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Trip Report Live Trip Report: Three Weeks in Scandinavia, Croatia, & Italy

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,It's 11:00pm here in Helsinki and it's only been in the last hour that it's started to get dark.  It's been a long trip to get here, but we are finally in Finland at last.

Our trip started in Boston where we were able to bypass all the airport crowds in the Delta Sky Club.  Not being members,  it would have cost the two of us $100,  a price we would never pay, but based on a tip from the Internet we bought two day passes on eBay for $20. With complimentary refreshments, free wifi, and panoramic views, it was a great way to start a vacation.

After a quick transfer connection in Amsterdam, we arrived in Helsinki in the early afternoon.  While on our KLM flight I read an interesting article.   A researcher found that people often rave about their vacation more when they get home than when they are actually experiencing it because they are too distracted to take in the moment.  To avoid this, holidaymakers should talk about three highlights they discovered every day and  by doing so they will notice more around them and will be living their life in a holiday frame of mind.

Keeping this advice in mind, we visited several highlights today just in the short time we have been here. After taking a  tram ride from our hotel, Hotel Linna, to the city center we strolled along the esplanade lined with trees, gardens, and a pedestrian shopping area. At Teatteri Wine and Deli we enjoyed a delicious fresh salad with chicken and shrimp.

Feeling energized we headed to Stockman's which is Helsinki's biggest and oldest department store. I love visiting department stores in other places and lingered longingly in the home goods section which had colorful items in a clean Finnish design. They also have an interesting array of Finnish souvenirs and and an area dedicated to the children's books and television characters, the  Moomins, who have been popular here for decades.

In Senate Square we couldn't resist an evening visit to the gleaming white Lutheran church where people sat on the steep stone steps in front of it admiring the view. Inside we were immediately struck by the contrast between the simple clean design of the inside compared to some the ornate cathedrals we have seen in Italy covered with gold, mosaics, and brightly colored stained glass.  I spotted a beautiful organ and hope to hear a concert tomorrow.

To top off the evening we stopped at Cafe Kappeli on the esplanade for a cappuccino and a slice of apple crumb cake smothered in vanilla cream. In the 19th century this was a popular place for Russian aristocrats and military officers.  The interior features wooden bookcases, chandeliers, and cute tiny tables. I loved the retro atmosphere and we squeezed into a tiny glass covered alcove which was probably once prime seating.

Back at our hotel  we chose these places as the highlights of our day. One thing the researchers did not discuss,  though, is what to do when something goes wrong. Did I happen to mention the airline left our luggage  in Amsterdam and it took them 8 hours to get it here to our hotel? No, because after all these highlights in such a short time, it's now a distant memory.  I think we're experiencing life in the  holiday frame of mind already with more good things to come!

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    Sunny Skies-We're Off to Visit an Island

    Day 2 
    The sun was shining brightly all day long today.  With low humidity and temperatures in the low 80s, it was the perfect day to explore Helsinki on a self-guided walking tour.  I love self-guided tours because you can spend as much time as you like in each of the places on the route and maybe even discover a few special places of your own along the way.

    The National Museum of Finland is housed in an old building that somewhat resembles a church.  It is full of archaeological treasures. Right off we loved the first exhibit "Best Friends" which featured animals once owned by Swedish royalty. Tiny paw prints on the marble floor lead visitors to exhibits displaying jousting equipment, rocking horses, and clothing for a royal hunt. Our favorite exhibit featured tiny wooden doors with dogs painted on them. Inside each door was a historical photo of a royal pet matching the breed on the door and information about it.

    Other exhibits were equally interesting. "Marked in Stone" displayed stunning photographs of prehistoric artwork found on stones throughout Finland. There were also old chests, grandfather clocks, and a wonderful dollhouse display. Dollhouses, we learned, were not originally intended to be toys. They represented the world in miniature and are surviving examples of interior decoration and life from past eras. Other rooms had archaeological treasures ranging from arrowheads to jewelry, many displayed  under photos showing where they were found.  I tried to imagine what it must be like to make a discovery like this.

    Our next stop on our walking tour was Temppeliaukio Church "Church of the Rock" which had been created from blasting out an area in solid granite. It's actually on top of an old bomb shelter and is capped with a dome created out of a coil of copper.

    After grabbing a tasty picnic lunch at Stockman's, we took a 20 minute ferry ride to  the sea fortress Suomenlinna located on an island. Built in the mid 1700s, it wasn't until 1973 that the last Finnish Garrison left. Today it's a UNESCO World Heritage site with winding paths you can explore which weave in and out of a park like setting dotted with cannons and cafes. Our favorite was Piper Cafe with tables outside on a rock terrace where we enjoyed Chilean wine infused with strawberries and a grand view of the islands. Below us people swam at a tiny beach tucked into a rocky cove.

    Dinner tonight was at Strindberg located along the esplanade with outdoor Parisian style seating.   It was a great place for a slice of quiche and a salad.
    Having spent the day on a walking tour, my feet felt as if they could not take it any longer. Amazed that it was actually 10:30pm even though it was still light out, we headed back to our hotel thinking about all we had seen in just one day.

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    It's been a warm sunny summer in Helsinki and by 9:00am the city was bustling with activity. While old trolleys ambled beside swiftly moving trams, people everywhere seemed to head to the esplanade where street entertainers were out in full force. High on a hill with onion domes that gleamein the sunlight stands the Russian Orthodox Church, Upenski. Built in 1868 for the Russian military when Finland was part of Russia, it stands in sharp contrast to the Lutheran Church because of the ornate decorations.

    Down by the harbor the market place was busy. Booths sold everything from colorful Marimekko style bags to fruits and vegetables. On display were plump peas bursting out of their shells side by side with tables piled high with farm fresh blueberries and strawberries which were scooped into baskets with plastic sand pail shovels. Salmon fillets sizzled on the grill besides stacks of fresh shrimp and scallops.

