Sunday, September 14, 2014

Denmark - A Hint of Copenhagen

September 1, 2014

Though Norway was the focus of my trip, I can never pass up a free stopover, so I jumped at the chance to have a 7 hour layover in Copenhagen.  With a great subway and train system, you can get from the airport to downtown in just about 15 minutes, so I had about four hours to wander the city before heading back to the airport to catch my afternoon flight.

Copenhagen is a pleasant city, with clean streets, numerous bicyclists and a pretty city center.  I mostly just wandered the palaces, city halls and canals, eventually making my way to the iconic Little Mermaid before heading back to the airport on back to the US.

(Tivoli - a large amusement park in central Copenhagen.)

(An irresistible chocolate croissant.  While wandering the back streets of the Latin Quarter, I couldn't resist the bakery sign, and I'm glad I didn't.  It was delicious.) 

(Radhaus/City Hall)

(A typical canal scene of Copenhagen, on the way from downtown to Christiania.)

(Another nearby canal with typical Northern European buildings.  Along with all of the bike riders, you could almost confuse parts of the city for Amsterdam.)

(The entrance to Christiania, a hippie enclave on the edge of the city that has been under self-rule since the 1970s.  As expected with a place untouched by Danish law, it is a little dirty, full of artistic graffiti and popular with those looking for some mind-altering substances.  One of the main roads in the tiny 3-4 block area is called Pusher Street and labelled the Green Light District for the stalls of marijuana vendors lining the alley.  I walked around the area for a few minutes and then headed back to the rest of the city to see what else it had to offer.)

(Christiansborg Slot, the Royal Palace, sitting right in the center of Copenhagen.)

(Nyhavn, a postcard-perfect scene of canals, sidewalk cafes and colorful houses.  It's a very pretty area, but it's also ground zero for tourism in Copenhagen.)


(One of the old boats backed by the numerous cafes and buildings of Nyhavn.)

(Marmorkirken, the marble church.  This huge church has a beautiful rotunda high above and faces Amalienborg, another royal palace in the city where I got to see the changing of the guard.  One of the young soldiers actually passed out during the ceremony...probably overwhelmed by the sight of me.)

(The Little Mermaid statue in the harbor, paying tribute to a story by Hans Christian Andersen, one of Denmark's most famous historical figures/authors.)

(Rosenborg Slot/Castle - my last stop before heading back to the train, airport and back home to the US.)

Norway - Eidfjord, Voringfossen and Hardangerfjord

August 31, 2014

After Craig decided to head back to Bergen, I stayed in Voss for another hour or two and then headed back out on the road, determined to take advantage of my last two days in Norway.  I found some scenic backroads, heading up into the mountains and away from the fjords for an hour or two before re-emerging in the beautiful little town of Ulvik, at the end of one of the many arms of Hardangerfjord.  Multiple shades of green drew me in to the small town, where I stopped along the waterfront for a quick lunch of peanut butter and granola while the breeze blew gently off the water.  I spent a few minutes simply gazing across the water before heading back to the car and moving farther down the road and Hardangerfjord.  Lined with apple, cherry and other farms, the narrow road winds around the steep mountains, presenting great views of the water around nearly every turn.

I headed across the expensive, but fancy, toll bridge to Eidfjord, the narrow end of this fjord system.  Again, huge mountain walls surround the small villages, and I made my way up the valley, through a few corkscrew tunnels to the first view of Voringfossen, one of Norway's most famous waterfalls.  The 600 foot drop sits at the top of a pretty canyon that eventually empties down into Eidfjord.  The famous Fossli Hotel sits on top of the ridge overlooking the waterfall below, so after taking a few pictures at the viewpoints, I stopped in at the hotel for a waffle before heading out for a few more pictures before dusk set in.  As we had perfect weather for the entire trip, this day was a bit overcast and windy, with bits of rain here and there, though, as it turns out, this was ideal for taking pictures of the falls, as it would otherwise be a little blown out with the sun and lots of shadows.  So, again, I had the place exactly how I wanted it, so I was quite happy.

