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!!!!

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