Originally Published on October 26th, 2016.
Tuesday, August 23, 2016
There is a seven hour difference from Houston to where we are now, not to mention we’ve lost a day. KLM is now one hour out from Amsterdam where we will change planes and head to Bergen, Norway. The flight from Houston to Amsterdam is 8.5 hours and provides two meals, plenty of leg space and opportunities for some interesting people watching. It takes 1.5 hours to get from Amsterdam to Bergen.
Old men, more than women, are up and walking around the plane about every two or three hours to keep their legs from forming blood clots (something Rudy is very acquainted with from our 14-hour flight from China back to the US). I, likewise, walk and talk to the attendants, and eat. Mothers with babies stroll the aisles, soothing their young ones that refuse to sleep. The plane is only about half full with passengers. Many are obviously old road warriors like us.
Overseas airlines always serve two meals (lukewarm), and by the time you get off the plane all you want to do is find the hotel and sleep. Jet lag is a “bitch.” By the time we landed in Bergen at 10:30 a.m., I was not feeling well – either from lack of sleep or too much food. However, it was an easy overnight flight from Houston to Bergen, lasting 15 hours.
The first impression of Norway is how clean it is, the second is how long the highway tunnels are that skirt under the mountains leading into Bergen, located 15 miles away from the airport, and the third is how very tall Norwegians are; tall, fair, blonde and handsome. Tall in this case is approaching, or over, 6 feet – male or female.
Bergen, Norway is a beautiful 11th century Bryggen fishing village that turned into a breathtaking city with 200,000 residents in a country that only has 4.5 million. The waterfront is a work of art with its brightly colored wooden structures, fish market, museums, shops and endless fjords (bay/harbour).
The first day we are staying in the Radisson Blu Royal Hotel. We’re asleep by 1 p.m. and up again at 7 p.m. We rise to bright, sunny weather (surprise) and daylight that lasts until 10 p.m.
It is a beautiful old city with beautiful people. It hosts romantic bays and interesting scenery as the city is surrounded by seven mountains. Bergen means “the plains between the mountains” in Norwegian. The language is Germanic-sounding, much like what the Dutch speak.
We are back in bed by 11 p.m. and by 4 a.m. it is light again. The time change can drive you nuts and really screw up your day. I awoke at 1:30 p.m., nearly blowing the entire day. But, alas, all was not lost, except the weather.
The rain had arrived, not a surprise since the country is known to have 84 continuous days of rain. The rain is soft, not the down pours like we have in Houston, but it is still wet. We troupe outside, buy an umbrella, and catch a double-decker site-seeing bus. After experiencing the history up close we disembark into the fish market, which is overwhelming with its displays of lobster, king crab, dried cod, salmon and caviar, and every other kind of fish you would expect to find in very cold water. Bergen is at the same longitude as Anchorage, Alaska.
A late lunch from the fish market puts us back in the Bryggen area where the old timber fish warehouses, now turned into shops, grace the north side of the Bergen harbor in bright colors with the Hanseatic League trading company buildings. The Hanseatic were Germans that settled the area and controlled commerce for over 400 years.
Walking through the narrow streets/allies brings us to the Forsvaret Church.
This original Lutheran Church (the official religion of the country) dates back to the 15th century and, on this particular evening, there was a concert of Chamber Music by the local music corp. I drug Rudy to the event, which fortunately lasted only an hour or I’d have to carry him out asleep. The upside was when we got out the sun was shining at 8:30 p.m., which was not night at all but bright daylight.
Cruising the Fjords of Norway
Thursday, August 25, 2016
Norway is the largest country in Europe – 1,012 miles long and can be as narrow as six miles wide in some parts. It is bordered by Sweden, Finland and Russia.
It is known for its magnificent fjords. So what is a fjord? Geologically, a fjord or fiord is a long, narrow inlet with steep sides or cliffs, created by glacial erosion. There are many fjords on the coasts of Alaska, British Columbia, Chile, Greenland, Iceland, the Kerguelen Islands, New Zealand, Norway, Labrador, Nunavut, Newfoundland, and Washington State. So one could say that it is not a big deal to go visit fjords, but Norway is exceptional in this type of geography. This cruise has a reputation of being “the most beautiful ocean cruise in the world”. We are about to find out and, besides, this is Rudy’s trip and I’m just along for the ride.
