Paskeferie: Bergen og Tromso

{Special characters fail…the title read Pskeferie: Bergen of Troms when I tried to put the correct letters in 😦 }

Well you know it was a jam packed trip when I didn’t have a chance to blog as I went. About 10 days ago, I returned from my 5 day-end of easter holidays-excursion. As you probably know by now, I had a bit of a staycation for the first 10 days and then rounded out the 2 weeks with a couple days in Bergen and then Tromsø.

I got a very early start landing in Bergen before 8:00 Am and luckily the good weather followed me. Sunny and up to 8 degrees I navigated the flybussen and quaint streets to my hostel just around the corner from the center of town. The weather was so fabulous I basically spent the entire day walking through the little streets, under the crooked balconies of Bryggen, into this shop and that…I was even able to get some snacks from the grocery to eat outside (with a latte of course) rather than desperately searching for a restaurant to warm up inside of. I took soooo many pictures but mostly because the sun was so bright and I couldn’t see anything, so despite the gigabytes used I can’t say the photos turned out any better than any other situation. But alas it was warm and I was enjoying myself. I also went up the funicular (because it’s the best word ever) and walked around the top of the hill looking down over Bergen’s central harbor. In the evening, I continued exploring, hoping I would find this street art ballerina some friends had informed me of. I wandered as long as I could manage (having been walking for hours and hours), but she has either been painted over, or I simply did not find her. On the bright side, I found all the OTHER street art around town and was having fun peeking around corners and snapping away. Bergen was a bit like a bigger, glorified Stavanger. I really enjoyed myself and happy I got the chance to get a taste of the once capital city. I do, however, have to note that I was so excited to go for dinner and found an Indian restaurant right near my hostel that seemed for real……..false. Please don’t go to Taste of India in Bergen. I was so sad. Of course everything is expensive, but when you pay so much for something you don’t even want to eat, it is a sad time. The next day I was going out for the Norway in a Nutshell tour, so after Taste of India I was able to stick with food I bought at the grocery and not deal with finding any new restaurants. Since I do not eat fish,  it could have been a very trying task.

Speaking of Norway in a Nutshell….it was another early start to catch the train to Voss. Norway in a Nutshell is basically a tour that buys you an all inclusive ticket covering several modes of public transportation to ‘tour’ the surrounding areas. You can choose from several itineraries and extend it as long as you want, but mine went like this:

Train from Bergen to Voss, Immediate bus from Voss to Gudvangen(short photo stop en route), about 20 minutes in Gudvangen where we could of course take some pictures and then board the ferry, Ferry to Flåm, a little over an hour in Flåm to explore – mostly souvenir shops and a little museum about the Flåm railway, then we took said railway up to Myrdal, 1.5 hours in Myrdal, and finally train back to Bergen. All in all about an 11 hour trip in one day.

It is definitely manageable in one day as you are mostly on transportation the whole time, but that is also what I didn’t really love about it. You can’t stop on the buses or trains and you are always looking through a window. I love the ferry because we could walk around and feel more in the midst of everything, but I imagine it would be a lot less exciting if the weather was poor, which can be quite often. The time in Flåm was plenty as most of the shops were closed pre-cruise ship season. I imagine a nice place to go for a hike also when everything is not iced over. The Flåm Railway was pretty cool. It is a true engineering masterpiece and it is more touristy so there was more information then the rest of the self guided tour. Apparently, the huge water fall is quite cool on your way up to Myrdal, but again, it was frozen in early April. Myrdal is a train platform. So at the end of a rather long day, no one seemed to know what to do for an hour and a half on a train platform. Again, luckily the weather was spectacular and I could sit outside (bundled up of course). I think you can ride bikes here though when it is less snowy too. I was pretty tuckered out at the end of the day not having slept much from the side effects of my restaurant fail the night before, so I was happy to get back to the hostel and make some dinner when all was said and done. I did have a nice time and am  happy I went, but for all the effort, I think I would much rather see Lysefjord from Stavanger which is only about a 3 hour round trip by boat right from downtown. You get the ferry aspect which means freedom to move about as you please and take lots of pictures. I think more people do the Norway in a Nutshell because Bergen is the last stop on the Hurtigruten. If you get the choice, however, I would say go out an see Lysefjord, hike Preikestolen, and drive around Byrkjedal to get just as much with less waiting (I am pretty sure decently cheaper), stunning views, and more flexibility. Just my opinion!

