A Travellerspoint blog

August 2009

Basking in the Baltic

Gotland & Faro

There was no getting away from it - all this Scandinavian air was turning him into a Ken Dodd look-alike ...

It was a 3 hour ferry journey from Stockholm to the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. The boat was packed and we were getting anxious that we might, again, find it difficult to find accommodation when we got there so we rang ahead and booked a room - big mistake. It turned out to be in the basement of a house, with all the charm of a World War 2 bunker but without any decorative wall-maps. A rapid rearrangement of campaign tactics was called for. Ingergerd in Stockholm had told us of the small island off the north-east tip of Gotland - Faro. It was where the Swedish film director, Ingmar Berman, had settled and died just 2 years ago. He was attracted by the stark but beautiful scenery which suited his dark and moody films.


We had a night in a hostel just before the Faro ferry in what used to be an air-force camp on the edge of an airfield. Sleeping in the well-kept billets felt like we were in a Biggles novel, the only scramble being for breakfast in the canteen the next morning. We hired bikes as there were no buses on Fora and set off the next day.







The island has a very strange beauty. Very flat with a lot of scrubby wasteland suddenly punctuated by lovely forests with purple heather between the trees which makes them seem like perennial bluebell woods. There are a few sandy beaches but most are of rocks and pebbles with wooden fishermens’ huts perched on the end of the barren land. And sheep - thousands of the grey-black Gotland breed which are housed in well-maintained thatched huts during the winter months.



The huts have what look like a wooden crosses erected on the ridge but which pre-date Christianity and are more akin to a Celtic cross depicting the sun and the seasons. The other odd adornments are the long branches at the gable ends of the roofs which stick out at an angle. The story goes that these are to repel trolls from landing on them and, as everyone knows, trolls are the enemy of Thor, the God War. Thor’s murderous weapon is the lightening bolt so, in a round about way, these are akin to ancient lightening conductors.






So far, we’ve managed to travel around by train, boat, bus or bike. Where possible, we wanted to avoid flying in order to experience more through the actual journey. However, the temptation of seeing flights to Hamburg from Gotland proved too much and so our carbon footprint is going to have to temporarily take a knock. It has allowed us more time in Faro before meeting the deadline of getting to our friends, Richard & Hildegard, in Switzerland before the end of the month. They’ve promise us breakfast on Sunday morning after our overnight train so best get cracking …

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Posted by dikansu 12:49 Comments (1)

Abba, Ikea, Saab, Volvo ...


Jimi Hendrix was right when he said life on the road wasn’t always a bed of roses. I may not be reporting him word-for-word but you get my drift. Relying on public transport has its ups and downs. On the one hand, you are at the mercy of the rail, ferry or bus timetables and there may be only one service a day. You can be hanging around frustrated, wondering whether you’ll find any accommodation at the other end when you get there. But it also means that you slow down and discover things you wouldn’t have whilst waiting for the next leg of the journey. There’s time to contemplate things going on around you and philosophise over the important questions of life like, “I wonder why that man over there doesn’t make a feature of his nasal hair and make plaits of them?”


One of the things Sue was most looking forward to in Sweden was their design and textiles. On our way south, we noticed that one of the famous linen weaving companies, Faxbo, had its factory and museum not too far off our route. It meant a bit of a deviation off the main rail-line to Stockholm to a town called Bollnas. A Swede Sue mentioned this to turned up his Nordic nose and said, “Why would you want to stay in Bollnas? They didn’t have enough things interesting enough so they had to build their own artificial lake.” A bit like coals to Newcastle. Indeed, at first sight, Bollnas did look dull. The town centre was a celebration in concrete. The Tourist Information lady was ever so helpful but you got the feeling that her talents were wasted through lack of raw materials to work with.
We booked in to a “hostel” which was actually a cosy small house with 3 bedrooms which we had to ourselves. Ingred, the owner, lived in the big house next door and was very welcoming. There was only one bus a day on the 15km route to the Flaxbo mill which didn’t leave much time to look around but she found out for us that the local camping site hired bikes. So off we set the next day.
The road was deceptively ever-so-slightly uphill most of the way and the bikes only had 3 gears with saddles of concrete left over from the town centre. This, plus the fact that we took a wrong turn and had an unnecessary extra 6km detour meant that a sense of humour failure pervaded the atmosphere by the time we finally got there. Thankfully, the restaurant was still open for lunch which turned out to be one of the best we had experienced so far. The complex was very well designed with the original mill and supporting buildings wonderfully restored in the beautiful river valley that supplied the water power and flax in the old days. The current factory was higher up the hill and employing just 8 people now. The exquisite linen cloth is still woven on traditional machines which were manufactured by James Mackie & Sons, Belfast - the firm that my Uncle Sammy worked for in the days when Belfast was king of the linen industry.


