Monday, June 30, 2008

Back to Berlin

We got off the ship in Stockholm way too early (woken up at 5:30 by the crew). Then we paid for the bus to the train station and used the last of our Swedish money to pay for a locker. Once this was done we just sat in the train station for an hour waiting for the grocery stores to open. At 7:45 we hit the supermarket and bought some breakfast and ate it in a nearby park. Then we played the waiting game again for the museums. It would have been all so much simper had the boat just arrived at a normal time. Anyway, we got to the museum and had a nasty surprise when we discovered that museums are no longer free in Stockholm. I guess the government has changed since the Lonely Planet was published. I never did, but I'm sure the Lonley Planet has an updates section on their website that you should really check out before leaving. Luckily the fare wasn't too bad and we paid on VISA (Swedish money all spent). After looking through the museum with it's Viking sections, we headed out to get some lunch. Lunch happened at a basement fish market underneath a mall. Sounds funny, but it was great and the seafood was fresh, but it was a strange mix of fresh seafood vendors and eating stalls. After a delicious lunch we headed to the library to see about getting a bit of internet. The national library didn't have internet but they directed us to the city library. There we got some free internet and had a long walk to get there. After the library we tried our luck at a couple other museums. One was actually free, the other we skipped because it didn't look to be worth it. The free one however was tiny and didn't have anything authentic, because the real location is under renovations, but they lent us a book displaying the old museum... yay. By now it was getting close to game time and so we made our way to the train station. It was fully packed though, and we just sat in the train station instead. Beer at the bars in Stockholm is not cheap and we each had a magazine we wanted to read. Cara is reading a wedding magazine and I bought a photography one.

By the time our train left Spain was winning 1-0. A sleeper car to Malmo provided a bit more rest than usual, but still not a great sleep. We woke up outside Malmo and once in Malmo missed the first train to Copenhagen by about 2 minutes. We caught the next train (20 minutes later) and then missed the train to Berlin by 2 minutes (because our train was late). Ok so now we had a 2 hour layover. We had to go make reservations for the later train to Hamburg and were disappointed to find Denmark train really doesn't accept VISA without a pin code. Why I have no idea, but we weren't pleased, because everywhere else in Denmark does. So we paid in Euro, but when we tried to give the lady exact change, she wouldn't accept any coins, so we paid in bills and got some nice shiny souvenirs. I tossed the useless stuff on the ground outside, due to lack of sleep and being a little angry at missing 2 trains in a row. We read our magazines and killed an hour and half before our train showed up... you guessed it, late. If only the train we missed was late, we might have caught it. The reservation lady didn't give us great seating either, we were across the aisle from each other and each had our own old man in a suit to share leg room with. The train boarded a ferry again, which was still cool, but much less cool now that we were tired and grumpy. It was raining too, so we didn't bother going outside. Once in Hamburg we waited 45 minutes for our train to Berlin and were glad we paid for reservations even though we didn't need them, because the train was pretty packed and saw lots of other people getting displaced.

Finally back in Berlin we were feeling a lot better. Away from the Scandinavian prices and back in Germany where trains are fast and frequent. We spent a bit of time finding out about metro and found that our Eurail is good for all S-Bahn, even though the booklet says different. So we rode the S-Bahn to near Anna's house and found the bar where she had left us the keys. Keys in hand, we found the apartment and settled in. We were so beat we decided not to try and squeeze any sightseeing in that night. We went to the supermarket and got some food and then cooked some dinner. Then it was a full 3 hours of relaxing before going to bed.

Saturday monring we woke up around 9 and got off to a slow start where we didn't get out and about until noon. Once out though we rode the metro and found the East Side Gallery, a 1.3 km stretch of Berlin Wall that was painted in 1990 by artists from all over the world. It was neat for sure and many of the paintings are crumbling, but some have been renewed or new ones painted. Cool stuff, and after walking the length of it, we rode some more metro and when to the best wurst stand in Berlin. It was crowded with tourists as I guess it's in everyones guide book. But the wurst was great and after filling our bellies we hit the Jewish museum. It was huge, in my opinion too huge. In 5 hours we didn't see even half of the stuff and skipped 30 entries in our audio guide, and forget the temporary exhibit we paid for. If I found it a bit boring, Cara found it very interesting and couldn't get enough of it. The museum was focused on the history of Jewish people in Germany, but oddly enough had not as much in the sections covering the last 70 years as in the section covering, say, the 1800's. Anyway we left there around 8pm and headed back to the apartment. By the time we got back Anna's roomate Anna was home (Anna is a popular name in Germany) and we had a good chat with her and found out how to connect to their wi-fi. After that we had some beer and made dinner and around then roomate Anna's friends showed up and for a little while we listened to music while getting ready for bed. They left for the bar around midnight, but we didn't join them because our train left early the next morning for Amsterdam.

Sunday morning we woke up early and got packed up and ready to leave. We caught the 3 connection metro ride to Berlin's main station. We left ourselves an hour to get there and by then end only had 20 minutes left. We mailed the last of the postcards and waited for our train. Our train showed up on time and left on time and we are now making our way to the Netherlands. We have 2 nights in Amsterdam and 1 in Paris before we say goodbye to continental Europe and hit the UK. It's a strange feeling; we are happy to go home, but sad to leave it all behind as well.

