You would think that planning a three-day break to Norway would be relatively straightforward, but this trip has possibly been the most problematic one I've ever tried to organise! It got off to a good start in early January when I found extremely cheap flights from Gatwick to Bergen with Norwegian for the first May bank holiday. £50 return seemed like too good an opportunity to miss, even though I knew from our previous experience in Oslo that everything in Norway was going to be extremely expensive once we arrived. I figured we could afford three days of Norwegian prices though, and once the flights were booked I started making plans for what we could do.
Having read a lot about it on the internet, I was keen to try the 'Norway in a Nutshell' tour, which aims to give visitors with a limited amount of time in the country a taste of the fjords via a one-day circular trip by train, bus and boat. It looked amazing, and the best thing about it is that although you could buy your tickets altogether as part of a tour package, it isn't actually a guided tour and the entire route is made up of normal public transport. I developed a cunning plan which was going to involve catching all the transport involved in the 'Norway in a Nutshell' tour, but at different times to the ones advertised for the package so that all the trains etc would be significantly quieter. It also looked like it would potentially be cheaper to buy all the tickets individually rather than purchasing the offical tour ticket. I had it all sorted out.... and then I went on the website of the Norwegian train company to double-check I had the timings right and realised that they had just announced rail engineering works on Sunday 1 May which would mean that a crucial bit of train line between Bergen and Myrdal, whose existence was integral to the entire trip, was going to be closed all day. There was going to be a rail replacement bus along part of the line but it wasn't going as far as Myrdal, which rendered it useless. Brilliant.
Several days spent poring over Norwegian timetables later, I managed to develop another slightly more innovative route which will hopefully allow us to still experience the key parts of the tour, but split over Sunday and Monday. It remains to be seen whether all the timings will work out. But at least, I thought, I had now got my one piece of travel bad luck over and done with for 2016.
Hahahaha. No, not quite. I heard my phone vibrating while I was working on Thursday afternoon, and when I went to check it I found I had an email from booking.com about my apartment reservation in Bergen. I thought perhaps they were sending me some instructions about checking in, so imagine my horror when I opened it to find that they were informing me that my reservation had been cancelled... because of an on-going strike by hotel workers in Norway!!! Since when do hotel staff go on strike?! Is this a thing in Norway the same way air traffic control strikes are in France?
Who knows. It was extremely bad luck that the apartment I had booked was linked to a hotel and so caught up in the strike. Also quite bad luck that it was one of those bookings where they take the cash off you as soon as you make the reservation, because now I'm having to negotiate with booking.com about getting my money back. When I first read it I panicked that there would be no alternative accommodation available in the whole of Norway this weekend, but Tim swiftly got on booking.com and managed to find an alternative apartment. Not quite as nice as the first one, but it looked adequate and wasn't going to break the bank. Now we just had to keep our fingers crossed that this reservation didn't get cancelled as well.
By Friday evening we hadn't had any more worrying emails from booking.com, so we concluded that all our bad luck was definitely over now and set our alarms for 3am on Saturday morning in preparation for the journey to Gatwick. At least we were confident that driving at such an antisocial time meant we would be spared the chaos on the M40 and M25 that almost ruined our trip to Lapland at Christmas. Everything went like clockwork and we actually arrived at the airport nearly 30 minutes earlier than planned. Result
At this point I need to explain that we hadn't checked in online. Normally we would do that, but with Norwegian it doesn't seem very straightforward; you can only check in once it is 24 hours before your flight, and online check-in isn't available for all their routes. I had given up trying to figure it out on their website and decided that we would just queue to check in at the airport, although we were only flying with hand luggage. So when we got to Gatwick, the first thing we did was try to find the Norwegian check-in desk.
This seemed to be more difficult that you would expect, because there weren't any helpful displays telling you which desk numbers related to which airlines. As we wandered around the terminal, however, we did notice a number of self-service check-in machines which were displaying the Norwegian logo. Seeing as didn't have any baggage to check in, we figured we'd used one of those.... but every machine we tried seemed to be broken and displayed an error message like a browswer which couldn't connect to the internet once we got halfway through the process.
We found the proper Norwegian check-in area after a while and were pleased to see that there wasn't a queue. When we approached one of the staff, however, he explained that the airport was experiencing a system problem and so they weren't able to check anyone in. Aha, so that explained why the machines weren't working and why all the display boards were blank! It didn't sound like it was anything too serious though, because he suggested we come back in 10 minutes once the displays had switched back on. We found a convenient place to sit and waited.
It was about 6am when we arrived at the airport. 6.30 came and went, and the displays still weren't on. It was clear that the airport must be experiencing a serious computer failure, although you wouldn't have been able to tell from the announcements, which just blandly apologised for "any inconvenience caused" at irregular intervals. 7am arrived, and the scene in the terminal building was becoming increasingly chaotic as more and more people turned up to the airport and no one was able to be checked in. By the time it got to 07.30, I was seriously worried. Our flight was scheduled to depart at 08.40, but there were no announcements about whether flights were actually cancelled, or whether the system failure was just affecting check-in. I decided to switch my phone on to see whether I could find any useful information online, and when I did I found I had a text from Norwegian telling me that my flight to Bergen was on time!
Oh dear. If only I had checked in online in advance! Then we could at least have tried to make our way to the departures area and see whether they were letting people through security. As it was, even if the systems came back on in the next split second, the queue of people waiting to check in for Norwegian was already so enormous that it seemed highly unlikely we would be able to make the flight if it was on time In what may be the first time anyone has ever had this thought, I said to myself "It's such a shame we're not flying Ryanair!" If it was Ryanair, I could just have checked us in via the app... an app... perhaps Norwegian has an app!