From Bollnas, we headed to Stockholm by bus. Up until now, we had got used to just turning up at the Tourist Office and finding accommodation there and then. Stockholm was different. Everywhere in town was full. We spent ages ringing around various agencies, all to no avail. Park benches were beginning to look like the only option when, finally, at 6 in the evening, we found a cabin in a camp-site on the outskirts of the city. Not exactly luxurious but we had our own kitchen bathroom and bunk beds. It was a suburb of medium-rise flats with lots of immigrant families. Lots of football being played in the plentiful green spaces around. As elsewhere, everything was very clean and tidy. No graffiti in the pedestrian underpasses - instead, public art including large paintings by local children. I daresay that graffiti was quickly removed by council employees, but you got the feeling that there is more respect for public places that you wouldn’t get in an equivalent housing estate in the UK.


Stockholm looked resplendent in glorious sunshine for the whole of our stay. With the inlets and canals of the Baltic Sea lapping the historical buildings with their many spires, it is a unique city.

As soon as they started taking their kit off, you just knew there was going to be trouble ...

During our stay, we visited Ingegard. For many years now, she has been working as a nurse in the hospice on a voluntary basis for 3 months every year. Like the swallows returning from South Africa, we know that summer is here when Ingegerd’s Swedish-registered bright red Alfa Romeo Spider (convertible) appears in Dorchester every June. She lives in a beautiful apartment in Stockholm’s equivalent of Knightsbridge with many beautiful paintings surrounding the rooms. She is a very interesting lady - adventurous, well-travelled and with a real zest for life. We sat drinking tea and eating Digestive biscuits English-fashion whilst she brought us up to speed with various aspects of Stockholm life. It’s fascinating to visit someone you have known for a while in their own surroundings and be better able to see their life in context.


We asked her about the many islands near to Stockholm which we might visit and she recommended Gotland and Faro to the south-east in the middle of the Baltic. So that’s where we will be reporting back from next.

Posted by dikansu 12:51 Comments (2)


land of trees, lakes .... and more trees


Leaving Vaeroy by ferry, we spent the night in Bodo on the mainland in a crummy hotel. We were missing the homeliness of the previous 5 days with our host family on the island but managed to find a lovely café the next morning with friendly ladies for breakfast which redressed the balance.


Then it was onto a bus heading for Sweden. The journey south-east took us into Swedish Lapland. It was much flatter than Norway, with mile upon mile of long straight roads and hardly any traffic. After a 7 hour journey, we stayed the night in Arvidsjaur. The town was undergoing a facelift with the main street a hive of activity as workmen resurfaced the road and replaced the street furniture with stylish street lamps, seats and bicycle stands every 10 metres. No sign of Council cut-backs here. It must be where all the heavy taxation on alcohol goes.


Hard to believe, in warm sunshine and not a speck of snow in sight, that the landscape will be completely transformed within the next 3 months or so. Arvidsjaur is a winter sports centre and also a magnet for motor manufacturers testing out the handling of new models on the frozen lakes. In their wake come the media hoping to catch sight of the next yet-to-be-unveiled, heavily-disguised Lamborghini Testosteroni. Sounds awful. Imagine all the Jeremy Clarkson types from all over the world descending on the town all at once.
All the cars around here appear to have at least 3 huge driving lamps fitted to the front. Presumably this is for finding the way through the long winter nights and avoiding elk and reindeer which might be sharing the roads. Despite the aggressive-looking appearance, cars proceed at a sedate 20mph around town and not a lot faster on the open roads. Everything seems relaxed and unhurried.

We stayed in a quirky hostel called Lappluggan which means Lapland Owl. It was run by a Laplander who was obviously passionate about his heritage and culture. He greeted us wearing a pair of fetching black shiny leather shorts and spoke with a voice which reminded us of North American Indians. There was all sorts of old paraphernalia scattered around the courtyard outside the cabin-like rooms - work tools, sledges, elk skulls, wood carvings. In the evening, he lit a fire outside and provided coffee for people to sit around talking. Sounds corny, I know, but it was a glimpse of how life used to be and still is for the Sami people, most of whom inhabit the most northerly parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland managing herds of reindeer.




"Anyone seen my nuts?"

