Archive for the ‘Norway’ Category

Sunsets: solar energy for the eyes

March 6, 2009

There are fans and critics of daylight saving time, which starts THIS weekend in the United States (go here to see DST rules worldwide), but I think we can agree that pretty much everyone loves a good sunset.  Here are a few of our favorites, all taken by Wessel:

The sky is on fire over Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Sky is on fire over the lesser-known side of Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Midnight sun as seen on the Lofoten, Norway

The ever-blazing midnight sun as seen on Norway's Lofoten islands in June

Sunset over marshy area connecten with Lake Gaston, VA

Diane's favorite colors combine in this stunning show near Lake Gaston, Va.

Heron during a PS sunset experience in Florida

A heron poses in the afterglow of a sunset over Cayo Costa State Park, Fla.

Roxy outshines her celestial competitor

Roxy outshines her celestial backdrop at Indian Rocks Beach, Fla.


License (plates) to thrill

November 19, 2008

Have you ever been tooling up the highway in, say, Boston, Miami or Chicago, and you pass a car with an Alaska license plate? Too cool! A few weeks ago, I saw a Hawaii plate on a car in North Carolina. Even cooler! (Warmer?)

License plate from Lithuania issued before it joined the European Union in 2004

This car came to Norway from Lithuania.

It reminded me how this past summer when we were bicycling on Lofoten, an archipelago in Norway, above the arctic circle, we spotted some rather exotic plates.

License plate from Norway

Of course we saw mostly Norwegian plates

Of course there was the usual abundance of French, Dutch, and German road-tripping tourists. Any worldwide traveler knows that the German and Dutch go everywhere. And of course the Scandanavian drivers were in full force as well, including drivers from Finland.

License plate from Iceland

This Icelandic plate was the one farthest from Norway that we spotted

But the other more faraway plates included Italy, Spain, Poland, Russia, Estonia, Lithuania and …. Iceland! That’s one of the many great things about international travel — spotting other international travelers.

Another interesting thing about Norway’s own plates — they have special ones for electric cars and hydrogen-powered cars.  Perhaps that’s something we’ll start see in the good ol’ gas-guzzling USA some day. 

License plates electric (left) and hydrogen car (Norway)

License plates from an electric (left) and hydrogen-powered car (Norway); Click on image to read Diane's story on electric cars for Ode Magazine

Lofoten: Mountains, sea, and fish heads

July 8, 2008
First sight of Lofoten on flight from Bodo

First sight of Lofoten on flight from Bodø

When Wessel suggested we do our annual cycling tour in Lofoten, I had to answer, Lo-what? Where the heck is that? That was a couple years ago, and while I can’t say that all roads now lead to Lofoten (pronounced LOO-foo-ten there), a Norwegian archipelago above the arctic circle, I have noticed the name a few times. For instance, National Geographic Traveler last year ranked it as one of the world’s best (and best-preserved) island destinations. Still, not one American I mentioned our trip to had heard of Lofoten, and I noticed only a few Yanks during our weeklong visit there in June. (Not that I’m complaining!) On the other hand, there was a steady stream of folks from Germany, the Netherlands, and France. Vacationing Norwegians were mostly due to arrive in July, when school is out and most folks go on holiday. If you want to catch the Midnight Sun, you’ll need to go from late May to late July.

I’m writing a travel piece on our cycling trip for August publication in the Boston Globe, so here’s a little preview.

Fishing village of Hamnoy

Fishing village of Hamnøy

The words that kept going through my mind the first few days of cycling were: “impossibly beautiful.” Really, it was crazy gorgeous, and now, when I look at our photos, I’m again amazed by the scenery. Jagged snow-capped mountains rise from a clear blue sea, roads wind along rocky coasts, and red fishing shacks dot the land. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. We were blessed with several days of bright sun, which made the raw, damp, and cloudy days a bit less painful. Different parts of the island were quite varied, from farmland to woods, mountains to sea. The water was so clear it reminded me of the Caribbean. I wonder how the growing cruise industry here will affect that.