Waiting to board the MS Kong Harold (King Harold), we visited the Hanseatic Museum, which took us back to the fish trading houses that were established in 1306 and controlled by the Germans for 400 years. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. By far more interesting is the Norwegian Fisheries Museum (one year old) and a tour of the old warehouses that originally sat out from shore in the water whereby they were protected from the many local fires.
Bergen and its wooden structures were always catching on fire, and the fishery warehouses were built in the water in hopes of saving the industry within the area.
Before leaving Bergen I made a quick stop at a fur shop where fox and mink garments were displayed. I walked out with a beautiful cashmere shawl trimmed in red fox. Rudy just rolled his eyes. Never has the man refused me anything.
By 5 p.m. we had checked out of the Radisson Blu Royal and were on the MS Kong Harold. It was an old ship, over 1,010 feet long and had a capacity of 500 passengers and 100 crew. Only about 400 were on this trip.
The ship had recently been restored, but it was hardly the style we were accustomed to traveling in. Our stateroom was 10 feet wide and 20 feet long, with a head the size of a very small closet. Alas, that is travel in Norway – things are a great deal simpler and very expensive.
Leaving the Bergen Harbour was spectacular with the setting sun sparkling off the fjord, surrounded by the seven mountains and the city.
Friday, August 26 – Day 1
We cruised all night and by morning we were in the Geiranger Fjord; we disembarked in the town by the same name and loaded onto buses. From there, we drove south on the Atlantic Road headed toward the Golden Route of Norway. Along this route were literally dozens of waterfalls cascading down tall rugged terrain as if being poured from buckets over the mountains that climbed to 4,800 feet high. The bus traveled upward on roads so narrow that they should have been one way. Everyone that attempted to pass us put themselves in jeopardy – it was a tight squeeze.
We turned north and crossed the fjord via ferry to Valldal onto what is known as the “Troll’s Path.” What is a troll? It is a mystical character so ugly, short and fat that it makes one wonder why this thing, and its fairy tale stories, were ever invented by both Icelanders and the Norwegians.
A troll can bring luck, make life miserable or be mischievous. It originates from the mountain rocks and timber forest in the country and there are plenty of both to have a large population of these trolls.
On the eastern side of Troll Valley is the 5,800-foot sheer cliff of a mountain called Trolltindane. The “Troll Path,” which we are driving, consists of 11 hairpin turns on a road so narrow and with such a vertical drop that the passengers keep their eyes shut and prepare for the worst. Two breathtaking waterfalls grace the route, Stigfossen and Tverrdalsfossen. Of course, only our guide “Eric” can pronounce these Norwegian words, and he is Swiss.
The weather play-by-play for the entire day is: rain, fog, more rain, a brief moment of sun (very brief around 5 p.m.) and more rain. After driving 8.5 hours, we had reached Molde (population 26,000) and the chemical technical center for much of the suppliers for the North Sea exploration drilling industry.
We had dinner at the Alexandria Hotel and waited for the Kong Herald to catch up with us. It arrived at 10 p.m. and, finally, our very wet day was complete and we cruised further north.
Saturday, August 27 – Day 2
Today the sea was so bad that the boat could not dock at Trondheim (the Royal City) till 11 a.m., which meant we missed out on the shore excursions and our kayaking trip. Waiting for the boat to dock caused us to also oversleep, which didn’t make the situation any better. As it turned out, the boat was only in this royal city approximately two hours before it was off again heading north towards the Arctic Circle. Generally speaking, the weather was better (there is always rain) but the scenery along the shores of Norway was beautiful.
The mountains, or more correctly the vertical cliffs, are slabs of smooth glacier rock as hard as granite in colors of black, pale copper and tan. These pinnacles are outlined at the top in what appears from water-level to be lush green foliage. Small fishing boats with wide beams, bows that curve upward, and a stern that is squared off putts along at 5-6 knots. There is an enclosed pilot house for the captain’s protection from the elements.
