Annie Bananie en Europe

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Norway in a Nutshell, part 3 – Oslo, the capital of Norway

Though Oslo isn’t officially part of the Norway-in-a-Nutshell itinerary (read about part 1 and part 2), it was one of the endpoints and served as the base of my short exploration of Norway. I had actually considered going to Oslo during my earliest solo travel adventures, when I was staying in Belgium. But after finding out that Oslo Rygge Airport (with unbelievably cheap Ryanair flights from Belgium) was >60 km from Oslo itself, I gave up the thought of a weekend trip to Norway. (I ended up going to Luxembourg instead, a much more feasible choice from Belgium.) Alas, the trip to Oslo finally happened 6.5 years after its earliest inception – better late than never, right!

With all the gorgeous natural sites that Norway has to offer, I think Oslo is often overlooked as an interesting city to visit. I felt similar when I was reading reviews about Warsaw, the capital of Poland which is skipped by many who preferred to visit Krakow instead. Well, turns out that I really liked Warsaw, so this once again proved that online comments are to be taken with a grain of salt 😛 Time to head out and see what Oslo is really all about! (The trip was three years ago so I have to recall a lot of the locations from vague memory…!)

It was mid-October and thus mid-autumn when I arrived in Oslo. The changing foliage transformed Oslo into a golden city, certainly a different type of beauty compared to the quintessential fjords and valleys of Norway, but no less impressive and spectacular.

City exploration here and there. These photos were taken around the Akershus Festning (Fortress), located right by the waterfront in the city centre.

Encounters by the waterfront included a seagull and a sculpture of a nude lady. And this would be the first of the many more sculptures that I’d see in Oslo.

Seems like Oslo loves its nude sculptures and here’s another one in the city center, right in front of the City Hall. In fact, there is a huge park dedicated to sculptures of nude humans arranged in all sorts of bizarre, twisted positions. It was so peculiar that I have decided to dedicate an entire post to it…coming soon!

Let’s return to the autumn displays, shall we. Somehow this post has turned out to be more of an appreciation of autumn colours than a tour of Oslo itself, and I don’t mind that. The trip itself did not focus so much on landmarks and tourist attractions and was more like a leisurely walk in the park.

I guess it is fitting that I arrived in Europe for the first time in the autumn and now I will leave it behind in the same season. Oslo, being the final new city I visit before I end my days of long-term residence in Europe (as I had mentioned in the first Norway post), will remain in my mind as that place that, with the most beautiful golden season, bid me farewell on behalf of Europe.

I’ve always liked seeing cities in the evening, and the Opera House in Oslo offered a wonderful view of the harbour. If there’s a colour that’d remind me of Oslo other than gold, it’d be blue – deep, dark blue that represents the seas and skies against a harbour that is lit up in the evening.

Another view of the waterfront from the Opera House, with the “Gule Sider” building on the right (I’m guessing it’s the “Gule Sider” from searching Google Maps and images).

I said at the beginning of the post that Oslo is overlooked as a travel destination but I was glad to have stayed and explored for a couple of days. Not as glamorous as say, Prague or Paris or Budapest or Rome, but there was a certain sense of comfort and freshness wandering around in a city that wasn’t just full of touristy landmarks. With this, my short trip to Norway came to an end, as did my days in Europe… 😦

Norway in a Nutshell, part 2 – Through the Norwegian fjords

Day 1 of the Norway in a Nutshell (NIAN) itinerary took me from Oslo to Bergen, where after a long but pleasant train ride I had a chance to briefly explore. The highlight of the NIAN itinerary, though, was no doubt day 2, the return trip from Bergen to Oslo. Along the way, I’d be using three modes of transportation – train, bus, and boat – and see the famous waterfalls (which I LOVE), fjords, and valleys that Norway is famous for.

I hopped onto a morning train from Bergen station and set out for the first destination, Voss, where I’d catch a bus to Gudvangen, the start of the fjord boat tour. The bus ride offered some great views to enjoy, and it seemed as if Norway is constantly wrapped in a layer of clouds!

Before heading to Gudvangen, I had Googled the best side of the bus to sit on (assuming that I was lucky enough to get a window seat, and I was) to get the greatest view. From Voss to Gudvangen, it seemed that most people said the LEFT side gave the best views, especially as you’d be able to see Tvindefossen, one of the famous waterfalls of Norway – right there! As I had forgotten the name of the waterfall when I was writing this post, I had to look it up but thanks to the World of Waterfalls web site, I identified it as Tvindefossen by appearance and location. It was almost impossible not to notice it as it was right off the highway, and how impressive it was (even if it was half-covered by the shadow of the cliffs on the other side. Quite a pity that I didn’t get a chance to go closer to it but just seeing it zoom by made the bus ride worthy of its cost.

