Down the Sognefjord, to Flåm and back

We headed up the coast of Norway after leaving Stavanger, 244 nautical miles to Flåm. That means we were headed down the Sognefjord, the largest fjord in Norway. Then down the Aurlandsfjord to Flåm. We left Stavanger at 6 PM, so by the time we headed into the fjord, I was already in bed.  I awoke at 5AM and took a peak out the window.  Since it literally never gets dark in Norway during the summer, I had no trouble seeing that we were in the middle of a beautiful fjord.  I quietly dressed and headed up to the Explorer’s Lounge where there were already a number of passengers gathered for the scenery. At 7AM, I decided Mike could no longer sleep and needed to see the beauty around us.  What I didn’t think about was the fact that we would be leaving by the same route.

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The excursion we chose for the day was a full day trip by rail and bus. We started out on the Flåm Railway, climbed nearly 3,000 feet and passed through 20 tunnels. The train stops at the Kjosfossen Waterfall so visitors can see the Huldra, a seductive forest creature, that dances and sings in front of the waterfall.

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A change of trains and we ended in Voss. We stopped at Molstertunet, an open air museum. The most amazing thing about the farm buildings that were built between 1600-1870, is that they were occupied until 1927!And what a view!

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After a stop for lunch at the Stalheim Hotel, we headed back to Flåm via Stalheimskleiva, a steep road full of hairpin turns.

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I have never seen so many waterfalls. They were everywhere. There was still snow on the peaks, so that probably added a few that will not be there in the summer.  But still, so many!

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On to Norway… First stop Stavanger

You know oil is important to an area when the city boasts an oil museum. Stavanger’s economy is linked to oil and the city’s population growth is because of offshore oil. The day we were there was, unfortunately, one of the worst weather days of our trip. It was cold, rainy and windy.

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Al Gore’s footprints on the Path of Peace in Stavanger will incorporate footprints from various peace figures in a route that ends at the Cathedral Square.

But despite the weather, it was easy to see Stavanger is a charming city. The Old Town has beautiful, white-washed homes with cobblestone streets. Quite slippery, when it’s rainy.

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The “vekter” patrolled the town at night looking for fire or any people disturbing the peace. He also was the lamplighter. 
Norway's oldest medieval cathedral still in its original form
Norway’s oldest medieval cathedral still in its original form

We visited the Canning Museum. If you have ever tasted King Oscar sardines, the fish may have come from the Stavanger area. They no longer can the fish; that is done in Poland. But at one time, Stavanger was once home to more than half of Norway’s canning factories.

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Thankfully, it quit raining long enough for us to eat outside, but with the heaters on! This is where we got our first taste of just how expensive Norway is. Two local beers and two trout lunches…$78!

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Vikings, Gardens and Aquavit

Americans have all aalborgheard of Copenhagen, but I wonder how many of them know about Aalborg.  I didn’t.  Aalborg, in the northern part of Denmark, is the fourth most populated city in Denmark.

We had a very short day, leaving port at 1:30 PM.  But we packed the morning visiting the ancient Viking site of Lindholm Høje. In the 1950s the burial site was discovered, over 700 graves covered by sand. Men’s graves were triangular and women’s round or oval.

img_1435 img_1436 The area was uncovered and a museum built at the location. Both the burial site and the museum were fascinating.

Back on the bus, we drove to a community garden.  There were many of these kinds of gardens in Scandinavia.  But I was surprised at the size of the garden plots in Aalborg. We visited one couple’s garden and were even invited into their house. Yes, house! In a garden plot. The owners are allowed to sleep at their site during spring, summer and autumn.  These particular plots were rented for what I believe is about $300 year. Amazing.  We sampled the local aquavit, but I have to admit I didn’t think it was very good.

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The gardens went on and on…

Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen….and happy birthday to Mike!

I am such a foodie. Much of what I enjoy on a vacation is tasting different foods.  And we were going to the home of NOMA, voted the best restaurant two years in a row!  Mike and I had just finished watching Anthony Bourdain eat his way through the menu.  NOMA menu  Oh, how I wanted to go.  And we could splurge; it was Mike’s birthday.  The ship offered an excursion to NOMA at $399 per person!! Not to worry, I would make our own reservations. Drat, we were going to be there on a Monday and the restaurant was closed.  Thankfully, I wasn’t even tempted by the ship excursion because it was sold out before it ever got to the level for my cruise reservation.

But what to do. Online I found a website 10 Top Noma Alternatives in Copenhagen. I perused the choices and settled on Höst. And a good choice it was!

