Wednesday, 24 September 2014

10 green reasons to love Norway

I love Norway. One of the highlights of my three months in Europe recently was the month I spent travelling around this long, thin, fjord-riddled country: two weeks in a cabin (more on this later), friend-visiting in Voss and Oslo, a few days and nights on trains (who knew Norway was so big? It's about 2500km south to north) and almost a week in the lovely Lofoten islands, north of the Arctic Circle. 

The beautiful Lofotens
I almost started to feel Scandinavian, mainly because people would speak to me in Norwegian, I got used to thinking in kroner (instead of euros) and I learned a bit of train-Norwegian (I could tell you your next stop and which side the platform would be on. Handy, I know.)

Here's what I love about Norway:

1. It's beautiful. This goes without saying but Norway's scenery really is worth travelling to the other side of the world for. Glacier-carved fjords, rushing turquoise rivers, coastal villages that haven't changed in centuries, thundering waterfalls, wild forests, alpine meadows, the midnight sun, more than 50,000 islands... The show never stops.

Weathered cabins near Voss
2. Cabins. Norwegians virtually invented cabins (how can we ever thank them?) and these impossibly charming wooden cottages dot Norway like hundreds and thousands on fairy bread, ramping up the grandeur of its natural places by putting humankind in our rightful place. There are cabins on mountaintops, in forests, by fjords, on remote Arctic beaches (remember North of the Sun?), and almost every Norwegian has access to a cabin. I could live in one, and perhaps one day I will.


Tent with a (free) view, Lofotens
3. You can camp almost anywhere, for free. Norway's right-of-access law allows anyone to pitch a tent on any unfenced land, including national parks, as long as you're at least 150m from the nearest house or cabin. You're even allowed to pick berries, flowers and mushrooms while you're there. 

4. Electric cars. Despite being the largest producer of oil in Europe, Norway has more electric cars per capita than any other country (I saw Teslas and charging stations everywhere), thanks to government subsidies. Fifteen EU countries provide incentives to owner of electric cars, but in Norway, electric cars are exempt from sales tax, road tax and public parking fees, and can use bus lanes. The icing on the cake is that almost all Norway's electricity is renewable, from hydro (and the surplus exported to mainland Europe). 

Trees in the middle of Oslo
5. Trees! Fly over Norway (better still, travel around it by train) and you'll notice it's almost all green. More than a third of Norway is boreal forest (though Finland is the most forested country in Europe with a massive 74 per cent forest) and Scandinavia has been practising sustainably forestry for more than a century. 

6. No dangerous animals. Coming from Australia - which has more things that can bite, sting and kill you than possibly anywhere else on Earth - Norway is a benign natural paradise. There might be a few bears in the north, if you can find them, but there are no poisonous snakes or spiders or other nasties. I hardly even saw a mosquito this summer. The closest I came to non-bird wildlife encounter was hearing a moose in the forest.

Fjord-kayaking near Voss
7. Nature-loving people. Norway is like New Zealand, times a hundred. I saw people of all ages hiking, camping, trail-running, mountain biking, climbing, swimming pristine lakes. I even saw a dog wearing a backpack. And that was just in summer. In winter, I'm sure they're all outside, blizzard or shine, enjoying the great, white outdoors.

8. It's kind-hearted. Norway isn't just a wealthy country (with the fourth highest per capita income in the world, according to the World Bank), it shares the love, via the Nordic welfare model (like other Scandinavian countries) which aims for equal opportunity, universal health care and security for all. Then there's the Nobel Peace Prize; Alfred Nobel was a Swede but the prize is decided by a Norwegian committee and awarded in Oslo every year on December 10, the year of Nobel's death.

My hero (or one of them)
9. Thor Heyerdahl. If this legendary Norwegian explorer and anthropologist were alive today, he'd be turning 100 next week (his birthday was 6 Oct 1914). On his famous Kon-Tiki expedition in 1947, he and five others crossed the Pacific on a 14m balsa-wood raft to prove that Polynesia might have been settled from South America - a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that Heyerdahl couldn't swim (!). You can see the raft and buy his book (which has been translated into more than 70 languages and sold 100 million copies) at the fascinating Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo; the 2012 Kon-Tiki movie is a great ride too. 

10. More Norwegian heroes. For a small country of only five million people, Norway has produced more than its fair share of outdoor legends. There's Nansen, who designed a polar-proof ship, the Fram (which you can see and go aboard in the Fram Museum in Oslo). Amundsen, first to reach the South Pole and find the Northwest Passage. Environmental philosopher Arne Naess, who coined the term Deep Ecology. And, more recently, Aleksander Gamme, who walked alone and unsupported to the South Pole in 2012, beating Aussies Cas and Jonesy by a frozen whisker.

