edinburgh.

Happy Wednesday!  It’s time for the next segment from my series about our May trip.

 Edinburgh, Scotland is another spot in Europe where your ship is a distance away from the city centre.  Large cruise ships will anchor near the Firth of Forth Bridge (which, let’s face it, is just fun to say).

You’ll take a tender (a small boat) to the pier in South Queensferry (and maybe you’ll be greeted by some awesome bagpipers like we were).  From there, you need to find transportation into Edinburgh.

This is a port where Mr. Q and I decided to fly by the seat of our pants, sort of.  We didn’t have a specific plan for getting into Edinburgh from South Queensferry.  The ship offered an ‘Edinburgh on your own’ shore excursion option for $69 per person.  It included a bus ride into the historic district at a specified time, about 5 hours to explore the city on your own, and then a return trip by bus at a specified time.  That seemed like a pretty steep price for what was basically a shuttle service with no flexibility at all.

So I followed a hunch that I had based on lots of travel experience, that there would be some sort of independent shuttle service that would be much cheaper.  And I was right.  As soon as we walked off the pier we were met by a sign for a shuttle service to Edinburgh that cost £10 (or around $13) per person round trip.  Plus the shuttle departed and returned every half hour up until 5 pm.  You could time your stay to suit your wishes.

Wowza, right?  The ship was charging a whopping $56 more per person for less flexibility.  This sort of thing is a regular occurrence on cruise ships.  If you ever take a cruise, just be aware of this and know that there are usually lots of options outside of the ship sponsored shore excursions.

Mr. Q and I hopped on the shuttle and after about 30 minutes or so it dropped us off in the heart of Edinburgh, just behind Edinburgh Castle.

Edinburgh castle sits on top of the remains of an extinct volcano.  There has been some sort of settlement on this spot since the Bronze Age, which totally makes sense because it’s a very defensible position.

We walked around to the front and then up the hill to the Castle only to discover that it was completely overrun with tourist groups, people following guides holding up those flags so their followers could keep up.  We managed to make our way all the way up to the entrance of the castle and then we looked at each other and we both said “nope, not doing it.”  We just couldn’t convince ourselves to battle our way through the crowd to see the Castle (the most visited tourist attraction in Scotland).

So we turned around and headed down the Royal Mile only to find that was where the rest of the tourists were!

I haven’t mentioned it yet, but Edinburgh was having unusually warm, sunny weather while we were there.  It was full sun and in the lower 80’s.  We thought we had come prepared for Scottish weather with our rain jackets, umbrellas and scarves.  As it turned out we weren’t prepared for lower 80’s at all.  We had no sunscreen, no hats, no shorts.

I suspect the gorgeous weather brought everyone out to enjoy the sunshine, tourists and locals alike.

We had a little more than an hour to kill before our planned Book Lovers Tour, so we decided to get out of the sun and away from the crowds by heading into the Scottish National Gallery.  This photo is taken while standing at the entrance to the National Gallery looking out on Princes Street Garden.  As you can see, people were out in droves enjoying the park as well.

We didn’t have time to see as much of the museum as we would have liked, but did see some beautiful artwork and enjoyed the peaceful atmosphere inside.

Next we headed towards the Writers’ Museum to take the Book Lovers Tour with Allan Foster.

Allan led us around the historic center of Edinburgh while sharing stories about famous Scottish authors like Arthur Conan Doyle, Alexander McCall Smith and Robert Burns.  He showed us the coffee shop where J.K. Rowling wrote portions of her Harry Potter books.  None of the locations were particularly fascinating on their own, but Allan was a great story teller and that’s what made the tour so fascinating.

The tour concluded at the famous Greyfriars Cemetery, supposedly the most haunted spot in Edinburgh.  Considering Edinburgh must be a pretty haunted place, that’s saying a lot.

I’ve seen lots of photos online of a misty, spooky Grefriars, but all of my photos have blue sky and sunshine.  Not quite as atmospheric!  It’s a bit more difficult to imagine spooky ghosts under these conditions.

After checking out the cemetery we found a kiosk selling bottled water, which we badly needed.  We were hot, sweaty and worn out, so we made our way back to the designated spot for catching the next shuttle back to the pier.

