Bergen Weekend: Winter Edition

As someone who thrives on the healing powers that hiking and nature can provide, it was no surprise to me that Norway was high on my list. Did I plan to make my first visit in the dead of winter? No, but then again life loves to throw unpredictable curve balls (and very cheap flights!) my way, so my first taste of Norway was a chilly one.

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Our hike up to Fløyen quickly became snowy and icy–could have used some microspikes for this trek!

I stayed in Bergen, which is a hiker’s dream paradise. With the peaks of Ulriken and Fløyen towering over the homes built into the cliffsides overlooking the harbor, residents and visitors can be on a hiking trail in a short amount of time. (NOTE: For those travelers who don’t enjoy long and steep walks in new cities, Bergen can be pretty rough. But then again, you are reading a blog about urban hiking, so you have to expect that our featured destinations will involve some uphill climbs.). It’s also important to mention that for residents, the work-life balance was based more on the weather versus the hours of the day. If, for example, the weather on a Tuesday provides perfect ski conditions, it is acceptable to slip out early, especially if the rest of the week looks dreary (my kind of lifestyle!). And on the weekends? Forget seeing people in the town, everyone will be out in the mountains.

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View of Bergen from the top of Fløyen.

On this particular visit, I managed to knock a few big wanderings off the list. Day one we climbed to the top of Fløyen and rode the cable car down. This was my first adventure after landing in the morning, so it not only gave me a chance to explore the city, but it also got my blood pumping as I fought jet lag fatigue. The hike took a few hours, with minimal stops except to veer off the trail to certain lookout points for a bird’s eye view of the city below. One difficulty we faced was as we got higher above the city, the trails became quite icy. In January, weather can be unpredictable—while I was visiting, Bergen temperatures remained just above freezing, so it made for wet and icy hiking. A few days after I left, the city was hit with a few strong snow storms, making any hikes up the mountain into a snow shoe excursion. So be prepared for all types of weather if you plan to still hike in the winter.

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Bryggen is a great starting point for any walk through Bergen, and you can easily spot it once you get into the mountains.

For a little less stress on our knees, we took advantage of some free time to wander the streets of Bergen, which is a great afternoon trek for urban hikers. Start at Bryggen, an UNESCO World Heritage site dating as far back as the 14th century. You’ve probably seen photos of these pointed, colorful houses that during the week offer tourists pricey shopping and plenty of Instagram opportunities. From here, head southwest, circling the harbor and popping into the Fjellskål fish market to get a glimpse of the local catches of the day. From there, head northeast up to the aquarium, stopping finally at the Nordnesparken to take in the spectacular views of the fjords.

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Bergen has so many cute little side streets that take you back in time. Be sure to pause for moment like this. 

If you’re into creepy, abandoned old towns (like me), then visiting the Old Bergen Museum in the winter is perfect for you. Located in the northern coastal hills of Bergen, this area is designed to look like the city’s original fishing homes centuries ago. In peak tourism season, these little homes provide tourists with shops, restaurants and historical exhibits they can explore, but in the winter, it is nothing more than closed doors and empty streets.

While visiting Bergen in the winter does mean that some of the main city attractions will be closed, it’s important to take that opportunity to ‘do as the locals do’ and get out of the city. Even without a car, you can easily take a bus to skiing out in Kvamskogen or horse riding in the mountains, making the most of your snowy visit.

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Travel Lessons: The Schengen Agreement and Renewing Your US Passport FAST

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Flying over Bergen, Norway, just days after renewing a passport.

Five days before my trip to Norway I received an email—my airline was offering a courtesy, giving me a checklist of items to do before I left. Make sure your bag is under a certain weight. Check. Make sure to pre-order your meal. Check. Make sure your passport is valid for at least 90 days. Not check.

Panic set in. I knew my passport was up for renewal in April, but figured I would be fine for a January trip and could renew afterwards. At closer research, I realized that if my passport was under this 90-day requirement from the day I was expected to return to the US, I would not be allowed to enter Norway. My passport would expired in 87 days…..

