Saturday, 16 September 2017

Belgium: Bruges+Ghent+Brussels

It's an absolute breeze travelling to major cities within the country by train after reaching Brussels, the point of entry for most, as availability as well as fares are constant regardless of time and channels of purchase, and it takes only an hour to go from the central Brussels to the northwest Bruges, for example, not to mention the ease of communication with the English-speaking Belgians.
Apart from admiring the medieval beauty, also not to be missed of this route are savoring waterzooi, the flemish chicken stew; Belgian fries, of which the choice of sauce probably matters the most; Moules-Frites, mussels cooked in different kinds of sauces also served with fries accompanied by mayonnaise; and a variety of waffles topped with fruits, whipped cream, icecream, chocolate sauce, etc., and finally bringing back home some quality Belgian dark chocolates, speculoos in special flavors and more waffles!

DAY 1 - BRUGES

Having a warm Brussels waffle with homemade hot chocolate sauce and vanilla icecream as breakfast was probably the best thing to do in a gloomy rainy morning. The rain stopped just in time before a nice short walk into the historic center where Church of Our Lady, Quai of the Rosary, Tanners' Square, Basilica of the Holy Blood, City Hall and Palace of the Liberty of Bruges in Burg Square, and Belfry of Bruges and Provincial Court in Market Place are all easily reachable within walking distance. Climbing up the Belfry for panoramic views of Bruges and lunching amid colorful and traditional Belgian buildings right in front at the plaza in the sunshine were highlights of the day. A canal boat tour during which sightseeing was from an unusal perspective compared to just walking around completed a day trip in the pretty little Bruges.
 Not only do the very many chocolatiers in Bruges offer wider range of choices at lower prices, they also sell speculoos in multiple flavors that cannot be found in the other two cities. Some time for shopping before departure should therefore be included in the itinerary, especially one of a chocoholic. Trains run every 10-20 minutes from Brugge to Gent-Sint-Pieters and after a 30-minute journey a satisfying dinner with waterzooi, Belgian beers, followed by a shot of jenever in the Flemish city of Ghent awaits.

DAY 2 - GHENT

It is not as easy to find a right place for breakfast on a Sunday morning. Another Brussels waffle with warm cherry sauce served at outdoor seating of Brasserie Agrea just opposite Sint-Baafsplein, heart of the city, against an azure backdrop with Saint Bavo's Cathedral and Bell Tower is definitely one of the best things to enjoy before exploring Ghent. The cathedral opens on Sunday only in the afternoon but paying a fee just to see "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb" might not be a thing for everyone anyway. The Bell Tower, on the other hand, is worth the entrance fee of EUR8, as the elevator stops on several floors of exhibitions on the way up, including a massive bell and a large antique music box that still plays, until visitors reach the top for panoramic views of Ghent. To the west past City Pavilion are Saint Nicholas's Church, Saint Michael's Bridge, Saint Michael's Church, and Graslei and Korenlei which constitute an iconic postcard shot of Ghent.
Next major attraction should be Castle of the Counts. Oringinated from the Middle Ages, this well-preserved 10th-century moated castle affords the best panoramic city views and hosts an armory museum and a museum of judicial objects made for cruel punishments not suitable for sensitive viewers but probably seen as a hidden gem of the majority.
Quick casual lunch is always the desirable option if only one day is allocated for seeing one city. Freshly made Belgian fries at Frituur de kraanlei taste much better than those from the cart outside Bell Tower in Bruges; Liège waffle with strawberries, whipped cream and melted dark chocolate at the cafe called Chocolates tastes just as good as, if not better than "waffles on a stick" at Go.fre the previous day.
After a brief stop at Graffiti Alley followed by a 40-minute canal boat tour, it takes around 40 minutes by train to reach the capital, where there is an abundance of the gourmet moules-frites. Worth mentioning is the need to compare prices among restaurants and rely on diners' reviews beforehand.

DAY 3 - BRUSSELS

Unlike Bruges and Ghent, Liège waffles are popular and cheaper. There are plenty along the way from Manneken Pis to Grand Place. One should try at least once a plain version that costs only EUR1 each, as the flavor of waffle itself is very often masked by the various toppings and sauces.
Touring around Brussels on foot is not at all challenging since major attractions are situated close to one another. The most visited one is the Grand Place. Lesser-known ones include Jeanneke Pis and Zinneke Pis intended to form a counterpoint to the famous Manneken Pis. There is really not that much to say about sightseeing in Brussels particularly for second-time visitors. Simply wander around and get lost, or get surprised discovering the unknown in the quest for shelter from rain. EUR10 for a visit to Museum of Erotics and Mythology might sound too much but it is surely worth the money.
One can never have too many waffles on the last day in Belgium. Waffines filled with either chocolate sauce or speculoo spread sold only at Waffle Factory are phenomenal. Other ideas for desserts are Pierre Marcolini's dark chocolate icecream and Neuhaus's chocolate mousse that seem to exist only in Belgium.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Norwegian Nature

