Saturday, January 10, 2009

Ve Be Nuts in Norway!!

We love Norway!!

Bergen was like home to us, and being here in the Winter is very special. It's exactly the way we had always pictured it, with the snow, mountains, Grandpa bringing the wood in a sled to Heidi. All those sweaters and the blonde girls and blonde furniture. It's great!!!

Bergen Norway
I had done Web research before coming here and found out about these tours organized by an outfit called "Norway in a Nutshell". They looked like exactly what we wanted, so I tried booking them. I don't know if it is the time of year or what, but their website has great itineraries, and superb photos and descriptions, but you can't actually book anything on the web as far as I could tell. They do have a phone number. The phone rings, but I found that there were only two alternatives. First, it is after hours and the answering service tells you they can't help you and to call back during normal Norwegian working hours (which, during the winter, is something like, open at 10 a.m., lunch break for 2 or so hours and close by 3 p.m.). When you call back, the phone rings and rings, but no one answers until the hours are over and the answering service comes back on.

So, we found ourselves in beautiful Bergen and I thought the best way to book the Norway-Nutshell tour was to go to the train station. Mostly, because a large poster at the Bergen Airport said something like "Norway Nuts - Book at Train Station".

Bergen Train Station
We walked to the train station. As an aside, we loved everything about Bergen, even the walks to places we "had" to go. We went up delightful little alleys and side streets, old houses and buildings on both sides of the street, very light or no traffic. The place is magical. We absolutely want to go back. Actually, Karen wants to move there.

The train station is old and very nice. The ticket agent knew what we wanted to book and she ticketed us for the one-way Bergen to Oslo Norway Nuts tour.

We had a somewhat early departure, 8:40 a.m., so the evening before I arranged for a taxi to pick us up in the morning. We could have walked to the train station, but I was reasonably certain it would be less picturesque with our luggage. Of course, I had the internal discussion, "what time for the taxi?" We need to be a little early, but don't want to stand around at the station forever, how bad can Bergen traffic be, will it be icy and snowy, aren't Norwegians used to that? I forgot to think about our London taxi experience, what if the taxi doesn't come on time? I leaned a little bit towards not enough time and the taxi leaned a little bit towards, it's okay to be late. That's why Rolaids are an essential part of any travel experience. The taxi did eventually arrive, we did make it to the train station on time, actually with time to spare for me to load the luggage into the train and for Karen to go find coffee and pastries.

Karen found these awesome little snacks which were basically sweetened waffles as finger food! They were great!! We did finish our coffee fairly fast and Karen thought we should get another cup for the road as the train did not have a cafe. I walked to the little shop (about 100 feet from the train) and went inside. Started pushing buttons on the automated coffee maker and then went up to the counter to pay. Fumbled with the various coins, most with holes in them, to figure out how many of these things made up 18 Kroner. I then walked outside the shop and . . . imagine the following scene: The train doors were all closed, the train was pulling out of the station and Karen was plastered against the window hitting it with her hands and yelling something which I couldn't hear, but I was pretty sure wasn't "did you remember the cream for the coffee?" It was one of those Major Panic Times. I was running down the walk by the track and Karen was pounding on the door, our only thoughts were: "We'll always have Paris."

In the end, the train was only repositioning. Why it was doing that, given that there was one track and it staid on it, I have no idea, probably just to mess with tourists' minds. It did stop, the doors did open and I did get on board. Karen's hands were bruised, but with time and therapy she would be able to use them again. We gave a heavy sigh of relief and plopped down.

Karen's Swollen Knuckles
The train started shortly after our "little adventure" and we were off. We went about 50 minutes on the train and arrived at Voss, Norway. This has been a town we've been aware of for some time because they bottle water from this town in lovely glass containers that is sold in many very expensive hotels and restaurants. I'm sure this particular product is on the low end of "PC" but it sure looks and tastes great!

Voss Train Station
At Voss, we were to transfer to a bus. We had been assured that "we couldn't miss it", always words that strike terror in our hearts. There were two buses at the train station, neither one of which admitted to being Nuts From Norway. Three more buses came and we began to get concerned. Karen went into the train station which was the cue for the actual Nut Bus to show up. It's like they are watching from somewhere off stage. You'd think we would learn. I slowly handed our luggage to the driver, keeping an eye out for Karen to come back out of the train station before the bus started to drive away. She did, and we were ready to go.

