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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Highlights from June

Regular classes were finished, but we were all still busy with our short ‘block’ courses. I was finishing up the case study (see the school page) and others were on educational adventures to the forests and nature reserves in Switzerland.

It was great to be done the bulk of the year’s work, and there were certainly a few celebrations as it was well into barbecue weather. So a few photos can capture the aspects of what my friends and I did in June, outside of the extra school work.

Flowers were in full bloom quite early, and the number of roses astonished me. As you walked through the streets you could catch little whiffs of floral scents from the various trees and shrubs in the city. I often saw locals collecting the wild flowers along the river to bring home. In this respect, the city has a thriving natural environment.

First signs of summer

One weekend I went up to the mountains to be with Lisa, Freddi, Nora and Mia. We went up to an old ruin near Flims (along the face of the Flims stone) for lunch. There were spectacular views over the valley which was checkered with forests, farming fields, and grazing land.

Meeting of the Rhine rivers

 I hadn’t been for a few months and it is amazing how this curious babe can change. As sweet as ever, Nora is now walking and babbling but hasn’t quite grasped her 4 languages that she is hearing (German, English, French, and the local language, Romansch), but it is coming.   

Curious

The other young lady in the house is Mia. Strong-minded, bright and detail oriented, I foresee an engineer in this girl. Sigh 🙂

Observant

The two sisters- I loved how Nora stared at Mia, with full trust that the chocolate bar would end up in her mouth.

Bonding through chocolate

Since I have known her, Nora has loved textures. She will happily sit and feel the grass and leaves. Sometimes she finds a flower and plays with the petals.

flower girl

As the weather inevitably got nicer, the get-togethers were always outside. I discovered the inner courtyard of my building and the free barbecue stove. We’ve had a couple of evenings there now, with kids and cats playing around us in the warm evenings as we enjoy out white wine spritzers and cream cheese stuffed mushrooms.

backyard barbecue

A few last photos from other days and nights.

candle light
bike by art

This final one is the old viaduct into the city centre, and is now part of the bridge for the trains entering the centre. I just catch a glimpse of it from my bedroom. I hear this is being done in other cities as well, but the space below the bridge has been renovated into retail and restaurant space- very funky and a great use of prime real estate in an area full of young people and parks. Each store is numbered, to enhance the simplicity of the concept.

viaduct stores

Naomi visits: a short burst of winter

I would be lying if I said that my excitement for friends who get an opportunity to cross the pond doesn’t have a slightly selfish component… so when my good friend from McGill, Naomi, was given the opportunity to work on her Master’s degree in France for 6 months, I was sure to convince her first of the improved academic conditions and fine chocolates that would be at her disposal in France… and then promptly set a weekend when she could come to visit!

So a few weeks ago, brave Naomi hitchhiked with a friend from Southern France all the way to Eastern Switzerland- no trouble at all, and carbon neutral to boot!

 3 days went by too quickly, but with plenty of highlights.

The first, though probably not the best, entertainment of the weekend was sitting in on one of my craziest lectures, given by the head of my program- a brilliantly abstract mathematician-psychologist, who pulls ideas from almost every discipline and only happens to be in environmental science because the city screwed up the planning when they discovered that his neighbourhood had been inappropriately placed on a unremediated brownfield. He thought he could do it better, so he not only started to read up on the subject, but started a new discipline at ETH for it- Human-Environment Systems, and has recently finished a book on the topic as well. (I’ve recently gotten around to the ‘school’ page of this site, so check it out for a few more ideas about HES).

From there, we explored the city- stopping into interesting stores and seeing all the major sites. Being as touristy as we could despite of the rainy weather.

Impressions in Zurich

As is tradition, we took a series of self-portraits for a range of expressions: see if you can spot ‘it’s ok to keep speaking, but know that I don’t understand that language’, or ‘the more body-language I use must mean more comprehension’, and ‘Naomi’s in Zürich!!’

