Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Cruising the Fiords

Our cruise ship is the MS Richard With. it has 691 passengers. We seem to be the only Aussies on board. Our cabin is on the 2nd top deck with a lovely picture window where we can sit and watch the passing scenery. The meals are excellent and we do not know if our clothes will fit when we get off!

The boat makes frequent stops along the coast of 15 - 45 minutes. At the moment we are in Trondheim, Norway's 3rd largest city and former capital. We are here for about 3 hours.

The highlight yesterday was travelling inland along the fiords for 100 km with the last 20 km up the beautiful Geiranger Fiord with its sheer cliffs dropping straight down into the water, numerous high waterfalls including 7 in a row called the Seven Sisters and snow topped mountains.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Spending a Penny

One of the best indicators of the cost of living in a city is the cost or otherwise of public toilets. traditionally we speak about "spending a penny". This may have been true when I was a boy well for the girls anyway.... we went behind a tree. It is certainly not true in Europe.

In Harrod's London store, they have a super loo..... I am sure they do not call it that. You receive a handtowel and soap from a uniformed assistant, toiletries, they brush down your clothes etc. The cost ... 5 pounds sterling! This is at the upper end of the London market. For the bottom end (pun intended), or cultured end of the market, it is free at the museums and galleries.

In Bergen, it is 5 kroner. This is the bottom price you can find. You pay at the railway station, library etc. it is rather ironic that you can use the Internet free but have to pay for the toilet.

Wherever Aussie travellers gather, it can be free. You simply hold the door open after use and the next person enters but only the first person gets use of the hand dryer. Not that your 5 kroner will buy you very much in Norway.

Railroads, Fiords and Hairpins

Yesterday we headed off by train to Myrdal. This was wonderful scenery past fiords, grass roofed houses and snow covered mountains. reaching the snowline, we boarded the famouos Flam railway for the incredible steep journey down to the fiord. Flam is a picturesque little village at the very end of the fiord. What a surprise for us to see the Queen Mary 2 docked next to the train station. We were miles inland and we think the captain would have to reverse it out.

We travelled on a much smaller craft through the magical fiord past hundreds of waterfalls and small villages some accessibke only by water. Finally we went up the narrowest fiord in Norway to Gudvangen. This time no luxury liner but a bus to take us up the incredible road with over 30 hairpin bends to Voss where we changed to a train for Bergen.

Wait till you see the photos!

Today we had a lazy start to the day taking in a midday concert at the old Kosskirken (church). The program featured Vivaldi, Bach and Buxtehude. The instruments were organ, harpsichord, cello and flute and it was just delightful.

Tomorrow we have a full day in Bergen and board the ship at 6 pm for our cruise to the most northerly point in Europe far beyond the Arctic Circle.

We will be back on 2 July and are not sure about Internet access till then.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Odd tales 1

As one travels you cant help but notice the many quirky tales and oddities. Sometimes they reflect on the sense of national identity of the people. This is a collection of a few.

1. Portaferry Ireland
Sign on the Seal Aquarium "Sorry we have no seals"
Could this only happen in Ireland?

2. Gairloch Scotland
Graffiti on wall..... A rare sight in this part of the world.
"Wee Dave is sexist"
One could only wonder what Wee Dave has done to warrant this public outing. No offence to our family and friends called Dave.

3. Kirkwall Orkney
Road sign
"Beware. Otters cross here."
Well we have kangaroos, koals and crocodiles.

4. Lerwick Shetland
Editorial in "Shetland Life" on "Da Voar Redd up" (cf Clean up Australia Day)
"...the vast majority of shoes we find washed up are left feet. The difference in shape, and the effect this has on the way they move in the water, means that all the right footed shoes end up on the other side of the Atlantic"
Has anyone visited this spot on the other side of the Atlantic? Do you know of any other similar theories?

More About Bergen

We are overawed at how beautiful Bergen is.

Toda we have visited museums. We visited the hanseatic museum located in an old timber building in the old medieval quarter near the harbour. We also called in at the Schotstuene which was the original communal meeting place of the merchants. We also looked at the "Mary Church" that dates from the 12 th century.

We again wandered the cobblestoned streets, marvelling at the timber buildings and the great old ships. At the moment there are 7 cruise ships in the port so we also had to contend with a few rich Americans puffing cigars.

Tomorrow we are off to ride the Flam Railway and visit the nearby fiords.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Beautiful Bergen

>This is certainly a beautiful city. The only city surrounded by 7 mountains and 7 fiords.

