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Babcia and Yia Yia!, Travel With Alex: Europe 101

Norway 101: Fjords and Coastlines

The very north of Europe showcases some of the world’s most unique nature. From powerful waterfalls to towering mountains, the natural wonder of Norway’s fjords is one of travel’s most vibrant delights. Created over millions of years by glaciers, the fjords share Norway’s 25,000 kilometer coastline with little communities and several major mid-sized towns.

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Getting Around

There are two good ways to explore the Norwegian coastline. First, there is a popular route that combines a series of trains, ferries, and busses that create a loop along some of the most popular and scenic fjords. The second, and maybe easier way, is to take a cruise on one of the many lines that criss-cross the southern fjord area. Check out Holland America and Windstar for the lines that are perhaps most familiar with these itineraries.

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The Southern Capitol, Oslo

Dynamic Oslo is an interesting European capitol. Dotted with some solid attractions that will fascinate and entertain. With three easy to reach areas that encompass plenty of art, history, and atmosphere, Oslo wins the atmosphere award.

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The National Museum

The doors to this state of the art museum swung open in 2022 and did not disappoint. Headlining the place was native son’s Edvard Munch’s The Scream. However, the galleries, full of more than just framed art, held plenty of lovely treasures from the world of fashion, impressionism, design, and medieval relics. The slick, scandinavian design allows the art to be the star here. Additionally, each gallery has some sort of interactive activity for the kiddos.

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The Akershus Fortress

Just opposite the newest attraction is perhaps Oslo’s oldest, the Akershus Fortress is not only an historic piece of Norway’s past but also functions as a working base for today’s military. Throughout the complex smaller museums and attractions pop up to make this a destination that’s a must. Of particular interest is…

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The Norwegian Resistance Museum

We all know how WWII affected the European continent but it’s sometimes hard to focus in on areas that weren’t on the front pages every day. Norway is definitely one of those countries. The story of how Norway fell to occupation and how it had to wait its turn for its eventual freedom from the third Reich is far more interesting than meets the eye. While this facility is dated (go ahead and remodel this one, Norway!), the story is fascinating. From the tiny ham radios to the red caps worn by citizens to show their solidarity, the items and stories, especially Vidkun Quisling’s traitorous one, were well thought. I would have bought 20 red knit hats to show my support for the resistance if I could have.

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The City Hall

A municipal building in almost any other city would normally be a hard pass. However, Oslo’s magnificent City Hall has tales to share and art to be proud of. Start outside with the great Norse myths of the past that surround the walkways. Inside, pass through security and enjoy the main hall. Full of murals that tell the more recent history of the country, the amazing artwork chronicles industry, youth, mythology, and nature. The rooms upstairs function as government chambers and ceremonial spaces that are used by both government and crown alike.

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Nobel Peace Prize Center

While Stockholm reigns supreme over most of the Nobel prizes, Oslo holds on tight to the Peace Prize. The small museum dedicated to that most virtuous of virtues highlights each of the past winners digitally and begs the visitor to ponder the question “what is the opposite of conflict?”

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More time?

Look into the reason we call tiki bars over at the Kon-tiki Museum in the Bygdoy district. This district also houses The Fram (a museum about two arctic explorers), The Viking Ship Museum, and the Norwegian Folk Museum (150 historic buildings in an outdoor park). With even more time, the excellent Vigeland Sculpture park allows you to stroll through all kinds of emotions that the sculptor installed in Frogner Park. By the way, Oslo also sports a palace to tour as well. Whew! That’s a lot!

sculpture of two old men in vigeland park in oslo fjords norway
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Gift Shops

One thing that Norway seems to misunderstand about the visitor is the joy of a well thought gift shop. We all want to gather a few little treats to bring home and share or simply remember our travels. While there are plenty of t-shirts and troll key chains, Norway seemed to miss the mark when it comes to locally crafted art and design. Bring out the patterns and prints that make Norway an under rated force of design. Somebody’s gotta take on IKEA!!! I highly suggest a field trip to Amsterdam to inspire you, dear Norway. I digress and move past the capitol to…

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Bergen

Norway’s second largest city has a consolidated historic center that is easily accessible by foot. Enjoy this work a day town by visiting the wharf and fish market area. Here, find the picturesque mustard, red, and brown clapboards of the past. There are plenty of warm clothes to buy and a few art galleries sprinkled into the mix of restaurants and troll gift shops. The fish market sports a few ready to eat food stalls including reindeer sausage fajitas (yumm!). Lastly, use the vernacular to take in the amazing views of the Puddfjorden waters just beyond the buildings. Bergen is a great base to start your fjord explorations. To Bergen’s north is…

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Alesund

This little town sports a charming town center with a few museums to explore. If you get there after Oslo, they may not make the mark. However, the local aquarium just on the outside of town is a delightful look at the cold seas that surround the area. Be sure to check in with the seals and penguins outside. Meanwhile, to the south of Bergen lies…

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Kristiansand

With a seaport feel, Kristiansand differs quite significantly due to its flat topography. The town is great for a walk and perhaps a leisurely sit in one of the many cafes. However, past that, not much strikes a chord to put it at the top of the must do list. That is, unless you’d like to catch a ferry to Denmark. Now, that’s an exit plan that just might be worth it!