    All too soon it was time to head to our ferry to Estonia. The woman at our hotel assuredness we needed to just walk down the street and the pier would be right there, but it turned out to be a 25 minute hike with luggage. I would recommend to anyone going there that they take a taxi.

    Ou Tallink ship, Super Star, was enormous. We were struck by how clean, modern, and up to date everything was for only a two hour
    voyage. We scored a locker and could not believe our luck when we found a table and shares outside in the shade.

    The medieval section of Tallinn is wonderful. Our hotel is right in the heart of the old town and was once a bank. Outside we followed the sweet savory smell of cinnamon to a cart where a girl dressed in medieval costume mixed almonds and spices in a copper pot with a large wooden spoon. Others also dressed in costume enticed people to come to their restaurants, yet among all this old time ambiance, Segways cross crossed to and fro across the cobblestone village square.

    After a complimentary dinner at the hotel, we stopped by a German Style beer hall where a Bavarian traditional band played songs ranging from Roll Out the Barrel to Auld Lang Syne while couples danced. We hoped to get a snack, but decided to pass on the snacks offered which included roasted chicken gizzards. It's now past midnight and we're back at the hotel, but outside the square is alive with activity. Sounds like fun, but we'll wait until tomorrow to check it out.

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    To see photos, go to explorer bear.blogspot.com

    Late last night we found out why the Hotel Barrons in Tallinn places cute little boxes of earplugs in every room.  Outside on the cobblestone streets an establishment was having some sort of shindig that lasted into the wee hours of the morning. There must have been some sort of sporting event going on because cries of, "Defense defense!" echoed through our third floor room.

    All in all it really wasn't a problem and we started the day with renewed energy. At the Estonia City Museum we learned that during World War 11, much of the city was destroyed.  Photographs, artifacts, and posters showed how this now thriving town has changed since it became free from Soviet occupation 20 years ago.

    In a cafe filled with Old World charm known as sweet tooth, I was delighted when my cappuccino arrived with a decorative leaf etched into the foam.  I had just learned of that art form last week.  Just down the street is a candy shop where visitors can crate their one marzipan animals in a studio settings and paint them with food coloring. 

    Tallinn has many winding alleys, so it's not always easy to follow a map.  Looking for Cafe Pierre Chocolateria was quite a challenge.  It felt as if we circled the town a few times to find it, but when we did it was worth it.  Located in a tiny courtyard, it's decorated with Indian print tablecloths, colorful plump pillows, sprawling vines, and flower pots bursting with flowers.
    While sitting at our table, we experienced the most amazing "back door" experience: a bride and groom arrived and sat down at our table with us for photos.  How unusual tow have your wedding photos taken at a tourist
    Restaurant,  but if the photographer was looking for an ideal setting this was it.

    Next we climbed the tall steeple of Saint Olav's Church.  It has a narrow spiral staircase where you can find yourself in a forced march to the top with nothing but a rope to hold onto.  The view at the top made the time worthwhile pas one could see the modern, sprawling city of Tallinn just beyond the walls if the medieval town.

    At 6:00PM sharp our overnight ship Tallink Victoria pulled out of the harbor headed for Stockholm.  It seems brand new with plenty of fun placed to explore.  the duty free area was stocked with everything from tummies to alcohol.  Shoppers piled their carts high with goods.  Outside on the deck big sausages were on the grill giving it a party atmosphere.

    Dinner was a buffet with a choices ranging from "Whole Foods" type salads to meat and fish.  Kids had their own buffet, but wasted no time heading over to the "Make Your Own Sundae" area on a table heaped with 

    We ended the evening with a show and agreed that being on a cruise ship, even if for one night, is a pretty nice way to travel.

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    For photos go to http://explorer bear.blogspot.com

    Waking up this morning was like being in a storybook setting. As our ship slowly wound its way through the archipelago of Sweden, tiny red houses dotted the landscape on the islands surrounded by tall pine trees.

    Although we were sad to leave the ship, Stockholm struck us immediately as a lively city. The Nordic Museum is housed in a beautiful old building and features exhibits ranging from fashions through the ages including a huge display of men's swimming trunks to Swedish traditions and furnishings.  My favorite exhibit showed how Christmas is celebrated and had a  tree with beautiful ornaments.

    Just around the corner is the Vasa Museum. It is a one of a kind museum featuring a 17th century wooden battle ship that sank over 300 years ago on its maiden voyage after 20 minutes.  Because the Baltic Sea is less salty than others, it does not support the life of wood bores who would normally eat the wood. In an incredible feat of engineering, the ship was raised out of the harbor in 1961 and reconstructed using 95% of its original materials.  

    The ship was built by order of the king and was designed to impress with brightly painted carvings of lions and Roman emperors on it. Unfortunately the ballast could not support its height and although it left Stockholm in all its grandeur to cheering crowds and gun salutes, the captain's worst fears were met. It was not seaworthy.

    Last night we ate at a really fun restaurant in the Gamla Stand section of Stockholm.  Vapiano is a lively hip restaurant offering freshly made salads, pizza, and pasta. What makes it unusual are two interesting concepts. One is that you travel from station to station to order your food and swipe a card to keep an ongoing tally of your bill.  Then, once the food is ready, you pick your own herbs from flower pots placed on every table. A small open air greenhouse in the center of the restaurant keeps all the herbs fresh.  The only problem we encountered was a party of six swiped our table while we were off ordering even though our stuff was there. They acted rather put out when I went to retrieve our items and they offered no apologies, but luckily we found another table nearby.

    Exploring the area after dinner, we passed the Royal Palace. It will be like being in a different type of storybook setting when we explore it tomorrow. 

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    You can see photos on my blog at explorerbear.blogspot.com


    Sometimes a rainy day can really dampen the holiday spirit, but with enough planning ahead, it can make even a day with downpours seem worthwhile,

    Down at the harbor this morning we noticed a huge Princess cruise ship.  I imagined what it must have been like to wake up early in the morning, peer out your porthole window, and see Stockholm in all its glory.  We ran into a group from the ship at the Royal Palace and slipped into their group for a guided tour.  Of particular interest were stage coaches including a tiny one for a child and wooden sleighs for sleigh parties in the 1800s.

