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Re-counting World Heritage sites: #56 (Bern)

February 10th, 2016

Swiss capital is recognized by UNESCO for coherency of its planning concepts through the centuries. If that sentence above does not make obvious sense, it is meant to augment the slightly underwhelming impression the city left on me.

Do not get me wrong – Bern is a lovely city, very pleasant to walk through and quite picturesque. Even if you are an amateur in the subject of urban planning, you can easily appreciate the thought-out layout of the medieval city core. And you don’t need any special application to recognize its overall attractiveness.

It’s just that the “wow” factor was not there for me. It could have been due to the timing of my visit, in early December, when the skies were mostly grey and the streets were far from sparkling. I liked Bern well enough – I just did not like it above many other places I have seen. I might need to try coming back on a sunny spring morning.

Here are a few shots from my archive. First, a perspective along the main street of the Old Town, Kramgasse.
 

Bern, Switzerland

 
Statues of this kind can be seen aplenty along the street, primarily built into house façades, but also standing in the middle of the road.

And for fun, here is a different little statue, found on a corner somewhere in town.
 

Bern, Switzerland

 
A closer look at Zytglogge, a 13th-century landmark in town center.
 

Bern, Switzerland

 
The astronomical clock, dating from the 15th century, is a huge tourist attraction. It is certainly very impressive visually and is certainly quite underwhelming in its hourly play, as many such clocks around the world are.

By the nature of the quirks in my itinerary, I actually stopped in Bern twice within a space of a couple of days. A significant snowfall covered the ground between the two visits. I found a few gorgeous snow-covered perspectives during the second stop.
 

Bern, Switzerland

 
 

Bern, Switzerland

 
Half a day should be sufficient time to get acquainted with the city.

Travel Album, World Heritage

Re-counting World Heritage sites: #47 (Kew Gardens)

January 31st, 2016

The Rotal Botanic Gardens in London are recognized on UNESCO World Heritage List for their place in development of both garden art and botanical science. In our years of living in London, we only visited the place once and – as my Travelog entry attests – came away sufficiently impressed.

The grounds are vast, the variety of parkland, open spaces and landscaped gardens can satisfy all tastes, and the number of thematic attractions in various parts of the grounds can easily take a full day to enjoy. My eldest child developed an especial fascination with the exhibition of pepper plants, which somehow remains as one of my most vivid memories from our visit.

While we certainly had a camera with us on that visit, it was an afterthought. I only have a handful a photographs in our archives that were taken at Kew Gardens. They mostly captured architectural features, the Kew Palace and the Pagoda. Here are a couple of best shots:
 

Kew Gardens, London

 
 

Kew Gardens, London

 
The gardens are reachable via District Line of the London Underground. Plan at least half a day for a visit; add some picnic time, a look at the Kew Palace interior, and ensure that you check out all pavilions on the grounds – and you may not have enough time in a full day.

Travel Album, World Heritage

Re-counting World Heritage sites: #18 (Vatican)

January 21st, 2016

Vatican is recognized by UNESCO both for its spiritual value and for the artistic and architectural treasures that it possesses. You don’t have to be a Catholic to appreciate the grandeur of the incomparable Piazza San Pietro, the exquisite features of Saint Peter’s Basilica, or the magnificent collections of Vatican Museums, culminating in the peerless brilliance of Sistine Chapel.

I have been to San Pietro and Vatican several times over the years, always as part of a larger stay in Rome. I doubt any visitor to Rome ever bypasses a look at the Bernini’s masterpiece of a piazza. Our very first visit there earned the distinction of this note in our travel diaries: “The square simply leaves you in a state of awe”. Every return visit only served to reinforce that feeling.

On my next trip, I will certainly come to take pictures of it at dawn, when it is not too crowded. In the middle of the day, there are plenty of tourists and worshipers on the square, which goes for my excuse of not having any good pictures of it1.

So, instead, here is a picture of Kimmy and me on Saint Peter’s Square that is the closest to being a good representation of that magnificent space in our archives.
 

Piazza San Pietro, Vatican City

 
A look at Saint Peter’s Basilica from the top of Castel Sant’Angelo. Since Vatican is a tiny enclave inside Rome, all of the roofs in the foreground belong to one country while the main subject of the photo belongs to another.
 

St Peter Basilica as seen from Castel Sant-Angelo, Rome

 
The colorful guards at the city gate near Basilica allow tourists to take pictures of them with younger children. I remember this guard not being all too happy with a teenager joining the composition. He posed all the same.
 

With a Vatican guard

 
I believe photographing inside the Vatican Museums is technically prohibited (definitely so in the Sistine Chapel), but I did take one or two shots of these ceilings surreptitiously.
 

In the Vatican Museums

 
A visit to Piazza San Pietro can obviously be as long or as short as one desires. If you want to send home a Vatican-stamped postcard, the post office to the right of Basilica entrance is less crowded and may not add significant time to your visit.

Allow an hour for Basilica, which could extend at peak times with long lines. Add another hour for a climb to the dome if you’d like.

The Museums require no less than two hours at a canter, but can certainly sustain a significantly longer visit. Buying tickets in advance is highly recommended, although there are off-season, off-peak times when you can just walk in without any wait in line. On worst days, the entrance lines can be literally kilometers long (last Sunday of every month the entrance is free and those are the days when you have to arrive at least an hour and a half before opening if you do not want to wait in line for half a day).

There are also tours of the Vatican Palace and Gardens which we never undertook. They need to be booked in advance and take a couple of additional hours, bringing the total length of an in-depth visit to Vatican to about a full day.

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1 Nah, I just made that up. The explanation is the usual one of not yet being enthusiastic enough about photography when I was there last time.

Travel Album, World Heritage

2015 Travel wrap-up

January 15th, 2016

At the beginning of the last year, I wrote this piece on travel and obligations, where I predicted my travel plans for the year. Although the plans underwent changes as the year progressed, the outcome was pretty much what I had predicted: I ended up setting foot in 7 foreign countries over the course of 2015 (Scotland, Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Sweden), 3 of which I had never been to before.

My total of World Heritage sites actually exceeded expectations. I added 20 to my collection, as opposed to “a dozen or so”. This is mostly due to prioritizing visits to such sites regardless of their attraction quotient – but it is also a factor of covering more ground.

