ALL THE THINGS
HIRSH AND SARAH'S ADVENTURES THROUGH "GREATER EUROPE"
WHERE WE HOPE TO EAT, SEE, AND DO
ALL THE THINGS THIS BEAUTIFUL LIFE HAS TO OFFER
Today is a bittersweet day for us because it's our last day in Norway. We love everything about this country, from the stunning natural scenery to the beautiful people. The culture here is kind, clean, organized and efficient. Every single bus, plane, boat and train left precisely on time. We would pull onto a ferry and it would be moving ten seconds later - no joke! They really have a lot figured out here.
The people are just as wonderful. Every single person with whom we interacted was friendly and helpful. They never begrudged our use of English and general Americanness.
Of course, we've gone on and on about the natural scenery for a reason. There were many times as we were riding or driving through the countryside when we were both left speechless. We think we took some good pictures, but photos never capture the true essence of a place, do they? Maybe that's the universe's way of encouraging us to get out and experience life firsthand. We're sure glad we did.
The photo below is the last one of us in Norway. It was taken from Ørnesvingen ("Eagle's Bend"), overlooking Geirangerfjord.
Thanks for the memories, Norway. We love you! Tonight we fly to Rome!!
We celebrated America's birthday with a spectacular morning cruise on the Geirangerfjord. It's not a huge fjord compared to some others, but the steep mountain cliffs rising straight out of the water provide for dramatic and unforgettable scenery. Add to that the deep teal hue of the water and waterfalls everywhere, and we were instantly smitten.
This is a popular destination for foreigners and Norwegians alike, and because it takes more effort to get here, it's quite a bit calmer than the Sognefjord. Many natives choose to rent cabins or camp nearby, and others just enjoy a beautiful day drive in their fancy cars. A Porsche caravan with 20+ cars came through town when we were there.
Here are some shots from the boat.
'Twas a bit windy
"The Seven Sisters" waterfalls
"The Bridal Veil" waterfall
A rainbow in the waterfalls!
After the fjord cruise, Hirsh enjoyed a four hour hike to another waterfall, where he met these cute Lucys (we affectionately refer to every goat as "Lucy" after our beloved dog who eerily resembled a goat in her old age).
And then we rested 😴
This day started off with the thrill of being able to sleep in. Well, at least we tried. When the sun is out in full force at 4 AM, you do the best you can. We caught the bus from downtown Ålesund to the airport, where we picked up our typical European rental car (small and ugly, but cute and efficient at the same time). Finally, we were free!! We hit the road with an eventual destination of Geirangerfjord, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the three most visited fjords in Norway. But this day was all about the journey.
After consulting with our Airbnb host and the rental car agent, we had initially decided to forgo a three hour detour to the Atlanterhavsvegen ("The Atlantic Ocean Road"), a National Tourist Route basically built in the ocean, which claims to be the world's best road trip and is a popular filming location for car commercials. We were sure we simply didn't have time. An hour into our drive away from the airport, we thought about it a little longer, changed course, and decided to go for it. See all the things! Thank goodness we did, because the entire tour through the countryside somehow just kept getting better.
Along with the incredible scenery, Sarah made the discovery of her lifetime when we stopped for our convenience store budget meal. It's a machine that dispenses mashed potatoes, y'all! Does life get any more perfect than this!?
Behold Storseisundet, the most famous and most photographed bridge on the Atlanterhavsvegen. During bad storms, ocean sprays can reach the top of the bridge, so we prayed for bad weather.
Driving over the bridge was so much fun, we went back and forth and took turns!
We thought that drive was impressive until we started heading toward Geirangerfjord and got to the Trollstigen ("troll steps") road. You may be familiar with this view if you've ever cruised the Pinterest travel board. The drive was scary and exhilarating and so much fun! We tried really hard not to die and were successful - this time.
Be sure to watch out for trolls!
We eventually made it to the town of Geiranger at 10:30pm. Don't worry, there was plenty of daylight left to take these beautiful pictures. We couldn't believe the lushness of the greenery, or the deep teal of the water.
And finally, the real treat. Most tourists stay down in the town of Geiranger for easy access to the docks and the restaurants. Fortunately for us, those hotels were all booked up when we made our reservation. We were forced into one of the few remaining available rooms in the area at an older hotel up the hill. Not only did the Utsitken Hotel turn out to be absolutely charming, but THIS is the view from our cozy little room...
