Category Archives: Travel

‘When it’s Spring again, I’ll bring again tulips from Amsterdam.’

When it’s Spring again I’ll bring again
Tulips from Amsterdam
With a heart that’s true I’ll give to you
Tulips from Amsterdam
I can’t wait until the day you fill
These eager arms of mine
Like the windmill keeps on turning
That’s how my heart keeps on yearning
For the day I know we can
Share these tulips from Amsterdam

Ah……  Max Bygraves knew the way to a woman’s heart!

Tulips…….they herald the spring time  like no other flower – with their beautiful forms and colours, unmistakeable bowl shaped petals and bright primary colours.

These days growers have developed so many varieties the choice is dizzying, and even the ‘not very horticulturally minded’ recognise a tulip! It has become a favourite in English gardens, parks and floral displays up and down the land. Of course, tulips are synonymous with Holland and horticulture there is big business:

A few wikifacts:

  • Holland has a 44% share of the worldwide trade in floricultural products, making it the dominant global supplier of flowers and flower products. Some 77% of all flower bulbs traded worldwide come from the Netherlands, the majority of which are tulips. 40% of the trade in 2015 was cut flowers and flower buds.
  • The sector is the number 1 exporter to the world for live trees, plants, bulbs, roots and cut flowers.
  • The sector is the number 3 exporter in nutritional horticulture products.
  • Of the approximately 1,800 new plant varieties that enter the European market each year, 65% originate in the Netherlands. In addition, Dutch breeders account for more than 35% of all applications for community plant variety rights.
  • The Dutch are one of the world’s largest exporter of seeds: the exports of seeds amounted to € 3.1 billion in 2014.
  • In 2014 the Netherlands was the world’s second largest exporter (in value) of fresh vegetables. The Netherlands exported vegetables with a market value of € 7 billion.

       

The Keukenhof gardens in the Netherlands are a paradise for tulip  lovers – as their website boasts: ‘Keukenhof, the best day out among the flowers! There are more than 7 million bulbs in bloom this spring, with a total of 800 varieties of tulips. A unique and unforgettable experience!

Besides the spacious 32 hectares of flowers you can enjoy the spectacular flower shows, surprising inspirational gardens, unique artwork and wonderful events. Do not miss the Tulpomania exhibition in the Juliana Pavilion.’

At Keukenhof they recognise the importance of engaging with the next generation. Their website states:

‘Keukenhof is also one big party for children. They will have a blast with the treasure hunt, petting farm, maze and the playground.’

Who can resist? Don’t forget your camera!

Istria – or Slovenia and Croatia to you and me.

I’ve just returned from a trip to the Istrian Peninsula – and learnt a lot!  The Peninsula looks like a triangular pennant suspended in the Adriatic just below Trieste.  A horizontal strip of land at the top of the triangle now forms part of Slovenia and the rest belongs to Croatia. Our visit included some of the towns along the West coast of Istria from  Portorož down to Pula, with its stunning amphitheatre,  at the southern tip of the triangle.

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So first  stop – Portorož (Port of Roses) This turned out to be an attractive strip of  hotels stretching in a ribbon along the seafront – no ‘beach’ as such, more pebbles and ladders straight down into the water – would bathers disappear without trace?  Well, no, the water only seemed to be waist deep in most places so perfectly safe, if a bit chilly!

Portorož has been established as a health spa since the late 19th century and boasts some fine architecture – one example of this is the Palace Hotel, built around 1912 in what was known then as the Austrian Riviera. It was extensively renovated around 2008 but retains its magnificent facade and is testimony to the popularity of the area as a health resort back in the day.  There is a real Art Deco vibe about the place and lots of magnificent black and white photographs on the hotel walls illustrate the grandeur of a bygone era, which inspired me to take some sepia photos on my walk along the sea front towards Piran.

