Cruising the Norwegian Fjords

One country I needed to cross off my list was Norway.  I’d been to the other Scandinavian countries and this was the only one I was missing.  When Chris booked a Fjord cruise for us, well, it was perfect!  It was a cruise we’d both wanted to go on and with a good deal – he couldn’t resist.  Travelling with an ex, of course, has a set of unique circumstances but not only is Chris my ex, but one of my closest friends and so we still really enjoy spending time together and doing one of the things we both love – traveling.   Since the divorce I haven’t travelled as much (except a really AWFUL trip to Iceland – that we never mention) and so I was really looking forward to getting away. 

The night before we left we dropped Sugar off at the new (fabulous) boarders and settled in to watch the best TV of the year – Eurovision!  That’s a whole post on its own.  We leisurely headed to Southampton the next day in time to board the ship around 3:00.  Even though I’ve cruised twice before, I don’t think I ever get used to how big the ship is.  When we first saw it, it was pretty amazing.  Since it was run by Norwegian Cruise Lines, I took for granted it was a Norwegian Cruise Line (duh!??!).  I was pleasantly surprised to find it was an American cruise line which made the ship even better – a cruise and a taste of home – perfect!  Chris got an unlimited drinks package in the cruise deal so we indulged in Pina Colada’s (non-alcoholic of course) and sat on deck in the lovely sun waiting for us to head North.  It really was a beautifully sunny day.  Its always fun and exciting to explore the ship.  Its like a maze full of restaurants, shops, arcades, and bars.  I always think I’ll never find my way around when we first leave, and by the end of the cruise you know where everything is.   This ship, The Jade, was FAR larger than the other 2 ships we’ve cruised on before.  It always takes me a while to acclimate to the rocking of the ship but I was pleasantly surprised that my sea-sickness was at a minimum during this cruise (except through some particularly rough sea).

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Our first full day was a day at sea.  I was fully prepared with a good book (what I THOUGHT was a good book), textbooks and notebooks full of study material for my final essay for one of my University classes that was due a day after I got home, laptop, tablet full of games, podcasts, and music.  I learned my lesson from being bored on the Marco Polo Ship.  This ship was excellent and was full of activities for all ages and things to do, but I was content to sit in the sunshine and watch the world go by.

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Our first port was Stavanger.  To be honest I had no idea what to expect.  I didn’t do much research like I usually do before I travel and was just going to take things as they came.  We decided to do our old favourite – the hop on hop off bus.  They crammed us on like sardines for the first route of the day.  After a sunny day at sea the day before, it only took one look up to see that on this day we wouldn’t see a hint of the sun… and we didn’t.  We had LOADS of rain.  Off of the bus we took cover in an old church, which turned out to be a good choice.  It was ornate and the alter was unlike any I’d ever seen (and I’ve seen a lot of old church alters after 11 years in England!). 

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We could only sit in the church for so long with so many other things to see so we braved the rain and headed out.  The village centre was pretty small so we just walked.  We looked at the market (full of tourist bait) and saw a circular building on a hill so we headed towards it.  At one point as we were sitting down for a rest, fortune smiled on me when I decided to see if there was a Pandora shop and there was one literally 5 steps from where we were sitting.  So of course, I HAD to get a charm for my bracelet (thanks Chris) and we continued on to the building on the hill.  Chris braved the cobbled street, but with my ankle I kept it safe utilizing the steps.  We arrived at the top to find… well… a circular brink building of no particular interest.  There was a plaque on it but neither of us knew why it was important – but there was a good view from all the way up there.  We headed back down the back streets just taking everything in. 

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Chris found where the bus stop was (I still don’t completely trust his sense of direction even though I REALLY should, 99.9% of the time he is exactly right and I am waaaaaaaay off).  We got on the bus and went and saw some older buildings…

**** I REALIZE I AM COMPLETELY VAGUE WITH THE NAMES OF THE PLACES WE’VE VISITED – IF YOU’D LIKE TO KNOW THE NAMES AND MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THE PLACES WE SAW, CHRIS BLOG IS GREAT WITH THE DETAILS OF THE TRIP – CHECK IT OUT (I’M REFERENCING IT AS WE SPEAK, UH, TYPE). ****

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We got back to the ship with a little time to look around.  Chris looked for some souvenirs and I walked down the street to take some pictures of the houses along the waterfront.  The tour guide said that the houses on that stretch of road keep their curtains open and have a lot of traditional decoration for people to see how they live.  I didn’t get that far down the road – it started to pour with rain again.