Let’s add to that a trip to the American South, undertaken with a reduced family roster; a trip to Istanbul by Natasha to spend time with her vacationing sibling; Becky’s semester in Brussels, during which she traveled to nearly a dozen countries, including Portugal, Croatia and Luxembourg that remain future targets for the rest of the family; Kimmy’s language immersion program in the south of France, which included a jaunt over the border to Spain; a couple of solo trips Stateside by family members.

2015 was truly a year of travel for us!

The new year is unlikely to reach similar heights. Although we already have three more or less confirmed trips in the plans – and there is room to add others – we will largely revisit familiar locales. There will be a few territories that we’ll set foot on for the first time, but probably only one completely new to us country (and that is iffy). Less than ten World Heritage sites will be within reasonable accessible distance on those trips – and it is unlikely that I will have time to explore them all.

Here is hoping we can change it to the better as the year progresses.

Travel Editorial

Impressions of Savannah

January 9th, 2016

A true southern belle, Savannah. A city that combines serenity and vibrancy, beauty and history, with the sound of music on every corner and square. It is proof that even something as inherently rigid as a grid street plan can be in fact gorgeous.

Probably the most lasting impression of Savannah is that of its tree-lined streets leading from one square to another. The sideways growth creates a wonderful canopy above your head, accentuated by hanging strands of Spanish moss.
 

Savannah, GA

 
And here is one of the squares.
 

Savannah, GA

 
Twnety-two of the original squares, spaced at regular distances, remain in the historic city core. Each is surrounded by impressive mansions, each boasts defining features in the form of monuments and fountains. Each is a fantastic place to linger. And each hosts at least one street musician livening up the atmosphere at practically every hour of day or night.

Forsyth Park is a large green space at the southern edge of the historic center. Among the attractions it offers is this impressive fountain.
 

Savannah, GA

 
The opposite bookend of the historic core is River Street, running alongside Savannah River. With shops, restaurants, a number of monuments, and a market, it is one of the more bustling areas of the city, even if the shot below does not exactly reflect that.
 

Savannah, GA

 
Among the monuments on River Street is this globe, commemorating World War II. This perspective obscures the fact that two halves of the earth are set apart from each other, so one can walk in between them.
 

Savannah, GA

 
Here is a view from the riverbank to Talmadge Memorial Bridge and the port beyond.
 

Savannah, GA

 
The seagull in the upper left corner seemingly interpreted the landing sign too literally…

These colorful boats are part of the Savannah Belles fleet that offers free ferry service across and along the river.
 

Savannah, GA

 
And this is one of the cruise boats that carry out excursions on the river. The perspective is from the stern of its sister ship, as we depart on our hour-long cruise.
 

Savannah, GA

 
Unfoturnately, not very much of the city besides the riverside can be seen from a boat. Savannah sits on a high bank, but the waterfront buildings obscure almost everything beyond them. Only the dome of the City Hall cannot be hidden from view.
 

Savannah, GA

 
Here is another perspective of the dome, along Bay Street.
 

Savannah, GA

 
Among the religious buildings found in Savannah, Congregation Mickve Israel stands out.
 

Savannah, GA

 
And many houses like the ones below are bound to catch your eye when you walk around Savannah.
 

Savannah, GA

 
 

Savannah, GA

 
 

Savannah, GA

 
Simply gorgeous!

These and other Savannah pictures can be found in a Flickr album. There is also a separate album for Charleston.

Travel Album

Middleton Place, Charleston

January 3rd, 2016

There are several points of interest up Ashley River from Charleston, reachable by car in about 25 minutes from the town center. We only budgeted a few hours for a visit to a single plantation and chose Middleton Place, a “sister” property of Edmondston-Alston House that we also visited while in Charleston.

Our time allocation was clearly not sufficient for the full appreciation of the plantation. There is easily enough to do for half a day or more, with different landscaped gardens, wooded pathways, a few outbuildings that can be stepped into, stables and animal pens, several traditional craft shops, and a number of guided tours that focus on different aspects of plantation life. The rooms of the main mansion are interesting in their own right (although there is probably too much of provenance detail for various pieces that the guide is going to offer).

Here are a few impressions.
 

Middleton Place, Charleston, South Carolina

 
 

Middleton Place, Charleston, South Carolina

 
 

Middleton Place, Charleston, South Carolina

 
 

Middleton Place, Charleston, South Carolina

 
 

Middleton Place, Charleston, South Carolina

 
 

Middleton Place, Charleston, South Carolina

 
 

Middleton Place, Charleston, South Carolina

 

Travel Album

Impressions of Charleston

December 24th, 2015

Charming is the word I would associate with Charleston first and foremost. The city has a number of impressive edifices and well-maintained historic mansions, but it is the simple charm of its streets lined with a mix of architectural styles that stays with you as the lasting impression. Here is a fragment of one of the most atmospheric streets in the heart of town, Tradd.
 

Charleston, South Carolina

 
Some streets retain their cobblestone nature.
 

Charleston, South Carolina

 
This block of East Bay Street is called “Rainbow Row”, for obvious reasons.
 

Charleston, South Carolina

 
Eye-catching houses sit everywhere in the historically most desirable “South of Broad [Street]” part of the town. Here are a few examples.
 

Charleston, South Carolina

 
 

Charleston, South Carolina

 
 

Charleston, South Carolina

 
 

Charleston, South Carolina

 
The above were all examples of Queen Anne architectural style which, along with Italianate-style villas, accounts for the most exuberant buildings. The other prevalent style, Federal, produced primarily flat rectangular façades that were sometimes painted in bright colors.
 

Charleston, South Carolina

 
House numbering in Charleston offers a couple of quirks. Some streets have buildings numbered 0. More frequently, the houses are numbered with “and a half”.
 

Charleston, South Carolina

 
One of the defining features of Charleston mansions are multi-level side porches called piazzas. The ground-level piazza acts as the actual entry to the house, with a “privacy door” connecting it to the street. The second-floor piazza may not always remain an open-air space, as it was historically designed to be, but it retains its major function as a substitute for a patio or a deck that we use in our northern abodes.
 

Charleston, South Carolina

 
 

Charleston, South Carolina

 
At one of the historic mansions, Edmondston-Alston House, we stepped out on the piazza.
 

Charleston, South Carolina

 
Palmetto trees and pineapple statuary are a common ornamentation of the Charleston landscape, able to make even the most sober Federal-style building look festive. The pineapple, of course, has been the symbol of hospitality since early American colonies.
 

