Some might say that seeing five countries in nine days is a little ambitious. I would disagree.
Leaving Scotland behind, I flew to Copenhagen where shortly afterward I was greeted by my great friend Brennan as I stepped of the train and onto the platform. Brennan and I shared more than a decade at school together at Bernard Zell, and while we went to separate high schools, we have stayed close friends. Brennan had spent his entire freshman year studying abroad in Copenhagen as member of an inaugural program at Wake Forest. As he was finishing his finals right when I was completing the Cookery School, we decided we would travel together before returning across the Atlantic.
In an effort to take advantage of our starting position in Copenhagen and see some cities neither of us had been to, we decided to do a less traditional European tour and head north to Scandinavia. After Copenhagen we visited Oslo, Stockholm, Helsinki, and even made a day trip to Tallinn (the capital of Estonia). These nine days were packed full of awesome sights, and we had an absolute blast exploring the urban centers of the Nordic countries.
In an effort to keep this blog post from being 20,000 words I will refrain from simply listing our day by day itinerary. Instead I will hopefully get the big picture elements across by describing some highlights.
Although I had technically visited Copenhagen before, I hardly felt like the four hour bus tour did the city justice. For that reason, I was excited to be back in Denmark and even happier that I had someone showing me around who had been there for the last 8 months. We filled the days by covering most of the city on foot. We hit the big ticket tourist attractions such as Tivoli Gardens, the colorful houses lining the canal of Nyhavn, and the viewpoint on top of Christiansborg palace. We managed to get a little bit away from the tourists by biking around the city, visiting the beach, and exploring the non central neighborhoods. Brennan took me to some great restaurants and I enjoyed trying some delicious and classically Danish Smorrebrød, as well as some of the best BBQ I’ve ever had. I also got to meet the group of 16 students that Brennan had lived and studied with for the year, which was nice to put some faces to the names I had been hearing.
After a great two days in Copenhagen we had a quick and easy flight to Oslo. While we were a little underwhelmed with the city’s offerings, we made the most of our time in Norway’s capital and definitely enjoyed ourselves. Some of the highlights included visiting the famous and architecturally astounding opera house, seeing Edward Munch’s “The Scream” in person at the impressive national gallery, and stumbling upon a solid jazz combo at a bar on the way back to the AirBnb. It’s not that we didn’t like our time in Oslo, but it just didn’t feel like there was loads to do and the city felt very empty at times.
As soon as we stepped out of the Central train station in Stockholm, it was clear that we would not have trouble filling our days. The city sprawls across a collection of islands in the Baltic Sea and the tall spires of churches and colorful building facades seemed to go on in every direction. The history of the city was also clear, as one day we visited the old city area called Gamla Stan, an island full of narrow cobblestone streets, historic structures, and classic cafes. Other memorable moments from Stockholm include a thought provoking contemporary photography museum, a museum housing a massive salvaged 16th century naval ship, some delicious Swedish meatballs, a traditional Scandinavian sauna on the banks of a beautiful lake, and a very tasty cup of hot chocolate.
Moving further east, our next stop Helsinki, a city I barely knew the name of before my gap year. Brennan and I were blown away by the beauty of the city and interesting combination of architecture, design, and culture that comes from the different influences of the city, as it has been under control of three different nations in the last 400 years. We filled our time by visiting the many gorgeous churches that are scattered throughout the capital, walking through the many green areas along the water, and by exploring a sea fortress built in the 1600’s to aid the Swedish navy. The vibe in Helsinki was a very pleasant one, due to the happy combination of modern design, a historic past, hip areas, and a relaxed attitude. All of this made for a great couple of days in Finland.
I would be lying if I said that Estonia has always been on my list of counties I needed to visit. Despite that, I had heard that Tallinn was a spectacular city worth visiting and as it is only a two hour ferry ride from Helsinki, Brennan and I decided to make a Day trip out of it. As soon as we walked through the nearly completely intact old city walls, it felt as though we had taken a step back in time. The stone passage ways, original buildings, and beautiful churches of the area made us feel like we were walking around in a medieval town, and certain characters in time appropriate costumes only reinforced this. I loved getting lost in the narrow corridors of the city, looking around at the vistas from the top of the churches, and hearing the music from centuries ago playing throughout. Interestingly, the best meal of the trip was in the middle of the old city, at a lovely restaurant serving upscale modern Estonian cuisine for excellent prices. We also had a non modern Estonian meal at a dungeon like restaurant serving ox ribs and elk soup without silverware. For a city that I had never heard of three months ago, our day in Tallinn was quite the experience.
While so much travel in such a short period of time might lend itself to stress and anxiety, it was amazing how relaxed and laid back our nine days were. Brennan and I turned out to be excellent and well matched travel partners, and I really appreciated getting to spend some extended time with him after four years at separate school.
Of course I am sad to be leaving another leg of my gap year behind, one step closer to the inevitable start of school in August. Yet, I am excited to be coming home, and looking forward to reuniting with family and friends this summer.