Tight Places – Fear

Caving in Budapest

Fear gripped me. My teeth ground against each other. This wasn’t an old friend, it was something new. My feet kicked at thin air desperately. I moved half an inch. Sweat beaded on my forehead, collecting dust and then running into my eyes. My arms burned as my fingers dug at the hard packed clay soil, trying to pull myself through the hole I was trapped in. The urge to vomit wracked my dehydrated core forcing me to pause while I battled for control. I fought for gulps of dirty cave air. My primal brain screamed at me and demanded action: Panic. I refused to cave to its call.

I had signed up for this, heck I paid to do it. It was ok. I was with people – experts. People did this all the time. They survived and seldom got stuck. It would be ok…it had to be. Then a reassuring touch. Hands pushed, supporting the bottom of my boots. I heaved. Kicked. Crawled my way forward up the tiny tunnel. It widened slightly. My left arm pulled free, previously stuck to my side as I “superman’d” through the narrowest part of the tunnel. Both hands were free. Fingers clawing at bulges along the cave wall as I dragged my 193 pound, 6’3″ frame up and into the pitch black open space before me.

I stood shaking. Rattled. Wondering if I could go on. Then, I realized I had just felt claustrophobia for the first time. I was terrified. I was thrilled. As I stood there quivering I stared at the tunnel that had just birthed me, let out a sigh and then kneeled down and began crawling into the next tunnel. My resolve set. I refused to let the sprawling caves of Pál-völgyi-Mátyás-hegyi beneath Budapest’s rolling hills do anything but strengthen me.

A Wheelbarrow Full of Flowers – Friday’s Weekly Travel Photo

Assisi's Beautiful Streets

I captured this photo just before sunset along a side street in the Italian town of Assisi which is located on a small mountain amidst the rolling fields of the rich Italian countryside.  The winding streets of Assisi are delightful and full of small highlights like this wheel barrow.  While the stone facades of the tightly packed ancient homes that line the streets are somewhat uniform most are decorated with vibrantly colored flower pots.  The golden hue of the day’s last night worked to bring out the reds and golds in the stone and wood, casting everything in a warm twilight glow.  I hope you enjoy this shot!

Would you like to see previous Friday Photos? View past travel pictures here.

The Day I Fell In Love With Copenhagen

Cathedral and Lily Pond - Copenhagen, Denmark

The day started off well.  After an absolutely fantastic evening out on the town, during which my friend Kevan introduced me to Danish nightlife I rolled out of bed and headed to the common area. There I ate breakfast, changed and then set out to meet Kevan at the nearby 7-11. Yep, that’s right. I said 7-11.  Believe it or not they’re everywhere in Scandinavia.  When you think about the primary focus and business model behind the company it makes perfect sense, but you can imagine my shock.  McDonalds? Subway? Burger King?  Sure. Those are expected. But some of the others were definitely a surprise. 7-11 was the main one, but TGI Fridays in Norway was a close second.

A Tall Ship - Copenhagen, Denmark

Kevan had volunteered to play guide and show me around the city.  We met up mid morning and then set out down the main shopping boulevard.  We wound down past city hall, through several large squares and then eventually paused at Tivoli Gardens.  Tivoli is a world famous amusement park located in the heart (and I do mean heart) of Copenhagen.  The park opened in 1843 and is the second oldest amusement park in the world. Impressive right?  From Tivoli we continued along the boulevard and quickly arrived at the central train station.  The station itself is beautiful.  A large sprawling building, it has most of the traditional charm of early turn of the century trains only unlike many of its peers the station’s massive ceiling is built from and supported by intricate wooden timbers.

Fountain and Cathedral - Copenhagen, Denmark

After making special note of the train station’s location (I’d arrived through the airport, but would be departing by rail) we cut down towards the harbor.  The route wound through ancient cobble-stoned streets, most of which were lined by trees and periodically ballooned into small squares. As Kevan shared random tidbits of Danish history and lessons in local culture we wound past parliament and the new opera house – a beautiful building located along the central waterway which feeds København’s picturesque deceptively named ‘New Harbor’ which was completed in the mid- 1600s.

Main Cathedral - Copenhagen, Denmark

As we wound past the harbor I was left with what seemed to be a perpetual grin stuck on my face.  The whole area is a historic district dedicated to old “tall ships”.  As a result, every open space available along the canal has some sort of aged vessel moored in place.

Cathedral's Dome - Copenhagen, Denmark

Some 5-10 minutes later we arrived at Frederick’s Church which is also commonly called the Marble Church.  A large cathedral, it looks and feels very similar to St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and boasts the 4th largest dome in Europe as well as the largest dome in Scandinavia. The Cathedral was bright and beautiful with a very clean build and a massive organ. As with most of the great cathedrals throughout Europe and Scandinavia it leaves visitors feeling small, insignificant, and awed.

Local Food (The Smorgasbord) - Copenhagen, Denmark

With stomachs rumbling Kevan and I headed back to one of the cafes along the new harbor.  Over the course of our walk the topic of local foods had come up.  To my surprise we’d pieced together that the origin of the US slang smorgasbord (an extremely diverse set of options), has its roots in the Scandinavian Smörgåsbord and more regionally the koldtbord in Denmark.  Kevan suggested a restaurant with a spectacular view of the harbor and then introduced me to a beautifully presented Smörgåsbord.  It featured a delicious dipping sauce, fresh beef, bacon, and fish as well as a delicious chick/potato salad.  Good food is always a plus…good food, a bit of history and an incredible setting? A rare delight!

