Oslo: The city that has everything

Coming from the sleepy town of Tromso in the Arctic Circle to the sunny cosmopolitan city of Oslo, was quite the contrast, and gave us the opportunity to see what the rest of Norway has to offer.

Surrounded by dense vibrant forests filled with lofty trees that circle calm lakes and thriving by a ferry port that neighbours numerous other majestic islands, Oslo is lucky to be in such close proximity to scenes of nature that can transform your world. Oslo city is hip, friendly and vibrant, filled with architectural delights, fantastic museums and independent restaurants (although we were too broke to eat in any).

Arriving on a strict budget from Tromso, we stayed in an Air BnB which saved us a fortune on eating out. Cooking breakfast and dinner at home and bringing a packed lunch with us made from our new best friend, supermarket Renate, meant that unfortunately we never visited any swish bars or delicious restaurants, but that is what you can expect if you are visiting Norway- it is incredibly expensive. The level of expensive that you pay £14 for one beer. One beer! So as you can imagine, your trip might be an incredibly sober one.

There are quite a few things to see and do in Oslo on the cheap though. We took the time on our first day to walk along the river through the city of Oslo, from the Olaf Ryes Plass in Grunerlokka. At first we found ourselves exploring this trendy district, with chic cafes and trendy bars aplenty. The streets were lined with eclectic street art and unique pieces of statement art which casually were placed in beer gardens around the area. Young locals covered in quirky tattoos in the most random places sauntered around the streets, a common theme in Grunerlokka. Continuing along the river, we passed dog walkers and runners in the sunshine, catching a glimpse of what Oslo is like away from the main rush of the city.

With our second day we ventured out of the clutches of the city and explored the leafy paradise that cornered the city, taking in breathtaking sights of feathery moss, ancient boughs dancing in the wind and dazzling lakes that reflected the rays of sunshine onto the glistening lakes. Instead of hiking, we chose to cycle, hiring bikes from Viking biking for 225 NOK for the day- which although a lovely company and who organised fun and interesting city tours, do not have the most sturdy mountain bikes around!  We made our way to Frognerseteren by metro, heading to the Nordmarka forest. Hopping off the metro, you are immediately placed in the forest, and jumping onto our bikes we whizzed further into the depths of the Nordmarka. The trails are not ideal for a bike, and sticking to the cycle routes meant that we were unable to clamber into the Nordmarka and explore her natural beauty in its finest glory, off the beaten track, so I do advise hiking instead.

However, after stopping for lunch at the traditional lodge Ullevalseter, a delightful restaurant filled to the brim with various trophies and achievements from the man behind the lodge, and having our homemade sandwiches by a nearby pond, we followed the direct path all the way down to the entrance of the forest.  Taking this route, rather than doing a circle on us and backtracking to the same metro station as before meant we avoided hills and were closer into Oslo city than before.

On our third and final day, we explored the sights within the city of Oslo, and most importantly, the cheap ones too! Head over to City Hall, which hosts the seat of the city council. It is adorned with beautiful art within its walls which highlights the culture and nature of Norway as a country, filled with scenes of fishermen and forests. Be wary that the hall closes strictly at 4pm, even locking the toilets at this time (I nearly got locked in!)

Vigaland Sculpture Park is a stunning yet bizarre park to explore, as well as a perfect place to sit back and relax, enjoying an ice cream in the sun. Many locals were sunbathing or having a BBQ in the weather, and being the biggest park in Oslo, there is no surprise why that is so. There are various sculptures dotted around the park, all made from one artist making it the largest sculpture park in the world- all by one artist! Very impressive! Although some of the art pieces are as I said before, are bizarre.

There are a vast amount of museums and art galleries around Oslo, however being on a time constraint and strict budget; we chose to buy the joint tickets to the Viking Ship Museum and the Historical Museum for 100 NOK. Hopping on a local bus, we bounded past scenes of cows and hay stacks to the museum, as if we had jetted out into the west country! It was incredible to see how resourceful the Norwegians were with nearby land, even on the outskirts of the city. The Viking Ship Museum boasts three Viking ships that stand impassive and proud- both in shape, size and architectural design. The ships are impressive, as well as the exhibits, however it would be more interesting to see how the Viking’s lived their life and their influence on the world. Hopping back on the bus we headed to the Historical museum for answers, where unfortunately the shabby exhibits with little information told us very little. It’s definitely not a museum to pay to individually visit, and one that can be improved in many areas, as many tourists remark whilst visiting the numerous museums, “Why don’t they just put all the museums together, rather than having them sparsely located over the city?”.

