An Extra-fjord-inary Time in Western Norway!

An Extra-fjord-inary Time in Western Norway!

For years, I’ve been tracking my travel adventures against Lonely Planet’s 1000 Ultimate Sights, a book that lists well-known and less-known places to see around the world. In this book, there is a full color photo about Preikestolen, or the Pulpit Rock, a cliff at the fjords of Norway.  Ever since I first paged through this book, I’ve been pausing on this image, marking it in my head as a place I’d one day like to visit.  Before living in Europe, it seemed too random and off-track a place to ever see, but luckily, the airports in the southwest of Norway are a 1.5 hour flight from Amsterdam, and visiting the fjords area is quite an easy and popular trek to make from here.

Day 1 (Thursday, August 13, 2015) — Stavanger

Uri’s brother is on a travel holiday from Australia for a month, and the fjords were on his list to visit as well, so he joined us for this trip.  We met up at Stavanger Airport (Sola), rented a car, and drove about 15 minutes to our hotel in Stavanger city.  Stavanger is the third largest city in Norway, although it is quite small, surely far behind Oslo.  I am sure that the sprawling towns around Stavanger city itself are included in this statistic.  It is at the center of the oil industry, and the old fishing town it was basically grew into this larger city because of the boom.  I know that the world needs this energy source, but the focus on capital-O- Oil, and the act of depleting this nonrenewable resource creating the booming industry that this town is built upon, gave me a little bit of a weird feeling inside.  I found it fascinating to learn that the country stows away profits from oil into a country fund, and basically distributes the interest-profits to its citizens, thus helping it to be one of the wealthiest countries in the world (among other reasons).

We were hosted in Stavanger by Uri’s friend, a local who shared lots of stories about the town and history with us.  We strolled the pier, checking out the tons of giant jellyfish that gather in the docks’ warm waters (I’ve never seen anything like it before!).  We also walked through the old town area, a unique looking European old town that reminded me of a retirement community area — all white wood-paneled homes surrounded by colorful gardens.

Old Stavanger

We had a lovely lunch at Phileas Fogg, and were hit with our first experience of Norwegian alcohol taxes.  It is my understanding that in partnership with the already high cost of living in Norway, the government slaps a punitive tax on alcohol to discourage drinking.  So, when traveling the countryside, a glass of house wine or bottle of beer will cost you the equivalent of €9-€12, and buying a 6-pack of basic beer at the grocery store will set you back about €25, where the price of each beer is individually listed, without a discount on a bulk purchase.

We also visited Øvre Holmegate, the street full of colored buildings. Uri’s friend told us that the homes and shops on the street banned together to paint their facades to draw more attention and uniqueness to the street, and it worked.  It is a quirky, sweet little street bustling with cafes and shops, and people strolling to check out the scene.

Øvre Holmegate

After our time in the city, we were treated to a lovely dinner at the home of Uri’s friends in the neighboring area of Sandnes, which is counted towards the sizing of the urban area of Stavanger.  Then we headed back to our hotel for our first night’s rest.

Day 2 (Friday, August 14, 2015) — Pulpit Rock and Driving North

We headed for the Stavanger-Tau ferry early Friday morning, and there we got our first real glimpses of the cliffs scattered throughout the sea inlets.  After about 2 hours of driving, we arrived at the starting area for the hike to Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock), that mountain plateau 604 meters (1982 feet) above ground that I have long since dreamed of seeing.  The hike took about 1 hour and 45 minutes, and involved mostly uphill “stair” climbing and sometimes scaling giant stones and rocks.  There were two very steep areas to climb — it wasn’t difficult to have proper footholds, but it is like climbing stairs 3 times as high as normal, with uneven giant stones.  We had a mostly quiet hike up, as we started early, and were greeted by the occasional dogs and their owners making the climb (for the big dogs, what fun! –but for the small tiny dogs, it seemed cruel!)  

We reached the rock, and stood in awe at the view over the Lysefjord. Because of crowds, you don’t necessarily get to perch peacefully on the rock’s edge for very long, but instead you wait in line to creep to the edge and get your photo taken by your friends quickly.  The wind was blowing hard, and it was not a place anyone wanted to spend a ton of time teetering over anyway.  We took in the views, and headed back rather quickly, knowing we were hungry and had a two hour’s hike ahead of us.  The crowds were getting thicker, and we knew we also had a very long drive to our hotel.

Pulpit Rock

Can you see us?