Charleston, South Carolina

 
Intricate ironworks is another magnificent highlight of many a house, such as this beauty on Broad Street.
 

Charleston, South Carolina

 
The narrow passage to the back garden is not a very common occurrence in this specific archway form, but it is nonetheless emblematic of narrow back alleys that permeate the historic part of town.
 

Charleston, South Carolina

 
Gas lamps that are kept alight even in daytime is a delightful – if seemingly a tad bit wasteful – feature.
 

Charleston, South Carolina

 
I liked the look of the free-standing clock on King Street and noticed only in post-processing that the “No parking” sign next to it expressly designates a rickshaw stand.
 

Charleston, South Carolina

 
Elsewhere is town, you can come upon these colorful modes of transportation.
 

Charleston, South Carolina

 
 

Charleston, South Carolina

 
Nighttime shots did not figure prominently on our walks around Charleston, but here is a reasonable one, of the St Philip’s Church.
 

Charleston, South Carolina

 
And finally, a couple of shots from the Waterfront Park, first along the bank of Cooper River and then in the opposite direction, towards the pineapple fountain at the heart of the park.
 

Charleston, South Carolina

 
 

Charleston, South Carolina

 
A gem of a colonial town, highly recommended for anyone.

These and other Charleston pictures can be found in a Flickr album.

Travel Album

Back from a trip south

December 15th, 2015

We turn our attention to destinations within the great United States of ours rather infrequently. In half a dozen years since our repatriation from England there have been only a couple of pleasure/sightseeing-centric trips that we undertook without crossing international borders.

There are several excuses I can cite for prioritizing mainly European destinations on our travels, but I have to admit that our limited pursuit of American scenery and history leaves a significant gap on our traveling resume. It’s a gap that we tried to close a bit with a short-week vacation in Charleston, SC, and Savannah, GA.

Both towns are pleasant, pretty, friendly, full of attractive architecture, eminently walkable, and a joy to explore. They are also rather different. Charleston is more quaint, Savannah is more vibrant. Charleston wows with its more intimate streets, Savannah with its green squares. Charleston’s waterfront can feel like a quiet oasis, Savannah’s bustling Riverwalk is a veritable hotspot. Savannah’s planned grid topography is a defining feature. Charleston offers narrow back alleys that may not hold any attractions of renown but are simply fun to traverse.

We spent two full days in each town and stopped by to explore a historic plantation on the way between the two. We visited a good number of grand mansions, availed ourselves to horse-drawn carriage rides and river cruises, browsed markets and art galleries, and walked as much as the certain five-year-old in our party could manage. And, of course, had exceptional meals at various establishments, as those of you who follow us on Facebook already know.

An excellent trip, plenty of good memories and impressions. Southern hospitality is marvelous. We were repeatedly startled by strangers greeting us in the streets as they walked by; this custom seemed pretty foreign to us, northerners of eastern-European extraction, but I have to say it makes the surroundings appear extra friendlier when random people smile and say hello.

Photographic essays will be forthcoming as usual.
 

In Savannah, Georgia

 

Where we've been

Re-counting World Heritage sites: #35 (Rhine Valley)

December 4th, 2015

The 65km-long stretch of River Rhine between Bingen and Koblenz is recognized on UNESCO World Heritage list for its importance as a major historic transport route as well as for the majestic cultural landscape formed on the both banks of the river. Those who have seen it will no doubt agree with my use of the word “majestic” here. The vineyard terraces, the castles, the quaint towns, the widening vistas that alternate with dramatic river bends – it all combines into a procession of visuals that can only be described in superlative terms.

Alas, our visit to Rhine Valley took place over a decade ago, and if you are a regular member of my modest audience, you may easily guess that my next sentence is bound to lament my past approach to travel photography. So it does. This was before I have evolved into a photography enthusiast – I was more likely to buy a postcard of a beautiful view rather than attempt to capture it myself in those times.

Here are a few unremarkable shots. The first is the view of Burg Rheinstein, one of the grand castles on the banks of the river, taken from the upper deck of the cruise boat.
 

Burg Rheinstein, Rhine Valley, Germany

 
A fragment of St Goar’s village center looking to the river.
 

St Goar, Rhine Valley, Germany

 
A clock above the entrance of a clock shop in Bacharach.
 

A clock in Bacharach, Rhine Valley, Germany

 
We set aside one full day for acquainting ourselves with the Rhine Valley, which allowed us to navigate the most picturesque stretch from Bingen to Boppard on a local cruise ship, make the return trip to Bingen via train, and then drive down the left bank to visit locations such as Rheinstein and Bacharach. Our base was Mainz, which we explored on its own merit, but staying in Bingen or Koblenz or somewhere between the two is likely more convenient for an in-depth exploration of the area. I have no doubt that three full days can easily sustain such exploration and fit in more points of interest, such as castles, villages, or wineries.

When I ever return, I intend to linger.

Travel Album, World Heritage

Re-counting World Heritage sites: #54 (Wieliczka Salt Mines)

November 25th, 2015

Wieliczka Salt Mines on the outskirts of Kraków is one of the first 12 sites on the UNESCO World Heritage list, inscribed in 1978 (by the way, so is Kraków proper, which means that it was the undisputed capital of the World Heritage in the list’s infancy). Dating from the 13th century, the mines are recognized for being one of the earliest and most important European industrial operations.

There is hardly any limit to awe and fascination induced by the vast network of underground passages and halls that are adorned with remarkable artwork and decorations. The guided tour is fairly long, includes traversing non-trivial number of steps during the descent, and takes you through all of the most impressive spaces. If memory serves me right, it allows for sufficient “free time” at the most important points, such as the unbelievable Chapel of St Kinga.

We had a tour guide who spoke excellent English and exhibited a delightful dry sense of humor. His presentation obviously enhanced our experience, but I suspect that the awe factor of seeing the mines would compensate for even the least eloquent of tour guides.

Photographic evidence of this in our archives is lacking, unfortunately. This is one case where I can reasonably blame the inadequate equipment for taking pictures in less then ideal lighting conditions, but the truth probably lies in that being overawed by what I was seeing I did not give any thought to the quality of the photographic output. The couple of photographs that passed later quality control barely make a dent in the attempt to illustrate the remarkable monument to human ingenuity that the mines are.
 

