Paul Kilfoil's World of Travel, Technology & Sport

Europe : May-July 1998
 
 

 
This page describes a trip by Paul Kilfoil (accompanied for part of the time by Mildred Kilfoil) to Europe in 1998.
Check out my travelogues page for details of other trips I've done.

If you enjoyed reading this, please send me an email. All correspondence is appreciated!

[Tuesday 5 May 1998 : Cape Town, South Africa] The start of our trip was the usual economy class, sardine-in-a-can "slept-in-your-clothes" feeling you get on all overnight flights, in this case from Cape Town to Vienna in Austria. To make matters worse we also had to endure a tedious two hour layover in Johannesburg on the way, but on the whole it must be said that Austrian Airlines weren't too bad at all.

[Wednesday 6 May : Vienna, Austria] We landed in Vienna, took the train from the airport into the city (Wien Mitte station) and checked into Pension Kraml, a very nice place just off Maria Hilfer Street. After catching up on some sleep we explored the area around Maria Hilfer Street, an elegant thoroughfare that leads directly into the city centre and along which there are many shops, restaurants and hotels.

[Thursday 7 May : Vienna, Austria] After breakfast we strolled down Maria Hilfer Street, across the "Ring" and into Vienna city centre. These days Vienna is a relative backwater, but in the grand old days of the Habsburgs it was the centre of an empire that ruled most of central and eastern Europe, and the sheer grandeur of the regal old buildings in the city centre is a reflection of Austria's glorious past. We spent the day admiring the splendour of the sights, such as the huge, imposing but very gloomy Gothic cathedral (Stephensdom), Belvedere Castle, the Sacher Hotel (where you can eat a slice of the famous Sacher torte at some astronomical cost), the Russian monument, the Hofburg and lots more.

[Friday 8 May : Vienna, Austria] Today we each bought a day pass for unlimited use of the Tram/Bus/Metro (underground train) system, and used it to visit parts of Vienna outside of the city centre. Schönbrunn Palace is stunning, and can justifiably claim to rival Versailles in Paris - which was what Emperor Leopold I intended when he commissioned it to be built in the 1690's. The original design for the palace was so opulent and expensive that it was never finished, but even in its incomplete state it is truly magnificent. We also visited the new waterfront area alongside the Danube River, where there are loads of restaurants, bars and clubs. That night we had Wiener Schnitzel for supper, which seemed appropriate seeing as we were in Vienna.

Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, Austria

[Saturday 9 May : Prague, Czech Republic] We checked out of our very pleasant guest house, took the metro to Vienna's South Station (Sudbahnhof) and from there a train to Prague, arriving late in the afternoon. We had an interesting experience on the way - a heavy storm deposited massive quantities of hail and sleet on the railway tracks, and our train had to stop, reverse and switch to an alternative track to bypass the obstruction. The delay meant that we only just made it to a Thomas Cook office in Prague before they closed, and cashed some travellers' cheques into Czech crowns.

[Sunday 10 May : Prague, Czech Republic] The heat in Prague is intense, not at all what I imagined Eastern Europe to be like ... I walked around for four days in shorts and a T-shirt, and drank litres of water. Quite a change from the weather we'd experienced on the train here from Vienna, when it had been dark, cold and gloomy with a freak hailstorm.

There are two particular sights in Prague that are most well known - Charles Bridge over the Vltava River and the castle (hrad) perched on a hill above town, so on our first full day here we strolled over the bridge (which is indeed very scenic) then slogged up the steep streets to the castle. You enter the castle via St Vitus Cathedral, an enormous Gothic edifice that took over 600 years to complete. Inside the castle precinct there are several buildings, among them the Old Royal Palace, the Imperial Mausoleum and the beautiful Basilica of St George, an elegant Romanesque structure that has been meticulously restored and maintained. The basilica contains a rather macabre sight - a glass tomb containing St Ludmilla's skeleton.

Prague Castle in the Czech Republic

In addition to the skeletal remains in the Basilica of St George, Prague has several other strange (and often grisly) sights. Inside the Church of Our Lady Victorious there is a small porcelain statue of Jesus which is dressed in a different outfit every day of the year by the nuns of a nearby convent. St Jacob's cathedral, near the famous Tyn Church, reputedly has had a thief's arm dangling from its entrance for five centuries, but despite an intensive search we were unable to find it. Crosses built into the paving of Old Town Square mark the spot where 27 Protestant leaders were executed in 1621 for a (failed) rebellion against the Catholic rulers. And, more recently, there is a memorial in Wenceslas Square to Jan Pallach, a student who set himself on fire on that exact spot in 1969 in protest against the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia.

[Monday 11 May : Prague, Czech Republic] We continued to explore Prague, an irresistibly captivating city. It's not called the "City of a Thousand Spires" for nothing - there are towers everywhere. From Wenceslas Square we strolled to old town square (Starometske Namesty), arriving just in time to view the spectacle of the astronomical clock with its bell-ringing skeleton. The art nouveau monument to Jan Hus takes pride of place in the centre of the square, as befits the iconic status of this 15'th century religious reformer in Czech culture.

Charles Bridge in Prague

The Czech Republic only threw off the shackles of Communism in 1989, but since then it has been embracing free enterprise with enthusiasm, more so than most of the rest of Eastern Europe - the city centre streets around Wenceslas Square are filled with brand-name stores such as Gucci, Benetton and (unfortunately) McDonald's, and there are neon signs and huge advertising signboards everywhere. However, most of the churches that were shut during the Communist era have either remained closed or are now used for concerts or music recitals.

[Tuesday 12 May : Prague, Czech Republic] After spending some time figuring out Prague's tram system (which is quite logical and straightforward), we took a tram along the Vltava River to Mala Strana Gardens, where we rode the funicular up the hill to the Petrin tower. The top of the hill is a wooded park, quite pleasant for a relaxing stroll. When we decided to go back down again, the Communist-era woman at the funicular ticket office refused to sell us tickets unless we had the exact change. I was dumbfounded - the price of a ticket was not much and we had more than enough money, but only in large-denomination banknotes. She simply would not budge and would not let us go down. She could not grasp the concept that we had no way of getting change without going down the hill, in which case we did not need the funicular!

I was about to walk down into the city, get some coins then come back up again (because Mildred would not have managed the steep descent), when some British people came along and overheard the absurd conversation we were having. They were kind enough to give us a few Kroner, enough to buy two tickets and we rode down the hill. The whole incident was surreal, and showed that whilst free enterprise and democracy may have come to the Czech Republic, not all Czechs have changed their attitudes.

Immaculate castle grounds in Bratislava, Slovakia

That night we had a fabulous Czech dinner at a small restaurant just off Republic Square - pork cutlets and mushrooms, very tasty. I took a last, late-night walk along Charles Bridge, enjoying the festive atmosphere of buskers, musicians and jugglers.

