Sunday, 2 June 2013

I have been to … Norway

Friday 24th May: Southampton
Since I retired I rarely get up much before 8.00am … but on this particular morning I was awake by 6.30am, and by 8.30am our car was packed and we were on our way to Southampton.

Despite some roadworks on the M25 which slowed our progress, we reached the M3 by 9.50am, and by 10.30am we were parked at Winchester Services. We had breakfast in Costa Coffee and had completed our journey to the Ocean Cruise Ship Terminal, Southampton, by 11.15am.

After booking our car in with the valet parking service, we made our way inside the Terminal, where we were processed in a matter of minutes … and by 11.45am we were sitting drinking champagne in the Median Restaurant aboard P&O’s MV Azura. Just after 1.00pm we were informed that our cabin was ready for us use, and soon after we arrived there our entire luggage was delivered. It took us less than an hour to unpack, and we were able to relax for an hour or so before we had to attend the obligatory SOLAS (Safety Of Life At Sea) safety briefing.

The start of the safety briefing was later than expected due to problems that P&O had embarking all the passengers who were sailing on Azura. Heavy traffic in and around the centre of Southampton had delayed the arrival of quite few passengers, and the ship’s captain – Captain Julian Burgess – decided not to sail at the scheduled time to enable them – and their luggage – to come aboard.

(On the day there were four other cruise ships in Southampton, and we suspect that this – and the weather – were a contributory factor in the cause of the delays.)

By the time that Azura sailed, the weather had deteriorated. The rain was falling so heavily that it was impossible to stand in the open without getting soaked. We decided to watch the ship’s departure from the Planet Bar, which was situated on Deck 18 at the stern of the ship. We sat there until 6.30pm, by which time Azura was sailing past the northern coast of the Isle of Wight. We then went back to our cabin and got ready for dinner.

Before dinner we had a drink in the Blue Bar, and at 8.45pm we went to the Peninsular Restaurant for dinner. We were allocated seats on a table for ten, and after introducing ourselves to our dinner companions (four of whom were absent because they were children), we ate our first meal of the cruise. By the end of the meal we were feeling very tired, and went straight back to our cabin to prepare for bed.

Saturday 25th May: At sea
After a good night’s sleep we awoke to find that the ship was well out into the North Sea and passing numerous oil and gas platforms. The outside air temperature was 45.7°F/7.6°C and the sea state was moderate with a light swell, and this remained fairly constant for the rest of the day.

After breakfast in the Peninsular Restaurant we went for a short walk around the ship, and then spent the rest of the morning sitting reading – and generally resting – in the Planet Bar. After the midday announcements by the Officer of the Watch and the Captain we returned to our cabin before going for a late lunch in the Glass House Wine Bar.

We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the public areas of the ship, doing some on-board retail therapy, and reading in our cabin.

I began reading the electronic edition of GRANT WINS THE WAR: DECISION AT VICKSBURG by James R Arnold (published in printed format by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., in 1997) a couple of days before going on the cruise, and I continued reading it whilst I was aboard Azura. I already knew a little about Grant’s campaign to capture Vicksburg, but this book considerably expanded my understanding, and some of the battles cry out to be wargamed.

The first formal dinner of the cruise took place that evening, and it was preceded by the Captain’s Welcome Aboard Cocktail Party. This took place in the ship’s Atrium and was very well attended. The dinner was excellent – as usual – and three of our previously ‘missing’ dinner companions joined us. (They were all teenagers who wanted to join their parents and grandparents for the formal dinner.)

After dinner we tried to have a drink in the Planet Bar, but it was very crowded and instead we went to the Blue Bar which – for some reason – was decidedly empty! We then went back to our cabin to sleep.

Sunday 26th May: Bergen
Because of the delay Azura had experienced leaving Southampton, our arrival in Bergen was slightly later than expected. We were supposed to have been alongside by 9.00am, but the Captain had announced on the previous evening that our arrival time would be closer to 10.00am. As it was, the ship was alongside just after 9.40am.

Bergen was renowned for its rain. It was said that it rains on three hundred days each year, and although it was not raining as we sailed up the fjord towards the city, it was air was damp and the sky overcast. It was also quite cold, and at 9.00am the outside air temperature was 46.8°F/8.3°C.

As there were a lot of passengers going on organised tours, we avoided the restaurants and had room service breakfast. This proved to be a wise move, and it enabled us to eat at our leisure and to watch the scenery as Azura sailed towards the centre of Bergen.

We went ashore not long after 10.15am, and caught the shuttle-bus into the centre of the city. It dropped us off by the Lille-Lungegårdvann (a lake in the middle of an open park area), and we walked from there towards the Fish Market, and from there to the Bryggen. This was the oldest surviving part of the city, and was the centre of trade with the other Hanseatic towns.

Many of the buildings were built of wood, and over the years they have developed somewhat idiosyncratically.

After wandering around the shops in the Bryggen we walked on toward the Rosenkrantztåmet (Rozenkrantz’s Tower), which forms part of the Bergenhus Festung Bergenhus Fortress.

