With the hope of saving about $60 on our 20 hour train to Narvik in Norway, we opted for the seat only option (sleeper cabins are for the soft). Unfortunately a group of drunken Party Sweeds, three dogs and the sun only staying down for 2 hours made actually sleeping impossible. So we were feeling fantastic when we eventually crossed the border and jumped a bus heading north to Tromso to meet my Nowegian host sister. The roads were about as great as Christchurch when it rains and the bus driver had a rather loose interpretation of where the centre of the road was but we completed our last major trip unscathed. Tromso sits at an impressive 69 degrees north in the Arctic Circle and the sun doesn't set in summer making life confusing for both tourists and wildlife. Kajsa and Tor had been kind enough to lend us their couch and fridge for the last two weeks of our trip and we quickly set about replacing lost calories (didn't bring nearly enough food for the train) and catching up on the last three years.
We had timed our visit to coincide with May 17th, Norway's national day and an excuse for anyone in town to get dressed up and join the parade. Not only does this city (about the size of Timaru) have about 30 different marching bands, soccer clubs and other groups, the high school students participate in a 17 day long end of year party involving matching outfits, pimped out vehicles and bizarre business card practices. All of the above then march through the streets at 4pm while the rest of the Norwegians hang out dressed up in their district's version of the national costume. New Zealand could learn a thing or two about celebrating.
The next couple of days were taken up with expeditions to the Polar Museum, cheesecake that will change your life and a visit to Tor's work which is conveniently an outdoor store. The great thing about shopping in Norway is that you can claim your tax back when you leave the country, the downside is that three pints of beer cost the same as a keg back home and we couldn't afford to buy anything anyway. The real highlight was our mission to the middle of true Sami country (where the reindeer herders live) for five days with Kajsa's parents. We had read all about true Samis on Trip Advisor and it seemed we needed to find someone called Johnny who had a teepee and cooked reindeer the "true Sami way". Unfortunately all we got was a home-built turf hut with a sauna and a house full of knives. Kajsa's Dad speaks enough English that over the weekend we also learnt how Norway is far superior to New Zealand in farming, chocolate and salmonella free eggs. Best in the world mate.
The first order of duty when reaching Karajsok was actually driving across the border to Finland to buy wine since it's cheaper there. I also tried some reindeer pizza which tasted great but brought looks of disgust from the Norwegians at the table - maybe it's only alright to eat it in Norway? I also discovered that all reindeer in the north actually belong to individual reindeer herders meaning that when Bear Grylls came to the Arctic and hunted them he was actually poaching from some poor guy - probably Johnny. Unfortunately there wasn't enough snow to play on the snowmobile and it was the wrong time of year for the northern lights but these are just good reasons to come back and visit again in winter.
When we returned to Tromso Kajsa and Tor had to head back to work so we set out exploring the city and surrounding mountains. We made it all the way up one valley only to find that we needed skis or snow shoes to actually get up the mountain (and this is summer). It's now officially the end of our trip and we leave in two days to head back to the real world. At least we have a solid five days of travelling to come to terms with impending responsibility and our return to Christchurch. Hanging out for a Dunsandel Tavern Pie and a chance to try out my new ice axe, I hear there has been snow.
When we left Milan we didn't really have a plan just ten days to kill until we were due at the top of Norway for their 200 year anniversary (basically the NZ ambassadors for the occasion). It didn't take long to realise there were only a handful of cities we could still afford en route so we found ourselves back in Munich for a night in the tiniest hostel room to ever hold 12 people and whatever creatures feasted on our arms and legs during the night. "Go backpacking" they said, "hostels are great fun". No some hostels are nice, a few are exceptional and one in five will have you wishing you could be de-loused WW1 style. We revisited our friends at the local kebab store and were back on the train bright and early the next morning. We have to write down on our Eurail pass every time we take a train and including the twenty or so times we were too lazy to do so we conservatively estimated we have taken over 70 individual trips since February - points for that.
From Munich we relocated to Prague for four nights. It poured with rain again here so we spent two hours exploring the city (outdoor stores mostly) before finding a great Taiwanese restaurant to hide out in. Looking for something different to do we were up early the next day to catch the 11am bus to Prague Zoo. Having frequented Orana Park several times in my youth I had high hopes for the place despite it being totally engulfed by the nearby river two years earlier. Apparently one of the otters escaped and swam all the way up river to Hamburg before dying of exhaustion. Poor little guy. The zoo had all the usual stars but we were most entertained by the Polar Bear playing in his pool with a tyre and a fishing buoy. Great stuff until we decided to watch Blackfish that night and got totally convicted about animals in captivity - off to save the whales now.