Homesick in Helsinki

We rode the train into Helsinki and found Sami and Pirjo waiting for us on the platform. It was so nice to have a familiar face waiting for us when we arrived in this new and strange city. They showed us to Sami's car, where we dropped off our heavy packs and then went on a small private tour of Helsinki center. We saw the harbour front, some very interesting architecture and the huge Tuomiokirkko (Lutheran Cathedral). We grabbed a hot drink near the Cathedral and talked about what to do for our stay. We didn't have many suggestions other than what our guide book said, so we basically left it up to them for the most part with a couple things we wanted to get done (mostly shopping). After the Cathedral and some tea and coffee, we walked back to the train station, where we collected the car and got some groceries, and then went to Sami's place. We were offered to have Pirjo's place all to ourselves, but we were only staying 3 nights and thought it best to just squeeze into Sami's place in order to maximize visiting time and save on transit and meeting places. Sami's appartment was great, not too small and had everything we needed (mostly internet and laundry). Pirjo cooked us an excellent rainbow trout soup for lunch, that was served with rye bread and some veggies - traditional Finnish cuisine. We also had some great and very flavourful northern strawberries and some great salty licorice (Salmiakki).

The plan for the rest of the night was to visit Sami's friend Jani, who just happened to have a ... you guessed it, Sauna. Unfortunately Jani's wife, Pilvi was very ill and they didn't feel like hosting guests. So instead we did something else typically Finnish. We drove to a park (forested area) and had beer, a fire, and some roast sausages. We thought it quite funny when Pirjo got upset because she bought sausages that had 73% meat. Aparently real Finnish sausages only should have about 50% meat. They were still delicious and we had a great time and now that we've caught the camping bug, we can't wait to do some camping back home. After sausages we had a fun time cutting up a log and an even better time walking back through the park. The great thing about being this far North is it never really gets dark, so even coming back quite late is not a problem. We got back to Sami's and had some more beer (this time duty free Heineken), watched the football game and talked before going to bed.

Monday morning we got up not too early and had an excellent breakfast. We had some more of the delicious rye bread, Carelian Pies (rye bread with rice pudding filling), some spreadable boiled egg and butter mixture, and some veggies. After we got going we drove to Porvoo, which is a great little medival fishing town. It's well preseved with a beautiful little chapel. It was a little touristy though, but we bought some souvenirs nonetheless. After walking and exploring the town a bit, we stopped and had lunch in an old boat on the river. The boat had quite the history and is actually of German make. The lunch however was even better than the packaging of the

restaurant. I had fried Baltic Herring with potatoes and beets. It was delicious and I'm definately going to make that dish when we get home. Cara had the Salmon and thought it was quite tasty as well. After we finished at the restaurant it was back to Sami's place where they collected their Japanese workbooks. Unfortunately Sami and Pirjo were just finishing Japanese classes and were busy Monday and Tuesday nights with class, but unfortunately we couldn't really work Finland into our trip anywhere else. But Sami had Tuesday off and Pirjo unexpectedly switched jobs and was free, so we were actually pretty lucky. Another excellent thing about our timing was that we arrived just after midsummer festival, which is second only to Christmas (and that's debatable) and there are massive sales on at all the stores. So we went shopping. Sami and Pirjo dropped us off at the nearby mall, while they went to class. The mall was pretty big and we had no trouble killing the 3 and a half hours till their return. We then got some more groceries and went back to Sami's where we tried to cook a typical dinner (for us Canadians) for them, with

one small exception, we threw in some poutine, because they where intrigued by the description of it (poutine was the only Canadian cuisine example we could come up with). So we started with poutine and then had stuffed feta chicken breasts and a salad with lots of veggies. It was pretty good, but the poutine wasn't first class, because the fries were frozen, the curds were really mozzarella and the gravy was packaged, but we did our best. Then we all watched 'There's Something About Mary' - in English with Finnish subtitles, and had some more drinks before bed.

Tuesday morning we got up and had the traditional Finnish breakfast once again and after getting going again, we took the train into Helsinki center around noon. Then we walked to a record shop that I asked Sami to look up online. Finland is an amazing little place that seems to have the ability to produce way more music (especially Heavy Metal) and sports superstars than a country of 5 million should. I wanted to get into a record
shop and pick up some souvenirs. They didn't have everything I wanted, but they did have the one thing I really wanted and even Cara bought a cd. As for the athletes we didn't experience that, but we did hear some great stories about some of them. In particular a ski jumper who's somewhat of a freakshow and a tabloid writer's dream.

