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  1. Last night was our final night in Kiruna, so we decided to go out for an evening walk to see the Christmas lights in the town centre. The big Christmas tree looked pretty in the dark... ...and Tim looked quite regal in the ice throne We walked past the display of snow sculptures. It was actually a bit easier to make our some of the shapes in the dark. Once we'd done a circuit of the town centre, we headed back to our apartment for the night. We're flying back home from Narvik tomorrow, so the main aim of today was to travel back from Sweden to Norway. Our train wasn't until the afternoon though, so we were able to have a leisurely start to the morning. We'd just finished breakfast and were considering starting to pack, when I looked out the window of our apartment in Kiruna and was amazed to get a glimpse of some polar stratospheric clouds, just like the ones we'd seen in Abisko earlier in the week! We didn't have to check out of the apartment until 11, so we quickly pulled on our warm clothes and boots and ran outside to have a look. We walked along the main road from our apartment, trying to find a place from which we would have an unobstructed view. The clouds were the most amazing colours. Tim managed to capture them more accurately by making his camera darker. We walked down a rather slippery pavement, towards the park we'd discovered yesterday. From there we had the clearest views, without any buildings in the way... ...and the clouds looked beautiful above the snowy landscape. I could have stayed and stared at them all day Unfortunately, however, we had to return to the apartment to pack up our things and check out. Our train to Narvik wasn't departing until 14.51, so once we'd successfully checked out we had some time to kill in Kiruna. As we walked back into the town centre, the sun was rising and there were some beautiful pink colours in the sky There's a small indoor shopping centre in Kiruna, so that was our first stop. It had a cafe, where we got two rather strong Americanos From there we moved on to Kiruna's English pub (bizarrely, Kiruna has an English pub called The Bishop's Arms!!), where we were able to get lunch. I had a burger, while Tim had fish and chips. It was really dark in the pub (loads of places in Sweden seem to be really badly lit!) so we then moved back to the slightly brighter cafe for another coffee and some cake It was while we were having the coffee and cake that I got a rather disturbing text from Swedish Railways about our train When Google-translated, this informed us that due to a "nature incident" the train line to Narvik was closed. Oh dear We made our way towards the station, hoping for the best. It was still really snowy everywhere but the snow was flattened down and much easier to pull our cases on than it had been the day when we arrived It was much easier walking downhill from the town to the station, as opposed to uphill from the station to the town As we got close to the station, we passed a hill with an illuminated ski run which I hadn't even noticed on the day we arrived. When we got to the station the train to Narvik was sitting on the platform, so we boarded it and hoped for the best. It departed promptly, without any announcements about the line being closed. In the absence of announcements, I checked the Swedish trains website and found a message said that the "nature incident" had now been resolved and the line was opened again. Phew!! It was a big relief that we were going to make it to our destination; I don't know whether they would have put on a rail replacement bus if the train couldn't run, but if they didn't I think it would have cost more than our life savings to take a taxi We eventually made it to Narvik only 15 minutes or so behind schedule. It looked like it had been snowing quite heavily here and there was lots of fresh snow everywhere. Pulling our suitcases up Narvik's steep streets in the fresh snow was not the most fun we've ever had! Everywhere did look beautiful in the snow though And it was actually easier to walk on this snow than on the ice which had been here when we caught the train on Sunday. As we're just staying one night in Narvik this time and departing for the airport first thing tomorrow morning, I'd booked us into a small hotel rather than re-book the Airbnb apartment we stayed in at the start of the holiday. 895 Norwegian Krone (around £78) got us this tiny room which just about has enough space for both of us and our suitcases We do have free breakfast included in the morning though (which we intend to eat as much of as possible to get our money's worth!) and from our window we can see out across the whole of Narvik. Tomorrow will be a very long day of travelling, with two flights and about 9 hours to kill in Oslo airport, which I don't think will be worthy of a blog! But we've had a fantastic holiday, exploring a completely different part of Lapland and seeing some really amazing clouds, and I think it's definitely been worth the journey