After wandering around the falls for a while, I headed a few minutes up the road and found a nice little pullout where I slept for the night.  Throughout Scandinavia, All Man's Right rules that you can basically camp anywhere for a day or two, granted that you are not directly on someone's property or too close to their house, so it's not uncommon to see cars parked for the night or tents in the middle of nowhere.  As I was now alone on the trip, I was able to put the seats back, lay my sleeping bag out in the passenger seat and have a pretty good sleep.

I awoke around 7 the next morning and headed back to the waterfall for more pictures from the top before heading down and hiking to the base of the falls.  The one hour hike was magical, as I was the only one on the trail, heading down among the big boulders and crossing a tiny swinging bridge before getting to the base of the massive falls where the light spray misted over me while I contemplated the perfect scene on an early Sunday morning.

Moving on from Voringfossen, I headed back to Bergen, returned the rental car and got back to Oslo late that night.  My flight was very early the next morning, so I opted to just sleep in the airport, finding a comfortable and safe spot where I could secure my bags under the table and slept across a bench seat of a booth in a seafood restaurant in the lower level of the airport.  The early morning flight was right on time, and I ended the trip with a free 7 hour layover in Denmark, giving me just enough time to see a bit of Copenhagen.

(The town of Ulvik, on the edge of Hardangerfjord. Craig had decided to head back home from Voss, so the last two days of the trip were on my own, which is nothing new for me on these trips.)

(Another view of scenic Ulvik with varying shades of green and yellow flowing into the cold blue water of the fjord.)

(A scenic suspension bridge crosses the fjord, but it's not cheap at around $21 toll per use.)

(The first view of Voringfossen.  For some perspective on the 600 foot waterfall, check out the large hotel at the top of the ridge above the waterfall.)

(The steep canyon has a few very precarious points, but this was taken over one of the guard rails at the edge of the falls, looking down to the pool below.  Strong winds often blow through the area, making it even scarier/less adviseable to stand near the edge of the falls/canyon.)

(After spending the night camping in my car nearby, I came back in the morning for another view of the beautiful falls.  Voringfoss refers to a single falls, but it is also called Voringfossen (plural) as there are another one or two small falls, as you can see on the right side of the picture.)

(Early Sunday morning, I decided to make the one hour hike to the base of the falls, and I had a perfect hike, all to myself.  The greenery and powerful falls spraying mist down the valley were a spectacular way to start the day.)

(A panorama of Voringfossen, all 600 feet of it.  The trail heads to the left of the creek here, and I passed along the green area to the base of the pool, where the spray made it a little cold to stay for too long.)

(Since Craig left early, and I was all alone on this trail, I did have to resort to taking pictures of myself, but it ended up ok.)

(One of the many long tunnels in Norway, this one just after the suspension bridge was so long that it actually had roundabouts inside.  The white lights gave way to cool blue lights indicating the upcoming roundabout, this one splitting off in one direction to Bergen and in the other to Oslo.  This particular tunnel is 8 km (5 miles) long.)

(Though I wanted to be lazy on my last day, I couldn't resist the lure of one of Norway's best day hikes, passing by four impressive waterfalls on a four hour hike.  This is the clear water just below the second of the huge waterfalls in Husedalen valley.)

(Part of the trail passes through a thick grove of birch trees.)

(The second of the large waterfalls at Husedalen.  I actually turned around after this point, realizing I needed to hurry up and get back to Bergen...and not really wanting to hike uphill much more.)

(Another pretty view of a town on the edge of a fjord, somewhat ubiquitous scenery in the area.)

(Steindalsfossen, just past the village of Norheimsund.)

(This 66 foot waterfall drops out off the edge of an overhanging rock, leaving enough room for the trail to pass behind the falls.)

(The view from the edge of Steindalsfossen, looking back towards Norheimsund.)

(A final shot partially behind the waterfalls.  As I went back to my car, a Russian woman in high heels and a short dress was posing out in the grass in front of the falls, hopefully for some professional shots, as she had obviously mastered her repertoire of poses.)

