A UNESCO Filled Return to Hamburg – Come Follow Along!

In the midst of a beautiful hot, humid and record setting July in 2010 I found myself sitting on a sweltering train (inside a large ferry) headed across the channel from Denmark to Germany on my way to Hamburg. What followed was a very pleasant whirlwind tour through a city that struck me as being far more charming and rich in history and culture than I had expected.  In my preliminary post back then about Hamburg, you get a sense for the positive opinion of the city I was left with and what, I believe, will be an exciting insight into how much the city has changed in fun and exciting ways in the past five short years.

In truth, I’m shocked when I consider that it has been five years. I’ve often toyed with a return trip to Hamburg, but have only recently started re-visiting and exploring the areas close to my home-base here in Copenhagen.  Over the last year I’ve run into Hamburg repeatedly.  It all started with a NYE trip good friends took last year, which I was unable to attend, but which left me listening to grand stories of amazing adventures. Then once again as friends re-located to Hamburg and sang its praises.  Then even more recently during a series of events here in Copenhagen that touted the many exciting things going on in Hamburg. At the event I was reminded that Hamburg has now progressed fairly far into the construction of their fascinating Elbe Philharmonic Hall project, a captivating project that was only beginning to take shape during my initial visit. Even more importantly, earlier this year, the city’s Speicherstadt and Kontorhaus District with Chilehaus were named as UNESCO World Heritage sites. While I brushed up against these parts of the city in my initial visit, as a bit of a UNESCO World Heritage addict, I made a mental note that I’d definitely be heading back for a more in-depth exploration.

Copenhagen – Embracing Technology, Exploiting Tourists

Recently we saw the phase-out of Denmark’s klippekort (Clip Cards).  These klippekort allowed commuters to get significantly discounted public transit tickets by purchasing bulk trips 10 at a time.  Like many systems around the world, on-site pricing for buses is higher than tickets purchased in advance.  This discourages people slowing down the loading/boarding process and encourages people to participate in transit programs. All of which is great. However, unlike other programs where the increased pricing is only applied to time-sensitive transit situations (eg: buses) – the Danish system charges the same high rate across the board regardless of if you’re purchasing a one-off ticket on a bus, from a kiosk, or at an automatic vending machine.

It typically costs you 24 DKK for a one-hour two zone ticket in Copenhagen. When calculated using a 10 ticket klippekort the adjusted price typically averaged out to 15 DKK or less. From a pricing standpoint, 24 DKK is quite an excessive price (even by Danish cost-scales) for a ticket, while 15 DKK may not be cheap but is still quite a bit more reasonable.

A Quick Metro Rant – Basic Information Everyone Seems to Have Forgotten

Photo by Stignygaard

Life is full of unspoken rules.  These rules can be hard to figure out if you’re an outsider. Yet, when followed they tend to drastically improve the flow and efficiency of group activities.  When violated, you not only risk drastically reducing the system’s efficiency, but also pissing off a large number of people in the process.  Here are a few general tips for improving your public transportation experience.

General Traffic Flow

Foot traffic typically follows the same basic rules (flow wise) as vehicle traffic.  While this isn’t particularly important in wide open spaces, when confined to stairways, on escalators and in other like-kind situations this becomes extremely important.  While left vs right varies from country to country you can typically figure out the appropriate place to walk by pausing briefly to observe locals.  A good rule of thumb tends to be that pedestrian traffic will mimic automotive traffic.  This is particularly important on stairways where one side is used for traffic heading up and the other is used for traffic heading down.


These are perhaps one of the most rule centric areas of public transportation.  The cardinal rule of escalator traffic is that slow/stopped traffic should always stand to the right.  Yes, this holds true even if you’re in the middle of a conversation with a friend.  If you’re stationary or moving slowly on a moving walkway or escalator stand to the right, single file, while leaving space for people in a hurry to pass on your left. It’s just like the highway – the left lane is the passing late.  If you’re in it and not passing you’re a road hazard and can expect to get tailgater…or worse.  If your conversation can’t wait, then turn sidewise and have a discussion with the person in-front/behind you.  The only exception to this rule is when there’s a significant traffic backlog in which cases space use efficiency becomes more important.

