UNESCO World Heritage Site

Beautiful, moody Bergen, snuggled in between the sea and the mountains

From Finse our next stop was Bergen, over on Norway’s western coast. The second largest city in Norway (after Oslo) and Norway’s capital in the 13th century, today it is an important commercial port and major tourist destination. The historic buildings on the eastern side of the old city harbor known as Bryggen form a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

One of Bergen’s picturesque streets

First though, we had to get here from Finse. We’ve traveled by train a lot in Europe and we’ve come to expect reasonably timely service, reasonably comfortable service, a reasonably easy trip. OK, not so much in Norway. Our train was some 45 minutes late getting into Finse, it stopped a few times en route to Bergen due to technical problems, there was no café car, and we’d been warned that at the penultimate stop we would have to get off and transfer to a bus.

OK, things go wrong. But when we got off the train to finish the trip by bus … there was no bus. The signs all pointed to the place to catch a bus, but there was no bus. I just assumed they would have that all arranged but … not so much. Now eventually we only had to wait 10 or 15 minutes, but then the bus didn’t have enough seats for everyone so some people had to stand the full 30 or 35 minutes it took us to get to Bergen. Not exactly what you expect for Europe’s train system.

Eventually, though, we got to Bergen. The first thing to note about our stay here was that the weather was not normal. You know those European heat waves you’ve heard about recently? Totally missed Norway. Mark was here 36 years ago in August and he remembers normal summer weather. Our three-night stay was all rain and fog and cold and more rain. You’d look at the forecast on your iPhone and see that there was a high chance of rain, and sure enough it was raining. You’d look at your iPhone and see there was zero percent chance of rain and … it was probably raining then anyway.

Three American tourists, three new raincoats!

One result was that the tourist stores along the harbor were full of tourists buying rain coats and rain pants and sweaters and coats and gloves. And when I say “tourists,” of course I’m referring to Mark and Jim. And Bart and Ann, who joined us here for the three days. And as you walk around the city you can see all these tourists who, just like us, have the nicest, cleanest, newest cold wet weather gear on. Quite the sight.

What’s to do in Bergen? Parts of it are really beautiful, you’re surrounded by water and mountains, and with all the precipitation the greenery is practically exploding. So you walk around (in your rain coat and rain pants, maybe an umbrella) and enjoy the moody beauty. A funicular takes you high above the city where there are great views and beautiful trails.

Bart & Ann enjoying the views from above the city

But there’s only so much of that you want to do in the rain. So there’s always laundry to do. Mark had done the research and found the service where you can drop off your dirty clothes in the morning and pick up clean, folded clothes in the afternoon. Sadly, though, the owners were on their summer holiday so instead I had to schlep some two miles north of the city center to a laundromat. Not ideal, but there’s little that makes us happier than a suitcase full of clean clothes.

Mark, Ann, & Bart getting high

And then spending time with Bart & Ann. Walking around, laughing, joking, finding places to eat. Talking politics and catching up on stories of the people we know but don’t see anymore. And playing Hearts. Lots of playing Hearts. Mark was the big winner if you’re wondering.

Now the sun is trying to poke out so it’s time to get the heck out. From here we board a boat and will spend six days sailing up through the fjords, up past the Arctic circle to the very northeast edge of Norway. Despite what one might think after reading about our two weeks on a boat in Croatia and now this trip, we’re honestly not cruise or really even boat people. But I didn’t want my first fjord experience to be some cheap day trip, and the chance to get that far north just seemed too good to pass up. So here we go.

More moody Bergen

Cozy streets

Cute houses

Historic wooden buildings in Bryggen

There’s a lot of green in this city

Oh right – history and culture. This was the King’s Hall next to Bergen’s old fortress. It is still used sometimes for events and concerts.

Political street art

Mark is always making new friends

A trail up above the city

Another pretty, wet street in the old town

Hard to believe that 25 years ago Bart was building our condo in Cambridge. A quarter of a century later there’s no couple we enjoy traveling with more.

Here we are early in the hike around the lakes. Pretty nice water, huh?

We made a two-day stop in Plitvice Lakes National Park, what the guidebook calls Croatia’s “Adriatic hinterland,” about a hundred miles southeast of Opatija. We’d wanted to go there way back in 2013 when we first came here on our big adventure but it’s really hard to get here without a car. So part of the calculation in deciding to rent a car for this leg of our Slovenia/Croatia trip was to get to Plitvice.

The whole reason one comes to the area is this series of cascading lakes and waterfalls, surrounded by lush forests. It isn’t cheap – it’s about $40 per person, plus $10 for parking – but for a day-long outdoor experience it’s hard to beat. I mean, it’s been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since the 1970s. Oh, and one historic note worth mentioning. When Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, the Yugoslav (i.e., Serbian) army’s first point of attack was Plitvice. They held the park through the duration of the war and in fact it is thought that some remote parts of the park – not anywhere close to where tourists go – may still have Serbian landmines. Yuck.