We have finalised our plans

21 - 23 June in bergen
24 - 2 july Norway coastal cruise to Kirkeness and fly back to bergen

3 July train to Oslo

Dramas on the High Seas

As we sailed on Sunday afternoon for our long ferry crossing to Norway arriving on Tuwsday night, thoughts of the sub arctic conditions, icebergs etc came to mind. We were further north than the tip of Greenland and i was reading a book set on its icecap. it was so cold it could "freeze a 1 inch pork chop like a plank of wood in 30 seconds".

The seas were calm and the sun was shining! The dramas came on our circuitous route. Smyril Lines had cancelled the direct ferry from lerwick in Shetland to begen in Norway. We found out about it a week before we left Sydney. So we sailed from lerwick to Torshavn (Faroe Islands). We had a stop in the world's smallest capital city (town). It was a lovely port with a great harbour full of Viking style fishing boats and buildings with grass covered roofs. Some had tv antennas sticking out of them. Then we sailed to Srabster (Orkneys). We were almost back to mainland Scotland! This was the first time that such a large ferry had docked at Scrabster. The "Norrona" is a large ship. it has restaurants (you need an overdraft), cafeterias and even a swimming pool and sauna (free). This we located down in the bilges and the water slopped around with the motion of the ship so it is like being in a spa.

The drama came as we were to depart for Norway. They had obviously made a new loading ramp complete with fancy hydraulics. Something went wrong. It did not fit! We ended up with the ship's captain and officers down with a dozen crew on the ship's aft and the 20 wharf staff a few metres away on dry land and with the ramp between them. An hour passed, then another. Eventually they had one end on the ferry and the other on the wharf. The cars started to inch across. I applauded and the small crowd joined in. The captain snarled. Finally a car with a caravan . They stopped. The crew measured. They looked under the ramp. A decision was made. They uncoupled the car and van. The car crossed. The crew - some in front and some at the back, manhandled the van across and then recoupled it on the wharf. Again we applauded. Fortunately there were no semitrailors. Eventually the unloading was completed and the loading commenced. We departed rather late!

Some engineer will have his bum kicked. A lot of work will be done before they return in a week. perhaps they will recommend the direct line to Norway from Shetland will be restored. Maybe not drama on the high seas but it was certainly drama at the wharf.

We sailed to Norway in a ship with just a few passengers. More crew than passengers. Was it to be a ghost ship? We sat at our picture window watching the glimmering sea - just the odd oil platform and boats. We finally arrived in picturesque Bergen.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

More Puffin Magic

We are back on the mainland of Shetland having travelled from Unst via Fetlar and Yell. We have seen many amazing sights expecially the incredible coastline and the barren countryside especially in the sub arctic desert.

Today we have been down to the south and had an amazing sighting of puffins where they were sitting only a metre from us. They are beautiful birds and it was a magical experience. We can't wait to show you the photos. Sorry we can't post any of them.

Later this afternoon, we sail to the Faroe Islands. This will be the most remote spot we have been to. We have our seasick tablets at hand.

Next blog will be from Scandinavia.

Most Northerly

We visited the island of Unst on the Shetlands, the most northerly part of Britain. We have had a string of most northerly experiences. We saw the most northerly church and cemetery, purchased supplies in the country's most northerly shop (at some of the highest prices), saw the most northerly house in Britain, the most northerly beach, headland and lighthouse. We posted a letter from the most northerly post office, drank a beer from the most northerly bar, and at various times were the most northerly people. We are staying at the most northerly accommodation in Britain.

The prize however went to the most northerly bus stop. It was amazing. A regular council supplied bus shelter but with a sofa, a tv and computer, microwave, plate of lollies, books, plants real and artificial and even a Van Gogh (not sure if it was real). We all lined for photos and signed the visitors' book.

The other most northerly experiences are too personal to mention. Can you suggest some we could have tried?

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Lasr Day in Orkney

We travel across to the Shetlands tonight so have spent our last day exploring all around Kirkwall.

This morning we visited the Earl's Palace and the Bishop's Palace. This earl was Earl Patrick, son of Earl Robert. He did not sound very nice either and actually annexed the Bishop's Palace for himself at one stage. He did come to a nasty end though and so did his son. I think they were a violent lot in those days.

The palace was a lovely ruin and looked very picturesque. The Banquet Hall looked very regal and would have made a great place for a festival.

We climbed to the top of the Bishop's Palace and admired the view over the cathredral. Then we climbed down, crossed the road and visited the cathredral, parts of which date back to the 10th century. Around the inside walls were many old tombstones which were decorated with skulls.

Afterwards we visited the museum and renewed our acquaintance with the neolithic world as we looked at all the artefacts, many of which had come from places we had visited over the last few days.

We also enjoyed eating Orkney ice cream which we were advised not to eat until it softened a little. It took a long time as it was a sunny day but rather cold. It was worth the wait.

