Påske in Posebyen: The Seven P’s of slow travel to Kristiansand, Norway 

DIS Copenhagen students Grace (she/her), Evergreen State College, and Jordyn (they/them), Swarthmore College, teamed up to slow travel via train and bus from Copenhagen to Kristiansand, a smaller community on the southern coast of Norway.  

The two met in their Core Course, European Urban Experience: Why Cities Matter and discovered that they were both interested to explore Europe through the lens of their academic interests. Together, they developed a plan to visit Kristiansand and explore how Scandinavian communities organize themselves and investigate the interactions between people, their urban, built environments, and nature.  

Read below to find out how they navigated 12 hours of travel via train and bus, why unexpected encounters from kind locals made their trip, and how their independent travel gave them a new perspective on their academic interests.  

A core tenet of studying urbanism is travel, whether that be on public transportation, by car, by foot, by bike, or by plane from city to city. Another core tenet underlying urban studies is caring about the health and longevity of cities in a rapidly warming and polluting world. Slow travel is central to our learning and way of being as urban studies majors because it gives us a way to combine these two aspects, to travel while minimizing greenhouse emissions. And along the way, the slowness allows us more opportunity to observe cites, nature, and how people interact with them.  

We embarked on a long-haul train trip to Kristiansand, Norway — a coastal city on the southernmost tip of Norway — for Easter weekend (Påske in Norwegian). Over the trip, we experienced incredible kindness from strangers, beautiful scenery on public transit, remarkable architectural history, and a ton of fun exploring this small coastal city. 

At the conclusion of our trip, we organized our field notes as follows: 

1. PONDERINGS – Framing Curiosities

We were drawn to Kristiansand because of its largest continuous collection of white timber houses in Northern Europe. We were excited to see how these ecologically-friendly houses have stood for nearly three-hundred years, withstanding several city-wide fires. We felt drawn to explore how a city integrates so many quaint single-family homes with a modernist grid and housing block system. We were excited to also study how another Scandinavian city plans around its waterfront and compare its design to that of Copenhagen. 

2. PASSAGE – Sustainable Travel

Our three-pronged journey to and from Kristiansand was central to our trip itself. Maybe unsurprisingly, urban studies students love trains! Our journey to Kristiansand took seventeen hours, and our return to Copenhagen took thirteen. Our route was: 

1. Train between Copenhagen Central Station to Gothenburg Central Station (4 hours)
2. Train between Gothenburg Central Station and Oslo Central Station (3.5 hours)
3. Train (arrival) / bus (departure) between Oslo Central Station and Kristiansand Station (4.5 hours) 

Our trains (and one bus) — totaling an active travel time of twelve hours — took us through various cities, forests, plains, and towns in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, as well as over the bodies of water between them. We believe that trains provide urbanists with a unique opportunity to study the transition between different landscapes. Trains enable us to be passive, completely immersed in observation of the land, water, and infrastructure that connects our (temporary) home to our destination. 

Urban areas make up so little of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway’s landmasses. The vast majority of the land we traveled through lay unused, or houses infrastructure, farming, and low-density living. As urbanists, the train travel felt significant in contextualizing our studies of cities as merely a small part of a broader understanding of a nation — a sentiment sometimes neglected in our major. Additionally, we observed and experienced many hills and valleys in Sweden and Norway, which made us truly appreciate how flat Denmark is for the first time.

On the way to Kristiansand, we had a three-hour layover in Oslo. We decided to lock up our bags and wander around the city; it was great to stretch our legs, but not as great to be out in the rain. Instead, we felt envious of the several dozen people crammed in floating saunas on the fjord.

Floating saunas in Oslo (left) and Oslo Opera House (right)

We were incredibly grateful for the opportunity to study transitions between landscapes that train and bus travel provided us.  

We could have flown to Kristiansand in about an hour, but we would have had no sense of the land and water that connects it to Copenhagen. Our understanding of Kristiansand would have been incredibly decontextualized in the absence of knowledge about how it relates to the rest of Scandinavia.

Additionally, traveling by train and bus, we emitted 93 tons of carbon dioxide less per person than had we flown and 125 tons of carbon dioxide less per person than had we driven (obtained by manually entering train/bus routes into the calculator at TravelandClimate). We also were able to explore the city almost exclusively by walking — save one spontaneous carpool ride and one ride on city-owned electric scooters — saving both money and the earth. Climate justice is integral to urban livability; thus, our choice to travel slowly was a no-brainer.

3. PÅSKE – Scandinavian Easter

Our first day in Kristiansand was on the first day of the Easter holiday, Maundy Thursday (Skjærtorsdag), and our last was on the final day of Easter, Easter Monday (Andre påskedag). Scandinavians take Easter much more seriously than we do in the United States — just about everything was closed every day, except for Saturday. Many people in Kristiansand travel to the Norwegian mountains for the holiday, leaving the city more empty than usual.  

