Posts Tagged ‘travel’

San Diego Central Library

December 28th, 2018

San Diego city skyline
 

From certain angles the San Diego downtown skyline has a strange feature; an egg-shaped dome. Even from a distance the dome doesn’t appear solid but more like the skeleton of a dome. Perhaps someone’s building a government capitol or a large church?

Wrong on all counts — not only is the dome complete, it’s part of San Diego’s Central Library. The dome sits over the top couple of floors of the building’s “front” side, letting natural light in for reading.

The building is open to the public with the exception of a school that takes up a couple floors.

 
San Diego Central Library San Diego Central Library
 

Walking in from the street there’s a three-story tall atrium in the checkout area, along with a giant chess set. This made me laugh not because giant chess sets are particularly funny, but at the thought of the library instead having a giant Jenga set in the lobby with librarians rushing over to shush the loser each time a giant Jenga tower came crashing down on the tile floor.

Now, why would a tourist like me visit a library? It’s a nine story tall building and I wanted to see the view from the balcony at the top.

 
San Diego Central Library
 

Unfortunately it’s… well… not a very interesting view up there. In the background you can see the insanely tall San Diego–Coronado Bridge. On the left there’s a huge parking lot, in the middle there’s trolley tracks leading to the 12th & Imperial Transit Center, and on the right you can see the dome from the inside and some buildings down below. That’s about it.

There are tables on the balcony for outdoor reading, or if you prefer quiet and less wind you can walk through a set of doors and down a flight of stairs to the reading room. The view’s just as good from in there with floor to ceiling windows.

Spruce Street Suspension Bridge at night

December 27th, 2018

Spruce Street Suspension Bridge after dark
Spruce Street Suspension Bridge after dark Spruce Street Suspension Bridge after dark

 

Every old city has its unique elements, but San Diego’s Spruce Street Suspension Bridge is a particularly peculiar element of its early 20th century heritage. This pedestrian-only bridge crosses a ravine between two residential areas with a shaky, unstable footpath.

Before modern times most city bridges were built with rigidity in mind. The first suspension bridges however were constructed more like early rope bridges, where a little swaying was tolerated.

Here in modern day San Diego the Spruce Street Suspension pedestrian bridge is still there, it’s weird by modern standards, and it’s even more unsettling after sunset. So that’s when I went.

In the dark of night I could feel the bridge sway under my feet yet I couldn’t tell how high up I was due to the darkness beneath the bridge. With the uneven planks there was no telling if the bridge was structurally sound at all.

As I timidly crossed back and forth to snap photos, a local resident walked his dog across the bridge while chatting on the phone. To him this seemed perfectly mundane. The two of us walking without coordination caused the bridge to rock gently back and forth.

On one side the outline of downtown San Diego was visible in the distance. Due to the darkness and the motion of the bridge, I couldn’t get a photo that was in focus.

While walking back to the bus stop, I couldn’t help but to think of San Diego’s reputation for ghost stories. I’d pegged it as the superstitions of a military town, but after crossing this gently moving bridge in the dark I could see why this otherwise picturesque city could have a creepy vibe.

San Diego’s waterfront sculptures

December 27th, 2018

Joy
 

San Diego’s waterfront has a lot of touristy crap — pedicabs, people hawking “homemade” wares, living statues, dubious ferry rides, etc.

Taking a walk down the waterfront the first thing that caught my eye was the above “Joy” pier with the flags at half mast. Why were they at half mast? Not really sure.

There’s a lot at the touristy waterfront in San Diego, from the Maritime Museum (an old sailing ship) to the USS Midway Museum (a retired aircraft carrier.)

If you’re interested in naval history there’s a lot to see here. The USS Midway Museum particularly dominates the waterfront as it’s the size of a skyscraper tilted on its side, with a bunch of airplanes on top.

Personally I wasn’t interested in any of this, and just wanted a nice place to take a stroll while I waited for the check in time at my Airbnb.

 
Unconditional Surrender statue
 

There’s a bunch of sculptures to see near the Midway Museum on the waterfront. Right around the corner is the “Unconditional Surrender statue” of a Navy man holding and kissing his wife or girlfriend (I hope) in his arms. It’s based on a well known photo.

Every visiting couple seems to feel the need to recreate the sculpture/photo beneath it while asking someone else to take a photo of the two of them.

Alternately people with selfie-sticks were taking photos in front of the sculpture. Not sure what the idea was behind the sculpture, but it found a use a photo hot spot.

 
Bob Hope salute
 

Nearby is a multimedia installation described as a salute to Bob Hope, just across from The Fish Market restaurant. A statue of comedian Bob Hope stands in front of a crowd of a statue of veterans.

