"E" from Aboard 2012 - 08
Pictures with this "E"
Newspapers are a dying industry; a decline to which we contribute, now only taking one local and one national paper a week. Nonetheless scanning them one morning we spotted an advert for a cruise to Norway. Five minutes and a mug of tea later, we booked to go just a couple of weeks hence. So here I am sitting in a lounge on Braemar on day three scribbling some early thoughts on same.
Judy has never cruised and whilst I have, 36 years have passed since my last cruise taken with Charlie on our honeymoon. Cruising aspires to a life style historically afforded by just a select few from the higher echelons of society but now affordable by the masses. That is now even more evident than it was 36 years ago. The aspiration revolves around four or even five mealtimes a day all waiter served and supported by a plethora of staff retained purely for that purpose and to serve drinks as well as keeping other rooms fit for use between meals and excursions ashore. Other pointers are on what one does on a cruise. Even on an intense cruise such as this one we shall spend less than 40 of the 220 hours aboard enjoying the delights that Norway has to offer. Surely this implies the majority of cruisers are principally attracted by the fantasy of living a life style they could never really aspire to? Chats with our fellow passengers thus far tend to confirm this view as they talk mostly about the number of cruises they have done, the food experienced, the standard of accommodation they have afforded and the places cruised to but little detail about the places visited or are soon to be visited. It is doubted whether many, if any, enjoy three five-course meals a day let alone take afternoon tea, whilst at home.
Taking a holiday that bridges the end of August and the beginning of September was never going to attract families with school age children so our fellow passengers were bound to be principally older adults. That is so and one of my first observations was just how many hearing aids were in evidence, particularly on men. There are also far more ladies than gents and many of them needing the support of a stick or two. We are not going to suggest that we are the youngest or fittest aboard as there is a party of Ramblers with us but there was a rumour circulating the ship that the Captain’s Farwell Party was to be brought forward to the second evening, just in case……. Or so the comedian told us?
We trained it up to London and across from there to Dover on the new high speed commuter train, Javelin, that uses HS1 for much of the journey. Boarding the ship was delayed as it had been held up by a failed lock gate on the Keil canal so we sailed a couple of hours late in a stiff south-westerly breeze. After an excellent dinner and a surprisingly good night’s sleep in our inside cell in the bowels of the ship, we awoke early with the necessary aid of an alarm clock as there is no natural light, took breakfast and enjoyed a four-time fast walk around the deck to work off some of the calories in brilliant sunshine. It was not to last. By tea time the wind had come round to the north-west and increased considerably. We were in for a rough night a fact that was confirmed by the Captain at his cocktail party, stupidly held in the lounge furthest forward on the ship where the motion was most pronounced. At the dinner that followed the restaurant was 75% empty, those missing suffering from acute seasickness.
Bergen was our first port of call and we took breakfast early and then watched our approach and arrival from the comfort of the observation lounge up forward. By 10.00 we were ashore and making our own arrangements to visit three of Bergen’s delights; the prices of organised tours from aboard appearing extortionate.
After a walk around the harbour and the fish market, a market so full of crab (see photo) and lobster you wonder how there can be any left in the sea, a call at the new Tourist Office building to collect information, we hopped on a number 3 bendy-bus heading for Mount Ulriken. Riding a bus is an excellent way to get taste the flavour of a place, its people and its way of life. The bus was modern, clean and clearly well used by a wide spectrum of Bergen society, unlike in the UK. Directions were asked of the driver who explained, in perfect English, where to get off and how to get from there to the cable car. After a challenging walk up what seemed to be half the height of the mountain we purchased our tickets, or so we thought, from the automatic machine and joined the queue. On reaching the barrier we discovered the machine had only dispensed one ticket though fortunately a receipt for two. A very smiley attendant soon corrected matters and we boarded for the ride to the top. The view from the plateau is spectacular (see 2 photos).