[Wednesday 13 May : Vienna, Austria] We boarded a train to Bratislava in Slovakia, leaving the magical city of Prague behind with some regret. After the fall of Communism in 1989, Czechoslovakia was separated into two countries, so getting to Bratislava involved leaving the Czech Republic and entering the relatively new Republic of Slovakia. This proved easier said than done - the cover of Mildred's passport had somehow become dislodged from the passport itself and the surly Slovak border guards absolutely refused to let us into their country. After sitting on hard wooden benches in the border post for half an hour while the guards conferred, they put us on the next train back to the Czech Republic. However, rather than ride all the way back to Prague (a journey of more than four hours) we got off at the very next station and caught the first train to Vienna in Austria, which was much closer - Bratislava and Vienna are on opposite sides of the Danube River. The Austrian border guards shook their heads in disbelief at what had happened to us ; reading between the lines I got the impression that that kind of experience was not uncommon when trying to enter Slovakia.

In Vienna we found a cheap hotel for one night near West Bahnhof (West Station) - the West End Hotel, a place I'd previously stayed in when I visited Vienna in 1996.

New bridge over the Danube, Bratislava

[Thursday 14 May : Bratislava, Slovakia] With the help of the hotel's receptionist we located the South Africa embassy in Vienna on a map and headed there to get Mildred's passport fixed or replaced. Unfortunately the embassy wasn't in the city centre, so finding it involved a Metro trip, then a ride on a tram followed by a ten minute walk. Thankfully the embassy was open and we were very courteously treated by an under-secretary who also shook his head at the boorish attitude of the Slovak border guards. The embassy could not replace the passport without a delay of several days (perhaps weeks), so they taped the cover back on and liberally sealed the repairs with a great many official "Republic of South Africa" stamps. With that we had to be content, and hope that the passport would pass muster at the next border we crossed ...

Back in the city we collected our luggage at the hotel and went to the bus station to attempt once again to get into Slovakia ; we decided to avoid trains this time and try a road border via bus instead. There was a tense wait at the border while the Slovak guards examined our passports, but to our huge relief they let us in.

We arrived in Bratislava after little more than an hour on the bus. We then endured a long walk from Bratislava bus station, a difficult search for the tourist information office and protracted but wasted negotiations with a thieving taxi driver, but I finally managed to get a reservation for us at a place called the Sorea Hotel. To get to the hotel we had to take one of Bratislava's ancient trams, huge ponderous beasts that clank around the city centre all day and most of the night. The antiquated ticket system on board the tram was difficult to figure out, but we managed it and rode two stops out of the city centre to a pleasant, wooded district on the banks of the Danube River. We found the Sorea Hotel easily enough and checked in for the next three nights ; it was a pleasant place, but (like much of Slovakia) faded round the edges and slightly decrepit.

Parliament buildings alongside the Danube River, Budapest

[Friday 15 May : Bratislava, Slovakia] Bratislava city centre has been almost totally rebuilt since the demise of Communism and is now quite attractive, with immaculately paved sidewalks, smart new buildings and squeaky-clean streets. It also isn't very big - you can easily explore the entire city centre on foot in one day. Westernization is catching on, but not quite to the extent that it's done in Prague ; there are very few neon advertisements or big brand stores. There's also very little traffic, and the cars you do see are mostly old and clapped-out. Another dead give-away that the improvements we saw are very recent are the heavy old trams which clank around the city, ancient and wheezing monstrosities that are a throwback to an earlier age. However, the trams are well-used and seemed efficient enough.

Unfortunately Bratislava's cosmetic renovations don't extend very far - you only have to go a little way out of the city centre to see how derelict some of the more non-touristed areas are. Grassalkovich Palace, for example, is crumbling and ramshackle, with unkempt, overgrown and weed-choked gardens.

[Saturday 16 May : Bratislava, Slovakia] I walked over the hugely impressive new bridge (Novy Most) which crosses the Danube River. It has two massive angled concrete arches on one side with heavy steel cables across to the other side - very unusual but an amazing sight. On the other (south) side of the river you can take a lopsided lift up one of the bridge's arches to the "flying saucer" rotating restaurant on the roof, from where there are incredible views in every direction. The vista to the south is dominated by mile upon mile of dull concrete apartment blocks, built by the Communists to house workers and with hardly a tree or bush in sight.

In the afternoon we visited Bratislava Castle perched on the hill above the city, adjacent to which are the new parliament buildings. At first glance the castle appears old (although well-maintained), but in reality it was only built in 1957! The original castle, dating from the 10'th century, was destroyed in 1811 and remained in ruins until the 1950's.

Heroes' Square in Budapest, Hungary

[Sunday 17 May : Budapest, Hungary] Wary of the rip off artists masquerading as taxi drivers in Bratislava, we asked our hotel reception to order a reputable taxi to take us to the train station. We boarded the 10:35 AM international express to Budapest in Hungary, and sat nervously in our compartment as the Hungarian border guards examined our passports. Amazingly, South Africans did not require visas to enter Hungary (I had checked and confirmed), but did the border guards know this? They spent ages leafing through our passports and consulting a little book, but to our great relief they eventually handed our passports back with a surly "Welcome to Hungary".

Unfortunately our good fortune at the border coincided with a major turn-around of the weather - it started raining, and hardly stopped the entire three days we spent in Budapest. It didn't help that we stayed in a basement apartment, which was dark and gloomy even without the relentless rain and grey skies.

[Monday 18 May : Budapest, Hungary] Budapest is divided into two parts - the old town (Buda) and the modern centre (Pest), with the Danube River between them. We explored Pest in the rain on our first day ; it's still very drab, grey and Communist-like. One fairly impressive area is Heroes' Square and the Millennium Monument, built in 1896 to commemorate 1000 years of the existence of Hungary. Behind Heroes' Square is City Park (Varosliget) containing Vajdahunyad Castle and the statue of Anonymous, the secretive scribe who painstakingly documented much of Hungary's history.

[Tuesday 19 May : Budapest, Hungary] The most famous bridge over the Danube River is the Chain Bridge in Budapest, and this morning we walked over it from the new city centre (Pest) to the old town (Buda) on the other side. There we were confronted with a steep hill and a funicular railway up to the Castle District, heart of Budapest's old town. Funiculars are always fun, and we enjoyed the short ride to the top.

The Brandenburg Gate, Berlin
(it was bricked up and closed from 1961 to 1989)

The difference between Buda and Pest was immediately obvious the moment we stepped off the funicular - the old town consists almost entirely of centuries-old stone buildings (many of them in a serious state of disrepair), uneven, cobbled streets and not a car in sight. There was plenty of evidence of the failed 1956 uprising against the Communists in the form of bullet-holes in walls. We walked up to Fishermen's Bastion and gazed over the castle walls at the magnificent view of Budapest across the Danube River. Unfortunately, after a brief respite the rain came down again and we were driven into a book-cum-coffee shop, where we enjoyed great coffee and pastries.

