Sunday, June 3, 2012

Oslo & The Norway in a Nutshell Tour

At the beginning of many of my travel posts, I sometimes explain why I chose the destination about which I am writing.  In this case, I just got this idea in my head that it would be great to go somewhere up north in the Scandinavian countries.  Perhaps it has something to do with being cast as "Marzipan from Scandinavia" three times in the Nutcracker.  Or maybe my choice was influenced by an article I read in the SkyMall magazine entitled, "Three Perfect Days in Stockholm," though that is admittedly in Sweden, not Norway.  All that, plus my grandparents liked Norway, so I figured it would be a good trip.  Then I read about the majestic, Norwegian fjords on wikipedia, trusted source that it is, and started looking up flights.  To my semi-ecstatic delight, I found that it was cheaper to fly first to London, chill for two days, and then continue to Oslo.  Excellent!

The Aurlandsfjord
More or less, I went to Norway on a whim.  I was tired of visiting cathedral after cathedral after cathedral, and became captivated by the idea of going on a fjord tour.  By the way, "A fjord is a long, narrow inlet with steep sides or cliffs, created in a valley carved by glacial activity...A fjord is formed when a glacier cuts a U-shaped valley by abrasion of the surrounding bedrock.  Glacial melting is accompanied by the rebound of Earth's crust," (wikipedia. "fjord").  Look at my picture on the right; you'll get the idea.  Anyhow, I planned this trip months ago, and would probably rank it as one of the trips this year I have looked forward to most, in part because I was so excited to see the fjords.

Trolls are popular in Norway.
The logistics of this trip were insane since I booked several planes, trains, buses, boats, etc. all over the place.  I tried to leave a little time everywhere in case something got delayed or cancelled, but there wasn't much room for error.  Here's the simplified version of the plan: Fly from Madrid to London, see Les Miserables, fly from London to Oslo, take a series of trains and boats on a Norway in a Nutshell tour ending in Bergen, ride the night train back to Oslo, fly from Oslo to London, take a day trip to Brighton, and finally fly from London back to Madrid.  With several other trains in between.  Traveling at such a pace really wore me down, but I wouldn't have it any other way.  I squeezed everything possible into this six-day trip, and that's what you have to do in case you never get to go back there.

$20 Wraps
Before going to Norway, I had heard that it was a very expensive country, that the standard of living was extremely high, and that the government provided nearly everything for its people.  The population density, even in Oslo, Norway's largest city, seemed very low in comparison with everywhere else I've been in the world.  Apparently, as I heard, the government pays people tons of money to have kids there.  I heard that the government also provides free and excellent healthcare for Norwegians, a policy which is probably so effective because the population is so low.  My first impression of Oslo was that nearly all the people were very well taken care of, unconcerned, and pretty content with their high quality of life.  The place oozes with money.  You can just sense it...especially when you buy a wrap for lunch at a corner deli and it costs the equivalent of almost $20 - no drink, no table, just a wrap.  And then you go to dinner and pay $36 for a hamburger.  But that's okay.  C'est la vie.  (My fifth complete sentence in French!)  Anyone can pretend to be Norwegian for three days.  Four days might be pushing it, but three is feasible.
503 Norwegian Crowns = Approx. 84 Dollars 
Yay for British English!
"The T"
Apart from the monetary aspect of my days in Norway, I was interested to see that in keeping with the apparent, high standard of living, the city of Oslo is very modern and everything is clean.  Everything, including public transportation, runs smoothly.  In terms of public transportation, you can take the train, the T-bane (metro/underground thing), a ferry, or the bus, and you buy one ticket which is good for all of those.  They make it so easy, and it's wonderful.  By the way, the metro service, or underground, or subway, or whatever they call it, is marked with nearly the same signs as the T in Boston!  And they tell you to "mind the gap" when you get on the trains.  I really didn't expect Boston and London to converge in Oslo, but smiled when I saw they did.   
Day 1 in Norway: Oslo
April 29, 2012

Vigeland Sculpture Park
On my first morning in Oslo, after texting "happy birthday" to my sister, I rode the bus from Anker Hostel directly to what I now consider one of Oslo's most fun attractions, the Vigeland Sculpture Park.  Comparable to the idea behind Gaudí's Park Güell in Barcelona, the Vigeland Sculpture Park is a free, outdoor showcase of Gustav Vigeland's work.  Vigeland sculpted many human figures in active poses, and these figures line the walkways of the park and culminate on a circular staircase/platform in the park's center with a pole made of piled, stone people.  The sculptures seem to realistically celebrate all stages of life since they portray active people of all different ages.

