Two Days in Oslo to End Our Adventure

We bid our ship a fond farewell in Bergen early Saturday morning and headed for Oslo by rail on what the Lonely Planet Guidebook has called “the most beautiful train trip in the world,” a claim we soon realized was no exaggeration as we made our way past fjords with dazzling blue water, glaciers where Norwegians are still skiing, waterfalls gushing down snow-clad mountains, and bucolic, picturesque villages, some of which are accessible only by this train.  I had a book in my hands but seldom glanced at its pages since the show outside my window was too spectacular to ignore.

We arrived in Oslo mid-afternoon on the hottest day the city had known since 1947, so little wonder that the local citizens were out and about soaking up the sunshine after their very long and dark winter.  We strolled along the waterfront where throngs were swimming in the very clean and clear waters which surround the city, something you’d never see in Wasington or NYC.  Our final two days in Oslo, like the rest of our trip, were defined by blue skies and summer-like temperatures, so the Baltic weather gods were clearly smiling on us, too.

We walked around the city Saturday afternoon and evening to get our bearings, then explored it more fully on Sunday, first taking a ferry to the peninsula of Bygdoy where we spent the morning and early afternoon at two museums.  The first of these was the open-air Folk Musuem, which contains an impressive collection of buildings moved here from all over the country, including a beautiful wooden stave church from 1200 A.D., the oldest structure here–and the very first acquisition in the collection–the gift of an enlightened 19th century Norwegian king who thought this would be a good way to preserve his country’s history.   Farmhouses, barns and storage sheds comprise the largest number of buildings at the site, with lots of animals to delight the youngest of visitors (we know Madison and Nora would have enjoyed them).  We were especially taken with the home of a prosperous farmer from the 1950s, all accurately outfitted with furnishings, appliances and color schemes from that era.  In another section of the Folk Museum was a large building containing apartments from various eras of Norwegian history.  Here our favorite was one from the 1960s, where the teenager’s room featured Dylan on the record player and posters of the Rolling Stones and Beatles on the wall–a flashback to our own youth.  Traditional shops, like the. general store and pharmacy, were filled with goods and cures, respectively, which also illustrated historical periods.  And I was delighted to see that Norway’s indigenous peoples, the Sami, were included at the museum as well, with a tipi and a storage shed constructed on the grounds and an impressive exhibit of their history and culture housed in one of several indoor pavilions.

Our second stop, after a picnic lunch in a shady part of the Folk Museum’s courtyard, was the Viking Ship Museum, just a short walk away.  It contains three of the enormous vessels which sailed the seas hundreds of years ago, two of which have been faithfully re-constructed and one which is presented as it was first found when the ship was unburied.  Indeed, “unburied” is the right word since all three ships, once their sailing days were over, served as burial chambers for prominent citizens, and, as is the case in many cultures, they were laid to rest with many of their valuable possessions, some of which (those not looted by grave robbers) were also unearthed and are on display in the museum.  Two excellent documentaries provide further information about how these ships were constructed and where they sailed, which included ports as far away as Turkey and Newfoundland since artifacts from these distant places were also discovered with these ships.  In addition to the two museums we visited,  the Bygdoy peninsula also contains the Kon Tiki Museum, which contains a replica of this famous ship and documents its voyage; the Fram Museum, which focuses on Arctic exploration, and Norway’s Holocaust Museum, all of which we saved for another time.

After ferrying back to the city, we spent the rest of the afternoon on a walking tour to see such notable landmarks as the Royal Palace, where we happened upon the changing of the guard; the historic National Theater, where native son Henrik Ibsen premiered most of his plays; the new Oslo Opera, which is designed so that you can walk (as we did) from the front of the very contemporary structure up slanted ramparts which take you all the way to the rooftop, which provides a panoramic view of the city.  Also included on our trek around the city were the Headquarters for the Nobel Peace Prize, the University of Oslo, the National Parliament building, the cathedral, the town hall, and the impressive walled fortress which stretches out along the coastline near the harbor. Most elusive on our list was a statue of American president Franklin Delano Roosvelt, located on a wooded hill between the fortress and the town hall.  Although we finally discovered it, we didn’t find out why it was erected, though we did learn that Eleanor came to Oslo when it was dedicated.

