Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
Saturday, July 17, 2010
Wednesday 14th July 2010
At nine fifty am I was again at the Bergen railway station, this time with bag in tow. A quick visit to the deli and I had some yoghurt for breakfast and some food for later on the train. I was able to eat the yoghurt as I sat waiting for the train doors to be opened.
For this trip I was facing the direction of travel, but in one of the group of four seats at the end of the carriage. Quite soon an Asian family came and took up the remaining three seats, although it was obvious that one of their seats was across the aisle. Just before we departed the passenger booked next to me turned up and the man had to shift. No the lady would not swop seats as she did not like travelling with her back to the front. So this was our seating until Myrdal when the family headed off to do the Flam railway trip. For a few stations the facing seats were empty.
The route out from Bergen quite quickly runs into a tunnel or two or three and we leave the city behind. I must say that the Norwegians are a nation of bridge and tunnel builders. There are certainly many examples of them both – and I have been through a lot of them.
This trip I was sitting on the opposite side to arriving and yesterday's travel to Myrdal. So I was getting a different view of the countryside.
For the first forty five or so minutes after leaving Bergen we wound our way along fjord coastlines. Into a tunnel and out into a different bay or cove. There were a number of small towns some of which we stopped briefly at. There were also some much smaller groups of housing. Occasionally we past a factory or some type of industry but over all there did not seem to be much of this along the whole trip to Oslo.
We left the fjord and travelled along a pretty river valley for a while. Not a very wide valley and the mountain sides did tower up, especially as the valley narrowed. This quickly became yet another 'tunnel countryside'.
Not much in the way of farming as we recognize it although I am aware that there could have been some inside barns.
Soon we were back into the high alpine landscape. On this side of the train I began to see different water falls to what I had seen from the other side. Some of these were really magnificent with wide tumbling white water courses. Certainly Norway has some spectacular water falls.
We emerged from the Myrdal tunnel to see the tail end of the Flam train heading off. But then there was not meant to be a connection with that one. Standing at the station was a Bergen bound train waiting to move onto the single track we were vacating. Actually most of the line to Oslo was single track with passing loops, mostly located at a station.
Unlike the mist of yesterday, Myrdal was basking in brilliant sunshine and I got a quick glancing view down the valley before we moved into a tunnel. For the next 30 minutes or so we travelled through more alpine landscape. This had numerous cabins spread across the rocky out crops. Vegetation was largely tundra type. Moss, brown sledges and grass with just a few stunted scrub like small trees. There were small ponds and lakes. Interestingly, there were several formed cycle tracks with individuals and small groups of cyclists riding along. Most were on mountain bike but one man I saw was riding a small wheeled cycle which I thought was a folding commuters bike.
At one station my fellow passenger got off and I was just thinking it would be nice to have all the space, when three old ladies arrived. One very old and the other two could have been her old daughters. They fussed around quite a bit getting settled and they stayed on for the next few hours, right into Oslo.
Besides mountains, Norway is trees – large forests rolling across the landscape. I could watch the height of the trees vary with altitude. Also on the lower areas the tree species mix seemed to be greater. I spotted some great views of lakes in tree filled valleys but it was not easy to get a photo without a tree or two or three flashing past and creating a green blur just where the view was meant to be.
I looked down on the white water of a river in the gorge below and watched traffic wiz along the parallel roadway on the other bank.
We travelled through some wide flatter areas with large farms. Some times plastic tunnels over rows of vegetables. I was interested to spot that beside the tunnel, the plants also had a covering of clear plastic sheeting lying over them.
But the farm area didn't last long and soon we were back amongst the trees on a hillside.
And that is pretty much the overall story of the trip. Waterfalls, alpine, forests, lakes, farms, small towns. I did see a few cows all lying down in the grass and some sheep – less than a dozen – on some poor hill side grass. There were ploughed fields, evidence of hay and silage gathering and fields with grain crops growing in them.
