Norway - the hard yards

Trip Start Mar 05, 2008
Trip End Ongoing

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Monday, May 26, 2008

Sunday 11Th May: Norway- The hard yards

When i first sat down to plan this overland trip it would have been much easier and certainly much cheaper to have bused from London to Poland or the Cheq Republic and start the eastern European adventure from there but Norway has always held a facination for me and was a country i was determined to visit, thus the scandanavian section was spawned. During the coach trip from Gotenburg i had managed to shake the sad feeling i got from leaving Sweden so when the road signs proclaimed that Oslo was getting nearer my excitment levels increased with every passing kilometer, another dream to be realised on the road to Australia.

I stayed in the Anker hostel in Storgata for Nrk200 per night, certainly one of the most expensive hostels so far but it was something i was prepared for since i was aware that Norway was going to be the most expensive country on the trip. It was easy enough to find from the bus station, just one straight road really, and for the first time so far i was at the hostel door not having got lost along the way. Unfortunately despite the nice lobby and reception area the Angkor would have to rank as the worst hostel so far. Im probably being a bit harsh but for the money paid the hostel didnt have a kitchen, instead every room was equipped with a hotplate and the cutlery had to be hired if you wanted to cook anything. Now to some that might seem like convenience but anyone who has stayed in hostels i think will agree that to share a small room with eight other backpackers can be bad enough what with smelly feet, smelly trainers and just general body odours but throwing the smells of eight people cooking into the mix was a real turn off for me. Thankfully only two guys checked into the room for the duration i was there and they were equally as repulsed as i was, a young Swedish guy looking for a summer job that would allow him to make big money for his university studies in the Autumn and an Italian chef/ juggler.

After dropping in my bags i headed off on my usual exploritory walk about the city. It was a much cooler day than what i had left behind in Gotenburg but it was a bit of a relief, i think was pale Irish skin was welcoming the break from the suns rays. My red nose was certainly due a break, i could have given Rudolph a run for his money and with Finland still to come that was probably a high posibility. On the bus ride into Oslo it looks extremely picturesque, the hills and forests seem to be trapping the city by the harbour but my first impressions while walking the streets that evening were not anywhere near as complementary. I found it quite grey, drab and run down in parts but what really disappointed me was the amount of litter on the streets. It was as bad as Dublin on a Saturday morning after the Friday nights out and it was certainly a far cry from the pictures i had seen in books and from shows on television. Sure there some wonderfully unique buildings in an architectural sence, the white opera house with its slanting roof that you can walk up giving you outstanding views of the harbour stands out as one example, but these are few and far between in my opinion. I dont know, maybe im being a bit unfair, i do try and take every country and city on its own merits and not to compare them to places that have gone before but maybe having loved Gotenburg so much its influencing my opinions a little. Its also possible i just had too much of a high expectaion before hand. Anyway, having checked out the impressive opera house i continued my stroll down Kongens gate to the Akershus Fortress, a castle which was built under King Hakon in 1299 with a specific strategic position to defend the harbour from attack thus giving fantastic views of the Oslofjord. The views were certainly impressive but its the walk to the Fortress that i will remember the most. As i was heading down Kongens gate i could see in the distance a line of about seven quite good looking women all dolled up to the nines in short miniskirts and knee high boots. When i drew closer i was thinking to myself that "man, i dont know where that bus is heading but i wouldnt mind being on it" and when a few of them started to call out to me in Norwegian as i approached i was thinking "damn sparkie, if you could only speak the language you might be in with a chance here". Not being able to speak the language all i could do was smile, shrug my shoulders, and for some reason that i dont quite know why i replied with "habla englaise?" It seemed to work and my hopes were lifted as a few started to speak English, but to my utter disappointment it was not my fantastic body they were after but the contents of my wallet, i had only gone and walked into a gaggle (not sure if thats the correct phrase to use, maybe hareem would be better) of prostitutes that were just starting out for the night. It was actually quite funny and we all had a bit of a laugh about it but when a crowd of locals and tourists started to gather on the opposite side of the street i hastely declined their generous offers and made a quick escape before my face became sunominous with the Oslo red-light scene. Having worked up a bit of a hunger i dined that night in the Punja Tandoori, a restaurant that the lonely planet describes as Oslos favourite Indian restaurant, and for the first time ever i got bones in a lamb curry and all for the pleasure of Eur15. I went to bed that night a little disappointed to say the least but hopefull of better things to come over the coming days.