After the record shop we split up with our hosts to do our own things. Me and Cara did a combination of sight seeing and shopping, while Pirjo went to her aparment to get some stuff and Sami went to buy pants. Me and Cara dipped into another record shop and then went and visited the very cool Temppeliaukio (underground rock church). Not sure of the story behind the church, but it was cool nonetheless. After which, we went to another large shopping mall (can't compete with West Ed though). Then we met back up with Sami and Pirjo for lunch at a tractor bar. Yes I said tractor bar. It's a popular sight in Helsinki where by day they serve food, and by night they serve party. The decor is... interesting with farm equipment and tools, including tractors. The food is like the decor: rustic and traditional. I had Carelian Stew and Cara had Finnish meatballs, which are different than Swedish meatball, but equally as good, if not better.

After the late lunch we split up again so Sami and Pirjo could get to their Japanese class. Meanwhile me and Cara went to the top of a high tower, did some more shopping, and took in a free concert, and went down to the cool harbour again. We had a good time and after it all we met Sami and Pirjo at the train station again. We got some groceries, including Finnish beer and caught the train to Sami's car and then drove to his friend Jani's house. Pilvi was feeling better now and I can see why they didn't want to host us when she was feeling sick, because they are excellent hosts and really went the extra mile. We had coffe, tea, cookies, and a pizza-like dish waiting for our arrival. We also brought some baguette and meat pastries (like sausage rolls) with us, which we ate as well. We had a nice little dinner and talked for a while before getting down to business: Sauna. And trust me, Finnish people consider it serious business, or as serious as you can be while sitting naked in 85 degrees celcius drinking beer. Men and women take turns and it's an excellent time to chat and relax. There's a Finnish saying that says, whatever is said in Sauna stays in Sauna (kind of like Fight Club - rule 1: you don't talk about Sauna). Water is poured on the rocks every couple minutes and it gets pretty hot. It's necesary to take a few breaks and enjoy some cool air outdoors. Me and Cara are hooked and will build our own sauna one day, staying true to the Finnish ways. We got the full rundown of the difference between Finnish, Swedish and Turkish Sauna's. Although I still need a lesson in making the whipping sticks (it's traditional to whip yourself with a birch branch to stimulate the skin). I even heard about the sauna world championships and how they determine the winner. You get into a 100 degree (celcius) sauna and pour a cup of water on the rocks every 2 minutes. The longest time wins. Simple, but intense. It was getting late though and Sami had to work the next day, so we headed home and got to bed around 2am after saying our goodbyes to Sami.

Wednesday morning we woke up early considering what time we went to bed. Sami was gone and I'm sure very tired. Pirjo was still there though and I made french toast for everyone. It had somehow come up in conversation and Sami and Pirjo had never had it before, so we made it for Pirjo and after we send them some maple syrup in the mail, she'll let Sami have a taste. Pirjo left shortly after breakfast to meet her aunt and sail to Estonia for the day. If we had the time, that would have been fun to do too. Anyway, we did a few last internet things and then headed out and caught a bus to the Espoo train station. There we caught a train to Helsinki center (10 minutes) and then caught a train all the way back to Turku. We locked up our luggage and tried to make the best of our 3 hours of free time. We got a map from the tourist office and walked along the river and looked at some boats. One in particular was an impressive Swedish war vessel from the 1700's, it was great, but reeked of tar and wood preservative. It reminded us of the start of our trip in Portsmouth and we didn't go inside this one either because we were running short on time and it was paid entry. We walked back towards the train station and got a cheap bite to eat at a kebab shop. The food took awhile to get served and we ended up jogging a little on the way back to the train station. Then we caught a ride to the harbour on a train that was passing through. Once at the port we checked in and did the usual wait for 45 minutes before boarding. The boat this time around was much bigger and so there were a lot more passengers. This increased the amount of pushing and shoving going on. Eventually we made it aboard and got settled into our cabin. It wasn't as good as our last lodgings and it cost more, but apparently prices went up after midsummer. It was still pretty decent though.

After settling in, we went for a little shopping in the duty free. This time we only really bought candy and a few drinks, although we explored the other areas as well. Suddently the 15kg weight limit on checked luggage with Ryan Air is becoming a concern. Oh well, after enjoying some of the last sunshine of the day, we sat down to watch the football game. It was crowded so we sat with an older couple from Finland. Their English was a bit rusty, but we muddled through and they were nice, as well as a bit drunk. Germany prevailed over Turkey and we were all happy for that. I ducked out during the intermission though and caught some great shots of the sunset. With the sun down, but still very light out, we are headed for bed. Hopefully tomorrow in Stockholm turns out well and we are able to get to Berlin with no major probelms. Finland was great and we hope to return one day and explore it more thouroughly, but it reminded us of home quite a bit and we are becoming increasingly homesick. 3 months is a long time to be without a permanent residence.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Soggy Stockholm

We arrived in Stockholm after a long and uneventful train ride. The train got quite packed during some of the journey, so we were glad we reserved seats. Still we had to put up with some hip dad playing videos for his stinky 18 year old son on his new video phone. Luckily that only lasted for about an hour near the end of the trip. For the first half though I managed to write the blog and grab about an hour of napping, then it got crowded.

