Four Days in Norway

The overnight passage from Rotterdam to Flam, our first Norwegian stop was very rough, causing us to take precautions against seasickness. Many people were unwell, but we managed! There was plenty to do on the ship.

Our first stop in Norway was in Flam – a tiny little village located on a fjord. Clearly built to service the growing tourist trade, Flam provides a road and rail link to Bergen, a large city. We travelled on the railway which revealed some great views of the mountains and waterfalls. We had afternoon tea in a small hotel in the mountains before returning for some souvenir shopping and returning to the ship.

Day Two of our Norway visit was to Ulvik. Another small village. Our ship anchored in the fjord and we boarded tenders for our trip to shore where I went on a coach and ferry tour to a small village at Hardanger which had a folk museum. There was an open air museum of huts representing the way folk used to live in this region, and then had coffee and cake at a small hotel. The weather was fine and not too chilly, so it was quite lovely. The scenery was spectacular – which seems to be the only word I can apply to the Norwegian landscape.

Day Three saw us in Stavenger, a larger city servicing the oil industry. The weather was a little rainy and cool, which impacted a little on our movements. But our guide was very good. We visited an archaeological museum which I found fascinating, and the oil museum which I found quite boring. But is was a very well put together museum. We then walked with our guide through some of the old town with its beautiful houses and cobbled streets. I have some great photos.

Our last day was spent in the town of Kristiaansand with a boat tour of the beautiful harbour and islands, and a coach trip to the small town of Lillesand. The weather was warm and sunny!

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Rotterdam to Norway

We didn’t get to see much of Rotterdam! It was very rainy, cold and blowing a gale! Many of the attractions were closed due to the weather, though the museum was open. The weather however was against us. We did learn how to catch the Metro and work out our travel to Bruges after the cruise finishes.

The ship sailed from Rotterdam in the rain and wind, the beginning of another seven-night cruise, to Norway. The North Sea produced a windy, cold and rough, grey and sombre atmosphere for a night at sea. Apparently many people were quite ill, but we, as seasoned travellers now, just continued drinking champagne until it was time for bed!

The ship picked up another complement of tourists in Rotterdam, most of whom seem to be Dutch, in comparison with the previous cruise which was about half and half Dutch and American, with some Canadians and Australians into the mix. There are a lot of families on board, meaning, lots of children and especially teenagers. Too many, according to one of the ship’s officers who offered to buy us a drink last night! (That is another story – I said, ‘Sorry, I’m not having any more drinks tonight’, which did not please Chris, when the officer left after my refusal! Foot in mouth!

The planned entertainment for this cruise is pretty much the same as the last, so we may not partake. Our shore excursions to the fjords will be the highlights for us, and sampling Norwegian culture, past and present.

Tonight is gala night, where everyone gets dressed up and goes for dinner. Photos are taken and it is supposed to be a special occasion. I had my hair cut and styled today, so I look the part!

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Impressions of cruising

I’m finding cruising a satisfying way to travel. Days in port provide the opportunity for organised shore excursions which have a local guide and include the highlights of a place tailored to particular interests (landscape, museums and galleries, shopping etc) and different activity or mobility levels. We chose shore excursions as we were not certain whether we would be able to manage to get enough out of a shore visit if we were relying on our own ability to get around. They have been very good, and the quality of the experience certainly depends on the capacity of the guide. Next time I think we would be more equipped to go for more independent excursions. Clearly, forward planning would assist as well.

Sea days give one a chance to recover and enjoy some time for writing, reading, resting and socialising. We have met some very nice people, mostly Dutch and American on this cruise, but certainly some Australians! They have been good fun.

The meals have been generally of good quality with much variety and very fresh and well prepared. Staff members are great too, making an effort to remember guests names and certainly very accommodating to requests. Very polite as well, and happy to have a chat.

There is also a range of entertainment available that means there is always something to do. This cruise is more geared to older people, though there are a number of young people as well.

The spa services, gym, IT and seminar program has also been quite good, and the range of books in the library provides for some good reading opportunities. There is even an acupuncturist to deal with all the aches and pains that crop up.

The sleeping accommodation that we have chosen is certainly smaller than a hotel room, but we don’t spend much time in it, so it is not a concern. There are so many spaces to sit and read, walk, exercise and be entertained that one does not need to do anything but shower and sleep. The water is hot and the beds comfortable.