All and all, we got a good taste of Oslo during our short time there–and quickly  developed a fond taste for Hansa, the local beer, which was particularly refreshing after tromping around both the  Bygdoy peninsula and the central part of the city in the unusually warm weather, logging nearly 28,000 steps (12 Fitbit miles) on Sunday alone.  The beautiful weather also inspired us to spend most of our time outdoors, so the works of the city’s most famous painter,  Edvard Munch (“The Scream”), will have to wait for another time; perhaps the new Munch Museum, being built near the Operahouse, will be finished by then.  In the meantime, we leave Norway–and the rest of the beautiful Baltic area we visited on this trip–with a treasure trove of new memories, experiences and acquaintences we shall not soon forget.imageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimage

 

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Dazzled (again) by Norway

While this entire Viking Homelands cruise has been fabulous, our return to Norway, a country which wowed us with its incredible natural beauty a few years ago when we spent nearly three weeks here, has been particularly memorable, especially the last two days.  Our first port of call in this land of the midnight sun was Stavanger, the fourth largest city in Norway, which beautifully blends a proud and prosperous past, created by the fishing industry, with an oil-rich present and future, given the discovery and extraction of North Sea crude which has benefitted the entire country, though perhaps no place more than Stavanger.  It hasn’t, however, happened without controversy, as reflected in the way Stavanger’s excellent Oil Museum presents both the economic advantages and the environmental hazards of  off-shore drilling.  The city itself still reflects its proud past, as embodied in particular by the historic neighborhood of nearly 250 wooden buildings near the waterfront, of 17th and 18th century vintage, still painted white (since this color originally suggested wealth as it was the most costly one).  An added bonus of visiting this time of year is seeing so much in bloom; all of these charming houses were beautifully bedecked with flowers.

From Stavanger we travelled overnight to Eidfjord, a quaint village  of just a thousand people, stunningly situated at the end of the Hardangerfjord.  “Gob smacked” is the first expression that came to mind when I stepped on the veranda of our stateroom and saw the incredible natural beauty that surrounded us–on yet another postcard-perfect day.  Little did I know when I signed us up for the kayaking excursion, back in March, that we’d be paddling in one of Norway’s most picturesque regions on a mirror-like surface on a  warm and cloudless day.  Like our paddle on Norway’s Geraingerfjord during our first visit to the country, our morning in the Eidfjord will forever remain among our most memorable times on the water–which, by the way, is so pure that we all scooped up a handful and drank it at one of the streams which feeds the fjord,  along the shore where we made a stop, just as we refilled our water bottles today at a stream in the Floien Hills above the city of Bergen, our final port of call where we spent today.

We had another very active day here in Bergen, a city with deep Viking roots, having been founded in 1070 on what had originally been a Viking settlement.  Bergen made a name for itself as Norway’s first capital (before ceding the title of Oslo) and a merchant powerhouse in the Hanseatic League, trading throughout the Baltic.  The most iconic landmarks stem from that period: the collection of colorfully painted wooden buildings which comprise the Bryggen wharf, just a short walk from where our ship was anchored.  Since we’d explored much of Bergen’s rich history on our previous visit, today we opted to walk around the city in the morning, then do a hike on Mt. Floien, for magnificent panoramic views of the fjord and its many islands, following the coastline–on yet another crystal clear day–all the way to the North Sea.  In doing so, I set a new record for steps on my Fitbit–27,893 (which totals 12.1 miles, eclipsing my former personal best, set at at Great Wall of China a couple years ago), which means it’s time to get some sleep before our early morning train trip to Oslo, where we’ll spend the weekend before flying home on Monday, May 28.

