So our Scandinavian adventures have come to a close. We boarded the ferry from Nynashamn, about 70kms south of Stockholm, yesterday afternoon and set sail to Gdansk in Poland at 6pm under dramatic skies as the sun set behind the building clouds. We stood on the top deck with a welcome (and inexpensive, at last) beer to watch the ferry negotiate the tight channels through the Stockholm archipelago before heading below to our cabin and then to the restaurant for dinner. Like the beer, the dinner was ‘honest and inexpensive’ – a traditional Polish soup, hearty pork dishes for mains and the most delicious and fabulously presented glazed peaches for dessert, complete with spun sugar as a crowning garnish – with wine for about one hundred zlotych or twenty quid. The ferry is big, robust and comfortable – built in the eighties, refurbished in 2000, it’s perhaps not as luxurious as some now plying the cross channel routes and competing with Eurostar, but it feels very up to the task of navigating the Baltic with its complement of mainly freight cargo and drivers. We had a good night’s sleep in our four birth cabin, and although the sea became rougher over night the ferry remains stable and our sea-sick pills have prevented an unwanted return of last night’s dinner for breakfast!
We spent the last few days of the Scandinavian leg of our tour in and around Stockholm, having driven from Karlstad with a stop for supplies at one of the vast Coop Extras en route as previously reported. After sitting it the campsite reception to post the last blog instalment, we drove into Stockholm and into the Gamla Stan, the old quarter. After a couple of abortive attempts we finally found somewhere to park the car, grabbed the kids scooters and rattled our way down to the river. I was walking with the phone pressed to my ear trying to book the ferry to Gdansk as I’d failed to do so on the internet when, as reported by Charlie, the ultimate calamity occurred – Charlie’s scooter collapsed, shedding its front wheel in a final acceptance of defeat to the cobblestones. This was met with understandable despair by Charlie, and by exclamations of concern by the woman from Polferries as she heard over the phone what she must have interpreted as the cries of anguish of a young car-crash victim!
We found our way past the impressive royal palace to board a river cruise, which took us on a properly ‘touristic’ guided-tour of the city. Stockholm is built on an archipelago, a series of bridges and tunnels connecting the islands, and rivers, lakes, canals and locks dividing them. The old city is impressively beautiful, with Gamla Stan, the oldest with its intricate web of winding alleys and lanes between its beautiful old and often leaning buildings part surrounding the palace, and then the sweeping ornate avenues and waterfronts across the water which could almost be mistaken for Venice in their grandeur. Along every available quayside are moored beautiful boats, many used as live-aboards, restaurants, even a youth hostel in the largest all-white three-masted tall ship. And then beyond the beautiful older parts of the city, the former industrial areas and docklands have been reclaimed and repurposed into modern waterside apartment complexes, boasting impressive green credentials including the use of bio-gas (gas produced from a local sewerage plant!). It’s an impressive, functional city, with the many cyclists typical of Scandinavian cities well catered for with cycle paths on all the busiest routes. and teh congestion charge keeps traffic levels down - not, of course, including unwitting British tourists who didn't know about the charge until after the fact!
Outside the centre there was more evidence of massive road, bridge and tunnel building activity as we’d seen so much in Norway. It amazes me that Sydney in Australia, a country with a population about twice that of Sweden and with a massive resource-rich economy seems to make so much heavy weather over finding the investment funding for necessary bridges, tunnels, public transport and cycle ways to make it function effectively for its residents and its own economy – I remember my abortive attempts at cycling to work from Balgowlah Heights, finding the traffic too heavy and hazardous; and sitting for interminable ages in my car crossing the Spit bridge and then threading through the dense, slow-moving morning traffic of Mosman and Cremorne.
As Charlie previously reported, we found a cycle shop (proudly displaying British made Brompton folding bikes and Brooks leather saddles!) who managed to repair Charlie’s scooter (thank goodness) and from whom I bought a second set of Allen keys to equip me for future repairs. Fortified by hot chocolates of vast proportions we made our way home for dinner.
On Thursday we headed off in the ever present rain to the royal residence at Drottningholms slott. This really is a grand palace on a European scale, with its baroque landscape gardens and beautiful lake side location. We had a most interesting tour of the palace and learned much about the royal history of Sweden and Norway (they were united until 1905) and its place amongst other European monarchies. Perhaps because of the union between the two it seems that this was held in more importance in Sweden than in Norway, with the splendour of its royal palaces and the grandeur of much of Stockholm in much greater evidence than in Oslo.