An evening in Zürich presents endless opportunities, so after visiting with my dog, Tiger, we went to a cinema-bar (a great idea that needs to be brought to Canada) for some of the craziest mixed drinks ever. Naomi had something with a Basil-Lemongrass mix, and I discovered a Carrot-Lime combination.

Guard dog
carrot basil creations

Sundays are perfect for hikes, because everything is closed, we thought… So even with a little rain in the city, we thought we would head up into the nearby hills for a leisurely tour. But as the bus climbed higher, the hills started to get a little whiter on top. I was shocked to see that not only was there snow still up high, but that it was still snowing!

A few pics of the fun that we were about to get into…

First signs of trouble
Crossing the line

It became particularly exciting when our rain jackets and shoes were soaked through, the snow was starting to whiteout the trail ahead, and our lighter melted while trying to start a fire 🙂

 
But we succeeded to make it over the pass and even take a few heroic pictures on the way. Frequent chocolate stops kept morale high.
white is the new colour for spring
victory against the elements

On the way down, we emerged into brilliant fresh green and ended the trip walking through a mountain river gorge where water (now in the liquid form) was the theme. Springs dripping around us highlighted the bright leaves. A few spectacular streams and waterfalls also appeared as little gifts which I took as the reward for making it through the snow.  

neon
snow melt
two chicks

 Thanks for visiting, Naomi. Miss you xoxo

Schluein

This is the town Lisa (my Aunt) lives in with the gang of Freddi, Mia, Nora and Ruby. I go up (about 2-ish hours from Zurich by train) whenever I feel the need for some family time or a little open space.

It is the ideal place to get to know Swiss living (this last weekend we had fondue and made our own pasta!), take some fantastic walks through the surrounding hills with my Uncle Frederic who is a mountain guide and play with my cousins, Mia and Nora, and the dog, Ruby.

The town is in the area of Flims and Laax which are famous ski resorts in the area. The summer hiking on the ski hills makes for dramatic vistas onto the surrounding Alps.

Some photos for you to get the idea… 

View from Lisa's Living Room
View from Lisa’s Living Room

The big trees on the left are walnut. Lisa and I went out to pick them as the tree drops them over the fall. In a month or so, they harden up and develop their lovely buttery taste.   

Lisa and Nora
Lisa and Nora
My lovely Aunt and baby cousin.
The Mountain Hut above the town of Laax
The Mountain Hut above the town of Laax
The mountain hut that was built by Frederic and his friends. They go up here for three weeks a year during the legal deer hunt. At dawn and dusk they are 30 feet up in the air suspended from their favourite strategic tree waiting for the elusive Red Deer… this year was a bad year (blame it on the hard winter, was what I heard the locals whispering) and only 3 deer were shot amongst them. We hiked up to the hut once to meet them when they came down for lunch. Sitting around over wild mushroom (that they found on their way down) risotto with a bunch of smelly, unshaven, and deer-obsessed mountain men was a funny experience. As I sat there listening to Lisa translate with my eyes wide, I must have looked a bit like a deer myself. It certainly blew away any previous notions about Swiss hunting that I had.
The Flims Stone, the local area is known for this formation
The Flims Stone, the local area is known for this formation

 Taken from the town of Flims, this outcrop is the backdrop throughout the town and is instantly recognizable once you have caught a glimpse.

Flims Ski Hill
Flims Ski Hill
We made our way around the open face of the ski hill with the Flims Stone in the background.
Cool mushrooms everywhere
Cool mushrooms everywhere
I could probably do a whole post only on mushrooms…
Blueberry picking with a sleeping Nora
Blueberry picking with a sleeping Nora
Our path went through a huge blueberry patch. We ate our fill and talked about our safe escape from scurvy. Nora did not partake.
Freddi and Ruby
Freddi and Ruby
The distant mountains just started to clear out of the fog as we finished the hike.