One building that you must take the time to wonder over to and clamber on top of is the Opera house, a solid pure white marble building that oozes edginess from it’s sharp angles and sophistication from its smooth surfaces. I did find it incredibly ironic that such a white collar entertainment industry had been architecturally designed in this way, but who questions the opera house in Sydney? You are able to sit at the top of the building and breathe in the portside views of the city of Oslo, scattered fjords and beyond.

We found public transport efficient, clean and cheap, I really couldn’t recommend it more. You can download the app on your smart phone and buy tickets for ferries, trains, trams, boats and the metro just by a quick tap half the price! If you are old school and leave your data behind you like me, you can buy tickets from any nearby 7/11 store- and there are plenty! A fantastic travel tip for you if you are on a budget are the 24 hour tram ticket’s you can buy which allows you to validate it when you want to, and are wonderful for getting you back to the airport the next day via a local train, rather an expensive airport shuttle bus or train!

The Midnight Sun Marathon & Tromso

After a shaky and delayed flight from Norwegian Air (including the aeroplane turning around to Oslo after a technical fault and us passengers having to change planes) we finally arrived in Tromso, bleary eyed and crabby. Whilst the friendly and upbeat taxi driver pointed out the markings of the marathon we were due to run a few days later, I began to feel nerves tingle my senses. Although it was 3:30am, I suddenly felt bright and awake. It’s amazing what fear can do to you.

After a late, (or should I say early?) check in from the chatty receptionist at Viking Hotel, we finally made it to our rented apartments at City Living. Dumping our belongings and flopping onto the beds out of sheer exhaustion, we spent our first night/morning adjusting to this bizarre sensation of the Midnight Sun. It is so strange to arrive in light, although it being so late into the night. During our stay in Tromso, it was difficult to distinguish when day was and when was night, which played a real havoc on our sleep patterns and body clocks!

Tromso is a small town which is catered for mass tourism, and the influx of international tourists whom visit this somewhat sleepy town for either the Midnight Sun Marathon, or to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights in the winter period, has changed the town dramatically. Speaking to a British expat, she told us that life in the winter months is pitch black darkness, bar four hours, when the sky turns an inky blue colour. I can’t imagine what everyday life must be like in total darkness, even if there are streetlights and a regular routine is established, I would feel as if a creature coming out from under ground, burrowing to and fro.

Just off the main street of Tromso there is a bustling port, filled with leaking and squeaking local fisherman’s boats nestled next to towering cruise liners which are quite the eye sore. In the distance you can catch a glimpse of the snow-capped mountain peaks arching out of the swirling crowds, reminding visitors of the stunning natural scenes around the settled town life.  In the town itself, there is a collision of local life; cheap eats and hidden quirky bars and independent cafes, wrestling with the impact of tourism on this town, expensive chain restaurants, luxurious hotels and tourist shops in abundance. Coming to the town at peak season, the sheer volume of visitors steadily increased by the day, as the Midnight Sun Marathon drew closer and closer.

So what is there to do in this sleepy town? There is much debate on the tourist activities and interests on websites like Tripadvisor and so my boyfriend and I went and explored what we found interesting. Walking to Telegrafbukta beach was a wonderful thing to do, the path is straightforward and easy to follow and you are rewarded by stunning scenic views of the sweeping landscape, where the vast sea couples with the jagged rocks that bed the coastline. Boats bob in the sea to their own rhythm and you can spot various other islands in the distance with a few lonely houses scattered in the distance. It’s easy to walk back or catch a local bus to rest your weary feet.

We also explored the Polarian Museum, which has mixed reviews. I personally loved the museum which highlighted aspects of life under the sea that we as humans, are unaware of. The exhibits are interesting and diverse, allowing visitors to stroke various molluscs and learn what must be done to help save endangered habitats. The information is a real eye opener and they host two wonderful films of the Northern Lights and animal life on Svalbard every half an hour, showing stunning scenes of natural beauty and snapshots of unique animals in their element. As well as this, the museum has two seal feeding and training sessions, which highlight the intellect behind a number of seals that live there. We are just mere bystanders at their training session which happens throughout the day, even before and after the museum has shut for visitors.

The Arctic Cathedral, the most northern Cathedral in the world, is worth a visit too. A short walk away (over the steepest bridge of mankind) or a quick bus ride of 50 NOK, the Artic Cathedral is an unusual shaped building which holds a magnificent display of stained glass windows. Come and enter the peace and quiet to reflect on the beauty behind such an architectural masterpiece.