A Gargoyle - Copenhagen, Denmark

With fully belly’s we struck off towards the Gefion Fountain. A beautiful fountain that depicts the Norse god Gefion in a chariot pulled by a number of large animals.  The fountain sits beside a beautiful small church and a stones throw away from Copenhagen’s old fortress Kastellet, or the citadel.

The Old Fortress - Copenhagen, Denmark

The old earthen fortifications are still visible and well maintained.  The wide moat which surrounds them boasts a picturesque mixture of goldfish, swans and lily pads.

Dog with Geese - Copenhagen, Denmark

As we wrapped back around the fortifications and moat towards the main entrance to the fortress we paused briefly to watch a dog at play.  Set to the backdrop of the cathedral, the dog slowly tried to herd a small group of lounging geese.  The geese, who were anything but concerned, slowly made their way into the moat and then floated just out of reach taunting the frustrated dog.

Old Fortress - Copenhagen, Denmark

After crossing a wooden bridge which included a draw-bridge esque component, we passed through the Kings Gate and entered the inner compound.  The compound is still an active military facility with service men on site. As Kevan explained some of the history associated with the fort he also explained that he’d served a portion of his time in the Danish armed forces as a guard – which was a fun insight.

Canon and Bench - Copenhagen, Denmark

Enjoying the brilliant summer weather we continued along the top of the fortification, pausing to take in various sights. Some (like the photo above) reminded me of civil war era-fortifications along the North Eastern part of the U.S. while others were decidedly more modern. The most comical was a view from the fortification wall of the found Danish mermaid statue. Not overly interested in the statue from the get go, I wasn’t terribly disappointed to learn that it had actually been shipped off to the world fair where it was a piece of the Danish pavilion. I was, however, extremely entertained to learn that to make up for it, a webcam had been set up and was broadcasting an imagine of the statue into the harbor where the statue would normally sit.

Windmill - Copenhagen, Denmark

Chuckling, we wrapped along the back half of the fortress wall and paused to take in a large windmill, which dates back to the 1840s and is still operational. The mill was built in case of a siege to aid in the milling of supplies such as flour and rolled oats.

A Swan at Rest - Copenhagen, Denmark

Starting to feel a bit footsore we wound back the way we’d come, pausing briefly when we stumbled on a gorgeous swan resting along the banks of the fortress moat.  If you could train wild birds for picture perfect moments, the swan would have been a prime contender.  As I paused to snap a series of photos the swan largely ignored me, focused on its grooming and enjoying the afternoon sun.  It was the perfect addition to what was already a picturesque backdrop.

The Old Opera House - Copenhagen, Denmark

Our next destination was the Freetown of Christiania. Our path wound us back past the new harbor, through a large central square, and in front of the original opera hall before we crossed a bridge and wound towards the small section of the city occupied by Christiania.

Locals at Rest - Copenhagen, Norway

The walk towards Christiania was gorgeous.  It took us over the main bridge, and across a second smaller canal which was awash in people resting, socializing and eating.

The Canal - Copenhagen, Denmark

Though slightly less picturesque than their Dutch counterparts, the Danish canal system is absolutely gorgeous and adds a lot of beauty and extra character to Copenhagen.

City Streets - Copenhagen, Denmark

As we neared Christiania I realized we were near one of the more unique fixtures of the Danish skyline: the Church of our Savior.  To my surprise Kevan mentioned that you could climb the external spiral, which seemed like too tempting an opportunity to pass up.

View from the Spiral - Copenhagen, Denmark

The rout to the top was a long one, but well worth it.  The first half wound through the internal workings of the cathedral, including a large room which holds one of the largest sets of bells in Europe.  From there it broke free into the spiral which starts out fairly wide and slowly wraps upward.  The higher you get the narrower the stair becomes before it is literally absorbed into the top of the spire. While rather difficult to navigate, especially given our collective size (we are both over 6’4″) the view was well worth it.

The City from Above - Copenhagen, Denmark

After taking a few minutes to enjoy the fresh air, and view of the city we wound back towards the organized chaos of the city. Eager not to get stuck in the bell room when the hour struck, we hustled down the stairs, dodging rafters and ducking past old wooden supports before pausing briefly to watch the massive mechanical clock mechanism slowly crank away.

City Streets - Copenhagen, Denmark

As the afternoon began to slip towards dusk, we reached Christiania.  The area – about the size of a city block is an odd thing. The buildings were originally a Danish military facility which was abandoned in the 60s.  By the 70s, local hippies moved into the area and began to lay claim.  The area has continued to evolve and was largely left alone by the local government. It has developed its own flag, currency, culture, and set of laws. Additionally, it is partially protected by a law passed in 1989 which transfers responsibility for the supervision of the area to the Danish government, instead of the local city.