The descent down was uneventful and easier as Uri’s brother gifted me with a found walking stick.  We were able to clop down the mountain rather quickly, enjoyed a well deserved and delicious lunch from the kiosk at the picnic area, and then set off north to our next destination.

The next leg of our trip was about 4 hours long, including another ferry ride where we made it as the last car, to Lofthus, Norway (on the Hardanger Fjord).  The ride was adventurous, as most of the road was narrow and it was all winding.  When another car would approach head-on, their was barely enough room for two cars to pass at the same time, and each car would need to slow and move to the edge to allow for enough room.  We stretched our necks and peered around every bend looking for oncoming cars for the whole ride.  We drove alongside the beautiful waterways, pulled over at a few lookout points, and saw many impressive waterfalls.  The cliffs are full of dripping and cascading waterfalls all throughout the fjord area, fed by glaciers, melting snow, and who knows what else!waterfalls

We arrived in Lofthus in the evening, and checked into our hotel, which was actually an active  boarding school which is used as a hostel in the summer months.  We enjoyed a dinner at the only restaurant within walking distance — Thai food, which as it turns out, is a specialty in Norway.

Day 3 (Saturday, August 15, 2015) — Hardanger & Eidfjord, and Driving North

Feeling quite sore from our big hike the previous day, we decided to have a leisurely day exploring the fjords by boat.  Uri found an event where we boarded a boat and went 1.5 hours to the Eidfjord area, where we would spend a few hours before returning back to Lofthus.  In Eidfjord, we unfortunately encountered the cruise ship culture that we were unhappily expecting to meet at some point.  A massive eyesore of a ship parked itself in the middle of the best view between land and fjord, and out from it dumped hundreds and hundreds of German tourists.  The town was tiny, with not much to do or see, except to enjoy the views.  Seeking solace against the hoards of tourists, we found lunch — again at a Thai place– and relaxed for a few hours waiting for our return boat back to Lofthus.

Once we returned, we were ready for our quick 2 hour ride to Undredal, which is northeast of Lofthus, and would set us up right outside of Flåm, where we had several events planned for the next day.  After about an hour on the road, we started seeing signs for road closures, and as we approached a giant waterfall and campsite, we pulled over to call the hotel and determine the situation.  It was there on the side of the road that we learned the only way into Flåm — a 20km tunnel– has been closed for a week due to a major fire, and would be closed for several more weeks or months.  The hotel let us know that the only way into town was a 6-hour diversion route by car, or a ferry, of which the last one for the evening left hours before.  We were infuriated to learn that the hotel knew of the road closure and did nothing to inform us in advance so we could make alternate plans (like the ferry).  We knew we would not be making it to our planned hotel for the evening, so we reversed course back to the larger town we had just passed — Vossvangen, or Voss. For the curious, it was “Visit Undredal” that wronged us and we’d encourage people to book this hotel with extreme caution.

The rain had just started pouring down in perfectly imperfect timing, but we remained cool, pulled over into a hotel to use their internet and inquire about rooms.  We found a hotel at a decent price (albeit more expensive than our planned hotel in Undredal).  Accepting our adjusted fate, we spent the evening in this town where Voss water originates (think, those fancy water bottles in da clubs).  We found a burger joint, had some dinner, and had some cocktails in a Mexican cantina, where a group of drunk Norwegians gifted me with a sombrero and poncho (yep… in Norway.)

Day 4 (Sunday, August 16, 2015) — Flåm Kayaking, the Flåm Railway, and Bergen

As part of our diverted plan, we had to get tickets from Voss to Myrdal by train, including an additional ride on the Flåm Railway, which is very expensive. This was our only way into Flåm, and still we would arrive an hour past our scheduled kayaking time; but, we wanted to try our luck and see if they’d take pity on us.  The rail ride was gorgeous from Voss to Myrdal, and although it was pretty from Myrdal to Flåm, that leg (on the Flåm Railway) was quite disappointing considering the price and knowing we’d have to do it twice to go back and get our car.  

We arrived at the kayaking kiosk in Flåm, called Njord, and we were lucky to be moved to a later group outing, but it was a 3 hour event instead of the 4 hour for which we had already paid.  We were happy though, not to miss the kayaking.  We were part of quite a large group — 2 guides, 9 Norwegian ladies, 2 Germans, and the 3 of us.  The guests had double kayaks, while the guides had singles.  The rain was pouring and it was cold as we received the lengthy instructions on how to set up the kayak, how to get into the skirt, how to right yourself in a capsizing situation, etc.  After about an hour, we were finally in our kayaks (me in the front, Uri in the back), paddling out into the fjord in the rain, soaked to the bone.  It was pretty, nonetheless, and the guides treated us to a few stories about how the fjords were formed, the sunken ship we were paddling over, and there was even a Norwegian birthday song sung by the group to one of the guides. Towards the end of our paddle, the sun finally came out for us.kayaking norway fjord

After we were back on land and in dry clothes, we headed back to our car in Voss, via the railway again.  Once in Voss, we picked up our car and drove 1.5 hours southwest to Bergen, back on our original course.