Many metros, like those here in Copenhagen, have double escalators to handle the heavy flow.  In these instances both escalators may be transporting people in the same direction (up/down).  Keep in mind that both escalators are not the same.  The same traffic flow rules apply here.  If you’re not in a hurry then stick to the escalator to the right side. If you’re in a hurry or will be walking part of the time, then aim for the one on the left.

Boarding Trains/Subway Cars

For some inexplicable reason most of us can’t help but rush to board public transportation when it arrives.  I know I’m guilty of this as well.  Unfortunately, this usually results in a traffic jam as people end up so focused on boarding that they fail to let the people trying to get off of the train/tram/etc. disembark.

When the train/subway arrives people waiting to board should wait to either side of the door(s) leaving a path for departing passengers. It is especially important that you do not stand/line up directly in-front of the door.  Only when the final passengers disembark is it acceptable to start making your way on board.  Just because there’s an open space immediately in front of the doors doesn’t mean you “lucked out” and get to be first in line.

Mothers, the Elderly, Injured and Disabled

While people seem to remember that eating with their mouths full is impolite, it appears that proper etiquette on public transportation is a whole different matter.  We all love to find that coveted seat on the bus or subway.  It sucks to give it up, but let’s keep things in context.  When you see a mother carrying a young child, an older person, someone on crutches or similarly injured, or the disabled don’t wait for them to ask, don’t ignore them, and definitely don’t shrug it off as their tough luck.  Do your best to give them your seat, or at the very least offer it.  There’s a spectrum here. The younger you are and the better shape you’re in, the more important it is that you’re the first one to offer up your seat.  Think of it as a competition.  Besides, it’ll feel good knowing you’ve made someone’s day a bit easier and that you’ve done a good deed.

These rules vary slightly from culture to culture and are more prevalent in most western countries. It’s worth noting that most of these rules don’t apply in a lot of major Asian cities where it tends to be far more cutthroat and physical. Be mindful of your destination and take an extra minute or two to figure out how the system works.  While there’s no one to force you to follow the rules discussed in this post, don’t be surprised at the stray elbows and brusque treatment you may find if you don’t.

Are there rules I missed or do you have stories about where a rule violation went wrong?  Please tell us a bit about them!

Iguazu Falls, the Devils Throat and Wild Beasts: Adventure in Northern Argentina

The Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

View part one of this post: A Traveler’s Dream and Natural Wonder of the World – Iguazu Falls in Northern Argentina.

My legs pumped furiously.  The burn forced a slight grimace. Mossy step after mossy step I launched my 6’4″ 200 pound frame up the narrow staircase. Still damp from my swim in the falls and in a subtle supplication to the region’s tropic environment, I’d long since sacrificed my t-shirt. My jeans were darker around my waist, revealing where I’d lazily pulled them on over my still-wet boxer briefs. Pausing briefly to look up and take stock of my location, I quickly realized I was nearing the top of the island – the Isla de San Martin. A gorgeous spire of land that stands resolute against the falls. Located smack dab in the center of the river, the one-time peninsula has gradually been overwhelmed leaving a small island with steep cliff faces, a wealth of local wildlife, and incredible views of the falls.

Giant Lizard - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

As I reached the top and the narrow stairs gave way to a wider path, I found my attention swinging sharply to my right as a rustle in the underbrush startled me to alertness. As I hopped back slightly a large lizard about the same size as a fully grown iguana slowly stalked its way out of the underbrush. Harmless (to the best of my knowledge) I still kept my distance, quickly reaching for my camera and video equipment. All the while eyes locked with the creatures armored scaly flesh and piercing dark eyes. Tongue periodically flicking out, it carefully stalked across the path before being startled in turn by a passing tourist, at which point it launched itself forward and into the brush.

The Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

What had started as a perfectly cloudless day had now evolved into something far more picturesque. Still sweltering hot with leave-you-drenched humidity, puffy made-for-Hollywood clouds had formed up and drifted in. I found myself facing a fork in the road. Two paths, each to different sides of the island and different views of the falls.

The Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

With a chuckle at the decision facing me I quickly started to meander happily along the path to the right with a gentle hum on my lips and a skip to my step. My initial fears had been proven completely unfounded. This truly was a natural wonder of the world and a destination that I’d already realized would go down as one of my favorite experiences to date.

The Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

As the jungle gave way to bushes, small pools, and grassy areas it was obvious I had entered the more recently cut/oft flooded area of the island. I could hear – almost feel – the roar of the falls and found my glasses constantly misted by the water in the air.

The Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Iguazu’s charm isn’t just that it’s one of the largest waterfalls in the world. It’s the contrast of  stunning rich green moss and vegetation cut by vibrant white falls all set against incredibly blue skies. In some areas large clumps of moss and flower-covered stone appear to hover in space, suspended by white pillars of water.

The Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

The view from the lookout was incredible. Located immediately next to and over parts of one of the major falls the sound was thunderous, the spray from the falls invigorating, and the plant life in bloom. All the while, inexplicably, a small army of gorgeously colored butterflies survived the humid river air and waterfall spray, to flutter in and around my head.

Strange Bird with Intense Eyes - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

After a few minutes spent in consideration and perhaps relaxed meditation I struck back to the center of the island where I came across the most peculiar of wild birds. Mostly black, the little creature had two vibrantly colored blue eyebrows which left it looking more like a comedian than avian predator. I slowly stalked the strange creature pausing to take several photos and enjoy its odd coloring before striking down the island’s second path.

The Falls With a Vulture - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

The route wound me along the opposite side of the island and gave me a view of the Brazilian side of the falls, as well as my first taste of what I’d later come to learn was fondly called the Devil’s Throat. As I walked I paused, once again, to capture an incredible combination of sights. A large vulture was resting in one of the branches which left a view of the falls perfectly framed. All the while one of the local tour boats – boats like the Maid of the Mist at Niagara Falls – rushed at, and into one of the smaller falls before being driven back by the force of the water. Though obviously modern, I couldn’t help but feel as though I’d been transported back through time to a distant, wild, and undiscovered jungle. Places such as this must have served as ample inspiration for authors writing great romanticized texts like the Lost World.

The Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

As I wound back down, caught the small ferry back to the mainland and began my trek back up towards the top of the main falls I found the path full of wonderful delights. Small places that demand a brief pause, some to enjoy the brightly colored flowers, lazy fluttering of butterflies, and others a beautifully framed view of the falls.

The Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

The path back towards the top of the falls offered fantastic close-up views of the falls. The amount of water, and the sheer power of the falls themselves is staggering. It left me feeling small, insignificant, and fragile.

The Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

One of the things that makes the falls so gorgeous is the different types of falls present. Some are mighty chutes, others are long thin curtains, yet others are tiny streamers spitting out tiny trails of water.

Strange Grasshopper - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Growing a bit tired from my hike and having already burned through my entire bottle of water I was thrilled to stumble across a small store and food stand sandwiched back and away from the falls. For a relatively reasonable price I was able to buy a mediocre sandwich, new bottle of water, and small soda. As I ravenously set upon my sandwich I quickly discovered a new friend – an odd grasshopper/cricket with incredibly long legs and antenna. As we enjoyed brunch together another of the area’s local creatures, a Coati, emerged from the underbrush and began to make his rounds. The raccoon-like creatures are the size of a mid-sized dog or large cat, have long noses, large tails and tend to be particularly friendly, though I avoided trying to give him a scratch on the head.

The Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Re-fueled and ready to renew my adventure I struck out along the path that offered an incredible look out over/along the leading face of the falls. Viewed from the top, rather than the middle or bottom, it really dawned on me just how expansive the falls were and how much water was passing over them.

Butterfly at Iguazu Falls - Iguazu, Argentina

My next destination was the fall’s main cutting edge – the Devil’s Throat. The path to it was a small adventure in and of itself. A raised metal walkway which cut out and across the massive shallow-water river. The walk spanned a number of small islands, was mostly raised over the water, and lasted some 5-10 minutes. The small islands along the route (most the size of a small house) were full of gorgeous butterflies, and the water offered the periodic sight of a large catfish or turtle lazily relaxing in the gentle current.

Devil's Throat - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

As I approached the throat I could hear it roar, and see a small plume of mist. Obscured by the smooth curvature of the water’s forward face as it gently bent before breaking completely into a churning cauldron the true size of the Devil’s Throat was invisible until I got closer.

Devil's Throat - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

A giant V, there is a semi-dry island which serves as the secure base for the raised platform which stretches along one side of Devil’s Throat offering otherwise incredible views of the falls.

