Stunning Norway

Okay, Norway is definitely one of the most stunning countries we’ve seen. Everywhere you go, the natural beauty is breathtaking.  We spent a couple of days in Stavanger after our two incredible hikes, then rented another car in Bergen to drive through fjord and glacier regions in central Norway for a week.

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This picture is one of the national scenic routes, complete with narrow, twisty roads up and down mountains. We drove 4 or 5 of these designated roads, and they were each different but all were beautiful and all were hair-raising in parts. Let me just put it this way, I said several decades of the Rosary while driving these roads. And other than the time I went around one of these hairpin turns and met up with an 18-wheeler (yes, after I recovered from my panic mode, I backed up and he squeezed by), it all went well.

In general, driving in Norway is really fairly easy. First of all, the national speed limit is 80 km/hr (50 mph) but it drops to 60, 50 and even 30 km/hr (18mph) when you’re not on the open highway. That’s great for sightseeing and rubber-necking the gorgeous views!  And there’s hardly any cars on the roads, I was even able to stop in the middle of the road to take a picture when I wanted – and saw others doing the same thing.  However, it does take a long time to get anywhere.  Since the landscape is made up of so many fjords, inlets and islands, Norway has a fantastic network of ferries and tunnels – we must have driven through over a hundred tunnels! And what a marvel these tunnels are; there’s short ones, long ones (the longest in the world is here – over 15 miles long!), some are pitch black, some well-lit, some are blue (!) and we even went through one with 2 roundabouts INSIDE the tunnel, just unbelievable.

The ferry system is perfect, they have it down to a science. It takes only a few minutes to load, and as soon as you dock, boom, the barrier comes down and you’re off.

But it’s the scenery that you come here for…  The fjords…

The waterfalls…

The mountains, glaciers, glacial lakes and snow (Norway has the highest mountains in northern Europe)…

We even happened upon the summer training camp for the Norwegian cross-country (and apparently, the Austrian as well) ski team – we couldn’t believe that they were still skiing in mid-June.

There were beautiful villages…

And old churches…

The lively seaside towns…

And our requisite cute animals photos…

Norway is lovely!

 

Two Fantastic Hikes in Norway

We are finally in Norway to see this beautiful country, and we have not been disappointed.  We had seen pictures and reports of two unusual fjord hikes in southern Norway, so we spent our 1st night at Preikestolen Fjellstue, a Lodge at the trailhead of the hike to Pulpit Rock.

Pulpit Rock is a flat granite rock, with cliffs on three sides, jutting out 600 meters above Lysefjord – and it is the most popular hike and photo shoot in Norway. The hike itself is about 2 hours each way, with lots of rocky ascents (they brought in Sherpas to improve the rocky climbs) along with forested sections and some small lakes. But the climax is the rock itself and the view down the fjord. What more can I say, a picture is worth a thousand  words…

I did have a little accident, just before we reached the parking lot at the end of the trail. I slipped on some loose rocks and somehow fell flat on my face!  I hit hard and thought for sure that I had broken my nose but no,  I just have cuts on my nose, lips and chin plus a slightly chipped front tooth – it’s pretty embarrassing.

So I was very sore for our next hike to Kjeragbolten. But I soon forgot my injuries after the first huge climb up rocky mountains using chains for assistance in the steeper sections (there were three big climbs on this hike). Kjerag is the biggest mountain along the Lysefjord.  It’s a longer and more difficult hike for sure,  but I ended up having great fear – I am deathly afraid of heights and since I had the fall the previous day I was really nervous. But I have to say, it was a gorgeous hike, all bare rock, patches of snow and fantastic mountain views.

And the culmination of the hike, Kjeragbolten, the rock! Courageous hikers come here to get a picture on this boulder wedged between two sheer cliffs high above the fjord. Here’s BRAVE Brian and me? Not so brave…

It was scary!

 

Good Health and Nice Legs???

