Midnight Sunshine

I had enormous misconceptions about Norway before I went there – I confess this was my second trip but the first had been funded by other people and was work based. This was a very spur of the moment long weekend away to visit family who have re-located to the Stavanger area, so costs were kept to a minimum. The stories are true that it is pricey to dine out etc, but this was a great chance to get away and see something a bit different in early June when the days were so long. The weather forecast looked good (sunny and clear blue skies); the flights were amazingly good value (with Norwegian Gatwick to Stavanger at about £70pp) and we were booked into accommodation chez famille.
We arrived on the late flight into Stavanger and it was really mild – gone were the images of Norway being cold and dark, although I’m sure Winter can be pretty bleak. We left the airport and city behind and headed up the coast a little bit to my cousin’s house and without taking our bags in they suggested we go down to the waterfront. This was at about midnight and my body cried out for sleep but I was intrigued to see “the jetty”. I knew that they lived on the waterfront, but had no idea what it would be like. You couldn’t see too much in the semi-darkness of after-midnight but there was an incredible moon shining right over Stavanger city which we could see sparkling in the distance. A sense of peace descended – we were out in fresh Norwegian air, surrounded by water and mountains enjoying the moon. We stayed there until about 0230 – nobody wanted to move – this was something that we never get to see at home. It was heaven and we hadn’t seen it in daylight yet!
We awoke to the news of breakfast on the jetty! Hurrah! The sun was shining, the coffee was strong and breakfast had never tasted better. PJ Norway 2014 003I dangled my feet over the edge but couldn’t quite reach the water. We were sitting on the edge of a fjord with crystal clear water, mountains, rocky islands dotted around, boats merrily bobbing etc. Stavanger is the starting point for a lot of the fjord cruises but happily we saw no evidence of the cruise ships at all. I had packed my swimsuit and was tempted to jump in then and there but I had heard how freezing it was going to be and chickened out. The clarity of the water was such that you could see every crab, starfish and jellyfish intimately. Our neighbours came down to join us and in what I imagine to be “true Norwegian style” plunged straight into the icy water with what sounded like fluent cursing but in fluent English told us it was lovely and refreshing – yeah right!
We had many plans laid before us but I would have been really happy to stay exactly where I was with a book and just be in the middle of nature. It was so peaceful! Dutifully though we had to go and see some of the local area. First stop Preikestolen or Pulpit Rock – an “easy walk” so we were told. I made my excuses early claiming unfitness, general office lifestyle etc but was told again that it was an “easy walk” so we strapped on our hiking boots and Camelpaks and got the ferry over. (Easy walking in my mind doesn’t require Camelpaks, snacks etc). Anyhow let’s just say that I didn’t find it easy at all and managed about 1 1/2 miles before my lungs decided to stop working!
Much more to my style was cocktails on the harbour front in Stavanger town centre (averaging about £10 per drink). There were loads of people crammed into every outdoor space around the harbour – obviously the sun was creating a holiday atmosphere and red faces were sitting on boats, in bars and almost hanging from the rafters. We had dinner in a quirky old wooden restaurant on the waterside which resembled an old ship inside. It was possibly the best steak I’ve had in a long time although we could have been more adventurous and gone for reindeer or whale!
PJ Norway 2014 042
The following day was slightly overcast and perfect for fishing I was told so the boys went off in a little motor boat to catch us lunch and it was a feast of Pollock…Us girls sat on the terrace looking at the views, reading, chatting and watching the boys row back because they’d run out of petrol. Our friendly neighbour went out to rescue them after a while – lovely people these Norwegians. They don’t like to assume that you’re in trouble but only too willing to help. It probably comes from being quite outdoorsy folk – they all just seem so capable. The evening was sailing time – but there was no rush….Because the light lasts so long you don’t have to hurry anything, so after a meander along the shore we went sailing at half past 8 at night. No wind and very gentle but quite pleasant to be on the water in the bright sunshine – it could have been midday! We were gone for a couple of hours and there was our lovely neighbour to meet us and help put the boat away.
The following day after a communal breakfast with our neighbours and a spot of impromptu Beatles over the breakfast table PJ Norway 2014 133we headed for the old part of Stavanger – all white-washed and cobbled streets with beautiful photo opportunities especially with the white against the blue sky. We also covered the other side of the harbour with loads of pretty coloured streets and shop fronts, the oil museum (more interesting than it sounds!), gorgeous chocolate shops, the cathedral and park and a smashing pub for lunch. There is no shortage of places to choose from and whilst it is expensive, everything we had was large portions and amazing quality
We saw some further delights yet on the way back to the airport which we weren’t expecting at all. Norway to me is not a place with sandy beaches and yet there is the most beautiful stretch of sand at Sola just near the airport – it has a pretty nice hotel on the beach too. We also visited a beautiful church on a bluff which has crumbled down and rather than rebuilding in stone has been renovated with glass which opens out on to a lovely bay below – quite inspiring if you were listening to a sermon. There were also the 3 massive swords in the rock on another sandy beach which was packed with day trippers, kids with buckets and spade, people hunting the shoreline for shellfish.
In short there were enchanting surprises that gave us a weekend that seemed to last a month.  You have to try it – money be damned!
PJ Norway 2014 143