A narrow cobbled road led up to the main entrance of the Bergenhus Festung

… and once we had entered, we walked around inside. Our walk took us to the remains of a gun battery …

… where the first salute was fired to the Norwegian flag when Norway split away from Sweden and became a separate kingdom.

A little further on around the ramparts was the remains of another gun battery. Two guns were emplaced there …

… and on further inspection they turned out to have been fortress guns dating from 1864.

Our walk then took us through one of the sally ports …

… and outside the original walls of the fortress.

We retraced our steps back to the centre of the fortress, where we spent some time sitting in a courtyard that was formed by some of the seventeenth and eighteenth century barracks buildings.

By this time the weather had become a lot warmer (it was 61.8°F/16.6°C) and on our way back to the shuttle-bus pick-up point we stopped for a drink.

Our walk back took us past a memorial to Norwegian seafarers. Each of its sides has a number of statues of typical sailors from different periods of Norwegian history as well as reliefs that depict the history of Norwegian seafaring.

We also could also see Johnanneskirken (St John’s Church) in the distance.

In the centre of Lille-Lungegårdvann was a fountain …

… which we watched whilst waiting to board our shuttle-bus back to Azura.

Once back aboard ship we went back to our cabin to drop off our coats and bags, and then we went up to the Terrace Bar for a cold drink. Suitably refreshed we went through to the Venezia Self Service Restaurant for a late lunch, after which we went back to our cabin to rest before the ship set sail from Bergen.

On our way out of harbour we passed another cruise liner, the AIDA Sol, which was moored near the Bergenhus Festung.

For a change we had booked a table in ‘17’, one of the ship’s select dining venues. This was located towards the rear of Azura on Deck Seventeen – hence the name. We were ready well before the time of our booking and went for a pre-dinner drink in the Planet Bar, which was located just above the restaurant. The meal was excellent – as was the service and ambiance – and had we been on a longer cruise, we would have gone back again to sample other items on the menu.

After dinner we were both feeling very full, so we did not have our normal post-dinner drink and went back to our cabin to read for a while before going to bed.

Monday 27th May: Andalsnes
We had never been to Andalsnes before, so we had no idea what the town would look like. I knew that it had been badly damaged during the fighting that took place there between the allied British and Norwegian forces and the German invaders.

The approach to Andalsnes was up Romdalsfjord, and the scenery was spectacular.

Azura was originally scheduled to moor in the fjord and tender passengers ashore – a long and sometimes tedious means of going to and from the ship – but on the previous evening the Captain had announced that he had secured a berth alongside.

By the time the ship had moored alongside at just after 8.30am, the air temperature was already rising and had reached 64.2°F/17.9°C. The sun was shining and there were hardly any clouds in the sky, and it felt as if the weather was going to be fine all day.

We disembarked just after 10.30am, and went for a walk around Andalsnes. This took us past some of the older buildings …

… and a war memorial to the local men who died during the Second World War.

It also gave us the opportunity to see some of the outstanding scenery around Andalsnes.

After a late lunch in the Glass House Wine Bar, we returned to our cabin to rest and read, and I used the opportunity to finish reading James R Arnold’s GRANT WINS THE WAR: DECISION AT VICKSBURG and to begin reading FLASHMAN by George MacDonald Fraser. I had previously read the book in printed form at least twice, but this edition was an e-book published by Harper Collins.

Just after 5.00pm Azura set sail from Andalsnes for Olden, our next port-of-call. She retraced her journey up Romdalsfjord and into Moldefjord, and thence out to sea.

We had a pre-dinner drink in the Blue Bar, and then joined our table companions in the Peninsular Restaurant for dinner. The conversation flowed easily, and the food and service was – as usual – very good indeed. After dinner we returned to the Blue Bar for another drink, and then went back to our cabin to get ready for bed.

Tuesday 28th May: Olden
Olden was situated at the end of Nordfjord, one of the longest navigable fjords in Norway.

The fjord was formed by a number of glaciers: Tystig Glacier, Kjendal Glacier, and the Briksdal Glacer, all of which are offshoots of the Jostedals Icefield. This was the largest icefield in Europe, and was over sixty miles long.

As we had visited Olden before, we had booked an afternoon trip to the Briksdal Glacier. We therefore had a leisurely breakfast in the Venezia Self Service Restaurant.

Our trip to the glacier was made by coach as far as the road could take us, and then by so-called Troll Car, which was a small diesel-powered four-wheel-drive buggy.

On our journey up the steep valley towards the glacier we passed a spectacular waterfall.

Once we had alighted from the Troll Car, we had a half a mile to walk to the base of the glacier.

We had only been there a couple of minutes when we heard a dull roaring sound … and a small avalanche of snow, ice, and water cascaded down the face of the glacier!

We returned to our coach via the Troll Car using the same switchback tracks we had driven along on our way up …

… and passed the spectacular waterfall again … except that the water flowing over it seemed to have grown in intensity.