Finally, on Thursday, we packed and left the campsite at about 10.00 and made our way to Nynashamn. We left the caravan securely locked at the ferry terminal and took ourselves off for a walk and drive around the town, the older part of which is very beautiful with more of the large timber clad and tastefully pastel-painted houses lining the foreshore, many with moorings or boathouses of their own. We walked up to the old light house from which we had good views of the town and back to the cruise liner and ferry terminal where we could see our ferry docking. We drove on a little way to an area of parkland on the edge of the town, and strolling along the paths through the woods to discover they lead to a beautiful bay and rocky shoreline. The sun was shining, very few people were around and we enjoyed a very peaceful hour or so on this idyllic Baltic beach! Then ensued the inevitably loud cooee-ing and shouting to shatter the peace as we attempted to re-group to head back to the ferry terminal where we hitched up the caravan and made our way on board. We noticed all the trucks being instructed to reverse on – we were asked to go on forwards, which means we have the entertaining prospect of reversing off when we get to Poland! (fortunately I was wrong when I wrote this on board - we were able to turn and drive out forwards)
We’ll have many happy memories of the Scandinavian leg of the tour, and have built a wonderful impression of the people and life here. Despite Stig Larsson (The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo) and Jo Nesbo’s (the Harry Hole detective series) portraits of Scandinavia's psychopaths, serial killers and alcoholics (actually, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed their books), we leave with an impression of a very calm, thoughtful, intelligent and well educated, physically active and adventurous people living in the most beautiful landscape imaginable. The weather and landscape clearly play a very important part in their lives, with its huge seasonal variations taken advantage of to the full. Everywhere we turned were beautiful sailing boats and swimming facilities on lakes and fjords which, in the winter, turn into giant skating rinks or ice-fishing sites. The only climactic downside seems to be the autumn, when it really does rain and rain as we experienced. And while the cities have all the social challenges of urban environments in other western societies, they seem determined not to allow these to stand in the way of their culture and respect for their environment.
Touring with the caravan has certainly played a part in helping us form these impressions. We’re a little over three weeks in to our tour now, and so it’s worth reflecting on life in the car and caravan and on the road. We’re largely self-catering (or should I say Frances is largely catering for us?!). We’re shopping in supermarkets, buying local produce where we can. This brings us much closer to the reality of life than we’d be exposed to in a hotel, as well as stretching our money a bit further. Living in campsites has really shown us how the Scandinavian model of high-density urban living can work when coupled with weekend or summer bolt-holes by the coast. It’s a pity that we’re so far out of season as it’s meant that for much of the time the campsites are largely deserted, save for the workers who live there permanently in the sites near cities.
We’ve become pretty efficient and organised about how we pack. The car carries all the heavy loads in order to keep the caravan as light as possible. This means the boot is very tightly packed – three plastic boxes with lids (one each for books, cans [beer, soup, food], and electrical equipment), and three of the collapsible boxes (tools, boots, trainers), the folding bench and table set we have for the awning, the four folding camp chairs, the awning itself including poles and pegs, and the awning groundsheet. Oh, and bloomin’ annoying small table lamp I picked up from the tip before we left for use in the awning and for which I cannot find a home in the car! On or under the seats we stow items for the journey – the kids’ bags with books and ipods, my sandals and work gloves, and, in Frances’ footwell, the kids home school books. The caravan is even more organised. Each of us has an overhead locker for clothes. Bedding is kept under the seats (we’re using sheets and duvets, so much more comfortable than sleeping bags!). There are separate lockers for food, crockery, saucepans – as they say, everything has a place, and everything is in its place! The fridge, although small seems to be commodious and works very well. The bathroom (lavatory, basin and a shower which we haven’t used) doubles as a very effective drying room thanks to a rack installed by Frances' father, John (there’s a hot air vent which, when the door is closed and the heater’s on warms the room fantastically, drying clothes, towels, boots and even warming the lavatory seat nicely!).The cooker and oven work very effectively – a four ring burner and fully functioning grill and oven, along with a portable charcoal barbecue mean we’re able to cook and eat just as we would at home. And we’re able to live comfortably with all four of us in the caravan which, given the very wet weather in Scandinavia we’ve had to do rather a lot. This also makes for a much quicker setting and breaking camp – we often leave the kids beds made up when we travel.
Driving the outfit is still a challenge – the slightest cross winds and each passing truck makes it quite a handful as the caravan tries to break into a weave. It means that we keep the speed down to between 50 and 55 mph most of the time, which is fine, but the concentration required makes it pretty tiring.
Frances is keeping the kids to an effective home-schooling regimen. Regular time’s-table’s challenges and their Maths on Target books fill some of the car journeys or wet mornings in the caravan, along with English comprehension exercises. George is writing a travel journey, and Charlie is working with Frances on a scrap-booking project to record our travels. The museum trips and outdoor activities are great for geography and history. In-car and evening entertainment is taken care of with loads of reading (we’re running out of books despite the several kilos we’re carrying in the box in the car!), audio books (so far we’ve heard The Hound of the Baskervilles, Daphne Du’Maurier’s Frenchman’s Creek, Jamaica Inn and Rebecca, and currently Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – more classics to follow, and with David Attenborough’s brilliant Life series, along with Baz Lurhman’s mad adaptation of Romeo and Juliet on DVDs played on the laptop – even chess on the laptop. And at bedtime Frances is reading aloud Salman Rushdie’s wonderfully imaginative Haroun and the Sea of Stories. It’s an impressive blending of education and exploration.
Living together in such close quarters and for so much time throws up inevitable challenges, which sometimes I’m afraid we’re not equal to – but by and large we’re getting on well and developing good team skills.
So, the end of the first leg, and as I look out of our cabin window I can see land confirming we’re rapidly approaching the beginning of the second – the Eastern Europe leg. We won’t travel much further East than we are now – Poland, Berlin (in what was, of course, East Germany), Prague in the Czech Republic, Austria. The third leg will be southern and western Europe – Northern Italy, Southern Germany and France. Onwards, ever onwards….