    We stopped in the cafe just outside the cobblestone courtyard for a royal treat at what turned out to be royal prices.  For a slice of carrot cake  known as "royal cake"  to share and two cappuccinos, the cost was just over 22 dollars US.  

    The National Treasury had large brightly lit display cases full of crowns made with 24 karat gold, rubies, and emeralds. We didn't linger in there too long because outside in the courtyard was a changing of the guard with soldiers in full dress uniform with gold helmets,  horses, and a band.  

    Everybody crowded in for a better view under the arch and was ordered by an honor guard to "stand back right now!"  Glancing under the helmet I spotted a pony tail and realized it was a girl.  Outside the rain poured down, but the guards performed for over 30 minutes.

    Our plan was to eat lunch in the cafe at the National Museum, but the small salad bar alone cost  close to $25.   At breakfast this morning an American chemistry professor visiting from Hawaii told us his family ended up having a meal at the 7-Eleven to save money so we had what I would call a hot dog with a view down at the harbor at what seemed to be a popular hot dog cart.  Their "French hot dog" was a hot dog inside a hollow French roll.

    Back at the National Museum we rented audio guides and saw paintings by Renoir, Monet, and Van Gogh.  We discovered why people toted around gallery stools with them. The narration of each painting often included information about the artist and the painting, the  inspiration for the work, and what the curator had to say about it.  Pride of place must go to a collection of Rembrandt portraits, including an early self portrait, finished with a copper frame.  This work was stolen from the museum in 2000, but was thankfully found by the police, and returned to it's rightful place, five years later.  The art gallery is housed  in a lovely building along Stockholm's waterfront, very close to the Grand Hotel.

    Dinner tonight was back to our new favorite restaurant, Vapiano, which I just found out from my sister that it's her favorite restaurant in Washington  DC.  On the way we stopped  at Stortorget Square, location of the Nobel Museum. It is so picturesque with the gabled houses.

    At the restaurant we again had freshly baked pizza and caprice salad.  I love it how you can pick your own herbs out of the pots.

    Walking back to our hotel, the rain poured on, but thinking back to seeing the marching guards and everything else we saw,  it truly was a memorable day.

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    Check out my photos at explorerbearr.blogspot.com



    In November of 1963, my mother joined my father in Stockholm while he was here on business.  She told me stories of the grand hotels, the beautiful city harbor, and the friendliness of the people.  In fact she was here when JFK was assassinated and told me about how people stopped them on the streets, asked if they were American, and told them how sorry they were about what had happened.  She often wondered aloud if we in America would do the same for someone from another country under the same circumstances.   Today as we toured Stockholm, I wondered if I was seeing some of the same places she had seen.

    This morning we got an early start to our day.  About a five minute walk from our accommodation, Hotel Parlan,  is Saluhall.  It opened in 1888, and is the most beautifully appointed indoor market I have ever seen.  

    Fruits,  vegetables, meats, pastries, and cheese were all displayed in glass cases which they were busily polishing like fine crystal when we were there.  The fruit was displayed as if in a museum and the potatoes were so fresh, the earth still clung to them.  Water in pitchers at the cafe came with slices of lemon, lime, cucumbers, and sprigs of mint.

    Skansen is Europe's oldest folk park.  After paying for our tickets, they explained it was on a  mountain so we should take the funicular to the top. At the upper station, the view was beautiful, but as we suspected, it was not on a mountain at all.

    Skansen has something for everyone.  We learned that the reindeer lving there have been extinct in the wild in Sweden since the 19th century and both males and females have a full set of antlers.  Children squealed with delight when they saw baby animals and were allowed to pet many of them.

    The nice thing about Skansen is you really feel as if you are in the countryside when you are actually in the city.  Many of the historic houses had people inside dressed in period costume, but unlike Plimoth Plantation where they pretend they are in the 17th century, these people are only there to tell you about the history. I like it that way best.  

    My favorite place at Skansen had two allotment huts.  To me they looked like quaint tiny  wooden houses with pretty gardens, but the true story is that during World War 1, fruits and vegetables were so scare in the city that people were given tiny plots of land in the country to grow a garden and the families lived in these houses in the summer not much bigger than a garden shed.

    Other activities at Skansen included a horse and carriage ride, vintage rides for children, and walks through beautiful gardens. Craft studios and bakeries offered old fashioned treats.

    On the way back to our hotel we peeked into Junibacken which is a place where story book characters come to life.  I love the Pippi Longstocking books by the Swedish author Astrid Lindgren's and probably read each book 20 times as a child.

    Dinner tonight was at Ortagarden where they serve a primarily vegetarian buffet. It was okay, but a little like eating at a church supper.

    After dinner we walked down to the modern shopping district in town. Nothing  was open, but it was fun to see the stores.  Stockholm has swift modern subways and trams, but in the shopping district we spotted an old tram, probably from the 1950s which is still in use.  All around it people were snapping photos.

    Heading down to the shore, the setting sun cast a glow on all of the buildings.  I could have sat down there for hours admiring the scenery.  I wonder if my parents once enjoyed the same view.

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    The sun was shining brightly when when we left Stockholm this morning.  Unlike when my parents were here in 1963, there are so many options for airplane flights at rates unheard of in the United States.  Our flight on Finnair to Bergen, Norway was only $50.   When my parents flew out of Stockholm so many years ago, I learned from my sister that they flew through Amsterdam and that nation's Crown Princess Beatrix flew on their flight on the way to JFK's funeral.

    Bergen, Norway is on the western coast of Norway and is so picturesque.  The city of Bergen is quite modern, but the historic area where we are staying is charming and retains an old world flavor.   Only 10 minutes from the waterfront, some of the wooden houses here date back to the 1600s.  We are on a small lane too narrow for cars so it's very private.   Our accommodatiom, the Bergen Guesthouse, is really nice and very affordable for this area.  Homes have flower boxes and small container gardens bursting with flowers.

