Friday, April 29, 2011

Hurtigruten: MS Vesterålen

FINALLY! The Norwegian 6-day sea voyage from Kirkenes to Bergen, following all those wonderful days in Oslo a month ago!

I've decided to start with the ship...our ship...because without it, the sea voyage wouldn't have happened. You notice I didn't say cruise, right? We were corrected from the get-go: with no bingo, casino or entertainment, this was a sea voyage. And utilitarian at that, its chief purpose being to transport mail, supplies and daily passengers up and down Norway's rugged, fjord coastline.

OUR ship was the MS Vesterålen, one of 11 in Hurtigruten's fleet, built in 1983 and one of the smallest at only 510 passengers. Don't you just love the circle over the 'a' -- å or Å. And isn't she a beauty!

Totally unbenownst to us ahead of time, we passed other ships from Hurtigruten's fleet all along the way. That made sense, of course, since they're all going back-n-forth up and down the coast every day. They're on a mission and we as passengers are just on for the ride.

We passed The Polarys, Nordlys and the Kong Harald... well as the Trollfjord and Nordnorge, all at sea or on shore.
Every time we were ready to pass a ship going in the opposite direction, it was announced on the PA system, followed by reciprocal horn blasts from each ship...and whooping and hollering on the decks.
That was camaraderie at sea!

Lucky for us, because the ships sail for utilitarian reasons, there are many stops during the day and night, sometimes for only half an hour while supplies are loaded and unloaded. Every time we had a chance, especially if we saw something close to shore that looked interesting, we got off. The whole embarking/disembarking routine became old hat for both Astrid and me. Sometimes we were the only passengers getting off, getting closer to a church for photos, for instance...before rushing back.

Our room card keys were also what logged us on/off the ship each time.
See how easy it is to learn Norwegian! Gått ut. Gått ombord.

Speaking of supplies, they had it all down to a science at every port. The punctuality in and out was mind-boggling to us, sometimes with several forklifts operating at the same time.

You know how it's better to ask for forgiveness than for permission.
And so it was that Astrid went inside the hold of the ship to get the above view. HA! I love it.
We saw everything from cars, to furniture, groceries and everyday living supplies.

Of course, nothing gets on or off before another important crew gets the ship docked...those on shore and those on the ship. We loved seeing how the thick ropes were thrown back-n-forth by the thinner ropes with weighted balls on the end...and then pulled through the water.
It's fun to see how things work, sometimes by simple methods.

OK, time to come inside!
Reception was on 'ground' floor near the entrance, just a couple doors away from our cabin.

Our cabin was plenty spacious for us. We don't ask for much, you know.
There were actually 3 single beds but we chose to keep the couch the couch and use the bunk beds instead (both of which could be folded up against the wall). Astrid will tell you I insisted on sleeping on top. Actually, I told her I always slept on the top bunk whenever I had the choice. And so I did, with her 'spotting' me up and down each time. :)
(Those suitcases in the hallway were in preparation for departure at the end.)

Which comes first, eating or sleeping?
Every day the menu was posted for the sit-down evening meal. No choice of menu but we had nothing served to us we did not like immensely.
(click to enlarge)

I've been on the big cruises, you know, but they have nothing over the meals we had each day as well as the service of the staff. Our table mates each evening were 2 delightful couples from Germany.
We even had a Captain's Dinner night with a champagne toast...

...which was really amazing since almost NO ONE drank wine with the evening meals.
Why, you might ask? Because the cost of alcohol in Norway is nigh prohibitive, at $11/glass on the ship! When we mentioned this to Renny beforehand, he suggested we buy and take our own box of wine (equivalent of 4 bottles), which we did, at half the price. Still, it was $64 for the box!
Trust me, we drank it in the room before dinner and treasured every drop.

So, besides eating and sleeping, how did we spend our time? Are you kidding me!

Pictures speak more than a thousand words!
We were up and down 3 flights of stairs several times each day, keeping ourselves in good shape...

...along with the crew doing their own thing...

...while others had a bit more R&R. No argument there.

But we did have down time with Rummikub and staying on top of e-mails. The wireless internet worked well and was free. But also, every day I uploaded all our photos onto our separate external hard drives.
Everything was neatly into files before we finished the voyage!

