Gyppo travel reviews

Because I think people care about what I have to say

North European Tour

A few years back, I found some photos from my Barry Boyz Racing North European Tour, so I thought I’d try to piece together a travelogue of sorts. The photos were from a compact film camera, so have resulted in slightly ropey scans. Fortunately they brought back a few memories for me. Warning: this is very long! I might break it up properly once I have all the pics available. Also, the headings were from a site which only allowed 4000 characters per section, so they are a bit weird. Finally WordPress has odd formatting restrictions which make this hard to read. Annoying, but I will try to figure it out.
3 friends (Tiberius “Tiny” Gibson, Flash, and Dave Antares) and I travelled from the UK by boat to Denmark, from where we drove to Narvik via Oslo, enjoying the scenery along the way. Then it was Helsinki; a ferry to Stockholm; Northern Germany via Denmark again; finishing with a ferry back to the UK from the Netherlands.
Generally we did the hostel or budget hotel thing; however, as most of these countries were quite expensive, we still ended up spending lots of money!
Being young lads at the time, we of course visited as many places with silly names as we could…

Denmark (1st time) & Sweden (1)

The Racer

We started off in Cambridge in the early afternoon one day in August 2000. We got into the Racer (a black Ford Escort mark 6) and drove to Harwich, where we embarked on the DFDS MV Dana Anglia (now the MV Moby Corse) for the overnight ferry to Esbjerg. The plastic covered mattresses made a pretty comfortable journey a little worse, but probably set the tone for a few of the hostels we’d use.
We had booked the ferries to and from the UK, and between Helsinki and Sweden, but nothing else.
That only hit home when we rolled off the boat in Denmark, not knowing where we’d spend the night…not even which town! A cry went up as the wheels touched Danish soil, one which we’d hear many times before the trip was over: “What are we doing?!”
We settled on Arhus in the east of Jutland. Sadly, my 1st set of photos (covering Denmark) is missing, so this section might be a little sparse. 
We drove to Arhus via Silkeborg and a pretty little town called Ry, where we saw a tortoise tied to a brick. That’d be more amusing if I had the picture!
The City Sleep-In hostel in Arhus was pretty good (we found it by navigating by the sun, in part, which made us feel manly), and we liked the café culture. We had a very pleasant evening in the cafés and bars by the dock. 
The next day we headed for Copenhagen, stopping at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde. It’s very impressive, containing several Viking ships recovered from the harbour and partially restored.
In Copenhagen, having enjoyed the Arhus hostel, for the first night we stayed in the City Sleep-In. I can’t seem to find it online, but my recollection is that it was a big warehouse or sports hall with lots of partitions forming 6 bed enclosures, with 3 bunk beds in each, and around 100 of them. In the morning, I think there were only a handful of toilets, showers and sinks. Not good. We moved on to their sister place, Sleep-In Heaven. This was a lot better. At the time, their cheapest room was in a 14-bed dorm. Much more comfortable, and shorter queues for the toilet.
While in the capital, we visited Christiansborg Palace, Tivoli Gardens, and the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not museum. The highlight of the last was ‘one man’s idea of a perpetual motion machine’: it required electricity to lift metal balls to the top, but once there, they went back to the bottom all on their own…
Next we headed across the then very recently-opened Øresund Bridge to Malmo. At the time it seemed like a bad idea for Flash to answer “We’re going to Norway” to the customs officer’s question about our destination; probably even worse for me to compound the error with my reply “what football match” to his follow-up…while wearing a football shirt. However, presumably after running us through a hooligan database, we were eventually let in, and made our way north on the E6.
Our first stop was Bastad, mainly for the name. This small town is the site of the Swedish Open tennis tournament, and surprisingly we were able to open a gate and take a look around the stadium. On leaving, we saw a London bus – destination Tottenham. This is part of the Bastadbuss fleet and available for weddings…
We then moved on, halting at Uddevalla and the Cheers Restaurant for lunch. They didn’t have a vegetarian option on the day menu, but the chef knocked up an excellent pasta with peppers in a lemon and mustard sauce just for me because he “liked the challenge”.
We drove on through the driving rain, and made it to Oslo. The one way system and city toll did their best to put us off, but we persevered and reached our hostel.