  2. One of the main things which had convinced me to book flights to Narvik earlier in the year was the fact that it is the terminus station for a railway line known as the Ofotbanen. The train line was built between Sweden and the Norwegian coast in the late 19th century, to enable iron ore being mined in the Swedish town of Kiruna to be transported to the ice-free port of Narvik. Iron ore is still transported on the line today, but there are also two passenger trains per day which run between Norway and Sweden. This means that flying to Narvik is actually quite an easy way to get to Swedish Lapland. The journey itself is supposed to be really scenic, most notably between Narvik and a station called Riksgränsen, which is located at the Swedish border. We'd therefore decided to catch the first train of the day, to ensure that we saw the scenery in daylight When I opened the curtains in Narvik this morning, I saw to my surprise that it was raining The rain had stopped by the time we'd packed up and checked out of the apartment, but it had interesting consequences for the condition of the roads. It was really hard to tell which bits of the road were wet and slushy and which bits were more icy and slippery. Luckily our Yaktrax seem able to cope with all surfaces and we made it to the station without falling over! I'd already bought the tickets in advance online and we had reserved seats, so all we needed to do was wait on the platform for the train to arrive. There were actually some nice views of the fjord from the platform. The train was due to depart at 10.48 and it arrived promptly. There were some groups of Chinese tourists, but overall it wasn't too busy and we were soon on our way towards Sweden As the train pulled out of Narvik, we got a view of a bridge across the fjord which I think we crossed on the airport bus in the dark the night when we arrived. By chance we were sitting on the best side of the train for views The photos are all a bit blurry as they were taken through the glass of the train window, but we travelled along the fjord for miles. As we got further on, it became increasingly narrow... ...until eventually we got close to the end of it. By this stage, the scenery was becoming increasingly mountainous. Finally we passed the end of the fjord. The train took us right across the top of it... ...and then we were properly inland. On the sides of some of the mountains I could see frozen streams. We were getting close to the Swedish border now. We had decided to get off the train at the border station of Riksgränsen, where we were hoping to get lunch and kill some time before catching the second train of the day on to Abisko. We could have stayed on this current train all the way to Abisko, but we would have ended up getting there three hours before we were able to check into our accommodation and, as research suggests that there aren't very many amenities in Abisko (a village with a population of 85 people), that didn't feel like a good plan. Having researched various destinations along the route, Riksgränsen had sounded the most promising place in terms of restaurants and cafes. The guidebook had described it as Sweden's best ski resort and recommended it as a day trip from Narvik. First impressions when we got off the train in Riksgränsen were that it looked a bit small. It was scenic though, with lots of snowy hills. And we were now in Sweden, which was exciting We started walking down to explore the village. Google maps suggested that there would be a restaurant up this road but, when we got there, we found it was all closed up. Trying a different direction, we passed this bus shelter completely buried in the snow There didn't seem to be very many people in Riksgränsen and so far we hadn't seen a single restaurant which was open. We did find a shop, and Tim asked the staff for directions to a cafe. They told us that everywhere in Riksgränsen was closed and that the nearest open establishment was in a neighbouring village They described the village as being 15 minutes away, but the only way to get there was to walk down the main road which they said was a) slippery and b) dangerous because lorries drive along it quite fast. When I looked it up on Google maps, Google suggested it would be more like a 40 minute walk than 15 minutes anyway, so we quickly ruled that out as an option. We could see ski lifts on the hills above the village, but those weren't operational either. The girls in the shop explained that the skiing season hasn't started here yet because, despite the fact that there's lots of snow, there isn't enough daylight. The fact that a ski resort would be closed in December had never occurred to us when we booked this trip We didn't have any options but to walk back up to the train station and wait for our train to Abisko. The station didn't exactly have a lot of facilities. We were able to buy bread, cake and crisps at the shop and have a picnic lunch in the snow; not quite what we'd been hoping for for lunch, but better than nothing We also had some wine in Tim's suitcase (which we'd brought with us because Abisko is too small to have its own alcohol shop) and that livened the picnic up We were lucky that it wasn't actually very cold today; I think the temperature must have been above zero, because we could hear snow melting from the station roof. It was warm enough for Tim to take his coat off anyway I suppose it's fair enough that they don't ski here in December, because there really wasn't a lot of daylight. By 2pm, it was already looking like twilight. By the time Tim went down to the shop again to get some more supplies, it was properly dark. Everywhere looked very pretty in the darkness though. By 3pm it may as well have been the middle of the night! Every so often while we were waiting, freight trains came past bearing the logo of LKAB, the Swedish mining company. The trains were enormous, with so many carriages that it took several minutes for each one to pass. Needless to say, we were incredibly pleased when it was finally time for our train to arrive. This train had sleeper carriages which were continuing on all the way to Stockholm. Perhaps that's an idea for a future holiday! Our journey to Abisko only took around 45 minutes. There are actually two stations in Abisko - Abisko Turiststation, which is the site of a youth hostel, and Abisko Östra, which is the station for the main village. We were getting off at Abisko Östra. Abisko is a very popular winter destination and so, when I was booking accommodation here, options were extremely limited. There were no available apartments or hotels, so I booked us into a small hostel where we would have a bedroom to ourselves, plus use of a shared kitchen and bathrooms. The prices here are reminiscent of Icelandic prices, and so our stay here is costing £98 per night. As you can see from the photo, the room we're getting for that price is a bit on the small size It's warm and comfy though and all the shared facilities seem clean. Best of all, the owners messaged me days in advance with the check-in instructions, including the code we needed to get our keys out of the key safe, so Abisko is already winning over Narvik in that respect! The area around Abisko is supposed to be beautiful, so we are looking forward to exploring it in the daylight tomorrow