Devil's Throat - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

The thunder of the falls made conversation difficult as I paused to talk to several other travelers. The view out over the falls was spectacular. With thick mist obscuring everything down river, the whole area was turned into a magical wonderland. Decorated by rainbows, birds were diving in and out of the mists. It left me feeling as though I was floating in a magical city.

Devil's Throat - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

As spectacular as the rest of the falls were, I think the most magical part of Iguazu was the view out over Devil’s Throat. The way the water was ejected out off of moss and grass covered cliffs into the mists, with bottom in sight left me feeling as though I was on one of the floating islands from the recent blockbuster Avatar, or the magical Cloud City in Star Wars. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was….dare I say it? Mist-ical.

Devil's Throat - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

My state of awe seemed to slow time and left me enjoying the sheer wonder of the falls for what may have been a few minutes, but was more than likely closer to half an hour. Even now, several months later, as I think back to that moment I can close my eyes and feel a sense of awe wash over me. Aware that I was burning, hungry, and exhausted I eventually tore myself away from the falls, made the walk back to the small in-park shuttle train, and then found the bus back to Puerto Iguazu.

The falls at Iguazu are one of those places that I hope everyone will visit in their lifetime. The weather can be problematic, the route to get there expensive and time consuming, but I can say with complete confidence that it’s all worth it. Travel always touches us and leaves us changed. There are some places, however, that go beyond that and captivate our hearts. For me, Iguazu Falls was one such place.

View part one of this post: A Traveler’s Dream and Natural Wonder of the World – Iguazu Falls in Northern Argentina.

Questions? Have your own experiences at the falls? Please share them in a comment or as a tweet and remember, you can subscribe to this blog by RSS OR get my updates delivered directly to your e-mail. Thanks for reading!

Like the photos in this post? They were shot on a Canon G11, check out the latest version the Canon G12 on Amazon.

Goodbye Denmark, Hello Germany

The Old Harbor - Copenhagen, Denmark

My final day in Copenhagen was a brief one.  After a fantastic night spent exploring the city’s nightlife with Kevan and a few girls from the hostel I downed a hearty breakfast, showered, read for a while and then struck out for the train station.  From there it was onto a fast train bound for Hamburg, Germany.  As I boarded my train I couldn’t help but let out a slight sigh.  My stay in Copenhagen and Denmark as a whole had been far too brief.  With a grin, I mumbled under my breath “I’ll see you soon” before boarding.

Every trip has it’s own mini disasters. In truth, that’s part of the joy of travel. As it turned out the Denmark -> Germany leg of my trip would end up being my Scandinavia trip’s mini-nightmare.  Unfortunately, there was a massive heatwave hitting the region.  Not the “oh boy it’s hot” type, but rather a heat wave significant enough that the national media was covering it. Which wouldn’t have been a problem, except for the small fact that the air conditioning on the fast train I was on was out.  That posed a major problem since bullet trains are largely sealed and don’t have windows that open or secondary ventilation.  The solution?  Transfer us to an older train about halfway through which had an odd mixture of windows (lifesavers), strange compartments, a tacky lime green paint job, and rattled along at a grandfatherly pace.  Sadly the train also seemed to pre-date air-conditioning.

Ride of Doom - Denmark/Germany Train

The ride itself was brutal.  Between the delays and slower pace of the older cars the 4 hour trip quickly turned into a 6.5 hour trip.  On the positive side of things, we still got through.  As it turned out the authorities were forced to cancel a large number of trains due to heat stroke concerns.  I’d later learn that some 30+ people feinted from the heat.  For my part, I sat as close to a window as I could manage, tried to read and baked slowly.   I’d guess that the temperature in the cabin was in the neighborhood of 120+ degrees Fahrenheit with a high humidity rate. Even as an Arizonan/Phoenician it was almost too much for me to bear.

Ferry to Germany

After an hour or two on the rails we pulled in to the harbor. There the train was carefully loaded onto a ferry and secured for the 45 minute trip across the bay to Germany.  The ferry was massive (it swallowed a train whole after all) and afforded us all an opportunity to stock up on water, grab some food, dry off, and desperately try and lower our body temperatures. I grabbed two hot dogs, a coke, and a liter and a half of water before heading up to the sun deck. There I was greeted by the smell of fresh sea air, and a view of a haze filled bay, periodically decorated by the hulking forms of large ferries, tankers and transports. With book in hand I settled in and rested for the duration of the maritime segment of the trip.  Then it was back into the train cars.