Norway

Waterfall, Norway
After the minor ordeal of the journey, by now it was dark (in Oslo, in August, so it was late) we were just happy to reach a place we could sleep. That was the Oslo Youth Hostel Haraldsheim. We asked in the now-usual style if there was “room… for four people”.
No.
[horror]
But if you have sleeping bags, you can use the TV room.
[relief]
The TV room turned out to be very comfortable, with cushioned bench seats around the walls. Perfectly adequate, as we settled down to sleep after a couple of 0% alcohol beers from the vending machine…topped up with spirits we had in the Racer (for when we weren’t driving, of course).
Breakfast the next day was similarly good, except for Gjetost, a goat milk cheese which was like a cross between a waxy mild cheese and a soft toffee. I swore I’d never eat it again. It’s not really what the British palate is used to, but a favoured delicacy of our Nordic friends. Now, however, I find I actually quite like the taste and used to buy it occasionally – at great expense – from one of the Scandinavian shops in Brussels, when I lived there.
A short tram ride took us the 3 miles into town, so we could see the sights. Here’s a useful travel tip for Oslo – a lot of it was closed on the Monday we were there, including the National Gallery and the National Museum. It turns out that’s the way it works. Fortunately, the excellent Norwegian Resistance Museum and the Akershus castle were welcoming visitors when we turned up, apprehensive. The latter is small but attractive, and has some sculptures.
Sadly, with the clock ticking, we were forced to leave Oslo before the city re-opened in order to drive the long, winding road to Trondheim. Happily, it’s a beautiful drive with spectacular views. For a very long time, Norway was my reference point for attractive countryside; it’s still in my rotating top three. It’s amazing. Fjords, mountains, waterfalls. It’s not just geology, either. There are resilient animals too, including the sheep who delayed our journey by attempting to reproduce in the road in front of our car.

That delay, plus constantly having to stop for photo opportunities, meant we arrived at Trondheim very late. After checking in at the Hostelling International hostel, we went out to find most restaurants closing, and ended up settling for the English Pub (now possibly called the Three Lions English Pub). One of the guys drinking there was a British builder, and he’d been part of the team that had refitted the pub the winter before. I’d spent the early part of the summer labouring for a pub refurb company, so it was interesting to learn about how he’d done it in the dark and below zero.
The next day was more driving through the stunning country, with a quick visit to Hell shopping centre, then a brief stop during which Tiny fell in a fjord. After he dried off, we continued on our heading for Mo-i-Rana, a small town on another fjord. Dinner was had at the Big Ben pub, at which point we realised we’d probably better stop visiting English pubs. The hostel (situated just outside the town) was very comfortable, with one of the friendliest owners we met. I can’t find any info on it now, so perhaps it’s closed.
We then went further north. The road was still long, and even more winding at this point. Our first stop was at the Arctic Circle Centre. Given it should have been around 10C, I wonder, looking back, if the terrible cold was inflicted by my mind – expecting to be freezing due to the name. Anyway, it was freezing cold, and certainly not T-shirt weather. The centre is the site of several war memorials and a striking, if weird, collection of cairns which was faintly reminiscent of what I’d imagine an Indian burial ground would look like.