  3. We woke up feeling rested this morning and a bit more enthusiastic about exploring Narvik than when we'd arrived last night It was still dark at around 9am when Tim set out to find a shop to buy breakfast. It seems like things are slow to get started in Narvik on Saturday mornings, so it took a while before he found one that was open. By the time he'd returned and we'd had breakfast and were ready to set out again, things had got a bit brighter. Our apartment is in this red wooden house. From our windows we can see this big mountain, with its illuminated ski slope. Hopefully this picture also helps to illustrate how steep the side streets in Narvik are! We were prepared for the slippery pavements today though and had our Yaktrax on, which made it a lot easier to walk. Our first stop was the local shopping centre, because we wanted to track down Narvik's branch of Vinmonopolet, the state-owned alcohol store. We knew from our previous visit to Norway in 2013 that these shops have restricted opening hours and are often closed at times you might expect to be able to buy alcohol, like on weekends or bank holidays. The good news was that when we found the shop, we were able to establish that it was open until 15.00 on Saturdays, so we knew we'd be able to return later and buy some wine It was worth going into the shopping centre anyway to see the Christmas decorations We headed outside again, walking along the town's main street. The mountain we can see from our apartment looms across the whole town. There aren't a lot of sights in the town centre, but there are a few strange landmarks like this huge pyramid. We realised that we could see down towards the bus station, from where we'd started our uphill climb last night. In the distance, we could also see Narvik's main church. The town feels quite large, but it only has a population of 14,000 people so it's actually pretty small by UK standards. Our aim was to walk downhill, towards the harbour area, in the hope of getting some views of the fjord. It wasn't long before we got our first glimpse of the sea! As we walked towards the water, we passed this unusual building. Once we got to the far side of it, we realised that it was a church The further we walked, the more impressive the views became. We began to get better views out across the water. In places the side of the road was quite rocky and we passed some incredible icicles. I don't think I've ever seen icicles this big before Eventually we made it down to the harbour. Despite the fact that it is located very far north (the furthest north we've ever been) Narvik is warmed by the Gulf Stream and so the harbour here is always ice-free. The town grew up here in the 19th century, when a Swedish mining company realised that they could use the harbour to export their iron ore. A significant amount of iron ore is still shipped from here today, and so although some of the views of the fjord were stunning, overall Narvik does have a bit of an industrial feel to it. The ice-free nature of the fjord had unfortunate consequences for Narvik during the Second World War, because the harbour was of strategic importance to both sides. It's hard to imagine when it all looks so peaceful today, but two naval battles were fought in the fjord in 1940. There is a war museum in the Narvik but we didn't go. The views were starting to get obscured by clouds at this point and light snow was falling, so we decided we'd walked far enough around the harbour and turned around to climb back up towards the town centre. The Christmas lights in the main square were pretty. Walking along the main street in the opposite direction from before, we came across this signpost showing the distance between Narvik and various destinations. It turns out we're slightly closer to St Petersburg than we are to Oslo The daylight is quite limited here and before it got dark, we wanted to locate the train station from where we will be catching a train to Abisko in Sweden tomorrow. It turns out that it's actually not that far from our apartment. Walking towards it, we had some more beautiful views of the mountain. We were hungry by this stage, so we walked back towards the shopping centre, where we'd spotted a pizza restaurant earlier. I went for a tropical pizza, which unusually featured pineapple and spicy pepperoni, while Tim had a chicken burger. The food was filling, and not too expensive; we stuck with the free tap water again, so just had the main courses, and the bill came to just under £30. We weren't in the restaurant for long, but by the time we stepped outside, darkness had fallen. Walking back up towards our apartment, we could see the ski run illuminated again. Having explored Narvik today, the apartment is actually in a good location, not far from the train station or the main street. It was a bit of an unpleasant surprise last night to have to do so much walking uphill with our cases (and then not to be able to get into the apartment), but that aside it hasn't been a bad place to stay We're spending tomorrow travelling to Sweden, where we'll be staying in less glamorous accommodation, which will hopefully be compensated for by some amazing scenery!
