My tour of Scandinavia is complete, and my bank account thanks me for it. But I was able to fit in a few more stops along the way, and tour through three more of Europe’s most iconic cities. First, from Stockholm, I went to Oslo, Norway.
Though I didn’t have time to make it to the picturesque West Coast town of Bergen or any of the more notable, wild fjords, I spent a long weekend couchsurfing in the capital city and taking in its beautiful sights. Oslo has a plethora of interesting buildings and walking along and over the river at various points was enjoyable (especially since I was lucky enough to get a 70-degree first full day).
I walked all day and saw Parliament, the Royal Palace, a few parks, downtown, the waterfront, an old military fort and plenty of unique churches that day. Most intriguing, in terms of attractions, were the endless amounts of crazy statues. From Frogner Park, which was full of twisted, detailed human figured sculptures to a handful of famous ones in the center of town, I was amazed by the amount of beautiful artwork the city contained. You can see some photos of those here:
Probably the most rewarding part of Oslo was meeting Firat, my couchsurfing host. He was exceptionally generous with his time and his home, even bringing me downtown to a nightclub with his friends, who also turned out to be fun, relaxed people. Firat, his Iraqi friend Mohammed, and myself spent a few hours drinking and chatting in the nightclub, which had a very cool vibe to it.
I remember specifically bumping into a guy on the dance floor who started yelling at me in Norwegian. I figured I was getting chewed out for bumping into him, but when he realized I didn’t speak Norwegian and translated it to English, he yelled, “HEY, DO ME A FAVOR…ENJOY YOURSELF!” before giving me a big hug. Yeah, Norwegian people are awesome.
One thing I really enjoyed about my time in Oslo was just chatting with people like Firat, Mohammed, and an older couple from Southern California, who want to sell their house, quit their jobs, buy a boat and sail the world. Firat is a supremely interesting person with a background consisting of Kurdish and Swedish, who speaks what felt like 15 different languages. Mohammed explained to me what he sees as one of the main differences of religious fanatics in Iraq and the U.S. (“In Iraq, we are literally ruled by religion. In the U.S., you still have a secular set of rules to abide by.”).
The aforementioned couple was met at a Death Cab for Cutie concert on my final night in Oslo. That was the first time I got to see one of my favorite bands perform a full live set (they performed last year at OutsideLands, but it wasn’t more than 45 minutes), and I got to do so from about 10 feet away. It was amazing!
Anyway, Oslo was wonderful, and capped off a nice couple weeks in Scandinavia that convinced me I need a proper month-long journey through those places to truly experience the wilder sides of those countries.
Unfortunately my warm, relaxed, easy-living time came to an end rather abruptly when I stupidly booked two trains and two buses all the way back around the North Sea to Amsterdam, rather than just buying a two-hour flight direct. Note to other travelers out there: Fly from Oslo to Amsterdam. Or swim. Whatever. It will be easier.
All things considered, the train from Oslo to Gothenburg, Sweden, the bus from Gothenburg to Copenhagen, the train from Copenhagen to just outside Hamburg, the taxi from where our train broke down just outside Hamburg to Hamburg, the 12 hour night shift spent trying to stay awake in a McDonald’s in Hamburg, the bus ride from Hamburg to Amsterdam, and the ensuing treacherous climb to my hostel bed (more on this later)…wasn’t as terrible as it should have been.
Stressful, sure. But I survived. Upon arriving in Amsterdam, I lugged my tired body to my hostel and checked in. Four floors of the skinniest, spiraliest (new word!) staircases in the world gave way to a set of flimsy wooden planks that took me even higher, into the attic. In that small attic room were six beds and a bathroom. How they fit us all in there is beyond me but, hey…the things we do for cheap accommodations, right?
Anyway, I pretty much plopped down for the night upon arrival and decided to take on Amsterdam the following morning. I took the long way around town the next day, opting to walk through every jagged street and by every red-lit window I could find. I ended up traversing more than half of the city and falling madly in love with everything I laid eyes on (except what I saw in the Red Light District, which made me feel surprisingly uncomfortable).
Just like I was told, Amsterdam is a brilliant city in and of itself, regardless of the role drugs and sex play in its lore. The architecture is breathtaking and the endless food and drink options make for some tough decisions while wandering. The canal system, though confusing at first, proved to be one of my favorite aspects of the city. A weird thing I noticed, though, was that a ton of the buildings were very obviously slanted in certain directions. See the picture below for an example:
That night, I met my buddy Serre from the dorms at Washington State, who happened to be in town with his friend Ariel. What was supposed to be casual beers turned into three pubs, a shit ton of drinks and a lot of much-needed catching up. It was really good to see someone I hadn’t been in close contact with since college, and it felt like old times again as soon as we started chatting.
I spent a couple more days in Amsterdam wandering around the city, but tried to focus on the outskirts like the neighborhood of Jordaan, and tried hunting down some of the more notable windmills the city has to offer. Both missions were accomplished, and I’d say by the end of a few days I had explored pretty much every inch of Amsterdam proper. It’s another one of those places that I could totally see myself spending significant time in.
After Amsterdam, it was a short train ride to Brussels to check out the capital of Europe. Though more gritty than many other cities I’ve been to, Brussels seemed to have its own charm and definitely was not lacking in “holy shit, look at that!” moments. The miles I walked and the sights I saw are too numerous to even properly recall, but if there’s a must-see in Brussels not named Atomium, I probably have a picture of it.
One of my favorite stops was the Brussels version of the Arc de Triomphe where, first of all, they were hoisting some daring diners into the sky for “Dinner in the Sky” in front of the structure, with a complete view of Brussels. Secondly, I wandered my way through the courtyard and saw a live, free outdoor concert taking place. I went into the military museum nearby and climbed a few stairs, before finding myself at a door that led to the TOP of the Arc, where I got to see the rooftops of all of Brussels.
My friends John and Robyn, now married, originally met in Brussels while studying abroad. John had no shortage of good tips for me, including directing me to Maison Antoine, which may have topped even the prettiest of buildings Brussels had to offer.
Maison Antoine is a small snack shack in downtown Brussels where the most delicious, majestic fries ever consumed were consumed by yours truly. I don’t have a picture. Even if I did, I wouldn’t share. Because that taste is all mine forever.
Anyway, many hours, an amazing Belgian waffle and a few beers later, I feel like I saw every corner of the main part of Brussels. It’s a truly beautiful city with its fair share of political and business pockets (including some very important EU landmarks!), but very walkable. It’s a place I highly recommend for a couple of days, though I feel like I’d need to spend a month or two living in Brussels to really understand the place in full.
So, that’s my newest update. Three more countries down, many more to go. But now I get into the more extended stays of my trip, starting with Spain (writing this from Madrid!) and moving on to France afterwards. Look for another update soon!