That describes Copenhagen residents, according to our tour guide yesterday (by the way, we always take the free tour – well, not quite free as they request a donation at the end – that it seems is offered in all major European cities).  It’s because almost everyone rides bicycles… very much like in Amsterdam.  It’s great to see so many people on bikes, but you must be very careful about staying out of the bike lane or you may be clobbered!  We’re told that the main reason is that there is a horrendous tax on car purchases –  80% (yes,  it’s not a typo,  80%)!!

Copenhagen was kind of a cultural shock to us after our days in the smaller Baltic capital cities,  with lots of traffic, bikes zooming by and noise from construction projects. It was nice staying in a residential section of town, and walking or taking the bus into the city center. Denmark, or at least this part of the country, is flat and it is usually windy. Although Copenhagen is an old city, because of this wind its old wooden buildings have not survived many Great Fires through the centuries. But there are many beautiful replacements and some historical sites. Tivoli Gardens, the 2nd oldest amusement park in Europe (1843) on 20 acres in the middle of the city, is next to the Carlsberg Museum (from the famous brewery magnate) and across the street from the huge Town Hall with a gold statue of Bishop Absolon, founder of Copenhagen on its facade.

And then there is Hans Christian Anderson and the Weather Girls on the same square… The girl on the bike is supposed to be out in fair weather,  the one with the umbrella comes out when it’s rainy,  but they’ve both been stuck halfway for years.

There’s lots of dragons around and many other architectural gems.

Copenhagen is on the coast and is criss-crossed with rivers and canals; reminiscent of Amsterdam again. And the old Nyhavn wharf district, established in 1670, has been cleaned up and is lovely and fun.

I think there are three palaces in the city but we only saw two – both rather magnificent complexes. The first,  Christiansborg Palace, is considered the birthplace of Copenhagen and is on the site of Absolon’s 12th century castle. It was the royal palace but now houses Parliament, the Supreme Court, the Stock Exchange and other government entities.  You can still visit the royal stables there as well as a great reception hall.  The Amalienborg Palace is newer (1860) and is comprised of four mansions where the present royals and their guests reside.  We were there for the changing of the guards (I  know,  broken record)  and also saw the Queen and the President of Poland arrive in a procession, which I thought was rather exciting – Brian wasn’t too impressed 🙂

We took a train to the town of Roskilde to see their great Cathedral and Viking Museum. Roskilde introduced Christianity to Denmark in 980 and was the home of Danish royalty until 1450. It was a great little town with a lively pedestrian-filled main street with lots of shops and cafes, ending with the 12 c. Cathedral. It was easy to spend hours in the cathedral, as it is full of history and holds the tombs of almost all of the Danish Kings and Queens from 1400’s through its last King who died in 1979 (Denmark is now ruled by a Queen). It also has gorgeous frescoes,  etc. and of course a beautiful, historic alterpiece and organ.

I was excited to visit the Viking Ship Museum there. Roskilde is located on an inlet which had been a location for fishing and trading from Denmark’s earliest days. In the 1960’s at the bottom of the fjord were found five Viking ships that had been scuttled back in the 900’s, some being war ships that were sunk in blockades during raids. The pieces were excavated, preserved and reassembled and are on display there. The five ships were also built anew,  using only the same materials and types of trees that were used back in Viking times, and they are sailed all over the world (they offer sailing tours here, too).  Plus on the grounds are craftspeople and sailors who are still shipbuilding and you can watch them at work. This was such an interesting and amazing place and we learned so much about Vikings and the way they lived from this museum (they weren’t really the disgusting, savage people that I have always seen portrayed). Jack and Pat, you’d love this museum!

OH, yeah, a couple of things we learned about Denmark… They are taxed at a rate between 49% and 79%! Some of the things that pays for:  free health care,  free education through high school  and you are paid the equivalent of about $1000/month to attend college through getting a masters degree, 12 months paid leave of absence for new mothers,  15 weeks paid leave for new dads. Of course assistance if you lose your job… Bernie would love living here!

