Let’s Zeppelin

Gynormous helium balloon. Check.

Plastic basket strapped right under it. Check

Four tiny propellers and two even tinier wheels. Check and check.

We are ready to fly!!!

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Never in a million years I thought I would get to fly in a blimp. When I think of blimps I think of big sporting events and some giant thing floating in the sky with very obnoxious advertisements written on it. Usually Goodyear. Sometimes something as equally irrelevant.

But when I realized that those things could be used for travel, I couldn’t wait to do it. It’s almost impossible to do it in the US – Goodyear has some flights, but they are by invitation only and I don’t know what it takes to be invited. So we decided to do a detour all the way to Germany, so we can experience this wonderful, if slightly outdated way of travel.

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Friedrichshafen

The company that builds and flies zeppelins is located in Friedrichshafen, Germany. It’s an unexciting industrial little town on the shoreline of Lake Constance, right across from Switzerland and Austria. Friedrichshafen has a long history of zeppelin aviation, with the first Zeppelin LZ launched in 1900.

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Since I’m such a geek, technical details go first. Technically, most of the modern blimps out there are not blimps. They are zeppelins. The zeppelin differs from the blimp by its rigid structure. If you deflate the blimp, it sags and looses its shape, zeppelin’s structure remains the same. Zeppelin’s hull is made from tear-resistant 3 layer laminate, filled with non-inflammable helium and weighing about 1 t. Our zeppelin was 75 meters long (a baby, compared to the first one, which was almost twice as long), it could go up to 125 km/h and up to 2600 m high for about 20 hours or 900 km.

When we booked tickets, we were told to show up 1 hour ahead for check in. We were late, of course, so as soon as we showed up we were invited for the security screening and briefing. We were led to the classroom, where we were shown a movie about the zeppelin flight and then we had to go to the different room, so we can hear the briefing in English. On our zeppelin there were only 4 of us who didn’t speak German.

Briefing was short and sweet. Some things were no brainer. Like you have to buckle up on the take off and landing. There is an emergency exit. After that things get a little trickier. As it’s important to maintain equal weight during the passenger load and unload, passengers enter and exit at the same time. We were told to line up two by two and every time two passengers exited the aircraft two boarded right away. “If too many passengers exit,” we were told “the aircraft will be too light and it will fly away. And then we will have to catch it.” Hmmm. How in the world would you catch a fly-away gynormous helium balloon?

It all sounded pretty easy at the security briefing. No pictures at the entrance and exit. No brainer. But when the push came to shove… We were loaded up in the minivan and taken to the landing zone. Zeppelins can take off and land vertically, so they don’t need a landing strip, just a small round spot in the middle of the airfield.

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As we were lining up in pairs and trying to sneak in a couple of picture next to the blimp, Tiny and I somehow ended up in the beginning of the line and had to go up to the door and start our boarding.

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We climbed into the passenger capsule and had to take the seats closest to the back, to get out of the way of the unloading passengers. Than the wind blew and the whole things moved a few feet. That was spooky. Zeppelin never sits on the ground during landing. There are a couple of dudes that are holding it by the ropes, but other than that there is no anchoring of any sort. The tiny wheels are there for guidance mostly.

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The loading/unloading went surprisingly quickly and before we knew it we were up in the air. I never realized that zeppelin changes an angle when taking off and landing. I thought that it always stays vertical, but it can go up or down at almost 45 degree angle. The passenger capsule sways gently with an occasional gust of wind. Not very good if you get seasick like me. But thankfully, it wasn’t too bad.

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There is a flight attendant and a pilot. Flight attendant mainly there to make sure that everyone is buckled up at the right time and to point out the sights. Yes, there are sights in Friedrichshafen. What they are no one really knows. Or cares.

So we climb on board, sit in our seats, buckle up and the first thing that comes out of Tiny’s mouth is: “Can I watch an iPad???” Yes, honey, that’s exactly why we took a 1000 mile detour, spent all this time, money and energy to be able to enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So you can watch an iPad in peace.

After we took off, we were allowed to unbuckle our seatbelts and walk around the cabin. Bobby and I looked at each other with the same expression: “Nope, not going anywhere. Will sit here and hang on tight to my seatbelt.” But after a minute or two we got really brave and took a few unstable steps to take a family photo. And after that there was no sitting us down! The occasional swaying is something that you get used to pretty quickly, the views are fantastic and the whole understanding that you are floating in a giant helium balloon is beyond mind-blowing.