In Stockholm we tried to get on the metro, but we were confused when we found no automatic ticket dispensers. We asked at the ticket booth and the price was quite a bit higher than we expected so we walked back a few hundred meters to a sales office run by the metro company. Pretty strange set up, but apparently if you buy tickets from the windows at the barrier it's about 5.75 CAD, but if you buy them from the office or any convenience store they are 4$. And that is for a 2 hour pass, if you want a 24 hour pass it's 17$. So the metro like everything else in Sweden is pricey. We were planning on riding the metro quite a bit so we got the 24 hour pass. We got off at the stop indicated by our hostel and walked about a kilometer and a half to our hostel. It was awesome. One of our favorite hostels so far for sure. It was cheap (by Scandinavian standards) and is housed in an old prison complex, and the rooms are cells. At least from the outside, inside they are small, but pretty lavish (by hostel standards), and all have private ensuite baths. The only downside is like everywhere else so far you need to rent linen, so we made use of our sleeping bag liners again.

After unpacking a bit we headed town to the reception, where an extreemly nice lady helped us locate the ferry offices. We wanted to ensure we had tickets to Finland before the day was done, so we caught the metro to the center of town and then walked a good distance to the Viking ferry terminal. With our Eurail pass we get 50% off on the ferry crossing through the Viking and Silja lines. From what the lonely planet indicated the Viking line is cheaper, but once at the terminal we found that it would be nearly 200 CAD for a Cabin (we had no interest in getting deck passage this far north, not that they would actually make you sleep outside like in Greece). Appearantly we only get 50% off the deck passage and not the cabins, but the booklet explicitly says we get 50% off, even on cabins, through Silja. So we phoned Silja from the Viking terminal and made reservations for about 100 CAD in a cabin, much better.

After getting our bit of business taken care of, we took the metro and then a bus to the open air museum of Skansen. It is full of traditional buildings that were relocated here from various parts of Scandinavia. It even has some Sandinavian animals. Lynx, Moose, Bear, Wolves, Seals, Otters and even a Wolverine. All of this is extremely exciting to other Europeans, but being Canadian it wasn't that exciting. The bear pen was pretty cool though, because there was a mom with 3 cubs and they were feeling pretty playful. I also wanted to see the Lynx and Wolverine, but not surprisingly both were absent. The Wolverine came out for a second to get some meat that was dispensed, but I didn't manage to get a photo. It rained for the first hour we were there, but let up afterwards. Aside from the animals, the rest of the compound was pretty good and Skansen was really busy because of Midsummer night. Most Scandinavians head out into the country and enjoy nature on Midsummer, but those who can't apparently head to Skansen with a picnic and drinks. There was also some traditional dancers there as well. We got to the park around 5pm and left around 9:30 to go downtown to get a good view of the town. The pay elevator was broken, so we got to take a free elevator to the top of a catwalk. The view was great and we timed it just right, because the sun was just setting. After a busy day, we headed back to the prison and had a dinner of soup and salad, while watching the soccer game. Turkey ended up beating Croatia in a shoot out. Another bonus of the hostel was the kitchen, fully equipped with 2 fridges, 2 sinks and 3 stoves.

We woke up Saturday morning early and, after checking out, had some breakfast in the kitchen again. We had until 6:15pm to explore Stockholm before boarding our ferry, so we decided to do some museums and just play it by ear. Well appearantly we're deaf, because we seemed to have forgotten it was midsummers day now. Nothing was open, not museums, not even IKEA (yes we tried to go). The only things that we vistied that were open was the palace grounds, a cafe for lunch, a church and a grocery store. It rained off and on all day and we didn't stay dry for too long. IKEA was quite the journey, a 20 minute metro ride out of town and then 5 minutes on a bus. The outside was the same, but we were there to get some cheap food and take some pictures. We got the outside photo, but missed out on the food and going inside. We then went back to town to the old centre of Gamla Stan to check out the Royal Palace. The palace was cool and had some smartly dressed guards. These guys were allowed to move and talk however and were regularly telling people to keep behind the lines or stay out of restricted areas. They also stretched a lot and marched occasionally to check on other areas. At one point a bunch of guards assembled and looked like they might be up to something, but after 15 minutes we got tired of waiting and left. Lunch was good and I had a salmon and spinach quiche and Cara had a delicious chicken focaccia thing. The church was also good with a cool statue of St. George slaying a dragon. After getting groceries and picking our things up at the hostel, we made our way to the ferry terminal. Check in took all of 2 minutes and then we waited around for 45 minutes before boarding. The cabin was decent and had sheets!!

The sailing was pretty good and we stocked up on some duty free wine and beer, because we are staying with Sami and Pirjo and wanted to bring them something. We checked out the bars on board as well as the restaurant and disco. All were cheap by Scandinavian standars and were definately popular destinations, but not enough for us to partake. I thought it was quite interesting and it's quite popular for Swedes to sail to Finland and back in a day and basically party and buy duty free stuff. If you buy 4x24 packs of beer, you get a free wheeling cart to carry them with and we saw lots of people with wheeling carts. We also watched enough of the Russia vs Holland game to see it go to overtime, much to the disappointment of the Russians in the crowds, and watched the sunset before heading to bed.

