Road Trip 2015:
Tewkesbury to Norway
A change in approach for this trip and no daily blog as I went as frankly there wasn't time after somewhat madly packing over 3,500 miles of driving into an eight day trip. And that wasn't the only change this year... My mother looked on enviously at the 2014 road trip to Crete and has had it in her head since that she also wanted to do one, but when I asked where she fancied she said "the A40 from Fishguard to London". Well, she can do that one on her own as that's an afternoon drive, not a proper road trip, so as none of us had been there before, a trip to Scandinavia was born, for me and both parents. Three of us, trapped in a car for a week...
This was a shorter trip this time so had to be squeezed into seven days, and also bear in mind that motorways are dull and boring, but also necessary to get as far into Norway as possible but not so that we spend all our time on them. In the 2014 trip I used motorways to get through Germany and from then on used smaller roads, and then the same again using the motorways to get through France as fast as possible as minimising time in France is always a good thing. So, it was settled as:
- Day 1: Tewkesbury to Hamburg, a blast of about 700 miles, including the tunnel.
- Day 2: Hamburg to Copenhagen in Denmark, 300 miles arriving in the afternoon.
- Day 3: Copenhagen to Oslo in Norway, 380 miles again arriving in the afternoon.
- Day 4: Oslo out to Bergen, 290 miles through the mountains and small roads now.
- Day 5: Bergen to Lillehammer, 273 miles through more mountains
- Day 6: Lillehammer to Gothenburg in Sweden, about 290 miles.
- Day 7: Gothenburg to Hamburg, another 450 miles
- Day 8: Hamburg back to Tewkesbury, a final 700 mile run again
Last year the Mighty Chariot was a Hyundai Santa Fe which it has to be said performed admirably, particularly coming into its own when I accidentally went off-roading in Croatia, spent hours driving down dirt tracks in Albania, and almost got stuck on a beach in Greece. This time though, new year and a new car and one of Coventry's finest, a Jaguar XF Sportbrake. 'Sportbrake' is Jaguar-speak for 'estate car' and is one of those sloping estate cars which Jeremy Clarkson once, very accurately, described as 'having the shape of a dog's back when it is crapping on your lawn'. My father, while appreciating all things British, is very much of the conviction that any Jaguar stopped anywhere is probably waiting for a breakdown truck rather than parked so was somewhat skeptical of us making it there and back, but was prepared to give it a go as hell, he is retired, so if we break down somewhere in the wilder reaches of Norway it's not as though he's got to rush home for anything urgent and could happily stand back and wait for it all to be sorted out for him, with his full contribution being to puff on his pipe from a distance.
I'm not saying that he may have a point, but the pre-trip preparations this year were a little more rigorous than last year's of 'stick some blind-spot mirrors on and that'll do' with the Santa Fe. I got the car serviced and bought a spare wheel as Jaguar may charge quite a bit for their cars but they are too cheap to actually put a spare wheel in it and just give you a can of black gunk to use in case of a puncture. But that was it, spare wheel arrived and lobbed in the boot, so preparations were done!
At least this time no insurance or breakdown cover hassles, just make sure we've got some currency (could they not have each thought of a different name than 'krona' for it all three countries??)
Day 1: Tewkesbury to Hamburg
An early morning start and around a 200 mile dash to Folkestone for the tunnel. We left with about an hour in hand to get to Folkestone so no problem, unless you take the M25 into account, or 'Sodding M Bloody 25' to give it its full and formal name. Jammed solid so off on a massive detour through God knows where, before eventually popping out back onto the M25 somewhere near Epsom and making a last all-out dash to the tunnel. I can conclusively say those overhead cameras are not set bob-on 70 when the variable speeds limits are not active...
The tunnel is as slick as ever and we made it with about 15 minutes to spare, so drive up to the booth, it automatically recognises the car, drive to the terminal, quick loo stop and then off onto the train.
After that the day consisted largely of a long long blast through a bit of France, across Belgium, getting a little lost in the Netherlands somewhere (not sure where, we were lost after all) and then a long long run across Germany.
Last year's Santa Fe acquitted itself admirably but it was not, shall we say, light on its feet. This time however it was in a Jaguar and the autobahn gives it space to be let fully off the leash... It turned out the only limiting factor was the rear seat passenger of a mother in her early 70s who it seems can suck air in through her teeth at a volume which increases proportionally with the speed of the car. As we hit 130 mph the sucking in was strong enough to pop ears and even cause the odd ear drum to bleed a little. Got to love the Germans though, at 6pm we had 124 miles to go to the hotel, and at a few minutes after 7pm barely an hour later we were there, a journey which would have taken a good two hours in Britain.