After a free coffee in the café, we think they thought we were part of the organised tour from the ship, we descended and returning on our bendy-bus to the Bryggen, toured its wooden streets and buildings (see photo) before taking lunch at a roadside bar overlooking the fish market and harbour. The sign outside the bar opposite (see photo) suggests Norwegians’ have a similar sense of humour to Brits.
Then it was time to ride the tram with me suitably attired in anorak and with notebook and pencil at the ready. It is very modern, the line having been completed just three years ago and, the anorak noted, currently being extended; as with the buses, it is clean and its users very cosmopolitan. It was to take us to our next target, the lakeside house of the composer Edvard Grieg and the concert hall recently built in his garden. It was a good and strenuous 20 minute walk from the tram stop but well worth the effort. One can imagine the peace and tranquillity he found there albeit it is slightly spoilt today by traffic noise from a nearby road that did not exist in his day. The location however is romantically beautiful and it is little wonder it inspired him to compose (see photo). The house (see photo) has been conserved exactly as it was when he was alive though electricity and water has been added since to aid its display; Grieg was very anti modernisation and relied on candles and water brought in in buckets until his death in 1908: of course he did not have to carry the buckets. However, it was sad to learn how poor in health he was for most of his short 65 years of life and how his only child died within a year or so of birth. It was also interesting to learn his grandfather was in fact a Scot who emigrated to Norway, set up a merchant’s business and changed his name from Greig to Grieg.
The organised tours covering the same three highlights that we could have purchased from the ship would have cost us £260.00. We spent about £40.00.
On our return to the tram terminus our walk to the ship was laboured in the late afternoon sun of what had been a glorious day in terms of both weather and what we had seen and enjoyed. Our feet and legs ached from the copious walking thus it was good to relax in a comfortable lounge chair with a vodka and tonic whilst reflecting on the beauty of this country, its obvious wealth and the overt friendliness of its people. Bergen has impressed us both and we will wish to return at some time but not by cruise ship!
After an overnight sail we arrived in Kristiansund. If we had wanted to visit a shopping precinct we would have driven to Exeter, not cruised to Norway. Next port.
Trondheim was a lot better. A shuttle bus took us to the cathedral in the Centrum. It is an enormous building of considerable architectural merit that was built with the assistance of British stone masons. Strangely perhaps it is of such importance in Norway as a whole that their monarchs are crowned here, not in the capital Oslo or the second city, Bergen.
My anorak was again to the fore as we searched for St Olaf’s street from where the city’s only tram line starts. The provided street map was unhelpful presumably as Fred Olsen Cruises do not want you to find such trips on your own but book their organised tours; the tram trip including the coach to get you there and back was priced at £84.00: it cost us £49.00 including the shuttle bus. We eventually found the street after stopping at a hotel and asking at their reception desk. The receptionist whipped out a city map, marked where we were and where we were to go; good service indeed and typical of our experiences here.
But it started raining, heavily, as we left the hotel and by the time we found the tram stop and its limited shelter we were pretty wet. As we considered our next move our luck changed as a rickety old tram and trailer appeared round the corner and slowly approached us (see photo). It stopped short of us so we walked to the entrance as it opened to be greeted by the driver who informed us, with regret, that his was our ship’s chartered tour tram and we would have to wait 15 minutes for a scheduled, slightly more modern tram. After a brief chat to fill my anorak note book with useless information we withdrew disconsolately to the little shelter. As the ship’s tour coach arrived the tram driver dismounted his steed and walked over to us. “I have some good news for you. You can ride with me in the drive car – for free”.
The ship’s tour only had enough to fill one car so he put them in the trailer so we had a most enjoyable time with him in the drive car giving us a running commentary on the 23kms of the line as we climbed our way up through the city and out on to the light railway portion as it made it way up high above but alongside the river, through a residential area to Lian, to a lakeside weekend spot for locals and visitors alike. Here we left our driver as the return tours’ from the ship filled both cars so we waited a few minutes for the scheduled service.