Our main reason for heading this way was to join the Inlandsbannen Railway going south. Completed in the 1920s, it runs for hundreds of miles like a spine down the middle of Sweden. In its time, it was a lifeline for hundreds of isolated communities. Navvies built the tracks over rivers, lakes and swampy marshland which roads had not at that time penetrated. Nowadays, it is mainly a tourist attraction for a few months in the summer. The trains are manned by volunteers on a busman’s holiday from the Swedish national rail network who obviously take pleasure in the opportunity of driving through the spectacular scenery and nature. Our driver had to slow down several times and toot his horn to warn wandering elk off the tracks. The history of the places we passed through was explained by an enthusiastic stewardess. At one station stop, she set up an impromptu picnic on the platform with coffee and cinnamon cakes for sale. When we got to the region of Jamtland where she was from, she explained that it was a republic of Sweden with its own President and National Anthem which she proceeded to sing for us beautifully. Has Portland ever considered going that way, I wondered.








Tell that squirrel we've found them


Gosh - there’s a lot of trees in Sweden. Before we fell asleep, we counted 536,374,671,997,738,476 - and that was just to the left-hand side of the train. Although much of the scenery was repetitive, it was very calming and relaxing watching the birch and pine forests pass by the window, a bit like having a Badidas bath. The Swedes seem to enjoy the simple things of life, spending the relatively short summer months in holiday homes or cabins next to the lakes and rivers, fishing, enjoying nature or generally relaxing in preparation for the harsh winter ahead.

After the success of last month’s “Spot the Difference” competition (winner: Dr I Lloyd, Cardiff; number of entries: 1), you’ll be pleased to hear that there is another competition for August. This time you are asked to suggest ideas for the problem posed in the picture below, taken of an advertisement in a hairdresser’s window. Post your ideas in the “Comments” section of this blog by 31/8/09. The person with the most original idea will receive an all-expenses-paid trip to a paint-drying factory in Siberia. No time-wasters please.


Posted by dikansu 23:08 Comments (2)

The Island of Vaeroy



The thing, above all else, which makes a journey exceptional is the people you meet. To find unexpected places off the tourist trail and get to share real life with locals, not just what the tourist industry lays on and sucks you in to.
Before we set off a month ago, we joined up with an organisation called Servas (see http://joomla.servas.org/content/view/16/28/). It was founded after the War with the aim of promoting peace on the simple pretext that if people of different nations around the world get to meet and stay in one another‘s homes, unwarranted prejudices and xenophobic tendencies will melt away.
We had a list of Norwegian Servas contacts who were willing to act as hosts but, so far, our attempts to link up had failed, either because they were away on holiday or it wasn’t a good time for them. The deal is that, provided it is convenient at the time for the host, travellers can stay for 2 nights in the host’s home gratis. There is no obligation for travellers to reciprocate when back home, although many will.
Having experienced a fair bit of tourist fatigue on the Lofoton Islands, we needed this type of contact and warmth that such experiences can provide. There was a host family on the small island of Vaeroy at the southern end of the chain and we phoned them half expecting, as before, that they might be away themselves. Aina answered the call, saying that they already had a Servas guest arriving in 3 days time but we would be welcome to come to stay tomorrow anyway. Having been reassured that this wasn’t going to be too much for her, we gratefully accepted and were on the ferry first thing the next day.



The last dry cod on the island

You know that you have left the tourist trail behind when car drivers tip their finger at you in friendly acknowledgement of you, a stranger, walking along a quiet country road. Vaeroy is such a place. It is small compared with the other Lofoton Islands and connected to the mainland by ferry or helicopter. Coming into the harbour at a hell of a lick - the ferry captain could probably do it with his eyes closed - the importance of the cod industry was immediately apparent. Row upon row of tall wooden racks filled the land around the harbour, used to hang the fish up to dry. All of them were empty now until next year’s bonanza begins again in February.
We’d been told to look out on the ferry for a man with 2 chairs - the partner of the family’s eldest daughter - and he guided us to Bjornar, Aina’s husband, waiting to meet us at the quayside. Bjornar is a technician on the island’s radar station, way up in the wilds of the island’s tallest mountain. Plenty of gaffer tape is required to stop it being blown away in the winter gales. Since the cold war ended, the station is used more for monitoring oil tanker traffic than military activity.