The rest of the trip was rugged.   I befriended the German woman traveling with her two kids who had the seats across from me.  Before long I an idea struck: to improve ventilation we could tie the doors open, which we did using her son’s shoe laces.  It helped a bit, and made life bearable.  From there we chatted a bit. She would periodically pause, listen to the announcements, and then translate them from German into English for me. Meanwhile apologetic and somewhat concerned crew members would make their way through the car, checking to make sure everyone was ok, responding to questions and suggesting anyone feeling light headed head to the dining car for water. In typical form the Germans all took it stoically.

By the time I decided to seek out something cold I’d already burned through and sweated out most of my liter and a half of water.  The salty hotdogs definitely hadn’t helped.  As you might imagine, the dining car was already sold out of water and most of their sodas.  The only thing they had left?  Juice…but it was luke warm which was good enough for me.

The rest of the trip was dreadfully hot, soaking wet and uneventful.  The good news is, I was definitely grateful when I eventually arrived in Hamburg. In the grand scheme of things, it was also probably fairly healthy.  After all, don’t people pay good money for extended trips to ritzy saunas?  Mine came with one hell of a view of the German countryside!

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.

Sleeping at the Hospital and My Intro to Stavanger


Trip to Stavanger

I’ve known for quite some time now that I can’t sleep sitting up. Give me a flat surface or a semblance of one and I’m out in minutes even if its alongside a busy street. A reclining chair though?  Heaven help me. It’s a hopeless battle. So, no doubt you can imagine what – or should I say how – I spent most of my 8 hour overnight train ride from Oslo to Stavanger. I suppose given my propensity for the odd but no less boisterous snore it was ultimately in the best interests of everyone else in the train car…still…I’m just selfish enough, that I’d have gladly said to hell with them and dozed contentedly even if it might have sounded as though we had a freight train in tow.

The one upside to, well…being up was that by 3 or 4AM when the sun began to rise, I was awake and able to see the sheer beauty of the Norwegian countryside as dawn stirred it from a fitful evening’s rest. It was beautiful.  With gorgeous fjords, wild shorelines, small rivers, and beautiful forests it was my first true taste of the untamed Norwegian countryside.

Tall Ship - Stavanger, Norway

Eventually, the wild countryside gave way to a more domesticated landscape.  One with cottages, small towns, sleepy villages, and then eventually a bustling city. I’d arrived in the city of Stavanger.  At just over 120,000 citizens in the city proper and 300,000 or so in the Stavanger Metro Area it ranks as Norway’s third largest city, though if you’re like the average tourist, you may not necessarily have heard of it.   Located at the end of a rail line which branches out from Stavanger and forks down through Kristiansand before winding back up and around the deep fjords to Stavanger the city is geographically fairly close to the popular tourist and cruise destination of Bergen but only accessible from Bergen by ferry, bus or car as rail traffic to the city requires a return trip back to Oslo and then back out towards Bergen.

Upon my arrival I spent a considerable amount of time in the cool morning air dodging the occasional raindrop as I tried to make heads or tails of what seemed to be profoundly vague hostel directions.  After asking several bus drivers and getting a variety of different looks and answers I eventually tracked down the pick up spot for Bus 11. Though it sounds like a simple enough task, it was about a block away from the station and halfway around the small lake which sits in front of the train station.  Made that much more challenging to identify, as the spot was marked by a small placard on a lamp post instead of the glass booths which marked the other 20 something bus stops.

Sleepy Duck - Stavanger, Norway

The ride itself was rather painless.  My goal was to find the Student Hospital which my notes from the Hosteling International website identified as the closest nearby landmark.  As it turned out, the bus driver though being friendly, really didn’t speak much English and apparently either misunderstood my question, or forgot about it. As I watched what looked like it might be a hospital drift past, a friendly local who had over heard my conversation with the driver, suggested that I get off at the next stop for the hospital.  Grateful, I hit the button just in time and sighed in relief as we pulled over and paused at the 2nd (and last) stop near the hospital.

