Monthly Archives: July 2015

Bryggen of Bergen – Character & Charm That is Way Off the Level

Bryggen of Bergen, Norway

Bryggen of Bergen, Norway

The Norwegian city of Bergen, tucked into the hilly archipelago of Norway’s west coast, is a lot of things. It is charming. It is historic. It is picturesque. And when speaking about its main attraction – Bryggen – it is all these things, except level.

This colorful wharf in heart of the Bergen’s inner harbor is a combination window-to-the-past and current tourist destination. Originally a functioning German commercial base established by the Hanseatic League in the late Middle Ages, these rows of leaning wooden buildings in a palette of bright colors are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They are also among the most recognizable buildings in Norway. Nowadays, they host more tourists than merchants, but when the cruise ships pull out and the locals emerge, it’s also a cool place to explore, shop and even grab a bite to eat.

The Back-story

Back alley of Bryggen

Back alley of Bryggen

For those not up on their Germanic history, the Hanseatic League was a collection of merchant guilds and their associated market ports in northern Europe. Bergen was one such port established in the mid-1300’s, and since then the iconic row of houses and buildings known as Bryggen has burnt down and been rebuilt several times. With all-wood construction, I suppose that’s the risk you take. In view of the tilted, off-kilter nature of these buildings (some over 300 years old), I’m assuming their builders didn’t have access to a working level. The result is a charming warren of shops and restaurants, with quaint alleys and even quainter views. Picture in your mind Popeye’s Sweethaven dubbed in Norwegian, and you’ll have the general idea.

How to Get There

Bergen is nestled along a bend in Norway’s highly-irregular coastline, which honestly looks as if it were drawn by a seismometer during an earthquake. Many arrive by sea on one of the many cruise lines that include Bergen as a port of call before delving into the fjords. You can arrive by car, which will afford you some stunning views both on your approach and your departure. Or you can join the masses in a Norway in a Nutshell tour, which will take you via train between Oslo and Bergen, usually with a stop in Myrdal (and nearby Flåm) for some scenery. However you get here, finding the Bryggen is easy. Find the waterfront, and when you see a bunch of crooked wooden buildings lined up in a wobbly row of eye-catching colors, you’re there.

What to See

Bryggen at dusk

Bryggen at dusk

Beyond the Bryggen and its photo opportunities, the stone fortress called Bergenhus is a well-preserved castle at the entrance to the harbor. Some areas are accessible by paid admission only, but there are sections you can explore for free. At the edge of the harbor just down the street from Bryggen is the Fish Market, which sells, um, fish. Lots of fish. More fish than a visiting tourist would ever need. If you’re not into collecting seafood, many vendors set up souvenir stalls during the day just across the square.

 

Details (on the level)

In summer, expect Bryggen and surrounding tourist attractions to be filled with visitors. If you can wait for later on when the cruise ships cast off, you can mill about with the locals, who in summertime are out in force well into the night. Lodging is rather expensive (as are most things in Norway) and parking can be a real issue. Most of the city is walkable, so unless you’re arriving by car or just renting one for the day, a vehicle is neither necessary nor recommended. English is widely spoken, so if you get lost, most people can help you out. Most of all, while the city is a great place to see, make sure you spend the bulk of your time visiting Norway’s natural attractions, which are, to put it mildly, mind-blowing.

Bryggen in daylight

Bryggen in daylight

Yes, I recommend Bergen’s Bryggen to anyone planning a visit to the city. I was originally going to skip Bergen on my own itinerary, but in hindsight am very glad that I didn’t. So far, no World Heritage Site I’ve visited has ever disappointed, and Bryggen was no exception. Make room for it if you can in your travels to western Norway. Count on character. Count on charm. Count on that subtle thrill of being surrounded by authentic history. The only thing you shouldn’t count on, is encountering right angles.


Have you visited Bergen? What did you enjoy most? Comment here and share your expertise!

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Norway Beyond “The Nutshell”

Run-of-the-mill scene from rural Norway

Run-of-the-mill scene from rural Norway

“Norway in a nutshell” is tourist-speak for a classic itinerary that includes traveling between the cities of Oslo and Bergen with a stop among the world-famous fjords in between. This is a great option if you have limited time and mobility, and, as the name would suggest, allow you to see the essence of this majestic Nordic country. But if you have a week at your disposition, there are compelling reasons to go beyond the nutshell, break out of the shell or any other ‘nut’-related analogy you’d like to use. I will now list some of the most persuasive arguments to do so.

