22 June 2013

Norway "in a Nutshell"

When it came time for plan my traditional week-long vacation trip, I originally was thinking about France.  But, I was finding it hard to set up the flights that I wanted with easy trip logistics.  Eventually, I decided to look into visiting the fjords of Norway, as that has been on my bucket list for awhile.  I found a tour company on the Internet (fjordtours.no) that appear to be affiliated with the Norway National railway to some extent that offered the 7-day package that would seem to give me the highlights that I wanted.  I wanted to start and end in Oslo, spend some time boating on the fjords, and mix in some city sightseeing.  The tour I picked was an unescorted itinerary, where they set up all the hotels and transport arrangements (except for airport transfers) and some sightseeing excursions.  After doing some additional research, the itinerary and price they offered looked like a very good value.  I was also able to add an additional night in Oslo at the end, which would allow me to set up a targeted-restaurant visit.

I had a couple of options for my flight routing.  I could either fly from SFO to London and then take SAS to Oslo.  Or, I could fly to Frankfurt and take Lufthansa to Oslo.  I found I had the best options for price and flight times by going through London.  At the time of booking, i had assumed that since SAS for a Star Alliance carrier, that they would leave from Terminal 1 at Heathrow Airport (United's terminal for SFO flights).  I learned on my last trip to London that SA flies out of Terminal 3, which adds the complications of an inter-terminal transfer (which can be problematic, depending on airport conditions).  Fortunately, the connections I had booked had relatively long layover times, which kept the stress levels down on the flight days.

International connecting passengers at Heathrow do not have to go through immigrations and customs.  You do, however, have to be re-screened for security at the terminal where you will board your connecting flight.  So a connecting flight out of Terminal 3 requires a 6-minute bus ride from Terminal 1, a stop at the airline transfer desk (which was important for me, as the aircraft I was taking changed its seat configuration and they had eliminated my row from business class, causing me to lose my seat assignment) before getting to the SAS Lounge.

The SAS Lounge was fairly spacious with two levels.  They had Apple screens and keyboards for Internet service, as well as wifi).  The morning offerings for food were typical for a European lounge, except they also had American-style pancakes with syrup as well.

Boarding at the gate was not structured, but sine I sat down near the jetway entrance, I was able to board at the start anyway.  Typical of most European business, class, the first few rows (two, in my case) were designated as business class, with the only real benefits being an empty middle seat between passengers and free meal and beverages.  But given that it was only scheduled to be a 90-minute light, I was not expecting much.  The plane was a 737-400, which I had flown before.  It's also the first time I've seen a mainline airplane that did not have a bathroom in the front of the plane.

Upon arrival at Oslo Gardermoen Airport, we were routed to the upper level and the immigration desk.  I was asked why I was visiting, how long my stay was, and where I was going.  When I mentioned that I was going to spend a few days in Balestrand, the immigration officer became enthusiastic about my visit, saying how beautiful it is in Balestrand.  After passport control, it was still a bit of a walk to baggage claim (mostly on the second level).  I finally made it to baggage claim, eventually retrieved my luggage and exited the Arrivals area.

First thing I did was look for an ATM (Norway is not on the Euro).  I found one near where the trains to the city were.  But it did not like my bankcard.  I decided I could wait and just head into town.  There are two types of trains to use for getting to central Oslo.  One is the airport express train, called Flytoget.  It costs about $30 one-way and is very easy to ticket.  It leaves every 20 minutes or so and takes about 20 minutes to get to Oslo Central Station.  The other train is the NSB regional train, which costs about $15 and departs less frequently than the express and makes stops along the way, getting to Central Station in about half an hour.  Since I was not in any hurry, I opted for the slow train.  In either case, you can just walk up to a ticketing kiosk and purchase a ticket (you can tell the kiosk to display instructions in English and it takes most major credit cards, including non-chip-and-PIN cards.  After purchasing my train ticket, I saw I has about 45 minutes to wait, so I decided to hunt for more ATMs. I managed to find some at the other end of the Arrival area and my card worked fine.

The regional trains to and from the airport are very nice.  However, one thing I messed was that if you have a ticket that needs conductor validation (as the kiosk ticket do), you are supposed to sit only in certain cars.  If you have a ticket stored electronically on a travel card, then you can sit anywhere -- you just have to tap to validate your card at the validation station before taking the escalator down to the platform.

My hotel (Hotel Continental) turned out  to be right across the street from the train station at the National Theatre stop.  It was very convenient to the center of town and the waterfront.  It was an older hotel, but the rooms were nice, if maybe a little small.  IT cam with free full buffet breakfast (very nice one) and free Internet access.