An old soundtrack plays of Bob Hope entertaining his audience of soldiers during World War II. Unfortunately the audio is not well preserved and is difficult to understand. During my visit nobody was laughing. Even if we could hear the jokes clearly, would we understand them? Was Bob Hope’s material even funny to begin with? Unfortunately what might have been an interesting installation left me with more questions than answers.

San Diego first impressions… again

December 27th, 2018

It’s been over a decade since my last visit to San Diego — and that was for a conference so it doesn’t count. (Especially if I leave out the part where I spent time at the beach and visited the zoo.)

 
First impressions of San Diego
 

Today I arrived in San Diego for a little post-Christmas vacation. Stepping off the bus from the airport, the very first thing I saw: someone had flipped a Bird (of the scooter variety) next to a fire hydrant. Does that count as two parking violations in one?

Turns out electric kick scooters now dominate the sidewalks of San Diego. It’s a little hard to blame the scooter riders for hogging sidewalks as bike lanes still aren’t a thing in Southern California, despite the bike-friendly weather year round.

 
One aspect that feels all too familiar from back home in San Francisco is the obvious inequality spilling out onto into the physical landscape. On the one hand you have new buildings springing up everywhere, an indicator of a healthy economy; but on the other there’s a noticeable homeless population, many of which clearly aren’t getting the help they need.

It’s strange to me as a lifetime Californian that we keep ignoring homelessness. I can’t think of a major city in the state where it’s not a serious issue. I know it’s complicated, but statewide problems need statewide responses.

 
There is an aspect of visiting San Diego I found pleasantly surprising. Just like in Los Angeles, the public transit exceeded my (admittedly low) expectations. I’d intentionally booked myself an Airbnb near a light rail station.

Yet at the airport when I went to buy a light rail pass I was immediately confused by the ticket machine. So I turned around and asked a woman at the information booth about the machine, and she was just as confused as I was! Not a good first impression to say the least.

After figuring out together how to buy a Compass Card and load a multi-day pass on to it, I noticed the machine is identical to the ones we have at San Francisco Muni stations. Sure enough it’s also from Cubic Transportation Systems. Ugh.

Once I’d purchased a multi-day pass I found San Diego’s transit network shockingly nice. Adult day passes are only $5 currently, and multi-day prices are available for much less. The transit times predicted by Google Maps are often much more pessimistic than warranted. Wait times aren’t bad and there’s usually more than enough empty seats on the buses and trains.

I’ll have to see if this trend continues, but so far I’m impressed with San Diego’s pubic transit network. It’s worth noting they have a light rail station right at the border of Mexico for tourists planning on heading south of the border — or the opposite. Most of the on board announcements are in both English and Spanish.

Strangest aspects of Europe’s bathrooms

August 11th, 2018

Stockholm
My Airbnb’s bathroom in Stockholm
 

For those of us used to North American bathrooms there are many oddities about European bathrooms that tend to stick out. I don’t mean to scare anyone away from making a trip to Europe but there are some aspects to be aware of in advance. These are mere observations from my own travels, the list is by no means exhaustive.
 

Shower wands

Most showers in Europe have a “wand,” or a shower head attached to a hose. There’s often a place to clamp this to take a hands-free shower, though the freedom of the wand can be useful to clean hard to reach areas.

It can also make a giant mess if you’re not used to showering with these things. Try not to spray the entire bathroom with water.
 

Really small showers

Shower stalls in Europe seem to vary between the size of a phone booth (if you remember those) to the size of a bathtub. For the most part you’ll be dealing with the phone booth showers. If you’re lucky there will be shower walls, if you’re not so lucky you’ll have a tiny curtain wrapped around you.

Some older bathrooms don’t have a shower enclosure at all. It’s just you naked in the corner of a bathroom spraying yourself with water.
 

Shower rope/chain

Some hotels have a rope or chain in the shower that you should pull in the event of an emergency, such as if you slipped and hit your head. If it’s not an emergency though, don’t touch it.

Newer hotel bathrooms usually don’t have these, and in older hotels… who knows if the thing still works?
 

Central drain

Most European bathrooms have a drain in the bathroom floor. This can be an advantage if you spill something, the sink or toilet overflows, etc. In some cases the shower drains into here as well — or even the sink. Look closely at the photo above for an example of a drain that does all three.

If you get the floor all wet showering it may take a while for the water to reach the central drain, so be careful not to slip in the meantime.
 

Hot water switch

In private home bathrooms (friend’s places, Airbnb apartments, etc.) the hot water heater isn’t intended to be run all day. Instead there will be a switch — usually a circuit breaker — that activates the hot water heater. If you can’t get hot water you probably need to ask where to find this switch.

Remember to flip the switch off when you’re done as energy is expensive in Europe.
 

Mysterious knobs on the wall

Hotel bathrooms in particular often have a pair of hot and cold knobs on the wall that don’t appear connected to anything. I think these are shut off valves? Whatever they do, leave them alone.
 