Norway & Sweden (2), briefly

Reindeer, Sweden


We continued. I’ve found a strange note among my photos which suggests that we had to wait for hours for a road to be re-tarmacced. None of the photos have any content relating to this and I have no memory of it. Odd. Perhaps there had been a landslide? I guess I’ll never know unless one of my friends can remember. 
On the other hand, I do recall being stuck behind a wheezing lorry for a very long ascent, then finally overtaking just as we began to descend again back to sea level. We drove to join a queue for the E6 shuttle ferry not far from Narvik. As we sat waiting, the same asthmatic lorry was waved past the queue to the exact space where it would be allowed off the ferry first. Presumably some sort of Norwegian traffic calming. Anyway, we managed to get some champagne from somewhere (surely it can’t have been on the ferry, unless it were more substantial than these things usually are) and toasted our luck. We’d get past it in the end.
Narvik was a superb mix of Blade Runner industry and Norwegian architecture. I liked it a lot. We stayed in a guest house, the name of which is lost in the mists of time, but it had very comfortable twin rooms. We spent a rest day in Narvik and the surrounds.
We used that day as a break from driving…by driving as far north as far as we thought we could go. That ended up being a couple of hours north of Narvik, where the road tailed off into a track then had a little circle with a picnic table in the middle. The weather turned back to rain, but we saw a rainbow a few times on the way back. It was on this leg of the journey that Tiny managed to trap my foot under the rear wheel of the Racer. Still not quite sure how, but I’m a hardy soul and there wasn’t any damage done.
For some reason, on return we had to move to another forgotten hotel, which was even nicer, and had a terrace to look over the city while drinking Aass pilsner, but was by far the most expensive stay we had. That evening we had the most expensive meal of the trip, too. Four pizzas and a bottle of red ended up being well over a hundred pounds. It wasn’t helped by Flash accidentally ordering a 24 inch pizza – in his defence, he was very hungry and preferred the thought of a large to a medium like we were having, and he stressed this to the waiter, not knowing the measurements which were inexplicably missing from the menu. He first got nervous when he saw the mediums delivered, being at least 18 inches in diameter, which we’d have no hope of finishing. I still chuckle when I think of the waiters and cooks who must have had a huge laugh at our expense. At least there was no danger of starving.
The large meal probably helped us sleep well. Important with a nearly 600 mile drive to cover the next day, as we moved on through Sweden again to Narvik. We rose early and set out on the journey, leaving the E6 behind in favour of the E10. With an odyssey like that ahead of us, such well-prepared people would of course take appropriate precautions to avoid running out of fuel.
The halt came at Abisko, just over the Swedish border. It was still early as we rang the rescue service, and there weren’t any people around. However, after about an hour waiting, we found a passer-by who knew the way to a petrol station roughly three miles away, and we were able to limp over. Oddly, 14 years later Dave went to Abisko again; it’s the site of the Swedish Polar Research Station and his life has taken him into the climate research field.
Thus replenished, we had an enjoyable and blissfully uneventful drive through Kiruna and northern Sweden on our way to Finland. We were lucky enough to see elk and reindeer on our route, and had a good bread and cheese lunch on the way – remembering to turn down the kind, if twinkling-eyed, offer of Gjetost. Oulu, and a by this point desperately needed hostel bed, beckoned.

Finland

Distances and directions


Some people balk at the idea of going abroad without having every last detail of their trip tied down. Others might be more relaxed, but if they had to drive for 600 miles, they’d consider booking ahead. Not us. We knew there was a youth hostel waiting in Oulu; all we had to do was make it. Why would we want to ring ahead and give ourselves the chance to make a contingency plan, in case, say, the youth hostel had shut down the previous week?
Kajaani is a mere 140 miles away from Oulu, and also housed a youth hostel which might not have closed. Back on the road.
When I mentioned to a Finnish friend at university that I’d been to Kajaani, he reacted in horror. It was the worst place in Finland. The bad memories. It turned out he’d had his basic training for military service there, which I reckon had coloured his judgement. On the contrary, we were pretty impressed with the small town. 
Now, part of that might have been due to the dramatic drop in the cost of food and drink compared with the week in Norway, and really we didn’t give it time to grate, as we knew we’d leave early for Helsinki, but it felt like a good place to stop. We had a very relaxed evening in the pubs and quite an early night in a 4-bed room at the HI hostel. The guy who ran it was extremely nice, and only missed half a beat at our reply to his question as to when we wanted breakfast.
The breakfast duly arrived at 5am, and it fuelled us well for our lazy 400 mile trip through the Finnish lake district. The first fun bit was the cloud level which started at about 10 feet. The forests and lakes were nice, but we’d probably been spoiled by the scenery in Norway. We stopped at Heinola for lunch on the way down, where we found an all-you-can-eat pizza and kebab restaurant. Healthy. 
More walking to burn off lunch and a little more driving saw us safely to the Olympic Stadium in Helsinki. It houses a youth hostel, but that could only shelter us for one night. However, we were able to visit the stadium, finding a side door which was open. Somehow we managed to avoid the temptation to serve ourselves drinks from the unattended bar, and travelled into town for the evening. There the Irish bars captured us again (very uncultured) – perhaps that was a factor in what would become a recurring event on BBR tours: Flash being ill.
After moving hostel to the Eurohostel, on the other side of the city and close to the docks, we set out to explore properly. Senate square and the Helsinki Cathedral were very impressive but my favourite excursion was the boat trip around the area, on which we saw the many islands, the huge icebreakers which keep the port open when the Baltic freezes, and my top sight – the Finnish navy second world war submarine. The Vesikko, effectively a prototype for the German Type II U-boat, is now a museum ship, and will be top of my list if I get to go back to Helsinki.
In the evening, we had dinner at the Zetor restaurant. This eaterie was named after a Czech tractor, and the bar is filled with tractors and tractor parts. Some of the bar stools even have tractor seats (and may have been inspiration for the chairs at one of the cafés in the European Parliament). The restaurant was designed by director Aki Kaurismäki of Leningrad Cowboys fame, and served traditional Finnish food. Not a huge choice for vegetarians, but the blinis were suitably authentic, flavoured with potato, carrot and beetroot. A ‘fun’ restaurant. The next day, we visited several museums, and found a bar which apparently served semen and chocolate whiskey. Semen is Finnish for cement, according to Google Translate. I’m not sure which is less likely.

