Category Archives: Scandinavia

Dramatic drive west to remote gaularfjellet, Mundal book village, Balestrand – fjords

We drove our new friends Christine and Alain to Sogndal this morning, where we visited the local pharmacy to pick up some pain pills for my arm from a kind pharmacist and had a last coffee togegether. We really enjoyed hanging out with them and hearing about their interesting lives in faraway places. They invited us to their old stone house in Provence and I have a feeling we will visit.

One of the many great things about Eplet bed and Apple, our hostel/guesthouse in Solvorn, is that the young owners go out of their way to suggest things to do (bike, hike, kayak, glacier walk) and places to see. We followed one of their recommended drives – through remote Gaularfjellet, a national tourist road along a bubbling river up through the mountains, with a dramatic view of Sognefjord. It was spectacular. We walked around the quiet village of Fjaerland/Mundal, known as the book town for its many antiquarian book shops, and the larger tourist town of Balestrand, which was quieter than Flam and Aurland, thankfully. The loop took us way back in the mountains and was even more  dramatic than the Snow road, with thin waterfalls streaming from high peaks, old red isolated farm houses, and yet again an unexpected dash of modern design – in this case a series of viewing platforms made of poured concrete and wood jutting upward like ships prows.

Back at Eplet, we met some new guests, a mother and daughter from Brooklyn. Turns out the mom grew up in Des Moines and we had a friend in common. We took a photo together and emailed it to her. Fun!


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Here’s a story I wrote about Stockholm’s Sodermalm District!

Off the beaten path in Stockholm: the city’s best urban island

For an authentic Swedish experience, head to Stockholm’s Södermalm district. (Click here for more)

Amid a sea of Swedes watching the World Cup quarterfinal match, my friend Francine jumped up and down, cheering wildly when England scored the winning goal against Sweden. Disappointed locals — many wearing yellow Sweden jerseys, some with the national flag painted on their faces — watched her silently. Some seemed amused. Or curious.

So much for blending into the crowd.

We were in Stockholm’s Södermalm district, decidedly off the beaten tourist track, yet we were exposed as outsiders. Francine and her husband, Russ, are from London; my husband, Dirck, and I are from Des Moines. No one appeared to mind. Some even shook Francine’s hand and offered congratulations. One requested a photo with her.

Swedes, we learned that July day at a packed Södermalm bar, are tolerant, polite, avid fans and good sports.

For our first visit to Stockholm, we stayed in Södermalm primarily because it is not a major tourist hot spot. When I travel, I’m often torn between visiting the must-see sights and hanging out in real neighborhoods that offer glimpses of how life is lived. Södermalm, also known as “Söder,” proved to be a great home base to do both.

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Design Museum/District, Old Market (Story Restaurant), Cruise, Airbnb, Cashlessness – Helsinki

Still playing post-vacation catchup:

What do Nokia, Angry Birds, Fiskars,  and Marimekko have in common? They were all designed by Finns. This I learned at the interesting Design Museum here in Helsinki. I also learned about the Finnish designer Timo Sarpaneva who did a lot of glass designs for the company littala (or iittala) which i thought was Italian but apparently is named after a Finnish town.

This from Wiki: Timo Tapani Sarpaneva was an influential Finnish designer, sculptor, and educator best known in the art world for innovative work in glass, which often merged attributes of display art objects with utilitarian designations

He perfected a glass blowing technique that involved rubbing the hot glass with a wet piece of curved wood, creating a bubble inside the glass that is manipulated,  becoming part of the design. He also designed fabrics and did many drawings. Cool museum. I love the clothing people wear here, lots of vivid colors, patterns and designs ( a la Marimekko.)

I walked to the nearby design district, visiting little shops like Lokal, where a sweet saleswoman recommended other shops and even a flea market in the area. I have been struck by how kind people are to this hot, tired, one-armed American tourist (i.e. me).  One man (handsome man too) stopped to ask if I needed help as I was staring at my battered map. Later, I met a angel of sorts – a beautiful young woman with long blond hair, modeling one of her $350 personally designed orange silk dresses – who closed up her shop and led me a few blocks to the #3 tram. And gave me a hug before she left.

Helsinki room with piano

Down at the harbor, I got lunch in the renovated 19th century brick market hall at a place called Story. As my mom noted in her journal 25 years ago, “no memorable food here” but that’s ok. I am even tired of smoked salmon. I jumped aboard a 45 minute cruise around the harbor to rest and almost fell asleep. The fjords spoiled me for other ferries.