The passenger capsule fits 14 passengers in two rows, so everyone has a window seat.

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We flew about 300 meters above ground, not too high, but high enough to have a great view of surrounding landscapes. We booked the shortest flight possible – 30 minutes, which was plenty of time to get the “zeppelin experience” without kids getting too bored and me getting seasick. We made it all the way to the lake, enjoyed the beautiful views of the harbor and all the sailboats out, flew along the shoreline for a while and came back.

Kids kept asking weird questions, like what would happen if there is a hole in a blimp? What if it’s a little hole? What if it’s a giant hole? Don’t know and don’t really want to know. We had a chance to chat a little with the fellow passengers and realized how lucky we are. One pair of guys was there to celebrate one guy’s 50th birthday and it was their third attempt at flying. First time they had technical difficulties, the second time the weather wasn’t good, so the third time was the charm.The first time they tried to fly, there was a family from Texas who were super disappointed that the flight didn’t happen. And here we show up, barely scheduled enough time to swing by the place and the weather turns perfect, the wind is gone and everything is working perfectly. 

Landing was equally as unnerving. Apparently, a 45 degree angle is not a very comfortable flying angle. But that didn’t last too long, and before we knew it, we had to jump off and start heading back to our boarding spot as another pair was running in to board.

So we land, Tiny gets out of the zeppelin, looks around: “Mommy, how come we landed at the same place we took off?” Well, honey, there isn’t enough helium in the world to be able to lift this thing loaded with our suitcases.

We had to wait until everyone was on board and zeppelin took off right above us and then we were boarded back on the mini-van and taken back to the briefing area, where we had some champaign to celebrate our flight. I hope the kids will remember that they got to fly a blimp, we will for sure, treasure this memory for the rest of our lives.

How not to visit the Cinderella’s Castle

Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria is probably the most recognized castle in the world. Sitting high on top of the cliff overlooking the Alps, surrounded by the dramatic cliffs and mountainous streams, it is an ultimate symbol of idealized romantic architecture and a reminder of a tragic story of a king so eccentric and reclusive.

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King Ludwig II built the castle as a personal retreat, a refuge from reality and a sanctuary from the “profane” world. “Look after these rooms; guard them as a holy place,” Ludwig told one of his servants. “Don’t let them be profaned by the common herd.” Oops. That obviously never happened. Ironically, only seven weeks after the king was dead, the castle was opened to the public and now it is one of the most visited castles in the world, with over 1.3 million people visiting a year.

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Being so popular makes Neuschwanstein Castle very uneasy place to visit. It’s not like you can drive by, pop in and out and get on with your life like we usually do. Noooo. It requires so much more than that… But of course, being ignoramuses that we are, we did it a stupid way. Since we usually book things about a day ahead, the closest hotel we found to the castle was about 20 km away. OK, not a big deal, we just got up a little earlier and drove for 20 minutes. Once you drive up, you have to get tickets. Doh! The ticket line in the summer (especially on Sunday, I have to remind myself to never go anywhere on Sunday!) about 10 miles long. OK, another stupid mistake. Smart people book tickets online, which of course I’ve tried, but turns out that you have to book not later than 2 days ahead. Well, who plans THAT far ahead???? After spending maybe an hour in line we finally got the tickets for the tour. Apparently, it’s impossible to just go to the castle and wonder around, no, you have to go with the tour and all the tickets are sold with the time and group number printed on them. Ours was only 2.5 short hours later, so we relaxed, took out time and decided to take a horse carriage ride up to the top (yeah, we are lame like that).

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You have several option on getting to the top – taking a shuttle bus, taking a carriage or walking up for 40 minutes of steep uphill. We thought carriage ride would be nice. Nope, another mistake: long, slow line, the drop off is in the front of the castle, meaning we had to walk for another 20 minutes, dragging whining Tiny, all the way up the hill to see the view from the bridge and then back. Between that and all the picture-taking and bathroom stops we ended up not having enough time to take pictures of the front and had to come all the way back at the end of the tour. We should have taken the bus instead, which drops you off right up the top and walked down hill. Well you live, you learn. So, finally, after 3 hours of getting to the castle itself, we were finally ready to enjoy the views and the tour.

The castle is stunning, you have to give it to it. It’s beautifully designed and executed, even thought it had never been finished inside. The views from the castle are gorgeous, including the Hohenschwangau Castle next door, a.k.a “that other castle that no one ever heard of until they got to the Neuschwanstein Castle”. That other castle is probably magnificent in it’s own way, but who cares?

