Thursday, 30 January 2014

Arriving in Longyearbyen and the start of an Arctic cruise


'Take the polar bear danger seriously!'

As we passed through arrivals at Longyearbyen airport, it was clear that although we might still be in Norway, Svalbard is a unique part of Europe. With more polar bears moving through the archipelago each year than the permanent population of people, and some wandering right through the town, they are a genuine threat who have made human kills and whilst are heavily protected, are also taken very seriously as powerful predators. A stark contrast to the many tourists (including ourselves) whose main aim is to see one of these mighty bears...

We'd travelled here to embark on an Arctic cruise that would circumnavigate the archipelago - a booking we'd made months before, and excitedly saved hard for. But before making a boat our home for eleven days, we had a short amount of time to explore Longyearbyen, gateway to this part of the Arctic.


The history of Svalbard, and its main island, Spitsbergen, is utterly fascinating. With a strong tradition of exploration, hunting and coal mining, settlements were build then abandoned over the years, with Longyearbyen standing as the remaining administrative and tourism centre. It is a stark, bleak town, debris littering the coastline and the buildings ascetically unappealing but practical. The local museum is an engaging space packed with information and interactive exhibits, but there's not much to fill the days with in the town itself. The surrounding landscape, however, is dramatic and ideal for hikes, although only with an armed guide, and we spent a day on a fossil hunting trip, hiking up to the moraine right at the base of the Longyearbyen glacier and seeking out imprints of plants in the soft, crumbly rock.

Our departure time crept closer however, until at last we boarded our ship and set off, ready to see what the Arctic would choose to reveal to us.


 

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Norway: Do's and Don'ts!

 

Travelling through Norway really is a feast for the senses, and I'm so pleased we finally had the chance to see for ourselves the places we'd heard and read about. The fjords are every bit as spectacular as always described, but so are the mountains, waterfalls and towns. Oslo is the perfect hub, although of all the towns and cities we visited, it was Tromso that left a lasting impression. For all its beauty though, deciding whether to travel through this Scandinavian country is not an easy choice - it is by far the most expensive country I've ever visited. I would wholeheartedly recommend a trip there, but only if you are confident that it fits with your budget. Here's my usual tips and advice if you do take the plunge (and if you can, you should!).

Do's

- Plan a considerable budget. It really can't be stressed enough: Norway is very expensive, even if you seek the cheapest options. The difficulty is finding a balance - in a country such as this, with so many incredible places just waiting to be discovered, you don't want to fix your plans too firmly, or risk missing out on gems not included in the guidebooks. However, a loose itinerary such as ours prevented us securing accommodation in advance, and we paid a premium as a result. Even the rooms we could book beforehand though, such as our hostel in Oslo, cost more than other European cities.


- Think carefully about how to get around. Norway has an extensive train network, running between major cities across the country, and a reliable bus network. If travelling on a strict budget, this is also possibly the cheapest option. We considered all the options, but eventually chose to hire a car. The petrol costs over long distances knocked the price higher, but gave us the freedom and flexibility to go wherever we wanted, whenever we wanted. See our ten day route here.




- Get off the beaten path once in a while. Now, I am definitely not one to criticise the guidebooks, or suggest throwing them away. I love my Lonely Planet guides, and find them invaluable when thinking about options during our travels. However, there is literally something to see everywhere in Norway. The guidebooks highlight the top features, all certainly worth a visit. But we also found some incredible places by following a small road sign, or taking a wrong turn. Not all waterfalls, lakes and towns can make it into one book, but we loved finding somewhere new, especially when we were the only people there. Leave some time for a little independent exploration.


Don'ts

- Get excited about the food. I love eating, and F and I enjoy trying new food when we travel. However, the cuisine was our one let-down in Norway. We were hoping for fish and light, fresh meals. And in some places, we found them (albeit at a steep cost). But in some of the towns we stayed in (Hellesylt in particular), the only food options were either fast food joints or pizza restaurants. Hot dogs, burgers and pizza were everywhere, but after a few days we were craving something fresh. If we were repeating the trip, I'd probably try to book some accommodation with a communal kitchen, so we could shop in the local supermarkets and cook for ourselves.

- Forget your walking boots! Hiking in Norway is simply amazing, and although some walks can be challenging, the views are absolutely worth the effort and the hikes themselves spectacular.