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As we sailed away there were people putting their heads out of their windows waving and waving flags.  It was a lovely send off!  We were headed to the fjords next.  This was one of the nights we ran into some pretty rough sea and even Chris suffered with some sea-sickness.  With such a big boat you could really feel it listing back and forth – it was a bit unsettling, but I never felt unsafe or in danger, just not my favourite feeling. 

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Nothing could have prepared me for the view that we woke up to in Skjolden.  We had an inside room, which means we have no windows.  Our first view is when we walk out onto the deck.  This day we walked out to this….

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When you looked up all you could see were cliffs, clouds, and green and when you looked down you could see…

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It was Norway’s National Day and there was a band and the village all came out to greet us dressed in their traditional clothing, handing out flags as we got off the ship.  It was a quaint, charming welcome!  There was no hop on hop off bus here, so we did an excursion from the cruise line.  We got on a coach and started the climb up the mountain.  Some of the roads were narrow, and looking at the sheer drop out of the window I had to remind myself that they do this all the time – still scary though!

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The church was closed to visitors because they were having services for the National Day.  The people were so friendly and patient with people wanting to take pictures of them.  When we got back from the excursion we still had half a day left, so we walked along the edge of the water to the village centre.  Everything was closed because of the holiday, but we got to see some traditional homes and just take in the most beautiful scenery I’ve seen in a LONG time.  As we travelled, throughout the whole cruise, I can see why there are so many fairy-tales and folklore about trolls centred around this area – its magical!

It was so calming cruising through the fjords.  They are unlike anything I’ve ever seen and the water is like glass.  Waterfalls are every where you look.  There are little homes dotted along the coast line.  It makes me wonder how people live and thrive in such remote places, but part of me dreams of living a life like that.   The ship continued to impress with is great food and really entertaining shows. 

The next stop was Alesund.  This wasn’t a fjord, but a port town.  We got on the hop on hop off bus and headed up to the top of a very steep mountain.  We had clear skies and usually we’d do the whole route once and decide where to stop, but we didn’t know how long we’d have clear skies so we got off at this stop.  The view was breath-taking!  The top also had some old WWII bunkers, which seems like a pretty good place to have one, but it surprised me that even in this place there were effects of WWII.

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We got back on the bus and went and looked at an old church and the graveyard.  Even though it was a pretty big town, it still seemed pretty small and quaint. 

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We found our way back to the ship with only a minor disagreement (okay a bit of an argument) about directions and I only bring this up because although Chris STILL thinks he was right, well I think I am.  But, if the past is anything to go by Chris was probably right because it was all about how to get back to the ship. We went to a grocery shop to look at all the strange and usual food and to buy more chocolate than necessary.

When we leave the ports there are so many thing to see and beauty to take in.  You don’t know what way to look or what to focus on.

Next stop – Geiranger.  We had to amend the excursion because one of the roads that we were supposed to go on was still blocked with snow.  That didn’t matter, I knew the minute I took a step onto the deck we’d be spoiled with scenery no matter where we went.  We got on the coach and continued up another mountain with some of the most hairpin, sheer drop roads, I’ve ever experienced.  I just kept thinking – the driver knows what he’s doing.  And he really did.  We first stopped at a frozen lake.  The tour guide said, as we were getting out of the coach, “Don’t go far out its very deep and we don’t know how thick the ice is”.” Ummmmm, okay.  This Utah girl was pretty steady on her feet in the snow compared to some of the other people and the view was indescribable.  It was a frozen lake, but the sun was shining, and at the same time the fog was rolling in.  Beautiful.  The coach parked next to the snow bank so we could see how deep it still was.  One of the things that surprised me was that just when you think that there could be no more liveable areas, you’d stumble upon another house.  It is crazy some of the conditions the people live in.  I cant imagine it!

20170519_091335910_iOSThere are houses there!

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On the way down from the lake, we stopped to take pictures of the Geiranger Fjord.  It was spectacular (I’m going to run out of adjectives, I’m going to need a thesaurus soon!).  We went to the other side of the fjord and went to a road with 10 hairpin turns.  It was hairy at points!  We stopped at another look out where you could see the whole fjord and the seven sisters waterfalls.  Back at the port we stopped at the shop and tried reindeer jerky, took pictures with a massive troll and headed back onto the ship.  I went to find a coveted seat on the deck with the best view.  I finally got 2 seats at a table right by the railing and then had to go inside because it was such a nice sunny day that I was getting sun burned!  We were lucky on the trip that we had pretty great weather.  Several tour guides said how lucky we were and that the groups the day before couldn’t see the view for the fog/rain. Chris stayed out on the deck and got some pretty amazing pictures – its hard to pick just a few!