Toilet flushing mechanisms

There are so many different types of European toilets I could probably make a long blog post just about how to flush them, but I’ll break it down quickly here:

  • Toilets with a tank above your head. You’ll either have to push a button on the tank or pull a chain to flush these. Shorter people and children may have trouble with these.
  • Tanks on the toilet with a metal circle featuring a larger button and a crescent button. These are two options, you push the crescent shape for a small flush and the larger button for a bigger flush. Save water and only use what you need.
  • A rectangle on the wall. This is common in newer bathrooms where the tank is hidden in the wall (Europeans love hiding stuff in walls.) Just like above there are two buttons; one for a big flush and one for a small one. In public bathrooms the big plastic buttons are occasionally broken off by vandals, but you can still flush them by tapping the exposed levers.

 

Ancient toilets

If you’re in a very old European building the toilet may just be a hole in the floor. It’s easy for men to pee in, but for all other purposes you’ll need to assume a squatting position as there is no seat. These aren’t commonplace though on rare occasions you might still find one in a restaurant or bar. Typically these are flushed by pulling a chain.
 

Standalone bidets

Those used to traveling in modern Asian cities (or working at Google) will be familiar with bidet toilet seats, but some European bathrooms have standalone bidets. These look like a cross between a sink and a toilet.

Part of the reason these are common in some parts of Europe is because…
 

Small garbage cans for toilet paper

Old sewer systems can’t necessarily handle toilet paper. This is true worldwide though in Europe the state of the sewers varies wildly from one place to the next.

If you occasionally forget and flush a few pieces of toilet paper it’s no big deal, but if you don’t know about this and try to flush a lot you’re in for a world of trouble. Those garbage cans are there for a reason — and they need to be taken out regularly.

Always ask if you can flush toilet paper before using the bathroom.
 

Horrible smells

Dirty toilet paper aside if you look under the sink in any American bathroom, you’ll see a U-shaped pipe connected to the drain. This is called a “trap” because it traps a small amount of water, which prevents bad smelling sewer air from wafting into the bathroom.

In Europe these are often not present which leads to bathrooms that smell not just like a sewer, but like an old sewer. You’ll want to keep the bathroom door closed at all times if this is the case.
 

Washing machine in the bathroom

Again on the theme of private home bathrooms if there’s a washing machine in the home it’s most likely located in the bathroom. Washing your clothes in the bathroom makes some sense, but if it’s a foul smelling bathroom you may want to consider alternatives.

Don’t expect to find a dryer at all — Europeans tend to hang dry their clothes. Look for a rack in the home to hang your damp clothes on. Running an extra spin cycle in the washer can help dry out your clothes too.
 

Public pay toilets

Public bathrooms in Europe often charge money. Some take coins, others take credit cards. You’ll find these everywhere from standalone restrooms in public plazas to train stations.

Bathrooms in cafes and restaurants are usually free if you make a purchase so try to strategize bathroom breaks while you’re out.

Oh and PLEASE don’t just pee on the sidewalk to avoid pay toilets. The locals will hate you, and if enough people do this they’ll develop a (legitimate) grudge against tourists.
 

Pissoirs

It’s sexist in a way, but if you’re a guy and not concerned about washing your hands you can often find a free urinal-like toilet. Sometimes these are drains in the ground, they may be temporary structures, other times they look like a sink without a faucet. The name says it all — it’s a place to piss.
 

Unclean tap water

Most of Europe has excellent tap water but that’s not true everywhere. On Greek islands for example you shouldn’t even use the tap water to brush your teeth. Always ask if you’re unsure. One sign that the water may not be clean is when the hotel includes free bottled water.

How I was financially compensated for a delayed flight from Europe

August 2nd, 2018

My flight home from Oslo had a prolonged delay. The kind of delay where it slips so many times you start to lose track of which gift shops you’ve already browsed, and you have more than enough time to think about which restaurant you want to use your meal voucher at.

It turns out that delay earned me a pretty significant discount — more than 50% off in my case.

How? A couple days after the flight I got an email from TripIt, a free website I use for scheduling trip activities (hotels, flights, tours, etc.) The email said I might be eligible for compensation due to the flight delay. They included an estimate of the compensation and offered to direct me to a third party that would help me collect.

Immediately this sent off some alarm bells; it sounded too good to be true. The flight cost just under $800, and the compensation amount was about $450.

I did some sleuthing online and it turns out there’s a law in the EU called EC 261/2004, also known as “Flight Compensation Regulation.” The goal of the law is to squeeze airlines for poor performance, sending the penalties straight to the consumer. As a skeptical person I’m always happy to be proven wrong though there was a catch — according to the Wikipedia page I was owed 600 euros, or around $700 USD at current exchange rates.

