Karo Lifestyle Road Trip – Summer 2015 Destination Scandinavia

The 5-week long summer road trip we embarked on was not only to see a part of the world not yet visited, but also, from a design point of view, I wanted to see how people live, how they interact with their natural environment, how they design their living spaces and how, if done sensitively, good town planning can bring quality of life to urban living.


As soon as we arrived in Scandinavia, there was a palpable feeling of community and order. Things just worked! And the more I saw of Scandinavia, the more this became apparent.


First stop Aarhus – the second largest city in Denmark. We didn’t have time to have a good look round the city but I had been impressed with the new ‘Iceberg’. The Isbjerget project is development collaboration between seARCH, CEBRA, JDS Architects and Louis Paillard.


iceberg building aarhus

‘The Iceberg’ at Aarhus

Set on the waterfront, the site upon which the ‘Iceberg’ sits is a disused container terminal. Reminiscent of an Iceberg – hence its name – this is a mixed use housing complex with cultural activities, workspaces and outdoor communal areas.


With a façade of white terrazzo, lots of windows to let in light during the long winters and views over the water, this looks a fabulous light and airy creation. I can’t wait to visit it in a few years to see how it has changed and, or improved the area.


We had five weeks in which to complete our trip so, unfortunately, we could not see the countries in their entirety – another reason to go back though…


From Aarhus to Hirtshals then to Kristiansen in Norway by boat. Norway is incredibly beautiful and has some of the most spectacular scenery we saw on the trip. It also has gorgeous towns like Stavanger. What is it about towns and cities set on and around the waterfront? They teem with vibrant life; the mournful sound of seagulls and the fresh smell of the sea are both incredibly soothing and yet also invigorating.


Stavanger Port 


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Stavanger Old Town 

There is a lovely old town, the lively port, and Fargegaten, ‘ the colourful street’, where all the old timber houses are painted in bright colours. And, everywhere, there are flowers – in window boxes, courtyards and gardens, in front of houses, on lampposts – all beautifully kept and lovingly nurtured.


83 Amazing Scandinavian Roses



It is incredibly clean, like most of Scandinavia, and the people are welcoming and friendly.

So, an important decision to make on such a long trip is where do you choose to stay?


I always like to find the unusual – eschewing larger known chains for something a bit smaller and, dare I say it, ‘hipper’! And so we found a Norwegian hotel group – Nordic Choice.


Check out their website here




I found the design concept an interesting one in so far as models go; the main design focus is on the communal parts (so far so Scandie…) a fun bar and an open plan restaurant. And while each hotel has its own style, the rooms are, on the whole, quite utilitarian. Comfortable, but with none of the usual miniature bathroom amenities. With just one large dispenser of all-over hair and body wash, this is actually quite eco friendly.

Seemingly quintessential to all the Scandinavian hotels we stayed in, is the concept of single duvets on double beds. At first, this might seem rather odd but, in fact, is actually a marvelous idea. I must say I am a convert – no more arguing over who has the larger portion of the duvet, nor more cold blasts of air when said duvet is tugged to the other side of the bed – just a very single snuggle up!

Another thing I admire is that in Scandinavia when they say they will only change towels and linens when you ask them to, they actually mean it! It also means that the hotel will save money on the cost of the laundry and can, therefore, keep the price of the rooms on the lower side.

Do we really need to have new towels everyday? Do we change them at home everyday?

If you calculate how many hotel rooms there are around the world and how many people use the hotels every night, then multiply that by how many sheets and towels are used… it is mind-boggling.

I am not a great foodie but we had one of our best meals in a tiny restaurant in Stavanger called Egget – run by three enterprising young men – a French chef, Norwegian sommelier and a Spanish chef. With all my food allergies I was worried I would upset the chef with my myriad requests but the experience was amazing. He uses no butter or cream (in itself something of a wonder as the head chef is French!) so the food flavours speaks for themselves. All the ingredients are seasonal and local and the food was delicious!


