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 …
This week’s trip from our home in L’Escala was to Andorra. We went there once before – many, many years ago – and had been, how shall I put it, underwhelmed. From the border and into the capital, Andorra La Vella, is just one long traffic jam; it is almost impossible, not to mention expensive, to park; and when you do finally get out of the car all there really is to see is a single shopping street with one unimpressive shop after the other selling booze, fags and perfume – oh, and elite cars. This time, as the place obviously hadn’t improved much, we didn’t linger in Andorra La Vella but passed on through with a view to finding out what the rest of Andorra had to offer. I suppose neither the size of the population nor the landscape are conducive to building anything other than ribbon developments. There are just two numbered roads in Andorra – the no. 1 from the Spanish border to Andorra La Vella and the no. 2 from Andorra La Vella to the French border. On either side of the road are numerous hotels and rental apartments, small shopping malls and car parks.
We came to a small town called Encamp and were surprised to see a cable car crossing the road. So surprised, in fact that we quickly parked the car and went looking for where we could get on it. I do love a good cable car – closest I ever get to mountaineering! We established that the cable car took 25 minutes to reach the summit, paid our €10 each and off we went. It was a wonderful ride up over one, smaller, peak-ette and on upward. There was a mid-station so the energetic could get off and walk the last part (or the over-ambitious who had started to walk down could give up and take the cable car the rest of the way).
Then on again and up to the top station where there is a ski centre and a cafe with an outdoor terrace with absolutely wonderful views. It must be even more spectacular in the winter covered in snow. We were 2502metres above sea level, the temperature was still 26 degrees, there was quite a stiff breeze but if you went onto the leeward side of the cafe and sat in the shade, it was just perfect. Two bags of chips and a couple of shandies (we did have the car!) – really living.
Also on the cafe terrace at the same time was a large group of British walkers – about 20 of them. I do appreciate that some people are far more committed to hill walking than I am, so I can see that some stout footwear might be useful, but long trekking trousers, fleeces tied around waists, huge sunhats, ruck sacks the size of a small child with straws coming out so they can walk along sucking. What’s that all about? Why do Brits have to look complete idiots just because they are out walking in a foreign country? We have even seen a group of British walkers striding purposefully, in full gear and complete with ski-poles, through the centre of Girona when it was over 30 degrees. My husband always takes great delight when we come across British tourists – he is Norwegian so is fairly unlikely to meet any of his countrymen as there are only 5 million all told. As soon as he spots Brits he says: “Your lot” as if I am personally responsible for the entire 60 million official residents of the United Kingdom (I say official as there is much discussion around what the true figure might be which resulted in the somewhat controversial outcome of the recent referendum).
The trip back down the mountain was equally spectacular, past hill farms, a strange tower with steps up it, little rivulets rushing down to the valley and, as we approached Encamp, the town rushing up to meet us. We were so pleased we had taken the cable car – we could now appreciate that Andorra was more than booze, fags and perfume. Back in the car, we drove on towards France. The ribbon developments continue. One small town was pretty – Canillo – which is apparently popular with Spaniards and has a couple of nice hotels and some good restaurants. Eventually we came to Soldeu which is probably the best known ski destination in Andorra. In summer it felt rather claustrophobic – large hotels on either side of the road meant you couldn’t see the sun. I have since been told it is the resort of choice for young Brits coming to ski and party (in no particular order) who find the layout very convenient as it is easy to skip from one bar to the next and the ski lifts are no more than a stone’s throw behind the hotels. Having said that, the ski centre looked very impressive with several lifts and what looked like some pretty challenging black runs. Probably give that a miss as my skiing skills are limited to some gentle cross-country preferably without anything too taxing such as turning a corner or stopping!
After leaving Soldeu it was getting a bit late so we chickened out of going over Andorra’s highest pass – the Pas de la Casa. The small town lies at over 2000 metres but the road over the mountain to it is windy and I was beginning to get mountained-out. So we took the tunnel and then joined the queue of traffic to cross the border into France. It was a reminder of how Europe used to be to have to go through customs on the way into and out of Andorra. Makes it feel more special somehow instead of just sailing on down the motorway with very little evidence of leaving one country and entering another.
