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5 Bikes that made me smile, and not.

5 Bikes that made me smile, and not.

Bikers all belong to one loving motorcycle family within which there are tribes, divisions and boundaries. So, we see sports bikers, touring bikers, adventure bikers, hog lovers, off-roaders and maybe a couple more categories, too. Each group has it’s own vision of what a motorbike should look like and what motorcycling should be. It’s no secret that sometiomes views clash with more than just the exchange of polite banter.

Also true is that some riders fail to figure out where they belong. They roam from one group to another, uneasy, confused and viewed with suspicion by friends, family and other bikers, as well.

There are also those, maybe the most troubled of all, who ride a sports bike or a Harley by day but secretly cherish a motocross machine they keep hidden in a shed out of sight.

Of course, none of this really matters. What counts is enjoying the ride regardless of what your bike looks like.

An Old Twin Shock

Motorbikes never interested me until the age of twelve. It was then that a school buddy of mine received a “hand me down” battered 80cc motocrosser from an older brother. As a result, I was at his home one afternoon, invited to check out his new two wheel marvel.

For sure, the old twin shock scrambler had seen better days. I remember it leaked fluids from tank and engine and stank of Castrol fuel mix. It had worn tyres, the suspension groaned, the handlebars were out of square. But, despite her shabby appearance, the note from the old girl’s exhaust made it clear there was life in the machine yet.

That afternoon I took my first steps into handling clutch, gears and throttle. I fell, got bruised and grazed. I tore my sweater and stained my jeans with oil, grease and mud. I lost control of the bike more than once and convinced myself the thing had a mind of it’s own. It behaved like cornered animal that just wanted to flee or be left alone. By the end of the day I was aching all over but none the less had a grin on my face. I was hooked, I was a budding biker, I had found my tribe, I was and off roader.

Over the years I’ve owned a few bikes and ridden plenty more. Some I liked a lot, others not so much. Of course, things change as you age but that off road edge has always influenced my choices of brand and style when it comes to motorcycles. Here’s a list of the machines that made the biggest impact.

Italjet 50T

After promising results at school I managed to persuade my father to shed some cash on my fourteenth birthday and became the proud owner of a second hand 50cc trials bike. Completely different to a motocrosser (and not much more than a moped), the Italjet was heaps of fun for a kid of my age and didn’t pass unnoticed with its wacky colour scheme either.

Italjet trial 50 T
Italjet trial 50 T

I rode the small bike for years and learned a thing or two about balance, clutch control and riding over obstacles though the lack of real power from the small Minarelli engine never propelled me to any competitive might.

Kawasaki KLX650

When my working days arrived and after a spell without a motorbike at all, I hunted for a machine with some sort of off-road flavour. I hoped to find a decent second hand Kawasaki KLR 650 but then stumbled upon a rarely seen KLX, the KLR’s beefed up cousin. As soon as I saw the bike I knew it had to be mine. It was just over ten years old with less than twenty thousand kilometres on the dial, only one owner. The bike looked clean and I bought it on impulse there and then.  

KLX 650 and owner on a ferry boat
The KLX and I, island hopping in Greece

I loved the KLX very much. It’s torque, reliability and upright riding position were fun on any day. Once again I owned an eccentric machine not many people recognised. In fact, the only KLX 650C I saw on the road was the one I owned and kept for five years. 

Of course, it wasn’t perfect. Vibrations at over 110km/h annoyed me at times and the big bore single craved for oil especially during the warmer season. But, it did the job and the bike also introduced me to the world of motorcycle travel. It took me to France, Greece, Turkey and to the dunes of North Africa and back, albeit only just. 

The Sahara, In Tunisia
The Sahara, In Tunisia

KTM 525 EXC

My North African trip on the KLX fuelled an appetite for further off road adventure. Still with the Sahara in mind I went for the kill and bought a third hand KTM 525. I thought this might be the best tool for mud, white top roads and whatever off road adventure I fancied. It was however, a big mistake. The 525 was a beast of a machine with way more power than anyone, other than a professional, could hope to manage sensibly. There was no compromise with this Austrian behemoth. It was either a full white knuckle ride, battling to keep rubber on the ground or nothing at all. 

