Sunday, July 22, 2012

-- Norway as seen on TV --

The short night gave room to a bright warm summer day, so we left the hostel early in the morning and took the conveniently located metro just down the road.

The underground network suddenly became an overground train with stunning scenic views of the Oslo fiorjd while dodging the rocky hills splattered with little wooden houses and rocketing uphill into the woodlands.
I had wanted to see the Scandinavian woodlands ever since I was a kid. A clear idea of endless tall pine trees and small creeks was set in my mind ever since I can remember, a land far away, a cold winter and mild summer, wooden houses and the home of Santa Klaus, even though now I know he has his 'headquarters' in Lapland, Finland.

I was not disappointed when we finally reached Frogseteren metro station, the last stop on the line and the start point of our hike. A German guy who was a bit lost decided to tag along as soon as we looked at a very odd map in Norwegian and designed an imaginary path on our minds.

For then next hours, a 12 kilometers hike took place in between tall pine trees, small creeks, improvised wooden bridges and some fellow hikers and joggers just making good use of Oslo's main playground.
Up and down the hills  for a couple of hours while looking at the landscape, getting some fresh air and tracking down some interesting footprints from the local wildlife, we hit our first stop, the remote lodge of Ullevalsetter with their comforting warm meals, wooden furniture and chilled atmosphere. An excellent place for winding down with a nice pint of local beer, some Norwegian smoked cheese and cold meats while bikers and hikers took over the place to refuel their bodies after a very demanding journey.

A short walk down the trails led us to Skjersjoen, one of Oslo's main reservoires of fresh drinking water and a perfect frame for some amazing photos featuring a perfect combination of lakes, hills and woodlands which brought me back some 9 years ago to the same kind of landscape I had seen in the Argentine Patagonia in 2003.
We decided to follow the river down the valley while having a nice talk about university, sports and traveling until we reached the massive lake of Maridalsvannet with its clear water (forbidden for bathing , even though we tried to find a nice bay to do so and beat the heat) and up the hills again towards the train crossing and the Oslo suburban area again.

The walk did not disappoint me at all. Norwegian woodlands were everything I had expected it to be and probably more, even though I wasn't able to see a proper fiorjd of the Aurora Borealis on this visit. I am pretty sure I will in any future trip to this beautiful country.

Back in the blue tram, traveling down the hills from Kjelsas into town ,while crowds of locals were finishing their day at work (meaning good looking girls everywhere) and to say good-bye to our friend for the day and chill out after a long hectic walk.
A quick walk into town finished the day,saying our good-byes to a beautiful pristine city while it was still bright. A good night sleep followed and an early morning departure from the bus terminal led us into Rygge Airport, in the middle of nowhere, and finally flying back to Dublin under shiny skies and a crowded flight.

Dublin received us with an unusual warm sunny day. Pint of beer to commemorate another successful short holiday and back to work.

Days have been gone since then, a trip to Germany to meet with a friend I haven't seen in a long time is coming and the big end-of-summer adventure to Africa in September has just been booked in, just days before moving to England for some months to do complete my Masters degree. Things are moving fast again and I am surely going to keep you all informed about it.

Until then, have a good summer (or winter).

Sunday, July 15, 2012

-- Norwegian Midnight Sunshine --

A very hectic work roster followed my little Italian adventure as my mind started drifting away with traveling again. The travel bug had hit me and actions were required. A quick Ryanair website search and I was booked for a flight to Oslo, Norway and right into the Scandinavian summer.

Had some very busy days in Portrush, Northern Ireland, where a handful of memories were brought under the beautiful North Atlantic breeze and the heavy rain. The city was bursting with golfers attending the Irish Golf Open so things were very hectic for four full days.

After arriving home on a Sunday evening, a quick turnaround ritual followed ( unpacking/packing and get some hours of sleep) before getting up again and take the early bus to Dublin Airport where I met my friends.
The terminal was a bit emptier this time so queues were very easy to beat and got to my gate with enough spare time to have a nice sandwich & coffee while looking at the tarmac and the early transatlantic arrivals.
The blue/yellow express was boarded in a rush just like cattle trying to get some food and we departed immediately leaving the green island behind, into a shiny Northern sky and finally descending into the fiords of Scandinavia. A very bumpy landing due to crosswinds and I found myself in an airport just in the middle of nowhere.

Rygge Oslo Airport as it was called, was a classic Ryanair airport: a tiny terminal in the middle of nowhere with a basic runway and an extremely pricey bus ticket into the city they are supposed to serve. Still, the plane ticket was a bargain so I quietly took some Norwegian Kronas out of my pocket and handed them to the driver.

