In August we took a ‘dream trip’ to Scandinavia. We call it our dream trip for a few reasons: both of us have wanted to go to one of the countries we visited since we were growing up; we’d been saving for the trip since we got married; and we weren’t sure when the trip would fit into our life because of several factors such as moves and family commitments. Of course, in hindsight it feels obvious that it would happen, as most things do in hindsight, but I had started to think that something would keep getting in the way of this trip. So it made the trip that much sweeter once we arrived, and we kept saying to each other “can you believe we’re here?”
I could fill a whole notebook with thoughts and observations about this trip, so it’s taken me a few weeks to even sit down and type. I ask myself who I’m actually writing to. In part, to my future self who will browse through past posts to remember tough times and valuable lessons or sweet times with special people or new places. In part, to the family and friends who have thoughtfully asked about our photos and our trip to share in our experience. And to everyone, where just like our other posts, I hope you find beauty and inspiration and something to provoke your thoughts in the pictures and words below.
We spent two weeks traveling from Finland to Sweden to Norway, each carrying two backpacks and spending most nights in a different location than the previous night. We felt a little too old for the post-college-backpacker experience, but reasoned that we wouldn’t get to all the places we wanted if we stayed in one place. We then agreed on hotels instead of hostels, because let’s be real, we like adventure, but we also love our own space!
In Helsinki, Finland, a sweet twenty-something woman who served us food welcomed us warmly. She greeted me in Finnish and then switched to English, explaining that I looked like a local. I instantly felt at home, and she proceeded to teach us a few Finnish words to keep in our back pockets.
At Löyly we immersed ourselves in Finnish culture; we went for a sauna and a few brisk jumps into the Baltic Sea. I was transported back to my childhood when my family spent time in northern Minnesota and, at a relative’s house on Lake Vermilion, we alternated sweating in the rustic sauna and jumping into the cold lake. Löyly was much more chic than the saunas of my childhood; it was constructed in a modern, angular style that is typical of Finland’s world-renowned design. But the experience was unifying. I have had the privilege of traveling to many places on this great earth, often craving true (or as true as a non-native can get) cultural experiences. While other tourists probably felt the novelty and quirkiness of a Finnish sauna, I felt connected and like I belonged in a way that I hadn’t felt any where else I’d traveled.
An overnight train took us to northern Finland, where we stepped onto the platform and our nostrils were greeted with the fresh, clean, pungent scent of pine. Admittedly, arriving at a new destination early in the morning is tough, and we passed out for a couple hours in our parked rental car before braving the northland. A quiet stroll along Rovaniemi’s river acquainted us with fresh air, chilled breezes, and fluttering birch trees before we ventured north and east to Rukatunturi. On the drive, we stopped a few times to give grazing reindeer a wide berth, and I struggled to remember that we weren’t driving to my grandmother’s house in northern Minnesota. The two-lane highway cutting through tall pines was the spitting image of roads I’ve traveled in Cook, Minnesota. The next morning we woke early, thanks to the sun pouring into our window (there wasn’t a single moment of total darkness that whole night). We tossed on our layers and grabbed our cameras to capture the rising sun on the still, foggy lake. Later in the morning we ventured off on a trailhead at Oulanka National Park to hike through pine trees, over craggy cliffs, and across rope bridges to complete the Pieni Karhunkierros (or Little Bear’s Loop). We felt like we’d found a hidden gem frequented only by Finns and wondered what this place would be like in the winter as we ate our peanut butter sandwiches on the trunk of our rental car.
At the close of our time in Finland, we lugged our packs across Helsinki — jokingly calling the walk a 15-euro death march, because our legs saved us that cost for a taxi — to board a cruise that brought us to Stockholm the next morning. Gamla Stan, the old town of Stockholm, was our base for the next few days. It was crowded with tourists, so we woke early the next day and walked hand-in-hand and camera-in-hand through the narrow, cobblestoned streets as the golden sun washed over the peaked roofs. In parts, I felt like we’d been transported to Diagon Alley of Harry Potter.
Stockholm, I learned while we researched our destinations ahead of our trip, is a city that spans an archipelago. With just a few days in Stockholm, we certainly could have filled our time without leaving the city. But I find it interesting to get out of the main haunts when we can, so we took a ferry to the island of Vaxholm. A website for the town explains that the locals have lived off of herring fishing for generations and that King Gustav chose the area in the 1500s as the location for a citadel that would protect Stockholm’s inlet. The town reminded me partly of a New England coastal town, partly Minnesotan, and part local artist colony. All that to say, it was perfect for a quiet, charming day. I was on a personal quest to capture the essence of the place with it’s wooden houses and hardy flowers. Bill might have been just trying to keep up.
We said goodbye to Sweden, the land of my maiden name, and headed off for Norway. We experienced Norway by train, boats, and our feet, immersing ourselves in the incredible natural beauty of this country. A few of the experiences were packed to the gills with fellow tourists, and we had to remind ourselves to enjoy the scenery, despite my preference for space and quiet. However, I really do like trains, because you can see more of a place, and trains are so much more relaxing than a slog through an airport. We arrived amidst the jagged, towering fjords and boarded an electric boat that propelled us along the smooth water between Flåm and Gudvangen. From Gudvangen, we embarked on a day of kayaking with a local tour company. Bill was kind to do much of the paddling while I snapped photos from the front between paddling spurts. The water we sat atop looked almost oily because it was so smooth and clean. The sensation of bobbing on water-filled crevasses under the gaze of the steep fjord walls is humbling and impressive. You feel small and full of wonder. And awe that we were even there!
From Gudvangen we continued our journey via train to Bergen on the western coast of Norway. Bergen brought us to even more wooden buildings that evoked a Harry Potter feel, and, admittedly, we did watch plenty of Harry Potter movies while traveling on trains or relaxing our feet in hotel rooms. Bergen was also a great starting point for a hike above the city. We climbed past the tourist throngs, and then climbed higher, despite my tired feet and legs. I’m glad we did, because we were greeted with a unique landscape: an undulating tundra of sorts, high above lakes and coastal waters and even a mossy forest on the steep pitch of a mountain.
For our final day of the trip, we returned to Oslo, and the Oslo Opera House displayed it’s modern lines and natural wood that typify the clean, sleek Scandinavian design that both Bill and I love. Throughout the trip, we found ourselves impressed by the coexistence of modern architecture and ornate, historic buildings. Finnish furniture and design houses inspired us and made us dream about bright, simple spaces.
Along our meanderings through these countries, we sought out coffee shops, because Bill loves his quest to find delicious specialty coffee and because those places foster great conversations. We found ourselves relishing the time we stopped and put our backpacks down, sipped a coffee, nibbled a smörgås or a pastry, and talked about dreams, hopes, worries, and crazy ideas. We talked plenty about our career plans and our passions, when we might have a family, where we’ll live one day, and where we’ll travel in the future. Those conversations, the new convictions and plans — which inevitably will change, but will propel us forward for the next steps — are intertwined with my memories of our trip and what I cherish as I look back on these special two weeks in the land of my heritage alongside my love and best friend.