The 525....a beast.
The 525….a beast.

Needless to say the 525 filled me with anxiety every time I rode her and in the long run, I avoided having anything to do with the bike entirely.

KTM 250 EXC

A second hand KTM 250 two stroke was a by far a more sensible approach to green lanes and track events. Above all, the engine was manageable, light and didn’t tire me the way the 525 did. Unfortunately though I found the 250 maintenance hungry. Piston rings, electrics, oil leaks, just got too much for me.

KTM 250 two stroke
KTM 250 two stroke

BMW F800 GS

The F800 was love at first sight. To me it remains one of the most appealing designs in enduro adventure bike segment. By no means perfect, the baby GS nonetheless ticks all the boxes for me adequately. It’s reliable, robust, great on fuel economy and can, within reason, handle most easy dirt tracks pretty well.

My first F800 GS, on The Pyrenees in Spain
My first BMW F800 GS, on The Pyrenees in Spain

I’ve travelled extensively on the F800GS, all over Europe and Asia and have come to know the bike’s merits and flaws, well enough. The steering head bearings, the dodgy fuel pump and its flimsy front rim are its immediate issues. These, however are easy to fix. The F8 isn’t suited for long highway runs nor for sustained speeds above 150km/h, either. None of this bothers me. I believe the bike remains a good compromise as far as adventure bikes go. I’ve actually owned two of these and still ride one today.

Looking ahead

What bikes would I like to own? Well, it’s an on going joke that motorbikes unlike a girlfriend/boyfriend don’t mind if you dream of newer models or skim through motorbike magazines.  So… I like the Ducati Multistrada and although I’m not sure how this Italian prima donna handles it’s certainly a stunner in the looks department. We shall see, perhaps one day I’ll own one or maybe not. Maybe I’ll be enjoying something completely different instead, could even be something electric. 

Sign board at Italian border

Travellingstranger 2019 ©️. All Rights Reserved.

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Atomium, cosmic space balls!

Atomium, cosmic space balls!

Challenges in Architecture

In many large cities of the world, especially in the Middle and far East, there’s an unspoken race to create stunning new architecture. As a result, massive constructions appear every year all over the globe in the shape of gleaming airport terminals, luxury hotels, rocketing skyscrapers and more. Many of these new builds carry a message that goes beyond their stylish design and size. Above all they’re a symbol of the host country’s growth and ambitions on the international stage. The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, for example, are considered an emblem of Malaysia’s “developed nation” status. Similarly, the Burj Khalifa and Al Arab do the same for the Emirates. Perhaps the Lakhta Centre in Saint Petersburg is an icon of Russian aspirations, as well.

The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

I’m neither an architect nor a civil engineer and can’t comment on the hazards of building modern high rise structures. However, what I do know is that some architecture, whether ancient or new, can amaze and stun the public. It can also capture the imagination and stir feelings of national pride. After all, how could the Marina Bay Sands Hotel in Singapore fail to impress? How could the Capital Gate Tower in Abu Dhabi not leave an onlooker in awe? Similarly, what can be said about the CCTV building in Beijing?

Random Space Balls
Random Space Balls

Cosmic Balls

In Brussels, at the heart of Europe, there’s an older piece of architecture that delivers the same sense of admiration described above. It’s called the Atomium and it’s hardly a skyscraper nor a fashionable hotel. It’s neither a museum nor a government building. In fact, the Atomium has no real functional purpose whatsoever other than being an architectural wonder in pretty much the same way the Eiffel Tower is in Paris.

The building’s charm has all to do with its futuristic design. Its weird appealing “space ball” geometry captures everyone by surprise, it draws smiles and raises curiosity just like every decent work of art. It’s like no other building in the world and rightly considered one of the most iconic in Europe.

Practicalities

You can reach the Atomium easily from down town Brussels. A twenty minute ride on the subway, on line 6 to the Heizel metro stop will get you there. As you exit the station the massive silver spheres and connecting branches of the Atomium’s structure fill the skyline. You can’t miss it.