And for our Camino friends,  you never know where you’ll find a Pilgrim’s Way! 20160610080543

Just a Few Additional Thoughts on the Baltics

As you can tell from my posts so far, we were quite impressed with the Baltic States.  I just have a few items to add that apply to them all:

1.  The Baltic Chain or the Baltic Way – On August 23, 1989, approximately two million people joined hands to form a 380 mile long human chain from Tallinn, Estonia through Riga, Latvia to Vilnius,  Lithuania. Singing songs, this was their peaceful way of demonstrating their unity in demanding independence from the USSR.  It attracted a lot of attention throughout the world and had a major impact on them getting free from the Russians.  Very impressive!

This is the endpoint of the Chain in Vilnius, if you turn around 7 times on one foot your wish may come true – their’s did!  (I only made 6 turns before falling off the square,  oh well)

2.  Free WiFi everywhere!  You walk around each of these cities and you have free WiFi on the streets.  Why can’t we do that?

3.  Great transportation systems – Busses, trams and trains run on time,  have free WiFi and are clean and comfortable.  Why can’t we do that?

4.  Much more modern than we had expected – We thought the Baltic countries would be like Albania, poor infrastructure and not really ready for prime time tourism.  We were wrong. Everything was beautiful and easy!

5.  Everyone speaks English – All children in all three countries must take English starting in elementary school,  Estonia also requires Russian,  and then kids can choose one or more additional foreign languages to take.  Boy are they ready to be successful in the world.  Why can’t we do that?

6.  Traveling during the “White Nights” is great for sightseeing, but hard on the stamina. (OK,  we admit we’re finally getting old!)  It gets dark here after 11pm, and it’s light around 3am. Not really sunrise and sunset hours,  but it’s still light through most of when normally I’m sleeping.  So we’re out running around and all of a sudden we realize it’s after 10pm! Hard to get used to,  but I like it!  Wouldn’t want to be here in winter, though.

7.  Unfortunately, many young people are leaving the Baltics for Europe and Scandinavia – Cost of living is low here, but so are the average wages.  We were told that Estonians will go work in Finland or Sweden and make equivalent of $10 per hour, which is half of what the Fins and Swedes make,  but is double what they’d make in Estonia. In Vilnius, the average wage is 500 euros per month (about $550), and our guide said they can live fine on that pay.  According to our friend in Helsinki, they had a similar problem in Finland, losing young workers to Sweden and Denmark in order to get higher wages and the better benefits there.

Visit the Baltics!

Another Fabulous Baltic Capital!

After another comfortable bus ride from Riga, checking into our apartment and walking five minutes, we were thrilled to find that our entrance into the Old Town of Vilnius, Lithuania would be through the last-standing of the original five gates.  It is called the Gate of Dawn and it houses the Chapel of Mary the Mother of God and the Vilnius Madonna, a painting from the 1600’s purported to work miracles; as such, it has become a pilgrimage site in Eastern Europe.  We had read that sometimes Mass is held in this tiny chapel (only about 12 people can squeeze in around the priest) and we made a special point to attend – a unique sacred experience.  The pictures above show the window above the gate which stays always open so you can see the portrait from the street below.

Vilnius’ Old Town is the largest in Eastern Europe and it is filled with churches and – guess what – beautiful architecture,  mostly Baroque this time.  In the 14th – 17th centuries, Lithuania was a big empire, stretching into what now is Russia and Poland, but it was given to Russia totally in the Partition of Poland in the late 1700’s. The rest of their history is basically the same as the other Baltic States, brief independence, Soviet rule,  Nazi rule,  Russian rule,  independence in 1990. However, unlike Estonia and Latvia, Lithuania is still 80% Catholic and 90% are of Lithuanian descent (Russia chose not to resettle the country as it did the others).  So the town is full of towering steeples and only a few onion-domes (Orthodox – as beautiful as they are,  it’s nice to see Catholic churches again). While under Soviet rule, all the churches were closed and turned into warehouses and atheist museums (it’s true!), but when Lithuania regained independence the people retained their faith.

