Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Norway, Part I

Ever since Jon returned from his trip to Norway in summer 2005, he has been itching to go back. I have had no problems with this plan, but it wasn't until this summer that we were actually able to make it work. We began discussing our trip probably a year ago--I confess to using Norway as a carrot to help me make it through the school year--but we didn't start planning in earnest until the spring.

We knew we wanted to visit/meet family and we knew that we were interested in running the Midnight Sun Half-Marathon (see subsequent post), but beyond that, we were up for adventure. Little did we know that adventure would begin at Chicago O'Hare International Airport.

Despite the fact that our final preparations were planned much later than we would have preferred, all was going according to plan on the morning we were to fly. We arrived at the airport with time to spare, breezed through security, and landed on-time in Chicago. We didn't think too much of the fact that we weren't able to print off our boarding passes for our Chicago to Frankfurt flight...until we reached the gate. Earlier that morning I had heard something about some computer problems experienced by United Airlines the day before--I was not surprised to learn we were in fact flying United. Due to these problems, we and approximately 20 of our closest friends were bumped from our flight.

We were quite calm throughout the ordeal, slightly amused by the distraught passengers who persisted in harassing the gate agents despite the fact that there was nothing they could do. We felt we were repaid by karma when not only were we re-routed with little delay to our original flight plan but also upgraded to business class. Ah, business class. Champagne, cloth napkins, reclining seats with foot rests, personal video screens...I think the only way to make first class any better is to have actual beds.

Needless to say, we were feeling pretty comfortable and well-rested by the time we landed in Amsterdam. After a brief lay-over, we were in Norway. Our luggage, however, was not. Frankly, we were not surprised, albeit slightly concerned when the baggage agents couldn't tell us where our luggage was. We fully expected to be reunited with our belongings shortly and set off to explore the coastal city of Bergen.

Old Town Bergen
We repeated much of Jon's most recent trip to Norway, which was more helpful than annoying. I felt a little bad that he was doing and seeing many of the same things, but I really don't think he minded. Plus, we traveled in the opposite order, from southern Norway to the north, which was a change, and Jon made sure to include some new adventures as well.

Bergen is a beautiful city, even if it is a bit touristy. There is a quaint old town and a thriving fish market. The highlight for us was riding the Fløibanen funicular (mountain-climbing train) to the top of Mount Fløyen, where we were treated to some incredible views of the town below.

View from Mount Fløyen
There was still no word about our luggage, but we were so tired from all our travels that we were able to overlook that minor detail. We were able to take showers, and I at least, had a change of clothes in my carry-on. The problem, however, is that we were leaving Bergen the next morning en route to Stavanger, so we made a trip to a department store to pick up some extra clothes for Jon.

It was around this time that we began to fully realize how expensive Norway is. Once we did all the mental conversions and figured out that we had spent $20 on two coffees and a cinnamon roll, we vowed to eat a lot of sandwiches. Thus, buying new shirts and underwear was not the way we wanted to use our precious Norwegian kroner.

But we gamely traveled on. We had rented a minuscule VW Polo and Jon and his mental GPS took us exactly where we needed to go. The scenery was lovely, even from the highway, and the ferries were extremely efficient. Throughout the day, I began to get increasingly nervous about the status of our luggage (which Jon will say is an understatement), and so once we got to Stavanger, we made a quick stop at an H&M where I purchased quite possibly the ugliest shirt in all of Norway. Lesson learned: always try on clothes, even if you are parked in a 15-minutes only zone.

That night we met a couple of Jon's dad's cousins, one of whom graciously opened her home to us to stay the night. They showed us around the area, filling us in with more history and insider details than we ever could have received on our own, and we are very thankful for the connection we made.

Monument to the battle of Hafrsfjord at Møllebukta, near Stavanger 
After a traditional Norwegian breakfast of assorted meats and cheeses, including our favorite gjetost (sweet brown goat cheese), we were on our way to hike Preikestolen, or Pulpit's Rock. Our brand-new hiking boots and "adventure pants" would have been really useful on this adventure, but alas, day three of no luggage. At any rate, we enjoyed our hike immensely. The trail was full of hikers, young and old, which was impressive due to the treacherous terrain at some points.