Obviously these third parties that collect compensation on your behalf will take a cut, but $450 on a $700 windfall seemed like a bad deal. I spent the next couple hours digging around trying to figure out how to submit my claim directly to the airline. While their claim submission form was easy enough to find their website didn’t really explain how to use it or what information they wanted. I thought about giving them a call, but at this point the phrase “sunk cost fallacy” was already swimming around in my head. I gave in and let the third party collect and take their cut.

As you might imagine these services make it a snap to enter the information they need, upload the required documents, and presto — a couple days later they’d organized my documents, filed the claim, and soon they’d transferred the money into my checking account as promised.

I still would have preferred getting home on time to getting money back, though there’s something to be said for getting a discount on a sub-par experience. More countries should consider implementing penalties like this, and they should make it easier for consumers to collect in the event of a delay.

Outdoor art in Oslo

July 25th, 2018

Oslo
Oslo Oslo
 

On my first night in Oslo I wandered the streets of Grünerløkka looking for a relaxing place to eat, then to find some groceries. Along the way I kept stopping to snap photos of the street art painted on the sides of buildings. These weren’t always off in the alleys but often on streets with pedestrians and streetcars passing by.

Thinking about it in retrospect I didn’t see much street art while visiting Hydra and Stockholm. Street art doesn’t go with the crumbling brick and stucco wall aesthetic of Greek islands, but what’s going on with Stockholm? I know there are places where to find street art but you have to head pretty far outside the main city to find it. Unfortunately I didn’t have enough time for such excursions.

Athens street art is its own story, which I wrote about during my visit last year. Go read that if you’re interested.

 
Oslo
 

While heading back to the apartment with a bag of groceries I happened to walk through a small park. In that park I spotted a sculpture of a young woman clutching her belly. This got me thinking — why do we tend to think of outdoor murals as “street art,” but not outdoor sculptures? Art museums often feature both paintings and sculptures, so if street art is simply outdoor art without an admission fee, shouldn’t this description include sculptures as well as paintings?

I don’t mean to make this out to be a profound idea, but I kept coming back to it as I visited (or stumbled upon) Oslo’s outdoor art.
 

World War II memorials

 
Oslo
 

On a hill overlooking Oslo’s waterfront and a stone’s throw from city hall is a statue of American president FDR. Why? According to a tour guide Norway was criticized during World War II for falling to Nazi occupation despite initial Allied military support. This criticism felt unwarranted by Norwegians who fought the occupation, so when FDR took to the airwaves to commend the Norwegian resistance movement he earned the respect of Norway.

It’s worth noting the statue depicts FDR as the disabled man he was, sitting in a chair rather than standing, but doesn’t directly comment on this particular pose.

 
Oslo
 

On the topic of WWII there’s a sculpture near Oslo S featuring a hammer smashing something on a stone slab. What’s the hammer smashing? It seems the artist made it intentionally difficult to view, let alone photograph.

The simple answer is the hammer is destroying a swastika. The more complicated answer; as you approach the shiny metal swastika, you’ll see your own face reflected in the mirror-like surface. What is this piece saying? Hopefully it’s quite obvious.
 

Sorry if that got depressing; let’s move on to some lighter works.
 

Ekeberg Park

 
Oslo
Oslo Oslo Oslo Oslo
 

I took a streetcar to Ekeberg Park, a wooded hillside park that doesn’t seem to have caught on (yet?) with the tourist crowd much. Most of the people I saw in the park were clearly locals jogging or walking their dogs. There’s also a restaurant near the entrance which seemed pretty busy, and a lookout with a nice view of the city.

The park is best known as the place that inspired The Scream. One evening in the late nineteenth century Edvard Munch was taking a stroll through the park with some friends, and the sunset turned the sky a particularly vivid red hue. Munch interpreted what he felt was a scream from nature through the paintings (there are more than one.)

Over the past few years the park added various sculptures from different artists, ranging from more conceptual pieces to classic figures of humans. Some sculptures didn’t look like much during my visit, but outdoor sculptures can take on a very different context depending on the lighting or weather.
 

Blå

 
Oslo
Oslo Oslo Oslo Oslo
 

If you follow the river south from the Mathallen food hall there’s a bar and nightclub called Blå. You know you’re in the right place when you see walls covered in murals and various outdoor sculptures, including a giant chandelier dangling over an alley. During the day it’s a relatively quiet bar with a patio under the trees, at night it transitions into a music venue with everything from DJs to live music including jazz and hip hop.

The murals vary a lot in both style and quality, which makes sense when you consider there’s an art school campus a couple blocks away.
 