One particularly sad fact of Vilnius is that it used to be referred to as the “Jerusalem of the North” – at one time the Jewish population there was over 100,000.  Sadly, only about 5000 live there now. Panerai Forest, where mass graves filled with up to 100,000 bodies of Jews massacred by the Nazis in WWII were found, is just outside the city.  Over half of the Jewish population of Vilnius were killed there during the first three months of the war.  We didn’t go there but we did walk through the site of the Jewish ghetto where there is a memorial to the victims.

Sports, basketball in particular, is supposed to be Lithuanian’s biggest passion (our tour guide said, #1 God, #2 basketball,  #3 beer!). This was reinforced to us by two events: in the main square on Saturday was a boys wrestling tournament,  and on Sunday the main street was closed and filled with all kinds of sports games, open to anyone who wanted to participate. There was tai chi,  yoga, fitness classes, tennis courts, ping pong, chess, checkers, street hockey… anything you could think of, it stretched for blocks –  really neat with people of all ages participating and watching.  

And the beer drinking – we heard this wagon singing down the street 🙂

Vilnius was founded on Gediminus Hill,  which still has a 13th century tower and castle ruins. We walked there through a lovely large park (if only US cities had more of these) and up a few hills to reach it and the site of the Three Crosses.  Crosses were placed on a hill in the 1700’s to honor three monks who had been murdered by Pagans.  The Soviets bulldozed them in 1950 and left their ruins at the base of the hill; they are still there below the rebuilt three crosses monument.

And here is Grand Duke Gediminus (ruled in the 1300’s) and his hilltop castle overlooking the old and new town:

Another interesting area of Vilnius is the Republic of Uzipes, located on an (almost) island close to Old Town. In 1998, on April 1st, it was declared an independent state with their own President,  Parliament, flag and a Constitution. It is all tongue-in-cheek but the city has embraced it and it has become a hip place to live and visit. It is filled with art and cafes,  and it’s quite pleasant to visit.

The pictures on the entrance sign reflect that you must be happy and smile while visiting here (Lithuanians have been downtrodden too long);  speed limit is 20 km/hr.; Mona Lisa represents the artist colony who are embraced here; this is how you are punished if you speed (your car will end up in the river).  The Constitution is also cute,  such as stating the right for its citizens to have a cat, to love, to be free, and to have hot water among other things…  the parliament meets in a corner bar and that is where it was written,  so that explains it!

We watched the changing of the guard at the (real) Presidents Palace.  Like the other Baltic states, the President’s house and Parliament are wide open,  very accessible, and Lithuania has a popular woman president. The ritual was elaborate,  with music and both soldiers and Knights in shining armor.  Plus Brian got his requisite picture shaking hands with a Presidential Guard.

We had time to take a quick train to the small town of Trakai, which sits between two lovely lakes and has a fully restored castle dating back to the 1300’s.  It’s a great little town and the castle has many exhibits, a small museum,  plus some interactive stuff to do in the large inner yard.

Riga, the Art Nouveau capital of Latvia

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We reached Riga after a 4 1/2 hour bus ride – the bus had free WiFi, movies, music, etc. so it was surprisingly pleasant.  After finding our Airbnb apartment (we are staying at apartments this time instead of the usual hotels), we walked into the Old Town and bought tickets for Rigoletto at the Riga Opera House. Things are inexpensive here and an example is seeing live a very good performance of Rigoletto for only $12 each!

Riga and Tallinn are very different,  even though they have a similar history of being ruled by more powerful surrounding countries. Riga is about a third larger than Tallinn, population-wise, and it has a much more European feel. This is probably because Riga was always a bigger and more prosperous city (the largest Swedish city when under their rule,  and the 3rd largest city in Russia in mid-19th century). Riga’s old town is no longer walled, and its original moat is now a picturesque canal through a huge park.  The old town still has cobblestone streets and some fabulous  centuries-old churches and merchant’s houses; but as you cross the parkland into the “suburbs”, you are bombarded by architecturally stunning Art Nouveau buildings. The city experienced an economic and population boom between the 1860’s and the early 1900’s, and over 800 Art Nouveau buildings sprung up during that period. It was named a UNESCO site for having the most Art Nouveau buildings in the world,  and it’s amazing to walk around these neighborhoods.