I was already a bit sleep deprived from the previous days, so I felt asleep for a bit and woke up in between a landscape full of tall pine trees, rocky hills and untouched forest. Some minutes later we crossed a very large tunnel and suddenly the Norwegian capital appeared in front of us with its IKEA-style buildings and hectic traffic.
The first things as usual, was to find our way around the place while walking through airlifted pedestrian bridges into the main train station and to the tourist office where we got a city map and decided to explore the city for the day.

The first stop was Karl Johans Gate, a beautiful pedestrian street framed by top end shops and street artists. Also the spot where a peculiarity of this place was first spotted: people are indeed very good looking and fit , something I had seen in Stockholm back in my cabin crew times.
There are many explanations for this fact, including strong politics and taxes on fat foods, a flawless welfare system and healthcare and a state-of-art infrastructure of parks and cycle tracks.

A yellow-bricked building, the Parliament welcomes tourists into a beautiful green full of fountains and trees while the Royal Palace in the background and top of the hills silently watches the whole city centre. The Royal family would definitely have one of the best views.

There was a fee and a long queue to enter the palace, so we decided to skip it and walk through the beautiful neighborhood just up the hill, splattered with embassies and classic-style architecture. Blue trams crossing around the steep streets give the city a special charm only found in old and small Central Europe towns.

City looked absolutely spotless, an example of a perfect society where pedestrians are given the priority on the street, green public transport reaches every corner and well groomed squares combine perfectly with organized and tree-lined wide avenues.
The massive Sculptures Park was the second stop, where waves of tourists shared the same ground as joggers in between an endless corridor of sculptures representing the mankind and their different faces.
An even more impressive view of the city at the top of the hill, a small break and time to head down town and look for a hostel , bags were starting to get heavy.

A hostel up the road from the train station was suggested by the tourist officer and a more real Oslo was shown immediately as we headed to the part of the city where all the foreigners and the large population of refugees live.
Anker Hostel, a very modern building boiling with tourists all over the world became our base for a quick rest and a shower after a long day with an early start.

Woke up at 8:00pm and still bright as mid-afternoon everywhere else in the world. Time for the second walk around when town was quieter as stores were closed and into the docklands where boats were operating their last sailings around the Oslo fiord, the Nobel House and Museum with an interesting feature presentation on this prestigious and unique award and finally into the Oslo Opera House , a building that strikes your mind with its white concrete and glass combination shaped in ways I had never seen before allowing you access into what looks like a massive ramp and up the roof to enjoy one of the best views of Oslo.

We also decided to explore the inside of the building with its stunning yellow exposed wood curved staircase, white marble floors and interesting design toilets.

It was already 11:00pm and still bright so a midnight sunset was expected for this summer evening , as ferries were sailing away the fiord to Germany and Sweden and the city was lighting up the surrounding green hills.

Midnight a few minutes later and the sunset never really arrived, time for some snaps of this beautiful Scandinavian feature, standing at one of Norway's most important landmarks and overlooking this pristine capital getting ready to sleep. It started to become a bit brighter as the hour passed by. We were told later that the sky is never dark in summer time. Can't imagine the opposite effect in winter time.

-- Ciao San Marino! (Part 3: Milestones Day) --

Cereal, yogurt, fresh fruit, tea and some croissants with Nutella to replenish the body with the energy needed for a very hectic day.
We had decided to visit the small Republic of San Marino , some hour up the road from Riccione and set in a beautiful scenery on top of the mountains surrounded by the Italian valleys and the Adriatic.

As soon as breakfast was finished, a short journey to the neighboring and wealthy town of Rimini was needed to make it to our connecting Express bus to San Marino.

Temperature was increasing and the oceanic breeze was inviting enough for a quick gelatto and a coffee before boarding the tourist-crowded buses which would be taking us through the busy motorway crossing the Italy/San Marino border and then up the steep hills splattered with small houses and holiday homes as we made our way to the Medieval City just on top of the hill.

San Marino surprised me with its perfection as a unique destination. A stunning 360 degrees view of the whole region welcomed us under the beautiful sunshine combined with the strong winds from the coast which were blowing like a strong mini cyclone.
I had also finally reached my 50th country visited which became a major milestone in my life and deserved a nice picture posing with the map of the city and the classic "Welcome to San Marino" signpost.

The Medieval City is surrounded by thick walls and equally strong buildings, a well-protected city in times of war some hundred of years ago which made me feel for a second as I had travelled back in time (just like in many cities in Italy) until we reached the Torture Museum to complete this feeling.

An unique experience as we entered this cold and dark building full of instruments used for torture in Medieval times, from confession chairs full of spikes, to wooden pyramids which teared the unfortunate's bowels apart from the inside, to classic instruments as whips and cages, a horror show completed by an original dungeon in the bottom floor.

I read every story and at some point felt a bit smothered by the whole "ambiance" so after signing the guestbook, I went for some fresh air and a gelatto to continue with the trip around the narrow streets, buying souvenirs, postcards and trying to avoid the waves of tourists arriving all at the same time.