Rorbuer in A

Rorbuer in Å in the south of the Lofoten

There are a few cities here, but mostly tiny to small fishing villages and farm communities, some without any services. The most characteristic building is the rorbu, a fishing shack usually painted brick red. Some stand alone, while others are clustered together to form a village of “rorbuer.” They are picturesque and fairly scream “Norway.” Many have been updated as mid-range or upscale lodging, and some have been built as new, which means they’re kind of fake, but they’re still lovely and comfortable, so unless you’re a rorbu purist, they’re fine. Some are on hills overlooking the water, some are just back from the water, and others are on stilts right over the water. Some rooms over the water have a hole in the floor for in-room fishing!

Drying cod on a wooden rack in Hamnoy

Drying cod on a wooden rack in Hamnøy

The craziest sights were the wooden racks of drying cod all over the island. Cod is the biggest export business here and it is huge. Most of the dried cod (sans heads) is exported to Italy, Spain, and Portugal, where it is a kitchen staple. (I lived in Portugal and know this to be true!) The cod heads are sent to Nigeria, where they’re used in a spicy soup. It’s common to see a few fish hanging from a house (sometimes just for decoration) but the wildest sights are the humongous racks you’ll encounter in a town, with hundreds, no, thousands, of fish hanging to dry. We were at the tail end of the drying season (cod fishing is done from January to April) and were lucky to see so many. Wessel could not stop photographing them — every single day in every conceivable way.

Diane cycles north on main road E10 connecting Å to Svolvaer

Diane cycles north on the island Moskenesøya

While there are more cars than bicycles here, Lofoten is a very popular place for self-contained cycling, meaning you carry your own gear. The four islands that make up the archipelago are connected by bridges, and all of Lofoten is only about 110 miles from end to end. Of course your mileage will grow considerably when you zigzag from town to town. We saw only a couple cyclists the first few days, but just before we left, in late June, they started pouring in. As for the cycling itself, in some places the roads are narrow and curvy, without shoulders and with traffic. For the most part drivers were incredibly polite, but tour buses, of which there are many, sometimes got waaaaay too close for comfort. There also are a few tunnels, but most can be bypassed using the “old road” (in various states of repair) outside the tunnels. I can see how beginner cyclists might find the main road rather nerve-wracking. There are great side roads, but they all have to be reached from the main road. So if you’re comfortable riding in some traffic, cycling around Lofoten is, for the most part, two-wheeled nirvana.

A flight fit for a queen

July 1, 2008

Who says air travel has lost its elegance? On our 20-minute flight recently from Bodø on the mainland of northern Norway north to Svolvaer on the Lofoten archipelago, the flight attendants wore white gloves. Now isn’t that quaint, I thought.

Diane, a.k.a. Lady Di, in front of a 40-seater Widerøe airplaneWe were flying with Norwegian airline Widerøe, on a 10-row, 40-seater puddle-jumper. No one was allowed to sit in the front two rows. After everyone was on board, a group of official-looking men and women arrived. One man was wearing a secret-service type earpiece. I asked the Norwegian woman next to me who the VIPs were but she didn’t have a clue.

After the pilot made an announcement in Norwegian, she turned to me and said, “It’s Sonja, the Queen of Norway.” I thought she was pulling a naive tourist’s leg, but she assured me it was no joke. Earlier, I was told by many Norwegians that the royal family uses public transportation and likes to hobnob with the common folk.

The pilot then made an announcement in English about our late takeoff, starting with “Her majesty, ladies and gentlemen, we have a few minutes delay.” This cracked me up.

I was tempted to ask for an autograph, but not knowing how crass this would appear, I restrained myself. The passengers were acting nonchalant — until we landed. We weren’t allowed to disembark until Sonja was whisked away, so everyone watched, leaning over the aisles to peer through the little windows.

First, a guy on the ground walked up with a red carpet, which he unfurled onto the runway at the bottom of the airplane stairs. Unfortunately for him it was a very windy day and the carpet kept flapping up. Very embarrassing! Finally Sonja stepped onto it and walked a few feet next to a waiting car.

For you fashion mavens, she was wearing a proper-looking beige pantsuit with subdued scarf, overcoat and large sunglasses. Her entourage left in an Audi sedan led by police with a small motorcade following. According to our taxi driver, she was staying right there in town. “Everyone knows she is here,” he said. Apparently she visits Lofoten occasionally for hiking and the great outdoors.