The City from Above - Copenhagen, Denmark

As a hippy mecca, the area is most famous for having a lax/largely unregulated approach to soft drugs (though all hard drugs have been banned via a local law) and in many ways acts as the Danish equivalent to Amsterdam’s coffee houses.  Weed and Hash are openly sold along the central street from freestanding stalls.  That said, there’s far more to Christiania than just soft drugs.  The area is awash in art, music, crafts and food.  As we walked through the small area, there were a series of musicians performing, sandwiched between shops selling everything from silly tourist knickknacks to a plethora of Christiania-specific items, most of which sport the local flag: A red bar with three yellow dogs. The district even has its own branded beer which is available for purchase.

A Swan at Rest - Copenhagen, Denmark

With mention of things like Dutch Coffee shops and street vendors hawking tubs of marijuana it’s easy to assume that the area would be dangerous, or family unfriendly.  Interestingly, this couldn’t be further from the truth.  The area is a creative commune first and foremost, built around mutual respect, investment and cooperation.  As a result, it’s mostly family friendly and not uncommon to see parents with young children at one of the local eateries relaxing, listening to music and grabbing a bite to eat. Hungry, Kevan and I found an open picnic table in an open area, sandwiched between a sculpture from Arthurian legend of a sword in a stone and a large oriental obelisk.  For just under $10 USD (which by Danish standards is dirt cheap) we ordered a delicious flank steak served in a thick portobello mushroom sauce with a side of egg sized boiled potatoes.

The Old Harbor - Copenhagen, Denmark

After a hearty meal, it was time to wind our way back towards the hostel.  First, however, we paused at the new harbor where everyone was out and about relaxing and listening to a jazz singer performing at the foot of the canal.

The Old Harbor - Copenhagen, Denmark

The golden light of sunset brought out the color in the buildings and boats, and put everything into a magical twilight. As we wandered casually through the crowd, we paused again at one of the small courtyards off of the main harbor.  In the entrance to one of the small museums in the area, another set of musicians were set up and performing.

The Old Harbor - Copenhagen, Denmark

Exhausted, we headed back to the hostel to collect a few of the girls, before heading back out on the town to explore Copenhagen’s night life.  Kevan was a fantastic guide and host who offered a special insight into the city.  I can’t wait to find my way back to Copenhagen and can easily say it is hands down one of the most delightful, friendly, and enjoyable cities I’ve been to.  As far as national capitals go, it is easily one of my top three favorites in the world.

If the opportunity presents itself, don’t hesitate! Head to Copenhagen and enjoy everything the city has to offer!

Norway’s Pristine Fjords, Waterfalls and Mountains

Train Station - Flam Railway, Norway

While the city of Bergen is a significant draw with its rich history, beautiful architecture and delicious seafood the real reason people head to the region is the fjords.  The western coast of Norway is an incredible mix of breathtaking valleys, lush forests, awe inspiring waterfalls and astounding fjords which have rightly earned their reputation as some of the most spectacular countryside in the world.

Transferring to the Flam Railway - Myrdal, Norway

From Bergen the most popular destination is the Flam Railway which is an old narrow track railway which cuts its way through a series of tunnels and winds through a stunning valley while inching past awe inspiring waterfalls before connecting with a ferry and the Aurlandsfjorde.  From there travelers have the option of a long cruise through the fjords back to Bergen or a shorter but far more impressive ferry ride to the Nærøyfjord (UNESCO World Heritage Site) where they transfer to a bus.  The bus ride offers an incredibly scenic view of the fjord, which strongly resembles the world famous views of Yosemite, before connecting with a train back to Bergen.

Kjosfoss Waterfall - Flam Railway, Norway

If you research the Flam railway and surrounding fjords you will inevitably be directed back to one of the Norway in a Nutshell tours.  Though I was initially fairly resistant to the tour, I eventually realized that it’s almost impossible to avoid utilizing it and that it’s less “tour” and more “ticket package”.  There are no guides or set time lines.  Rather, it gives you a ticket bundle and suggested route which unifies the mixture of trains, ferries and buses necessary to properly explore the region. While somewhat pricey, the ticket is truly worth it. For those of you traveling with a Eurail pass, keep in mind that the Flam Railway is a private rail line and thus not covered. Your pass does, however, provide a significant discount on your Norway in a Nutshell ticket – so make sure to use it!

Small Waterfall - Flam Railway, Norway

My introduction to the northern fjords began on a slightly intimidating note. The sky was overcast and threatened periodic mists and light rain showers.  I opened the door, looked out and shrugged. My window of opportunity was limited and cloudy weather in the morning is common place in coastal regions. There was nothing to be done about it.

Waterfall & Flam Valley - Flam Railway, Norway

The day before I’d befriended one of my hostel mates – Anna – a Russian-Israeli-American who was traveling along a similar route. We met up, looked over our maps of Bergen and then set off.  After a bit of playful teasing and a wrong turn or two we eventually found the central train station.  Before long we’d picked up our Nutshell tickets, a scone for the road, and boarded our train.  The directions informed us that we’d catch the train for some 2-2.5 hours to the rail transfer station at Myrdal. A tiny city which is more waystation than anything and summons visions of the Lord of the Rings.

