notes from the North Sea surrounds
(Jul 07) This trip was also known as the fjord and tartan fetish tour (with the surprise add-on bonus of a castles feast). It also became a bit of a myth busting tour as we learned many a new thing (very educational) once we departed the Australian winter for a far northern hemisphere summer (complete with very long days – in some places never really dark). My travelling buddy for this trip, TM (pictured left), came along for the ride when she heard I was travelling (and, for the record, despite the superficial resemblance noted by others during our holiday, she is NOT related to me)!
There were five key parts to this trip – Amsterdam, Norway, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Scotland. Given the length of our travels – I will limit my notes to key highlights from each country. While they are all places known for rainy weather, we were blessed with fine (weatherman’s definition) through almost our entire trip (I believe the odds for such a good run were several billion to one).
a.k.a. the recovery from jet lag town – it became the benchmark on which we measured all our subsequent gallery and museum (and other) experiences.
An important tip for young players is to avoid getting into Amsterdam early on a Sunday morning. As TM noted, it was hard not to notice the sleazy filthy men - the dregs from the evening before. We were told very nice things by strange men, which amused us the first two times but got boring very quickly. All in all the place is great – it’s the home of the first company after all and has serious character and lovely ladies - including her but she is not for sale.
A standout was our “path less followed” excursion to Aalsmeer – the world market place for flowers and plants – a real life flower auction. Only an economist (or insanely enthusiastic florist) would venture out to the outskirts of the city to see 16 square kilometres of flowers being traded on a daily basis. It was colourful and fabulous.
Rembrandt House was another highlight. And a lowlight (depending on your views about being surrounded by 20-something fraternity boys) was the “Heineken Experience” (easily the kitschiest thing we did during our stay in Amsterdam...checking out the marketing Mecca…strangely, I’ve been craving a certain beer ever since).
Norway in a Nutshell
Get wet - eat fish. The Norwegians are seriously into boating. Our perceptions of Norway may be biased as we started our stay in a (former) fishing village – Stavanger, and visited a lot of amazing ship museums while we were in the country. Norway was horrendously expensive when it came to eating out but we still managed some fine dining (via fresh fish purchased straight from a trawler – the cheapest and best fish I have ever tasted).
There was plenty of impressive art in Oslo - notably Vigeland Gardens (a huge garden full of naked sculptures - I said at the time “I would have liked to have seen him sculpt someone wearing clothes” - the stereotype of Scandinavians being comfortable with nudity was in no way dispelled here); Munch (“the Scream”); and Rodin (“the Thinker” – although I had to point out to TM its significance) – there were also works by Picasso, Monet, Cézanne, and Mattise among others. After Van Gogh and Rembrandt in Amsterdam, we were really being spoiled – as TM noted with her Gen-Y enthusiasm, “so much cool old stuff to see – a feast for the eyes”. She also noted though that we saw some contemporary art, which didn’t fail in producing the most pretentious rubbish ever such as a plain white wall with a nail hammered into it.
The Norge landscape was spectacular – it is no wonder the Norwegians are outdoors for most of their summers. The highlight of the scenery viewing was on the train from Flam to Voss (but we didn’t have to pay close attention as the other tourists on the train made “oooh-aaah” sounds that alerted us to the many photo opportunities).
We saw fjords (there are a lot of them), which were impressive but one hour of looking is more than enough (I suspect my recent trip to NZ-Milford Sound may have biased my opinion here). No doubt about it - I have satisfied my fetish for a lifetime – I’m over it.
We were starting to obsess about getting scurvy at this point of the trip and our eating habits did not improve when we realised that the best thing about København was the food. There was definitely a buzz to this city – must have been all the folk full of coffee and sugar bouncing off the walls.
[Aside: Roskilde music festival (and Tea in the Park, NessFest and any other major music festival in Europe at this time of the year) = MUDBATH. Important tip for novices – pack Wellington boots, wet weather gear and clothes you would be happy to discard.]