In case you’re wondering, though King Harald V was not with Sonja, he did meet up with her a few days later for a tour in the far north, which was extensively covered on Norwegian television. The royals might mingle with the masses, but they also create quite a stir everywhere they go. Count me among the stirred.

By the way, on our royal-free flight back to Bodø the next week, nary a white glove was in sight.

Nicotine a hot commodity in Norway

June 25, 2008

I’ve already related my astonishment (yes, even when forewarned) about $12 to $15 beers and $15 to $20 glasses of house wine in Norway, thanks to the dwindling dollar and those oil-rich Norwegians. (I spoke with one German couple whose beer cost a whopping 12 Euro, or about $18, at a cafe in the tourist district in Bergen.)

Rack of plastic cards for tobacco products in supermarket. Click to ENLARGE

Rack of plastic cards for tobacco products in supermarket. Click to ENLARGE

So it’s a good thing we don’t imbibe in tobacco as well, as packs of cigarettes in Norway cost about 76 NOK (Norwegian Kroner) or $15. I was fascinated by the way they were sold at the ICA supermarket and I assume elsewhere. At each checkout counter was a rack of plastic cards, kind of like gift cards, with tobacco brands and bar codes printed on them. You take your card/pack of choice, have it scanned by the cashier and then pop it into a nearby vending machine that resembles an ice machine and out comes your cigs.

I’d like to say that the high price of cigarettes has helped cut down on smoking, and perhaps it has overall, but, as I mentioned earlier, I was very surprised by the number of young people smoking, especially the gals. Many of the guys, meanwhile, have turned to “snus” or snuff, the nicotine powder product kept in one’s mouth for a time-released charge. Snuff use has been called an epidemic among male teens, according to a 2007 article in the country’s leading paper, the Aftenposten. I saw older men use it as well, including a businessman I sat next to on a plane. I don’t know the cost of snuff, but I’m sure it’s high.

I should mention here that the smoking stats for the US and Norway are about the same — an estimated 21-22 percent of adults smoke. Wessel says we notice it more in Norway because more people in general, including smokers, are outside — at cafes, using public transportation, etc. I think he makes a good point.

warning labels on cigarette packages

Warning labels on cigarette packages

Norway was one of the first countries to ban smoking in buildings, and, like many European countries, they have GIANT warning labels on the packages, so it’s not like they’re not trying. I hope they also consider banning smoking near doorways, as we had to rush through clouds of smoke before entering many restaurants, large stores, and office buildings.

As Americans used to say before half of us quit smoking, there’s nothing more annoying than a reformed smoker! Now they’re so many of us, we don’t stand out. (That would be me. Wessel has never smoked. Anything!)

Midnight sun shines brightest today

June 21, 2008

We would be remiss if we didn’t send out a greeting from the land of the midnight sun, on this, the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. Summer solstice on Google NorwayEven (Norway) honored the event with one of its trademark graphics, which we’ve done a screen grab on here. Norwegians in different communities across the country and especially in the north celebrate with giant communal bonfires, although it is unclear to us on exactly what day this happens.

Although as of a few hours ago we returned to Oslo, in the south (we fly home tomorrow!), we were indeed above the arctic circle last week during our cycle trip on Lofoten (photos and a few highlights to come). Midnight sun at Ramberg beachNot only did the sun never go down, it truly shined all night. I’d expected “light” not “bright.” I even wore eyeshades to sleep a couple nights when we didn’t have proper curtains. Some nights were cloudy and the sun was hidden. But on one of the clearest nights, we had an oceanfront cabin in the small town of Ramberg on Flakstadøya and could watch the midnight sun out our living-room window. At exactly midnight, about two dozen tourists, including us and a lot of Germans, poured out of their cabins and campers to see the show. It was a crazy scene!

All cycling paths lead to Lofoten

June 19, 2008

We met two Canadian touring cyclists at the amazingly beautiful and filled-with-info tourist information center in Bergen. (Much bigger and better than Oslo’s, suprisingly.) Like all Canadians do, it seems, they were sporting a maple-leaf flag.

