell” day tour out of Bergen, which took me to an arm of the Sognefjord, the longest and deepest fjord in Norway. This fjord offers some of the lovelier views on Planet Earth of steep mountains plunging into the adjacent ocean, here a finger of the North Sea.
Scenery and Destinations
The mountains and fjords of Norway, the birch-and-pine forest interspersed with grain fields in Sweden, and the lonely gently rolling landscape of Finland were the nature treats by day on this trip. There was also a night nature delight when I boarded the Silja line night ferry, the Festival, from Stockholm to Turku, Finland. That treat was a star-filled night sky, absent any urban lights to diminish or obscure the starry sky.
It is thought that the landscape contributes much to the character of the people in each Scandinavian country. For example, the spare and somewhat forlorn terrain of Finland is said to encourage a reflective quiet and measured gravity of the Finnish people.
The destinations on my itinerary offered many nature and cultural pleasures.
The fjords of Norway could occupy many pleasant days of exploring, especially the Sognefjord near Bergen. A train, bus, and boat is required for the full fjord tour, with stops at the most scenic spots. Bergen is especially blessed with mountains and fjords in its vicinity. There are seven mountains around Bergen, including two that are easily accessible. I took a funicular car up Mount Floyen to see a panorama of the city. A gondola takes passengers up the higher Mount Ulriken. Hiking paths proliferate in the forests.
Stavanger boasts a Petroleum Museum that tells the story of the bonanza in North Sea Oil, which makes Norway an important oil exporter. Oil contributes hugely to the secure prosperity of the five million Norwegians.
Bergen was a major trading city when the Hanseatic League flourished (1350-1760). I walked the historic waterfront, the Bryggen, to see the brightly painted wooden warehouses that the traders used.
Outside Bergen is the home of the beloved composer, Edvard Grieg, where you can see the hut in which he wrote his music. Jean Sibelius is the comparable composer in Helsinki, honored with a striking outdoor monument of shining musical pipes.
In Oslo, the Viking capital, the Viking Ship Museum, contains three authentic oak ships used as burial vessels in the Viking period (850-1050). These three burial vessels, covered with a preserving clay, were discovered in the 19th century. The ships epitomize the swift, light craft that the Vikings used to dominate the sea lanes from Newfoundland to Istanbul.
Art lovers will want to see in Oslo the huge sculpture park displaying more than 600 people in 212 groups by Gustav Vigeland. All of Vigeland’s figures, depicting the universal cycle of life, are nude, so as to be timeless, not dated by clothing. The National Gallery in Oslo displays Edvard Munch’s famous painting, The Scream.
The Norwegian Folk Museum in Oslo shows one of the 28 wooden stave churches from medieval times that are still extant in the country. Stave churches mixed pagan Viking motifs of dragons with Christian symbols.
Göteborg, Sweden, is a friendly, western-facing port from which 1.3 million Swedes (out of a total population of only 5 million), migrated to America, especially to Minnesota, between 1860 and 1910. The Swedes of that era were impoverished by crop failures. Göteborg is noted for its flower gardens, especially roses, as well as its innovative Swedish designers, such as the cement-table maker, Mats Jonsson.
Stockholm has a dense number of design shops, where a traveler can explore the vaunted Scandinavian passion for transforming all the mundane objects of everyday life into lovely designs. Furniture, glassware, fabric, and kitchenware are some categories for this design energy. Some say the design passion originates partly from a desire to bring the beauty of the outdoors indoors. Other observers believe that beauty in design is a kind of antidote to the long dark nights of winter, especially designs using light-colored birch wood or mirror-like reflective metal.
Stockholm is an imperial architectural monument, the most substantial stone city in Scandinavia. The stately buildings are decorated in warm yellow and reddish-brown colors, typically Italian, as was required by a 17th-century royal architect. The city is scattered over islands. Water between the islands allows the buildings to be displayed with pleasing spatial relief.
Stockholm residents love to be outdoors as much as possible, hiking and boating in summer, skiing and skating in winter. Outdoor cafes on Stortorget Square provide blankets, as well as coffee and hot chocolate, so patrons can enjoy the outdoors in cool weather.
Every prospective head of state should be required to tour Stockholm’s Vasa Museum, which depicts the folly of a king named Vasa, who would not listen to the wise counsel of his advisors. Vasa decided in 1628 to build the most impressive wooden warship ever imagined. His ship designer said that 40 cannon were the maximum reasonable number, but King Vasa declared there should be 64 cannon. His ship designer said that two levels of deck was as high as was prudent, given the need for stability, but King Vasa overruled that judgment and required a third level, partly for his many extra cannons. The ship was lavishly decorated with carvings and paint, and was named after the king, of course. This warship might be seen as the ultimate psychological warfare vessel, meant to thoroughly intimidate the king’s opponents, who happened to be in Poland, where the king was constantly fighting. The day came for the Vasa to sail out of Stockholm harbor on its way to Poland, where the delighted king awaited the arrival of his masterpiece. Twenty minutes into its maiden sailing across the Stockholm harbor, a slight wind caught the side of the Vasa and turned her over. The ship, with all its cannon and crew, sank to the bottom of the harbor, where it lay for more than 300 years until recovered intact in 1956 and installed in the museum.
Turku, Finland, was a special surprise on my trip, totally unknown to me from earlier travels. Turku was the medieval capital of Finland. The restored Turku Castle (started in 1280) offered an engaging tour. Several hundred years of Finnish existence as an eastern shadow of Sweden is the main story. The Handicraft Museum in Turku gathers craft re-enactors, such as needlepoint workers, in several wooden houses, some with sod roofs, such as one might have found 200 years ago throughout Scandinavia. Fire was the great enemy of wooden structures, as one learns again and again while touring the region.