Speaking of finishing, all good things do come to an end and before we knew it, it was time to disembark the voyage in Bergen, at the terminal where most people begin their trip. As we awaited the crossing of the catwalk into the terminal, we watched the crew come on board to clean the ship before the next set of passengers left a few hours later.
Everything really was down to a science and just like clockwork!

With suitcases in hand, we still had another 2 legs of our overnight in Bergen before the 7-hour train ride across Norway to Oslo the next day, followed by more sightseeing in the Oslo area before flying home.

See why I still have miles to go before we're done!

[Thanks again to Astrid for several images here-n-there in the collages!]

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

3 Oslo Museums: the Fram, Kon-Tiki, & Folk

One last post on Oslo before I start in earnest on the 6-day Hurtigruten sea voyage we took at the beginning of this month. After all, we were in Oslo 4 days before and one day after, so Oslo in and of itself was its own 'voyage.'

Renny was able to get us free 72-hour Oslo Passes (he's the Blogger's Ambassador, remember, with connections!) that allowed us to get into these 3 museums gratis.

The first 2 museums are basically next door to each other on the Oslo fjord waterfront. So before we went indoors, we scouted around to get the lay of the land:

The Maritime Museum is also there on the shoreline (top-left above) along with the Inukshuk, a centenary gift from Canada in 2005, representing the friendship between the two countries.
Our Canadian bloggers will like that!

Also there, just a stone's throw away, is the Krigseilermonument that commemorates sailors killed in WWII.

Similar to what we experienced the next day at the Opera House (from my last post), we viewed everything through the fog...

...before entering the Fram and Kon-Tiki museums. First, the Fram, which is the A-frame golden structure above.

1. The FRAM Museum

Since the museum honors Norwegian polar exploration and the 3 explorers who sailed to the north and south poles, I'll start with Roald Amundsen who happened to be the first person who reached both poles. This was important to me because Renny's last name is also Amundsen, though he swears he's not related (that's Renny at the wheel above). Kinda like all those named Smith, I guess?

Like church spires, it's the boat masts that suck me in!

This is the ship that was used in the Arctic and Antarctic exploarations between 1893 and 1912. Fram is said to have sailed farther north (85°57'N) and farther south (78°41'S) than any other wooden ship.
The ship was designed in a shape to let the ice push it up so it would "float" on top of the ice, instead of being crushed by it. A first for arctic exploration!

Fram = forward (as in forward-thinking, surely!)

And the best thing about it? You get to actually board the ship and walk all over it, up and down, looking into every nook and cranny. Everything is there, including the skiis!

2. The KON-TIKI Museum

Surely you've heard of Thor Heyerdahl's crossing of the Pacific Ocean in 1947 in the Kon-Tiki.
This is what happens when you're really curious!

The purpose of the expedition was to test the South American balsa raft seaworthy, and to investigate whether it was feasible for the original native of Peru, the Incas and their predecessors civilized and cultural, to reach the islands out in the open Pacific.

The Kon-Tiki raft eventually was caught in the surf and wrecked on the side of a coral reef, but not before it basically proved its point.

The documentary about the Kon-Tiki expedition won two Oscars in 1951, Heyerdahl's book "Kon-Tiki Expedition" has become an international bestseller, translated into nearly 70 languages.

But if at first you don't succeed, try, try again, right? So a bigger and better boat was built and THAT'S the one that the Kon-Tiki Museum is really about: the RA II:

A papyrus boat, Ra II traveled 3270 miles in 57 days across the Atlantic Ocean in 1970!
Heyerdahl's Ra I and Ra II expeditions proved it was possible to have transatlantic contact between the ancient civilizations and America.
During the first Ra expedition, oil clumps were discovered at sea and Thor was the one who presented his concern about the ocean being poisoned to the UN.

His environmental efforts resulted, among other things, that it was prohibited to drain waste oil from tankers at sea. An award, Thor Heyerdahl Environmental Award of 1 million dollars awarded by the Norwegian Shipowners' Association every year for efforts to combat pollution at sea.


