Journalist for Life

Month: August 2010

Grueling but well-told history in Wales’ mines

In the middle of the 19th century, Wales could have been considered the heart of the Industrial Revolution. The grim stories are re-told in excellent museums.

Wales rolls out a 7,493-yard-long welcome mat

For the first time in its 83 years, the Ryder Cup — one of golf’s most-intense competitions, comes to Wales, on a course designed just for the event.

Norway boasts spectacular scenery, fascinating history

The Rauma train passes by the mighty Trollveggen, which juts 1,000 feet up. © Leif J Olestad.
The Rauma train passes by the mighty Trollveggen, which juts 1,000 feet up. © Leif J Olestad.
Andalsnes, Norway – Even at the purposely slow pace of 38 miles per hour, there is no clickety-clack, clickety-clack on the Rauma Railway. That sort of noise was eliminated long ago, when the Norwegian State Railways (the NSB) modernized its rolling stock.

It’s just as well there is no noise to distract passengers from enjoying the landscape of what the NSB proclaims is “the most beautiful train journey.’’ So the engineer keeps the speed at less than half its maximum — even stops the cars — to let amateur photographers onboard photograph waterfalls, mountains and lush valleys, bridges and the Rauma River itself.

A crowd-pleaser is the Trollveggen, the Troll Wall, which soars more than 1,000 feet above the valley floor and is Europe’s tallest vertical rock face.

“Most of our train routes are for pleasure, while other nations use trains just for transportation,’’ says Wenche Berger, international sales manager for NSB. “We need to increase our capacity, to serve more passengers.’’ Indeed, the only high-speed run in the entire country is between Oslo and its international airport.

The scenery never quits

The Art Nouveau town of Alesund, viewed from a scenic overlook. Robert N. Jenkins.
The Art Nouveau town of Alesund, viewed from a scenic overlook. Robert N. Jenkins.
But the rolling stock on the five designated sightseeing lines is user-friendly, and the 71-mile Rauma Railway is typical:

Passengers ride in 73-seat, air-conditioned, toilet-equipped cars with leather seats in the “Comfort Class’’, fabric in second class. There are vending machines but no bistro car, which on other NSB trains means a bartender/cook selling prepared cold sandwiches, snacks beverages and the popular Norwegian hot dogs.

On the sightseeing routes, reservations are recommended for the high season – typically the last weekend of May through the end of August. On the Rauma route, 47 percent of 2009’s 78,000 passengers traveled just during those three months.

What they get in 90 minutes is a 2,000-foot descent through spectacular landscape. The horizon is filled by mountains that climb as high as 4,800 feet, plus Trollveggen’s shorter cousins, inspiring waterfalls – the Vermafossen drops 1,181 feet – and the dramatic Kylling Bridge. Here, the train must double back through two tunnels to drop down and traverse the bridge, crossing 182 feet above the Rauma.

Even the river itself changes colors, from water so clear the sandy bottom looks like a Caribbean seashore, to a hurrying, emerald-colored stream infused with glacial silt.

The Rauma route is conveniently reached by a train from Oslo to the town of Domblas, a 212-mile ride that offers relaxing but less impressive scenery. The Rauma train departs twice daily from Domblas to Andalsnes, a cruise port on a fjord that is a popular base for trekking through area highlands and canoeing on the Rauma.

Step back in time

But many arriving Rauma passengers then catch a bus onward to the charming town of Alesund, a Norwegian Sea port that was largely destroyed by fire in January 1904 and quickly rebuilt in the then-popular Art Nouveau style. Dozens of those buildings, their facades adorned with typical artistic flourishes, dominate the compact downtown area.

A museum tells the story on the fire and of Art Nouveau. The museum, Jurgendstilsenteret, is in the former town pharmacy; over three floors are old photos, a movie with English subtitles, architectural models and period pieces from both the family that lived over the pharmacy, including their rich dining room, and other Nouveau objects. A free walking tour pamphlet directs visitors to more than 20 of the historic buildings.

Alesund also boasts an art district. Visitors and locals can see artists working in glass (you’ll wonder how Ingird Ulla can let her tabby kitten wander about the display shelves in her studio/workshop) and in wood – Peter Opsvik’s gracefully bold service pieces have been shown both in museums and in galleries throughout the U.S.

The town, though a major commercial fishing port, is also a tourist destination for exploring nearby fjords, mountains and fishing opportunities. There’s also a popular daytrip into one of the most beautiful fjords, Geirangerfjord, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

To round out a sampling of Norway’s popular transportation styles, visitors often book aboard the nightly departure from Alesund on the famed Hurtigruten.

Once the coastal villages’ cargo and mail lifeline, Hurtigruten is now much more a passenger and car ferry. Cabins, each with a bathroom, range in size across the 13-ship fleet, but each vessel has dining rooms, lounges and accessible deck space for viewing the passing coastline, isolated fishing villages and fjords.

All Hurtigruten vessels take either six or seven days to run between Kirkenes, a port well north of the Arctic Circle near the Russian border, and Bergen, Norway’s second-largest city. From Alesund headed south, it is a midnight departure and a 2:30 p.m. arrival the next day.

Into Medieval times

Bergen, a thoroughly modern city sprawling past the mouth of another fjord, boasts fascinating remnants from its centuries as one of the four “offices’’ of the dominant German merchant organization, the Hanseatic League.

Just along the busy, touristy, wharf, visitors can wander through the 450-year-old fortress complex focused on the Rosenkrantz Tower, then walk past 11 structures that are part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and turn up narrow alleys passing renovated medieval warehouses.

Also on the wharf is the well-done three-storey Hanseatic Museum, in a preserved merchant house that was simultaneously a dormitory for workers, office space and cod-storage area. A film, furnishings and artifacts explain the life of the trading city life from 1360 to 1754.

Bergen also boasts a number of other ancient buildings and modern museums focused on art, maritime heritage and natural history, including the oddly affecting Leprosy Museum, in a centuries-old hospital that cared for victims into the 20th century.

If you go

More than a half-dozen carriers fly between North America and Oslo International Airport. For more information on the transportation and destinations mentioned in the article, go to the following web sites:

Norwegian State Railways: www.nsb.no/home

Hurtigruten: http://hurtigruten.us/norway

Alesund: www.visitalesund-geiranger.con/en

Bergen: www.visitbergen.com/en

Both the train from Oslo to Dombas and the Rauma Railway are included in the Eurailpass, a network of discounted rail tickets in 21 Western and Central European nations. The pass can be bought for various numbers of travel days over various periods of time, and it can be bought for any one of the participating nations, for three to five nations, for a region or for all 21 countries.

For visitors who plan to see more than jut a couple of destinations, any of the options is a cost-savings over buying individual tickets. For details, go to www.eurail.com.

End Bag, the new book from Bob Jenkins, collects his best stories from 19 years as travel editor. Available now on Amazon.com. View a sample at Smashwords.com. Read more about End Bag here.