I really did enjoy the harbour/Bryggen area of Bergen, so the following morning I got a coffee and sipped away by the water and UNESCO sight until it was time to catch my bus back to the airport. Feeling refreshed and ready for the next level of adventure, I flew onwards to Tromsø. The views from the plane were stunning as I officially crossed into the Arctic Circle. I don’t know why this was a goal of mine, but it was (I think it has a lot to do with my life-long dream of going to Antarctica). I really wasn’t sure if I would make it up North before leaving Norway, so I was trying to control disappointment levels by not getting too excited until it happened. Well it happened…and I was excited!!!! Seriously though, I was basically ecstatic, so it is safe to say Tromsø was a highlight for me. The city itself is not a hopping, out of control city center. It is quiet, fisherman town like, right on the water with stunning views off into the mountains. I wouldn’t come here for the nightlife ( let’s be honest – I go nowhere for the nightlife), but it was a quaint little city under drifts of snow overlooking the water and was amazing for this little tourist to visit for a long weekend. The weekend was made especially wonderful because I had a new friend to share it with. My roommate in Bergen and I, discovered that we had almost the same plans. Since hostels are remote or unavailable in Tromsø, we decided to share a hotel room in the center and help cut down some costs or crazy transportation time into town. In true Scandinavian style it was quite small and cozy, but the arrangement worked out perfectly. Plus! We also got a huuuugeee breakfast included. Since we were chasing the lights both nights (more to come shortly) we woke up late and basically got to fill up from the buffet for breakfast and lunch. They even had lactose free and gluten free options, and tons of breakfast food selections. This was NOT your standard continental breakfast and was an extra way of saving more than a few kroner. Plus it was the same price as most of the hotels in the area if not cheaper. So if you ever go to Tromsø I definitely recommend the Rica Grand Hotel. This might seem totally irrelevant to people just popping in to see the photos, but this turned into a great travel tip. Being able to room with my awesome new Brazilian friend, Caroline, and saving food money on breakfast/lunch saved me enough money to go out on the Northern Lights tour for a second night. Without that, I may not have seen the Northern lights at all, so it is not irrelevant info….it is a huge lucky-karmic-everything happens for a reason- thing that worked out tremendously. Not to mention it made a difficult to feed person very happy and full with the options available 🙂

The Chase. I arrived Friday evening, so after settling in and a short wander, it was time to go on a chase for the Northern Lights. This is actually incorrect, because you do not actually chase the Northern Lights, you chase clear skies. The lights are up there, but you can’t see them if a big ‘ol cloud is in your way. I booked my excursion with Arctic Explorers, who despite only being one season old, have outstanding reviews. I was so excited to find a company that was small and personal. Only 8 people maximum in a van, and we would venture any which way based on forecasts and the best chance of seeing the lights. We would also stay out as long as necessary to try and find them or enjoy the best the night had to offer. What amazed me the most out of the experience was how much I enjoyed the driving and the process. I was lucky in the sense that late in the season the sun sets much later and we got to see so much as we drove rather than just darkness. This trade off was well worth it, especially on the first night. We headed for the coast, so I got to see some of the fjords and impressive islands off of Tromsø. We stopped to take some photos along the way and saw some interesting things like where they dry the fish to make what something like a fish jerky. My favorite though, was that we got to see 6 reindeer just out on the hill burrowing into the snow. I forgot to mention that it was half blizzarding at this point and they burrow into the snow for shelter. Totally cool, and we know I am easily excited when animals like reindeer are involved. Sadly ,the blizarding increased when it was supposed to clear up in patches, so we saw nothing of the sky but one star. Just one. Before when I said the views and other ‘sight seeing’ were appreciated on the first night, this is why. Honestly, though I would not have seen a fraction of what the area has to offer if it weren’t for the excursion, lights or not. Plus, it isn’t everyday that I am out cooking my military style food (which was better than most restaurant food in these parts) in a blizzard in a giant snow suit. When in Rome….