The Waterfront

 
Oslo Oslo Oslo
 

Back in the day Oslo’s waterfront was an industrial neighborhood. But as in so many other blue collar parts of town around the world, the waterfront became luxury housing, upscale restaurants, tourist friendly museums, and picnic areas. The area around the Astrup Fearnley Museum is littered with sculptures to check out while enjoying coffee and ice cream from nearby vendors.
 

Royal Palace

 
Oslo
Oslo Oslo
 

I don’t know if this is a regular thing, but the Royal Palace gardens had a small temporary outdoor exhibition of sculptures. These were more pop-art crowd pleasers than typical outdoor art in Oslo — not that there’s anything wrong with that. Still, it took some waiting to get clear shots of these as people waited around for their turn to snap photos.

Individuals and groups of all ages wanted photos of themselves under the rainbow, or selfies with the faceless puppeteer. Much like the Color Factory or Museum of Ice Cream, perhaps this type of photo-friendly sculpture represents some hitherto unnamed future of participatory art. Who’s to say?
 

Frogner Park

 
Oslo Oslo Oslo Oslo Oslo
 

Though the name is a little confusing, the infamous Frogner Park is the same thing as Vigeland Sculpture Park. The park is covered in sculptures by artist Gustav Vigeland as well as grass, gardens, and water features.

The sculptures are largely nude human forms in both metal and concrete. Some of them seem more serious than others, with the guy fighting off babies as the best known statue of the park’s more comical artistic stance.

During my visit I saw groups of tourists eagerly take their shoes and socks off to wade around in the water and take photos of one another. Scandinavians typically take their shoes off when entering a home, so I’d imagine this is pretty disgusting to the locals.

The park is a promenade extending from the entrance over to the phallic sculpture of human bodies tangled together at the other end. Several sculptures are hidden down non-obvious passages, such as the baby balanced on its head which is located in a dead-end under a bridge.

 
Oslo Oslo
 

And then there was this mysterious sculpture. While it wasn’t originally intended to be a sculpture the phone company added a plaque to commemorate it as though it were one. After taking photos of the old phone booth a group of teen girls appeared behind me, waiting for their turn.

As I walked away I noticed one of them picked up the receiver and tried to make a call while the others used their smartphones to take pictures.
 

Everything else

 
Oslo
Oslo Oslo Oslo Oslo
 

What amazed me about Oslo’s outdoor art was how it’s everywhere — from big sculpture parks to small alleys, there’s something for everyone to find whether you set out to do so or are simply wandering from point A to point B. From the big colorful murals to the surprisingly clean statues (where’s all the bird poop?!) the outdoor urban landscape of Oslo is almost like an open air museum.

Aside from Frogner Park or what you may see on a guided tour, the majority of the outdoor art isn’t mentioned anywhere on the internet. I’m not sure it needs to be; part of the fun is spotting it on your own while spending time in Oslo.

Oslo expeditions

July 22nd, 2018

My five days in Oslo were packed and I still left with the impression there was much more to see. When my flight home got delayed I was annoyed because there were still a few hours to go out and see the museums I’d missed — let alone a ferry trip I’d meant to take to the islands — but not quite enough time to do any of those. In a way it was Stockholm all over again: I should have booked a couple more days. Ah well, better to err on the side of taking off before you’ve seen it all and get bored I suppose.

Since I went on fewer tours than I did in Stockholm I’ll go into each tour individually, though I’m saving all the outdoor art segments for the next post.

 
Oslo
Oslo Oslo
 

Free Tour Oslo City

This free (donation requested) tour hits many tourist friendly destinations. Starting at the tiger statue outside Oslo S, it heads to a view of the Opera House, up to the main square of Christiania/New Oslo, over to the fortress, to the waterfront, City Hall, and finally to parliament. That list isn’t comprehensive but covers the gist of it.

Opening hours permitting the tour goes inside Oslo’s City Hall. While the building doesn’t look like much from the outside the interior has wall to wall murals covering various art deco styles. Sculptures in the courtyard outside built into the walls have typical arts and crafts designs.

The tour doesn’t sugarcoat the dark side of Oslo’s history during its occupation by Nazi Germany. A number of plaques on the ground written in Norwegian have a person’s name and the word “Auschwitz” — you can easily guess what that means. After the tour guide pointed these out I began spotting them all over Oslo.

 
Oslo
Oslo Oslo
 

After the tour ended I wandered back to check out the Opera House firsthand. Or maybe “firstfoot” would be a more appropriate term as the exterior of the building is an enormous sloping plaza. It’s currently surrounded by neighborhood construction on two sides — and water on two others — but you can still visit via a small bridge. While the outdoor space is always open, the indoor lobby and restaurant have posted hours.

I’m told the Opera House plaza can get very slippery during the winter. During the summer the white exterior is almost blinding to look at. Either way you need to watch your step due to the uneven surface. Seems like a lawsuit waiting to happen, or at least that’s how it would end up in the US.