Near to the cathedral is the Cable Car, a 170 NOK journey to the top of the mountain and back means you are able to visualize Tromso in its entirety and the surrounding picturesque views of gigantic mountains which dominate your view. Peering below at the town and its neighbourhoods that surround the city centre, we could see the route which we were due to run later that evening, a thrilling prospect. If you would like to save money, or aren’t planning on running a marathon after doing so, it is possible to hike up the mountain. There are many hiking trails that vary in accessibility and ease which allow you to reach the top of the mountain in your own time. Just be careful when heading back to Tromso that you wait on the opposite side of the road to catch a bus back into town, unlike us who ended up on an hour journey into some long lost neighbourhoods until we began to head back into town!

The sights in Tromso can be done quite cheaply, if you decide to walk places and stay within the local area, although a small and sleepy town, we did manage to entertain ourselves for the time we were there. Staying in rented apartments we were able to save money cooking for ourselves, shopping at the local cheap supermarket of Renate was beneficial in that aspect. However when we did eat out, Circa had fabulous pizzas for a cheap 70 NOK, Kaia Bar had lovely salmon and other main meals specifically catered for tourists in the 250 NOK area and Bla Rock Bar had delicious burgers from 125 NOK.

Bla Rock Bar is filled with punk memorabilia, where even a drum kit hangs upside down on the ceiling, which oozes character and individuality. We caught a free gig whilst we were there, a local girls band which was nice to see, although be wary the beers are as expensive as the burgers! If you want to find unique bars, Tromso is filled with many, as the Norwegians here love to party- you just need to know where to look. We also bought 100 NOK beers from Mack’s Brewery, a local brewery that sells a number of local beers and ales to quench your thirst.  I recommend Arctic Beer if you like a light lager.

And finally my thoughts on the Midnight Sun Marathon? As a new runner (and an injured one at the time of running), I would recommend those who are new to marathons, not to run this marathon. The run is filled with seasoned runners and with a set time limit to the event, it means that the pressure is on for you to complete the run in a certain amount of time; otherwise you are disqualified, which could mean you giving it your all and completing the entire event with nothing to show for it. The scenery is beyond stunning (when the weather picks up which is very little of the time as we are in the Arctic Circle) but as you are running away from the city centre, there are very little crowds to help support and push you on. In fact the only people who you are bound to see every mile, is a steward of the event. With chilling temperatures and a non-existent crowd (as well as the steepest bridge of mankind) it makes it quite a challenge for a new runner. The finale of the run, the climax of your dedication, persistence and hardwork, is defined by the finishing line right on the main street of Tromso, and as you are running through the night, you complete your run surrounded by drunken revellers enjoying their Saturday night with little support for the runners. Although beautiful, I would advise only seasoned marathon runners to choose this destination to run.

Berlin Round 2

It was refreshing to return back to Berlin, where over the years, the city has gained an incredible individualistic reputation, a place to be, create and live.

BerlinTen years on from my initial visit, my new exploration of Berlin somewhat changed my previous perspective of the city. Yes, the city is soaked with history, oozing with sophistication and glamour in some areas, and a living, breathing, story book- but this time, I was able to explore underground Berlin- the nitty, gritty side of it.

berlinStaying in the neighbourhood of Kreuzberg meant that we really were getting to grips with the urban edge of Berlin. Away from the polished streets and renowned architectural triumphs, we were fighting the February elements by graffiti studded streets and raunchy underground sex clubs. A completely different experience to my previous visit of Berlin which you can read here.

berlinBut I had come this time, to explore the artistic flair of Berlin, with which so many expats choose to thrive in, the cultural identity that hipster Berlin has formed, and the world famous nightclubs with their varied and intense music scene.

berlinBeginning our short weekend trip with a free Street Art tour from Alternative Tours in Berlin was the right choice. Starting in the commercial Alexander Platz and led by a young Aussie who had fallen in love with Berlin herself, she took us around neighbourhoods, pointing out established artists- their work and their message, whilst highlighting stories that accompanied the neighbourhood.

berlinAs hipster young artists surged to barren areas of Berlin for cheap rent prices and began to form communities and unique shops and bars, other people followed the artistic trend, meaning rent prices begun to increase. To avoid the costly changes, graffiti and street art suffocates the walls of many neighbourhoods in East Berlin, etching tag names and slogans on buildings that are precariously high and dangerous to reach. Strolling through neighbourhoods, we took in sights of cheap donner shops inviting all to snack, corner shops with towering produce, flamboyant shops selling recycled jewellery and bars that purposefully look shoddy to avoid customers.  You can immediately sense that this side of Berlin still seems separate to West Berlin, by identity and by culture.

berlinMauer Park is a popular tourist attraction on a Sunday and so we headed there afterwards, changing direction from East Berlin, through Central to North Berlin, at the neighbourhood of Prenzlauer Berg.  The neighbourhood showed us a glimpse of what Berlin is like to those who can afford high rent prices. As similar as to coming out of Shoreditch in London to Notting Hill, sweeping pavements lined with bare trees led us to our destination. We passed exclusive bars and worldly restaurants that actually had tables to sit in- which lacked in many of the restaurants where we were staying.