Prague was beautiful but crawling with tour groups so much that it killed the ambience a little. We did acquire an American girl there who accompanied us to Berlin afterwards. She was studying political science and we spent the good part of a 5 hour trip discussing Obamacare and the finer points of US politics and Sororities. The weather was awesome and we actually got to see more of the city in one afternoon than we had on our previous stop. Berlin was also our first (and probably last) experience with MEGA dorms. 50 beds in one room, why not right? No sleeping was done but it was cheap, very cheap. From Berlin we had two nights in Hamburg which turned out to be a pleasant surprise. We headed down to the waterfront on our first night only to find a festival in full swing along a 3km stretch of walkway. Live music, carnival rides and amazing food in every direction. I had possibly the greatest gourmet cheeseburger I've ever tasted in my life while watching the tall ships sail past up river. Also tried curry wurst for the first time and couldn't believe we had avoided it for so long - highly recommend (Germans do good sausages would you believe).
Our second day was devoted to Miniature Wunderland, a massive industrial building housing the largest model railway in the world. I never thought tiny trains would appeal to me but these guys have created giant replicas of Switzerland, Germany, Norway and Sweden with 100,000's of little people, a working airport and a few thousand model trains.... just Google it. The other highlight of visiting one of the biggest ports in the world was waving all the ferries off on Sunday night - The Queen Elizabeth included. The Germans know how to do architecture and the whole industrial area is full of cool modern loft apartments, office buildings with antique cranes still coming out of them and wrought iron air bridges between buildings. I think New Zealand could learn a thing or two from these guys.
From Hamburg we took a train to Copenhagen which was going swimmingly until said train rolled onto a ferry and we were told to abandon ship - I mean abandon train onto ship. Apparently this is faster than taking a bridge or tunnel. We literally got to our hostel, went to sleep and then walked back to the station the next morning. Well the sleep bit isn't entirely true thanks to the girl who was drunk enough to set her alarm for 5am but not be woken up by it. The other 11 people in the room were however and we were serenaded by Pink for 15 minutes until someone finally shook her awake. It's the little things that make me not a morning person. Unfortunately there was no time to see the city as it was back on a train and off to Stockholm. On a side note I'm sorry to whoever owns the bike I knocked over on my way there - my two packs prevented me from picking it back up again but I swear it didn't look damaged.
Stockholm is awesome and our last night in a hostel was probably the best we have ever had. City Backpackers is amazing if anyone is heading up this way. We had Swedish Meatballs and Swedish Beer for lunch and wandered along the waterfront (very good looking city) for a couple of hours today. Just two more hours to kill before we get on a 20 hour train to Narvik followed by a 5 hour bus ride to Tromso to visit my favourite Norwegian. Last train for the trip - see you in two weeks New Zealand.
After drinking our share of German beer and Pretzels we headed south to Milan again to catch up with a friend and hopefully find some nice weather. We achieved the former in seeing my host brother from eight years ago who is now working on his PHD at a university in Milan. He took us to an awesome little bar that serves buffet finger food with cocktails and we caught up on the better part of a decade. The nice weather was unfortunately a no go and we were faced with days of pouring rain, thunder and not a whole lot to do. Having been pretty sick for the previous five weeks I used this lull in activity to finally see a doctor. GP visit = €100 just to be told it was IBS.... awesome.
It wasn't all bad though and after loading up on pills we set out to conquer Gardaland Theme Park over two days. The park is only 90 minutes from the city by train and looks over, would you believe, Lake Garda. It's the third biggest park in Europe with 5 roller coasters and more than enough to keep us busy for 48 hours. They have this amazing ride called Raptor where you are seated to the side of the actual track - a little bit like flying. It happened to rain on and off both days and the normally crazy lines were non existent. We literally asked if we could stay on Raptor until more people came and the guys operating it just let us go around and around. Think one minute wait times for roller coasters and no line at all for the other rides. There were still thousands of people in the park it's just designed to cope with a whole lot more evidently.
Between the two of us we clocked nearly 40 roller coaster rides and hit every single attraction in the park at least once - including train rides and the tea cups for good measure. I would highly recommend the place especially in the rain. Europeans don't like rain. Everything was going smashingly until we tried to get back to Milan the second night. We were half an hour into our journey when we were stopped at a station alongside an abnormally high number of other trains. The tracks had been closed to all trains indefinitely due to an accident further up. It was four hours and a whole lot of confusion before we made it back to the city. To add insult to injury everything was closed and we missed dinner. As an aside we have already been given a loyalty card for the pizza/kebab place down the block, apparently we go there a lot.
Not a terribly busy week but we have somehow acquired another ice axe to add to our gear. We may need it looking at the weather in Norway in a fortnight.
Rachael and Jeremy