Keeping it simple in Scandinavia

Plane reservations were booked for our three-week trip to the cool, clean, friendly — and expensive — Scandinavian countries, when we realized including Finland and Iceland would be beyond our budget. We had scoured the brochures we ordered from the tourist bureaus and studied the travel book the kids had given Jack for Christmas.

Keeping in mind the train routes we would be using, we vowed to travel light — one carry-on each, filled with absolute necessities. And we had to remember we would be lifting our own luggage up and down the steep, narrow steps of the trains.

But what does one wear in Scandinavia in May? We heard it rained a lot, so rain gear was in order but, as it turned out, hardly used. The average temperature in May is 53 F (12 C), cool enough for a fleece jacket. I purchased non-wrinkle sports pants and a smart cardigan, both in black, and added silk long johns and tops in case the temperature dropped. Everything mixed and matched and folded up neatly, including my waterproof raincoat. Fast-drying polyester underwear was expensive but worth it: we could rinse them out at night and, by eliminating heavy cotton underwear, we had more room for T-shirts andlacks. Jack took his usual casual wear but pared down the quantity.

Medications, vitamins, moisturizers, sunscreen and toiletries take up space, but I have a fear of running out of essentials. We added a resealable plastic bag of  laundry soap and a couple of travel tubes of liquid soap. We tucked them into my rain shoes, wrapped them in plastic bags and packed them inside my luggage. (Jack decided that his walking shoes would do in the rain so I waterproofed all our leather footwear.) The rain gear fit into one of the outside pockets of the suitcase.

First stop: Stockholm
We left Victoria at 1:00 p.m. on May 1, flew to Frankfurt, then on to Stockholm, arriving at 2:30 p.m. on May 2. From the airport, we took a 20-minute train to the city centre, where everything is within walking distance. And walk, we did — to our hotel — more blocks away than we realized but good for us after long hours on planes. After registering, we left our baggage in our room and went for a brief, leisurely stroll, before showering and retiring about 8 o’clock, two totally exhausted travellers. Because of the good food on the plane and the time changes, we didn’t need any dinner that evening.

Next day, we walked the pedestrian mall through the centre of Stockholm and over the beautiful canal to Gamla Stan, the Old Town. The stroll rewarded us with one of the most interesting sights of the trip: the Changing of the Guard at the Royal Palace, a daily ritual with about a hundred uniformed guards, half on horses, plus a drum and brass band. The uniforms were bright blue, the spiked helmets silver and the music was stirring.

Deciding to see as much of Sweden as possible, we took the night train, called the Nordpilen (Northern Arrow), the only one going to the northern part of the country. Our compartment cost a little less than a hotel room and, while everything was clean and comfortable, the train rumbled and swayed — preventing restful sleep. We were thankful our carry-ons took little spacein the tiny compartment. Dinner on the train was an absolutely delicious reindeer stew with mashed potatoes. Apparently, reindeer is best cooked in a sauce to reduce the strong gamy flavour.

Northern Sweden nights are short in May, so we were able to see the countryside flying by our window until very late. We woke to the same scrub forest of the previous day but were soon climbing the snow-covered peaks that separate Sweden from Norway. The scenery was spectacular with mountains, canyons and waterfalls.

Narvik, Norway, is the northern terminus of the night train from Stockholm, a small town that suffered greatly during the Second World War with a superb museum depicting those times of hardship and heroics. It was drizzly, cold and windy on our arrival, so we scooted to the nearby Rica Grand Royal Hotel. (The chain has a special program for seniors with a set reduced rate and every sixth booking free.)

Thank goodness for our wheeled carry-ons as we traveled south in Norway, first by bus from Narvik to Fauske, then by train. Some hotels were a fair distance from the station, which would have required a taxi if we had heavy luggage.

Small town favourites
There are numerous tunnels along both highway and railway routes and gorgeous scenery, as the train climbed snow-covered peaks and overlooked green valleys. Trondheim and Bergen were our favourite cities — small enough to see on foot, with lots of waterside sites and friendly people. Bergen was outstanding for the Saturday fish market in Torget Street. Samples were freely given and everything was fresh enough to cover our next day’s lunch on the train. In Trondheim and Oslo, we discovered streetcars, or trams, which we rode to sightsee the outlying areas.

When we reached Copenhagen about 10 days after leaving Narvik, the hotels were fully booked, so we stayed in Malmo, Sweden, commuting over the new train bridge each day — an economical alternative. Except for a wonderful buffet lunch near the Copenhagen train station, we preferred the smaller city of Malmo to the very large and busy Copenhagen, much of which we saw from city buses.

On the southeast coast of Sweden, we enjoyed the ancient city Kalmar, with its excellent museum and superb castle fortress. Many of the streets and sidewalks were cobblestones — not easy on the wheels of our carry-ons, so we carried them over the roughest spots.

Southern Sweden is much more scenic than the scrub forests of the north — vast, beautifully kept farms on the west side and forests, lakes and rivers on the east side. There are glasswork factories located in the eastern forests, famous for exquisitely clear crystal which can be found in exclusive shops in Stockholm and impossible to resist.

The beds were comfortable everywhere we stayed in Scandinavia, with duvets, decent pillows and spare blankets available. We slept very well throughout the trip, but maybe all the walking had something to do with that. The tiled bathrooms were great, too, often with warm floors and heated towel racks, perfect for drying our daily washing.

Lavish buffets
Wonderful buffet breakfasts (often included in the price) seem the norm at hotels in Sweden and Norway. They were lavish: boiled and scrambled eggs, bacon and sausage; cereals with all sorts of accompaniments, such as seeds, nuts and raisins; yogurt; muffins; fruits and salad vegetables; cold cuts; rolls and pastries; small crocks of pickled herring in various sauces, platters of cold-smoked salmon and other seafood; juices; coffee and milk. We ate a hearty breakfast each day, had a good lunch about 1:30 and a very light snack in the evening back in our room. This way, we were able to avoid pricey dinners, except as a special treat now and then.

Our total expenditure was about $3,500 each, including airfare, train passes, local transportation, hotels, meals and incidentals. Our carry-ons saved taxi fares, space, fatigue and stress. They fit into lockers in train stations, and were easy to pull to our hotels and to load onto trains and buses. These wheeled travel companions made a glorious trip even better.