Travel logs
2018 Scandinavia
Sweden: Stockholm and Surroundings
Upon arrival in Stockholm, we were greeted with lots of sunshine and warm weather – the second “hottest” day of that summer, if you count 73 degrees as hot. After settling in at our hotel, we took a leisurely orientation walk through Old Town, known as Gamla Stan, just a stone’s throw from the hotel. We passed buildings designed by Boberg, the main representative of Swedish Jugendstil (Art Nouveau), and made our way to the Cathedral and the Royal Palace, listening to stories about the present king’s ancestors, discovering an ancient runestone built into a house, and the symbol for “fire insurance” that dots many of the houses in Old Town.
Our optional day trip took us to Uppsala, the fourth largest city; Sigtuna, a charming little town with runestones scattered around ruins of old churches, and well-preserved medieval streets with charming 18th- and 19th-century wooden houses; and Skokloster Slott, former home of the powerful Count Wrangler.

Uppsala Cathedral stunned us not only with its beautiful Gothic interior and Renaissance funerary monuments, but also by a truly unique feature: the funerary monument of 16th-century king Gustav Vasa is located in the chapel in the apse of the church, directly behind the high altar, the spot traditionally dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The fact that the king has taken over this place of honor makes a powerful statement about the power (or ego) of this Swedish king. A chillingly life-like statue representing the Virgin Mary as a simple woman was placed just outside the chapel in 2005; she returns, looking disapprovingly toward the royal monument, bearing witness and re-asserting her rightful position in the church.

Skokloster palace, located on the shore of Lake Mälaren, is noteworthy for its fine stucco ceilings, painted leather wall coverings, beautiful furnishings, and extensive armory collection. It was built during Sweden’s period as a Great Power in the 17th century – a testimony to the importance of its owner, Count Carl Gustaf Wrangler, a military man, landowner, and statesman.

We capped off our days in Sweden with a lively production of Mozart’s Cosí fan tutte at the Drottningholm Festival. The performances take place in the palace theater, an 18th-century, 400-seat court theater, built entirely of wood and decorated with stucco and papier mâché to appear as if made of stone.  The original stage machinery, operated by hand, is still functional, albeit not utilized for this prodcution. The golden age of the theater, as we learned from the guide, was under King Gustav III in the late 18th century, after which it fell into benign neglect, ultimately serving as something of the castle attic, where out of style furnishings were stored. The ”sleeping beauty” was discovered in 1921, after which the theater was refurbished and re-opened with performances of an 18th-century opera each summer. 
Norway: Bergen
We received a proper greeting at the Bergen airport, after our short flight from Stockholm: a shiny new airport terminal, opened just on the day before we arrived! Our first impression of Bergen, on our way into town was that it is much bigger than we had thought, with a sprawl of tall buildings and lively districts against the backdrop of verdant mountains. Our walking tour, led by a charming guide full of information, acquainted us with the history of Norway from the powerful King Haakon Haakonsson, who consolidated the power of the monarchy and made Bergen the first capital of Norway, to the present ruler, King Haakon VII. A trade center for centuries, Bergen exported fish (mainly dried cod) in exchange for grain and manufactured goods. In the 14th century, German Hanseatic merchants acquired control over and then dominated the city’s trade well into the 17th century. We learned that Swedish iron ore was the reason why Hitler invaded Norway in 1940 – the ore, on which German war industry depended, was shipped to Germany from the Norwegian port of Narvik.

We walked from Bergenhus, the medieval castle where King Haakon Haakonsson built a famous banqueting hall for his son’s wedding, to Bryggen, the historic harbor district with its famous wooden buildings, to the main square with its statue in tribute to one of Bergen’s most famous sons, Ludvig Holberg, on his 200th birth anniversary (1884); we learned that the unveiling was attended by the other most famous son, Edvard Grieg, who composed the Holberg Suite for the occasion.