Land of Superlatives and Cliches

Stave church on the road to Flam

Stave church on the road to Flam

A journey through the heart of central and southern Norway is a journey through every cliche you can think of. In fact, I’m pretty sure the guy who came up with “Life’s a journey, not a destination” was probably driving between Bergen and Geiranger. No other country this side of New Zealand can boast such consistently jaw-dropping scenery that will have you burning through your vocabulary list in a search for superlatives. Sure, “the Nutshell” tour will give you a taste of all this. But I can personally attest to the joy and satisfaction of being able to pull over to the side of the road to snap off a few shots of some obscure valley that will ‘stir your soul’, ‘make your spirit soar’ or insert-your-own-cliche´ here.

Caution: Cruise Ships Crossing

Get a sense of scale courtesy of the cruise ships

Get a sense of scale courtesy of the cruise ships

When speaking of the fjords, most are impressed by the sheer-sided mountains, the innumerable waterfalls trickling (or gushing depending on the season) through the greenery and the model railroad-looking villages nestled in the valleys. What often goes overlooked are the cruise ships wending along these channels that are in many cases over a hundred miles from the nearest ocean (Sognefjord for example is 127 miles at its furthest point).  To put that into perspective, imagine a ship pulling up into Boston Harbor, then gliding on all the way to Hartford, Connecticut. Besides bringing tourist dollars to these remote and tiny locales, they offer passersby the opportunity to grasp a sense of scale in the scenery before them. Only when presented with an object of previously-conceived dimensions can one truly appreciate the size and grandeur of the setting around it. And when aboard one of the many vessels that run the fjords, watching the natural panorama unfold around every bend is reason enough to go beyond the nutshell.

Geiranger: The Journey And the Destination

Feeling reflective on the way to Geiranger

Feeling reflective on the way to Geiranger

The greatest disadvantage in my opinion of just staying on the “nutshell” itinerary is that it does not include a stop in the breathtakingly beautiful valley of Geiranger, which lies a good six hour or so drive to the northeast of Bergen. The drive from Bergen is arguably the most scenic in the whole country; a nonstop parade of mountain passes, crystal clear rivers, raging waterfalls and tranquil lakes that are so still that it’s hard to distinguish the reflections from what is real. And that’s before you even get there.

Traveling by car or bus, an approach to Geiranger will likely require traversing a mountain pass where steep and winding just don’t accurately convey what the drive is like. Neither does spectacular. Seeing the little hamlet nestled deep in the valley below is a thrill indeed, as is a visit to the Dalsnibba lookout, which really makes everything appear as a model train set. I hope to write more shortly about this incredible spot, but for now suffice to say, Geiranger alone is worth the extra time and expense not only to get there, but spend a day or two enjoying a setting that is exceedingly rare to chance upon.

What you Ought to Know

The amazing setting of Geiranger

The amazing setting of Geiranger

While breaking out of the nutshell is a worthy cause, there are some caveats you should be aware of. First, with the exception of the areas immediately surrounding cities like Bergen and Oslo, most roads – even if they are highlighted in bold as national highways – are no more than one lane in each direction. Coupled with the meandering nature of the routes, this translates to longer driving times than one would expect from just looking at a map. Factor in road construction, slower drivers, camera controlled speed-traps and an overwhelming urge to pull over and take pictures of the panorama before you, and you can easily spend a full day driving between destinations. For further information about the differences between the journey and destinations, please refer to paragraph 2 of this article.

While on the subject of roads, be aware that due to the mountainous terrain that characterizes the country, you will be passing through a lot of tunnels, ranging from a few meters to a few miles (the longest being  the Laerdal Tunnel which runs for just over 15 miles and even has colored lighting just to break up the monotony). So if you have a fear of such things, stick to the boats, because you will be spending quite a bit of time underground.

Cost is another factor to consider, especially for travelers from the U.S. While lodging and gas are proportionately more expensive than back home, the biggest surprise is the cost of food. A simple hamburger platter can (and will) run you nearly twenty bucks, with other dishes of simple fare in the same general neighborhood. If you’re on a budget, you might want to stick to the ubiquitous hot dogs wrapped in bacon that are available at nearly every gas station or roadside mart. It’s not gourmet, but it’s a lot easier on the wallet.

One last point: If you’re a fan of sunsets, night photography or stargazing, DO NOT come in late June/early July. The high latitude means very little darkness, which is great for touring, but bad for any of the aforementioned activities. You can also forget about seeing the Aurora Borealis – there’s way too much light. If these things are an issue for you plan on coming during a different Solstice.

The Final Word

Norway is one of the most naturally beautiful places on earth, ranking among my top destinations of Thailand and New Zealand (still have to give N.Z. the edge, though). It’s expensive, time consuming, and in summer “well-lit” but the payoff in natural splendor blows away any inconvenience. Not only is it worth seeing, but it is worth seeing beyond just “the nutshell”. Cliche´ or not, this is one destination that is just as appealing as the journey.