I’m on the second floor of this Kallio neighborhood apartment block.

I leave very early to tomorrow and have practiced walking the tricky 11 minute route to the airport bus stop, which I will walk at about 5 am. I couldn’t find the bus stop at first but finally figured it out this afternoon.

Staying at this Airbnb hasn’t been as easy as the others. The host is very kind but she doesn’t communicate very well and the directions she gave to her place were insufficient, as were directions for getting in. I also couldn’t reach her by phone when I had this trouble. (She later told me she can’t pick up at work.) She lives in a hidden spot that is not a bad location, once you find it but that ain’t easy. She seems to assume her guests have cellphones that work without WiFi, which is not the case for me. Next trip I will consider buying a data plan again and travel insurance. I also was struck by how cashless travel is, especially in Stockholm. If you don’t have a credit card, you often cannot do what you want to do. I watched one man be turned away at the cool photography museum in Stockholm because he only had cash. The museum refused to take it. Which is odd, because it used to be that merchants didn’t want you to use anything but cash. On two occasions, my credit card didn’t work in Stockholm, due to the merchant’s machine, not my card, but it was still a little alarming., especially since i only have one credit card. In one case, Francine had to buy my metro tix.




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Hanging out at Gatwick – London (sort of)

Playing post-vacation catch up:

It’s tempting to jump on a train and visit my beloved London during this 7 hour layover but a number of things are holding me back, including my arm, which doesn’t hurt but slows me down. “Been through the war?” the immigration woman said to me with uncharacteristic humor.

Fact is, I’d have only 3 hours max before I need to head back to the airport for check in. And protests are expected in London because Trump is visiting. (I just avoided him in Helsinki, where he and Putin are summitting in a few days.)

I wasn’t planning to go through immigration here but my Norwegian Air representative recommended this, even if I don’t go out of the airport because apparently it offers more comfortable options for waiting around than departures. Good to know for future reference.

I slept a bit last night but was up by 3:30 a.m. to watch my cell alarm go off at 4. My Airbnb host Annamari was sleeping on the living room couch (I had her room) but got up to give me a hug goodbye. It was kind of an odd Airbnb arrangement but she was sweet and the price was good ($70 a night). The 11 minute walk to the bus was easy and because it was almost full daylight I didn’t feel spooked dragging my suitcase through neighborhood streets at night. Oddly, I had to pay with cash (5.50 euros) which is the opposite of other Scandinavian countries that have become almost cashless.

Kallio Airbnb

As I pulled my suitcase through the outskirts of Kallio, several young people were out and about, at a karaoke bar and the McDonald’s. The airport bus was packed at 4:30 am but Helsinki airport was very quiet at 5:15 am. My first flight was easy and not too uncomfortable. I think I slept. Next one could be a bear.

Airbnb room

But hey, just found some reclining lounge chairs here, looking down through the glass at people checking in for flood flights. Feels almost like a day at the beach except there is no sun or sea or beach and a baby is wailing nearby. And three security guards just passed by with a sniffing dog.

P.S. As it turned out, my flight to  Chicago was delayed two hours because the pilot was missing. not a promising sign.  He did eventually show and we flew on without incident. Forgot what a pit Gatwick is. Chicago Midway looked bright and shiny by comparison the next day.

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Way out of my comfort zone — Helsinki



Saarinen-designed train station

Playing catchup- post-vacation:

This may be one of the nuttier trips I’ve taken: traveling to Helsinki solo with a broken arm. The trip was going to be arduous to begin with– first the overnight boat trip from Stockholm and then finding my Airbnb in an out of the way place. The arm situation doesn’t help. But hey, I did it and it’s no wonder that I am in bed at 8 p.m. yeah!

I sort of slept last night on the ferry and had the grand breakfast buffet. Who knew I could get sick of lox…but I have. I sat next to a kind Swedish man whose young blond son looked at me somewhat suspiciously. Who was this weird American lady with the big cast on her arm? Stuck up a conversation with a group of quintessential upper Manhattan women (inwood?) who I think also thought I was a bit nuts.