Sunday morning we got up to some lady yelling something in Swedish into our room at 6 am. By 7 am we were off the boat and on the train platform waiting for a train that didn't depart until 8:30. Finally in Finland and we can't wait to get to Helsinki. It doesn't look to be much cheeper than Sweden, but with a place to stay and friends to visit with we should have lots of budget to spare and some good times.

Only Oslo

The rest of the train journey was good and we enjoyed the scenery and napped a bit. It was a 7 hour train ride though and by the end of it I was getting really restless. Usually trains are a good time to rest up after a long couple days of walking, hiking and sight seeing. But in Bergen, because of the rain, we didn't do a whole lot of that, so this was just wasted time to me. We also just kinda jumped into an empty car and after a little while we realised we were in the children's car, as more and more parents with little kids kept getting on board. We really should have noticed becase there was a playground in the next compartment. But we already confirmed the seats weren't reserved with the conductor, and as he was a surly conductor, we didn't want to bother him again. The train was also going really slow and at times it was crawling along and waiting at stations for ever. So it was no surprise when our train got in late. Luckily the scenery was good, or it would have been almost unbearable.

We arrived in Oslo and walked through the rain to our hostel. We checked in and then headed back out and got some food, which we dropped off at the hostel. It was still raining and windy so even our umbrellas weren't much good. But we were determined not to waste another day indoors. Especially when we were planning on leaving Oslo for Stockholm early the next morning, so these would be our only few hours in Oslo. We went back to the train station and checked times for trains to Stockholm (something we could have done when we first arrived, I know). Then we did a nice walk along the river that was suggested in our guide book. The walk was ok, but the side of the river we decided to walk on, looks to be a popular hangout for homeless, so it wasn't all that scenic. The walk ended in a cool trendy area of town, and I took a couple photos of some grafitti. There was also a cool bar, but at 12 CAD for a beer, we decided to skip it. Then we headed back to the hostel where we watched Germany defeat Portugal. Cara was sad for Ronaldo, but we didn't really want Portugal to win and were happy Germany won. Then we headed to bed.

The night's sleep was pretty crappy. Our last roomate to get in, at 3:30, was really noisy and took an hour to get to bed. Then at 6 am our first roomate to bed was up and getting ready to leave and was also pretty noisy and took most of an hour to leave. We were up at 6:45 though to catch a train and we, being the nice people we are, were quiet and only took about 10 minutes to clear the room. Then, after checking out it was off to the train station, where we boarded a train to Stockholm. We hope to catch up on some missed sleep and really really hope that it doesn't rain in Stockholm the entire time we're there.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Boggy Bergen

The train to Bergen was great, but we were very tired and couldn't keep our eyes open to see all the scenery, but we need to come back through this way on our way to Oslo, so hopefully the second time around we aren't so tired. Anyway we arrived in Bergen and made our way across town to the tourist information office. We asked if they could book us some accomodations, of course, but for a 10 CAD fee. Hmmm. Well we didn't really have many more options so we paid the fee which ended up beeing about 10% the cost of our room. 100 CAD for a room in a private house with a shared bathroom. Norway is pricey and there is no way to avoid it, even the hostels would be almost this much. We had trouble finding the place because the map description had left and right mixed up and even the drawing suggested a left on the last turn, where it should have been a right. We met the father of the owner of the house who couldn't have been much more than 40. Cara and I both agree he was pretty young, and especially compared to European standards, Scandinavians have kids quite early (like Canadians), whereas in Paris, for example, it was the norm to see a 40 year old mother dragging around a 3 year old kid. Anyway, the son of the man apparently just bought this place for a paltry 3.5 million Krona (700,000 CAD) and is renting rooms to help pay the mortgage. Nice fellow, but busy, as he was the main renovator of the house.

After unpacking a few things, we headed out to explore the town a bit. We walk around for a few minutes and then stopped off at the library in town to take advantage of their free internet. It was nice to find something free in a country so expensive. We then headed off to a nearby grocery store where we bought some pricey groceries. We headed back to the room and used the kitchen to cook some spaghetti with mystery meat (cheapish meat patties that were beside the meatballs). The dinner was good and filling and afterwards we kinda just lounged around and met the other owner of the house, the son's girlfriend. She was really nice too, and you could tell she was excited about owning a house. We chatted and then, because we were still beat, had an early night.

Wenesday morning we got up early and made breakfast in the kitchen, scrambled eggs and yogurt. Then we headed out and found some information on hikes in the area. Then we set out on a nice 6 hour hike along some of the mountains in the area. Unfortunately we got only about 1/3 of the way through before a storm blew in and drenched us. We took cover from the wind in a little gully and from the rain under a tree and ate some lunch. After we were done eating we checked the sky and it didn't look like it was going to pass anytime soon so we turned around and headed back. Luckily going down is faster than

coming up and we made good time back to town. Just good enough time to see the storm lift. Well not really, it just broke for a bit. So with a rainy afternoon ahead (and the weather report just said cloudy...), we hit the library again. The connection speed was really good and so we both got our own computers and Cara uploaded about a month's worth of photos to Facebook (check it out if you have Facebook, if you don't, get out from under your rock, just kidding). After the alloted hour we went back through the downpour to the room, where we hung up 2 sets of drenched clothing. It was nearing supper time, so we cooked round 2 of the spaghetti and relaxed and watched a movie. It was really too bad about the weather, because Bergen looks like an awesome town to explore. Unfortunately everything is outdoors and when it's raining so hard, you don't want to be outdoors. We headed to bed, hoping for some good weather the next morning, so we could explore before heading out to Oslo.