Train Station - Flam Railway, Norway

From Myrdal we transferred to the Flåmsbana Railway. A privately owned railway which is world renowned for its scenery and steep incline.  Though relatively short at 20km the single track line took a long time to build. Started in 1923 it wasn’t opened until 1947.  The line has 11 stations and offers a series of incredible views.  One of the most significant stops is a 5 minute break at the Kjosfoss waterfall where ethereal music plays over the roar of the falls and a  lone dancer can be seen among the mists overlooking the falls.  The railway drops some 664 meters or 2,178 feet from the Myrdal transfer station down to the city of Flam.

View from the Ferry - Aurlandsfjorden, Norway

The trip down to Flåm was gorgeous.  As we dodged in and out of small tunnels we were greeted with views of a variety of stunning waterfalls, amazing valleys, and picturesque rivers with crystal clear emerald green water winding through small hamlets and lush green fields.

A Classic Nordic Roof - Flam, Norway

The city of Flam is a small way-station, largely designed to service tourists and the support staff that live in the nearby valley.  Home to the rail/port station, a small market, several cafes, a traditional pub and mini-theater the 45 minutes we had was about perfect to explore, pick up a snack for the ferry, grab a coffee and hide out from the light rain.  As our 45 minutes in Flam came to an end, the weather decided to cooperate.  The rain stopped and the clouds began to break all the while letting a ray or two of brilliant sunlight illuminate the fjord’s brilliant green water.

View of the Fjord - Aurlandsfjorden, Norway

Surrounded by incredible mountains, each sporting a waterfall and with most vanishing up into the mists we shoved off and left Flam port in our wake.  Anna and I quickly found a fairly empty area of the ferry on the lower deck near the ship’s stern.  The ship sheltered us from the chill northern air while offering a picturesque view of the fjord and ship’s wake.

View of the Fjord - Aurlandsfjorden, Norway

As you wind through the fjords you can’t help but feel small.  The scale and scope of them is incredible.  Massive, rugged and wild they seem to be locked in a perpetual war with the sky – a battle so fierce, so intense that it exists outside our plane of understanding. The only indicator: the heavy mists which serve as a purgatory caught between earth, water and air.  As the two battle in a churning, twisting, boiling mess one cannot help but feel like the waterfalls streaming down the cliffs are silver trails of blood seeping from wounded Titans locked in conflict.

Aurland - Aurlandsfjorden, Norway

As we wound through the fjord we paused briefly at a number of small villages. From what I could gather these mostly service local power stations and infrastructure, much of which utilizes hydro electric power.

View of the Fjord - Aurlandsfjorden, Norway

The first half of our ferry ride wound through the massive Aurlandsfjorden which threats its way gradually towards the sea.  For an insight into the sheer size of the fjord, note the small cruise ship in the middle of the photo above.

Classic Tourist - Aurlandsfjorden, Norway

Though Anna and I spent the majority of our time watching the awe inspiring natural scenery drift by, we also made sure to pause and enjoy some of the more entertaining moments occurring around us.   One thing I’ve learned over the years is that there are few groups as odd and peculiarly entertaining as tourists. A huge cultural mish-mash we’re always good for a quick laugh, funny photo, or interesting pose.

View of the Fjord and Undredal - Aurlandsfjorden, Norway

As the afternoon continued, the sun slowly began to break the cloud’s hold over us.  Before long a group of friendly seagulls set out from one of the local towns and decided to keep us company.  Their aerial acrobatics, set against the fjord, small village, and snow capped peaks was a delight to watch.

View of the Fjord - Nærøyfjord, Norway

Despite the time of year – it was early July – many of the mountain peaks still had a thin layer of snow.   Though we were thousands of feet below, the crisp air served as a perpetual reminder that we were in a part of the world which almost never truly experiences summer.

View of the Fjord - Nærøyfjord, Norway

As we neared the 2/3rds mark, we split off from the main fjord and began to trace our way into the UNESCO World Heritage Nærøyfjord.  As the walls narrowed I could not help but notice how much more spectacular the fjord’s size, rich greens, and beautiful grays looked in closer quarters.

View of the Fjord - Nærøyfjord, Norway

I’ve always been a sucker for water.  Rivers, waterfalls, even the ocean.  They hold a special place in my heart.  I suppose it comes as no surprise then, that waterfalls captivate me.  It is also probably why I find myself drawn to places with majestic falls. Scotland with its highland falls forever sits as one of my favorite places on earth.  Similarly the falls of the Plitvice Lakes in Croatia stand out as one of my favorite places in Central Europe.  After winding my way through the fjords, I’m thrilled to add Norway to that list. I can only hope I have the opportunity in the near future to seek out new Norwegian fjords, valleys and canyons each home to their own plethora of falls – both mighty and miniature.

View of the Fjord - Nærøyfjord, Norway

The fjords offer an interesting contrast. On the one hand they look and feel wild and rugged. On the other it is obvious that centuries of human habitation have shaped them.

View of the Fjord - Nærøyfjord, Norway

Small farms, fields and even churches can be found sandwiched between the water and the cliffs along small sloping deltas. Many of which look to have been carved out initially by waterfalls, and later silted in as the water transported newly harvested gravel down towards the water’s edge.

View of the Fjord - Nærøyfjord, Norway

In other places the falls seem to emerge from the cliffs, fall majestically for hundreds of feet, and then return once more into the cliffs only to re-emerge once again hundreds of feet below.