Another memorable meal we had was in Tallinn – a sumptuous all vegan lunch at Vegan Restaurant – the fresh flavours exploded in our mouths and prompted my travelling companion, driver and all round good egg to exclaim ‘I never knew vegan food could taste this good’…


vegan restoran

Vegan Restoran Tallinn

From Stavanger, the gateway to the fjords, our journey continued along the scenic Norwegian roads to Bergen – a 3-hour car journey.

Inspired by a television programme we saw where a young student cooked his food on his car engine between London and Scotland; we decided to try cooking a la Porsche!


cooking a la porsche 34 1st attepmt at engine cooking


As we were in Norway, the obvious menu was salmon with baked potatoes. Into layers of tin foil went the salmon, lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. Potatoes were halved and placed in separate tin foil; both parcels carefully laid out on the Porsche engine and off we went!

We feasted that evening on delicious salmon and slightly chewy tatties – we should have had higher revs to heat the engine –or a longer journey – but it was fun and incredibly satisfying to know we had cooked on the car engine…

Bergen panorama

Bergen Panorama

Continuing northeast to the tiny picturesque village of Flam nestled along the banks of the Sognafjord. It has a ‘regular’ population of 350 people but in the summer months when the cruise ships dock, Flam and the surrounding areas throng with visitors.

flam norway

Flam Norway

The Flamsbana railway was named as one of the top 10 train journeys in Europe and, in 2014, Lonely Planet named it the best train journey in the world.

flam train

The Flamsbana

It was a spectacular train ride through the mountains – and one of the steepest – but we thought there really was only one way to come back down to Flam – and that was to walk the 22kms down the mountain!

view from the train

View from the train

views to the Fjord


Views over the Fjords

Possibly the most amazing drive we had was from Flam to Oslo over fjords and climbing ever higher through snow clad hills, forests and rivers.

 Flam to Oslo 71 Fjord pano

Driving from Flam to Oslo

Oslo – a city of culture. Our first ‘wow’ moment was seeing the wonderful Opera House. It is a thoroughly inclusive and iconic building for the city. It won the culture award at the World Architecture Festival in Barcelona in October 2008 and the 2009 European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture (Mies van der Rohe award). The construction was completed in 2007, ahead of schedule and under budget. Surely that must be a first for such a large urban project!

 Oslo Opera House 78 Oslo Opera 2015-07-15 11.28.58

Oslo Opera House & Sculpture

I love the design of the opera house – simple with beautiful, clean lines, accentuated by the white granite and Carrara marble facade. It really is a building for the people where they can stroll down the roof that angles down. They can clamber round or just sit and relax during the long summer months – one of the most appealing features of Scandinavia when it is light till after midnight.

Oslo is a city full of museums and culture – the thought provoking and inspiring Nobel museum, the National Gallery that was presenting an exhibition Munch and van Gogh that was fascinating.

Oslo also has a new waterfront development on Tjuvholmen (The Thief Island) so called as, in the 18th century, there was a prison there. With its lively restaurants and bars, not to mention the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, this is a great place to chill out. It also has its own luxury waterfront hotel called The Thief. Apparently, this is Norway’s only hotel designated as a Design Hotel and comes with some great artwork courtesy of the Astrup Fearnley Museum next door. Check out the link below:



In addition to places of culture, what makes a big city ‘livable’ is the amount of green spaces for people to walk in, breathe in and relax in. Parks are also places where art can make a difference.

The lovely Ekeberg Park has fabulous views over the city. It is also home to over 30 sculptures by, among others, Renoir, Rodin and Dali. It is a lovely idea to find art hidden among the trees and bushes – a voyage of discovery and one that appeals to me as I always like to add something quirky to my own design projects.

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Sculptures in the Park

Likewise, in the serene Botanical Gardens, large sculptures by British willow artist Tom Hare add a bit of magic.

Sculpture Oslo Botania Gardens

Sculptures by Tom Hare

This is where town planning is so important. Sprawling inner city concrete housing is not conducive to ‘happy living’.

