Scandinavia By Train

“Because we both always wanted to go” is the easiest response I can give to the common inquiry about how we ended up touring Scandinavia by train in November. There’s a fairly substantial list of places my boyfriend and I want to visit together, and I have my favorite web sites to thank for pointing us in the direction of our recent ten-day train journey across Sweden, Denmark, and Norway.

Knowing only that we wanted to travel in early November, I turned to my favorite Facebook app, Where I’ve Been, to help choose a destination. In comparing our personal global maps of destinations we’d like to visit I know we have a lot in common; we both want to visit a lot of places including Japan, Croatia, Peru, and Antarctica. All things being equal I relied on trusty online flight search sites to tell me what’s cheap and easy to get to, and found inexpensive direct flights from New York to the countries of Scandinavia, all of which were on both our lists.

While flights to Scandinavia in November are cheap, the costs of travel are another story. To begin with, car rentals and gas in Scandinavia are very expensive, the least expensive car I found would run $700 for a 24-hour rental. Eurail (http://www.eurail.com) on the other hand seemed an ideal solution. The Select Pass Saver in first class, which allows you to visit 3 contiguous countries over any five days within 2 consecutive months, cost $365 each plus reservation fees on certain trains. The most expensive reservation fee was $143 on the high-speed x-2000 from Stockholm to Malmö, while the train from Göteborg to Oslo had no reservation fee at all.

Early November travel in Scandinavia means relatively lower prices across the board as we were between the summer travel season and too early for the holiday season when many Christmas markets and festivals spring up across Scandinavia. But even off-season travel costs in this region are still fairly significant. The timing also meant that some attractions and shops were closed, while others closed early, although there was plenty of activity and things to do and see throughout the trip.

The cab driver transporting us to downtown Stockholm from the Stockholm Arlanda airport ($70) was our first introduction to that famous, wonderful Swedish hospitality. Yes the Swedes really are that nice, and more so than in any other country I’ve visited, I think they actually mean it. It’s easy to understand how this can seem perplexing to Manhattan-based travelers like ourselves, but really when was the last time your cab driver offered you a stick of gum?

The front desk staff at the Nordic Light Hotel (http://www.nordiclighthotel.com; Vasaplan 7, 101 37 Stockholm; +46 (0) 8-5056-3000) was equally nice. And though these days I have less problems checking in for a reservation for one large bed with a boyfriend, the Nordic Light is one of the few hotels I’ve visited where they didn’t check to make sure this wasn’t a potentially “offensive” mistake.

Conveniently located just a few doors down from Centralstationen, Stockholm’s central train station, and within walking distance of most shopping, nightlife, and site-seeing, the Nordic Light Hotel is a stylish member of the Design Hotels family. The hotel’s perhaps unique specialty is light therapy, which one receives throughout both the common areas of hotel and in select rooms.

Never one to pass up a gimmick, I booked a Standard Mood Queen (US$276 per night), which included a truly excellent and varied Swedish breakfast. The light therapy consists of an adjustable sequence of colored lights pulsating softly over the bed, which can be adjusted to anything from steady projection of the one color of your choice to something out of a psychedelic 1960’s sci fi film. We booked one of the smaller rooms, but it was plenty of space for anyone used to Manhattan apartments. The bed’s incredibly comfortable, and the bathroom was of course stylishly designed and had clever features like a cool-looking towel warming rack.

Stockholm is made up of a collection of islands; the central islands are connected by a network of bridges while the outer islands can be visited by boat. The centrally-located smaller island called Gamla Stan is a popular destination for tourists, as its old cobblestone streets are lined with rows of gift shops, restaurants, and jewelry boutiques familiar to anyone whose visited a centralized tourist destination anywhere in the Western world. Scattered amongst the anticipated tourist traps — plush Vikings anyone? — are some interesting specialty shops including the Science Fiction Bokhandeln (http://www.sfbok.se; Västerlånggatan 48, Gamla Stan, Stockholm; +46 (0) 8 21 50 52), which offers two floors of books and gaming needs. A good afternoon’s wander will treat the visitor to plenty of touristy stuff with a few little surprises.

Adjacent to Gamla Stan is larger cousin Södermalm, home to larger and less touristy shops, as well as an excellent selection of restaurants and much of the city’s nightlife. For an authentic sampling of traditional Swedish food don’t miss Pelikan (http://www.pelikan.se; Blekingegatan 40, Stockholm;), where we were seated next to a young Norse thunder god, and feasted on Swedish charcuterie and cinnamon-poached pear ($12), meatballs with cream sauce, pickles, and lingonberries ($24), and wild duck in cider sauce with roasted root vegetables ($31). For a taste of great Swedish lager try the Falcon Export ($9 for 50cl).