The bus ride was both damn pretty and pretty damn fast. The roads were covered with snow and ice and the driver seemed to be on a schedule, ignoring both. We whipped right along, cars and large trucks coming the other way. The views were incredible and it was only on the sharp curves with the precipitous cliffs that we would occasionally hold our collective breaths. There was one other couple (we think from the Ukraine, but possibly from somewhere in North Dakota where they don't talk to other people) and a quiet Japanese man who was wearing a fur-lined hooded ski jacket that swallowed everything except for his glasses and a camera.

After about an hour of this excitement, we arrived at Gudvangen. Okay, on the plus side, the place was beautiful, right by a gorgeous fjord, mountains rising from the water, everything covered in snow, the snow gently falling. It was magical Norway!!

Bridge to the Bathroom
On the downside, the bus had stopped in the middle of a large parking lot which was a sheet of solid ice and we had our luggage. Of course, the other people were just doing a day trip, so they didn't have luggage. The driver said we were there, that there was a waiting room across the parking lot and there was a store just across the bridge which had a bathroom and food.

We stood precariously on the ice floe with our bags, imagine Amundsen or Shackleton with Samsonite. The bus drove away leaving us stranded, though we noticed that he made a wide circle on his exit, driving RIGHT BY the waiting room. I think he wanted us to have the "Full Norwegian Nut Experience" including sledding across the plains with our roller bags. We managed, with no serious injuries, to get to the waiting room. It was exactly that, a room, very cold, in which you could wait.

Gudvangen Waiting Room
After the coffee, the train trip and the bus trip, the concept of a bathroom sounded pretty good. We did have the problem that all of our worldly possessions were now in a waiting room, waiting. Of course, we were in the middle of the frozen North, who could possibly be out there who would be interested in taking our computers, money and dirty laundry? We decided to risk it and started across the skating rink that was posing as a parking lot and made it half way across the bridge when a car drove into the parking lot near the waiting room. I decided to cross my legs and stay where I could keep an eye on the waiting room, while Karen went forth. The place was farther, the lines were longer, oh, and our bus driver (the one who left us in the middle of the ice floe?) was parked by the cafe and restrooms. By the time Karen made it back there was no time for me and it was time to focus on things other than waterfalls, sprinklers and fountains, and concentrate on moving the luggage to the ferry on the fjord.

We made it on board and I made it too. All was well.

The ferry took off and we spent the next hour cruising through an area which some people have described as: "The Aurlandsfjord and the Naeroyfjord, one of the narrowest fjords in Europe. The Naeroyfjord is included on UNESCO's famous World Heritage List. Surrounded by towering mountains up to 1,800 metres high, this branch of the Sognefjord is amazingly beautiful." Actually, it really was, but I cut and pasted the quote because I can't spell any of these Norwegian words.

This part of the trip was awesome!! The fjords were gorgeous, the mountains and water were beautiful!!

The ferry came into the little town of Flam. This little town was originally settled by Viking souvenier peddlars, who back in the middle ages sold those helmets with the horns and aprons saying "Norwegians Do It With Accent" and "Lutefisk Rules". It hasn't changed in the last 1200 years. There is still only one restaurant open in the middle of January. We dragged our luggage through the parking lot. I think it was Thoreau who once said, "I pity the man with a bag on his back." He never tried to pull a rolling suitcase with the carry-on attached through snow.

We made it and it was a large cute and mostly empty cafeteria with only the ferry workers present. We had a very nice meal which included a glass of boxed wine which we judged as "not bad" given no choice.