We have really enjoyed our visit to Orkney - the historical sites, the scenery and especially the puffins.

Celebration Local Festivals

When travelling, one should immerse oneself in the culture and practices of the local people. One special way is to join in local celebrations and festivals. This can be most informative and provide an excellent insight into another culture. One can be a true intercultural explorer.

That brings me to the point. Next Sunday in this part of the world is a special day - a day of celebrating, feasting and giving of gifts to the respective male elders of the clan. Yes it is Fathers' Day.

Please send gifts to Robert, care of Shetland Islands.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Further Orkney Adventures

Today was another trip through history. We started at the Rennibister Earth House. This was an underground home that we accessed by climbing down a ladder into a small chamber. it is similar to the souterrains that we visited earlier. We followed this by a visit to Cuween Hill Cairn. We entered this by crawling along a low narrow passageway into the centre of the cairn where it opened up into a high domed chamber. Unfortunately the torch that was left at the gate had a flat battery and we had not taken ours. When this was discovered, there were dog skulls as well as human remains. They think the dog must have been the tribal totem.

Next visit was Broch of Gurness, a Pictish village that was most impressive with a stone tower in the middle. We were able to walk around and see the stone furniture, the stone beds, the cooking areas. It was amazing. We then went on to the Brough of Birsay where we saw the puffins and also an old Viking settlement that had been built over the Pictish settlement.

We had lunch sitting on the wall of the brew house in Earl Robert's Palace. Earl Robert was a nasty type and made life difficult for the local Orcadians. The current Robert is much better.

We also stopped off at several old churches, the Earl's Bu (drinking hall), the Orkneyinga Saga Centre where the main saga was the video did not work and lots of other scenic spots.


Today was the day of the puffin. We finally sighted puffins on the extreme northern tip of the mainland...... the name given to the main island of the Orkneys. They were on high cliffs just beyond the lighthouse nesting in a small gap in the rocks. They are a fairly small bird with very fast wing movements. The colours are most interesting - black body with pure white front but with orange and red beak and bright orange feet.

The other puffin was from the three of us climbing up the hill to get there. It was worth the effort.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Orkney Odyssey

We travelled across from Gills Bay on a car ferry, landing on South Ronaldsay. We were able to drive up to Kirkwall across the Churchill Barriers constructed during World War 2 to close off the eastern side of Scapa Flow.

We had an interesting stop at the Tomb of the Eagles, a neolithic burial site and also at the Italian Chapel built by prisoners of war during World War 2.

If you want to learn about how stone age people lived, then this is the place to visit.

We have been to Skara Brae, a 5000 year old village. The houses still have the stone dressers, stone seats and stone beds intact. They have not been recreated.

We have been inside the 5000 year old tomb of Maeshowe, also aligned to the setting sun of the winter solstice. We saw the grafitti left there by the Vikings. When it was translated for us, some of it sounded a bit like modern toilet grafitti.

We have walked around the Ring of Brogar with its standing stones and the Standing Stones of Stennis.

This is an amazing place with beautiful scenery and fascinating history.

Highland Fling

As we left Skye, we stopped at Talisker Whisky Distillery but with our usual bad timing, it was still too early to taste. Jeanie and Robert made do with a sniff test of 3 single malts.

Back on the mainland we visited Eilean Donan Castle. It was furnished in the style of the 1930s and was complete with figures dressed like the butler, the cook and the lady of the house. Food (not real) for the evening dinner party was ready to serve. Fortunately after our big Scottish breakfast, we were not hungry.

We continued up the west coast along beside the beautiful Loch Torridon and ate a picnic lunch on the shore of Loch Maree. We stayed at Gairloch, a pretty little town with a lovely sandy beach.

The next morning we visited Inverewe Garden where a barren, windswept landscape had been transformed into a beautiful garden. There were even gum trees growing. This is possible due to the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. The water was warm enough for a swim...... but we didn't.

On Saturday morning, we visited the Farmers' Market at Ullapool. THere were only about 6 stall but we were offered cheese and salmon to taste, bought shortbread cooked that morning and admired other local produce.

We made it to John o' Groats on Sunday and also to Dunnet Head which is really further north. We visited the Castle of Mey which had belonged to the Queen Mum. We heard some delightful anecdotes about her including being shown a handwritten message sent to the Queen on the Brittania via the coastguard asking her to bring more lemons for the drinks. Last night we had a G and T but we also had a 'grave shortage of lemons'.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Places We Have Visited

We have visited many places during our travels including a few we did not intend to.

All travellers take a few wrong turns but we have developed it into an art form.