[Aside 2: Scandinavian politics: the Norwegians loathe the Swedes; the Danish dislike the Swedes; they all hate the Germans; and the Germans still feel guilty about the war. We learned more about the region’s history in the few weeks of travelling than a year’s study would have achieved. There’s something to be said about immersing yourself in the artefacts and hearing the stories from the locals.]
The city itself was remarkably relaxed and very impressive. We did a “Golden Viking” tour, which took us out of the city for one day, and it turned out to be somewhat different given our usual expectations about “tours”. We were carted around in a small van, with the only other tourists in the van being an Australian couple. Our guide was an Icelandic academic! He drove us around to see several Viking ruins. TM thought it was a refreshing perspective offered by our guide; I thought it was quirky (at best). The ruins were as follows:
Ø a couple of large stones with engravings at a road side pit stop.
Ø some stones in the shape of a square in the middle of a forest. (TM and I both worried that he might have been a serial killer at this point – lucky for us he fed us a local delicacy, princess cake, instead.)
Ø another large carved stone and the foundations of a Viking house at the top of a hill in a cow paddock.
We received a considerable amount of (unsolicited) social commentary from our guide through the day about the (corrupt) communist system in Sweden. We are also told the following:
Ø history is lies (e.g. the Viking helmets did not have horns – the horned portrayal was Christian propaganda to make them look evil);
Ø Viking women could divorce a man on the grounds of him being lazy and the only reason a man could divorce a woman was if she was a boring nag; and
Ø the best Viking ships are located in Oslo, Norway.
Our Scotland travels were predominantly through the Highlands, courtesy of Haggis Tours (highly recommended), book-ended by Edinburgh and Glasgow. (Mimicking accent: anyhoo, have seen a wee hairee coo (Highland variety), he,he,hee.) We saw a plethora of castles. We also passed a large number of ben (big) mountains, glens (valleys) and lochs (lakes). And I have become enamored with (bloody and gruesome) Scottish history and faerie tales now as our wonderful guide, Laura, told us many a story on our Highland travels.
Some highlights according to TM:
Ø William Wallace was never called Braveheart (the term in fact refers to Robert, the Bruce) and Wallace had his manhood cut off and stuffed in his mouth before they chopped his head off so there was no way he could have yelled out FREEDOM before he died. Gross!!!!
Ø Wallace never wore a kilt. Only highland Scots wore kilts and he was from the lowlands.
Ø We saw film sights for Highlander (…there can be only one…) and Potter (the train bridge for the Hogwart’s Express).
Ø We hung out with the Loch Ness Monster. We met a marine biologist, Ricky, who has been scouring the loch for over 20 years searching and he has seen a few around. In fact, he has evidence of 18 creatures – and Ricky’s thesis is that these creatures (he prefers this phrase to monsters) have evolved from the pre-historic Plesiosaur surviving “under” the Ice Age with a food source of trout and artic char. They are apparently asexual and get “drunk” from eating too much omega 3 rich fish and only come to the surface to eat salmon to “detox”. [Aside: And the theme music for this leg of the tour: Automatic’s “Monster”. The song’s catchy chorus is still stuck in my head: “what’s that coming over the hill; is it a monster; is it a monster”.]
Ø And, back in Edinburgh, visiting Adam Smith’s grave. Yes, it was a macabre thing to do yet we weren’t the only economists standing there. (Such is TM’s enthusiasm for the father of our discipline; she is inspired to write a song about the invisible hand…cue dooff dooff music.)
We learned that a defining icon of Scotland - the gaudy tartan – was the product of a foppish English king who thought the Highlanders looked too scruffy in their own kilts. Bring back the old (and camouflaging) plant dyes I say.
For me, the Isle of Skye was the highlight of the whole trip (see picture at the top of this entry). This place was beautiful, rugged, remote and definitely offering that edge of the earth feeling. Sitting on a rock overlooking the water at a hostel in the middle of nowhere - no people (or noise) to spoil the view. This was what I travelled half way around the world to see.