June 3rd, 2018

We spent 1 ½ days in Helsinki—but we will be back!  Took a city tour.  There was too much to see and it was hard to actually see when sitting in a  bus.  We did sort of get a feel for the city.

We stopped at the monument for Sibelius.  The sculpture consists of series of more than 600 hollow steel pipes welded together in a wave-like pattern. The purpose of the artist was to capture the essence of the music of Sibelius.  An image of Sibelius was added at the side.

We stopped at the Rock Church—carved from bedrock granite, opened in 1969.  Beautiful inside, wonderful acoustics.  We were privileged to hear a piano recital while there.

We also stopped at the Evangelical Lutheran Cathedral built in the mid-1800’s.  Again, we just happened to arrive for a short organ recital.  Beautiful music.  The inside is quite plain, but lovely.

We were near the open market and had our lunch there twice.  One can find crafts, flowers, fruits and vegetables, fresh fish, and meals.  The gulls also have found this place and are very cocky.  We saw one fly into one of the eating shelters and take fish from someone’s plate before they even knew it!

We spent an afternoon at the island sea fortress, Suomenlinna, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Construction was started in 1748 by the Swedish government (Finland then under Sweden) to protect against Russian expansion.  The lilacs were in full bloom and very fragrant.

These maps were provided by our tour guide at the end of our trip as a summary. The blue squiggles indicate stormy weather!


June 2nd, 2018

We spent two days in northern Finland in Lapland.  We traveled by bus towards Ivalo.  We had lunch with a Sami family who run a “camp” and fixed us a good lunch.

We visited a reindeer farm run by Sami people.  They talked about caring for the reindeer (they are all owned) and a bit about Sami culture.  Only recently is the culture recognized again as being something worth keeping.  For example, the man learned only Finnish but children nowadays do learn the Sami language in school.

Gold mining used to be important in the late 1800s in this area.  We stopped at a park where a man is very enthusiastic about gold mining.  He has recreated a gold mining town with copies of buildings from Colorado and Alaska.  He himself has traveled all over the world to compete in contests in panning for gold.  He has won many awards.  The World Gold Mining Competition in 2019 is to be held here.  We had a chance to try panning and Ron found a tiny flake!

One evening we broke into smaller groups and had a supper in a Sami home.  We had a delightful family.  The wife is a health inspector, the husband leads snow mobile tours and does construction, and they have a very talkative and cute 2-year-old.  The home was lovely.  The wife had designed it and the husband built it.  The meal itself was excellent.

Activities and Scenery

June 1st, 2018

Everyday on board we had a learning session.  The first was about the Vikings.  Probably the one thing that surprised us the most was that Vikings were not an ethic group—it was a profession.  (Maybe you knew, but we didn’t learn that in school.)  Much of what has been learned about the Vikings has come via the Rune stones (Sweden), sagas (Iceland), and Skaldic verse.  The Viking time period was 8-11th century.

We had another session on Norway during World War II.  Germany invaded Denmark and Norway April 9, 1940.  Denmark fell almost immediately but Norway held on for about 2 months.  There was some peaceful resistance but there was also some cooperation.  In 1942 many Jews were shipped off the Germany.  It was said that before the war there were 2000 Jews in Norway and afterward there was only one.  The king and government fled to England.

We had a session on learning the Norwegian language.  It was fun but don’t think we got very far!

Another day we learned about various famous Norwegians explorers and yet another day we talked about the marine and bird life on the Norway coast.

One night the ship made a detour to the Trollfjord.  It is a beautiful fjord with a very narrow opening.  There was just barely space for the ship to turn around.  It was a magical night – about 11:30 pm, cold, steep walls, waterfalls, quiet. The ship served hot fish soup to drink.  Tasty!

We decided there was no reason to attach actual days to specific scenic photos. The scenes were just beautiful along the whole coast.  The farther north we went the more rugged it seemed.  But everywhere was beauty.

Hurtigruten Cruise (2)

May 31st, 2018

Our next off-ship excursion was in Tromso.  Had a walking tour of this arctic capital of 70,000.  It was the starting point for many seagoing hunting and exploring trips.  At one time it was known as the “Paris of the North” because many of the men would come back through Paris and bring their wives the highest fashion in clothes!  We stopped at the Polar Museum.  Learned about the ways of hunting.  Interesting.

We walked around more of the town and visited an old pub 1928 – Mack’s brewpub Olhallen.  Until a few years ago their claim to fame was their beer was brewed the farthest north.  It has 67 taps.  Townspeople, fishermen, students, tourists all gather to meet and converse.

Our last day on the ship turned stormy.  And we mean stormy!  Our tour leader said it was not uncommon for this strong a storm in winter or early spring, but it is usually calmer by May.  The ship had to skip several ports because it just could not dock.  On our last day we were supposed to take a bus trip to North Cape.  It is the northernmost point in Europe that can be accessed by road.  However, they closed the road just as we were to go because of the wind.  (We heard later that there were some accidents – for one, a car rolled over.)  Therefore, we just took a short bus trip around a small area to get some feeling for the harsh environment.  Our ship rocked and rolled most of the day and night!