Rather than simply sculpting perfectly muscled, young people, Vigeland designed most of the sculptures as people actually look.  The only difference is that the figures are much larger than real people.  Since the figures are so big and so solid (stone), visitors are allowed to lean on them, climb them, pose with them - anything you can think of.  Honestly, this is paradise for someone like me who loves to take pictures and pose for funny and creative pictures.  Some of the sculptures are in poses the visitors can imitate, while others look...uncomfortable.  I spent about three hours at the park, but could have easily spent the whole day there.  It was just so much fun!
Vigeland Sculpture Park
The Scream by Edvard Munch
Reluctant to leave the sculpture park, but excited to see more of the city, I got on the T-bane (the T!) and sped off to the National Gallery to see Edvard Munch's "The Scream."  Recently, in the news, I saw that a version of this painting sold for $120 million.  Fortunately, I only had to pay 30 NOK, about $5, to see the  version of it that's in the Norwegian National Gallery.  I think there are a few different versions of this painting, but honestly, I'm a bit confused about that.  The one I saw had been previously stolen and was now kept behind glass in the museum to prevent a future theft.

I'm a big fan of this painting, partially because the face is so funny and I love making faces.  It's accessible.  And sort of interactive, although that may not have been Munch's intention.  This is the first really, really famous painting I've visited that didn't have a crowd around it.  Maybe that's because Norway's population is relatively low, or maybe it's because Oslo isn't exactly the first vacation spot most people think of.  But it was great, I just walked right up to the painting and spent all the time I wanted observing it, and no one shoved me out of their way.

Karl Johan's Gate
The National Gallery is small, which makes it easier to go through than the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, which is 100% amazing, though a bit overwhelming.  Within the relatively small, Norwegian museum, there is a very nice collection of work by Monet, Picasso, Munch, Degas, Van Gogh, and some Norwegian artists.  Since it's small and not overcrowded, you can take your time and really look at each piece.  I was pleasantly surprised to find one of Van Gogh's self portraits, which I recognized from its similarity to his other self portraits in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

After leaving the museum, I strolled around Karl Johan's Gate, one of the central and main streets in Oslo.  This is where I had that lovely, albeit overpriced, wrap for lunch.  Had it not have been a Sunday, I bet the shopping on the street would have been really fun.  The window shopping was nice.  Oslo has very few touristy souvenir shops, but the two or three that I saw were all on this street.

In the evening, I went to check out the Nasjonal Operaen Nasjonal Balletten, otherwise known as the Norwegian National Opera House.  The building is very angular and contemporary, and you can walk up to the roof for a nice view of the city.
Nasjonal Operaen Nasjonal Balletten
On the Roof of the Opera House
Sheets of glass, unusual textures, and many shades of white and gray come together to form the opera house.  The building reminded me of the outfit I wore to the harbor cruise during BU's senior week last year.  My outfit was composed of several pieces in different shades and textures of charcoal, light gray, and black.  It was chaotic in a compiled, sleek way.  The opera house is the same way, but in white, light gray, and silver.  One wall on the roof has raised dots that at a quick glance look like super-sized braille text.  Taking a closer look, I noticed that it's just a repeating pattern and that the dots are both raised and pressed into the wall, and braille would only be raised.

Inside the Opera House
On warm, sunny days like this one, I learned that a popular activity is to sit on the inclines of the opera house and take in the sun.  Since I needed a moment to relax, I decided to chill on the deck and hand-write the beginnings of my Oslo blog post.  It turned out to be more of a personal thoughts about Oslo, London, Madrid, and life segment, so I'll just quote a short piece of it here:

"Norway has really surprised me.  I expected to find myself in a sort of arctic tundra, but today has been bright and sunny.  The air is crisp and refreshing, not bone-chilling.  I don't even need my coat.  In fact, right now, I'm writing a rough draft for my Norway blog post at the Norwegian National Opera House while sitting outside on their deck and catching some sun. Apparently, that's a popular thing to do there. It's like a beach...with an opera house.  And without sand or water, and everyone is fully dressed.  

Who knew you could sunbathe at an opera house?

Itinerary, Map of Oslo, & Handwritten Blog Post
Aside from seeing an actual performance, most people come to the opera house because you can walk on the roof.  It's like an observation deck.  In a while, I'll go check it out, but for now I'm pretty relaxed on this giant incline.  I guess my equivalent of snacking in a cafe and pondering this new city into which I've plopped myself (literally, the plane bounced when it landed) is sunning myself at the opera house and observing everything going on around me."