The Atomium, Brussels, Belgium
The Atomium, Brussels, Belgium

There are nine eighteen meter diameter balls in the design that at first glance seem positioned randomly. As you get a little closer to the building though, it becomes clear that there is indeed an order. The Atomium is a gigantic model of the “cubic centred” crystal structure, the same structure that is found Iron ore (Fe), Lithium (Li) and many other metals, too.

1950's Sci-Fi nostalgia
1950’s Sci-Fi nostalgia

There’s a wealth of information about the Atomium on line that I won’t repeat here. I’ll just hint at the fact that the structure was built in 1958 for that year’s World International Expo. It was designed by the able hands of Jean Pollak (architect) and Andrè Waterkeyn (engineer) and was never really intended to be a permanent landmark.

Tickets to the venue cost around 15 Euro each for adults and are best purchased on line. However, queues at the entrance are to be expected due to strict security checks. Because of this it took me about fifteen minutes to get through the inlet barriers.

Steampunk spaceship!
Steampunk spaceship!

Out of this world

The Atomium’s inside doesn’t disappoint at all. A clever system of escalators, and stairs allows visitors to move easily from one “ball” to the next. In each of these there are temporary art exhibitions, pictures, videos and artefacts from the Atomium’s past, all worth some attention. The round shape of the chambers plus some fancy soft coloured lighting gives each room a different dreamy feeling that is both soothing and exciting at the same time. Part labyrinth, and part museum there’s something to keep everyone entertained inside the Atomium, enough for a few hours of fun at least.

Atomium Stairs
A clever system of stairs connects the spheres of the Atomium.

Space ships and movies

The Atomium reminds me of something from a 1950’s movie, like The Forbidden Planet, War of the Worlds, Destination Moon or similar. For this reason once inside I felt as as though on board a C-57D space ship with captain Adams (Les Nielsen) and crew ready for take off. The steampunk style iron cladding, the shape and colours of the inside design reeked of cold war science fiction nostalgia. This was a time in which Sputinks were launched into orbit and atomic bombs kept everyone in check. Maybe Pollak and Waterkeyn purposely meant to capture some of this post war drama when they drew up their plans for the Atomium in the early days of the space race, who knows.

....retro style cast iron
….retro style cast iron

Meal with a view

The highest point of the Atomium is at around 100m form ground level. Of course there are some great views to admire from the windows of the upper most sphere. There’s also a bar and restaurant up there. The menu includes lobster, meat cuts and steamed mussels. Prices are steep but the food is worth it.

I enjoyed the Atomium immensely. If nothing else I took some unusual pictures and got excited about a landmark I think is definitely unique. Hence, I look forward to visiting again some time soon.


If you’re in Brussels, Belgium and have any interest in architecture or perhaps in old sci-fi movies then pay the Atomium a visit. You won’t regret it!

Atomium after dark

Travellingstranger 2018 ©. All Rights reserved.

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How to Shoot the Northern Lights

How to Shoot the Northern Lights

Lake Inari in Lapland, Finland has long been a popular spot for cold weather enthusiasts eager for some outdoor winter fun. People flock to this arctic resort from all over the world, especially during the Christmas season, usually with kids in tow. After all, it’s no secret that Lapland is also home to Santa Claus, his reindeer and merry helping elf’s, too.

Throughout the winter months, tour operators offer a “full on” package here with wooden cabins to sleep in, saunas to relax in, reindeer farms, snow mobiles, and of course a chance to witness the northern lights in all their green luminescent splendour. For many this lasts attraction is the greatest of all.

So, taken by striking web pictures and keen to try some snowmobiling as well, I set off in late February for some Aurora magic. I packed my Nikon D7200, a Sigma 18-35 Art lens, a sturdy tripod, a few other essentials and boarded a Finnair flight from Gatwick to the great North.

In Ivalo, once landed, I found a world of ice, snow and temperatures well below zero to greet me. The border formalities took very time to sort out and once through, a driver escorted me and a small party to our lodges.

