The next in an occasional series of reports from locations outside the Rick Steves cannon... I read that the skiing season usually starts in Scandinavia about a month or two before it does in the Alps, so I decided to check out the winter sports scene in a different part of Europe. I chose Åre (pronounced something like "OW-ruh") because I had yet to ever set foot in Sweden and because I read that at least some pistes usually open by mid-November. And it's the largest ski resort in Scandinavia. However, Åre is also pretty remote, located in the middle of this very vast country, and almost a 90 minute drive from the nearest airport in Östersund, the only city in Jämtland county. First a quick note on flying into Stockholm's Arlanda Airport. If you have to transit through here, realize that it has 5 terminals and the departure screens only show the flights in each terminal. So, if your connecting flight is in another terminal, you have to know that in advanced or ask an airport representative. This is by far the most sparsely populated region of Europe I have yet to visit. On the drive from Östersund to Åre, I passed barely anything that you could consider a town. Most of the settlements are just collections of no more than two dozen or so houses. In many ways, it reminds me of the interior of Alaska, although not quite so empty. (cont)
Food so far has been amazing, but typical high Scandinavian prices. I had a delicious fish stew for dinner last night, a salmon burger for lunch in Trondheim today, and shrimp tartar and reindeer bourguignon for dinner tonight. I've sampled a wonderful local Jämtlandse beer that reminds me of the IPAs made on the west coast of US. For those not keeping score right now, "New Nordic cuisine" is one of the current hot trends among European foodies. I took a break from skiing today to drive to Trondheim in Norway. On the way, I took a quick detour to see Tännforsen, which is an impressive waterfall. Even more impressive because of all the ice today. The drive to Trondheim took longer than it looked on the map, but went through some stunning countryside. VERY sparsely populated, though. The road ascends through the Scandinavian mountains, than gradually descends to run along the Trondheimsfjord. The border crossing between Sweden and Norway along this road may be one of the least heralded I have seen in Europe. Coming into Norway, the only way you know you've entered the country is because there's the typical sign that instructs you on the country's speed limits, and going the other way, there's just a simple blue sign that reads "Sverige". See my other report on the non-intuitive system Norway developed for collecting tolls on the motorways (cont.).
OK, Trondheim. The city sits in a physical location that reminds me of Port Angeles in Washington State. Definitely one of the more scenic locations for a city in Europe. Trondheimsfjord probably can't compare to Sognefjord in terms of scenery, but it's still a quite impressive. With Grieg's infectious "Wedding Day at Trondheim" in my head, I headed straight to the city's most famous site, Nidaros Cathedral... which was closed to the public today for a funeral. Still, Europe's northernmost Gothic cathedral looked interesting from the outside. Not nearly as large as some of the famous Gothic cathedrals of France or England, but very elaborately constructed. The rest of Trondheim? Very attractive- imagine the wooden buildings of Bergen sitting side-by-side with the brightly colored Neoclassical and Art Noveau typical of northern Europe. Still, there's probably not enough to justify a side-trip for most travelers. But if you're in the neighborhood, go for it. Two things that really stood out about Trondheim, however. One, the temperature was surprisingly mild. Temps in Åre, at a similar latitude, have hovered around the freezing point, but it was about 10º C in Trondheim. The other thing that surprised me- for an extremely rich country that was barely touched by the worldwide financial crisis and that possesses one of the world's most envied social safety net, I saw a surprisingly large amount of beggars. (cont)
Outside of the Alps, Åre might be one of the most stunningly beautiful ski resorts I have ever seen. The municipality (it's not really a distinct town) stretches along a lakeside in a valley between two mountain ranges. It's also huge. From my hotel window, I can see the lights of the houses stretching several kilometers into the distance. And I don't think I've seen a larger ski area anywhere. But... currently only two out of over a hundred pistes are open (it's very early in the season). The skiing is pretty much what I expected for this early in the season. The snow is either too icy or too wet, but the pistes look like they would be amazing in better conditions. I'll have to come back some time in January or February. Although I've traveled farther to the north before, I've never been this far north at a time of the year when the days are so short. There's less than 7 hours of effective sunlight each day. It isn't fully light out until after 8, and it's completely dark again before 16.00. No chance of seeing any aurora activity on this trip, though. (cont.)
Today was purely a skiing day. They opened up the cable car lift to the summit, but there was a raging blizzard today and visibility was near null on the top. After being coated with snow and skiing almost blind, I decided to wait the storm out in my hotel room. It cleared up after lunch and conditions were good for the rest of the day. Because it gets dark so early here, they have lights to illuminate some of the pistes, which I like. It's actually easier to ski under artificial lighting than it is under the sun. Åre itself is a typical winter sports resort, although as previously noted, it's much more dispersed than some of the resorts in the Alps. The "downtown" area (for lack of a better term) has the usual collection of restaurants, bars, boutiques and ski shops. The buildings, at least, were constructed in a distinct Scandinavian style, ie, no Alpine chalets here. Still, if you're looking for the sort of pre-industrial, folksy lifestyle that some people on this website consider "authentic"... well, you're missing the point, and you came to Åre for the wrong reason. Had arctic char for dinner tonight and it was delicious (cont).
From Östersund to Frankfurt, I had a 5 hour layover in Stockholm. Because I was probably there for less than 3 hours, I won't go into too much detail (someone who spends more time there can write a full report), but will note a few things. It's incredibly easy and fast to travel from the airport to Stockholm Central on the Arlanda Express train. Stockholm is a beautiful city. Most stores were open on Sunday- not sure if today was special or if that's regular. There's a small Christmas market in front of the Nobel museum. If you've seen Anthony Bourdain's Sweden episode, I found myself a Tunnbrödsrulle, which is the Swedish hot dog, in a flat bread wrap, stuffed with mashed potatoes. I had no problem getting a locker at Central Station at 10.00, but when I returned around 13.00, there were close to a hundred people waiting for a locker. One final note about Sweden. Add it to the list of countries with EC card-only pay-at-pump fuel. You can probably pay in the shop with a US magnetic strip card, but they're not always open.
Very nice report. On your comment on stores being open on Sunday, for the most part that is normal. The department stores (Åhléns and NK) and grocery stores have Sunday hours. For the smaller shops, it varies. The state-run liquor stores are closed though. And the Tunnbrödsrulle ... they definitely taste better after midnight when you've had a few beers. I gather you skipped the shrimp salad.
I enjoyed reading your report. Thanks for posting.
"I gather you skipped the shrimp salad." Yes, but not by choice. Go figure, the one person I encountered in all of Sweden who didn't speak English was the lady working at the hot dog stand (one of many, BTW, in Stockholm). I did my best to correctly pronounce "Tunnbrödsrulle", then before I knew it, I had one with mustard and ketchup in it.
I guess that means you have to go back to get the full Swedish cultural experience. Next time, order the Tunnbrödsrulle "med Räksallad" (the unnaturally pink shrimp salad) and a "Pucko" (a chocolate drink). It is a distinctly unusual combination of flavors.