Have you been to Norway? Share your thoughts by commenting below

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Have Your Cannoli and Eat it Too in Positano (by Staying in Praiano)

Beautiful, tourist-riddled Positano

Beautiful, tourist-riddled Positano

Positano – a jewel on Italy’s Amalfi Coast – is a two-edged sword. It is a beautiful riot of boxy buildings rising sharply upward along a natural notch in the vertical coastline. It has stunning panoramas. It has gorgeous hotels. It has mouthwatering eateries. It has ambiance out the wazoo.

It also has a lot of tourists. Like, a lot of them.

Perhaps it’s a sign of my advancing age, but I just don’t have the patience for crowds anymore. They get on my nerves. They get in my way. And they have every bit as much of a right to be there as I do.

I hate that.

So how can you enjoy this amazing gem without being swept overboard in a sea of tourists? The answer lies just 13 kilometers away in the cliff-side hamlet of Praiano.

Yes, you can have the best of both worlds by staying in Praiano and playing in Positano. And if you don’t feel like commuting, Praiano has enough to keep things interesting, especially if you’re interested in relaxation.

How to Get There

The most straightforward way of getting to the Amalfi Coast is driving your own car. Of course, navigating the winding, traffic-clogged roadway is a surefire recipe for strained nerves, strained braking systems, and if married, a strained marriage. Between double-parked trucks, speeding convertibles, and near-suicidal tourists on Vespas – not to mention the exasperation of trying to find a parking space – many opt to take public transport instead. It’s not as convenient as having your own set of wheels, but a little inconvenience is worth saving your marriage, right?

For those who favor sanity over convenience, a journey to the Amalfi Coast will likely begin at Napoli’s Stazione Centrale. From there, a few Euros will buy you a ride on the Circumvesuviana – a commuter train that runs the entire curve of the Gulf of Naples. Sorrento is the end of the line, and a tourist destination in its own right. Across the street from the station is a bus stop where you can catch a SITA bus toward Amalfi. The ride is a belly-twisting journey that will afford you some amazing vistas on your way toward Positano. Sure, you can get off along with the crowds, but if you hang on for another twenty minutes you’ll find yourself in the middle of Praiano town, looking down at the multicolor tiles of massive San Gennaro church and out at the twinkling lights of Positano.

What to Do

Views to celebrate in Praiano

Views to celebrate in Praiano

Let me start off by saying that Praiano, while more authentic and far less congested, is not of the same caliber as Positano. That said, the views are comparable, lodging is reasonable and the charm is pervasive. There’s a rocky beach a good half-hour descent below town, where you can splash in the turquoise water or rent an umbrella to protect you from the blazing summer sun. It’s a great place to relax, as well as suitable locale to regain your strength for the climb back up. If all that walking doesn’t appeal to you, there’s no shame in just sitting on your balcony and watching the mountains trail off all the way to Capri.

Getting to Positano

Positano at Night

Positano at Night

There are frequent buses between Praiano and Positano, with timetables available at most hotels and tobacco stores. Unless you’re specifically interested in visiting Positano’s larger and superior beach, Positano really comes alive in the evening. From the road, it is a pleasant downhill stroll past souvenir shops, charming eateries and one-of-a-kind boutiques all the way down to water level. There, circling the beachfront are a series of restaurants packed with enthusiastic tourists and all the associated energy. The scene while sipping wine beneath a flower-laden lattice under the glow of street lanterns is simply magical. So much so that you might even forget that you have to walk back up.

Things to Know

Amalfi Coast - the ultimate Stairmaster

Amalfi Coast – the ultimate Stairmaster

This being Italy, mid to late afternoon brings a lull in the action. This would be the time to take that nap and rest up for a late dinner. That rest will come in handy when you consider that all destinations will either be located above or below you, in a never-ending maze of stairways. Your reaction will likely mirror that of a man I met rounding a corner with his suitcase in tow, who upon seeing the meandering stairways trailing off into oblivion before him muttered – in heavy Neapolitan dialect – “Oh…Madon'” (an appeal to Jesus’ mother Mary). The upside is that by the time you leave, your calves and glutes will be firmer than when you arrived.

Positano in summer is both a dream destination and nightmare. But if you follow these few simple suggestions, you can have your figurative connoli and eat it too, even if it is about 13 kilometers away.


I would also like to share a link to fellow blogger Aki Louise, who recently reviewed my travel guide You Can Keep Your Adventure, Just Leave Me the Toilet Paper on her Scribbles and Outlines blog. She covers a wide range of subjects, with a leaning toward the written word, and was kind enough to post this review just weeks before beginning law school! I encourage you all to take a look and see her style for yourselves.

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