On to Helsinki

We finished our trip through Norway with more stunning scenery. We took a bus and the Rauma railway from Ålesund to Oslo. The railroad passes through the Rauma River valley, which in Norway is known for skiing, salmon fishing and the sheer cliffs on both sides. The valley is steep and narrow, so that the railroad passes over 32 bridges and through several tunnels; one of the tunnels is a hairpin turn inside the mountain, so the train enters the mountain with the river on the left and exits with the river on the right. We took a few pictures, but it’s really hard to get good pictures from the train, and impossible to get pictures of the old stone bridges the track is built on. For those you have to go to the professionals.

 

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Once again, as slow as we travel, we passed through too quickly. If you stay in the area, you can see herds of wild reindeer and musk ox; in the winter, you can spend the night in the Bjorli Snow Hotel, which is built out of snow every winter and melts in the spring.I don’t think I’ll be able to talk Maggie into that one, but it would be an adventure.

On to Helsinki

Too Little Time in Ålesund

We arrived in Ålesund late afternoon and upon exiting the cruise ship, I only wanted to get a good nights sleep at our beautiful waterfront hotel.  We woke the next morning to beautiful warm sunshine, and temperatures in the 50’s.  For me I was grateful to  walk on non-moving ground, and explore this sweet little town.  It is known as the gateway to the nation’s waterways.  We planned on spending two nights before heading on to Oslo to catch our flight to Finland.  Mistakes are made on every trip and this was our first (& hopefully last) major one.  We did not allow ourselves enough time in Ålesund.  There was no way to change our itinerary at this point.  My advice if coming to Norway is to give yourself a few extra days to explore this town.

After breakfast the next morning, we decided to start our day by getting some much needed exercise.  The famous viewpoint, Aksla, gave us a panoramic view over the city, the coast, and the mountains.  To get to the 418 steps that lead to the top, you walk through a charming park before you begin your journey to the top.

hike city view

Not yet tired of being in glorious sunshine, we walked around the city and discovered we had skipped lunch, so oblivious we were to time in our merry wanderings around town.  Here are five of the many photos we took after the more strenuous morning hike.  (Slideshow)

 

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After our growling stomachs reminded us that we had forgotten lunch – we headed to a local seafront restaurant.  While we were in Oslo, we had met an American citizen originally from Budapest who had just come back from Ålesund. She gave us the name of a local restaurant that she and her husband had really enjoyed.  We headed straight there for our early dinner (or late lunch?) arriving at 4:00 PM with no reservation. The food was amazing and because we arrived so early, we got the best seat in the house.  Being right on the waterfront we obviously had to order fish, and come to think of it, that was all that was on the menu.  Norwegian fresh fish from the North Sea will not be quickly forgotten.  The name of restaurant if interested:  Sjøbua. 

 

After such an early dinner we decided the night was still young, so we headed over to the local movie theater to the Wonder Woman movie, which both of us enjoyed.  The theater itself, the beautiful Løvenvold kino, was worth seeing all by itself. It was built in 1923 and had this old movie projector in the lobby.  Clay could not tear himself away from it, and I noticed the theater manager kept a close eye on this strange American tourist.

teneleven

twelve

Leaving Ålesund this next morning was bittersweet.  We only had one full day to explore, and no time to check out the museums and investigate more hiking and water sports that this  town offers.  If you go to Norway, I would suggest that you stay in Ålesund for a few extra days – at least 4or 5 as a minimum.  Normally, Clay and I do Airbnb’s, but this time our two night stay at the Radisson Blu was so perfect, I would highly recommend you skip the Airbnb and book this hotel.  So long Ålesund.  We loved you.  Hope to see you again when we plan better.

Good Bye

Too Little Time in Ålesund

Pining for the Fjords

A trip to Norway just wouldn’t be complete without seeing some of the fjords. The fjords aren’t just a natural wonder, they are the source of much that’s in the Norwegian character: ruggedness, independence, an arm’s length respect for nature, and a firm belief in the equality of everybody. To fully understand this, we would have to explore them all. That would be covering a lot of ground: the voyage up the coast from Bergen to Kirkenes takes six to eight days, and that’s with limited stops at each port. The roads to  the fjords are limited by choice; the Norwegians don’t want a lot of roads and tunnels carving up the landscape, so the best way to see a fjord is by boat.

Maggie and I wanted to see two fjords: the Sognefjord, the longest and deepest in Norway, and the Geirangerfjord, named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. That’s hard to do all in one trip, so we split it into two. To see the Sognefjord, we took the train from Bergen to Myrdal, then down the mountain on one of the steepest train trips in the world, the Flåm Railroad,  and then got on a fast tour boat that would cruise down the fjord and back to Bergen.