The Nellim Guest House
The Nellim Guest House

The Nellim guest house was comfortable and cosy. The food served was good (especially breakfast) and the day activities for guests had something for everyone to enjoy in the snow. Amongst the favourites were dog sledging, ice fishing and cross country skiing.

The snow mobiles provided transport and were easy to ride, albeit bumpy. I discovered they offered the same sort of thrills an off road motorbike does. As a result, I promised myself I’d find time to investigate these machines a little more some time in the future. It was picture taking that I had come for though on this trip and a chance to take some snaps of the Aurora Borealis most of all.

What set up did I use on my camera? What worked best? Was it easy? Here are the essentials.

The Northern Lights on Lake Inari , Finland
The Northern Lights on Lake Inari , Finland

1. It’s best to have a DSLR or equivalent with manual settings.

The manual settings available on a DSLR camera, along with a decent lens, permit easy vibrant, detailed images. When set up correctly a modern DSLR yields instant results that require little post processing on a computer. 

A smartphone will also work, but image quality might not quite be the same as that of a DSLR. A lower quality smart phone camera might simply be disappointing.

2. A “full frame” machine is preferable.

A 35mm “full frame” format camera has a bigger sensor, bigger than most consumer grade machines. This allows for shorter exposures, lower ISO settings and consequently comparatively less grainy, noisy pictures.

A natural wonder
A natural wonder

3. Use the fastest wide angle lens available.

Use the best quality, biggest aperture lens you have available. An aperture of maybe 2.8 or bigger still is ideal for low exposure times.

4. A tripod is a must!

It’s cold out there, in the snow and ice in the middle of the night and exposure times in the dark can be several seconds long. Consequently a tripod is the only way to avoid camera shake and blurry pictures both for cameras and smartphones.

5. Settings

Set the lens to the widest angle available (18mm or even less). Aperture at maximum or just under maximum, wherever image quality is best. Focus needs to be on “infinity”. This can be achieved by focussing the lens in auto mode on a bright subject 30m to 40m away (or more). The lens will set itself to infinity this way. Then, disengage auto focus mode, flip to manual and do not touch the lens again.

Use the widest angle available, set focus to infinity
Use the widest angle available, set focus to infinity

Exposure times should be around ten seconds at the most. Any longer than that will produce images with noticeably blurred stars due to the Earth’s rotation.

ISO settings depend on the combination of the camera’s sensor and lens. A compromise is necessary (while shooting) for bright enough images and the exposure times mentioned above. I found that ISO 800 to ISO 1250 worked well for me without too much noise in any of my pictures.

6. Shoot raw

Raw images allow greater post processing flexibility.

The lights, like a green misty blur
The lights, like a green misty blur

7. Have a spare battery!

The cold will run down batteries faster than normal. It’s best to have an extra ready to go. Keep the spare warm in a pocket until needed.

8. You need luck.

A combination of clear skies and good solar activity is essential to see the aurora. It’s no use standing around with camera in hand on a cloudy night. Furthermore, it’s always good to be creative. It seems like the better pictures of the lights are all about telling a story and creating an atmosphere. The lights work well when used as a detail (albeit a big one) in the background. Glowing camp fires, tents, snow mobiles or people are effective props to “anchor” pictures in the foreground.

More lights on Inari
More lights on Inari

Personal Experience

I spent three hours on lake Inari, at minus fifteen degrees with my nose pointing to the heavens. The lights were one of the most captivating spectacles I have ever seen. At first, they darted around in the sky, twisting, coiling and turning, Sometimes they appeared suddenly as if by the flick of a switch. Other times they would take shape slowly in a warm glow. Similarly, they would then dissolve and reappear elsewhere above the horizon.

Colours changed from green to green-blu with occasional streaks of red. Sometimes the lights were sharp and bright, more often they were a misty blur. Many times shafts and beams of green seemed to drop from the heavens and bounce low on the clouds above the tree line in a yellow glow. It felt all a bit mystical. 

I had two batteries with me for my shoot and used one up entirely in the space of just over an hour. I remember brushing off some frost from my camera to change the battery out. Finally I made my way back to the guest house in the early hours of the morning when the cold on my feet became unbearable. It would have been good to have had more time to experiment with composition and maybe a change in location, too.