We really just barely scratched the surface of this uniquely beautiful city.  This is definitely a spot that I would like to return to someday and see much more in depth.  Maybe we could even brave the crowds and head into the castle next time.

But for now we say goodbye to Edinburgh.  Next Wednesday we head to Newcastle upon Tyne, England.  Be sure to check back to read all about the final port of call on our trip and the fabulous Beamish open air museum!

the best day ever.

Here’s something to know about Inverness, Scotland.  If you travel there by cruise ship you won’t actually dock in Inverness, but instead you’ll be docking in the Cromarty Firth at Invergordon.

The harbor in Invergordon is deep enough for large cruise ships and your ship will be able to dock rather than having to use tenders to ferry passengers to shore.  However, this does leave you about 40 minutes away from Inverness.  And from what I could tell there is very little to see in Invergordon.  By the way, this is a fairly common practice in the cruise industry.  Itineraries will often say ‘Paris’, ‘Rome’, ‘Florence’ and so on, but none of these cities are actually on the coast.  Just a little thing to be aware of if you ever plan a European cruise.

In this case, this was no problem at all for us because this is the port where we chose to hire a private guide through Invergordon Tours.  We try to hire a private guide at least once on every trip.  In some places (Budapest, Prague) it’s more affordable than others.  This guide came with a car and that definitely added to the expense quite a bit.  So it was a pretty big splurge for us, but based on the cost of most of the ship’s shore excursions we only spent about $165 more for six hours with a guide and her car for just the two of us v. being on a bus with 60 other passengers for a 3 hour packaged tour.

We were able to go exactly where we wanted and spend as much or as little time in each spot as we wanted.

Our guide was a lovely woman named Alda.  She met us at the pier with a sign with our name on it.  She was parked just across the street, so she led us off to her vehicle which was roomy, comfortable and spotlessly clean.  Once settled in the car, Alda reviewed our plan for the day (which we had arranged in advance via email).  We could have made changes to it at that point, but we didn’t.

Our first stop was the Falls of Shin.  Honestly, if I had a do-over I would have skipped this spot (although they did have nice, clean, brand new bathrooms).

Apparently when the salmon are spawning you can see them leaping up these falls, but there were no salmon that we could see.  Honestly, the falls themselves are not very impressive, especially when compared to the gorgeous Gooseberry Falls near Duluth.

But that is the beauty of having a private guide!  We were able to take a quick look at the falls and then say ‘let’s move on’.  Had we been with a group we would have had to wait for 60 people to line up and use those brand new bathrooms.

Our next stop was the Big Burn walking trail in Golspie, Scotland.  I had read about this trail online before our trip and thought it looked like a beautiful place.  In Scotland, a ‘burn’ is a stream or brook.

Alda told us to take as much time as we wanted hiking the trail, she’d be waiting at the car when we returned.  The trail follows a small stream (burn) up to the Big Burn Gorge, and then there are a series of footbridges that crisscross the gorge.  It was so lush and green all along the trail.

I will always remember Scotland as a very green place!

The Scottish Bluebells were in bloom and there were fields of them everywhere.

It was a gorgeous, sunny day.  We really enjoyed hiking this trail and were able to take our time enjoying the gorgeous sunny day.

After our hike we piled back into Alda’s car and headed towards Dunrobin Castle.  But first we made a quick stop at Carn Liath, the remains of a Broch (a prehistoric fortified dwelling).  Here are Mr. Q and our guide Alda on top of the wall of the Broch.

We had the place entirely to ourselves.

There was a gorgeous view of our next stop, Dunrobin Castle, from the top of the broch.

Although parts of Dunrobin Castle date as far back as the 14th century, most of it was built between 1835 and 1850 for the 2nd Duke of Sutherland.  It has 189 rooms, and although at one point it started to feel like the tour included all of them, of course it really didn’t.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside so I can’t share any of those rooms with you.  However, since we were on a private tour, we were able to spend as much time touring the formal gardens as we wanted to and I was free to take unlimited photos out there!

Remember, this was the end of May, so the gardens probably weren’t quite as lush yet as they would be later in the season.

But the allium was in bloom.  Seeing this big clump of them makes me want to add more to my own garden.

And of course all of the formal shrubbery was looking lovely.