[Wednesday 20 May : Vienna, Austria] Before leaving Budapest we exchanged all our Forints (the worthless Hungarian currency) then caught a mid-morning train to Vienna. Mildred flew back to South Africa from Vienna ; I saw her off at the airport before returning to the city and getting on the overnight "EuroLines" bus to Berlin.

[Thursday 21 May : Berlin, Germany] After a sleepless night on the bus from Vienna, I arrived in Berlin early in the morning, knackered and hungry. The route from Vienna was via the Czech Republic, and (as usual) my South African passport caused a major hold-up at the Czech border. Thankfully I had no problems - being dumped on the road next to the Austria-Czech border at 2 AM would not have been a barrel of laughs.

It was a long weekend in Germany, so finding a place to stay in Berlin was difficult - I tramped around for a couple of hours, going from pension to pension, until I found a room for one night only (after that they were fully booked). I dumped my gear in my room and immediately headed out to look for another place for the next two nights ; this time my luck was in, because I found a pension that was very conveniently located about 50 metres from the Charlottenburg S-Bahn station (which itself was only two stations from Zoo Bahnhof, Berlin's central station) and I booked a room there for the remainder of my stay in Berlin.

The Berlin Wall
Even though Berlin was jointly governed by the USA, Great Britain, France and the USSR (the Soviet Union) from the end of World War II in 1945, there were initially no barriers between the four sectors. That changed on 13 August 1961 when the Soviet Union closed the border of their sector, effectively dividing Berlin into a "West" side and an "East" side. Construction of the Berlin Wall began shortly after that, and because Berlin was entirely enclosed within East Germany, West Berlin was sealed off from the rest of the world for the next 28 years. The collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 signalled the end, and on 9 November 1989 crowds of people stormed the wall and crossed over to the West. Dismantling of the wall began in June 1990, by which time all border controls and checks had been abolished.

[Friday 22 May : Berlin, Germany] Berlin is a HUGE place, but the public transport system is fast and typically efficient. I bought a day-pass for each day that I was there, and used it to travel all over Berlin on the U-Bahn (underground trains) and S-Bahn (above-ground trains). Berlin resembles a massive construction site as the rebuilding of post-Cold War East Berlin continues. The contrast between the wealth and affluence of what used to be West Berlin (which was part of non-Communist West Germany) and the old East Berlin is vast and shocking - nearly ten years after unification of the two countries much of what was the east is still desolate, grim and grey. Many buildings in the east have not even been repaired after suffering damage in World War II, which was 53 years ago! However, the area around Kurfürstendamm in the west resembles any smart shopping district in London, Paris or New York.

[Saturday 23 May : Berlin, Germany] I spent another enjoyable day exploring Berlin, visiting sights such as Checkpoint Charlie, Brandenburg Gate, the East Side Gallery (a section of the Berlin Wall, about a kilometre long, that was left standing and which has been painted with murals by various artists), the Reichstag, the zoo with its famous Elephant gates, the Topographie des Terrors depicting the atrocities committed by the Nazis in World War II and the overwhelmingly monstrous Russian war memorial in Treptower Park. Schloss (castle) Charlottenburg is impressive - it was virtually destroyed in the war but has been completely rebuilt and is the largest palace in Berlin.

Checkpoint Charlie, a tense border post in the days of the Cold War and which was the scene of many daring escapes from the East to the West (it also featured in countless spy novels and movies), is now nothing but a busy street intersection surrounded by gleaming new office blocks. The giant sign that once proclaimed "You are leaving the American Sector" has been removed and replaced with a small replica on the sidewalk outside the Museum at Checkpoint Charlie. This museum (Haus am Checkpoint Charlie Museum) is in an old rambling house and is absolutely fascinating. It opened in 1963, two years after the Wall was built, and documents in detail how Berlin was divided by the Communists, the building of the Berlin Wall, the various attempted escapes (some successful, most not), the eventual collapse of Communism and the reunification of Berlin and Germany. I spent an entire afternoon there.

A still-surviving section of the Berlin Wall, Germany

[Sunday 24 May : Berlin, Germany] I was booked on an overnight train to Copenhagen in Denmark that night, so I checked out of my pension and left my backpack in a locker at the station while I tramped around Berlin for the last time. It was icy cold, and with nowhere to go I was eventually driven into a coffee shop, where I drank multiple cups of coffee and ate many German pastries while catching up on my diary. But at least it was warm ...

The overnight train from Berlin was packed to the rafters with German holiday-makers, so I couldn't stretch out. But at least I had a seat - many people stood or sat in the corridor of the coach for hours. At about 2 AM we arrived in Hamburg, where I had to get off and wait two hours on the freezing platform for my Copenhagen-bound train. The temperature at 4 AM INSIDE Hamburg's train station was 3 degrees Celsius (this was in late May ; what's it like in January or February?)

[Monday 25 May : London, England] I arrived in Copenhagen in Denmark knackered after a sleepless night on the two trains. For much of the way from Hamburg I shared a compartment on the train with two Swedes, a Dane and a Norwegian ; all four talked non-stop in their own languages and were able to understand each other with no great difficulty. The Norwegian girl fell asleep during the night and missed her stop - lucky for her I vaguely remembered her saying where she wanted to get off and woke her, but only after we'd passed the station. The rest of us endured a blur of frenzied action in the compartment as she packed her gear and jumped off the train at the next stop, leaving the air blue with Norwegian swearing.

My stay in Copenhagen was brief - I had breakfast then caught the bus to the airport and flew to London on Scandinavian Airlines (SAS). At Heathrow Airport in London I rode the Underground ("Tube") to Tower Hill, collected the keys to an apartment that had been booked for me by the company for whom I was due to work for the next week and moved in. It was a Bank Holiday in England and almost everything was shut.

[Tuesday 26 May : London, England] I spent the next four days working.

Nyhavn (New Harbour), Copenhagen

[Saturday 30 May : Oxford, England] I checked out of my apartment in London, took the Tube to Victoria and caught a bus ("coach" as it's called in the UK) to Oxford. I spent the afternoon exploring this bustling university town then stayed the night with some friends who were managing a pub there.

[Sunday 31 May : Copenhagen, Denmark] From Oxford I took a coach direct to Heathrow Airport (south-west of London) and flew back to Copenhagen in Denmark - I had been there only six days before. Chilly, wintry weather greeted my arrival in the Danish capital, a situation which would unfortunately prevail for most of my stay in Scandinavia ... I took the bus into town and after looking at a few hotels near the main train station I checked into the Saga Hotel for three nights [Aside : Two years later, in 2000, a high-speed railway line to the airport was opened, making it much easier to get into Copenhagen from the airport].

