Unless you’ve been living in a cave since the turn of the millennium, you’ve heard of the Slow Food Movement. Well, there is also a Slow Travel aesthetic that has become fashionable, and Karel and I are fans of this style. We try to savor and enjoy a few, high quality, “authentic” experiences rather than see everything in the limited time we have. Even so, the cruise on the Göta Kanal sets a new standard for the philosophy of Less Is More.
The Juno is a 140-year-old canal cruiser designed just to carry passengers between Stockholm and Gothenburg on the lakes, Baltic Sea, and canals that create a “blue ribbon” from coast to coast. The distance is a mere 500 kilometers (about 300 miles), but takes four days. Our berth was a tiny cabin with operable porthole and bunk beds, about the size of our bathroom back home. There were about 50 passengers, mostly Swedish, a few Germans, a pair of grandparents traveling with their 10-year-old grandson from Denmark, one couple from England and one other couple from America. The use of laptops, cellphones, iPads, etc., was strongly discouraged so as to maintain an atmosphere similar to the times when the canal was the primary means of traveling across the country.
We departed from Strömkajen, made a loop around Södermalm, and then said farewell to the beautiful city of Stockholm and headed west to begin our journey through the lakes. The Juno, which was originally a steamboat but has been retrofitted with an efficient, clean-burning diesel engine, made good speed across open water. Once we entered the narrow canal, however, we slowed way down. You could often easily out-walk the ship if you wanted, and in fact, the Juno carried a pair of bicycles for use by passengers who wanted to ride along the canal road through these stretches. If Karel and I weren’t still mending from our last bike trip, we would have given it a try.
In spite of nearly 200 years of heavy commerce, the route is remarkably undeveloped. We crept through mile after mile of farms and forest, charming houses (almost all red, of course), with an occasional small hamlet, usually near a lock. It was very un-touristy; just a little museum here and there on the theme of canal construction or the boats themselves. Even when we stopped in Trollhättan (troll hut?), there was not a carved wooden troll souvenir to be found anywhere. Transiting the 58 locks, however, was a spectacle that nearly always attracted a small crowd of onlookers, which made us passengers feel like celebrities. Each lock and drawbridge had a little caretaker’s house. As we approached, the caretaker would emerge to operate the controls and assist with the ropes. Sometimes one caretaker was in charge of a series of locks, spread out over several kilometers. When we were through one, they’d hop in their car and meet us at the next. Of course, they were well-known to the crew, so there would be greetings and banter back and forth, which contributed to a convivial atmosphere. On the third day, our captain hopped ashore at his parents’ house, where he received an ecstatic welcome from the dogs.
The weather was gorgeous. A little too gorgeous. The Juno was not designed to deal with such mild, warm weather. It was extremely pleasant on the outside deck, but there weren’t enough seats for all the passengers. No one wanted to be inside in the stuffy dining room or the library, except for meals, but normally this is where all but the hardiest guests would be spending much of their time. At night, the heat from the engines made our cabin unbearably warm, especially when we stopped and no breeze came in through the little porthole. I awoke at 2 a.m. the first night, drenched in sweat, and discovered that Karel had already abandoned his bunk. I found him on the bridge deck. We scrounged up some seat cushions and made a bed out on the deck. We couldn’t sleep, but at least it was tolerably comfortable.
The crew found a fan for us the next day, and with that we were able to sleep in our cabin for the rest of the trip.
Naturally, with little else to distract us, our attention was on relaxing, enjoying the scenery, perusing the history and travel books in the ship’s library, conversations with other travelers, and the food. Breakfast was continental style: a buffet offering an assortment of fresh fruits and raw vegetables, cold cuts, eggs, bacon, wieners, muesli, yogurt, bread, cheese, coffee, and juices. This is the same as you’ll get at any hotel across northern Europe, as far as I can tell, and it’s far superior to what passes for a so-called continental breakfast in the US. For lunches and dinners, we were seated with the four other English-speaking guests: Debra and Jeff, from South Hampton, England, and Annie and Tom, from Ukiah, California. We all got along great and the food was always delicious.
Tom, especially, has an inquisitive mind like mine, and he was a wellspring of trivia about you-never-knew-what. It was Tom who solved the mystery of the red houses. Back in the day, colored house paint was very expensive, except red paint, which was tinted using iron. Remember the iron mines? Red paint was practically free, so everyone used it, except the wealthy. For those who could afford it, painting your house yellow or green was a sign of status.
The activities director was a young woman named Olivia. Besides her native Swedish, she was fluent in German and English. I learned from some of the other passengers that she had a beautiful singing voice, so, on our last evening aboard Karel and I invited her to join us in the library for some music. Naturally, we sang a couple of songs by ABBA. Olivia’s voice truly was extraordinary—it was a pleasure to sing with her!This entry was posted in Vacation 2014: Europe