Once we’d seen enough of Dunrobin, Alda took us to her hometown of Dornoch, Scotland.  It was the most charming little village.

She recommended we pop into the Dornoch Patisserie for a bite to eat.  We just had some simple sandwiches and some ‘chips’ (what we call french fries), but they were delicious and no one was claiming that they were the ‘best of Scottish cuisine’.  The people in the restaurant were so friendly, it was just a pleasure to be there!

After eating we walked around the Dornoch Cathedral where I was surprised to find this gargoyle peering down from above.

Does that guy remind anybody else of a certain large purple children’s character?

 

I know that gargoyles are meant to be frightening, I’m not sure they succeeded with that one.  What do you think?

We walked around Dornoch a bit longer, and then hopped back in the car to make our way back to our ship.

After spending a totally enjoyable 6+ hours with our guide, I thought that our day could not possibly get any better.  We had just returned to our cabin on the ship and were putting away our bags when I heard what sounded like distant bag pipes.  I went out on our balcony and was met with the most amazing sight.  An entire band of bagpipers and drummers marching down the pier towards our ship.

It was a pretty long pier, this photo gives you an idea …

The Sutherland Schools Pipe Band marched all the way down that pier playing the entire time.

Once they got to the end they formed a circle and kept playing.  The drummers were so entertaining to watch!

They would spin and twirl those drum sticks over their heads.

Seriously, this was the coolest thing ever!  I wish I’d gotten video, but since I didn’t you can check out this YouTube video instead.

And they just kept on playing the whole time our ship was preparing to sail away and as we finally pulled away from the dock.

This was definitely one of those magical moments that I will always remember!  And once again, something we would have missed if we hadn’t had that balcony!

As we continued to sail away from Invergordon I admired the bright yellow fields of rapeseed, isn’t that some lovely countryside?

Overall this was one of the best days on our entire trip.  It was well worth the splurge to hire the private guide.  She catered to our every wish and made it so easy to see everything we wanted to see in the time we had on shore.  We would definitely do this again on a future trip!

I hope you enjoyed this post about Invergordon, Scotland.  Remember when I said it was going to take me all summer to post about our trip?  I wasn’t wrong.  We have two more ports of call remaining, Edinburgh and Newcastle, which will take us right through August 23.  I’m not sure what I’ll do with my Wednesday’s after that, but I hope you’ll stay tuned.

 

the isle of skye.

Way back when Mr. Q and I were trying to figure out where to go on our vacation this year it was Mr. Q who stumbled across the cruise we ended up booking.  The main reason he was drawn to this particular itinerary was the stop at the Isle of Skye.

You see, Mr. Q’s step-dad is a McLeod.  And Castle Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye is the seat of Clan McLeod.

So you could say that this entire trip was planned around seeing Castle Dunvegan.

And this is where my story takes a turn for the dark side.

I made the decision to book an independent shore excursion to Castle Dunvegan with a company called Tour Skye (not to be confused with several other tour companies operating on Skye with similar names).  I’ve booked shore excursions with independent companies before and always had good luck with them, so I wasn’t particularly worried about the fact that we had to pay in full in advance (and after all, we also paid for our ship sponsored excursions in full in advance as well).  But when I couldn’t get the tour operator to commit to a specific start time for the tour I started to get a little nervous.  Instead we were just told to get off the ship as soon as possible and we would be met at the pier.

I understand where they are coming from on this.  They are taking a group, and they want everyone to get off the ship as soon as possible while at the same time they don’t want people to be worried that the tour will leave without them if they aren’t the first people off the ship.  Since this port requires a tender (that means the ship is anchored away from shore and you take a small life boat to the pier), it can take a while to get everyone off the ship.

Sure enough, we were met at the pier as soon as we disembarked from our tender and we were told to walk up the hill to the town square and wait there for our entire group to be assembled.  So far, so good, I thought.  But what I didn’t realize was that our group of 8, all of whom were ready and waiting at the appropriate meeting point by 8:30 a.m. would be left waiting in the town square until 9:45 for our tour guide and van.  It seemed as though our guide was responsible for getting all of the other tours organized and on their way before she could head out with us.