View of the Fjord - Nærøyfjord, Norway

Eventually we reached the harbor at the end of the Nærøyfjord. There we were greeted by a parking lot and lodge with food, restrooms and gifts.  As Anna and I checked our itinerary we were greeted by two options.  A nearly immediate bus, or an hour and a half gap until the next bus.  The decision was simple.

The Fjord, Waterfalls and a Thistle - Nærøyfjord, Norway

As we pulled into the harbor, we’d spotted two small red dots (people) at the base of one of the nearby waterfalls.  Eager to get close to one of the falls, we opted for the later bus and set out back down the fjord.

Wild Strawberries - Nærøyfjord, Norway

Before long we’d identified a tiny path that looked largely abandoned.  As we strolled along it towards the falls, I spotted wild strawberries a little ways off the path.  Always one to try wild berries in foreign countries, we quickly paused, picked one and tried it.  They were absolutely delicious.  Hungry from our ferry ride, we relaxed for a few minutes and dined on wild strawberries, enjoying their crisp fresh flavor and relishing the sheer majesty of the setting.

A Waterfall Up Close - Nærøyfjord, Norway

With red stained palms we continued along our way and eventually reached the waterfall.  It was stunning.  The roar of the water rumbled below our feet, the humid scent of fresh water beat into a mist filled our nostrils and a gentle breeze blew down the fjord.

A Waterfall Up Close - Nærøyfjord, Norway

I’ve mentioned the size and scope of the fjords repeatedly. But note the image above. If you look closely, you’ll see me standing at the foot of the falls. The experience was humbling and made that much more powerful by the lack of any improvements. The falls were wild, natural and completely exposed.

The Waterfall - Nærøyfjord, Norway

As we sat enjoying the falls, the light broke through just long enough to catch the falling sheets of water. The dark color of the rocks, combined with the rich greens of the moss and fern covered cliff face only added to the beauty of the falls.

A Waterfall Through the Mists - Nærøyfjord, Norway

Eventually, the wind blew a light drizzle our way.  Heads ducked under our hoods we made our way back along the path towards the visitors center and our waiting bus.  I couldn’t let out a sigh, thinking the adventure was largely over. Little did I know, two more wonders still waited.

View Towards the Fjord - Stalheim, Norway

We boarded our bus, stripped off our drenched outer layers and settled in for the ride back to the train station. Only, to our surprise we passed the main tunnel (one of the longest in the world) and began to wind up the valley. The sound of the bus in low gear, groaning as it climbed and climbed piqued my interest as I lazily sat gazing out the bus window, enjoying being warm for the first time in hours. Then we turned a corner and I saw it. A spectacular view back down the valley from thousands of feet above the valley floor. It was mesmerizing.

Incredible Waterfall - Fjords, Norway

…and then after the briefest of pauses and a brief level stretch the front of the bus tipped forward. The bus jumped slightly as the driver changed gears, and then we began to wind downward. Only, it wasn’t a slow gradual descent. Instead it was one of the famous zig-zag switchbacks Norway is famous for. With an insanely steep grade, we wound down the switchbacks with baited breath.

Incredible Waterfall - Fjords, Norway

Barely more than two bus lengths a leg, the switchbacks left us all with an adrenaline rush. Some stood and looked out over the side, others made small whimpering noises and lowered their eyes in an effort to avoid the apparent insanity of it all. Then, in that heightened state we paused briefly in the middle of one of the middle switchbacks. There, to our left was one of the most spectacular waterfalls I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t the largest, or the most powerful – but framed as it was by lush green vegetation and viewed as it was from a bus window in the midst of one of the most harrowing switchbacks I’ve ever experienced, it was absolutely astounding.

It was with that final image in my mind that our trip through the fjords wound to a close. We made our way through one of the worlds longest tunnels, transferred back onto the train to Bergen, and eventually made it back to Bergen in time for a late dinner as the sun moved towards twilight.

If you ever have the opportunity to do it, the Norway in a Nutshell fjord tour is an absolute must. It truly is the experience of a lifetime.

VirtualWayfarer and Alex Berger In The News

Tobacco Caye, Belize

Howdy all.  Three exciting updates to share with you all.  So far September has been a great month and included several exciting events!

The first of which is that the above photo which I shot in Belize back in December is today’s featured travel photo on BootsnAll Today via WhyGo.com.  The photo is one of several shots I’ve taken that have been featured as the photo of the day over the last 6 months or so.

Second, if you’re a regular reader of MSNBC’s Travel Tips section you may have noted a familiar name. I was quoted in last Friday’s article by Christopher Elliott of Elliott.org, “Falling Into A Vacation Deal: Autumn is a perfect time to get away – and save money in the process“.   The entire article is well worth a read, however, I’ve included the following excerpt for your immediate review:

Speaking of dollars, off-season getaways can be considerably cheaper.

Where to go? For video blogger Alex Berger, it’s Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. Two weeks’ vacation costs him between $2,000 and $3,000, including airfare. “Traveling during the off-season can be a huge money-saver,” he said. “Off season offers a significantly cheaper option for the budget-conscious. Less hassle and increased room availability, most of the time. Greater access to locals. Better insights into local culture and increased camaraderie among travelers.”