Night comes around 10 p.m. with the sun always coming out just before it finally sets. Strange that you don’t see it all day because of a thick layer of gray wet clouds, but right at semi-dusk it peeks out from under its blanket and suddenly you witness the “mid-night sun” of Norway.
Crossing the Arctic Circle
Sunday, August 28 – Day 3
Early this day the Kong Herald crosses the Arctic Circle and we move into northern Norway and Svalbard. The sun is shining….surprise, surprise. Blue skies and silver fluffy clouds start the day off, and with smoked salmon for breakfast it just can’t get any better.
The ship often stops at the villages en route to drop off cargo. The stops are brief (15 minutes), so few passengers disembark. If you miss the departure, you miss the boat. They do not wait on you.
The Kong Herald is primarily a cargo ship servicing the “outback” of northern Norway’s hundreds of islands with fishing villages from Oslo to Kirkenes. In the Caribbean we would call this the mail boat, but these are cargo/passenger ships.
We docked at Bodo, just north of the Arctic Circle, exited the ship and walked over to where the “rib” was waiting. What is a “rib”? The rib is a large dingy that holds 12 people and one crew member, and flies across the water at 35 knots. In other words, you fly like a bird and stop like a rock.
Prior to boarding this jet mobile, we had to dress like one preparing to build an inculpable snowman in sub-zero temperatures. While it is 58 degrees, the weather protection cold water suite, thicker than a deep winter comforter, was hot while standing on the dock along with a hood, glasses and life preserver vest. Being hot did not last long.
When that boat moved, it really moved, and the wind was really cold. In nothing flat we were out in the Bobo Bay viewing three large eagles feeding. Then it was off around the next island and speeding into the world’s fastest ocean current of whirlpools moving thousands of gallons of water between two points of land. It was so fast and dangerous that several Norwegians were on the shore observing the thrill. It was Sunday and what else would they have to do in this remote northern locale than take bets on whether the inflatable would capsize. Fortunately, there was no mishap.
Large salmon farms raising over 600,000 fish per year for the market were situated in one of the bays.
Returning to the Kong Harold still docked at Bobo, we sailed away to our next stop, Stamsund, located on a remote outer island. Actually, everything in northern Norway is remote. Twenty-four of us boarded a bus to travel inland through the mountains to view and dine at the largest Viking chief house (reconstructed) and have a typical Viking dinner and entertainment.
By now the beautiful and unusual sunny day had drifted into an overcast evening, giving the topography an appearance of northern Scotland. I did learn a bit about Norway Vikings, who traveled from this area westward to Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland, and established settlements in or around 1030 AD.
Did you know that the Vikings started out as raiders and smugglers and fearless fighters? They came from Norway, Sweden and Demark. While the Norway bandits sailed west, the Swedish and Danish Vikings raided what is now Russia and Istanbul (Constantinople), Turkey.
After spending 1.5 hours at the Viking event, we traveled over land to catch up with our Hurtigruten ship at Snolvaer, located three islands over from where we started.
Large modern bridges connect many of these islands in the north, where the south uses ferries. Their infrastructure is amazing, particularly in such severe weather conditions whereby they can only construct roads two or three months out of the year. The average snow fall is around 15 feet with sub-zero temperatures occurring during the remaining months of the year.
Around 11 p.m. I felt like I was falling off the bed - I started getting vertigo. What was going on? It occurred to me that either the boat’s stabilizers were not acting right and the vessel was leaning to starboard (i.e., this was why I felt like I was falling off the bed), or the boat was taking on water. Neither option was a plus for this voyage; just my luck that I’d be on another trip where the boat sunk.
Monday, August 29 – Day 4
At about the time I woke up, we had a cargo stop at Finnenes (these appear to be regular and short – 15 minutes). The boat had just departed for open water when I heard the all too familiar sound of the engines reversing and then the ship stopping.
A boring day was about to happen….it sounded like engine problems on the ship, and we were now down to one engine moving along at the speed equivalent to a snail. It turned out that it was a transmission problem on one engine.
This just goes to prove that it doesn’t matter whether it is a 44-foot trawler called the Sapa Inca or a cruise ship called the Kong Harold, boats are boats and problems follow them wherever they go; or is it wherever we go?