Had we known how long we would be waiting, we could have walked around Portree and at least enjoyed a little of the town.  Instead we sat in that square not knowing if our guide was going to show up in five minutes, or in 75 minutes.  Turns out it was the latter.

But we finally loaded into our van and headed off to see the Isle of Skye.

It was a foggy, drizzly day, but I actually loved that.  It was exactly the kind of weather I expected to find in Scotland and it gave everything a misty, mysterious air that was very romantic and lovely.

As we drove along our guide explained that she was taking us to a scenic overlook, but we might not be able to see much in the fog.

 Sure enough, we pulled off the road and were surrounded by nothing but fog.  We drove on to another site with a similar result.

We drove to a third site, Kilt Rock, and this time we could see the view and it was lovely.

But I was starting to wonder, when were we going to go to Castle Dunvegan?  Did we somehow get on the wrong tour?  Our tour was supposed to include a morning stop at Castle Dunvegan, then a lunch stop where we would dine on “the very best of the Scottish cuisine”, followed by a “whiskey tasting experience” in the afternoon.  After our late start it was already closing in on lunch time and we hadn’t even gotten to Dunvegan yet and the last tender to our ship was leaving at 3 pm so how were we possibly going to fit it all in?

Our guide next drove us quite a long way down a harrowing single track lane in ever thickening fog to take us to the Fairy Glen.  If you aren’t familiar with the concept of a single track lane, it is basically a narrow road that is only one car wide, but yet it isn’t a one-way road.  Cars can travel either direction, but every so often there is a little spot where one car can pull off and let another pass.  So, if you come upon another car and you aren’t near one of those spots, one of you has to back up until they can pull off.  Cars are bad enough, but people drive camper vans down these roads.  And trucks pulling trailers.  It was quite the experience!

But we made it to the Fairy Glen in one piece.  The Fairy Glen is made up of unique geological formations that were the result of a landslip.  Or, as I prefer to believe, it was created by fairies and they may still live in ‘Castle Ewan’ (below) to this day.

The Fairy Glen was beautiful and so unique, and it was perfect seeing it in the misty fog.

As much as I loved seeing it, it really wasn’t supposed to be on our itinerary so I approached our guide and asked “um, we are going to Castle Dunvegan right?”

“Oh yes,” she said.  “We’ll have lunch next and then we’ll go to Dunvegan.  Don’t worry.”

Our lunch stop was at a lovely hotel, but I was surprised when asked if I preferred a ham sandwich or an egg/mayo sandwich.  Huh?  This is “the very best of the Scottish cuisine” that we were promised?  A sandwich and some tomato soup.  Underwhelming, to say the least.

At this point it was about 1:30 in the afternoon.  Everyone in our small group of 8 was wondering how in the world we were going to fit in a Dunvegan visit and a whiskey tasting and still make it back to our ship in time for the last tender.

Our guide kept assuring us this was possible though, so I was shocked when I asked her how far away from the ship we were and she said about 40 minutes!

By the time we pulled into the parking lot at Dunvegan it was 2 pm.  And we were 40 minutes from the ship!  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out at this point that not only are we not going to get to the whiskey tasting, but we are only going to have 20 minutes to see Dunvegan.  Oh, and did I mention that our guide/driver hit a pedestrian with the van in the Dunvegan parking lot?  Thank god the person wasn’t injured, just startled and rather pissed off.

Dunvegan looked like a lovely place, what little we got to see of it.  We took some really quick photos including one of Mr. Q in front of the castle so he could prove he really was there.

I felt just sick inside that we were standing right there at Dunvegan castle, but we were going to have to race through it and not see much.  I had this experience once before at Versailles and I am still bitter about it years later.

The quick glimpse I got of the gardens while running past them told me that I was missing out by not getting to see them at all.

We basically dashed through the castle straight to the gift shop.  We HAD to bring souvenirs back for Mr. Q’s step-dad.  After making our purchase we literally had to run back to the van.

What followed was a nail biting 40 minutes of dead silence as our guide drove us back to the port.  Not a single person said a word that entire time including our guide.  I think we were all wondering the same things, were we going to make it back in time?  Would our ship really sail without us?  Is the last tender at precisely 3 pm, or will there be another at 3:10 for the stragglers?  How far is it to our next port of call if we miss the ship and have to get there on our own?

