Chasing the Northern Lights in Norway

Chasing the Northern Lights in Norway

It is something we had talked about, on and off, for over 20 years since the last time we caught a quick glimpse of a green flash in the black sky on our way home, driving north from Oslo. It was just the one but it caught my imagination and ever since I have wanted to go north of the Arctic Circle and see the Aurora Borealis.

There has been a lot of talk about the Aurora the past four or five years as conditions have been particularly favourable for spectacular shows of the Lights. It has been preying on my mind until last autumn when I read that if you don’t go to see them this year, it will be another 11 years before the conditions are as favourable as they are now. So, without wanting to be morbid, I told my husband that we were going because if we didn’t, we would probably not be fit enough to go next time around. He grumbled and said he couldn’t see what all the fuss was about, that it would be cold, snowy and dark – and more to the point, he was going to have to take TWO flights each way. And he hates flying. As usual I ignored him and booked it – flights from Barcelona to Oslo and then Oslo to Tromso. We had four days in Oslo to see the family, and allow Himself to recover before the second flight. I had booked accommodation through Airbnb which proved very successful. A lovely studio flat in a very nice part of Oslo with a very pleasant host, then a modern one-bedroom flat in Tromso within walking distance of the city centre, again with a very helpful host. Both at a fraction of the cost of an OK hotel room.

I had been to Tromso a couple of times (years ago) on business but, as I am sure all business travellers will agree, you really don’t see anything of the places you visit – just airports, hotel rooms, offices and, maybe, an exhibition hall. I was really seeing Tromso with fresh eyes and it was beautiful. We were incredibly lucky with the weather. I had expected it to be 24 hour darkness but it turned out that the sun reappeared on 16 January so by the time we got there at the beginning of February, there was about 6 hours of sunshine each day. There was a reasonable amount of snow, although nowhere near as much as they can get there – it has been a mild winter throughout Norway – but there was enough to make everything look bright, fresh and clean. And at sunrise and sunset everything was pink. Stunning.

The city of Tromso straddles the fjord and is surrounded by mountains. Everywhere you look there are snow-covered peaks contrasting with the bright blue of the fjord. A dramatic bridge joins the two halves, at one end of which stands the Arctic Cathedral – a modern structure designed to emulate the mountain peaks, nestling near the base-station of Fjellheisen, the cable car that takes you up to Storsteinen, some 421 metres above sea level. From here you can sometimes see the Northern Lights – or the midnight sun – have a meal in the restaurant (which probably has one of the loveliest views in the world); or for the energetic you can strap on snow shows or skis and get out on the mountain.

The weekend we arrived it turned out to be the Sami National Day (6 February). The Samis have quite a bit of autonomy in Norway and are respected by the majority of Norwegians. They have a very distinct way of life with their livelihood and wealth being derived primarily from their reindeer herds. To a certain extent they are still partially nomadic (although nowhere near as much as before as modern equipment such as snow-scooters allow for more efficient husbandry of the reindeer). They have their own language, learning Norwegian as a second language, their own parliament – Sametinget – a very distinctive form of dress; and their own culture, which includes joiking (or yoiking), a very specialised form of song.

On the Sunday, to celebrate the National Day the following day, the main street of Tromso was given over to reindeer racing, and in the square there was a large lavvu (a Sami tent similar to a teepee) with a roaring open fire in the centre. Here they sold hot blackcurrant juice, hot-dogs and waffles. Amazingly all the smoke rose up out of the hole at the top without the help of a chimney. There were also a number of stalls selling local products and everything reindeer (antlers, skins, boots, hats, steaks and stew).

The reindeer races went on for a couple of hours – heats, semi-final and final to find the 2017’s Nordic champion reindeer, with animals from both Norway and Finland competing. The course is about 300 metres long and the speed they reach, each with a “jockey” on skis behind them, is really surprising. It is a fantastic atmosphere with crowds of people cheering them on.

And so to the Northern Lights. Again, owing to our meteorological good fortune giving us clear skies, we were even able to see them from the middle of Tromso. We went up Storsteinen, had a meal and saw them again. But they were just tantalising – not strong enough to really feel you had been part of them. So we booked an Aurora Chasing trip in a small group (8) where we were driven out to the coast, away from the light pollution of the city. It was a full moon that was so bright there were strong shadows and the mountains dropped into the now-black water – with the lights of small coastal villages visible on the other side like strings of pearls. And then came the Lights – dancing over us. Always moving. Absolutely magical. Our guides built a small bonfire and served hot coffee, soup, reindeer sausage and the typical Norwegian caramelised goat cheese. Then we sat round the fire toasting marshmallows and chatting with our new friends. Sharing the experience. We stayed there until nearly 1am, taking photos and admiring the display. It is something we will never forget – but it is strangely addictive, I want to go back again.

The rest of the time we spent enjoying Tromso. It is a pretty city (population 80,000), with plenty to see and enjoy. Other activities include husky-sledging, whale watching, skiing, skating, and just sitting with a coffee enjoying the view. What, for me, was truly amazing was the transformation in my husband. From having been a little reluctant at first, he thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience . Despite being Norwegian he had never visited Tromso and like me, was taken aback by the beauty of the scenery – and, of course, the Aurora Borealis.

So we are already planning our next trip – we are hoping to spend August escaping the Spanish heat by driving up through Sweden, again to Tromso, to enjoy the tail-end of the midnight sun – and perhaps a trip out to see the whales.