Wieliczka Salt Mines, Poland

 
 

Wieliczka Salt Mines, Poland

 
Getting to Wieliczka Mines from central Kraków takes less than half an hour by bus. Excluding the bus ride, you need to budget three hours as the lower boundary for taking the tour and lingering.

A nearby medieval castle in Wieliczka that was the mines’ administrative headquarters as well as less-known mines in Bochnia have been added to this UNESCO listing a couple of years ago, but we did not consider visiting them. Bochnia is significantly further away from Kraków.

Travel Album, World Heritage

My World Heritage roster

November 1st, 2015
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More for my own records than for public consumption – but, hey, feel free to peruse below the cut – here is my World Heritage sites roster, with links to my posts that contain relevant pictures. Links to UNESCO list inscriptions are provided as well, along with the year each site was added (in parenthesis).

I am using a liberal – and not entirely consistent – definition of “visited” for the purposes of this list. Basically, any site that I made a concerted effort to explore within the limits of accessibility counts as having been visited. For a geographical entity – such as a square, a city area, or a region – that is a simple criterion. For a historical or architectural monument, it gets more complicated: If interior access is possible, the site cannot be counted unless I stepped inside (as well as did not bypass the singular primary subject for which the monument is recognized, if such is clearly identified); conversely, if interior access is prohibited or allowed on rare basis, the site can be counted if I expressly stopped by to take photographs of its exterior.

The serial sites are counted if at least one part of it can be counted according to the loose definition above.
Read more…

Where we've been, World Heritage

Scandinavia wrap-up

October 27th, 2015
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The serialized photo-diary of our recent Scandinavian trip is now completed, spanning 17 posts over the course of the last two+ months. In case someone never noticed the last paragraph in each of those posts and never perused the full gallery of 620 photos on Flickr, here are direct links to all Flickr albums related to the trip:

On a related note, those who would be interested in our brief “travel guides” to the places that we have visited, feel free to head over to the Travelog, and choose Denmark, Norway, or Sweden from the categories menu.

Hope you enjoy!

Where we've been

Chasing World Heritage: #92 (Skogskyrkogården)

October 25th, 2015
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This is not my kind of place. A cemetery. I can recall a few instances of touring a cemetery on past travels, but in each case it was either part of a larger guided city tour (so I did not have a choice in the matter) or was right there where I was doing other sightseeing, so going in for a quick look was not taking away from the itinerary.

But this one is a World Heritage site, on the list for over twenty years now. Its short UNESCO description recognizes the fine landcsape design that blends nature and architecture, something that always piques my interest. As little as I ever consider cemeteries as places to visit, my desire to see as many World Heritage sites as possible won out in this particular case. We went to Skogskyrkogården while in Stockholm.

I cannot say that I was overly impressed. People who like cemeteries as stimulators of quiet reflection on life, universe, and everything, may be more enchanted with what these vast burial grounds can offer. Me, I can appreciate the pleasing contours of the main features and the neatness of the planned layout, but in the end, the rows of graves somehow do not co-exist in my head with the notion of enjoying the scenery.

Here are a couple of angles looking at the main architectural feature on the cemetery grounds, the portico that leads to the chapels of the Holy Cross, Faith, and Hope, and to the crematorium.
 

Skogskyrkogården cemetery, Stockholm

 
 

Skogskyrkogården cemetery, Stockholm

 
We walked a little bit between burial sections. The cemetery does not have many famous internments – Greta Garbo is nearly the only well-known name I can recognize among those whose resting place is Skogskyrkogården, and we did not come up to her headstone – so I only took a few random wide-angle shots.
 

Skogskyrkogården cemetery, Stockholm

 
 

Skogskyrkogården cemetery, Stockholm

 
We were visiting at the end of the day, when the setting sun offered a few opportunities to attempt to capture the scenery in HDR.
 

Skogskyrkogården cemetery, Stockholm

 
If you are into visiting cemeteries (and Skogskyrkogården is a major tourist attraction in Stockholm, which leads me to believe many people are into that kind of sightseeing), you can easily spend several hours on the vast grounds. For me, a little over half an hour was enough to consider the place visited for the purposes of my World Heritage collection. The cemetery is reached from central Stockholm via metro in about 20 minutes.

These and a few other pictures of Skogskyrkogården have been added to my Flickr Stockholm album.

Travel Album, World Heritage

Chasing World Heritage: #91 (Drottningholm Palace)

October 20th, 2015
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As people who have been following this blog for a while might be aware, we have seen our share of royal palaces all over Europe. Some impress us more, others less so. Because we started practically with the grandest of them all – Versailles – one might argue that we had set ourselves up for being underwhelmed ever since. Nonetheless, we continue to make royal palaces an important part of our sightseeing itineraries. And the latest one we saw definitely falls into “wow” category.

Drottningholm Palace is among the palaces built in the 18th century that were inspired by Versailles. Its UNESCO description does not exceed even 50 words and simply calls the palace and gardens complex the finest example of a royal residence. We had an opportunity to see all named parts of the complex and we certainly concur with that laconic assessment.

Here is a perspective of the palace from its formal gardens area.
 

Drottningholm Palace, Stockholm

 
Inside the palace, one can find a progression of impressive rooms, some more obviously homages to Versailles’ opulence than others.
 

Inside Drottningholm Palace, Stockholm

 
For a bookworm, the library always holds an extra dose of fascination.
 

Library at Drottningholm Palace, Stockholm

 
The royal guards at the palace are attired in the most blindingly blue uniforms.
 

Royal Guards at Drottningholm Palace, Stockholm

 
The Royal Theater, dating from mid-18th-century, is the original building that is mostly built of wood and remains in use for occasional performances.
 

Royal Palace Theater, Drottningholm Palace, Stockholm

 
Unlike the palace, touring the theater is possible only on a guided, timed-entry basis, at an extra cost to the basic ticket. We decided to go and not regretted it a second. The 35-minute tour provides tons of insight into the operation of a theater of this age as well as many interesting historic tidbits. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed in the auditorium, due to some copyright nonsense related to the decorations for the next scheduled performance. I could only attempt to take pictures in other rooms, which display costumes and some artifacts related to famous actors that performed here in the past.
 

Inside Royal Palace Theater, Drottningholm Palace, Stockholm

 
Another structure of renown on the palace grounds is the radiant Chinese Pavilion.
 