Riga has the largest City Market in Europe; unique also because much of it is housed in 5 German-built zeppelin hangars.  One has meat only,  one for fish, one fruit and vegetables… and outside vendors as well,  you can buy everything there!

Like Tallinn, Riga has preserved many of its old wooden houses/buildings.  We walked through it’s “Moscow suburb” which includes old Soviet factories now refurbished into start-ups, shops and restaurants, the site of the old Jewish ghetto and a large office building in the Stalinesque style – apparently Stalin wanted one of these huge buildings in each of its conquered states (we saw several in Moscow).  From the top floor you have great views of the city.

The Latvian people suffered greatly while under Soviet and Nazi domination. We toured the Latvian Museum of Occupation as well as what was known as the Corner House, the headquarters of the KGB in the 1940 to the 1980’s. Latvia gained independence after WWI and by 1930 it had one of the highest standards of living in Europe. When the communists took over, the Latvians lost basically all of their possessions and their rights. Everyone was under suspicion and was subject to arrest, torture, expulsion to Siberia (men to work camps,  women and children to resettlement outposts in the most horrible conditions) or death.  Of course, the Nazis were no better; but when they lost the war, Latvia was again given back to the Soviets to continue the brutal oppression.  At the KGB house it also came to life as you can see the cells in the basement and the secret execution room.  Between the deportations, executions, and resettlements of Latvians to Russia and vice versa, today the ratio of Latvians to Russians is about 50/50.  It was all very sad; I think all of America’s young people should have to learn what it’s like to lose your freedom under a group who promises a better life.

Each of the Baltic countries have an Ethnographic Open-Air Museum, made up of original wooden homesteads, churches and windmills from the different regions of the country from the 18th and 19th centuries.  We visited the one here, located in a beautiful forest by a lake outside of Riga.

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Next stop, Lithuania!

 

A Day in Helsinki, Finland

Well,  if you’re in Tallinn,  you may as well take a ferry to Helsinki – it’s only 2 hours away!

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We spent close to 7 hours in Helsinki and were lucky to be befriended by a nice young Brit (now living there), who took us under his wing for several blocks and gave us a better perspective on some historical and cultural aspects of the country as we walked into the city center.

Beautiful Helsinki is part of a group of islands and therefore you have plenty of water views wherever you go.  It’s a cosmopolitan city, full of modern buildings and a few older ones, lots of museums and a fine park/esplanade which is ideal to saunter through and people watch. It seems to be very compact, and maybe since it was such a fine day (our friend mentioned that they have cold and snow 7 months out of the year – sound familiar?) the streets and outdoor cafes were filled with people.

As usual, our 1st stop was food (lunch), and I wanted to try a vegan restaurant named Zucchini. It was so good, lasagna, beans, veggies, salad… yummy. I have to say that being vegan over here is much easier than in the States, I guess it’s more common here as every restaurant can easily accommodate you and there are many vegetarian and vegan options everywhere – so far. Then we headed over to the waterfront again to the market square for Brian’s lunch – fresh fish sandwich – and some browsing.

Next it was on to the churches on opposite hills that dominate the skyline.  Unfortunately the Russian Orthodox church was closed on Monday, but we were able to see inside the much plainer Lutheran cathedral.

Another big attraction in Helsinki is the Temppeliaukion Kirkko, a church built into the rock that has a copper strip domed roof and a fabulous organ.  Luckily we visited when an organist was rehearsing for a bride and groom-to-be and heard some beautiful music.

After seeing the famous Finlandia Concert Hall, we spent the rest of the afternoon strolling around the parks, lakes and walkways /bikeways around the city. I had wanted to take a ferry across to the Fortress of Finland but we ran out of time and had to ferry back to Estonia.

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It’s a FLEA TRAP! Estonians and other Nordic people would put this under their clothes and any little critters that might be lurking around would be lured to this little furry contraption instead of feasting on their body.  Pretty ingenious, eh?