As Lonely Planet puts it, “It’s as though Croatia decided to gather all its waterfalls in one place and charge admission to see them.”

So what’s going on here? The basic idea is that the geology of the area is loaded with limestone. As all the water flows along it picks up limestone and drops chalk sediment all over. That creates ideal growing conditions for moss and algae which constantly reroute the flow of water. The result is an ever-changing landscape of waterfalls cascading to lower lakes, over and over, all in stunning turquoise. And apparently it’s been going on for a long time, as in since the last great ice age.

And that was it. Though shorter routes are available, including lovely tour boats that glide across the biggest lakes as significant shortcuts, the full route around the major lakes in the park is about 12 miles. Which of course I had to do. Admittedly, I was sore the next days but the views were spectacular and definitely worth it.

Now it’s down to the ancient city of Split on the coast and off on a 14-day bike trip!

We were there quite early, before the crowds and when everything was very still

During the early part of the hike the boardwalk was often right over flowing water. We were amused by the lack of safety provisions; I can’t imagine you could have something like this without guard rails in the U.S.

More waterfalls

On the trail

While most of the trail was immediately next to the lakes, sometimes it went high up into the forest

From high up you would get views like this

And this

The tomb of Tutankhamun in Valley of the Kings. Seeing it spelled like this I recognized that “ankh” is the Egyptian symbol of life while “amun” was the Egyptian sun god.

We sailed north from Edfu to Luxor, arguably the most important site of Ancient Egypt. Known to the Greeks as Thebes, the city grew in prominence from about 2000 BC when it was the capital of Upper Egypt (note that I’m finally getting used to the fact that Upper Egypt is in the south, referring to the upper Nile, which flows northward into the Mediterranean) until by 1550 BC it was the political, religious, and military capital of all Ancient Egypt. Its local god, Amun, rose in prominence with the city and he soon became associated with the sun god Ra as the “king of gods,” Amun-Ra. Together with his wife Mut and son Khonsu, the moon god, they ruled as Egypt’s divine trinity. (Wait, a big god father, a mother who is worshipped, and a son also worshipped as a god; I’ve seen that pattern somewhere. It seems like a good model to copy if someone were creative…) By the time of the conquest of Alexander the Great in 323 BC the city had fallen into ruins but he came to pay respects and essentially claim the mantle as the new Amun-Ra.

During those thousand-plus years, though, there was a millennium’s worth of wonders built and today Luxor is known sometimes as the world’s greatest open-air museum: temples of Karnak and Luxor, the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens across the Nile. With so much to see we were glad to have three days here to drink it all in.

Sunset on the Nile. We’re on the east side of the river, meant for the living, while the west where the sun sets and things go to die is for the Theban Necropolis.

It might be worth mentioning that modern history hasn’t been as kind. Luxor was the site of major 1997 attack where six Egyptian terrorists killed 62 tourists at the Temple of Hatshepsut, devastating the tourist industry in Egypt broadly and Luxor specifically. The 9/11 attacks just four years later, followed by a terrorist attack at Sharm el-Sheikh in 2005 and the revolution in 2011 that removed long-serving President Hosni Mubarak, didn’t help. Today the area seems remarkably calm; tourism is still reduced but there’s lots of security and – from a purely selfish perspective – it’s a lot more fun to tour the sites without massive hordes.

The Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, site of a great burial chamber and a terrible terrorist attack. On the other side of that imposing hill is the Valley of the Kings.

What’s all to see in Luxor now? A lot. First on our agenda was Karnak, a vast temple complex just a couple miles from the modern city center. How vast? After Angkor Wat in Cambodia Karnak is the second-largest religious temple in the world. And if you’re wondering – I was – in our travels Mark & I have been to seven of the 10 largest.

At any rate, construction here began at the start of the second millennium BC and lasted all the way through the Ptolemaic period after Alexander’s conquest. Some 30 pharaohs contributed to the construction giving it diversity and complexity unmatched anywhere. The largest part of the temple is dedicated to Amun-Ra, an area consisting of 134 massive columns, though there are all sorts of areas in the temple worth exploring. An obelisk or two that have stood tall for some 3,500 years, massive pylons (the Greek term for the monumental entrances to Egyptian temples), lots and lots and lots of stone carvings. Truly an amazing site.

