Thursday, September 27, 2012

Adventure in Norway (or, What Did YOU Do When You Were 5-Weeks Pregnant?)

So, remember the Olympics? Remember when Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings won their third gold medal for beach volleyball? Yeah, apparently news broke earlier this week that Kerri Walsh Jennings was five weeks pregnant then. That's crazy talk. That kid is going to brag about that his or her whole life...

You know what I did when I was five weeks pregnant? I went to Norway for work. Not quite the same Herculean feat as winning an Olympic gold medal, but you know, still kind of intense.
The Littlest Senge in Norway...
That's a good part of the reason I didn't want to go on the trip when the opportunity initially arose, and why it was such a hard decision to make. I found out I was pregnant on a Tuesday, the doctor confirmed on a Thursday. The following Tuesday, we found out the original chaperone couldn't travel and it was suggested that I go. I agreed on Wednesday (morning after a tearful night of deliberations) and the plane left on Thursday night. That was one week after we took this photo in the doctor's office waiting room.
Waiting to confirm the good news.
I felt fine on the way over, but the morning sickness hit me pretty hard on the second day of the trip. Traveling in a foreign country, with foreign food and foreign smells, unpredictable meal times and bathroom access, spending long, long hours in trains, planes, boats, and automobiles - let's just say it was tough.

Ultimately, it was a great trip, but my strongest memory and take-away was overwhelming nausea. So much so that I could hardly talk about the trip once I got back, which definitely confused a few people, since I couldn't yet explain why. I couldn't even look at the clothes I'd brought with me without wanting to throw up, I can't even remember how long it was before I could wear some of them again.

Five months later, remembering or talking about or looking at something from the trip can still make my stomach lurch. And the photos? Forget about it, I couldn't stand to look at them for ages (which is why none of you have seen them yet - until now!). Unfortunately, I had ended up with a hard drive full of the group's photos and had to upload them all to our shared server so the whole team could reference them. Due to computer issues, that process made me sick for hours and hours and hours and made me want to look at my own photos that much less. But with a bit of time between me and the trip, and with the worst of the morning sickness behind me, I can start to look back at the photographic evidence.

I can still barely believe that I was there, and that I did all that we did. Sorry for the massive scrolldown photo post, but it's the only way I can get through it!!

In the 1,700+ photos I shot, I wish I'd better captured the many different modes of transport we used (every mode except ski/sled/animal), and how many miles we traveled within the country (Google calculates roughly 1,258km or 781mi), and the range of various accommodations we stayed in (and toilet/shower facilities we used)... But here is a brief overview of our itinerary so you can get an idea of what we did:

Saturday 4/28, Sunday 4/29 - Oslo: Husfliden, Akershus Castle, Karl Johan's Gate, Museum of Decorative Arts & Design, dinner at Holmenkollen Park Hotel, driving tour of Oslo including stop at Vår Freslsers Gravlund (Cemetery of Our Savior), National Gallery, Viking Ship Museum, Fram Museum, Kon-Tiki Museum, Norsk Folkemuseum

Monday 4/30 - Trondheim: Nidarosdomen Cathedral, Trøndelag Folkemuseum, Ringve Musical Instrument Museum, Bakklandet

Tuesday 5/1 - Røros: Husfliden and Bunad costume-making, Røros church, Sleggveien, Rørosrein (Sami reindeer herding family business), Røros Museum

Wednesday 5/2 - Geiranger: 8 hour drive to Geiranger, private boat tour of Geiranger fjord, Studebaker touring car drive to Flydalsjuvet outlook of fjord, overnight in historic Union Hotel.

Thursday 5/3 - Balestrand: 8 hour drive to Balestrand, including stop at Briksdal Glacier and ride in a "troll car," private boat tour of Sognefjord and historic waterfront homes, stayed in historic Kviknes Hotel.

Friday 5/4 - Balestrand, Borgund church, Flåm: Photo safari walk through Balestrand, Express Boat ferry to Flåm, drive to Borgund Stave Church, dinner at Fretheim Hotel, Flåmsbana (aka Flåm Railway), commuter train to Bergen

Saturday 5/5 - Bergen: Fløibanen (Bergen Funicular), Old Bryggen, Husfliden, Edvard Grieg's home and museum (Troldhaugen), Fantoft Stave Church.

