More buckets!

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

I decided to look back at what I was writing at this time last year, when I had just finished my year of (almost) constant travel.  I must admit that I really enjoyed reading my post about the Top 5 “Wow” Moments of 2014  and I invite you to take a look at it.

A summer evening's view of Bergen, Norway from the top of the Fløibanen funicular
A summer evening’s view of Bergen, Norway from the top of the Fløibanen funicular

Other than a very quick trip to France, most of my 2015 travel was in Canada.  As a result, my passport is well-rested and looking forward to more of a workout in 2016.   I previously mentioned that I would be skiing in the Via Lattea (“Milky Way”) region of Italy this winter; I have since added some other sightseeing nearby and am keeping my fingers crossed for good weather.

However, there will be a bigger trip during the summer  of 2016:  this time, it will incorporate at least two and maybe even three countries in the Southern Hemisphere that I’ve never visited before!  We are really excited about this one…it includes a couple of bucket list items that have been kicking around for a very long time.   After my tremendously enjoyable visit to Peru, I knew it was only a matter of time before I crossed the Equator again.

The Olympic ski-jumping facilities in Lillehammer, Norway
The Olympic ski-jumping facilities in Lillehammer, Norway

Of course, it is impossible to do everything that you want to do.  Even in 2014, when I had a great deal of flexibility, there were some things that just didn’t happen despite my best efforts.  Here’s a brief list of missed experiences from that year:

1.  Memphis, U.S.A.  I had great plans for this trip, including visits to Graceland, Sun Records, and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.  Unfortunately, my flight out of Chicago was cancelled due to a rare southern ice storm and I ended up spending the time in Chicago instead.  I really enjoyed Chicago but still want to get to Memphis someday.

Costumed Interpreters at the Norwegian Folk Museum in Oslo, Norway
Costumed Interpreters at the Norwegian Folk Museum in Oslo, Norway

2.  Day trip to Albania.  The hostel in Kotor, Montenegro, advertised day trips to the mysterious country of Albania.  This was a very insular place during the Cold War years and I really hoped to take a look.  However, there was not enough demand to offer the trip and I ended up visiting Durmitor National Park in northern Montenegro instead.

3.  Climbing Croagh Patrick.  This distinctive mountain just outside of Westport, Ireland, was clearly visible from my B&B.  It was calling to me and I really wanted to climb it.  Alas, the allotted day was plagued by a “fine Irish mist” and it would have been a miserable exercise.  I had to move on to Northern Ireland the next day.

The Norwegian Glacier Museum in Mundal (Fjærland), Norway
The Norwegian Glacier Museum in Mundal (Fjærland), Norway

4.  Wadlopen in the Netherlands.  The ancient northern Netherlands sport of wadlopen (“mudwalking”) also was calling to me.  I even went as far as renting the requisite boots.  Alas, the walking conditions were nasty on the day of the hike.  We still enjoyed a great day on the island of Schiermonnikoog and, after seeing some pictures of how messy wadlopen really is, I don’t really regret missing out on the mud.

Kjosfossen waterfall near Myrdal, Norway
Kjosfossen waterfall near Myrdal, Norway

5.  Waterfall Rappelling in Costa Rica.  This “adrenaline” experience looked like it would have been a lot of fun.  Alas, my injured shoulder was at its worst when I visited Costa Rica and I didn’t want to undertake anything risky with one useless arm.  As with wadlopen, however, I found a substitute activity that might even have been better!

As a tribute to Santa Claus and the North Pole, today’s pictures are all previously unposted photographs from the nearby northern nation of Norway.  Stay tuned – the next post will be from the road!

Travel Flashback – Cultural Sights in Oslo (2010)

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

There is more to Oslo than the sporting thrills described in my previous post.  We found a lot of cultural sights as well, many of them located on the Bygdøy peninsula.  While we took a bus to get back from Bygdøy to downtown Oslo afterwards, it was more fun to take a ferry there and feel like we were escaping urban life.

Happy pigs in Oslo
Happy pigs in Oslo

Our first stop was the Norwegian Folk Museum (Norsk Folkemuseum) a 35-acre outdoor complex including more than 150 buildings brought from all over Norway.   From grass-roofed farm buildings and old stave churches to cobblestoned villages and recreations of 20th century apartments, every conceivable aspect of Norwegian life over the past 1000 years was on display here.   There were costumed guides and farm animals too – I’ve included the pig photo as they just looked so happy!

Stave church
Stave church from 1212, re-assembled at the Norwegian Folk Museum

We found the more recent displays on 20th century living to be especially interesting, as they were just modern enough to look familiar but still different enough to show how much things have changed in a relatively short period of time.  Although we could have spent the entire day here, there were more Bygdøy sights to be seen.  First up was the Viking Ship Museum (Vikingskiphuset).

Not-too-distant Norwegian past
Not-too-distant Norwegian past: the early 20th-century on display at the Norwegian Folk Museum

The Viking Ship Museum is not huge, nor does it have very many items on display.  However, the well-preserved pair of ships from the 9th and 10th centuries are extremely impressive.  Seeing these elegant but nonetheless lightweight boats, particularly after our experience sailing off the northern coast of Iceland, reinforced our immense respect for the bravery of the maritime Vikings.

