a unique perspective on this crazy world

Posts tagged ‘norway’

the playthings of superpowers…

london on a glorious day

london on a glorious day

I’m not sure I would want to live in London as it is so crowded and expensive but it is a fantastic place to spend a few days imagining other lives and wandering through history.  I’ve been to the city enough times now that I feel like a local and I have to remember to pay attention.

One of the ways I have found to make familiar places interesting is to change up my accommodation.  ME London put me in a new location from previous visits.

I’ve been to London so many times it often feels like I am just a local in an alternate location.  Regular life amped up a bit.  Lots of walking.  Power shopping.  Dinner with friends.

I normally don’t spend the big bucks required to stay in a location that doesn’t involve flashing an Oyster card.  But my sexy cave was walking distance to Bond Street – and the cashmere luxuries of the Burlington Arcade.

I had brought the sun with me from Oslo so a long walk seemed an ideal way to start the day.  Since I was the official photographer for my mom’s inaugural tour of London I have more tourist photos of the city than I have of Paris but there are definite holes in the collection.

So I stopped to read the plaques 😉  Having just come from Norway and its history as a bargaining chip, passing from Denmark to Sweden and struggling to establish an identity independent of the bigger powers, some of the plaques and statues spoke to me a little more loudly.

Reading between the lines in Westminster, you see the sacrifices made by Canadians and Australians at the hands of a condescending Great Britain.  They don’t teach it in school but apparently at one point Queen Victoria wanted to trade Canada for Barbados – at the time, sugar was a lot more compelling than beavers…

It’s surprising Canada hasn’t turned republican 😉  Lots of Australians have.  They have been mishandled by the Crown in a more flagrant way.

On Sunday I wandered the Thames – and some of the most important historical buildings in London – with an Irishman.  This visit really illuminated the elusive nature of history.

wandering the thames...

wandering the thames…

So many countries are the playthings of superpowers.  Superpowers are the bullies of the global schoolyard.  What travel teaches us, though, is that often the individual citizens of superpowers are lovely and charming.  One has to keep an open mind and not hold someone’s flag against them.

Strangely it’s likely easier to be a tourist when you come from a plaything country.  The expectations on you are pretty low.  You don’t have to defend yourself from generalizations about your culture that might not reflect your own point of view.

Visit the superpowers.  Learn about history.  A lot of it won’t be pretty.  But, despite their roles as the playthings of superpowers, Norway, Australia and Canada emerged fairly unscathed.  And all worth your tourist dollars!  All tough places to make a go of it in the 19th century – but the kind of places where you innovate to stay alive.  And the landscape is rugged enough to discourage newcomers.  The world without man is an incredible place…  and there aren’t a lot of places on the planet where you can experience it in the 21st century.

But 21st century London is pretty benign.  And while it’s hard to get behind some of the historical choices, you just don’t see that kind of architecture unless you go to a superpower with a questionable past 😉

 

a country for beginners ;)

I’m sitting in the Oslo airport waiting for a British Airways flight to London.  I don’t know yet that this will be one of my most memorable trips to Will and Kate’s hometown.  I’m still drinking a wildly expensive beer and trying to figure out how I feel about Norway.

I had a nice time in Norway.  And even a few small adventures.  Some of the photos are stunning.  There were some lovely moments but my overall feeling is that I am a bit underwhelmed.  As usual, I must analyze this!

What I realized part way through my Norwegian odyssey is that Norway was a bit too easy and familiar for me.  I’d grown up close to the tundra.  I see a protected part of the Pacific Ocean every morning when I wake up from my living room window.  If I walk a couple of blocks outside I can gaze on snow-capped mountains.

looks like norway...

looks like norway…

It’s tough when you live in one of the world’s most beautiful cities – and have grown up in and traversed one of the most physically spectacular countries in the world.  Norway is in that league!  I realized I needed to look at it from a new perspective, not my own, but some random foreign tourist – who had never seen a moose within spitting distance,  who couldn’t wander outside and stick a foot in the Pacific Ocean just for kicks, who didn’t regard the forest as something you lived in…

So… Norway is one of the cleanest, greenest, most spectacular places on the planet.  Norwegians will not hug you or declare themselves your friend after ten minutes of conversation but they are polite and helpful – and, if you meet them once they have a bit of drink in them, very friendly 🙂

cities don't get better than this

cities don’t get better than this

Practically everyone speaks English.  Most places tourists go have great signage.  Not even Oslo is a metropolis so it’s easy to get around, even if you are lost for a short while.  They really seem to have it together and it’s a wonderfully hospitable place where you don’t have to worry about crime or vaccinations.