Here's roughly what that looks like, according to Google Maps:

The 1258km driving tour of Norway.
And now, here are some photos!
Above: Akershus Castle/Fortress and Castle Church. Below: Akershus dungeon.
A cross from the cemetery where many of Norway's most notable people rest.

The Viking ships from the Viking Ship Museum. Totally amazing. Hard to grasp the scale from these photos but the ships are pretty massive and intimidating.  I totally got how they could come sneaking up on you and I can totally imagine the panic when you realized what was approaching and how close they were...

Oslo's Husfliden shop
There are around thirty Husfliden, or handicraft, shops in Norway. They sell amazing handicrafts and handicraft supplies. I think it's awesome that every kid in Norway learns to knit in school. What a great skill! I wished that I'd needed some knitting needles or supplies, or that I was better at knitting. The selections made me swoon, as did the astronomical price of everything in Norway. I just couldn't justify the cost unless it was something I really, really couldn't leave without. I really loved the traditional national costumes, or "bunad," and kind of wished I could have gotten one for myself (or Alice!). You can order yours at any Husfliden shop, I shudder to think how much the whole ensemble costs...

We saw Skrik (aka The Scream) by Edvard Munch, as well as a view of the landscape where he saw a sunset that inspired the painting. He painted four versions, the one we saw in the Nasjonalgalleriet is the first of the four. Very cool.
 The Norsk Folkemuseum has a huge indoor gallery and outdoor exhibit containing around 150 structures from all over Norway that have been moved, reassembled, and preserved at the museum. It was a fascinating collection. The oldest building, the Gol Stave Church, was built in 1200. It was under renovation while we were there and we weren't able to see it, unfortunately.
It was amazing to see these structures from the 16th and 17th centuries, wooden buildings still standing solid as a rock. The texture of the wood, inside and out, was absolutely incredible. 
I just loved this rustic fence and the serenity of the environment. The birch trees had all just sprouted these delicate, yellow leaves and the whole landscape practically glowed in the sunlight. 

In Trondheim, we were unable to go inside the Royal Residence as it hadn't yet opened for the season and was undergoing major work to renovate the sprinkler system (very important for historical wooden buildings all over Norway, which have a long tradition of burning up entire neighborhoods). Fortunately, we were able to sneak inside another similar building.

The Royal Residence building was originally a regular home that one prominent woman-about-town built to outshine her friends' homes nearby. Those friends' two houses also still stand and one of them is currently operating as a day center for elderly retirees. Our guide popped in to the cafe inside to ask if we could look around and this spry woman immediately sprung to action. At first, I thought she worked there, but I'm pretty sure she was just a regular patron.

She insisted on showing us almost every room of the facility and telling us about all of their services (hair salon, legal counsel, lending library, etc). We were even lucky to get a peek inside what would have been the original home's grand salon which is currently the venue for the daily exercise class (hich was going to start any moment while we were there - a room full of elderly ladies watched curiously as we admired the wall murals. The room is also available for special occasion rentals. At the end of our tour (in the photo below), our new friend told us that she had celebrated her 70th birthday in that room, and that today she was celebrating another birthday. She was thrilled when we hung around to order coffee and treats and sat at the cafe table next to her and her friends, and even more thrilled (to tears, in fact) when we sang "Happy Birthday" to her. She even gave us each a piece of "American" chocolate (Hershey's Bliss squares) that her cousin had sent for her birthday. It was quite the unexpected highlight of our day... 
Nidarosdomen Cathedral
We visited the Nidarosdomen Cathedral and learned a lot from the young docent. I learned that she is commonly mistaken for a member of the convent, due to the robes she wears. In reality, she is a young, newlywed art student. Later in the day, we got a bonus visit to the Ringve Museum of Musical Instruments. We weren't planning to visit, but our guide also worked there and offered to open it up just for us and give us a private tour. It was a great collection of all kinds of historical and unusual instruments, including this crazy piano.
This was the last stop on our itinerary and the day had gone much longer than we'd planned. I'd already been falling asleep in the car on the way over, and someone caught a photo of me sleeping on my feet. It makes me tired just to look at this.
Left: Nidarosdomen cathedral in the distance. Right: Trondheim on the water.
Røros was one of my favorite stops. Røros is an old copper mining town and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. Mining began there in the mid-17th century and didn't stop until the Røros Copper Works went bankrupt 333 years later, in 1977. The old smeltery burned down but was rebuilt in convincingly authentic fashion and now houses the mining museum with fascinating scale models of the mining process. I was sort of expecting a ghost town but it's actually a really desirable place to live with a pretty vibrant community and thriving, modern industry. People still work in buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries, and if you belong to the right organizations, you can actually rent some of the buildings for very unique vacation accommodations. 

