Top 5 from a top latitude

Before most* trips, especially on my own, I attempt to form some sort of plan- buy a map or two, get out last year’s edition of the guidebook from the library (cheap student trick), read up on how frequent the buses come, note if there is any particularly great cultural event during my time there, unpack and repack every various synthetic and natural clothing layer I have until I get fed up and hope that I don’t get hit by a random Calgary-esque Chinook warm wind that would make me strip off my 4 layers of merino wool, for example. All this and a strong dose of spontaneity and flexibility and so far, this tactic has worked well.

So here’s how it came together. I had time, a little bit of money, and a strong urge to go somewhere breathtaking. My blog sphere provided me with plenty of inspiration (be careful, it’s addictive) and I finally succumbed to my old western Canadian heart- Give me mountains! Give me sun! Oh, you can offer the sea as well?! Where do I sign up? And just like that, as those that were around in the moment can attest to, I was booked on my way above the Arctic Circle to Bodo, Norway, to take a ferry over to the Lofoten islands.

My friend Andy, living in England, joined me for some of the trip, and many emails flew back and forth with some semblance of planning before we left. But in the end, we did our ‘planned’ trip backwards (which sounds far sloppier than just saying in reverse) which turned out to be a very wise decision. And we encountered many more unexpected surprises building up to a very spectacular trip.

So I’d like to present the top 5 unplanned joys from my 10 days near the top of the world (in no particular order, and perhaps to be expanded upon when I have more time)

1) Exuberant museum tourism: In my opinion, the Lofotens are rather under-developed in terms of tourism, even if the brochures are still jammed with information. There are a few hotels, only 2 hostels, lots of fishing huts to rent and a handful of restaurants specializing, of course, in locally caught sea food. A couple of local companies will bring you out whale watching or kayaking as well. All in all, there are a few things to do on the great expanse of islands, but many of the other tourists we met were just driving through for the views from one end to the other. The simplicity of it all adds to the idyllic nature (literally and figuratively) of the area, and you quickly settle in to the quiet island life.

However, there is one exception to this basic amenities type infrastructure, and that is the privately developed museums throughout the islands. With a whole gamut of topics from whaling, to dolls, telecommunications and fish production, one can enjoy the history of the islands while diving into a bit of its local eccentricities. If you go, be sure to stop at a few of these museums, the guides are enthusiastic and the individualism of the concept is refreshing.

Museums along the Lofoten highway

2) Waffles and jam: Beyond the variations on fish (boiled, buried, dried or decomposed) there are few tasteful delicacies in Norway except for waffles. Thin, doughy and clover-shaped, my ferry trips were marked with a celebratory waffle slathered with bright red strawberry jam, foregoing the addition of what I deemed cream butter (like a thick yogurt tasting of butter, undoubtedly produced with large quantities of cream). You could get them in most cafes and convenience stores as well, lifting one-off a pre-made pile (they were never really served hot and fresh) lying next to the till, accoutrements also at hand.

Vafler + Jordbaer

2) Ferry travel: Or better known as the ‘high speed passenger catamaran’ for those sans voiture. Of all the ways I was travelling around, the ferry was my favourite. It was the best place to clean up and get water (crucial activities while on foot with a tent), as well as people watch or stare out at the passing islands. The coastline varies so greatly, showing off deep fjords, stark mountain cliffs, or even a glacier, that it is never a boring ride and certainly saved my stomach from having to drive down the winding coastline.

I learned a lot about Norwegian culture from the ferry rides. It all started at the port, often in the early morning. As I waited for the boat to arrive, the locals would also make their way down to the docks: preparing to greet family members (whom always returned to these small communities, for the love of their island or fjord runs deep), drop off packages to be sent away or wait to pick up a load of groceries arriving from the mainland, or just to catch up on the latest happenings in the area as the latest news travelled by word of mouth hopping from port to port.

On the ferry, people would settle in to the comfortable seats in the large seating area and promptly get themselves breakfast: coffee (black!), hotdog or waffle (see below), and ice cream. I met an older man on one ferry who was heading back home to his fishing village after visiting the dentist on the mainland. He was a sailor, now retired, and had visited over 90 countries in his life through the fishing and cruising industry. This was a story I heard many times from the people living up there- world travelled, returned home. His name was Fred, which means ‘Peace’ in Norwegian. How lovely.