    Once we unpacked we headed down hill to the Bryggen which was once an old German trading center.  At the Hanseatic Museum which was  an old merchant 's house, we leaned about the fishing trade back in the 1700s.  Because the merchants living in the house were from Germany, they were not allowed to marry any of the local girls.  Most of the house is original made from pine.  With age, the floors with all of their original knots, have become very creaky.  The sleeping areas were enclosed inside walls and looked uncomfortable.  In the exhibition area, 100 year old dried cod hangs from the walls and ceiling.

    Along the waterfront, the stores are for the tourists, but fun to explore.  Many sell hand knitted nordic sweaters which I learned years ago often means hand knitted in China if you're not careful.   My favorite stores sold items of Scandinavian design.  They had plastic picnic dishes and containers in colors of sherbet which I wished I could buy, but it cost $25 just for a child's set of plastic spoons.  

    Down the  street is a lively fish market.  A fish market has been there since the 1500s, but today it's mainly for the tourists who eagerly gathered around grills cooking fresh salmon and shrimp kabobs. 

    Just a short walk from our accommodation is the Floibanen.  It's a funicular that travels 1000 feet to the top of  Mount Floyen.  

    From the top, all of Bergen and surrounding towns, islands, and distant fjords lie majestically before you.  

    We thought the view was stunning, but it was also very chilly so we scurried inside to a cafe with panoramic windows.  

    Before heading back down, loud music drifting up from the waterfront.  Bergen is a popular concert venue and tonight American rapper Kanye West is performing.  The cheers from the crowd  echo throughout the old town.

    Due to a rainy forecast, our plans to tour the fjords have been put on hold for now. Cross your fingers for good weather for us in Oslo where we can try for a fjord tour again.

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    So this is an on going trip report? Hope weather will permit a boat trip to see some fjords. Bergen is a favorite city from traveling...bryggen, harbor market, nygardensperken. Can you believe that that dried cod as shown in museum was once a valuable trading commodity?

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    To Ozarkbill- This is a live trip report. They told us the weather was not good at the fjords today so we will try again on Friday. Did you visit them from Bergen or Oslo?

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    To see our photos, go to explorerbear.blogspot.com

    It seems like every summer I find a new town that I claim is the prettiest town I have ever seen.  Today I would have to say that Bergen, Norway is right up there with the best of them.

    It was very chilly when we ventured out this morning and we quickly realized our lightweight sweat jackets from Target wouldn't be warm enough.  Not willing to pay literally $100 or more for a sweatshirt emblazoned with the Norwegian flag or a  moose logo, we chose a rather unpretentious looking department store and found nice jackets for around $30 .  

    Feeling much warmer, we walked all over town admiring the fountains, parks, and sailing ships in the harbor.   While enjoying a cappuccino and croissant, we watched people strike poses on some stepping stones in a fountain in front of a statue playing the violin.  

    While the food at the fish market looked delicious and we saw people eating sandwiches heaped high with shrimp, we decided to have lunch at Peppe's Pizza right on the waterfront.  They had heated outdoor lamps and kindly placed blankets on every chair.

    No visit to Bergen is complete without a harbor cruise.  The  White Lady was a 50 minute cruise and they too had blankets to wrap yourself in outside.  We sailed past several cruise ships, a naval academy, and a training center for workers on oil rigs in the North Sea.  They had life boats placed on ramps headed down toward the water to practice with in the event of an emergency.

    Back in town we stopped by an old wooden building, now a museum, where the German merchants would enjoy their meals back in the 18th century.  All of the cooking pots were on the lower level.

    After dinner tonight we decided to explore the many small cobblestone lanes winding throughout the town.  Just off the water front is this cafe with a wonderful retro sign which lights up at night.

    In front of it, though, just out of the frame of the picture is something more somber. It is a memorial to those who died in the tragedy in Oslo.  We stopped for a moment and although we could not read the messages, many pictures drawn by children reflected the feelings of everyone. One picture had the sun crying.

    Before heading in for the evening, we walked along the water's edge.  All cameras were aimed into the west where the sun was sinking below the horizon, an end to a memorable day.

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    The water in the harbor inlet was as still as glass this morning casting a perfect reflection  of colorful wooden houses and boats on the way to the airport.  Already the city was waking up and the fish market was setting up for a busy day.

    Our flight to Oslo was under one hour and the view was spectacular the whole way.  Pine forests surrounded pristine lakes and tiny villages .  We will have to come back and explore some of these hidden places.

    Once again my suitcase did not make it onto the plane, the second time this trip, but after it was quickly located somewhere else in Noway, and a promise was made to deliver it this evening, we boarded a swift modern train to the city center.  Our accommodation, Cochs Pennsjonat, is right behind the Royal Palace.  The Royal Guard was having a concert when we passed through and we followed them to their bus.  They kept in perfect cadence even as they boarded the bus while the drummer kept the beat.  We noticed the guards in their sentries. Each one had a crisp royal uniform and hat, but also carried rather intimidating looking modern weaponry.  As they stand at their posts they continually scan the area from left to right and back again.

    The waterfront is just a 10 minute walk from here and is lined with many museums. While visiting the Resistance Museum, we learned that during World War II, Norway was invaded in April of 1940.  Old photographs, letters, hand stenciled newspapers, and videos told the story. 

    Just outside the museum is the Akershus Fortress. Parts of it date back to medieval times in the 1300s.  The old stones were quite an interesting contrast to the enormous cruise ship sitting in front of it.

    Food is so expensive here.  We decided to go to a gourmet grocery store and have a picnic right at the harbor.  We  weren't alone with this idea either and it was so pleasant to see the ferries, sightseeing boats, and fishing boats come to shore.  Following a wooden boardwalk along the harbor, we came upon a group of people dancing,  Some had fancy dance moves while others just kept moving to the beat.