BerlinPreened and proper locals walked their equally preened dogs along the streets and we looked at each other, as if to question each other- which neighbourhood would you prefer? We headed over to the Flea Market just as they were closing up, where painted portraits of Frida Kahlo, vintage jumpers and classic records were on sale. Glancing over our warm cups of Chai Latte and apple pies, we noticed that very little locals visited this market, it merely being a location where tourists flocked to gape and gawk at (or buy lots of earrings in my case).  Although a wonderful market to browse, do be wary that it might not be as authentic as you imagine.

berlinFrom here we headed nearby to an infamous beer hall, Pratergarten, to drink in the traditional style of Steins and sit in orderly rows whilst glugging their home grown brew. But, alas, it being February, the beer hall was shut, and so we were herded into their restaurant – an incredibly fancy establishment.  It did look like a lovely place to dine and relax in, the décor looked as if to resemble a lavish hunting lodge, however with no reservation and not the budget to eat there either, we sipped our dark beers and regained our strength to move on.

berlinWe spent our final day exploring the key sights that all need to see when visiting Berlin, the Berlin Wall (but the East Side Gallery, rather than the traditional part of the wall kept at Checkpoint Charlie) we saw the messages respected artists left on the walls for the future generations, the original creations left to inspire and educate, as well as the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate.

berlinWe left little time in our days to see the sights, and all with bleary eyes, aching limbs and heavy heads. That’s only because we spent our nights so vigorously exploring Berlin after dark. On our first night we headed to Wilde Renate, a house party style club filled with weird décor and varied music in all of the rooms, reputed amongst the ravers of Berlin. But in the true traditional style of Berlin, we weren’t allowed entry into the club.

Being rejected from clubs is actually a common thing in Berlin, in fact for the biggest techno club, Berghain, there is even an article on VICE of some of those who have been rejected from the club, for no particular reason. The bouncer at Berghain is notorious for his picky attitude and rude manners, and not wanting to spend hours queuing for a club we might not even get into, we decided not to visit. So it was no real surprise that we were rejected from this club. It could have been the fact that we turned up at 12 when it opened (which we later found out was totally uncool and really you should turn up at 2am to that club), maybe it was because we were in a group (they apparently don’t like large groups), maybe it was because we were obvious tourists, or maybe it was because my friend was seen drinking outside the club, either way- it was a no go. We headed to the bar opposite – which is awesome by the way, although very smoky, so if you are heading to Wilde Renate, make sure you stop here before for a few drinks.

For our second night, we were more prepared and organized for Berlin’s arrogant door staff. We first headed to Icky, a fun gay club. Now this isn’t a gay club which you might be used to visiting in London or any other cosmopolitan city, this was a little more hard core than that. Videos on the walls of… well you get the picture, were unexpected. Ignoring the screens, we made friends on the dancefloor whilst dancing to Spice Girls. Although sticking out like a sore thumb for being a group of tourists, we had a great time and were happy to experience the gay scene in Berlin, albeit briefly.

We then headed to another type of clubbing experience which Berlin is renowned for, a techno club. Watergate was incredibly close to where we were staying, and so it was an obvious choice for us. Making it into this bar/club, we were rewarded by a river view from the bar of the ominous night of Berlin and its stunning architecture that resembled a turret from Harry Potter. Descending downstairs into the thumping dancefloor we saw Berliners really let loose, and joined the sweltering crowd ourselves. Despite the really strict boring dress code which Berliners seem to adopt (black, black and oh did I mention black?), we finally realised and recognised why so many visitors end up never leaving Berlin. They know how to party.

BerlinTo fully explore and immerse yourself in Berlin, you need much longer than just a few days here and there. It is ideal to explore Berlin by neighbourhood, to fully comprehend the sheer size and diversity of Berlin. Make sure you leave time to recover from its wild nights, so you are able to explore its original pieces of art and significant artefacts of history too.