If you haven’t travelled much and want something foreign – but easy – go to Norway!

If you have travelled a lot and want to maximize your travel dollars in Norway, this is what I would recommend.  Consider the National Day – it will add some local colour to your trip and you will be in shoulder season so costs might be a bit reduced.  The real season is from June to August, though, so research what you want to see as it may not be operational in May or September, even though the weather will be fine.

the infamous scream

the infamous scream

If you want to see “The Scream” or Norway’s maritime history, spend a couple of days in Oslo.  If you just want to see the fjords, fly into Bergen and do some day trips.  If you want to see – and experience – the Arctic, pick up the Hurtigruten ship in Trondheim and sail to Kirkenes.  Take some trains.  The journeys are spectacular and it seems to be one of the most wallet-friendly experiences in Norway.

Most importantly, embrace your inner Norwegian.  Talk to the locals.  Quit worrying about how much everything costs.  And revel in participating in a society that gets so many things right and is a role model for the world.  Sure, wondering if you will get to the airport through the political demonstrations, breathing a sigh of relief when you discover the Khmer Rouge are NOT in the village killing random people or wondering if that hippo you are having a Mexican standoff with is going to charge you make for much better travel stories…

But if you are a beginner, Norway is for you.   Peace Out.  In the home of the Nobel Prize, it has extra layers of meaning 🙂

perhaps all the ice and darkness makes people crazy? ;)

My final two days in Norway were polar opposites.  I realized I should have done more research and booked the morning flight back to Oslo instead of making sure I had plenty of time to get to the airport – and that there might be something interesting to do in Kirkenes.

I never travel on ships so hadn’t realized I would get kicked off early in the morning and wouldn’t just be able to store my luggage and wander around town.  You can buy an airport bus transfer from the ship so that seemed the most sensible route to take.

I did read a really good novel (Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter) and wrote some of the material for this blog but Kirkenes airport is a really boring place to spend a day.

http://www.amazon.com/Beautiful-Ruins-Novel-Jess-Walter/dp/0061928178

It did make me extra excited to be back in Oslo!  It was pretty late but I caught the penultimate train from the airport to Oslo S (the main train station in the center of town).  It really is the way to go.  Much faster than a taxi at a fraction of the price.  It appeared you might be able to save even more by going on-line and pre-booking your ticket.

It was a bit of a walk to the new hotel but very do-able.  And I was greeted by fireworks!  That always makes one feel special 🙂  This time I stayed at the Grims Grenka, a more typical choice for me.  It’s a chic, modern boutique hotel with a trendy bar and restaurant attached (Madu).  There is also a rooftop deck bar!  It was pretty chilly and not too interesting but at least I saw it 🙂

http://www.firsthotels.no/Vare-Hotell/Hotell-i-Norge/Oslo/First-Hotel-GrimsGrenka/

I think it takes a bit of time to get Norwegians to warm up to strangers so you are not likely to make a lot of new friends on a quick visit.  But there are definitely some interesting Norwegians out there.

I hadn’t planned on making a big day of it – and was enjoying sleeping in a proper bed again – so got a late start.  I would recommend starting earlier but my whirlwind tour of Oslo was a lot of fun.

As already noted, individual tourist attractions are priced quite steeply.  I think the goal is to con tourists into buying a city pass 🙂  If you aren’t up for five museums in one day, it is questionable whether it is a great deal.  You should certainly do the math before signing up.