After dining, we went to the train station and waited for the Flam Tram. There was a brief discussion with the ticket agent about when the Flam Tram left, apparently there was a 2:52 p.m. Flam Tram to Myrdal, or the 5 p.m. Flam Tram, the only difference being "beautiful trip in the day" or "beautiful trip in the dark". We chose the former, but apparently everyone else except for those returning from Myrdal to Bergen chose the latter. The train arrived and we all marched out, a select few with luggage, into the snow and went to Track No. 4. We watched everyone else "detrain" and prepared to get on. The conductor closed the doors and the train left, without any of us. It stopped about one hundred yards (or as they say in Europe, "meters" which is basically like yards only a little different in a "why bother" sort of amount) from where we were standing. Most of the people marched to where the train had repositioned, while the engine was decoupled and was brought around to the other side of the train. We stood back, luggage ready, not sure what their next move would be. The engine got re-coupled (I think that's the word I want) and the train backed up to its former location, all of the people diligently following back on the walkway. It was like an elaborate joke dance, orchestrated by the conductor. Finally, the people started to board and Karen and I moved forward with our bags. But in about one minute as we approached all of doors closed as though the train was leaving. This was yet another "WTF" moment for me, my rich and textured use of the English language springing naturally forth. I think the conductor recognized that the joke had gone too far and he came out and helped us get our bags on the train and sit down, once again exhausted from modest effort and maximum fright.

This is an incredibly popular trip and, during the Summer is packed. But we actually had an entire train car with just the two of us!!

The train trip was incredible and the views were stupendous!!! We loved it!

We made it to Myrdal, which was literally, just a train station. Since it was mid-January, there were no ticket agents, the gift shop and the cafe were closed, and it was just a waiting room. The people who came for just a day trip either reboarded the train or caught the regular train returning to Bergen. After about twenty minutes, we were all alone, sitting in a dark abandoned train station in the snow, it was night time, the wind was howling and visions of "The Shining" were at the forefront of our minds.

We were there for about two hours when the group of travelers who took the scenic trip in the "dark" arrived. A short while later, the regular train for Oslo arrived, we found our "Komfort Klass Seats" in the first car and settled in for our first class five hour trip to Oslo. This is a train trip that was described in the literature as: "The Bergen Railway is a unique experience on Northern Europe's highest-altitude railway line. One of the greatest challenges is the harsh and changeable weather. The line is exposed to deep low-pressure centres from the west, which can mean strong winds and heavy snow for part of the year. Keeping the railway open demands great effort and technical expertise. Today, skilled workers, effective equipment, tunnels and snow tunnels make the Bergen Railway one of the safest and most comfortable ways of travelling between Oslo and Bergen. The line was voted one of the 20 best railway experiences in the world in 1999."

Of course, the one fact missing from this description in January is "night".

I think this is a trip we will have to redo at some time. It isn't currently in our top 20.

There were two problems in addition to what we call "dark". The train was full and we were sitting in the seats which faced another couple, which meant, don't stretch your legs. On top of that, across the aisle, there were two older Norwegian women who talked, constantly, through the trip. By that, I mean, they talked all of the time, with their voices just below "obnoxiously loud" but well above "polite conversation". They would actually talk most of the time AT THE SAME TIME, I am not kidding. They were like Chatty Cathy Dolls who were stuck on constant play. We both put on our noise-reducing headphones which were no match for these ladies. At one point, they adjourned to talk in the lounge, talking all of the time as they were moving down the train. Karen clapped when they left and the guy sitting across from her laughed, shaking his head in wonderment at these ladies.

Even bad things eventually come to the end and we finally made it, only slightly crazed, to the Oslo train station.

We have both been to a lot of train stations. The general rule with European train stations (as opposed to most U.S. stations, which seem to be located in either slums, industrial areas or industrial slums) is that they are quite nice and friendly. Bergen's train station is lovely. However, the Oslo station is not nice, clean, lovely or friendly. It was one of those places we hurried through with hunched shoulders, just praying we could find a taxi to get us out of there. We did.

Everything else about Oslo has been wonderful!!!!

Friday, January 9, 2009

Why We Are in 411

There is one subject that I really prefer to ignore.

It's bathrooms. Well, I really don't mind talking about baths, I love them. I can soak forever in a tub, reading a spy thriller, sipping brandy and having a cigar. That is my idea of heaven on Earth.

It's the other thing. I suppose it shouldn't bother me, I think most people in the world do it. Except for Grace Kelly, I don't think she ever went to the bathroom. And maybe Queen Elizabeth, I think she needs to go, but she has just been holding it for years.

For me, though, I'm a very shy and private person.

I hate public bathrooms. If I can avoid them, I do. I'll squirm my way through the second act of most shows and drive like hell home if I have to. I like the kind of small restaurants (usually in renovated homes) which have "home bathrooms", one seat, locking door, no visitors.