Inside the stunning station (a fast food restaurant…grrr)

Just off the ferry, I found my way at the harbor to the #3 tram and got to the Kallio neighborhood. The hard part was finding and getting into this apartment. Thank God for a Shell gas station, which served as a visual marker, and some very kind Finns who helped me out during various times of need. This is a one-bedroom apartment in a functional modern apartment block. It wasn’t well marked and my directions weren’t clear but people helped in all kinds of ways. My host wasn’t here and I realized she wouldn’t be for several hours. Fortunately an extremely kind couple who run a vintage sign shop next door offered to let me leave my bags with them, which was huge! I made my way to a cafe with WiFi so I could connect with dirck who arrived safely in Chicago and is now on the road to Dsm and God knows what, given the flood damage in our neighborhood while we’ve been away.

I went down to the open air market at the harbor and found some great crafts and gifts…better than anything else on this trip. I already wish I had more time in this city. It feels more exotic and foreign than our previous stops. The market was serving reindeer and moose; selling dyed fur cuffs and socks from Russia. The architecture is very dramatic and feels Soviet modern in places, art nouveau ornate in others. The Saarinen train station is amazing and people don’t seem to notice. They are too busy traveling through it. I also went to the Kamppi chapel, (aka Chapel of Silence) a stunning modern high wooden pod in the middle of a busy brutish shopping square. The idea is to step into it and enjoy the silence of the plain, airy space. It was designed by a Finnish firm and opened when Helsinki was  the 2012 World Design Capital.

Tonight I had a weird Turkish kebab at Doner Harju, a block from this apartment in  Kallio , which is known for its funky restaurants. Tomorrow, I have to pace myself and make some choices, given my limited physical abilities and all the things I’d ideally love to see. Such is life. (Next trip: visit the cool marketplace, Teurastamu.)

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Aboard the Silja Serenade – Helsinki here I come

Playing catchup post-vacation:

I’ve got a deck chair near the bar on the top deck (I think) of this enormous cruise ferry from Stockholm to Helsinki. Never been on a boat like this so particularly fascinating. The entrance to the boat was like entering a huge shopping mall/casino floor/theme park with glitzy shops, costumed greeters for the kids and those cheesy photo booths where you have to have your photo taken (presumably to be sold to you on the way

approaching helsinki


My little windowless cabin reminds me of a room in a Tokyo business hotel. A small pod. There appear to be a lot of young people/potential partiers nearby so who knows if I will get any sleep. There are a lot of families with kids and kids activities. I just want to sit and look at the scenery so we shall see. I watched a low-wattage floor show, watched people shop in the duty free, ate  over priced pasta and struggled to maintain WiFi.

Dirck left around 7:15 a.m. with Russ. (He had to run back and get his phone which he left at our Airbnb. Fortunately I heard him call my name thru the courtyard window.) Francine and I spent a few hours at the fantastic contemporary photography center Fotografiska in north Sodermalm, which had some great exhibits including one with work by Linda and Mary McCartney. We ate a pizza tartette (fresh tomatoes, basil and mozzarella on pastry dough ) in the hip cafeteria. Hated saying goodbye but I’ve gotten better at it with so much practice.


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Djurgarden, Rosendals Tradgard, ABBA, 6 Nytorget – Stockholm

Playing catch up post-vacation:

We walked eight miles today, according to dirck’s phone and I believe it. We met Francine and Russ at the Stronstall metro stop and used our 3-day metro pass to take a vintage tram circa the 1940s ( Russ loves!) to Djurgarden, a lovely island park with scattered mansions, museums, gardens and a very cool place to eat — in a greenhouse cafe with “biodynamic” garden called Rosendals Tradgard. We had salads and open faced sandwiches with produce from the gardens. Lovely. And full of locals on a sunny Sunday morning. Reminded me a bit of Central Park or Petersham Gardens at London’s Richmond Park.

Dirck and Russ went to the Vasa ship museum while Francine and I did the campy ABBA museum. We aren’t huge ABBA fans but it is a clever museum with fun interactive elements including an opportunity for visitors to perform on a darkened stage with holograms of the four band members. I couldn’t convince Francine to do it. We each auditioned to be a fifth member of ABBA by singing in a karaoke booth and having our performance graded. Not sure Francine or I made the cut.

In the late afternoon, Dirck and I found a hidden path down by the lake/canal to the west and south of our Airbnb that was like a hidden Bohemia. As we walked along a wooded dirt path, often lined with hollyhocks, we passed a huge and busy pool complex, a stage with salsa dancers, a guy playing a tinny piano, sunbathers and swimmers, mostly young and attractive, a few food trucks and small cottages that looked like something out of haight ashbury, and docked boats. Hard to believe the city was just above us.