 
Oslo
 

At my host’s suggestion I visited the botanical garden. No tour here, just a serene and impeccably maintained garden filled with exotic plants. It’s a perfect spot away from the crowds to sit around and sip a cold coffee on a hot summer day — you can bring your own or visit the cafe in the middle of the garden.

It’s free to visit but they have a donation box for those inclined to contribute.

 
Oslo Oslo
 

The Culinary City Walk

This food tour is from the same company that runs the food tour I went on in Stockholm. Oddly, while waiting at the meeting point for the tour guide to show up I was mistaken both for the tour guide and for a participant in a nearby Pokemon Go event.

The first proper stop on the tour was Mathallen, a hip modern food hall built into an old industrial brick building. This stop introduced me to Norwegian brown cheese, a caramelized dairy product (not technically cheese) often eaten at breakfast with waffles or crepes. Personally I though it was fine, though some find it quite divisive.

We took a long winding stroll to reach our next destination on the waterfront. As an aside I spotted a taco truck parked by the streetcar stop on the waterfront, which I went back to later on my own. The tacos were surprisingly good, and I had a lime Jarritos to go with it. Little taste of “home” as it were.

Anyway, back to the tour. We went to a seafood-focused restaurant on the waterfront called Rorbua where we were served a large sampler platter. Mine was all seafood, but the meat eaters in the group were served some rather exotic meats including whale and reindeer (sorry, Rudolph.) Not everyone seemed to have the stomach for eating whale. As far as seafood the trout and shrimp were particularly tasty.

Unlike the Stockholm tour where we ended on coffee, the food tour in Oslo ended at a bar with a beer tasting. Seemed a little early for beer, but most of us went along with it. All of it was brewed in Norway yet in traditional British styles. The only one that stood out to me was an IPA that had a more subtle hoppiness than the in-your-face styles we tend to have at home in California.

As we departed the tour feeling a little tired from all the food and beer, a bunch of protestors marched outside the bar towards city hall as if it jolt us awake on cue. I think they were protesting against the imprisonment of an East Turkestan independence advocate, though the connection to Oslo’s city politics (if any) was entirely lost on me.

 
Oslo
 

Discover the Charming Westside of Oslo

Here we have it: the first tour on this trip that was a total bust. Maybe the online info is just outdated, but the guide never showed up.

Since I hadn’t paid in advance there wasn’t much to be mad about, just a little annoyed that I’d brought 200 NOK in payment. The tour was supposed to start near the royal palace (see above photo) so I just wandered around the gardens for a little while. The gardens are open to the public and pretty popular with tourists; palace grounds include a small park, a duck pond, and oddly enough a beehive. There’s probably a joke about a queen bee in there somewhere.

The palace gardens were hosting a small temporary sculpture exhibit I found amusing, which got me thinking — the tour was supposed to end at the Frogner Park sculpture garden, so why not just head over there? After all it’s not like the sun was going to set.

So I hoped on a streetcar and visited Frogner Park. Would have been nice to have a tour guide, but the evening itself wasn’t a total failure. I’ll go into all the sculptures in the next post.

 
Oslo Oslo Oslo
 

Hipster Oslo (Grünerløkka)

I wanted someone to take me around the neighborhood where I was staying and discovered this tour almost at the last minute. A young family had signed up for the tour even more at the last minute than I did, moments after the guide showed up.

I highly recommend this one — it’s inexpensive, goes into great detail, takes you to many historical spots in the area, and the guide was practically a walking encyclopedia of knowledge. If you want an off the beaten path tour of Oslo, this is it.

The tour was so long I’ll just stick to the highlights. It starts off in the labor union square on the edge of the neighborhood, passes by a former bathhouse, then snakes through a few streets lined with boutiques and restaurants, before hitting the campus of a world renowned art university and along the river, highlighting a couple of waterfalls.

Continuing up a hill we passed a hip outdoor area lined with street art (also in the next post, I promise) followed by a steep street lined with some of the oldest surviving wood buildings in Oslo. Going around a corner or two we went through a cemetery where many famous locals were buried, including Edvard Munch.

All the famous individuals buried there had QR codes next to their graves in case you wanted to look up their obituaries. Someone had left a handmade book at Munch’s grave of their own sketches of Munch’s famous paintings, including The Scream. It reminded me of a quote from the show Westworld — “Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin never died; they simply became music.” There’s a certain truth in this idea.

Passing through the cemetery we were supposed to go through a church but it was closed due to construction. Instead we detoured around a communal garden and ended the tour at the Mathallen food hall.

