Christmas the European way

Take a Christmas Markets tour to find seasonal spirit

Emily C. Skaftun
The Norwegian American

Christmas lights in Innsbruck's Christmas market, with impressive Alpine peaks in the background
Photo: Freddy Alexander Bugueño / Wikimedia Commons
Innsbruck is a fairy-tale town dominated by the Alps on all sides.

Nobody does Christmas like Europe. I learned that just a couple weeks ago while taking a badly timed—but magical—tour of “Christmas Markets of Europe.” A number of companies offer these kinds of tours, with varying itineraries through northern Europe and even Scandinavia, but the one I took, offered by Trafalgar, started in Vienna, Austria, and finished up in Lucerne, Switzerland, by way of Salzburg, Austria; Munich and Oberammergau, Germany; Innsbruck, Austria; and Lichtenstein. In the end I chose this one because it was a good value, while also seeming the most classically “Christmassy.” I mean, what’s more Christmassy than the Alps?

(Technically, I suppose the Middle East is more Christmassy, but that’s a whole ’nother article.)

Continue reading “Christmas the European way”

A tale of two Vigelands

See both artist brothers’ work in Oslo

Emanuel Vigeland
Photo: Kjartan Hauglid / © BONO / Emanuel Vigeland Museum
Emanuel Vigeland’s vision for his museum, built on the property where he lived with his wife, was as a showcase for his paintings and sculptures.

You’ve heard of Gustav Vigeland. One of Norway’s most famous artists, he’s the one behind the intriguing, bizarre sculptures in Oslo’s Frogner Park. The sculpture park is an absolute must-see on any visit to Norway’s capital, no matter how brief or, in my opinion, how many times you’ve been there before.

But you may not be aware of the other artistic Vigeland: Emanuel, Gustav’s younger brother. His mausoleum, tucked away in a residential neighborhood in Oslo’s northwest suburbs, is one of the city’s best-kept secrets. Continue reading “A tale of two Vigelands”

A Viking tour of Waterford, Ireland

From fancy glass to rugged stone, this Irish city has a long and surprisingly Nordic history

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
Reginald’s Tower with Waterford’s replica longship looming in the foreground.

If the name of Waterford, Ireland, brings anything to mind, it’s most likely to evoke the high-end crystal that bears the name.

But an old Norse history lurks in the name Waterford, or Vadrarfjordr (Veðrafjǫrðr), which probably means “windy fjord,” or, as a plaque in the city proclaims, “haven from the windy sea.” Waterford is the only Irish city to retain its Viking place name. Continue reading “A Viking tour of Waterford, Ireland”

Peer Gynt at Gålå mixes fantasy with reality

High in the Norwegian mountains is a legendary theatrical experience worth the journey

Photo: Bård Gundersen / courtesy of Peer Gynt Festival
The natural setting is as much a part of the play as the actors and musicians. Characters enter and leave on boats and wade into the water, they chop trees apart, and of course they do it all no matter the weather.

The curtain cannot rise because there is no curtain, no proscenium arch, nothing but grass and a beach flanked by two shaggy hillocks between us and Lake Gålåvatnet. We are gathered here in the Norwegian wilds outside Vinstra to go on a journey with a character called Peer Gynt. Continue reading “Peer Gynt at Gålå mixes fantasy with reality”

Two ways to rush through Oslo

You can see more than you think on a short trip to Norway’s capital—even while smelling the roses

Photo: Nancy Bundt / Visitnorway.com / Vigeland-museet / BONO Frogner Park, a must-see in any Oslo trip.
Photo: Nancy Bundt / Visitnorway.com / Vigeland-museet / BONO
Frogner Park, a must-see in any Oslo trip.

With so much to see in a fascinating place like Oslo, you may think it best to budget a week or more in Norway’s capital city. I can’t argue with that thinking, of course, but the reality of traveling is that we can usually not spend as much time anywhere as we’d like (except for airports. We spend far too much time in those).

The first time I visited Oslo it was for one day, an afterthought squeezed in between uncooperative train and flight schedules. The second time I hoped would be more leisurely, but I ended up with just over two days! Still, one can see a lot in a short visit if properly armed and motivated. Continue reading “Two ways to rush through Oslo”

Ikke dårlig vær, bare dårlig klær?

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun As it turns out, I really don’t take a lot of photos when it’s raining. So here’s a shot from the relatively “nice” weather before the rain started at the Peer Gynt performance. I was concerned that that woman on the left was going to die, since she was wearing at least four fewer layers than I had on and was already shivering. Hanne Maren, right, is fully bundled up, and she spent most of the evening inside a tent.
Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
As it turns out, I really don’t take a lot of photos when it’s raining. So here’s a shot from the relatively “nice” weather before the rain started at the Peer Gynt performance. I was concerned that that woman on the left was going to die, since she was wearing at least four fewer layers than I had on and was already shivering. Hanne Maren, right, is fully bundled up, and she spent most of the evening inside a tent.

