A Scandanavian sojourn: Tunnels, trains, and spectacular scenery

A Scandanavian sojourn: Tunnels, trains, and spectacular scenery


Christensen, as well as my mother’s name, Nielson, is definitely Danish. I’ve always thought that I was, indeed, 100% Danish until last year when I coughed up $99 to Ancestry.com to have my DNA tested to see. Turns out, that 100% Danish is fiction, as the DNA is made up of the whole Nordic region.

I remember visiting Solvang, California’s Danish Village north of Santa Barbara, and going into the bakeries and shops and telling the store-clerks how proud I was to be a Dane, a Christensen! They were totally unimpressed, and rudely asking me to order or move along! What a disappointment!

Years ago, in 1964 to be exact, my dad was on a sabbatical leave from BYU and decided to teach at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon for a year, so he rented an apartment in Beirut and off we went. What an experience that was, but that’s another story entirely.

To go home from Lebanon, dad arranged a trip through Europe that ended up in Denmark, where he was in heaven — all of those Danes: Nielsons, Andersons, Petersons, Christensens!!! Everywhere we looked, there were Danish names from Ephraim, Utah, where my parents were from. The tour guide was a Christensen, the bus driver was a Christensen.

And so, 54 years later, Kathy and I were back in Denmark, seeing Danes again. Kathy is Irish (Kiely) so it wasn’t a momentous event for her, but for me, I was, like my dad all those years ago, enjoying pure Danish culture.

Kathy and I started a Scandinavian tour through Trafalgar with our very knowledgeable, agreeable, and organized guide, Jeffery Engle, who, not to be picky, was actually half a Dane, the other half American.

Starting in Copenhagen, it brought back memories of delicious food, gardens, and, of course the statue of The Little Mermaid displayed on a rock on a waterside promenade. It isn’t very big, only 4 feet tall and weighs 385 pounds. It is based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen of the same name and has become a real national symbol. It’s a federal offense to vandalize, but that said, it has been decapitated, painted many times and blown up, but always repaired. Hans himself started out as a travel writer after failing as an actor, opera singer, ballet dancer, and evolved into an amazing fairy tale writer.

Of the three countries we visited, Denmark is known for its farms, with a population of 5 million, raises and exports 20 million pigs, all raised indoors. Norway is known for natural resources, and Sweden for its manufacturing industry. The red and white Danish flag is the oldest in the world, turning 800 on April 15, 2019, and the 15th isn’t tax day for them, even though the three countries are heavily taxed at 50%, no deductions. If you buy a car the tax is 150% plus the 25% VAT, the theory being that that will keep the number of vehicles on the roads down, avoiding congestion, and reducing pollution.

The Queen, Margaret, has several palaces, which we visited but never saw her. We did see her in St. Petersburg years ago coming out of a former cathedral now a museum with many guards around her. All we heard her say was “Are we ready to eat then?” Her palace in Copenhagen has several sections. Her son and his family live in one of them, with one chimney, and her part has two chimneys, rightly so, since she’s known to be quite the smoker.

The most impressive castle we saw was the Frederiksborg, built in 1648, often called the Danish Versailles. The castle of King Christian IV, it sits on an island in the town of Hillerod. Inside the castle, we found the chapel where for 200 years Danish kings were crowned; it is still used for royal weddings In 1859, it had a very destructive fire and many said tear it down.

Fortunately, Jacob Carlsberg of the beer family stepped up and said he’d pay for the restoration. To this day, the Carlsberg Foundation continues to restore and maintain the castle, with proceeds coming from each can of beer sold. Several of our fellow travelers, Aussies mostly, took it on as a challenge to contribute to the Carlsberg Foundation by drinking beer every time we stopped somewhere, and then would say to each other, “good on ya,” whatever that means.

We left the flatlands of Denmark and after a three hours ferry ride, landed in Kristiansand, Norway, to find completely different scenery — mountains, fjords, lakes and rivers everywhere.

The first thing we noticed was that the infrastructure was perfect, perhaps due to the oil money they’ve generated. We never saw a pothole and went through many of the 1,200 tunnels through the mountains, under the fjords and rivers, some as 650 feet deep.

We went through the Laerdal’s Tunnel, the longest vehicular tunnel in the world, 24.5 kilometres long. It has three rest stops inside for people who might freak out being in such an enclosed space under a mountain, thinking that if it failed, it would crush them to death and they’d never be found. Half way through we stopped in the biggest rest stop that was infused with eerie blue lights, which was calming I suppose, but as tourists we piled out of the bus to take pictures.

So, we arrived in Bergen, whose claim to fame isn’t how may sunny days they have every year; they just admit that they get 270 days of rain and snow, and the rest of the year it’s iffy. We took a funicular ride up the mountain with gale force winds blowing and rain pouring down, to see Bergen and the valley from above; it stopped the deluge long enough for pictures.

During World War II, the Nazis overtook Norway, and just outside Bergen, build a command bunker inside the top of a mountain with an artillery piece taken from a ship that could rapid fire 40 kilometres out to sea. The Germans kept 440,000 troops in Norway assuming that the Allies would attack Europe starting in Norway, which didn’t happen.