Lastly, as those of you familiar with Oktoberfest are well aware, it’s not only one heck of a party, but a party which actually starts in September! I had the pleasure of spending several days in Munich back in 2007 as part of my 3 month adventure across Europe and weighed in with advice in a recent Savings.com article, “Oktoberfest 2010: A Holiday Worth Saving For“.  My advice and suggestions are scattered throughout the article so you’ll have to click on over to see what I had to say.

Eager for more original content?  Stay tuned.  I’ve got several great blogs in the works which will cover the Norwegian Fjords outside of Bergen and the ancient port city of Copenhagen.

Interested in picking my brain?  Feel free to reach out to me via twitter or by e-mail alex [@] virtualwayfarer.com.

Autumn is a perfect time to get away – and save money in the process

A Burgeoning Love for Bergen and Norway’s West Coast

Overlooking the City - Bergen, Norway

The ancient seaside city of Bergen is one of Norway’s best known destinations.  Situated in the heart of Norway’s spectacular fjord country the city offers a rich history, pristine location, spectacular seafood, and perfect starting point for those interested in a breathtaking voyage down one of the region’s nearby fjords.  The city which dates back to approximately 1050 AD is Norway’s 2nd largest city with about 260,000 citizens and a total regional population of around 380,000. The city is readily reachable by air from most or Northern Europe, train through a rail line that connects it to Oslo, and bus/ferry which connects it to Trondheim in the north and Stavanger in the South.

Summer in Norway - Flowers in Bloom - Bergen, Norway

My experience with the city started as nearly all introductions do.  Curiosity, enthusiasm, and a bit of anxiousness over the unknown.  As I disembarked from the Tide.no ferry from Stavanger into a gentle mist of light rain I immediately noted a general approximation of my location in the small map in my Lonely Planet guide book before setting off through the city’s densely crowded harbor area.

The Old Harbor - Bergen, Norway

I’d booked several nights in the Dorm.no hostel after an extensive search for budget accommodation in the area.  Unfortunately, despite its popularity as a destination Norway has a fairly poor hostel network which is heavily dominated by Hosteling International (HI) hostels. Regular readers of the site may recall that while I’ve had positive experiences with HI Hostels in the US, I have a very low opinion of them in Europe and tend to view them as out of date, dirty, and poorly serviced.  As a result I’d opted for the privately run Dorm.no despite a limited number of reviews on the Hostelworld.com profile and extremely mixed reviews. Luckily, what I found was completely different than what the reviews had portrayed.  The hostel was clean, fantastically located, comparatively affordable and modern with ample bathrooms/showers, clean rooms, a kitchen and decent common area.  My only real complaint was that they enforced a lockout which is a huge pet peeve.

Pink Boat in the Old Harbor - Bergen, Norway

Relieved that my accommodation not only met but beat my expectations I set out to explore.  The city of Bergen is every bit as active as it is picturesque – at least during the summer months.  Nestled between two large hills the city has a number of large open squares, a park with a large fountain and statuary and a beautiful old harbor lined by old warehouses and a fish market.

Fish Market - Bergen, Norway

My obsession with the ocean goes back to well before I could walk.  A cornerstone of my childhood was the month+ every year my family and I spent on the Sea of Cortez outside of Puerto Penasco in Mexico.  As a result I’ve always harbored a love for the ocean and seafood.  As one might imagine outdoor fish markets are one of my favorite destinations.

Fish Market - Bergen, Norway

Overflowing with fresh fish, live crabs, lobster and shrimp all accompanied by a wealth of pre-cooked and smoked seafood the Bergen fish market is a mecca for tourists and locals alike. While the prices may be somewhat higher than seafood prices in the super markets, the experience is quite an adventure.  The seafood is fresh and a great mixture between northern fish, deep water species like Monkfish and of course all of the usuals from arctic shrimp to dungeness crab.

Fish Market - Bergen, Norway

A lazy stroll through the tightly packed tents is an absolute delight.  The area is all open air which cuts down on the smell, and the combination of fresh seafood and ready-to-eat dishes encourages the vendors to maintain clean cooking conditions.

Knife Balancing in the Fish Market - Bergen, Norway

As if the wide assortment of browns, oranges and reds wasn’t sufficient to keep the curious passerby entertained the workers are also eager to put on a bit of a show. While most were not overly dangerous, I stumbled on one individual who had a pension for balancing a razor sharp fillet knife on the bridge of his nose.  Not half bad right?

The Old Harbor - Bergen, Norway

Located a quick hop and a skip from the fish market is the old warehouse row. A must for anyone visiting the region, the old shops have been restored and painted beautiful to create a picturesque waterfront.  Add to that, they’re one of Norway’s most famous UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Warehouse Row in the Old Harbor - Bergen, Norway

The buildings which have served a wide variety of uses over the years predominantly date back to the 1700s when most of the water front was re-built after a large portion of the city burned to the ground.  Given the close construction, wooden materials, and forms of heating available throughout the 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries it’s no surprise that Bergen has a long history of catastrophic fires.  In many ways I found it absolutely amazing that the city still exists after reading excerpts from its history.