More breathtaking views as we approached Gudvangen – I mean just how much more gorgeous does it get! A lot of the photos in this post look similar but I can’t resist – such unbelievable beauty ❤

As we arrived at Gudvangen (keeping count of the plainly visible waterfalls encountered during the trip) I spotted another set of waterfalls. Without a guide, I didn’t know its name, but again with the help of World of Waterfalls, I managed to identify it as Kjelfossen. Apparently they’re some of the tallest waterfalls in Norway but they don’t look so impressive in the photo, probably because of the lack of precipitation. But still a surprising encounter!

I had about an hour to kill before the boat tour began so I walked around the docks a bit and enjoyed the views from Gudvangen, which continued to be phenomenal.

Turn 180 degrees from where the previous photo was taken and you’d get this view toward the path that we were about to take through the fjords. Kind of reminds me of the final scene of the Lord of the Rings movie, where Frodo et al. were sailing off from the Grey Havents with the song “Into the West” playing in the background.

At noon, we finally boarded the boat and left the Grey Havens – into the Sognefjord & Nærøyfjord we went, with a Norwegian flag waving proudly in the (rather chilly) wind!

Umm, yeah it was pretty cold, probably something like -7 Celsius degrees. Thankfully there was a heated interior area, but for the brave who wanted to enjoy the fjords to the fullest (like me), the exterior deck was open. I think I managed to last about half an hour out in the cold but gave up in the end and settled for the comfort of warmth.

Do you see what I see? Another waterfall trying to hide itself behind the little houses along the shore! It may look quite tiny and unspectacular but it is possible that this photo only managed to capture a fraction of its overall height, as the source of the waterfall was probably at the top of the mountains.

On and on we cruised toward the next destination, Flåm, all the while being immersed in breathtaking scenery (if you haven’t noticed yet 😛 ) And by “we” I mean “I and the other passengers”, as Norway was an entirely solo trip.

Flåm was the starting point of the Flåm Line, which is supposedly one of the most scenic rail lines in the world (the same was said of the West Highland Line and to that I totally agree). There were a couple of hours of wait time between the end of the fjord boat ride and the beginning of the train trip from Flåm to Myrdal, so I wandered around Flåm a little. Aside from a gift shop, there wasn’t much to do around the train station, but I found a small hill nearby and had just enough time for a quick walk to the top.

The train ride on the Flåm Line was a gradual uphill climb from the valley of Flåm (Flåmsdalen) to Myrdal. The entire trip was only 20 km but lasted around an hour as it was a very slow train that allowed tourists to experience the best of Flåm at a leisurely pace. While the scenery was beautiful (look, another waterfall! 😉 ), I felt like it wasn’t as impressive as I had anticipated it to be. Definitely can’t compare to the West Highland Line, sorry Norway! Then again an hour is a relatively short ride, so maybe it was just over too soon.

The climb from Flåm to Myrdal saw a rise in elevation of 866 m, which is equivalent to a Corbett in Scotland. This segment kind of reminded me of parts of Switzerland, specifically the villages in Lauterbrunnen and those scattered along the rail line from Interlaken to Zurich.

Here’s Kjosfossen, a large waterfall close to Myrdal that was one of the highlights of the Flåm Line. There’s actually a station called Kjosfossen, and the train stops there for about two minutes for tourists to get off and take photos – probably the designated purpose of the station. The waterfall was really close – like, in-yo-face kind of close. You step off the train and it’s RIGHT THERE. Loving the sound of the roaring water, calms and soothes my mind ❤

Final interesting thing that I saw before arriving at Myrdal (could have been before Kjosfossen, actually) were these sharp hairpin turns, with yet another tall waterfall (Myrdalsfossen) tumbling right next to it! The height difference is probably not so obvious here but believe me, the ascent (or descent) was very, very steep. What a car ride that would have been if one had to take those hairpin turns…!

The arrival at Myrdal station marked the end of the NIAN itinerary and the only thing left to do was wait for the train back to Oslo. So, in a nutshell, Norway, you were stunning, but oh how I wish I had more time to explore your hidden beauties and secrets, beyond those I was able to see in two days!

Norway in a Nutshell, part 1 – From Oslo to Bergen

The final trip and new European destination before I left Glasgow and long-term residential status in Europe in 2017 was to Norway. Well that was a mouthful. Basically, I had to leave after my three-year term was up in Glasgow, but not before a final adventure, mostly solo. I had planned a weeklong trip, 4 days in Norway and 3 in Bordeaux, where I’d be visiting old friends and meeting new ones (one who ended up being my husband, just had to mentioned that 😛 )

The trip was made more pleasant by two things, first one being free flights from KLM! I had reward miles accumulated from previous trips with KLM and so I utilized them to the fullest and got free tickets from Oslo to Bordeaux and Bordeaux to Glasgow (only had to pay for the Glasgow to Oslo leg). Very much appreciated that, thank you KLM!