The next morning i awoke to the sun shining and thankfully feeling no after effects from the curry the night before so i decided to get out of the city for the day and do what i do best, trecking in the hills and mountains. I got the T-Bane (underground/ overground city rail network) out to Frognerseteren which in the height of the winter is the spot for sking but with summer approaching quickly most of the snow was melted away leaving some excellent forest hiking. The train is a lovely ride and the overgroung sections highlight what Oslo does do well, a beautiful combination of forest wilderness and urbanity. A network of hiking trails leads into Nordmarka from Frognerseteren with some spectacular views of snow capped peaks, lush green forest and crystal clear lakes. It such a nice day and being in the hills soaking up all the scenery energised me to such a point that i decided to walk back to Oslo sentrum through the small leafy suburbs full of quaint wooden houses all painted in vibrant blues and reds. By the time i arrived back even the disappointment of the previous day had disappeared and i was feeling like Norway held some many posibilities for adventure. Although another overly priced low standard meal was beginning to make me groan about the costs of this adventure.

The Tuesday was spent visiting the Royal Palace and the Slottsparken and what was for me the highlight of Oslo city, a visit to Frognerparken. The Frognerparken is a park on the edges of the city centre, easily walked, and it contains over 1000 statues sculpted by Norwegian artist Gustav Vigeland, along with fountains and large green spaces with tall trees offering shade to Oslos inhabitants on sunny days. Its the sculptures of entwined lovers mixed with sculptures of screaming babies that are the real draw to the park, Mr Vigeland has captured the emotions of his subjects so well that they almost take on a life like qualities. I was so impressed that i must have spent most of the day just wandering around in awe taking it all in. When i arrived back at the hostel that nigth my room mates were in deep discussions about their dislike for Oslo and Andreas, the Italian was even ready to go home with still 3 days of his week holiday to go. Although i agreed with a lots of their points, they were mostly the same as my own, i was happy that my impressions had improved greatly from my arrival. Over a game of shithead, who would have known that all those afternoons avoiding college and playing cards would have equipped me with one of the best tools for hostelling, Andreas started telling us a story from his day. Its going to be very hard to write this and still have the humor and i guess you have to imagine an Italian accent when you read it but its a story that still cracks me up days later when i think about it. For some reason when Italians speak English it always cracks me up, i think it might be the exagurated Italian passion and hand waving that does it. Anyway here goes, Andreas was down in the Botanical gardens practicing his juggeling techniques when he saw a young Norwegian couple engaged in full blown sex, totally de-clothed and slap bang in the middle of the gardens and this was a 4pm so total daylight. He was quite shocked but carried on with his juggeling only to be stopped by the park ranger and told that juggeling was baned in the botanical gardens and he had to stop or leave. He was so outraged that he shouted back in that Italian hand waving and musical tonned way "eh, why you no allowed the juggle in the park but ok for to make the sex no problems". Let me tell you i was close to wetting myself with the side splitting laughter!!

At 11.00pm the next evening i was on the overnigth train to Bergen, happy to be moving on as i think a 2 night stay is probably enough in Oslo. It is regarded as one of the most spectacular train rides in Norway but unfortunately for me i wasnt going to see very much of it. Train travel in norway, like everything else is hughly expensive but there are ways around the high cost by getting whats called "minipris" tickets. These minipris are generally about a third the cost of the normal full fare but they onyl ever have a limited numbers available. They can only be bought online and at least a day before departure and are totally non-transferable, non-refundable. I was lucky enough to get one of these tickets for Nrk299 while the full fare was Nkr1050 but unfortunately they were only available for the nigth train, with wanting to actually get to Australia there was no way i could justify paying the full fare for the privilage of having a view for the duration. It was a comfortable train ride but in noway uneventfull. The first 2hours passed by with no difficulties and i was just starting to nod off when the conductor starts making an announcement in Norwegian over the intercom. Now my Norwegian is poor at the best of times and the only word i could pick-up was "bussen", but with that word alone i was able to guess what was going to happen. When the English translation followed my suspisions were confirmed, there was a problem with the tracks and we would have to disembark the train to get a coach passed two stations and pick-up another train further down the line. Now at the time the coach ride for just two stations didnt sound like much of a bit deal, except for the fact our sleep would be interupted, and when we arrived at the station and three coaches were already waiting for us i was thinking to myself "Norwegian efficiency". For what ever reason i loaded my bangs into the middle coach of the three and when it was the first to depart i believed for once i had made the right choice. This feeling however didnt last too long, not 15 minutes down the road the driver pulled over and got out walking around the couch gently kicking this and that. He got back on and continued to drive a further 100yards before pulling over again and doing the same walk and kicking action only this time when he got back on the coach there followed another announcement only this time there was no English translation. The jovial manner with which the driver made this announcement had me at ease when i enquired with a fellow passenger to what was going on. His groans and broken English went something like this " bussen, heavy, suspension, kaput". In case your not sure what was said let me fill in the gaps, with too much luggage onboard the suspension had broken on one side of the bus and it was unable to carry on through the mountain passes as it was starting to lean heavily to one side. All this meant that we had to return back to the station and try and get another coach. As we crawled back to the station was were passed by the other coaches heading merrily on their way into the night. It took nearly 30 minutes to crawl the short distance back to the station. In fairness the driver got a replacement coach pretty quickly and we got under way for a second time only to get stuck behind an accident were a truck had overturned and was now half on the road and halfway down a ditch. We eventually arrived at the train station nearly 2hrs behind everyone else with them all tucked up under blankets and sleeping peacefully, totally unaware of the dramas we had gone through. On arrival into Bergen i was totally shattered and relieved to be finally off the train and at our destination. I was planning on getting the Hurtigruten ferry through the fjord lands all the way upto Tromso so thankfully i wouldn't have to go through a train journey like that again.