We didn’t realize the severity of the closures until we had arrived. Most restaurants, grocery stores, and shops were closed for Easter. The holiday will characterize everything that is to follow in our notes. While the museum closures were unexpected and disappointing (as they were not advertised online), the Easter closures prevented us from really engaging in vacation consumerism in a refreshing way. Additionally, these closures allowed us to truly abandon the “checklist travel mentality,” enabling us to behave spontaneously, spend time leisurely, and relax more. Americans, remember that other countries may observe the same holidays differently than we do! 

4. PEOPLE – Guides through Kristiansand

There were several people whom we met in Kristiansand that shaped our experience and understanding of the city.  

Kilden Performing Arts Center, a modern looking building on the water

We will begin with our Airbnb host. Sveinung is a resident of a village near Kristiansand, and he works at the Kilden Performing Arts Center (pictured left) in the city. After hearing our disappointment at the museum closures, he generously offered to give us a tour of his workplace.

We got to see several different theater spaces, as well as walk around on catwalks and scaffolding in the backstage areas. For the two of us who have been involved in theater spaces throughout our lives, seeing all this incredible infrastructure was incredibly nerdy and exciting. The Center, which is the second largest theater in Norway (behind the Oslo Opera House), is a very important cultural hub in Kristiansand. We felt lucky to see all the infrastructure needed to keep a place as dynamic and vibrant. 

Upon seeing our excitement at the architecture of the Center, Sveinung then offered to drive us to the Vest-Agder Fylkesmuseum. This open-air museum had been one of the main reasons we had decided to travel to Kristiansand — it houses dozens of traditional Norwegian wooden buildings. Since public transport was mostly offline for Easter and the museum was far from the city center, we took him up on his offer. On the trip, he recommended restaurants, hikes, and activities for our stay in Kristiansand. His recommendations were all incredible, and he heavily influenced the trajectory of the trip.  

We also were approached by many kind American residents of Kristiansand. Because we traveled before the tourist season, it became apparent that hearing American English spoken was a rarity in Kristiansand. We were approached by two American women who work for an international nonprofit. They were from the Bay Area and Chicago, and both had been in Kristiansand for nearly a year. Additionally, one of our waiters was from Oklahoma, and he was very surprised to have encountered Americans. His wife was from Kristiansand, and he moved a year ago. All three offered us recommendations of their favorite spots in the city, answers to questions, and funny stories that come with being an American in Europe.  

Without these people who knew Kristiansand much better than we did, we would have missed out on some of the great experiences we had while in the city. 

5. PLACEMAKING – Urban Historical Identity

A stately yellow building in the open-air section of the Vest-Agder Fylkemuseum

Although Kristiansand is a relatively new city in the grand scheme of things (established in 1641), we experienced a strong historical identity. Firstly, the open-air section of the Vest-Agder Fylkesmuseum was full of old houses and buildings, most from the 1700s and 1800s, that had been moved from central parts of the city to this site. All of them were made from timber and most were brightly colored, and each had plaques with the year in which it was constructed.

Norwegian wooden design was and is one of the most sustainable forms of architecture, so it was amazing to see how these buildings stand the test of time even with the most eco-friendly materials. Sveinung took us to the gated section of the museum, containing 500-year-old timber sheds with mossy roofs. It was closed for renovations, but we peered over the fences together and admired the strength of vernacular green architecture. The choice to preserve the buildings in the Fylkesmuseum on such a large scale demonstrates the city’s concern and care for its history. 

The facade of a dark red building in the open-air section of the Vest-Agder Fylkemuseum

We also spent a lot of time around Posebyen, the old city. This is the section of the city that consists of Northern Europe’s longest sequence of attached wooden buildings, and its largest collection of historic white wooden houses. Posebyen is oddly placed within the city — or rather, the city was oddly placed around Posebyen, because it came first — in that it is surrounded by modernist housing complexes several stories taller than it. These houses were the only ones that survived a massive city fire in 1892, which is what enabled the harsh architectural boundary we experienced. Seeing such beautiful buildings from nearly three hundred years ago was a fantastic and hopeful reminder of what sustainable architecture can do, and what it can resist.  

We encountered the work of Kristiansand Minibuilders, a hobbyist organization that has created 150 1:10 scale models of Posebyen as it stood in 1890 (which is close to how it stands now). These models were incredibly intricate and provided a fun and informative sense of the experience and size of Posebyen. Unfortunately, these models were in a part of the Fylkesmuseum that was closed for Easter, but we peered in through the glass. 