From the Viking Ship Museum, it was a short walk to the Maritime Museum, the Fram Museum and the Kon-Tiki Museum, all focusing on Norway’s seafaring history.  We skipped the Maritime Museum but were glad that we had enough time to visit the other two.

Viking ship
One of the original boats at the Viking Ship Museum

The Fram Museum (Frammuseet) is essentially just a shell hosting the 125-foot Fram boat used by famous Norwegian explorers Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen to travel farther into the Arctic and Antarctic oceans than anyone else had done.   We could climb and explore all over this famous ship; while fascinating (they had a piano!), it also reinforced how lonely, cold and confined these journeys must have been.  Indeed, it was difficult to take any worthwhile photos, given the cramped quarters inside.

Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki Raft
Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki Raft

Claustrophobia was the least of Thor Heyerdahl’s worries when he sailed the Kon-Tiki raft from Peru to Polynesia in 1947.  Built entirely out of materials that would have been available to early South Americans (and using only tools and techniques available to them), the idea was to show that these ancient people could have settled Polynesia.  As with the Viking ships from more than 1000 years ago, you will have immense respect for Mr. Heyerdahl and his crew once you see the lightness of the balsa-wood raft…even if the ancient Peruvians probably didn’t make such a journey themselves.

Centrepiece of Vigeland Park, Oslo
Gustav Vigeland’s Monolith at Frogner Park, Oslo

We ended our cultural day with a walk around Oslo’s Frogner Park, a 75-acre city park whose 192 sculpture groups represent the “life statement” of Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland.   The photo at the top of this post shows the centrepiece of the park, including the writhing Monolith that you see just above this paragraph.  While visitor impressions of the sculptures (especially the Monolith) range from fascination to being totally creeped out, the park remains a massive and well-used safe place in the heart of the city.

Hopefully, this account of one day in Oslo gives an idea of how many cultural sights there are in Oslo…and I haven’t even talked about “The Scream” yet!

Travel Flashback: Exciting Oslo! (2010)

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

Today’s flashback takes us to Oslo, Norway. In English, the name of this city is probably the least exciting of the northern European capitals.  After visiting Bergen and the mighty fjords, we anticipated seeing a few major sights and then moving on to somewhere in Sweden or southern Norway with a better travel reputation. Oslo’s legendarily high costs also weighed heavily on our minds. Surely, we wouldn’t spend the entire remaining week of our vacation there?

But a funny thing happened on the way to somewhere else: Oslo grew on us!

View from the top of the Holmenkollen ski jump in Oslo, Norway
View from the top of the Holmenkollen ski jump in Oslo, Norway

The high costs were partially offset by the saving grace of Scandinavian tourism: because business travel basically shuts down during the summer, Oslo’s better hotels all compete mightily for the modest number of tourists that find their way to the city. The result: 4-star hotels at (almost) bargain prices. The unforgettable (and included) smorgasbord breakfasts remain the same year-round, so we were able to skip lunch most days…as long as we treated ourselves to some hitherto unheralded Norwegian gelato in the early afternoon!

View of the Holmenkollen ski jump from the "take-off" point
View of the Holmenkollen ski jump from the “take-off” point

Norwegians are sports-crazy and it is only fitting that two of our favourite Oslo experiences were sports-related…and yes, very exciting!   The first was a journey to the legendary Holmenkollen ski jump facility (also known as Holmenkollbakken) in the northern part of the city.  The Norwegians excel at ski jumping and this facility is the Mecca of ski jumping in Norway.  The ski jumping events at the 1952  Winter Olympics were held here and it has continued to host prestigious meets ever since.

Looking down the still-under-construction Holmenkollen ski jump
Looking down the still-under-construction Holmenkollen ski jump

When we visited Holmenkollen, the structure was in the process of a complete rebuild.  Nonetheless, we could still go to the top and look down from the top of the ski jump.  I’ll cut to the chase:  if you think flying off a ski jump is crazy, don’t go to the top of a ski jump and look down.  It looks even crazier, with a steep, narrow path ending in absolute nothingness and seemingly certain death.   It is definitely scary, even for someone who has spent on awful lot of time on skis.

The facility also has a ski museum that traces the development of skiing from its earliest cross-country roots to modern day alpine skiing, ski jumping and freestyle skiing.  For a kitschy bonus, I decided to take a ride on the alpine skiing simulator set up there.  Along with a handful of strangers, I got to experience a World Cup ski race…complete with chattering ice and every other unnerving effect you can imagine.

The skiing simulator in action - I'm inside and in the process of being horrified
The skiing simulator in action – I’m inside and in the process of being terrified

I  once experienced a scary radar-gun-verified speed of 85 km/h on skis on a controlled slope in Switzerland and, after seeing a colleague take a bad spill at roughly that speed, it was something I resolved to never try again.  However, that uneasy feeling was nothing compared to this terrifying simulation at roughly twice that speed.   Ski racing is just as crazy as ski jumping!