[Monday 1 June : Copenhagen, Denmark] The Saga Hotel was quite expensive (welcome to Scandinavia) and I had a tiny room, but breakfast was included and was absolutely fantastic. Suitably replete, I set out to explore Copenhagen. The capital of Denmark is an interesting city but it could be even better - it is on the east coast of the island of Zealand, right on the Baltic Sea, but most of the waterfront area is occupied by warehouses, factories, military bases and derelict land. So even though Copenhagen is a major sea port, the city itself is largely separate from the sea. One exception is Nyhavn (New Harbour), an old sea-fronting trading district that has been transformed into a trendy and very popular area of restaurants, bars and nightclubs.

One fantastic innovation in Copenhagen that I made frequent use of was the free City Bike scheme. All over the place there are bicycle racks containing city-owned bikes that anybody can use for free, provided you don't leave the city limits. You deposit 20 kroners in the rack to release a bicycle, use it for as long as you want and when you return it to any rack (not necessarily the one you took it from) you get your 20 kroners back again. And because Copenhagen is largely flat with fairly easy-going traffic, cycling is easy. The bicycles themselves are very basic and quite well-used, but they are perfectly satisfactory for riding around the city. What a great idea, but I suspect that there aren't many other countries where a system like this based on people's honesty would work.

The Öresund Link
In 2000 the Öresund Bridge and Tunnel (properly called the Öresund Link) across the North Sea linking Denmark and Sweden was opened. The link consists of a bridge over the sea nearly eight kilometres long and a tunnel of approximately four kilometres beneath the sea bed, thus allowing ships to pass through the straits. The bridge meets the tunnel on an artificial island called Peberholm (Pepper Islet) which was made out of the rock and spoil dredged up during construction. The link was completed in only five years and allows trains and cars to travel direct from Copenhagen in Denmark to Malmö in Sweden.

No trip to Copenhagen would be complete without a visit to Tivoli, the most famous amusement park in the world and which dates back to 1843 (although it is not the oldest - that honour belongs to Dyrehavsbakken, also in Denmark in the town of Klampenborg). The rides in the park are fairly tame and clearly aimed at young children, but it is very pleasant just strolling around and admiring how exquisitely maintained it is even after more than 150 years of operation.

Apart from Tivoli, the most famous feature of Copenhagen is the statue of the Little Mermaid. Unveiled in 1913, it is a nondescript bronze sculpture perched on some rocks near the water's edge, behind the military-occupied Kastellet. The statue was based on a character created by Hans Christian Andersen, Denmark's greatest writer, and has become an icon of Copenhagen and a favourite with tourists.

Late in the afternoon I walked around Christiana, a so-called "free city" where residents don't pay tax or receive services. Sounds romantic, but in reality it is a bunch of squatters living in filth in a derelict and abandoned military base - most of it is dirty, the streets (such as they are) are broken and a haze of drugs permeates the atmosphere. The whole place is a kind of throwback to the sixties.

Sandefjord, Norway : The train station (above)
Whaling statue and fountain (below)

[Tuesday 2 June : Copenhagen, Denmark] In the morning I visited the Carlsberg Brewery at one end of the city (the pillars of the brewery gates are two impressively carved stone elephants), then sprinted back downtown to the Danish Resistance Museum, getting there hot and perspiring just in time for the 2 PM guided tour. "Danish resistance" during World War II is a bit of an oxymoron because the Nazis simply marched into Denmark and took over while the Danes watched - unlike the Norwegians, who fought tooth and nail despite being overwhelmingly outnumbered. Afterwards I strolled down Strøget, which is apparently the longest pedestrian shopping street in the world. A motor cavalcade containing the royal car of the Japanese Emperor and Empress, who were on a state visit to Denmark, happened to drive right past me as I was waiting at a traffic light to cross the street.

[Wednesday 3 June : Roskilde, Denmark] I checked out of my hotel and caught a train west to Roskilde, a small town about 25 kilometres from Copenhagen. In ancient times Roskilde was the capital of Denmark, but now it is a quiet town most well-known for its very impressive Viking ship museum. The museum contains the remnants of five Viking ships that were dredged up from the bottom of the nearby fjord, all over one thousand years old. There is also a yard where modern-day Viking ship replicas are built. After a quick look at the Roskilde cathedral I caught a train back to Copenhagen, collected my luggage from the hotel where I'd left it and boarded an overnight train to Oslo in Norway (via Sweden). Amazingly, the entire train drives onto the ferry for the short trip over the North Sea to Sweden! There are train tracks on the ferry which are lined up with the ones on the dock. Incredible ; I'd never seen that before.

This was the first day I used my ScanRail Pass, a ticket which allowed me unlimited use of any train (and some buses and ferries) in Scandinavia for a period of 30 days. So it was valid from 3 June to 2 July 1998, almost exactly the time I was planning to be in Denmark, Sweden and Norway.

[Thursday 4 June : Tønsberg, Norway] I arrived in Oslo early in the morning to find that virtually every hotel, guest house and hostel in the city was booked solid. So I bought a Norwegian phone card (a prepaid card for use in public telephones), phoned a pension that was conveniently located in Oslo's city centre, booked a room for two days time and got on the first train south to Tønsberg, a small town on the south-east coast of Norway. It was a pleasant ride, the railway tracks next to the gently lapping waves of the North Sea for most of the way. The youth hostel in Tønsberg was virtually empty so I managed to get a private room there for the next two nights.

[Friday 5 June : Tønsberg, Norway] With a day to kill before I could go back to Oslo, I used my ScanRail pass to explore the coastline around Tønsberg by hopping on and off trains on the seaside railway line that runs between Oslo and Kristiansand. The towns are all fairly small and trains were frequent, so I easily managed to visit Drammen, Sandefjord, Larvik and Skien in one day. Sandefjord was by far the nicest, a quaint seaside town with a busy harbour.

There is an unusual monument in Sandefjord - a fountain surrounding a whaleboat being upturned by the giant fluke of a whale. In years past the hunting of whales was a huge industry on the Norwegian coast (and still is, albeit on a smaller scale and despite attempts by the rest of the world to curb this practice).

[Saturday 6 June : Oslo, Norway] For the third day in a row I was on the train, this time back to Oslo where I checked into the pension I had booked two days before. Oslo is a beautiful city, with a newly-renovated waterfront area bustling with restaurants, outdoor cafes, bars and crowds of people enjoying themselves. Everything is obscenely expensive, much pricier than Denmark, and I realized that my days of getting a private room at guest houses would have to come to an end. But I did find an Italian restaurant on Karl Johans Gate (the main road through the city) that had an "eat all you can" pizza special between 12 noon and 3 PM, so I had a huge lunch there and counted my rapidly-dwindling Norwegian kroners.

Stortinget (parliament) in Oslo, Norway

One of the strangest places in Oslo is the Royal Palace, official residence of the king and queen of Norway. It is strange because there are virtually no security precautions at all - you can walk right up to the front door of the palace and knock! No fence or wall, just a small, open square across which pedestrians walk and one bored-looking soldier standing to one side. The changing of the guard was also some way short of the efficiency and perfection that you might find at Buckingham Palace in London ...