On our return we had just enough time to buy a few small souvenirs and to have afternoon tea before Azura set sail for Stavanger.

During the evening we had a pre-dinner drink in the Blue Bar and then dinner in the Peninsular Restaurant. By the time we had finished eating we were both feeling so tired that we went straight back to our cabin to get ready for bed. We both read for a while, and I finished George MacDonald Fraser’s FLASHMAN and began reading the next book in the series, ROYAL FLASH!

Wednesday 29th May: Stavanger
We were due to arrive in Stavanger at 9.00am, and when we woke up at 7.30am Azura was approaching the entrance to the short fjord upon which the city was situated. The air temperature was already 61.9°F/16.6°C and it was predicted that this would rise as the day went on … and it did.

Azura moored alongside next to the Old Town area of Stavanger just before 9.00am.

As we had already been to Stavanger on several previous occasions, we knew what we wanted to see and where we wanted to go. In my wife’s case this involved her first serious attempt at retail therapy for some days, and so a visit to the shopping area was high on the list.

There were two other cruise ships in the harbour. They were the MSC Opera

… and the AIDA Luna.

Also moored in the harbour were four ships of the Standing NATO Mine Countermeasures Group 1 …

… including the Polish Navy’s ORK Kontraadmiral Xawery Czernicki (511) …

… the Norwegian Navy’s Hinnøy (M343), …

… the German Navy's FGS Weilheim (M1059), and …

… the Netherlands Navy’s HNLMS Urk (M861).

We had breakfast in the Peninsular Restaurant at 9.00am, and after sitting on deck in the sun for an hour or so, we got our bits and pieces together and disembarked just after 11.00am. We spent the next couple of hours wandering around the picturesque streets of the city, and both of us managed to make some interesting purchases.

Our walk took us past the Valberg Tower, which housed a museum dedicated to the local City Guard.

They were an early form of police force, and also kept an eye out for any fires. This was a vital role as the majority of buildings were constructed from wood.

We also passed the city’s cathedral, which was dedicated to St Swithun.

We ended our visit with a drink and meal in a local restaurant called Sjøhuset Skagen. This was located on the dockside opposite where Azura was moored.

We were back aboard Azura by 2.15am, and after dropping our stuff off in our cabin we went up to the Terrace Bar to have a drink. We had not been there very long when it began to rain … and it continued to rain until Azura let go her lines and began to sail out of Stavanger just before 4.00pm.

Azura reached the open sea just before 5.00pm, and then set course for Southampton. So afterwards we began to get ready for the second – and last – formal dinner of the cruise. We had both our pre and post-dinner drinks in the Blue Bar, and ate in the Peninsular Restaurant with our usual table companions.

Thursday 30th May: At sea
Overnight the Azura sailed into fog, and this required a slight reduction in speed and the regular sounding of the ship’s foghorn. When we got up at 8.00am the fog was so thick that visibility was less than 200m, and besides a slight difference in shade, it was impossible to tell where the sea ended and the sky began. This foggy weather continued for the rest of the day, and only began to clear at 7.00pm. The change in the weather had also brought a very noticeable reduction in the air temperature, and at 8.00am it was 49.1°F/9.5°C and it hardly changed all day.

We ate breakfast in the Peninsular Restaurant and then went up to the area near the Terrace Bar, but because it was so cold we did not stay out onto the open deck for as long as we usually did. Instead we went up to the Planet Bar, where we sat and read until 1.30pm, when we returned to our cabin to begin the process of packing our bags. We did this for about an hour, and then took a break for lunch, which we ate in the Glass House Wine Bar.

During the rest of the afternoon we completed the task of packing our bags and then put them outside the cabin for collection by the ship’s cabin stewards. We then prepared for our final dinner of the cruise.

We went for a pre-dinner drink in the Blue Bar, and after dinner we said our goodbyes to our table companions, our two restaurant waiters, and our cabin steward. We then returned to the Blue Bar for a final post-dinner drink and then made our way back to our cabin to prepare for our last night’s sleep of the cruise.

Wednesday 31st May: Southampton
Azura was moored alongside in Southampton by soon after 6.30am, and after eating our last breakfast of the cruise in the Peninsular Restaurant we collected our hand luggage from our cabin and went ashore. (One of the advantages of being a regular traveller with P&O was membership of the Peninsular Club. This was P&O’s loyalty scheme, and because we had done so many cruises over recent years we were entitled to priority disembarkation, and – in theory – could go ashore at whatever time it was convenient for us. On this occasion the size of the ship slowed the disembarkation process so much that we gained little advantage from having this priority.)

We picked up our luggage from the relevant section of the baggage reclaim area and then went to the car park to collect our car from the valet parking service. We drove out of the car park at 9.50am, and reached home (via the M3 and M25) at 12.30pm, having been held up by queues on the M25 near the turnoff for the races at Epsom.

Our cruise to Norway was over … and it was back to ‘normal’ until the next one.

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