Warehouse Row in the Old Harbor - Bergen, Norway

Though snugly interconnected in front most of the warehouses have small alleyways that cut between them.  These alleys are lined by leaning ancient wooden walls that show the cuts, scars, and old nails from hundreds of years of constant use and near constant re-purposing.  Many also show the signs of ancient wooden doorways or windows that have since been boarded over.  The roof-line is also a cluster of enclosed windows, doorways, and loft entry points which hang over the street and would have helped workers lift large bundles up and into the buildings.  Many are also connected by 2nd and 3rd story walkways as well which give the whole thing a disorganized, charming appearance, even if it is slightly claustrophobic.

Warehouse Row in the Old Harbor - Bergen, Norway

As I explored the buildings immediately behind the warehouses I paused briefly to snap the above image.  It’s hands down one of my favorite shots from the trip.  The young lad pictured was exploring the area and decided to march off determinedly, leaving his parents behind as he explored the area.  I couldn’t have asked for a better contrast between young and old.

That’s it for now.  Stay tuned for more from my time in Bergen including live music, squares, cathedrals, and even a trip into the bowls of an ancient coastal fortress.

Bergen Bound – A Ferry, Fjords and Fresh Adventure

Random Town - Stavanger to Bergen Ferry, Norway

There’s a sensation that every traveler is intimately familiar with.  It’s that lump in your throat, that nagging dull roar in the back of your mind and the slight quickening of breath as stale adrenaline oozes out your pores.  It’s the sensation of uncertainty…of adventure yet to be decided.  Will I make my ferry? Do I know where I’m going?  What if this Bus doesn’t come? Will my hostel booking still be good?  It’s that rush of adventure that lets you know that you’re pushing yourself, that you’re exploring new things and that you’ve taken yet another fundamental step outside of your comfort zone.


As I sat reading my book in the crisp morning air at a bus stop in front of the Stavanger University Hospital I couldn’t help but nervously check my wristwatch.  Despite the book, I still managed to squirm perched as I was sandwiched between two backpacks and clinging somewhat precariously to the side of the narrow bus bench.  The bus was late which wasn’t an issue-if-I’d made the right guess on where my ferry was leaving from.  If I’d gotten it wrong though?  It was going to be a rough run down and around the old harbor and then up the coast to the industrial district.  What would I do if I missed it?  Bah.  I had to be guessing right, it only made sense that the ferry would leave from the main Tide terminal…right?

All Aboard! - Stavanger, Norway

Luckily, the bus eventually surfaced and spirited me down towards the city center.  From there a brief half-walk half-sprint got me to the dock with plenty of time to confirm that I had indeed guessed right.  Relieved I tracked down the ferry, then settled in – I was early. As I waited I chatted with a Dane who was somewhat lost and trying to figure out where to catch the ferry to Preikestolen. I offered up advice based on what I’d learned a day or two before before walking through a light sprinkle to the local SPAR minimarket where I picked up a healthy breakfast: A hotdog wrapped in bacon washed down with a Pepsi. Perfect food for 8:30 in the morning! Right?

Random Town - Stavanger to Bergen Ferry, Norway

The ferry was relatively small – a fast, jet powered boat that blasted across the water’s surface.  It had all of the usual amenities; a snack bar, several rooms full of comfortable chairs, flat-screen TVs on the walls and a wealth of windows.  The ferry ride was scheduled to last about 4 hours and would take me up through the inner fjords along Norway’s rugged western coast before dropping me off at Bergen. I’d planned it as much as a sightseeing tour as a necessary mode of transport.

Random Town - Stavanger to Bergen Ferry, Norway

The ferry was about 1/5th full leaving plenty of space to stretch out, though I’ll admit I spent most of the time wandering from deck to deck, reading or chatting in mixed English/Spanish with a group of Spanish travelers.  To my disappointment the weather wasn’t in the mood to cooperate and while the water was fairly smooth the air was cold, windy, slightly rainy and at times doused in fog.  It made it nearly impossible to stand outside unless you spent your time clustered with the smokers hiding in the bubble of calm air carved out at the stern of the boat by the ship’s cabin.

Random Town - Stavanger to Bergen Ferry, Norway

The ferry made a number of stops along the way offering an exciting view of some of Norway’s smaller communities. Some of the towns seemed mid-sized while others were little more than seaside villages.  All had a distinctly picturesque feel to them.  Luckily, as the trip progressed we gradually broke free of the fog, rain and wind which gave me the chance to see a bit more of the countryside.

Eventually we were informed that we’d be transferring to another high speed ferry – why? Who knows.  Perhaps it was a regular part of the trip, or perhaps something had come up.  Either way, it was nothing a few questions, friendly locals, and minute or two of absolute confusion couldn’t fix.  I wasn’t in the mood to complain, after all it added to the sense of adventure.

The Old Harbor - Bergen, Norway

As mid-afternoon approached we reached our final destination:  The city of Bergen which serves as a picturesque gateway to the fjords.  Able to service large cruise ships and home to a UNESCO heritage site the city has an undeniable charm and delightful beauty to it.  As I stepped off the ferry and scratched my head trying to orient myself I instantly felt a smile spread across my face.  This city had a fun energy to it and undeniable beauty.  It was time to find my hostel, and then to begin exploring.  New adventures and beauties waited.  I could feel the tug as another chapter demanded to be written.