There was an active anti-Nazi underground that ferried people to England and then back as resistance fighters, which the Brits called the Shetland’s Crew. The Germans wanted to stop this infiltration of resistance fighters so after several years, they controlled the flow of any kind of ships between Norway and Scotland using U-boats.

Every heard of the Flam Railway?? It’s a 20-kilometer-long track through 20 tunnels. Eighteen of these tunnels were excavated by hand, going from the mountain station at Myrdal down to the Flam station. Nowhere in the world is there a railway on normal tracks with a steeper climb. It goes through a twisting tunnel, which required skilled engineering to round sharp bends to enable the train to snake its way up and down the sheer inclines.

The scenery is breathtaking, providing a panoramic view of the most striking examples of Norwegian mountain landscape. Rivers cut through deep ravines, waterfalls cascade down the side of steep, snow capped mountains, and mountain farms cling to sheer slopes. At one point the train stopped for us to take pictures of the Kjos Waterfall, with people knocking into each other trying to take a picture of ANOTHER WATERFALL, which, was spectacular. What a wild ride.

The Geiranger Skywalk, at a height of 5,000 feet is Europe’s highest fjord view from a road. That doesn’t seem too high by our standards but the Scandinavian Range doesn’t get really high. The glaciers, the iced-over lake, the surrounding ice-covered mountains is striking, along with the steel platform that you can look down through to the valley below, thousands of feet. And of course, there’s a souvenir shop.

On to Lillehammer, home of the 1994 winter Olympics, which now serves as an international sports training center with most of the venues still being used. The Gjovik Arena for ice hockey was literally blasted out of the mountain so the arena is inside a giant cave, like the Jarvis Winery, except much bigger. Here were the ice-skating championships where Tanya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan had their little “episode of infamy”? We rode up the ski jumping chair lift and realized that the jumpers are basically insane to do such a jump.

That year, the Norwegians, who normally take a back seat to Sweden in the Olympics, won 10 Gold, 11 Silver and 5 Bronze medals, second only to Russia. The day we were there was also the longest day of the year, the Scandinavian Solstice, lasting from sunrise at 3:40 a.m. and sunset at 11 p.m. Locals all over Scandinavia partied long and hard.

The city of Stockholm itself stretches out over 14 islands connected together by 50 bridges, so you’re always near water. The Swedes are known for innovation: Volvo, Scania, SAAB, several of the big industry’s in the country. Who hasn’t heard of Absolute Vodka? IKEA, said ee-kay-ya in Sweden. And then dynamite. Alfred Nobel, a chemist invented TNT for what he thought would be peaceful purposes, like tunnel building. It made him very rich and he left 90% of his wealth to the Norwegian Nobel Institute who gives out annual prizes for science, literature and peace.

The Stockholm City Hall is nothing like the City of Napa’s schoolhouse looking building. It’s huge and inside has a giant room/hall where the Nobel Prize Banquet is held for 1,000 people along with the awardees, on Dec. 10, Nobel’s death day, in the dead of winter. Just upstairs is found the Gold Room, which is jaw-dropping beautiful. In 1973, the CEO of Volvo Industries was interviewed about prior year earnings for a company that makes cars, buses, lorry’s, tanks, etc. He said that four people in Sweden made more money than Volvo that year, ABBA. There is a nice ABBA Museum where several of our tour group went and bought lots of stuff.

All right, all right. I know that you want to know about the Vikings. Actually, they farmed most of the year, but for three months every year they went a pillaging. In their unique open ships, they went from Scandinavia to Canada, north to the Arctic, all over Europe, throughout the Mediterranean Sea and up into the Black Sea. To get ready to attack, for two days preceding their battles they would get amped up on magic mushrooms, mead, beer and marijuana; they thought if they died, they would be going to Nirvana. They never showed any mercy and were rightfully feared as they plundered everything they found, churches, palaces, homes, castles. I think that the Ohio State football team prepares in a similar fashion for games, according to several people on our trip from Ohio.

We do have to talk about ships. In museums we saw Viking ships, polar expedition ships, the Kon-Tiki raft, which were impressive UNTIL we visited the Vasa, built in 1628 by Sweden’s King Gustavus Adolphus who wanted the ultimate warship for a war he initiated with Poland and Lithuania. So, using his design, he hired Dutch and Swedish shipbuilders, each taking a side of the ship. They measured lengths using their thumbs, which turned out that the Dutch and Swedish thumbs weren’t the same length, so when finished the Swedish side was shorter than the Dutch side.

Once it was done the king wanted more cannons added, so another level was added, making the ship too tall, too heavy, lopsided and too narrow. Seven hundred carvings were added onto the ships exterior to evoke more terror in their enemies.

It finally launched, put up four sails, caught a breeze, listed over on the small Swedish thumb side and sank immediately, killing 25; 170 soldiers were saved by small boats watching this whole event play out. The king was furious, held an inquisition and blamed the designer’s wife since the builder himself had died. It was truly a king’s folly!

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