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For Mike’s birthday they delivered a flag to our table.  We thought that was a little strange.

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The following day we were in some Aalborg community gardens and saw a lot of long, skinny Danish flags. When I asked what the significance of the flag was I was told they fly the streamer for everyday. The real flag is only flown for special occasions, which may include your birthday. Well, that explains a lot!

The meal was very interesting. We ordered the prix-fixe three-course meal with wine pairings. The waiter informed us that even though it said three courses, there would be more. Surprises, he said. And for all you fellow foodies, here they are:

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Potato with bakskuld, onion ashes and dried seagrass

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salted scallop with lemon verbena, horseradish and cucumber
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Seared Norwegian lobster, juniper-pickled carrots, sea buckthorn, juniper cream, hazelnuts and browned butter
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When the above course was delivered, the juniper was flamed. The menu doesn’t mention the extra goodie, a chicken foot!
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stirred beef tartare from eye of rump with lemon-thyme mushrooms, cress and potato chips with ransom
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ribeye with lettuce creme, cabbage, pea sprouts, fried inkchips, smoked cheese and pepper
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juncket mousse with licorice toffee and freezedried buckthorn
birch bark ice cream, apple compote, chocolate with herbs and mushroom sponge cake
birch bark ice cream, apple compote, chocolate with herbs and mushroom sponge cake

What a great night!

Copenhagen and the Coast

Looking out from the ship, the view of Copenhagen wasn’t what I thought it would be. Industrial, but with nice touches like the sculptures. But, I told myself, ships don’t dock in the pretty parts of town.

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And a beautiful city it is.  Once again, bicycles are a way of life.  But here, there were armies of bikes moving like the peloton down the wonderfully marked bike trails.

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We img_1203met our tour guide, a very delightful retired man. He and his wife are both tour guides.

We took a walk to Amalienborg Palace, the residence of the Danish Royal family. The four palace buildings are placed around an octagonal square. A statue of  is smack dab in the middle of the square.

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Political campaign posters. No TV ads allowed!

Onto the bus for a 12km ride to Dragør, a little seaside village full of well-preserved historical buildings built in the traditional Danish style. We walked through the village and stopped for coffee and Danish. LOL.

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This guy is burning the weeds between the bricks with a blow torch. Interesting alternative to weedkiller.

Back to Copenhagen and Tivoli Gardens. We ate lunch at Fru Nimb, a Danish open sandwich restaurant, with over 50 different selections of smørrebrød. (I know, more food.)

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So many interesting towers and steeples.

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No trip to Copenhagen would be complete without a visit to the Little Mermaid.

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About 4PM we both hit the wall, tired from a short night of sleep and a full day of sightseeing.  But, we had dinner reservations at 6PM for Mike’s birthday. It wouldn’t make sense to walk all the way back to the boat and then turn around and go back. So, the perfect rest stop….a Stromma boat for a canal ride. Beautiful views from the water.

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opera house

After the hour ride we were refreshed and ready for a little more walking. Then on to the special birthday dinner. Read about it in the next post.

Russia…Day Two

The architecture is amazing, but the most interesting part of our Russian experience was Natalia.  She is in her early fifties, old enough to have experienced some hard times in Russia. She likes Putin, though she didn’t when he first was elected. I think she is happy that times are better, at least for her.  Her son, in his twenties, doesn’t necessarily agree with her.  Crimea…She believes that the Crimea should be part of Russia; her son felt Russia had no business invading.  So, the differences in the ages. How familiar. But the two-day discussion was most engrossing. No matter where you live people have the same concerns: family, taxes, housing, education, war and the future for your children. Most interesting was the number of people, in all different countries that stated they just wanted ISIS wiped out.  The vehemence this group elicits is both unbelievable and understandable.

There are still many signs of old Russia. Natalia didn’t understand why they would tear down statues of Stalin in the Ukraine. To her way of thinking, it is just history.  It isn’t right or wrong, just part of the past.

rsz_img_0572 rsz_img_0787The Winter Palace is the main building of the Hermitage. It was built for Elisabeth, the daughter of Peter the Great, and sits on the bank of the Neva River. Along with four other buildings that are beside it, the Hermitage Museum has the largest art collection in Russia. Natalia informed us that although Moscow is the financial capital of Russia, but St. Petersburg is the cultural capital. The former home of czars is impressive for the both the architecture and the art collection. My favorite, the Impressionists, are now housed in the General Staff Building. An interesting article in the NY Times in 1994 announced the holdings of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art held by the Hermitage, in secret, until 1991. Hermitage Reveals Hidden Treasures

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Palace Square looking at the Winter Palace
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Palace Square looking at the General Staff Building

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Squares…In addition to Palace Square we saw a number of beautiful squares in this well-laid out city.