Bergen is the second largest city in Norway after Oslo and my favored city over Stavanger.  The city is large enough to feel livable and dynamic, but still maintains aspects of its quaint and storied origins.  It boasts fjord and port-side living, the UNESCO Bryggen area, and is the sister city of Seattle — a fun fact that really gives a true idea of its style and feel.

We arrived in Bergen, dropped off our rental car, and set off for dinner, first asking our hotel’s front desk attendant for a non-Thai recommendation.  “Hah,” she said. “I was about to offer you this Thai place down the street.”  A local Bergenite overheard our query and offered to take us the kilometer down the hill into town in his car, and point us to some restaurants where he was going to also take his visitor.  We ended up at the local college’s Swedish spot with slightly above pub grub level fare in the basement.  After a few drinks we went to his other recommendation, a beer bar with 54 beers on tap, where I settled in with a cider.

Day 5 (Monday, August 17, 2015) — Bergen

After our best breakfast during the trip (Thank you, Hotel Park Bergen), we ventured on our last day in Norway towards the wharf area (“Byrggen,” in Norwegian).  We strolled the shops and took photos of the old style commercial buildings that are now a UNESCO world heritage site.  We walked the fish pier and saw the largest king crab legs (and live king crabs in tanks) I’ve ever seen in my life. We then found our way to the Fløibanen funicular that took us up Mount Fløyen.  After a bit of a wait with other tourists, we made it to the top for some great views of the city.  We meandered our way back down the walking trail, encountering magical elements planted along the way, like signs warning of trolls and invisible witches.  The nature of the area truly felt like it was out of a fairytale, where we might find a troll under a bridge or Shrek peeking out of the trees.

mount floyan

After our trek back down the mountainside, we enjoyed our last lunch before heading to the hotel to collect our bags.  We boarded our bus to the airport, after saying goodbye to Uri’s brother, who was off to Stockholm for his next destination. And after a short 1.5 hour flight, we were back at our own destination in Amsterdam– home.

The fjords of Norway were a literal breath of fresh air from the city-fatigue we’ve been experiencing from all of our quick weekend trips to new European cities.  I highly recommend that anyone able takes the trip to Stavanger to hike Pulpit Rock, visits Bergen for its culture and feel, and fills the in-between with any fjording route you desire.  The options are endless!

Little Italy’s Heritage Trip- Part 2: Rome and Vatican City

Little Italy’s Heritage Trip- Part 2: Rome and Vatican City

The second part of Little Italy’s Heritage Trip is really not so much about my heritage, but about hitting some big historic sites that I’ve always wanted to see, in the city where I probably originated from at some point anyway: Rome!  If you are arriving here and haven’t read Part 1 of this trip, you can find that here.

Monday, May 18, 2015

After goodbyes in Abruzzo with our new friends Russ and Sergio at La Grande Quercia Bed & Breakfast, Uri and I  set off in our rental car back to Rome. The drive takes about two hours, and is full of rolling hills and mountain tunnels. The scenery is similar to the Alps in that it is mountainous, but it looks very different. Instead of a giant chain of grandiose mountains, there are many tiers of rolling mountainous hills making many levels of landscape to see when you look out into the distance. It’s a quintessentially beautiful drive that I believe you can only find in Europe.

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We dropped off the car and put our bags in our room at Chroma Pente, in the San Giovanni area of Rome, just southeast of the Colosseum. The hotel is not quite a hotel or a bed and breakfast, but more like a group of rooms in a larger building, almost like a Regus room would be for a small business. The price was right, and the location was about a 20 minute walk to the Colosseum, or a quick subway ride to almost anywhere.  We first stopped at a small deli called “Otbred Laterano” for some of the best panini sandwiches I’ve ever had. Note: always get a panini here on white or red pizza as your “bread.”  Yes… that’s right. A pizza sandwich. Delicious.