Weekly Photo Challenge – A Work of Art

I did a post not long ago about how there was a distinct lack of creativity in architecture these days – we no longer seem to put in the effort and time to decorate our buildings as used to happen.  There are a few very talented people that keep traditional crafts alive but not enough.

My response to the challenge this week is from a trip to India that I did – my first one.  I was overwhelmed by the beauty and the colours everywhere.  In an abandoned palace in the middle of nowhere there were some amazingly colourful mosaics which caught my eye.  The walls were crumbling and there was nobody to prevent rot and destruction setting in but the mosaics still shone…that’s what I call a work of art!  Something that can withstand time, the elements and still be inspiring.



Beautiful sea monsters

The seas around the Azores are teeming with life.  The deep waters are perfect for incredibly large whales including the elusive Blue Whale.  Sitting in your little inflatable speedboat your mind starts racing when you see the size of the creatures under the water.  Surely a whale in a bad mood could turn the boat over with a flick of his tail?  Stories of enormous sea monsters suddenly don’t seem so ridiculous after all.

Fin Whale (Balaenoptera physalus) photographed...

Fin Whale (Balaenoptera physalus) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fin Whales are the second largest mammal on Earth after the Blue Whale and we were lucky enough to see a small group of them.  They can grow up to an incredible 27 metres long and when they’re only about 100 metres away from you that’s not far in whale body lengths!  A glimpse of a huge jaw and an eye peered at us.  And if the biologist on the boat was right we only saw a third of him.  He was gone in a flash, hiding his bulk beneath the waves.  They seem like shy creatures… In 1916 RC Andrews called them “the greyhound of the sea…for its’ beautiful slender body is built like a racing yacht and the animal can surpass the speed of the fastest ocean steamship.” (Wikipedia)

From the sedate grace of the Fin Whales, the Orcas were just there to have fun or so it seemed.  They leapt and rolled and dived along with the boat.  They examined us from all angles; they peered at us from underneath the boat and examine the engine up close.  Born entertainers – beautiful to see their characters in the wild.  The crew was incredibly excited to see them – apparently they are rare visitors to the area.  A lone male appeared in the distance and the females left their play time with us to go and join him.

From source: Two mammal-eating "transient...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was a magical performance in the middle of the ocean.

Our trip was booked through Sunvil Holidays – www.sunvil.co.uk.  Whale watching trips can be pre-booked.

Where in the world…?

There is an air of mystery that surrounds the Azores. When you mention them, people tend to say “Where’s that?” There seems to be an air of mystery around them and once you have been there you kind of hope it stays that way. Often surrounded by mist and rolling waves you can imagine what sailors in ancient times must have thought as they stumbled across them. From the sea they must have looked like unapproachable lumps of black volcanic rock. But for those who persevered, a paradise awaited them.

The Azores archipelago (including the islands ...

The Azores archipelago (including the islands of Flores, Corvo, Terceira, Graciosa, São Jorge, Pico, Faial, Santa Maria and São Miguel). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The nine Portuguese islands are located in the middle of the Atlantic ocean between Portugal and America. Discovered during the 15th century, it’s hard to imagine what those first sailors saw. Black cliff faces, the crashing Atlantic seas and untamed vegetation. Even now the vegetation grows so densely that I can’t imagine what it was like if it was untamed – it would have represented a jungle. The first settlers must have had a battle on their hands hacking their way through to create habitable areas to grow crops. On Pico for example (not visited on this trip but have previously seen) the vines grow out of the volcanic rock in very little soil.

Strategically, the islands were a perfect stopping point for sailors and traders travelling between Europe and the New World and the main towns were well defended against pirates. In more recent times the Azores became a lifeline for the Allies in the First World War who used Horta and Ponta Delgada as safe harbours. In World War Two the Azores joined the Allies late in the conflict but built small airstrips on several of the islands for the British and American troops. The Azores proved vital in protecting trans-Atlantic crossings from German U-boats. And although the loss of ships was large the arrival of the airstrips evened out the numbers and then turned those numbers into the Allies’ favour. Post war Santa Maria’s airstrip became a stopping point for transatlantic flights until planes were able to do the journey non stop.