Farther along is Djurgarden, a lovely grass and tree-covered peninsula populated by clusters of larger-scale tourist attractions including several museums, a small but interesting aquarium, and Grona Lund Tivoli (http://www.tivoli.se; Gröna Lund, Lilla Allmänna Gränd 9, Stockholm; +46 (0) 8-5875-0100), a decent-sized amusement park which was unfortunately closed for the season. Don’t miss the unique and impressive Vasa Museum (http://www.vasamuseet.se; Djurgarden-Galarvarvet, Stockholm; +46 (0) 8 5195-4800), home to the 1628 battleship Vasa, which sank on its maiden voyage and spent three centuries at the bottom of the Saltsjön. Pause for lunch at the elegant and upscale Josefina (http://www.josefina.nu; Galärvarvsvägen 10, Stockholm; +46 (0) 8 664 10 04), which offers traditional Swedish specialties and fine wines. Start with the excellent duck liver terrine with brioche ($27), then try the beef rydberg ($35), or the elk meatballs w/ cream sauce, fresh pickles, & potato puree ($26).

With lunch at Josefina running over $100, we were starting to wonder if it was possible to have a good meal in Stockholm for under $60, and the popular pub chain Bishop’s Arms (http://www.bishopsarms.com; Vasagatan 7 and other locations, Stockholm; +46 (0) 8 20 23 25) proved that yes you can… barely. The location just outside our hotel and the train station currently employs a Brazilian chef, who really knows how to work the chipotle baby back ribs ($20), and makes a good Bishop’s Burger ($22). Throw in a couple beers and tip and we barely made it.

The next day we were treated to a ride on the X-2000, Sweden’s high-speed rail service to Copenhagen. If you use the Eurail Select Pass Saver, which we highly recommend, be sure to get to the train station extra early to pay your added registration fee, as the Centralstationen lines move slowly and our train left while we were still in line. But the ride itself was fantastic; apparently nobody pays the small incremental sum to bump up to first class, which gave us the entire car to ourselves. Enjoy the comfortable seats, free internet, coffee, fresh fruit, and AC power access, but skip the proffered free lunch (you know what they say) and hit the café car instead.

Where Stockholm was a quiet, efficient, and peaceful oasis of a major western city, Copenhagen felt more familiar to anyone at home in New York, London, Paris, or Montreal. The streets felt bigger, louder, and more bustling in contrast, with rowdier young crowds wandering about enjoying the shops and nightlife. This is definitely a city for bicyclists; scores of bikes overwhelm the streets and hundreds and sometimes thousands of bikes stand chained up outside major destinations like the central train station. But unlike other cities the bikes here obey the law to the letter; they don’t cut across sidewalks and everyone stops for traffic lights.

Within easy walking distance of the central train station and downtown nightlife and shopping is Hotel Fox (http://www.hotelfox.dk; Jarmers Plads 3, Copenhagen; +11 (45) 3395-7755), a fascinating art hotel and entirely unique experience. Depending on your personal expectations, Hotel Fox can be anything from the highlight of your trip to a serious disappointment. If you read travel review sites like TripAdvisor you’ll find quite a bit of disagreement as to the quality of the place, and places like Hotel Fox beautifully illustrate the failing of the universal travel review site.

I find it problematic that most travel commentary and reviews assume that all travelers have the same needs and priorities, and of course in our world of increasingly niche-targeted information we start to realize how in reading general comments and reviews we might be led askew and miss out on great travel experiences.

So our take on the controversial Hotel Fox…? Let’s say this; not recommended for your parents, grandparents, fussy friends, the unadventurous, those who value comfort over style, and people who don’t like art. Most definitely recommended for hipsters, art fiends, the perpetually relaxed, those looking for a new experience, and travelers looking for a change from the limited array of the basic hotel types (fancy, design, chain, cheap).

Hotel Fox is unquestionably a unique experience; each room is decorated by a different international artist, and a museum-style panel outside each room identifies the artist and gives a short explanation of their background and style. And the rooms aren’t just decorated they’re individual immersive experiences. The art of each room extends across walls, ceiling, curtains, furniture, and lighting; it’s like sleeping in a work of art. Rooms are available in a variety of sizes. Our medium-sized room ($222/night) was just big enough to be comfortable for a pair of Manhattanites used to small spaces, so it may feel tight if you’re from anywhere else.