In the evening, we walked to the Church of the Cross (dating from the 12th century), for the first of two concerts, both presentations of the Grieg in Bergen Festival, showcasing established young artists working in Norway. 
Norway: Mountains and Fjords
On a day of sun peeking through the clouds, we set out on a journey via rail, bus, and boat to explore two arms of the majestic Sognefjord: the Naeroyfjord, with steep snowcapped mountains, towering peaks, waterfalls, and small villages; and the wider Aurlandsfjord, with its charming village of Flam. The trip included a ride on the Flam Railway, which offered spectacular scenery, including a stop at Kjosfossen – a waterfall cascading down about 740 feet, spraying a fine mist on everyone as we jumped off the train in an effort to get good photos. The natural music of the torrent was interrupted by electronically generated music, which accompanied a Norwegian maiden, dressed in red, who danced seductively atop a rock beside the waterfall.  A bit mystified, discovered on the internet that she is “Huldra, a seductive forest creature, who would go out on the rock and sing calling the country boys to come to her.”
Norway: Visit at Troldhaugen
We took a short bus ride to Troldhaugen, just outside Bergen, to visit Edvard Grieg’s villa and hear a brief recital of his music for piano, in the wonderful performance hall built in 1985, 100 years after the construction of the villa.  The space has excellent acoustics and overlooks the composer’s hut and Lake Nordås. We discovered interesting details about the Norwegian composer on the bus and during the guided tour of his charming wooden villa, which contained photographic memorabilia, furniture, and other decorative objects that belonged to the Griegs. We learned that he married his first cousin Nina, who was a talented singer and prolific writer, and that their only child died of meningitis at 13 months – which had a lifetime effect on the composer. We heard excerpts two books of Grieg's Lyric Pieces, for solo piano, drawing heavily on Norwegian folkmusic.
Norway: Oslo
Our Oslo adventures started on a beautiful, sunny day with a visit of the new Opera House, opened in 2008. Inspired by Norwegian glaciers, the building has 3 main venues. Fortunately, we didn’t get to see all 1,100 rooms, but we peaked into the main house, where they were working on the sets for a new, sci-fi production of Magic Flute.  The backstage area is huge and the orchestra pit is on elevators and can become an extension of the stage. After the tour, we walked ON the building, up to the marble-clad roof – an innovative architectural solution that gives those who walk on it the feeling of ownership: opera is for you, me, everybody! From the roof, we could see far on the horizon, in every direction; what struck us the most was the extent of construction work everywhere we looked. Our guide, unafraid to speak her mind, succinctly explained it in three words: too much money. Once a sleepy provincial town, Oslo has become one of the fastest growing European cities since the discovery of rich oil and gas deposits in the North Sea in the 60s. It is expensive to live in the city; as we discovered, money does drive the economy.  Wanting a short break during our walk, we were turned away from several cafes since we only wanted coffee (and no food). Clearly, we were not worth their time! Our sightseeing included Akershus Castle, City Hall, the National Theater, and the University of Oslo; we also visited the 500-year-old Cathedral with unusual, modern ceiling decorations.
National Gallery and ferry to Copenhagen
An expert art historian led us through the great collection of Norwegian art in the National Gallery of Oslo, helping us put the art works into context and into a historical perspective. We learned about Johan Christian Dahl, the founder of Norwegian art, who “discovered” the mountains and the landscape of Norway; Peder Balke, who painted from memory the landscapes/seascapes of the north and is now being “rediscovered” due to his unique style of scraping and wet-on-wet techniques (prescient of early modern expressionism); the Norwegian painters who studied in Germany (e.g. Hans Gude,  associated with the Düsseldorf school of painting); and, of course, Munch and his symbol-laden art revolving around death, illness, and jealousy. We admired the famous Scream but also a number of other paintings such as The Sick ChildMadonna, and Puberty.