Early morning ferry to Bodo
Navigating the islands
Svartisen glacier on the mainland

4) ‘Seeing is believeing’ scales: We read about it in the guidebook but didn’t understand how it could be true. Fata Morgana is the effect of the ultra clear air in the North which throws off your eye as it allows you to see easily more than 75 km, when normally the range would be 20 km. The mainland islands were often within sight, and the distance across fjords seemed within an arm’s reach. We were often getting confused by just how clear the mountains appeared with no haze to filter the view or creating fuzz around the edges, only clear crisp silhouettes.

What a joy it was to take photos there, as they really turned out as stunning and intense as what we were seeing.

5) Wild blueberries and raspberries: A forager’s delight. Even though it was late summer, and much of the tourism had died down since the midnight sun was long over, the flora was still bursting, almost vibrating, with life as the 20 hours of sunlight still beat down above the Arctic Circle. The variety of colour on the ground we walked over reminded me of the streets of Zurich after Faschnacht (a religious holiday somehow mixing Easter and Halloween), seeing evidence of the festivities from the array of colourful confetti in every corner.

Blueberries and raspberries I confidently recognized and picked with vigour. The blueberries were small, similar to the mountain ones I know in Alberta. But the raspberries were sweeter and more intense than any I knew previously. I devoured them up, bending down and straining through the prickles with my huge backpack on, probably to the amusement of the locals on their regular dog route. Everyone has equal access to the land, and I wasn’t about to let it go to waste.

Breakfast blueberries
Andy in a sea of red confetti berries

So if you are ever up in that part of the world, the most important piece of advice I could give is to just take a deep breath of the clear air. From this you’ll begin to know the scent of the fishing history, of fresh sunlit ferns and junipers, and the pureness of an untouched mountain dreamland.

* some trips are more spontatneous, see: Barbados, Jura crest, Iceland…

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Naomi non-visit

Or, alternatively: French train failures

Or, in the end: Solo mission along the Jura Crest

The setting: Canada day weekend, though not as strongly celebrated on this side of the pond, go figure. Two old Canadian friends on different sides of the Alps. Mad email/ skype conversations to plan a weekend getaway to the French Pyrenees. Plans made approximately 48 hours before the adventure is set to begin.

Insert unforeseen French holidays, and the result is an attempt to squash all North American style spontaneity. Sigh, all the trains were booked, and thus Naomi and I were unable to continue our tour of the world’s mountains together.

Undeterred, though terribly sad that I would miss Naomi, I set about preparing for a different weekend getaway- a 5 day hike along the Jura Crest. This ridge runs along the north of Switzerland from Zurich to Geneva. National hiking trail # 5, an area I always wanted to visit even though it is only a ridge within the flat ‘upper land’ of Switzerland. No dramatic mountain valleys, but an impressive expanse of uplifted rock providing gorgeous rolling hills, lake views, and quiet high altitude pastures. I was intrigued.

On the map, I planned to do the stretch from Weissenstein (translated: white stone) to Ste.Croix, along the section of the ridge to the north of Bielersee and Lac de Neuchatel (note the language change!) in 5 days. My final destination being a rather famous cliff pictured on all of the Swiss hiking websites. So I had to see it, which was a good enough reason to keep on walking. This was key, as indeed the motivation all had to come from within…. this was going to be a solo mission.

So with a full backpack- tent, sleeping bag, mattress, plenty of food, and what seemed like a handful on unnecessary ‘warm’ clothes, I started out early Thursday morning. The train runs along the ridge, more or less, all the way to Geneva, so I had my first impression early on of the uniqueness of the ridge jutting out from the yellow and orange patchwork of agricultural fields and dark green forests in the country-side.

To get up onto the ridge, I faced a grueling but beautiful ascent up the Weissenstein. The trail dates back to 1664, so I’m told, and the stairs are carved into the rock. To add an ounce of safety, steel wire has been added as a railing. Even without a backpack, the trail is demanding as it heads rather straight up, but is cheek-to-cheek with the white quartz-limestone and provides a magnificent backdrop for the fluorescent summer leaves.

Hiking up the 'white stone' cliff

Once on the ridge, I made my way West, over a few summits now and again, walking through many many cow pastures and glancing down to see the Aare river, and eventually the Bielersee and Lac de Neuchatel. And about the language change- this is the area known as the Roestigraben between the French and German speaking parts of Switzerland (here is a map from an older post). I didn’t see any noticeable ditch to mark the change, but my greetings along the trail switched from ‘Gruetzi’ to ‘Bonjour’.

blue white green- crest colours
Looking along the ridge
Typical ridge pasture

The walking was my favourite part. If my feet could have gone longer (or my back, hips or knees) I would have walked until sunset. The weather was perfect, the brilliant blue skies, the scent of the blossoming flowers, the clanging of the cow bells. It was a fully absorbing experience. And meditative as I slowly made my way along, up and down, checking the map every so often, and seeing almost no one on the trail.