This is a great one-day trip. On the train, you get up close to the mountains, with the jagged peaks above you and a rushing river below, past raging waterfalls, plunging in and out of a series of tunnels, killing one landscape and being born into a completely different scene. In the middle there’s a stop at a waterfall for an interlude of a woman dancing to piped-in music, evoking the mountain spirits people once believed in.

Flåm is a nice little village, where you could spend an hour in the shops or a lifetime exploring the surrounding glaciers and parks. We just had three hours, so we ignored the cheesy cafe and snooty restaurant, getting a great meal in the pub instead, wandered through the railroad museum and boarded the boat to see the fjord.

FlåmRailway (15 of 16)

The Sognefjord is more than 120 miles long and up to four miles wide. When you’re cruising the waters, the bottom is more than 3,000 feet below you; looking up, you’re situated in a mountain range that rises 6,000 feet above. Sliding past the granite walls, we got an appreciation for the awesome forces that created this landscape. Starting from one hundred thousand years ago, northern Europe was covered by a layer of ice thousands of feet thick. At its furthest extent, the ice would have extended from the North Pole nearly to the Black Sea. When the ice retreated  eleven thousand years ago, it had taken the solid granite of the Norwegian coastline and carved it up into huge canyons. Even traveling at about 30 knots, it takes three or four awe-inspiring hours to go from Flåm to the mouth of the fjord, then another half hour or so through the protected waters of the coastal islands back to Bergen. It’s an all-day trip, but well worth it; as our friend Albert Cantara put it, the Sognefjord has a “majestic silence.” Passing through it is like a long meditation.

To see the Geirangerfjord, the Hurtigruten cruise line is the go-to choice. It’s like a water-borne bus service that carries passengers up and down the coast, 365 days a year. Maggie and I started in Bergen, sailing overnight to Ålesund. In late June, the North Sea should be just about the smoothest it gets – but for us non-sailors, we wouldn’t want to see it any rougher. The rolling and pitching was one thing, but the short jolts at irregular intervals were hard to sleep through. On top of that, the ship had a definite list to starboard, so lying in our beds, our feet were below our heads. (My brother Jeff, who is a retired deck officer in the Merchant Marine, told us that was normal, possibly due to the way they were taking fuel from the tanks.) Maggie and I slept fitfully and silently, hoping to let the other sleep through it. In the middle of the night I flipped the pillow to the other end of the bed, thinking that it would be easier to sleep if my head were higher. I think it worked, but when Maggie woke up, she looked over and saw my feet when she was expecting to see my face – not a pleasant sight first thing in the morning.

At 5AM we gave up on sleep and oozed out to the gray light of the observation lounge, to join the haggard passengers who had endured the night on couches and chairs, in the vain hope that staring at the horizon would bring some relief. They looked rough. I wonder if they thought we looked any better. I doubt they cared.

Fortunately, once the ship reached the fjord, the water was glass smooth. We could eat breakfast, drink coffee and generally start to feel human again. Once we got lost in the beauty of the fjord, the miseries of previous night were forgotten. The Geirangerfjord is much narrower than the Sognefjord, so we got a closer look at the villages that cling to the mountainside and the waterfalls that cascade over the cliffs. We wondered what it’s like to live there year round. The people at the top live a short distance from the people at the bottom in a horizontal sense, but the only possible road between them goes out of sight in both directions. We wondered if it’s a close-knit village, or if they live separate lives by choice.

Now we’ve gotten a visit to two of the major cities in Norway and a sampling of the fjords. We’re going to spend the next couple of nights in Ålesund before we’re off to Finland and the next leg of our self-guided tour. It’s hard to believe that’s it’s only been a month, and we still have July and August to go. We don’t have to keep reminding ourselves of how lucky we are to have this opportunity and each other – that’s obvious every day.

 

Pining for the Fjords

To the people of Bergen and the world

Clay and I have found the people of Bergen, Norway to be very warm and “mighty neighborly” as we say in the South.    In fact, we have found that just like back home, you have the remarkably good people, as well as the godawful types.  But, more often than not, it is the good guys that we manage to meet that make such an positive impact on us.  Bergen was no exception to that rule.