Thursday morning we got up early and packed our stuff. Then we headed down to the kitchen and made round 2 of scrambled eggs. We looked out the windows too and assessed that another day of rain was ahead. With that in mind we decided to take the earlier train out to Oslo. The train didn't leave for an hour so we .... headed to the library again! At least we caught up on lots of research for the rest of our trip and Cara caught up on her facebook. Then we jumped on the train to Oslo and dealt with the surly conductors again. Both the journey to and from Bergen were met with some surly conductors who did not seem pleased to answer your questions. Anyway, here we sit, enjoying the great passing views again, and hope for some better weather in Oslo.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Fjordy Flam

Third time was the charm and we didn't need to move seats again. We got off in Myrdal and from there the Norway in a Nutshell loop starts (at least for us, you can start it from anywhere). So we took the steepest railway in Scandinavia down into the town of Flam. The train was crowded and everyone was jumping around taking pictures. It was really beautiful though. We even stopped at a pretty big waterfall and for some reason they were blasting Enya music and some Celtic woman was dancing around on the rocks near the water. Once in Flam we headed to the information desk, but since they charged money to make a phone call, we just decided to walk over. The town is tiny and it only took a few minutes to walk there. They hadn't got our e-mail yet, but they had room, so we got one. It was actually pretty good at 75 CAD for a private room. It was a hostel but really it was a campground with a couple of buildings with rooms. It was a nice town and we arrived before 3pm, so we went out and got some groceries. The grocery store was pretty pricey and we basically picked the cheapest things we could find. Beer was about 4-5 CAD per can, so we didn't get any of that either. Poop timing, but we were also out of toothpaste and shampoo. We plain forgot to get some while in Berlin.

After dropping the groceries off at the room, we headed out on a hike. The hike was to a nearby waterfall and only took a few hours. Then we returned to the campground and used a kitchen area to make some food. Food was some fried fish balls (fish pudding), fried peppers and some salad. We were adventurous with the fish balls, but they were cheap, and surprisingly good. We washed up and Cara got ready for bed. I thought I would check out a northern sunset. I headed out at 10:30pm and came home around midnight, still no sunset (FYI the picture with the propeller in it was taken at 11:30pm). But I did get a really peacefull walk around town with the whole town to myself. I however ran into a miffed looking american asking about accomodations. I felt sorry for the guy, but walking into a town of 400 people at 11pm at night without accomodations isn't a smart plan. We later looked at the GPS map and Flam is almost a full degree more north than Whitehorse, Yukon. So this is officially the most north we've been. Next weekend is also the longest day of the year and so we're not sure the sun is even setting right now, I've looked outside at 1am, 3am and 4am and I haven't seen a dark sky yet.

Tuesday morning we got up early, checked out, and headed down to the wharf. We bought some expensive tickets to take the rest of the Norway in a Nutshell loop (70 CAD each). The boat ride took a couple of hours and was filled some some spectacular views of one of the most scenic fjords in Norway, which makes it one of the most scenic in the world. The boat was a bit cold though and filled with lots of tourists. It was great and after it was over we got off in a small town and boarded a bus to take us to Voss. The bus ride was really scenic too and went up an incredibly steep and narrow road. At one point an oncoming bus passed our bus, and we were both surprised it actually happened without one of us rolling off the edge. Anyway we survived and soon were in Voss. From Voss we hopped a train for Bergen. The train is scenic too, but we were feeling a bit tired. We don't have accomodations in Bergen, but we were told it wouldn't be a problem. Hopefully we can find some more budget condusive places.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Costly Copenhagen

The orange juice sucked but I got it cleaned up ok and not too much damage was suffered. We changed trains in Hamburg and were soon speeding towards Copenhagen. Uneventful trip except that our train actually drove onto a ferry and we crossed over to Zealand. We both thought that was exciting. On the ferry there was the usual duty free, but we didn't really need any hard alcohol, cigarettes or perfume, so we abstained. Once in Copenhagen we rushed off to find accommodations. This proved quite the ordeal and we went to 2 different tourist offices that were both closed. Then a Danish guy directed us towards one of the hostels in our book. We decided to give it a shot and they actually had a room for us. It wasn't exactly cheap at 40 CAD and not the best with a 6 person dorm, no breakfast, and sheet rentals extra. But we took it anyway, and luckily we did, because not 2 seconds later some guy walked in and was turned away because we took the last room. I'm sure there were other rooms available in Copenhagen, but there was a huge sports tournament going on and a bunch of conferences so rooms were in high demand and it may have taken awhile to find some.