It was challenging to tear ourselves away from this view to go to sleep. It was a good day. 😃
Honestly, we thought today was going to be pretty lame. We had braced ourselves for a boring 9 hour bus ride on the 450 Fjordexpressen from Bergen to Ålesund, which--while billed as a ride through fjord country--is still a 9 hour bus ride. As it turns out, every corner of Norway is stunningly beautiful. In my (Sarah's) opinion, its beauty may even rival New Zealand's. And the Norwegian bus system is a well-oiled marvel, to boot. Here are just a handful of the endless incredible views out our bus window (which by the way had free Wi-Fi, power outlets, mini trash cans at every seat, and drivers who, like the rest of Norway, spoke immaculate English)...
Among Hirsh's favorites were the ferry rides across the fjords. Compared to the bedlam on the Sognefjord ferry two days ago, 10 minutes of a cross-ride with about forty other transiting passengers was utter peace.
Upon arriving in Ålesund, we trekked to our next Airbnb. Hirsh hung out with the Airbnb host Filippo, a Sicily native now working in Norway, while Sarah got in a well-deserved nap. A Tripadvisor, Wikitravel, and Airbnb host recommendation, we went out for a splurge meal after a day of Narvesen convenience store coffee and ferry boat Coke and Pringles. Confusingly named XL Diner, which conjures up some combination of Waffle House and a Big & Tall clothing store, the place was instead a true foodie's dream. We enjoyed melon and prosciutto salad; fish soup with mussels, shrimp, salmon, and caviar in creamy broth; and a main entree of Parmesan-encrusted cod in a cream sauce with potatoes and carrots. Just dreamy.
Today we strolled around the small, charming town of Bergen. It's a university town, so there's a great young energy here. It's also probably the single most popular city for tourists in Norway because it's considered the gateway to the fjords. Tourists. Everywhere. After apparently about a month of beautiful weather, Bergen's trademark rain returned just in time to greet us. It's OK though, because the city's charm makes up for the dreary weather.
The key colorful sight: the wooden houses of the Brygge, the old port trading quarter.
Tourist Trap - I mean "Fish Market"
Fancy a reindeer or whale sausage?
Here we are enjoying breakfast in front of a randomly beautiful square. Breakfasts in Norway so far have been courtesy of the convenience store chain Narvesen, which is about as ubiquitous as Starbucks, times about twenty. We can get a cup of coffee and a croissant for breakfast for 25 Norwegian kroner ($3, which even by US standards is pretty solid).
Did we mention how many nice cars there are in Norway? Teslas everywhere. This country is stupid rich, from a combination of oil money and possibly glacier harvesting (?). But our favorite car, which we saw three times today, was this sweet matte brown Benz coupe. We even lucked into a glimpse of its real-life owner and his trophy wife/girlfriend/mistress, right after we snapped this picture!
After further wandering the many shopping streets of downtown Bergen, dinner was at a local non-touristy and excellent restaurant, Pingvinen, and another high-value recommendation from our Airbnb host, Inge. The plate on the left contains meatballs of an unknown meat (we are assuming reindeer) in gravy, carrots, potatoes, pea mash, and lingonberry jam. The bowl on the right is a ham and root vegetable goulash. The Norwegians, like North Carolinians, love their ham. Who knew? Anyway, eat all the things...
After dinner chillin' in our ridiculous Airbnb flat; this loft area is actually separate from and upstairs from the living and bedroom area. It was around 11pm in this pic, btw. So much light makes for a happy Hirsh and Sarah. 😄
Fjord day! You may have heard of this as the "Norway in a Nutshell" package tour, which it was in content, except (hot tip!) we booked the separate transportation pieces ourselves through Norway's exceedingly efficient and pleasant public transportation sector websites and saved a bunch of money (Hirsh's specialty) (expect such schemes to be a recurring concept).
We woke up early to catch the 6:20 AM westbound train from Oslo to Myrdal. Really beautiful views from our traincar, but in all honesty we were just exhausted from our early wakeup so we slept the majority of the ride.
From Myrdal, we hopped onto the Flam Railway. This is one of the steepest railways in the world, with five separate braking systems. We sat beside a nice family from Nashville, TN. As for the view out the windows, the pictures really don't do it justice. It's absolutely spectacular. One of the highlights was the thundering waterfall Kjosfossen, with a very special surprise appearance (to avoid spoilers, you'll have to visit Norway yourself to figure it out).