Compared to the seemingly notorious British climate, the recurrent cloudy, foggy and rainy days in Norway are undoubtedly worse. Very lucky ones might have some blue sky for 5 days out of a 10-day trip, while others must unwillingly change their plans due to adverse weather conditions. The second, and fortunately the last obvious downside of traveling around this popular Scandinavian destination is that ready-to-eat meals such as sandwiches and salads are nowhere to be found in supermarkets of any brands except in relatively bigger cities like Bergen and Oslo where only a third of the selection available everywhere in London could be seen. There is a lack of varieties in general, not to mention gourmet viennoiseries and patisseries one could easily find in France and Denmark, for example.
Needless to say, Norway is a very clean, safe and orderly nation. Also worth mentioning is the surprisingly high level of English among Norwegians who truly speak fluently the language, unlike most in other European countries, making the country a particularly convenient tourist destination. Last but not least, the spectacular fjords and natural sceneries everybody goes there for simply offer a different amazing experience of the beautiful earth, especially if Switzerland is right up one's alley.
Two things to be warned are grocery bill which is a double of that in London as well as level of difficulty of hikes of which the Norwegian "medium" means the typical "advanced".



DAY 01 - The Scenic Dovre Railway Line "Oslo S → Trondheim S" + 1/2 day in Trondheim

The journey from Oslo Central Station to Trondheim Central Station was supposed to be a 6.5-hour scenic train ride but thanks to heavy fog and rain it ended up being nothing more than a means of transportation to the furthest north of this trip. Bad weather continued to strike after arrival in Trondheim at 14:30. With an umbrella we managed to see everything we needed to see in this small city by the evening. Old Town Bridge (Gamle Bybro) together with colorful houses along the river must be the number one attraction.

DAY 02 - Hurtigruten Voyage: Trondheim → Aalesund

Spending 14 hours without any clear views around the Norwegian coast was not the plan. Cheering ourselves up by spending some good hours in the gym, "picnicking" on the warm and cosy deck space and simply doing nothing on this nice Hurtigruten ship were the best we could do before arrival in Aalesund at 00:30. This full day of relaxation got us well prepared for the jam-packed itineraries that followed.

DAY 03 - Self-guided Tour: Aalesund - Hellesylt - Geiranger - Ålesund

Following a timetable with a combination of buses and ferries from 08:50 to 18:45 without any guidance is what this so-called tour is about. The itinerary is well designed, though. Highlights of the trip include 1-hour sightseeing of Geiranger fjord on ferry and 2-hour visit of the village of Geiranger on foot. The fjord looked absolutely stunning against the azure background. After dinner back in Aalesund the hotel's lobby was the best place to chill out before boarding another Hurtigruten at 01:00.

DAY 04 - Hurtigruten Voyage: Aalesund → Bergen + 1/2 day in Bergen

It was such a smart move to stay overnight on the ship while travelling from Aalesund to Bergen, wake up with a good breakfast on another beautiful day and continue the scenic cruise on the uppermost deck space before arrival in Bergen at 14:30.
Two important attractions in this Norway's second largest city are Bryggen which features a series of Hanseatic commercial buildings lining the eastern side of the Vågen harbour and Fløibanen Funnicular which brought visitors up to top of the hill for panoramic views of Bergen.

DAY 05 - Nærøyfjord + Stegastein + Vøringfossen

Road trip began this day. It took around 2 hours and a half to drive from Bergen to Gudvangen. According to past experience we had had no good feeling towards any sort of tours but the one of Nærøyfjord by ferry from Gudvangen to Flam and then by bus back to Gudvangen exceeded expectations. We saw the best of the breaktaking fjord throughout a total of 2 hours 20 minutes on the ferry. No wonder the ferry was overcrowded - this is probably among the best fjord tours.
Stegastein viewing platform located just 40-minute drive away from Gudvangen offers splendid panoramic views of the fjord. The platform is hanging at 30 metres out from the mountain walls and 650 metres up from the fjord.
We then headed south, through the 1310-meter Hardanger Bridge, the longest in Norway and 9th longest in the world, to the famous Vøringfossen Waterfalls. Fossli Hotel is very dated and basic but a night stay there allows flexibility in admiring the waterfalls both at twilight on arrival and in sunlight the next morning from viewing platforms just in front of the building.