Norway - Voss

August 30, 2014

Voss is known as the adrenaline capital of Norway, home to paragliding, skydiving, bungee and much more.  Queenstown, New Zealand has a similar nickname, and I was actually a bit put off by the craziness and numerous tour operators in that town, so I didn't have high hopes for Voss, but I was quite pleasantly surprised.  It actually felt like a quaint little town situated on a huge, beautiful lake, backed by green mountains and thick forest in every direction.  We found a great hostel right on the waterfront, so after our Norway in a Nutshell tour, we wandered the city and took the bridge across the creek to the side of town to visit a small gorge.

The gorge, Bordalsgjelet Gorge, is a beautiful, extremely narrow canyon with moss and fern covered walls on the outskirts of town, only about a 30 minute hike from the center of town (or you could also drive there and just do a 5 minute hike to and from the parking lot).  Again, we weren't exactly sure what to expect, but the towering walls of the very narrow canyon were quite impressive, so we took in the views and numerous pictures before heading back to town a little before darkness set in.  We spent the night in Voss at the hostel, and while it was expensive, as is everything in Norway, the huge breakfast buffet with fresh lox of salmon, granolas, yogurts, cheeses, deli meats, and tables full of organic fruit definitely made up for the cost.

Given our great weather and good connections, we were actually able to do everything on or ahead of schedule, so Craig actually decided to go home a day early, so he left the next day from Voss, taking the train back to Bergen and then connecting with a few short flights before making his way back to Washington DC.  Or maybe he was just really sick of me...I guess we'll never know.

(The edge of Voss and the scenic lake around which the city is situated.  I wasn't expecting much from the city, and it turned out to be a beautiful place.)

(The swinging bridge across the creek emptying into the lake led us across from downtown to Bordalsgjelet Gorge, about a 30-45 minute walk.)

(Craig heads into the gorge.  The narrow gorge has steep walls covered in greenery, opening up to a few small waterfalls at the end of the viewing platform.)

(Craig surveys the scene while I hang behind for pictures...pretty typical.)

(An aerial view of the narrow gorge from the road above.)

(My fantastic breakfast (Part 1 of it) at the hostel.  While the hostel was expensive compared to other parts of Europe, a HUGE buffet breakfast of deli meats, lox of salmon, cheeses, granolas, yogurts, and tons of organic fruit more than made up for it.)

Norway - Norway in a Nutshell Madness

August 29, 2014

Norway in a Nutshell is a long day tour that packs in a few of the typical highlights in Norway in one long, well-coordinated trip.  It is also the most popular tour in Norway, so we knew it would be crowded and largely for an older audience, but it was still a great way to make the most of one day, so we opted for the trip, leaving from Voss.  (It is typically done from Olso or Bergen, but by leaving from Voss, we saved some money and cut out a large portion of the less-exciting parts.)

Arriving in Voss after our night in Odda, we made it to the train/bus station and got on one of the two large buses to start the tour.  We headed Northeast from Voss towards the Stalheim Hotel, an old hotel situated atop one of the steepest roads in the country.  Passing by mountain lakes and green landscapes, we snaked our way up the hill to the hotel, stopped for a one minute view in the bus and then headed down into the glacial carved valley below.  The road passes by two noteworthy waterfalls, but each is just a quick glance as the bus stops for about 20 seconds to give passengers a view of the falls before moving on.  Descending into the valley, about an hour into the bus ride, we arrived at Gudvangen, a tiny village at the base of Naeroyfjord.

Naeroyfjord is one of the narrowest fjord (that's what the name means) at only about 250 meters wide in some points.  It's also a UNESCO world heritage site, as a classic example of a fjord.  We quickly boarded a large boat for our cruise through the fjord, and as expected, it was rather crowded, but Craig and I found a good spot near the front of the boat for the majestic views of the green mountains dropping straight off into the deep blue water below.  Tiny villages/farms dotted the landscapes, adding some perspective to the huge scale of the area.  As Naeroyfjord widened, it opened up into another waterway, where we turned and headed back down into Aurlandsfjord, making a sort of V-shape with the cruise route.  Another impressive fjord, this took us all the way to Flam, ending the beautiful 2 hour cruise.  We were again blessed with perfect weather - blue skies and sunshine, though the wind coming off the water was a bit chilly.  A few of the tour groups rushed off the boat in Flam to catch the train, the next part of the journey, so we were glad that we had built in some time in the town.