Barb and Janne“Are you really Canadian or Americans posing as Canadians?” I asked Janne. “I’m really Canadian, eh,” he answered in that unmistakable accent. Janne’s family is Finnish and he has dual citizenship. He and his girlfriend, Barb, who live in Calgary, are on a five-week holiday, cycling in Finland, Sweden, and Norway. Like us, they’re headed for Lofoten, so perhaps we’ll see them there. They’re taking three night trains to get there, while we, on a much-shorter holiday, are flying. (By the time you read this time-released blog entry, we should be on Lofoten, without email, freezing and enjoying the amazing beauty that the chain of islands above the Arctic Circle has to offer under the light of the Midnight Sun. That was a long sentence, wasn’t it?)

Interestingly, Janne told me, they couldn’t put their bikes on trains or buses in Sweden and had to box them up like freight and “ship” them on the same train they were on. For such a forward-thinking country, that is pathetic.

Lancome pink bikeIn other cycling news, we spied a pink Lancôme bike in Bergen. Funny, I thought the French cosmetics company made only makeup. Must have been for a promotion. If they gave away pink bikes instead of little “makeup gift bags” with a $50 purchase, I’d be first in line to buy a tube of overpriced lipstick. I’d love to post a photo of the bike on a website I found featuring only pink bicycles, but now I can’t locate it. Perhaps a loyal reader can. My friend Alice is good at that. Al, you there?

Oslo highs (we’re not talking prices)

June 16, 2008

This is the last dispatch from Oslo, I swear. And, now, for some superlatives:

ToveBest Norwegian hospitality: Our Sunday lunch hosts Tove and Øystein win the prize here. Tove is the sister of Pusa Gundersen, the mother of my long-time friend Erik. I celebrated many a Norwegian-style Christmas dinner at the Gundersens’ home in West Newton, Mass., near Boston. Coincidentally, Pusa is also in Oslo on holiday, so it was fun to see her here as well. Tove and Øystein’s lovely home, a little south of Oslo, is near the Oslo fjords, which Wessel and I had a view of during our delicious meal.

Best transportation: Loved the public transport here, which include trams, subway, trains, and bicycle sharing. But the highlight was maneuvering a two-seater Th!nk City electric car through morning rush-hour traffic and onto the highway, hitting about 60 mph. Without Wessel navigating, I wouldn’t have made it. The cars, to be released in August, are coming to the US in 2009. Read all about it in my Ode magazine story sometime later this year. Very exciting! (I also drove a hydrogen-powered Prius for another story. That was cool too)

Regional traditional folk costumes for sale at HusflidenCoolest wool clothing and yarn store: Husfliden, which carries totally modern clothing and throws, including contemporary wool blankets made at Røros-Tweed, a historic textile factory with a wonderful story of reinvention that I can’t seem to find written in English anywhere. The store also carries clothing and accessories for the elaborate regional traditional folk costumes, called bunad.

Coolest cool-clothing store: Design Forum, a national chain. Reasonably priced for here, funky, feminine, great-for-layering tops, pants, skirts, sweaters, all made in Norway. Really great shoes too. Totally my style. Maybe I’ll convince someone to open an outlet in North Carolina. Can you imagine?

Hippest street: Grünerløkka is where the groovesters go, so of course Wessel and I were there, fitting right in with our American garb. The main drag of Thorvald Mayers gate (gate = street) has the usual assortment of trendy shops, cafes, restaurants and bars and from what I can tell is the only such street in Oslo. But since it’s become well known enough for us to find it, I’m guessing there’s something a little artsier and a little more fringe.

restaurant SultBest restaurant: The foodie favorite Sult, in Grünerløkka of course. The name means hunger, and it adjoins the bar Torst, or thirst. Small room, small menu, biggish meals at a reasonable price. Beautiful plating, ultra-cool photos on wall that matched the tabletops. Wessel had pork; I had catfish and we had one beer and two glasses of wine, for $130 plus a 10 percent tip. The waitress gave us a cocktail/cookbook from the original chef (now gone) that I wish I could read. It’s a great souvenir, anyway.

Most annoying smell: Cigarettes. Young people, especially women, smoke like chimneys, we were disappointed to discover. (They all have tattoos too.)

Best news out of Norway: Norway’s parliament last week adopted a new marriage law that allows gay folks to marry and adopt children and permits lesbians to be artificially inseminated. 