Big thanks to Rail Plus for the Eurail pass, to Etihad for getting me to Europe, and to my Norwegian friends Frank and Oddrun in Voss, and Ingrid and Chris in Oslo.  

Saturday, 6 September 2014

City of bikes (yes you, Copenhagen)

Earlier this northern summer I had an overnight stopover in Denmark’s capital, to break up the train journey from Switzerland to Norway, and was overwhelmed by its bike-friendliness. I mean, everyone knows this is THE bike city, but I hadn't realised just how bike-centric it is until I spent 24 hours there.

Bikes catch trains here
In Copenhagen, it’s easy to believe we became bipedal to, er, pedal, not walk upright. 

Everyone rides bikes in the Danish capital, which has a whopping 400km of bike lanes. I saw people of all ages on bicycles of all shapes and sizes (parents on "pram" bikes, removalists on "cargo" bikes), girls in skirts with their cardigan wings flapping, shirtless young men (long live summer), businessfolk in suits (more than half of all Copenhageners commute to work by bike). Princess Mary probably has a royal bike.

No boom gates, no tickets
at this (bike) parking station
It's hard to imagine why we ever drove cars, in such a bike utopia. 

There are bike-only bridges. Bike parking stations. Double-decker bike racks. Garbage bins angled towards cyclists so they can toss things in as they ride by (how cool is that?). Green LEDs on bike paths that light up when you ride at 20kph, fast enough to make all the green (bike) traffic lights. 

Electric share-bikes with GPS
units - only in Copenhagen
As in other European cities, there's a bike-share scheme, of course, but Copenhagen's (called Bycyklen) has 2000 (!) electric "smart bikes" with GPS units, built-in lights and puncture-free tyres (and the cost is a very tourist-friendly 25 kroner, of $4, an hour).

I also saw the newly opened (in June) Cykelslangen ("Cycle Snake"), a bright orange, 220-metre elevated bike path that allows cyclists to ride over a harbourside area where pedestrians like to saunter. (It's also becoming a popular spot for youths to dive off into the water, see below.)

This is one cool, two-wheeled city. Here's a neat video clip from Treehugger.com about Copenhagen's bike-friendly present and future.

Five more delightful things about Copenhagen:

I can fly! The new elevated
bike-path-diving-board
1. You can swim in the harbour – I saw this in Oslo, too, people getting their annual dose of vitamin D right in the heart of the city, on open patches of grass, on jetties, and just diving into the harbour (or the free harbour pool) to cool off. I would have joined them if I hadn’t left my swimmers in my luggage in a locker at the station (epic fail), but I did swim in Oslo (twice!) and the water was surprisingly warm. 

2. It has Europe’s largest hostel, Copenhagen City Hostel, a 5-star, 14-storey design hostel in a harbourside building (the tallest in Denmark until 1958) on Hans Christian Anderson Boulevard (where else?). I slept in one of its 1020 beds, on the 11th floor and had a great view over the city for about $49 (265 kroner; Copenhagen may be bike-friendly but it ain't cheap). 

3. You can juice birch trees here – well, not personally, but in Copenhagen you can buy SealandBirk organic birch tree juice. Tastes sweet, and is full of antioxidants and vitamins, apparently.

Virtual tourism info
4. It has virtual tourist information booths. The tourism information centre was trialling these at Copenhagen’s central station when I was there in July. Needing a city map, I walked in, pressed the touchscreen and skyped with a friendly, real person in the tourist info centre a few blocks away.

Summer cycling: one of
Copenhagen's bike overpasses
5. Is it just me or do Danish people, on the whole, look incredibly healthy? Everyone I saw was rosy-cheeked, sparkly-eyed, shiny-haired. Maybe it's because they ride bikes everywhere.

Copenhagen has plans to become the "world's best bicycle city" by the end of 2015, but to my mind it's already there...


Wednesday, 27 August 2014

The wonderful world(s) of Europe

One of the joys of travelling is being affected by places, having your world view turned inside out, your misconceptions "corrected". I've had my mind changed, and opened, a few times while travelling around Europe these past few months. 

Beautiful, coastal Portugal
For one thing, coming from Australia, I've always thought of Europe as relatively small, and overpopulated. But Europe is bigger, wilder and more blue-skied than I'd remembered it to be. 