Lesson one in this travel blip was learning about the Schengen Agreement. Passed in 1997, this law relates to 26 countries including most of Europe, requiring US citizens to follow this 90-day policy. The idea is that typically for these countries, you can enter without a visa for 90 days as long as your passport is valid. However, if, for example, you went to one of these countries and decided to not go home and your passport expired, it could get a bit messy for you, your country, and the country you are visiting. Current countries under this agreement include:

Austria

Belgium

Czech Republic

Denmark

Estonia

Finland

France

Germany

Greece

Hungary

Iceland

Italy

Latvia

Liechtenstein

Lithuania

Luxembourg

Malta

Netherlands

Norway

Poland

Portugal

Slovakia

Slovenia

Spain

Sweden

Switzerland

Travel Tip: Whenever traveling to a foreign country, be sure to check requirements for entry. Other countries require at least six months of validity on passports in order to enter.

Lesson two was how quickly you can actually expedite the renewal process of your passport, as long as you fit the requirements. For me, I was lucky living in Boston, as there is a Passport Agency right in the city downtown. (You can read the full list of agencies here, with links to contact information). Once you locate your agency, secure an appointment for a day as soon as possible, depending on when you are traveling. In some other posts, I read that you could show up in person without an appointment, but most likely you will wait long hours and still get turned away. However, securing an appointment is easy online or by phone.

I should also note that when you Google passport expedite process online, there are some third party sites that offer guaranteed passports in 24 hours. Don’t fall for it, these services cost you hundreds of dollars more only to go through the same process at the Passport Agency. By going in person on your own, you save money and cut out he middle man.

You will need the following documents prepared ahead of your appointment. By making sure this is taken care of, it will let you get through the process much faster. You will need:

  • Proof of Travel within two weeks (or four weeks for visas). This can be a receipt for your flight, flight confirmation information, etc.
  • A new passport photo
  • Either a completed DS-11 application (for new passports) or the DS-82 application (for renewals)
  • Payment for the passport ($135 for new passports, $110 for renewals, plus an extra $60 expedite fee). Agencies will accept credit card or check.
  • Your old passport (if you lost your passport, you must provide your birth certificate)

The process is pretty straightforward after this—show up for your appointment, answer the questions, sign the papers, pay the fees, and they will give you a pick-up date. For me, I had my new passport within 24 hours.

My advice for any travelers is to always check these requirements. I know I never would have figured this out if it wasn’t for that strategic email. Instead, I would have driven all the way to the airport just to be turned away. Do your research, and if you find yourself in this situation, DON’T PANIC. You’ll be back on track for your trip before you know it.

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Luckily, everything pulled through to get to this viewpoint.

Basilica Hopping in Florence

As the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence has become a destination for art lovers, foodies, and the religious alike. With so much history around every corner, it’s easy to miss something when wandering the city’s cobble stone streets. But you don’t have to be a person of faith to appreciate the wonders of Florence’s many basilicas—with so many grandiose structures in a small footprint of the city, it’s easy to dedicate a day to see them all (with stops for gelato of course!). For this tour, we start at the Santa Maria Novella, located right by Florence’s main train station.

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Florence renovated the courtyard in front of Santa Maria Novella, creating the perfect spot for a picnic lunch.

Santa Maria Novella: ‘Novella’ translates literally to ‘New,’ identifying this church as the first true great basilica of Florence. Commissioned by the wealthy textile merchant Rucellai family, this basilica was designed by architect Leon Battista Alberti and constructed between 1448 and 1470. It’s most prominent feature is of course the elaborate facade design that overlooks the courtyard, but be sure to visit inside to spectate Masaccio’s Holy Trinity, an early Renaissance fresco that brought perspective back in vogue.

