Dear Old Stockholm

Stockholm looks fantastic. Especially on a sunny day. But it was a shock to return to winter. It’s cold here. From warm Oslo the train headed into increasingly snowy terrain.

Must be the gulf stream factor keeping coastal Norway warmer.

More water

Water is everywhere on the west coast of Norway. It falls from the sky, pours down ravines above town, and surrounds you on all sides.

It has been raining on and off since I got here Tuesday. I’m headed off today for the sunnier (it is hoped) climes of Oslo and Stockholm. And then Dublin.

Ferries link the many islands together here. Many of them are included in the city transit card, so I took one across to nearby Askoy.

Of course it has wifi.

Bergen

I’m really glad I didn’t miss Bergen. The old town of wooden houses in city center alone is worth a visit. It’s kind of like Greenwich Village in New York, where the grid breaks down and streets curve crazily every which way (and there’s also a hill in Bergen to complicate), as if responding to old traffic pattern needs we no longer understand.

Beautiful city, but would not want to be here in summer when the cruise ships unload.

Congestion pricing a la Norvège

I’ve been seeing these signs around. I knew that if I had decided to rent a car, they’re the kind of thing I’d glimpse out of the corner of an eye and then a moment later know a fee had been assessed somehow.

Basically the first sign says toll ahead, the next one shows the amounts, and then the final one ever so politely tells you (in English of course) how to find out what just happened.

The thing is, this is not on a highway. It’s just a normal road in Bergen. So if you want to drive down this road, you get charged. Want to drive down it again? You get charged again (but not more than once an hour).

So it’s essentially a usage fee. Of course if you live here, you get an electronic card in your car and it all works seamlessly (including the part where Kroner disappear from your bank account). If you don’t have one of those cards, a camera takes a photo of your license number and then you receive a bill in the mail. Voila.

At NOK 15 (or about $3), the fee is not that much. For example, it is a mere 1/10th the cost of the magical NOK 150 ($30) cheeseburger I see everywhere.

But it adds up. And the fact that they have the capacity to assess a fee like this on any road anywhere in the country is pretty darn impressive.

Into the west

I almost did not come to Bergen.

And if I had skipped Norway’s older west coast city, I would have missed out on the nine hour, 200 mile (you do the math) cross country bus journey from Lillehammer to get here. At least the lengthy duration of the trip reduced the per hour cost down to a manageable $8.50 – there’s not much else you can do in Norway that cheaply.

I also would have missed out on the views. And that would have been a shame. Because outside the window passed one of the most incredible landscapes I have ever seen – anywhere. Fjord Norway. Epic. Heroic. Land of the gods. All that and more.

Despite the copious amount of time spent on the bus, often at speeds I could have matched on foot, actual stops where we could disembark and take photos of the Olympic backdrop were scarce. But every inch of the way was worth capturing.

Down below, sometimes in permanent shade, Norwegians live orderly lives tending green fields. Next to their tidy homes, steep walls of rock soar thousands of feet up to permanent snowfields. On the valley floor, occasional house-sized boulders located inconveniently for human purposes hint at the perils of living underneath all that vertiginous weight. The gods still hurl thunderbolts when angry. So please do NOT litter.

For motorized travel, this is the land of the tunnel, and they are everywhere. The longest one we went through was about 25 KM. Long tunnels include fully carved out subterranean rest stops. But you would not want to linger too long given the air.

Sitting in Bergen this morning, for the first time in the month since I left Ireland on February 28, the sun is not shining. In fact, the weather looks like something out of the west of Ireland: wind, rain, and gray. Could be an indoor reading day.

Speaking of Ireland, if your reading stack is thin, the recently released Mahon tribunal findings are providing some good material for students of political corruption on the faire isle. As always, Fintan O’Toole adds his blow torch to the fracas.

What’s in a hostel?

You’d be hard pressed to find a better hostel than the one at the Lillehammer train station. It really exemplifies the best of all the things you want: central location, efficient reception, clean and (the two nights I am here) empty.

This one also has a cafe on the ground floor. But before you get too excited, remember to divide by 5. That piece of lasagna that sounds so good will set you back $25.

Henrik located

Only Shakespeare has more plays produced worldwide each year than Henrik Ibsen. For a leading modernist artist of international stature, the Ibsen Museum in Oslo was surprisingly small and dull. Really not much to see. And somehow it has only been around since 2006.

With a guide you can see the apartment upstairs where he lived the last 11 years of his life. While interesting, the place was only recently restored to look like it did when he was there, and it does not feel truly authentic.

But the ghost of Henrik and his characters was there. The apartment reminds you of a set for one of his plays. Apparently tourists used to wait outside to catch a glimpse of the dour old man.

Of note: The gift shop offers a postcard drawing of Ibsen smiling. Clearly this is a hypothetical event that never actually happened.

Lillehammer

A few hours north of Oslo, there is still snow on the ground. Lillehammer is an exciting town, buzzing with the Olympic energy. I hitchhiked up to look at the ski venue in the waning light. It will make a good hill run in the morning.