I think I looked at my watch about 25 times during that ride.  I kept thinking that surely the port was just around the next corner.

We finally screeched to a halt at the pier at 2:58 p.m.

We all practically jumped out of that van and kissed the ground.  The personnel from our ship were there to greet us and welcome us back on board the Zuiderdam with smiling faces.

We had made it!

Upon our return home I sent an email to Robert at Tour Skye to express our dissatisfaction with the tour.  Of course, that email as well as a 2nd email have fallen on deaf ears.  I haven’t even received a reply, let alone an apology or remuneration of any kind.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that booking independent shore excursions is a mistake.  As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I’ve done this many times and never had a problem.  I’ve also had equally bad experiences with ship sponsored shore excursions, like the time my tour bus caught on fire.  The local tour guide told us to stay in our seats, even though the bus was on fire (obviously we ignored that instruction and everyone got off the bus!).  We had to be rescued by another completely full tour bus from another cruise line, and then stand in the aisle of that bus all the way back to the ship.  I didn’t get my money back from the cruise line for that excursion either!  Although that time we did get to see all of the promised stops on our itinerary, they were just augmented by a potentially life threatening situation.

Travel is always going to involve some glitches of course, but it’s so disappointing when people don’t live up to their promises and can’t even be bothered to apologize for it.  Perhaps Mr. Q and I will make it back to the Isle of Skye someday.  If so, we’ll definitely do it differently next time!  It really was a beautiful place and we’d like to see more of it.

But let’s move on, shall we?  It’s definitely time to put our bad experience with Tour Skye behind us.  Be sure to come back next Wednesday to read about the opposite side of this coin, our fantastic experience in Invergordon with our private guide, Alda.

the shetland islands.

After Mr. Q and I booked our May trip to Norway & Scotland, we happened to stumble across the TV show Shetland.  If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a BBC Scotland crime drama based on a series of books by Ann Cleeves.  We binge watched seasons 1 and 2 before our trip.  We fell in love with the unique landscapes that were used in the show (some of which aren’t really in Shetland at all, but mainland Scotland).  Still, we were really looking forward to seeing the place for ourselves.

One of the main things you’ll notice is the lack of trees.  I was curious about that so I googled it.  According to this article from shetland.org, that is mainly due to the sheep rather than the climate.

Before I continue on about our day in Shetland, let me explain something.  One of the really fun things about taking a cruise is the opportunity to meet people and get to know them a bit.  These days on most cruise lines you’ll have some options for dining.  You can choose ‘any-time dining’ where you just show up at the dining room and get seated anywhere, or you can choose a specific time slot and be seated at the same table with the same people every night.  You can choose to have just a table for two (or however many are in your group), or you can do what Mr. Q and I like to do, choose to have additional dinner companions.  On this cruise we chose the late seating (8 pm) and a table of 8.

We always feel like we are taking a bit of a risk with this option.  What if we get stuck with a total bore?  Or worse yet, someone totally obnoxious?  But if that happens, you can always ask to be reassigned.  So far we’ve always been lucky and have ended up with friendly, interesting dinner companions.  This time we ended up with Ann & Alex from Australia, Craig & Cheri from California and Paul from Boston who was traveling on his own.  What a great way for him to have company at dinner, right?  We all got along really well and had some great conversations over dinner.

The reason I’m bringing this up now is because Mr. Q and I didn’t have any pre-booked plans for Shetland.  While discussing this over dinner, Craig and Cheri (the couple from California) mentioned that they were renting a car in Lerwick and were planning to drive all over the island.  So we asked if they happened to have some extra room in the back seat for us.  They were willing to let us tag along, and we insisted on paying for half of the rental fee (a whopping $30) and considered it a total bargain.

By the way, kudos to Craig for being willing to drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road and on some very skinny winding roads at that.  Not to mention some ‘single track’ roads, which I’ll talk about more when I post about the Isle of Skye.

Our first stop was the archaeological site, Jarlshof.  This site was discovered in the 1890’s when some heavy storms washed away the surrounding vegetation.  It was later excavated to reveal a series of dwellings that dated from 2500 BC to the 1600’s AD.

We rented the audio headsets and if you ever make it to Jarlshof I totally recommend this.  You’ll get so much more out of the site if you have a little explanation of what you are looking at.