On Friday it was Canada day, and the evening weather was fine! Lazing around on the grass, drawing, writing, reading- what a lovely way to spend it. I was lucky enough to pass through a little tourist spot earlier in the day and picked up freshly baked bread and some of the biggest cherries I have ever seen. So in honour of my country birthday, I made a typical German cake. Happy Canada Day!

Black Forest Cake- chocolate, marshmallow, and cherry

Each night I spent in the tent. Heading off the trail some distance, out of the way, and preferably with a plentiful supply of strawberries. But with the lovely open blue skies, the nights were shivering cold, down to 7C. Even with 2 pairs of pants (one merino wool!), 2 shirts, a scarf and toque, I couldn’t keep warm enough and often woke up to shake myself warm or cover myself with more layers. Because of this I cut the tour down one night, and skipped a section by train to be able to still make it to my destination. A bit of a disappointment but none the less part of the challenge of going it alone I suppose.

My home in the hills
Breakfast buffet
Sweet pick-me-up

Well I don’t often end up with pictures of myself on this blog, usually I’m on the other side of the camera, but I took quite a few photos this whole trip, and a few even with camera pointed back at me. This one I particularly liked for the way the eyes are framed by the shadow and hat (note! and scarf). I also don’t look exceedingly tired like I do in the later ones 🙂

Into the sun

Finally on the Sunday I made it to the end- Creux de Van! After 3 days of walking along lovely hills and pastures, I was craving something a little more dramatic, a little more Alp-like, and look what I got.

Creux de Van

This canyon is essentially on its own within the crest, and is a huge attraction as on one side you have a magnificent cliff dropping into forests, and on the other an incredible few back of the crest, the lakes… and maybe even some of those Alps off in the distance.

Looking back to the beginning

Even with the lovely weather, the far distant Alps were also covered in cloudy haze, until Sunday when they appeared the entire stretch of the horizon. With Mont Blanc being the most impressive, I could almost see Naomi on the other side 🙂

Alps peaking up

Though it did have to end on this high note. I descended back down to the Lac de Neuchatel to catch a train back to Zurich, passing through the fields that I had looked onto for the last 4 days. Taking a last deep breath of the Jura air, enjoying the sun on my face, and the weight of the pack, I was left with a lovely contentment of a mission complete and an amazing experience.

Final road home

Next time, Naomi will come too!

Scottish Highlands

Vacation! As much as living in Zurich is a dream, I was excited to get out of the city and really experience some unaltered nature (or at least unaltered in the last 100 years or so). So my boyfriend and I headed into the Western Highlands of Scotland for 2 weeks of camping and hitchhiking.  The people, the views, the hiking, the porridge- all made it a truly unique experience, and I’ll try to explain as much as I can here, but more pictures are posted elsewhere (just e-mail me if I didn’t send you the link). So…

Scottish Highlands July 2010

This title shot was taken at Sandwood Bay, in the far North, at the very end of the adventure. But I’ll back up to Edinburgh, where we began. We went to the old pubs where with live musicians play the traditional songs in the corner with their beer within arms reach.

Ambient celtic tunes
Singing of his long lost lady/ ship/ sheep/ whiskey

We explored Edinburgh’s main sites, the castle and high street. I was taken in by the old architecture, particularly the rooftops.

Edinburgh castle
Old town by night

Edinburgh is on the Southeast coast so we packed our backpacks and headed all the way to the west coast to a namesake town, Wemyss Bay. Not where the family comes from, but named after a salmon fisherman by the same name who was keen to get the town into a trading port. Now there is a picturesque train station, ferry pier, and not much else except many melancholy holiday homes.

Train and Ferry station

One ferry and many car rides later, we began our first big walk, doing the last 2.5 days of the West Highland Way footpath (though some of the locals do it on a rainy Sunday). The views were wonderful- rolling green hills that gleamed in the sunlight (when it was around) and were accented with dark purple heather, white fuzzy sheep, pink sandstone, grey granite and the black remains of the slow burning peat fires.