DAY 06 - Hiking Trail: Four beautiful waterfalls, Husedalen valley

This is not an easy walk but a serious hike with steep and muddy paths. Hiking shoes are essential. We accomplished the hike to the first and second falls just in time before the rain started to strike again.
On arrival at Trolltunga apartments Vikinghaug in Odda this early evening, panoramic views to either north or south from all areas in that huge 4-bedroom apartment compensated for the gloomy rainy afternoon and the lost opportunity to see those two other waterfalls. Bowls of hot veggies loaded casserole made from the fully equipped kitchen also offset the portion of greens we had been deprived of the previous days.

DAY 07 - Folgefonna National Park + Låtefossen Waterfall + Røldal stave church

First hike to the edge of the glacier in Buardalen is a steep and strenuous one. Climbing is inevitable after a certain point. Those who are not fit for the challenge could simply stop at several viewpoints on the way up  and return from the suspension bridge. Second hike to the icefall in Bondhusdalen is certainly for everyone but the icefall could now hardly be seen with effects of global warming.
Right on the way south the gigantic Låtefossen Waterfall is easily accessible next to the road and for this reason the area is even more crowded when tour buses stop by.
With a 15-minute round-trip detour from the main route, we reached the Roldal stave church, a church of a type built in Norway from the 11th to the 13th century with walls constructed of upright planks or staves.

DAY 08 - Hiking to Pulpit Rock / Preikestolen

After almost a 3-hour drive from Nesflaten to Jørpeland, we started the hike at around 13:00. Sadly it started to rain when we almost reached the top. This hike should be achievable by most, but it might not worth the slippery painful climb on a rainy day because of poor visibility.

DAY 09 - Scenic drive: Jørpeland → Stavanger + 1/2 day in Stavanger

A scenic detour via Lysefjord would have been awesome if the Lysebotn-Forsand ferry was more accessible. Driving along the waters was an alternative best of taking some nice shots of mirror lakes on the way and around Fossmork. Then, three hours were more than enough to see what need to be seen in Stavanger before car return in Stavanger Airport and 50-minute Norwegian Flight to Oslo in the evening. With the lovely weather, we enjoyed a leisure stroll around Stavanger's Old Town, Stavanger Harbor and the bright and colofrul Ovre Holmegate.

DAY 10 -  Oslo in One Day

Dark clouds were better than heavy rain. Parliament of Norway looks much more interesting than The Royal Palace from the outside, whereas the main hall in Oslo City Hall is worth a look in spite of its unattractive exterior. A walk around on the walls of Akershus Fortress allows clear views of the harbor, but paying NOK100 just for a visit of banquet halls, Royal Mausoleum and reception rooms does not seem to be a popular thing to do. Benches at the garden of Oslo Cathedral could be a nice spot for a quick lunch.
Vigeland Park is just a few stops away by metro. The unique sculpture park is the artist Gustav Vigeland's lifework with more than 200 sculptures in bronze, granite and wrought iron. The Park was mainly completed between 1939 and 1949. Most of the sculptures are placed in five units along an 850 meter long axis: The Main gate, the Bridge with the Children's playground, the Fountain, the Monolith plateau and the Wheel of Life.
Back in the center we walked past Oslo Stock Exchange on the way to Oslo Opera House, a striking, contemporary, harborside opera house and home to Norwegian National Opera & Ballet. Finally, we reached the last stop of the day - Akrobaten pedestrian bridge, for nice views of Oslo's new row of high rises and those of the Barcode Project.
Dinner at Engebret Cafe was pleasant but not exceptional. Portions were huge. We should have taken 2 courses each instead of 3. With a glass of wine each, the meal cost around NOK1550.


DAY 11 - Viking Ship Museum + The Norwegian Museum of Cultural History

Both museums could be easily reached by bus. Viking Ship Museum is small but definitely worth seeing. With the world's best-preserved Viking ships and finds from Viking tombs around the Oslo Fjord, the museum shows discoveries from the Gokstad, Oseberg and Tune ships, plus small boats, sledges, a beautiful cart, tools, textiles and household utensils.
Just 17-minute walk away is Norsk Folkemuseum, one of the world's oldest and largest open-air museums, with 155 traditional houses from all parts of Norway and a stave church from the year 1200. The museum also has indoor exhibits with traditional handicraft items, folk costumes, Sami culture, weapons, toys, pharmaceutical history and changing exhibitions. The museum is far bigger and more captivating than expected. Anyone who has more than a day in Oslo should spare one full day for this real gem.