Day 2 - Hamburg to Copenhagen
A early start of a proper Germanic breakfast of something slami-ish and a bit of cheese, then we hit the road early to get to Copenhagen in time to have a bit of a wander around and do some sightseeing.
The first memorable event on the day was while bombing up the road from Hamburg northwards towards the Danish border when to our right in a rather lovely field was a big sofa. In the middle of a green field. With sheep lying on it. I have to say my dad did spot this first, which is quite an achievement for a one-eyed myopic accountant and the first thought in my head was rather dripping in skepticism, but no, there it was. Sheep lying on a sofa in a field. And who says those crazy German types are all boring and straight-laced.
The route to Copenhagen has two options - the shorter one with a ferry or the longer one going straight up the bearing right and over a series of bridges and islands until you reach Copenhagen itself.
As for Copenhagen itself, what can I say..? Not a lot as the phrase 'absolutely lashing it down' is a chronic understatement on how it was. It was blowing a gale strong enough to knock you off your feet and rain was coming down hard enough to drown you if you looked up.
We decided to try and find the Mermaid - a statue in the sea there. Except God knows where it was as the sea was pretty much just a grey wall of water with some statue or other out there somewhere. Rather than walk back to the hotel we decided to get a taxi, found one and were about to hop in when the driver, who was having a fag and a coffee, basically told us he couldn't reals be bothered and we may as well just walk back. But he said it in such a cheerful way that it seemed like a really helpful piece of advice.
Day 3 - Copenhagen to Oslo
This was a relatively simple run, first over the hugely impressive Oresund Bridge which links Denmark and Sweden. It starts off from the Copenhagen end as a tunnel then emerges somewhere out in the middle of the sea and turns into a 23km bridge crossing right over to Malmo in Sweden. Although if things were to be more in-keeping with expectations, the bridge should descend towards the Swedish coast and go straight into a massive Ikea car park. But it doesn't, sadly.
Once into Sweden it was a relatively simple job of 'turn right and keep going until you hit Oslo'.
We detoured on the way out to the coast just see what it looked like and it was all very pretty and nice.
Dare I say it but this bit of Sweden is just a little, erm, boring. It's flat and uninteresting although as we were mostly on motorway this is probably a hugely inaccurate image of it. We will be stopping here again on the way back for a closer look.
But then we arrived in Norway and in Oslo. I didn't really have any preconceptions of Oslo but am utterly taken with it as a charming, compact and utterly lovely city.
Our hotel was about 30 minutes outside Oslo itself so a quick drop the bags off and into Oslo itself. Wow, it is a thoroughly charming and compact city.
The strangest bit to get a handle on was how light it was through the night. This photo of the trees is admittedly rather boring and uninspiring, except it was taken out of the window at 1.45am and was as dark as it got.
Norway Road Tolls
Most of the major roads (motorways) in Norway are toll roads but it was a little perplexing when we reached them as there was nothing more than a bank of cameras over the carriageways, no booths, no need to stop. I decided to just not worry about it and see what happened and with marvellous Scandinavian efficiency, a couple of months or so after the trip an invoice turned up by post with the total due for the toll roads used. A brilliant system - no need to stop and all your tolls just totted up into one bill.
Day 4 - Oslo to Bergen
If Oslo had won my heart, today was the day Norway won me over completely, with t-shirts in the sun, two meter high snow drifts, fjords, mountains and then Bergen itself.
The route started off by heading back up through Oslo, then the motorway ends and from then on it is all country roads. The weather was stunning, and the photo here was the first petrol station stop to top-up ready for a long run across the mountains towards Bergen. Not a breath of wind and a balmy 21 degrees or so. Possibly the nicest petrol station I've ever been to!
From there it was up into the mountains and what turned out to be six or seven hours of non-stop breathtaking scenery.
We were following a loose route on my car's satnav. Now this being a Jaguar, I have to say the SatNav is not the best, and seemed to be largely limited to major roads, but we happily bumbled along anyway. After a couple of hours we were right up in the mountains and came across a t-junction, with a big yellow roadworks sign on the road we were supposed to go on, and what looked like 'diversion' pointing another way. This turned out to be one hell of a diversion -probably a good 80km or so diversion! But I was so glad we did go that way as the route was spectacular.
We climbed higher and higher into the mountains before crossing the snow line. This most definitely makes driving a rear-wheel drive car most exciting. The landscape just went white.
As we passed a dozen lake we came across a little wooden cafe thing so pulled over for a coffee and a cake or something. The owner couldn't have been more Norwegian if he had tried, by which I mean extremely welcoming, really friendly, and wearing an amazing chunky-knit jumper.