A walk up the hills showed us the best view of the whole old town with observation towers perfectly located defying gravity and the strong winds. A trail conveniently takes you through all of them and back into town , just in time for some quick lunch at a local restaurant, get a new stamp on my passport and back to the bus station where yet another crowded bus would take us down the hill into Rimini.

Day had been long enough already so as soon as we were back in the hotel , we relaxed for a bit and went to the beach just in front of us to enjoy the warm weather , the sunset and the cold water before having yet another amazing dinner and relaxing for the competition in the evening.

A big knot on my stomach again, and a first for a long time. It was time for me to head to the swimming pool to compete the 50 meters butterfly. A feeling I hadn't had since 2007. Refreshing and exciting.
A quick warm up and suddenly everything else happened in fast forward. The preparation , the stretching, the waiting around the calling room , THE FIRST CALL, THE SECOND CALL, the time when we headed to the pool and our names and countries were called in the speaker while the crowd starred at these eight athletes, half naked in front of the still silky water and about to test themselves at their absolute best.

Silence for a second. Whistle and my heart is pounding harder as my eyes stare at my feet positioning on the start block. "Take your marks" and my muscles tense in a complete state of alert. Honk! and its time to jump and for the next 29 seconds just think of nothing but giving your 100 percent and most importantly, enjoying it.

What a feeling! I had finally swam a World Cup, knowing it wouldn't be the last one and followed by a heavy rush of adrenaline that would last the whole night and into the next morning when, after helping a friend with the preparation before his 50 meters freestyle sprint, it was time to say good-bye to the championships, the city and my teammates and take the local train back to Bologna where I connected with the high-speed-posh train FrecciaRossa to Milan Centrale, conveniently traveling at over 300 km/h through the Italian countryside.

A nice surprise at Milan station where I met my Finnish friends from Venice for a few minutes. They continued their trip to Switzerland, my destination was Bergamo Airport and some three hours later into Dublin. Heavy rain welcomed as usual. Time to prepare for the next adventure and keep on training. Montreal 2014 is just around the corner! 

Friday, July 6, 2012

-- Ciao Italia (Part 2: Riccione) --

My alarm clock went on as early as 4:30am when it was time to wake up and walk around through a very quiet Venice following the old signs towards the main train station.
A refreshing warm breeze was blowing from San Pietro while the city sat silent as tourists were asleep and boats were loading supplies to stores and shops before another busy summer day starts.

Train departed a few minutes later and the lagoon was left behind us. I was going to be traveling to Bologna where I would connect to another local train to Riccione in the Emilia Romagna region and south of Veneto.
Lack of sleep made me collapse on my seat for part of the trip as the landscape between us changed from steep hills to soft valleys and into one of the biggest cities in Italy: Bologna.

Connection time between trains was hardly ten minutes, enough time to charge my mobile and have a quick Nutella croissant which at this time of the morning was the perfect energy boost to catch the second train and appreciate the landscape which by now became an endless row of beautiful and well-groomed vineyards and olive trees plantations.
Over an hour later these fields gave way to the Adriatic Sea showing its best face under a strong sunshine and welcoming us to the rich village of Rimini where holiday homes were scattered under tree-lined streets and a relaxed vibe. Riccione followed some ten minutes later and this was my stop for the next days.

Temperature by now had increased dramatically when I started my long walk through the main boardwalk where holiday makers were starting to rush to the beach, elderly joggers were sharing the cycle track with bikes and hundred of athletes were heading towards the swimming pool up the road, holding sport bags and uniforms while the precious Championship ID/pass was hanging off their necks.
Some two kilometers up the road, I bumped into one of my swimming colleagues/friends on the street who after a warm welcome took me to the hotel to check in. I hadn't seen him in over two years so it was refreshing to know we were going to compete together.

 I couldn't wait to get my ID/pass as a rush of past emotions invaded my body and adrenaline started to flow, just like old times.
My two other friends were at the hotel and all four of us headed towards the main massive swimming pool where the World Championships were being held.

Once I got my ID, I felt complete and was finally part of it. I had made it to a World Cup after years of swimming (and quitting , and getting back to it). Quick Italian style lunch at the hotel, including soups, main courses with a delicious fish and pasta and some ice cream for dessert and back to the swimming pool as one of my friends was about to compete in the 100m breaststroke.
While waiting, a beautiful Italian sunshine was burning our pale winter skins. Waves of competitors from all over the world were doing their best at the main outdoor swimming pool. Many languages were heard on the public stands. The time was now, the long training sessions were long gone , this was the time to shine for all of them.

A classic nice gelatto and a walk in Riccione main square and shopping street closed the night under a full moon, clear skies and a refreshing Adriatic breeze.

Off to San Marino in the morning. My 50th country visited.