19.1.16

Bergen, Norway

I've been obsessing over Bergen for a few years now. Like many of the things I can't get off my mind, I'm not really sure when I started to think about it, or how I even heard about it, but its been nagging at the back of my mind for quite some time.

When our initial New Year's plan to take a van around Scotland starting looking less and less likely (I didn't want another Iceland adventure, but in sub-zero temperatures), I cast out for other options. London on New Year's Eve would be expensive, and probably cause a four day hangover that I'm just too old to handle gracefully.

Bergen popped in to my mind.

Would it be cold?
Probably.
Dark early?
Definitely.

But it would be the ideal place to hunker down for a relaxing, cozy new year.

Bryggen, the historic waterfront part of the city


Bergen is surrounded by mountains, and right on the seaside. Because of its location, it is insulated from the worst of the cold Norwegian weather. 



Our first full day, we awoke to a candelit breakfast at an amazing breakfast buffet at the Scandic, and took a taxi around 10am (still in the dawn) to our Airbnb. 

Since daylight was against us, we quickly got out on the town. 



Just needing to orient ourselves, we walked through the center, toward Bryggen, the historic waterfront part of the city- and the oldest.



Being that time between Christmas and New Year, the city was still decked out for Christmas. I really like the way Norwegians do Christmas decorations. Having just come from the land of big, inflatable Santas, multi-colored Christmas lights and synthetic 20-foot trees, the understated decorations that really just reflect the natural beauty of Norway was refreshing.


Behind the shops in Bryggen is a maze of wooden shops that must be at least 300 years old. It was fun to walk through them, although they look precariously old and are definitely leaning at obtuse and somewhat precarious angles.


Something we learned about Norway: between Christmas and New Year, not much is open. In a way, I liked that. First, we weren't tempted to spend much, and second, the city was quieter, making it easier to get in to that cozy mood I really wanted on the trip.





By sunset, about 3pm, we were back in our Airbnb, which was at the top of one of the city's many mountains. We had a great view.


The next morning we had to get up very, very early for a trip with Fjord Tours. We had to hop on a train from Bergen to Myrdal, and then a bus to Gudvangen Fjord. From there, a boat was to take us to Flam, and then we were going to take the historic Flam railway all the way back to Bergen. All in all, it was an eight hour trip.




The train ride was pretty dark, but by the time the bus trip started, it was light and we were treated to amazing views of the fjords and mountains. 

By the time we got to Gudvangen, I was pretty excited. The views were enticing, to say the least.


Sadly, the boat portion of the tour was for not. Fjord Tours oversold the trip, which left about 30 of us stranded; the boat was too small to accommodate all the people who had purchased tickets. We took a quick bus ride to Flam, and had to wait about two hours whilst the rest of the group lucky (ahem...pushy) enough to be the first ones in line took their tour and met us on the either side of the fjord.




Being off season, pretty much everything in Flam was closed. Making the best of a bad situation, we took a hike around Flam and got in some pretty amazing views.


Fjord Tours ended up giving us a full refund, which made the whole day seem just magical- all those beautiful sights, and seeing so much of Norway, for free.

And we weren't done yet. We had the train ride ahead of us. And we didn't know it until we boarded, but apparently its one of the world's most beautiful railways.



Being used to English and American railway cars, I can say they made a strong first impression. I felt like I was on the Polar Express!


As we climbed from sea level to 2000km about sea level, I couldn't help but be floored by the amazing scenery. Norway is truly beautiful. Although, I have to say, I wonder where all the people who live out in these parts get their clothes?


We stopped at an amazing ice waterfall about halfway up the mountain.

Sunset, covered in snow.
 The next day, New Year's Eve, was rainy and very, very windy, so we mostly stayed in and prepared for the evening. I don't typically post pictures of my food anymore, but I was really proud of what we put together.

As I mentioned, most things were closed in Bergen for New Year, and the places that were open were a little too rowdy for the likes of oldies like us. So, we'd planned well, bringing two bottles of prosecco with us from London (alcohol prices in Norway are extreme) and planning a delicious dinner ahead of time.

I made these!

He made these- always showing me up in the culinary department.
We ended up making our favorite Scandi dish, mackerel with scrambled eggs, Danish bread and asparagus. We made it before in Copenhagen, and it was just as good as I remembered.

The highlight of our trip was definitely New Year's Eve. Sipping slowly on our prosecco, we realized there was a reason we saw fireworks stands everywhere when we were going around Norway on the fjord tour. 

It seems like its a tradition for most people to put off fireworks in their front yards. 

Being on the top of a mountain, we were privy to at least 100 different fireworks show. They ramped up around 10pm and didn't stop until after 1am. It. was. magical.


On New Year's Day, we were up early to get back to the city center. Having gotten our bearings the last few days, we knew exactly where we wanted to go: up Floyen for the best views in the city.




We decided to walk in to the city center from our Airbnb; I thought the trains weren't running but, about 20 minutes in to the 45-minute walk, we saw them. Oh well. It was great to get to see a bit more of the city.