Day 2 in Norway: Norway in a Nutshell Tour
April 30, 2012

Outside Oslo - The Bergen Railway
Bright and early, I made my way to Oslo S to begin my tour.  The Norway in a Nutshell tour lets you travel outside of Oslo to get an idea of what the rest of the country is like.  It's easy to customize, so you can stay overnight in the towns, go kayaking in places, or book whatever else you want.  I literally only had 24 hours, so I stuck with the basic package, which was the Bergen Railway from Oslo to Myrdal (MEER-dahl), the Flåm Railway from Myrdal to Flåm (Fluhm), a fjord cruise on the Aurlandsfjord from Flåm to Gudvangen, a bus from Gudvangen to Voss, the Bergen Railway from Voss to Bergen, and finally the night train from Bergen back to Oslo.  You basically get carted around Norway with a group of people, while seeing some of the most beautiful sights nature offers.  It sounds difficult, but it's actually relaxing.  Everything ran seamlessly.  As one of the highlights of my year traveling in Europe, this tour easily makes it onto my top ten travel destinations list, and I would love to go back someday.

On the Bergen Railway, we passed groups of trees that, in stark contrast with the blinding snow, appeared black.  The few black tree spots against the white mountains made me feel like we were passing a herd of dalmatians.  
Near Myrdal

Finse Station - On the way to Myrdal

As we approached Myrdal, I decided to retract my comment about Norway not being the arctic tundra-ish place I had imagined.  From my toasty car on the Bergen Railway, I gazed out the window at mountain after mountain of snow.  In some places, where the snow had been cleared away, I realized that the snow was about 15 feet deep.  In other places, rooftops of houses just barely peeked out of the snow.  I'm guessing no one lives in those since there was no obvious way to get to them. 

Near Myrdal
The snow-covered
mountains filled my peripheral vision, and at some points, looking out the window of the train was blindingly bright.  You know how when your lawn is covered in snow, it reflects the light so strongly that you have to look away?  Imagine that in mountain form.  

I thought I was going to go an entire year without seeing snow because winter in Madrid is hardly winter.  That said, avoiding snow clearly wasn't on my mind when I booked a trip to Norway.

Flåmsbana = The Flåm Railway 
When we arrived in Myrdal, we boarded the Flåmsbana, also known as the Flåm Railway.  This particular train travels very slowly and stops frequently so that tourists can take pictures.  The conductor even gives you a five minute break to go outside and see the waterfalls.  The train climbs some pretty steep, narrow areas, and travels around several sharp bends.  

Viking Hat in Flåm 
In Flåm, there's a museum about the Flåm Railway, and admission is included in the Nutshell tour.  The exhibits explain how the tracks were built and that before the train existed, there were signs asking travelers on horses to, "be gentle against the horse and walk up the hill."  It also points out that there is a special breaking system because of the extreme inclines.  Before leaving the railway museum, we (of course) stopped in the gift shop, where we found some fun viking accessories.

Next, we boarded a ship for Gudvangen, and began the part of the tour that I had perhaps looked forward to most: The fjord cruise on the Aurlandsfjord.  I started on the top deck of the ship, moving later to the middle deck, and finally to the lower deck where the cars were.  After comparing, I decided I liked the view best from the bottom deck because from there, the fjord resembled a watery hallway with cliff walls, just as I had imagined it.  
The Aurlandsfjord

The first word that came to my mind when we started the fjord cruise was "majestic".  In awe of the Aurlandsfjord's beauty, I was fascinated to think that this was all created by glacial recession.  Just looking at this place makes me want to recycle more.  For the duration of the three-hour cruise, I strolled around the ship checking out the different views of this incredible fjord and the little houses in the valleys.  Actually, I think the houses were reasonably sized.  They looked minuscule lining the bottom of the enormous fjord.  Can you imagine having a fjord in your backyard?
The Aurlandsfjord
In my travels, my photos, and my writing, I've noticed a few motifs: Shoe shopping, food, cathedrals, and pictures of birds.  To my delight, a group of tourists on the upper deck of the ship decided to throw bread crumbs over the edge to attract birds.  I took this opportunity to take as many close-up photos of birds as I could.  The photo to the left is one of my favorites.

Troll Sculpture in Voss
When we arrived in Gudvangen, I took one last gaze out at the Aurlandsfjord, then hopped onto the bus to Voss.  About 45 minutes later, we got to Voss and had some free time to explore the little town and eat dinner.  With a few other people from the trip, I strolled over to a burger place, and then took a quick look at the view and the troll sculpture.  Apparently, trolls are popular in Norway.  I saw troll souvenirs in most of the gift shops.

We boarded the Bergen Railway once again, this time for Bergen.  Two of the main attractions in Bergen are the Bryggen Wharf and the fish market.  The fish market was closed by the time we got there, but the Bryggen Wharf was open and very lively.  The wharf and its adorable row of colorful, wooden houses has been designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.  