We started our lust for travel years ago though our jobs which took us all over the world. But, what we found was that work related travel wasn’t the meaningful travel that both of us yearned for.  (Weirdly, our companies wanted us to work – not play tourist – imagine that!)  We found our travel cravings satisfied only after we retired and opened ourselves to home exchanging, and now Airbnb apartment rentals where we could stay for longer periods of time to get to know the city, country, and especially the people better.  We have met the most amazing people that we now call friends from those stays.  People like Ellen in California that we have home exchanged with so many time that we have lost count; the lovely couple from Australia (Molly and Tony) that we exchanged homes & cars for an entire month, and of course the Walking Tours of England which introduced us to Odette, Ron, Patti, and Kathy; and of course more recently the lovely couple, Andras and Timea (now married) that we met in France, but caught up with again when we visited “their” Budapest last year.

Here in Bergen we accidentally ran into a wonderful man who was a sailor in the Norway equivalent of the Merchant Marines who walked us to our destination instead of just giving us pathetically lost tourists directions.  In the process we learned about his past and his many adventures.  We also met two interesting men at a local pub that invited us to join them at the permanently reserved table for the locals.   They captivated us with the stories of their lives, and facts about Bergen and Norwegians in general that we had not observed or read about in any tour books. One of the men had been to Houston and Galveston when is he was working on ships.   When he learned we were from Austin, he talked about his love for music, SXSW,  and Austin musicians.  He appeared to know a lot more than some Austinites know about the live music capital of the world.  He scored some real points with us when he mentioned his love of Stevie Ray Vaughn! He had actually hung out with Jimmie and the Fabulous Thunderbirds on one of their tours.

It would not be fair to share only the good stories, but we have had a few negative experiences, but ironically it is with tourists – not the locals.  On the train yesterday to Flåm, we met four obviously wealthy, large, and rude Russian tourists. Unfortunately, we kept running across them during the rest of the day.  During our stop in Flåm, we ate at this lovely restaurant, and of course, here they come with no reservations demanding a table (which they got 😦 ), and then proceeded to be very rude to the waitress.  She was almost in tears several times and we could see her quietly telling the other staff members how rude they were.  They ordered the most expensive item on the menu, and later we saw it being delivered to their table.  Hope they left her a good tip because she deserved it.  Later, getting on the boat back to Bergen, they were rudely breaking in line, but stopped just behind us.  Clay and I were holding our ground, and they must have sensed that I would have called them out for cutting in line.

Of course, we had to run into a rude American tourist at a local 7/11.  She got up to the counter where you pay with nothing to buy, but plenty to say – loudly of course.  She kept insisting she wanted a diet coke – not what they had in the store.  Some lovely local woman tried to convince her to buy Coke Zero, but “no!” she wanted a regular Diet Coke – not Coke or Coke Zero.  Finally when she gave up on a Diet Coke, she left in a huff, leaving me there as the lone representative of America –  embarrassed for her and my country.

I don’t want to leave this blog on a negative note, so I will continue on briefly to say the following.  We love the differences in our cultures, the languages, the foods, and the interesting quirks of the multi-national people that we meet. Lord knows – the world would be a much more boring place if only people like Clay or me were in it.  Thank you to all the lovely people we have met along our adventure.  You have been the “super stars” of our vacation time.  Yes, your museums are beautiful, your scenery is breathtaking, but you are the perfect examples of humanity that makes earth such a wonderful place to visit and explore, and that, my friend, is exactly why we travel.

To the people of Bergen and the world

Bergen

There’s a lot to like about Bergen. With a population of less than 300,000, it’s about half the size of Oslo – big enough for there be a lot to do, but not overwhelming. The tourist attractions are mostly crowded around the port, so once you walk a couple of blocks up the hill, it’s just you, the residents, and a few other AirBnBers like us. If you want to see the tourist sites, you just wait to hear the ships’ horns blow the cruise passengers back home, and then you have your run of the harbor, too.

The main tourist attractions in Bergen are the fish market, the old buildings that make up Bryggen in Bergen, hiking on Mount Fløyen, and of course the harbor itself.

The fish market is small, but has a little of just about everything you could want. Cod,  halibut and every other kind of fish that swims in the North Sea of course, but also king crab, mussels, shrimp, squid and lobster. If fish isn’t your thing, you can get reindeer or  moose sausage. You can even get whale, if you must, although we didn’t. I have a hard time eating an intelligent animal. I admit that’s irrational, since whales are smarter than some of the people I’ve met, and I wouldn’t eat them, either.

