Monday, July 4, 2011

June 21st: Skei (292.8 kms)

Feelings: Tired, Delighted.

I think the only thing that it could be was that we were too preoccupied with coffee. We made two mistakes this morning: firstly we didn’t try harder to find a way to pay for the toll from Sogndal to Hellas and so we have been toll-panicing for the last three days (I write this in the future), and, secondly, we drove onto the ferry, paid the ferryman (before he got us to the other side), and then realised that the other side was not the one we thought it would be. If you have a look at the plotted course on our map it has a big circle on it at this point in the game. We will be back in Sogndal at about four-thirty this afternoon. We could either wait and take the ferry back or change the plans. A roll of the dice put us onto the second option—augmented by the fact that this way we would be able to go through the world’s longest road tunnel (twenty four point five kilometres!)

I was decidedly cranky when the ferry took off and I realised what our haste had produced, but in the end it was a really exciting detour. To date, we have now gone through a total of a hundred point three kilometres of tunnel (as of 24th). Up ones, down ones, curly, straight, well lit, dark and ominous, dry or drippy, perfectly round and shiny, imitation rock sprayed on with concrete or the real hewn thing. I didn’t realise there was so much variation in a tunnel.

The detour also afforded the opportunity to visit Fläm which is the place where V—‘s ‘local’ beer, ordered at the Quality Hotel last night had come from—dark, stouty, apparently ‘smokily’ delicious and served in a bell shaped glass (if bells had long stems at one end). It was really more a case of Fläm for lunch. What is it about travelling this way that makes you make silly choices though? Tell me please because they keep happening and it’s is driving me mad. We saw the brewery, we did. But no! We walked through a huge food hall (Fläm is set up for the ships that come in along its fjord and the train through the mountains which does amazing climbing, tunnelling and passing of all things beautiful; all to reach Fläm and buy souvenir underpants and sausages in sweet buns with chips) and rejected it for a smaller establishment, deciding not to look into the brewery as we passed. We could have sat at organically carved furniture in a rustic room filled with stuffed animals (I find them morbidly fascinating), on reindeer skins and eaten whatever (don’t care) in a great atmosphere. Instead we acquired another story for V—‘s collection which he keeps for repeating in times of frustration that remind him of other times of frustration. The chosen venue did seem on the lines of okay with a yellow-food-free dagens ratt of meatballs, mashed potatoes and mushy peas (latter were yummy actually). Problem was, after forty-five minutes we still didn’t have our meals. They will argue that they came by three times calling out for us. They will argue it sarcastically. We will argue that even if they walked past bearing plates of what everyone was having, there was no ‘calling out’. We would even hesitatingly argue that we may have been ‘distracted’—me by writing up what my photos are of, he by looking at photos—but, essentially ‘but’, there was no calling (last four words separated by a second of quiet for emphasis).