Our last stop on the ship – and where we disembarked – was Kirkenes.  We visited a bomb shelter from World War II.  It was a large underground area (about 2 km of tunnels) and dark, damp, and cold.  Several hundred citizens lived here while several thousand were sheltered in an old iron mine across the bay.  The Germans and the Russians were both interested in this area for the iron ore and there was fighting back and forth.  We made a brief stop at the Norway—Russia border and then on to the Norway—Finland border.

Hurtigruten Cruise (1)

May 30th, 2018

The Hurtigruten is a cruise, ferry and cargo line of ships beginning in 1893 with a fleet of 14 ships.  We were on the Vesteraalen.  It is a working ship so does not have all the amenities of a cruise line—which suited us just fine.  It has a capacity of 500 passengers but it didn’t seem filled at this time of year.  Local people got on and off along the way.  We pulled out of Bergen about 10:30 pm.

The ship makes 34 stops along the coast—sometimes for 15-30 minutes and sometimes for several hours.  Our first off-ship excursion was in Alesund.  We took an hour walk around the city.  There was a great fire in 1904 when nearly ¾ of the city burned.  Much of it was rebuilt in Art Nouveau style.

Our second excursion off the ship was in Trondheim.  We had a city bus tour which took us to a lookout where we could look out over the city.  Our tour guide had several “normal” Norwegian snacks for us to try while viewing the scenery.  Cheese (flavored with a type of jalapeno) in a tube (good for taking on hikes), “caramel” type topping for bread much like Nutella but caramel flavor, dried fish (on the order of beef jerky), chocolate covered things sort of like rice chex, and a type of soda that everyone agreed was much like cream soda.

We had a tour of the 11th century Gothic Nidaros Cathedral which was built over the burial site of St Olav, King of Norway.  It is the northernmost medieval cathedral in the world.  Absolutely beautiful inside—quite ornate and wonderful stained-glass windows.  The gargoyles were fun.  No photos inside allowed!  We then walked to a pedestrian bridge over the Nidelva River.  In the evening we made a brief stop in Rorvik.  We got off the boat just for a fast walk through a very small town.

On Day 4 of our journey we crossed the Arctic Circle.  There had been a contest on board for people to guess the exact time of crossing—down to the second.  We crossed at 7:16:01 am.  Neither of us won!  Later in the morning there was a ceremony to honor the winner.  Neptune was there to congratulate the winner.  The prize was the flag that flew at the time we crossed the Circle but then…..they poured ice cubes down the winner’s back and gave a shot of schnapps!!!!  Others could also go through this experience then.  Needless to say, we decided we were cold enough not to have the ice cubes!  People really yelped when the ice went down! The schnapps was said to help warm them up.

We had a 1½ hour walk in the town of Bodo.  Just a “regular” little Norwegian town of 50,000 in the north, capital of Nordland county.  We walked through the main district and discovered a beautiful church.  This church was destroyed in 1940 when the whole city center was bombed.  The new cathedral was built in the 1950’s with a 118 ft tall free-standing clock tower with three bells.

Later that day we had a short stop in Svolvaer where we visited a small World War II museum.


Bergen (2)

May 29th, 2018

Our last full day in Bergen began with a visit to the fresh fish market.  Our tour guide is a marine biologist so she had a great time talking about the various fish in the cases.

We continued the day with a trip to Edvard Grieg’s home and museum.  It was in a beautiful location.  Originally, Edvard composed on the second floor of his house over the kitchen.  That became too noisy for concentration and he built a small studio by the water. One does not need to wonder how he got inspiration from nature!  We attended a half hour piano/voice concert in a fabulous hall with windows looking out over the water.

We drove back to town and had a simple lunch in one of the old Hanseatic League assembly halls.  The highlight was a concert with the hardanger fiddle.  The is a traditional stringed instrument that is similar to the violin.  It has four strings and 4-5 lower strings that are not played but just resonate – sort of like the bagpipe drones.  Fascinating concert.


Bergen (1)

May 29th, 2018

Had a late lunch in a unique restaurant – Dr Wiesener’s.  The building was built in 1889 as a bath house in memory to the doctor’s work.  It was erected for the benefit of the “less fortunate” and continues the same atmosphere.  “Everyone” seemed to be there, including a wedding party, as well ordinary folk.  The owner said that several times a year he arranges to bring old people from various homes here for something special.

We had a short city bus tour, checked into the hotel, and then went up the funicular to look out over the city.  It is more than 2700 feet long and covers a height difference of nearly 1000 feet.  Lovely views.  We walked down.

