Friday, August 29, 2008

Scandinavia Trip - Part 4 (Norway)

Oslo greeted us with warmer weather and as we walked sweating through the city we began to feel less and less comfortable in our surroundings. It seems we had booked the only youth hostel located smack bang in the middle of the ghetto!!! Some street corners had us feeling like we were in Harlem or the Bronx, not Oslo on a summers day. Thankfully we made it to the hostel with all of our belongings, although the hostel staff (pun intended) were less than accommodating and three hours later we were given our room, with $20 worth of rented sheets!!! The shared room was occupied by a loud and seemingly retarded Italian and friendly Mexican who lived in Paris, who we were able to compare traveling notes with.


Our flight to Tromso departed mid morning and had us cross into the Arctic Circle not long after. The green rolling hills of southern Norway quickly transformed into rocky snow covered peaks and expanses of uninhibited landscapes. We landed in light rain, caught a bus to the city and carried out packs to the top of the only hill in town, where our homely wooden hostel was situated.

A bus left Tromso less than a couple of hours later and took us for a tour of the region. The landscapes were devastatingly beautiful. Rocky snow peaked escarpments punctuated by ancient glaciers trickling water into huge expanses of glowing blue water; green rolling hills with the occasional cosy grass roofed cottage; leathery skinned old men watching the traffic pass by their water side huts. The bus took us across two fjords by way of local ferries, before we embarked on a cruise ship (a glorified cargo ship that makes extra money by conducting cruises through the fjords while supplying the local towns).

Arriving back in Tromso at eleven o’clock at night we were amazed by how much sunlight was still around, no headlights or streetlights and a lot of heavy curtains to make it easier for the locals to sleep.

The weather made our plans of exploring the region by bike the next day unachievable, instead we explored the city and headed up to the top of the mountains fringing the city in a cable car. Dense cloud cover prevented us from capturing any great views unfortunately.

We decided to make the most of a less than ideal situation and purchase some beer to consume prior to heading into town that night. The local supermarket sold beer by the litre (500ml cans priced by the litre and calculated at the checkout, brilliant!!), we picked up six litres. Not the greatest beer in the world but local and cheap, we drank and watched a stage of the Tour De France before we headed out. It was already late and the amount of daylight present was playing tricks on our minds. Some pubs had louvers over their windows to block out the light, while others made the most of the ambient light (although I was confused as to why they lit candles in an attempt to create some kind of atmosphere). Our favourite pub was located in the rugged red brick basement of a building, barely high enough for me and Tim to jump and crowded to full capacity. A local rock band played from a cramped corner and as the lead singer swayed he constantly bumped into his two guitarists, classic.

We toured the local drinking establishments and visited the best kebab trailer in the world on two separate occasions before retiring back to the hostel we’d moved to that day.

We arrived back in Olso and ran the gauntlet of the ghetto once again. This time we had a hotel room booked at the hotel next door to the hostel we stayed at last time. The local ‘hip’ district was not as hip as we expected, although the amount of skin the bikini clad locals were willing to show in the local parks was astonishing. We explored the city, visiting the most ornate castle I had ever imagined seeing, and finally catching a tram to a Vigeland Park. The park was decorated with over two hundred statues designed by a man called Gustav Vigeland. The astonishing work had us mesmerised for hours and hundreds of photographs later we headed back to the marina through the non-ghetto side of town.


A lot of tourist attractions were advertised (or written about in the Lonely Planet) as being the ‘best in the world’, so we were somewhat sceptical about the claim that the train ride from Oslo to Bergen was the ‘most beautiful in the world’. We were proved wrong. The transformation took place over two or three hours as we headed into the mountains from sea level. Fjords lined by green hills and cottages became rockier and snowier until we arrived in the vicinity of Finse, where fresh water lakes and un-naturally blue streams and waterfalls flowed alongside the tracks.

I caught view of many cyclists following trails through the mountains wearing only shorts and shoes, showing their naturally tanned skin with sweat beading even though they were riding alongside patches of snow. We immediately decided that we had to get back here the next day to ride these trails and discovered that a company offered a service by which you hired a bike in Finse (1222m above sea level) and rode sixty kilometres downhill to Flam (a port at the western most extent of a fjord).

The atmosphere of Bergen was exactly what we had pictured a Scandinavian city would be like in summer.

Beautiful architecture, cobbled streets, fish markets, yachts lining the marina, and pubs lined with outdoor seating and filled with holiday makers. I dined on some of the freshest fish and chips I’d ever eaten as we sat in the cobbled square watching the fish markets wind down along with the sun.

The train got us to Finse mid morning and we questioned the guy at the bike shop about our needs; food and water were not a worry as the streams were supposedly as clean as could be and the trail bypassed at least two small cottages which sold food. So we departed with our back packs crammed with fruit, snacks and cameras.

The bikes were impressive for rentals. Specialized Rockhoppers with entry level components and nice fat and sticky tires.

I was dying to try the water and after devouring my first half a litre from my bottle I filled up from a flowing stream that ran under the old rail trail. There is no way to describe the taste, or lack thereof, of this water. I don’t know when or where it had fallen from the clouds, but it had found its way into this mountain stream and into my bottle after flowing over cool clean rocks for hundred of kilometres and hundred of meters of elevation. Mmmmmmm……….pure-ness……

The trail undulated over rocky hills covered in low and green vegetation (no trees this high up). The lakes were still and mirrored the surrounding snowy peaks and blue sky. They were so clean that you could see through the blue water for tens of meters before the reflection from the bright sky prevented you from seeing the rocks lining the bottom.

As we descended the vegetation became denser and the waterfalls more prevalent. This was turning into one of the best days I had ever had on a bike. We stopped for waffles with jam and sour cream at a small cottage beside a lake.

No more than a few kilometres afterward the lake flowed over a steep waterfall and fell over a hundred metres; we wound down a zig-zag trail that brought us half way down to sea level.

Somehow we had lost contact with each other and after numerous searches I decided that Tim must have overtaken me somehow and was in fact in front of me (unheard of) and heading down the hill toward Flam.

The landscape continued to change and the last twelve kilometres of descent were on bitumen before we reached Flam and encountered hundreds of tourists waiting to re-embark on their cruise ship. We pondered at how oblivious these people must have been to what the real countryside, mere kilometres away, actually looked like. I don’t think we really cared either way, we were on an all natural high the less people on those trails the better.

A rickety train carried us back up the mountain to a connecting train that brought us back to Bergen.

Our second day in Bergen afforded us a well deserved rest in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. We had our washing done, caught a cable car to the top of the mountain behind the city and hiked a short distance into the forest; we explored the old city fortress occupied by the Nazis during WWII, shopped from wooden buildings built four hundred years ago and once again watched the sun go down over the bay while enjoying a few cold $15 dollar beers.