The room offers a stylish and sufficiently comfortable bed and desk, plus a small bathroom with stand-up shower. Amenities are good but could use improvement around issues like offering more than one towel, larger or more pillows, and wireless internet beyond the lobby. However the hotel seems to be in the process of addressing these issues; the desk assured us they’re working on delivering wireless across the building, and in a nice and unusual touch, all their internet access is free. The Danish breakfast, which comes with the room, is served and eaten communally in the gorgeous and stylish lobby, a nice diverse selection of food and drinks, and is really very good.

We also recommend the Fox Kitchen & Bar (http://www.foxkitchen.dk; Jarmers Plads 3, Copenhagen; +11 (45) 3338-7030), the restaurant accessible both through the hotel lobby and through an independent street entrance. Like the hotel, the Fox Kitchen is stylish and artsy without pretense. Creative organic designs drift across the walls and ceiling and a fun 8-bit shadowbox installation keeps you entertained with a series of shifting colorful images reminiscent of early 80’s Atari games.

The food is also beautiful and highly enjoyable. The kitchen creatively assembles intriguing dishes using fresh, indigenous ingredients. Snack on fresh Danish white bread with rapeseed oil, sea salt, and butter, while the kitchen prepares your meal and the bar mixes up special cocktails that were created to accompany each dish. The green cabbage soup with quail egg and crumbled roasted bacon ($17) was as beautiful as it was tasty, and our server informed us that the chef was in the woods this morning handpicking the mixed greens that accompanied the roast beet salad ($15). For dinner try the excellent chicken with pumpkin puree, brussel sprout leaves, and hawthorn berries ($33), or the veal with forest mushrooms, pumpkin, and baked apple ($35). Both the soup and salad were paired with a green apple cocktail, while the dinners were accompanied by a 5-year-old rum cocktail, and a curious blend of carrot, hawthorn berry, and gin ($12 each). It should also be noted that the Fox Kitchen is a nonsmoking restaurant, as this is an exception in Copenhagen.

For a less fancy, though equally delicious, exploration of Danish classic foods, check out Café Dalle Valle (http://www.cafedallevalle.dk; Fiolstraede 5, Copenhagen; +11 (45) 3393-2929)where you can also fall back on burgers and Asian noodles if you’re tiring of open-faced sandwiches. The Pillede rejer (shrimp on rye – $16) was exquisite if a bit heavy due to the substantial accompanying mayo sauce, and the burger ($25) was a great option as well.

If you’re looking for a change from western fare, check out Bombay (http://www.eatatbombay.dk; Lavendelstræde 13, Copenhagen; +11 (45) 3393-9298) for excellent Indian food. After sampling everything imaginable we declared our satisfaction that the place is consistently delicious. Our favorites were tamatar shorba – a spicy vegetarian tomato soup ($9), cottage cheese samosas ($10), and the saag mutton ($20).

After dinner wander just down the street to Centralhjornet (http://www.centralhjornet.dk; Kattesundet 18, Copenhagen; +11 (45) 4533-1185 49), the oldest gay bar in Copenhagen. The lively and mostly older crowd was enjoying the cosy atmosphere, which was fully decked out for Christmas even though the holiday was a full eight weeks away. This is the kind of place that goes all out on the holiday decoration, where the ceiling was barely visible behind the sea or hanging ornaments, and a bizarre drag santa-themed marionette lurked on the bar. We couldn’t stay long though, as it turned out that years of living under New York City’s smoking ban had resensitized us to smoke to a degree we hadn’t realized. After a half hour enjoying the festive yet cloudy environment we had to take a breather and find the next bar.

Copenhagen by day offers no end of fun site seeing; don’t miss the chance to visit the famous Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (http://www.louisiana.dk; Gammel Strandvej 13, Humlebaek; +11 (45) 4919-0719), which is a short train ride away to the northern suburbs. The Louisiana is a large compound comprised of several sprawling buildings connected by gorgeous lawns and sculptures, all of which is perched on the cliffs overlooking the Kattegat Sea. One can wander the grounds and galleries for a full day, or drift in and out in a morning, and easily be back in Copenhagen for lunch.