Old snow on the slag heaps, with Sleggveien in the distance.
Behind the smeltery are huge mountains of slag, a byproduct of smelting. Nestled among the slag are the houses of Sleggveien, or "Slag Street." This is where the town's poorest people would have lived. The nearest house on the right was rumored to house a family of eleven in one tiny single room.

One of the highlights in Røros was visiting Rørosrein, a Sami family reindeer-herding business. The Sami people are the only recognized indigenous peoples in Scandinavia and have a long history of semi-nomadic reindeer herding. This family continues to herd reindeer (as a meat source) and keeps a small number of tamed reindeer in town to educate tourists on their culture and livelihood. They also give reindeer sleigh rides in the winter! I was hoping Røros would still be a snowy wonderland, but alas, there were only piles of crunchy old snow and not nearly enough to go sledding on. They actually send the tame reindeer up into the mountains to live with the rest of the herd during the summers, since it's too hot in town, and had kept them around a few extra days just for us so we could meet them. And meet them, we did!!

The couple who run the business were absolutely delightful. They were just so warm and friendly and educational; it was a truly wonderful experience, largely because of their amazing energy. Here is one half of the couple we met (who is also a top-notch musician - he's played the Hardanger fiddle all over the world - even for Saddam Hussein!), demonstrating how his reindeer coat can keep him exceptionally warm even during the coldest, snowiest winter day. I hope he also has a reindeer hat...
He's crouched down so the coat can cover his legs and contain his body heat within.
They invited us into their Sami hut, built in a style more traditional to the Sami people living in Sweden, but it is larger than their typical hut so can accommodate more tourists. They served us coffee made over the open fire, reindeer jerky (not at all my favorite), and lefse (potato flatbread/tortilla) with butter and sugar (like a sugar cookie-flavored tortilla, pretty yummy).
And then we got to meet all the reindeer! We fed them lichen and they ate right out of our hands. One of them was very willing to let us all give him big hugs around the neck. So awesome.

We got to see a ton of the countryside and lots of spectacular landscapes during our drives. Unfortunately, it was hard to take photos through the windows while bouncing along in the car, and after a while, you start to take for granted that each little village and stream and waterfall and mountain peak will be more picturesque than the last.

Once we got to Geiranger though, we were in for a treat. We climbed into a tiny boat with an outboard motor and had our own private tour of the fjord. We were there just before the summer tourist season was in full swing, when the fjords are full of all manner of cruise ships and sightseeing boats and ferries. We saw one other two-man boat, parked and fishing, and that was it. We literally had the whole fjord all to ourselves. 
Here I am on the boat, trying to hang on to that little embryo. Once our driver found out I was pregnant, he moved me to a less bouncy seat behind the wheel...
We saw a little herd of mountain goats frolicking on the rocky shore. I didn't get a photo but we also saw a porpoise break the surface of the water. I was SO excited.
The thin mist of Bridal Veil falls is nearly impossible to capture in photos or videos, but it was absolutely magical. We parked our boat and just drank it in for a good 10-20 minutes.
This is a waterfall called "The Suitor," which is directly opposite the famous "Seven Sisters" falls. You can't see it well in this photo, but the rocks make the shape of a bottle in the middle of the falls. The legend says that the suitor asked each of the seven sisters across the way for their hand in marriage, and rebuffed by each, turned to the bottle for comfort. Because it was still so early in the year, there were only three sisters out to mock him when we were there...
After our boat ride, the owner of the Union Hotel chauffeured us in this historic Studebaker, used for sightseeing tourists in the 1930s. As we wound our way up the hill, we drove past flocks of sheep FULL of tiny little lambs. Here's a group that got particularly excited about our car, running right in front of us, up this driveway and back down again. So, so cute. I wanted to cuddle them so bad.