Loudest music: Under our hotel window on a Saturday night. That’s because one of the many stages around town for the annual Musikkfest Oslo happened to be quite close to us, which made our downtown street – and many others — quite lively. Most of the music was rockin’ and surprisingly very good. (I say surprising because bands were free and plentiful, not because they’re Norwegian! I mean, let’s not forget a-ha. Or rather, let’s.) The live music stopped by 11, but not the raucous partiers, who were still going strong when I finally fell asleep around 2. And was it truly dark out? Not really!


Peace, art, and old boats in Oslo

June 12, 2008

What would a visit to any international city be without checking out a few museums?

“The Scream” perfectly matched our moods just before arriving at the Munch Museum. We’d spent a couple hours online trying to find lodging for Bergen and our first night on Lofoten and either there was no room at the inn, or a totally plain room would cost $400. ARGH….

We were so happy to leave the hotel and be tourists, and we started the day viewing Edvard Munch’s masterpieces. I really love his paintings and think it’s a pity he’s mostly if not only known for “The Scream,” which of course has been commercialized in a hundred ways. (Even I, yes, have displayed blow-up Scream dolls at several jobs.) The guy was talented but not what you’d call upbeat, a few titles to wit: “Melancholy,” “Angst,” Despair.” He does, however, have several versions of “The Kiss” and a lovely “Starry Night” of his own.

The newest “museum” in town is the Nobel Peace Center, which opened in 2005. It’s near City Hall, which is where the Nobel Prize for Peace is awarded yearly. The overriding messages as well as the current exhibit, “The Places We Live” about slums worldwide, are tremendously moving. But also, the center’s displays use the latest technology. It’s a very hip place, with a cool gift shop to boot.

Sculptures in Vigeland ParkAt Vigeland Park, an open-air gallery of more than 200 sculptures of Gustav Vigeland, you also can’t help but be moved. Vigeland’s work celebrates the humanness of humanity, young and old, fat and thin, angry and loving. Everyone, including us, loves his most known piece, “Sinataggen” or “Little Hot-Head” which humorously portrays a little boy having a tantrum. But, like with Munch’s “Scream,” this shows but one side of the artist.

On the peninsula of Bygdøy, a quick ferry ride from the harbor, you can see old wood-beam farmhouses and a glorious stave church at the Norwegian Folk Museum. There’s also more contemporary housing, from the 30s, and even a look inside a stereotypical Pakistani immigrant’s home. (Most taxi drivers here are from Pakistan.) I loved the exhibit on the indigenous Sami (f.k.a. Lapps), both past and present. The museum was filled with schoolchildren, many wearing fluorescent safety vests with the school’s name and phone number. Very cute.

The Oseberg Viking shipJust around the corner at the Viking Ship Museum we marveled at the three Viking ships from the ninth century that were excavated from 1867 to 1904. Just that they are there is amazing; their ornate carvings were a bonus. So was the busload of Russians there, chattering among themselves.

But the vessels that most fascinated us were the balsa raft that sailed from Peru to Polynesia in 1947 and the reed boat that crossed the Atlantic in 1970. Both were piloted by late Norwegian explorer extraordinaire Thor Heyerdahl and are at the Kon-Tiki Museum in Bygdøy. Wessel had long wanted to see them. Me, the ignorant American, had never heard of Heyerdahl or his scientific and cultural explorations. If you’re in the same boat as I was, do yourself a favor a read a little about this fascinating man. We need more like him.

Øskår Mæyer? My first Norsk dachshund

June 10, 2008

Shira of NorwayWe met Shira, a three-year-old long-haired dachshund, on the grounds of the Natural History Museum in Oslo. Her aunt and uncle were house/pet sitting while mom and dad were on a weekend getaway. We struck up a conversation while they strolled through the lovely botanical gardens connected to the University of Oslo and near the Munch Museum.

Shira was very friendly, as were her humans. Shoot, I just realized that I forgot to ask them what the Norwegian word is for dachshund. Does anyone know?

Since meeting Shira, we’ve spied two wire-haired wiener dogs, but I wasn’t in the mood to stop the owners for a chat and a photo. Maybe next time.