We got to the Flam port for our Flam-to-Gudvangen ferry and made a mad dash to the front of the ship for the best views of Sognefjord, the largest fjord in Norway. We had to aggressively - and I mean aggressively - defend our position in the front of the boat by building a wall with our backpacks. We had support from some other American comrades who pitched in with their packs, too. It was five young American backpackers against 500 Chinese and Russian tour bus tourists, some of whom tried to physically move our packs, but most of whom threw shade in their native tongue. It was a valiant battle, which I'm proud to say we won. 'Murica!
And as you can see from the pictures below, was it ever worth it! Until it got grim and rainy during the second half, but it was still so totally worth it!
After a two hour fjord cruise, we caught a local bus to Bergen and made our way to our next Airbnb. We were welcomed by our gracious host Inge, who gave us his scoop on Norway, and then recommended a local college hangout, Kafe Spesial, where we treated ourselves to a delicious meal of hot pizza and cold beer, much needed after a day on the fjords. 😀
Today was our museum day in Oslo. We visited 5(!) museums, which Hirsh admitted was even a bit much for him. Shockingly, the museum day was Sarah's suggestion, and it's the sole reason we spent an extra day in Oslo. Below are some highlights from the museums, all on Oslo's museum island of Bygdoy, a quick ferry ride from the main port (and all included in our highly valuable purchase of a 24-hour Oslo Pass).
The Viking Ship Museum: contained two fully restored and one damaged Viking ship. Incredible to see how huge and well constructed these ships were.
The Folk Museum: huge and impressive collection of restored homes and artifacts from around the country. One of the highlights was a folk dance and song performance by these two artists, who were just adorable with each other. We also got to see an impressive typical Norwegian stave church, made of wooden beams, and coated with tar for increased flammability (I mean, that's not why they're coated in tar, but that's certainly why, according to our guide, the number of stave churches in Norway is down from 4,000 to 29. Oops.)
The Kon-Tiki Museum: commemorating Thor Heyerdahl's incredible journey across the South Pacific. That's the actual ship! If you haven't seen the amazing recent feature film of the same name, it was on Netflix at last check; Heyerdahl's 1957 documentary of his voyage also won an Oscar.
The Fram Polar Ship Museum: contained two huge polar expedition ships used by many brave Norwegian explorers including Roald Amundsen. This was really an incredibly well-done museum exhibit, and we only wished it weren't towards the end of our day, because boy were we tired.
We ended the day with a delicious homemade meal of fresh shrimp prepared in the traditional Norwegian style by our wonderful Airbnb hostess, Gaby. Here's a view from her dining table. You can even see the Olympic ski jump off in the distance. Not too shabby!
Our plane touched down in Oslo around 10am Norway time. After dropping off our bags at the Airbnb, we headed straight over to City Hall for a tour with our delightfully nerdy tour guide. It's a beautiful old building where, along with other official State business, the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony is held. Do you see that long bench along the wall on the ground floor? We fell asleep smack in the middle of that bench for an hour and awoke to literally no one else on the bench and a large tour group standing directly in front of us. So that happened.
We then hopped on the tram to get to The Vigeland Park which is the world's largest sculpture park. It's stunningly beautiful. So very green, with flowers everywhere and some very impressive fountains. The sculpture artist, Gustav Vigeland, was obviously very talented but perhaps a bit disturbed. Exhibit A (and my favorite)...
I mean, it takes some strong feelings to want to punt a baby...and then to memorialize those feelings for all eternity, yikes. Here are some other pictures of the park.
Notwithstanding the above sculpture, one very obvious characteristic of this society is the focus on family. Mothers get a full year of maternity leave with 80% of their original pay, and fathers are expected to take two months paternity leave. Within the first few minutes of walking around the city, we saw several individual fathers pushing strollers around with no women in sight. How refreshing! We even saw a group of fathers and their baby strollers. We also noticed many families with four or five little kids. It's basically free to have and raise children here, so why not? Overall, the people seem quite happy and balanced. Everything is so incredibly clean, efficient, and friendly that we would consider moving if not for the harsh winters. Well, it's midnight here and still light outside, but we're going to try to get some sleep.