Driving on the French side of the Pyrenees is very different from the Spanish side. It is obviously on the north side of the mountain so even in summer there are parts of the steep valleys that do not get much, if any, sun. The houses of the small towns are, like Andorra, built right by the roadside – there is literally about 2 feet between people’s front door and the traffic driving past. It all feels rather depressing – not somewhere I would want to live. The scenery on the other hand is awe inspiring. Deep ravines, rushing rivers, a couple of spectacular railway bridges – always something to see. The road follows the route of the famous Train Jaune. As we passed through Villefrance de Conflent we spotted the bright yellow carriages of the little train – such a bright yellow they are hard to miss. I think a trip on the train could be another wonderful day out.
On down, and down, and eventually we come to Perpignan where we again decided to forgo the more scenic route through Le Boulou and Le Perthus as it was getting dark, so picked up the motorway for the short stretch to Figueres and back home.
A very interesting day out. Andorra is still not somewhere I would rush back to but it is somewhere we could spend a couple of days either in Encamp or Canillo and explore the countryside a bit more.
So, we’re nearly there – it feels dreadful to almost wish your life away, but August is such frenetic month that you just want it to be over. Our otherwise sleepy little town with a permanent population of 8000 souls is suddenly invaded, first by the Dutch who arrive at the end of June, then the Germans, the French – LOTS of French, it only being half an hour to the border – and finally the Catalan/Spanish tourists from the big cities such as Barcelona and Girona, culminating in a population of over 80,000 for the month of August. As you can imagine it is pandemonium – the bars and restaurants try desperately to milk every last centimo from the idiot tourists, supermarkets put a good 10% on their prices for the months of July and August, people on the Old Town beach have to turn over in unison to avoid unpleasantness and the daily excitement for the residents is watching the air ambulance try to land on the little square by the beach to deal with an emergency – sometimes twice in one day! I really don’t envy the paramedics, all togged up in their orange jumpsuits and crash helmets, manhandling patients on trolleys from an ambulance to the confined space of the helicopter in 34 degrees of heat. And if it’s not the beach it’s the road – why is it that people on holiday seem to leave their common sense at home and drive like lunatics?
It isn’t just the bars and restaurants who try to part the tourists from their cash. Home-owners move out to stay with friends or into tiny bedsits with no air-conditioning in order to rent out their property for exorbitant sums. The house two doors down from us where normally there is just one retired French lady was occupied for two weeks by three families – a total of five adults and seven children. The house is identical to ours so we just wondered where they all slept – we feel our house is full to bursting when our son, his wife and three year old daughter come to visit, but twelve people in a three bedroom house? That’s beyond cosy. Must have been quite a queue for the loo in the morning.
Our way of retaining our sanity is to take short trips away from the coast. Over the past two weeks we have been to the pretty mountain town of Compradon and also to Andorra.
Compradon is about a two hour drive from home into the Pyrenees, close to the beautiful Catalan mountain of Canigou. I adore that mountain the sight of it, particularly in winter when it is covered with snow, is magical. At this time of year it is often hidden in haze but makes a majestic appearance from time to time. Compradon is popular both in summer and winter. In summer the river is a cool oasis, the little town has a couple of squares with bars and restaurants and there is the most eccentric little hotel – imaginatively named Hotel Compradon – which from the front looks as though nothing has changed there, including the customers – for the past 50 years; but at the back the rooms have balconies overlooking the river at the other side of which is the hotel’s beautiful private garden with a swimming pool, accessed by an elegant footbridge. In winter, of course, Compradon is close to ski resorts and is even home to the Compradon Ski Club, no less. The town has had a traumatic past, particularly during the civil war and there is a museum in the town devoted to past struggles. We had a delicious picnic sitting on some big boulders right by the rushing river, but our reverie was interrupted by the first rumblings of thunder and some big spots of rain so we quickly packed up and headed back to the car. We drove up to the top of the mountain pass, where Spain meets France, and sat in a car park to watch the storm – spectacular lightening over the mountains and torrential rain. But, as is mostly the case here, it only lasted about half an hour and then the sun started to peek through again. We drove down on the French side so we could do some shopping – whilst Catalan wines have improved immensely over the past 10 years or so, and many are quite enjoyable, no-one will ever convince me that Spanish wine is a patch on French so we always take every opportunity to stock up!