Basilica di San Lorenzo: Our next stop takes us down Via Sant’Antonio and then turning towards Via de’ Gori, right to the façade of the Basilica de San Lorenzo, a final resting place for some of Florence’s most powerful patrons. What detail the outside of this church lacks is made up for inside, with its iconic white and gold ceiling. While much of the church’s design is credited Filippo Brunelleschi, it is not entirely of his doing. However, the true gem of this church and must-see for all visitors is the Cappelle Medicee (Medici Chapel), with Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florence’s golden child, designing the marble statues adorning the tombs of Guiliano di Lorenzo de’Medici and Lorenzo di Piero de’Medici.

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PIT STOP: For true Michelangelo fans, be sure to visit the Laurentian Library, an extension of San Lorenzo and a perfect example of Michelangelo’s renaissance architecture design with its oversized staircase and reading room.

LUNCH BREAK: Hungry and looking for something authentically Italian? Visit the Mercato Centrale, located on Via dell’Ariento, right around the corner from the Basilica de San Lorenzo. Here, you can eat at the take-out counters, or buy a variety of fresh fruit, meats, cheeses, and more to create a picnic. Staying at a place with a kitchen? Buy your ingredients here and cook at home!

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Walking along the streets of Florence, you can always catch a glimpse of Brunelleschi’s Dome.

Santa Maria del Fiore (The Duomo): As you walk the streets of Florence, there is one landmark you can always pick out. Whether you are hiking in the hills above the city, or catching glimpses of the great dome from Florence’s narrow streets, you can’t miss the city’s main attraction. Towering above the city, the most prominent feature of this basilica is of course its dome—designed by Filippo Brunelleschi after winning a contest to design it. The story goes, that while the Gothic Revival base of the church was built in the 1200s, it was left uncovered because the opening was too large for a traditional dome. And because the Florentines would rather die than see its beloved church supported by flying buttresses a la French Gothic design, they commissioned any eligible architect to find a solution. Thus comes in Brunelleschi, who designed a dome inside a dome (a double dome!) to top the structure. Today, you can climb the 463 steps and actually walk between the two domes to reach the top for spectacular views of the city and the surrounding hills of Tuscany.

ALTERNATE CLIMB: If the dome seems daunting, you can also climb the bell tower, designed by Renaissance heavyweight Giotto. It’s still quite a climb though, but at only 414 steps you’ll save that bit of energy for more walking later.

PIT STOP: All that dome climbing will absolutely make you hungry, so as you make your way over to the Santa Croce basilica, stop at famous gelateria Grom at the corner of Via del Campanile and Via delle Oche. It’s a popular spot, and once you have your first bite you’ll know exactly why.

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Santa Croche at sunset.

Basilica di Santa Croce di Firenze: You’ll have to pull your map out for this one—heading south towards the Arno River, take your time to explore the winding streets as you make our way to the smaller but dazzling Basilica di Santa Croce. Translated as “The Sacred Cross,” this church is a part of the Franciscan order and still has a functioning cloister. However, the true draw to this church is its collection of Renaissance history—here, you can view works by Giotto, Donatello, Cimabue, and Vasari, or pay respects at the tombs of famous Florentines including Michelangelo, Alberti, Galileo, Ghiberti, and Machiavelli.

San Minato Church: High above the city on a hill on the south bank of the Arno is the ever-popular Piazzale Michelangelo. For urban hikers, this is a true challenge as you climb the stairs up to the peak, but the view is worth it. From here, you get a full glimpse of the city, with the Santa Maria del Fiore watching over it. I love visiting this spot at sunset, but for the purpose of this walk, be sure to get there before 7 p.m. to visit the San Minato al Monte, a small Romanesque church near the Piazzale, and then venture over to the lookout point to watch the day end.

A Walk Along Paris’ Left Bank

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The Ponte Alexandre III is a popular photo spot for travelers in Paris. Shown here from the right bank, you can capture all the highlights in one shot.

