Copenhagen: 

 

Tom had a perplexing start to his day. While we were waiting for our latte’s at a table, we noticed a giant Rubik’s Cube right next to us. Obviously, being the engineers we are, we started solving it piece by piece. Ironically, neither one of us could remember how to solve the last layer, so we had to leave it behind with only 2 out of 3 of the rows solved. I also learned that my boyfriend is a nerd; Apparently he attended Rubik’s Cube club meetings while he was in college. 

 Our first stop was the National Museum of Denmark. Housed in the Prince’s Mansion, one of the earliest Roccoco buildings in Copenhagen, the National Museum has the largest collection of Danish cultural history in all of Denmark. Its  exhibition covers 14,000 years from prehistoric times to present-day lives. It would have been easy to spend our entire day there, but Tom and I had a lot more to see (not to mention, we’ve pretty much had our fill of museums for this trip). My favorite part was their collection of dollhouses, I always wanted one as a little girl. The scaling of each piece of furniture and the detail associated with it has always fascinated me. Tom couldn’t share my enthusiasm, because well, I’m pretty certain that he has never been a little girl. 😀

 We grabbed some Smørrebrød for lunch, a traditional open-faced sandwich of meat, fish, cheese, or spread, on a buttered piece of rye bread, before heading over to the Parliament building. Officially, the building is called Christiansborg Palace,  a metonym meaning, “Castle of the Realm.” It is the only one in the world the houses all three branches of the government, the executive, the legislative, and the judicial powers. We took two elevators to the top of the tower, the tallest tower in Copenhagen, and were greeted with some scenic views of the city.
 After returning to ground level, we took a closer look at the Børsen, the old stock exchange. We passed by it yesterday during the walking tour, but I wanted a closer look at its spire. Built by Christian IV between 1619-1614, the building is known for its  the Dragon Spire which consists of four dragon tails wounded together reaching a height of 56 meters. I really admire the expressive artistry that older buildings have. It’s a tradition that has been lost and overtaken by a desire for modern, sleek shapes. At the same time, it would be unrealistic to build elaborately carved or scuplted details into structures these days since I’m sure the cost would be astronomical.

 We stopped by a few historical churches and then took a stroll along Nyhavn. Nyhavn is a man-made port dug between 1670 to 1673 by Swedish prisoners of the Dano-Swedish War. It was constructed by Christian V and served as a gateway from the sea to the old inner city, Kongens Nytorv the “King’s Square.” The harbor area was notorious for beer, sailors, and prostitution. On our walk yesterday, Benjamin mentioned that the first tattoo parlor in the city was opened here, and the artist had a two sided machine. Back in those days it was common for sailors to put their names on their lady-friends, but it was also bad business for the woman. So if the woman handed the artist a few extra bucks, a wink, the tattoo artist would us the semi-permanent needle on his machine, allowing the name to wash away a few days later rather than being permanent. The famous fairytale author, Hans Christian Anderson also lived along this street for 18 years. 

 Our last stop today was to the Rundetaarn, or “Round Tower.” Originally built by Christian IV in the 17th century, the cylindrical tower is made of masonry with alternating yellow and red bricks, the colors of the Oldenburgs. It also has has an equestrian ramp rather than a staircase; this design was chosen to allow a horse and carriage to reach the library and for heavy and sensitive equipment to be transported to the astronomical observatory on top. Tom and I walked up the 7.5 turn helical corridor, and I couldn’t help but ask, “Are we there yet?”

Stockholm: Ticking Hands of Time

 We woke up first thing this morning and grabbed breakfast to-go during our walk to City Hall. Stockholm City Hall is the center of governance for the municipality, and also the location of the Nobel Prize banquet every year on December 10th. You may recall my previous post from Oslo concerning the Peace Prize. However, it is the only Nobel Prize that is presented in Oslo rather than in Stockholm. This is because Alfred Nobel specifically wrote this request into his will. Originally there were only 5 awards, Chemistry, Physics, Literature, Medicine, and Peace to award individuals who had made significant contributions to the progress and welfare of humanity. The Economics award was added by the Swedish Central Bank in 1968.

Interestingly enough, City Hall is not an old building. It’s celebrating only its 93rd birthday this year. Designed by the architect After City Hall, we stopped for lunch before heading over to the Vasa Museum. The Vasa is a the only almost fully intact Ragner Östberg in 1923, he desired for the building’s structure and facade to look old without actually being old. Ragnar drew inspiration for the interior rooms from a variety of historical eras, but also made major design changes as the building progressed and his whims of fancy changed. 

 

The Blue Room (although not actually blue) recalls the elegance of a wide open Italian piazza, an assembly space for various events and banquets. Knowing that patrons would be making their entrance via the grand staircase, Ragnar included a star on the far-opposite wall. It is said that if a person focuses on that star as they descend, they will maintain proper posture while all eyes are focused on them; and so far, no Nobel Prize winner has ever tripped or fallen as they enter a banquet in their honor. 