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The interior of the castle reflects king’s great love for the works of Richard Wagner, especially Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, and his obsession with Percival, the Grail King. Photos are not allowed inside, so I stole a couple from Wikipedia.

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It’s sad to realize that Ludwig II never saw the castle complete. Only 11 rooms were finished by the time of his death. Apparently being reclusive is not a good trait for a king, so after he spent all the money building the castle, he was pronounced crazy and dethroned in 1882. He died under mysterious circumstances couple of days later and his body was found in the Lake Starnberg, together with the psychiatrist who had certified him as insane.

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And one last peak as we were driving off…

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Random Encounters

Today we are in Germany. We flew in last night from Bergen to Stuttgart and spent a night at Stuttgart Airport hotel before heading out this morning. One of the places we were passing on our way was the city of Ulm – birthplace of Albert Einstein, and a home to 3 different world guinness records.

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We were planning on being there around lunch, but when we got there it was after 3PM and most of the decent restaurants were closed, so we picked a hole-in-the-wall falafel place and ordered some lunch. There was a large German family sitting next to us and as they were leaving, Bunny pointed: “Is that Ms Geck?” We were like: “No way!! Let’s go see!!!” We chased them down and it turned out that it was Ms Geck, our Eurythmy teacher from Boulder Shining Mountain Waldorf!!!! Turns out that she is spending a summer there with her lovely family. What are the chances??? It was very nice and a little bit eerie to see a familiar face in an unfamiliar town.

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Ulm is a very eclectic little place. A very interesting mix of old and new, classical and modern. In the center of town, there is a beautiful church, Ulm Minster, that holds the Guinness world record for the World’s Highest Steeple. The Steeple is 161 meters tall and it took over 500 years to build, starting in 1377.

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Of course, it’s impossible to be in Ulm and not to see the world’s crookedest house. The pictures don’t really do it justice, it’s a lot more crooked up close and personal.

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We spent a few minutes walking around town. Those few munutes was enough for us to get stuck in the elevator, not knowing which button to push and discover a wooden toys galore.

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Unbearable Lightness of Unplanned Travel

Some days it’s just fun to do random stuff.

Like visiting random museums, for example.

If I ever had to put together a list of the most random museums we have ever visited, this one would definitely be a part of it: The Leprosy Museum. Yep. It really does exist.

Yesterday we were walking down one of the streets of Bergen and suddenly saw the sign.

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“Huh? Leprosy Museum? Really?” Well, it sounded strange enough to attract our short baby-like attention span, so we had to do it. The Leprosy Museum is located in the former St George hospital, which was built on the grounds of a convent around 1400s.

The building is very small, it’s hard to believe that thousands of people spent years being patients there. The patient rooms are so tiny, I don’t know how it’s possible for two grown people to fit there. The compartments on the Trans-Siberian railroads train are bigger than those rooms!

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There are original instruments for bloodletting and an actual saw that was used for sawing off damaged limbs.

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The museum is full of not only historical records, but also personal stories of the patients who spent their lives there. Getting a leprosy was equal to getting a death sentence in the olden days and most patients were ostracized and stigmatized by the society. They were made to wear special clothes and ring the bell to warn others that they are approaching and most ended up in leprosariums, where they spent the rest of their lives in isolation, slowly dying. There is a giant board with thousand of names of the patients, written in tiny font.

One of the notable facts about the museum and the disease is that the leprosy was the first disease ever for which a first registry of all the patients was created. Here in Bergen. It’s shocking, but there are estimated 3,000 die of this disease annually in the modern times. Several hundred new cases are diagnosed annually, according to WHO. Yikes!!!

Then, of course, we needed to do something so lame and touristy that I still don’t even want to admit we did it. Even to myself. We went and played Escape Bryggen game. Escape games are not a new concept and most certainly not unique to Bergen. The game was developed after a popular computer game and quickly took off all over the world. The goal is to solve different clues in a certain amount of time to find a key and unlock the door. There is an Escape game in every major town now, even one in Algers, Algeria! Ha! Maybe we can play every escape game in every town, so we can finally have some rhyme and reason to our mindless bouncing around the world. Make it “Escape the World Tour.” I think that would be world’s unworthiest reason to travel… 

What was so special about this particular game, that it was set in Bryggen, in one of the old houses you see on every photo of Bergen. It did have a lot of charm. The walls were really old and leaning quite a bit. I kept wondering if that thing is going to topple over, and all the houses will fall down, like dominoes. The entrance to the game’s location was so hidden, we had to play our own version of “Find the Escape (room)” and after we found it, we had to ring a bell and hope that it takes them less than 10 minutes to come and open the door. Very welcoming…

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The game was really fun – challenging, but solvable. It was very family-friendly and everyone got to participate. Even Bobby. Bunny solved a few clues and even Tiny found a key all on his own. We got out right at 60 minutes and didn’t even turn into any hideous creatures as they promised we would!

