2015 Trip Accomplice Year in Review

Well, another year has passed. Another chance to look back and see what we’ve done with the time available to us. Here at the Trip Accomplice blog, I’ve used that time to produce 32 posts dedicated to locations in 8 countries on four continents, along with quite a bit of information about various travel tips and philosophies. In case you’ve missed anything, here’s a recap of the year’s journeys….

The Book is Here!

ebook You can Keep Your AdventureFor me, the highlight of the year was the release of my witty travel guide You Can Keep Your Adventure, Just Leave Me the Toilet Paper. If you haven’t yet bought a copy, c’mon already…where else can you tour the world for under five bucks – and have some laughs along the way? It’s available on all major online book retailers. Click here for links.

The U.S. of A

DSC_2707
I can’t shake the feeling I’m not remembering something. That’s right: the basement!
More than any other period in this blog’s history, I focused on quite a number of U.S. destinations. Having moved from Long Island to Texas early in the year, I paid tribute to my former hometown in the post Reflections on Shirley (And Don’t Call Us Shirley) before a series of posts about my adopted state. In Houston as the Center of the Spacefaring Universe I talked about the main attraction (NASA’s Johnson Space Center) of my new home base. I also shared insights on nearby locales in The Alamo Has No Basement & Other San Antonio Facts and my most viewed post thus far Dude, Where’s My Ranch? Review of Rancho Cortez, Bandera, Texas. I paid tribute to the Windy City & 1980’s in the post (Insert Your Name Here)’s Day Off in Chicago. I also reviewed the somewhat out-of-the-way destinations of Southwestern Arkansas in Crater of Diamonds State Park – a.k.a. the Arkansas State Lottery and Hot Springs Will Melt Your Heart (& Your Fingers).

South America

Sugarloaf
A cable car ride to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain is a rite of passage and great place for city views
Though I had already covered some of my favorite places in Brazil in earlier posts, I finally got around to covering my favorite foreign city in the post In Rio de Janeiro Save the Drama for the Scenery. I also covered the intangibly cool Argentinian capital  in the post If You Suffer from Low Self-Esteem, Don’t Go to Buenos Aires.

Asia

Agra Fort Entrance
Seeing Red at Agra Fort
I didn’t focus a lot of direct attention on Asian countries this past year, though I did mention them in other context. My sole post was about the other attraction in the Indian city of Agra in Second Fiddle in Agra is Still A Show Worth Seeing.

Europe

Walking Flam
Walking the trails above Flåm
2015 saw my return to Europe, with a whirlwind tour of Scandinavia and Italy. I shared my brief impressions of Sweden in the post The Swedish Chef Was Asian & Other Surprises from Gothenburg. I next proceeded to gush over the magnificent sites of Norway in the post Norway Beyond “the Nutshell” before zeroing-in on specific sites such as incredible Flåm in Take A Ride on the Flåmsbana. Do Not Pass Go. Do Not Collect $200, and the surprisingly charming city of Bergen in Bryggen of Bergen – Character & Charm That is Way Off the Level. I documented the mixed feelings I had about my return to the magical Italian Island of Ponza in the posts Ponza Revisited Parts I & II. From there I went on to wax poetic about the stunning Amalfi Coast in Have Your Cannoli & Eat it Too in Positano, raving about this heavily-touristed but still worthy Italian destination. Lastly, I recounted my impressions and insights about Holland’s premier city in Amsterdam: Advice Without the Vice.

The Miscellany

This year saw a lot of posts touching on my own travel goals and philosophies. I continued my streak of made-up terminology in Tranticipation: Defining the Joys of Trip Anticipation, revealed my personal travel goals in Snapshot of My Bucket List: Where and Why, and reminisced about my favorite travel experiences in Been There, Done That (But Would Do It Again). I also took aim at reluctant cruisers with my posts Cruising Advice For People Who Don’t Like Cruising – Tip #1 and Tip #2. To round things out I outlined my ideal traveling digs in A Wanderlust Wardrobe for the XL Seasoned Traveler.

2016 Preview

So what can you expect to see on the Trip Accomplice blog in 2016? Beats me! I have no firm plans for the year to come, and that’s all part of the excitement. But you can be sure that I will continue sharing the wonders of world travel with you, my faithful followers (I mean that in the least cult-leader-like way) in a way to make you marvel and smile. See you next year!
Is there anything you want to see more of in the year ahead? Leave a comment and I’ll be glad to take it under consideration.