Soon after 5 pm the express pulled into the Oslo Central station. I got some tram tickets from the information centre and checked which direction a north travelling tram would be heading in. Then off I went on tram 12 for a couple of stops.
Across the road from the stop was the sign Anker Hostel so in I went only to find that I should be at the Anker Hotel 50 metres further along the road. This was a 13 floor hotel which turns out to be in the Best Western chain. I had not picked that up when booking through Hostelworld. The desk clerk told me that the hotel was booked out and that was not uncommon because of its low price. It may be low priced but it is the most expensive stay per night for the whole trip.
I have a nice room on the fifth floor with ensuite. It is a comfortable sized room over all. It will do for the next four nights.
Friday, July 16, 2010
Tuesday 13th July 2010
The Flam Railway is pushed as a major Norwegian tourist attraction. Any tour programme seems to include it in the itinerary. It is incorporated in the Norway In A Nutshell tour programme.
So what makes it special? Well really it is the steepness of the track as it goes down hill from over 800 metres to sea level. In the 20 kilometres there are plenty of tunnels and bridges to travel though and over. The main attractions are that it links into the Oslo to Bergen train route and you have the opportunity to sail on the world's longest fjord.
So it has the potential to be pretty impressive but does it meet expectations?
I set out on the 10:25 am train from Bergen to Myrdal in a half empty carriage. The route we followed was the same one I had come into Bergen on but this time the timing was different as was the sunlight. Well sunlight didn't really break through that much as it was a dull grey day with low cloud around the mountain tops.
When we reached Myrdal about three hours later, there was low cloud around everywhere and some even swirled around the station platform. The timing of the downward train to Flam is such that my train just misses one departure and there is about an hour to wait before the next trip down. There didn't seem to be that many waiting but during the hour a couple more train stopped and crowds tumbled out including several tour groups.
Finally the train from Flam came up to our level and pulled into the station. Along the station were painted markers indicating where each carriage door would be. I did not stand near the tour groups and anyhow I had read the notice in the station about there being no reserved or allocated seating just pick one and enjoy the trip.
However, the reality was that carriages had reserved notices on their doors for groups coming up and immediately going back down again. Still I went into one of these carriages as did others. Of course these happy groupies had taken all the good seats and I had to find one that was left. At least it was a window seat. Unfortunately my window was to prove to provide good views of the rock face but not the of the valley which could be seen from the opposite side with all the taken seats.
I was rather annoyed about this as it meant that the tour groupies had had the good view up and down.
We did stop at one spectacular water fall and were able to get out onto a viewing platform. Up on the rocks a couple of dancers ( who may have actually been woman or else just guys in drag) danced to some music piped over a PA system on the rocks. I have no idea what the significance was and it was not explained on the train. If it was then it didn't come across clearly enough in the carriage I was in. As a result it seemed rather pointless although the falls were worth looking at.
Other than that the trip was really a bit of a let down and did not meet the expectations I had for it.
From time to time I did manage to see a view across the carriage but it was through other passengers' heads. I do not think that it was worth the cost.
Yes it is true that we went through tunnels were the trained looped around inside, yes there were bridges and narrow track space against the rock walls. And yes we did see some spectacular water falls and yes again we did follow a river down to the fjord.
But – I had already done all of this coming and returning on the Andalsnes rail trip. And the train had better viewing opportunities. So the reality was that the Flam Railway was not significantly better, more exciting or different to the Andalsnes trip. So my recommendation will be for people to do the Andalsnes trip. There is also a bit more to see in the town at the bottom than in Flam
In Flam there were two cruise boats in port – well one was moored with a lighter service. The main reason for coming was to sail up the fjord and do the rail trip. In fact my impression was that the railway is there to provide an attraction for cruise boat companies. They certainly dominated the service on the day I was there.
Rather than return up the railway as was my original plan because I could return to Bergen on my EuroRail pass, I decided to pay extra and take the express ferry service instead.
The ferry would take over five hours to get back to Bergen but its arrival time was not much later than when I would have got back on the train.