All this time, and during all these moments of frustration, awkwardness, resentment, unhappiness etc, we are driving through the most magnificent scenery imaginable. It is simply too difficult to describe without sounding trite. Come and see for yourself—craggy mountains, snowy peaks, fjords, glacial streams/creeks/rivers from bubbling to torrential, pines that stripe up a whole mountain with their straight, horizontal branches, scrubby moors, black tarns, all traversed by hair-raisingly scary roads that fluctuate between newly paved two laners with the occasional passing lane and the even rarer top speed of ninety k’s per hours to dirt tracks. I don’t mean to harp on the negative and negate the beauty. The beauty is there regardless, and our silly, little, inconsequentially petty lives pass through it blustering with perceived dramas and then leave it behind unaffected by our silliness. Somewhere, though, stamped in our souls is an echo of the beauty that will last longer than the memory of the drama (damn, I’m immortalising it here, nothing ever gets off the internet again). To the chagrin of the accompanying travellers on this trip I have been contemplating, almost without my awareness, the reasons I travel. Why do we? There are the standard reasons, but they are like something we read in a book and don’t question—to see the world, to experience other places and people and culture, to ‘get away’. The latter is, I think, possibly the best reason—a get away from ourselves, and if seen like that, a good reason to leave as it is a way to remind us that the seemingly static, unchanging and unchangeable ‘you’ is actually as fluid as everything else changeable in the world. These are little windows that tell us we can change the life we are trying to get away from if we choose. I do two types of travel now that I am part of a ‘relationship’—the go somewhere and stay there type, and, the go somewhere and move around type. Possibly on my own instigation, the latter is as unplanned as possible because I like to have the illusion of freedom. But it is a freedom with a cost and maybe I can’t (or won’t, or don’t want to) pay double. I’m feeling very selfish. Maybe it’s impossible to get away when you take part of home with you. Maybe the stress of unplanned-ness is not only double, but exponentially increased when instead of you deciding where to go, what to do, eat, where to stay, you have what-where-when for yourself, for the other person, for what you think the other person wants and for what they think you do. I would go for a quadrupling of the decision-slash-stress making process actually. This is hard. I think, as the most feasible solution, governments should give couples twice as many holidays so that they can spend half of them in the way that works for the couple and half in the way that feeds the soul of the single. It would make for a better human race. But that’s just my long winded opinion.

Back to the tale. So, whizzing through the loveliness we pressed on to make sure that we at least got further than where we had started. There are green lines, as you are probably aware, that run along the roads on any given map to indicate that a road is particularly scenic. I pity the roads in Norway that don’t warrant the green line—in any other country they would be the green-lined road. It’s hard to be a road in a land of spectacular roads—over-achievers! Our roads weren’t green but they were beautiful. They also mysteriously dried up of camping grounds and so we were getting desperate by the time we got to Skei. It’s the old issue of either camping close to where there is food to be had, or having food so that camping close to food is not necessary, but to get to food you need to be where food is to be had. We found food, and then we found camping. The huts were cheap and we got what we paid for. Tiny—not enough room to swing a pack. The inside was primer-coat pink and had a strange smell. The outside was slowly deteriorating in the weather and the wind caused by the passing trucks. But it was a roof, it had a porch for sipping a beer or a rose-flavoured (?) cider and it had clean bathrooms nearby. Home and a meal were found for the night.

June 20th: Sogndal (218.9 kms)

Feelings: Carefree, Cheerful.

I’m looking forward to today. We are visiting an eight hundred and fifty year old stave church in Lom and then jumping on the Sognefjellet Road which is one of the eighteen tourist roads in Norway (accolades include ‘the road over the roof of Norway’ and ‘the highest mountain road in Northern Europe (1434 meters)’). We sped through to Lom via a strange little stop that had a disproportionately large statue on the top of a very high column. There were bas relief Vikings and a person on a horse with a shield and a scattering of copper bush turkeys. The only thing was I was unable to find out exactly why it was here and what it meant. In Lom we checked out the church. It was lovely—wooden and preserved with tar, dark and sticky. The carving was beautiful and I guiltily photographed a few gravestones. We coffee and (frozen strawberry and yummy chees) caked it and then headed towards the hills. Before we knew it we were back in the snow on an even more spectacular scale. Glaciers were lying beside the road like common puddles, mountains spread in every direction. The road skirts along one of Norway’s national parks—Jotunheimen National Park—which is said to have over two hundred and seventy-five peaks which are over two thousand meters high. You could see them in every direction and on every hairpin bend turn. We stopped for photos every three and a half feet; each stop had scenery more spectacular than the last.

And because the scenery couldn’t possibly get any lovelier we summited and descended into the valley of the Lustrafjorden—a glacially green and lustrous fjord which the road skirted for another few beautiful kilometres.