Every hotel in Istria has a Wellness Centre, indeed Slovenians and Croatians place a lot of emphasis on healthy living. On our tour I struck lucky every time – my room was right next door to the Wellness Centre! This meant that, unlike other guests who had to make their way along endless hotel corridors and into and out of lifts dressed in their fluffy white hotel robes to get to these facilities, I only had to pop out of my room and round the corner and there it all was – the plunge pool, the sun terrace, the jacuzzi, the  salt water swimming pool and all the wondrous treatments on offer – like mud baths, Thai massage with myriad combinations of lovely infused oils, facials – etc!!

As a linguist I was also interested in trying to pick up some phrases in Slovenian and Croatian – and was encouraged by the fact that all the road signs were in Slovenian or Croatian first and then Italian, and sometimes German too.  As I speak Spanish, the hop over to Italian is not so far – but the next hop over to Slovenian proved more of a chasm – didn’t get much of a toe hold, although the girl welcoming us in to dinner tried to teach me a few things – ‘dobro jutro’ (good morning) ‘dobra večer’ (good evening) ‘volim te’ (I love you !! – that should come in handy!) ‘hvala ti’ (thank you)  ‘molim’ (please) ‘račun molim’ (the bill please) and on the hotel television I even caught an episode of Gardeners’ World with Monty Don dubbed in Croatian.  Even so, progress was slow!!

Back to being a tourist.

Piran is a small town at the top of the Istrian Peninsula. Its links with Italy through the salt trade are evident. On the walk into the town we came across some curious buildings which turned out to be disused salt warehouses, now being used as exhibition spaces and the like.  

Views out to sea from the city walls were beautiful and the town itself is very picturesque.

 

 

 

 

 

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We were taken on a trip to the salt pans and a museum where we learnt how the salt panners lived and worked.

           

         

Our next trip was to Groznjan, which is inland. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t very good but we could still appreciate the beauty of the countryside and sample some delicious truffles and mistletoe brandy – not sure about the brandy! We also learned that Istria has several symbols – one is the goat, one is the dolphin and ……the other will come to me in a second!

 

The climate as you go further south turns more Mediterranean, with lots of vineyards and olive trees and for the first week of our holiday the weather was pleasantly warm – around 25º. But things changed dramatically en route to our second destination of Poreč – in fact, there was a terrific storm and when we got to the hotel they were busy mopping up – leaks had sprung everywhere – outside the main entrance a little man in waterproofs was standing knee deep in water, pumping out and inside they were juggling guests whose rooms had water running down the walls – mops and buckets everywhere!

Built along the lines of a giant Butlins holiday camp – I don’t think these hotels will stand the test of time – more ‘Lego’ in construction – definitely the cheap and cheerful end of the market.  This conglomeration was built around several lagoons just outside the town of Poreč, which, once the hordes of weekend visitors had died down, felt much more welcoming. As luck would have it, the storm (which was bad enough to make the national television news) had abated by the next day and we were able to see a  medieval fair which they had postponed – so ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ as they say.

Pula, in the far south of the peninsula, boasts a magnificent amphitheatre, with the usual gruesome history of gladiators and blood and gore. Nowadays, the arena is used as an open air concert venue, attracting the greats of the musical world such as Andrea Bocelli, Norah Jones, Tom Jones and José Carreras.  Personally, I found the Roman artifacts in the museum below the arena every bit as interesting as the arena itself.

We barely had time to see Pula and even in late September, towards the end of the holiday season it was very busy. The Venetian influence is evident in its buildings and I loved the little alley ways down to the water’s edge which seemed to drop straight into the sea. Definitely a place to go back to.

    

Edinburgh – city of castles, kilts and whisky.

Just back from an action packed few days in the Scottish capital. This tourist malarkey is exhausting!

Now, I know a lot of people are a bit funny about getting on ‘the tourist bus’ but, as far as I’m concerned, there is no better way to get your bearings in a city you don’t know. A couple of circuits round the main streets and some helpful commentary from the guide and you can make a much more sensible decision about where to alight for a more leisurely gander at the ‘places of interest’ you are actually interested in.