Bryggen Wharf
As the sun was setting, I snapped a few photos of the wharf and the harbor, and then walked over to the little houses for a closer view.  Between every few houses, there's a shadowy walkway that leads into an alley.  One the front by the water, each house is slightly different.  They're painted in a variety of tan and rust shades and lettered with the names of shops and restaurants.

Around 11 pm that night, I boarded the night train from Bergen to Oslo.  I was fairly certain that I wasn't going to sleep much, but sleep has never been near and dear to my heart, so I didn't mind too much.  The funny thing about a night train in Norway is that because of the high latitude and this time of year, the sun was out for like 18 hours each day. In fact, the sun set around 10:15 pm, and came back out at 4:45 am.  You try sleeping on a night train when it's bright and sunny at 4:45 am.  It's not that easy. 

I slept for almost two hours, and when I woke up, I groggily stared out the window and watched the sun rise.  Around 5:30 am, I saw that a thick fog was hovering high in the treetops of the evergreens.  The ethereal sight caught me by surprise since it had been so clear the day before.  On that day, I could have used more sleep, but in hind sight, I'm really glad I saw this view of the Norwegian landscape.

Day 3 in Norway: Oslo
May 1, 2012

The night train from Bergen arrived ahead of schedule at Oslo S around 6:15 am.  Exhausted and a bit disoriented, I trudged off the train and sank into a chair at the station.  A while later, I dragged myself back to the hostel and fell asleep in a chair in the lobby until about 9:00 am.  Normally, sleep, or lack thereof, doesn't affect me nearly this much.  However, sleeping minimally and poorly all week, traveling a break-neck pace, and coordinating plane/train/bus connections all over the place had worn me down, and the night train pushed me over the edge.  Prying my eyes open (still in the hostel's lobby), I really didn't think I could make it through another full day of sightseeing.  

However, time spent traveling is precious, and you have to make it count.  Around 9:30 am, I picked myself up, bought a Norwegian sweater (shopping is my coffee), and continued on to enjoy my last day in Oslo.  Retail therapy does wonders.  Still, I was a little anxious about waking up at 4:00 am the next morning to fly from Oslo to London, take a day trip to Brighton, and fly back from London to Madrid that night.  Just keep going, just keep going...

The Tune Ship - The Viking Ship Museum
Breakfast at 6 am hardly counts, so I had a second breakfast before boarding bus #31 for the Viking Ship Museum.  Seeing this particular museum and learning a bit about the Viking culture was one of the reasons I was interested in traveling to Norway.  This museum has the world's most extensive and well preserved collection of Viking ships and artifacts.  There, I learned how the ships were constructed and decorated.  In their day, the Vikings were known for being at the forefront of ship-building technology.  The light design of the Viking ships allowed for travel in shallow waters, which helped the Vikings arrive quickly and secretly, thus allowing the Vikings to surprise the people on land.

Frammuseet = The Fram Museum
The next museum I visited, the Frammuseet (Fram Museum - The Polar Ship), is built in the shape of a triangular prism around the ship inside of it.  The ship takes up nearly the entire building, and visitors are welcome to walk through all the ship's decks and explore nearly all the rooms.  Around the ship are exhibits explaining that the Polar Ship (the Fram) sailed specifically to the Earth's poles.  In it, I learned that in 1895, the Fram nearly reached 86º N while drifting with the ice, and that this was farther north than any other ship had sailed.  Later, in 1911, an explorer by the name of Amundsen sailed the Fram on the first successful expedition to the South Pole.

The Fram - The Polar Ship
I think finding the South Pole is a point of pride for Norway.

Amundsen had been competing with a British group to reach the South Pole first, and his success resulted in continued confidence in the historical, Norwegian tradition of maritime expertise.  Recently, the Fram Museum added a simulation room to help visitors understand what life may have been like on the icy waters. My favorite part of the simulation was where you turn and find yourself in front of a polar bear poised to attack.
Leaving the Fram Museum, I rode a ferry back to the other side of Oslo, and found myself right outside the Nobel Peace Center by the harbor.  I smiled when I saw that their cafe was called "The Alfred Café".  From there, I passed the National Theater, and found myself on the corner by the Hard Rock Cafe.

Normally when I travel, I like to try the local food.  On this particular day, I was exhausted and pretty hungry from being awake for so many hours, and wanted an American sized hamburger.  European hamburgers, as far as I've seen, are sort of tiny.  Anyways, that night I dined at the Hard Rock Cafe, and it was delicious, as I knew it would be.

The next morning, I magically felt well rested, and boarded another nearly empty flight to London for my Brighton day trip.  Bye, Oslo!

I enjoyed these three days in Norway so much that I started thinking a bit about planning a longer trip someday to the other Scandinavian countries.  You know, a nice trip through Sweden, Finland, and Denmark.  Really though, in the future I would love to come back to Norway and see more of the fjords if I can.


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