For our first day in Rome, we ticked off the major ancient Roman sites: the Colosseum and Roman Forum. The Colosseum– used by the ancient Romans for gladiatorial contests and other barbaric spectacles– was impressive, but smaller than I expected. It was also covered in scaffolding at the time of our visit. The Roman Forum, on the other hand, was an unexpected surprise. I didn’t previously know about it and it was the most fascinating to me.  It is an ancient Roman plaza or gathering place, containing acres of preserved ancient columns, tombs, and stories of historic Rome. I felt like I had time travelled to another time and could walk the forum and really imagine how it used to be thousands of years ago. I loved it!

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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Our second day in Rome started at the Vatican. For Vatican City (as well as the Colosseum), I strongly advice to to buy tickets in advance so you do not have to stand in line for hours (especially at the Vatican). More of a personal preference, I also recommend to to skip any organized tours. We used the Rick Steves’ Europe audio walking tour app and were very happy not not be shuffled around in giant, impersonal amoeba-like tour group blobs, that mostly appeared to be using earphones to hear their tour guide anyway.

The Vatican Museum was truthfully quite boring for me. Most of the time there was spent slowly shuffling towards the Sistene Chapel, towards the back of the Museum, which is accessed with a Vatican Museum ticket. The Sistene Chapel was breathtaking. Despite being shoved into a crowded room packed with tourists craning their necks and bumping into each other, I got lost staring up at the ceiling, listening to the stories of each of Michaelangelo’s portraits. I didn’t expect the captivating 3-D design and bright colors that made the paintings look like they were climbing out of the ceiling. Amazing!

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After escaping the rest of the Vatican Museum as soon as possible, we headed to St. Peter’s Square and St. Peter’s Basilica. Both were impressive in size, but for me, they were piazzas and churches of which I’ve seen many of in Europe, just on a grander scale. The line for St. Peter’s Basilica looked long and intimidating, but it moved quickly enough.  After covering these big sites, we traipsed around the city to hit up the rest of our to-see list: the Trevi fountain (disappointedly emptied of water and covered in scaffolding), the Spanish steps (pretty but distractingly covered with some VERY AGGRESSIVE sellers of roses and selfie sticks), the Pantheon, and a stop called Hotel Locarno (an art deco hotel with a birdcage elevator). We ended our day with a delicious dinner (with one of the best arrabbiata pastas I’ve ever had– a red sauce with garlic, tomatoes, and chili peppers) at Trattoria Fusco near our hotel back in the San Giovanni area.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

For our last half day in Rome we took the 218 public bus out to the Roman Catacombs. The Catacombs consists of many different areas, the most popular of which being San Calisto/  Callixtus– which was closed on the day we were there (Wednesdays). I was happy to recognize the work for Wednesday, since French and Italian have similar looking words for days of the week. We found our way to the Catacombs of San Sebastiano about a half kilometer up the road. Crammed into a required 30 minute tour, we went 9 meters underground to see the old plots and frescoes of ancient Romans. I’m sure it will sound morbid, but I was surprised we didn’t get to see the mounds of bones piled high as you do in the Catacombs in Paris. The excursion took us only a few hours and we found our way back to Rome on the 218 bus. After another delicious panini lunch at Otbred Laterano, we set off for the Termini train station on the Italo train to Naples which would start our southern Italy half of the trip.

Rome & Vatican City Travel Tips:

— Before leaving for your trip, buy tickets online for entry to the Colosseum/ Roman Forum (combo ticket) and Vatican Museum/ Sistene Chapel (combo ticket). We skipped MAJOR LINES and I am not sure why this tip seems to be a secret, considering the number of people waiting in those lines..

— It’s personal preference, but I recommend to skip any form of organized tour in Rome. Use the audio guides provided at the sites or take your own to travel at your own pace. We used the Rick Steves’ Europe audio app and were very pleased, despite some technical glitches with the app itself. Nothing looked worse than being carted around in those giant tour groups. It is at the point where the groups are so large that there is no personal interaction anyway; the groups listened through headphones as their guides forged ahead and spoke into a mic.

‘Tis the Season

It’s holiday season, so it’s a good time to reflect on foreign holidays, and celebrating holidays as an expat abroad.  

If you are an outsider looking in, it’s amazing the weird and interesting things you see people to do in the name of religious tradition or secular holiday tradition, or “because it’s the way it has always been done.” Co-habitating with someone with a differing religious background to my own and from a different country as well, is already cause for interesting revelations like this for me every day.  Fun fact: Uri and I only share one holiday all year on the same day (New Year’s). I try to explain why coloring eggs and then searching for them around the house for Easter is normal.  Or why kids leave carrots out for reindeer on Christmas Eve.  Or how bread and wine get turned into the body and blood of Jesus at Mass…every Sunday.  Or why you must barbeque on Independence Day, or drink your face off the night before Thanksgiving with your high school friends.  Admittedly for myself as well, much that we do or believe is “because we always have.”