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Fjords

Let’s face it, the reason that anyone is most likely exploring Norway can be summed up in one very old word: fjords. These mountains and water filled valleys that have been carved over millennia never cease to amaze. Viewing the breathtaking waterfalls that tumble into the waters below is certainly a highlight. But, enjoying all that nature has to offer should be a challenge any traveler takes on. The closest fjords to the tourable cities are listed as they are accessible by either train, ferry, or cruise ship.

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Sognefjord and Flam

The granddaddy of them all, Sognefjord soars high into the skies and dives deep into waters below. Probably the best base in the area is Flam. While here, check out the amazing sites and vistas by taking the historical train up to the top of the mountain. Along the way, the train narrates the view and stops at an amazing waterfall that allows one to better understand the power of water.

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For a thrill, skip the train ride back and try the Flam zip line. This seated zip line speeds you downward at about 80km per hour! Come to a rather smooth stop in a field filled with bikes and goats. Complete this downhill exploration by grabbing a bike and gliding back into town passing all kinds of waterfalls and gullies along the way. With tunnels and bridges that lace the route together, the ride down is nothing short of perfect.

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Geirangerfjord

This fjord and its namesake town are perfectly charming and worth exploring. Perhaps the best way to attend to all of those curvy switchbacks and scenic overlooks is to rent a little electric car that lets you zip up and down those iconic roads. Geiranger is perfect for a days worth of visiting which includes the overlooks, the hiking farm, the fjord center and a bowl of seriously good fish chowder.

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Eidfjord on Hardangerfjord

The sleepiest of all the fjords, this tiny little coastline town is perfect for getting out on the water via kayak. Use the local transport system or a tour to get out to the glacier not far away. While Eidfjord is certainly popular, it is a simple add on rather than a must see as the glacier is also accessible via Sognefjord.

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Stave Churches

One last thing worth looking into: Stave churches are the little wooden churches that dot the landscape from the medieval times. Since they are all works of art carved out of wood, many of the 28 remaining Staves are recreations after fire destroyed the originals. These lovely architectural gems can be found tucked away in the countryside. The easiest ones to find are in the outdoor museum in Oslo and the Hoppstad Stave in the little town of Vik which is easily reached by fjord ferry. Find out more about Stave churches here.

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The author visited Norway and the fjords in the Summer of 2022.

Study Hall: Essays On Travel, Travel With Alex: Europe 101

France 101: Traveling for wartime connections

Veterans Day is here. In our family, it is the kickoff to our holiday season. The holiday seems iconically American. However, Veterans Day started off 102 years ago as Armistice Day which marked the end of WWI and as the world started healing from The Great War, each nation involved created there own version of remembering. This makes the concept quite Global rather than quintessentially American and a great way to expand our horizons both patriotically and historically. Our own holiday evolved from commemorating 11-11-18 to honoring all who serve and have served. But make no mistake, there are plenty of countries that honor those who serve in their own way. I am lucky and grateful for the Veterans in my family. My dad, my husband, and a bevy of other relatives all served at one time or another. I even spent some time in uniform myself.

Finding our Ancestors for Veteran’s Day

One way other countries honor the military sacrifice is to remember the fallen. A great example of this is what you can find in France. This summer, I had the honor of meeting two veterans while I visited and the experience was life changing. My mom and I hopped into a sporty euro rental in Belgium and made our way west across the French border to an area out in the middle of nulle part- that’s French for nowhere. We were stopping to visit Private First Class Thomas McGovern. His address is one I can share: plot B, Row 18, Grave 11, Somme American Cemetery, Bony, France.

Somme

Thomas is my great, great uncle and died in the famous Battle of the Somme on September 27th, 1918. Visiting the cemetery is quite amazing. The superintendent escorted us out to the grave, among impeccably manicured grounds and explained to us the play by play of the battle and exactly what fate my uncle met. He produced a small container of sand from Omaha Beach to rub across the marble stone so that Thomas’ name was easily read. There, in the summer sun out in the French countryside, I became the first family member to come and pay my respects to him. I was all at once proud, connected, elated and humbled. It was a once in a lifetime experience!