For example, the large structure in this next photo is the hall of what was the laird’s house.  Those stones in the yard are exactly what they look like, grave stones.  In this case, marking graves of shipwrecked sailors from the 1600’s.

After exploring Jarlshof we moved on to the Sumburgh Head Lighthouse.

This spot is known for bird watching.  It wasn’t quite the right season for their famous Puffins, but we did see a couple.  We also saw quite a few Guillemots.  In addition, the lighthouse has some interesting historical displays such as the replica of the WWII radar station.

By the way, this next photo is taken from the parking lot.  Yes, you have to walk from here up to the lighthouse, see it there at the tippy top?

Although they do allow cars to drive up and drop off handicapped visitors.

The next stop on our very well planned (by Cheri) itinerary was the Croft House Museum.  I was so excited when Cheri mentioned they were planning to visit this spot.  It was a place I had read about online and really didn’t think I would get a chance to see.

This is a mid-19th century croft that was lived in until the 1960’s.  It was fascinating to get a glimpse of how people once lived in Shetland, with burning peat in the fireplace and box beds for keeping warm at night.

The inside was very dark, with low ceilings and even lower doorways, but I bet it felt like a really warm, snug refuge from the wind and rain on cold winter days.

Of course, there was no rain on our day in Shetland (although wind is another story) as we continued to be really lucky with the weather.

Our last stop of the day was Scalloway Castle.

Construction on Scalloway began in 1599 by Patrick Stewart, the Earl of Orkney.  Apparently Black Patie was not a good guy.  He was a ruthless tyrant who oppressed the Shetland people and was ultimately executed.

It does have a bit of a sinister vibe, right?

Not much remains except the shell of the castle, but it was interesting to see how it was constructed.  This was a fun stop for us as well because there was a great chase scene in Shetland (the TV show) that was filmed inside Scalloway Castle.  By the way, we heard that they were going to be filming some parts of season 3 the day after we were in Lerwick.  Dang!  We just missed seeing it.

All in all, sharing a rental car with friends turned out to be an incredible way to spend the day in Shetland.  We saw 4 different sights that would have been separate shore excursions from the ship each one costing more than our share of the car for the full day.

If you are brave enough to drive in a foreign country, this is definitely the way to go.  And honestly, once we got out of Lerwick the roads were mostly empty here.  The most complicated part of the journey was getting out of the parking lot at the port!

Our next stop is the Isle of Skye, check back next Wednesday to hear more about the seat of the MacLeod of MacLeod, Castle Dunvegan, and what ended up being the most disappointing touring experience from our trip.

 

bergen.

Today I’m sharing the last of the Norwegian ports of call on our recent Holland America cruise, Bergen!

Bergen is known for being one of the rainiest cities in Europe.  Everything we read about this city said to be prepared for rain, and so we were … and it didn’t rain at all.  It was a bit overcast in the morning, but it cleared up after noon and was perfectly lovely.

Once again our ship was docked in the most convenient location just across the street from the Bergenhus Fortress.

We walked around the fortress and admired the grounds a bit.

Then headed out the other side to walk toward Bryggen.

Bryggen is the old Hanseatic Quarter of Bergen.  The oldest wooden buildings date from the early 1700’s and were built by the German merchants and traders who established a Hanseatic trading post here.

This area continues as a ‘trading post’ and was filled with touristy shops and tourists.

Next we hopped on the Fløibanen, or the funicular, to ride up to the top of Mount Fløyen to check out the views.

I have to admit, Mr. Q and I are not big fans of the ‘view panoramica’.  I guess we just prefer seeing things up close and personal rather than viewing sweeping vistas from on high.

So, after enjoying a cup of coffee with some friends from our ship, we didn’t linger long at the top.  We decided we’d prefer to walk back down, but we weren’t sure just how intense a walk that was going to be, so we took some advice from our Rick Steves’ guidebook and we took the Fløibanen halfway down, got off at the mid-way point and walked the rest of the way (note: if you are ever in Bergen and want to do this, only the funiculars that leave on the hour and half hour stop at the halfway point, Promsgate, the others do not stop).

As it turned out, we could easily have walked the entire way down.  It was a very lovely walk through a wooded area …

And then a really charming residential area.