I knew right away when I stepped off the plane that I’d made a mistake. Skirts and tank tops had no place in my luggage for this trip to Oslo and the Gudbrandsdalen valley in August.

I thought I had planned so carefully. The weather forecast showed some rain for my trip, but temperatures in the 60s—not my preferred beach weather, but not so dissimilar from the old school “summer” Seattle had been experiencing. I packed the sort of clothes I’d been wearing. I very carefully prepared a special clothing plan for an outdoor event in the mountains: long underwear, a wool sweater to be acquired in Norway, and waterproof outer layers. It’s the mountains, yes, but it’s still summer, I thought. How cold could it be? Continue reading “Ikke dårlig vær, bare dårlig klær?”

Peer Gynt

And now here I am, at the main event! Today has been a treat so far, and the show will start in about half an hour. It has been raining off and on, but it’s currently off and I hope it stays that way. The sun even poked its head out for a second or two. I am wearing a redonculous amount of clothing–five layers under a rain shell, and a silly hat on top, and the possibility for even more with two ponchos and a wool blanket on loan. Right now (prior to showtime) I am quite comfortable. Continue reading “Peer Gynt”

Beyond Lillehammer

On our way from Lillehammer to a medieval farm turned boutique hotel, we stopped at the stave church at Ringbu, which is much more impressive than the Maihaugen specimen. It’s real! Perhaps the theme of the day is Real v. Unreal. Because now I am here at Sygard Grytting, which though much smaller than Maihaugen, is the real thing. I will be sleeping in a small dark unheated room under a giant sheepskin cover. For the full medieval pilgrim experience. Continue reading “Beyond Lillehammer”

To Gudbrandsdalen!

Wednesday: another morning, another breakfast, another stab at reading the Norwegian news. Ironically, in the time zone confusion of travel I lost my duolingo streak, which was 70-something days. It’s well and truly lost now, as I feel like my language acquisition brain-power is better spent on human interaction and real-life reading while in Norway. I shudder to think how much work it will be to turn everything gold again when I go back to duolingo. I never did catch up from the last time the app updated and decided that I needed to relearn virtually everything. Continue reading “To Gudbrandsdalen!”

Oslo: Another whirlwind

On my first full day in Norway, after shrieking and giggling through an uneven shower, I had my first hotel breakfast. I well remember the first breakfast I ever had in Norway, at my father’s cousins’ house. They set quite a table with bread and cheese and veggies and fish and a number of other things. I also remember setting down to lunch and finding the exact same assortment of foods. Ha! Continue reading “Oslo: Another whirlwind”

Arrival in Norway: Tourist stumbles

My welcome to Norway was a little rocky, as traveling tends to be. Work on the train tracks meant that I needed a buss rather than a tog to get to Oslo, then I had to pull my epically large suitcase through a growing rain the few blocks to the Grand Hotel, where they weren’t ready for me. I must have looked like a drowned rat by that time—my rumpled travel clothes declassing the incredible historic building—because they set me up at the bar while I waited. Continue reading “Arrival in Norway: Tourist stumbles”

Return to the Father Land

I haven’t been back to the mother country—or is it the father country, if it’s my father who’s from it?—since taking the job as Editor of America’s only Norwegian newspaper. Two and a half years, a full one and a half years longer than some people thought the paper would even exist! I’ve learned an enormous amount about Norway in that time, obviously. And even more about who I am. Continue reading “Return to the Father Land”

Have we been there yet?

Photo: Amy Lietz We spent about five minutes at Gullfoss in Iceland. Does it count?
Photo: Amy Lietz
We spent about five minutes at Gullfoss in Iceland. Does it count?

Lately a thing has been going around social media: a map of the U.S. called “States I’ve Visited.” Visited states turn a vibrant pink, bragging to all Facebook friends how well traveled one is. It’s a digital, national version of a gift we recommended last Christmas, a map of the world you can scratch off to show where you’ve been.

I think these things are fun, and I’ve even given the physical versions to a couple of people as gifts. But I must confess I have a hard time filling them out for myself. My hesitation comes from an uncertainty about what it means to have been to a place. Continue reading “Have we been there yet?”