Finland & Sweden (3)

A penguin… with…

We returned, slightly intoxicated, to the Olympic Stadium to watch a football match between at the time league-leading (and now defunct) FC Jokerit and FC Lahti. An awful game, notable only for the Sam Allardyce tactics employed by Jokerit, their big number 9 who managed to shoot from inside the area and conceded a throw-in, and the behaviour of the Finnish fans who were library-silent for most of the match, only reacting to the occasional piped-in advertisements. We were the loudest supporters, and we’d never heard of either team until the day before.
We decided to head out to a club and, having been turned away from DTM on the grounds of our sexuality (after a few drinks, one of us was convinced it was a franchise of the Oxford club Downtown Manhattan; DTM turned out to stand for ‘Don’t Tell Momma’), settled in at Fennia. A fairly standard nightclub, it was nonetheless remarkable for its cheap gin and blackjack tables, which conspired to make it a more expensive night than I’d planned.
Suitably hungover, we embarked on the Silja line service to Stockholm. At the time, my brain couldn’t process the logo, so I wondered for a long time why the company had chosen a busty penguin as its mascot. Eventually I realised it was a seal… The leisurely journey was good for recovery, and I managed to recover my losses of the night before and more at the roulette table. This funded a trip to the onboard nightclub to taste the menu in turn, leading to us drinking probably the least palatable drink I’ve ever drunk, a spirit known as Diesel. After the ridiculously unpleasant taste had subsided, we moved down the list to the next offering. We ordered the Finnish sounding beverage, which we soon found out was unfortunately a cocktail of Bailey’s…and Diesel. A sign that we needed to sleep.
Not having too late a night turned out to be a good call, as we were able to rise in time to see the beautiful mini-islands in Stockholm harbour. Well worth it.
Stockholm is an attractive city, home to the excellent Vasa museum which commemorates Sweden’s biggest wooden ship at the time of its construction. A mighty 64-gun precursor of the ship-of-the-line tactics which would soon become standard in naval planning, the Vasa was narrow and top heavy, causing it to keel over and sink just 20 minutes into its maiden voyage. It was recovered in the 1950s and is now the centrepiece of a good collection of maritime pieces. The National Museum and Museum of Modern Art weren’t quite up to the same level, but were a fine way to spend a few hours each.
In addition, Stockholm might have had the biggest disappointment of the trip. From a distance, we saw an enormous sign on a huge building: PUB. We rushed there, only to find it wasn’t the biggest pub in the world, but was instead the Paul U Bergstrom department store. Crushing.
We would have liked to spend more than a couple of nights in Stockholm, but we knew we had another ferry to catch, so we set off back to Denmark.