By the time we got back to St Olaf’s street the sun was out so we enjoyed a beer (see photo) in a nearby street side bar before wandering back towards the cathedral, stopping briefly at a craft exhibition and purchased an early birthday present for Judy, a hand-made silver fish mounted on a fine silver chain.
Next came Alesund which is spread across three islands and is a major town set at the end of a wider and more open fjord under mount Alska. The old largely timber built town was razed to the ground by a devastating fire in 1904 that was fanned by hurricane force winds. Remarkably only one person died but thousands of residents lost everything they owned. Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany, a great friend of Norway’s and Alesund in particular provided men, materials and short term provisions to support the people and kick start the rebuilding of the town in the art noveau style of the period. Its buildings are very attractive (see photo).
It was time to don my child’s clothes and persuade Judy I should be taken on a road train ride; she succumbed and we paid the 300 Krona (£33.00) to board the 11.30 tour of the town and the mountain. In the meantime we dived into the local shopping precinct and found a coffee shop within which to take our traditional morning coffee. It was not Costa Coffee but it was OK. Over coffee we reflected on why so many of Norway’s buildings are so dark inside, the coffee shop being a good example. The walls and ceilings were decorated black and the lighting weak and sparse. We were to experience the same in an expensive hotel later. We wonder whether it is the long winter nights and winter days lit by the weak low sun that somehow makes them feel more at home. We’ll never know but it was interesting to see.
Returning to the train, the ride was interesting and the commentary excellent, filling us in on the history as well as describing our surroundings. Aksla mountain is a park with numerous walks, one of which starts in the centre of town and rises via steps straight up the mountainside. The view from the top was fairly spectacular but far from the most inspiring we were to see elsewhere (see photo).
After a further overnight sail down the longest fjord in Norway, the Sognefjord, we arrived in Flam which is set at the end of a branch fjord, the Aurland fjord. The setting is story book and we thus expected this to be the highlight of our cruise and it was. Not quite as planned though as there were to be three cruise liners in at the same time and the largest nearly three times our size. Flam is a tiny place squeezed in as it is at the end of the majestic Aurland fjord (see photo) thus only the larger ship could moor alongside the other two had to anchor off in a space I found to it hard to believe they would. They did but with the engines running all day to hold their position.
After some chaos in the process we embarked on the first tender of the morning as the tour we had booked was to be for 8 hours and, as we had arrived late, that time pushed it outwith the ship’s planned departure time. And it was raining. Hard.
We boarded the Flamsbaden a heritage train for the 20km trip up a line with 6kms of tunnels and a ruling gradient of an unbelievable 1:18, very steep for an adhesion railway (the anorak is out again). Each metre of tunnel took up to a month to cut and the whole line twenty years to complete. It is a breath taking journey up a steep sided valley that rises 848m (2,850ft) to Myrdal a station on the main Bergen to Oslo line. A raging torrent of a stream runs its whole length and the train criss-crosses it numerous times between diving in and out of tunnels, one of which does a complete circuit within the mountain before bursting back out into the valley numerous metres higher up. The stream is fed by waterfalls that cascade from the plateau above, visible even through the, by now, torrential rain (see 2 photos).
There was a delay at Myrdal, in fact our train had been cancelled and thus we had no booked seats on the train we boarded. But we got seats and the ride further up onto the Hardangervidda plateau was close to unbelievable particularly as by then the rain had eased and sun highlighted the brilliance of this barren but unbelievably beautiful place with its numerous lakes, streams, waterfalls and still snow capped surrounding peaks. Photos are problem from inside a train travelling at 90mph so the photos were downloaded from a Norwegian tourist site (see 3 photos).
High up on the plateau we de-trained at Geilo (pronounced Yaylo) and walked to the nearby Dr Homs hotel for a sumptuous lunch in this winter time ski resort. It is busy in the summer but busier in the winter (see 3 photos of hotel and buffet lunch).