Chinese Pavilion, Drottningholm Palace, Stockholm

 
The colorful palette is evident in all rooms of the pavilion, with each room dominated by a major hue. Here is a corner when adjoining colors can be seen together.
 

Inside Chinese Pavilion, Drottningholm Palace, Stockholm

 
The vast grounds contain several formal sculpted gardens with fountains and large wilder-wooded areas that are nonetheless perfectly maintained. The next shot is a perspective towards the palace along the main alley running from the wooded part.
 

Drottningholm Palace, Stockholm

 
Don’t be fooled by the long focal length compression – the distance from where I stand to the palace is at least 800 meters, easily twice or more that of the opening shot of this essay.

And another perspective of the palace facing the lakefront on the opposite side of the gardens.
 

Drottningholm Palace, Stockholm

 
An un-rushed exploration of Drottningholm calls for at least five-six hours, which can easily be extended to a full day if you choose to have a picnic somewhere on the grounds. Combination tickets that allow entry to the pavilion and to the theater cost extra on top of general admission. “World Heritage” combo is the most expensive all-inclusive option, with guided tours at all points of interest (although you can choose to explore on your own, except at the theater).

It takes about half an hour to get to the palace from central Stockholm, by metro and bus. The bus routes that run to the palace from the nearest metro station number a dozen, with one departing every few minutes.

These and other pictures taken at Drottningholm Palace have been added to my Stockholm Flickr album.

Travel Album, World Heritage

Highlights of Stockholm

October 15th, 2015
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Stockholm is the most visually appealing of the three Scandinavian capitals that we visited on our recent journey. This is in large part due to it being located on an archipelago with significant amount of water flowing between different parts of the city. Where eye-catching or simply colorful architecture meets expansive waterfronts it makes for magnificent panoramic views.
 

View from Monteliusvagen, Stockholm

 
The above shot was taken from Monteliusvägen, a walking path on the high bank of Södermalm district facing the Old Town. It has some of the best views of the city skyline, especially at sunset. Here are a few more perspectives. First, with the closer look at the spire of Riddarholm Church and the tower of the Stockholm Cathedral.
 

View from Monteliusvagen, Stockholm

 
Another prominent tower takes central stage in the next shot. This one belongs to Tyska Kyrkan, the German Church.
 

View from Monteliusvagen, Stockholm

 
And another perspective from Monteliusvägen.
 

View from Monteliusvagen, Stockholm

 
We did watch the sunset from the lookout on the path. Later on, crossing the bridge on the way to the Old Town, we looked back at the bank of Södermalm.
 

Sodermalm, Stockholm

 
A rare after-dark hand-held picture that came out well highlights a random attractive corner of Stockholm.
 

Stockholm

 
The Royal Palace looks pretty sober on the exterior, a massive but relatively unadorned building.
 

Royal Palace, Stockholm

 
The interior has some fine points but is markedly less luxurious than exuberant palaces seen elsewhere in Europe. Scandinavian monarchies all appear more ascetic than their more southern counterparts. Here is one of the more opulent rooms, a princess’s bedroom.
 

Inside Royal Palace, Stockholm

 
A view from the palace towards Strömgatan quay area.
 

Stockholm

 
And another perspective near the palace, along its side towards the Stockholm Cathedral.
 

View along Royal Palace to Storkyrkan, Stockholm

 
The cathedral – known as Storkyrkan (Great Church) in Swedish – is a fine example of Brick Gothic architecture that we already admired so much in Roskilde. Golden royal boxes, an impressive organ, and a monumental pulpit are the most striking features. Here is a perspective along the main nave towards the altar.
 

Inside Storkyrkan, Stockholm

 
We saw Royal Guards in action in all three capitals that we visited. Here is a company of Swedish ones marching towards their changing ceremony on a street in the Old Town.
 

Royal guards, Stockholm

 
The main square of Gamla Stan, the Old Town, is very picturesque. Its name, Stortorget, means “Big Square”, but it is big only in relative terms to the mostly narrow confines of the historic city core. In absolute terms, it is not too spacious and feels even less so with the number of tourists that linger here.
 

Stortorget, Stockholm

 
One of the more ebullient buildings in all of Stockholm is the Royal Dramatic Theater.
 

Royal Dramatic Theater, Stockholm

 
The theater acts as a book-end to Strandvägen, an impressive harborside boulevard in Östermalm district. Developed at the end of 19th century it houses many remarkable buildings, such as these hotels.
 

Strandvagen, Stockholm

 
Here is a perspective of Strandvägen taken from from Skeppsholm Bridge.
 

Strandvagen, Stockholm

 
In the opposite direction from the same bridge vantage point is one of the best perspectives on the palace and the cathedral in the background.
 

Royal Palace, Stockholm

 
And another perspective of the waterfront of the Old Town.
 

Stockholm

 
Even if you move away from the waterfront, you can frequently find scenic architectural ensembles in Stockholm. The next shot is taken in Vasastan, an increasingly popular residential neighborhood to the north of the city center.
 

In Vasastan district, Stockholm

 
At the Hötorget market, the stalls selling mushrooms and produce are an explosion of colors.
 

Stalls at Hotorget, Stockholm

 
Pippi Longstocking or Karlsson-on-the-Roof are the world-known children’s book characters brought to life by Astrid Lindgren, one of the most famous Swedes in history. We came across this small statue of her near the Junibacken children museum.
 

Astrid Lindgren statue, Stockholm

 
Back to views across water, here is another magnificent perspective of the Old Town.
 

Stockholm

 
A closer look at the Riddarholm Church, the resting place of Swedish monarchs and nobility, taken from the excursion boat.
 

Riddarholm Church, Stockholm

 
A view of the City Hall taken on the same boat trip.
 

City Hall, Stockholm

 
And several perspectives from the City Hall waterfront garden towards different parts of town.
 

View to Riddarholm Church from City Hall, Stockholm

 
 

View to Sodermalm from City Hall, Stockholm

 
 

View to Storkyrkan from City Hall, Stockholm

 
Aside from the Royal Palace and the cathedral, we visited a couple of major churches shown in the above shots (Riddarholm and Tyska), the most impressive Vasa Museum dedicated to the ill-fated royal ship that sank on her maiden voyage in the 17th century and was recovered 300 years later, and a couple of UNESCO sites farther afield from the city center. We spent most of our time walking the streets, quays and bridges of the city, enjoying the views. Or sipping rosé on a floating bar by Strandvägen. We could probably use an extra day or two to enjoy Stockholm even more. Which means that we are likely to come back again in the future.