By the way, Rick Steve’s calls these ‘delightful cobbled and shiplap lanes’.  Huh?  Shiplap lanes?  Clearly the Norwegians had shiplap way before Fixer Upper came along!

I loved the profusion of flowers along these cobblestone lanes.  Despite the almost total lack of garden space, there were still flowers everywhere.  They were even growing out of the crevices in the rock walls …

I recognized this corydalis right away, I have these in my own garden …

After making our way back to sea level, we headed out to the fish market.  I didn’t take a single photo there.  It was just so touristy and honestly, kind of lame.  We wandered around it for a few minutes, but then after hitting a couple of shops back in Bryggen we headed back towards our ship.

Along the way I spied this lovely azalea in front of the Domkirke, Bergen’s main church that is dedicated to St. Olav the patron saint of Norway.

We had a beautiful sunny evening for sailing out of Bergen.  Mr. Q and I enjoyed it from our balcony.

And alas, this was where we had to say goodbye to Norway, the land of my ancestors.  Our next stop, the Shetland Islands!

Be sure to stay tuned!

 

flåm.

For those of you who may be new to my blog, in May Mr. Q and I took a Holland America cruise to Norway and Scotland.  I’ve been slowly posting about each of our ports of call on Wednesdays.  So far we started in Copenhagen, then went to Oslo, Kristiansand and Stavanger in Norway.  Today I’m sharing our next port of call, Flåm, Norway.

I have to say that sailing down the Sognefjord and the Aurlandsfjord to Flåm was one of the most amazing travel experiences I’ve ever had.

Mr. Q and I woke up in the very early hours to this view outside our window.

We sailed through this misty and magical scenery for a couple of hours…

passing about a gajillion waterfalls.

By the way, this was one of the moments on our cruise when we were really glad we upgraded to a balcony cabin at the last minute.  We were sailing through here at about 6 a.m.  It was easy to just pop out of bed, walk out on the balcony and enjoy the scenery.  Had we been in an inside cabin I am quite sure we would have slept right through this, and wouldn’t that have been a shame?

We passed the little town of Undredal.

We docked in Flåm around 8 a.m.  The immediate area around the dock in Flåm is very touristy.

 There is a huge souvenir shop, a tourist info center, a couple of restaurants, the train museum and the train station.  I would say that probably 99% of the passengers on our ship either took the scenic train ride, or else they took a fjord cruise right from here.  We decided to do something else altogether.  We walked the 3 km along a rushing stream to the real town of Flåm.

According to the Rick Steves guidebook there isn’t much to see in Flåm proper and no real reason to go there, and I suppose he is right if you are looking for castles, museums, historic sites or other tourists.  He recommends taking the scenic train ride, as do most people I know who’ve been to this area.

But if you prefer your stunning scenery without having to battle for elbow room with 300 other tourists, well, then I recommend this walk instead.

Is anyone else tempted to break into song looking at that picture?  The hills are alive, with the sound of music … wait, wrong country.

This place simply could not have been any more beautiful.

As we walked further and further up the valley, the sun got brighter and the air got warmer.  It was so peaceful and quiet.  We saw very few other people.

Our final destination was the old church.

This church was built in 1670 (or 1667 depending on the source) and replaced the original stave church that once stood in this spot.  And P.S., there is a handy (and free) public restroom at the church.

We wandered around the tiny cluster of homes that made up the ‘downtown’ hoping to find somewhere to get coffee, but no such luck.

 So we turned around and headed back to our ship, which was getting ready to sail back down the fjord and out to sea.  Shortly before sailing, our captain made an announcement that a pod of Orca’s had been sighted in the Nærøyfjord.  So although our ship was too big to go very far down that fjord, he was going to take a detour down it to see if we could spot them.  Unfortunately we never saw them, but we did enjoy the dramatic scenery of the Nærøyfjord.  I think the most entertaining part was seeing how the ship did a complete 180 degree turn to get back out again!

This truly was one of my favorite days on our trip.  Mr. Q and I both really enjoyed being surrounded by spectacular scenery during our peaceful walk up the valley, as we practically had the place to ourselves.  We also loved sailing through the fjords.