West Highland Way at Glencoe
The sheep were as common as the rain

In Scotland, you can camp wild (anywhere you please as long as you are respectful), so we tented along the route. For the efforts of carrying our tent and food, we were rewarded with amazing sites in remote valleys and bays. However, that also meant that we kept our food supply light. I am a huge fan of oatmeal, especially when camping and it is not new to me, but apparently it is called, through a rough translation, ‘wheat slime’ in German and would not be eaten by a rational person. However, it is decidedly British and lightweight, and perhaps that helped make it palatable for 10 straight days.

porridge!

Moving up the coast towards the famous Isle of Skye, we stopped at one of the popular coastal caravan holiday sites with beaches and coves. We found our own little  bit of land to camp on, and had the first rainless day for a while and a beautiful sunset.

Sunset over our private bay

Oh and I need to mention that ‘summer’ in Scotland means only 80% chance of rain everyday (I guess instead of 100%)… what a treat. So rain pants (thanks for the tip, mom!) and backpack covers were always on hand for the coming rain shower. But it wasn’t cold, and you get used to it quickly, sort of. 🙂

Off to Skye, where as we headed deeper into the highlands, we saw more and more Gaelic. Most of the locals from this part and the outer islands (the Hebrides) grow up speaking Gaelic first, English second. The language was dying but has had a strong comeback through government interest, and from the young people who have taken a keen interest in their heritage. Now there is BBC radio and a college in Gaelic. (FYI, I recently learned that the CBC radio broadcasts into 9 Native Canadian languages). Gaelic is fun to listen to but impossibly hard to pronounce correctly.

Gaelic at Skye Ferry

On Skye, we explored the ocean cliffs and poked around tide pools for anemones. It was especially rainy which created an interesting effect as everything became connected by the water- where it landed, connected, saturated, flowed, and ultimately ended up in the ocean in front of us.

Attempted geology lesson

The cliffs were fascinating with flat and smoothed-out layers, vertical drop-offs, and caves.  And I’m hoping a geologist I know has some answers to their formation (hint hint).

tide pool exploring below the cliffs

We moved campsites everyday to try to get as far North as we could. So we left Skye and arrived at a very cool castle on a spit into a freshwater loch (lake) which we took over for the night. Beautiful speckled sunlight helped to ease overactive imaginations about spirits living in the castle ruins…

Castle and chapel in back
The castle looked a little sturdier than the tent

A few more adventures on the way North, including a random stop at a fishing town, Sheldaig, to find a campsite on a very rainy night. To dry off we headed to the local pub, and ended up having the most amazing experience. In short, the locals got us up and dancing to the live cover band, brought us into their home for the after party where we sang, drank whiskey/tea (depending) and passed around the hand-smoked salmon and cheddar cheese with 1/5th of the town (that would be 20 of the 100 locals) until past 4 in the morning. And this was with the 20-somethings to the 60 year olds. From the 26-year-old who has travelled the world but came home to Sheldaig where he plans to live the rest of his life, to the 57-year-old who has been fishing the same waters as his father off of Sheldaig. We could not have felt more welcomed, and as we left the next day we were greeting people on the street like we had always lived there. Very special.

And finally we come full circle to our final destination in the very North, Sandwood Bay. An unexpected and unbelievable white sand beach amongst the hills. Not only was it like a small oasis in the Highlands, but the weather even turned around and was hot! I got to wear shorts (yah something other than rain paints!) for the first and only time on the trip.  We camped in the sand dunes and had a very fun day at the beach! Which is a phrase I would never have expected to say in this part of the country, but surprisingly the North coast has quite a few of these little spots, which was apparently known by John Lennon as it was a favourite vacation spot.

Beach and dunes and sun
Dazzling sunset

Hitching our way back down to Edinburgh was slightly exhausting and the necessary trial to impress upon us the significance of the experience we just had. We had come over 500 km by foot, ferry and car (carbon neutral to boot), kept smiling through days of rain, licked our lips after 45 packets of oatmeal,  drank the peaty spring water, fought off the midges and horseflies, navigated the twisty coastal roads, were saturated with every shade of green, interpreted the thick accents, connected with the land every night and the people every day. I would not say it was easy, but it was certainly worth every effort as I was continually astounded at each new location.

Coming back into Edinburgh there were only 3 plans in mind: hot shower, (veggie) haggis with neeps and tatties (mashed turnips and potatoes), and sipping whiskey while listening to live folk music. So I finish with the last…

golden warmth