It all started in 2012 with Thomas Cromwell. My sister Suse, still based in my home town Sydney, had just read Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantell and insisted that I would love it. I have to admit the 600+ page tome sat by my bed for quite a while, but once started, Mantell had me hooked. At the centre of the dark underbelly of Henry VIII’s court, was the mesmerising Thomas Cromwell. Having consumed Wolf Hall, it was straight on to the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. I was well and truly smitten with Thomas Cromwell.
Almost as I turned the last page, I happened to hear Mantell on the radio with news that the Royal Shakespeare Company would be mounting stage productions of both books for their winter 2013/14 season at Stratford-upon-Avon.
So – straight on the phone to sister, breathlessly – “Let’s go to Stratford, I’ll book the RSC tickets, it’s 18 months away, we’ll come up with a plan.” Four weeks later I was poised at my computer at 10pm to pounce on RSC tickets as they came on sale. Several clicks later, a few minutes agonising over which were the best seats, and we were confirmed for the two plays … 68 weeks in the future.
Six months out we started thinking more practically about what other adventures we could arrange around our hot date with Thomas Cromwell. Early northern hemisphere spring weather was too iffy to consider a hike or a bike, no burning bucket list destinations in the UK – what to do?
Having completely bamboozled ourselves with endless internet research I set off to consult with Jacqui Donoghue at House of Travel to ponder the options and to come up with a more fulsome itinerary. And the plan that came up trumps was to head north, really north.
Starting in London
A short stay in London’s brisk spring weather was a good start with Boris Bikes featuring prominently. Highlights were a visit to the Tower of London – we trod the very boards where Anne Boleyn trod her way to the executioner. We were astonished by the size of Henry VIII’s suit of armour codpiece – we thinks he dost protect too much! A fantastic David Bailey exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery was followed by a 13 course dinner at Bubbledogs’ Kitchen Table in Fitzrovia (an amazing chef’s table experience). As loyal Australians, we ate breakfast both days at Bill Granger’s gorgeous Notting Hill eatery – 25 years on, you still can’t beat his scrambled eggs.
Arriving in Stratford by train, our Cromwell karma kicked in. Not only were we seeing the plays, but on precisely our dates, Hilary Mantell in person, the RSC director and a bevvy of Tudor experts were giving a series of talks. The two plays were, in a word, sublime. The theatrical highlight of a lifetime. The attendant lectures were wonderful – a real treat to hear from Mantell herself, and to have the other RSC and academic experts share their insights and observations. We cleared our heads in between sessions at the Swan Theatre with long, bracing walks along the Avon River and meanderings around picturesque Stratford.
On to Oslo
We had two nights in an apartment in Oslo and a full day walking miles and occasionally catching trams in the wrong direction. We loved Oslo – from the excitement of a supermarket where you had no idea what you were buying (while trying not to compute how much it cost), to its moody and dramatic harbour, palaces, forts and ancient unearthed Viking ships.
From Oslo we set off on one of the most scenic train rides in the world, and the highest in Europe – seven hours, climbing up from sea level to 1,222m and down to the 1,000 year old city of Bergen on the western coast. We spent the trip bewitched by the snow, sculpted clouds and mountains, tiny ski lodge settlements, more snow, rivers, skiers jostling on and off the train, snow tunnels and snow barriers, incredible monochromatic landscapes – stark black and white with startlingly blue skies.
Bergen has the distinction of being one of the wettest cities in Europe (average 222 days a year) so our two sunny days felt miraculous. A World Heritage Site, the existence of the famous timber quay area in Bryggen is astounding, considering there have been more than 20 major fires over the centuries – the biggest in 1702 when 90% of the city burnt down.
Taking to the high seas
Bergen was the starting point of our six night Norwegian cruise up the coast to Kirkenes. Both of us weren’t convinced we were quite the ‘cruising type’ so this trip on a Hurtigruten ship seemed a good compromise. With 400 cruise passengers combined with as many day passengers and commercial supplies and cargo, the Hurtigruten ships have serviced Norway’s coastal townships year round for over a century. We can confirm that on average cruise passengers acquire 600g in weight a day – it’s quite a static existence and extensive meals are laid out with frightening frequency – beware the perils of a smorgasbord. But with lots of stops, some very quick, and at least a more leisurely one most days, we took every opportunity to walk as far as possible on terra firma – Tromso, Trondheim and Alesund were particularly beautiful.
The time at sea was exhilarating – the scale of the landscapes is staggering, massive snowy granite mountains pushing up and away into the far distance, the isolation of the tiny reindeer herder settlements, the lonely lighthouses, the mesmerising sweep of the bow wave, crossing the Arctic Circle, occasional needle-like snow flurries, our huge vessel creeping through narrow passages, milky sunsets, star-filled inky night skies, and the variety of all the 34 towns serviced by the ship. Interspersed with long sessions in the viewing lounge reading books, idly sipping at something, loosening the belt one notch and occasionally dozing off, and the sporadic bracing stint on deck to get the circulation going and check the temperature.
From Russia (almost) to Sweden
At the top ‘turnaround’ point of Kirkenes on the Russian border, we hopped off having had just the right amount of time at sea, and ready to head to stylish Stockholm for the last leg of our northern adventure.
Stockholm is a truly beautiful city and our 19th century apartment in the old cobble-stoned area of Gamla Stan was fabulous – ah, the luxury of space (after a cabin), of a washing machine, and the view of a gold-burnished spire from my bed and the sound of ancient bells tolling on the hour. Once again, blessed by balmy weather, we ventured far and wide on foot – so much to do and see, so little time. A very special family dinner with a friend from my youth, the wide and gracious streets, waterways, museums, design stores, bridges and beautiful Swedes in the sunshine – Stockholm is now on my bucket list for a return visit.
I’ll just have to find a Swedish hook on which to hang another holiday.
Top 3 Travel Tips
1. Rely on the experts: Jacqui knew exactly which cabin to choose (you need a Masters to master the deck plans), sorted the chaff from the grain for accommodation, transfers, flights etc, and dotted every ‘i’ and crossed every ‘t’ – not a hiccup happened.
2. Wifi: feels like a surrender, but having internet access wherever, whenever possible is a huge plus – no longer do we travel with the Fodor/Lonely Planet tomes and it’s so nice to be able to satisfy one’s curiosity, or compensate for one’s terminal lack of direction.
3. Baggage: wheeled suitcases and cobblestones do not a happy marriage make. Take a taxi.