These and other pictures of Stockholm have been loaded to the new Stockholm Flickr album.

Travel Album

Chasing World Heritage: #90 (Nærøyfjord)

October 10th, 2015
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Of hundreds fjords that pierce the landscape in Western Norway only two are explicitly recognized on the UNESCO World Heritage list, as a single site even though they are not near each other. Both represent the comparatively small appendages of the bigger parent fjords, and both are sited for their exceptional scale and grandeur as well as being the archetypal fjord landscapes. The part of the inscription that says “among the world’s longest” is misleading – it probably is valid only in comparison to other leaf bodies on the fjord tree, but even that does not seem to compute with the simple look at the map. Both of these fjords are only a few kilometers long. But those are among the most spectacular kilometers anywhere on the planet.

A big reason we went for the Norway in a Nutshell itinerary was because it included one of the two fjords, Nærøyfjord. After leaving Flåm on a ferry and traversing the less dramatic leaf of Aurlandsfjord, we entered our main target of the day.
 

Naeroyfjord, Norway

 
As was mentioned in the above post, the rain was a continuous nuisance during the ferry ride. And in a karmic payback for my habitual neglect of natural wonders on my travels, the rain intensified practically the moment that the above view opened at the mouth of the fjord. The positive aspect of that was that I suddenly found myself practically alone at my post on the upper deck; other competitors retreated to inside decks. On the other side of the spectrum, I had to ration how much my camera emerged from under my wind-breaker; I am not hard-core enough photographer to own any waterproof gear.

Of course, those shots that I did manage to take came out foggy and soft in this weather (and not greatly composed either). You know what they say about what interferes with a bad dancer, so I should not really be complaining, but knowing that I am able to take great pictures in good weather I am mightily annoyed at the weather gods for screwing up the day. Thankfully, I have a modicum of aptitude for post-processing. Still far from works of art or my usual standard of postcard-like, but I managed to get a few shots to at least passable.
 

Naeroyfjord, Norway

 
 

Naeroyfjord, Norway

 
In a bit of irony, I think the best pictures were those where parts of settlements on the shores were included in the composition. Maybe, there is something to my self-awareness that I am better at photographing human-made landscapes.
 

Naeroyfjord, Norway

 
 

Naeroyfjord, Norway

 
For a little bit under an hour the sheer cliff walls guided our boat from one bend to another.
 

Naeroyfjord, Norway

 
 

Naeroyfjord, Norway

 
Plenty of waterfalls of varying size and ferocity provided glittering ornamentation seen through the drizzle.
 

Naeroyfjord, Norway

 
And in the end, we reached Gudvangen at the very tip of the fjord. It is but a smaller Flåm without the railway, and we had neither inclination nor really an opportunity to see what it could offer.
 

Naeroyfjord, Norway

 
For a car-enabled traveler, Nærøyfjord is within the day-trip boundary from Bergen. I suspect that for those who truly want to experience the fjord, a couple of days is the minimum stay in the area, which would allow for activities such as kayaking or hiking.

These and a few more pictures from Nærøyfjord have been added to my Flickr Western Norway album.

Travel Album, World Heritage

Western Norway: Flåm and Aurlandsfjord

October 5th, 2015

Our fjord exploration on the recent Scandinavian trip was facilitated by the popular itinerary called Norway in a Nutshell.

If you are traveling in Norway independently of any tour operators and cannot set aside a couple of days of self-driving to and staying around the most scenic fjords, this itinerary may be your only option to include fjord-seeing in your overall plans. Nonetheless, I cannot be any more emphatic: This is NOT the way to see fjords. It gives you no more than a fleeting impression, significantly diluted by waiting for and then traveling on crowded modes of transportation.

It should be mentioned right from the beginning that the weather gods decided that the day of our journey was the perfect time to offer us rain as opposed to sunshine. I will allow that in good weather I may have been more satisfied with the experience.

There are variations of the same itinerary in terms of point of origin and direction of travel, as well as similar pricier options sold by other companies (they may throw in something marginally more exciting for the extra cost). In our case, we made a loop of Bergen – Myrdal – Flåm – Gudvangen – Voss – Bergen. You basically get sequence of tickets for all legs of the trip and can listen to occasional commentary via public address systems, but are on your own otherwise.

The first and last legs are made by local train which runs on the same Bergen Railway track we already saw on the way from Oslo. It’s 2 hours from Bergen to Myrdal and over an hour and a half from Voss to Bergen (if there are no delays). The scenery is pretty but hard to fully appreciate from a moving train. And in our case, we ended up riding the same stretch of this track 3 times, which felt like a waste given many places that we did not get to see.

The leg between Myrdal and Flåm is more exciting. It takes place on the historic Flåm Railway, which is one of the steepest rail tracks in the world, descending at 5.5% gradient for majority of the distance. The ride is certainly picturesque and includes a photographic stop at a waterfall near the top (which for me was somewhat underwhelming). But again, you see all of the scenery from the windows of moving train. There are tunnels and various obstructions for parts of the way, but even when the view is clear and even at a fairly slow speed, you get possibly 30 minutes of the scenery, tops.

Of the photographs that I made on that descent, none blew me away in the post-processing and a couple only made the cut after I applied some tilt-shift to them.
 

On Flåm Railway, Norway

 
 

On Flåm Railway, Norway

 
 

On Flåm Railway, Norway

 
Upon arrival in Flåm, a free, small, but full of information Railway Museum is an excellent choice for any visitor. If you want to learn how people lived in these parts before the advent of the railroad, how that road was built, and what changes it brought along, this is a fascinating narrative with tons of artifacts. The collection includes several old engines, such as this one.
 

Flåm Railway Museum, Norway

 
Among the limited customization of the itinerary available to us was selecting how long we would stick around in Flåm. The default option is about an hour and twenty minutes, which should be sufficient for seeing the museum and possibly getting a quick bite to eat at one of the fish stands or cafes. There is not much more to do on Flåm waterfront – it is perfectly a tourist trap. Some other diversions require significant time outlay and can only be undertaken with any practicality if you are staying in the area overnight.