Of course,  nobody visits Edinburgh without going to the castle, perched atop the Mound, just beyond one of the main thoroughfares, Princes Street.

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And the other attraction, if that’s the right word for it, which is ‘de rigeur’ is the Royal Mile, The taxi driver who took us from the airport to our accommodation in Newhaven Harbour advised us to do the ‘Royal Mile’ from top to bottom, i.e. walk from Edinburgh Castle downhill to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. The lady we rented our excellent accommodation from said the same thing and when you see it you quickly realise why!  It is very steep and as the name indicates – it’s a mile long – exhausting! even if you have had your porridge!

By far the most obviously touristy place was the area around the castle  where you find ‘The Scotch Whisky Experience’ and the ‘Tartan Weaving Mill’ and also magnificently turned out pipers playing those haunting laments on the bagpipes. There are myriad tartan shops sellingall sorts of garments, mostly in the familiar red plaid  (it put me in mind of the old joke – you can have any colour as long as it’s red! )  and lastly, black double deckers which will take you on a Ghost Tour. The icing on the cake was a sighting of Braveheart! He was having some fun with some young lads and I thought he hadn’t spotted me but … I was wrong!

 

 

       

The Royal Mile is full of shops, bars, cafés and beautiful traditional buildings. At the bottom end is the Palace of Holyroodhouse, where I believe the Queen is in residence for a week or so every year, performing official duties. Behind the Palace is Holyrood Park – again, if you’re feeling energetic you can walk up to Arthur’s Seat, an old volcano where – I’m told! – you get some great views across the city.

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You can take tea at the Palace Café and, suitably refreshed, wander round Queen’s Gallery or marvel at the interesting Scottish Parliament Building. Designed by catalán architect, Enric Miralles in 1999 and opened by the Queen in 2004, it caused some controversy when it was built. Personally, I loved the design but it differed radically from the traditional buildings around it so I can understand why opinion was split.

       

The weather in Edinburgh wasn’t brilliant – quite cold and damp, so we decided to spend a couple of hours on the wettest day at the National Museum. As it turned out, it was quite interesting because the Scots were an enterprising bunch of engineers and industrialists – it’s not every museum that boasts a full size locomotive or a whisky still!

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The other iconic structure that is definitely worth going to see is the Forth Bridge – as emblematic of Scotland as the kilt or the bagpipes. We took the short train ride  to see this familiar sight close up – everyone has seen it in photos or on television, even if they have never been to Scotland – it is legendary as the bridge that never stopped having to be painted! Of course, then someone invented a special striking red coloured coating that didn’t have to be continually replaced – so that was a relief! The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco is the same colour so they must use the same stuff!

We discovered that there are in fact three Forth Bridges –  a road bridge (suspension design) and a rail bridge (cantilever design) and now a third – a new road bridge, still under construction, which will be a cable stayed design (don’t ask me, I don’t know the difference!)

The bridges span the Forth estuary and are indeed an impressive sight. The little town of South Queensferry lies between them, with its toy boats and life boat station – reminiscent of small Welsh seaside towns on a drizzly, damp weekend.

   

I enjoyed my trip to Edinburgh and will go back some day to see more of Scotland. By sheer coincidence another iconic piece of engineering was passing through our local railway station on the day I travelled north –  the Flying Scotsman!!

 

Hark, when the night is falling, Hear, hear, the pipes are calling……..

We all have preconceptions of a place and its people before we go there, based on things we learned at school, television programmes, books we’ve read, sports we follow or even films we’ve watched.

Take Scotland. I’ve never been there but I know all about it ! How?

Well……………………………

at every New Year’s Eve party – even south of the border- I’ve linked hands with people and belted out a rousing chorus of ‘Auld Lang Syne , penned originally by Scottish poet Rabbie Burns, who died quite young but not before writing some of our best loved poems.

I’ve watched the film ‘Braveheart’ (three times!) It stars Mel Gibson. Who can forget his blue warpaint as he galloped across the Scottish countryside as William Wallace, the fearless leader of the Wars of Scottish Independence.