For an entirely different experience check out downtown’s Museum Erotica (http://www.museumerotica.dk/uk/; Købmagergade 24, Copenhagen; +11 (45) 3312-0311), which offers an impressive array of erotic art, artifacts, and exhibits encompassing all of human history. The first displays contain erotic Egyptian relics and explicit pottery from ancient Greece, the kind you don’t see in “family-oriented” museums. Unfortunately, I was informed that the museum had recently closed its doors.

Our next train led us back into Sweden and north along the sea coast towards Gothenburg, Sweden’s second largest city and an industrial region where tourism is very much on the rise thanks to a variety of attractions and activities. To find out more about this up and coming destination and to learn more about regional gay life we met with a representative of the tourism board over a delicious lunch at the popular Barsidan (http://www.barsidan.com, Kungstorget 7, Gothenburg, +11 (45) 3113-9290).
“You should come back in the summer when Gothenburg is more lively,” our new friend suggested. The town’s riverside location with easy access to the Kattegatt Sea makes for an important and active harbor, but also provides for lots of fun summer sports such as wind surfing. Vintage trams in the summers shuttle tourists about town, where they can explore design stores packed with cleverly designed products made by design students of the university, and the many large music and arts festival including the Way Out West Music Festival (http://www.wayoutwest.se/english), and the Gothenburg Film Festival (http://www.filmfestival.org/filmfestival), the largest in Scandinavia.

When asked about LGBT life here, we understood that there wasn’t a strong necessity for LGBT-specific events, due to the relatively high level of acceptance of gays in Swedish culture. However Gothenburg was proud to produce its first-ever LGBT cultural arts festival this past spring, with participation from local theatres, museums, and a special program made available by the Gothenburg Film Festival.

After lunch we made a beeline to the university student-supplied design stores, seeking famous Swedish designed gadgets. The first and best choice is DesignTorget (http://www.designtorget.se; Vallgatan 14, Gothenburg; +46 31 774 00 17), home to cleverly-designed ingenious gadgets and household curiosities. If you’re looking to bring back something even handsomer and more original than the Ikea product line, this is the place. Slightly more upscale and focusing more on gardening tools and gadgets, is Krypton Form (Vallgatan 17; +46 31 13 63 66), located just across the street, and no relation to the superhero or the chemical element. A bit farther afield and set among cobblestone streets and newly-renovated condos, lies Charlston Second Hand (Haga Nygata 10d, Gothenburg; +46 31 13 68 70), a sprawling and crowded thrift shop offering several rooms packed with knick knacks, and used and retro clothes.

After a day of wandering about town we decided that even in November Gothenburg has plenty of offerings to provide for a day of site-seeing and makes for a nice destination on a Scandinavian journey. The nightlife offers a couple gay bars which though centrally located aren’t very easy to find and don’t show much life in mid-week, though we understand they’re busier on weekends and in season. Gothenburg is also becoming known as a foodie destination, and rightly so. Dinner in the Linne district at the impressive and cozy Hos Pelle (http://www.hospelle.com; Djupedalsg 2, Gothenburg; +46 031 121031) was one of the highlights of the trip.

Ambitious chef Pelle Danielsson is the driving force behind the excellent cuisine, and offers set menus with a chef’s choice of starters and desserts, and your choice between three entrees. He uses classic ingredients for rustic courses, prepared with modern simplicity, and the set 3-course menu varies with the season’s produce. Among the best offerings were a baked slab of pork served with a caramelized top, which was salty and rich with subtle white sauce. Our favorite starter was an almost-raw, gently baked salmon with a little kick provided by chile, offset by kumquats and coriander. Providing a more subtle yet still fascinating flavor were pumpkin turnovers in blue cheese sauce with chives, pomegranate pips, and sunflower seeds. A rich, braised deer chuck main course was served with creamy juniper berry sauce, brussel sprouts, and carrots. Desserts consisted of apple cake with fresh delicious vanilla cream, a bitter brownie-like confection made of chocolate with mandarin orange slices, and a mango ice cream. For Scandinavia, Gothenburg is a relative bargain; the entire gourmet prix fixe 3-course menu was $55 per person, with an optional added cheese course for $8.

The final leg of our train journey took us about 300km almost due north to Oslo, Norway, where at this time of year the sun doesn’t make it to far above the horizon and after an extensive dusk winks out completely by 4pm. The immediately apparent quality about Oslo is that it is really, seriously, insanely expensive. Even coming from Manhattan we found Sweden and Denmark to be fairly pricey, but Oslo was just nuts.