Oysten (left) and Embla (right) with friend Kristina

Aina and gorgeous grandson, Kasper


We were taken to their lovely family home around the back of the island’s “Town Hall”. In the next hour or two, we were incrementally introduced to their 3 younger children as they made brief sorties back to base for refuelling before running out again to rejoin friends on their bikes, on the trampoline or wandering off to fish in nearby pools. Life for them is so much more free compared with that which has evolved for kids back home with the worry of traffic and other potential harms.
Aina, as well as being a busy mother, sells many different items made at home in her workshop. She uses fabrics and materials recycled from old garments, curtains, furniture coverings etc. and ingeniously transforms them into beautifully creative items such as bread baskets, cafetierre covers, gloves, She is always thinking of new creations whilst also hiring out cycles to visitors and acting as honorary tourist information officer to regular callers-by. Oh, and I forgot to mention that she is also involved in a community action group opposed to plans for the oil industry to open up a new field just off Vaeroy - reminiscent of the film “Local Hero”.



Des Res birdbox




Church detail

To say that we couldn’t have been made more welcome is a gross understatement. We were immediately sworn to treat the home as our own, help ourselves to drinks and food whenever we wanted (the latter unnecessary as Aina’s cooking was wonderful), borrow the bikes and generally muck in with family life. Many hours were spent chatting into the long evenings and exchanging information about our respective lives and experiences. We were told to ignore the 2 nights rule and one of the children was happily displaced to make way for Laura, the other Servas guest, who later joined us.
This has, without doubt, been the pinnacle of our travels so far. Such open, trusting generosity is a beautiful gift which lives on in the mind forever. As our first experience of Servas, it could not have been bettered.

White-tailed Sea Eagle






Posted by dikansu 12:44 Comments (1)

Beyond the Arctic Circle

From Trondheim, we caught the overnight train to Bodo, the other side of the Arctic Circle. The sleeping compartments were much nicer than on the Cologne-Copenhagen train - just 2 to a compartment, well insulated, with complimentary ear-plugs in case of snoring. The carriage steward was very friendly and helpful. In fact, he produced a crow-bar from somewhere and was able to part me from my tee-shirt for the first time in several weeks (see photo).
Safely sedated and straight-jacketed in top bunk under the Norwegian Mental Health Act for wearing tee-shirt continuously for 4 weeks

The next morning, we awoke to much wilder scenery in beautiful sunshine. We pulled in to Bodo Station just in time to catch the ferry across the road for the Lofoten Islands. These are a string of islands which are part of an archipelago about 40 miles off shore. They have been, and to some extent continue to be, one of the most important sources of cod fishing in Norway. Their mountains rise out of the sea almost vertically and rise up to 3000 ft with their jagged ridges making a spectacular sight from miles away.
The sky was cloudless and the sea flat calm for the 3 hour journey across the Norwegian Sea. This part of the coast benefits from the Gulf Stream and, despite its northern latitude, doesn’t experience extreme cold at any time of year. We were basking in warm sunshine all the way in temperatures that were, paradoxically, much higher than we had experienced further south. Slowly, the islands came into view, the scale of their grandeur gradually becoming apparent. Sea mists floated in, abutting against the headlands, being forced in slow motion upwards before gradually dissipating in a spectacular natural display. Beautiful though the southern fjords are, this was the raw natural beauty we had been looking for.
We stayed 2 nights in A (pronounced “awe”) which is an old fishing village preserved very much like it has been for hundreds of years. During the cod season, from February to April, this is an area of intense activity. Fish that have migrated from the Baring Sea to spawn are landed in colossal quantities, hung up and salted on outdoor racks to dry before being exported to southern Europe where the main market is. Fishermen in days gone by would travel from all over Norway & Europe for the season and live in small red-painted cabins, or robuer, on stilts at the edge of the sea. These are now rented out for holiday makers during the summer.
We took one which happened to be opposite a derelict fish-processing factory. Squatters in the form of a huge colony of kittiwakes had moved in and had used every available window ledge of the boarded-up windows to build their nests and raise their chicks. After the short period of semi-darkness which passes for night, we were awoken early in the morning by a cacophony of screeching as daily colony life swung into action. Every so often, the level of noise escalated to Concorde take-off levels. This would usually be when one of the juveniles transgressed onto someone else’s territory, provoking the spontaneous formation of a posse of morality marshals which relentlessly pursued the offender, crazy cops fashion, until he well and truly got the message. Community policing at its best, I thought, and much more effective than ASBOs.
It was peak season in A and there were many day-trippers driving in and out. However, on the second day, we were able to easily escape the crowds and walk along a beautiful lake with the mountains towering up around us. Wild fruits were everywhere - raspberries and blueberries in particular.
We got back in the evening just in time to see a full moon rise from the mainland mountains in perfect visibility 40 miles away. What could be better than this, we thought to ourselves. Little did we know that Vaeroy, a much smaller island to the south, held more delights.

Posted by dikansu 11:03 Comments (2)

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