    Walking back to our accommodation, we noticed pretty cafes in park like settings ringed with tiki torches.  Each cafe had almost a party atmosphere.  Tomorrow it is supposed to be a warm sunny day. With our Oslo Pass in hand, we will explore what this city has to offer.

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    "Every object has a history that also relates stories of its time period." This was the message on a sign hanging above an exhibit in the Nordic Museum in Stockholm, but its message stuck in  my mind today as we set out to explore the museums of Oslo.

    Weather wise, this has probably been our best day on our trip so far.  Although we have had very little rain at all in any of the cities, today it was sunny and warm with low humidity. The Oslo City Hall is an impressive building with a bell tower and carillon. Inside we took advantage of the free English tour and learned that in the great hall just inside the entrance is the place where President Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize.  Opened in 1950, it has Europe's largest oil painting.

    The Oslo Pass includes a ferry ride to the  island with the museums. In the evenings it turns into a dinner cruise.  The  poster said, "Shrimp au natural, bread, butter, and lemon," which I thought was funny.  

     In the Viking Museum we learned that during the age of the Vikings, 800-1050 CE, wealthy people were buried in boats.  At the turn of the 20th century, two Viking ships were discovered buried in mounds.  Archaeological excavations took place and the items, including the reconstructed boats, are in the museum.  Items found in the boats such as carriages, animals, cookiing supplies, and tools tell the story that the people probably believed in the afterlife. Balconies jutting over the boats are conveniently placed in the corners. Apparently the type of blue clay the boats were buried in prevented a lot of decomposition,

    The Fram Museum has many artifacts which tell about the life of polar explorers from Norway, Nansen and Amudsen.   This story was told through a series of storyboard panels with excerpts from the explorers' journals as well as their photographs.  In the center of the museum store is the actual sailing ship, the Fram, and we were allowed to explore it inside. I cannot imagine what it must have been like to live on a sailing ship in the winter. 

    The oldest folk park in Europe is also on the island.  With our pass we were able to tour it late in the day.  The highlight was a stave church.  Stave churches are built completely out of wood due to a lack of stone.   Only 28 of these churches remain in Noway. The one we saw dated from the 1200s.

    Inside the exhibition hall was an extensive display telling the story of  the Sami people. Although the Sami people still celebrate and value their ancient traditions today, the museum explains, people are people everywhere, and the technology the youth has is all the same even though the museum shows an office with a computer that is five years old. This shows that an exhibit can never catch up with real life. 

    While waiting for our ferry back to the city center, an ordinary ferry pulled up.  Looking inside we noticed men dressed in tuxedoes. Suddenly a bride and groom stepped out with the entire wedding party and guests.  The groom looked like a prince in full military attire with a sword.

    Just a short tram ride away is Vigeland Parken. Between 1924-1943, Gustav Vigeland worked on designing this 75 acre park which is always open and illuminated at night.The statues are unusual in that they show people expressing different emotions, all nude,  There are 28 bronze statues on a bridge crossing a stream, and marble statues surrounding an obelisk,  People had fun climbing on the statues to strike funny poses.  The most famous statue is on the bridge.  It shows a toddler who seems to be enraged and throwing a tantrum.

    Back at the waterfront, the boardwalk was  full of energy.  In the evening Oslo looked beautiful with outdoor cafes and the castle lit up on the hillside.  I noticed that the full moon bathed the harbor in light.  Tomorrow we will see the moon rise again, but this time it will be in Venezia!

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    Whenever a day includes an airplane flight, it always seems to take up a lot of time just to get to the airport, but today our bus connection was quite easy and allowed for some sightseeing time too.

    After a delicious breakfast of a chocolate croissant and cappuccino, we walked down to the National Gallery.  Inside we saw paintings by Norwegian painters which showed the landscape.  All cameras aimed at Edvard Munch's famous painting "The Scream" which was placed behind protective glass.

    Our flight to Venice was on Ryan Air. We have flown with them before so we paid $10 extra to choose our seats first.  Our prior experience from Pisa  to Paris was  every man for himself with backpacks flying down the aisles to claim the best seats.  In Oslo, everyone boarded very calmly.

    There's something magical about arriving in Venice by train.  As it crosses the causeway, you can feel the excitement of the passengers.  Arriving by train today we felt some of that same enthusiasm  as the plane flew close enough to the island to make out the significant landmarks.  

    Riding the vaparetto to our hotel, we noticed a lot of people just sitting down by the canal taking it all in.  Our accommodation, Pension Guerrato, is right next to the market near the Rialto Bridge.

    Dinner tonight was in the prettiest cafe next to the fish market at the top of a small wooden bridge.  Had we not received directions and a recommendation from the helpful receptionist at our accommodation, we would not have known of this trattoria.  We sat outside under an arbor where we enjoyed  pasta with fresh scallops and asparagus.

    No evening in Venice is complete without a visit to Sam Marco.  In the evening  the buildings are ringed with lights that look like candles.  Small orchestras played romantic tunes to the delight of everyone.  If you sit at a table to listen, you pay for the entertainment, but sitting on the steps, you get the concert for free.    Andrew Lloyd Weber tunes can be schmaltzy, but somehow seem appropriate, even hopelessly romantic when heard in San Marco Square.  Walking back to the hotel, I wished we could stay here longer.

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    Yes, just what I would say, i.e., Bergen the loveliest city and then along comes another. Fjords we saw on Bergen harbor cruise and enroute Nutshell trip from Oslo. You did see what we also enjoyed in Oslo...Vigeland, Munch & other art, Viking Museum, Vigeland, etc. A flight from Oslo to Venice? That is a bit unusual. Hope to hear more.

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    To see our photos go to explorerbear.blogspot.com



    The streets of Venezia were a bee hive of activity today.  With warm temperatures and the sun shining brightly in the sky, we wasted no time getting right out to explore this amazing city on an island.