Mark and our guide Rena in Karnak’s Precinct of Ra with just a small number of the 134 columns surrounding them

From Karnak we made a relatively brief stop at the Luxor Museum. By now it was late in the day and I wasn’t really up for it but when your tour guide tells you to go, you go. And I was really glad I did. Inaugurated in 1975 it is much, much smaller than the great Egyptian Museum in Cairo but at the same time much easier to digest; the museum prides itself more in the quality of display than the quantity. And the quality is spectacular, including a couple mummified pharaohs and some stunning sculptures.

This statue of Thutmosis III, from the 15th century BC, was buried in sand for years and thus today looks as fresh and young as it did all those centuries ago

Also in the Luxor Museum was this statue of Akhenaten, husband of Nefertiti and (probably) father of Tutankhamun. Not only did Akhenaten try (unsuccessfully) to get Egypt to abandon her polytheistic roots in honor of his preferred god Aten but he even tried to change the art style as this almost El Greco-esque piece displays.

Then there was Luxor Temple itself. Built about 1400 BC, it seems to be a temple dedicated to kingship itself and may have been where Egyptian pharaohs were crowned. The entrance to Luxor Temple is a bit unbalanced; the single obelisk on one side needed another to balance it off. Well indeed there was once another obelisk there and it turns out I’ve seen it many, many times: it’s the obelisk that now stands in the Place de la Concorde in Paris! And I was intrigued with a temple within the complex that was supposedly built under the orders of Alexander the Great in honor of … himself.

The Temple of Luxor

Then it was across the river to the various necropolises that were built on the west bank (the sun sets in the west, so that side is all about dying apparently). The Valley of the Kings is the star where from the 16th century BC until the 11th pharaohs had tombs cut into the rocks and were buried in lavish style. While many of the tombs were robbed and ransacked the tomb of a distinctly minor king who died at the age of just 19, Tutankhamun, was found nearly intact in 1922.

A small section from the tomb of King Tut

Our last major site was the Mortuary Temple of Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, dating to the 15th century BC. Hatshepsut was an interesting figure. She was, you see, a she, not very common among ancient royals. I mean, some 3,500 years later the U.S. still has issues with elevating women to high office, but I digress. But Hatshepsut reigned for at least 21 years and perhaps as long as 50 years, donning a fake beard and dressing as a man, but definitely a woman. She ascended to the throne after her husband died and left only a two-year-old son to succeed him. Hatshepsut ruled in his place and, as he grew older, came to kind of resent his mother. On her death he succeeded on his own and had all her names erased from the temple. Still, she is regarded as one of the great Egyptian pharaohs though not necessarily as the nicest mom in the world. She opened major trade routes for Egypt and is considered one of the greatest of Egyptian builders.

One of the side rooms in the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut. The room itself is gated off and weird thing here is that it was entirely unlit; with the naked eye you could see nothing. If you put your iPhone up to the gate though it could adjust and see inside just fine. Wow, just wow.

After all that, I have to admit that I’ll be glad to spend a few days not touring old temples. And it’s worth adding that if I had it to do over again, we wouldn’t have done this on a cruise. We’re not cruise people, you see, and don’t usually like organized tours of any sort. I had this romantic notion of cruising down the Nila ala Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, but in practice there was more anchoring in a couple towns than actual cruising. We’d have been better off staying in hotels where we could experience the contemporary scene along with the great ruins and then maybe taking a day cruise or two to experience floating on the Nile. But – and this is a big but – I learned a tremendous amount from our guide. Until now Ancient Egypt has always been a big, vague empty spot in my understanding of ancient history but this was about as good an introduction as you can get. Good enough that I’m now reading a history of Ancient Egypt that I just never would have been able to understand before. So in that sense, mission accomplished.

Gorgeous, colorful columns in Luxor Temple

An obelisk in Karnak that has been standing right there for 3,500 years

A statue inside Luxor Temple. Ramses II? I’m not sure but they usually are…

I think I got good luck from touching his toe

Amenhotep III from the Luxor Museum. The quality of the stuff here was amazing.

A small colorful chip from a tomb recovered in Luxor

Mark on the walkway into the Valley of the Kings

Mark’s not a big fan of snakes, so this three-headed snake in one of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings got his attention

Every square inch of these old temples was plastered, painted, carved, and made beautiful

Some of the hieroglyphics in one of the tombs. I learned a lot during our week on the Nile but I still can’t read this (yet).

More of the glorious interior of some pharaoh’s tomb

We loved these grand columns

The Avenue of the Sphinx in Luxor has only recently been excavated. Connecting Karnak with the Luxor Temple it was a major thoroughfare for religious festivals during Luxor’s heyday.

More of those sphinxes

Hot air balloons in the early morning sky above Luxor. Fortunately none of these exploded.

Life for the locals on the Nile

And life for us on the Nile. We upgrade to get a nice outdoor space … so we can hang our laundry out. The neighbors likely think the Clampetts just moved in.