So the ferry service was mostly along the Sognefjord and then out along the coast, travelling between the low lying skerries which dot the coastal waters to Bergen.
Flam is at the head of a small branch fjord, the Aurlandfjord which quite quickly joins into the Sognefjord. This is the world's longest fjord or so I was told, but I have been reading and the suggestion is that it is the longest in Norway and the second longest in the world. It runs for 205 kms and is flanked for most of its distance by tall mountains with their step sides dropping straight down into the sea. They can drop 1000 metres of more.
I read that the fjord reaches a maximum depth of 1,308 m below sea level and that the greatest depths are found some way inland. So I guess that means some mountain cliff faces can be dropping over 2000 metres. Near its mouth, the bottom rises abruptly to about 100 m below sea level. This is still more than enough for any sized cruise ship to entre. The average width of the main branch of the Sognefjord is about 4.5 km.
Some of the mountain tops were cloud or mist covered and with the dull lighting, this gave the fjord quite a degree of mystery. There was quite a blue-grey colour about the landscape as well.
There were tributorary fjords joining up as we traveled along, some having quite wide entrances.
Spaced along the fjord were settlements of various sizes, but mostly small. Some were built on the slightest bits of flat land along the water's edge or where a small valley came down. At some of these places the ferry pulled in and dropped off or collected passengers. Mostly the number was small although at one settlement around 25 to 30 were waiting to board.
There were other ferry boats sailing around but these could all take on vehicles. Our ferry was passengers only.
So it was very interesting watching the cliffs and waterfalls pass by and each settlement had its own character as well. I did wonder what people did who actually lived her. What was the economic basis for being there? Some settlements had a road in and or out, so I assume that there was some road connection with areas away from the fjord.
So the pattern of sailing and calling in continued out into the skerries area. As we got closer to Bergen we past in the distance a big oil refinery based on the North Sea field, In fact at this point there was pretty straight forward sailing out into the North Sea.
Also as we got closer to Berg the population became denser with more housing spread along the coast line. In fact we sailed under three bridges of various sizes before we reached Bergen. Some of the passages we sailed along were quite narrow and the ferry slowed down.
Many of the settlements were very attractive and I sort of envied people living there. I thought that it would be an interesting experience to have the chance to live along the coast, often in tiny coves and perhaps the only home there. There were also some very attractive and large homes sighted, often with great views, especially when they were built higher up the hillside. On the other hand, looking at paintings of old Norway, some of these homes could well be centuries old, unchanged for decades.
Finally we sailed into the Bergen harbour and birthed across the water from the line of wooden houses. It was 8:45 pm. The ferry home was a good decision as there was always a space to take a photo of the view from somewhere on deck. I would happily do the ferry again, but I would be cautious about repeating the rail journey.
Thursday, July 15, 2010
Sunday 11th and Monday 12th July 2010
Each day dawned dull and grey with wet pavements, but sometime during the following hours, the sun came out and gave a fresh image to the coastal city.
Bergen is situated amongst fjords and islands. From the funicular hillside look out, many of these islands can be seen nearby. Ferries trace white lines across the water while here and there is the glimpse of high and low bridges joining islands to the mainland.
From the viewpoint it does indeed look a picturesque place to visit. What about the ground level view?
City Box Hotel is not right downtown, but it is close enough. The main good point is the three blocks or so to the railway station which I used coming and going from Bergen. It is budget priced coupled with good sized clean and comfortable rooms.
I head out with map in hand although having read it a few times I soon get familiar with my surroundings and directions become fairly intuitive.
The first place I located was a large pond or small lake just a block away. This is lille Lungeglard vann and it is part of a inner city park area. In the centre is an impressive fountain which was sending great jets of water skywards each time I saw it. Later I discovered a couple of smaller fountains in small garden ponds.
Dominating one end of the lake was a large stainless steel cube form. Each side had a different pattern of shapes, curves, hollows and protrusions. Each time I passed it the lighting was different and so the sides conveyed different effects. Quite fascinating actually.