[Sunday 7 June : Oslo, Norway] This morning I went by ferry across the Oslofjord to the Bygdøy Peninsula where there are several noteworthy and interesting museums. First up was the Fram Museum, which contains the wooden polar ship "Fram". This famous vessel was used by Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen in several expeditions, most notably in 1911 when it carried Amundsen's team to within striking distance of the South Pole (which they reached a few weeks before British explorer Robert Falcon Scott).

Right next door is the Kon-Tiki Museum, a fascinating place dedicated to the many trans-oceanic voyages undertaken by legendary Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl. The original balsa wood raft, named Kon-Tiki, that he sailed across the Pacific Ocean from Peru to Polynesia in 1947 is on display, as well as a papyrus boat he sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in 1970. A persistent man, Thor Heyerdahl.

Last stop for me was another nautically-themed place, the Viking Ship Museum. A grand memorial to the ocean-going prowess of the Vikings of old, it contains the hulls of three Viking ships that were excavated in southern Norway towards the end of the 19'th century - the almost perfectly preserved "Gokstad" and "Oseberg" ships, as well as another ship that isn't much more than fragments. These ships were built around 900 AD, making them easily more than a thousand years old! The seaworthiness of these craft was demonstrated in 1983 when a replica of the "Gokstad" ship was successfully sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to the USA.

Afterwards I didn't take the ferry back to Oslo but walked the long way round, via the open-air Vigeland Sculpture Park. This is a huge expanse of grass, paving and fountains given over entirely to the works of Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland. Upon his death he donated all his sculptures to the people of Norway, so entrance is free ; you can browse around for hours among more than 200 statues.

The funicular up Mount Fløyen near Bergen, Norway

[Monday 8 June : Oslo, Norway] Up to now I'd been walking around Oslo without using public transport but I wanted to try out the city's Metro system (which is called the Tunnelbana or T-bane). Looking at my map I noticed that the Holmenkollen Ski Jump is near the end of one of the metro lines so that seemed a good way to kill many birds with one stone - I'd never seen a ski jump and I'd be able to do so while checking out the metro and seeing some of the mountain countryside near Oslo (ski jumps are always high up). I boarded a train at a metro station in the city centre and was immediately impressed - like most things Scandinavian, it was clean, efficient and very pleasant. The tracks only stayed underground for a relatively short distance before popping out into the open. The train stopped at many small stations in attractive, tree-lined suburbs as it moved away from the city centre, the houses getting further and further apart until patches of open countryside appeared.

The ski jump was a short walk from the Holmenkollen metro station. It is an impressive sight - a huge curved ramp on the slopes of a mountain. You can climb right to the top and look down, and only then do you realize how high and steep it is. The area at the bottom where the jumpers land, which is covered with snow in winter, was a pool of water at this time of year. Next to the ski jump is a small museum showcasing a brief history of the sport of ski jumping.

I spent my last afternoon in Oslo browsing around the swish new Oslo Shopping Centre and exploring the very attractive and up-market Aker Brygge waterfront area - fancy restaurants, hip and trendy bars and fashionable clothing boutiques, all with prices to match.

[Tuesday 9 June : Bergen, Norway] I had heard that the scenery on the rail route between Oslo and Bergen on the west coast was fantastic, so I took the earliest train from Oslo that I could - the whole trip would then be in daylight. And I wasn't disappointed ; it was an amazing journey across Norway from east to west, through snow, across mountains and next to lakes of the deepest blue. On many occasions when the railway line skirted mountain peaks it was routed through "avalanche shelters", concrete roofs over the tracks abutting the mountain and usually open on one side. These were built to ensure the railway stayed open all year round - in years past snow would frequently cover the tracks in winter and cause lengthy stoppages. These days there are seldom delays because of bad weather.

The highest point on the line is a town called Finse, which even in June was blanketed with snow. People who got off the train there put on ski's and skiied home! Some people were collected by friends or relatives in dog sledges.

A train from Flåm approaching Myrdal station, Norway

The train pulled into Bergen in the late afternoon. My luck was in and I found a great place to stay just a few blocks from the train station and near the centre of town - a newly-renovated guest house with fantastic hot showers and a well-equipped kitchen for the use of guests. After settling in I spent the evening watching World Cup football on TV, listening to commentary in Norwegian and not understanding a word of what was said.

[Wednesday 10 June : Bergen, Norway] Bergen is Norway's second largest city and is a major sea-port on the west coast. Founded in 1070 AD by King Olaf III Haraldsson, Bergen was Norway's capital in the 12'th and 13'th centuries and remained an important trading centre despite being ravaged by fire in 1702 and 1916. The city was controlled by German Hanseatic merchants from the 14'th to the 17'th centuries ; their legacy was Bryggen, the historic harbour district where their wooden trading houses still remain and which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Bergen is famed for having a fine aquarium and I visited it today. It is indeed very extensive and has a huge variety of marine species on display, but it is quite old and the windows into the tanks are not very big - unlike more modern aquariums where entire tanks are made of glass so visitors can see everything inside. But even if it was a bit dated, it was still pretty impressive.

Walking back to the guest house I browsed around the open-air seafood market on the waterfront. Almost anything imaginable that comes out of the sea and which is edible can be bought there - alive, dead, frozen or cooked. Everything looked incredibly fresh, with no fish stink that you often get at fish markets. I hunted around for a while until I found a stall selling smoked mackerel that didn't need to be cooked, bought some and headed back to the guest house where I ate a lip-smackingly delicious lunch of mackerel on fresh buttered rolls from the bakery round the corner.

The Flåm Railway
The railway line from Oslo to Bergen was completed in 1909 and almost immediately thereafter the need for a branch line down to the Sognefjord (the longest and deepest fjord in Norway) was identified. Work on this branch line from Myrdal on the Oslo-Bergen route commenced in 1923, but it wasn't until 1940 that the tracks reached Flåm, a tiny village on the shores of the Aurlandsfjord (a branch of the Sognefjord).

The steep mountain sides proved to be an enormous challenge. This problem was solved by constructing "hairpin tunnels", with the line looping round in spirals as it descended. The rail distance from Myrdal to Flåm is just over twenty kilometres, and in this short distance there are no less than twenty "rock" tunnels, five "water" tunnels and one bridge, with an altitude difference from top to bottom of 863 metres.

The scenery on the trip is unrelentingly spectacular, so although the line was originally built with freight in mind, these days tourists make up the bulk of all traffic. Of the many waterfalls that the train passes, the Kjosfossen Waterfall is probably the most stunning - it is about five kilometres from Myrdal and all trains stop here so that passengers can get out for a closer look.

[Thursday 11 June : Bergen, Norway] Another day of exploring Bergen. Much of it is quite modern (having been rebuilt after the devastating fire of 1916), but there are some older buildings - St Mary's Church (dating from the 12'th century), Bergenhus fortress, Håkonshallen (Haakon's Hall, built in the 13'th century) and the Rosenkrantz Tower. Quite a few of these were severely damaged during the German occupation of Norway in World War II, but have since been restored.