2:00 p.m. - It took the crew two hours to announce this little problem to the passengers, but any idiot knew something wasn’t right if you’re moving at 5 knots in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. It would also delay our arrival at Thomos.
Did I care? I had slept till 10:30 a.m., had a late lunch, and was now enjoying the gray scenery with the low rainy clouds and high rocky mountains from the ship’s 7th floor sun deck (minus the sun) along with other bored passengers! What a thrill!
I’ve yet to see Rudy today but assume he has not jumped ship. There are only so many places he can be on this small vessel.
By 4:30 p.m. we had docked at Thomso where the passengers were anxiously waiting to disembark and enjoy the land cruises they had booked. Unfortunately, most of them were cancelled because of our late arrival. (Note: No one in northern Norway appears to work past 5 p.m., so don’t expect to do any shopping or anything else after that hour if you are on shore. However, the bars are open.)
The town of 26,000 is located 186 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Thomso is known as the “Paris of the North,” but I decided this title had to be a joke. It also has the title of “Gateway to the Arctic.” There is nothing remotely similar to Paris, particularly at 4:30 p.m. when all the shops were closed.
We strolled around the main square and stopped at a bar for a martini. That is when I found out that any drink with more than 20% alcohol was restricted to half a shot of liquor in Norway. It was the smallest martini I’d ever been served, but the three olives were really large and the price was high!
The center of the town contained a church that dated back to the late 1800s and was the only thing left standing with any history. Germany bombed the city flat in 1944. Hitler believed that the Allies would make their European landing in this area during World War II, not in Normandy, France.
Thomso is more known for its polar expeditions to the north pole than the fact that it dates back to Viking times, 1250 AD.Tuesday, August 30 – Day 5
THE SUN IS SHINING. Hammerfest, Norway (population 2,500) is the gateway to the North Cape. This is the farthest north one can go in Europe, but not the coldest.
We disembarked the ship, along with 300 others, and boarded a bus for a 30-minute drive to North Cape (Nordkapp) and the 1,014 sheer cliff drop-off situated in a landscape barren of any trees or foliage, but with plenty of rocks.
Surrounding us was the Arctic Ocean, a body of water that is ice cold with a wind that blows constantly.
During our drive upward, we viewed reindeer herds grazing on a gray moss-type of foliage. Shocking to me was the different colors of the reindeer…brown, tan and some solid white. I never thought about Santa having white reindeer, but anything is possible.
The deer are large with horns that are three to four feet across. They are also very nervous and quick to bolt. In the summer, they graze at the North Cape under the watchful eyes of the Sami Indian Tribe. (Ironically, the tribal head dress is similar to the hats worn by Santa’s elves, with four points and bright green or red.) Each tribal family owns approximately 1,000 reindeer. They are sold for the fur, meat and horns. The Sami are small, less that 5’4”, with Alaskan Eskimo features and coloring.
Come fall, the over-grazed, healthy, but fat deer are herded by the Sami out of North Cape via snow mobile to their winter grazing grounds, some 250 miles south. The trip requires the deer to swim across large spans of water. While the North Cape is very cold, the snow is also wet and heavy, and the area is not cold enough for the deer. Come winter, they migrate inland where the snow is deeper and not as wet. In the spring, because they are not as strong, the deer and the Sami are loaded onto ships and brought back to the North Cape for calving and summer grazing.
By 2:50 p.m. we are back on the Kong Harold traveling east towards another 15-minute cargo stop at Kjellefjord. From there, our next stop is Mehamn.
Wednesday, August 31, 2016
By 9 a.m. we had docked at Kirkenes, just a few miles from the Russian border, and over half of the passengers unloaded onto buses to head for the local airport. The cruise was over. Our next destination would be Oslo, and then on to Bergen, then to Amsterdam, and finally back home.
My departing memory was the bright-colored houses tucked along the rocks and the mountains, facing the Arctic Ocean where the population’s survival was the fishing industry and little else. The landscape was desolate, the ocean rough and the village clean.
In southern Norway, older quaint farm cottages have roofs of sod, seeded with weeds and grass, which serves as insulation, over layers of birch bark. In the summer, the grass grows into a lawn. To keep it short, the farmer makes steps along the side of his house whereby goats climb on the roof and “mow” it down.