Our last stop was Bergen.  We didn’t have a great time at this stop.  Once again they packed us on the coach and that started things off bad.  The weather was kind of blah (but no rain which is VERY rare), and we were both tired.  We did the hop on hop off bus stop but there wasn’t too much to see that was very different from our other non-fjord stops.  We went to the fish market and I was determined to have salmon right from the sea and I had been hearing about Norwegian strawberries off and on and when Rick Steves suggested them I was sold!  Luckily at the market they had some and they were some of the best I’ve ever had.  I also tried Cloudberry jam.  After struggling through the tourist shops we stopped for fish.  I got salmon and king crab and Chris got cod (he thought that was a safe choice, little did he know they barely cook it).  It was okay but, I didn’t quite know how to get into the crab very well and the salmon was lovely but garnished with some strange things.  Needless to say it wasn’t the best money spent on the trip (and it was VERY pricey!!!!).

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The next day was our last day and was a full day at sea.  It was really relaxing.  Chris spent a lot of time on the deck but it was too cold for me so I spent most of my time that day (and really, anytime on the ship – in the library.  It had big windows and classical music playing quietly and it was super quiet).  It was Sunday and I was falling asleep working on my school work and I looked on the book case for ‘take one, leave one’ and saw a Book of Mormon so I read, in a pretty nice setting!  Well done to the people who thought to leave it – missionary work done!

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We were in constant awe of how long it stayed light at night!

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The last night they had a Broadway show and I loved it!  We were given a beautiful sunset and I loaded up on the last of the American bacon, self serve all you can eat ice cream cones, and unlimited pina colada’s.

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A great summing up of our time together on this holiday!

We got home to several text messages about work and University essays due – that was reality with a hard landing!  It was a really nice holiday.  I would HIGHLY recommend Norwegian Cruise Lines, by far the best I’ve been on.  The fjords are something that you wont regret seeing and wont ever forget.  I’m so lucky to have been able to go.  Let me just get sappy for a minute – Chris and I didn’t have a perfect marriage and we both have many regrets about things that happened during that time.  But one thing that I don’t regret and will never be able to pay back is the fact that Chris, quite literally, gave me the world.  The things I’ve experienced and the places I’ve seen have been a gift, that I’m forever grateful for. 

Luckily one of the perks of staying friends is that we can continue to travel together  – we’ll see where the wind takes us next!  

Finally Vienna (and Budapest, Brno, and Bratislava)

A few weeks after I got back from Poland, Chris and I had planned to visit Vienna.  It was a place that we’d always wanted to visit and what better time then Christmas.  Chris got a bit overly-ambitious and also planned for us to see Budapest, Hungary – Brno, Czech Republic – and – Bratislava, Slovakia.  This meant we’d see a lot more places and Christmas markets, but that I’d also be driving a lot more.  I just prayed that it wasn’t bad weather.  Like the previous post I’ll be doing my Top Ten (because I’m a slacker).  If you want more detail then you can always check Chris’ blog posts.

Vienna (and its neighbours) Top Ten

1.  Budapest, Hungary

I have to say this was my favourite part of this visit even though it was FREEZING!  We caught the train early in the morning and spent the day in Budapest.  We got to explore LOTS of Christmas markets and it was a very picturesque city.  I could have probably spent more time there (I didn’t get to see the Synagogue – not pointing any fingers….. Chris).  We took the City Sightseeing Tour, which included all the different routes and boats and everything.  We stuck to the first line and after 45 minutes on the open top of the bus, we pealed ourselves from the frozen seats and got out to see the market.  But it was a beautiful city!

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2.  Driving Through the Countryside

We decided on one day we’d visit the Czech Republic and Slovakia.  It sounds like a lot, but they were all very close and only a few hours at the most away.  I was so glad that it was nice weather.  It was foggy, which kind of ruins sightseeing while driving (and pictures), but that cleared and led to some off track sights and beautiful countryside.  Oh by the way, check your rental car for the Vignette before you pay for a new one for only a few hours – right Chris?

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Ode to Conchita Wurst (said in a think Austrian accent – by me). 

No idea who she is?  Well, SHAME!