Directly behind the city centre there is a steep mountain, Mount Fløyen, at the top of which is a restaurant and a park. You can walk up, a stiff climb, or take the funicular (rack railway) to the top. Funiculars are always fun so I chose to ride the railway up and walk down. The views from the top are superb - the whole of Bergen is spread out below and you start to appreciate how rugged and twisted is Norway's coastline. The sea is everywhere but there is nothing remotely resembling a beach anywhere, just rocky islands, narrow inlets and cliffs pounded by the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

[Friday 12 June : Bergen, Norway] I took a day-trip on a local train east to the village of Voss, back over the tracks I'd been on three days earlier from Oslo ; as before, the views from the train were spectacular. Voss is a quaint little town sandwiched between the placid waters of Lake Vangsvatnet and the Vosso River, popular as a winter sports destination and not very busy at this time of year. The town contains an impressive 13'th century church (the Vangskyrkja) and some splendid mountain scenery but not much else. However, it was pleasant strolling around in the country after too many days in big cities.

[Saturday 13 June : Flåm, Norway] After checking out of my Bergen guest house I once again found myself back on the train east towards Oslo, past Voss and as far as Myrdal this time. Myrdal is a railway junction, high in the mountains, where the branch line down (north) to Flåm on the shores of the Aurlandsfjord meets the main Oslo-Bergen line. This branch line train (the Flamsbana) is a marvel of engineering, as it twists and turns its way down the mountain, past stunning waterfalls and through numerous tunnels and switchbacks. I have no hesitation in putting this trip on my Best Train Trips in the World list.

In Flåm I booked into a wooden cabin in the campsite for two nights - basic and rather cramped, and I had to share it with a penniless Australian, a crazy American and a guy from the Netherlands who couldn't stop talking about how his country was doing at the World Cup Finals (which was, admittedly, rather better than South Africa was doing). Although Flåm is at sea-level (at the head of the Aurlandsfjord), the weather was icy cold and the luke-warm shower I had that evening forced me into a teeth-chattering sprint from the ablution block back to the cabin.

The picturesque town of Flåm, Norway

[Sunday 14 June : Flåm, Norway] There's not much to do in Flåm so I took a ride on the ferry up the Aurlandsfjord and Naeroyfjord to the village of Gudvangen. Both these fjords are branches of the Sognefjord and form an inverted "Y" to the south of it, with the Naeroyfjord and the village of Gudvangen being the western arm of the "Y" and the Aurlandsfjord and the town of Flåm to the east. The Naeroyfjord is the narrowest fjord in the world ; it's only 250 metres wide but 11 kilometres long. On the other hand the Sognefjord is the longest and deepest fjord in Norway at 204 kilometres long and 1300 metres deep (yes, over a kilometre deep).

The scenery from the deck of the ferry was spectacular, with steep and craggy cliffs on either side of the sparkling blue water. Quite a number of houses are visible, perched in precarious and seemingly impossible locations on the near-vertical slopes ; many of these are apparently only accessible by climbing up the cliffs via a rope ladder from a boat in the water far below. A tough life, and for that reason a lot of these houses have been abandoned over the years. The cliffs are so high and the fjord so narrow that it is in shadow most of the day, and together with a stiff breeze it made standing out on deck a numbingly cold experience.

The ferry stopped in Gudvangen, a touristy village that is smaller even than Flåm. I browsed around the overpriced shops for a while then went back to Flåm through the fjords on the late afternoon ferry.

The train from Dombas to Andalsnes

[Monday 15 June : Lillehammer, Norway] I was up early and on an almost empty train from Flåm up the mountain (south) to Myrdal ; I had to wait some time on the station platform before the regular eastbound Bergen-Oslo express arrived. When I tried to get a seat reservation on this train the previous day I had been told it was full, but having become quite familiar with the Norwegian rail system I knew that there would be no problem finding an empty seat once I was on board. I didn't need a ticket because I had a ScanRail pass (which allowed me unlimited train travel throughout Scandinavia), but I still needed a seat reservation and I could simply buy that from the conductor.

When the Oslo-bound train arrived at Myrdal I climbed on, and although it was indeed quite full there were several empty seats so I stowed my backpack and sat down. The conductor came round, glanced at my ScanRail pass then asked for my seat reservation. I simply gave him 20 kroners (the standard price of a seat reservation in Norway) and asked if I could stay in this seat ; he checked his list and nodded. Simple. Who needs a ticket when you have a rail pass? This was another example of the high quality experience and excellent service I received while riding trains in Norway.

It was bright sunshine all the way back to Oslo, where I briefly checked my email at an internet cafe near the station then caught another train to Lillehammer, a mid-sized town some 180 kilometres north of Oslo. I didn't have far to go after getting off the train, because the youth hostel I had booked into was actually on Lillehammer's station platform itself, up a flight of stairs from the ticket office. Once again I had to share a room, this time with a quietly-spoken Belgian (in fact, he was so quiet he didn't say a word the entire time he was there) and a boastful German. The German's garrulousness more than made up for the Belgian's tight-lipped silence, and he assaulted my ears relentlessly with an endless story of how far he'd travelled in Norway, where he'd been and where he was still planning to go.

He looked out of the window at the parking lot next to the train station. "That's my car" he said, pointing (inevitably) at a Volkswagen. "I drove that car from Deutschland all the way to Hammerfest and the North Cape. I could not believe how far it was to the North Cape - thousands of kilometres of empty road. And when I got there, there was nothing there!"

Trollstigen Pass (Troll's Ladder), Norway
Views from the bottom and the top

I managed to escape his story about the empty roads and how far he'd driven by heading for the communal kitchen and heating some noodles. But even there I was not safe, because after five minutes a family of four came in and started their own cooking exercise, the military precision of which was staggering. After so many weeks on the road I instantly recognized the signs of trouble and tried to melt invisibly into the shadows, but the father cornered me with a swift and expertly practiced move. "Guten abend" he said, his German accent thick enough to get him a role in a B-grade Hollywood war movie without even a screen test. "Vere are you from, ja?"

Before I even had a chance to answer he continued remorselessly, somewhat how I imagined the German blitzkrieg at the beginning of World War II to have been like. "Ve are from Germany and ve haf now been travelling for blah days, to blah countries and haf covered blah kilometres. Ve haf been to blah, blah, blah ..." The brutal statistics and raw facts of the family's trip rolled off his pudgy lips without pause, names of towns, cities and sights blurring into a continuous stream of guttural noise. Out of the corner of my eye I saw his two children standing woodenly to attention with blank faces as the frau prepared their supper. Fortunately my noodles were finished cooking otherwise I'm sure she would have commandeered the hot plate I'd been using as well.

"Sounds like a lot of fun" I remarked, slurping noodles.

The German was not impressed, my irony sliding off his perfectly combed Prussian hairstyle without so much as a pause. "Fun? Ve don't have fun. Ven ve Germans travel, ve take it very seriously, ja."