 

Back in the ancestral homeland: two days in Denmark

Copenhagen,  Dragor and Alborg

Although Betsy and I had visited the beautiful Danish capital years ago, it was lovely to be back here if just for a day.  Our tour took us along the waterways where we saw the new opera house, on one side of a canal, lined up perfectly with Amalienborg Palace, which serves as the royal residence, on the other side.  The queen’s son turned 50 this week, so he decided to run a road race, parts of which were in several different places throughout the country including two of those we visited (though we didn’t catch him in action).  Our drive though Copenhagen also took us past Tivoli Gardens, a delightful amusement park we’d enjoyed during our earlier stay here, with a mandatory stop at the city’s most iconic symbol, the statue of the Little Mermaid, inspired by the story of Hans Christian Andersen, perhaps a distant relative since the “e” in the spelling of my last name was changed to an “a” somewhere along the line.

Copenhagen brought back fond memories, but we made some new ones during our visit to the charming former fishing village of Dragor, about 20 minutes drive outside of town, on the island of Amager, which was, during Medieval times, an important trading center for Hanseatic merchants who were in the market for herring which were caught in abundance offshore here.  Today, Dragor retains its appeal through its warren of winding cobblestone streets which are lined with 17th-century brick houses sporting red tile roofs.  We happened to be there on a bank holiday, when many Danes were also making their way to Dragor to escape the city for awhile.  By the look of the boats in the harbor and the cars in the parking lots–one driveway contained both a Ferrari and a Porsche–not to mention the cost of the real estate we saw advertised in shop windows– it’s an enclave for the well-heeled.  All I’d need here would be a bicycle since it’s so easy to get around; indeed, we were told that most Danes own not one but two bikes since, for lots of locals–whether in big metropolises like Copenhagen or tiny villages like Dragor–the preferred mode of transportation is on two rather than four wheels– and in all the places we stopped at, bikers rule:  bike lanes are omnipresent and cyclists have the right of way on these paths–so pedestrians (especially tourists), beware.

Our final stop in Denmark was the vibrant university clown of Alborg, stunningly situated 20 miles up the Limfjord, at the narrowest point of this watery crevasse.  Boasting the best-preserved Renaissance architecture in all of Denmark, such building as the 1624 Jens Bang’s House, with its clean symmetry and sense of proportion, helped create the foundation for today’s sleek Scandinavian design.  Like Dragor, Alborg (now the nation’s fourth largest city) began as a trading post, founded by the Vikings in the late 900s.  By the 16th century, the wealth that poured into the city helped build many half-timbered mansions like Alborghus Castle, which we visited today to see its courtyard and old dungeons (punishments were definitely cruel and unusual).  Today the castle serves as the seat of the king’s governors of Northern Jutland, the Danish province where Alborg is located.  We got a quite literal taste of Viking life before we set sail as we sampled such delacies as smoked cheese and a concoction they call “lard” (but think healthy and tasty rather than fatty and disgusting, since this has nothing in common with Crisco), served by a young woman in Viking dress while her male counterparts wielded their weapons and tough talk before finally serving us mead and toasting our health.  Both our days in Denmark were marked by more perfect weather, highly unusual for May, when temperatures usually hover in the 50s or 60s, with lots of rain; instead our days have been in the 70s–and sometimes the 80s–with abundant sunshine.  This continued today for our visit to the first Port of call in Norway, Stavanger, and we hope it will hold as we plan to explore Eidfjord by kayak tomorrow and then hike on Friday to the top of Mt. Florien in Bergen.  More on our Norwegian adventures in a future post.

 

Gdansk & Berlin: Bringing History to Life

Our first-ever visit to Poland was a memorable one as we visited the historic town of Gdansk, the home of Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement which united workers in Poland and inspired others throughout the globe.  In addition to seeing the shipbuilding  industry where Walesa worked as an electrician, we explored the old part of town which, though pretty much destroyed during the war, has been rebuilt in its original style, with tall, narrow buildings in a rich array of colors, all sporting their distinctive rooflines, reflecting Dutch influence.  We were unprepared for how lovely this city is and impressed with how it has risen from the ashes of the war to be a flourishing spot which delights the traveler.