A summer tour in the Holy Land

Ancient yet modern, safe yet violent, Israel is a land of contradictions

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun An example of the ancient ruins of Roman aquaduct outside Caesarea, a port city built by Herod the Great.
Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
An example of the ancient ruins of Roman aquaduct outside Caesarea, a port city built by Herod the Great.

Since returning from a hastily planned trip to Israel this summer, everyone’s been asking me how it was. Did I have fun? And I don’t entirely know how to answer. Many of the experiences one has in Israel can’t be filed neatly under the heading of “fun,” but it is definitely a trip worth taking.

The most prominent feature of the region is religion; therefore your experience with Israel will vary depending on your religious beliefs. Continue reading “A summer tour in the Holy Land”

Israel in summer, part 7: The trip winds down

Then it was Saturday again, and again nothing was open. We slept in, for once, and headed to the Old City. I got us lost, like a moron, and a man gave us directions and then extorted us for “donations.” There is a culture in the crowded tourist sites of what I almost want to call harassment—aggressive deal-making or outright panhandling. This is not my favorite thing, and I’ll be happy to have a rest from it when we get home.

We finally arrived at the Tower of David, and wandered through the pretty unimpressive exhibit until we ran into Ken and Nori. Together we went back over the stations of the cross, which were hard to find. Ken bought a map of them and they were still hard to find. Continue reading “Israel in summer, part 7: The trip winds down”

Israel in summer, part 6: Flavors of Israel

The next day we first stopped at Qumran, the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. The site was used by a sect that was really, really into bathing. We saw the actual scrolls the previous day, of course, in the museum. This was just more ruins. It was very hot out there, at least 100. I hate to say it, but it was basically too hot to care about ruins, especially when you hate your tour guide. He was bossy and uninformative and apparently very concerned about being sued if someone fell.

Ruins at Qumran.
Ruins at Qumran.

Continue reading “Israel in summer, part 6: Flavors of Israel”

Israel in summer, part 5: The “new” city of Jerusalem

We began our “new city” day at the Israel Museum, which had many more exhibits than we were able to see. One of the most striking is a big model of the Old City, but it also contains the Dead Sea Scrolls, strange sculptures, and antiquities like mosaics, Egyptian stuff, and Roman glass. I would have like to spend more time there.

Scale model of the old city.
Scale model of the old city.

Then it was on to Yad Vashem, the holocaust museum. Continue reading “Israel in summer, part 5: The “new” city of Jerusalem”

Israel in summer, part 4: A city divided

Our first stop in Jerusalem was at Rachel’s Tomb, which is down a long, unpromising street of high concrete walls built to protect the Jewish and Christian worshippers from attacks. I didn’t go inside. It looked like there was little to see and I was unclear on the garb required and made very uncomfortable by the whole thing. This felt like a genuine, still-in-use religious site, and my secular tourism felt unwelcome.

Even doves need bulletproof vests here?
Even doves need bulletproof vests here?

Continue reading “Israel in summer, part 4: A city divided”

Israel in summer, part 3: The Golan Heights

Our first morning in the Golan Heights started in Gallilee at the Mount. The Church of the Beatitudes commemorates all the blessings in the Sermon on the Mount. It has a nice view of the Sea of Gallilee and it’s very pretty, though not very old. It was built in 1938. Combine the newness of it with the religiousness of it, and this wouldn’t have made my must-see list. But Mom seemed to appreciate it.

Luckily, I make my own fun.
Luckily, I make my own fun.

Continue reading “Israel in summer, part 3: The Golan Heights”

Israel in summer, part 2: To the sea of Gallilee

In the morning our tour started. Our group is really small—there’s the Texans, two women from NY, Mary the blond and Randi, the odd couple of Nori and Ken, and Sadira, master of scarf-wearing. Our tour guide/driver, Tomer, is much more mellow than whoever picked us up from the airport, thank the stars.

We started at Ceaserea, where the ruins are impressive in the way of all ruins. The amphitheater is still used for shows, which seems really cool. On the other end, restaurants nestle among the ruins. I would have enjoyed visiting them if we’d been there without the group. We also stopped at a section of aqueduct on the beach, which was very pretty with the blue Mediterranean behind.

Aqueduct and sea behind.
Aqueduct and sea behind.

Continue reading “Israel in summer, part 2: To the sea of Gallilee”

Israel in summer, part 1: Tel Aviv, or nothing is open

I joke that we are trying to visit all the “I” countries—Iceland, Israel, etc. It’s not true, of course. We’re in no hurry to see Iraq or Iran, despite the lovely things I’ve heard about the city of Tehran.