After a repast that we struggled to do justice to, we boarded a coach for yet another breath taking journey across the plateau. I filmed a lot of the scenery as I had managed to bag the front seat and took a few photos, two of which are appended here but they just cannot capture the majesty that is Norway (2 photos).
Our way back was a steep and fascinating decent on a road only built recently by the power company that built a hydro-electric generating plant within a mountain. We stopped to capture the view down the Aurland valley (see photo) to the small town of the same name nestled just 5kms from the end of the fjord and Flam. There we popped into a simple medieval church, the loft (now removed) of which was until recent times used to store the masts, spars and sails of sailing vessels in the winter (see photo).
It had been a day of great emotion over the beauty of our planet and wonderment at some of the food Norway produces and serves. It will long hang in our memories.
Within minutes of us boarding, the ship sailed for Eidfjord in the Hardangerfjord our final port of call. Eidfjord is a pretty little village positioned as it is between steeply sided mountains at the end of the Hardangerfjord. Our stay was brief, made briefer by gale force winds and stormy conditions that had blown up overnight; just a visit to the local shops and the Tourist Information Centre. Then it was a swift lunch before sailing for Dover. The afternoon however was spent sailing through 80 miles of the best of Norwegian countryside in a fjord that, like most, slowly loses its steep-sided mountains to gently sloping ones at the foot of which small communities have for centuries eked out a farming existence (see photo), until finally you break out into the north sea between very low-lying islets and reefs. As we reached the open sea we found it rough but fortunately not quite as rough as the second night.
That evening was the second formal evening of the cruise which was alright but does not reach the standards we expect of such functions. However, the crew show that followed certainly did. We had avoided the dreadful Butlin’s style shows up until then. But as everyone else was in party mood we felt obliged to join two passenger friends at the show. It was all performed by members of the Philippine crew who presented some of their country’s traditional dances and songs as well as western pop music. The galley slave who appeared as a ventriloquist and singer was exceptionally good, so good in fact, one wonders why he is not doing it as a professional.
And finally, a few reasons why we think cruising might not be for us.
For much of the day’s at sea and even in port, it seems a bit like a nursing home. A talk after breakfast at 09.45 had folk dozing in their seats. Of course that could have been a boring speaker which he was or it could be old age or boredom? Who knows but you also found folk asleep after breakfast in the lounge areas.
The standard of on-board entertainment was generally weak. A trio who included Me Sing Too a pretty good bass player in the Rosario Trio, accompanied by a lady violinist and a guitar player whose only excuse for being in the trio must be that the bass player is his father. Accord or a chord, it was difficult to spot either in his guitar playing. But the lady violinist was very good, slipping in the odd classical violin solo of some merit. The guitar player made the other two’s efforts pointless. The rest were largely weak, second rate dancers and singers who would struggle on Torquay seafront. Sorry to be so cruel but that is how it was and we were paying for it.
However, there were two exceptions, Lee Carroll a comedian whose routine was pretty good if somewhat old fashioned, perhaps cleverly reflecting the needs and expectations of his audience, and an excellent classical guitarist, Martin Vishnick, two of whose concerts we did attend and very much enjoyed. But that only covered about an hour and a half of our free time.
And now for the service at meal times. They purport to offer a quality experience and food to match; whilst the food is pretty good and the service friendly, it fails to meet their advertised standards. I do not expect to have my coffee cup placed on the table before I have ordered or eaten my sweet and certainly not before I have finished my wine and cheese. Similarly I do not want the places of our dinner companions cleared as they left early for a show and set up for breakfast whilst we are enjoying each other’s company, our cheese and our wine. And the last morning’s breakfast service was appalling. Tea & coffee arrived after breakfast had been eaten. Judy waited 15 mins for a cup and water to add to the Earl Gray tea bag she asked for as she had each morning. Toast never was delivered to the table. And I don’t expect my lady, or any lady, to be kissed hallo or goodbye by the waiter!
Nonetheless we had fun but are re-thinking selling all of CGIV!
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