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  • Writer's pictureHiker Tom

Europe: Part 4

Returning from the Brink

My final activity in Lofoten was something that I had not planned for originally, but am certainly glad that I went ahead and did – a trip out to sea in a RIB boat hosted by the same company that I had completed my snowshoeing with the previous day. On the morning of the trip I was still riding high from the day and night that I had just had, and as such was carrying a great level of enthusiasm with me as I arrived at Svolvaer harbour. I was instantly greeted with some fun news as the trip organiser informed me that I could join in on a VIP trip for no extra cost if I desired. It turned out that some members of the Norwegian government’s tourism department had invited a number of professional travel & culture journalists on a tour around Norway, and as luck would have it the day in which I had booked a boat trip was the same day that this group were embarking on a special voyage that was ordinarily not sold to the public. It took me less than a few seconds to make my decision, and before I knew it I was accompanied by a group of professional journalists!

A group of very heavily dressed journalists, ft. me as an imposter on the left.

Having suited up into a large, cumbersome thermal overall, our captain for the morning briefed us on some essential safety info. Then we were off. The ride started gently but before long we were cruising at speeds of up to 30mph across the gaping mouth of Svolvaer’s Trollfjord. The wind-speed was up that day and consequently we faced some large waves too. They were probably the biggest I have ever seen – or at least it felt that way in a small RIB boat just large enough to accommodate twelve people – and travelling at such speeds caused an almost constant spattering of Arctic sea-spray to hit our faces. The chilling moisture on my skin and the salty taste in my mouth wasn't pleasant, but the adrenaline that accompanied it as our small boat crashed into wave after wave was more than enough compensation!

A dramatic skyline to match our dramatic voyage.

We toured a number of islands which rose directly from the sea before us, and along our way we stopped in various beach-lined alcoves where Sea-Eagles (more commonly known in the UK as the White-tailed eagle) were either soaring above or perched on the rocky outlets to either side. The captain would throw Herring up into the air, and almost immediately an Eagle would swoop down to snatch it between its talons, often coming as close as two or three metres from our heads! While not the most natural experience, it was nevertheless an awesome spectacle being so close to one of the world’s fastest and largest birds of prey, and the sheer number of them that we saw in a few hours at sea was mindboggling (I lost count of them eventually, but it was well into double figures).

A Sea-Eagle swooping for its dinner

The next few days were mainly spent in transit to Stockholm, via Narvik. Narvik is a skiing town on the mainland to the north of the Lofoten Islands and was by far the coldest place I visited whilst in Norway, with temperatures regularly reaching below -20°C, but I was only there for two days before boarding a nineteen hour night train that would take me 870 miles south-east to Stockholm. For the first time ever I had a bed on a train, and that in itself was a fun experience. In my cabin were two Portuguese, an Italian, an American, and a Dutch, and it was interesting to hear everybody else’s travel stories as all of us had been to different places and equally were all headed to different locations after Stockholm. I got a good night’s sleep in my bed, and woke up the next morning ready to explore the Swedish capital.

I would describe Stockholm as a very hip city. In appearance, its buildings are all wildly regal to the extent that it is difficult to differentiate between the large Royal Palace and any other ordinary structure. At the heart of all that amazing architecture is a thriving network of museums, art galleries, coffee houses, craft beer breweries and live-music bars (more often than not jazz). On the whole it was a joy to spend a day perusing its streets; the shining sun made every building look inviting, the drinking and eating culture in Sweden was much more to my taste than it was in Norway, and it was great to find a lively jazz bar to spend my evening in.

A glistening bay looking across to the vibrant social area of Söldermam, Stockholm

There was, however, one standout part of my brief stay in Stockholm: the Vasa Museum. The Vasa is a Swedish warship built in the 17th century. It was constructed to be one of the largest and most heavily armed ships in the world, and its purpose was to wrestle Swedish control of the Baltic sea from Poland and Germany. Its entire being – from the sheer size of its sterncastle stretching 38 metres from top to bottom, to the iron sculptures of Roman emperors, Swedish kings and mythical animals that adorned its every inch – spoke the language of power. However, for all its glorious aesthetics, it was undone by a simple design fault that rendered it futile. The weighting was incorrect in the ship’s lower stone ballast, and so as it embarked on its maiden voyage in 1628 it capsized and sunk less than a mile from the port, leading to the drowning of at least thirty crew as the Swedish king and other onlookers watched from ashore. For over three-hundred years the ship lay dormant on the floor of Stockholm’s harbor until it was finally found again in the 1950s. Thanks to some fortunate preservation conditions, the ship has survived all that time and was still intact to a remarkable extent, and after an excavation that spanned several years it was finally retrieved from the sea.