There must be a lot of people who don't mind it at all. If everyone felt like me, there would be no multiple seat open facilities.

I'm not totally clear what bothers me, but perhaps it's that I don't want anyone else to know. I'm grown up enough to admit that I do go to the bathroom, I just have a real problem having people know exactly when. One of my childhood terrors, which I haven't outgrown, was having to produce a "u" sample for the doctor. If I had gone to the bathroom at anytime during the day before going to the doctor's office, I was doomed. I would drink gallons of water at the office, go into the bathroom and know that all of the nurses and doctors were waiting outside, listening. Nothing would happen and I would come out embarrassed and disappointed, everyone nodding. Eventually, they would give my Mom the container, we would start home and I'd be wriggling, crying and dancing before the car got to our drive way. At 54, it's no better now.

Even at home, I'm very private. I check that the front door is locked, close every other door possible between the bathroom and the outside world, and clear the bathroom of all people and animals.

Karen is even more private on this than me.

So, in Prague, we had a stupendous suite overlooking the river, with a view to the castle. It had a balcony, a separate living room, a small WC (a bathroom, without the bath) and a separate huge bathroom which, seriously, was bigger than the suite we had on the boat. The bathroom had a large double sink, a large shower room, a step up platform with a huge soaking tub, and a WC, with an etched glass door. The etchings were interesting and Karen's initial (unthinking) reaction was "that's very beautiful, we should have something like that in our bathroom." Of course, in between the etchings was see-through glass and looking at that was one of those times that I DID here the ominous music playing in the background. By that, I mean the scary organ music that the kids in slasher movies never hear when the say things like "I know Jimmy and Sally have been killed, but I feel like some popcorn and I think I saw a popcorn maker in the dark, damp cellar, I think I'll go get it."

We never actually discussed it, but neither of us would go into the Grand Central Station-sized bathroom when the other was there unless it was by invitation, as in, "Do you need to brush your teeth? That's all I'm doing right now."

So, we come into Oslo late at night (another story), get a taxi to our hotel, arrive there close to midnight and check in. The receptionist is very nice and gives us the key to Room 105. Now, on a separate note, we like to have the highest floor possible, both because of the view and being away from noise. We asked and he said that was all they had. Fine, it's late and we're tired.

We walk down the hall and enter the room. It was very nice, modern, seriously Scandinavian and clean. The bed looked lovely and inviting, white comforter over a beautiful large soft mattress. But what really caught our eyes was the bathroom. The sink was towards the front of the bathroom, the shower to one side, and the "throne" was in the middle of the bathroom. The reason we knew this as we entered the hotel room was because there were windows (I'm not kidding, plural) ringing the bathroom. It was kind of like having a Fotomat Kiosk in the middle of your hotel room dedicated to things we don't like to talk about. Actually, it might not be a bad idea for a Fotomat, I've never been clear on how those people go to the bathroom.

Now, I've heard about those bathrooms in Vegas where there is see-through glass when the light is off and you can see-in to determine whether it is occupied. Then, when you go in and turn on the light, you can see out and "supposedly" no one else can see in. Of course, there is no way in Hell I'd ever use a bathroom like that.

This Norwegian hotel bathroom didn't even pretend to have that feature. Lights on, lights off, you still had a stellar view from the throne, Lord over all that you survey. No curtains, no closing doors or walls, just clear glass and open view.

We thought we could stack our suitcases, I offered to take long walks, eventually Karen decided that the situation was "untenable" which I think is Oxford English for "the bathroom doesn't work", and she marched to the reception. They reluctantly placed us in the "old wing," apologizing for the decor. We loved it, the decor includes a solid door to the bathroom, which has no windows.

This was the bathroom!

Checked-in in Oslo...

Honey, what's our room number again???

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Tomorrow - Norway in a Nutshell

Tomorrow we will travel in trains, boats and buses and we will see the Sognefjord as we make our way to Oslo.

This is reportedly one of the most beautiful train trips in the world!

We will also pass through Finse, Norway which was the place in which George Lucas chose to shoot the ice planet "Hoth" in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, because of its chilling cold landscape.

Sights from Bergen, Norway

Norway, Land of the Midnight, Hell, it's Always Midnight!

Woke up early this morning, it was dark, went back to sleep.

Woke up later, it was still dark, went back to sleep.