To understand Helsinki, Finland, take a ferry out to the islands in the harbor that house the Suomenlinna Maritime Fortress. The Swedes built this large fort, naming it Sveaborg, or Swedish Fort, along with an accompanying fleet to defend it. The edifice, spread over several islands, was the most defendable structure in the Baltic and was meant to blunt the ambitions of the Russians, gazing at the west from St. Petersburg. Building the fort transformed the wooden-house peasant town of Helsinki into a respectable capital. The history of the fort is the tortured tale of Finnish national development, caught eternally between the Russians on the east and the Swedes, French, and English on the west.
From Suomenlinna Maritime Fortress you can look back at Helsinki and view the elegant Senate Square, Helsinki’s architectural center. The ferry to the fort departs from Market Square, which proved to be the liveliest outdoor market of my trip, selling everything from produce to knit hats.
Helsinki offered the most complete Scandinavian design experience of my trip. I took a tour of the Designer Group complex, which encompasses four Finnish design companies that are worlds onto themselves (Arabia, Iittala, Hackman, and Rorstrand). The complex has a showroom with museum-quality examples of the best in Finnish design for the last 75 years. A visitor sees original vases by designer Alvar Aalto, the popular kitchenware of Teema, and sleek knives by Hackman. An on-site factory for ceramic manufacturing presents a fascinating factory tour. There is also a huge factory outlet store with the full line of Designer Group products, including affordable “seconds” with barely detectable flaws.
Food and drink in Scandinavia offer many regional pleasures. Each city has its local beer. Salmon, trout, deer, reindeer, sheep, and goat appear on the menu. Young potatoes are a specialty, along with other root vegetables, such as carrots and parsnips. Pea and vegetable soups are frequent. Luscious berries, whether sweet blueberries and raspberries or tart lingonberries, abound. Every major city has its upscale restaurants where inventive chefs present world-class fusion food.
Rail Scandinavia: The Details
Several tips for a Scandinavia rail trip became obvious from my trip.
*Timing is important. June through August is the main travel season, with museums and attractions open for extended hours. This is also the busiest time. May and September are the shoulder seasons. I enjoyed going in September, which was relatively uncrowded. Beyond the shoulder season, travel would be a different kind of experience here, blustery and robust, wintry and dark, not to everyone’s taste. However, as has been observed, “For taste, there is no accounting.”
*Scandinavia is expensive. The region is costly, especially if you buy major components, such as hotels, on the spot. Plan ahead and buy in advance packages with as many of the elements of your trip as possible, such as air to get there, rail transportation, hotels, special tours (fjords of Norway), city tours, and museum/attraction entrance cards. Good deals on packages will blunt the pain of high prices and let you know the major costs in advance. Your hotel price includes a hearty buffet breakfast, so dinner will remain the major extra expense.
*When using trains, travel light. Pack a rolling piece of luggage of manageable size. You will need to handle your luggage entirely by yourself and walk considerable distances with the luggage, loading it on the train yourself. Lodging adjacent to the railroad depot is often a wise choice, partly because taxis are expensive. The Grand Terminus Hotel in Bergen, Clarion Royal Christiana Hotel in Oslo, Radisson SAS Scandinavia in Göteborg, and Sokos Vaakuna Hotel in Helsinki are examples of lodgings proximate to the train station.
*Reservations are necessary. Be sure to reserve ahead the high-speed trains and hotels during the busy summer season. Reservations are particularly critical in the small villages along the “Norway in a Nutshell” tour out of Bergen if you want to linger in the area for overnights.
*Get tax refunds. Sweaters in Norway and designer housewares in Sweden and Finland are among the main shopping items in Scandinavia. Quality sweaters in Norway may cost $100-$300. Always ask at stores for a tax refund form for the VAT (value added tax) as well as your purchase receipt. The tax receipt can be cashed in at the airport when you depart. There are some complexities in this tax refund matter. One company devoted to assisting you in getting your tax money back is Global Refund (www.globalrefund.com).
*Everyone speaks English. Travel in Scandinavia is language-comfortable because English is part of the curriculum in all the schools.
*Credit cards are widely used in Scandinavia, even for small food purchases. A credit card is preferable to a big wad of cash and will give you the best exchange rate for purchases.
For a restful leave-the-driving-to-others Europe trip, trains are an intriguing option. Even for the fairly large expanses of Scandinavia, the high-speed trains cross the landscape with relative efficiency. This carefree manner will appeal to anyone tired of the harassment of air travel and the tiring attentiveness required for rental cars.
Railroading Through Scandinavia: If You Go
The expertise of a capable and experienced travel agent familiar with train travel can be helpful.
Rail Europe provides full rail travel information at www.raileurope.com. Rail tickets should be purchased in advance for the busy summer season. With an advance purchased ticket, no time is wasted during your trip with standing in line to buy tickets.
First and Second Class are possible on the trains. Even Second Class is pleasantly upscale. First Class affords more amenities of space, food, and drink.
Each of the three Scandinavian countries has a website for potential visitors. The countries are:
Norway, Norwegian Tourist Board, www.visitnorway.com.
Sweden, Swedish Travel and Tourism Council, www.visitsweden.com.
Finland, Finnish Tourist Council, www.visitfinland.com.
SAS (Scandinavian Airlines, www.flysas.com) is the dominant carrier in this region. To start in Norway, travelers usually fly to the major SAS Europe hubs in Copenhagen and Stockholm, then catch a local flight to other cities.