 Missed any posts about Norway? Find them all here:

Vikings, rafts and expensive pizza: A few days in Oslo
A journey through Norway's incredible fjords
Travelling through Norway by car
A few days in Tromso
The natural beauty of Norway: A photo-blog

 

Saturday, 25 January 2014

The natural beauty of Norway: A photo-blog

Norway's natural wonders are certainly value for money - you can't drive around a corner or dip down into a valley without being confronted with stunning scenes. Water dominates the landscape, whether in the form of fjords whose deep colours seem almost unreal, lakes surrounded by vivid green hills, or caps of snow sitting atop high mountain ranges. I took hundreds of photos as we made our way through the country - here's just a tiny selection.

Waiting for a ferry at Oslo's harbour

One of many stops whilst driving to admire the view 

Crossing small fjords in Norway's south-west

The breathtaking view from Pulpit Rock

Huge, crashing waterfalls feed the many rivers flowing through the country

Emerald waters cut through the high, tree-covered cliffs

Our first view of Geirangerfjord peeking through the tall trees

Lakes sit nestled between high mountains and hills

Looking down over Tromso from above
 

Thursday, 23 January 2014

A few days in Tromso

 

After almost two weeks of non-stop driving and exploring, we flew into Tromso excited about the prospect of a few days of relaxing. I didn't know a lot about the city before arriving, but was soon pleased we'd given ourselves some time there.


The city itself is small and easily walkable, combining a stunning natural setting with a distinctly urban feel. Although situated within the Arctic Circle, the summer sun was bright and warm, although we struggled to adapt to the almost twenty-four hour daylight. A graceful arched bridge led over over the Arctic cathedral, its incredible stained glass window projecting a rainbow of colours across one side.


We took the cable car up to the top of Mt Storsteinen, admiring the view before choosing a hiking route following the curving water below and enjoying a few hours' fresh air.


During one of our days in the city, we walked out to the botanical gardens - a long trudge, but worth the trip - a huge collection of arctic and cold climate flora littered the compact, well-maintained gardens, and the attached cafe did fantastic fresh waffles and juice.


The highlight of our time, however, was the polar museum. Incredibly informative without becoming overwhelming, it had an excellent collection of artefacts from various polar expeditions, including a range of sadly stuffed arctic animals. Outside the hut the museum is housed in, we watched the water lap the pier, pointing out numerous large pale purple jellyfish gently moving through the underwater plants.

But after just three short days, it was time to catch another flight, leaving the sun and blue skies behind as we flew north once again, to Svalbard.

 

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

A stone ship setting in Sweden

 

 Arriving back in Oslo, we had one final day with our little car before returning it to the hire company. We'd deliberately given ourselves this extra bit of time, intending to put it to good use for one final adventure - a visit that I had actually planned before we even left home, and something I'd been very excited about since spotting it in one of our guidebooks.


One of the things I love the most about Europe is the freedom to move between countries, and we took advantage of this, driving across the border into Sweden and towards the city of Stromstad. We stopped off in the city itself for lunch and a stroll through its lovely castle, but our main purpose was slightly outside - a nearby stone ship setting. I'd read about these enigmatic sites in the past and was thrilled that we were close enough to pay one a visit.

A stone ship setting is completely self-describing - a series of large standing stones arranged in a familiar boat shape. The size and height of each stone corresponds to its place within a traditional ship curve, and this particular site is over 1500 years old. Situated in a field of wildflowers, we were able to walk freely within the 'ship', an atmospheric experience, especially when considering that it's purpose was likely not as a grave, but perhaps as a ritual site. Walking further across the field, we discovered that the ship was not the only feature - there were also a number of iron age burials and standing stone circles tucked amongst a small wood of pine trees.


The ship setting and nearby iron age burials seemed not to be visited very often, which is a real shame, but benefited us - we wandered alone around the stones, smelling the wildflowers before visiting a nearby cafe for a warm waffle and jam and eventually making our way back to Oslo.

 

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Travelling through Norway by car

 

Hiring or bringing a car to travel through Norway is an easy and reasonably affordable option that allows for great flexibility. We spent ten days working our way around the southern and central part of the country, and although I am sorry that we missed out on some of the famous rail journeys offered, we were more than satisfied with our choice. We could stop whenever we wanted (and with breathtaking views around every corner, we stopped often), discovered tiny towns and unexpected routes and moved at our own pace. Even the roads themselves were interesting - the sheer number of tunnels is amazing, some including their own roundabouts and stunning light installations.


The roads were always in great condition and the driving rules similar to those of other European countries, although the speed limits are very conservative, and once we'd set off on our first day, realised that we would have to allow a considerable amount more time to traverse longer distances.

Here's a rough map of our trip - we covered almost 2000 miles in around ten days, with plenty of time to stop off frequently and visit multiple natural wonders, museums and towns along the way.