Hotel Compradon with the footbridge over the river to the private garden.
The ancient stone fortified arch and bridge
Idyllic picnic spot
Storm over Canigou
One of the squares with several bars and restaurants
A good place to stock up for a picnic!
Crispy duck breast with easy orange sauce and roast potatoes
- 1 x large (350/400gr) duck breast with skin on
- sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- a little duck fat (or butter) for frying
- 1 rounded dessert spoon of duck fat (or ca. 50gr butter)
- 1 ½ rounded dessert spoons plain flour
- 1 pod of good chicken stock (eg Maggie jus de vollaile)
- ca. 3cl good orange juice with pulp (shop bought is fine)
- ½ small glass dry white wine
- 1 tablespoon of orange marmalade
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- small pinch of French “cinq épices” spice blend (or a little of what you have in the cupboard – ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon – but not too much of each as to be overpowering)
- Salt & pepper to taste
- ca. 5cl single cream
This dish takes only moments to cook and overcooking the duck will ruin it, so start with the potatoes – peel and quarter four medium sized potatoes, put into a saucepan with cold water to cover and about 1 teaspoon of salt. Bring to the boil and cook for 15 minutes. Whilst they are cooking heat the oven to 200C. Drain the potatoes and return briefly to the heat shaking the pan gently to ensure they are dry and “rough up” the edges. Put to one side while you melt about 2 dessert spoons of duck fat in the oven in a metal roasting dish large enough to take all the potatoes in one layer. Once nice and hot, gently tip in the potatoes then turn them one at a time so they are covered in duck fat. Sprinkle lightly with salt and put into the oven (middle shelf) for about 40 – 45 minutes. Check after about 30 minutes – they should be starting to brown (but not burn). If they are not browning it may be necessary to raise the oven temperature slightly for the last 10 minutes.
Make the sauce when the potatoes have about 10 minutes to go:
Melt the duck fat in a non-stick saucepan. Add the flour and combine with the fat using a whisk, add half the orange juice and the white wine, cook up until it thickens and add more orange juice as necessary until the desired consistency – it should coat the back of a spoon. Add all the other ingredients – stock pod, marmalade, sugar, spice, salt & pepper and, finally the cream. Stir well to mix, bring back to the boil then put to one side to keep warm whilst you cook the duck.
The duck breast:
Wash the breast and pat dry on kitchen paper. Season the skin side well with coarse sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Heat the duck fat in a heavy frying pan until quite hot. Place the duck breast, skin side down and leave without turning for 3 minutes. Turn over and reduce the heat to medium, again leave for 3 minutes – it should be hot throughout but still pink. If you are not keen on pink meat you can leave it to cook for another minute – but no more as the more it cooks the tougher it will get. Allow the meat to rest off the heat for a further two minutes. Cut into slices across using a sharp knife and drizzle a little sauce over to serve. Serve with the potatoes and the rest of the sauce separately.
Fresh green beans make a lovely clean-tasting accompaniment to this dish.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
A winter stay in the English Midlands
Most people when they visit Britain tend to go to London, Edinburgh or maybe York, Bath or Glasgow. The vast majority of the country is completely missed by overseas visitors.
The Midlands, as the name implies, is in the middle of England. Interestingly it comprises some of the most beautiful, and diverse, scenery – from the flat fens of Lincolnshire to the Peak District of Derbyshire, Rutland Water and much green rolling agricultural land throughout its 11 counties.