Here is a shot of Flåm waterfront. The buildings on the right are eateries and shops. The white building in the background on the left is a hotel which could be a great base for a stay in the area.
 

Flåm waterfront, Norway

 
We opted for staying in Flåm for over 3 hours on the slightly misguided expectation that it would offer more entertainment in itself. In truth, that should have allowed us to have a leisurely lunch at one of the better restaurants, but we made do with the aforementioned fish stalls. Instead, we simply lingered in the mountainside park above the waterfront, traversing a number of walking paths and stopping by strategically placed benches. From one of those lookout points, I took this picture of Aurlandsfjord that is definitely among the top shots of that day.
 

Aurlandsfjord seen from Flåm, Norway

 
The next leg of the trip, from Flåm to Gudvangen, was a ferry ride along two fjords.

This was the most important part of the itinerary and it was in many senses the most disappointing. The boat ride takes 2 hours, but it is a scheduled passenger ferry, built in a way that limits unobstructed vantage points to observe the scenery. There are a few hundred tourists on the ride along with you, all fighting for the same limited space to take pictures. I commandeered myself a choice spot on the upper deck and would not budge from it for the entire duration of the trip. I got plenty of queer looks and plenty of semi-accidental bumps from people who tried to slither into that same space. The experience for me was significantly diminished by having to endure all of that activity. Tranquil journey it was not (and I allow that for some poor soul who never got to take a good picture I may have been the chief source of irritation).

Some groups of visitors talked loudly enough amongst themselves that the public address announcements could not be heard above their voices. Not that there was any coherent narration. It sounded as if the information was broadcast in at least a dozen languages, but little of what I managed to catch carried significant interest.

And it was raining. Not hard, but persistently, making all surroundings gray and bleak.

I kept pressing the shutter as much as I could but I hardly have 50 good pictures to show for it. Some of the best are of the settlements, some larger, others tiny, that sit on the shores of Aurlandsfjord.
 

Along Aurlandsfjord, Norway

 
 

Along Aurlandsfjord, Norway

 
It was not all bad. I always imagined the feeling of seeing a fjord “opening up” in front of the ship, with mountains on both sides moving apart to reveal the plane of water beyond the bend, and I got to see it with my own eyes on a couple of occasions. The next two shots are part of one such progression, taken several seconds apart.
 

Cruising on Aurlandsfjord, Norway

 
 

Cruising on Aurlandsfjord, Norway

 
And another perspective that hints at the next bend.
 

Cruising on Aurlandsfjord, Norway

 
Small waterfalls were a recurring feature on both sides.
 

Along Aurlandsfjord, Norway

 
And a wider-angle perspective at a more open part of the fjord.
 

Cruising on Aurlandsfjord, Norway

 
At the mid-point of this ferry ride, we left Aurlandsfjord and entered another fjord, which was the prime target of the entire trip as it added to my collection of UNESCO World Heritage sites. But I will leave celebration of that to a separate blog entry.

Later on, we disembarked in Gudvangen and had to make a beeline for the buses waiting for everyone on the same Nutshell itinerary as us. This was both efficient in that the buses were there and ready as well as further irritating in that they apparently could not accommodate a handful of people who left the boat last. So we sat on the bus for about 20 minutes while the drivers sorted out the shortage of seats.

The bus then drove through more rainy but pleasant scenery for the next 50 minutes to get us to Voss. Along the way it made a directionally-useless detour in order to descend down a historic narrow steep and winding road, providing another mild highlight of the itinerary. I drew the line at not taking any pictures through rain-splashed bus windows.

In Voss, we had about 45 minutes to wait for our train back to Bergen. We were hoping to take a quick stroll to town center from the station, but the rain was now falling much harder, and we spent those 45 minutes at the station gift shop checking out every single souvenir that it had to offer.

Overall, the journey lasted 13 hours, of which I count at least half as being spent waiting for public transportation or being transported alongside large quantities of public getting glimpses of scenery beyond the windows. And the equation would be even worse if we did not linger in Flåm those two extra hours. In my mind, definitely NOT the way to experience the magnificence of Western Norway.

The positive is that the glimpses we caught make us want to come back one day and see it right.

These and a few more pictures have been added to my Flickr Western Norway album.

Travel Album

On Mount Fløyen, Bergen

October 1st, 2015
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Getting to the top of Mount Fløyen above Bergen is a special treat for two reasons. First, the funicular ride itself. Most other funiculars that I know take less than a minute to travel to their upper terminals which, coupled with 10-15 minutes wait to depart from the lower ground, makes the experience somewhat fleeting and unexciting. On Fløibanen, you may still have to wait the requisite 10 minutes for the ride. But it takes nearly as much time to traverse its comparatively longish ascent, giving you enough time to appreciate the changing view angles. It also makes a couple of stops along the way to accommodate locals who reside on the mountainside, which can be amusing when one of those locals, burdened by several shopping bags, finds herself surrounded by a few dozen tourists.

The second reason is, of course, the views. You get to see all of Bergen from here. In the golden hours of the evening it is simply magical.

Here are several different focal-length perspectives of Bergen Havn.
 

View from Mount Fløyen, Bergen, Norway

 
 

View from Mount Fløyen, Bergen, Norway

 
 

View from Mount Fløyen, Bergen, Norway

 
 

View from Mount Fløyen, Bergen, Norway

 
The only minus is, you can only see the roofs of Bryggen from here, not its colorful front houses that we saw in this post. The brown roofs are towards lower right corner in the above photograph.

Another part of central Bergen is in the next shot, with St. John’s Church as the main feature and the piers of Damsgårdssundet beyond.
 

View from Mount Fløyen, Bergen, Norway

 
A close-up of harbor-level buildings with Korskirken and one of the hairpin turns of the mountainside street.
 

View from Mount Fløyen, Bergen, Norway

 
A view of Lille Lungegårdsvannet, which is actually originally a natural lake that was shaped into its current form in mid-20th century.
 

View from Mount Fløyen, Bergen, Norway

 
The buildings on the far side of the lake comprise the multi-gallery art museum that we did not fit into our itinerary. We did, however, spent a pleasant half-hour full of contemplation and people-watching on a bench under the trees by the lakeside.