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Senate Square and The Bronze Horseman statue, monument to Peter the Great
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St. Isaac’s Square

In the afternoon we visited Catherine Palace, another drive out of the city center. On the way we passed the monument to the rsz_img_0790Siege of Leningrad. The 900 day rsz_img_0180siege cost the lives

of more than a million residents, most of starvation. We saw this speaker that was broadcasting a continual thump. I believe Natalia told us it was to commemorate the people who died during the siege.

I have to admit, I was a little palaced-out by the time we arrived at Catherine Palace.  I don’t know if we could have arranged to go somewhere normal Russians go, but I wish I would have tried. So much opulence was a little overwhelming. That being said, it is another example of outstanding architecture. The palace is named after Catherine I, the second wife of Peter the Great. Elizabeth, the daughter of Catherine and Peter, is the one responsible for its current grandeur. She was gold-crazy! It took over 100kg of gold to decorate the palace exteriors. Easy to understand the Bolshevik Revolution. And before you say anything, I know that wasn’t until 1917.

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amber_roomThe Amber Room is covered with amber covered panels. The room, built in the early 1700’s, is valued near $400 million. The room was given to Peter the Great in 1716 by Wilhelm I of Prussia. During WWII Nazi troops removed it and it has never been found. The Russian government ordered a restoration of the Amber Room in 1979 and it was completed 2003. Unbelievably, much of Catherine Palace was destroyed during WWII.  When you see pictures of the devastation, it seems impossible that it has been restored.       Mystery of the Amber Room

Something that didn’t fit in anywhere:  The heat in St. Petersburg is controlled centrally. The government turns it on in the fall and off in the spring. You cannot regulate the temperature yourself. During the summer, the hot water is turned off for three weeks to do maintenance on the system.

The Soviets provided housing for its citizens. So, a great many big, plain apartments were built. After the fall of communism many citizens received ownership of their apartments.

A great look at the monuments of St. Petersburg:  St. Petersburg monuments

To Russia With Love…Day One

Of all the ports we were scheduled to visit, I was most interested in St. Petersburg, also named Petrograd in 1914, Leningrad in 1924 and back to St. Petersburg in 1991. Maybe it’s growing up during the cold war period, but Russia has always seemed so foreign.  But again, no matter where I travel, people are all so much alike. Language, however, is certainly different.  How harsz_img_0781ppy I was not to drive!

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The Cyrillic alphabet looks like Greek to me.  Ha ha, it was invented by a Greek monk named Cyril. While traveling in Europe, there are many countries I have been able to figure out signs because of the similarities of Romance languages.  But not Russian. Though there are many signs that are recognizable anywhere:

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The best decision of the entire trip was to hire a private guide in Russia.  I did have a moment’s hesitation as I wired money to a travel company I could find very little about online.  In Russia you need a Visa to be unaccompanied. Without one you must be with a licensed guide. After pouring over the excursions offered by the tour ship, I mentioned to my Aunt Mari that I was in a quandary.  She recommended a tourrsz_img_0196 guide she had traveled with in St. Petersburg. Long story short, we found another guide through Mari’s contact. After a long wait in line, we handed the custom officer our printed form, all in Cyrillic except our names, and hoped it stated that we were ok to exit the ship. After close scrutiny we exited to find Natalia holding a sign with our names. Relief. So, we had Natalia and Alexander, our driver for two days. An exhausting, but fascinating time.

In the early 1700s, Peter the Great captured the area from the Swedes and built the Peter and Paul fortress.

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day one we headed for Peterhof, the Russian version of Versailles, a UNESCO World Heritage site. After about an hour drive from the dock, we arrived. The palace was opened in 1723 and is beautiful.

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Photos show the burying of treasures to hide from Nazi destruction or theft.

  The gardens are exceptional. Down in the lower gardens we found the Monplaisir Palace, situated right on the Gulf of Finland.  Natalia told us this was Peter’s favorite place, smaller and on the sea.

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The original palace didn’t look as it does today.Peter’s granddaughter, the empress Elizabeth expanded the palace and the park, including the Grand Cascade. Catherine the Great also made changes, but moved the location of her court to Pushkin. Nicholas I made it his residence. So much of the palace was destroyed during WWII, but it was fully restored by 1947.  That is hard to imagine considering the state of Russia after the war.