Our first dinner in Oslo was at the popular Oslo-based chain Peppes Pizza (http://www.peppes.com, various locations throughout Oslo), home to a diverse and creative pizza menu, served in a fun, family-style atmosphere. Our serving of garlic bread, two pints of beers, and a large pizza with toppings came to well over $100. As it happened, most of the traditional Norwegian specialties didn’t appeal to us so we took advantage of Peppes and other more inexpensive options just to keep costs from getting out of control. Another great low-cost option is the excellent Vietnamese restaurant Saigon Lille Café (Bernt Ankers Gate, corner of Mollergata, Oslo; +47 22 11 48 13), a smallish family-run eatery where you can enjoy traditional and delicious Vietnamese fare for two with beer for only $65. We mostly passed on the more standard Norwegian fare, as $200-$300 dinners of local specialties featuring lots of stewed cabbage, boiled potatoes, and jellied fish didn’t appeal so much. In all fairness, I’m not a fish eater though I understand if you love fish it’s possible to find truly amazing salmon here.

We stayed at the Gyldenlove location of the popular chain of Thon Hotels (http://www.thonhotels.com/gyldenlove; Bogstadveien 20, Oslo; +47 23 33 23 00), which was relatively less expensive ($257/night) than most of the options. The Thon Hotel Gyldenlove is a bit of a farther walk from downtown Oslo than most of the touristy hotels, but it’s very clean and efficient and seemed popular with business travelers.

Oslo is beautiful and clean and filled with interesting architecture and public art, though the cost of visiting may make most visitors question whether it’s worth the trip. If we had to boil it down to one highlight that makes it worth the trip, we’d have to go with Vigelund Park (Located in the Frognerparken). This unique sculpture garden is set in a beautiful open park, and is riddled with bizarre sculptures, all of which depict life-sized nude women, men, and children engaged in acts of violence, romance, and, seemingly, desperation. A walk through the park takes you past dozens of sculptures of men fending off assaults by small babies, girls being swung through the air or thrown judo-style by adults, and pairs of men, women and children gripping each other out of love, or possibly security. The sculptures create a gigantic runway that leads to a huge stepped mound populated by dozens more sculptures of a more aggressive tone, including male wrestlers, a pile of babies, pairs of women in love – or possibly doing yoga, and a giant pillar of bodies erupting out of the center of the platform, and reaching for the sky.

If the weather is nice, and you don’t mind an extensive stroll through two park areas and small suburban neighborhood, you can hike from Vigelund Park to the worthwhile and impressive Viking Ship Museum (http://www.khm.uio.no/english.php; Frederiksgate 2, Oslo; +47 22 85 19 00), which is one of several museums clustered together in the quiet Bygdoy Peninsula that juts out southwest of downtown. The Viking Sip Museum is home to an impressive array of 9th century Viking relics, including three entire ships. The collection is fascinating and very impressive, with viewing platforms available to get excellent views of all three ships.

For a fun afternoon of shopping and café-hopping try the Grunerlokka neighborhood, which is filled with plenty of both activities. Stop by Los Lobos (http://www.loslobos.no; Thorvald Meyers gate 30, Oslo; +47 22 38 24 40), a kitschy little shop filled with odd retro items and clothes, Elvis memorabilia, funky gifts, and campy magnets, including a number featuring gay humor. Just outside of the neighborhood and closer to the downtown area is an entirely different experience in Pentagon Army (http://www.pentagon.no; Storgata 37, Oslo; +47 22 11 00 11), a sizable army surplus store where you can stock up on guns, swords, Viking helmets, chain mail, outrageous knives, and even ancient Japanese samurai armor. Over in the downtown area don’t miss the very original Haakki (http://haakki.com; Pilestredet 15, Oslo) boutique, which is home to an impressive array of original wittily designed t-shirts in both English and Norwegian.

All four cities on our journey offered a wealth of interesting foods, sites, activities, and people, and the four destinations offer distinctly different experiences. Of the four our favorite destination by far was Stockholm, which combined awesome Swedish hospitality with intriguing sites and activities, and plenty of great food and nightlife. We found it to be the most unique, and the best destination for the most experiences we couldn’t get anywhere else. Copenhagen on the other hand felt like more familiar territory and reminded us of other western cities. Gothenburg of course offered much of what we liked about Stockholm on a smaller scale, though if we return in the summer we’d definitely want to check out the cultural festivals. Oslo in retrospect would have been great for a day, just to check out Vigelund and see the town, though it’s way too expensive to justify a stay of any longer period of time, unless of course you have the funds to handle it.



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