The small and unassuming islands have an incredible history and so few people have heard of them. They don’t lend themselves to being shouted about – they are relaxed, quiet and an explorer’s paradise. The natural beauty is outstanding and you can feel like the first person to discover a crater/lake/rocky inlet. Imagine what those first settlers felt when they saw these things…


Our trip was booked through Sunvil Holidays – http://www.sunvil.co.uk.

“Sponging” away the surface of Kalymnos

It is an amazing sensation when you realise that something basic can hide a wealth of history, tradition and romance.  I would not have ever believed that a sponge could hold such an emotive story.  It just sits there unashamed and unaware of having caused so many deaths and so much heartache.

I visited the island  of Kalymnos in the Dodecanese, as an antidote to lying on the beach.  As you approach the typically Greek harbour with its whitewashed houses and arid landscape you are pulled further into that law which says that the British must fall in love with the Greek way of life. The sugar cube houses reflect the sunlight and stand out against the cerulean blue of the sea, and the stories begin.  During the Second World War, Kalymnos was occupied by the Italians who asked why the inhabitants painted their houses white.

“It reflects the sunlight and keeps the inside cool,” was the reply.

 “And why are your roofs blue?”

 “They reflect the colour of our beautiful sea.”

The Italians accepted this with equanimity, not realising that they lived out the remainder of their time on Kalymnos in the shadow of the Greek flag.

The real stories are to be found in the back streets where toothless old men smile in a different language.  It’s the language that scorns tourists for their superficial treatment of this incredible product which contains as much history as it holds water.

In our high tech age, we think of vast machines spewing out multicoloured sponges of all shapes and sizes. In Kalymnos these machines were and are men who risked life and limb to earn enough to feed their family.  Having to walk only 30 metres along the Strand to work does not sound like a great distance, but try going 30 metres vertically down with no protection and no breathing apparatus.  It makes a 20 minute tube ride sound positively relaxing!

In the past, before diving could get underway there was the send off.  The men left their families at Easter and were gone until the autumn.  They had to bring back enough sponges to support their families or to propose to the girl of their dreams.  This was not easy for a skin diver who relied on how long he could hold his breath.  One man on the boat would pour some olive oil on the surface of the water and watch to see his friend got into trouble.  The diver sank to the sea bed with a stone around his ankle, to help him sink faster, and his sponge bag.

Sponges do not have a habit of growing in easy to reach places, and the physical limitations were apparent.  An incredible device was invented that contained breathing apparatus in  a protective suit.  Divers could now descend for at least an hour at a time, thereby earning more money – fantastic!  How pleased were they?  However, all technological advances have set backs.  The suit meant more diving, and more diving meant more risk.

We all know that feeling of our ears popping, but these men ran the risk of ruptured ear drums and possibly the worst ailment: ‘bends’, named after the difficulty the sufferer had in straightening their joints, all due to resurfacing too quickly after a dive.

The divers weren’t to know about the ‘divers disease’ though.  The symptoms were par for the course – it was a risky business.  They were earning more money.  The divers
suffered numbness, paralysis, uncontrollable spasms and death.  In her book ‘Bitter
Sea’, Faith Warn tells us that “between 1886 and 1910, there were a staggering 10, 000 deaths and 20, 000  cases of paralysis among sponge divers in the Aegean – and the majority of victims were Kalymnians.”

And so the wonder-suit was banned and, with its banning, came a fall in pay and a rebellion against the ban.  It remained in use until the middle of the twentieth century.

Suddenly the smiling toothless men develop a poignancy.  Maybe these two arthritic people ran that risk for their families; maybe they are sitting down because it is too painful for them to stand; maybe they dove down and picked this sponge off the sea bed years ago to exchange it for three square meals.

The things they were looking for were not golden and lovely as they are on our bathroom shelves, but black and rock solid and in need of special treatment at sea as well as on land.  It was a process involving purifying, beating, washing, drying and pressing on board, and repeating the same process on land, to be left with a black sponge.  But who wants a black sponge?  They are then dipped in potassium permanganate and sulphuric acid to reveal a beautiful golden colour and soft feel.

So the natural sponge that you buy on Kalymnos has been tainted by chemicals, but the tradition is still there. The boats still go out and the toothless men are still there working on their sponges.  Surely the sponges will run out sooner or later?  Sponges do not live if they are untouched – the harvest actually replenishes the numbers.  But please leave these people to it…why would anyone want to mess with the tradition of the sponge and these people’s history?