Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel

I’m in love with train travel. I never miss an opportunity to ride the rails. During my many years as a travel writer and photographer, I’ve been blessed to take some of the world’s most spectacular train rides. I rode the El Chepe train through Mexico’s Copper Canyon, enjoyed magnificent scenery on the TranzAlpine Express route between Christchurch and Greymouth on New Zealand’s South Island, took the train from Cusco, Peru, to Machu Picchu, and rode the Bernina Express train over the Swiss Alps.

Flam Railway enters one of 20 tunnels along the 12-mile route

Flam Railway enters one of 20 tunnels along its 12-mile route

In Norway, I added another great train ride to my quiver, the Flam Railway. Construction of this line began in 1924 and was a major challenge for railroad engineers of the day. It is one of the steepest standard gauge railway lines in the world, with 80% of the journey running on a gradient of 5.5%. Engineers decided to focus on tunnels rather than bridges due to the risk of avalanches in the narrow valleys through which the train would travel. By the time it was opened in 1940, the route of the Flam Railway traversed 20 tunnels and one bridge. Construction of the tunnels was so difficult that 18 of then had to be excavated by hand, with each meter requiring a full month of labor from railroad crews! Read More

Norway\'s Flam Railway is a breathtaking 12-mile train journey past verdant valleys, waterfalls, ravines, and craggy mountains.

If I had to choose one word to describe Viking civilization, it would be mystery. The popular TV series by the History Channel paints Vikings as bloodthirsty warriors. While it is true they sailed far and wide, discovering new lands and raiding settlements, they spent most of their time farming. Vikings didn’t wear horned helmets. They weren’t dirty, uncivilized cretins. Even the way we refer to them is incorrect. The word Viking hails from the ancient Norse word for a raid or trading trip. They often “went on a Viking,” but they did not refer to themselves as Vikings. It’s safe to say that most of what we think we know about Vikings is wrong.

One of five mysterious carved wooden animal heads found in the Oseberg Grave Ship

One of five mysterious carved wooden animal heads found in the Oseberg Grave Ship

According to Norse mythology, Vikings who died in battle sailed to Valhalla, an enormous celestial hall ruled over by the god Odin. To ensure a successful final voyage, eminent members of the society were buried in ships, surrounded by everything they might need in the afterlife. A pit deep enough to hold the ship was dug and the vessel was lowered into it. Dirt was mounded on top until the entire boat was covered. One of the most spectacular examples of such a burial is the Oseberg Grave Ship, which dates back to A.D. 834. Discovered and excavated in 1904, today it is displayed at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway. But if I had expected the Oseberg to provide clarity, I was sorely disappointed. If anything, it deepened the mystery. Read More

Among the hundreds of artifacts excavated from the Viking Oseberg Grave Ship in Norway were were five wooden posts with intricately carved animal heads

Taking a Troll Car to the Briksdal Glacier in Norway

Glaciers might be a dime a dozen in Norway, but I know of no other place in the world where I could get to one in a “Troll Car.” Actually, these 7-seater open-air buggies have only been transporting tourists to the foot of the Briksdal Glacier since 2004. For 100 years prior to that, farmers carted visitors through the fjord by horse and carriage.

The weather was grey and threatening rain on the day my Collette tour group arrived, but I wasn’t about to let a little bit of bad weather deter me. I snagged the front seat in one of the Troll Cars and whipped out my camera, intending to film the ride. The driver climbed in beside me and handed me a blue tarp. “You’ll need this,” he said. I thought he was worried about the rain. Since I had my hoodie pulled up over my head, I shoved the tarp down into the well around my feet. Within moments of heading out, the gravel path began snaking around the massive, roaring waterfall that Read More

To see the Briksdal Glacier in Norway, visitors can either walk the trail in Jostedalsbreen National Park or ride in a Troll Car, followed by a short walk.

Götaplatsen, the Main Square and Cultural Heart of Gothenburg, Sweden

With only a couple of hours to explore Gothenburg, Sweden, I struggled over how to spend my time. My Collette tour manager had suggested a boat tour of the canals that lace the city. Never one to follow the crowds, I instead decided on a self-guided walking tour of the city center. Beginning at the bridge over the Kungsportsbron canal, I strolled down Avenyn, the main boulevard in Gothenburg. Scores of shops, restaurants, galleries, and clubs lined the broad avenue on its gently rising path to Götaplatsen, the city’s main square. At the far end, I snapped this photo through a whimsical fountain, looking toward Götaplatsen. Read More

Bartender pours an icy drink at the Stockholm ICEBAR

I’m definitely not a fan of being cold, so I thought twice about visiting the Stockholm ICEBAR during my Spectacular Scandinavia tour with Collette. I’d heard the walls were built of ice, likewise the bar stools were made of ice. Heck, even the drink glasses were carved from ice! And of course the bar must be maintained at below-freezing temperatures to keep all that ice in a solid state (23 degrees Fahrenheit, to be precise). But in the end, the idea of an entire bar built of ice was too intriguing to pass up. Read More

Bartender pours an icy drink at the Stockholm ICEBAR

In the 1620’s, intent on making Sweden a mighty military power, King Gustavus Adolphus began constructing a fleet of warships. The Vasa warship, first of the massive vessels to be completed, was the most powerful warship that had ever sailed the Baltic Sea. It measured more than 226-feet long and was 164-feet tall from the keel to the top of its main mast. It had ten sails, 64 cannons, and 132 tons of ballast. And it was staggeringly heavy. Even so, the King insisted that hundreds of hand-carved wooden sculptures be affixed to the hull to broadcast his power and majesty.

The hull of the Vasa warship today, with its cannon doors propped open

The hull of the Vasa warship today, with its cannon doors propped open

Concerned about the ship’s stability, the supervisor of construction notified the Vice Admiral of the Navy about his concerns. The Admiral ordered thirty men to run back and forth across the deck while the ship was tied up in front of the Royal Palace. The ship rolled so alarmingly that the Admiral stopped the demonstration, terrified that it would sink at the dock. Even so, no one dared question the King when he ordered it to set sail. Read More

Vasa Warship was the most powerful vessel in the Baltic Sea...for a few minutes. It sailed 1,400 yards, capsized, and sank on its maiden voyage in 1628.