Next Wednesday I’ll share our last port of call in Norway, Bergen (which we definitely did not have to ourselves)!

I hope you’ll stay tuned.

 

stavanger street art.

Although Mr. Q pretty much indulged me and was very patient about wandering around charming old wooden houses in Gamle Stavanger on our recent trip, he’d pretty much had enough of that after a couple of hours.  That was when we headed into the Tourist Information center that was located right next to our ship and found a postcard about the Stavanger Street Art walking tour.

Before I go any further, let me give you Wikipedia’s definition of street art:  Street art is visual art created in public locations, usually unsanctioned artwork executed outside of the context of traditional art venues. The term gained popularity during the graffiti art boom of the early 1980’s and continues to be applied to subsequent incarnations.

Stavanger hosts a street art festival every year hosted by Nuart and is one of the world’s leading destinations for street art.  I’ve always been a big fan of street art and I love the idea that Stavanger is embracing this art form.  I had done a little reading about the street art in Stavanger before our trip, so I was pretty excited to realize that not only was there was a tour, it was conveniently starting in just a little over an hour!

We purchased tickets for the tour right there at the tourist info center (it was about $36 for two) and then headed back to the ship for a quick lunch.  Then Mr. Q and I headed back to the TI to meet our tour guide.  We were starting to wonder if we were in the right place because there were only two other people waiting, but our guide showed up and we realized the four of us were it.  The other two people on the tour were a writer and a photographer from Portugal who were doing an article on the Stavanger street art scene for a magazine.  A little later we were joined by two more ‘tour guide trainees’ who were learning from our guide, Michael (in the green jacket).

 I think you can easily pick out the photographer from the magazine in that photo, right?  She had a very nice camera!

Michael was very energetic and led us quickly from spot to spot while educating us about particular street artists as well as the various techniques they use such as stenciling.

Yep, basically the same kind of stenciling I do on furniture … well, sort of.

An artist named Jaune from Brussels did a series of these “working class heroes” pieces, and I just loved the humor in them …

as well as his use of actual infrastructure like the metal ring above or the 4 pipes coming out of the wall below.

As a former sanitation worker himself, Jaune is symbolically freeing them from their work.  Amen to that Jaune!

I also thought these electrical boxes stenciled to look like buildings by the German artist Evol were pretty cool.

They were so realistic looking, and you know how I love anything miniature!

This next piece by Norwegian artist Martin Whatson was another of my favorites.

The black and white character is stenciled first, and then the colorful ‘tags’ are added after.  I love his use of vibrant colors to contrast with the black and white, don’t you?

Speaking of color, Bortusk Leer paints these brightly hued ‘happy monsters’.

Our guide explained that Bortusk’s goal is to cheer people up, as evidenced by his motto “Cheer up you bastards”.  Ha!

This next artist likes to incorporate surrounding foliage.  I don’t think I would have noticed this piece if our guide hadn’t pointed it out.

However, this next piece caught my eye from a block away.

I was surprised that our guide wasn’t leading us over to this one.  I could tell that there was something a little bit different about it, so I kind of veered off from the group to take a closer look.

The writer from Portugal followed me over and started to tell me that this piece was done by a Portuguese artist named Vhils.  He uses a ‘hammer drill’ to remove the outer layers of the wall revealing the brick behind.  According to his website, by “applying his original methods of creative destruction, Vhils digs into the surface layers of our material culture like a contemporary urban archaeologist, exposing what lies beyond the superficiality of things, restoring meaning and beauty to the discarded dimensions buried beneath.”  That’s a kinda fabulous concept, right?

Soon Mr. Q and the magazine photographer had left our guide and wandered over to look at this piece too.

Our guide finally realized he’d lost his group and came over to accuse us of ‘eating dessert first’.  As one of the most impressive street art pieces on the tour, he’d been saving this one for last.  Ooops!  I messed up his plan.  I could tell that the pair from the Portuguese magazine were happy to realize that our guide wasn’t totally dissing their favorite artist!

Once our guide had us back under his wing, we checked out a couple more pieces and our tour was brought to an end.  We had just enough time to make our way back to the ship and hop on board before sailing to our next port, Flåm.

Be sure to check back next Wednesday because Flåm was definitely one of the highlights of our trip!