If you want to hit Bygdoy, the Oslo Pass is good value.  You will need to see at least three museums to really make it worthwhile but there are five worthy of consideration all close to each other and none really require a long visit.  You will also get the ferry ride (stunning on a blue sky day) and a discount at Celcius Kafe, which I discovered on the first visit and was going to check out anyway.

looking for the south pole?

looking for the south pole?

So, to the crazy Norwegians… if you follow my route, you will hit the Fram Museum, the Maritime Museum and the Kon-Tiki Museum (I wasn’t planning on hitting so many so just caught the end of the film at the Kon-Tiki useum – plan your schedule to be there by noon).

transport to the south pacific?

transport to the south pacific?

http://www.frammuseum.no/

http://www.marmuseum.no/

http://www.kon-tiki.no/

The adventures of Roland Edmundsen and Thor will blow your mind.  Not too many people decide they should be the first to check out the South Pole (he did plan on being first at the North Pole but some American beat him to it).  You get to see the ship, pretend you are living in the ice at the Antarctic and see all the meticulous preparation that went into making it a success.  Apparently Norwegians also ski with sled dogs – how they beat the Brits this time 🙂

The Kon-Tiki voyage seems even more insane.  Why not sail across the Pacific on a raft made of reeds?  That doesn’t seem hjgh risk, does it?  Especially when you are afraid of water and don’t know how to swim… but they made it!  Again, the details of the adventure are fascinating.

And your next visit to a Tiki bar will be more meaningful 🙂  It was especially cool for me as I HAVE been on a reed boat – Lake Titicaca is mentioned in the museum’s exhibits.  For those unfamiliar with the quest, the goal was to prove a boat made of plant material, rather than wood, was capable of a transcontinental voyage and the South Pacific may have been populated by people from the Inca empire.

To get full value from your pass, finish the day by checking out the real Viking ship at the Viking Ship Museum (also some of the best souvenirs) and the Folk Art and Open Air Museum.  It’s the perfect place to finish as it has the most to see so, depending on how fast you have scurried through everything else, you can linger here a little.

http://www.khm.uio.no/english/visit-us/viking-ship-museum/

http://www.khm.uio.no/english/visit-us/viking-ship-museum/

stave church

stave church

And get some exercise walking to the top of the hill to see the Stave Church.  There are also lots of other interesting old buildings that have been transplanted to the museum to provide a view of Norway a century away or more.  The Norwegians are famous for their folk costumes and handicrafts.  I hadn’t appreciated that there was so much variety.  It’s a bit like Scottish tartans; almost every village seems to have its own take on the national costume.

If you go this year, you will also get to see a great exhibit on the history of Norway and why 1814 matters so much.  Apparently it’s Napoleon’s fault.  He really tried to mess around with Europe.  As usual, the British were fighting with the French and flinging their imperial might around.  So Norway got a chance to break away from Denmark to establish its own constitution, only to have the efforts foiled soon after, as it exchanged a Danish monarch for a Swedish one.

It did manage to break away from absolute monarchy though – and eventually became an independent state in 1905.  I did find it amusing though to see how the monarchy kept sticking around, elected by the people.  Electing a king?  It didn’t seem there was a choice of candidates…

I should note some tips re: directions.  I don’t think Oslo gets a ton of tourists.  The directions I got from hotel staff were vague and not very helpful.  If you are staying at Grims Grenka, do turn right and head for the water.  When you get there though, ignore the signs and don’t assume (as I was told) that the ferry will be obvious.  You will need to turn right and walk through a few other boating options until you see the right sign.  I did manage to identify ALL the ship options that dock in Oslo and got some extra exercise 😉

It is not too far to walk between the Fram Museum and Viking Ship Museum but there will be no signs to guide you.  I think normal tourists don’t do this… I did end up on a local bus, taking me even farther off-route… and saw some lovely residential houses.  It’s a gorgeous neighborhood so, if you have the time, it’s nice to walk.  And there are frequent bus stops… so, be smarter than me and start reading the detailed local maps sooner so your walk will be more focused!

Of course, you can also follow my lead and ask a local for directions J  Definitely follow the signs back to the ferry!  And, if you just miss it (as I did), plop yourself down on the deck and sip a beverage while watching all the sea traffic in the harbour.