It turns out Norwegian does have an app I held my breath as it downloaded because it wasn't clear whether it was just going to allow me to check the status of flights or to actually check it. Once it had installed, I was delighted to see there was a "check-in" option, but would it let me check in now that my flight was only a little over an hour away?! Fortunately it did Within about 30 seconds I had two electronic boarding passes for the 08.40 flight to Bergen.
Phew! We made our way to security where there was an enormous queue but thankfully it started moving pretty quickly. The barriers where you were supposed to scan your boarding passes weren't working, so they had to have people manually checking them. I think the systems must have been starting to come back online at this point, because once we got through security we did find a display telling us which gate our flight was on. Although clearly not everything was back in working order, because when the staff at the gate were supposed to be checking our passports and boarding passes they had nothing to check them against, so were reduced to writing down our names and seat numbers on a piece of paper!
It turned out the flight was delayed, ultimately by about an hour, but at least that gave some more passengers chance to get to the gate. I think they had organised some sort of manual check-in, but the lack of computers meant some people had been allocated seat numbers and others hadn't, so in the end they had to give up on reserved seats and allow people to sit where they liked. The Norwegian staff were really helpful and at least told us what was going on, which was a big improvement.
At last, we were sitting on the tarmac and the pilot started his welcome message, giving us some details about the upcoming flight to Bergen. Suddenly there was a bit of commotion a couple of rows ahead of us. A man stood up and said "Are you all going to Bergen?!", then he and his wife started frantically trying to gather up their baggage. It turned out they were supposed to be flying to Copenhagen and had accidentally got on the wrong plane They managed to get off before the doors were sealed - though goodness knows whether they got to Copenhagen or not - but I guess that illustrates what sort of breaches in security are possible without computerised checks at the airport!
Anyway, with that the trauma of the day (and hopefully the entire weekend!) was over and we were finally on our way to Bergen It was actually a very pleasant flight, and as the aircraft began its descent towards Bergen we had a beautiful view of snow-capped mountains.
Bergen airport seemed very efficient and we were through passport control within minutes of disembarking from the plane. I had pre-bought tickets for the airport bus online to save money and an airport bus was conveniently waiting right outside the terminal building as soon as we stepped outside. Things seemed to be improving
The journey into Bergen took less than half an hour, so we had soon arrived and were able to start exploring the city. Our first priority was to find some food, as it was now 1pm and we hadn't eaten anything except a muffin on the plane. We made our way to the city centre, but it seemed that a marathon had been taking place in Bergen this morning, so everywhere was extremely busy. We eventually gave up trying to find somewhere we could get a table and went to Burger King instead. Burger King was nice, although at 240 krone (approximately £20) it was definitely the most expensive fast food Tim ever hopes to have in his life!
Next task was to find our replacement apartment. This turned out to be quite easy, as it's located not far from the main train and bus stations, and the complicated check-in instructions they'd sent us with door codes all worked like clockwork. The apartment itself is a bit small (and has bunk beds!) but it's definitely a lot better than nothing.
Just down the road from our apartment is the Domkirke, Bergen's cathedral.
It's not very ornate as cathedrals go, but we thought it looked very Norwegian somehow.
The first place we wanted to make sure we saw in Bergen was Bryggen, the historical wharf area.
It consists of a series of Hanseatic houses, which were originally built in fourteenth century, although most were destroyed by a fire in 1702, so the current buildings are much more modern.
Some of them looked very old based on how crooked they were!
All of the buildings today are occupied by shops, hotels and even a night club!
We walked along the edge of the water until we got to the Bergenhus Fortress.
This is the site of an ancient Norwegian fortress, which continued to be used for defence up to WW2. Today it is mainly a park, where you can walk around and admire the various buildings and statues.
We noticed that Norway isn't quite as far ahead with spring as we are in England - these daffodils looked like they had only recently come out, and all the trees were still very bare.
At the edge of the fortress there was large statue of King Haakon VII, who was king of Norway during the war. The statue shows him looking out to sea with his binoculars.
All he would see today if he looked out to sea was a large cruise ship! Although there was a ship that looked a bit more military in the harbour too.
As we turned around to walk back into the centre of Bergen, we had some beautiful views of the hills behind the city.
We spotted some more Hanseatic houses - these ones looking a little more solid as they were made from bricks.
The centre of Bergen seemed very pleasant.
Although it is the second largest city in Norway and it had been hosting a marathon today, it didn't feel overly crowded.
We found the street where we were supposed to have been staying in our original apartment. It looked rather posh, with some formal gardens stretching up to the national theatre.
The theatre itself was a somewhat strange building, with this rather frightening statue of Henrik Ibsen outside.
Having already walked along the Bryggen side of the harbour, we decided to stroll along the opposite side. Some of the buildings on this side weren't as scenic, but as we got to the end of the peninsula we did get some amazing views out to sea.
We took a slightly different route on the way back and passed all sorts of buildings which made us want to stop and take our cameras out.
Bright colours are definitely popular in Bergen.
As are churches with roofs like this one.
I think the award for best view of the day goes to this one though, because of the snow
These houses might have won though if they hadn't had a car park in front of them!
Back in the centre of town, we found the statue of Ole Bull, a famous Norwegian violinist and composer who was born in Bergen.
From there we had a bit of a steep uphill climb to get a view of the Johanneskirken, an imposing red brick church which towers above the town centre.
At this point it was feeling suspiciously like rain, so we decided to quit while we were ahead and go back to the apartment for a rest and some blog writing. Bergen is beautiful and I'm very glad that despite everything we managed to get here