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Take A Ride on the Flåmsbana. Do Not Pass Go. Do Not Collect $200

View from the Flåmsbana
View from the Flåmsbana

Growing up, I had a friend who employed an annoyingly simple strategy when playing Monopoly. Instead of buying every property he landed on, he saved his money to buy the railroads. So while I was off investing in more potentially lucrative sites such as Park Place and Marvin Gardens, he very quietly – and unopposed – would soon have all four railroads under his control; thereby beginning the process of eroding my wealth while I would without fail land on those four spaces or pick up the most dreaded of all Chance cards: Take a ride on the Reading.

It may be a bit of a stretch, but that memory made an appearance when I took a ride on a very different type of railroad – the scenic Flåmsbana – a winding iron trail through some of the most breathtaking views in all of Norway. This was one railroad I was more than happy I had landed on. It didn’t even cost $200.

Getting there

The Flåmsbana starts (or ends, depending on your direction) in the town of its namesake, Flåm – a tiny hamlet at the tip of the lovely Aurlandsfjord in western Norway. From Oslo, it is a solid six hour drive; more if you stop to take pictures (and you will take pictures!) If you’re coming from Bergen, figure on a ride of two or two and a half hours. Many visitors skip the roads entirely, arriving via the numerous cruise ships that pull into this ridiculously gorgeous port nearly a hundred miles from the ocean.

What to do in Flåm

Walking the trails above Flåm
Walking the trails above Flåm

As a cruise port, Flåm’s “business” district centers around a cluster of capacious souvenir stores brimming with troll figurines, viking paraphernalia, and just about any item that you can think of with the word “Norway” stamped across it. Once you’ve got your souvenir shopping done, you can grab a bite in one of a handful of eateries, or sign up for a fjord tour, provided you didn’t get enough of that on your way in. If you’re staying in the area, I heartily recommend taking the ferry one-way to the miniscule village of Gudvangen via the UNESCO World Heritage Naeroyfjord and taking a transfer bus back. I know it’s not a railway, but the scenery is more than worth the deviation.

If you’d rather stay local, starting behind the large Fretheim Hotel at the edge of the fjord, there are a few walking paths that will take you to some strategic lookout points above the town. Like nearly everything else in the Vertical Republic of Norway, there’s a relatively steep incline, but I can assure you that the views will take your breath away even if the climb didn’t.

Riding the Flåmsbana

A Hulda at Kjosfossen Falls
A Hulda at Kjosfossen Falls

The most popular area attraction is the aforementioned Flåmsbana. You can either purchase tickets through a tour operator or directly at the station ticket counter (approximately $55 US r/t). If there’s a cruise ship in port you’d better get your tickets early, lest you have to wait an extended period of time. Though only spanning a length of about 20 kilometers, the route rises some 886 meters, taking nearly an hour just to do so. In that time period, you will be tempted to hop from side to side (space permitting) to snap off pictures of incomprehensibly quaint alpine villages lining crystal-clear rivers, all nestled at the base of towering mountainsides that are literally gushing with waterfalls. Speaking of waterfalls, riders will have a five-minute break at the colossal Kjosfossen Falls to get out, stretch their legs, and in the summertime, listen to the haunting strains of Norwegian folk music blasting while a local blonde in traditional attire dances out in the distance; a tribute to the legendary Hulda – a siren-like woman who would lure men to death in the mountains. Glad I never got that card in Community Chest. I’m sure those guys did not pass Go or collect $200 either.

What to do in Myrdal

The tiny hamlet of Myrdal – a collection of hardy-looking homes perpetually surrounded by snow, even in summer – has little in the way of attractions. I suppose that if you brought your bike along and were a moderate sadist, this would make a good jumping off point for a thrilling yet punishing ride down. But for the majority, Myrdal is a convenient link to the Bergen-Oslo rail line, allowing passengers the chance to ride the Flåmsbana down for a view of the fjords before continuing onward for their Norway in a Nutshell tour. For me, it was a chance to switch seats and prepare myself for a replay of the amazing panoramas on the way back down to sea level.

Picture break on the Flåmsbana
Picture break on the Flåmsbana

Western Norway is a natural wonderland, and a stop in Flåm is more than just an average diversion. Plan on spending at least one night here if traveling by land. If you’re arriving by boat, make sure the Flåmsbana is on your itinerary. It is a rewarding portal to the ruggedly beautiful and inaccessible Norwegian interior, and a lot more memorable than the Reading, Pennsylvania, B & O and Short Line combined. Monopoly or not, the Flåmsbana is a railroad you’ll want to land on, and a destination far beyond anything you’ll find in Community Chest.

Have you taken the Flåmsbana? Share your experience by commenting below.

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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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