  4. We had some difficulties with planning our post-Christmas Lapland trip this year. We'd decided that, after a few years in a row of going to Äkäslompolo in northern Finland, we wanted to try somewhere different and we were considering travelling to Ivalo, a village even further north. We spent ages waiting for Ivalo flights to be released by Norwegian, before eventually realising that they'd discontinued their Ivalo route. By the time we'd figured that out, flights to Finland after Christmas were far too expensive, and so it was too late to change our minds and go to Äkäslompolo again instead. While searching for cheap flights to anywhere snowy on the dates we wanted, I stumbled across a good deal to a place in Norway called Narvik. I can't pretend that I'd ever heard of Narvik before, but it seemed sufficiently far north that it ought to have snow, and once we did some research we realised that it was situated at the far end of a train line leading into Sweden. That sounded promising, so we decided to give it a go and I booked the flights while they were still cheap Getting to Narvik involved flying with Norwegian via Oslo, and so it was that our alarms went off at 4am this morning for another early morning drive down to Gatwick. We were flying from the south terminal this time, as opposed to the north terminal for Bolzano, so that was a bit of variety at least; it really didn't feel like very long since we were last in Gatwick We arrived in plenty of time for our 09.20 flight and survived the chaos of self-check in with only a minor blip when Tim's suitcase turned out to be over the weight limit. This may or may not have had something to do with an attempt to import our own alcohol into Scandinavia Luckily, Norwegian is a much friendlier airline than Ryanair and while we had to go to a separate desk to get the bag checked in, we didn't have to pay anything extra. All that remained to do was to keep our fingers crossed that our baggage labels were properly stuck on this time and neither of our suitcases would get lost en route! Our flight departed promptly and we had a pleasant journey. The first part of the flight was very cloudy, and although the sky cleared up about halfway through the journey, the majority of the flight was over the sea so there wasn't actually a lot to see. It was only about half an hour before the end of the flight that I got my first view of the Norwegian coast. As the plane moved further inland, snowy mountain tops suddenly became visible. We flew over the mountains, looking down on frozen lakes and rivers below. As we got closer to Oslo, the countryside became a little flatter. There seemed to be snow everywhere, even this far south. Oslo itself was covered in cloud and there was an announcement saying that the pilot wanted all electronic devices on board switched off to help him land in it We landed safely though and were soon inside Oslo airport, where we had 5.5 hours to kill before our second flight to Narvik at 17.55. We decided to kill some time by having lunch and walked around exploring the various eating options at the airport. We settled for Jamie's Italian, which I thought had gone out of business in the UK but which still seems to be going strong in Oslo. Tim had a tagliatelle bolognese... ...while I opted for a spicy meatball pizza. Both were good, although the Norwegian prices are going to take a bit of getting used to; each main course cost around £18. A glass of wine would have cost £12, so we decided to save money and drink the free tapwater Then there were just a few more hours to wait before our internal flight to Narvik. I passed them with reading, drinking strong coffee and starting to write this blog. We also had to move from the international terminal into the terminal for domestic flights, which provided a bit of variety. Overall Oslo airport is really nice. The seats were comfy and there were plenty of water fountains. We had come prepared with our own water bottles so that we didn't have to pay for bottled water. Our flight to Narvik started boarding promptly at around 17.30. I had expected this to be a smaller plane because I didn't think Narvik would be a very popular destination, but it was actually the same size as our flight from Gatwick and seemed to be completely full. I had high hopes of us departing Oslo on time, because the flight was scheduled to land at 19.35 and the airport bus was due to depart for the town of Narvik at 19.50. If the flight was delayed and we missed that bus, it wasn't the end of the world because the was another bus scheduled for that evening... but not until after 22.00, so we would have quite a long wait. Unfortunately, despite the promising start we didn't take off on time. The plane got close to the runway, but then had to join a queue of planes which were waiting to be de-iced. We sat for about half an hour before it was our turn to be sprayed