We took the funicular, which was on at least a 45-degree angle, to the top of the mountain. Its probably a tourist mecca in the summertime- there's a restaurant, playground and tons of hiking trials- but even on New Year's Day, it was pretty busy.

Looking at the view, you can see why.



After that, we got an early night because our flight left at 7am. Ouch. There were even threats of self immolation after our 3am wake up call from S- and he's usually pretty cheery. 

But even though it was an early, early start, it didn't diminish the magic of Norway a bit. Cold? A bit. Windy? Oh yes. Dark early? Definitely. But a great way to spend a cozy, low key new year with amazing views of 100 fireworks shows. 

We'll be back for another new year in the future, Bergen!

12.11.15

Sicily

A long while back, a good friend of mine talked about a trip she took in which she toured olive oil plantations in Southern Italy. Ever since, I've been feeling serious wander envy.

Just last year, my flatmate went to Sicily and came back with stunning photos of Mt Etna, and even better stories.

So, I planned my own version, combining both trips to create the best Italian trip ever- a road trip around Sicily, complete with olive oil plantations, volcanoes and lots in between!

We flew Ryanair to get to Sicily, which always means weird flight times. We arrived in Sicily on Friday night around 11pm, so we just rented a car and drove to the nearest hotel outside of Palermo so we could get going Saturday morning.

Saturday morning dawned a bit too early, but we were up and at 'em anyway. The sleepy little suburb we stayed in didn't have much in the way of breakfast options, so we decided to grab something on the road and get on down toward Valley of the Temples, our first stop.




Because Valley of the Temples is so amazingly picturesque, it seems like there's a photo opportunity at every turn. That's why it seems I spent most of my time there as a living, breathing tripod.

There are six ancient temples in the Valley. I'm not talking ancient as in built in 1700, either. The temples date back to the 6th century B.C. 

Seriously.


The Valley is at the foot of Agrigento, a beautiful Italian town on the side of a hill. Most towns in Sicily, actually, are on the side of a hill. A few are even on top of the hills, but we'll get to that.


Can you tell what this was?! That's right. A man! 



My mind literally swam thinking how old these temples were, and thinking about the millions of people who have seen these temples decay slowly over the past 2500 years. Its amazing that the buildings have withstood the test of time. We think we're so advanced in our technological age, but I tell ya, I don't think anything we build in the States will last as long as these temples.



The walls of an ancient fortress, which enclosed the temples at one point in time.
Having gotten used to the grab-and-go cultures we espouse in the US and UK, I was a little shocked at the lack of quick eating options to facilitate our whirlwind road trip. As I mentioned, the options for breakfast at 11am on a Saturday morning were paltry in Terrasini, a suburb of Palermo, and were even more sparse the further we drove into the countryside. We ended up stopping at a bakery that mainly sold sweets and had cheese and bread. (Thank goodness one of the staff spoke English; very few Italians, it turns out, do, at least in Sicily.) I was therefore STARVING as we walked around the Valley of the Temples. Luckily there were still a few tourist shops open as out of season as we were for traditional fare- arancini (rice balls) and gelato. Mmmmmm.



One of the goals of the trip was to get in the ocean. This was partly an act of defiance, given that in England it was about 0 degrees and rainy, and partly because it was actually very hot walking around all the temples. We stopped off at the beach next to the Valley for a quick dip.


That night, we headed on into the middle of the island to stay at Villa Trigona, an ancient hotel (seriously- again, built in the 7th century B.C., and a UNESCO heritage site) outside of Piazza Armerina.



I can't recommend Villa Trigona enough. It feels miles outside of the busy, hilly Piazza Armerina, when really its only about a mile out. You probably couldn't walk it simply because the roads are narrow and Italian drivers are insane, but its a quick drive in. Not that you need to drive in, if you don't want to. They served one of the best dinners I've ever had, and were very generous when it came to wine. 



The next morning was very, very rainy. As in, rainier than I've ever seen it in the UK. Of course, we get out of England and the weather just follows us. Luckily, we had a very fun day planned with only indoor adventures and lots of driving. We headed out of Piazza Armerina toward the Villa Romana, another ancient site.

Some of the mural paintings are still visible. After almost 1000 years. Amazing.
The Villa was built in the 4th century and is very, very, very well preserved. Although you aren't technically supposed to take pictures, I snuck a few for you.




I was shocked by how well preserved the floors and walls were, but apparently they were covered over in the Middle Ages. Although I'm floored (get it! haha) that anyone would want to cover up this amazing, intricate artwork (the floors are tiled!), thank you to the Middle Ages, because if they hadn't covered up this amazing stuff, it wouldn't be around today.



After the Villa Romana, the sky cleared just quickly enough for us to walk around Piazza Armerina quickly. Its a cute town that's basically falling down the side of a hill. I semi-wish I could live there, given the scenery you get from most places in town. The only down side? The insane hills and hairpin turns that drivers insist on whipping around. In the rain and wet, I had heart palpitations.