I was not going to have much time at this end of the trip for Oslo, so I decided to walk down the main part of the city back to the central train station in search of the tourist office and a place to buy the local transit travel card (which I planned to use the next day and more on my return to Oslo at the end of the week).The weather was perfect for walking around, sunny and not too warm.  I eventually got to the main tourist office, but it was already closed.  but I discovered that the 7-Eleven stores sell the reusable transit card that I wanted, so I loaded one up with a little value and also bought a big bottle of water for my train trip the next day.  I also figured out the layout of the central station and where the subway and the train station link together.   I did snap a couple of pictures on the walk -- the famed Opera House and the Nobel Peace Prize Center.

Bike racks
So, on my walk back, I had to figure out what to do for dinner.  After checking out a few menus (it was Sunday, so not every place was open.  I quickly discovered that what everyone said was true -- it is expensive in Oslo.  I decided to eat on the waterfront at an Italian place.  At first I didn't recognize the name, but after I walked in and they explained how food was ordered and paid for (I take a card to whatever stations I want, order food, and then pay for it before leaving), I remembered that Vapiano's was also found in the U.S.  But it was fine, especially for the price.  In fact, it was so fine, that I decided to dine there again on one of my nights when I returned to Oslo at the end of the trip.

The next day, I had a long travel day on the ground.  I had to catch an early train to Myrdal (a 5-hour ride).  I would then change to a tourist train for an hour ride down the mountains to Flam.  From there, I had a 90-minute ferry ride (my first view of the fjords) to Balestrand.  The ticket I had was really a pass to get me from Oslo to Bergen by train, ferry or bus.  Stopovers are allowed and it was valid for two months.  The tour company also made the seat reservation on the first segment.  It was a nice ride, with lots of tourists on a modern train.  There were some nice views along the way, especially as we climbed up the mountains.

At Myrdal, we switched to an old-style train to take us down the mountain.  Non-group travelers were instructed to sit in coaches 4 and 5, while groups were allocated to different coaches. It turned out that 4 and 5 were two ends of the same rail car, but everyone managed to get on, luggage and all.

The Flam train makes its way down the mountain slowly and makes a couple of stops along the way for photo opportunities.


It was a very picturesque ride down to Flam.  At Flam, I had a little bit of a wait, but with a suitcase and backpack, I really didn't want to walk around too much while waiting for the ferry.  I was surprised to see a full-fledged cruise ship in the harbor.  I didn't know they could make it this far inland through the fjords.  It looked like the ships offer a day-long excursion on the Flam train up the mountain and then down.

My ferry boat was actually called an express steamer and really was a twin-hulled fast boat (so fast, it was kind of chilly to stand out on deck in the wind).  But also was almost like a tour boat, as at one point, they slowed and brought us close to a particularly nice waterfall as we traveled on the Aurlandsfjord (a tributary to the much larger Songefjord).

The ferry arrived in Balestrand around 5pm.  I was booked at the Hotel Kvikne, a very old hotel and supposedly the largest wooden structure in Norway.

The view from my room was spectacular.
What was also nice was that for two days, I was on half-board, so I didn't have to worry about breakfast and dinner (which were both buffet style and okay).  The room was pretty simple, but I had a balcony and a top-floor view.  The bathroom was modern and had wonderful floor heating.

Sitting Room on the way to Dining Room
The next day, I was booked on a day-long excursion up another arm of the Songefjord to visit a glacier exhibit and park.

Glacier Museum

The next day, I had an early boat to catch to Bergen on a 3.5-hour ride.  This express steamer was bigger than the ferry I had the day before and even had free wifi on board.

Still a clear day

but starting to get cloudy

And some precipitation coming
Bergen was the capital for a long time, so it had more of a historic look to it.  The hotel booked by the tour company was the Thon Rosenkrantz and was conveniently located on the waterfront right next to the oldest section of Bergen.

Bergen is a very walkable city, so I didn't feel the need to have a transit pass.  I also did not go for the Bergen Card since I was only in town for two nights and wouldn't have a chance to see very many things.  Instead, on the next day, I opted to join a guided tour of the old section, which included a visit to three museums along the waterfront -- Bryggens Museum, Hanseatic Museum, Schotstuene (Assembly room).  There were two guided tours offered in English (11am and 12 noon) and you buy tickets and start at the Bryggens Museum lobby.
Assembly Room

Manager's Desk

Apprentices' Bunks

The Hanseatic League was very active in Norway.  The Bryggens area was dominated By the Hanseatic businessmen for a long time, trading goods for Norwegian raw materials and dried fish.  Apprentices, often as young as 14 years old, would come to Bergen and work to learn the business trade by essentially being servants to the Hanseatic businessmen.