We returned to St. Petersburg by hydrofoil and ate lunch at a small restaurant featuring “stuffed breads.” You could get a piece stuffed with meat, fish, vegetables or sweet fillings.  The breads were beautifully decorated. We also tried the borscht and sorrel soups. Yum.

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The churches…the sheer immensity!

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood was built on the place where Alexander II was wounded and died in 1881. The building began in 1883 and was completed in 1907.

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St. Isaac’s Cathedral, Russian Orthodox, was constructed from 1818 to 1858. During WWII, the dome was painted gray to not attract the attention of enemy aircraft.

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We walked along the Nevsky Prospect, the major street in St. Petersburg. We visited the oldest delicatessen and window shopped.  We did buy a couple of T-shirts at a souvenir kiosk.

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We returned to the ship for a quick meal and headed out with an excursion group to an evening of Russian folk music and dance. It was a very enjoyable evening. The entertainers are mainly part of the military, either lifers or young people doing their mandatory service.

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Back to the ship after a very full day!

 

 

New friends

We met many new people on board the ship. We sat with different people all the time. But we really hit it off with two couples, Bridget & Tom and Fran & Dale.  We really enjoyed their company. We had quite a bit in common. We found out Tom & Bridget were also staying five extra days in Bergen at the end of the cruise. We got together at for dinner in Bergen a couple times and spent a day touring the Hardanger Fjord together. Hopefully, these are new friends we will see again.

 Dale, Fran, Tom, Bridget, me and Mike on the ship going through the Sognefjord. When we entered the fjord in the morning it was windy, overcast and drizzling. When we left that evening to go back through the fjord, it was beautiful weather, chilly but sunny and clear.  It was an amazing view.

 

Gdansk

Well, to begin with, the ship doesn’t land in Gdansk. It docks in Gdynia, about one-half hour away from Gdansk. That gave our tour guide a long time to fill us in on the bus ride. Again, we had a guide who was very passionate about her city. We passed the Gdansk Lenin shipyards and Solidarity Square where workers were shot in 1970. Lech Walesa is her hero for co-founding Solidarity and presiding over Poland as it changed from a Communist state.

   
 

We arrived in Gdansk and entered the old town through the Green Gate. 

  Gdansk was heavily damaged during WWII. The buildings that are in Gdansk now are reconstructed. And beautiful they are. Long Lane is one of the main streets. The architecture is amazing.

   

 

Oliwa Cathedral, 1186
  

 

The Long Bridge

 

Of course we had to try a local beer and pierogies.
 
 

This was a very short day. We landed in port around 6AM and left about 1PM. I would really enjoyed a little more time in this beautiful city.

Tallinn, Estonia

Tallinn is a charming city on the Gulf of Finland. It is a walled city full of cobblestone streets and tiled roofs. The Old Town is an UNESCO World Heritage site.  

      

We started the day with a tour by bus. But the most interesting part was the walking tour of the old town. It is divided into two parts, upper and lower. Our tour guide was little, but quick and she soon left a few people straggling far behind.  She was very emotional when she told us the day she and her mother stood and watched the Estonian flag raised in 1991, when Estonia regained its independence. Not hard to understand when you learn of all the countries that controlled Estonia over the years: Denmark, Sweden, Russia, Nazi Germany…

 
Tallinn has many churches of all different faiths, probably because of all the different people that have ruled. 

Saint Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Church (under renovation)

 

The Cathedral of Saint Mary the Virgin was a German Church and that is easy to see from all the coats of arms that cover the walls.

   
 

We ate at a “medieval” restaurant for lunch and shared a bowl of reindeer stew. No utensils were to be found.

   
 

Right next door was the town square tower. We hiked to the top and amazingly made it back down. The stairs were incredibly steep, narrow and tall. I am sure they would never be able to have anything like that in the US pass an inspection. The view from the top was pretty cool, though.

   
 

There are many artists selling their wares around the town and along the town walls. We bought a nice watercolor from this man.

  
Before we left Muskegon, I made reservations for a local restaurant I found online. It turned out to be a great decision. We had a charming waitress who told us stories about the area. We sampled local pike perch and mushroom ragout, local wine and cheese. For our entrees she suggested I try a Chardonnay. It was from Washington State, a wine I buy at the grocery store!

   
      We had a wonderful dinner and a nice stroll back to the ship. This is the view from the ship at 10 PM, June 4th.