King’s Day

I’ve had my fair share of outside-looking-in holiday experiences here in Amsterdam.  First there was Konigsdag, or King’s Day, in April, which can only be described as Mardi Gras-meets-Independence Day multiplied by 100.  A celebration of the current monarch’s birthday, the Netherlands celebrated it’s first King’s Day this year, changing over from what used to be Queen’s Day since 1890 to the most recent Queen’s abdication in 2013. The entire city of Amsterdam was out on the streets for two days celebrating their country and the King. Everyone wore orange (the national color) from head to toe, and anyone who owned a boat was on it, partying with house music blasting from concert-sized amps on their little floating vessels.  The canals were so packed with boats that they appeared to be floating as one continuous barge. You could pick up orange Holland or Amsterdam or Netherlands paraphernalia at almost any store.  Then there is the concept of the vrijmarkt (“free market”) where the Dutch sell items from their house on the streets.

Konigsdag revelers floating on a canal

Konigsdag revelers floating on a canal

By the way, the current King, Willem-Alexander, bears a striking resemblance to a very famous figure in New York:

trump

Sinterklaas

Ah, Sinterklaas. The Dutch celebrate the holiday season with a few days dedicated to this character.  There is the celebration of his arrival from Spain in mid-November, his various visits to children over the next few weeks, and then the Saint Nicholas Eve / Saint Nicholas holiday which feels pretty similar to Christmas Eve/ Christmas Day gift giving and family celebrations.  However, there is also a celebration for Christmas Eve/ Christmas Day here as well.

The most interesting part of the whole Sinterklaas experience is his companion, Zwarte Piet (Black Pete.  Yes, that’s right. Black Pete.)  The stories about this character’s existence and role to Sinterklaas (companion, helper, slave) span the gamut, and there seems to be an exponential growth in division in the country on the appropriateness of Piet.  This year there were even several riots in Gouda on the day celebrating the arrival from Spain, in protest to the character. I’ll let Wikipedia summarize Piet: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinterklaas#Zwarte_Piet

Regardless of appropriateness, it is still highly accepted to use the Zwarte Piet character as festive decoration here in the Netherlands.  I just can’t get used to or comfortable with seeing it. Try googling it and checking out some of the imagery.  Oy.

Thanksgiving

As an American celebrating my first Thanksgiving away from home, I felt more compelled this year to actually stick to the tradition of cooking a Thanksgiving meal.  Having only cooked a turkey once in my life 10 years ago, I decided to take the challenge. Thanksgiving arrives this Thursday, and here are some things I learned through the process:

1) Dutch people order poultry from poeliers, which are basically butchers for poultry. You can also order from some “regular” larger butcher shops (slagerij). I had to special-order my turkey through these shops from a farm.  I felt a bit guilty knowing a turkey was being slaughtered just for me and responsibility is not shared with the Butterball conglomerate.

2) Buying a turkey is a delicate balance of finger-in-the-air-guessing and providing your poelier the size of your tiny oven in inches-whoops- in centimeters. “Please sir, I’d like a turkey to feed 4 people, and it can’t be larger than 21 centimeters tall or long.”

3) Dutch people do not know what turkey basters are.  After several long investigative discussions with many colleagues, we’ve determined the appropriate term is vleesbedruiper, but sounds close to something gross or naughty in Dutch (undetermined what this is). You can only order these online and they cost up to €25. I’ll use a spoon.

4) Expat shops are good for getting things like Stove Top Stuffing mix, if you are prepared to be gouged on the price.  The best bet is to stow away a box in your suitcase on your last trip home (check), along with packet gravy mix (check), and Wheat Thins (not for Thanksgiving, but check.)

5) Non-American turkeys are not pumped up with steroids, nor specially bred to have big juicy white-meat breasts.  In fact, they are sort of sad looking, scrawny, and lack a discernable stuffing cavity.  Any they come with the neck still attached. I hope we have enough meat here for four people!

turkey

With that, have a Happy Thanksgiving, and wish me luck this Thursday, cooking my tiny little turkey!  Good thing I schlepped home all of that stuffing mix and other fixings for the best part of a Thanksgiving meal anyway- the side dishes!