The real Wallace met a grisly end of course, hanged, drawn and quartered as he was, but let’s not dwell on that.

 

I’ve seen documentaries about the breathtaking Scottish landscape. Scotland is divided diagonally NE to SW into the Highlands and Lowlands. The Highlands lay claim to Britain’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis – standing at 1,344 metres above sea level –  in global terms not much more than a hill – after all,  Mount Everest is 8,848 metres high , Mount Toubkal in the Atlas range measures 4,165, and even Spain easily beats it with Torre de Cerredo in the Picos de Europa at 2,650 metres  and Aneto in the Pyrennes at 3, 404 metres.

But what mountains anywhere all have in common is the exciting (not to say hare-brained!) range of winter sports that have grown up around them and Scotland has its fair share of those, and also the more sedate sport of curling – and they’re not half bad at it -remember the 2014 Winter Olympics ?  Eve Muirhead captained the Great Britain team to a bronze medal.

Highland Games – one of my earliest memories of anything Scottish is watching a TV programme (I was about 8 at the time). I was flabbergasted to see a huge bear of a man dressed in a skirt and vest, every muscle straining and every vein bulging as he hoisted the end of a tree trunk skyward and it fell with a crash – he was obviously delighted at the outcome but what was he doing?    I later learned that he was ‘tossing the caber’ – this was one of the Herculean tasks participants of the Highland Games were required to perform; at least this particular task was not just to show off the contestants’ strength – in lumber jacking they sometimes needed to toss logs across narrow chasms to cross them.

I’ve read that ……there’s lots of incredible wildlife up there – 70 % of Scotland’s population live in the Lowlands, leaving the Highlands to creatures like grouse (the capercaillie being the largest of them) red deer, which no longer have any natural predators and so numbers now require ‘managing’ by us humans (oh, no!) and all manner of sea birds such as gannet, puffin and the majestic white tailed eagle  – Mull is a good place to see those, I’m told.

 

And if you venture out onto the water you might see dolphins, seals, even basking sharks – and if you’re really lucky – there’s Nessie – the Loch Ness Monster.

I’ve worn a tartan kilt  and  – who hasn’t heard a rousing band of Scottish pipers at a military tattoo?   Immaculate down to the last detail, marching resolutely  in perfect time or marking time outside the gates to some castle or other, tartan kilts swaying, and sooner or later you know they’ll play the evocative  ‘Scotland the Brave’ whose stirring lyrics and haunting pipes would reduce anyone to tears, Scottish or not.

 

Scottish gastronomy – well, for me it’s porridge, haggis and whisky! I love porridge, can pass on the haggis, though I’m not averse to a bit of offal, but I don’t like whisky  – or know anything about it, even though it is legendary north of the border. I understand there are literally hundreds of distilleries in Scotland, although I’m not sure how many are still Scottish owned (like every other industry on these islands some distillery owners have been forced to close or sell out to foreign companies  –  I believe Bacardi has taken over some distilleries – is nothing sacred!!) I’m sure there’s more to Scottish cuisine than this (Italian fish ‘n’ chips, for example, if you see what I mean!) but nothing comes to mind.

But famous Scots, well, that’s a different story. I’ve already mentioned two – Rabbie Burns and William Wallace, but what about other popular heroes? There’s Stephen Hendry, snooker ace, Billy Connolly AKA The Big Yin, who played John Brown in the film Mrs. Brown opposite Judi Dench’s Queen Victoria.  The story goes that John Brown, who started off as a humble gillie and servant on the Balmoral estate, became a  source of great comfort to the Queen whilst she was grieving for her dear departed, Prince Albert. And a source of great DIScomfort to those around her as they deemed his friendship inappropriate. Connolly proved his worth as an actor in that film. Another literary figure was Sir Walter Scott, the historical novelist, who was a contemporary of Rabbie Burns, a few years younger. His works include ‘Ivanhoe’ – ring a bell? Set in the Middle Ages – knights, crusades and all that,  you know.