I realised my mistake as soon as I started zigzagging from one side of the continent to the other (which cost a small fortune, in different currencies – more on that below): from Germany down to Portugal, over to Croatia, up to Norway (I spent a day and a night on the train travelling north of Oslo, for instance, and still didn't reach the northern tip of the country).

I've learned that much of Europe is uninhabited, or barely inhabited, if you look in the right places. That there are wild landscapes all over the continent: beaches and islands, canyons and mountains. I surfed in Portugal, went sea kayaking in Croatia, hiking in Switzerland and hardly saw another soul.

Good question...
But the main thing I've learned is this: there's more than one Europe. Which can make travelling there tricky, particularly for non-Europeans. Let me explain...

There’s Europe the continent, a land mass that extends north of the Mediterranean Sea to Nordkapp in Norway (mainland Europe's most northerly point) and from the Atlantic to the Black Sea, and includes islands such as Iceland and the United Kingdom. 

There’s the European Union (EU) consisting of 28 countries, though some European countries, such as Norway and Switzerland, aren’t in the EU, and others are in the process of applying for membership such as Serbia and Turkey.

Bear Grylls on
the walls of Zagreb
There’s the Eurozone, made up of 18 EU countries that use the euro. So not every country in the EU uses the euro. The UK is the obvious exception, but Croatia, the EU's newest member (as of 2013), still uses the kuna. Then there are micro-countries that use the euro, such as Monaco and the Vatican City. 

Then there's Schengen Europe. Um, what? I'd never heard of it either. The Schengen Area comprises 26 European (EU and non-EU) countries that signed the Schengen Agreement (in Schengen, Luxembourg) in 1995 to abolish border checks between them. 

What Schengen means for non-European travellers: we can travel in and between any of the Schengen countries without passport checks, and stay in the Schengen zone for up to 90 days within a 180-day period (to stay longer, in other words, you have to leave Schengen Europe for 90 days and re-enter). 

Portugal for sale
The trap for new players is that some European countries (such as Croatia), even some countries in the EU (such as Ireland), aren’t in the Schengen zone, while some non-EU countries (such as Norway, Switzerland and Iceland) are.

Finally, there's "Europe" as defined by Eurail - a Eurail pass is valid in 24 European countries, which is pretty much all of Europe (including non-EU countries like Turkey) except the UK, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania, and Iceland.

Some European countries  like Portugal, Spain, Germany, France, Italy, Finland, the Netherlands and Belgium – make life easy for everyone by being in the EU, the Eurozone and Schengen (and within Eurail Europe).

Other European countries make travel akin to code-breaking (in a good way!). 

To illustrate: In three months in "Europe" I visited 11 countries (eight EU, three non-EU countries), went in and out of the Schengen zone a few times and used eight (!) currencies:
  • Portugal – which is in the EU, the Eurozone and Schengen Europe
  • Croatia – in the EU but not Schengen and doesn’t use the euro; the kuna was my first non-euro currency. Because I spent 16 days in Croatia, my 90 days in Schengen stretched to 106 days in Europe, which was an unexpected bonus...
  • Switzerland – proudly, defiantly not in the EU and doesn’t use the euro (enter my second currency, the Swiss franc) but is in Schengen
  • Denmark and Sweden – both in the EU and Schengen, but don't use the euro (they use Danish and Swedish kroner)
  • Norway – not in the EU and doesn’t use the euro (why can’t all Scandinavian countries at least use the same kroner?) but is in Schengen
  • Germany – another “normal” European nation: in the EU, in Schengen, uses the euro. Bless Deutschland
  • Hungary – in the EU and Schengen but doesn't use the euro (I had to buy forints for a too-brief river cruise stopover in Budapest)
  • Serbia – not in the EU (yet), the Eurozone (they use the dinar) or Schengen 
  • Slovakia – in the EU, the Eurozone and Schengen
  • Austria – another "truly" European nation: in the EU, in Schengen, uses euros.
The good news is that every country in Europe drives on the right, and uses the same two-pin electrical plug :-) 

The moral of the story: Before you travel in Europe and buy your euros or a Eurail pass, check the status of your destination. Then dive headlong into the wonderful world(s) of Europe.

(Big thanks to Etihad Airways, my new favourite airline, who flew me in style to Dusseldorf and back to Sydney, and Rail Plus, for the wonderful 2-month Eurail pass.)



Tuesday, 5 August 2014

The best things in life are free - even in Switzerland

Two and a half weeks housesitting for a friend who lives in a ski village in French Switzerland – how could I say “non”? This is a part of the world that knows how to turn up the dial on mountain landscapes. The weather wasn't all blue skies – only six of my 18 days in Villars-sur-Ollon (near Montreux) were sunny – but when the sun does shine, man, you need a couple of rainy, misty days to recover from the scenic splendour. 