Twisting, turning and curling!
Twisting, turning and curling!

All in all Inari was a great, worthwhile experience and lucky one as well. The best time of the year to see the lights is autumn and early spring. There are apps available that can accurately predict times and places for the best sightings that work very well. “My Aurora Forecast and Alerts” is one of the most popular. 

Travellingstranger 2019 ©. All rights reserved.

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Georgia, Green Lane Paradise

Georgia, Green Lane Paradise

Georgia, the South Caucasus nation, is hardly on the radar of western mass tourism and isn’t really part of the beaten backpacker track either. In fact, the country’s existence and location is regrettably ignored by most people.  For sure Georgia’s past as a somewhat obscure republic of the Soviet Union still feeds suspicion to the minds of those who remember the Cold War and know who Joseph Stalin, a very prominent Georgian, was. Also, Georgia’s recent ruinous 2008 conflict with Russia has done nothing to promote the country as a tourist destination.

So, it was with a bit of apprehension that I reached Georgia on a Black Sea ferry from Ukraine, not sure what to expect and totally ignorant about what I might find. However, my doubts disappeared pretty quickly. Infact, within a couple of days of my arrival my doubts were replaced by surprise and keen curiosity. 

Georgia has it all. There are stunning mountains on its northern border soaring above 5000m, sunny beaches and resorts on its Black Sea coast, green valleys and plains where good wine is made. People are generally friendly, proud and hospitable and there is a wealth of history in this geographical crossroads between Christianity and Islam that it’s mysteriously puzzling. Of course there’s also good cuisine to try and buzzing night life especially in Batumi and Tbilisi. Most of all though the country feels safe, genuine and is unspoiled by masses of tourists. 

Khinkali, the Gerogian dumplings are not to be missed
Khinkali, the Gerogian dumplings are not to be missed

Riding through Georgia from East to West gave me the opportunity to notice some of the paradoxes this nation faces. Two frozen conflicts within its borders (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) is the price the country pays for antagonising the interests of Russia, its dominant neighbour. Equally, aid from the West is obvious. The police for example wear American style uniforms and roam the roads in Ford patrol vehicles that would not look out of place in a cop movie based in New York or Los Angeles. Furthermore, The people I came across in Tibilisi, in the guest houses and bars, included journalists from known media organisations, NGO workers and even British aristocracy. Un unusual mix and a certainly different to the back packer hostels you generally get in any major city in the world.

Riding the offload trails in Georgia
Riding the offload trails in Georgia

Georgia is also a stunning place for some motorcycle adventure.  There’s an abundance of white top (un tarred) roads that carve their way for hundreds of kilometres through amazing mountain scenery in the Caucasus and lead to remote border hamlets reachable only during the summer months. The routes can take days to ride and are a thrill to explore on a capable, machine.  I enjoyed the green lanes in Georgia so much that I can confidently say they offered some of the most satisfying off road experiences I have ever enjoyed. 

But where to go to get at a taste of the trails in Georgia? One route in particular will not fail to satisfy. It’s the road that leads through the Stori valley to the village of Omalo in the Tusheti region north west of Tbilisi. This route is fairly recent, opened up in the late seventies and maintained every year with bulldozers and gravel. It takes the better part of a day to complete a one way ride to Omalo from Tbilisi and three days for a return trip is plenty. This road has been featured as one of the most dangerous roads in the world in a BBC television series from 2012.

You need to pack light for the track, so leave heavy excess items at whatever guest house you’re leaving from in Tbilisi before heading off for the hills. Camping gear is not required. Make an early start to avoid the rush hour traffic and then head east, away from the capital city’s centre along the Kakheti Highway. Pass the intersection to the airport and continue along S5 all the way to the junction with Route 38. Make a turn north and follow the signs for the town of Telavi.

The ride to Telavi starts off a bit bland but once you reach the village of Sasadilo there’s plenty of rural farmland to stare at. Animals are free to roam here and it’s not unusual to find cattle, dogs and the occasional pig in the middle of road. Beware!