Denmark (2) & Germany

Lego shower, Denmark

We’d managed to drive on the wrong side of the road for a couple of thousand miles by this point, so perhaps complacency had set in, or maybe we were excited by the thought of LEGOLAND, or perhaps we were all just tired. Whatever the cause, it was a surprise when – after a quick stop in Odense for lunch – Tiny began a routine U-turn manoeuvre, but failed to complete it. At the end of what had become a J was an even more startled elderly couple, who probably hadn’t expected their day out to be interrupted by four Brits in a black Ford Escort mark 6. Fortunately no severe damage was done, and our journey hadn’t come to a premature end.
That meant we were able to head on to Vejle. Sadly, I can’t remember anything about it, other than trying two new (to us) Carlsberg beers: Elephant and Master Brew. Neither to my taste at the time (although I’ve had Elephant since and it was OK), but the alcoholic strengths of 7.2 and 10.6% respectively might explain my lack of recall.
We made sure we got up early, as we had to get to LEGOLAND for a full day out. It’s probably not meant for 20-year-olds, but for most of us, Lego was a huge part of our childhood. The rides were pretty lame, but the constructions were excellent. I like a good model village, I love Lego, so I was on a winner. Fun day out, made even more so by acting like teenagers and carrying out rude poses with the humanoid models. 
Cliché alert: all good things must come to an end, so we made our way over the border to Germany and Hamburg for a late meal at Tex’s Bar-B-Q on the Reeperbahn. I think it’s actually a Tex-Mex restaurant, otherwise I probably would have gone home hungry or carb-heavy. Either way, we were able to spend a couple of nights at the HI Hostel Horner Rennbahn (I think), so that meant a big day and night, beginning with an exciting trip the next morning to the local museum of science. It had lots of interesting-looking exhibits, but the captions were all in German. Sadly, none were about directions to the town hall.
It could therefore have been as a result of our frustrated incomprehension that we hit the bars hard that day. A misguided competition led to two of our number consuming more than 20 different drinks, spending more than they should in some of the less salubrious areas of Hamburg, then missing curfew and sleeping on a park bench. I’ll spare their blushes by letting them remain anonymous. Well, apart from noting I’m obviously reasonably well-informed of ‘their’ actions.
It was thus fortunate that we only had a short journey the next day. That was to Cuxhaven, just 2 hours along the Elbe river. I wish I’d taken pictures of the speed limit signs along the way, which had restrictions for cars, lorries…and tanks. There’s not a whole lot to do in Cuxhaven except walk off a deathly hangover in a faintly surreal manner: at one point we managed to exactly match the speed of the most enormous container ship I’ve ever seen for about 30 mins, before – and it might just have been my befuddled mind playing tricks on me, were it not for Dave seeing it too – we saw a man walking a bear on the beach.

Germany & the Netherlands
Furthest point north


I mean, it can’t actually have been a bear, it has to surely have been the world’s biggest mastiff, but that’s what it looked like at a distance. We were careful to keep that distance too, just in case. After about 4 hours walking, we came upon a greasy spoon, which I think was called the London Grill. Ambrosia. Tiny and I marshalled our GCSE German and began to order, haltingly, from the all day breakfast classics available. It took just half a minute for the owner to stop our embarrassment and encourage us to speak English.
“Awright lads, let’s cut the f*cking crap”. He was a Cockney, who’d worked the container ships until he had tired of it, and retired to Cuxhaven. He did good trade from the guys off the boats, who were keen for cheap, hearty British food. I hope he’s still there and doing well. Replenished, we found the other thing to do in Cuxhaven – bowling (that’s almost certainly a very harsh verdict on the town, but we were unable to do much exploring in our condition). Our diminishing aiming capabilities indicated we should probably get some sleep, at the hostel which was in an old school house.
Off to the final country on our jaunt, then, which was the Netherlands. We didn’t have long before our boat back to the UK, so headed straight for Amsterdam, along the way stopping for lunch at the pretty city of Groningen. 
Amsterdam was where my mental crash finally happened. After thousands of miles and living a holiday lifestyle, instead of doing the usual things one does there, I decided to relax. It was my first time in the city, and I fell a little in love. It’s no coincidence that I’ve been back dozens of times. What a beautiful, comfortable, friendly place.
We spent the next couple of days enjoying the bars and brown cafés, walking, getting lost and drenched in torrential, and checking out the museums. Near the Spui book market, I found what would become my favourite bar in Amsterdam, De Beiaard. It’s a bit touristy, a bit expensive, but it has a conservatory which overlooks a turn in the road with trams, cars, bikes, and people to watch and a canal with occasional boats going by. Although I check out new places on each visit, I’ve been back to De Beiaard every time.
And that, readers, was almost it. We cruised down to Hook of Holland to pick up the HSS 1500 Stena Discovery high speed catamaran back to Harwich. When that route ran, it took 4 hours to cross the North Sea, and after watching X Men in the onboard cinema, there was just enough time to borrow £10 from Dave, having spent all of my money on the trip, and gamble that on blackjack. I won just enough to afford a souvenir Lego model of the Discovery. Job done.
Flash had the final drive, back to Cambridge. It went very smoothly, once he’d remembered to drive on the left side. 6 countries and I think about 4000 miles later, the North European tour was over.

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