After the tour, I grabbed a quick lunch in one of the many small supermarkets.  I then took a long stroll out to the viewpoint at the end of Nordnes. This gave me a view looking back at the Bryggen area.
Up next was a ride up the funicular for the bird's eye view of Bergen.  You can also take a gondola up a higher mountain that is a little further back, but that involves a short bus ride.  I bought my funicular ticket at the Tourist Center at the harbor at a machine, so I did not have to wait in a line for tickets at the Floibanen Station.  The funicular makes a couple of stop on the way up.  At the top are a hotel, restaurant, large viewing platform, tourist shops, and trails through the surrounding park lands.

I opted to have dinner both nights in Bergen at a place near my hotel called Nama Sushi and Noodles.  They had a nice Bento box option which was a nice value (though still not inexpensive).

The next day, I had a late-morning flight back to Oslo.  There is a very convenient airport bus with frequent departures for the half-hour trip to Bergen Airport.  The airport is small, but does have a domestic and international section.  SAS is big on self-check-in (you can even tag your own luggage, which I did).  When I went to drop off my suitcase, I tried scanning it in, but it would not accept it because it exceeded the normal weight limit.  Since I am Star Alliance Gold, I am allowed up to 70 lbs per bag, so I knew I should be able to check the bag.  Fortunately, they staff a Star Alliance Gold counter, where I had an agent take my bag successfully for my flight.  The flight itself was short, and since the tour company bought my ticket, I was in coach, where the only free offerings were coffee or tea.

The flight arrived on time into Oslo, and I again used the local train to get to the Hotel Continental.  This time, however, I bought the ticket to be placed electronically on my Travelcard, so all I had to do was validate it at a terminal before boarding and could sit anywhere on the train. The tour company scheduled one last excursion for me which was for that afternoon -- a 2-hour excursion around the Oslo fjord/harbor area.

Bathhouses associated with the houses above them

Oslo City Hall, where the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony occurs
The final agenda item for this day was to go back to the Oslo Opera House to take more pictures and explore the inside.

I especially like this photo because it looks like the roof is floating when it is really an illusion caused by the water reflection  creating a mirror image on the windows

Since I had two nights in Oslo on this final stop of the trip, I purchased a 24-hour Oslo card at my hotel, which gave me free local transportation and free entrance to several museums. I had an early start on my only full day in Oslo.  First thing was to take the first ferry to an island with several museums, including the Viking Ship Museum, Kon-Tiki Museum, and Norwegian Maritime Museum.  It's a little bit of a stroll to the Viking Ship Museum from the ferry stop, but the path is well marked.  Then there were signs to get you to the other museums, which were back towards the water at another ferry stop.

Next up, was a bit of a subway ride that took me up a mountain to the Oslo Olympic Ski Jump facility.  The subway train emerges from underground at the base and works its way up (about a half-hour ride). I've never been on a subway before traveling on such a pronounced incline for an extended period.  And even with that, one you get to the stop, you still have to walk up quite a bit to the place where you can take an elevator to the top of the ski Jump (free for Oslo Card holders).  You are rewarded with great views of Oslo and the surrounding area.

And one thing you can do from the top of the ski jump (for an additional fee) is zipline all the way down, which I did.  It goes by very fast, but it was a great day to do it and the only chance I'd ever get to doing anything on a ski jump.

Finally, I ended my afternoon with a visit to two more museums -- there was a special exhibition organized to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the birth of Edward Munch (who painted "The Screamer").  His works were displayed at both the Munch Museum and the National Gallery.

My very full day in Oslo culminated with a very nice dinner at Maaemo, a two-star Michelin Restaurant serving organic and biodynamic local foods using very modern techniques.

The next day, I had an early flight back to London on SAS.  Since it was Sunday, the local trains to the airport did not start their run in time.  So, i was forced to use the more expensive Flytoget Airport Express Train.  I will say that the trains were on-time, very nice, and very easy to use.  You can go to a kiosk and purchase a normal paper ticket, or you can just walk up to a special terminal, slide a credit card and start your journey.  They charge your credit card for the appropriate ticket amount and then at the end of the journey, you slide the same credit card to exit through the gate.

Check-in and security were easy at that early hour on a Sunday, so I was in the SAS Lounge in no time after a quick walk around the many duty-free shops.  My arrival in London into Heathrow's Terminal 3 was on schedule and I had plenty of time to catch the transfer bus, clear security, shop (a bag of small Toblerones is cheaper at Heathrow than at the Oslo Airport) and enjoy the Star Alliance First Class Lounge before my 2pm flight back to SFO.

1 comment:

  1. What an interesting blog, introduced by a thought-provoking photo. The unusual wall painting of the dwellings is also a strangely modern interpretation. Something like this hieroglyphic view of a park by Swiss painter Paul Klee, http://EN.WahooArt.com/A55A04/w.nsf/OPRA/BRUE-8LT475.
    The image can be seen at wahooart.com who can supply you with a canvas print of it.