And what of the Scottish character. Anecdotally,  the Scots are said to be ‘careful with their money’. It’s also said that the Scottish accent is one of the most popular and that people more readily trust a Scot in business negotiations.  I don’t know enough Scots well enough to comment. My Spanish husband worked with lots and their accent proved impenetrable to him. On the occasions he could get someone else to interpret he said they had a great sense of humour.

My favourite Scot?  Well, at the moment I think it’s Paolo Nutini –

 

obviously, descended from Italian immigrants and didn’t fancy going into the family business. I’m assuming that’s his real name, of course, it could be Alistair Stewart, but that wouldn’t matter – I’d still like his songs.

For me it would be a shame if Scotland became independent, not for any clearly defined political reason – simply because I ascribe to the ‘United we stand, divided we fall’ philosophy – if the U.K. fragments into 4 small states it would be like a family of 4 separating  and not seeing each other again – all four members would be weaker and poorer in every way.

I’m looking forward to my trip to Scotland – I feel my education is sadly lacking !! Time to make amends.

 

Water Works in Barcelona

My recent trip to Barcelona featured ‘water‘ in a variety of forms:

Nemo3 tiburoneelFirst of all I went to the aquarium to see its weird and wonderful residents, for whom water is, of course, their natural environment.

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Then a stroll round the marina (not quite as easy to enjoy as it used to be due to the sturdy metal security fence that was put round it a while ago).marina

Next a walk along the city beach front in La Barceloneta, looking a lot smarter these days to keep pace with the Hotel W, rising – seemingly – out of the sea, sleek and shiny and majestic – and expensive! – hotelW,  and costing around 220 euros a night. But us ordinary mortals can still enjoy the simple pleasures – paddling in the sea – it’s certainly a good way to cool off from the heat wave that has swept through most of Spain this summer, with sweltering temperatures of 40º plus from Madrid down to Sevilla.

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thermoThis is the giant thermometer in Portal de l’ Angel, just down the road from Plaza de Cataluña in the centre of Barcelona, marking 29 º – positively chilly in comparison, you might think – but this was taken at 10 o’clock at night – so not much respite even after sundown!

Next it was time for a turn round Ciutadella Park , which this year has attracted a bunch of Bob Marley lookalikes, lounging on the grass and occasionally getting to their feet, wreathed in clouds of smoke (no idea what that is!)  to sing a bit of reggae  (other years it’s been bongo drummers or fitness instructors bellowing at their charges – prefer the reggae myself.) The park is a great place for locals and tourists alike to ‘tomar el fresco’ – take the cooler evening air –  and get a bit of exercise, if you must! It’s only a small park but it has everything you’d expect – benches, flowers, shade, ice cream stalls, a few oddballs, but best of all a lake with some very  exuberant fountains, shooting sprays of cooling water up into the air.

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Continuing with the water theme, one day we took up an online offer to loll by the pool at the plush Catalonia Barcelona Plaza hotel, near Montjuic. They were offering non residents access to the swimming pool on their  fantastic, panoramic roof terrace (four poster sunbeds, no less!) and some great photo opportunities from a vantage point high in the sky. fromhotel2towerfromHotel1though I don’t suppose they are too keen on the neighbour who provided the view belowshanty   – if you look carefully, you will notice quite a lot of buildings in Barcelona with shanties like this one on the flat roof  – of course, you’re not usually high enough to see them but they’re there, and unfortunately for the powers that be, once they’ve been there long enough they acquire squatters’ rights and are very difficult to shift. This one’s definitely got an air of defiance about it – maybe the occupier is another victim of the ‘crisis’ – or maybe he’s an ex-bank manager!

I stayed with the water theme for the middle weekend of my stay but spent it ‘down country’ in Deltebre – a village in the Ebro Delta, about 2 hours train  ride south of the capital, in an area which produces a lot of the rice grown in Spain – Valencia is the other main rice growing area.