But it also boasts Britain’s second city – Birmingham – and the UK’s “curry capital”, Leicester; plus the historic cities of Nottingham, Warwick and Lincoln. The Midlands border Wales in the west and in the East, from the Lincolnshire coast, the nearest neighbour is Norway.
My husband and I recently spent six weeks staying in a typical English village called Stonesby, in an old stone cottage overlooking rolling hills and fields of horses and sheep, some with new-born lambs. As is often the way these days, the village has lost its village shop so the nearest shop, pub and Post Office is in the next village a couple of miles away, and the nearest town is Melton Mowbray – spiritual home of the pork pie – plus it is about 20 miles to the city of Leicester.
So what were we doing there? Good question! It is a common saying that no-one visits Britain for the weather, and February/March are definitely NOT the best months. First we endured the tail end of storm Henry, then the full force of storm Imogen (who names these storms?) with three days of wild winds and horizontal rain, and on some of the quieter days temperatures went down below zero centigrade. I think we saw the sun on a couple of occasions, too! Paradoxically many of the spring flowers and blossom came out early as a result, so we were told, of a mild autumn and winter, but it certainly didn’t feel mild to me. One could only feel sorry for them all – must be something of a shock emerging into an icy downpour.
The reason we went to the Midlands was to house-sit (*) for a couple who were heading off on their “trip of a lifetime” visiting Columbia and Ecuador. We looked after their home and their cat – the characterful Princess Tammy. The main form of heating in the cottage was an old-fashioned, coal-fired Raeburn (kitchen range) and a wood-burning fire in the sitting room. The Raeburn, whilst very effective, was a full-time job. It seemed to constantly need cleaning/stoking/filling up – it was more demanding than a small child. The cat, by comparison, was easy. She slept most of the day but then demanded (loudly) five meals between 4pm and 11pm. She is the only bulimic cat I have ever come across – most are perfectly capable of self-regulating their food intake, but if you gave Tammy a full dish of food she would eat the lot – and then throw it up again soon afterwards. Hence the five meals.
It is always good to return to Britain – great places to eat, friends and family to visit, and not to mention the shopping. It is a great excuse to stock up on things we miss and to update the wardrobe. It is one of the bug-bears of living in Spain that I find it almost impossible to buy clothes – and even worse for shoes. Spanish women are quite a different build from we Northern Europeans – much smaller boned, shorter generally but particularly between the armpit and the waist, and if you want a size 41 (7 ½ UK) shoe, as I do, then you need to buy one of the boxes the others come in. Well that’s my excuse for shopping in England anyway – and I am sticking to it.
As we were staying so long we took the car. It is a pleasant journey through France and we now take our time, with one or two stops on the way through when we can enjoy a good French meal and a better bottle of wine. We know exactly how far we can comfortably drive now so book ahead to ensure we have a comfortable bed waiting for us. On the way back, we encountered some snow as we crossed the Massif Central, but at least the roads were kept clear. The French really are very efficient when it comes to transport.
We have now been back a couple of weeks and are enjoying the spring sunshine. It is such a contrast from the chill of Britain. Having said that, and probably put you off visiting England for life, I really can recommend a visit to the Midlands. The cities are all very different, and yet all are worth visiting. Birmingham has an interesting jewellery quarter and has some pretty canal-side areas; Leicester, as I mentioned, has the best curry – my favourite restaurant is the Flamingo Bar & Grill which serves modern Indian food such as spicy sizzlers rather than the old-style greasy curry, that traditionally followed several pints of beer on a Saturday night out in my youth. Leicester also has a good market with fruit and veg stall-holders shouting out their wares – great atmosphere. Nottingham with its castle and links to Robin Hood is particularly good for those interested in history, but it also has some excellent shops, not just the usual chains, and what is reputed to be the oldest inn in England – Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, which dates from 1189. Lincoln has a truly impressive cathedral that can be seen for miles in all directions being perched on the only large hill in Lincolnshire, and around the cathedral is the old quarter with cobbled streets, quaint shops and restaurants. Warwick is also lovely and boasts a castle dating back to 1068 and William the Conqueror. The castle is well-maintained and has a lot of interesting activities through the summer months. You can even book a room in the Tower for an overnight stay.