Can there be too much beauty? I am having difficulty finding enough synonyms for the day. We reverted to having to deny the loveliness in which we found ourselves in order to cope with its overwhelmingness. So when we landed a bargain priced cabin that was an elevated ten feet from the fjord, in a field of wildflowers, with sheer cliffs climbing up in our view across the water, we had to ask if management really expected people to pay good money to stay in such atrocious surroundings, with all that bad-for-you clean air and silence and solitude (except for the chain smoking Russians in the next cabin who put paid to a little of both the clean air and the silence).

The Lonely Planet advised that the best food in town was actually to be found at the Quality Hotel. It was a strange building. Very modern at the front, seventies style at the back. I’m reading a book about Ottaline, a shoe-mad young girl (she collects single shoes and so she buys lots of pairs, adds one shoe to her collection and wears the other with another single shoe left over from another collection addition) who has a friend called Mr Munroe (I suspect he has a troll lineage) who suddenly ups and leaves for Norway to find Quite Big-Foot, the Norwegian troll. The book is actually for children (surprise, surprise) and has the most gorgeous drawings which are for the most part black and white but are highlighted with green. I keep coming across this colour scheme, and it was also the colour scheme of the restaurant at the Quality Hotel. Because we had only had Special K for breakfast and frozen strawberry cheesecake for lunch, dinner was divine. It was still divine when the hunger pangs wore off. It was also very nice food—fresh and handmade. I had not been expecting the greatest of cuisine from Norway. I am a mixture of sad and relieved that we are yet to find the weirder end of the spectrum of Norwegian culinary offerings (elk, reindeer, whale, sour cream porridge). I am over the abundance of yellow food that we have found. I can usually only do whole yellow meals about twice a year. It was lovely to have fresh fish and vegetables and fruit in the form of cider. We had a spot in the conservatory and will possibly be in a large number of the photos a man was taking, for a whole hour (!), of the hotel. It was a little odd to behold. The evening was spent playing scrabble and reading Peer Gynt. We live a completely hard life, I don’t know how we get through each day of misery!

Friday, June 24, 2011

June 19th: Otta (159.1 kms)

Feelings: Quiet, Comfortable.

Our first destination the following morning was Hunderfossen. Hunderfossen was the site of the Winter Olympics bobsled run and is still operational. Though there appears to be snow in them there hills in the distance (or is it stacks of white plastic-covered hay bales) the bobsled is run on wheel bobs rather than ice at this time of the year. With a top speed of a hundred kilometres per hour, a time of seventy seconds, a cost of about fifty dollars and an indemnity form a foot long, the dice wasn’t required for a ‘no’ verdict and the push on for coffee became the top priority.

Back on the other side of the freeway was the township of Hafjell. It seems like this is where they put everyone up for the games—it is hotel after hotel after camping after hotel. On our first Sunday in the country we were finding that the one hundred and sixty days on average that Norwegians work (allegedly) definitely don’t include Sundays. Nothing was open. We found a one-man operation pizza place open. They had coffee (yay) but no milk (mmm?) and we had the most enormous one-to-two person pizza I have ever seen in my life.

The Peer Gynt Veien was next on the destination program. It is a road that follows along some of the locations spoken of in Ibsen’s poetic play Peer Gynt—since purchased on the kindle for ninety-nine cents and semi-read.

Aside: The Kindle. I am still minorly ambivalent about the Kindle and the place of the kindle in the world of books. It has been handy to be able to read seven books on the go (2001: A Space Odyssey (finished now), Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (ongoing from the physical book pile at home), 52 Pickup (ongoing from the Kindle pile pre-holiday), The Girl Who Played with Fire (Swedish), Don’t Look Back (Norwegian), Brotherhood One: Dark Lover (holiday reading which I haven’t started yet, and, which is about vampires which seems apt in Scandinavia in which we have already been in Spiken (ie. Spike from Buffy) and Sunndal (ie. a weak link to Sunnydale, California, where Buffy lives), and, of course, Peer Gynt. It has been handy to have all those books and a guidebook without the weight. It has not been handy to have a guide book without an index—you have to try and guess what chapter your desired destination will be in, if it is there at all. It has also not been handy to have a phrase book that can’t be easily flicked through. It means that people switch to English a.s.a.p to avoid waiting for me to try to find a word or a sentence with thirteen elongated clicks. What’s the final vote? I’ll just do a quick poll. For: 2, Against: 0. But the margin is narrow.