We dropped our stuff off and went out in search of a grocery store. Because of some crappy directions we never actually found it, but we were eventually told it was closed for the evening. So we settled for some calzones from 7-11. Not exactly delicious or nutritious, but we settled for it nonetheless. We then watched Russia beat Greece in the hostel lounge and called it a night. The silk sleeping bag liners are finally paying for themselves and it shouldn't take long in Scandinavia, this use alone saved us 12 CAD.

Sunday morning we were up early and, after a breakfast of 7-11 yogurt and a granola bar, headed for the train station. We wanted to book tickets on the overnight train to Oslo. It was either that or take a train all day to Oslo and see nothing of Copenhagen. I asked at the ticket counter and sure they had a few tickets left, but when I went to pay they didn't take Visa without a pin number. Great... so Cara went and grabbed some cash. When she got back I waited in line and then asked again. Now all the tickets were taken. Grrr. We sulked for a bit and eventually I decided to ask a different person, because I the lady was rude and not helpful. I asked the guy and for some reason they had tickets now. Not sure if the lady was giving me the run around or what, but our little dilemma was over. Then we checked our bags in a pricey locker, but not more so than the one in Paris. Then, because the weather was crappy and because the Museums are free on Sunday in Copenhagen, we went out to on a Museum outing. We saw the pretty great art Museum where me and Cara split up for a bit, because I was spending too much time in the sculptures and ancient stuff and because Cara was anxious to get to the paintings. We reconnected and finished off the museum and headed off towards the National museum. This one was HUGE and contained, in my opinion, way too much stuff (they honestly have a PS2 on display). We spent some time in the Viking section (which was very interesting), but barely glanced at the rest of it, though the PS2 was hilarious. Then after another failed attempt to find a grocery store, we went to an all you can eat buffet mentioned in our guide book. It wasn't actually too back of a deal at 16 CAD, and they had some great curry lasagne and falafel. After feeling full for the first time in a few days we went for a walk around Copenhagen.

We visited a few squares and a couple churches and even went to Christianshavn. Christianshavn alternative commune has a really funky feel and tons of cool grafitti. Unfortunately while in Christianshavn I saw a huge sign saying no photographs and rather than dispute it with some of the drug dealers, I quickly put it away and so didn't get off more than a couple pictures. After our walk around town, we went back to the station where we got some internet and did a bit of planning and e-mailed ahead to Flam. Then we caught a train to Malmo, Sweden, and on the way crossed the longest bridge in the world (I think) at 7.8 km long. Once in Malmo we boarded our night train to Oslo. The couchettes were cramped with 6 people per cabin and the pillows rock hard, but the price was reasonable.
After a train sleep (not much sleep at all) we arrived in Oslo 45 minutes late, because our locomotive apparently broke down during the night. This meant a mad dash to the train to Bergen and no time to check if we received a response from the hostel in Flam. The train ride thus far from Oslo to Bergen has been pretty good. The scenery is awesome, but we've now moved seats 3 times, because we don't have reservations and most other people do. Hopefully we have a place to stay in Flam or our plan is to take the cruise to Bergen and find something there.

Bananas for Berlin

We arrived in Berlin a little late and decided to phone our hostel to make sure they hadn't given away our room because we were already later than we told them we would be. It wasn't a problem and we hopped on the S Bahn and then walked a little ways from Alexander Platz (an important place in the East Berlin protests). We checked in and found the hostel very agreable, very nice rooms, decent bar and cafe, and the staff was friendly too. No free internet or breakfast however. Anyway, we went out and had some excellent and cheap sushi down the street and then watched the Switzerland lose to Turkey back at the hostel bar. I was disappointed because I was cheering for Switzerland and now it looks like their chances are gone. After the game we headed off to get some sleep.

Thursday morning we got up early and checked out the hostel breakfast. It was 5 euro, but the best breakfast buffet so far. It was the usual fair plus waffles, fruit, tomatoes, pasta salad and fruit salad. Then we rented some metro passes from the hostel, which was cheaper than buying day passes. We then hit the metro and hooked up with the free tour, same company (New Europe) that did the tour in Munich. Again the guide was really excellent. We saw quite a few sights and heard about the history of Berlin, although mostly it was about WWII up until the fall of the wall. The Holocaust memorial was especially intriguing; a strange design that took 3 competitions to finally decide on a design. It was inspired by the Jewish cemetary in Prague. Everyone takes away a different experience and we walked into the memorial in a group of 30, but once you get down into the blocks you feel isolated, with only glimpses of others, but mostly you feel alone. Then as you emerge you feel connected again. I thought it totally fitting considering that must be the sentiments that many people felt during the Holocaust, disconnected, alone and couldn't even trust your neighbour. After the memorial we saw Hitler's bunker - or what is left of it. It's a parking lot now, quite fitting I think. The only thing better might be a hospital, or a community center. We moved on and visited Checkpoint Charlie. Nothing remains of this area though, except some replica stuff, so it was a bit of a let-down. We stopped for a half hour break at lunch and since I wasn't really hungry I got a haircut instead. Cara told the guide that's what I was doing and he thought it was really funny. We think he'll probably crack a joke about it on his next tour. We continued on the tour and saw lots more of Berlin and the whole tour was very interesting and we each gave the guide 5 euro, because it was so good.