The second pleasant thing was the “Norway in a Nutshell” (NIAN) tour package, which I guess could be considered as the “beginner’s guide to Norway” package that is officially advertised in Norway. I didn’t book the tour through the official web site though, but I did book every leg of the exact itinerary, separately by myself (NIAN-DIY, as they say on the Internet). It was completely doable and by doing this, I saved quite a lot of money even though it was a bit more hassle, but the trip was exactly the same as if I had booked through the agency 😉 The description of the NIAN tour is as follows:

The Norway in a nutshell® tour takes you through some of Norway’s most beautiful fjord scenery. You will experience the scenic Bergen Railway, the breathtaking Flåm Railway, the Aurlandsfjord, the narrow and dramatic UNESCO-protected Nærøyfjord and a bus trip through the beautiful scenery of Western Norway. From May – September, the bus trip includes the steep hairpin curves of Stalheimskleiva.

Sounds intriguing? Yes it was, and it was every bit as beautiful as it sounded, even as a solo traveler. Let me give you a brief guided NIAN tour right here, in two posts.

As I had limited time, I followed the classic route with no add-ons or options (also because Norway was super expensive…) The first leg was a train trip from Oslo, the capital of Norway, to the city of Bergen. It was mid-October so I did expect snow eventually, but not before coming across some beautiful scenery along the way.

Such amazing colours! Sometimes I unrealistically dream of living in one of those small red houses surrounded by hills and valleys and lakes. The trees in the backdrops are like keys on a xylophone that give off the most melodic sounds, even when they can’t be more silent.

Gradually the scenery began to change and colours were replaced by pale white, though still beautiful nonetheless! There seemed to be many lone houses dotted here and there, literally in the middle of nowhere.

And some parts reminded me of the Scottish highlands, which I adore and can’t get enough of. This photo reminded me of the area around Glencoe in Scotland.

Here here we arrive in Bergen, after something like a 6-hour train ride from Oslo! This is the view from my hotel room. I’d be staying in Bergen for one night only before making the return to Oslo the next day, seeing the famous fjords by boat and taking the train on the Flam railway along the way.

I arrived in Bergen at around 3 in the afternoon and knew that it’d be getting dark rather early. I wasted no time exploring Bergen with the few hours of daylight left, passing by some public art along the way. I strolled around the city and wandered toward the the harbour, which was lined with quaint, colourful houses. Of course, my main destination was Fløyen, where I’d see Bergen from a high place, preferably after it got dark.

I took the Fløibanen funicular, which took me to the top of Fløyen (a hill in Bergen) in a few minutes. It was late afternoon but the sky was still bright, so I took a quick detour from the lookout point and arrived at a lake (I believe Lake Skomakerdiket) hidden behind a forested area. Late autumn is the most spectacular season, wouldn’t you agree!

Back at the lookout point at Fløyen, it was still not completely dark, but the view of Bergen was fantastic as expected. A thick layer of mist covered the mountains in the distance in a shroud of mystery.

Not wanting to get back to the city too late, I descended by funicular and wandered around a bit more before grabbing a simple meal and resting for the night. I stumbled upon a well-lit area of wooden housing but there was not a soul to be seen or felt, so I wondered if I had by mistake trespassed into a private residential area. “Baklommen” seemed to be a bar though. Maybe I was there too early and the nigh life hasn’t even begun…

Final look at Bergen with its brilliance reflected in the harbour. You could even see the lights of the Fløyen funicular leading to the top of the hill behind the houses. It was a short stay, but a lovely one nonetheless.

Memories of Santorini, Greece

I haven’t written a proper travel-related post in a while and that’s because I don’t travel as much as I did when I was living in Europe anymore (COVID aside). The other reason is I don’t have as much free time as I did when I was a grad student. However, there are hundreds of GBs of photos in my hard-drive that remind me of how much I enjoyed travelling without the burdens of having to pay a mortgage, heh.

There was one destination that I really wanted to write about and that was Greece. Even though I don’t go as in-depth about each destination as I did during my early blogging days, I still want to write about Greece, especially Santorini. In September 2017, I attended the European Society of Biomaterials conference in Athens, but dropped by Santorini for two days prior to the conference. It was one of those trips that from time to time would just pop up in my mind, not because of how amazing the scenery was – and it was amazing. The main reason I enjoyed this trip so much was because of my companion, TK, who I feel like is a younger version of me with very similar personalities. We understood each other very well and our styles of travel were so complementary that it just felt super comfortable being around her. We could both be super touristy and take a million photos in front of landmarks, or we could both just sit and write for an hour without talking to each other and be totally fine with it. I was so glad to have found the perfect travel buddy, and I miss her loads!