Back to Peer’s road. This would be our first experience with the stressful and frequented one-lane roads we will find ourselves on often in the next few days. The Nords, used I am sure to these tiny by-ways, fly by on the cusp of the mountainside at terrifying speed while we shut our eyes, hold onto wheel or door frame and hope like hell that when we open our eyes again we will still be on the road and in one piece. Makes for a peaceful afternoon drive. We had run into a couple of tolls on the large roads which ranged between twelve and sixteen krone, but were not expecting to pay seventy to get through a gate onto this road. It was too late to go back once we hit the gate—cars were backing up behind us. Possibly the money is going towards actually building the road. The usual trend with Norway is that unless the road is wholly funded by the government (such as the world’s longest tunnel which they put their hands in their pockets to pay for and so is not tolled) then it is tolled until it is paid for. This was kilometres of gravel and corrugation and pot holes and mud. But it was high above everything and the views were stunning, and for summer in Scandinavia we were treated to snow. Coming back down we saw some more of the damage of the seemingly more than normal amount of water that is around. The ‘bomveg’ (I’m translating this road work associated warning as ‘looks like someone bombed this road’) was quite bad and large bits of the side of the road had floated off down the river.

We stopped for coffee at the end of the road with bunches of people all doing Sunday type things like going to dog shows and getting sun-burned. And then stopped in a fairly timely manner at a camping ground with cute huts (am doubting that we’ll pitch a tent again) just outside of Otta. Lime ciders, local soft cheese and chicken rolls and scrabble filled the rest of the day. When we arrived it was sun-shiny and lovely; while we moved stuff car to hut it started to bucket down and again the sound of rain justified the toss of the coin that had fallen (happily) on hut over tent. At midnight I did my final teeth clean. It was the first time I had really been up that late. The sky was dawn-like but definitely light. No torches or lights were needed to see your way from hut to bathroom. The midnight sun doesn’t give you a tan at this latitude but it’s definitely out there. Cool.

June 18th: Lillehammer (205 kms)

Feelings: Safe, Confident.

Referendum decision: The new time for starting to look for accommodation is about three, three-thirty. Also, frequent stopping en route is now mandatory. Today was a tad different as we actually had a destination—Lillehammer. Our mandatory stop en route was Hamar and its Open Air Museum with its glass encased sixteenth century church ruins. It looked quite amazing—the glass was Louvre like, Fed Square like and because we had taken the free walk around the grounds option rather than entering into all the buildings, the church beneath the glass was shadowy and ghost-like. The park where the church and the other Norwegian buildings where situated seemed a popular spot for the locals too—one man had come to practise his archery and his arrows twanged through the quiet location. In the church an Asian couple were getting married.

Lillehammer was difficult to negotiate for the same reason that it made a great place to host the Winter Olympics—it is perched on a slope angled not dissimilarly to a ski-jump. This necessitates two tunnels through town which seem to cross over each other. We knew the camping ground was downhill, but they blocked of the roads that went down from the road that traversed the down area for some reason and so going downhill couldn’t actually get you down the hill. It’s easy once you have the map but that was still a little way away. We finally found the sign for the only road to go to the ‘down’ and found the camping ground. I think that Norway may be having a higher than average level of snow melt. Parts of the camping ground had been washed away into the middle of the river. We paid for a tent place, drove the car onto the boggy tent area, sat there for a while, and then went and upgraded to a hut. All in all this was a good move as the water was quite abundantly coming from the sky as well. I really enjoyed the sound of rain on a solid roof that night.