I’ll let you know if we get there …

Day out in the Pyrenees

Day out in the Pyrenees

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It is currently high summer here in Catalonia. Fortunately it doesn’t get nearly as hot here as it does further south in Spain, but sometimes you just feel like going up into the mountains for some fresher air.

Last Monday was just one such occasion. It was 35 degrees at the coast so we packed a picnic and took the family, who are visiting from Norway, up to Nuria where it was a refreshing 25 degrees.

Nuria was once a sanatorium where patients with TB were treated. Even today it is an oasis of calm away from the hustle and bustle of the coast at the height of the tourist season when you need eyes in your backside to look out for Dutch campers on electric bikes taking a short-cut the wrong way up a one way street. What happens to people when they go on holiday? They seem to leave their brains behind at home! But enough of that.

One of the main attractions of Nuria is that you can’t drive all the way up. We take the car as far as Ribes de Freser – famous for its drinking water; or a little further up to Queralbs, a very quaint mountain village from where you can either take the rack railway up to the Nuria Valley or walk the Cami de Nuria – a marked mountain track which takes about four hours and whilst not quite a walk in the park, it is taken by young and old alike. You need good boots, drinking water and plenty of sunscreen but it is quite doable.

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The village of Queralbs decked in Catalan flags ready for “Fiesta Major” – every town and village has one and it is a good excuse for a party and some fireworks.

Having said that, we chose the train – I must confess that my idea of a long walk in the country is an out-of-town shopping centre, so the thought of walking for four hours up a mountain track just doesn’t appeal. The train has a summer and winter version – the summer one is more like a tram with big windows from which to enjoy the magnificent views, whilst the winter one is more robust to deal with the snow and ice in the mountains. It takes just twenty minutes from Queralbs to Nuria and costs around €20 return (a bit less for over 65s) and there is an optional extra to take a cable car further up the mountain to a ski-station which takes another five minutes or so, but is well worth it for the view.

The rack railway to Nuria in summer

The rack railway to Nuria in summer

Once up at Nuria it is delightful to wander about – there is much to see: a mountain lake where you can hire canoes or rowing boats it you want to take to the water. You can stroll along the mountain trails some of which are cross-country ski tracks in winter. From the upper ski station down to the main buildings there is a Way of the Cross with several modern pieces of art relating to Christ’s Passion. You can have a picnic by the rushing mountain stream – as we did – or treat yourself to lunch in the restaurant – visit the beautiful sanctuary and spend some time peacefully admiring the Virgin of Nuria who resides in the Church most of the year but processes from the Church to the Chapel on 8 September each year. The Virgin – or Mare del Deu – of Nuria is believed to give the gift of fertility and Nuria is a popular girls’ name – possibly for those resulting from perceived Divine intervention.

The procession of the Mare del Deu of Nuria.

The procession of the Mare del Deu of Nuria.

For the less active there are expansive lawns on which you can just stretch out in the sunshine and for younger visitors pony rides are available.

For those wanting to stay longer, there is a hotel – the Hotel Vall de Nuria – and self catering apartments. The complex has two restaurants, a self-service cafeteria. a bar and a small shop – although those staying in the apartments would probably want to bring supplies with them as the selection in the shop is very limited.

the view from the upper ski station Right: the Vall de Nuria complex taken from the cable car

The view from the upper ski station

The Vall de Nuria complex taken from the cable car

The Vall de Nuria complex taken from the cable car

A visit to Nuria is a wonderful day out for us “locals” but it would also be a very peaceful getaway for a weekend – both for summer walks and winter skiing. We certainly returned home refreshed.

Paris to Barcelona in just 6 hours

Paris to Barcelona in just 6 hours

The new France-Spain TGV Duplex is now operating between Paris and Barcelona and you can now travel in daylight hours and enjoy the spectacular scenery.

The options include Paris-Barcelona in just over 6 hours, Lyon-Barcelona in 5 hours (if you’re in Lyon don’t miss the Sunday food market stretching all along the river bank – a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach), Marseille-Barcelona in just under 3 hours.

You will need to book ahead for a seat reservation.   So much better than the previous overnight option.

Where to in 2017

Where to in 2017

2017 Dates now available for each of the current tours and two new tours being added very soon.

Where are we going next?

Can you guess?       Watch this space.

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Sicily Tour Bonus

Sicily Tour Bonus

The splendid Teatro Bellini in Catania will be staging a performance of Khachaturian’s Spartacus ballet during our tour to Sicily in June.

sicily-feb-01We’ll be pre-purchasing tickets for the performance on Saturday 11th June.  For those guests joining us for the 5 day/4 night extension to Malta the performance will end in time for us to make our flight from Catania airport to Valletta.  For those departing Sicily the following day transfers will be provided back to our hotel in Syracuse.

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If you’re a ballet aficionado then it will be a huge treat and if you’re not – who could resist a visit to this stunning venue.

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Direct flights from Mexico City to Tokyo

Direct flights from Mexico City to Tokyo

Mexico’s flagship carrier Aero Mexico has announced the introduction of non-stop flights from Mexico City to Tokyo.

The service using their 787 Dreamliner planes will depart 5 days per week.

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You can now combine two of the most culturally rich and unique destinations in the world in one round trip. We offer two small group travel options in Mexico – the Yucatan peninsula in southern Mexico with its rich Mayan heritage, biosphere and pyramids or the cultural heart of Mexico in a colourful, authentic, warm, welcoming and artistic village situated on the largest freshwater lake in Mexico where you will be made to feel genuinely welcome as soon as you arrive.

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