Lastly, we learned about Kristiansand’s military history through word of mouth and through architecture. We hadn’t known that Kristiansand and much of Southern Norway had been invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany in World War II, and that Kristiansand was of particular military importance due to its location on the fjord. We encountered many stone bunkers, lookout posts, and other military infrastructure scattered throughout the city. The city decided to keep these artifacts as a testament to the city’s history. Additionally, Sveinung informed us that the city owns and rents a myriad of old military housing settlements at incredibly cheap prices to local artists looking for studios, transforming old sites of fear and violence into sites of creativity and passion. 

6. PASTIMES – How Kristiansand Lives 

We ended up spending a lot of time in Aquarama, the city’s aquatic center, due to the rainy weather we experienced. Each time we went, it was completely packed with people — it became clear that Aquarama stands as a cultural center for the city. As a result, it was a prime location for people-watching. We relaxed in the outdoor pools and hot tubs, as well as the indoor pools with high diving boards, whirlpool, water slides, and sauna. Aquarama faces the fjord and has large glass windows, creating a lovely experience of being able to watch the freezing fjord while swimming in warm water. We felt that Aquarama connected us and the residents of Kristiansand to the fjord well in the winter, when the water could seem more inaccessible.  

Additionally, when the weather permitted, we really enjoyed walking around the waterfront. Kristiansand does a great job at keeping its waterfront public: all around the fjord’s edges are public boardwalks, playgrounds, places to sit, and a man-made sandy beach called Bystranda. Even the upscale large housing blocks had courtyards with playgrounds facing outwards to the water, unlike in Copenhagen, where the courtyards are fully enclosed from the harbor. On sunny days, the playgrounds were full of children and the harborwalks were flooded with people strolling. 

Lastly, Kristiansand is a city surrounded by rocky hills and woods, offering beautiful scenery. As we hiked through Odderøya, a wooded peninsula connecting to the city center, we encountered many residents hiking alongside us. We were told by the residents whom we’d met that hiking is one of the largest ways people in Kristiansand like to spend their time, and we were grateful that the city decided to leave so much nature adjacent to the city center to remind us of the beauty of both the natural world and the cities we’ve built. 

7. POSTSCRIPT – Conclusions and Advice for Future Travelers 

Slowly traveling to, through, and from Kristiansand was an incredible experience for both of us. We learned a ton — such as the value of traveling to secondary and tertiary cities, the benefit of keeping a flexible schedule (in case a generous AirBnB host offers to spend a day with you), and the importance of sustainable urban exploration by walking and public transit.

(Pictured below: vintage linocots of Kristiansand that we thrifted).

Vintage linocuts of Kristiansand, side by side on a table

You don’t have to take the train for twelve hours like we did to sustainably travel somewhere — opting for train or bus over flying or driving will almost always make for a more environmentally-friendly, enjoyable, and informative experience. And for all you future slow travelers, we have compiled a short list of advice based on our experiences:

  • Sleeping on trains is harder than you’d think. It can save money… but don’t expect to be as rested as a full night’s rest. 
  • Try to get window seats on trains and buses — Scandinavia is so, so beautiful. 
  • Check for local holidays when you travel and research to find out what they entail. Easter in Scandinavia ended up being much different than Easter in the U.S. and many more things were closed than we expected.  
  • Eating locally is the most sustainable option; however, costs can add up. It is okay to cook dinner, buy groceries, or get something cheap to make sure you can truly enjoy the local cuisine. 
  • Airbnb is a big, complicated topic. But if you find a conscientious, local AirBnB host like ours, they can offer a more sustainable, ethical, and culturally immersive alternative to hotels and hostels in cities.  
  • Planning requires a lot of brain power! Especially planning a multi-pronged train trip on websites in languages we don’t understand and utilizing a time format with which we are unfamiliar is hard. Give yourself time to plan and don’t try to conquer it all at once. 
  • Beware scammy websites! There is a very legitimate-looking Norwegian rail website that links to a scam train ticket website. Other websites offer you real tickets, but mark the prices up to make money compared to buying directly from the vendor. Always check Reddit to see if websites are legitimate before buying tickets online (also, Reddit is great just for general recommendations in cities, too). 

We loved abandoning a rigid “check-list”-filled travel itinerary and instead opting to go wherever the wind, history, store and museum closures, recommendations and carpools from locals, and rain took us. We knew we were going to experience a different Easter than what we were used to no matter what, and we are so grateful to have spent it passing through the land and sea that hold Scandinavia together.

Want to learn more about DIS Slow Travel?

>> Find more information on Slow Travel Funding at DIS Stockholm
>> Find more information on Slow Travel Funding at DIS Copenhagen 

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