It was on the tip of my tongue to reply "Yes, like you travelled to France in 1940", but I thought better of it, particularly as I would be staying in this hostel for two nights and they might be as well. So I ate noodles, kept my mouth shut and repeated silently to myself, "Don't mention the war". Eventually their supper was ready, and the father reluctantly stopped rattling off facts about their trip and attacked his plate of food, his knife and fork flashing through the air like deadly weapons. In a silence broken only by the rhythmic chomping of Teutonic jaws I escaped out of the kitchen and ducked into the shower, half expecting some deranged German to be waiting for me behind the curtain with a mind-numbingly boring story about his travels as well. But my ordeal was over for the evening and I got a great night's sleep without further verbal punishment.

[Tuesday 16 June : Lillehammer, Norway] Lillehammer is a relaxed and laid-back place, idyllically sited on the northern shore of Lake Mjøsa (Norway's largest lake) and surrounded by mountains. Better known as a popular weekend destination for people from Oslo, this sleepy town was transformed into a frenetic hive of activity for two weeks in February 1994 when it hosted the Winter Olympic Games.

Unfortunately for me it thrashed with rain the whole day, but I was due to leave the next morning so I couldn't wait for the weather to clear. With water dripping down my nose and running down my collar I climbed the ski-jump used in the 1994 Winter Olympics, getting completely soaked in the process - there are 954 steps and it was a long climb. Even though it was summer there were a bunch of guys practicing on the ski-jump, using a plastic ramp designed for when there is no snow. Nearby is a small Olympic Museum and a rather scary bobsled/ski simulator.

When I got back to the hostel I found that both my Belgian and German room-mates from the night before had gone, so I had the room to myself - good thing too, because every bit of clothing I was wearing was soaked through and I used all the available space to hang my stuff up to dry.

[Wednesday 17 June : Andalsnes, Norway] I left Lillehammer and continued north by train to Dombas, where I changed trains and took the scenic route down the mountain to Andalsnes. This was a very enjoyable roller-coaster ride of about two hours, as the train descended into the valley past waterfalls, cliffs and through many tunnels. Unfortunately it was a two kilometre slog from the train station to the youth hostel I'd booked into, a place that was legendary for the sumptious breakfast it served. And indeed, the next morning I laid waste to as magnificent a buffet as I've seen anywhere in Europe ... which was at least something, because Andalsnes itself is a pretty nondescript place.

[Thursday 18 June : Geiranger, Norway] From Andalsnes I took a bus over the Trollstigen Pass (Troll's Ladder) to the tiny village of Geiranger, a spectacular trip - hairpin bends, soaring views, waterfalls and a sheer drop down of hundreds of metres. Halfway up the pass the bus stopped for a few minutes in front of the Stigfossen Waterfall, where water cascades down into the valley under the road. At the top of the mountain the driver stopped again, for lunch this time ; I walked around to have a look and was staggered at how cold it was. The temperature was well below zero and the small lakes on the summit were all frozen solid. In mid-June? Amazing ... Going down the other side the snow was TWO METRES deep on each side of the road! [Aside : The legend of "trolls" originated on the Trollstigen Pass]

Geiranger is an incredibly picturesque (but very touristy) town, at the bottom of Trollstigen Pass and jammed between the mountain and Geirangerfjord. It consists of a few houses, a number of restaurants and pricey hotels, loads of souvenir shops and tons of tourists. Most tourists come up the fjord by boat ; when my bus rolled into town there were two huge cruise liners moored off-shore.

Geiranger fjord, Norway ... picture perfect

[Friday 19 June : Alesund, Norway] I left my gear at the backpackers' place I was staying in and walked onto the car ferry that was going up the Geirangerfjord to Hellesylt. Given the number of well-heeled tourists in the streets of Geiranger, it was no surprize that I was the only passenger on foot. In fact, this worked to my advantage, because the guy collecting tickets assumed I was in a large tour bus that drove on board and did not ask me for a ticket or money. Going through the Geirangerfjord the scenery was jaw-droppingly stunning, and when the ferry got to Hellesylt I walked off after a free trip. I spent some time browsing around Hellesylt then took another ferry back to Geiranger ; unfortunately this time there was no large tour group that I could hide in so I had to pay. Rats - I could have got used to free rides in this insanely expensive country.

Back in Geiranger I found that the place in which I'd left my gear was all locked up. The manager had gone off somewhere and I couldn't get in to pick up my stuff, which was extremely irritating because I wanted to get on the first bus to Alesund so that I didn't arrive there too late. After trying in vain to get in I gave up and walked around Geiranger until mid-afternoon, by which time the manager was back again.

I eventually got on an afternoon bus to Alesund on the west coast ; Alesund is a town built almost entirely in art-deco style, quite different from typical Norwegian architecture you see elsewhere. Because of the delay in Geiranger I arrived in Alesund quite late, and knowing that I only had time for one night there I had to explore the town in the evening.

Alesund, Norway : An art deco city

[Saturday 20 June : Trondheim, Norway] A long, tiring day on various buses, ferries and trains, from Alesund to Andalsnes (bus and ferry) to Dombas (one train) to Trondheim (another train). Arrived in Trondheim at 10 PM, and had a hard slog up a steep hill to the place I'd booked to stay in. Of course, this far north it was still broad daylight at that time of the evening.

[Sunday 21 June : Trondheim, Norway] A long lazy day of relaxing and exploring Trondheim. The weather up here is way better than the rain and wind that I experienced further south, which is odd - I would have expected the reverse. The hot, sunny weather in Trondheim also gave me my first glimpse of another aspect of Norwegian life ; walking around the city during lunchtime I kept coming across girls sitting on the grass in their underwear or even topless! No inhibitions here - office workers go outside for lunch and simply take off their clothes if it's a nice day. There is a hilly, wooded park in Trondheim and people lying around in there were frequently stark naked. I guess sunshine is so rare this far north that when people get a chance they strip off and enjoy it. Most Norwegian girls are attractive and very shapely so I wasn't complaining (and please note that back in 1998 I wasn't married yet) ...

Narvik ... a long way from anywhere

[Monday 22 June : Trondheim, Norway] Had a last look around Trondheim in blazing sunshine then caught the overnight train north to Bodø in the Arctic Circle. The entire trip was in sunshine ; this far north at this time of year the sun barely sets (and doesn't set at all beyond the Arctic Circle). On the way the train went through a small village called "Hell" (!)

[Tuesday 23 June : Lofoten Islands, Norway] Early morning saw the train arriving in Bodø, terminus of the Norwegian rail system [Aside : there is a train line further north in Norway, from Narvik east into Sweden, but that is operated by Swedish Railways and is not connected to the more southerly Norwegian system]. I explored Bodø briefly ; it is a nondescript place devoid of any style or character, although rather bigger than I expected. It was a short walk from the station through town down to the ferry terminal, where I rode the midday ferry across the Norwegian Sea to Moskenes on Moskenesøya, one of the southern Lofoten Islands - a pleasant four hour trip.