 The Gold Room is opulently decorated in colorful gold mosaic, bringing to mind the glitz and glamour of the Byzantine Empire. The artist and his assistants only had two years to complete the room’s walls prior to a certain event that had to take place on a specific date for historical reasons. As a result, some mistakes were made with no time to correct them. The depicted castle is missing one of the three crowns (this was supposed to depict Tre Kronos, the Castle of Three Crowns), and the king riding the horse is without a head due to scaling errors (although it is historically accurate since the king was eventually beheaded). 

After City Hall, we stopped for lunch before heading over to the Vasa Museum. The Vasa is a the only almost fully intact (98% original) 17th century ship to ever be recovered. The ship was built on the orders of King Gustavus Aldophus in due part because of a military expansion campaign he initiated with Poland-Lithuania and his desire to enter the Thirty Years War. At the time, Sweden’s political and military power was an afterthought and neighboring nations barely acknowledged its presence. Gustavus is widely regarded as one of the greatest military leaders of all time. He was progressive in his governance, innovative in his military weaponry, raised Sweden to be a Great Power.

 The Vasa would have been the first double-decker war ship of the time, and one of the most powerfully armed vessels in the world. She was constructed under contract by private Dutch entrepreneurs between 1626 and 1627. The ship was richly decorated in symbolic carvings illustrating his ambition for Sweden. However, due to severe time constraints, and a lack of expertise (as no one in the country had ever built a double-decker), the Vasa’s final design proved too unstable and top-heavy. 

 On her maiden voyage on August 10, 1628, she was only 1300 meters out of port when a wind caused her to keel and ultimately sink. Fortunately for us, the ship-channel she sank in has a low salt content. This allowed her to lay relatively undisturbed and remarkably well-preserved for over 300 years. The Vasa did not sail again until her hull was lifted from the harbor floor in 1961.

 

I was personally astounded by the size of the ship. She is the first thing you see when you enter the museum, and she simply dominates the room. I couldn’t stop taking pictures of her intricate carvings and exquisite detail.

Our take-away from the day is that time is a double-edged sword. For some, time is a luxury, while for others, time is a looming specter. In both the cases of the Gold Room and the Vasa, had the designers had sufficient time to complete the tasks at hand, we believe that the inherent flaws could have been avoided. 

 Speaking of time, Tom and I spent the rest of our afternoon enjoy the Swedish tradition of Fika. Fika is equivalent to the British Tradition of tea-time, where people take a break from their day to savor some coffee and sweets. We went to Vette-Kaffen a traditional Fika institution. It was both tasty and relaxing. 🙂

Stockholm: Voulez Vous La Musique

Anyone born in the in the 50s, or the child of parents born in this period are familiar with the band ABBA. To date, they are the most successful pop band to emerge from Sweden, and have been only second in success to the Beatles. Furthermore, they are the only band from a non-English speaking country to ever top the charts of English-speaking countries.   

 I remember fondly the songs I listened to with my mother as a child, popular hits such as the “Dancing Queen,” “Mamma Mia,” and “S.O.S.” would regularly feature on our car rides. Therefore, how could we not take some time to visit the ABBA Museum while we were in Stockholm?

 The museum documents how Agnetha, Björn, Benni, and Anni-Frid found their musical starts. It then demonstrates their creative process and the transpiring events that served as their inspiration. Memorabilia, outfits, and props are proudly on display while imaginative use of technology allows you to do anything from record a vocal track, dance in a music video, or take the stage as their fifth member alongside their holograms. 

 Tom and I tried the first two with mixed results. It turns out (although I’ve always known this), that I am beyond tone-deaf. Once I bowed out of trying to sing Dancing Queen, Tom’s solo vocals gained a much better score. It was abundantly clear that my inability to carry a pitch was bringing the team down. :(. We also tried to dance in a music-video but couldn’t manage to stop laughing. The hologrammed stage would have been interesting, but there was a line, and the performance would have been public to any passerbys. Stage-fright, a lack of dance moves, and not being a fan-girl were sufficient enough reason to hold back.

  
We then headed to the highest point in Stockholm to enjoy a breather and take in a scenic view of the city before heading back to the hostel for a break.

 After a brief repose, we grabbed dinner at an Irish Pub nearby before heading on an adventurous walking tour of our own. There are some well-documented odd, secret, and hidden items to be found around Gamla Stan, so Tom and I went on a hunt calling it our own Ghost Walk (quite a few of them were particularly morbid). We visited Hell, commemorated the Stockholm Bloodbath, and admired a Bartizan.