We hope we can still climb rocks like this when we're in our 70s
We also crossed paths with a man dressed head to toe in Husker gear, proof that it truly is a small world. After some good-natured ribbing about the up-coming Nebraska-Washington game, we continued our ascent. I felt myself getting more and more excited the closer we got to the top. We were not disappointed.

We still didn't have our luggage by this point, which I'll admit was quite distressing. We had been coordinating between two different airlines through a series of very expensive international calls and finally discovered that our bags were still in Chicago. At this point, we were concerned that we wouldn't have our running gear for our up-coming half-marathon in just a few days.

It was a fairly frustrating evening, both due to our luggage delay and our inability to find a place to stay. In our second small world moment of the day, we stopped at a campground owned by an ex-pat from Tennessee who had gone to Norway 15 years ago for mission work and never left. Even though all of his cabins were rented, he let us wait out a customer who hadn't shown up yet. During our wait, we heard wonderful news: our bags were in Oslo, where they would be waiting for us the following day. We had a lovely chat with the ex-pat proprietor and we got to stay in the cabin after all. Plus, we were greeted with the following view in the morning:

Ah, fjords
With this sight in mind, we set off for Oslo. Now that I am a "skilled" manual transmission driver, Jon chose this leg of the trip to have me drive...which was a huge mistake. The fjord roads are essentially one lane, and driving  80+ kilometers an hour in the face of on-coming semi trucks is not my idea of a good time. About ten minutes in--after I had pried my white knuckles  from the steering wheel and stopped hyperventilating--Jon returned to his post as driver.

We chose to take the scenic route, so even though it was quite late by the time we arrived in Oslo, it was well worth it. Our first roadside stop was the stave church in Røldal. This pilgrimage stave church is still used today. The woodwork is exquisite.

Circa 1200-1250
Our path then took us through the Hardangervidda, or Hardanger Plateau. We drove alongside fjords on more narrow roads, eating gjetost open-faced sandwiches for both lunch and dinner. We saw sheep on the road, a glacier in the mountains, and goats on the roof of the nature center.

Baaaaack off

Hardanger Glacier

If we had a yard, we'd use goats instead of a mower
After our stop at the Nature Center, where we found ourselves in the midst of a German seniors tour, it was serious driving to get to Oslo. We had already arranged a pension and were relieved to find our luggage waiting for us. Finally.

We spent the following day exploring Oslo. We ran through Frogner Park and all of its delightfully weird statues before hitting up the three tourist sites we had chosen. First was the Norwegian Resistance Museum. I hadn't really thought much about Norway's role in World War II before and found the history fascinating. I knew that Germany had invaded the country, like so many others, but it was interesting to see artifacts from the underground movement.

There is an island a short distance from Oslo's downtown core that houses a number of museums. We chose to check out the Norsk Folkemuseum, aka Norway's Missouri Town. Rather than churning butter, however, the highlight for us was the lefse. There were also traditional dancing demonstrations and activities for the kids. But, really, we were all about the lefse. Who says Norwegian food is bland?!?

Don't worry--we got the recipe
Our next adventure for the evening was a trek out to Holmenkollen, home of the Olympic ski jump in 1952. This trip was especially important to Jon, whose grandfather was once a competitive ski jumper...until he broke his leg. After seeing the ski jump up close, I can understand how that could happen.

It's a long way down
We sought out a traditional dinner and then went to bed early. We were headed north to Tromsø the next day and had the half-marathon to look forward to. An uneventful flight and an eventful cab ride (our driver received a $400 traffic ticket) later and we were at Jon's second cousin's house. She very warmly welcomed us into her home where we were entertained by her adorable children. Despite the language barrier, we were still able to play with the kids, Jon especially. We even learned the words for "fart" and "butt," which apparently have universal appeal.

Our time in Tromsø was dominated by the half-marathon, but we had a nice time with family, playing Settlers of Catan until the wee hours of the morning. You wouldn't have known it, however, for the sun was still shining brightly. Next was a 21 kilometer run and before we left town, we went for a nice long walk.

But back to the half-marathon. To be continued...

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