Once you’ve used your pass to get a deal on dinner at Celsius Kafe, listen for Irish music across the street.  I think it’s called the Dubliner.  Just listen for the music…  If you are lucky, you will also get to see a great authentic Irish band, which will put a smile on your face.

And possibly you will finally get into several conversations with locals.  The Irish music seems to bring out a gregarious side I hadn’t expected.  You might even have some Norwegian guy seem to feel he can sustain a relationship with you just based on the fact that he loves the Montreal Canadiens – and you are Canadian…

Apparently you have to stay up late – and listen to Irish folk music… but not all Norwegians are reserved… the trip ended on a high note!

 

ice, baby, ice ;)

Now that I’ve slagged the towns of northern Norway (with good reason!), I must entice you to visit.  As I have explained, I have adored the landscape… it’s just that the towns have been a little dull.  I wouldn’t say Honningsvag is a lot different.

remote but gorgeous

remote but gorgeous

It’s day 6 and the first time there are no materials or city map for the port of call.  I was frantically researching yesterday to see if we actually got off the ship!  But it appeared we did.  I could only assume the town was so small a map was unnecessary.  Research suggested it had about 2,800 inhabitants.  Having grown up in places of that genesis, I understood.  You could likely see the ship from any random point in town!

I have been wandering into town on my own instead of joining a tour so each day feels like a small adventure.  The challenge is always to make sure you get back to the ship on time.  They tell a story of a legendary (and possibly mythical) Texan who apparently hired a speedboat to catch up with the ship – they could see his massive cowboy hat from the water – but I think the theme is “don’t miss the boat!”

moving the ship

moving the ship

Today, of course, I COULD see the boat from most angles… which made it especially distressing when I re-emerged from a tourist shop and COULDN’T see it!  They have an irritating habit of only playing public announcements in public parts of the ship but I have learned to open the door to my cabin if I hear noise – and, with luck, they have not already done the English part – so I knew they were moving the ship at this port.

I had confirmed it wasn’t departing until 2:45pm and it was only 12pm so I was pretty sure I didn’t need to hire a speedboat – but it was disconcerting.  Luckily I found the ship and even got a great photo of it turning around!

Since the chance of having been abandoned now seemed abated, I decided I would brave the unknown and go into some place that advertised an Ice Bar.  My friend Sarah spent the introduction to the millennium at the Ice Hotel in Sweden and I had considered joining her so have been fascinated with the concept for a long time.

And finding an Ice Bar is not an easy task!  I would totally encourage you to check it out.  I had two absolutely

partying with the polar bear...

partying with the polar bear…

wonderful girls from Barcelona (in scarves and parkas!) as my escorts.  You get two drinks (no alcohol – we are in Norway – but great ice cold fruit juices).  It’s a great space and a surreal experience.

As a tradition, you get to take your frozen shot glass and throw it into the Arctic Ocean to make a wish. I decided the shot glass was likely made of ice so just became part of the polar landscape.  This – and the fjord at midnight – the highlights of the trip.

Bring fleece.  Embrace the ice.  When the sun shines down on you, it will warm you everywhere – skin, heart and soul.

I think I need to go to Antarctica after all 😉

obviously, they have never been to paris ;)

Once you leave Trondheim, the journey becomes a bit metaphysical.  Early in the morning the next day you cross the Arctic Circle.  I set the alarm but had been reading late into the night and expected it was likely a non-event.  If you get up for it and tell me otherwise, I will need a re-do 🙂

Whether you get on-deck at 7am or not, you DO end up in the Arctic Circle.  Had there been free champagne instead of bad Prosecco for 55 kroner, I would definitely have been outside on three hours of sleep 🙂

remember to go outside and check it out :)

remember to go outside and check it out 🙂

I grew up not far from the Arctic and wandering through these tiny, remote towns in northern Norway reminds me of my youth.  It’s late May so I have experienced worse cold – but bring fleece!  Wind-stopper fabric.   Serious gloves.  Even if the temperature is above zero, the wind chill will test you.