A real advantage of course is being in a different place every day (mostly) while not having to pack and unpack. The disadvantage to this, say over car or coach travel is not seeing as much of the countryside. Another advantage over coach tours is the variety of people. With so many on board, it means one can have meals with different people, and meet different people in the cafes and bars on board, whereas on a coach tour, one is stuck with the same group for the duration.

But it is certainly a very comfortable way of travelling!

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Aarhus, Silkeborg and the Highland Lakes in Denmark

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This was another interesting city – a mix of modern and ancient. Located on a busy container port, the city area was clean and bright. A major university town of Denmark, it is a popular place for young people to live. Our tour took us beyond the town into the hilly areas that feature lakes and wooded hills, walking tracks and picnic spots. Silkeborg is a small town, on a waterway where children on school holidays were kayaking. Our main object though was the museum which houses the Tolland Man – an iron age exhibit of a man, well-preserved, found in a peat bog in 1952. It’s a very small museum, but was very interesting to see installations of the way people lived in that area over 3000 years ago. On the coach ride back to Aarhus we passed through a small village with an extraordinary cemetery – all the graves were individual gardens, separated by hedges and it was meticulously maintained by the local community.

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Stockholm

My tour of Stockholm was confined to the Royal Palace, the Old Town, the City Hall (the Rathaus) and the Vasa Museum. All points of interest were worth the time! The Old Town is medieval and very interesting with its winding, narrow streets, today lined with small shops and restaurants. The Royal Palace was an insight into the cities past as well as its present, as it is ‘a working palace’ where the royal family still live and receive diplomats and guests. The state rooms are sometimes closed to tourists for state functions but there is a part of the palace that is closed for the family use only.

I sat and enjoyed a glass of Australian shiraz and a meal in the Old Town, watching the crowds and imagining the space as a bustling medieval market.

The Vasa Museum was a real highlight. This ship, built by a monarch in the 17th century intent on showing his power and invading Russia, was the pride of the Swedish navy. On her maiden voyage she capsized and sank in 1623 only 1000 metres from the shore, losing some men. The ship was top-heavy loaded with canons on two gun-decks. The ship was salvaged in 1961 and has been meticulously preserved and the museum complex built around it. It is a stunning exhibition as many artefacts were recovered including the personal effects of may of the crew, many of whom survived the original disaster. It is an authentic piece of living history.

The City Hall is also worth the visit. A magnificent red brick building it is the site of the Nobel Prize banquet for those nominated and it has two magnificent halls, the most spectacular Golden Hall which artistically, in gold and coloured mosaics made in Italy, show Sweden’s history up to the 1920s when the building was completed.

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More on Helsinki

This was a very quaint city. Like most of the European cities visited on this tour, it was clean and tree-lined, with much green space in the town centre and surrounds. Our guide was a retired principal of a school and her English was quite good but with some interesting ‘turn of phrase’ at times that made us giggle a bit.

Our tour consisted of a walk through the Sunday morning markets to buy some souvenirs – specialising in wood polished products, linen that I hope was locally made, woollen products and food. It was by the docks so presented a lovely picture in the bright sunshine, with glistening water, a multitude of seagulls and many languages as people strolled about.

After this, a short cruise among the islands and canals, which revealed some quaint summer houses and spectacular homes! Many bridges allow access from one small island to the next and boats busily criss-cross the waterways. Also, like most of the cities on this tour, bicycles are everywhere around the town.

A highlight is the Sibelius memorial sculpture on a high point of the town. This sculpture, set in a lovely, lush park is an interesting structure of stainless steel pipes which if you put your ear to one will sound as a result of the wind. It was very impressive, but like most tourist spots, very crowded.

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Sunday in Helsinki

This small city greeted us with sunshine on this Sunday morning. Like many places there were Sunday markets to enjoy, with silver jewellery, wood work, wool crafts and many other locally made goods. The smell of local street food contributed to the hospitality of the morning as the coach dropped us off for a 30 minute stroll – not long enough!

We enjoyed a sightseeing cruise around the islands close to the harbour, taking in the beauty of the small, forested islands and rocky outcrops, and the modern homes that lined the shore. The coach tour of the city took us to the main square where there was an international archery event, to the Sibelius monument and other sites around what is a fairly small city: but, certainly an interesting one, with a proud history.