After the tour ended with a grand finale story about how the East Berliners tore down the wall and Germany was reunited, we walked back to the start of the tour and met up with Cara's friend Anna. She had gone on an exchange to Cara's high school and Cara was excited to see her since they hadn't seen each other for about 8 years. Anna was very nice and had lots of suggestions for stuff to see and do. We all took the metro and went to some very interesting areas, one of which was an old building used by squatters for a long time. Now it's cleaned up and is free space for people to use to make and sell their art. Some amazing graffiti, painting and sculptures decorate the place. It was really cool and afterwards we went to go watch the game with some of her friends. Another interesting place, it was a half ruined building in the former Communist area that now is a bar and was showing the game on projectors, excellent atmosphere. After the first game ended we headed to a different bar, another open air bar again with a projector showing the game, but this one actually had an old fortification of some kind used as a rock climbing wall (Loren, you'd love the place, and the rock climbing is free). The same place also shows movies and after the game we watched a Scottish movie with German subtitles called Hallam Foe. It was an excellent movie and a great way to end the night. It was really nice to have Anna show us around and we had a much better time than hanging out with a bunch of backpackers at the hostel. We loved Berlin already and there was still so much to see.
Friday morning we woke up early again, this time a little Cream Crackered. We had a lot to do nonetheless though and first we dropped some laundry in a machine at the laundromat down the street. Then we decided just to grab some groceries this time and we had a good breakfast with some food to spare for about the same price. After we hung up our laundry in the room we got down to the real issues. Friday was dedicated to doing a day trip to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. We were going to take the tour by the same company as our walking tour guide, but at the last minute we decided to take a tour by a non-profit group who had a pamphlet at our hostel. We met with the guide and our group only ended up being 5 because it was raining really heavily. Soon we were on our way and we talked to our guide and found out she was from the Jewish community in Montreal, and has been giving guided tours for almost 10 years and really knew her stuff.
This was our last chance to see a camp and this one is apparently a much different experience than Auschwitz. Sachsenhausen was a work camp, not an extermination camp, although many lost their lives there. It was also turned around immediately after the war and used by the Soviets to detain (and get rid of) their desirables as well - similar to the Nazis. The camp was used until around 1960 then it was turned into a propaganda memorial by the East German government. Although there were a lot of Jewish people at the camp, most were prisoners of war, political prisoners, criminals and anyone else who opposed the Nazis. After the war it was used for the same purpose except for anyone who opposed Communism or was suspected of helping the Nazis during WWII. It was a somber experience and at times it was very emotionally charged, especially seeing the extermination trench and building, and the autopsy room. We also saw the barracks just outside the camp, where every SS officer in Germany was trained. This was especially hard on the prisoners, because up-and-coming SS officers were eager to prove their cruelty. Again I think everyone took away something different and I'm not sure I'd be eager to see another concentration camp, but it definately is important to see how evil and cruel people can be, so the same mistakes aren't made again.

The rain let up and sun started coming out. Which reflected our moods a bit, because we were going back to the Berlin and away from the camp conversation turned to lighter topics. We went back to the hostel and feeling quite exhausted had a short nap. After which we sat down and decided to go to Copenhagen next. Our friends back in Finland said the weekend of the 28th would work best for them, and originally I had thought that would work for us too. But upon further review, leaving Helsinki on the 29th and being in Paris on the 1st, would be next to impossible. Even going there would be best if we just headed there now. So we decided to stay in Copenhagen and see Norway before heading to Helsinki for the weekend of the 21st. After we got that weight off our shoulders, we headed out and got a bite to eat and met up with Anna again. She had another cool bar for us to watch the game, but it was a bit crowded so we sat in a different room. It was ok though because the Netherlands were by now thumping France in their 4-1 win. After the game ended we chatted for a bit and then headed off to a house party. The house party was really cool too and full of University students from Berlin. Again, it's amazing that so many Europeans our age can speak so many languages. At the party you could hear German, English, French and Arabic. It is so humbling that we can really only speak one language (plus a small bit of French). We had some great converstations, but with another ealy morning ahead of us, we decided to turn in around 1am. Anna came with us, just to squeeze in a few more minutes visiting with Cara but it was soon over and we had to say goodbye to Anna, until she comes to visit us in Canada. We haven't extended too many invitations to people we've met along the way, but it'll be interesting to see who turns up.
Saturday morning we got up early and left the hostel to see the Reich- staggebaude, the parlement building which is capped by a huge glass dome. Entrance is free and it was great views of the city. Getting through the tight security we walked up and had a good look around. Then we headed out and saw that the line had tripled in size since we got there, so you really do need to arrive early. We were hoping to go and see the East Side Gallery too, which is a section of the Berlin wall that is decorated in interesting graffiti, but we soon realized we were running out of time and needed to get our bags and head to the train station. We went to the hostel and grabbed the buffet which we hoped would serve as breakfast and lunch and made our way to the train station to catch the 11:18 train to Hamburg, Germany. We made it with time to spare and now sit a very nice high speed train to Hamburg. My pack just started leaking orange juice all over me though, so I should probably tend to that.