 Our next stop was Berlin which, unlike most of our other ports of call, isn’t on the sea at all.  We took a train from Warnemunde, where we docked, two and a half hours south to the capital of Germany, a city defined by its past while reflecting a vibrant present and a promising future.  Once again, we had a superb guide, well-versed in the city’s historical, political and cultural details which he shared with us during a six-hour tour where, via coach and canal boat, during which we saw such key landmarks as the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, Checkpoint Charlie and the remnants of the wall which divided the city for nearly 30 years.  We          drove down broad boulevards like Unter den Linden and Kurfürstendamm which, like New York’s Broadway or Paris’s Champs Elysses, were bustling even on a Sunday.  The river cruise on the Spree provided yet another perspective on old and new Berlin, with gleaming new structures abutting older ones, some of the latter still in the process of restoration.  Most moving for us, without question, were two of our final stops:  the Jewish Memorial, comprised of hundreds of simple, black rectangular blocks, of varying heights, designed by an American artist to commemorate the 6 million victims of the Holocaust; and the parts of the Berlin Wall which remain standing as a kind of memorial, too, to all of those who perished in their attempts to find the freedom we too often fail to fully appreciate.  Having spent this first week in places like Poland and Estonia and Russia where freedom has been a tentative state during much of their histories, I’m reminded of how precious this is.

 

Stockholm, Helsinki, St. Petersburg and Tallinn: the first stops on our Baltic adventure

We’ve had a great first six days on our Viking Homelands adventure aboard the stunning Viking Sky ocean cruise ship

We explored the clean, green city of Stockholm on our first full day here–a city which consists of 1/3 water (it’s situated on more than a dozen islands), 1/3 parks and other green spaces and 1/3 man made structures.  We enjoyed a panoramic bus tour, then stayed to walk through the old town and along the river where kayakers were practicing their maneuvers in swirling rapids.  It was a Sunday, so lots of people were out in parks where fountains and flowers created a beautiful atmosphere.  In the afternoon, we left port with a festive champagne send off as we cruised through the scenic archipelago which leads to the Baltic Sea.  What a splendid  introduction to this land of the midnight sun.

Our next stop was Helsinski, where we had a morning tour of the city as well as spending time in Finland’s oldest cities–and its original capital– Parvoo, where we stopped at one of its many cafes to sample Runeberg Cake, a local speciality, and to poke around its charming shops.  Back on the ship, we relaxed poolside before dinner and then  attended an impressive show by a British magician whose tricks were quite mind-blowing.  We lost an hour overnight traveling to Russia–and had an early call to start our two-day visit to St. Petersburg, so sleep was at a premium.

St. Petersburg figured to be a highlight on this trip–and it didn’t let us down.  It helped that we had a most knowledgeable and convivial guide, Alexander, to guide us through our two full days –and one night there, during which we saw many highlights of this place many Russian Czars and Czarinas called home.  We visited three of their extravagant residences–Catherine’s Palace (her summer home), outside of the city in the town of Pushkin; the Hermitage (or Winter Palace) which sits on the Neva River in the heart of St. Petersburg (where we also saw “Swan Lake” in the intimate–and opulent–Hermitage Theater our first night there); and Peterhof, Peter the Great’s attempt to outdo Versailles (located across the Gulf of Finland from St. Petersburg, a half an hour trip by hydrofoil). Also on our agenda were two of the city’s signature Russian Orthodox onion-domed churches.  The two days there gave us a crash course  in Russian history and showed us firsthand how lavishly the royalty lived (no wonder it lead to Marx’s socialist theories and the Russian Revolution). We also were treated to two typical Russian meals, replete with vodka, borscht and traditional Russian music.

Finally, today we visited the medieval parts of Tallinn, Estonia’s formerly walled city,  where the walls and moats and towers from that time period still stand.  Again, we had a stellar local guide who was very proud of her city which finally achieved independence (for the second time in the 20th century) just about 20 years ago.  She had little good to say about the Russians and Germans who, most recently, had ruled the country (throughout much of the 20th century), though Estonia was a Danish duchy at one point as well.  But Estonians now fly their own flag, which consists of blue, black and white stripes, with a great deal of pride (the blue representing the sky–the color it’s been nearly every day of our trip; black standing for the earth and white symbolizing peace).