The Vasa

The Vasa now sits in one of Stockholm’s most visited museums, and it is an excellent visit! The vessel is fascinating to look at; anyone who stands by it is completely dwarfed by its size, and the semi-rotten condition of the wood projects an eerie ghost-ship feel to it. Meanwhile, the museum itself is really astutely designed. For an exhibition with only one main artefact, it was easy to spend nearly three hours in there. There are multiple viewing points from all angles of the ship, an informative film that runs every twenty minutes, interactive modern reconstructions of various parts of the ship to walk inside and explore, and facts everywhere. Furthermore, there is an entire section dedicated to the role of women in the construction of the Vasa and in Swedish maritime history on a wider scale too, and it was interesting to discover the painstaking efforts that women had mustered to craft the hundreds of candles that were needed on board the ship, or to learn of the respect that the captain’s wives would have commanded on board. All in all, anyone who considers themselves a history buff would love this museum and it is made all the better by the fact that with every passing week the ship is restored further and further. It would be amazing to revisit it in ten years time if anyone wants to join me?

Aware of the inflated prices up in Scandinavia I was anxious to get back to Central Europe relatively quickly. It is truly an awe-inspiring part of the world, and I would have loved to have spent more time exploring the region, but if I wanted to make sure I had enough money leftover to complete the rest of my intended route then leaving was, sadly, a necessity. With this in mind, I was soon heading south for a quick stopover in Copenhagen. My hostel in the Danish capital was the most exciting I had stayed in so far; there was a happy hour between 20:00 and 21:00 during which a litre of beer was approximately £5 (extremely cheap for Scandinavia), and shots were cheap too!

The vibrant atmosphere in the hostel helped me to start chatting with a man from France and another Nepalese guy – both of whom were in their twenties and travelling alone. They were fun and interesting people, and I could tell that we got along with each other by the fact that our conversation soon turned from the formalities of “where are you from and where have you been” to stupid and random topics accompanied with plenty of laughter. We made the most of happy hour before visiting a concept bar with a stock-exchange theme wherein the price of each beer (and there were about 40 to choose from!) changed depending on the demand from customers. So if you stayed vigilant you could identify which beer would soon be cheap and vice versa.

Following that, we found a bustling bar with hundreds of board games to choose from, and spent the rest of our night drinking beer and playing a card game based loosely on the Japanese shogunate… many hours later I was suitably drunk and tucking into a KFC bucket. My first night in Denmark had turned out to be one of my best, and having spent a lot of time alone thus far it was really comforting to enjoy a night among the good company of others. I had also overcome a personal milestone to make friends and properly spend an evening enjoying myself with them.

Myself, Louis (left) & Jigme (middle) enjoying the cards

With the arrival of sunlight the next morning the first hangover of my travels dawned on me, and consequently my only full day in Copenhagen was hampered by a headache and constant hunger. Nonetheless, I persevered in the knowledge that Copenhagen had a lot to offer. There were multiple palaces and castles that appealed to my historical side, and I made an obligatory trip to one of the city’s most famous attractions – “The Little Mermaid” sculpture. Personally, I did not see the attraction in the statue, I think because of the rather dull industrial setting behind it, but it was still good to see. The real highlight of my day, however, was without doubt the Zoological museum. I saw a variety of fascinating exhibits that included the full skeleton of a Brachiosaur, the fossilized remains of the largest clam ever discovered (measuring almost two metres in length), a whale heart that weighed over 100kg, giant Elk antlers from thousands of years ago and a giant Sloth standing over three metres tall. My hangover was certainly no match for the excitement that this museum stirred!

I now sit writing this instalment of my blog in a plush, modern hostel in Germany, accompanied by some cheap beer and tasty schnitzel. It is exactly three weeks since I arrived in Oslo, yet in my mind Oslo seems like an eternity ago! Since then I have travelled further north than I may ever go again, and, as extreme as this may sound, I feel as though I have now returned from the Arctic brink and reemerged into civilisation. There is no question that I miss Lofoten, but I am excited by the fresh new adventure that awaits me in the form of Central Europe…


📚Read: Europe - Part 5 📚

📚Head back to: Europe - Part 1 📚


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