After a joyous lunch together we boarded our ferry to Copenhagen where we enjoyed spacious accommodations with double beds in every cabin.
Denmark: Copenhagen
On another beautiful day, we set off to discover Copenhagen on foot, from the hotel. We passed by Tivoli Gardens and City Hall on our way to the neo-classical Cathedral, which was rebuilt after the bombardment of Copenhagen in the Napoleonic Wars. We then continued to the Church of the Holy Spirit, the Parliament, St Nikolaj Church (now a restaurant and exhibition hall), the Royal Theater, and the lively Nyhavn district, where we admired Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei’s installation in the windows of Charlottenborg Exhibition Hall: 3,500 life jackets collected from refugees arriving at Lesbos, Greece; a sharp reminder of the humanitarian crisis affecting Europe.  We continued onto Amalienborg square, with 4 palaces owned by the royal family, from where we could see the newly built Opera House across the canal.  Lunch, at a local favorite, was a wonderful feast of small plates: pickled herring with several toppings, herring in curry sauce, smoked salmon with a mustard and brown sugar sauce, fried cod, and pork roast. We finished the meal with a selection of Danish cheeses served with berry coulis.
Denmark: Roskilde and Frederiksborg Castle
On our way to Roskilde, our guide entertained us with important information on the economy and geography of Denmark, and gave us a brief history of the Vikings. We learned that it was actually the Danes that we all know as the stereotypical Vikings: they were the “ferocious” ones who looted and pillaged in England, Normandy, and all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. Roskilde is a town older than Copenhagen, and its famous Cathedral dates back to the 12th century: one of the earliest examples of Gothic architecture in Northern Europe. More than 40 kings and queens of Denmark are buried inside the church, including the most famous king, Christian 4, who ruled for 60 years. What impressed us were the tombs of Christian 3 and Frederik 2 in the Chapel of the Magi, the sarcophagus of Queen Margaret 1, and the beautiful wrought iron lattice separating Christian 4’s chapel from the nave forged by Caspar Fincke in 1619.

The nearby Viking Ship Museum houses five original 11th-century vessels that had been used for the blockade of the Roskilde Fjord (2 warrior ships, 2 freight ships, and a fishing boat): sunk deliberately to act as an underwater shield from attacks by sea. The 1962 excavation was done by hand and the wooden pieces, heavily decomposed, were carefully preserved and then put reassembled – the world’s largest jigsaw puzzle took 25 years to complete! The Viking Ship Museum was built especially to exhibit the five newly-discovered ships, but it also offers seafaring artifacts and displays, and one can learn the art of boat building or how to sail a Viking ship.

Lunch was at a surprise find: chef-owner Willy prepared a wonderful gourmet meal for the group, complete with fabulous wines and lots of laughter! Distinctive art decorated the walls, all by the same artist. We learned that a friend of Willy’s painted the series, inspired by the food he was served, and gave them to Willy one by one, as payment for his dinners.

17th-century Frederiksborg Castle, built in Dutch Renaissance style as a royal residence for Christian 4, is a living testimony to Danish history, containing an impressive collection of portraits, historical paintings, furniture, and decorative arts. The stately rooms – the Audience Chamber, the Rose Room, the Great Hall, and so many others – dazzled us with sumptuous stuccoed and lavishly gilded ceilings, gilt leather wallpapers, monumental paintings from the glorious past, Dutch tapestries, and elaborate decorative art pieces. It seemed as if every room tried to outdo the previous one!

The first of two concerts we attended at the Tivoli Gardens Summer Music Festival, an all-Mozart program featuring Australian-American soprano Danielle de Niese with the Copenhagen Philharmonic, was pretty much what one would expect in such a setting: light music, delivered with more charm than substance.  The second performance, the following day (and the last of our days in Copenhagen before returning home to storm-soaked Houston), was another story. A solo recital on the small-voiced fortepiano (forebear or the modern piano) could easily have been lost in the expanse of the Tivoli concert hall or buried by the stirrings of ane audience, out of its depth. But Dutch keyboardist Ronald Brautigam, today’s leading specialist in the fortepiano, brought such authority to the four colorful and contrasting Beethoven sonatas that he chose (Pathétique, Pastorale, Sturm, and Waldstein) that one heard not a whisper, rustle, or cough from the sizeable audience that would distract from the intimate communication between artist and auditor.

We capped off our Scandinavia tour at a highly-rated and very authentic Italian restaurant just next to the hotel.