As we parted ways I pulled the 200 NOK note out of my pocket I had leftover from the no-show tour and handed it to the guide as a tip — a 100% tip. She was clearly surprised, but it was my last full day in Norway. I enjoyed the tour and had no interest in bringing Norwegian currency back with me. Hopefully big tips aren’t considered insulting or anything.

 
Oslo
 

Once again back at Mathallen I was hungry and ready to try something new. After washing up at the bathrooms in the basement I sat down at a Spanish food stall serving pintxos. Much like traditional Scandinavian cuisine, pintxos are open face sandwiches with various toppings. Or kind of like avocado toast back home… hmmm, who else would grab lunch at a place like this in Oslo?

The guy next to me kept trying to order in barely passable Spanish. I couldn’t help snickering when the employees replied in English. At some point he turned to me and said “Hey, where you from?”
“San Francisco.”
“Oh? Me too! What neighborhood?”
“The Mission. You?”
“Twin Peaks,” he replied.

We got to chatting a little before we both left separately… and then we both wound up in line at Tim Wendelboe, an espresso shop that seemed remarkably familiar. I ordered an espresso and after a long wait it arrived with a shot glass of sparkling mineral water. I kept looking around for the Blue Bottle logo, yet it was nowhere to be found.

 
Oslo Oslo Oslo
 

Later on my last night I went to explore the Akershus Fortress, which sits on a hill above the waterfront. Even though its military presence is long gone the area is still patrolled by royal guards with bayonets. Its clearly all for show as the guards seemed happy to take photos with tourists.

From the fortress there’s a good view of the waterfront — a sensible place for a fortress. Cruise ships dock just outside the fortress though, so if there’s one in the way the views may not be so hot.

Oslo

July 17th, 2018

Oslo
 

Following the wedding in Greece I flew to visit another city I’d never been to: Oslo, Norway. Yup, I took a V-shaped trip through Europe — not the most efficient plan, but this is what happens when you base your vacations around cheap airfare.

At first I worried Oslo would be a smaller version of Stockholm. After all it’s another old Scandinavian waterfront city, and to make matters potentially worse somehow I’d inadvertently booked an Airbnb in the hip part of Oslo just as I’d done in Stockholm.

Fortunately this worry was unfounded; both cities have their own character. Compared to Stockholm, Oslo has significantly more public spaces, outdoor artwork (I’ll get to that in another post), and an embrace of modern architecture.

 
Oslo Oslo Oslo
 

Getting from the airport to central Oslo is simple enough. There’s an express train but it’s kind of pricey and not much faster than the NSB commuter train. To take NSB from the airport I purchased a Ruter transit card and loaded a multi-day pass on the card, plus an NSB ticket. The NSB ticket machines ask you where you’re going, load the ticket onto the Ruter card, and tell you which platform to wait on.

A quick train ride later and I was at Oslo S. My host had suggested taking a Ruter bus to the Airbnb, but after sitting on an airplane for several hours I decided to walk — it was only a 12 minute walk anyway, and Oslo is a fairly flat, walkable city for the most part.

What I didn’t anticipate is the apartment I’d be staying at was at the top of a four story building. After climbing all those stairs I needed to sit down for a while and cool off. Due to the heat wave at the time, and the fact that it was an attic apartment with windows on the ceiling, the “cooling off” part of the equation was not meant to be. Who knew Oslo could get so warm in the summer?

 
Oslo Oslo Oslo

I stayed in the Grünerløkka neighborhood, and no I’m still not sure how that’s pronounced. It’s home to many cafes, boutiques, bars, and restaurants serving everything from Neapolitan pizza to falafel to veggie burgers. There’s a small river running through the neighborhood and a lot of outdoor spaces including a large (and free!) botanical garden. Many of the buildings have backyards, often used as outdoor seating for restaurants.

Since Norway is notoriously expensive and I was staying in an apartment with a full kitchen, I opted to buy groceries and eat in about half the time. Just on the block I stayed on were a couple of chain grocery stores, a butcher shop, and two produce markets. As I later found on a walking tour the area also has an upscale food hall — point is, the neighborhood’s a foodie heaven. My preconceptions about Norwegian cuisine being bland and boring were wildly wrong.

 
Oslo
 

This is a side tangent but that botanical garden has something I’d never seen before: a robot lawn mower. It wandered around sort of like a Roomba, cutting the grass before returning to its docking station. Sounds like a way to accidentally lose a toe, but their website claims it’s perfectly safe.

 
Oslo
 

As for getting around I took the Ruter streetcars on a daily basis. They’ll take you pretty much anywhere, assuming you’re able to climb a few stairs to board them. The stops all feature maps with real time arrival information. They’re also well integrated with Google Maps directions. Sometimes Google Maps suggested I take a bus instead but I always opted for the streetcars as I found them more charming, if a little cramped at times.

In Oslo the streetcars always have right of way so you have to be careful when you’re walking — they will not stop for you!