Last but not least, we took the bus from the Kon-Tiki Museum to Norway's largest museum of cultural history, out in the open air. I had been there in 2006 with Donica and remembered it well, but for Astrid it was a first.

Established in 1894, it contains over 150 buildings which have been relocated from different districts in Norway.

Though it wasn't high tourist season, when the place is buzzing with cultural life as it once was, we still had the chance to see much...and even got to sample some Norwegian lefse (flatbread), cooked the old-fashioned way.

It was this Gol stave church, from 1212, that most captured our attention. We weren't able to enter it but could see its altar through the front door. A stave church is of post and beam construction from timber framing. The load-bearing post is the stave.

All in a day's stroll! Enough information for all the senses to last a lifetime. We'll never forget it, the Opera House, and all the impressions of Oslo...most of which were through the generosity of our new-found friends, Renny, Diane, Tor and Anna.

Astrid and I are both richer and fuller and say TUSEN TAKK! A thousand thanks.

Now I'm ready to tackle the sea voyage.... :)

[Special thanks to Astrid for a handful of her photos included in my collages!]

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Oslo Opera House

Totally worth a post all on its own, as you will see: the Oslo Opera House!

Friday, April Fool's Day, was our first full day in Norway, after spending Thursday night at Diane and Renny's. It was cold but SUNNY. That was the day we took a 2-hour cruise on the Oslo Fjord to see the city from a different perspective.

Seeing the Opera House from the water was worth the entire mini-cruise!
Completed in 2007 (a year after Donica and I were there), it is like an enormous glacier sliding into the fjord. White granite combines with Italian marble to create the illusion of glistening ice. The sloping roof angles down to the water like a jagged chunk of ice.

On Sunday, 2 days later, when we went with our Oslo Pass to visit this incredible structure, the fog made of it a mystery to behold.

But first, before entering, we got distracted by the swans and ducks,
navigating on and off the ice for the bread crumbs being tossed to them...

...but not for long, because it was the Opera House we were there to see...if we could!
THIS is what welcomed us. THIS is what beckoned us to enter.

You actually do find the main entrance, even in the fog.
And just like that, you come in from the iceberg cold to the warmth of light (through windows that are 15 meters high) and oak 'waves' that curve/flow around the room.

Wall panels, like the one Astrid is putting her arm through, are illuminated from the floor and from behind with beams of white and green light. The lights fade in and out, creating shifting shadows and the illusion of slowly melting ice.

Diane really wanted us to take the Opera House Tour, approximately one hour, so thanks to her, we did! All tour guides work in some capacity or another there at the House. Our guide is an opera singer and was just delightful.

So, back behind the scenes, we entered the world of the opera and ballet.
The props, the sound system, the nuts and bolts of putting on a performance.

The costumes (which we found out after a few snaps were not to be photographed)....

The sewing room: "We don't make mistakes; we do variations."

And finally, the heart of the House, the main theater, seating approximately 1,370 in a classic horseshoe shape. The tour didn't take us to the ground floor but what we saw from above was convincing. Diane saw The Nutcracker there this past December and said it was incredible.

While we didn't see a real ballet while there,
we saw enough evidence to believe it happens!

That was the behind-the-scenes tour. Another "totally worth it!"

Then we went outside to play....

...and to see the famous "She Lies" iceberg sculpture sitting out in the water nearby, a sculpture made of stainless steel and glass, 12 x 17 x 16 metres, floating on its axis in line with the tide and wind.

At the beginning of this post, you saw the Opera House from the ground. Here you see if from the roof...the only Opera House in the world where you are able to walk up to and on the roof.

Two posts ago I showed you Diane and Astrid up there on the roof....
(the wall surfaces remind me of Braille)

Look who else was there! Two brothers, Daddy, Mommy and their dog.
There are no guard rails on the roof. Seriously. But there are signs to remind you that the roof has many steps and may be slippery. That should do for any tiger, right?

Even though it was still foggy by then, we could see a lot...and how high we were!
That's Astrid's mirror image on the bottom left (above).

One last reminder, as we were leaving, that the ice was not safe.
The little children had it down pat.

See why this had to have its own post. It ranks up there with some of the best architectural treasures I've ever seen, including the Opera House in Sydney. And that's saying a lot!