View Larger Map

We arrived in Norway without a fixed plan - we knew we were beginning and ending in Oslo, and that we wanted to hike Preikestolen (point 'C' on the map), but apart from that we took each day as it came, determining our daily distance based on how we were feeling and what appealed to us. This flexibility helped us to discover places we probably wouldn't have included if we'd have fixed our itinerary before starting out, and also allowed us to base our routes on weather conditions (for example, we tackled a snowy, exposed mountain pass in our little car on a clear, fine day - if it had been very windy or raining heavily we probably would have chosen an alternate road).


However, flexibility and lack of advance planning does come at a price - booking accommodation at short notice during the summer meant that rooms were very expensive and we were more limited in terms of options. We saved in other ways - buying lunch at petrol stations instead of restaurants was one way to keep costs low, and as the many natural wonders we visited were free, our 'entertainment' budget was mostly limited to the odd car park or ferry ride. Norway is not a cheap country, however, and booking our accommodation in advance would have saved a considerable amount. It's worth weighing up priorities and making an informed decision.


For us, the freedom that came with jumping in the car and following interesting signposts, recommendations from hotel staff and just driving around was worth the cost, and we arrived back in Oslo overwhelmed and amazed by all we'd seen.


 

Thursday, 16 January 2014

A journey through Norway's incredible fjords

 

After leaving Oslo bright and early, we drove a long, long way, down to the very south of the country before continuing slightly up the western coast until we reached a town called Sandnes (not far from Stavanger). Our base for a night, Sandnes was the perfect jumping off point for a trip the following day to our first fjord: Lysefjord.


As well as being a breathtaking introduction to Norway's fjords in its own right, we had another purpose for including this 42km-long stretch of water in our itinerary - a hike up to Preikestolen, known as 'Pulpit Rock'. It's one of the famous scenes included in all the guidebooks; a lofty granite formation jutting out over the glistening water, usually including visitors dangling their legs over the edge. Standing over six hundred metres high, it was a view point we didn't want to miss.


The hike itself was quite challenging - the first twenty minutes are particularly daunting, with an extremely steep section to get the blood pumping, but then evened out for a while as we balanced atop boulders to cross wet sections and made our way gently up. A second very steep section in the middle had us panting once more as we climbed huge, seemingly never-ending, steps without much shade, but eventually made it to the final section, crossing large slabs of granite and past small ponds along the tops of cliffs until, at last, Preikestolen finally came into view.


The rock itself is every bit as spectacular as it appears in pictures, and over the course of an hour we crept ever closer to the ledge until we perched at the very edge, watching boats glide through the vivid turquoise waters below. The day was hot, light glinting down the length of the fjord as we alternated between gazing down the steep drop and watching the acrobatics of various other visitors as they began to arrive. We'd set off as soon as the trail had opened, reaching the top a couple of hours later, and I was so pleased we'd dragged ourselves out of the bed early as the temperatures soared. The trail had been practically empty on our ascent, but as we returned back along the path to the bottom, huge numbers of people were heading up, stripping down and panting in the heat.


After jumping back in the car, we continued on, our pace slow as we stopped for one breathtaking view after another. Travelling north, we eventually reached our next fjord, spending a couple of nights in a lovely guesthouse just outside of Eidfjord. As well as the fjord itself, we visited a couple of huge, crashing waterfalls nearby by foot; gentle hikes that helped stretch our legs after hours in the car.


Heading ever north, we followed the path of Innvikfjorden before finally arriving at Hellesylt, a small town situated at one end of the small but perfect Geirangerfjord, where we spent four active days exploring the local area. Each fjord we had passed during our travels was distinct and unique, and Geiranger was no exception. Here the waters were a deep green and continuously fed by multiple waterfalls cascading down the surrounding rocks. We spent our days taking the ferry along the twenty kilometre length of the fjord to the town of Geiranger and back, rented a two-person kayak from a local business and explored the fjord for hours at our own, leisurely pace (and getting completely drenched as the skies opened moments after launching ourselves into the water), and driving out to visit a local picnic spot by a nearby lake. Although the weather was quick to change and very temperamental, we thoroughly enjoyed our days there.


After leaving Hellesylt, it was back on the road towards Lom, a picturesque town with a couple of worthy museums, then down, down, down over a couple of days back to Oslo. It was a huge journey in terms of miles, but the wonderful thing about travelling through Norway is that even the drives are spectacular - as well as winding our way around fjords ringed with traditional red houses, we drove high over a snowy mountain pass, along lush green valleys and through incredibly long tunnels with colourful light installations designed to keep drivers awake. Every day was completely different and there was so much we just didn't have time to stop off and see.

In the next post, I'll be plotting our journey in map form, along with some tips for travelling through Norway by car.