TK and I stayed in Fira on the island of Santorini during our stay and took the bus that brought us around to different villages and points of interest on the island. The main destination was of course Oia, which was famous for its sunset. This is Oia viewed from a distance, with its iconic white architecture dotted with pastel-coloured buildings.

A closer look at Oia, this being one of those postcard points of view. The church with the three blue domes is a landmark that most tourists visit in Oia and can be seen right in front of us. Heading there next…

…and here it is. Well, one of the three blue domes, with the deep blue Aegean Sea as the backdrop.

As we had almost the entire afternoon in Oia, TK and I took our time wandering around the narrow streets and alleys, getting lost more than just once or twice. But every corner you turn offers you a new view, whether it’s of the sea or the local residential area or a new landmark of some sort. We tried to get “off the beaten path” but every path on Oia seemed to be the beaten path…!

Lunch! Actually we had lunch in Fira before we headed to Oia that day, at a restaurant called “Salt and Pepper” that TK found before we arrived. The lady that runs the restaurant was so friendly and talkative! She told us about Santorini from the point of view of a local and introduced us to the food at her restaurant. I ordered the shrimp saganaki while TK got the octopus dish. Delicious, but TK’s portion was a bit small. Thankfully mine came with six gigantic shrimp that we were able to share between us!

Dessert was on the house and the lady even wrote down its name to teach us how to pronounce it in Greek. Home-made “ekmek kataifi”, a sweet three-layered pudding. Lovely end to our lunch!

In Oia, we definitely had to go join the hype and see the sunset. There were a few viewpoints where the sunset could be best seen, and we went about an hour and a half earlier than the estimated time of the sunset in order to secure a place to sit – and that was very necessary (and probably the most touristy thing we did during the trip 😛 )! Counting down now…

People kept arriving and soon the small area was filled with sunset-watchers. The sun has almost completely disappeared by 5:50 pm, and to be completely honest I wasn’t THAT impressed with this particular sunset experience and definitely thought that it was overhyped. The one that I saw in Athens several days later, on top of Mount Lycabettus, was much more memorable.

People getting ready to leave after the sunset, and I’m sure there was a dinner rush right here. Again, luckily we came early to get the best view!

Post-sunset photo of TK and me! I definitely did not know where to look in the camera… @_@

We stayed in Oia for a bit longer after the sunset because we wanted to see it lit up in the evening, and it looked gorgeous! I think Santorini would have been a great place for a honeymoon, but if I were to choose, I would stay in one of the less touristy villages on the island in a villa with a pool hanging on a cliff – now that’d be the utmost luxury! Still hope I can do that one day with J in the future 😉

Pre-departure lunch on the next day, kebab!! Ahh this was so yummy and perhaps one of the best kebabs I’ve ever had! But after this it was time to fly to Athens for the conference. Bye bye Santorini!

Short travel reflection: Upcoming travel plans

I’m finishing my job in Glasgow in mid-October and I’ve got a whole slew of travel plans coming after the contract ends. Thought I’d make a note here for my own references:

October 2017 – Before leaving Europe again
– NORWAY (Norway in a Nutshell DIY style – Oslo, Bergen, Flam Railway, Fjord Cruise, etc…)
– Bordeaux (back to where it all began in Europe!)

November 2017 – USA!
– Boston (3.5 days)
– San Francisco (3 days)
– Vancouver (3.5 days, not USA but somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit)

December 2017 to February 2018 – Asia!
– Japan (tentative – Kansai area including Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Himeji, etc…)
– Singapore (tentative with possible side trip to Kuala Lumpur)
– CHINA (too many potential cities to name, plans depend on where friends will be – Beijing, Harbin, Chengdu, Xi’an, Lanzhou, Wuhan, Hangzhou, Wenzhou, Shanghai, Huzhou, Tianjin, and of course…home in GUANGZHOU!)

Nothing excites me more than the feeling of looking out the window of an aircraft and seeing the world below, and anticipating the moment of landing! (Photo: On the way from Santorini to Athens, right before landing.)

Other than the fact that I miscalculated my dates (or rather didn’t consider them at all) for the US and picked mid-November, which is THANKSGIVING season and resulted in prices being hella jacked up, things are looking good. Japan and Singapore are also pending a friend’s response as well as the recent situations in Japan. I still can’t believe I booked a whole THREE MONTHS off for Asia, since I haven’t been continuously in Asia for more than a month at most after moving to Canada 21 years ago. In the long run, three months will feel REALLY short, and that’s why I’m going to cherish every day and every travel opportunity possible, while I still can. Can’t wait already!

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