I once had an idea to ‘paint to world pretty’ one house at a time. I firmly believe that if the environs and outside of a house or apartment block are well maintained, then this gives residents pride in how they live inside their own spaces. And this is something Scandinavia does very well. Well-tended flower boxes, colourful facades and clean streets.

Immaculate houses and gardens

Swedish Living

Interestingly, this is not an ‘imposed’ rule from the respective governments, but instead it is what the community aspires to and I do think it really does make a difference to people’s lives.

beautifully kept gardens

Beautifully kept gardens

When we arrived in Sweden, we wanted to find somewhere to have a lazy few days and we found perfect spots in both Tallberg on the mainland and the island of Sandhamn in Stockholm’s archipelago.


A place to relax…

Having lived in Asia for over 20 years, it was another sensory experience to lie on the grass and listen to the birds and bumble bees – a different kind of summer.


A stroll round Sandhamn and I was so taken with the neatness and, again, the pride people took in their houses.

 Leaving Sandham

Leaving Sandman


A trip to Stockholm would not be complete without at least one shopping experience and Filippa K – a local designer has some fab clothes. I also discovered Italian designer Fabiana Filippi’s gorgeous cashmere and home wares from Bruka Design.

filippa k

 Filippa K

fabiana filippi

Fabiana Filippi 


Bruka Design

Bruka Design 

From Stockholm, we took a cruise ship to Tallinn, in itself a pleasurable surprise. I have never liked the idea of being on a ship with thousands of other people, but the ship was really rather nice. Spacious cabins, a very slick and enjoyable entertainment, crisp white napkins in the airy dining room and an enormous deck to while away the early evening hours with a glass or two of chilled Chardonnay!



Tallinn, the capital of Estonia and often called a suburb of Helsinki, has a lovely little, chocolate box pretty, old cobblestone town. It is also, for some reason unknown to me, a very popular stag venue.



Tallinn Old Town

Among the design elements I very much appreciated was a small Estonian gallery called Gallerii Kaks that stocked beautiful ceramics, textiles and glass ware.


But Tallinn is also home to the Museum of the Occupation, which through chronological exhibitions, video montage, interviews and authentic items – including old suitcases, shows the history of what the Estonians endured under the Soviet Occupation. What I found very moving was the many concrete suitcases outside the museum entrance. These are representative of the wooden suitcases of all shapes and sizes on the floor inside the museum. These were suitcases many families in Tallinn would have had in which to put their remaining possessions once, and if, they were released from the Soviet labour camps.

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Suitcases outside the Museum of the Occupation

Just two hours away by boat, Helsinki is one of my favourite cities. The centre is small enough to be able to walk around, the harbor bustles in the long summer months with joggers, dog walkers and families making use of the great coastal paths and abundant outdoor bars and restaurants while sail boats cruise the harbor until the sun finally sets.



Much of the furniture we lovingly own (or covet) is actually Finnish in origin. Among the iconic designers / companies are Alvar Aalto, who established Artek in 1935, Eero Saarinen, Marimekko with its bright and colourful fabrics…

Helsinki is home to one of the oldest design museums in the world. Designed by architect Gustaf Nystrom over 140 years ago, the Designmuseo has a vast collection of industrial, fashion and graphic design. I loved being surrounded by such a wealth of objects and drawings.

alvar aalto chairalvar aalto vase


Alvar Aalto Chair                                          Alvar Aalto vase




eero saarinen chair


Eero Saarinen & Charles Eames Chair      


eero saarinen dining

Eero Saarinen Dining Set

The museum is also unique in that it was Finland’s first co-educational school. Established in 1883 by Pastor Eodor Broberg , the school was hugely controversial when it opened. Girls and boys being educated together on equal terms? Outrageous, screamed the newspapers while some of those most resistance to the idea were the students’ parents! It remained the only co-educational school in Finland until 1975, according to the museum’s promotional material…


A few days later my companion, driver and all round good egg and I started off on the next leg of our journey – the Baltic States.


Karina Zabihi

August 2015