Actually this trip was Mom’s idea. Is it a religious thing? That residual Catholicism can be hard to get over. Who knows. Mom said let’s go to Israel, so to Israel we went. Continue reading “Israel in summer, part 1: Tel Aviv, or nothing is open”

Fire & ice: winter tours in Iceland

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun Bárðarbunga from the air
Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
Bárðarbunga from the air.

I recently took a week off to visit Iceland. Iceland in winter. We’d been to the country before, right around the summer solstice, and loved it. So part of the impetus for this trip was to see how we felt about the place when it wasn’t summer—when it was covered in ice, and when the sun barely made an appearance. Continue reading “Fire & ice: winter tours in Iceland”

Iceland in winter, part 4: What goes up must come down

On day six we got back into the car for the “golden circle.” The first stop was Þingvellir, which is apparently the continental divide between North America and Europe. A big crack in the earth. Many trolls watching from the rocks. Very cold and slippery.

You can't tell me these aren't trolls.
You can’t tell me these aren’t trolls.

We stopped next at Gullfoss, where it was blizzarding. Continue reading “Iceland in winter, part 4: What goes up must come down”

Iceland in winter, part 3: Of thrones and goats

Day four was our all-day Lake Mývatn “Game of Thrones” tour. Our guide, Sandra, was terrific. We didn’t see any of the GOT sites advertised on the tour’s site–not the wall (which is of course not a real thing, though we’d imagined sections of it used for filming), not the “love cave”–and that was a little disappointing, but the day could not have been any better. We had fabulous weather, and the light was unbelievable pretty much all day. I took many shots with the borrowed fancy camera I had, boring shots of fabulous clouds, none of which capture the reality of it.

The first stop was back to Goðafoss, the waterfall of the gods. Much prettier in the daylight, and with the sun rising behind it…

Goðafoss at dawn.
Goðafoss at dawn.

Continue reading “Iceland in winter, part 3: Of thrones and goats”

Iceland in winter, part 2: Akureyri and the hole in the earth

The earth's vagina.
The earth’s vagina.

On day two we got up early for the hotel’s fairly epic breakfast, then fought a crowd of other people who had purchased the same cheap deal as us for cabs to the Reykjavík airport (a view of which I had from my window). I really feel this transportation should have been included, since it was a bit of a logistical issue getting so many people there. The airport is tiny, with zero security. It took about a minute to get us checked in, and Darin’s lack of a passport was no issue.

The flight was pretty great. Continue reading “Iceland in winter, part 2: Akureyri and the hole in the earth”

Iceland in winter, part 1: Day one

Oddly, it was my idea to visit this northern country in the dead of winter. A special popped up somewhere: airfare, hotel, etc. for a reasonable rate. I sent it to Bunny and Crow, who are as crazy as we are. “Who’s up for Iceland in January?” They were. So were their friends, Chris and Mer, and since we’d all traveled before, if only as far as Las Vegas, it seemed a perfect plan: three couples, all of whom had been to Iceland before. Never in the winter.

But hey, we are tough. Continue reading “Iceland in winter, part 1: Day one”

“Live” Blog of Yucatan/Cuba Trip, Days 11 & 12: But why is the rum gone?

November 16, 2013
It was our last day in Cuba, and thanks to Air Cubana’s multi-hour delay, we had some time. We set out with no real plan. We walked toward the capitol, which is the same as ours but a little bigger, with palm trees and classic cars surrounding it. It looks like a bizarro world set piece–it could be the US capitol after some serious climate change, or in an alternate reality.

The capitol building as seen from taxi #2.
We also saw the whole building or two that constitute Chinatown, and the bar where Hemingway drank. The most famous one anyway–Husband and I have a theory that any bar of a certain age can make the claim that Hemingway drank there. I was also told that there’s a bar down the street advertising the fact that Hemingway didn’t drink there, but we didn’t pass that one. At any rate, this is purportedly the bar where Hemingway invented the daiquiri, though the idea of him sipping a daiquiri doesn’t compute in my head any more than does his bidet.

Continue reading ““Live” Blog of Yucatan/Cuba Trip, Days 11 & 12: But why is the rum gone?”

“Live” Blog of Yucatan/Cuba Trip, Days 9 &10: Trinidad and Beyond

Trinidad
November 14, 2013
Today was our visit to Trinidad, a town that apparently was the highlight of the trip for many. I feel like we failed at seeing the town properly. Husband was ill again and stayed behind. The rest of us went and wandered the
town, but we had no agenda or plan or even map and so just wandered around buying things. Trinidad is famous for its weaving. We thought we had less time than we really did, so we aborted a mission to climb a tower, and just sort of hung around. Another of Trinidad’s claims to fame is its stone streets (not cobblestone, stone), which are definitely a throwback.