We spent the afternoon climbing up the over nine hundred steps to the top of the ski jump. My greatest idea of fun. It was okay—only half the size of the Eureka Tower. It was a great view. There are two jumps: the actual championship jump and the slightly smaller one for practice. We decided to come down on the small one. when we got to the actual bit where skis leave snow and hit air and ran out of stairs. there was a very rocky ladder but it didn't appear to be life-supporting. the choice was to slide down a wooden panel for about eight feet or climb up the stairs again. The wooden panel won. My legs were wobbly for about an hour afterward—there was no way I could have climbed more stairs. I did obviously have a wobbly brain as well as I managed to lose the key to the cabin. Can't let you know in polite terms how cross I was. And we were charged a heft fee for the replacement. All up, financially, we would have been better off staying in a hotel. I have lost all my key holding privileges have been revoked.

June 17th: Triaden (Outside of Oslo) (385.6 kms)

Feelings: Peaceful, Happy.

Rain meant that we spent a lot of time in the car—as the mileage attests. Lots of time in the car isn’t the best way to spend a driving holiday (ironically). Add to that a number of wrong turns and confusing road signs. Pop in a lack of places to stop for a coffee or lunch. (We stopped in a tiny town with a knife and fork symbol which turned out to be a corner of a handcraft shop that served coffee and cake. It was quite bizarre—not the coffee and cake, the shop—because of its isolation to size ratio. There was a lot of stuff there. Where had it all come from? There was so much craft there that they had been able to divide the room into colour coded areas. Lunch ended up supermarket supplied, which is fine) Just to be on the safe side, why don’t you have us get hopelessly lost on the outskirts of Oslo (which is where we were purposefully aiming not to go). Then give us only the option of an expensive hotel for the night (nice, but expensive). You could understand then, can’t you, that the feelings we started with this morning may have, well, inverted!

But, just on the bright side, we are now in Norway. The road signs are yellow and white instead of green and blue, the lines in the centre of the road are yellow instead of white, the tight corner signs are yellow and black rather than the Swede’s patriotic yellow and blue, and the way the road signs point is almost one hundred per cent guaranteed to send you in the opposite direction. Oops, seemed to have strayed back over from the bright side again at the end there.

We had dinner in the restaurant next door to the hotel, took a leisurely walk around the shopping centre, abutilised (using something to the level of abuse—just made that one up) the hotel’s wi-fi and watched ‘The Haunting’ which has great hair-raising moments in it. Today was a day where travel is f the sort which cocoons you in a limbo of ‘services’—keeping you one step removed from the reality of the place in which you are travelling.

June 16th: Läckö (350 kms)

Feelings: Carefree, Uncomfortable.

Grumpiness is pervading me. I can’t account for it. It’s cars and speed and compromise and new but not wonderful underwear, it’s weariness and time and orderliness and its lack. It’s evading my finger tip.

The Scandinavians don’t seem big on the going-out-for-breakfast option. Nothing seems to open until about ten or eleven. We thought we saw a lovely restaurant on the side of a lake a few kilometres before town. We did but it was more like twenty-five kilometres and then it wasn’t open for breakfast so we headed back to Vimmerby and made our way to Astrid Lindgren’s House for one of the best coffees we’ve had so far—with a traditional cinnamon bun. That gave the brewery time to open and it was our next destination. You could smell apples even though it is actually the Abro brewery (beer) and they also make soft drinks—cider seems only a small part of the operation. Tours don’t start on a regular basis until the twenty-seventh, we were told, could we come back then? Or, actually, there is one this afternoon at five if we wanted to join that one. We had a cider to help us decide. It was the seasonal flavour for Summer 2011—wild apple and elderberry. It makes a cider thirteen times more enjoyable to have it on ice I’ve decided. I haven’t decided actually, I’ve experienced. The decision was rather inevitable—we’d forgo the tour and press on.