As we headed toward Giardini Naxos, our home for the next two nights, we realized that being inland had actually sheltered us from the horrible weather. It appeared that Sicily was having the storm of the century, complete with flooded out roads that our nice little Fiat handled with ease. The clouds were pretty amazing. Slash, scary.


That evening, once we got to Giardini Naxos, the rain was so fierce and the wind so harsh that we stayed in, eating cereal bars and listening to the sound of thunder. The roads were just horrible, and to combine that with insane Italian drivers would have been too much.

Needless to say, the next morning we woke up ravenous. Thank goodness we were at a B&B; it seems that in non-touristy focused places, there are very, very few restaurants open for breakfast.

Because the weather was still so bad, we decided to brave it across the mountain range separating the north from the south, to see if we could get some better weather in the olive oil plantations in the south.



I'd done my research and selected two plantations near Ragusa, which is basically at the very southern tip of the island. 

Unfortunately, another thing that I'd taken for granted, and shouldn't have, is that people actually use and update Google in Sicily. They don't. Both plantations had closed down, although whether for the season (which would be odd, because late October is olive oil season) or for ever is unclear.

Luckily, the area was pretty remote, so we just tramped through the olive oil fields ourselves- a bit of an impromptu tour, but you've got to make the best out of a bad situation and find the silver lining in the very grey clouds.


And was there ever a silver lining! The scenery was amazing- up in the fields, you could see for miles, all the way down to the sea side on one side and to the mountains we'd come over in the other direction. AND, it was sunny! 


Since we were so close, and we had some time on our hands, we headed in to Ragusa, which we didn't know much about.




Its a beautiful, very old Sicilian town clinging to the top and sides of a hill. Since the weather was nice, we walked almost every street to get a feel for the place.





The view was incredible. You could see all the way down the streets and out to the side of the mountain where the houses and roads dropped away.

The next day, the weather had finally cooperated. Of course, it was our last day. Sod's law, as the Brits say! But at least it was nice enough that we could hit the three main places we wanted to see in one fell swoop.

The first was Castelmola. If the other cities we'd seen had been hanging off hills, Castelmola was teetering off of a rather large mountain.



The view from the very top, the decaying remains of an old castle, was worth the harrowing drive through Taormina and up a mountain road littered with the sharpest hairpin turns I've ever seen. The little town just a stone's thrown down the mountain was also very, very picturesque. 



As I'd noticed about a lot of Sicily, many of the buildings were abandoned and decaying. I'm not sure why, but I like that, instead of ripping down all the old stuff, even if its unused, people just leave it. It seems like a nice way to keep reminders of the past alive in the present day. However, it was also spooky to consider just how much in Sicily was abandoned or, often, just left incomplete. There were tons of buildings that looked like they'd been started and just left to rot. Perhaps because of the economic downturn? Its unclear.





The only disappointing thing about the day was that the clouds were still so bad that they covered up Mt Etna, which could be in full view if it was a cloudless day. But I did manage to sneak a picture (see below!).

After Castelmola, we drove back to Taormina. Throughout our trip, because we'd stayed in little villages and off the beaten track, we hadn't experienced much convenience, which was annoying, but conversely, we hadn't felt like we'd gotten a particularly touristy experience, which can be nice. (Other times, as when I was in Bosnia, feeling like a tourist can be comforting, I suppose. Italy was familiar enough, culture-wise, that I didn't need the coddling of a tourist.) In Taormina, we were definitely tourists. It was heavily, heavily tourist oriented and I felt like every tourist on the island was there. 

It became apparent why. The Greek Ampitheatre, a massive ampitheatre built in the third century, was insanely impressive.


Excuse the photobomber. If you look in the upper left corner, you'll see Etna peeking out from behind the clouds.
The craziest thing about the ampitheatre is the view of Etna. Even though there were scattered clouds, it was breathtaking. Etna is MASSIVE. No wonder the Greeks built this where they did; volcano on one side, sea on the other. Nature's most impressive elements are on either side.




Outside of the ampitheatre, between the tourists, we were able to find our final culinary to do, as well: ice cream stuffed brioche. It sounds odd, but its apparently very common for Sicilians to eat this as breakfast. I can see why. It was huge. And delicious. And cold. And delicious.


Our final stop was Savoca, which is another town on top of a mountain. It is also where some of the Godfather was filmed.



We walked through the entire town, which really is perched precariously off the side of a massive mountain. The whole time we encountered maybe three people. Most of the town is abandoned. As beautiful as it is, I can see why. I'd have a heart attack driving up those hairpin turns to get in and out.








After Savoca, we jumped in the car and made the three hour journey back to Palermo to leave. One interesting thing: every tunnel (and there were tons, since we were on a mountainous seaside road) and bridge have a name. There are literally hundreds of named tunnels between Messina and Palermo. 

Since it was so rainy, we have decided we must come back soon to enjoy more of the ocean, see more of Etna and eat more ice cream stuffed brioche. Hopefully it won't be too long, Sicily. I'll just have to remember to not trust Google and bring breakfast bars.