    Scuola Grande di San Rocco is a 16th century building.  Often referred to as "Tintorreto's Sistine Chapel", there are over 50 paintings inside,  Housed on two floors, the museum has conveniently placed chairs around the room with mirrors in wooden frames you can borrow for a better view.  For the first five minutes inside, I couldn't understand why the place was so badly lit.  Turns out I was wearing my sunglasses!

    Finding Ca Rezzonico was a bit of a challenge. After a series of left and right turns, many leading to a tiny bridge, or a dead end, and waiting for a vaporetto that never came, we finally found it.  It's a museum showing the life of wealthy people in the 18th century.  The paintings, porcelain, and furniture are nicely displayed although the focus of most of the rooms is what is on the walls and ceiling.

    Back on the streets, crowds were gathering around bridges, churches, and gelatti stands.  In San Marco, people sat on the steps to escape the sun while others fed the pigeons, window shopped, or stopped by one of the carts selling Venezia souvenirs.  They appear to be doing a lot of restoration work and while the fencing around the Campanile explains the process, huge cosmetic ads covered one of the buildings and even the Bridge of Sighs.   We are always glad to see continual restoration work in progress, but it was disappointing to see ads placed over scaffolding.

    Just off Rialto Bridge, visitors were tempted by machines churning ice cold lemon and orange drinks, and by slices of coconut placed on a fountain. Most appealing of all were cups filled with fresh watermelon, strawberries, oranges, and kiwi slices.  We saw some men selling knock off Prada bags. They create an appealing display for the tourists and then scurry off with them at a moment's notice if the police are spotted. Just to see what they would say, I asked one of them if they were real and he enthusiastically replied' "Yes. Please have a look!"

    In the evening we met our good friend, Monika, and her friend Hanne in front of San Marco for dinner.  We started right off with a spritz at a very atmospheric cafe right on the Grand Canal with gondolas docked right beside us and vaparretos motoring by.  

    On our way to our restaurant which was hidden behind the main tourist area, we noticed a  full moon rising above the Lido.  With her camera propped up on the rail of one of the bridges, Monika captured the image for us.  

    At the restaurant we could tell that this was a place more for the locals.  With not another tourist in sight, we enjoyed a delicious meal surrounded by several large extended families.  With all the happy chatter around us, it was quite loud inside, but when you're in the company of good friends, it doesn't really matter.  After dinner we decided to find Harry's Bar, a favorite spot of Hemmingway.  Like adventurers ourselves, we searched along the dimly lit alleys and along the water's edge, but never found it.  Instead we stopped at Piccolo Martini which was a cute little restaurant.

    The midnight bells rang out a warm welcome just as we stepped into San Marco. Surprisingly, only one cafe was still open with people gathering around to hear the orchestra playing romantic tunes. As it was getting late, it was time to say goodbye to our friends and for us to Venezia.  Tomorrow we head to Croatia!

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     The breakfast room at the Pension Guerrato was less crowded this morning, but at every table, people were planning out their day with their guide books.
    Because we were able to leave our luggage at the hotel, there was time for us to make one more excursion.

    San Giorgio Maggiore is located on an island across the Grand Canal.  It has impressive art work that would be considered a masterpiece anywhere else, and  stunning choir stalls, each hand carved to tell an episode from the life of St. Benedict.   Hidden behind the church is a cafe where you can get a nice table right down by the water.  

    An elevator whisks you to the top of the bell tower for an amazing 360 degree view of Venezia.  Looking toward the town we saw hundreds of tourists milling about in San Marco and on the bridges.  Off in another direction we spotted sleepy villas, a garden maze, and a refreshing looking swimming pool.

    Finding a comfortable spot on a vaporetto in Venice can be a challenge, and even more frustrating is waiting in the hot sun for one to arrive, only to learn it is going in the wrong direction.  We were lucky, though, and our vaparetto to the port where we caught our boat to Croatia was less crowded and felt like a sightseeing cruise.   The best part was the 30 minute trip along Venice's shoreline where we were in a parade of small cruisers.  Out at sea the water was smooth the whole way and at one point I saw a magnificent fish leap into the air and dive back down under.

    Rovinj, Croatia is so picturesque.  Before WWII this was part of Italy and has a very Italian look about it with stucco houses with tiled roofs.  Our accommodation, Casa Garzatto, is a small flat right in the heart of the old town.  It is decorated in a modern seaside style with lemon yellow walls, a  tiny kitchenette, and even a much needed washing machine. 

    Dinner was at the hotel's atmospheric restaurant where tiny votive candles line the walls outside.  It took awhile for our dinner to arrive, but the idea here is to slow down and take time to take it all in that you're on holiday.  David's risotto with asparagus was excellent.

    After dinner we walked around the town. Off on a side street we discovered a tiny restaurant, Valentino,  sloping down to the sea where you can sit on a padded cushion with a nightcap and watch the fish as they swim in the water above submerged lights.    As soon as we sat down, the host said, "Might I suggest our evening's recommended drink."  It turned out to be $32 so David  opted  for the less expensive, but chic,  Bellini.  It came served in a delicate tulip shaped glass. The drink was made with Moet champagne  and peach puree which was so fresh you would think it was right off the tree.  Tomorrow we will just take a relaxing day and explore what this island has to offer.

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    Today I feel as if I have stepped inside a picture postcard. We are in Croatia on the Istrian Peninsula, in the town of Rovinj.  It's a charming seaside town with  buildings that rise from the sea to the top of the hill where  a fisherman shaped weathervane stands on top of a bell tower looking  out to the sea.

    We took a self-guided tour of the town and were really struck about how pretty it is.  Roaming  through the cobblestone streets with its stone houses with pretty wooden shutters, we came upon artist's studios which smelled of lavender.  The church at the top of the hill is a cool refuge from the mid day sun, but we opted not to climb the creaky wooden steps to the top of the bell tower.  