The Ebro delta is a refuge for many species of  water fowl and, as it turns out, THOUSANDS of dragonflies!  I was hoping to see more birds but we would have needed to stay longer and plan better – I realised that it takes a determined and knowledgeable guide  to track down the more spectacular breeds  – so next time I’ll go prepared.

Nonetheless, it is a beautiful area away from the madding crowds.

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Countdown to 2026 and the completion of La Sagrada Familia

The basilica of the Sagrada Familia was one of the first places I visited in Spain way back in 1969. It was and still is, a ‘must see’ on any excursion to Barcelona. It’s easily the most unusual church you’ll  ever see and, despite the fact that it’s STILL unfinished, it’s a fantastic sight.

Rumour has it that it’s due for completion in 2026 to coincide with the centenary of Gaudí’s death – a more realistic estimation, according to some, is 2028.

Most people know at least two facts about Antoni Gaudí, the catalán architect  – 1) that the Sagrada Familia is his magnum opus and 2) that he was killed by a tram. He was, of course, responsible for many other great constructions, most of them in  Barcelona – like the Casa Batlló in the beautiful thoroughfare of El Paseo de Gracia, or Parc Güell, inspired, as are all his works, by his love of natural forms.

León boasts two of his creations – the Casa Botines and the Palacio Episcopal de Astorga and in Comillas, Cantabria, stands El Capricho. a summer house of oriental design, commissioned by Máximo Díaz de Quijano and just as wacky and beautiful as all Gaudí’s other designs.

At the time of Gaudí’s death the construction of the Sagrada Familia had really only just got underway. His plans were complicated, inspired and ambitious, but it seems his disciples were more than willing to continue his work, although controversy has always surrounded their interpretation of his designs. Vociferous critics claim that what we now see deviates from his ideas and, as the original plans seem to have been lost or destroyed, it’s difficult to know if that’s right.

Personally, I prefer the original  art nouveau, free, organic  style, with its naturalistic forms to the stark and angular style of, say, the Passion Façade.

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If you’re lucky enough to find yourself staring up at this magnificent building take a few minutes to study it – the more you look the more you see:  figures, animals, plants all interwoven to create a masterpiece of such incredible detail and workmanship.

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Some of the colours used in the interior are more gaudy than Gaudí  – but whatever you think of it you won’t forget it!

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In 2010 the nave of the church, which had been open to the elements,  was covered and a magnificent organ installed. This allowed it’s consecration by Pope Benedict XV1 at a ceremony on November 7th, attended by thousands. Religious ceremonies could now be conducted. Ignoring the ever present cranes and scaffolding,  the most striking thing about the church are the many spires – they dominate the skyline and from inside afford an unrivalled view across the city.  Gaudí wanted 18 spires – 12 to represent the Apostles, 1 for the Virgin Mary, 4 for the Evangelists and the tallest for Jesus Christ.  The spires are also bell towers and Gaudí had done some very specific studies of the acoustics to get the sound of the bells just right – he thought of everything, didn’t he?

He didn’t think of the AVE, though. Around 2009, much to the consternation of those responsible for the Sagrada Familia, it was revealed that the engineers developing the expansion of the AVE network (Spain’s high speed train) planned to construct an underground tunnel  at the Barcelona end of the line between Madrid and Barcelona, very close to the Sagrada Familia, or even right underneath it! Now, wouldn’t that be ironic? After spending more than a century trying to finish the building, that it should be undermined – quite literally –  by a machine not unlike the one that had finished poor old Gaudí off all those years ago! ! Would the Sagrada Familia disappear in a cloud of dust – reduced to a pile of rubble by the AVE as it  whistled by at 350 kilometres an hour on it’s way to France!!

Let’s hope that doesn’t happen! To see how the church will eventually look go to :

 

Winter Wonderland

Cheesy title but very apt! And I have the photos to prove it!
We set sail from Liverpool on a damp and drizzly November afternoon and two – no, almost three days – later docked in a town called Ålesund, just above the lumpy, expensive bit of Norway. We felt quite at home here:

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Don’t know whether this fisherman, sitting here

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like a little garden gnome,  just happened to be here or he’d timed his visit to try and sell us some fish for tea.