 
Oslo
 

Just as in Sweden the government of Norway controls all alcohol sales. To purchase anything harder than light beer you have to visit a chain store called “Vinmonopolet,” which translates to the amusingly honest phrase “Wine Monopoly.”

I noticed a few parks had small congregations of what I assumed were homeless people living there. However a tour guide later corrected this assumption — Norway has a problem with heroin, and the folks squatting in the parks were most likely addicts. So maybe their government is solving the wrong problem with their semi-prohibition on liquor. That said I never saw a single needle on the streets.

In the following posts I’ll go into tours I went on Oslo and the outdoor sculptures and art. During my brief visit to Oslo the weather didn’t lend itself to spending time indoors, so no — I didn’t visit the most famous painting there. Nevertheless, the legacy of Edvard Munch is all over Oslo.

Two weddings on Hydra

July 14th, 2018

Hydra, Greece
 

As I stepped off the ferry on Hydra I met up with a friend. We’d already arranged to split an Airbnb together on the island while attending our mutual friend’s wedding. Our apartment promised spectacular views, but as our host led us to the place from the port what proved far more spectacular was how quickly we became exhausted. We walked up one cobblestone street lined with stairs after another — my friend later said she counted 387 steps — all in the unrelenting Mediterranean summer heat.

I’d briefly visited Hydra during my trip to Greece last year as part of a one day cruise. I had a feel for the main port area of the island; you can easily walk from one end to the other in ten minutes. But on that brief visit I didn’t have time to explore the hillside so I had no idea how steep the streets could get.

The view from the roof of the apartment really did look amazing as you can see in the panorama photo above. Still, the thought of admiring the view in direct sunlight after walking up that hill had as much appeal as entering a sauna after running a marathon.

Another twist to all of this was Google Maps doesn’t have great directions on Hydra. Some pathways are on the map, some are not. While trying to find the place again and getting lost, I went back and labeled a bunch of pins on the map so we’d know how to get from the port to the Airbnb and back. This worked well and I’m glad Google Maps lets you do this… otherwise I might still be lost on that little island.

 
Hydra, Greece Hydra, Greece Hydra, Greece Hydra, Greece
 

Housing issues aside I’m still enamored with the island itself. The port town is a charming old place seemingly frozen in time with dusty old stone buildings, restaurants with fresh seafood, beautiful beaches, and a night sky glowing with lights.

The only modes of transportation on Hydra aside from walking are boats and donkeys. It’s nothing like the more touristy Greek islands; nobody’s going to try to sell you pirates movies at the beach, and none of the restaurants have barkers trying to drive you in. It’s easily the most laid back place I’ve traveled to. Just don’t step in the donkey droppings.

 
Hydra, Greece
 

In Greece you’re always going to have some cats. This scrawny little one kept appearing on our patio. I felt guilty because I kept forgetting to bring back some fish for her (at least I think it was a her.)

Those allergic to cats should remember to pack allergy medications when visiting the smaller islands of Greece as there may not be any pharmacies, and the cats tend to be very friendly.

 
Hydra, Greece Hydra, Greece Hydra, Greece
 

On to the double wedding. Both grooms were brothers marrying their long time girlfriends among a large audience of friends and family from around the world. Just to get this out of the way, no, there was no plate smashing, and I don’t think anyone drank any ouzo.

The first ceremony was very traditional in a Greek Orthodox church. Here my Greek friend and his girlfriend (the same couple mentioned in my post on Rome last year) were married in a ceremony I didn’t fully understand — because it was all in Greek. It began with a dramatic, almost operatic mass, proceeded by a number of marriage rituals. Seeing which guests knew when to stand, sit, etc. made it clear who was from Greece and who was not. Rice was thrown, hundreds of photos were taken, wedding favors were handed out, and many candied almonds were consumed.

Soon we all made our way to the port to board boats headed to the next wedding.

The second wedding was held at a large outdoor venue on the seaside with the sun setting in the background. This was a more contemporary wedding in English. Both ceremonies featured the traditional stefana crowns, or ring-shaped crowns tied together with a long ribbon. One is placed on the bride’s head and one on the groom’s, and then the best man swaps them back and forth three times to represent the holy trinity.

This was followed by dinner, drinks, and dancing at the same venue well into the night.

 
Hydra, Greece Hydra, Greece Hydra, Greece
 

Many meals were shared on the island, from a very late lunch after I’d arrived to a very late dinner the night following the weddings. Aside from catching up with a few familiar faces, I also met a group of American volleyball players I’d heard about but somehow had never seen face to face.

My final morning on Hydra I had to quickly pack up and make my way down those 387 cobblestone stairs to the port to catch an early ferry. Once I’d taken a taxi back to the airport, I hopped on a plane to my last stop on the trip.