The view of Geiranger town and fjord from my room at the Union Hotel.
On our way from Geiranger to Balestrand, we stopped at the Briksdal Glacier. We rode a Troll Car most of the way up and then took a short hike through some absolutely magical landscape until we reached the lake at the foot of the glacier.
Trolls live here. And probably elves and fairies.
Here, a sign indicates the position of the glacier in 1920 (it's pretty far away from the glacier's current position...). You can make out the glacier in the distance, in the crevice between the two mountains. The photos can't quite capture this environment but it was one of my favorite experiences. It was so refreshing and exhilarating, and felt like such a magical adventure. Though I've seen glaciers in Alaska, this was the closest and most personal experience I've had with one. It was pretty extraordinary.

There were signs that said you were entering the area at your own risk. We stood there for 20 minutes or so, and I heard the glacier thunder a couple of times. Nothing fell off, but I saw glaciers calve in Alaska and I'd pretty frightened if anything fell off while I was standing that nearby, even if the water wasn't very deep!
Proof that I was there, fetus and all! And I even touched the water, it wasn't as cold as you might expect...
There was also this very ominous outpost at the base of the glacier with a bunch of abandoned tents and boats and piles of life vests and helmets, and this army of empty boots. I'm sure it was all just waiting for the next slew of tourists, but it was a bit eery, as though some huge group of outdoorsmen had vanished out of their boots and into thin air moments before we walked up...

Once we arrived in Balestrand, we hopped on board a nice big power boat and saw the sights of Balestrand by way of the Sognefjord. Our guide was a local grandmother-type who was a long-time teacher, about to retire, who was also an artist with a gallery right next to our hotel. She had, in fact, taught our boat captain in school, who was now the owner of one of the largest companies in town which offered a multitude of services. He was really a jack-of-all-trades who collected American cars, including a Peterbilt semi-truck, built several homes in town by hand, and somehow got roped into taking us on a tour because he had the biggest boat in town. Good stuff. 
He backed us right up to this waterfall. You can't tell from the photo, but we could have practically had a drink, if we were so inclined.

We saw some beautiful homes from the water, including this marvelous example of dragestil or "dragon style" architecture.

We boated past our hotel, the historic Kvikne's. My room was in the little tower on the right, with the balcony under the gabled roof. Here's the view from my living room:

The next day, we took a ferry from Balestrand to Flåm and then drove out to see the Borgund stave church. We learned that the wood buildings in Norway are typically coated with tar to preserve them and protect them from the elements (because if Norway has plenty of anything, it's trees and oil). The Borgund church had been freshly tarred, just before we arrived, so we were careful not to lean on any thing... Built sometime between 1180 and 1250, it is one of the oldest and is the best preserved of Norway's 28 existing stave churches. It was a really striking sight, and we had the place all to ourselves.  

This exterior door featured the carved "signatures" of many centuries worth of pilgrims. Before the public could read and write, they used symbols for their families. The docent hypothesized that since many Norwegians emigrated to America, these symbols could well have been the forerunners to cattle branding symbols. An interesting theory...
This beam near another door also had preserved runic inscriptions which are essentially holy graffiti that roughly translate to "I was here on this date."

The interior was incredibly dark and hard to photograph, but here's a lovely shot of the balconies.
And when we headed back outside again, it was snowing! Magical.
After a nice dinner at the mostly empty Fretheim Hotel, we hurried off to catch our Flåmsbana train. I think there were maybe 5-10 other people on the whole train, and we definitely had an entire car to ourselves. The five of us each claimed a set of windows, one on each side, that rolled down. We ran from one side of the car to the other, exclaiming over each new curve in the track and snapping endless photos of the beautiful landscape. The Flåm railway is the steepest standard gauge rail line in Europe, at 5.5% (1:18) with an elevation increase of 2,835 feet over 12 miles. There are nine stops on the line, and twenty tunnels. It seemed like every time we went through a tunnel, the weather and landscape became more and more winterly. Here's a view from the first stretch, looking back toward Flåm.