The main attraction to Bryggen in Bergen is the Hanseatic Museum, a replica of what the old part of the city was like when Bergen was a trading center between the cod fishermen of the north and the German merchants to the south. Commercial cod fishing has been has been going on for centuries, but the current buildings date from right after the great fire of 1702. It’s interesting to wander through the old rooms – the buildings have been a museum since 1872, but the faint odor of cod still lingers in the air. The old wood must have soaked up a lot of cod liver oil.

Cod is a big deal in Norway. Because of the short growing season, Norway lacks a lot of the fruits, vegetables and grain that make up a balanced diet, so they traded all that for dried cod. Unbelievable numbers of dried cod. Hundreds of thousands of tons per year. Way back when, cod fishing was done by hand out of small boats, but now it’s on an industrial scale, by huge purse seiners. I spite of the enormous harvest, cod are being harvested sustainably, so go ahead and eat all you want.

If the weather allows it, you can take off for Mount Fløyen, to ride the funicular railway and hike the trails. At the top of the mountain is a park for families and kids, where you can have a picnic, go swimming and let the kids loose in the playground or they can ride the little zip line. The hikes start with easy walks of less than a mile and go to all day journeys, up the funicular and down the cable car, eight miles away. It was pretty muddy the day we went, so we chose one of the routes at the top end of the Easy range, about 2-3 hours. At the top of the funicular railway, we started in the clouds, leaving the families and kids behind, walking through an enchanted forest. It’s the kind of place where you look for trolls, and find them (actually little troll statues hidden on purpose, but the effect is still there). Everything is really well marked – we only took one wrong turn, and figured it out right away – so you don’t have to be an expert to have a good time.

Besides the in-town attractions, Bergen is ideally located to be the starting point to explore the fjords of western Norway. More on that in another post.

 

 

 

Bergen

Good Bye Oslo

After 2 1/2 weeks in Oslo, it is time to travel over to Bergen, Norway for more adventures.  The train leaves early Saturday morning for the 6 hour trip that so many people have told us is incredibly beautiful.   Our time here was spent here with the usual tourist things like museums, but also spending time at local pubs and coffee shops  interacting with the locals as much as possible.  Luckily they speak English very well in Norway – not as well as the Swedes we met in Stockholm last summer, but English still is commonly spoken.

Our last night here was spent walking around our the neighborhood of our AirBnB apartment and picking up some fast food at a local Middle Eastern take-out restaurant.  We have learned how to avoid the tourist restaurants with their average food and high prices.  Yes, it is expensive in Oslo, but if you get an apartment you can cut cuts with breakfast at home and going to restaurants where the locals go, as well as “take out” places with very healthy foods.

Some things about Oslo we were prepared for by reading in advance,  but again there were a few surprises too.

  1.  The weather was a little cooler than we were expecting.  Highs in the 50, 60’s, and a few days in the 70’s for the time we were here.  Rain – it has rained much more than we had anticipated.  Oslo folks keep telling us to be prepared for rain when we go to Bergen.  What?  What was that stuff falling to the ground so often while we were here?  Hint, hint, it wasn’t snow.
  2.  The ethnicity of our neighborhood! Norway has taken in a lot of refugees, and we were pleased to see the diversity that it has brought to this city. From 1990 to
    2015, 738,000 people immigrated to Norway from countries outside the Nordic region, and 141,300 of these were refugees.  Norway has refugees from over 169 different countries.
  3.   The people are incredibly nice!   They seem generally kindhearted, but there is still this culture of not looking strangers in the eye that I feel a little disconcerting.  Being a Southerner I find it comfortable to smile, say hello to total strangers, but you don’t see that here.  Hugs?  Don’t even think about it, Maggie.
  4.  Diversity of food –  we were pleasantly surprised to see the diversity of food – we had Thai, Indian, Middle Eastern, French, Italian as well as outstanding local Norwegian seafood – OUTSTANDING!  No, we didn’t feel the need or even see any restaurants that served Lutefisk.  We did see brown cheese in the grocery store, and I regret not at least tasting it.
  5. Weird liquor laws which, every country seems to have.  In Norway, you can only buy wine and liquor from government liquor outlets called Vinmonopolet.
  6. Fathers pushing baby carriages – we’d seen this in Sweden – it’s due to the generous family leave policy that the government mandates. It was good to be reminded that there are ways that a country can encourage strong families that the U.S. hasn’t begun to explore.
  7. We read that in Norway it’s not considered rude to bump into someone at the supermarket and not apologize. We experienced that ourselves. Some visitors consider this to be impolite, but this is nothing but a cultural misunderstanding.  I stopped saying pardon me or I’m sorry after the first week to blend in better.  When in Rome……
  8. Prices – yes everything is more expensive, but grocery store prices are not as outrageous as restaurant prices.  Wine – about what you would pay at Whole Foods (I mean Amazon – snigger), but beer prices were absolutely ridiculous.  $12/pint at most places.  No Trader Joe’s here, but some pretty moderately priced grocery chains.