The bus pulled away, and I found myself standing somewhat baffled. The directions said it was located near the hospital and was at times used as overflow accommodation for the hospital.  Weird, but no big deal…right?  The catch was, the only thing I could see besides the hospital was a sea of houses. With a harrumph, I spotted the  Hospital Hotel – a hotel which was physically attached to the hospital itself and shared a common lobby, but which was designed to service hospitalized patients family members as well as those no longer i need of an actual hospital bed, but not yet ready to leave the immediate vicinity of the hospital itself.  I figured that of all the locals, the front desk staff at the hospital was my best bet for locating the hostel.

Cathedral - Stavanger, Norway

A few minutes later found me in the hospital lobby at the hotel desk.  As I walked up and smiled, I looked more than a little out of place, surrounded as I was by new and expectant mothers, bandaged elderly, and the occasional wheelchair bound patient out for a stroll.

“Excuse me? Can I ask you a quick question?” I asked somewhat meekly.

I followed up the woman’s nod and courteous smile, “Can you perchance tell me where to find the Hostel near here?”.

Her nose crinkled slightly as her lips pouted to one side in an obvious expression of thought before she responded, “A Hostel?  I’m not familiar with one, but let me ask my boss”.

She turned and beckoned to a second woman in the office behind her. I groaned silently in gentle frustration.

She passed my question on, and then took a step to the side as the manager joined me at the counter. “Oh!” She exclaimed “That’s us! We actually just began renting out hostel rooms, though none of the supplies have arrived yet”. I stood temporarily left mute, then recovered quickly as she continued, “Since we don’t have the bunks yet, we’ll give you a private room at the price you booked at (some 295 NOK or about $45 USD).  I checked in trying to not chuckle and began to ponder the oddity of it all.

It’s important to note that while by general European and international standards $45/night for a hostel bed is ridiculous (and by far $10 more than any other hostel I stayed in), it was fairly reasonable for Stavanger which is only serviced by 2 hostels.  The other of which is a a classic Hi Hostel which charged 250 NOK for a dorm room, and an additional fee for wifi and sheets which I figured would have come to ~295 NOK if not more. Which, despite the profoundly bizarre nature of the accommodation, made what I’ve begun calling the Hospithostal a fairly decent deal.

The good news was I ended up with my own room, with a great/clean bathroom, Television with Cable, a 4th story view out over the fjord and free Wifi with a strong signal.  The bad news was, I was effectively in a hotel attached to a hospital and seemed to be one of, if not the only backpacker in the place. As you can imagine, I wasn’t thrilled by my prospects for wild and crazy adventures with fellow hostellers. I really can’t imagine the Hospithostel has any clue what they’re signing up for – I can imagine a lot of odd and off beat locations poorly prepared for the onslaught of a group of drunk and rowdy traveling Aussies and Americans, but a hospital is one place that just begs trouble. Especially given drunken hosteller’s propensity for playing with things and ending up in places they really aught not be in. Luckily for my criminal record (or lack there of) my stay in Stavanger ended up being a quiet one. No co-conspirators, no wandering through the hospital, and no memorable antics.  Which, given the beating my body ended up taking during the Preikestolen hike, was probably a good thing.

…and what the hell – how many hostels have YOU stayed in where you had to pass on the first elevator that showed up because a mother was pushing her newborn baby in a crib on wheels around the hospital for a post-delivery recovery walk.

I settled in, did laundry, and then curled up for a nap.  It was only 10AM after all, and I needed to recharge before heading into town and beginning my explorations.

Oktoberfest Day 3

After pushing hard the previous two days we took it easy Sunday morning. We slept in until about ten and then kicked around the hostel until about twelve when we went for a bite to eat. After washing up we decided to stop by Oktoberfest and pick up some pictures. From there we planned to head to the old town and explore it in a bit greater depth before booking our train tickets for later that day.

We made the 15 minute walk to the fairgrounds where we took a number of photos, each bought a few souvenir t-shirts and casually wandered about. Eventually we worked up a bit of a thirst and couldn’t resist the urge to pop into one of the tents and poke around. We had heard fantastic things about the Augustiner tent and beer and so chose it. Luckily it was still early enough that the majority of the tents still had openings. We found the Augustiner tent and quickly located a small spot at the end of a bench next to two men and a woman dressed in traditional garb. In usual fashion we started talking to them and in no time had made friends. They helped us flag down our forgetful waitress and even shared a bit of their beer with us while we waited for our own steins when it became necessary to toast to a song.