Next day we walked to the apartment of a local guide to see her small flat.  We then went on to the Fisheries Museum to hear a bit about the history of fishing in Norway.  Super lunch of fresh caught salmon.  Walked back to hotel.  Later had a brief tour of an old part of town known as Bryggen.  The area was rebuilt after a large fire in 1702 and includes the old Hanseatic wharf and buildings.  The Hanseatic League set up office in Bryggen in 1360 and dominated the trading industry for 400 years.


Oslo – Flam – Bergen

May 28th, 2018

Next day we took bus from Oslo to Flam.  Beautiful scenery.  Stopped and toured the Borgund Stave Church completed in the 12th century.  One interesting thing we learned was that the pillars are from special pine trees that have had the bark removed and left to continue to grow for another 10 years.  This allows the pitch to come to the surface and makes especially strong wood.  These are known as “staves.”

Flam has a population of about 400 but gets 2.5 million visitors per year!  Luckily for us, the large cruise ships had not arrived yet.  After supper we took a recreational hike along the fjord and enjoyed the peace, quiet, and views.

From Flam we took an hour scenic train ride to Myrdal.  This was filled with tourists but what a ride!  Every turn was more gorgeous than before.  High mountains, gushing rivers, waterfalls, lakes, tiny villages and lone cabins.  Stopped at one gushing cascade and were able to get out of the train.  There was music and a dancer on some rocks in the mist.  Beautiful.

At Myrdal we got on a local train for the 3-hour ride to Bergen.  We still had beautiful scenery just maybe not so spectacular.  Also there were more small farms and tiny villages.



May 27th, 2018

Our Scandinavian trip began when we arrived in Oslo a day early.  We spent our free day walking to the Folk Museum – about a 3-mile walk.  Norwegian Museum of Cultural History.  We took our time along the way and enjoyed seeing the port and city of Oslo.  The museum is open area with collections of buildings and artifacts from around the country.  One of the main attractions is the Gol Stave Church, built in the 12th century.  There was an old 14th century farmhouse and an 1865 tenement building.  Also some buildings from the 19th and 20th century.

Our first day with the group was Constitution Day.  This is a huge patriotic and family day.  We began celebrating with a “champagne” toast in the park and then watched the parade.  We watched about 2 hours, but the parade continued longer.  The parade was made up entirely of children.  So nice not to see armed forces, political leaders, etc.  Focus on children.  They marched up a long street to the palace where they saw the king and royal family and continued down to water.  We were able to get close enough to see the royal family also.  Norwegians dress up for this—many in national costume and men in suits.

Took a short bus tour of the city, went to the Viking Ship Museum, a high ski jump, and lastly to the Vigeland Sculpture Park.  The park includes Gustav Vigeland’s lifework of more than 200 sculptures in bronze, granite and wrought iron. Vigelad did not clothe his statues – naked because he wanted them to represent all time periods and by putting any clothes on, this would date the figure.


February 10th, 2018

Flew to Cartagena, Colombia, a major port founded in 1533.  During the colonial era it was a key port for export of Peruvian silver to Spain and for import of African slaves.  Cartagena was one of three centers of the Spanish inquisition—only Catholicism was tolerated here.  In 1984 the walled city and fortress were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Tourism is a very important economic activity these days.

Our hotel was located inside the walled city; we found the historical city easy to walk around.  The hotel was a small unique/quirky one.  There were indoor balconies and several small courtyards with lots of plants.  Our room was located on a small courtyard with a fountain and a resident toucan.  Our shower and toilet were all glass.  If we didn’t close the curtains we could sit on the toilet and look out through the glass door to the fountain—and anyone else in the courtyard!

Our tour leader took us on a walk in the historical city.  Very colorful, very busy, very hot, very touristy. There are great colonial structures and narrow streets.  Saw some dancing that reminded us very much of Voodoo dancing we saw in Haiti and Senegal.  Later we took several walks around the area and were always drawn to the colors, music, and feeling of being back in Africa. A significant part of the population of Cartagena has African roots.  Near the Clock Tower is San Pedro Claver Square and the church and monastery named for Saint Peter Claver  (‘Saint of the African slaves’), as well as the Museum of Modern Art.

Cartagena is on the northern coast of Colombia facing the Caribbean Sea.  Several times we drove or walked near the coast.

One morning we went to an “emerald school.”  Colombia mines and produces about 80% of the world’s emeralds and they are usually claimed as the best quality.  The school takes children from poor families and teaches them to make jewelry.  They learn to cut and polish emeralds, melt silver and make threads, and bend threads to make various jewelry.  These apprentices cum instructors helped us each make pendants, bracelets, earrings, and rings.

We visited San Felipe Castle Fortress.  It was built by the Spanish in 1536 during the colonial era and expanded in 1657.  The castle is located on the Hill of San Lázaro in a strategic location, dominating approaches to the city by land or sea.

Another day we visited a fishing village and took a canoe ride around mangrove swamps.  We then stopped at a restaurant (on the beach) and had the best local food—fish soup, fried whole fish, coconut rice, and fried plantain.

We departed Cartagena for Panama City where we connected to our flight to Chicago at sundown.