The other sports experience in Oslo was seeing a professional soccer game at Ullevaal Stadion, home ground for Oslo’s legendary Vålerenga soccer team (wearing blue, in the photo at the top of this post) .   As with our visit to an international match in Stockholm two years later, we had a great time at the game itself and really felt like we had experienced a “real” aspect of life in Oslo.  There were few tourists here!

Vålerenga fans show their colours before the game
Vålerenga fans show their colours before the game

It was great to see a lot of goals, as  Vålerenga romped to an 8-1 victory over IK Start from Kristiansand.  Despite the one-sided result, fans of both teams were boisterous but well-behaved.  We’ll never forget the fans from Kristiansand singing on the subway out to the game!  We were also impressed with Vålerenga’s appreciation for their supporters.  As with Feyenoord in the Netherlands, jersey #12 is reserved for the  Vålerenga fans as the “12th player” and the players diligently saluted their fans when the game was over.

Vålerenga salutes their fans after an easy 8-1 victory
Vålerenga salutes their fans after an easy 8-1 victory

While these sporting expeditions were memorable, there is plenty more to see and do in Oslo.  Stay tuned for details!

Travel Flashback: Liverpool, England (2005)

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

If you followed my trip to Abbey Road last November, then you can probably guess why we incorporated a visit to Liverpool into our 2005 Wales holiday: to see the Beatles sights in this northern England city.  To make the experience as authentic as possible, we stayed at the Adelphi Hotel: it is an ancient place that would have been the top hotel in town during the 1950s and 1960s.  Guests have included Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and Roy Rogers (and his horse Trigger!).

Prior to becoming global superstars, the Beatles gained an intensely devoted following in their hometown of Liverpool.  The venue most associated with them is the Cavern Club on Mathew Street, where they played hundreds of shows “before the fame”.  It was a damp, dingy and crowded underground venue dripping with condensation that nonetheless attracted throngs to each Beatles performance.

Near the Liverpool waterfront on a blustery day in northern England
Near the Liverpool waterfront on a blustery day in northern England

One would think that such an important sight would have been preserved as a tourist sight.  Nonetheless, it was in fact “filled in” in 1973 to accommodate an underground rail line.  Some say that the Cavern was not saved because there was some lingering resentment over the “local boys who left”.   Using the original plans and some of the original materials, a “new” underground Cavern Club was soon built in the same general area  and it has been filled with tourists ever since.  This is the Cavern you see in the photo at the top of this post.

Our van for the National Trust tour of the Lennon and McCartney childhood homes in Liverpool, England
Our van for the National Trust tour of the Lennon and McCartney childhood homes in Liverpool, England

While it hosts bands of all types, during the daytime almost everybody there is a tourist attracted by the Beatles connection.  Not wanting to miss out, we went down there to see what it was like.  A passable guitarist sang Beatles songs on the stage.  We ordered Cokes, as many of the lunchtime attendees would have done in the Beatles’ day, and (along with a lot of tourists) managed to get a small feel for what it might have been like in the early 1960s.

Before going down into the Cavern, we stopped at The Grapes.  This is a nearby Mathew Street bar where the Beatles would sometimes relax before or after shows at the Cavern.  Again, most Beatles fans know this.  A couple of local patrons offered to take our picture, which we thought was a nice gesture.  It soon became clear that they were hoping for some money or drinks for their trouble!

"Mendips" - John Lennon's childhood home in Liverpool
“Mendips” – John Lennon’s childhood home in Liverpool

While it was relatively expensive, we then went on a National Trust tour of the boyhood homes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney.  A full-time housekeeper lives in each one and the only way to get inside them is by taking the National Trust tour from downtown Liverpool.  Advance  reservations are required, as only a limited number of people can visit each day.  Indoor photographs are not allowed.

John’s home was first…and it might be a revelation for some.  Although Lennon wrote a song called “Working Class Hero” and rebelled against privilege from time to time, he actually grew up in a relatively posh home (it even had a name: “Mendips”) with his aunt.  Mendips has been preserved as it would have been in the late 1950s and early 1960s.    We saw the front “foyer” where John and Paul would practice their vocal harmonies because the wall tiles resulted in great acoustics.

20 Forthlin Road (centre left) - Paul McCartney's childhood home in Liverpool
20 Forthlin Road  (centre left) – Paul McCartney’s childhood home in Liverpool

From there we went to Paul McCartney’s former home at 20 Forthlin Road.  This was much more modest – a cramped row house where Paul lived with his brother and father (his mother died when Paul was just 14).  We saw the living room where John and Paul composed some of their early songs “eyeball to eyeball”.   As with Mendips, the house has been restored to how it would have been when Paul actually lived there.  Although it was much humbler than John’s house, it would have been filled with music as Paul’s father had once been a bandleader.   The housekeeper here even bore a passing facial resemblance to Paul and naturally had the same Liverpool accent.

If you are interested in the history of the Beatles, visiting the National Trust houses is probably the best way to see “The Beatles’ Liverpool”.  The Cavern is also worth a peek but be aware that, out of necessity, the authenticity is just a little more compromised.