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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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 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.
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.
The Dolomites are surely one of the most beautiful and exciting areas of the Alps. Set in north eastern Italy between the border with Austria (north), the Sugana valley (south), the river Adige (east) and the Piave valley (west), the Dolomites offer some of the most inspiring mountain vistas in Europe.There are jagged rocky peaks over three thousand metres high to admire, refreshing pine forests to explore, turquoise lakes to bathe in and some exhilarating switchback roads to ride that lead to stunning mountain passes. There’s a huge variety of outdoor activities available from rock climbing to parasailing to mushroom picking and the unique blend of germanic and latin culture produces some great cuisine as well. It’s no wonder the Dolomites have long been a favourite with bikers and holiday makers alike.
What are the hot spots not to be missed on a bike tour on the Dolomites? Here are five of the top attractions that should be on everyone’s list:
1. The Three Peaks of Lavaredo (Tre Cime di Lavaredo)
Placed at the northern most section of the Sexten Dolomite complex, just south of Val Pusteria, the Peaks of Lavaredo consist of a row of three stout craggy pinnacles, towering at three thousand meters each set in a stark, rocky landscape. The area is a haven for rock climbers and there are plenty of easy hiking trails in the area to explore as well.
The foot of western most Peak (Cima Ovest) can be reached by bus, car or motorbike from Lake Misurina along the “strada panoramica” (toll road). Rifugio Auronzo at the car park serves hot meals and there are rooms for overnight stays, too. There’s always a stream of hikers in the area especially during the warmer months of the year that come to admire the views around the Lavaredo Peaks and make the most of the photo opportunities they offer. Do not miss out.
2. Lake Braies
If you’ve browsed any length of time on Instagram looking at mountain landscape pictures then Lake Braies is probably an all too familiar sight. This idilic little lake is in fact one of the most popular tarns of the Alps and has been portrayed by hundreds of keen photography enthusiasts especially over the past few years. Its bright clear green coloured waters can create a stunning contrast with the surrounding grey/white dolomite cliffs and the blue skies of a clear mountain day.
Sunrise and sunset colour the cliffs yellow, pink and orange and the refleceted light creates a pleasant soft and warm atmosphere, perfect for romance. Old style wooden rowing boats are available for hire and there’s also beautiful lake side walk, which takes the better part of two hours to complete. Lake Braies is a definite must.
3. The Gardena and Sella Passes
Extremely popular with bikers, cyclists the Sella and Gardena passes are within a short ride of each and are guaranteed to impress. Jaw dropping views, steep inclines and challenging twisty roads offer heaps of riding entertainment. Of course there’s always great food at the pass rifugios and plenty of hiking on offer too for those equipped and fit for the task.
At the peak of the tourist season, between July and August, there are traffic restrictions to Passo Sella. Only a couple of hundred vehicles per hour are allowed to transit beyond the check points on the road that leads to the pass. However, the curb on traffic doesn’t apply onweekends and the restrictions are extremely unpopular with the locals who thrive on tourism all the year round. It remains to be seen for how long traffic limitations will hold. As of 2018, access to the pass involves an online booking here.
4. Passo Giau (Giau Pass)
Possibly the most inspiring of all Dolomite passes, Passo Giau has it all. There are awesome views of mountain massifs and valleys near and far to admire from this iconic and much loved beauty spot. A stop at the local rifugio is usually a memorable experience with good food and bikers and that flock to this place from all over Europe, especially on any Summer weekend. Photographers are often perched on the hills around the pass at sunset working hard to capture the scenery with cameras and tripods. It’s not unusual to see the occasional drone as well.
5. Lake Levico
Lake Levico is on the southern most fringes of the Dolomites in Val Sugana, just a few kilometres from Trento. On a hot summer’s day the banks of the small lake offer highly sought after shade. There are well manicured lawns that provide perfect bedding for a beach towel and cool mountain scenery to behold all around.
The lakes’s water is fresh and just what’s needed to cool off under the Italian sun. Camping is available for an overnight stay and of course eateries abound in the area with Levico Terme, the local village, at a twenty minute walk from the water’s edge.