Ålesund boasts some beautiful Art Nouveau architecture and was a gentle introduction of things to come.

But before all that, on Nov 11th the Cruise Director led a Remembrance Day Service invited us to join him to float a wreath of poppies out onto the ocean to remember all those who perished in the 1914-18 war. There is a great community spirit on board this ship – as the captain reminded us every day in his report,  you’re exposed to many dangers at sea and you must be able to depend on each other.

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Onward and northward, but before we reached our next destination I had a chance to wander round our home for the next two weeks – the impressive cruise liner ‘Boudicca’.

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A few specs: she has 462 cabins, length 205 metres, beam 25.20 metres, has a maximum speed of 18.5 knots, can accommodate 880 passengers and 364 crew and in charge of all this was Captain Lars Juel Kjeldsen, a Dane with a great sense of humour and whose intonation seemed to go up and down as much the ship. Most of the crew were from the Philippines and I didn’t envy the ones who had to brave the icy wind to paint, clean, drop or weigh anchor and do other ‘shippy stuff’ to maintain this immaculate vessel.

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We awoke on our 6th day on board to a view of Tromso, a bigger more industrial looking place

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but where I would get the chance to do what I was most looking forward to – go husky sledding! dogs4We travelled to the Wilderness Centre to meet the dogs – all 300 of them, chained to their kennels on stilts, each with a flat, snow covered roof which they love to sit on – each sled had eight dogs – smaller than I’d expected but these were the marathon runners of the husky world. The lead dog is female (naturally!)  and as soon as they saw us they set up howling and barking in unison – excited to be off!!

dogs1They are very competitive animals and s they pulled us along – 2 people to a sled, plus musher of course, they tried to overtake each other whenever they could. Our musher ran alongside on the slightly uphill, straight bits –  to keep warm – or so he said! As we rounded the last bend the view was breath taking – a beautiful lake edged with snow capped mountains bathed in a surreal pink glow (it was around 11 am by then – must be the sunrise!)

dogs3That evening we had a taste of the indigenous Sami culture at a concert held in the Arctic Cathedral, a church whose exterior is reminiscent of the Sidney Opera House and whose interior boasts a striking triangular stained glass window.

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The acoustics were exceptional and allowed us to enjoy the haunting sounds produced by just three people –  a female vocalist, a flautist and an organist.

By now we were experiencing minus zero temperatures and still going north. In Alta, which is about as far north as you can go in Norway , it was -9º and we were about 250 miles inside the Arctic Circle – brass monkey territory and no mistake!

Why were we there? to see the Northern Lights of course! and did we see them?  We sure did. In fact, those who braved the freezing temperatures on deck saw them four or five times in various colours and shapes without needing to disembark at all, but I think I speak for most people when I say we relied on the ship’s photographer for some decent shots of them.

Nevertheless, we set off to a Sami settlement, togged up to the eyeballs in umpteen layers of thermals, equipped with cameras and tripods to see if we could capture the magic. Our trip organiser promised a roaring fire inside a lavvo (big Sami tepee type tent), lots of hot chocolate and cake and …there the promises ended! He wouldn’t commit himself any further, the lights being a natural phenomenon and a bit on the unreliable side) but the trip was a resounding success and we oohhed and aahhed at the changing shapes above us in the night sky – absolutely stunning! But I still didn’t get any pictures – frostbite – yes!

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Without the shelter of this tent and the fire and hot drinks there would have been a lot of unhappy campers!

Of course, in between trips we had delicious food prepared for us on board

BritishNightas well as some entertaining demonstrations and lectures – the chef responsible for these vegetable carvings said he gets his inspiration from cartoons.

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And to work off all that food you could – if you so desired – jog, go to the gym (funny! never found that!) learn to dance, play deck games or go for a brisk walk.

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windy

Bit of a head wind here!