Dinner was at 6 nytorget, (named after its address) in the bustling SoFo (South of Folkungagatan Street) neighborhood, which was well recommended by a young dad I met yesterday at the football match viewing. Popular local spot, packed with families and couples and friends, excellent innovative Mediterranean fare pork, tuna, and other fish and meat dishes. We shared a table with a very blond Swedish couple and their two very blond kids. And then with four people speaking French (brown hair).

Sad to say goodbye to Russ tonight and Dirck tomorrow morning. Francine and I get a little more time tomorrow. Hate saying goodbye.

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Gramla Stan, Grand hotel smorgasbord, Sweden-England soccer match,exploring Sodermalm (Woodstockholm) – Stockholm

Fun day as tourists with Francine and Russ. Nice to have them lead the way! We roamed around the old town of gramla Stan, arriving at the royal palace just in time for the changing of the guard, this time complete with a marching band. Lots of tourists roaming the narrow cobbled lanes and gift shops selling $49 T-shirts.

We decided to splurge on the smorgasbord at The Grand Hotel, which was a trip. Lots of fish, herring, meats, desserts. Once was enough, I am ready to slow down on the eating.

In the afternoon we joined most of Stockholm or so it seemed to watch Sweden vs. England in the World Cup semi finals. Francine and Russ were in the distinct minority, wearing their English football shirts at the Sodermalm bar where we watched the game outside on the street in a crowd spilling onto the street. England won unexpectedly 2-0 and the crowd was very tolerant of Francine jumping up and down in victory.

We wandered around the cobbled lanes of northern Sodermalm and took in some great views of the rest of the city and did some people watching of the attractive young people gathered at various cafes and pubs, including a furniture designer/restaurant called  Woodstockholm.

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Drive to Oslo airport

Playing post-vacation catch-up…


I’m at  Gatwick Airport in London, days after our drive to the Oslo airport, which turned out to be longer and more scenic than expected from Solvern. Most of it was on two lane roads past fjords, mountains, bucolic countryside. It took about six hours, in part due to traffic (This is prime vacation time for Norwegians.) and some bad road marking nearer to the airport, which led to a few wrong turns. About midway, we stopped at a gas station (in Hemsedal?) and discovered a surprisingly hygge cafe across the street where we had a great coffee and pastry and chatted with a Norwegian guy (he had three dogs in tow.) Found out we were in a popular ski area. He went to the U of Utah on a skiing scholarship and met his American wife there. They lived in the states for awhile. Now raising their kids in Norway.

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Under the bridges tour, Ostermalm Saluhall (Lisa elmqvist),Urban deli, Francine and Russ – Stockholm

Playing catch up with my posts:

Francine and Russ arrived from London this evening and we met them at their airbnb, a stone’s  throw from ours in Sodermalm, the so-called Brooklyn of Stockholm. Great to see them! We had a fun dinner outside among a lively crowd of young and often gorgeous Swedish people at Urban Deli in SoFo (south of Folkungagatan Street) in Sodermalm, a trendy area with interesting restaurants, cafes and shops. Our sweet and very attractive young waiter served us a mixed grill platter ( sausage, sirloin tips, grilled chilis) plus fresh oysters and a veggie burger for Russ.  Very lively and fun scene.

Dirck and I started our day by taking the #55 bus to Ostermalm, a tony neighborhood where we walked through the famous food  hall (actually a temporary version of the saluhall) and ate pricey seafood at Lisa Elmqvist, a famous place my parents ate 25 years ago. The Under the Bridges boat tour turned out to offer far more lively and current commentary on life in Stockholm than expected and was gorgeous two hour ride. We shared our table with two funny gay guys from Austin.


Stockholm is more grand and stately than we expected. But cool too and full of some very stunning people, as my mother noted in her travel journal 25 years ago. It kind of feels like Copenhagen’s older sister, a little more suave and sophisticated. (Not that I am more suave and sophisticated than my sisters….)

Our neighborhood, Sodermalm, does feel a bit like Brooklyn. We’ve seen lots of tattoos, man buns, ethnic people, older everyday people, creative types. Our Airbnb is in an apartment in an attractive modern building on the ring road (Ringvägen) in Sodermalm, not in the trendiest area but an easy walk to it. Our host looks like an older model, wears youthful clothes well, and she warmly welcomed us and left cardamon cinnamon buns (kanelbullar) out for us this morning. We have our own private space  – a comfortable small bedroom that looks out onto a quiet courtyard and the shared bath is fine. Seems luxurious after sharing a bathroom with three other rooms in Norway.

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