I hope I have whetted your appetite for a visit to a lesser-known part of England – try it in late spring or summer and you might even be blessed with some sunshine.
Left, the village of Stonesby, Leicestershire – the cottage we looked after is on the left – in the centre is the view from the cottage sitting room, and on the right is Princess Tammy …
Below are pictures of Rutland Water (left), the statue of Robin Hood at Nottingham Castle (centre) and Leicester market (right). For a further selection of images of the Midlands I can recommend the photographs of Darby Sawchuck, a Canadian currently living in Manchester. Here is a link: http://dsphotographic.com/photos/english-midlands/
* House-sitting is a good way to spend a little longer exploring a new area. There are various websites but the one we use is Trusted Housesitters (trustedhousitters.com).
Living in Spain is wonderful but, as a born and bred northern European, sometimes you need to get away from the walltowall sunshine and endless red wine. We are lucky to have our family living in Norway so we can go there for a “fix” of normality a couple of times a year.
Thus on 19 December we set off for Oslo with suitcases stuffed with boots, thermals, furry ear-muffs and Christmas presents – and wearing a huge fox-fur coat that looked somewhat incongruous at Barcelona airport, but came in very handy later on. We went the weekend before Christmas because we wanted to go to the Christmas market in central Oslo, which has grown steadily year on year, now occupying two sites in the city and has a lovely atmosphere.
Oslo is a beautiful city – perched between the mountains and the fjord. In the evening the impressive sweep of the Holmenkollen ski jump is lit up and clearly visible from most parts of the city, and the waterfront is a hub of cafes and fine dining. Christmas lights are elegant and understated. Norwegians abhor ostentation – to the extent that they will actually snitch on a neighbour if they feel their lifestyle outstrips their expected income bracket, so it is rare for anything to be over the top and naff. Unfortunately this trait can be interpreted, with some justification, as thinking themselves superior and displaying a self-satisfied smugness. Norwegians have grown used to being rich and have always believed they live in God’s own country – this is not a particularly appealing mix for non-Norwegians.
But back to Christmas: the main part of the Christmas market occupies Eidsvoll Plass, the small central park known locally as Spikersuppa (The Nail Soup) because it was originally funded by a local nail factory. There is a pretty little lake with a fountain at the centre of Spikersuppa which in winter becomes an ice-rink popular with children during the day and young couples in the evening when music plays and there is a lovely romantic atmosphere which easily rivals the ice-rink in New York’s Central Park.
Nestling between the impressive buildings of central Oslo – the Royal Palace at one end and the Stortinget (Parliament) the other, the National Theatre, University and the Grand Hotel where the Nobel Prize-winners stay, along the side – Spikersuppa attracts locals and tourists alike. The wonderful thing about the Christmas markets is the variety of smells – hot chocolate, freshly cooked waffles, gløgg (the Norwegian version of glühwein), hot-dogs, barbecued pork ribs, elk burgers, reindeer steaks. All delicious, it is so hard to choose!
The newer “overflow” market is in Youngstorget – another impressive square presided over by the old Police Headquarters which was notorious during the war years when it was occupied by the Nazi SS who used the cellars to interrogate Norwegian resistance suspects. Despite the amount of time that has elapsed this square still has a strange atmosphere – but the Christmas market helps to banish the ghosts. This part is more traditional with large Sami lavvu (tents) housing stalls selling Sami products, most made from various parts of the reindeer which still form the basis of the Sami economy. Again there are some wonderful smells and many delicacies to try – as well as the chance to pick up traditional Norwegian knitwear, reindeer skin rugs and a lot of things made from reindeer horn you didn’t know you wanted.