At Moskenes there is absolutely nothing other than the ferry terminal and a small shop ; the nearest village was a place called Å i Lofoten about six kilometres away. The next bus to Å was a long wait, so I started walking. Unfortunately, after a sleepless night on the train from Trondheim I had a splitting headache so I couldn't really appreciate the raw beauty of the rugged scenery all around me. It didn't help that it was very hot (amazingly, given that I was well north of the Arctic Circle) but I trudged on and finally reached Å just under an hour later. I stayed the night in a converted fishing hut (called a rorbu) amid stunning scenery.

Aside : The Lofoten Islands are blessed with a very mild and balmy climate due to the Gulf Stream, a warm Atlantic Ocean current that flows eastwards and hits the islands dead-centre. Moskenesøya is the most southerly inhabited island (there are two very small islands further south), and the village of Å is near the southern tip of Moskenesøya ; the road through the islands ends at Å. The town's name comprises just one letter - a Norwegian "A" with a tiny circle on top, pronounced "Aw".

My route from Narvik in Norway through Sweden

[Wednesday 24 June : Narvik, Norway] A LONG day on the bus over dozens of bridges, a few tunnels and multiple ferries north through the Lofoten Islands and Vesteralen Islands and back onto the Norwegian mainland. The weather was amazing and the scenery stunning, but it was about 10:30 PM by the time we got to Narvik. The youth hostel had moved since my guide book had been published, but I managed to find it and arrived there to check in with a swarm of other backpackers. That evening I saw the Midnight Sun ; the Sun reached its lowest point, which was well above the horizon, at about 12:30 AM before turning and rising again - there was no darkness at all.

[Thursday 25 June : Narvik, Norway] I explored Narvik briefly in the morning, and found it to be an interesting place ; a pity I had not planned to stay longer. Narvik was the scene of bloody fighting between British and German forces during World War II and there is a memorial in town to the many soldiers (on both sides) who lost their lives there. I changed all my remaining Norwegian currency into Swedish kroners at a bank then caught the mid-morning Swedish train east to Kiruna, Boden and Lulea in Sweden, through stunning, rugged scenery.

There was a plump and prosperous Indian gentleman and his wife on the train. He had neglected to exchange his Norwegian currency before leaving Narvik, and he spent the better part of the journey trying without success to get rid of a huge pile of Norwegian coins (which must have been worth quite a lot, because Norway has coins in high-value denominations). Nobody would take them, as it was a Swedish train operated by Swedish Railways. Eventually he gave up, and stood staring mournfully down at his fistful of useless money, shaking his head and muttering "So many, so many".

The train terminated in Lulea on the Swedish east coast, but I got off shortly before there at a place called Boden. Boden is a major Swedish railway junction ; it was from here that I took a train north-east round the Gulf of Bothnia into Finland in 1992. This time I was heading south, and after a brief wait I changed onto a mainline train bound for Gothenburg on the south-west coast of Sweden.

Gothenburg town hall

[Friday 26 June : Gothenburg, Sweden] Arrived in Gothenburg 26 hours after leaving Narvik ; the train had sat on the tracks in southern Sweden for two hours during the night due to some fault. Just my luck - there was a Billy Joel/Elton John concert in the city the next night, so all accommodation was fully booked. I managed to get an absurdly expensive room for one night at the City Hotel and cheered myself up by having a delicious "all you can eat" pizza lunch.

[Saturday 27 June : Malmö, Sweden] Gothenburg is an attractive city and small enough to be easily explored on foot. There is a huge multi-level shopping mall called Nordstan near the train station and Liseberg, the largest amusement park in Scandinavia (bigger even than Tivoli in Copenhagen), is in Gothenburg. I also visited the famous Fish Church, which is not a church at all but an indoor fish market that is shaped like a church - hence the name.

In the late afternoon I took a train south to Malmö. The place I wanted to stay in in Malmö had no private rooms left, but they let me sleep in the dormitory which worked out very well ; there was nobody else in the dormitory so I had the place to myself for two days - acres of space, a choice of six different showers and twelve different beds.

Ystad in southern Sweden

[Sunday 28 June : Malmö, Sweden] In the morning I took a train south to Ystad, a medieval town on Sweden's south coast. This local train system (called pågatåg) is amazing in that the trains are fully automated, with no driver or conductor! The countryside in the southern part of Sweden (the province of Scania) is flat and boring, and the views from the train in every direction were of cultivated fields. Ystad, however, is an extremely interesting town, with cobbled streets and half-timbered medieval houses. After a pleasant morning exploring Ystad I returned to Malmö in the afternoon on another automated train. Apart from the crumbling castle and gardens, there's not a great deal to see in Malmö, I'm afraid. The only reason I spent two days in Malmö was because I could not find anywhere to stay in Gothenburg due to the Billy Joel/Elton John concert there.

[Monday 29 June : Copenhagen, Denmark] Took the train north from Malmö to Helsingborg, where I boarded the ferry (free with a ScanRail pass) across the North Sea to Helsingor in Denmark. From there I caught a commuter train south to Copenhagen to find the city overrun with people trying to get OUT ; the Roskilde music festival had finished that weekend. People were sleeping on every available space in the train station, and the queue to buy tickets was over two hours long. I eventually managed to get a train ticket south to Vienna in Austria for the next day and found a place to stay for the night in a filthy, disgusting flea-pit of a hotel in the red light district. The dust and grime was millimetres thick on every surface of the room, but at least the sheets were clean.

Vienna city centre, Austria

[Tuesday 30 June : Copenhagen, Denmark] My last morning in Scandinavia. I walked around Copenhagen, did some final shopping then converted all my remaining Danish currency into US Dollars and Pounds Sterling. Amazingly, the girl at the exchange bureau was a South African from Port Elizabeth! She had married a Dane and moved to Copenhagen a couple of years before.

I caught the late-afternoon train south to Vienna via Hamburg in Germany. The train was packed to the rafters with people leaving Denmark after the Roskilde music festival. In Hamburg I had five minutes to get across about ten platforms and change trains, so I sprinted with all my gear and just made it, panting and out of breath. Thankfully the Vienna train was half-empty, which made for a much more relaxing overnight trip.

[Wednesday 1 July : Vienna, Austria] Arrived at Vienna's West Bahnhof in the morning and took a slow stroll through town to Wien Mitte train station, where I caught the local commuter train to the airport at Schwechat. I had several hours to wait before my Austrian Airlines flight to Cape Town so I used up my last few schillings in the "Billa" supermarket in the airport basement, read my book and explored the duty-free area.

[Thursday 2 July 1998 : Cape Town, South Africa] Arrived back in Cape Town after two sleepless nights (one on a train, one on a plane). And that was the end of Europe 1998 ... next stop Spain, Portugal, Andorra, France and Monaco in 1999.


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