Author of Madam, Have You Ever Really Been Happy? An Intimate Journey through Africa and Asia

Category: Sweden

I’ve just returned from…

I’ve just returned from a glorious three weeks in Sweden and Norway, where the scenery is to die for–mountains, rivers, waterfalls at every turn–and cities exude old world charm, “old” meaning 12th century. It was my first experience with a digital camera, so I went a little crazy, knowing I could erase with ease. But it also allows me to show you a few of the highlights and a few of the interesting people who crossed my path.

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Our day began at 9:45 AM …

Our day began at 9:45 AM with the famous train ride up to Myrdal to see an enormous waterfall. I remembered that I had taken this same trip with Lynn Rubright in 1983. On the way we saw some outstanding waterfalls with a free fall of 500 ft. or more. Then we slowly chugged upward, overlooking a deep valley, until we arrived at 2500 ft. I saw the usual red houses with wooden roof tiles laid in a teardrop pattern.

We changed trains and headed for Voss, going down to 150 ft. Voss is a lovely town with centuries old churches and an ancient cross from 1000 AD on a grass mound behind the post office. I also came upon a plaque in honor of Knut Rockne, the football coach at Nore Dame in the 30’s. I took a picture for my soon-to-be-son-in-law, Gary Shippy. He’s a proud Notre Dame graduate (is there any other kind?).

It started to rain, so we ducked into a nearby café where I decided on the Norwegian “special.” Holy calories, Bat Man! A huge, fatty lunch arrived on the arm of a blond Viking. Fried potato/wheat balls, a kind of mashed turnip swimming in butter, a fat sausage, and lamb shanks garnished with bacon bits. But Gullvi’s BLT was even bigger! Fortified, we waddled off to our next bus ride, which began with a famous mile of highway boasting 13 hairpin turns. It was very narrow and amazing how the driver negotiated each turn. And it was scary! Needless to say, there were numerous waterfalls along the way. It would take more superlatives than I know to describe the beauty of the landscape that unfolded on this trip. It started to rain gently as we got to a level area and from behind the mountains came a stunning rainbow covering the entire sky. It ended in one of the man lakes we passed. I tried, but failed to get a photo, but the scene will remain in my mind forever.

It was 6:15 when we arrived in Godvagen and boarded the ferry which took us on the Naroy fjord, the narrowest branch of the Sognefjord. What we saw from our perch on the upper deck was a microcosm of every type of Norwegian scenery, from tiny churches and villages along a green coast to shining slabs of rock and high, rounded hills rising directly from the water’s edge. We watched the changing panorama, frustrated because it was just too vast and too high to capture on film. We froze as we watched the sun set and the sky become black, a perfect backdrop for a surfeit of stars. I was glad for my Peruvian hat and mittens.

By 9 we had reached the small town of Kaupanger. We were taken to our pensione, a charming white clapboard house owned by a widow who specialized in growing every conceivable variety of flower. The place was a riot of color. The young couple who picked us up graciously let us stop at an old stave church close by and wander through the cemetery, before taking us to a Shell station where we could buy some bread, ham, and cheese for dinner. How incongruous! The next morning we were thrilled to see the inside of the same church, along with several other stave churches in this part of Norway.(click here for pictures)

This was an incredible, challenging day!

This was an incredible, challenging day! Perfect weather with lots of river crossings and lots of snow. We walked ten miles, arriving at Geiterygghytta (hytta means hut) at 4 PM. We kept meeting the same groups, from Holland, Sweden, and an American with her Norwegian cousin, as we crisscrossed the winter ice fields and the striated remnants of glaciers. Snowfields were steep—the kind where you wished you had an ice axe, but settled for digging your heels in like mad and praying. We stopped for lunch, but the rocks were unforgiving. We were unaware that just around the corner was one small meadow, already discovered by the Dutch!

The sun was hot and blinding as we worked our way through fields of boulders, reminiscent of Mt. Washington’s summit, and across swollen, rushing streams, many without even an old plank for a bridge. Fortunately, I am blessed with good balance and the ability to jump (not tall buildings at a single leap, but fairly good-sized streams).

We were lucky to have a room to ourselves and a view of still another lake. This was a much more rustic and isolated cabin than last night, and boasted a family of gray foxes that lived under the porch. Out came the cameras! I wandered down a road and discovered a series of five waterfalls. The last one was mesmerizing…tumbling first right, then left, and creating two separate foaming cascades which continued down the mountain.

Tonight was my first experience eating elk patties. And my last, I hope!