At a guess I would put the height at five metres with each side at least that wide. Small children tried to climb it without success. Plenty of people were posing for photos in front of it. Consequently I had to wait a while to get my 'people free' photos.
Nearby was a large box frame standing up on one side. It was filled with earth and had grass growing around the edges and flowers blooming on the main sides. They had been planted to create a floral pattern. On the reverse were more flowers plus a metal rod sticking out and shaped like an umbrella handle.
In a neighboring flower garden was a large white door frame complete with an open door. A path of ground cover plants wound its way toward and through the door. Unusual, but in some ways compelling in its simplicity.
In a pond was a sculpture of of a worried fisherman in a row boat. On the boat's side were the hands of a sea monster trying to climb aboard. No wonder he was worried. Multiple jets of water played out over it from a fountain.
Other jets were playing out over a sculpture of a small nude boy standing in the middle of a pond. His face showed complete annoyance – even anger. I guess he didn't like the water splashing onto him.
Somewhere, near by a group were endlessly practicing their sneer drum beats. It was not actually unpleasant just loud and repetitive.
Carrying on, I arrived at the Torget, which is a waterside esplanade and runs along one of the harbourside areas. This is the tourist centre of the city. It is where the tourists from the cruise boats and the Hurtigruten naturally end up in. Unless they have joined one of the many bus tours from shipside. Close to the Torget are ferryboat births.
I was interested to find a variety of pleasure craft also moored around this section of the harbour. These included some large motor cruisers and large yachts all of which belonged to the wealthy or more likely the super rich. Most had registrations from Caribbean ports such as Georgetown and Kingston. However one very large yacht was registered in Douglas, which I took to be the Isla of Man.
Each boat was spotlessly clean with shoes left at the gangplank.
Part of the Torget was a wide mall with shops on either side, a fountain and statue in the middle and various buskers at work. One group was an accordion band, another a brass group from St Petersburg and then a solo country and western singer – who seemed to be popular with the passers by. He was doing a range of country standards, the others were playing short classical tunes. Short I suspect because it gave folk a quicker chance to feel they should donate.
Across the road from the harbour, there was a group of stalls selling all the usual t shirts and trinkets associated with tourist spots. Only the name had changed. All fairly tacky I thought.
Next to the harbour was the famous Bergen Fish Market. Now I must confess that I had assumed it would be a fish trading and auction market. In fact it was strait retail and straight grab the tourist kroner – or even tourist euro. Incidentally I noticed that the conversion rate for the euro varied from stall to stall. From 10 euro to 100 NOK right up to a conversion of 14 euro for 100 NOK. Someone was making money. Checking on line showed that 100 NOK = 12.50 NOK.
It was not even a bit like the Seattle Pikes Point Fish Market. No – this was largely stalls selling bread rolls of various sorts filled with shrimps or crab meat. There were paper plates of the same plus salmon with salad. They also sold king crab legs at a price (180 NOK a plate of a couple legs). All the legs had had the claws removed and these were sold separately.
It was possible to buy crab, crayfish and fillets of chilled fish from some stalls. There was also fresh and smoked whale. I tried the tiniest sample of smoked whale and thought that it tasted a bit like smoked salmon. The slabs of fresh whale meat looked quite dark, like a mature slab of beef.
Along from the fish stands were stalls selling fresh fruit with an emphasis on strawberries and cherries. I bought a punet of strawberries at 40 NOK which would be around $NZ9. They were also on sale in clear plastic tumblers at 25 NOK. The tumbler full of cherries were 40 NOK. I worked out that there were about 10 cherries in the container so at 4 NOK each, that would be just under $NZ1 per cherry.
Along further was a stall selling furs and they had full pelts hanging up at the front. I thought that the pelts had lovely colouring. One lot were coyote pelts. Inside the stall tent there were fur hats and scarves.