    Back at the waterfront the farmer's market was offering visitors all sorts of treats to sample such as  juicy grapes, truffles with pesto, and sweet blackberries.   I couldn't resist looking through the stalls selling trinkets along the waterfront.  They offered everything from retro beach bags, to candles dripping with lace and glitter that look like a wedding cake and are  not my style.

    Down at the waterfront was a perfect place for a picnic.  While we ate, various tour groups walked by following their guide like a scene out of Make Way for Ducklings.  They were listening to their guide by wearing earbuds.  Although in a a church or museum, not hearing a guide speaking loudly to a group is a welcome change from years past, it felt to me as if these people were not really living in the moment and there was an invisible wall between them and everyone else.

    While washing clothes at our flat, the doorbell rang and an image appeared on the phone showing who was there.  We've never seen anything like this before at an accommodation.

    Dinner tonight was at Maistral. We had a table right at the water's edge and watched the sun sink down into the western sky until it seemed to disappear into the sea.  In the distance I saw people silhouetted on the  peer enjoying the same view.  Later we discovered they were all standing in front of a huge yacht that had pulled in from Australia.  It was sleek, gray, and to me looked like an alien spaceship.  People were photographing it for hours while four people dined on the stern, oblivious to the whole scene.

    This evening all of the stores were open until after 11:00 and children were having a great time riding scooters, playing games, and even dancing to a  band that played energetically in the street.  This seems to be a family holiday spot and so safe we never saw a policeman anywhere although we were told to be aware of pickpockets,We discovered a new place down on the rocks by the water's edge called Monte Carlo where we had a nightcap sitting on comfy cushions for half the price of the place we visited last night.  It had a great view of the town across the harbor and the Dean Martin music added to the ambiance.

    Back at the hotel as I hung a load of wash on a clotheslines out our second floor window, I noticed someone below taking a picture of me.  It's nice to see so many people enjoying this picturesque town where we hope to return to some day.

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    Our bus to Opatija left Rovinj at 12:00 with one easy transfer.  Driving through the countryside, we saw pretty stone houses with tiled roofs, donkeys, and little farm stands selling strings of pepper and garlic.

      One thing we noticed is that the bus drivers here are very determined to keep moving forward and show no mercy to anyone in their way.  On our first bus, the driver forced a woman in a fiat off the road and gestured his irritation with her as he drove by.  On our second bus, the driver didn't think I was moving fast enough onto the bus with the luggage and just drove right off with me standing on the steps of the bus.causing all the luggage to spill into the aisle, He almost hit a bicycle too and the rider grabbed onto the open  door of the bus to speak his mind while the bus continued to roll with him hanging on!

    Our room at the Hotel Galeb is the best yet. We are on the top floor with private a balcony and expansive views of the  Kvarner Gulf. There are parasailers, beach umbrellas, and booths selling boat excursions.  The public beach offers all sorts of fun activities for children such as trampolines, sandy areas to build castles, and an array of inflatable seaside friends to borrow.


    We decided to go for a  swim, but first we needed a beach towel,  A man with his own beachside kiosk told us his Croatia bath towel at $30 was a bargain, but we knew better and found one for half that price with a map of Croatia on it.  To reach the water, we enjoyed a free pass from our hotel to use the facilities at the four-star Hotel Savoy which enjoys an especially nice setting, along with amenities such as a bar and reclining chairs.  While there we met a young employee from Mostar, Bosnia, who claims he especially enjoyed speaking with us because he could practice his English language skills.  Swimming in the Kvarner Gulf, by the way, proved quite refreshing with a blend of hot and cold spots.

    In the evening the town was full of energy.  As we walked around,  I enjoyed a special treat I  had in the Balkan region last year: corn lightly salted and grilled to perfection. We ended the evening at a hip seaside restaurant named Hemingway's.  Down the coast, the lights are glittering on the hillside and the moon shines a path across the bay. Tomorrow  we will visit one the most beautiful places  in the world according to National Geographic- Plitvice National Park

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    Deep into the heart of Croatia just west of Bosnia, lies a paradise which would be hard to rival anywhere else on earth.  Plitvice National Park is a wonderland with 16 terraced pristine lakes connected by waterfalls and lush forests.

     Without a car, the best way for us to experience the park was through an organized bus tour.  Our three hour ride took us past typical Mediterranean towns with stone houses which seem to rise up from the sea in a series of steps topped with a church, small seaside villages, and through the industrial city of Rijeka which we learned is ranked 8th in the world in ship building.

    Out in the countryside we passed small stone farmhouses, many with tiny stalls set up to sell their local honey.  Just as you might see in rural Ireland, some houses are abandoned and the roofs are missing, but here it's a different story.   We learned that during the homeland war in the 1990s, many of the houses were destroyed or abandoned and today they have no owner. Even more startling to hear was that it will be difficult to repopulate this area for awhile because there are many hidden mines in the fields which have yet to be cleared. 

    Once at the park we were immediately struck by its beauty.  Each of the lakes has minerals which reflect the colors of the landscape causing the water to be a crystal clear aquamarine color.  Fish large and small, basked in the water in the sunlight and were completely unafraid of anyone passing by on the natural wooden boardwalks. It was if time stood still for them and we were looking at them in an aquarium with purified water.   I wanted to plunge right into the refreshing water with them.  

    A highlight of the trip  was a boat ride on a boat powered by batteries so there is  no impact on the environment.  As we glided across the water past feathery reeds dancing in the breeze,  we noticed branches at the bottom of the lake which may have fallen in decades ago, but were perfectly preserved.  All around us, small waterfalls tumbled down the hillside, and ducks and fish coexisted in perfect harmony.  It was one of the most serene  experiences I have had in years.

    Feeling hungry and thirsty, our group was grateful when our boat docked in an area with picnic tables.  Attracted by the smoky smell of a barbecue, we scrambled over to an open air  barn where they were roasting chickens on a spit over a roaring  wood fire. It reminded me of a folk park and smelled delicious.  