(click here for pictures)

The evening that I returned …

The evening that I returned from northern Sweden, I received a call from an old friend, Dr. Alf Gabrielsson, a retired professor of music psychology at Uppsala University in Uppsala, Sweden, and a former member of the international advisory board of Music Education for the Handicapped (MEH), the organization Dr. Rosalie R. Pratt and I founded in 1980. He invited me to see the authentic production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov at the ornate opera house in Stockholm. It was performed by an all-Russian cast and conducted by Valery Gergiev, artistic director of the Mariinsky Theatre in Moscow. He is something of a national hero in Russia, credited with keeping the theatre alive and ensuring that the opera and ballet continued to flourish after the fall of the Soviet Union. This company is one of the most celebrated and most recorded opera companies in the world. And I can understand why. I’d never heard such a powerful production of Godunov. Raw and brutal. It was not padded as it sometimes is in the West, but kept to the 2 ½- hour format of the original, which was one of its strengths. Afterwards, in the glow of this music, we walked for a long time along the bank of the river, enjoying the reflection of the streetlights in the water and renewing an old friendship. It was very quiet and there were few people. The buildings stood in the shadows like ancient ghosts guarding an ancient city.

From August 14 to 18 I delighted in getting acquainted with the nooks and crannies of Stockholm, an old-world city of immense culture and beauty. For me it has a flavor much like Prague. And it is stunningly clean, with men in bright uniforms picking up every scrap of paper throughout the day. They were not the usual bedraggled folks I saw in Asia sweeping the streets and cleaning up, but looked more like businessmen. Gullvi said that these people, along with waiters, bus drivers and other service providers are well paid. That’s why, when I tried to tip at a restaurant, she said this wasn’t necessary, nor the custom. There also are not the crowds I’m used to. I had to be reminded that there are only nine million people in all of Sweden and less than that in Norway.

What is unusual about Stockholm is the presence of water everywhere. The city is built on fourteen islands connected by a labyrinth of bridges, and you’re never far from Lake Malaren or the Baltic Sea. The archipelago in its entirety is comprised of more than 24,000 islands. (click here for pictures)

During most of Monday I searched for just the right tour, walking up and down the waterfront near the Grand Hotel and scrutinizing a plethora of different vessels from the ocean liners going from Stockholm to Finland—overnight party boats that have quite a reputation—to the imitation Viking boats that had “tourist” written all over them. I wanted to get close to the islands so picked an all-day Stromma Canal tour going to the outer archipelago through the Stromma Canal and ending up at the island of Sandhamn. This is considered the Mecca of the sailing community, and during the summer, avid sailors of all nationalities converge on Sandhamn to compete.

It was lucky I brought my umbrella and my Goretex jacket, for it started raining just as the boat pulled out of the harbor. Large dark clouds hovered ominously overhead, but nobody seemed to mind. We all sat on the upper deck and marveled at the skill with which the captain maneuvered the boat in and out of the many islands. Some of the waterways were only the width of the boat, with rushes and tall grasses bending into the water like diaphanous dancers as we passed.

When we reached shore we were treated to a tour of this isolated island, which reminded me a lot of Martha’s Vineyard or Cape Cod with no cars. We walked through narrow paths, past a one-room schoolhouse for the three or four children on the island. There was a lot of remodeling being done, but all kept to the architectural style already present. It was important to preserve the authenticity of the area, where the first homes dated from the 1700’s. Only about 118 people live on Sandhamn in the winter, with 2000 more coming in the summer.

During lunch, in a quaint thatched roof open-air restaurant next to the water, I became acquainted with a New Yorker of Greek descent, Vasily Kottas, who had taken off ten weeks to travel the world. A computer science expert from Harvard, he touted the unlimited possibilities of his new digital camera, which does everything but predict the weather. We bonded immediately, finding a common love of theater, New York, and travel. (click here for pictures)

The sun came out on our return trip and we got a chance to see some of the islands up close when the captain stopped to deliver mail or newspapers. Very strict rules are in place for the speed of the boats, with limits posted on large poles in the water. In some areas there were steep cliffs, with houses hanging on them, precariously, like fat worms hugging the rocks. Many were orange or yellow and made of cement or stucco in contrast to the island homes that were made of wood. Some call this outer section of the archipelago the Swedish Riviera—sumptuous houses, elegant landscaping, tall old trees covered with hanging moss, stately pines. (click here for pictures)

The day after returning from my island cruise was the first time I had ever downloaded digital photos onto a CD. Wow! Welcome to the 21st century, Meg. The owner of the photo shop recommended that I visit a quaint old section of town where artists and writers live “in tree houses.” What he meant was that the houses were made of wood. The boards were narrow, with two inches of raised wood in between each board. All were painted a dark red with orange tiled roofs. So different from the rest of Stockholm.

I started down the street, passing buildings of various architechtural styles—some modern, some with elaborate facades—all juxtaposed. And so many outdoor cafes, filled to the brim! Directly ahead of me on a hill stood a beautiful church. There were banks of stairs leading up to it, with children playing and parents using narrow metal runways to push their strollers or bikes down or up, something I had never seen. I got the feeling of going through a continuous small town, as I did in Cairo, with buildings in the four to five storey range.