I’m not going to share any details, as it wouldn’t be fair to the game-makers or players.

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Bergen keeps surprising us with fantastic weather. It was a little cold and foggy yesterday, but today is another gloriously sunny and even slightly warm day, which I didn’t believe ever happen here. We fully expected rain, fog, cold, more rain, sleet, maybe even snow, but we, most certainly, didn’t expect the Santa Barbara weather. We did a quick stop at the funicular and got up the mountain to see the gorgeous view of the city, basking in the sunlight.

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Bergen and Bryggen

Today we are resting, doing laundry, getting over the never-ending journey we did yesterday. All night I kept having dreams about driving on a side of a very high fjord and almost falling in the water at every turn. I think I didn’t keep my eyes closed enough on that bus ride yesterday.

At night we finally ventured out to have dinner at the Fish Market. The Fish Market history goes way back many centuries and it has always been an important place of trade for this corner of the world. There is a really cool photo that I stole from another blog (chromolithograph, to be exact), taken in the late 1800s.

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But, honestly, not my favorite. The place is a tourist trap with overinflated prices and mediocre food. The new modern building that was added for year-round weather protection just doesn’t seem to fit there. The tourist information center on the second floor cheapens it even more. But it was nice to sit outside on the water, enjoy the sunshine and the view and realize that people were doing exact same thing 800 years ago. On that exact same spot.

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After dinner we went to see Bryggen, which is Norwegian for the Wharf, is a row of houses that face the water on the side of the fjord entering Bergen. The houses were built 300 years ago and they are a part of this area’s Hanseatic history. The famous facades are lining up the wharf and are pictured on every postcard of Bergen.

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They are old and beautifully imperfect, with walls seemingly leaning on each other, windows that are not on the same level, many shades of paint and exposed old wood mixed together in one adorable melange.

But inside is even more charming. If you slip through the narrow passageway in between, you can see small courtyards full of interesting craft shops, potters, jewelers and artists in their own little community.There is a cute restaurant that has a nice outdoor patio and the wooden fish. There is a tradition to make a wish on that fish, or so we heard. We didn’t make any wishes, but kids enjoyed climbing on it for a few minutes. I’m sure they wished for all kinds of things while they were climbing, that’s probably good enough.

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We are so shocked to see the beautiful sunny weather outside. Bergen gets on average 7 feet of rain every year and it’s surprising it’s not pouring buckets on us. It’s still only about 55 degrees, so we are wearing sweaters and long pants, but there is a shocking amount of youth walking around in shorts and t-shirts. Apparently, the party season was right in it’s peak and there were huge groups of kids lining up at the bars and nightclubs. We guessed that they were college students, getting ready to start new school year.

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We ended up watching sunset on the wharf and then wandering through old town for a few hours, getting lost in the narrow little streets, lined up with neat old houses, just soaking in the history and the beauty.

A Day in Norway

Today was a big day. We started off by taking a train from Geilo to Myrdal. Thankfully train station is so close to the hotel, we only had to step outside, go under a little bridge that goes right underneath the railroad and there we were, right at the station. Thank god we left 20 minutes ahead, otherwise we wouldn’t have made it to the station 19 minutes ahead of schedule.

DSC06947It took about couple of hours to get to Myrdal, which is pretty high up in the mountains, elevation is 850 meters. From there we had to go to a special platform to get to a Flam train, which is apparently world-famous train, because it changes 850 meters to 0 in elevation in 20 km, which means that its going on the incline almost the entire time. The railroad is so steep and the engineering is so complex behind all that, that at some point they have a tunnel that has 180 degree turn – you enter the tunnel and the Flam valley is on the left and you exit the tunnel, the valley is on the right.

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Before we boarded the train, they made us line up in neat little rows and get in line to the doors 4, 5 and 6. So, we spent 20 minutes standing in line for nothing, like good little soldiers. Of course, when train arrived, everyone just huddled around the door to see who wins “Enter the train first” contest.