A view of Omalo
Omalo, butrried in the Caucasus

Respect the speed limits and do not cross the solid lines that divide the the carriageways. Georgian police are unforgiving and the fines are steep as I painfully discovered at my own cost.

Telavi is a small town with plenty of affordable guest houses. It’s a good place to spend a night especially on the return route from Tusheti and Omalo if necessary.

Just north of Telavi the route turns west and follows the Alazani river valley. Fields and arable land surround the road here all the way to Pshaveli where the Stori Valley commences with wooded forest all around. Make sure to fill your tank in Pshaveli as there are no other fuel stops from here onwards. The hard tar surfaced road disappears soon after the village and now the real fun begins. Jagged twists and loose gravel along cliff edges, tricky mud, knee deep fords, slippery rock and snow are the hurdles ahead on the trail. You need momentum and a minimum of off road negotiating skills especially where the mud gets over ankle deep. There are roadside waterfalls, roaming cattle and the occasional 4×4 truck to overtake while keeping an eye out for the drops at the side of the road. It’s fun and the adrenaline pump, constant.

Approaching the Torha Pass
Approaching the Torha Pass

Knobbly tyres are an advantage and hard suspension is a plus as well but there is nothing too extreme about the road to Omalo and calling it one of the most dangerous roads in the world is an outrageous exaggeration. Do it all at your own pace and it’s fine.

The maximum elevation is around 2850m so temperatures can drop noticeably especially at the Torha Pass where snow can be found even during the warmer months of the year. Take extra care here when crossing the fords swollen by melting snow. Probe the depth of the running water with a stick if necessary and do not underestimate the force of a gushing stream. I was caught out at one point and risked drowning my bike.

Almost a ruinous fall
Almost a ruinous fall

It can take the better part of four hours to ride the 80 km circa from Pshaveli to Omalo and every second will have your pulse racing. Once you reach Omalo the Tsasne guest house is the place to stay. It has warm, clean dorm style rooms and typical local food. I spent a couple of nights there with other guests. Safe parking was provided too!

The Tsasne Hotel in Omalo
The Tsasne Hotel in Omalo
Secure parking in Omalo
Secure parking in Omalo

The village of Keselo is just a short ride from Omalo and there are some recently restored iconic stone dwellings here worth a visit. The fortified houses were used by local villagers as a refuge when hoarding Daghestani tribes from across the border ransacked the area repeatedly throughout the Middle Ages.

Keselo and its fortress towers
Keselo and its fortress towers

The road to Omalo is sure to impress and will create a lasting memory for whoever ventures up its muddy path. There is stunning scenery, hospitality good food, history and plenty of photo opportunities. The ride is simply enormous fun both there and back to Tbilisi. Don’t miss out if you’re ever in Georgia, on an enduro machine between May and October. Enjoy!

The road to Omalo, possibly the best ride ever!

Travellingstranger 2019 ©. All rights reserved


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Two days in Oslo

Two days in Oslo

Think Norway and images of expensive beer, amazing fjords and blue eyed blond Viking folk generally come to mind. Though not far from wrong, stereotyping Norway this way and Oslo in particular can lead to srprises.

Norway has long left it’s past as a predominantly agricultural and fishing nation and emerged over the last three decades as an oil producing economic power house, known for it’s socially progressive laws, marine engineering, high taxes and newly found status as one of the richest nations in the world. With an increasingly cosmopolitan population of less than six million, its vast territory and coastline, its wealth in minerals (titanium, copper) and magnificently preserved forests, one can be easily led to believe that this is a land of countless opportunities. Oslo is the capital of Norway and a good place to start exploring. 

Positioned at the furthest end of the narrow Oslofjorden bay that feeds from the Skagerrak Strait, Oslo is home to around six hundred thousand people and can be reached by ferry from Denmark and Germany or buy road and rail passing through Sweden. Flying of course, is the easiest way to reach the Norwegian capital and a Scandinavian Airways flight will get you there from any major city in European and from beyond.