Woke up again, checked the clock and it was 8:30, still dark!

(Note: Official Bergen Daylight... Sunrise 09:39 (CET)... Sunset 15:50 (CET))

Finally, got up and searched out a cup of coffee. Of course, this being Europe, you are more likely NOT to have a coffee maker than you are to have one. This hotel is no exception. They do have a lovely breakfast service downstairs, with coffee. The only problem is you have to actually put on some clothes so as not to scare the locals.

I did my "What is a Kroner Worth?" web search this morning. Cab fare wasn't too bad, but "Ho Boy, Vat a Dinner Ve Muss've Had!!" I thought we just had wine and a couple of entrees: the final bill suggests we ate like King Olaf and his family. Oh, well, we probably won't be able to retire here.

We are about to head out to tour the city and spread some more Kroners, it's about 10 a.m. and it looks like the sun is starting to rise.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Uff dah! Ja, Vi er i Norge !

Velkommen til Norge!
Norwegians took cuts in front of us in line at the airport!
The View from our room.
Our Suite looking over the Bergen Harbor

The flight was perfect... despite the fact that it was -4 c in Prague, airports had been closing all over Europe, and we were flying Norwegian Airlines. Everything is beautiful! The sky is bluer, the clouds are whiter, the air is sweeter... I am in tears and finally "home". Thank you to my husband for bringing me here!! -Karen
(P.S from Karen... I just heard a Dandy Warhols song on Norwegian TV!)

My Norski wife is one Happy Girl!!

We had a wonderful stay in Prague! We packed up our stuff, ordered up a car to the airport and went down to the hotel bar for a coffee and a "whatever" for me. All was well. The car and driver were excellent and there were no adventures and all was right with the world. The Prague airport was quiet and very nice. We hiked around a bit looking for a check-in for "Norwegian Air" expecting to find some young blonde girl with an oxygen tank, but "vat doo ja know, dere dey ver".

The flight was lovely, the Norwegian stewardesses knew the important English words, "vodka and ice." We got off in Bergen, Norway's border protection being a series of duty free stores. I tried to find a place to get or exchange money, but all of the exchange offices were closed, the two ATMs were "out of service" and the currency exchange machine had a paper sign on it which said "Ustand!" - didn't look good to me. The taxi driver, however, responded to the Universal Word, "Visa?"

Even in Bergen, Norway, it should be noted that the taxi driver was not a local boy. I think he hailed from somewhere in Southern Norway, somewhere on the Mediterranean. He was a great driver and knew the town. Perhaps I'll feel different when I find out what a Norwegian Kroner is worth, but right now, I feel good.

Our hotel is right on the water, we're settling in and life is good.

-The Barnums in Norway!!!!!!

Monday, January 5, 2009

On Board the MS Amacello - Christmas Danube River Cruise

We Have Made it to Prague!!!!! Oh, But About that Boat Trip.

What? You thought we had just boarded the boat?

Well, our secret was bad internet connection. "Oh Lord, stuck with low wi-fi, again." Almost everything else about the Amacello was wonderful!

So, let's back up a bit.

We toured Buda and Pest (two towns, kind of like Milton Freewater) on our own and then we toured it again with the "Boat People." One of the Budapest Highlights was the hot mulled wine served outside at the Christmas markets. We have learned to love that drink! Karen has decided to open up a hot wine stand somewhere in our neighborhood.

After touring Buda and Pest, we boarded the boat and headed to Bratislava. Bratislava is in Slovokia and the word means "cranky" in Slav. The people were mostly cranky, with a few angry people, some apparently depressed people and some just sort of ticked off. I don't know if they use make-up for this effect, but the women all have dark sunken eyes which beautifully show off their sour expressions. It's kind of like finding yourself on the set of a Zombie-movie, but not quite as funny.

Our walking guide was good and I stopped by an ATM to get some local Slovniks, or Slinkys, whatever the Slovaks call their money. I tried not to get too much, but was translating Euros into Slotnes and was not too clear on what we had.