The church was Sofia Kyrka named after King Oscar II’s wife. I was fascinated by its ornate beauty and spent some time talking with a young man at the reception area. He said that his mother was one of the priests and had been working with a Coptic church in Cairo, where they find it difficult to survive in such a strong Moslem society. While I was there an Estonian choir began rehearsing. They were a group of very bohemian-looking young people with a conductor full of fire and passion. I sat on one of the benches arranged in a semicircle and listened to the ethereal music, blending perfectly with the majesty of the grand organ. It had the haunting sonorities of orthodox liturgy—a clear, powerful sound I remember from my childhood, listening the Don Cozzack chorale made up of White Russians.

Once outside I wandered around the grounds, where families and couples were picnicking. A huge lawn led down a hill to the artist’s colony of red wooden houses and tiny stone walkways. That evening Gullvi and I walked around the high cliffs overlooking the water, ducking in and out of crooked streets with modest houses and colorful gardens. We looked down at the myriad islands I had passed on my tour of the archipelago, each one connected by a bridge. What a sublime city. (click here for pictures)

I arrived in Stockholm on August 6 …

I arrived in Stockholm on August 6 and was greeted by my friend, Gullvi Eriksson, who lives in a charming old high-ceilinged apartment on Gotgatan (gatan means street), a lively section of south Stockholm. The transportation system is modern and in no time we had taken a bus (high speed trains also are available) from Arlanda airport to the Central Railway Station and then on to the Slussen subway stop. The old city, or Gamla Stan (like most of the areas in Stockholm, a small island), is only a short walk from Gullvi’s apartment, so we spent the day before we left for the north looking around at famous old churches, the City Hall where the Nobel prize dinner and dance are held every Dec. 10 (Alfred Nobel’s death date), galleries, the royal palace and royal court, and tourists sitting in cafes looking at other tourists looking at the myriad statues in the many cobblestone squares. We ate at what was to become our favorite restaurant: KRYP IN, Prastgatan 17. There we had a typical meal of Swedish meatballs (it’s the spices, folks), new potatoes, salad, dark gravy, and, of course, the ubiquitous lingonberries.

The first week, from August 6 to 13, was spent hiking in northern Sweden. We took a plane to Kiruna, a large town in the north, named for a type of grouse that turns white in winter. Large images of the big birds adorned several streets (they looked like fat pigeons to me). A night in a hostel was followed by a bus ride to the small town of Jukkasjarvi (all you Swedes will have to forgive me, because I don’t have the proper accent marks in my computer lexicon) where we wandered into a red wooden church (the same deep red I saw all over Sweden) set in a pastoral wilderness, and enjoyed murals done by the artist Brur Hjort. It was decorated by handcrafts such as a huge sun mounted in the middle of the organ.

Near the church was a large tepee constructed by the Samirs, a group of indigenous people who lived in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia years ago and were treated abominably upon the arrival of the Europeans…kind of like the American Indians. They were a nomadic people who herded reindeer, taking them up in the mountains in the summer to feed. Now they produce and sell delicate silver jewelry, weaving, and other handcrafts. After talking with them, we left to walk a mile through fog and drizzle to the famous Ice Hotel on the Torna River. The area reminded me of the seashore, for the climate is so harsh that the trees are small and gnarled, and it had that windswept look. There were also a lot of marshlands along the way.

Many of you may have seen a popular program on the Discovery Channel that describes the Ice Hotel built every year in this area. It is amazing! We were at the welcome center, but, of course, the hotel had already melted and all we could see were pictures. It wasn’t due to be built until the end of October, and finished in time for the Christmas season. The ice is harvested from the Torna River in April (when it’s the thickest) and architects and artists from around the world fashion a completely new design each year, which lasts as long as weather permits The ice is mixed with snow from a snow machine for insulation, and packed until it is as hard as concrete. Then the architect for the year designs, cuts, and supervises the building of it. All 88 rooms have their own individual designer or sculptor. Even the light fixtures and a large elaborate chandelier are made of ice, as is a bar and the drinking glasses. Beds can be shaped like sleighs or any number of things. The guests are given heavy sleeping bags and covers of reindeer skin. Boards go over the ice and under the bedding to keep the guests warm. A room costs about $275 a night for a suite and a little less for regular rooms. This, the 14th year of the hotel’s existence, featured, in ice sculpture, the illustrations of the famous children’s author, John Bauer. Every year there is a different theme.

Many of the sculptures are preserved as long as possible in a huge shed kept at below zero temperature. We were escorted to this “deep freeze” and given long silver insulated cloaks with attached gloves and fur-lined hoods. As we roamed around, looking at the sculptures, we were given hot, sweet lingonberry tea served on the crystal-clear ice bar.
(click here for pictures)

© 2024 Meg Noble Peterson