Although there's not much to actually do in Flam, it is situated at the base of the fjord and a few huge grassy areas at the edge of town/the waterfront looked very hard to resist.  We browsed the tourist shops quickly and passed by the small restaurants set up for the hordes of tourists that pass through the area every day, and we found a quiet spot laying on the grass, taking in the great views.  A lot of the visitors left on the next train, and while there was still a large cruise ship in the tiny harbor, we did find some peace and quiet and simply sat and took in the surrounding natural beauty.

Eventually moving on, we took the Flamsbana railway, touted as one of the steepest and most scenic railways in the world.  Craig wasn't initially that excited about the train ride, but passing through more great scenery with high mountain walls, green valleys and cascading waterfalls.  We passed through a few tunnels and ended up at Kjofossen, another huge waterfall with a quick stop on the train.  We had just enough time to get out of the train, take a few pictures and watch a weird show with some sort of folk music playing over the speakers where a few dancers with similar outfits pranced around the rocks of the waterfall, disappearing in one part and then reappearing in another ( was actually more than one dancer).  While the show was a little odd, the train ride was fantastic, and we soon arrived at Myrdal, the terminus of the railway.

The final portion of the trip was another train ride back to Voss from Myrdal.  We found a train arriving just as we were standing on the platform that seemed to be going in the right direction, so we boarded the train just as it was taking off, though we were then a bit worried that we may be on the wrong train, as that looked like the express train to Oslo, so we hoped that we wouldn't have to take a huge, costly detour back to Voss from there.  Fortunately, as we were hoping, the express train was comfortable, scenic and DID stop in Voss, so it actually worked out perfectly.

All in all, the tour was everything we had hoped for - spectacular views of the mountains, valleys, fjords and waterfalls that make Norway so special.  It was crowded and even a tiny bit rushed, but to be able to do a fjord cruise, a scenic bus ride and two train journeys in one day without having to worry about the connections was certainly a great use of our time (and money).

(The view from the Stalheim Hotel, looking down towards the beginnings of Naeroyfjord. The bus ride takes you up the steep road to the hotel, though you don't really have any time at all to explore the area or even get out of the bus, so the first couple of pictures were actually taken out the window of the bus.)

(Heading down the steep road from Stalheim Hotel, a few waterfalls can be seen on each side just before reaching the valley below.)

(Once in the valley, we quickly arrived at Gudvagen and were ushered to the awaiting cruise ship where we took a two hour cruise of Naeroyfjord and Aurlandsfjord.)

(Naeroyfjord is a UNESCO World Heritage site as a typical example of a fjord, so it had the spectacular steep mountain walls, narrow passageways and greenery for which Norway is known.)

(Looking back down Naeroyfjord, the back of the boat had a small dining room and chairs set up all along the edges of the boat.  It was a bit cramped because of the large amount of people, but we found a good spot in the front and had nice views of the passing mountains.)

(After cruising back down Aurlandsfjord, we arrived at Flam, a tiny village at the end of the fjord, dwarfed by the massive cruise ship.  There was a sign up on the hillside protesting cruise ships (true cruise ships, not our small fjord cruise), as it certainly did look a little out of place in this tiny area.)

(Getting away from some of the crowds, we headed down to a grassy area by the water in Flam and had a few very peaceful hours sitting by the water and taking in the surrounding beauty.)

(Here you can see Craig lounging on the grass, contemplating life or maybe just kicking back after a few too many drinks.)

(The Flamsbana railway is one of the steepest and most scenic in the world, passing by valley, mountains and waterfalls in route from Flam at the base of the fjord to Myrdal, high up in the mountains.)

(One of the many waterfalls and tiny farms seen from the train.)

(Another slightly blurry picture taken from the train window.)

(Kjofossen, a huge waterfall, over 700 feet high, is the only stop along the train journey.  You are given just enough time to go out and take a few pictures before some strange music starts and a few dancers appear on the rocks.)

(Apparently the dancers are supposed to be the legendary Huldra, "a seductive forest creature in Scandinavian folklore."  Unfortunately, even if the seduction works, we had to quickly get back on the train...)

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