The viewing platform is not the only point of interest at the top of Mount Fløyen. There is also a large park with a children’s playground and many walking and jogging trails. In the wooded area, a gallery of primitivist wooden sculptures attracts adults and children alike. Which clearly bothers this creature that is just trying to do its business.
 

View from Mount Fløyen, Bergen, Norway

 
 

View from Mount Fløyen, Bergen, Norway

 
 

View from Mount Fløyen, Bergen, Norway

 
The sunset occurs really late in these parts of Norway in early August, and we did not stay on the mountain for that. Nonetheless, it was certainly one of the highlights of our Bergen stay.

These and other pictures taken on Mount Fløyen have been added to my Flickr Western Norway album.

Travel Album

Fantoft Stave Church, Bergen

September 28th, 2015
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This church is reasonably recommended but not exactly among the top sights even in a city like Bergen. It requires comparatively non-trivial time and effort to get to. It is actually not the original church, which was destroyed by arson just 20 years ago, but a replica rebuilt in a different location. And yet, I specifically targeted a visit there on our sole day spent entirely in Bergen.

This was primarily a surrogate World Heritage site visit. Of the few dozen such churches surviving from Medieval times only one, Urnes Stave Church, is recognized on the UNESCO list. Its location is in general vicinity of the fjords that we were visiting on this trip but far enough to require time allocation that we could not spare from our itinerary. Since the style of architecture known as stave church nowadays survives almost exclusively in Norway – although replicas and imitations exist elsewhere in Northern Europe and also in the United States – as a self-professed aficionado of architecture I had to make an effort to see one while in Norway. Original Fantoft church dated from mid-12th-century and it was the only one of the stave churches that we could get to on our own using public transport, so it basically picked itself.

Here is a shot that attempted to take in the entire church.
 

Fantoft Stave Church, Bergen, Norway

 
As is frequently my lament, my “tourist” vision overpowered my “photographic” one. While I spent sufficient time looking the church over and absorbing its unusual build and atmosphere, I did not look hard enough for best angles and best lighting to take pictures. The results leave a lot to be desired.

Nonetheless, here are several close-up angles.
 

Fantoft Stave Church, Bergen, Norway

 
 

Fantoft Stave Church, Bergen, Norway

 
 

Fantoft Stave Church, Bergen, Norway

 
A fragment of the church interior.
 

Fantoft Stave Church, Bergen, Norway

 
Wooden carvings are nearly the only ornamentation that exists inside the church, otherwise it is beautifully minimalist in decoration. Here is a fragment of a bench carving.
 

Fantoft Stave Church, Bergen, Norway

 
Half an hour is likely the very upper limit of the length of visit to the Fantoft Stave Church. But you need to budget no less than an hour and a half overall to get there and back; the light rail from Byparken in the center of Bergen takes under 20 minutes to Fantoft station, from where a slight uphill walk leads you to the church in another 10 minutes.

Pictures of Fantoft Stave Church have been added to my Western Norway Flickr album.

Travel Album

More from Bergen

September 24th, 2015
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Bergen is one of those cities that is mostly known as a gateway to something (in this case, fjords). Most of the itineraries, even those that make the city a base for regional exploration, leave at best a single day for getting acquainted with Bergen. Although it is bigger in size than an average “intraday” point of interest, it is certainly not a large metropolis. And Bryggen aside, its other sights on offer are not of a true must-see caliber.

We also planned only a single full day for Bergen exploration. But because we had two additional nights in town, we ended up with a better feel for its charm and vibrancy than a basic one-day visit would allow.

We will start with a picture of houses that extend Bryggen waterfront. The shot is taken from the same vantage point as several of the shots appearing in the Bryggen essay.
 

Bergen, Norway

 
These houses date back only to the beginning of the 20th century, although some of the area was built up in the 18th century. In fact, the Hanseatic Museum that we mentioned in the Bryggen entry edges its way into the frame at the very right of the picture.

Here is a different perspective of these houses, with the museum making another effort to get in on the right, and the commemoration of the victims of the World War I in the foreground.
 

Bergen, Norway

 
And another perspective of the same row of houses in the early morning.
 

Bergen, Norway

 
A perspective on the nearby part of the harbor dominated by Mount Fløyen in the background.
 

Bergen, Norway

 
At the top of the frame you can see the upper terminal of the funicular, next to a lookout platform that offers fantastic views over the city. I have posted a panorama taken there in my Scandinavian announcement and will make yet another post of additional views from that elevated point.

This is Sjøfartsmonumentet, or Maritime Monument, tracing the history of Norweagian seafaring exploits on the main town square, Torgallmenningen.
 

Bergen, Norway

 
There are other attractive squares in the city center. Here is a gazebo at Byparken.
 

Bergen, Norway

 
One church in Bergen that warrants coming in is St Mary’s, at the edge of Bryggen, that has been renovated and re-opened sometime in 2014. I normally observe “no photography” signs posted at some of these sights, but the pulpit of this church was so unusually ornate that I had to be disobedient for once.
 

Bergen, Norway

 
Rosenkrantz Tower is another worthy attraction, with several small exhibitions related to Bergenhus Fortress and the history of Bergen, and nice views from the roof gallery. The best shot of the tower that I took happens to be a night-time one.
 

Bergen, Norway

 
And here is the harbor view from the terrace.
 

Bergen, Norway

 
The only good elevated points for photographing Bryggen must exist at the hotels that line up the quay in the above picture. You cannot see Bryggen from Fløyen, and you can only see it sideways from the top of Rosenkrantz Tower.
 

Bergen, Norway

 
The vibrant fish market at the center part of the harbor quay offers wide selection of raw seafood, plus many other delicacies, as well as many opportunities to get a nice snack. I managed only one passable picture of the goods on display and it barely illustrates the amount of available seafood.
 

Bergen, Norway

 
We came across several examples of street art on the walls of buildings. This was a work in progress, we even stopped for a few minutes to observe the artist once he returned to his chair.
 

Bergen, Norway

 
And a couple of more night-time shots. This is Vågsallmenningen, with a statue of Ludvig Holberg, the writer and philosopher whose other statue we already saw in Oslo. He was born in Bergen.
 

Bergen, Norway

 
And this church-like building is actually a shopping center, Kjottbasaren.
 

Bergen, Norway

 
These and other pictures of Bergen have been added to my Western Norway Flickr album.

This is not all from Bergen. Two of the stops on our tour of the city warrant individual blog entries.

Travel Album