Of course, at the end of the tour, we were tired and I still had all these Slurpees or Slopniks, so we did some shoppin. First, we went to a chocolate and coffee shop. We apparently insulted the waitress when we tried to buy something. I think we upset her comatose state. Against Karen's advice, I left a tip, which only assured myself a place in Slav hell. I had noticed they had some fancy bottles of brandy for one to two thousand Sputniks, which was about what we seemed to have, so we bought a bottle. Of course, even though this cafe had hundreds of bottles, I don't think they sell very many. Several of the clerks had to be consulted, a ladder produced, much sighing and gnashing of teeth, and finally a bottle. Obviously a very old bottle, or, at least, a very dusty one. We then asked for a box of cookies just to mess with their minds.


We then went to a grocery store to buy some bottled water, candy, and a hair brush for Karen, where an old cranky guy said something that sound like a curse to us. I think he thought we were German.

After all that, we wanted to stay in Bratislava and set up house, but the boat was leaving.

Every night on the boat, we had a wonderful sit-down dinner with multiple-choices of appetizers, salads, soups, entrees and desserts, together with liberal pourings of regional wines, and every meal was different! You had to pace yourself or you'd end up as an overweight burping blob on the couch, unable to move.

The seatings were not assigned, so you had the chance to dine alone or meet people. We did it all!

We teamed up with four delightful people from England, Chris and Jan from Ashford, and Keith and Jan from Bournemouth. We couldn't find anyone else named Jan, so we thought the six-om worked out quite well.
Keith & JanJan & Chris

A highlight of the entertainment on the Amacello actually occurred in Bratislava. The only four girls in town with smiles and bright eyes got together and formed a singing group called the "Afrodites". They were energetic and wonderful, including a few songs by ABBA (because, as people in the know understand, "It all comes back to ABBA.").

We sailed into Vienna, where we bee-lined for St. Stephans Cathedral, which was, once again, gorgeous. After that, we walked back to where we stayed last time (the Ambassador Hotel).
St. Stephan's Cathedral - Vienna, Austria
Karen lighting a candle in St. Stephan's Cathedral.

We stopped at a restaurant where we had eaten some wonderful snacks a couple Summers ago. Everything was inside because of winter, but we thought we would try it. The lone waiter was one of those people who appeared to be a bustle of activity, but couldn't actually get anything done. Kind of like a moth around a flame. After 10 minutes and nothing but a menu, we decided to continue our stroll.

We ended up at a great local restaurant, for soup, wienerschnitzel and wine! It paid to keep on moving!!

We ambled our way back to the boat, freshened up and ate some more, then joined an optional tour to go to a concert of Mozart and Strauss. We should have guessed there was trouble when we were stopped in the entry and told we could not bring our coats into the concert hall, due to fire regulations. The only place to leave your coat was with a handy coat check person, who charged us to check the coats. This all seemed a little too coordinated, not sure if the fire marshal got a cut from the coat proceeds or the "fire regulations" were just a total scam. I was grateful they didn't require us to leave more clothes down there. We settled into our chairs in the fairly small hall, being irritated by the local children. It's probably just me, but I find whining and rude children who can't speak English to be particularly irritating. Well, the concert started and the first song wasn't too bad, kind of a warm up tune you could forgive the musicians later when they actually hit stride. Unfortunately, that song was apparently their acme and they went downhill from there. The performance included heavy tromping from a group of ballet wannabes and then singing by a girl and a couple of guys who appeared to just have been dropped off the turnip truck near La Scala in Milan and thought they could sing. They were wrong. Karen and I had an argument as to whether they were the quality of a mediocre high school group or a very poor community college group. I'm not sure who won that argument. Fortunately, I had cigars and we weren't allowed to smoke them indoors, so we had an excellent excuse to leave the "show" a little into the second half.

More on the boat trip in a later Post!!!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy New Year from Linz, Austria

At midnight, the newly named "Capital of Culture 2009, Linz Austria", ushered in the new year with fireworks above the Danube and with all kinds of musical surprises. The Danube and its embankments between the new Ars Electronica Centre, the Nibelungen bridge, the Lentos Kunstmuseum and the Brucknerhaus hosted a dazzling and colorful spectacle.
Along the banks of the Danube, the Group "Raketensinfonie above the Danube" - lead by Tom Ryser, with Orlando Gough and The Shout, as well as choral groups from throughout the Province of Upper Austria... became a spectacular world premiere featuring 800 singers and amazing fireworks!

It was simply amazing! Words cannot describe how incredible this New Year's Eve was! I was awestruck and in tears!