Gardermoen Airport is welcoming, cosy and pleasant with wooden floors and paneling that are typical reflection of local decor. It’s a an interesting place to hang in and there’s an efficient rail link to down town Oslo (less than thirty minutes).

Gardermoen Airport, Oslo
Gardermoen Airport, Oslo

What makes an immediate impression on arrival though are the prices advertised at the airport’s eateries. A simple croissant is sold for the better part of 5€, a cappuccino for over 4€. Sandwiches for 10€ and a slice of cold pizza for around 15€. Dare I mention beer for over 12€? A chilling welcome to Scandinavia for sure and just a taste of things to come. 

What to do if you’re stuck in Oslo for a couple of days during the cold Winter months? What’s not to be missed? Where to stay and where to hang out? Here are some suggestions.

Where to stay

With limited time to explore Oslo it makes sense to find accommodation as close to the town centre as possible. Anywhere around Karl Johans Gate is a good choice for easy access to public transport, shops, bars and restaurants. It’s also at a convenient five minute walk from the harbour which is the starting point of cruises and ferries rides to the Oslofjorden islands and beyond. Options for accommodation around Johannes Gate include pricy hotels, affordable Air B&Bs and cheaper “Pensjonat” guest houses. Unfortunately I found no youth hostels available as of 2018. 

I chose to stay at the mid tier Bondeheimen Hotel based mostly on the encouraging reviews I read about the breakfast buffet served here in the mornings. I was not disappointed. My room was clean, with underfloor heating, quiet and comfortable. The hotel’s location was great, the service friendly and of course breakfast totally to my satisfaction. 

What not to miss

-Frogner Park

Gustav Vigeland is perhaps Norway’s most prominent artist of recent times. Known as an exceptionally prolific sculptor Vigeland is also responsible for the design of the Nobel peace prize medal which has remained unchanged since it was first minted in 1902.

Frogner Park is an open air display of some of Vigeland’s work. It’s free, always open, well maintained and can be reached easily by metro or tram from the town centre.

Gustav Vigeland Crying Baby
Vegeland’s Crying Baby

The granite and bronze figures exposed in the Park date back to the early years of the last century and have an essential, minimalist style to them which I found quite appealing. The statues are all part of a common theme i.e. the transition we all go through during our lives, from infancy to adolescence and then from adulthood to old age. Our joys and our struggles are masterfully and entertainingly told by the artist’s full size human figures and their emotionally charged poses. It’s hard not recognise yourself in some of the statues on show. 

The Pinnacle in Frogner Park, Oslo
The Pinnacle in Frogner Park, Oslo

Centrepiece in the park is Vigeland’s granite monolith that towers around some fifteen meters tall. The carvings on the rock once again tell the story of life’s cycle: birth, family, love, work, struggle, joy… it’s all in there. 

Vigeland statues in Frogner Park
Art is supposed to question morals. What’s going on here?

-Holmenkollen

Considered by most Oslovians as their back yard, Holmenkollen is just a small hill (340m) on the north western fringes of the Norwegian capital. Come the winter snow however, and the festive season too, Holmenkollen transforms into a hotspot for winter sport enthusiasts from near and far.

There are over two thousand kilometres of cross country skiing tracks around Oslo, ninety kilometres of which are lit for late night skiing with cabins to cater for food and overnight stays. Some of these make Holmenkollen part of their route and easy starting point. Cross country skiing is Norway’s national sport, a speciality in which the country excels at and generally dominates the Winter Olympics with over 120 gold medals to the nation’s credit.

Norwegians go skiing
Off to Holmenkollen

Holmenkollen is easily reached from Oslo town centre by metro ( line 1 ) and it’s not unusual during the colder months to find masses of Oslo folk commuting by rail to this place with skiing suits and skis in hand ready enjoy the outdoors. It’s also tradition for the Norwegian Royal Family to spend Christmas at Holmenkollen at their “Royal Villa” and sometimes mingle with the crowds as well.

The Holmenkollbakken
The mighty Holmenkollbakken

However, the most prominent feature to be found at Holmenkollen is the “Holmenkollbakken”, a massive ski jump that dominates the skyline at the summit of the hill. 