Despite what everyone believes there is no guarantee of a white Christmas in Oslo. Ironically more often than not the snow usually falls between Christmas and new year. This year we had a mild and sunny Christmas Day, a light fall of snow on Boxing Day which disappeared quite quickly and then about three inches of snow fell over the new year weekend which then stayed delightfully light and fluffy as the mercury plummeted to minus fifteen centigrade – at which point I really appreciated the fur coat.
The only disadvantage to spending Christmas in Oslo is that Norwegians make the most of any religious holiday that allows them to stop work, shut the shops and restaurants, and spend time with their families, preferably in a small cottage in the mountains. Thus the place is like a ghost-town from lunchtime on Christmas Eve until the 27th or, as happened this year with Christmas Eve falling on a Thursday, the 28th. Christmas Eve is the big day in Norway with the main Christmas meal eaten late afternoon followed by a visit from Julenissen (Santa Claus) – usually a member of the family or a neighbour dressed in the usual red costume to hand round the presents. My father-in-law used to be Julenissen for about 10 houses in their road – however the custom is for each house to give Santa a glass of Aquavit (schnapps) and a ginger biscuit, so he used to return somewhat the worse for wear!
So, in all honesty it is probably better to visit Oslo either a week or two before Christmas or afterwards. In mid-December you can enjoy the Christmas Markets and maybe treat yourself to one of the excellent Christmas Tables (Julebord) – a fabulous buffet-style meal with the most fantastic selection of cold and hot dishes, deserts and cheeses, they really have to be seen to be believed. Most of the better hotels offer a good Julebord throughout December, but it is essential to book as they are extremely popular.
Holmenkollen Hotel and Voksenkollen Hotel are both out of Oslo city centre, near the iconic ski-jump and the ski slopes of Tryvann, yet they can be reached by T-bane, the local Oslo underground/overground train system, and if there is any snow around it will be up there. Alternatively if you really want to push the boat out and experience Norway at its elegant best, take the train from Oslo to the ski resort of Geilo (about three and a half hours), stay at Dr Holms Hotel (www.drholms.no) and enjoy the very best Christmas table money can buy.
New Year can be fun in Oslo. It is one of the few occasions when the normally ultra conservative Norwegians literally set fire to their money. There are great public firework displays around the waterfront but also most households will set off a small fortune in fabulous rockets – there can be fierce local competition as to who has the best fireworks, not least because they are ferociously expensive and this is one of the few acceptable ways of displaying your wealth. If it is a cold, clear night you will see a fantastic display – and if you are really lucky you may even see God’s fireworks, the Aurora Borealis.
A real bonus of being in Oslo around new year is the start of the sales. As everyone knows, Norway is expensive. But they have the best sales I have ever experienced. Whereas in London you may get 10% off – or if you are really lucky and it is something no-one else wants, 20% – in Oslo it is 50% and sometimes 70%. You can pick up some real bargains – I always buy my shoes in the Norwegian sales.
I adore the cold of Norway in the winter – it is crisp and dry and if the sun shines it makes you feel it is good to be alive. What I like less at this time of year is the dark – it is not light until after 9 in the morning, and dark again soon after 3pm. If it is a dull day it feels as if it doesn’t get properly light at all. But for a visit it is novel and atmospheric – just make sure you have good footwear, a warm coat and a hat so you can get out and enjoy the many delights Oslo has to offer.
We left Oslo in -17 degrees and arrived back in Barcelona to +19 – once again the fur coat was surplus to requirements. The cold was refreshing but the sun warms your soul. Good to be home.
Autumn is probably the loveliest time of year in Catalonia. It is mostly sunny, warm, but not too hot, and the tourists have all gone home so we can once again enjoy the beauty spots of the area in peace and tranquillity.
At this time of year we like to go inland. Just a short drive takes us into the Pyrenees, to beautiful scenery, clean, sharp air and clear waters. In a couple of hours we can reach the ski-resorts of Andorra. But one of our favourite trips takes us to Banyoles.