Helmet, jacket, trousers and boots are ready to wear. Your bike is clean, full of fuel, serviced and fitted with bulging panniers, navigation gizmos and action cam technology. Everything is sorted with insurance, road side assistance and itinerary.You just needto fire up your beloved motorbike, lock your front door and ride off to that far away destination of your dreams. But hang on, wait a minute. There are some less obvious accessories to take along thatshould not be overlooked. Consider the following for your SAFETY and the long term ENJOYMENT of your road trip.
As per research published on the Journal of Fundamental and Applied Sciences (March 2018), it’s proved that riding a motorcycle at even moderate speeds (60km/h) with an open face helmet, exposes a rider to wind noise levels of over 90 dBA which, if repeated and prolonged in time, is more than enough to cause hearing loss at any age. It goes without saying that higher riding speeds induce greater wind noise and potentially greater damage to our hearing as well.
Although there is some controversy over how sound levels can be accurately measured beneath a helmet, motorcycle audiometry tests agree that helmet induced noise is a real threat and one that should not be taken lightly. What to do to protect ourselves from this hazard?
Motorcycle fairing and more expensive helmet designs claim to target this issue but for now perhaps the safest option to lessen the menace of wind noise on a bike is to use a set of good quality ear plugs.
There are a variety of designs available but possibly the safest and most comfortable option is a set of personal custom moulded ear plugs Taylor made to each of our ear canals. Many companies specialise in this sort of product and although a set of custom plugs can cost around £100 (GBP) they are generally durable products that last years and can be worn comfortably for hours. I guess they’re cheaper than hearing aids for sure.
The sun, especially in warmer countries, is a biker’s fiercest yet most underrated foe. Exposure to the suncauses dehydration, sweat, exhaustion and UV radiation is responsible for lasting damage to the skin and eyes.
The face, neck and nasal bridge in particular are parts of our bodies that are exposed to the sun the most while we’re on the road and protecting these areas is essential for our well being.
A few drops of high factor sun block on nose, cheeks, forehead and at the back of the neck should be part of a biker’s daily routine before climbing onto his/her machine and hitting the road. It goes a long way in avoiding unsightly and painful sun burn, peeling skin and chronic blemishes.
As remarkable as it might seem, not everyone wears motorcycle gloves whilst riding a bike. Some find them cumbersome, others claim that gloves are too easily lost or are that they simply cannot be bothered with them.
There are plenty of reasons why you should use of gloves on a bike. Falls, for example, are unpredictable and scraping unprotected hands on any length of hard tar is always a sorry experience. Gloves permit a better grip on the handlebars especially when riding off road and they also help lessen the numbing effect of engine vibration when travelling at motorway speeds.
I would argue however, that gloves are essential most of the time just to protect our hands from the elements and the sun, once again, most of all.
Falls don’t happen every day and neither do we always need the firmest of grips on the bars of our bikes but the sun works relentlessly all the time, every time we ride, it’s rays beaming down on us mercilessly. Covering up the back of our hands is the best way to lessen the damage from the UV rays on our skin.
I always pack a pair of spare gloves (the cheapest ones are fine) in my panniers and will not get caught riding without wearing gloves for any appreciable length of time.
Visors on helmets do a great job in protecting a biker’s face from sun, rain, dust and colliding insects. Occasionally though, especially when it’s warm, we all like to keep visors open to enjoy some cooler air. Our eyes, need constant protection and a good pair of quality sun glasses is advisable. But sun glasses can be excessively expensive and some designs frankly aren’t suited for motorcycle travel at all. A cheaper option to costly eye wear is making use of safety specs, readily available in most hardware stores in any town, anywhere in the world.
Safety specs come in a variety of shades, from tinted to clear. What’s more, they’re tough, easily replaceable and usually come with adjustable temples which makes them ideal for use under a motorcycle helmet.
A tinted or mirrored pair of safety specs are just fine for riding in the sun and clear ones are great for protecting eyes when riding after dark or on a cloudy day. I personally wouldn’t travel anywhere without them any more and often have more than a pair as back up.
Neck warmers are a versatile piece of kit that can serve different purposes well. Most of all they provide an extra layer of warmth at the top of our jackets and protect our faces and the back of our necks from the sting of the sun during hot days. Equally, neck scarfs help filter the dust and fumes from the road traffic air we breath. They can also be used as bandanas and a bright colour increases a biker’s visibility on the road for sure.
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