I wasn’t really sure at first, but by the time I had returned from the first night, I knew I would be out again the second. I would hate myself if I didn’t try, and as mentioned above, the extra bit of savings made it possible. Not to mention I simply had a good time lights or not, so it was worth it.

We got back at around 2 AM the first night. Caroline had come in just as I was leaving for my excursion so we reconvened when we both woke up in the morning. Breakfast, as mentioned previously, was leisurely and delicious. The great part about visiting a small city is you don’t have to marathon to do everything. Plus it was snowing pretty intensely so we were not in a rush. It was great having a friend to wander with for a day and between my quick excitability at all the small things, and a Brazilian’s amazement at snow, we made for a good and entertaining pair. We wandered around town as much as we could manage, seeking shelter in warm shops. This only heightened my desire to not care how expensive all the cozy sweaters were. We laughed at all the places that snow could pile up….apparently in  Tromsø they have to shovel gas station roof tops. We also went to the Polaria museum where were enjoyed the aquarium but upon exiting didn’t quite understand how the gift shop could ask you to donate to save the seals and sell seal skins in the same place. Apparently, they get this question a lot – no solid answer other than, ‘it’s part of the Arctic lifestyle’, and a sad side note of … there are a lot of seals though. mmmm ???  We also ventured to the contemporary museum and well, let’s just say we were happy it was free and had free hot chocolate.

At this point we went back, ate our leftovers for late lunch/dinner, warmed up with showers and rested a bit before a hopefully long night to see the lights! Caroline and I also spent a great deal of time discussing how much we wanted to go to Finland on our drive that evening because it sounded way more epic. And of course, if we didn’t see the lights, I just wanted to say I went to Finland. Though almost every other night the tour had gone to Finland, or in that direction, my second night was of course in a direction (like the coast) they had gone only one other time in months. It was fabulous though. We were on what is deemed, the official Northern Lights Road, so we were all of course joking by counting down the kilometers until we saw them. The drive was stunning. At least it wasn’t blizzarding and we had great views of the mountains and fjords as we headed south. I was grateful to see a new area as well, and all joking aside, we knew the road to Finland was long and the least exciting, so I appreciated the views. Today was the day! I could feel it! Thomas, our guide, remained patient and optimistic, but I could tell he was not going to give away any guarantees. Of course they can’t but I was just laughing to myself about how terrible I would be at this job. I would constantly be annoyed at people asking the same things over, or I would just be super bubbly and excited about seeing the lights and then accidentally get everyone’s hopes up lol. There is a job for everyone, this one would definitely not be for me 😉 However, Thomas was a pro. He kept us informed of the forecasts and where/why he was taking us, he answered anything and seemed to have an answer for everything. He even managed to not be terribly annoyed at how obnoxious we probably were as everyone was passing cameras around to the person with the best view, numerous can we stop heres, and all the other giddy banter and laughter.