Leaving Oslo, Clay and I had time tonight to reflect upon the marvelous museums that we visited while here.  We enjoyed sitting down tonight and “voting” for our favorites.  Our favorites were very similar, but we both compromised a little and came up with –  in order – our favorite museums.  Check out our blog if interested in finding out more about our impressions of these. Please understand that we did not dislike any of the museums , but wanted to order them, as any good engineers (retired) would do.

  1. The Fram Museum
  2. Kon Tiki Museum
  3. Maritime Museum  (#2 and #3 a real toss up)
  4. Vigeland Sculpture Park
  5. Norwegian Resistance Museum
  6. National Gallery
  7. Norsk Folk Museum
  8. Nobel Peace Center
  9. Munch Museum
  10. Ski (Holmenkollen) Museum
  11. Historical Museum
  12. Viking Museum

I know that Oslo is not on everyone’s tourist bucket list, but we honestly enjoyed our time here, and  if ever by change or design you find yourself in Scandinavia, I would recommend considering Oslo too!

Good Bye Oslo

Four Quick Museums

We finished off our touristy activities with trips to four small museums: the Viking Ship Museum; Historical Museum; Munch Museum; and the Nobel Peace Center. Some of these are on the tour book and TripAdvisor short list of places to see in Oslo, but for one reason or another, they fell to the end of ours. Having seen them, I’d say we were right in some cases, but wrong in others.

The Viking Ship Museum is just that: the remains of three Viking ships that were unearthed and put on display here. They were used for Viking funerals: buried in the mud with their owners, along with the appropriate armor, weapons, jewelry, horses and dogs to see them through the voyage to the afterlife. (Not burned, as legend would have it.) Most of the accoutrements have been stolen by grave robbers over the centuries, so there isn’t much left but the boats themselves and a few hand tools, weapons and a little jewelry that the robbers overlooked.

At the museum, there isn’t much information on the artifacts they do have. We got some insight into the lives of the Vikings from the intricate wooden carvings (which have survived because of the mud blocked out any access to oxygen, so shipworms and other tiny creatures couldn’t get to the wood to chew it up). From the sophistication of the carvings, we go the idea that there was a lot more to the Vikings than the bloodthirsty warriors that we’ve been told. That”s understandable: most of those stories we’ve heard came from the English monks that the Vikings plundered in their raids. We can’t blame the surviving monks for not recording the artistic qualities of the weapons they were threatened with.

You might think that the Historical Museum would bed filled with Norwegian history, but it’s not. The bottom floor is devoted to an explanation of the causes and effects of global warming – a vitally important subject, but not what we came for. They had a good exhibition of Norwegian art from the Middle Ages, and an exhibit of the Sami people, the indigenous people of the Arctic part of Scandinavia. This part was fascinating. Their lives are so different from ours, it’s like they live on another planet – but in reality, it’s not that far away. The fur coats they wear in the winter were on display, but it didn’t look like enough to us. I don’t think I’d survive five minutes without Gore-Tex® and PolarTec™.

Oslo-NorwegianHistoryMuseum (9 of 12)
Keep in mind that kayak is in ice-cold water.

The Munch Museum is devoted to the artwork of Edvard Munch. There are a lot of his paintings here, except for the ones you know about: The Scream, Madonna, Sick Child and the other most famous ones are all at the National Museum. Still, it was interesting to see some of his lesser known work, especially since many of them were unfinished, so we got some insight into Munch’s laborious method: paint, scratch, paint, scrape, paint some more, on and on until he was satisfied. It was also cool to see his sketches – the man could really draw, which is not always obvious in the finished work.

Of these four, the most inspiring is the Nobel Peace Center, devoted to the winners of the Nobel Peace Prize. Reading the words and hearing the stories of people from all walks of life who devoted themselves to peace was truly uplifting: we stood in awe of Martin Luther King, Jr., Fridtjof Nansen, Malala Yousafzai, and Rigoberta Menchú Tum. The list is also heartbreaking, that some of these organizations need to exist at all: the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and Jody Williams, Doctors Without Borders, and many others.

Leaving the exhibit, we longed for the rest of the world to be influenced by the work of these people, so that everyone would realize, in Lincoln’s words, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Four Quick Museums