As we sat and chatted we learned that they had been there since 9 in the morning and were already starting to hurt. One of the guys (the woman’s husband or fiance) went from drunk to partially passed out in the 2 or so hours we sat there with them. The three were incredibly friendly, sharing stories, food, history, harassing each other and all around including us in the fun. When anyone ordered food, it got passed around and shared and as the two foreigners we had to try everything. This ranged from a red cabbage/beet thing, to gravy-covered meat, pretzels, and a herring and onion sandwich. While I didn’t notice a huge difference between the beer in the Augustiner tent and the beer in the Pauliner tents we’d previously visited it was definitely fantastic beer.

The tent itself was incredible, see my photos (facebook – message me if you need the link) for an idea on how big it was and the atmosphere. The barmaids and men were fantastic, no idea how they did it but they would carry 5 or 6 steins at once, sometimes stacking an additional one in the middle on the handles of the others. The whole place smelled of rich food, beer, and people. The energy in the air was ecstatic as everyone was happy and as friendly and hospitable as could be. At one point there was a family who was sitting on the other side of our 3 German friends. I presume they were German and one of their kids – he had to have been 16 maybe 17 had a stein for himself. As we pounded on the table with our elbows, lifted our steins in the air to “prost!” and shouted along he kept pace with his own stein…which was about as big as he was. The funniest part was when it came time for him to leave, we all toasted him and he scuttled the last bit of beer he had to cheers from all of the surrounding tables.

Later, an older German man easily in his late 70s who was sitting behind me leaned back and challenged me to a toast. Though his english was very limited, I was able to talk to him for a bit which was really neat. Then, he would periodically lean back into our table and cheer or toast with us. He’d also sing along with one of the three (the guy who was still going strong) and they would collectively sing old drinking songs and bellow them out. Later we also picked up a German doctor who sat sandwiched in with us and reminded me of Mr. Bean…the similarity was uncanny….and he had a french-style pan haircut which made it that much better. The guy was nice, and merrily drank along with us. Another family also ended up sliding in later and though their two young girls were way too young to drink (even by Oktoberfest standards) the parents joined our merriment.

Around 3 we finally succeeded in finishing our drinks and avoiding having more bought for us. We dragged ourselves away from the tent. It was hard, the people were all so warm and the atmosphere so incredible – it almost hurt to leave. Once outside we wandered around a bit, picked up a few more items and some photos then made our way to the rail station. The unfortunate news was that our train options were pretty limited and as always expensive. The good news was after dealing with a complete ass of a rail attendant when I first tried to book my ticket, I talked to a nice lady at another window and got a sleeper compartment for the trip to Prague. Amber found a train back to Cologne later that night that left about the same time as mine. With time to kill we walked into the city center as night fell, ate and explored.

The inner city was beautiful, especially at night with the buildings and cathedrals lit up. We stopped for gelato and then found a 3-person classical street group playing in an alcove (cello, violin, flute). There we paused for a good 20-30 minutes and listened. As with so many other things on the trip it seemed straight out of a movie. Eventually we got back to the train station and hunkered down to wait for our trains. While we waited in the small coffee shop we started talking to a few of the others. The first couple ended up being Americans traveling – we exchanged stories and tips. Then I noticed that the two somewhat rugged travelers (with huge packs) had what I immediately recognized as a fly fishing pole holder. I engaged them in conversation and it turned out they were from Kansas over in Europe backpacking and fishing. Though their fly fishing luck had been really poor we chatted about fishing stories until it was time for my train to leave. They were interesting chaps, each about the size of a mountain . When we all stood up (cafe had closed) they dwarfed me…weird the people you meet, such contrast on the road!

I got lucky for my sleeper car – it was 6 beds, 3 stacked on each side of the cabin and reminded me of what I’d imagined the bunks on a submarine must look like. 4 of the other bunks were filled by a group of Asian American girls who were my age and had just finished some program or another. We got acquainted then settled in. It was somewhat comical as I warned them that I might snore and invited them to nudge me if it was disturbing them. Well at two points during the night I must have been snoring because as I was in a half sleep I remember a pillow from above flying down (I was in the middle bunk) and thwomping me on the head. It was hard to keep from laughing. By a stroke of luck, I just barely fit (and by that i mean my feet only kinda dangled) and I was able to get a good night sleep.

The next morning I awoke in Prague. I’ll continue that story soon.