Along one side of the harbour are the famous wooden houses of Bergen. They seem to feature on any post card or calendar of Norway and Bergen. I really think that it was these buildings which brought me to visit the city. I wanted to see them for myself. I was not disappointed. They were what I expected. But what I had not expected was to find taxi stands in front of them and cafe seating and tables. That made if difficult to get the sort of photo I had imagined that I could take. How to get the buildings without the rest. Well one way was to shoot sideways along the street and compress them with a telephoto setting. But the next day I did get something more as I had expected by shooting across from the other side of the harbour.
I have been told that the original wooden houses had burnt down at least once in their history but had been rebuilt as they originally were. Certainly there was a really disastrous town wide fire at one stage and little escaped the flames that time round.
Beside the wooden houses are a series of brick versions of the same design. There are two groups with one group larger and more ornate that the other.
These buildings all give evidence to the trading history of Bergen. Centuries ago several north German coastal towns became major trading cities, united as the Hansa League. Because other European nations controlled trade into the Atlantic and beyond, these cities traded into the Baltic.
Although not in the Baltic, Bergen became a key Hansa trading centre as well. So the distinctive buildings in wood or brick are the merchant traders' homes. Today they all have shops on the ground floor and at least one has an upstairs museum. The shops are all aimed at tourists. That is of course what you would expect as the walkers from the cruise ships pass by here.
Carrying along the foreshore road I came to what looked like a castle. I guess that is what most cities would call it. However, here it was listed as two separate tourist attractions. First the Rosenkrantz Tower and secondly the King Hakon's Hall. There is also a cafe. Each museum and attractions seems to need a cafe. I didn't go into either but did walk around the grounds between the buildings. Being on a hill I got a good view of another cruise liner birthing. Behind the castle is a small park where crew were clearing up and dismantling a stage from the previous night's concert. So yet another town with a stage going up or down.
I enjoyed walking around many of the narrow side streets. Some had shops others just houses. On one corner I called into a Christian bookshop, although I was in before I realized that that was what it was. I did buy a CD or Gregg's music being played on his original piano. Gregg's home is close to Bergen and is now a museum. Of course you would expect that wouldn't you. The home of anyone with any claim to fame seems to be turned into a museum. It is an universal phenomena.
Just up that street I found a useable cafe called Cafe Magdalene and I noticed that it was run by the local Lutheran Church. If I had needed a meal than it would have made a useful venue.
Late one afternoon I found myself at the entrance to the funicular which is a popular attraction. I had sort of wondered about going up it but now I was actually here I thought that it would be a good way to fill in some time.
But first I just had to stop and observe a film crew packing up lights and gels and dolly tracks. I noticed a couple of men standing looking at what I correctly identified as the script. From the way locals were thanking photos of one of the men and getting his autograph it was obvious that here was a 'name'. So I took a few photos of the conversation and autograph signing. Then once they finished when up and introduced myself and asked for their names to go with the photo caption.
I was talking to Stockholm based director Stephan Apelgren, while the actor was a local favourite, Trond Espen Seim. They were filming the next in a long line of contemporary thrillers set in Bergen around a character called Varga-Veum (=wolf). I think this is number 7 in the series and are they very popular in Scandinavia. So I had a good chat and will do a paragraph or two for the next issue of SCRIPT.
Then it was a ride up the funicular and it was a good ride. Once we had come out of tunnels and got our first good view down onto Bergen the passengers all seemed to gasp and exclaim in unison. At the top there was a surprisingly large crowd standing and sitting just enjoying the view. Certainly it was a good day and you could see for many kilometres. I was pleased that I had made the trip up the hill. So to celebrate I bough an ice cream. This is only the second one I have bought during my travels, although I was given one in Trondheim but that was not very nice. This one was a trumpet type and I enjoyed it.
I have visited a local Vietnamese cafe across the road from the hotel for two evening meals. I enjoyed both and appreciated the fresh cooked vegetables. I think going there was a good choice especially as there is no kitchen facility at the hotel and only a microwave but no utensils other than cardboard coffee mugs. Like many I have encountered on the trip these carried the brand of hautamaki which I am sure is a New Zealand company owned by one of Brian Tamaki's brothers. But of course I could be wrong.