Muesse-Argon

As our journey continued, I had someone else to check in with. The next day, we drove out to the Meuse-Argon American Cemetery to meet, for the first time as well, John McGovern. He is Thomas’ brother and, by heart breaking coincidence, he also perished on September 27th- just 46 days shy of the armistice. The cemetery that he rests in is shared with 14,000 other brave boys who put on a tin hat and stepped up to fight in an unknown world. Again, the sand, again two flags of pride and solidarity, again emotions that make one grateful and awestruck.

So on this Veterans Day, I say thank you to all of you who have served. I appreciate you all. And I encourage you put on a bright red poppy and be proud of all you have contributed to the greater good.

Maybe seek out those veterans who may not be as close as most. They may be just the thing for you and yours to learn so much about your own family and how they contributed to the greater good. There are 26 American Cemeteries overseas with over 130,000 brave Americans who are hoping a family member might visit. If you are interested, start your research with the American Battle Monuments Commission.

Poppies represent the spilt blood of the many lives that fought for liberty.
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Babcia and Yia Yia!, Travel With Alex: Europe 101

Amsterdam 101

Iconic Amsterdam sits smartly at the convergence of the Zuiderzee and the Rhine River. Its storied history, amazingly vibrant attitude, and progressive stance on social issues make it a top tourist draw for many. And for very good reason! It seems that Amsterdam has cracked the secret code of balancing the honor of the past with the energy of the future. So, what makes this city a traveler’s paradise? Read on, dear traveler.

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Amsterdam Central Train Station

Whether you arrive by plane or train, your first glimpse of Amsterdam might happen as you pull into one of Europe’s great train stations. The scene that’s set seems to be a choreographed dance. Backpackers searching to stow their bags for the day at the left luggage counter. Commuters of every age hopping off the north side ferries. Travelers, like you, figuring out how to roll big bags over the bumpy tiles. Plenty of languages for all over the world seems to hang in the air as people dash in and out of the cafes, pharmacy, and market. Then, it seems, that 95% of the people that just whizzed by hop on a bike. You have arrived at the heart of Amsterdam.

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Bikes and Canals

Those bikes, just like the Colosseum or the Eiffel Tower, have become the default symbol for this town as the number of wheels far out paces the number of residents that power them. Thousands of bikes use the designated lanes knitting the city together from the main stretch, Damrak, over each of the five canals that ring the half a dozen neighborhoods.

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Renting a bike

By far, the cheapest transportation in town is also the easiest to find. More than twenty storefronts offer hourly, daily, and long term rentals that come with locks. Plenty of these bikes can also be fitted with simple baskets that make carting your bags easy peasy. Using a bike to ride around the Jordaan District and then down to the big museums is a breeze in this super flat city. Pedal power is, by far, the way to go. check out Black Bikes in the 9 Little Streets Area for great service and easy pick up and return. Expect to pay about $10.00 for 3 hours. If you don’t feel confident to ride with the locals, get out there early in the morning when the streets are not as busy.

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Canals and Boat Rides

If bikes rank as the number one mode of transport, then boats certainly try hard to oust them. The biggest part of Amsterdam’s charm comes from its tree lined canals that helped put the city on the map. A canal ride, though, can seem a little cheesy if not thought through well enough. And, there are so very many to choose from! From rentals that allow you to control the power to barges that herd a couple of hundred visitors around town, there seems to be no lack of choice. Two faves include a dinner cruise which keeps the ride moving along in the evening or a self propelled option that allows you to hop on and hop off as you cruise round and round. A great place to start figuring out what kind of cruise works for you is the Amsterdam Boat Center. For private charters, Those Dam Boat Guys do a great job for the adults in your party.

Look Around

Amsterdam’s unique architecture stems from the days of the Hanseatic League. Societies were just figuring out how to keep governing without a royal figurehead while adjusting to new religious views and plenty of new trade opportunities. All of this, believe it or not, is evident in the architecture that is all around. Narrow houses that tend to be three stories high were historically a shop, a home, and attic storage that took up as little taxable street width as possible. Today, the city is full of such buildings: the oldest, narrowest, widest, fanciest, crookedest, and even the secretest all make Amsterdam the perfect place to wander and wonder.

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The most distinct feature in all of this architecture has to be the gables: Simple flat rooflines sit next to step gables, point gables, and the fancier neck and bell examples. Put together, the mix and match rooflines create their own kind of urban artwork. Use those bikes and boats to take it all in.