Wandering in Oslo, Norway

Embassy Row - Oslo, Norway

My final day in Oslo was spent meandering the city’s cobblestone streets, wandering through the old harbor, and resting lazily in the park reading my book.   I’d paused at the local rail station during the previous day’s walking tour and picked up a discount reservation for an overnight train from Oslo to Stavanger on Norway’s western coast.  To my disappointment, my Eurail pass only reserved a reclining airplane like seat, but – it would have to do.   The train left late in the evening – 10PM if memory serves and would take just over 8 hours as it wound its way along the southern coast, before hockey-sticking up through the Fjords to Stavanger.

Downtown - Oslo, Norway

The late departure gave me the entire day to explore the city and relax.  Hildur was off work at 4:30 which gave me a sold 4 or 5 hours to explore.   Eager to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, I struck off down towards the old harbor.  My path took me along major streets with old buildings, showcasing an eclectic mixture of architectural styles from all over the world.  Despite the inherent beauty in most of the buildings, one stands out in my memory: the US Embassy. The building stood on the corner of the street which encircles the Palatial Park/Main Palace.  It was an odd building.  Ringed by an imposing 10+ ft tall black fence, the building was all blacks and grays.  About 3 stories, it was square, with an odd architectural design, one which had arrow slit like windows.  The whole thing oozed a sense of…I don’t want to say Evil…but perhaps…unfriendliness is a better word.  It may have just been the color and the architectural era it hailed from.  Either way, it left me feeling disappointed and misrepresented.

The Harbor - Oslo, Norway

Though I’d poked around the main Harbor the day before, I relished the opportunity to continue my exploration.  The harbor is home to some 5-10 “tall ships” which is to say old/classically modeled sailing vessels.  Many have been converted into tour vessels but others are still classic sailing ships.  All offer a beautiful ambiance to the harbor which is ringed by cafes and small kiosks not to mention an incredible view back towards the down town area.

Street Performer - Oslo, Norway

From the harbor I struck back up, re-tracing the previous day’s steps, towards the Parliament building and central greenbelt.  From there it was up and down the main shopping street. Lined with people, the street also provided a wide selection of street performers.   From jugglers, to musicians most of the usual types were in attendance.  Some of the more a-typical ones, however, included a puppeteer playing the piano, and cripple using his two crutches to alternately perform tricks while bouncing a ball with them.  The sights and sounds left me chuckling at times, wincing at others and of course scratching my head in bafflement at yet others.

Flowered Square - Oslo, Norway

The street eventually led me down  towards the main train station, where I headed to the left, and quickly ended up in a picturesque square which was doubling as a flower market.  The market was awash in colors, scents and people as passerby’s paused to relax, pick up flowers, or wound through the square on their way to some errand or meeting.

Children at Play - Oslo, Norway

Eventually my meanderings took me back through the warren of H&M stores and small cafe’s towards the old National Theater.   The boulevard it sits on is split down the middle by a series of small fountains, flowerbeds overflowing with blooming flowers, and of course the usual assortment of relaxing and sunbathing Norwegians.  I paused briefly next to one of the fountains to capture the photo above – two young children at plan.  There’s something about it which just seemed to strike me as being a bit classic.  Boy meets girl.  Boy wears blue. Girl wears red. Both enjoy the innocence of youth, combined with the joys of a youthful, inquisitive nature, while relaxing in front of a gorgeous fountain on a beautiful blue day.

Town Hall - Oslo, Norway

From the fountain I decided to see if I could explore the inside of the city hall.  It was, after all, a rather unique building.  It seemed only natural that the interior would be equally interesting.  The 5 minute walk down to the main structure was quick and enjoyable.  I say walk, but it was more a lazy meandering as I lankily ambled my way along the sidewalk.   The building – a massive red brick creation – served as a picturesque backdrop for various pieces of artwork, often added seemingly at random.  A prime example is the large clock shown above, which I found all the more beautiful due to the relatively basic and plane brick backdrop that it had been set within.

Town Hall - Oslo, Norway

The building’s main entrance was equally interesting.  Though not completed until 1950 due to the War, the building was started in 1931 which is reflected in its general feel and appearance. Parts of the design left me thinking of a simpler, less ornate version of the Chrysler Building in New York.  Interestingly, the City Hall is also the site of the award ceremony each year where Nobel Peace Prizes are awarded.

Town Hall - Oslo, Norway

The building’s immediate interior is a massive open room.  The room has a variety of different murals – all done in a similar style – decorating each of the walls.  The murals reflect the nation’s history and toils, while conveying a very propaganda-esq artistic style. One which, at least in the US, we’ve often come to associate with former Soviet and more Socialist governments. The murals focus on the people, their labors, culture and wars.  Not surprising given the building’s history and completion in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

The Palace - Oslo, Norway

After leaving the City Hall, I found my way back up past the Royal Palace before connecting with Hildur, who had just gotten off work.  After a quick nap, we decided to pick up some Sushi to go (which to my surprise was only slightly more expensive than fast food), before heading to the park to enjoy the weather.  We ate, chatted, and enjoyed the weather before saying our goodbyes. It was time to head to the rail station and to continue my exploration of Norway’s culture and natural beauty.

My stay in Oslo was incredible.  Made that much more delightful by my incredible hosts, who truly went out of their way to share their city, culture and local cuisine with me.  I owe them a huge debt of gratitude and will always have very fond memories of Oslo, in no small part, due to their hospitality.