    Hiking back toward the parking lot, we came upon the tallest waterfall in the park.  The water cascaded down from above and must be truly magnificent in the spring after the melting snows.  Although you are requested not to go off the path, many members of our group pranced over there and posed right under it to the dismay of our tour guide.  Much of the group was made up of medical school exchange students and our guide was like a task master trying to keep them in step with the tour.

    When we arrived back at our hotel, I realized it was after 8:00 pm making this a long but memorable day. Just when you think there may be no more magical places in the world, one appears before you.  I'll keep a mental photograph of this place in my mind forever.

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    Today was a transition day for us from Opatija to Rab Island.  As I've mentioned in previous years, transitions are hard for me when we are staying in a particularly nice place.  We were upgraded when we checked in to a suite at the Hotel Galeb with expansive views up and down the coast from our balcony.  Not only that, the hotel had a private beach at a sister hotel, friendly service, and a breakfast fit for a king.  The hotel also honored a Rick Steves' discount even though we paid with credit card rather than cash.

    Since our catamaran didn't leave until 4:30, we spent some time walking the promenade which you can follow for miles.  The water looked so inviting and I couldn't help but feel envious of the people just floating around without a care in the world.  This looked especially appealing because today the heat is oppressive.  All along the path, craftsmen showed their works of art.  One humorous sight was a woman in a straw hat with palette in hand pretending to  carefully study the scene as she painted. Looking closer I noticed the houses didn't resemble anything in the area at all.

    At the bus station we waited in the shade and thank goodness the woman from the hotel spotted us because she told us we were at the wrong spot and pointed us in the right direction.  It was the same beaten up bus from the other day with no a.c and no seats but it got us to the ferry terminal.

    Our catamaran to Rab Island was identical to the one we took from Venezia to Rovinj and cost only $12 for a 90 minute trip.  Because our accommodation Pension Tamaris cost less than $100 per night, we expected something small and rustic, but it's actually a small hotel right on the water with a restaurant.

    Walkinging around the old town in the evening, we were amazed to discover scores of booths and stores selling everything from tacky souvenirs to really nice artwork.  it's been a long day so we'll check it all out tomorrow. I can't wait to go swimming too!

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    The sounds of cicadas chirping, sparkling aquamarine water, and an inviting old town with cobblestone streets, palm trees, and stone houses with wooden shutters. It's  all so inviting, but I have to admit it, it is hot and humid here today.

    Our day started out with a walk into town. With our guidebook in hand, the plan was to follow a self guided walking tour  to see the old church towers, but we barely made it into town before collapsing into chairs at an inviting cafe with cool misty water emitting from a fan.  Continuing on, we visited an interesting shop Natura Rab selling organic locally made honey, olive oil, lavender, and pottery, but after that we couldn't take the heat anymore and took a taxi back to our accommodation.  No wonder no one was out on the streets this morning.

    The owner of our accommodation pointed us in the direction of a water taxi to take us to a swimming place. We figured he meant it would take us back into town to swim, but instead we headed out to an island with hiking tails, a sandy beach, or secluded areas to choose from to put down your towel. I felt like I couldn't get into the water fast enough and when I did, it was beyond refreshing. We floated for about 90 minutes in water that was so clear you could see the bottom quite far out.

    We followed a walkway along the water's edge into town for dinner and along the way made some  discoveries. The first one was a set of hidden steps which led up to a landing with an amazing view of the harbor and over the tiled roof houses in town with four stone bell towers in the distance. The second discovery was an archaeological dig site where they are uncovering the site of an old church.

    After dinner I decided to buy a cute travel bag I had seen in a shop. Much to my surprise, the owner of the shop offered it to me for 1/3 less than the price on the label.  Down the street I saw a miniature version of the same bag and the owner there tried to sell it to me for more than the big bag I had bought, and when he dropped the price, it still was no bargain.  I have noticed that bags such as Louis Vuitton  and other designer brands are sold in shops side by side with flip flops so I am sure they're not real. 

    it is now 11:00pm and still hot and humid.  Too bad the beach is not open at night.  It's the perfect night for another swim!

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    Yesterday morning the sun was already quite intense by the time we had breakfast on the outdoor patio of our accommodation. With cushions in hand decorated with smiling seaside creatures, families headed off for a day at the beach.  Many took the water taxi out to the island to go swimming while others lined the stone promenade just below the walls of the old town where pine tree branches bulging with pinecones provide shade.

    We walked around the old town before noon, but again ended up at the cafe with the mist spraying fans In the 100 degree heat, people looked absolutely wilted there.  One man dumped a glass of water down his shirt while his wife actually removed her bra right at the table and draped it across her husband's lap.

    The bus ride from Rab Island to Zagreb was both spectacular and miserable.   The spectacular part was the scenery.  After a short car ferry ride, the bus ascended into the hills on a series of switchbacks. All around us the landscape was astonishing with nothing except white barren rocks and low lying shrubs.  This is because the bora winds which blow salty air and water prevent anything from growing.  No one could live here, I thought to myself, and there wasn't a house in sight.

    Soon we entered a more low lying mountainous area. Scattered here and there were small tidy farms or bungalows which showed no sign of life except for an occasional table set up selling honey.

    All this beautiful scenery was in stark contrast to our seats on a crowded tour style bus, except it wasn't, it was a state run bus company.  We were assigned the last row which had zero leg room. Picture yourself for five hours crammed into a little kiddy car and you've got the idea. 

    Our  hotel in Zagreb was really nice and right in the heart  of the city. We walked around and discovered a small pedestrian area with lively cafes in a neighborhood that was more like a small town.  

    At noon today we took a BritAir (Air France) flight from Zagreb to Paris. It was a small plane only holding 72 passengers.  Once in Paris at the airport, we felt a little lost until we found a screen offering virtual assistance.  A crystal clear  image of a person appeared on a flat screen and gave us directions. It was the most high tech system I have ever seen.

    It is now 5:00 pm and as I write this entry from the airport cafe,  the sun will soon be setting on our holiday  this summer.    With lots of good memories it's time to go home.

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