Banyoles lies where the Alt Emporda – the coastal plain – meets the Garotxa, the volcanic region that lies between Girona and the Pyrenees. The area has been inhabited since Neanderthal times – around 80,000 years. It was also occupied by the Romans and then developed from the ninth century. The outstanding feature of Banyoles is the Estany – the large freshwater lake. The water is crystal clear with much of it being a nature reserve. The lake is fed by underground springs coming from the volcanic Garotxa so the water is rich in minerals to the extent that it forms deposits that eventually become rocks which have been used to build the original parts of the town. Parts of the lake are extremely deep and that, combined with the mineral deposits and strong currents where the underground sources feed in, mean that much of the lake does not support life. The shallow parts on the other hand are teeming with fish and water birds.
There is a foot/cycle path around the lake that is relatively flat and gravelled most of the way, so easy walking. The circumference is about 10 kilometres and it takes about 3 hours to walk all the way round. We pick up the path by the Tourist Office which must rank as one of the prettiest I have seen, being housed in one of the delightful bath-houses perched over the lake. Turn left and walk anti-clockwise. After twenty minutes or so the route passes the small church of Santa Maria de Porqueres (Swineherds), then leaves the lakeside, passing through deciduous woods to reappear on the north shore from where there is an uninterrupted view down the lake, and even a little wooden jetty that is perfect for a picnic.
The lake was used for rowing events during the 1992 Olympics and from this angle it is easy to imagine how it must have been. Nowadays there are three major sporting events on the lake: a triathlon in July involving a 1500m swim, 40km bike ride and 10km run; a lake perimeter swim (6km) in September, and a New Year’s Day swim – brrrr!
So, picnic consumed we walk on through woodland with glimpses of the lake until we come to the municipal park and then the archaeological excavations at La Draga, an early Neolithic village discovered in 1990 when work started on the park. To the right of the path at this point is the public swimming area (free) with a small beach and a grassy area where you can relax in the sunshine – if you are here in the summer it is worth bringing a swimsuit.
Again the path leaves the lake, passing on the inside of Club Natacio de Banyoles (the local swimming club) which has two pools – one indoor and one in the lake. The Club welcomes visitors who can purchase a day ticket giving access to all the facilities. And finally we once again pick up the tree-lined lakeside promenade with its collection of exotic looking bath-houses which look as though they would be more at home in India than Catalonia, and then we are back at the Tourist Office where we started. Opposite the Tourist Office are several restaurants and a couple of hotels so, if you didn’t manage to take a picnic there are plenty of opportunities for a “menu del dia” for lunch. The daily menus are excellent value, offering three courses and usually including wine and water for about €12 – €15 (or less away from the beauty spot of the lake).
But Banyoles is not just the Estany. The old town itself is also worth wandering around. Centred on the original medieval town square surrounded by shady arcades with a selection of restaurants and bars, the town was recently extensively remodelled. The town had become somewhat run down and overtaken by cars so the decision was made to make the centre a pedestrian area so local people and tourists alike could enjoy this beautiful old town. The remodelling, completed in 2011, was undertaken sympathetically in order to retain what was good whilst getting rid of things that were, to put it bluntly, an eyesore, such as hanging electricity lines and the remains of old open sewers. But, whilst sanitised, the area has lost none of its charm with several beautiful squares, some picturesque use of refreshed waterways, old churches and some lovely shops in which to browse. All in all, a very pleasant day out.
Is the Catalonian region of Spain on your list of places you’d like to visit including, of course, the must see city of Barcelona? The region has a proud history and is one of the wealthiest regions of Spain which is why they are so keen to secede. From the coastline to the mountains there’s so much to see and experience. Register your interest with us now as we’re planning to add Catalonia to our 2017 destinations.
By guest blogger Jane Johansen
This is the million dollar question here in Catalunya at the moment – and there really is no clear answer. It is complicated: resentment towards the Spain and the central Madrid government is centuries old – and not helped by modern injustices – yet common sense says it is better to be part of a larger economy.