Island cities

Gamla Stan, Stockholm

Gamla Stan

In the climactic scene of The Goonies, the kids stumble into the grotto where One-Eyed Willie’s treasure-laden pirate ship is stranded. They gaze at their discovery in wonder.

I felt the same amazement when I came face to prow with Vasa, a nearly 400-year-old, four-story warship in near-perfect condition on display inside Stockholm’s Vasa Museum. Ninety-eight percent of her wood is original! The multi-level museum spirals around the ship, allowing her to be viewed from every angle.

Vasa was built and launched in 1628. In her day, the 226-feet ship was one of the most powerfully armed vessels in the world with two decks of cannons. However, upon launching, Vasa proved top-heavy. The ship foundered and sank just forty minutes after leaving the dock. Continue reading

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Fjord country

Balestrand, Norway


The Vikings had nowhere to turn but the sea.

Their home, the ragged west coast of Norway with its deep fjords, sheer cliffs and countless islands, is unsuitable for farming.

And so, the Norsemen developed sophisticated longships and advanced navigation techniques, which enabled them to expand and dominate their world.

They raided and colonized northwestern Europe, including parts of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, England, Iceland, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Russia and Newfoundland in North America.

Over the centuries, their influence waned as various empires rose and fell. Today, the Kingdom of Norway is slightly larger than New Mexico with a population of over five million.

Again, however, the sea provided Norway with a pathway to wealth. Continue reading

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Free Norway

Constitution Day, Oslo

Constitution Day

In the skies above London
In the African desert
In the ruins of Stalingrad
And on the Normandy beaches
Norway was given back to us.
–Norwegian Resistance Museum

In Oslo, most of the guests in the hotel’s breakfast room were wearing traditional costumes, the women in puffy white blouses, long embroidered skirts, and vests or shawls, the men in waistcoats, knickers and stockings. They were pinned with red, white and blue ribbons and many carried small flags.

May 17 in Norway is somewhat like our Fourth of July, minus the fireworks. I said, “Happy Constitution Day!” to the server.

“We say ‘Happy Birthday!,'” she said. “Today is Norway’s birthday.”

I walked up Karl Johans Gate, Oslo’s main street that runs from the train station to the Royal Palace. Along the way, marching bands were entertaining the crowd. Young folk dancers took turns spinning and leaping high in the air to kick a hat from the top of a pole.

Two horses pulled a wagon loaded with birch branches up the street. In Scandinavia, birch symbolizes adaptability, as it can survive harsh conditions.

Just like the Norwegians. Continue reading

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Survivor: Estonia

View toward harbor from Patluki, Tallinn


It may sound like the title of a reality show, but it was never a game. The little country of Estonia has survived years of brutality.

More than ten different foreign powers have ruled Estonia during the last eight-hundred years. The name of Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, means “Danish Town.” The Danes sold Tallinn to the German Teutonic Knights, who lost it to the Swedes, who lost it to the Russians.

In 1917 Estonia declared its independence from Russia. Freedom didn’t last long. The Russians occupied Estonia again in 1940, the Nazis in 1941 and the Russians again in 1944. The country didn’t regain its independence until the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Fifty-one straight years of occupation.

Estonia has barely tasted freedom. Continue reading

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Finland by design

Sweden's archipelago

One of Sweden’s 24,000 islands

Silja Serenade, the overnight cruise ship from Stockholm to Helsinki, is a floating shopping mall. It carries two-thousand passengers, mostly Swedes and Finns looking for getaway weekends in the others’ city. On board are numerous duty-free shops, a movie theater, a Broadway-esque show (Grease), a casino, and several restaurants and bars.

I checked into my below-deck cabin with the Irish immigrants, then lounged on the sun deck as the ship picked its way through Sweden’s archipelago and into the Baltic Sea.

The water was calm. In the setting sun, the islands were peaceful and picturesque, evergreen, each with red-and-white summer houses huddled around docks. A few small islands, white with guano, teemed with birds. After a dinner of, what else, Swedish meatballs, I went topside to watch the sunset. The pub erupted in cheers every time the Finns scored a hockey goal against Belarus. Continue reading

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Turns out, the Vikings had a soft side

Nyhavn, Copenhagen

Nyhavn, Copenhagen

During dinner in the Danish village of Ærøskøbing, the restaurant owner/chef stopped by the table.

“How is your fish?” he asked.

“”Very good,” I said. “Delicious.”

“I killed it,” he admitted sadly.

“You mean you caught it?”

“No, I killed it,” he said. “It was delivered alive and I had to kill it. I don’t like killing.”

Have the Vikings come to this? Continue reading

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Sicily: the crucible of continents (Part 2)



(I’m with a tour group circumnavigating the island of Sicily over nine days, starting in Palermo and ending in Catania. Sicily was the crossroads for ancient Mediterranean cultures from three continents. To read “Sicily: the crucible of continents (Part 1),” please see the previous post.)

Before leaving Palermo, tour guide Jamie pointed out a sign on a restaurant’s front door that read Addiopizzo. It means “goodbye pizzo,” pizzo being the word for money extorted by the mafia for “protection.”

In Palermo alone, the mafia extorts more than $180 million a year from businesses. Around 80 percent of Sicilian businesses pay pizzo.

The grassroots movement, Addiopizzo, was started by five Palermo entrepreneurs who wanted to open a bar. Realising they would be asked to pay pizzo, they decided instead to fight. They developed the movement’s logo, organized pizzo-free community festivals and covered the city with stickers that read, “A whole people who pays pizzo is a people without dignity.” Continue reading

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