Bergen is Norway's second largest city and certainly one of its most beautiful. Its set on a pininsula and surrounded by the fjords and mountains. The city itself is really compact with a busy harbor being the focal point. In the surrounding areas are little neighbourhoods of wooden houses all linked to the city centre by narrow alleyways and old cobbled streets. Strolling around is a very pleasureable experience indeed. After checking into my hostel, the marken gjestehus Nrk200 per night, i set about trying to organise my boat ticket. When i eventually found the ticket office it pained me to find out that the ticket would cost me Eur800. All the guidebooks had said that it would cost Eur400 but that students would get upto 50% off so i was expecting around Eur200 and thought to myself that for an experience like that i would go to around Eur300. Anymore than that and i would blow the rest the budget i had for travelling Norway. I was really gutted and at a loss about what to do next. I had only booked into the hostel for one night as i had thought i would be getting the ferry the next day so trying to look on the brightside i though i could now spend a few extra days enjoying the scenery of Bergen. Not so, when i went back to the hostel i was informed that it was full and not only that but all the hostels in the city were full due to it being Norway's national holiday. Nightmare, i was at a total loss of what to do next. I got chatting to a girl from Hong Kong, Hilton (well that wasnt her real name, something totally unpronounceable for me, but thats what it sounded like and she allowed me to call her that as long as it was after the hotel chain and not Paris..haha i dint have the heart to tell her that it was the same thing!!) and over a cpu of tea i decided that the only thing i could do was to leave and try and get the train up north instead. At the station i was delighted to find out that Norway has only raillinks going up one side of the country so to get up north i would have to re-trace my steps by getting a train back to Oslo and connecting with another going north. Luckly there were some minipris tickets available but for the train leaving Bergen at 7am, thus giving me by the time all this was sorted out only 17hrs in Bergen., what a disaster!! Not to be downbeat, i tried to luck on te ever fanishing brightside and decided that a walk in the mountains was the way to spend te hours i had. It proved to be the best decision i made in this sorry saga. The walk was stunning and the views i find difficult to describe. Looking down at Bergen from above, were the mountains meet the fjords is something that just needs to be seen. Even the rain couldnt dampen my enjoyment and i arrived back to the hostel feeling in good spirits bespite the problems encountered.