Here's where I thought the train was going to drive straight into a mountain. I couldn't see the narrow little gash we were going to pass through.
And here's where we stopped for a close-up view of the waterfall Kjosfossen. We popped out of a tunnel, and stopped at this teeny tiny station, and it was snowing like we were on The Polar Express. I may have squealed like a child.

Me and the Kjosfossen. This photo does not adequately capture my utter delight.
And then coming out of the next tunnel, we were met with this magical winter wonderland. We stopped somewhere at the height of this snowy landscape and caught our commuter connection to Bergen, I settled right into my seat and finished reading The Help.

We started our day in Bergen with a trip on the Fløibanen, or funicular. We enjoyed a super chilly overview of Bergen, from above. I believe it had snowed on and off during breakfast that morning...
On our way to the overlook.
View of Bergen from above.
At some point, later that day, we drove down to a pier near the water and there was an honest-to-goodness German submarine there. I inquired about it, and our guide surmised that it was visiting, perhaps the Norwegian Naval Academy? I can't remember now. But it was a rather unsettling sight, given the very active Norwegian resistance movement during the war. That's a whole other history that was interspersed within our tour, popping up here and there. I didn't have time to study or read anything before we left and we didn't have time to visit the resistance museum in Oslo, but there are some incredible stories of heroics that I would love to learn more about. 

Our next stop of the day the Bryggen, the old warehouse area on the harbor. Our guide led us all through the the little warrens and alleyways which used to house all manner of trade goods and now function as swanky artist and artisan shops and studios. The Bryggen museum wasn't open, but we peeked in the window at the excavation and our guide told us that Norway, and Bergen in particular, had a long, long history of importing things from all around the world, due to their sophisticated seafaring culture. The things they had uncovered at this site, and what they had learned about life there in the 14th century sounded fascinating.

alleys of the Bryggen area.
A huge wood carving of a disgusting dried cod. They are seriously monstrous looking.
We went through the Hanseatiske Museum, one of the large warehouses on the harbor that operated as a German merchant's home, office, and storeroom. It gave a good glimpse into the lives of the merchants and employees that lived and worked there. I liked this cute little hidden staircase that led from the merchant's office up to his bedroom.
here's the bottom door

and the view from the top!
Since we were there on a Saturday during the official high season, we got to see one of the Buekorps brigades marching about. The Buekorps, or "Bow Corps," are "traditional marching youth organizations" unique to Bergen. Originally, these were battalions of young boys imitating the city militia, who would engage in "warfare" with other battalions. Around the 1850s, they started to evolve in the upstanding, entirely youth-run civic institution they are today (think Boy Scouts, but with more military influence). There have been at least 200 battalions since the 1850s, with 14 currently existing.

A buekorps statue. I didn't make a note, but I believe it honored the buekorps veterans killed during the war.
We also headed out to Troldhaugen (or "Hill of Trolls, a legendary troll haunt), the former home of composer Edvard Grieg and his wife, Nina. The house remains as it was when Grieg died in 1907 and was a charming little hidden gem. You could also peek inside the little cottage by the water, where he wrote.
The composer's cottage at Troldhaugen.
magical troll landscape.
A little jetty, past the Griegs' resting place.
Below the house, there was a charming little path through a magical landscape. Looking out at that little jetty above, the Griegs' resting place was carved in the stone hill, just at my left.
We also made a quick stop at the Fantoft stave church. Originally built in 1150, it was destroyed by an arsonist in 1992 and rebuilt anew within three years by private donation. It was interesting to see a "new" stave church.

So that's it, in a super long, scrolldown nutshell. I was totally impressed by Norway's breathtaking landscape and can easily see how they have such a rich history of troll legends. I kept thinking what a magical place it would be for imaginative little children, and what a great introduction to world travel it would be for little ones. Despite the circuitous routes around mountains and fjords, it was a really easy place to get around and extremely friendly to Western travelers. I would love to go back with the family someday, once my body has forgotten the association with morning sickness. Though I don't think I'll ever be able to stomach reindeer meat...