As we travel we find more Australians on the ship, and everyone seems to be enjoying the shore trips and the days at sea. There are few complaints! Internet is very expensive and slow!

The tour was only four hours so there was ‘ship time’ before we sail to our next port – Stockholm, where we will spend two days.

These cities of northern Europe share much in common but also have many things that distinguish them. The Second World War is, understandably, a dominating discourse that has affected the way of life and the psyche of the people. The experience of the former Soviet Union is also very significant.

One thing that has interested me is the resurgence of Christianity in Russia and Estonia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Another thing is the ease of transport between these nations, no doubt facilitated by the European Union as well as the shared Soviet past that some have experienced. The huge ferries – a ship from Tallin (Estonia) is in port beside our ship in Helsinki harbour, and at least 10 tour coaches have disembarked, and up to 20 semi trailers! The ports are busy. Rotterdam port was quite amazing.

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St Petersburg

Two spectacular days in St Petersburg came to a close yesterday as we sailed for Helsinki. It really felt such a privilege to be there. I feel like I need to revisit the Russian history I learned once upon a time, to take in the full meaning of the places and things that were on the itinerary – Empress Catherine the Great’s palaces, the Neva River, the Peterhof Gardens and Fountains, St Isaac’s Church, the Church of the Resurrection where Tsar Alexander was assassinated, and of course, the Hermitage. There are not words to describe the Hermitage – spectacular architecture, impressive rooms with the most incredible collection of art and artefacts. The tour was a quick two hours in a place where one could spend years becoming familiar with the great artistic treasures.

I saw some of the Rembrandts, the Dutch masters, da Vinci, Raphael! There were Egyptian artefacts that I’ve seen in history books. And, the most amazing furnishings and gilded and frescoed walls and ceilings, the parquet floors!

The Peterhof Gardens and Fountains a few kilometres outside St Petersburg were certainly worth the visit. An expansive park of fountains which delighted the Russian Family for centuries, and now, fully restored since their destruction during the second world war, now delight the Russian people and tourists alike.

Many of the attractions of St Petersburg had been destroyed by the war and revolutions, but are now restored. This is a great tribute to the Russian governments, that these treasures of the past have been restored for all to enjoy.

The residential sections of the city however, tell another story: the difficulties experienced by the Russian people under previous Soviet administrations. The rows of apartment blocks that appear shoddy and dilapidated tell of a time when people did not enjoy the comforts that were the norm in the West. Today’s apartment blocks are still small by comparison to Australian housing, but they appear to be better constructed and enjoy the convenience of modern shopping centres and urban facilities. On my first day in the city I had McDonalds for lunch – cheeseburger, fries and a coke. There is little doubt that modern Russians enjoy capitalism, even if it does have some downsides!

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A Day in Berlin

Our shore excursion to Berlin began at 7.30am with a long drive through the countryside from Warnemunde. It was raining on and off but we saw plenty of the countryside. A dominating feature are the huge windmills – not like the ones in Holland – modern, power generating windmills. Clean energy.

The Berlin adventure was mostly a ‘drive-around’ with photo stops at the Brandenburg Gate, Check-point Charlie, shopping, a river cruise (which was very uneventful) and lots of rain. We passed Angela Merkel’s residence and saw the museums (from the outside). This is certainly a city to come back to. It is very impressive.

The tour guides tell us much about the history of the cities, and the one we had in Berlin was very good. Knowledgeable and entertaining!

Even though it rained, it was exciting to be in Berlin.

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A Day in Berlin

Our shore excursion to Berlin began at 7.30am with a long drive through the countryside from Warnemunde. It was raining on and off but we saw plenty of the countryside. A dominating feature are the huge windmills – not like the ones in Holland – modern, power generating windmills. Clean energy.

The Berlin adventure was mostly a ‘drive-around’ with photo stops at the Brandenburg Gate, Check-point Charlie, shopping, a river cruise (which was very uneventful) and lots of rain. We passed Angela Merkel’s residence and saw the museums (from the outside). This is certainly a city to come back to. It is very impressive.

The tour guides tell us much about the history of the cities, and the one we had in Berlin was very good. Knowledgeable and entertaining.

I’ll write more about Berlin another time – it was interesting on so many levels.

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