with the de-icer and we could get on our way. The flight took around 90 minutes, so it was after 8pm before we landed in Narvik. There were no views on this flight as it was so dark, but as we came into land in Narvik we could see that it looked pretty snowy The airport which I've been referring to as "Narvik" is actually called Harstad/Narvik airport, a name which it seems to have acquired by virtue of being located equally far from both Harstad and Narvik, in a place called Evenes. It is a very small airport, so we walked straight off the plane and into a room which seemed to serve both as an arrivals hall and as baggage reclaim. We had to wait a while before the baggage carousel to start up, so I had time to get increasingly nervous about whether our bags were going to have made the connection... happily they both did, and so all that remained was to see whether the airport bus had waited because the flight was delayed. Amazingly, when we stepped outside the airport we found that it had indeed waited I had already purchased the tickets online for 297 NOK, which is about £26 each for a journey of around an hour. The bus waited for a while longer to make sure that everyone had had time to collect their luggage and that there were no more potential passengers, before setting off on its route. The journey took us around the edge of the Ofotfjord, so I had tantalising glimpses of the coast out of the window, whenever there was sufficient light to see anything The snow seemed to go right down to the water, but the water itself was frozen. The bus stopped at various hotels in Narvik, terminating at the bus station. I'd decided that the bus station would be the best place to get off, although I'd done so without realising that the bus station was at the bottom of a rather large hill and the rest of the town was at the top of that hill. We spent 10 minutes or so pulling our cases up very steep and icy pavements, before arriving at the same level as the penultimate bus stop outside one of the town's hotels. Oops - it would have been much better if we had got off there! We are staying in Narvik for two nights and I had booked an apartment via Airbnb. This is the first time I've ever used Airbnb, normally preferring booking.com, and I had only been tempted to use it on this occasion because the apartment I'd found was a mere £60/night which by Norwegian standards seemed like an absolute bargain. I had been a bit nervous about it all day though, because I hadn't had any information from the host about how we were supposed to check in, save for some instructions in Norwegian on the reservation which, when Google translated, gave the address, explained that we needed to enter via a back door and that the apartment was on the second floor, with a key in a key box. That was all well and good but I assumed that there was a code required for the key box, so I'd messaged the person on Airbnb yesterday morning, explaining what time we were arriving and asking for instructions. I hadn't received any reply, so I was hoping that it would turn out to be obvious when we got there. Getting there turned out to be more difficult than I had anticipated. Nothing I had read about Narvik in advance had mentioned the fact that the town is built on a steep slope. The apartment was only 1km away from the bus station and a couple of streets away from the town's main street, so I'd figured it was in a pretty central location. It may be, but we spent most of the kilometre walking uphill on pavements which were covered in frozen snow. Our snow boots have a good grip and some of the pavements were gritted, but even so it was a difficult walk. We arrived at the address on the reservation around 22.15, cold and out of breath. Following the limited instructions we did have, Tim went in through the back door of the building, and found what might be the apartment; a door on what to us was the first floor (but could possibly be the second floor in Norwegian) with a key safe inside it. The key safe was, of course, locked with a code and we didn't have the code. Oh dear The Airbnb app had a "call the host" option, so Tim attempted to give them a ring. Nobody picked up initially, but we did get a call back shortly afterwards as a result of which we got the key code and were able to get inside. Yay No apology or explanation though as to why we hadn't been given this information in the first place! Once I'd recovered from the stress of check-in, I could see that the apartment actually is quite nice. We've got a little kitchen with a dining table... ...a comfortable living area... ...and a slightly cramped bedroom where there's only just enough space to walk around the bed We'd been travelling for 17 hours at this point, leaving home at 04.30 and getting into the apartment around 22.30 Norwegian time, so we decided to call it a night
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