When we were done we wanted to make use of the facilities before leaving as on a trip like this, the next ones are going to be hours and hours away. My dad went and asked where the loo was and from our end of the cafe, was seemingly directed to the front door and off he went.
He returned a few minutes later chuckling away about it being the 'freshest' loo he had ever been to.
This little unheated hut was the loo, accessed by tramping through the snow, in temperatures which did nothing to encourage lingering. And possibly the best loo I've ever been to in terms of fresh air and view!
Absolutely loved that cafe, but time was a-ticking and we had to head off. We jumped back into the car and for another hour or so climbed higher and higher into the mountains before finally starting to wind back down the other side again.
The two hours or so as you approach Bergen as so utterly jaw-droopingly stunning that it should come with a health warning. Huge mountains just dropping straight into freshwater or saltwater fjords, crystal clear air, superb roads and very little traffic on them. The roads themselves are an engineering marvel, with an endless series of tunnels and bridges, hugging the edges of fjords and winding their way westwards. A few years ago this route required some ferry travel to get past some fjords but the new roads means you can drive all the way, although the ferries still run for those who want a slower pace of journey.
The eventually we arrived in Bergen and it is like a mini-Oslo, simply beautiful and small enough to walk everywhere in an evening. Photos do it more justice than words and this is one photo which sums Bergen up perfectly, taken just as a rain storm cleared.
Special mention has to be made of our hotel for the night. It was genuinely very nice, but the hotel corridors were, you have to admit, a touch institutional! For those of a certain age, the phrase which stuck in my mind when walking down these corridors was...
"Norman Stanley Fletcher, you have pleaded guilty to the charges brought by this court, and it is now my duty to pass sentence. You are an habitual criminal, who accepts arrest as an occupational hazard, and presumably accepts imprisonment in the same casual manner. We therefore feel constrained to commit you to the maximum term allowed for these offences: you will go to prison for five years."
Day 5 - Bergen to Lillehammer
Mum had wanted to go to Lillehammer after watching the Winter Olympics many years ago, so today was a drive back northeast, through another section of the mountains and eventually down to Lillehammer itself.
Later that morning the Norwegian engineering efforts achieved new heights when we entered the (toll-free somehow) Laerdal Tunnel, which up until that moment we had been unaware of the existence of. This is a 25km / 15 mile long tunnel, but one where the Norwegians clearly thought 'this is a tad long, what it needs is picnic areas' so at intervals along it built big wide stopping areas for you to get out and have a sarnie. With the tunnel being bathed in a cool blue lighting effect.
The fjords here are just as dramatic and the day's driving was easily an equal to yesterday's, back up to the snowline, then down to the fjords, up into pine forests and back down again.
We eventually reached Lillehammer which sits slightly lower in the mountains on the end of a lake. It is maybe not quite as pretty as Oslo and Bergen, with a lot of the development seeming to have been for the 1994 Olympics and is perhaps a little bit too much of that time.
But that is probably a little unfair and it would be hard for anywhere to compare to Bergen and Oslo.
One thing everyone had commented on before I set off was how expensive Norway would be, and you know what? They are right. Almost everything is VERY expensive. Hotel rooms were actually quite reasonably priced, but anything you consume from coffee to cakes, diesel to a main meal, is wince-inducingly priced. But it is worth it...
Day 6 - Lillehammer to Gothenburg
Lillehammer was the last of the easy days of quiet meandering sadly, with today being a long blast from there right back down, past Oslo, and back into Sweden with an overnight stay in Gothenburg. The first part of the drive was on smaller roads so good, but after Oslo was a long and fairly dull motorway blast with not a lot to report on.
Gothenburg itself is a city of contrasts. It is rather industrial with a large encircling area of industry and housing, but with a surprisingly nice core down by the harbour. We had a large wander around it but I have to say it's not somewhere I can get particularly excited about.
The hotel for the night was in the old centre which meant no parking, with the car being left in a multi-story car park overnight. It was most definitely one of those times where you lock the car and say 'bye' to it as seeing it agains seems rather unlikely...
Day 7 and Day 8 - Gothenburg to Hamburg to Tewkesbury
I absolutely love Norway, it could indeed be my favourite country to visit and is one I will definitely drive to and around again, but it is a long old slog to get there and back in the first place. These were two very long days of driving and all motorway so very little of interest to report. Gothenburg to Hamburg was a 400 mile drive, and then Hamburg to Tewkesbury is a 700 mile 12 hour motorway slog during which you are just pounding along endless motorways back to the Channel Tunnel.