 One of my favorite stops was the statue, “Boy Looking at the Moon.” Arguably the smallest public sculpture in Sweden, it was sculpted by Liss Eriksson in 1954 and retells the memory of his childhood when he would sit on his bed and stare at the moon through his window on sleepless nights. It is made of sandstone and wrought iron. Superstition says that he will bring good luck to anyone that rubs his head. He was wearing a cute knit hat and scarf when we visited him, a gift that Stockholmers like to provide him with during the winter, so we merely patted him on his head. 

Stockholm: Gamla Stan

Our hostel of choice is located in Gamla Stan, the old town. This part of Stockholm is located on one of the small islands of the city’s earliest settlements, and it still maintains its medieval character. 

 After grabbing our customary coffee and snack, we took stroll down the waterfront to catch sight of the Riddarholmen Church. This church is the final resting place of all of Sweden’s monarchs. Parts of the church date from the late 13th century when it was first built as a greyfriars monastery. The building is only open to visit during the autumn and summer, so Tom and I were unable to get inside.

 
Our next stop was the Stockholm Cathedral, the oldest church in Gamla Stan. The facade is in the Swedish Brick Gothic style, but my favorite part was the wooden statue of Saint George and the Dragon. (If a sculpture or statue of this particular biblical event is housed in a house of worship, it is commonly what I admire the most). Attributed to Bernt Notk (1489), the statue was commissioned to commemorate the Battle of Brunkerg (1471), and serves as a reliquary containing the saintly remained of George himself in addition to six others.

 Adjacent to this lies the Stockholm Palace, the official residence of the Swedish Monarch. Nicodemus Tessin the Younger formed its shape like that of a Roman Palace. When he passed away in 1728, the chief architect role passed on to Carl Hårleman who is largely responsible for the the Rococo interior. Construction had started in 1697, but did not officially complete until 1760. This is because work on the building was paused for 18 years due to the expense of the Great Northern War. 

 We then took a leisurely stroll through the Skansen Museum, the first ever open air museum, founded in 1891. One can experience over five centuries of  Swedish history in a visit, and there were several animals romping about in their habitats. The only disappointing part was that the aquarium required an additional fee to visit, and despite my desire to have a close-encounter with lemurs, neither of us could justify paying an additional $12 for it. After all, the USA has some of the best zoos in the world. 

Alta: Our Predecessors

Every morning so far, we have woken up to the howling of the dogs, and this last day in Alta was no different. I’ve actually found myself enjoying the sounds of the wilderness around us. It awakens our soul’s connection to the natural world, and reminds us that it or she must be given respect. 

Our ancient predecessors, and even the descendants of ancient indigenous tribes such as the Samí, have always respected the gifts that she gives us. While the daily lifestyles and survival tactics of the prehistoric man are not readily known, much information is often derived from the fragments that they have left behind. We explored some of these shadowy traces with a visit to the Alta Museum. 

Author Andreas Haldorsen

Credit: Andreas Haldorsen:

Alta is home to the largest concentration of Rock Art in Northern Europe. The first stone, dubbed the “Pippisteinen,” was found only 60 years ago. In the present day, over 6000 carvings and paintings have been registered. The art is dated to be from 7000 to 2000 years ago, and depicts a Hunter-Fisher Society. 

On the panels, there are many scenes depicting hunters stalking prey with spears or bows and arrows; Fishermen are seen fishing with lines in the water. Of particular interest or the boats, which start off small in earlier drawings but progressively show larger and more ornately carved boats in later drawings.  Since similar carvings were found in Southern Norway, one hypothesis is that long-distance voyages may have come into being. 

Credit: Petr Brož

 A creature that is featured prominently is the bear. It is believed that bear was not only hunted, but also worshipped. There are drawings showing tracks leading vertically through a carved image and crossing the horizontal tracks of other animals. Anthropologists have speculated that this indicates the bear’s connection to the afterlife, that the tracks indicate an ability for the bear to pass between the different layers of the world.  

Credit: KSENIA NOVIKOVA / NRK

 Before we visited the Alta Museum, we had gone to the Alta city center for a late brunch. We also got to catch some of the finishers of the Finnmarksløpet, the northernmost sled dog race in the world. The 1000 km (about 630 miles) race entrants had left on March 5 with a 14-dog team. This means that they spent a total of 6 days racing around Finnmark, Wow!

After the Museum, we went into town looking for a coffee shop and cinnamon rolls, but ended up settling for ice cream since Tom saw a shop and started craving it. We then returned to the hotel to pack for our travel day tomorrow and take a nap before our last day of Northern Lights hunting. The forcast wasn’t looking optimistic, but after driving south for about an hour we saw a few shimmers. The lights were more tranquil than the previous two nights, so it seemed as if they were sad to see us go.  