Experiencing these locales where so much history has happened really brings it to life for us, making us eager to read more about each of them.  I’m sure the same will hold true for Gdansk, Poland, which we’ll visit on Saturday after tomorrow’s day “at sea,” where we’ll have to make due with a trip to the sauna and “snow cave” in the spa, as well as some lazy time by the pool.  We can see how  the Russian royalty got used to being pampered–for our crew on board the Viking Star seem intent on giving us  a taste of this treatment during our time with them on this stunning ship–and we’re not complaining a bit about this!

 

 

 

Viking Homelands

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We leave on May 11 for our Viking Homelands ocean cruise which includes a visit to St. Petersburg, Russia (pictured above), which is the third stop on our 17-day visit to eight countries.  We’ll  also be visiting Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Poland, Germany, Denmark and Norway.

Looking Back at Down Under from Up Here

 

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“So what did you learn about New Zealand,” an old Maori man asked me on our last afternoon in the Bay of Islands, the day before we headed back to Auckland to catch our various flights home.  Although we were there a bit less than three weeks, we feel we absorbed a great deal, traveling from Queenstown and Te Anau and Milford Sound on the southern part of the South Island to Paihia and Russell and Kerikeri  in the far northern part of the North Island.  So one thing I learned was how to drive on the left with confidence, manuevering the mostly two-lane roads and one-lane bridges, the hairpin turns up and down mountains, the city traffic in Wellington and Auckand, all the while forcing myself not to be seduced by the jaw-dropping landscapes we were driving through, but I did keep hoping that we’d see a penguin or a kiwi cross the road since there were signs alerting us to watch out for them (but no luck spotting these elusive native birds).image

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Once we got off the road, we encountered these incredibly varied and spectacularly beautiful landscapes and seascapes and lakescapes every day:  snow-covered mountains in the Southern Alps and volcanic peaks in the north, glaciers and rain forests improbably abutting each other, shimmering lakes painted Caribbean blue, often with no settlements at all around them, fjords and geysers and beaches and thermal pools–amazing to realize that this remarkable diversity is all found on a fairly small  archipelago not all that far from Antarctica.  A country defined by water, it offered many opportunities for our inner Mariners to emerge as we kayaked on Lake Mapourika, near Franz Josef Glacier, and on the Tasman Sea, west of Nelson.  We sailed on the Pacific in the Bay of Islands, floated into a cave illuminated by hundreds of glow worms in Te Anau, cruised through the fjords of Milford Sound and ferried between Picton & Wellington and Paihia & Russell.  On land, we enjoyed a steady diet of hiking:  to frozen glaciers and bubbling hot mud pots, through rain forests and stands of giant California redwoods and old growth kauri trees, to waterfalls, around lakes, up to lookout points and along beaches.  So we got to know this picture-postcard land that both Maoris and Pakehas call home by meeting it first-hand.

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We also learned about the people of New Zealand, as well as their history, their culture and their interactions with each other,  through individuals we met, museums we visited and performances we witnessed during our stay there.  It didn’t matter if it was a waiter, kayak guide, shop owner, Kiwi tourist or Maori docent, everyone we met was eager to talk, curious about where we were from and what our experience here had been like, forthcoming with their own stories and perspectives and ideas.  They were, to a person, friendly and helpful and kind–as if we were old friends rather than meeting each other for the first time.  We heard their views on topics ranging from whether they should change the design of their flag (from “It looks too much like Australia’s” to “It’s tradition and shouldn’t be messed with”), to why some Maoris have only recently embraced their culture (“My dad thought it would be better for us kids if he married a British woman”) to how the laid back, outdoors-focused lifestyle has convinced young people we met from Denmark and Canada and France to emigrate down under.  I’ve written in earlier posts about how much we learned about NZ’s relatively brief history, from the Maoris arrival here about 800 or 900 years ago to their first contact with Dutch and British explorers in the 17th and 18th centuries, to the signing of the still-controversial Waitangi Treaty which made it a British colony in 1840.  Overall, though, Maoris and Pakehas seem to co-exist respectfully; evidence of–and pride in–both cultural traditions can be seen and heard everywhere.  It’s what makes this such a fascinating country which, even in less than three weeks time, we got an initial taste of and developed a true affection for (much as we loved the local wines and cuisine), and we can’t wait for a return visit to continue our exploration and deepen our understanding of this magical land down under.

 

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