Sunday, 22 April 2012

Norway Notebook - summing up

The Richard With docks at Bergen tomorrow, at the end of our round trip up the coast of Norway north to Kirkenes on the Barents Sea. I have made a few notes for anyone who might be interested.
  1. Service: Because the Hurtigruten service is just that - a service for mail, passengers and goods -there is a pleasant overall sense of being part of something useful,not just rubber-necking.
  2. Safety:Very professional, totally reassuring. There was a comprehensive safety drill for staff one day when most passengers were ashore on a trip, and a helicopter rescue drill another day. Judging by the number of small fishing boats darting in and out of every harbour, and the number of pleasure craft waiting for the summer season, seamanship is second nature to Norwegians.
  3. Hygiene: Bordering on the obsessive, which, knowing what we do now about bugs, is as it should be. 
  4. Staff: No-one can be good at everything, and when I am at sea I value safety and professional seamanship far above obsequious waiters and waitresses. My hunch is that, like the Portuguese (another great seafaring nation), the Norwegian genius is not best displayed waiting at tables or serving behind the bar. There is a certain 'take it or leave it' attitude, which has its own charm not least because it reminds one of home. See also 'Downside' below.
  5. Weather: At this time of year the weather apparently is often good (according to one passenger from Northern Ireland who is on his 6th trip). We have had 12 days of more or less unbroken calm and at times extremely hot sun.
  6. No crowds: both the ship and the many ports we called at are less busy than in the summer peak season. 
  7. Cost:It is significantly cheaper at this time of year than in peak season May, June, July and August.
  8. Contrast:There is a delightful contrast between the cosiness, not to say luxurious comfort, of the ship and the extraordinary wild scenery - like the alps or the Himalayas -  passing right outside; not in the far distance, although that too, but very often right outside the window.
  9. Fellow Passengers:There is something very soothing about the fact that most passengers are not English, and so their conversations in (say) German or Norwegian are just a hum in the background. We are mostly elderly, which can be a bit depressing as we gather at the door of the dining room as if at the gates of heaven. There is also the slight awkwardness, skirted around gracefully in the Hurtigruten guide book, that the retreating German army in 1944, under orders from Hitler, burned every house and destroyed every particle of infrastructure north from Tromso. It must be extraordinary for a German more or less anywhere in Europe to be faced with these stark historical reminders wherever they go. This circumstance is rendered all the more pointed and poignant now when, despite her best efforts, Germany is once again in the firing line with regard to the euro currency crisis. Caught between the Scylla of inflation and the Charybdis of 'squeeze', she is damned if she does and damned if she doesn't bail out the failing economies of Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Greece and Italy - and, some would add, France. The only time I have heard German voices raised was when a woman in a group sitting at the next table in the ship's library was (I gathered) expressing her exasperation at the euro situation. That said, there has been a sprinkling of younger couples, some with babies in prams and parties of excitable school children as we have gone along. Because this is a service calling at many ports every day sometimes only for 15 minutes to allow passengers (and their cars) on and off, there is a very welcome diversity of occasional workmen, in their oilskins and rubber boots or businessmen in suits simply using the ship like a bus.
  10. Wildlife: There are lots and lots of different sorts of seabirds, including sea eagles, I have seen one dolphin (or it might of been the smallest sort of whale), one sea otter in harbour. To my surprise and in complete contrast to the west coast of Scotland, not a single seal.
  11. Downside: A couple of days ago, a dreadful (to me) saxophonist played mournful versions on Deck 7 of 'middle of the road' hits as we entered every harbour and steamed through one of the most spectacularly scenic narrow passages between towering cliffs. In the words of Mrs T, 'No!No!No! No!' Also the snooper I discovered in my cabin looking at my laptop, which has meant that I now carry my laptop with me everywhere and at all times in my backpack.
  12. Food:Delicious, frequent, plentiful.
  13. Drink: Staggeringly expensive. One ill-advised bottle of very ordinary Chilean rose on the first night (not drunk all at once, I hasten to add) cost me £47. A small glass of house white costs 75 krone, nearly £10. Is our Chancellor of the Exchequer missing a trick? On the plus side, once you buy a Hurtigruten tin mug with lid you are entitled to refills of free tea and coffee day and night for the whole trip. 
  14. Dating:For the lovelorn lady passenger, there is a surplus of single elderly gents. 
  15. Dress Code: Check shirts, jeans, upmarket shell suits, jumpers, zipper jackets, fleeces, gilets  trainers and loafers are the order of the day and night. Almost no-one 'dresses for dinner'. When they do, they look out of place. Los Angeles has triumphed over Lingfield, Lille and Lubeck.
Would I do it again? Hmm. It has certainly been wonderfully relaxing, not least because of our extraordinary luck with the weather. And I was lucky with my dinner companion, M. Poirot, who I hope will be visiting Moffat in June on a tour of the UK already arranged with friends from Belgium. We will see.

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