 

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3.  Brno, Czech Republic

After finally parking the car in what might have been the tiniest car park ever (ever mindful of the rental deposit), we took a nice walk to the town centre to see the Christmas market.  Chris and I both remarked about how strange it is that you can cross a border (Austria to the Czech Republic) and immediately see the influence of the Soviet Era.  It was a quaint little market with a live nativity lots of little stalls and yummy food.  I really like the smaller markets, they are less commercial and have a lot more atmosphere. 

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4.  Bratislava, Slovakia

This little town was suggested by a wonderful friend when we once had a conversation about the places we have loved to visit.  I knew with her suggestion we couldn’t go wrong planning in a visit.  Vienna is only 30 minutes away and so we added this gem to our visit.  I wasn’t disappointed it was a lovely little town, one that I’d never visit otherwise, but well worth it.  We found a place to park just as the sun was setting so we didn’t get to see a lot of the scenery.  We walked past a little preview of a market and followed the crowds to a huge market!  Like most, it was in the shadow of an old church.  We walked around the stalls and through the Old Town.  I would love to go back here too!  A few hours wasn’t enough.

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5.  Schonbrunn Palace

The next day we had the whole day to spend in Vienna.  Unfortunately it was raining…. a lot.  Luckily we made it to the Schonbrunn Palace before it started to pour.  Chris really wanted to visit here because he’d seen in on TV.  It was spectacular!  We didn’t know it but, we got a Christmas market to boot!  It was pretty packed with school trips and LOTS of tourists.  It was quite the setting.  It may be the one place in Vienna I’d like to go back and see.

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6.  Vienna

I cant do a top ten of Vienna without adding Vienna, can I?  To be honest it wasn’t my favourite place ever.  I don’t think that helped that it was freezing and absolutely pouring down!  Would I pay to go again, no.  Would I go if someone paid for me, yes.  I am sure it has so much more to offer than what I got to see.  But, in-between the downpours I did see some lovely architecture and it is really nice to be completely surrounded by history.  Later that evening after drying off we headed to a concert we had tickets to.  We stopped by another market and, luckily it had stopped raining.  The market was WAY to commercial for my liking but it was a nice setting.  We tried Kinderpunch (the non-alcholic version of their version of mulled wine).  It was really nice and we even got a free mug! (Okay, not free they charge you a lot for the drink). 

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Did I mention it was raining… a lot…

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Equality street signs – I loved these.  They were left from when Vienna hosted Eurovision earlier in the year.

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7.  Audio Tour by Rick Steves

I find it crazy that Chris doesn’t know who Rick Steves is.  I spent many Saturday morning with him when I was growing up (maybe that’s what ignited my wanderlust).  I guess he is just an American treasure.  Anyway, this American treasure has an app to download free walking tours around Europe.  I found one for Vienna and decided that it was a great idea.  Unfortunately the rain, cold, and Chris had other ideas.  I was chuckling to myself during the first part at all of his lame jokes (they didn’t translate for Chris).  Before we turned it off and went to seek cover, he took us to an amazing memorial for WWII.  It was out of the way of the bus tour so I’m glad Rick (yeah, we’re on a first name basis – well at least I am) helped me find it.  From Chris Blog:

It is located in the triangle of Augustinerstraße, Fürichgasse and Tegetthoffstraße.

There are 4 carved granite columns (the granite comes from the Mauthausen Concentration Camp near Linz in Austria). Behind and to the middle of 2 of the columns is a cast iron statue of a Jew that was forced to clean Anti-Nazi slogans from the streets of Vienna afterAnschluss. This statue showed just how much the Nazi’s were prepared to degrade and humiliate the Jews and those not of the Aryan race.

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8.  Strauss “Concert”

While we were waiting for the sightseeing bus, we got accosted by a man dressed like Strauss (or that style) telling us about a concert that night full of Strauss and Mozart.  Chris was sold at the word Strauss (his favourite composer) and I was sold (well I was sold before we even met the guy – I was looking at tickets the night before) by the word Opera.  We got to the Palace Auersperg and got to see a semi-professional concert.  It was really beautiful, but don’t believe the guy when he says he’s giving you a deal because he only has a few seats left.  There was a great mix of ballet, instrumental, and opera.  The venue made it even more impressive.  We couldn’t record anything or take pictures during the show, so you’ll have to just take my word for it.  Worth the money?  Not really but if you love Strauss or Mozart you wont be disappointed. 

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9. and 10.  The FOOD

Okay, lets just pretend that I had 10 things I loved from this trip.  After looking through all the pictures there is one thing that is highlighted more than any other – the food.  The markets were full of unique food and I don’t think we’ve ever tried so much of it!  So here are some of the things we got to try.

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