Holmenkollen Ski Jump
Holmenkollen Ski Jump

There has always been a Holmenkollbakken since 1892 with new designs (19 so far) successively replacing older ones throughout the years. The current version was completed in 2010, towers at 134m above ground and has enough space for over sixty thousand spectators. Ski jumpers come here to train from all over Europe and beyond and some have achieved leaps over 140m in length. 

But if skiing is not your thing then just the views from Holmenkollen are worth the trip to the hill alone. Beautiful vistas of  Oslo and the Oslofjorden at sunset can be admired from here while slowly sipping a mug of hot Glögg, the local mulled wine sold for no less than 10€ a cup.

-Olso City Hall

Oslo Town Hall
Oslo Town Hall

Definitely an odd looking building, the Oslo City Hall is of course the seat of city’s administration. However, it deserves a mention for its stunning inside decor and also for being the venue of the Nobel prize award ceremony that takes place here every year. There’s plenty of marble to admire and the decorative paintings by artists Sørensen and Rolfsen in the huge Main Hall, contain some interesting highlights of Norway’s twentieth century history.  

-Oslo Opera House

Angular and deceptively small looking the opera house is a prize winning architectural marvel that can be found at eastern end of Oslo harbour, no more than a twenty minute walk from the City Hall. 

The Oslo Opera House
The Oslo Opera House

Beautifully clad in steel and Italian Carrara marble the building hosts the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet organisation. The interior of the structure has plenty of wood on display on floors, walls and ceilings as well as some inspiring use of metal and plastic decor. It’s an interesting piece of architecture worth exploring.

-Viking Ship Museum

Viking Ship Museum
Viking Ship Museum

There are some extraordinary, beautifully restored viking vessels that date back to around 800 AD on display at the Oslo Ship Museum. The boats were recovered from old burial sights after being used as tombs for what are believed to have been people of rank within the old viking communities. The precision with which the boats were crafted is extraordinary and the work put into restoring them for public display is superb.

What to eat 

Reindeer Burgers
Reindeer Burgers at the Christmas market

Reindeer burger might not appeal to everyone but to the carnivores out there (including myself) it’s a definite must. Tasty, tender and nutritious one of these bad boys in a bun fills you up with satisfaction for hours. Reindeer burgers are particularly popular around Christmas time and are easily found at the open air Christmas Market just in front of the Grand Hotel along Karl Johans Gate. Be prepared to spend around 15€ for the privilege though (drink included).

Where to chill 

An easy stroll heading east along Karl Johans Gate towards Oslo central rail station takes you through the town’s main shopping district with the usual display of glitzy high end fashion boutiques. There are also at least a couple venues worth exploring here. The Scotsman Pub has character and buzzes in the evenings with a healthy mix of locals and tourists. There a shuffleboards (which seem to be a favourite amongst Norwegians), and a band or a DJ on some nights along with English speaking staff. Drinks, as usual, are extortionately expensive. Anything with alcohol will set you back by at least 10€ if not more.

Just around the corner from the Scotsman’s there’s “The Club” the aptly named venue for those in the mood for a bit of a boogie. Queues here can be long but the music continues all night til 3am. 

Andy's Piano Bar
Andy’s Piano Bar

Another great spot worth checking out is Andy’s Pub ( Stortingsgata 8,) close to the Grand Hotel. Live music from a grand piano and singing pianist, some keen wannabe vocalists make this place ideal for a late night laugh. Drinks still way above 10€. 

So, to sum it up:

If you can put the steep prices for food and alcohol aside, Oslo makes a great city break. There’s an international feel and people are generally friendly and welcoming. The city is clean and public transport efficient.

In December however, temperatures are constantly below freezing and the streets are caked with ice and snow. You need to be careful if you want to avoid slips and trips. Contrary to popular belief, there’s enough sun light during the day (five to six hours) to enjoy the outdoor sights. If you’re into skiing then you can also enjoy the Holmenkollen pistes even after dark with plenty of like minded folk, too.

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