Travel Tales: North Europe is a Trip

One of many examples of quirky art and architecture in Helsinki, Finland, this statue/fountain stands at the head of a harbor and outdoor market area.

Back in the 20th century, I traveled Europe with a student rail pass, stayed at youth hostels and lugged my suitcase up staircases and across streets. Flash forward to 2014 when my husband and I decided to take our latest trip the easy way – on a cruise ship. Pack and unpack once, no hotel reservations while exploring all of northern Europe. 

Besides the fact that we hadn’t been to any of these countries, we were influenced by watching “The Vikings” drama on the History Channel and the hilarious Netflix series “Lilyhammer” with Steven Van Zandt as a NYC mobster who moves to Norway as part of the witness protection program. We also knew that memorable scenes from the “Game of Thrones” series were filmed in Iceland and Ireland. 

The trip started off with independent travel to Amsterdam. The city has throngs of 20-somethings. I’m sure that has nothing to do with the “coffee shops” where it’s legal to smoke pot. We walked into one and the place was packed. But the air was as thick as fog, so we only looked around for a few seconds. Since the terrain is completely flat, Amsterdam is also a city of bicycles. More than 600,000 bikes are chained up to every square inch of space when not being ridden on sidewalks and bike routes. As a pedestrian, look out! 

Bruges in Belgium is among a handful of medieval walled cities in Europe that were not bombed to pieces in World War II – the Germans thought it was too beautiful to destroy. Walking the stone streets is like being on a movie set. About half the stores specialize in selling handmade Belgian chocolates of every size and shape. 

Estonian capital Tallinn turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. It’s another beautiful medieval walled town that’s intact, well maintained and a joy to explore. President Obama had just spoken in Tallinn the day before we arrived, on his way to a NATO summit. 

Saint Petersburg, Russia, had the most magnificent palaces, cathedrals and art museums in northern Europe, rivaling the Vatican and Versailles for sheer opulence. Built by Peter and Catherine the Greats in the 1700s, I couldn’t help but wonder about the wisdom of diverting this much wealth away from the rest of the country, including the starving peasants. 

Gas prices in most countries still hover around $7 per gallon. Evidence of efforts to save and create energy is everywhere, from dedicated bicycle lanes to tiny cars. On the Baltic Sea, there are a number of wind farms, and a lot of very old houses are sporting new solar panels. 

McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Starbucks are everywhere. But the Europeans send us their chain stores, too – like IKEA, H&M, and The Body Shoppe. 

Food has become far less regionalized than it used to be in Europe. Even most Russians confessed they’d rather go out for Italian than eat traditional fare like borscht and beef stroganoff. Even the Scandinavians seem to be serving traditional fare like reindeer casserole, mainly to tourists and old-timers. 

Some people don’t realize the Scandinavian countries have much smaller populations than their neighbors. For example, while Germany has a population of 81 million, Norway, Denmark, and Finland only have 5 million people each and Sweden has 10 million. Many also don’t realize these countries are the same latitude as Alaska. 

The Scandinavian countries are a little quirky – maybe they have to be in order to survive the long winters. At the main plaza next to the harbor in Helsinki is a 20-foot tall statue of a man “taking a leak.” Tourists like to pose under the “waterfall.” Copenhagen and Stockholm have “Fish Kiss” franchises, where, for a fee, people can dangle their feet in water tanks filled with exfoliating minnows. 

Iceland, the “land of fire and ice,” has both active volcanoes and glaciers. Most of the country is rolling hills of grasslands on top of black lava soil, grazed by horses and sheep. Thundering waterfalls, geysers and natural steam vents give it a primordial atmosphere. A “Game of Thrones” film site was the actual site of the country’s first Parliament-like meeting over 1,000 years ago. Every house in the country is heated by inexpensive geothermal energy. 

Our visit to Edinburgh, capital of Scotland, was the day before the country voted on whether to break away from the U.K. The election was the center of worldwide news coverage. Everywhere, there were signs in windows, cars, etc. saying simply “yes” or “no.” We also spotted CNN journalist Christiane Amanpour interviewing an official. 

Northern Ireland and Ireland are very green, and there’s a reason – it rains a lot. Belfast is attempting to transition from a heavy industry town to a tourist destination, and Cork is becoming known for creative cuisine and micro-brews. A butcher shop there was selling kangaroo meat, among others.