 

Alta: City of Northern Lights

Leaving Oslo behind, we caught a plane this morning to fly north into the Artic Circle. The earth is split into five major circles of latitude, and the Artic Circle is the most north of these. It received its name from the Greek word “ἀρκτικός” which translates to “near the bear; northern.” The term may also refer to either the constellation “Ursa Major” or “Ursa Minor,” which contains Polaris, the North Star.  

Credit: CIA World Factbook

 This polar region has mystified and beckoned to explorers for centuries; from the unique evolution of the local wildlife, to the giants of ice, and, the most mythical of all, the Northern Lights. It is for this reason that Tom and I have bundled up to brave the cold. It’s even expected to get as cold as ZERO degrees farenheit during our stay!

Alta is an idyllic city nestled further inland and east than other well-known Norwegian cities such as Tromso. While we could have chosen Tromso as our home-base for our hunt, we felt that it would have been too touristic in feel. Furthermore, based on our research, Alta’s geographic location makes it less prone to cloudy weather, as clear skies are a must. 

This is the reason why the first Northern Lights Observatory was built here in 1899 by Kristian Birkeland. It’s about a 3-hour hike up Mount Haldde and therefore inaccessible to visitors during the winter. We would have loved to see the lights at night from up there! 

 Since today was predominantly a travel day, we stopped by the city center to grab lunch before heading to the nearby Gargia to check in to our hotel. We knew we’d be renting a car for our hunt, so we opted to stay outside of town to save on lodging costs. Fortunately for me, Tom can drive a stick shift, a skill I have yet to learn! I had a Reindeer Wrap, and it was really yummy! 😄

After relaxing for a bit in our room, we ventured out for Day 1 of our hunt. We drove South-East for about 2-hours and steadily climbed up a mountain pass away from the city lights. Norwegian highways here have designated parking spots along the main thoroughfares making it easy and safe to stop between driving intervals to check the sky. The only time it was remotely scary was when one of the lots had deep snow, I was concerned that the car would get stuck and there would be no human-beings around to rescue us from our dire fate. 

 The skies ended up cloudier than predicted by the forecast, and since it was our first time out, we weren’t even entirely sure what we were looking for. There were some glimmers in the sky that I managed to capture with my Sony RXIII, but a lot of the lights were overshadowed by clouds. We were optimistic about our minor success and knew that we had 3 more nights of hunting ahead of us, so we headed home. 

Oslo: The Norwegian Spirit of Adventure

Norway not only has a rich maritime heritage, but its citizens have also consistently demonstrateda thirst and tenacity for adventure. We visited museums dedicated to two of such explorations, and the Kon-Tiki Museum and the Fram Museum.

 An explorer named Thor Heyerdal developed a theory that Polynesia was settled by inhabitants from South America. According to an Incan legend, there was a sun-god named Con-Tici Viracocha who was the leader of a mythical fair-skin tribe from Peru. His people were nearly massacred during battle on an island in Lake Titicaca when Chief Cari from the Coquimbo Valley came to call. Con-Tici managed to escape with some close companions and disappeared westward out to sea.

In an effort to prove this myth, and demonstrate the plausibility that Polynesians and Peruvians exhibited common traits (such that they shared fair skin coloring generations ago), Thor and five other companions set out on an expedition. The raft was made out of balsa logs and other native materials in the traditional indigenous style documented by the Spanish Conquistadors. After being towed out to sea on April 28, 1947 and being left to the mercy of the wind and currents, they traveled a distance of 4,300 miles in 101 days across the Pacific Ocean before smashing into a reef in Raroia in the Tuamoto Islands on August 7, 1947. Against all odds, and defying expert options that each crew member was facing ultimate death, successful landfall was achieved.  

It’s hard for me to imagine how brave and courageous these men had to be. Not only did anthropologists dismiss Thor’s theories as impossible, but each member had to withstand the pressure and burden of knowing that everyone thought they would perish. 

Another historical vessel we had the wonderful opportunity to board and explore was the Fram Polar Ship. The captain, Fridtjof Nansen’s ambition was to explore the Artic further north than anyone else. From the beginning, he planned the for wooden ship to freeze in a polar ice sheet and float with it over the Noth Pole.

 In order to accomplish this, several creative and technologically advance design changes were made to what would have otherwise been a traditional wooden ship. The hull was built unusually wide and atypically shallow. This allowed do the force of the pressing ice to push the ship up to “float” on top of it rather than being crushed by it. 

Credit: Tom

Additionally, the ship had almost no keel to handle shallow waters, while the rudder and propeller were designed to be retracted. The outer layer of greenheart wood provided for a strong hull, and careful insulation decisions were made so that the crew could live on board for a maximum time of five years. The inclusion of a windmill allowed the ship to generate its own electricity. 

The Fram Polar ship was in service from 1893 to 1912, and is said to have sailed further north and further south than any other wooden ship. 

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