But there is a beauty and majesty to these places that is impossible to describe.  You look out the window and you see endless stretches of ocean, yet another set of snow-capped mountains, blue skies with barely a horizon (yes, it has stopped raining!) and you start to feel bored…

But brave the wind chill and get outside on deck and take photos… even if you aren’t sure how they might turn out… because you will upload them and be astonished by the interplay of colour, texture and light that is the arctic in spring.

I am typing this wearing my souvenir – a moss green Helly Hensen (Norwegian!) fleece emblazoned “the arctic awakening” – the current Hurtigruten theme.  And they are right.  The arctic is awakening – and it is the most fulfilling part of the journey.

This is a cargo ship so information is sporadic and incomplete.  I fear I should have stayed up – or been on deck – to see specific things but it’s not very clear just what you should be looking for – or when you might find it – so I have just accepted the randomness.

You do get to go ashore at least once a day so I have just embraced the experience and whatever journey I ended up on.

Bodo was OK.  What I have discovered as we advance north is that the physical beauty of the landscape and the interplay of light with the physical surfaces have been enhanced but the man-made stuff is pretty basic.

tromso...

tromso…

What is impressive is some of the new modern architecture – and how the locals have to be outside in an outdoor café even though it’s only 8 degrees Celsius!  I grew up in that world.  Once you have been in darkness and minus 40 for a long time, it turns 4 degrees positive and you’re thinking tank top and sandals 😉

The Arctic has been my favourite part of the journey and I would highly encourage you to experience it.  I do think that Tromso could really use a better tourist office though.  I have never been so confused!

They would have got more kroner from me but I couldn’t find either of the tourist attractions I was seeking.  It was like a Monty Python skit.  It was the first tourist town with NO signs to attractions.  Fine, I had a map.  Oh, but the tourist map only had a few random streets.  And only a few random streets actually had street names marked on them!  And the streets named on the map were generally NOT the ones with street signs!

Seriously???  Maybe the Mafia is in charge of tourist buses… “you no pay the tourist fee and take the bus, we no tell you where the tourist stuff is”…  It is the first time in the history of my traveling through FOURTY EIGHT countries that I couldn’t find what I was seeking…

It was a combination of not having a specific address, the tourist map not including all the streets and most of the streets being incognito.  I walked the blocks the map indicated in its general way at least four times braving the icy polar winds, but to no avail… so I finally just decamped to the ship.

Of course, Tromso had been promoted on the ship in the typical Hurtigruten hyberbole as “the Paris of the North”.

paris...

paris…

Seriously, have ANY of you BEEN to Paris??? Or even Buenos Aires?  I could see it as the former Paris of South America, with a faded majestic charm.  But Tromso… you don’t even have enough street signs – or a decent map – to be considered a Norwegian tourist town.  It is entertaining how many cities want to be Paris… perhaps setting your benchmark as probably the most thrilling city in the world from a man-made perspective may be setting your sights a little high 😉

 

re-inventing your past ;)

I am pretty sure I have blood on my hands.  I am at least half Viking – and given the mayhem the Vikings allegedly caused in my other homelands, I may well be a little more…

I have now finished Colin Thubron’s excellent book, “Shadow of the Silk Road” and questions of ancestry, tribe and history are subjects he addresses over the course of many nation states, ethnic groups and shared versions of history (accurate or not).  Reinvention is not a modern concept.

We have always lived in half-truths, in perceptions, in mythology.  History is an imperfect science so we never know exactly what happened in the past – although it is getting a lot harder in the age of social media.

But, luckily for the Vikings, there were no selfies or embarrassing posts on Facebook of the pillage you were hoping to forget… so Vikings can do a little rearranging of history without anyone being able to know for sure if it is just wishful thinking.

My knowledge of ancient history is improving but it is still shaky so I keep an open mind when it comes to the Vikings.  No society is composed of only bad guys – and you need to understand the context in which people behave before you can even consider passing judgement of any kind.

norwegians like boats!