Continue reading ““Live” Blog of Yucatan/Cuba Trip, Days 9 &10: Trinidad and Beyond”

“Live” Blog of Yucatan/Cuba Trip, Day 8: Crocodiles!

November 13, 2013
Today was another long bus drive out to our all-inclusive resort on the beach. A little break to enjoy the fact that we’re in the Caribbean! Have I mentioned the weather? It’s so nice to be too hot in November.
On the way we stopped at a nature preserve–the Cienfuegos Zapata–where we were supposed to take a bird-watching boat ride. Some of us had prevailed upon Michael to keep the crocodile visit on the schedule, so we started at the breeding center for the endemic Cuban crocodile. They have adorable young ones, and amazing grown ones. They are as still as statues, just waiting, I guess, for something edible to wander past their mouths. Michael and Danilo tried to rush us out of the place in order to catch our
boat, but us bad kids went back in and I’m thankful we did, because that’s when Husband spotted the man with a little crocodile we could touch. He asked us if we wanted pictures holding it, and we said Hell Yes. The little crocodile felt so soft and warm, and I’m so glad we didn’t miss out on that chance. We still rushed out after three of us had held it, only to wait around. It turns out that the boat driver wouldn’t take us on the kind of slow bird-watching ride we apparently wanted, so instead of taking a speedier trip we decided to forego it.

Continue reading ““Live” Blog of Yucatan/Cuba Trip, Day 8: Crocodiles!”

“Live” Blog of Yucatan/Cuba Trip, Day 7: We live here now

November 12, 2013
Today was my birthday, but it wasn’t my all-time favorite. Husband was sick (with what we are calling Fidel’s Revenge) and didn’t go on the day’s adventure. I admit I was pretty worried about him, especially since if he got worse and had to go see someone we would have no way of communicating. Even if we hadn’t minded the probably astronomical cost, US phones simply do not work in Cuba. And I didn’t really trust the hotel staff, because someone had already taken one of Husband’s inhalers and pretended they didn’t have it, when they did. Husband had to sneak behind the reception desk and steal back his own medically necessary property.

Me sad because Husband’s not with me.

Continue reading ““Live” Blog of Yucatan/Cuba Trip, Day 7: We live here now”

“Live” Blog of Yucatan/Cuba Trip, Day 6: Socialismo o Muerte

November 11, 2013
Today we visited an organic farm in the outskirts of Havana. It was pretty with bright red soil, and they served us a delicious lunch. During the food shortages post revolution, Castro set up a series of small urban farms to meet local demand. The one we visited is one of these, though it’s now run collectively by the workers. They are mandated to sell a certain percentage of their food to the government, but the rest is theirs, and the profits likewise.

“What do they do with the bunnies?”
“Um . . . What do you think?”

Continue reading ““Live” Blog of Yucatan/Cuba Trip, Day 6: Socialismo o Muerte”

“Live” blog of Yucatan/Cuba trip, day 3: Yucatan high & low

November 8, 2013
Day three was mucho mas bueno. We left semi-early and hit the cenote at Ik Kil, which was amazing. When we first looked down into that seemingly bottomless sinkhole, we almost didn’t know what it was. We were the first ones there, and we got to see it pristine, vines and roots trailing down into the water, dark but for a few sunbeams. My first thought was, “I don’t want to swim in that.”

Continue reading ““Live” blog of Yucatan/Cuba trip, day 3: Yucatan high & low”

“Live” blog of Yucatan/Cuba trip, days 1 & 2: Getting there is less than half the fun.

November 7, 2013:
Yesterday our trip began, far too early, with Bunny and Crow picking us up for the airport before dawn. Our first flight was after theirs, and yet we got here ahead of them. Husband and I spent a boring couple of hours on the floor of the Cancun aeropuerto, not going outside for (legitimate) fear of not being allowed back in. When they did arrive–their flight late, of course–the man from Fox car rental bundled us all out of the airport before we could change money, look for maps, anything. I’d thought to take care of money-changing while I waited, but it seemed silly since I’d just have to wait for Bunny and Crow to do the same thing. I wish that I had at least checked the exchange rate. Then I would have known that the ATM in the 7-11 ripped us off by at least half, giving me only 500 MXN for my $100 USD [update: the ATM only charged me around $40 in the end, so all kinds of WTF]. Instead we erroneously used this as the exchange rate, and spent about a day
thinking things in Mexico were incredibly expensive, instead of just very
expensive. Who would have thought that Mexico was such an expensive place to travel? Not I. Continue reading ““Live” blog of Yucatan/Cuba trip, days 1 & 2: Getting there is less than half the fun.”