We drove a long time trying to get to the other side of the giant cloud. We finally found an area but there were lots of houses. We turned off on a side street towards the water and I am pretty sure it was the biggest small town side street ever. We were all joking that these were the Northern Lights because they had a lampost, for barely any houses and fewer cars, placed about every 10 m. I think it took us a good 20 minutes to reach the end (a dead end) luckily opening up onto the water and with the last several lamp posts out so we could have some darkness. I believe it was around 11 pm when we had officially set up camp and started boiling water for food. Thomas is also a photographer and helped all of us set up our cameras on the best settings for the lights. We waited. This was prime time for the lights and rule of thumb says, if you don’t see any by midnight, you probably will not see them. It does not mean they do not happen later, but they will always be earlier too if there is activity that night. I refused to believe that there would be 0 activity on the day that we actually found clear skies…I had let myself get excited, I couldn’t be disappointed now. Your camera sometimes sees the lights before you, so I was of course constantly shooting to check if that cloud was really the Northern Lights. That’s kind of how it starts. I didn’t know what to expect, but Thomas told us, they do not look like in the photos. They are dimmer and do not start in an instant show. It is gradual and often starts looking like a cloud. So I photographed all those clouds, just in case they showed up green 🙂 We waited. Nearing midnight, Thomas reeled us in to eat, but we thought…maybe…there was something on the horizon. I gulped down my food (I needed the warmth) and clicked the camera. Everyone bustling, “is it green?!” “is that it?!”….30, 29, 28….it’s a 30 second exposure people….we waited. Click (image pops up)….and because I get overly enthusiastic in situations like this…..”IT’S GREEN!!!!” Everyone bolted for their cameras, a huge smile on my face, I set up for a (hopefully) better photo and then just started laughing. This was hilarious. The lights got stronger, though not the biggest show, it got bright enough where we did not have to refer to our cameras to see the colors and they moved across the sky all over head. This is a big reason why Tromsø is a top Northern Lights destination because you can see the lights right over you rather than off on the horizon in places like Iceland. Thomas took photos of our group and even obliged with my mandatory split picture. My first winter addition thanks to the snow suit! We had about an hour of the show, enjoying, taking pictures, and the people whose cameras had died from the cold or were not equipped for the lights were yelling, this way, that way, over here! 30 second exposure people! It was comical and the energy was high to say the least. When we finally loaded up and squished ourselves and our second body (snow suit) back into the van, I began a round of applause. Thomas said no one has ever applauded for him before….I guess it’s the performer in me, but clearly everyone else in the van felt it was well deserved. The 2-2.5 hour journey back to town was quiet albeit the minor chit chat of the front row and Atul (a second nighter as well) just behind us. Everyone else was wiped out and possibly jet lagged as they hailed all the way from Asia. We arrived back at the hotel somewhere around 3;30 AM I think. The sun was already starting to spread a tiny bit of daylight on the horizon again. Grins on our faces, Caroline and I passed out. It was an amazing experience and the craziest part is, like Egypt, I was marveled and cannot wait to do it again. I feel like you never quite know about these ‘must do’ things. Sometimes it’s a bit more like, great – now I can tell people I did that, check it off the list. It doesn’t always mean it is bad or overrated, but sometimes it is a one time deal. Then there are the wonders of the world that move you and you just need to experience a second, third, hundredth time. I think the Northern Lights was like that for me. Not sure if I would last a hundred nights, but I would definitely like to do a longer excursion and get the chance to see a truly big show. I hope I do, but even if I don’t the experience will stay with me a lifetime.

On Sunday we woke up late again, totally crashed from the adrenalin rush and tub of candy to keep our sugar high the night before. Breakfast was again delicious and much needed – especially in the coffee department. We also woke up to beautiful sunshine so decided to enjoy the great outdoors – aka actually see more of town and what it looks like without snow blowing in your eyeballs. We made it to the older section of town and surprise surprise, I took a lot of door pictures and we laughed at all the snow. When the clouds finally rolled back in it got very cold by the harbor so we headed back to warm up and chat a bit before I had to leave. One more flybussen and I was back at the airport. Via Oslo I got back to Stavanger in one piece, but of course late. I was grateful for Nancy and Brett as they picked me up and chauffeured me back to the house. Feeling like I had returned from some other planet and still high on the experience, it was back to business Monday morning. And now only 2 weeks ago feels like ages. Anyways, clearly there were a lot of photos and I have been writing this in pieces so thanks for your patience as I brought it all together.

Hope you enjoy!

Photos from Bergen

Photos from Tromsø

And, if you want to see some extra amazing photos of the Northern Lights, Check out Thomas Hunger’s Photography – he gets the unique opportunity of being out almost every night for the lights and has done a breathtaking job of capturing them. Warning: you will want to see the lights after looking at these 😉

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