A Weekend In Geneva

On previous trips visiting Switzerland, I always have abandoned city life for the fresh mountain air, swapping scenes of towering building blocks for snow dusted mountain tops. However, on a recent trip to Switzerland, I visited an old friend who has recently moved to Geneva for work and this time, I left behind my skis.

GandhiLanding in Geneva I was immediately bombarded with advertisements displaying the latest glamorous watches and I realised that the rumour of Geneva being known for watches, cheese and chocolate might actually be true.

Cheese MarketAs with most French people who work in Geneva, many actually live and shop in France due to Geneva being such an expensive city. With France surrounding the city of Geneva and signposts highlighting the close proximity of the country dotted throughout Geneva and the virtually ghost like border patrol between both countries, it is easy to dart between the two countries. I stayed in a small town in France but explored Geneva. It is common to meet French people in Geneva too, choosing a higher standard of living and wage in Switzerland than in France, but still just a stone’s throw away from their family and friends. French people in Switzerland or even working in Switzerland form their own sort of community here, which adds to the cosmopolitan feel of Geneva. With around half of the population originally from places outside of Switzerland, it is no surprise that hundreds of international organisations are based here, encouraging workers and visitors to explore and work here.

Lake Geneva at SunsetGeneva is a sleek stylish city, where trams glide through the city with ease and the whole town clusters around one of the largest alpine lakes in Europe, Lake Geneva. It is easy to lose track of which street you are on due to the similarity in design of the roads. Banks, hotels and offices rub shoulders with one another as they jostle for space in the city. Luxurious shops line the streets that surround the lake and the Old Town is hidden amongst the everyday norm of Geneva, as if covering a dark secret that will reveal the past from this glitzy city. The only real sense of authenticity and history is on some of the buildings- the balconies and shutters that have been there for hundreds of years, illustrating a traditional style of architecture. The city lacks the nitty gritty character that I love exploring in cities; it is too sophisticated, too bland for that. The only real beauty is the lake that draws visitors in to its water edge. Bobbing swans float along the surface and flags blow in the wind in the distance, the water is clear and I am repeatedly told by all that it’s wonderful to swim in summer- I can imagine it is, but that is the only good thing I am told about the city.

Traditional Swiss ViewBut, who cares what’s in the city when you have the stunning mountains all around you, Chamonix one of the most superb ski resorts in the world merely just a drive away from you, and the unlimited options to explore nature and fuel your adrenaline with extreme sports?  Being an extreme sports lover myself, I could see the attraction. Almost every local owns a boat which allows them to explore the shores of the lake with ease and paddle boats are for hire too. As well as this, wind surfing and paddle boarding are both popular activities at the lake as well.

GenevaMount Saleve is the nearest mountain to the city of Geneva and boy, it’s a beauty. The dramatic cliff face casts a shadow over the houses below whilst trees dangerously sprout in between its rocky cracks. We headed up to the top via cable car, however many choose to hike up it as well. Although a seemingly easy tourist activity, it should not be taken for granted (as ever with Mother Nature) as it can be quite a treacherous journey, many in fact losing their lives to the mountain, so tread with caution. There are plenty of hikes on top of Saleve too, which allow all to trek through dense woodland with moss covered granite out crops, rolling hills and stunning clearings which offer panoramic views of the icy Mount Blanc. A trip up here also allows you to see the city in its full glory, as well as fully take in the vast size of the lake that centres Geneva. An alternative way to see this stunning view is by paragliding, a popular activity off Mount Saleve- although an expensive one might I add!

WoodlandAlthough Geneva might not have a diverse night life and urban edge which I am accustom to, it does have a number of wonderfully relaxing Spas that do the city justice. Spending a Friday evening energising in a hot pool, steam room or water massage chairs on a city rooftop whilst watching the sun set over the city is incredibly relaxing and rejuvenating. It does wonders for your stress levels and is no doubt healthier than the English way of letting loose after a stressful week at work- spending a fortune in the pub! Other places to see in Geneva are of course the Palace of Nations, Reformation Wall and an array of Museums that host a number of interesting artefacts.

UNAs my time drew to a close in neighbouring France/Geneva and after I stocked up on cheap French cheeses, I began to reflect on my short but sweet time in Geneva. Would I visit again on a holiday? Probably not. But could I see the attraction of expats moving here? Yes. I could definitely see why people would live in Geneva, work there and receive a high wage, spend lazy summer evenings by the lake swimming and watching the sunset colourfully explode, or crisp early mornings hiking up the steep mountain and then paraglide down with ease, or spend chilly winters snowboarding on perfectly smooth slopes every weekend. The nature that surrounds the city is beautiful, but the city itself, not my cup of tea.

Museum