The train left exactly on time the next morning and i was thinking that the one good thing to come out of all this was that i would get to see the best train journey in Norway during the daylight hours, i wasn`t disappointed. Its a 7hr journey past alpine villages, forests and the very beautiful Hardangervidda plateau. Between Bergen and a town called Geilo, about halfway, the train climbs trough snow-capped mountains with high lakes and tiny villages, scenes of absolute jaw-dropping beauty. It was going to be a long days travelling, 25hrs in total, but with views like this out the window i could easily have stayed on the train for weeks. On arrival in Oslo i had a 2hr layover before catching a train to Trondheim, with another layover there but only 35mins this time, and then a train through Hell (there really is a town called Hell) into the Arctic circle to my final destination of Bodo. Bodo as a town is not much to right home about, apart from being the last stop on the train network its mostly visited by tourists as a jumping off point to explore the Loften Islands, where glacier-carved mountains spectacularly rise straight out of the sea. A visit to Loften was one of the main reasons i was in Bodo and i was planning on taking one of the many boat trips the next day. On arrival in i was in pretty good spirits despite the lenght of journey. It was a beautfiul sunny and crisp morning. The independance day celebrations were already begining to get underway with the streets lined on both sides with people awaiting for a parade to pass through. As i was making my way to the hostel it was becoming difficult to pick my way through the gathering crowds, what with the backpack and all, so i decided that the best course of action would be to walk down on the street instead. As i was doing so i was hit with the memory of all those St.Patricks Day parades in Tallaght where, as part of the football team, we would have to join all the majourettes and dancers from the area and walk through the streets, following the floats and the banners, waving our green blow up shamrocks proudly in the air. With this memory in mind i couldnt resist giving the crowd a little wave as i passed between them down the streets. I was met with a few stunned expressions at first but as a lady gave me a Norwegian flag to replace the green shamrock of my childhood i was greeted with the shouts of "hoora, hoora". By the time i got to the end of the street i was nearly doubled over from laughter and fighting the urge to walk back down the street again. It was the only bit of craic i had got out of the seemingly reserved Norwegains thus far and i though to myself that i better be carefull not milk it too much. Unfortuantely the jovial mood changed to one of total dismay when a guy outside the hostel building told me that the hostel wasnt open anymore and that its now all private residences. When i asked him where i could find another hostel "there was none" was the reply i got. He did however suggest that i drop into the tourist office as they can arrange rooms in private residences and that they are usually quite cheap. Confident that the no accomodation situation was just going to be a minor blip that could be sorted out i made my way to the tourist office. Now guys id say if i gave you two guesses as to what happened next you would only need to use one before you would have hit the nail on the head..."closed for the holidays" is what the sign read or at least im sure thats the jist of what the Norwegian words were explaining. Not wanting to panic i started to walk amilessly around the town waiting for a bolt of inspiration, watched the crappy parade (not a patch on our Paddies day), and decided that the only thing i could do is chance a hotel. The cheapest hotel i could find cost me Nkr700, thats nearly Eur90, and for that price i got no more than a matchbox sized room. The cost was blowing my budget clean out of the water and made me feel totally sick handing over the money. I dropped the bags in the room and went to look for a supermarket where i could get some food, having not ate very much in the previous 25hrs i was begining to get a little peckish. This little peckish feeling quickly turned to ravenous rage when i discovered that everywhere was closed, supermarket, cafe, restaurant, everything. The only thing that was open was a "shell petrol station" and walking back to the hotel with a hotdog and a packet of cheese singles i was starting to feel pretty low, so much so that i just locked myself in the room and only came out when the nicotine craving wouldnt leave me alone. On one of these ventures out into the real world i got chatting to the only Norwegian so far on this trip, apart from the polite "hello`s and thank you`s" with the girls working the cash registers in shops i hadnt had any conversations with Norwegians at all. Id love to say that it was worth waiting for but unfortunately i could easily have gone without it. He started off in merry spirits having been celebrating all afternoon but when i replied to his question about where i was from it only recieved a lecture about how our football fans are disgracefull hooigans for fighting at the Uefa cup final. It took me a complete age to get him to realise that Rangers FC was not an Irish team but a Scottish team and that infact the Irish football fans are well known as being some of the best in the world. When i did finally get through to him and the conversation turned to one about Ireland being a country that he always wanted to visit and still harbered dreams of one day going to, i was relieved and thought that this chance meeting might not turn out so bad after all. Unfortunately the Ireland he was familiar with was from movies about the IRA and just as he was begining to burst into another triade about how terrible we all were i decided to cut my losses and go back to the saftey of my matchbox, and i also decided that even when the nicotine cravings kicked in the next time i still wasnt going to answer the call and venture outside again untill morning. As i pushed and pulled on the hotel door nothing i did seemed to be able to make it open. It was then i remembered a conversation with the check-in girl from earlier in the day where she explained that from 12:30am the front doors would be locked and i that would need a code to get in the door. With that sinking feeling i checked my pockets to discover that the little yellow post-it sticker with the code for the door was on the locker by the bed exactly where i left it for save keeping. I was so annoyed with myself, how could i be so stupid. I had locked myself outside in the cold wearing only a t-shirt, and at 10pm too, although you would never have guessed the time from the 24hr daylight this far above the Arctic circle. Wait a minute i thought, its only 10pm, what the hell is the door doing locked this early!! After an hour in the cold with my finger constantly pressed to a buzzer, a buzzer that did i dont know what, a guest happened to walk by and let me in and out of my misery. I was later to discover that because of the day that was in it all the hotel staff knocked off early, and while i was getting a football hooligan lecture from a drunk Norwegian, i was also being locked out of the hotel at the same time. Three cups of hot chocolate later i was finally starting to feel some life come back into my body, and a couple of easy singles later i was in bed trying to rush the next days arrivial by forcing myself to sleep.

When i was checking into the hotel the receptionist has informed me that there probably wouldnt be any boats going to Loften because it was day II of the national holiday. Not wanting to take a chance and have to stay another night in the matchbox i decided that i would get out of Bodo on the only bus i could, a 8am run to Narvick. I was so delighted to see the bus arrive at the coach station, with the luck i was having of late i wouldnt have been suprised if it didnt show up at all. If it hadn't it would have left me standing out in the cold again, something that if it happened would have really put me over the edge, i might have started swimming to Australia.
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