This is the right mindset in which to enter Trondheim (the next stop on Hurtigruten).  It used to be called Nidaros and was Norway’s first capital city.  It was a port of departure for Viking expeditions.  Apparently Leif Eriksson is Leiv Eiriksson in Norway, the dude who discovered Canada – Viking no matter what direction I turn 🙂

I take a little issue with the Hurtigruten info that says the first export of American goods to Europe took place in Trondheim in 1100 AD.  That stuff came from CANADA, dude 🙂  At the time, I think it just came from Newfoundland.  But not America…

The really big thing to see in Trondheim is the Cathedral.  I have

cathedral of many genres

cathedral of many genres

seen a lot of churches!  This is country 48… but I was impressed!  It is something new.  A little Viking, a little Gothic, a little Baroque… a piece of history, which is always more messy than people seem to remember.

you decide if he was really a saint...

you decide if he was really a saint…

It’s not too often a Viking becomes a saint and is the centrepiece of the market square.  It’s not clear if he was a great guy – or just a great politician.  But it does seem Vikings elected leaders so it’s nice to see some non-royal on display.  Someone who had to do something for that sainthood beyond just be born into the right family…

 

 

 

fast – but not furious :)

Going on a Hurtigruten ship is an experience in Norwegian history.  It is the only Norwegian word I really know – “hurtig” means fast.  It all came about in 1893 when a young entrepreneur named Captain Richard With left Trondheim on a steamship named “Vesteraalen” sailing into Hammerfest to a cheering crowd in 67 hours – a half hour early!

the view in the rain...

the view in the rain…

When Captain With took the challenge to create an express boat service between Trondheim and Hammerfest, there were only two marine charts and 28 lighthouses north of Trondheim.  He was a pioneer in Norwegian history and helped to foster the economic powerhouse that is modern day Norway.

Ships have been operating on the Coastal Express for over 100 years.  Since 1936, a Coastal Express ship has left Bergen heading north every day – with some minor interruption when Norway was occupied by the Nazis of course.  The names of the Coastal Express ship company has changed over the years, from Vesteraalens Dampskibsselskab in 1893 to the much easier to pronounce Hurtigruten today.

I’ve almost finished my journey so we’re going back to nostalgia mode now.  Leaving Bergen is dramatic.  These are lots of excursions you can take from the ship and I think it’s worthwhile to research them before you leave home and decide what is most likely to rock your boat.  Nothing is cheap in Norway so I decided to just see what I could see from the ship – a mini adventure.  Some people have booked the excursions just so they have someone to guide them back to the ship.  It really depends on how good your sense of direction is.  The towns are pretty tiny though so it’s not hard to find your way home.

If you go on the excursions, the days will likely feel much more hectic.  If you just follow the ship’s timetable, there is lots of downtime.  If you go later in the season, it’s likely fun to hang out on deck or pop into the Jacuzzi.  It’s not a cruise ship so there aren’t many activities on board but there is lots to see out the window and you can eat and drink pretty much all day and night.  Internet is not 21st century but you can generally find a signal.  And you can always pile on your fleece and walk around on deck 5 to snap photos without glass in the way.

Your first stop will be Alesund.  If you’re lucky, it will not be raining.  I was not so lucky but persevered and found my

view from the top of the 418 steps!

view from the top of the 418 steps!

way (after a few false starts) to the 418 steps to the top of Aksla mountain.  It wasn’t too bad but I was breathing heavy for the last 50 steps.  People coming down encouraged me to keep climbing, saying it was worth it – so I did the same for other tourists when it was my turn to come down.

It is worth it, even on a rainy day.  I can imagine it would be glorious on a sunny one.  Alesund is definitely worth checking out.  Norwegians are keen on building wooden houses – and then burning them down it seems.  I guess it gets boring in remote places…

The town of Alesund burnt to the ground in 1904 so was rebuilt in the Art Nouveau style, making it one of the more intriguing cute towns in Europe.  This is also a gateway to the Geiranger Fjord I gather – but not until June…

Perhaps I will return someday when the sun is shining and boats are sailing in the Geiranger Fjord? 🙂

 

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