Scenic splendour - from
the deck of the house
The challenge: How to live simply in one of the most expensive countries in Europe and in a mountain town that has TWO of the most expensive schools in the world (Beau Soleil and Aiglon College).

The outcome? It turns out that even in Switzerland, in summer, the best things in life are free, such as:

1. Getting around, if you ride bikes and walk, instead of driving. (The family I was housesitting for have a Tesla electric car, which is ridiculously cheap to run, but since I would be driving on the wrong side of the winding mountain roads, I decided to leave it in the garage, plugged in.) The bonus with walking is that you get to see the details in your surroundings: geraniums in window boxes, heart cut-outs in the wooden verandahs, piles of chopped wood waiting for winter...

Walk this way...
2. Hiking. Even getting up into the mountains is inexpensive, thanks to the Villars-Gryon Free Access Card, valid May-October. Although it's technically "free" only in name, for 10 Swiss francs (about $12), you can use any bus, train or gondola in the area for a whole day. Fifty francs ($60) buys you free transport for the whole summer.

The mountain I woke up to
every morning
3. Looking at mountains. Even after a week of constantly stopping to look at 3000-metre peaks in every direction, I still couldn't wait to open the curtains each morning to see them again. What would they be like today? Is there fresh snow from last night's rain? I started to wonder how people who live here get anything done. How do they not get so distracted by alpine beauty that they forget their jobs, their errands, their children's names? I still don't know.


No such thing as a free lunch?
This comes pretty close...
4. Eating in, and out. This being French Switzerland, the food was a highlight (and probably the main reason my friend Janet flew all the way across the US and the Atlantic to housesit with me...). It was also surprisingly affordable. Lunch was always "the best picnic ever": a fresh and crusty baguette, at least two kinds of cheese, an avocado and some nuts (for some non-dairy nutrition), and a block of Cailler dark chocolate, served on a makeshift tablecloth (in this pic, some red checked paper napkins).

For other meals we cooked instead of eating out (the advantage of having a kitchen) and spent almost as long in the chocolate aisle as in the whole rest of the supermarket. And still we'd always make sure we had a few francs leftover for pains au chocolat from the boulangerie. It was like being in Paris - with clean air and mountain views.

5. Swimming in Lake Geneva (once you've paid the train fare to Montreux). This was another highlight of our stay (even though we had to swim in our underwear, because it had been raining and cold when we'd left the mountains and we hadn’t expected Montreux to be sunny and 22 degrees C and the lake so irresistible). Sometimes the best things in life are spontaneous too. 


Up to my neck in Lake Geneva
Not only that but we swam right next to Chateau de Chillon, an incredible 12th century castle right on the lake, just after watching a ballet company rehearsing for that evening's performance, for the price of admission, a mere 12 francs. Oh, Switzerland, how do you do it?

6. Doing nothing. One of the best ways to save money is to do nothing. Well, nothing more than reading in the sun on the deck, playing badminton on the lawn, talking over cups of tea...

A posy of wildflowers
7. The kindness of strangers. One day we caught a bus (using the Free Access Card) to Solalex, a glacial cul de sac at the foot of an enormous slab of rock called the Miroir d'Argentine. We'd just been tandem paragliding for the first time (which isn't free, of course, but was much cheaper than back home, go figure) and were celebrating with a couple of Boxer beers (who knew the Swiss made beer?) at Le Restaurant du Miroir d'Argentine, when the aproned waiter came over and offered us two slices of peach flan and some freshly whipped cream, as they were about to close. This is what I love about travelling. Kindness, and dessert, when you least expect it.

8. Speaking French. Practising my schoolgirl French – priceless. Attempting to speak another language in a country that speaks it all around you is a little-known form of entertainment, and not just for the locals (!). I love places where you can live simply but still have another language and culture to keep things interesting. 

Freshly picked strawberries
 9. Summerberries. I learned a new appreciation for summer by picking strawberries in the garden of the house where we were staying - so precious when you know the ground will soon covered in snow. We also met hikers picking wild strawberries beside the trail.

10. Friends. Having friends in high (as in altitude) places makes even the most expensive destinations affordable (big thanks to Keith and Yvette for opening up your home to us while you were away). But even when you don't know anyone where you're going, there are other ways to housesit, like Trustedhousesitters, which has assignments all over the world and you usually stay for free in exchange for looking after the owners' house, garden and/or animal friends.

Got any tips for travelling on a budget in expensive countries?