The secret is to turn it into an advantage and enjoy the new places that you visit..... including those that no other tourist has ever found and most locals do not know about.

Amongst our experiences have been major highways that have terminated in the parking lot of supermarkets, roads that only lead to someone's farmhouse and attractive looking paths that end in a toilet.

The ultimate was in the quiet Scottish west coast port of Oban. We needed to drop in a form to the car hire company and were told it was next to the Tesco supermarket. What could be easier ? After all everyone in Oban calls into Tesco at least 3 or 4 times a week.

We could see it but there was a train line between us so we manouvred to the other side via the intricate system of one way streets only to find it protected by a cliff. There were one way roads out but none in. Surely they would have to close this store for lack of custom but the car parks were full and people were packing the cars with groceries from their trolleys.

We have seen castles that have not been as well protected.

Oh, yes we did find it but only after crossing an old Roman viaduct (we have been told the Romans did not settle in West Scotland) and having talked to many of the Oban locals.

Aboard the Hogwarts Express

Yes we have ridden on the Hogwarts Express.

For our young readers and the young at heart, the train we travelled on to Mallaig called the Jacobite Express was the Hogwarts Express in all the Harry Potter movies.

Our driver, Frank, was the driver for each of the movies.

The most spectacular part of the trip was across the Glenfinnan Culvert that was a famous scene in the movie.

Now We Are Three

We picked up our cousin Jean at Glasgow airport but only after a delay due to a missed plane. The flight landed at 11 pm so there was no celebratory belated birthday dinner but off to bed for the sleep you need after crossing that many time zones.

We left Glasgow on Monday in the rain and headed up the west coast of Scotland to Oban where we stayed in a great little place overlooking the loch. This was picture postcard perfect with the B and B located right on the loch and given the full reflection treatment.

On Tuesday we caught the Jacobite Express from Fort William to Mallaig, a very scenic journey in an old steam train. Of course we had to catch the train back to pick up the car!

We have just spent 2 sunny days on the Isle of Skye. Lovely scenery, lovely weather and lovely accommodation. We are staying at a farmstay B and B located right on the loch on the opposite side of the town directly across from Dunvegan Castle which we can see through our bedroom window.

The Skye air is so clear, we can see the islands of the Outer Hebrides and the Cuillin Mountains. We have driven around the coastline and up in to the mountainous interior. The castle and its gardens were a highlight and we enjoyed a visit to the Museum of Skye Life.

Tomorrow we continue up the coast heading for Gairloch.

Friday, June 1, 2007

In the Steps of St Patrick

Each way you turn in Ireland you are reminded of St Patrick. |From Shamrocks to the lack of snakes, St Patrick is responsible.

We climbed the Hill of Slane, famous as the place where St Patrick lit the Easter fire before the Druids could light there's on the Hill of Tara. This started the conversion of the Celts to Christianity. There is a ruined abbey there where Christianity began in Ireland. There is also a fabulous view over the surrounding countryside.

We continued the trail yesterday as we made our way back to Belfast. We stayed overnight at the historic village of Carlingford and then travelled up the Ards peninsula past Downpatrick and eventually up to Belfast.

In a few hours we depart by ferry for Scotland.

Bru na Boinne

What is 500 years older than the pyramids and 1000 years older than Stonehenge?

We spent a wonderful day visiting Ireland's ancient neolithic civilizations. THese huge burial chambers predate the pyramids of Egypt, have blocks of decorated stone just as big and are aligned with the sun and seasons in a similar way.

Knowth's burial chamber and satellite tombs boast the richest and largest collection of megolithic art in Europe. We were unable to explore the 2 burial chambers except for 1 small section but marvelled at the size and complexity of this structure from this supposedly primitive civilization.

Close by is Newgrange, the best known of the 3 burial mounds. Whilst a little smaller than Knowth, you can go right inside the famous chamber which is lit by the rays of the rising sun for 17 minutes at the winter solstice.

To visit at this time is so popular that places are decided by ballot. We have entered the lottery.

The 3rd site Dowth is totally undeveloped and exceptionally hard to find. We were the only visitors and we walked around the outside of the mound.

While we were in the Boyne Valley, we visited a much later historic site, that of the famous Battle of the Boyne when William 3rd defeated James 2nd for the English crown.

One Potato, Two Potato, Three Potato More

Hot potatoes, hot potatoes.

How many types of potatoes can you be served at a meal? How many in a day?

Pub meal: Roast pork with baked potato, chips, mashed potato, mashed potato swede and other unidentified vegetables, jacket potatoes oh and peas. Add to that the potato bread with eggs, bacon, sausage, white pudding and soda bread.

This forms my claim to a record. Can you beat that?

PS They do not serve potato salad.