Essential to any trip to Paris, the classically romantic stroll along the Seine River offers travelers picturesque views of the city’s top attractions. During my travels in France earlier this year, I heard time and again a conversation comparing Paris’ left and right banks. Both have certain qualities to offer, the right contains a more upscale experience of the city with highlights including the Champs d’Elysees and the Louvre, while the left offers top attractions including the Eiffel Tower and the Musee d’Orsay. It’s a city-wide opinion similar to New York’s uptown vs. downtown—some simply prefer one more than the other.

I found myself wandering the Seine’s left bank regularly during my stay. Part of it was scheduling, as for a foot traveler, I tend to use walks to explore and to kill a bit of time, but overall I found that walking this strip of the city was most relaxing. For this tour, we start at the entrance to the Eiffel Tower, heading west where we will end at the Musee d’Orsay. We will walk along the riverside promenade, which includes dockside cafes, small parks, river cruise pick up locations, and bike paths–perfect for walking without ever having to cross the street. This offers travelers brilliant views of the Seine’s right bank, with exit points to visit some of the highlights along the left.

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If it’s photos of the tower you want, take a short detour to the Champ de Mars, the public green space behind the tower. Here, you can relax and have a picnic, share a glass of wine, or snap a selfie with the tower before heading back over to the river.

Eiffel Tower: We start our walk at the base of the Eiffel Tower. Built from 1887 to 1889 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, this structure has become an iconic symbol of the city with over 6 million visitors annually. For those interested in going up into the structure, I recommend making reservations online, and early, unless you don’t mind waiting in lines (TIP: Waiting in line is part of the journey. There are ways to avoid lines, including purchasing the Paris Museum Pass, but still expect that in some places you will deal with large crowds). Also, unless it is a must, taking the elevator to the very top isn’t necessary—you can actually get better views of the city from the second tier for a cheaper price.

Seine River Cruises: As you walk along the promenade, you will notice multiple starting points for river cruises along the Seine. This option is part for those who prefer a more leisurely experience of the river, with another part for the romantics. While most services are about the same, leaving from its starting point near the Eiffel Tower and looping past the Notre Dame Cathedral and back to the starting point, these cruises give travelers a view of the major sites in one hour. I recommend skipping this during the day if you intend to walk—you can still see everything without paying the ticket price. However, if it’s the experience you are looking for, then I recommend waiting until after the sun sets to see the city lit up. Most services run until 10 or 11 p.m., so you can easily squeeze in a long dinner before ending your day with the river cruise.

Bridges: As we continue along the promenade, you’ll cross under nine beautiful bridges connecting the two banks of the river. Each has become its own symbol in the city, with some gaining more attention over others. One of my favorites on this stroll was the Ponte Alexandre III, an ornate white and gold bridge connecting the Avenue W. Churchill to Avenue du Marechal, and leading onto the Hotel des Invalids. Here, you experience the true glamour of the city with the bridge’s over-the-top décor.

DETOUR: If you have a museum pass, I highly recommend stopping by the Hotel des Invalids to visit Napoleon’s extravagant tomb and to walk the grounds of this former veteran’s hospital-turned military museum. You can easily access the museum from the Seine by walking above the promenade towards the grandiose structure (you can’t miss it!).

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Inside the Musee d’Orsay you get a glimpse of the former train station as you browse the extensive collection of impressionist art. It’s a must-see when in Paris!

Musee d’Orsay: The promenade roughly ends here at the entrance to a rail station-turned museum dedicated to the French art of the 1800s and 1900s, specifically housing the masterpieces of great impressionists including Van Gogh, Manet, Monet, Degas and more. While viewing the exterior is part of the experience of this walk, I recommend dedicating at least a half day to exploring inside. (TIP: Keep an eye out for free museum days. If you don’t mind waiting in line and don’t already have a museum pass, this is an affordable way to see one of the city’s best museums. For the Orsay, the first Sunday of every month is free.).

A word of warning, this walk is not short. For me, strolling along the river from the Eiffel Tower to the Musee d’Orsay with minimal stops took about an hour. You may want to end your walk here, but if you are not pressed for time and looking for shopping or a café, then head down the Boulevard St. Germain and into the Latin Quarter.