No swimming though! There was a pool but it was empty – ‘elf and safety, see?

pool

Thankfully, on day 10 of our holiday we turned south, heading for the Lofoten Islands – I was beginning to see that Norway has an awful lot of tiny islands, some inhabited and some just with a flashing beacon on them so your unsuspecting seafarer doesn’t bump into them in the twilight!

beacon1

The bigger ones are linked by bridges or tunnels and there are brightly painted houses on many of them where the Norwegians spend their summer holidays.

houses2

Warmed by the Gulf stream the Lofoten Islands felt much milder and – stop press! we saw no snow there! We were back to plus 9º – positively balmy!

LofotonIs

Our last port of call was Kristiansund, on the mainland, where again the temperature was allegedly 9º,  but it felt a lot colder. Kristiansund’s wealth is based on the oil industry – and even an oil rig looks attractive in that strange pink and orange half light they call sunset.

oilrig

Our last excursion was along the Atlantic Road – a spectacular stretch of highway which was constructed to link island communities and financed by tolls (that’s tolls, not trolls!) We experienced it when the water was calm but photos show that it can be an exciting journey sometimes.

atlanticrd3

atlanticRd2

It also provided an interesting toilet stop! The door is built into this unusual wall and is quite difficult to see at first.

toilet2 The Norwegians are also very eco-minded and a long path built around the hillside at the ‘pit-stop’ is made from recycled rubber.

path

 

StaveCrossOn our way home we visited a stave church – a traditional wooden church which takes its name from the load bearing posts used in its construction. Our guide, pictured below was wearing wrist muffs she had had made from the  coat of her elk hound woven with sheeps’ wool which along with three layers of thermal underwear,  she said kept her toasty warm – a must here as the church is not heated – they attribute its high state of preservation to that – and hand out blankets to visitors instead!

It was a beautiful sunny day, the views across the nearby lake were stunning and to top it all, a sea eagle gave us a fly past – apparently, people get them in their gardens like we get robins or finches!

StaveGuide StaveLake

StaveOutside

A tradition I love on board a cruise ship is the sailaway. People gather at the bow (or the stern, depending on which has the more interesting view)of the ship to watch as the crew cast off and we all take in the surroundings one last time.  The last images are of Kristiansund and the sunsets that I saw along the way. The captain informed us that the ship would be clearing the bridge in the picture below by a couple of feet – it’s a shame we couldn’t be on the ship’s bridge to see it !

bridge2

bridge1

boat1

sunset1    yellowboat

arriving

island

sunset1

sunset2

sailboat1

 

 

 

Norway here we come!

What a washout this Bank Holiday has been – raining all day!

pic2 The slugs are out to play at least!!

Here’s one, travelling VERY SLOWLY, across the top of my kitchen window.

 

 

To distract myself from the dismal weather I have started to research my next holiday – in November we’re going on a cruise up the Norwegian coast so I thought I’d do a bit of preparation. Surprisingly, I’ve even found a couple of Norwegian speakers in this backwater so I’ve been learning my numbers and how to say ‘How much?!!’ I pride myself at being quite good at languages but this one does seem quite complicated – apart from the fact that there are apparently three different versions of Norwegian!

My travelling companion just likes going on cruises, but personally I have two reasons for going to Norway – to see the Northern Lights and to see some huskies in action. I think we’d have to join an icebreaker to see a polar bear but we do get to see some huskies (and probably the odd reindeer). Advice from photography friends is to get a tripod so I’ll be investing in one of those. I’ve also read all the tips about how to get the best shots but this fantastic natural light show must be one of the most photographed phenomena in the world – still – you never know! I might get lucky!

My knowledge of Norwegian geography is non existent, for example,  I didn’t realise that Norway shares a tiny bit of its border with Russia. But I will soon know more –  we’ll be  stopping off at Kristiansund, Alta, Tromso, the Lofoten Islands and Alesund – not necessarily in that order! – so watch this space and prepare to be amazed by some great photos.