Plan Ahead

If there is one drawback to this city, it’s that you are not the only one who wants to be there. In fact, Amsterdam often finds itself ranked among the most visited in all of Europe. As a result, a few sites on your list may need a little pre-planning. At the front of the pack is the Anne Frank House. Be ready the month before your trip to get online and work through the ticket process as this museum sells out quickly and does not have any “day of” sales. In short, you snooze, you lose! Be sure to also arrange for the Van Gogh Museum as well as the famed Rijksmuseum which are both very busy as well.

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Anne Frank House

Anne’s story is a sad one. And visiting the place where it all happened allows you to better understand how the events of WWII and how Amsterdam was affected by the actions of the Third Reich. Anne’s father, Otto, unselfishly shares his daughter’s thoughts with visitors and the entire one way experience tells what happened before, during, and after the stairs behind the bookshelf hid a group of eight brave souls. In addition to this museum, check out the Dutch Resistance Museum on the south east side of the city.

The Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum

The Netherlands lays claim to quite a few major artists. Among them, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Eyck, and, of course, Van Gogh. All of these artists brought something spectacular and unique to the evolution of art and all of them can be seen here.

Van Gogh tumultuous life is on full display thanks to his brother, Theo. This modern museum profiles not only the timeline of Van Gogh’s life as well as SOME of his greatest works. Look to see such greats as The Potato Eaters, Almond Blossoms, and more self portraits than you can count. Beware that there are certain famous works like Starry Night and Irises are at other museums.

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Meanwhile, over at the Rijksmuseum, everyone else is waiting. Art for the middle classes was the mantra for many of these heavy hitters. Check in to see Vermeer (sans Girl With The Pearl Earring, that’s down at The Hague), Rembrandt and his Night Watch, as well as Jan Steen’s merrymaking. This national treasure has room after room of iconic “I’ve seen this before” art that makes strolling the galleries anything but boring. From Ice skaters on the canals to Napoleon and all his glory, the Rijks is a can’t miss.

Look for these fantastic museums to be connected by a pedestrian friendly plaza known as Museumplein. Here, you will find plenty of shops and restaurants to enjoy and people watch.

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Amstelkring or Our Lord In The Attic

During the Dutch Golden Age, there were a lot of factors at play. The Protestant Reformation was in full swing but Amsterdam was a tolerant city. While the official party line was christianity without a pope, leaders understood that allowing people to worship as they choose was just fine as long as it was not advertised. Enter Jan Hartman. He was a prominent businessman during the 15th century who decided that his quiet catholic community needed a proper place to worship. He reworked three floors in his grand home to create a church where all who chose could privately worship. From the outside, the home looked like any other but inside, this amazing space provided comfort and prayer. There were several such churches throughout the city but this one located ironically in the Red Light District is the most famous.

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Speaking of which…

The Red Light District is infamous for its trade and adult themes. Amsterdam’s progressive policies have allowed this for centuries and, for them, it works. It’s time to move on from thinking that the Red Light District is for tourists. Sex workers in Amsterdam are taxed and unionized. They treat their choices as a business and they expect to be treated with respect in return. The time has passed for touristy gawking. There is simply no shock and awe to be had. Let people live their lives and move on to other interests. Besides, there is so much more to Amsterdam than this story.

Jordaan District

The other side of the pendulum is the leafy Jordaan Neighborhood. Here, you will find plenty of locally owned shops, cafes, sleepy canal bridges and the best dose of atmosphere that this bustling city has on offer. It’s here that you will find the Anne Frank House and the local flower market close to Spui Square. Jordaan’s laid back feel (especially compared to the RLD’s hype) makes for a great home base. For a splurge, reserve a room at the fabulous Hotel Estherea on the Singel Canal. A room at this locally owned, well curated, hotel makes this entire town accessible by foot or bike.

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A few last thoughts…

  • Take care of laundry at Eland Laundry in Jordaan (Hazenstraat 65, 1016 SN). It’s a quick bike ride there and if you chat with them, they might just deliver it back to your hotel for a small fee.
  • The flower market on the Singel Canal is very close to Spui Square. Be sure to get there sometime in the morning for the best blooms.
  • Another interesting stop just off of Spui Square is the Begijnhof. This quiet community is accessible through a gate. Inside, you will find the church that claims to be the one used by the pilgrims on the Mayflower as well as another hidden Catholic church.
  • Dig into The South Seas connection and try to put away all 27 dishes on a Rijkstaffel. These Indonesian classics with a Dutch twist are quintessentially Amsterdam. Eater beware! It can get a little spicy!
  • While no windmills are in Amsterdam itself, there are plenty of opportunities to see these wind warriors. The best places to see windmills include Edam to the north and Kinderdijk to the south.
  • Take advantage of The Netherlands’ small size and get over to Delft to see a small sized town close up. Pair this with a quick stop at the Hague to see Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring at the Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery: a worthwhile stop.

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