 

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Vikings, rafts and expensive pizza: A few days in Oslo

 

Norway had long been on my radar as a potential travel destination. I'd linger over pictures of sweeping fjords, colourful waterside houses and scenic drives. And then quickly divert my eyes once I'd reminded myself of the cost of taking a trip through this part of Scandinavia. But over time it seemed that more and more people I knew were taking a holiday there, each bringing back stories of the beauty and friendly nature of the country.

Once we'd finally taken the plunge (figuratively and literally, it would turn out, but more on that to come) and booked ourselves on an Arctic cruise, flying into Svalbard from Tromso, it was a smaller step to blowing the budget completely and adding on a couple of weeks of exploring Norway beforehand. Flights from the UK were incredibly cheap, and by hiring a car we could fit in a lot before our final flight into the frozen north.


Our first stop was Oslo, with a few days to discover the capital before collecting our car. A relaxed, vibrant city, there was plenty to fill our time with.

We started by heading down to the harbour and hopping on a ferry across to the Bygdoy Peninsula, home to both Oslo's wealthier residents during the summer months and a few excellent museums. We'd made the trip especially to see the Viking ship museum - a fantastically simple building boasting three oak vessels. One is particularly well preserved, with incredible serpent carvings dancing along the stern, and for an archaeology buff like myself, it's a must-see.


Tearing myself away from the huge longship, we moved towards our next destination - the Kon-Tiki museum. Whereas I was entranced by the elaborate beauty of the sleek lines and carvings of the Viking ships, F (as a big fan of the man) had long wished to visit the reed boat that supported Thor Heyerdahl on his journey across the Atlantic. The museum itself is superb - interactive and atmospheric, the raft is lit in an array of dim colours and an transparent glass 'ocean' supports it, with a huge model whale shark beneath and soft waves projected onto the walls.


After a very satisfying morning, we hopped back into the ferry and across to the city centre, where we wandered the streets and took a look at the cathedral, before seeking out some lunch. We quickly realised that it was going to be tougher than we'd thought to stick to our (we had thought) relatively generous budget. I knew Norway was expensive, but the food prices were simply staggering. We eventually followed advice to a chain pizza restaurant, where we could stuff ourselves full of all-you-can-eat slices, but even the price of this was hard to stomach.


We spent the following day exploring the city, stopping off for hours at Akershus castle, a huge fortress with lots of discover and some lovely views over the city. After hours of walking, it was nice to find a bench high up near the castle walls and watch boats come in and out of the harbour.

The following morning we picked up our little car and began one of many long drives to see some of the natural wonders Norway is so famous for.

 

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Switzerland: Do's and Don'ts!

 

Switzerland definitely ranks highly in my list of favourite European countries. For an outdoor extravaganza it's second to none, but there is also enough history and culture to keep anyone amused. I could return time and time again, and still find something new and exciting. Here's my tips for travelling to this beautiful country.


Do's

- Spend at least a day of your trip hiking. The beauty of Switzerland is that there are such a variety of hiking paths that you can choose the best one (or more) for you - there are gently sloping walks through forests and valleys, more challenging hikes higher into the mountains and tough ascents over glacier passes. Lace up the walking boots!

- Enjoy the national dish of pungent cheese fondue. There's little more satisfying than smothering thick squares of bread in slowly congealing molten cheese, particularly after burning off calories on a good walk...


- Consider using the excellent train system to get around. It's reliable, not too expensive, and the views are breathtaking.

- Think strongly about camping if travelling during the summer months. Switzerland is quite pricey compared to its neighbours, with higher accommodation and food costs during peak season. Sleeping under the stars is a much more affordable option, with the added bonus of waking up in picture-perfect locations each morning. Similarly, grabbing a sandwich or making your own lunches from supermarket supplies reduces spending on food, allowing you to indulge in an extra fondue pot or two...


Don'ts

- Forget to check the core language for the area you are visiting. The area around Bern is German-based, and a few words here and there are appreciated by the locals, although English is generally spoken well in areas that receive a number of tourists regularly.


- Underestimate how varied the weather and temperature can be. The clear days are a blessing during the day, the added altitude intensifying the sun and having you sweating on even a short stroll. One or two days during our trip reached thirty degrees Celsius and had us stripping down to shorts and t-shirts. By dusk, however, those cloudless skies have become crisp, very cold nights. Rain showers are not uncommon, although tend to arrive in the early mornings or late evenings. It's essential to pack for all eventualities.

- Try to squeeze too much in. We spent over a week just in the area around Kandersteg, and there were still activities we hadn't managed to do. Despite this being my second trip to the region, I could still identify hikes I'd like to tackle in the future and little towns I haven't yet got around to visiting.