Our next stop was in Jönköping—a stop much necessitated by the stress acquired driving down a roadwork area on the wrong side of the road (palpable). The stress worked in our favour as we stopped in the middle of town and ate at a lovely pub with an amazing dagens ratt of salmon and boiled potatoes. Maybe it is just watching your life pass before your eyes that makes you appreciate your ability to enjoy a meal.

To try to ameliorate the grumpiness we had decided to try and stop each evening before a certain time—we were going for five-ish. Five-ish found us close to Lidköping but the camping place didn’t look fabulous. We took the chance and drove to the end of a little peninsular that stretches out into the lake. The roads got tinier and tinier and somehow that seemed to suggest to the driver of our vehicle—remaining nameless—that maybe now was a good time to become a rally driver. Alive, again, a short time late, we stopped for the night at Läckö Strand. A tradition of the hytte started here—camping ground huts with basic bedding, shared showers and oodles of character (usually, but not necessarily, in a location also suffuse with character). But maybe their characterfulness is attributable, again, to having lived through a second near-death experience.

Spiken was a little village on the rally track to the Läckö Strand—it’s turnoff had invited comment in reference to ‘the big bad’ being back (see Spike, Season Four, Buffy the Vampire Slayer). We returned there for a dinner of fish from the lake.

June 15th: Vimmerby (417.4 kms)

Feelings: Quiet, Serious.

Deep and meaningful explorations into the nature of travelling in pairs—mainly from the selfish half of the pair that has been spoiled with the luxury of solo travelling (read: not having to compromise)—accompanied packing up, writing Martin a note about his ghost’s destructive behaviour, walking back to the central station, catching the train to the airport, catching the wrongly advised bus to the car hire place and walking the rest of the way the wrong bus didn’t take us to collect our vehicle. Our Avis representative was having a deep and meaningful conversation too, under his breath, about the fact that he had to do our contract because our actual car company representative (Budget) had stepped out for a moment and arrived back at the point of the proceedings where it was quicker to go forward than back.

Our car was a little Mazda 3 (white for those who care what colour it is). It has clever things like European lights that are always on, magically dimming rear view mirrors that don’t allow the people behind you to blind you with their European lights that are always on, and even rain-detecting windscreen wipers (I’m dubious but I’m told).We strapped Wesley in to the back seat and were away. Destination: Vimmerby. Those of you who have never seen us on the balcony of 4 P— sipping Rekorderlig cider on a balmy evening and playing mega-Scrabble (the one with quadruple word scores and an endless bag of letter tiles) will be unaware of our liking of said cider. Said cider comes from Vimmerby, Sweden. We wanted to see its home, see its brother and sister flavours that never make it down under. It didn’t look far, but as you can see from the odometer reading, it was a decent distance. We finally made it. We had V—‘s first ever tent raising and headed back to town for dinner. There was an Old Town to Vimmerby but we weren’t able to find it. We ended up at a weird little restaurant-slash-pub called Chaplin’s. The Swedish to English ratio is higher here and we have to at least try to get the phrase book out and be respectful, but we were very well attended by some lovely bar staff and enjoyed a meal and a very delicious Norwegian pear cider (irony of not having Rekordelig cider available at bars in Vimmerby hangs heavy here). We also got to enjoy some Swedish karaoke. The crowds started arriving in droves at about nine pm. There were security staff that, if they were in the lifts at work, would be mistaken for SOGies (very tough looking policemen with zero percentage body-fat). There seems to be a subtle difference between Swedish and Australian karaoke though. In Australia the announcement that a male was about to come up and sing Lionel Ritchie’s ‘Hello’ would have (1) made him the laughing stock of his friends and possibly the victim of a violent expression of dislike from other patrons, and, (2) made everyone else cringe at the thought of just how bad this was going to be. In Sweden it seems that only the reasonably talented actually are given possession of the mike. I stopped trying to work out what song I was going to sing.

Zipping ourselves into the tent for the night, V— let me know that in the morning there may be a revision of the gladness, or not, that he felt towards the fact that I had chased him on my bicycle those couple of years ago. Breaths are baited.