As the train started, they told us a little story about all the mystical creatures you get to see in the Flam valley and of course we knew that there is going to be something to see up ahead. We got to the waterfall, where they let everyone off the train to take pix, and there, by the waterfall, there was this crazy lady, dancing and swinging her arms and beautiful, almost eery music playing. It was a little cheesy, but it did create a certain mood…

DSC06967I, honestly, have no idea why they even have seats on that train. Every time there is a view of the valley, everyone jumps up and runs to the side of the train to take pix, on the next turn, everyone runs to another side. On every turn you hear a bunch of “Ahhhhs” and “Oooohhhs”

And of course, the scenery is gorgeous around every corner. The cliffs are so dramatic – vertical walls of gymormous gray, waterfalls, falling from hundreds of meters up above, villages, so picturesque, almost Disneyland-y, the grass is so technicolor green, I firmly believe that they specifically spray painted all their pastures just for our arrival.

One thing about most mountain trains, is that they spend a lot of time in the tunnels. There are 20 tunnels in this 20 km Flam journey and 18 out of those dug up by hand. So, you end up spending a lot of time in the darkness.

After we got out of the Flam train, we had to go to the Fjord ferry. The village of Flam is sitting right at the beginning of the Aurlandsfjord Fjord, an arm of the Sognefjord. Our ferry was taking us to the small village of Gudvangen, which is located at the head of the Naerofjord, which is supposedly is the narrowest fjord channel in Europe, and it’s only 250 meters wide at it’s narrowest point.

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Of course, the fjord journey was, as expected, absolutely unbelievable. Should I even try to describe it? This is one of those trips that you just can’t wait to be over. Not because it’s bad or boring, but because you get so overwhelmed by the beauty, the power of nature, the magnitude of everything that you see in front of you, that your brain just fries. It says – nope, can’t do anymore… The memory card is full, the battery is out, need to process, have to stop! You can only be breathless for so long before you pass out.

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DSC07154DSC07123Thankfully, the boat was packed with a giant group of Chinese tourists, who for some reason thought that that particular boat was chartered for their glamour photoshoot and the’ve spent the entire 2 hours posing in front of various cameras, in various glamour poses, in various group combinations. Standing, sitting, laying down, waving scarfs, waving arms, jumping, pursing lips, coats on, coats off, hats on, hats off, sunglasses on, sunglasses off and so on. Bobby watched one lady who spent 40 minutes doing a selfie video by the window downstairs and then spent another 40 minutes taking selfie pix. We were very entertained.

So, after we got off the ferry, with our brains fried and totally overwhelmed and exhausted from a sheer unimaginable amount of information and scenery, we then had to get on a bus to get to Voss.

DSC07426Well, the road to Voss is called Stalheimsklevia road and, apparently the front seat that I picked, right next to the driver, was NOT a good choice! This road is probably one of the steepest roads in the world and it takes so many really, really, really sharp hairpin turns, that I thought I was going to have a heart attack right there and then. Of course, it’s an old road, it doesn’t have any railings, except for about an inch of rocks on the side and it’s barely wide enough to fit the bus. I’m surely glad I have the video, because I had my eyes closed about 90% of the journey. Maybe one day I will be brave enough to watch it.

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From Voss we had to take a train to Bergen and I absolutely refused to take a single picture the entire time. I just pretended that there is nothing going on outside the window. I thought that if I had to see another gorgeous anything, my head will just explode and I will have to pick little bits of my brain from all over the train.

I Love Trains… I Hate Trains…

I love traveling by train. You sit back, relax, look out of the window, bug your FB friends with more travel photos, if there is a WiFi, that is.…

I hate traveling by train. You go by all the beautiful places and most of the time they go by, before you even blink. Oh, what a gorgeous waterfall! Oops. Gone!!! What a pretty lake, so peaceful! Ooops, gone again, before you can even focus your eye on it. I’m not even trying to take photos, because every time I get a camera out, the landscape suddenly turns industrial on me and there seems to be nothing but either construction sites, tunnels or endless rows or trees, so close to the train that you cannot even see the forest behind them. As soon as I turn the camera off, suddenly the scenery changes back to gorgeous, and we are suddenly driving by a pretty clearing in the forest, the most picturesque little village, surrounded by mountain ranges and glacier lake. Oops – gone again!!!!

So, we are traveling from Oslo to Geilo today. By train, obviously…

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The weather outside is (shockingly!!!) nice and sunny and we are hoping it stays like that for the next few days. We completely ran out of clean clothes, so we have nothing to change into if we get soaked. Apparently there is a lack of laundromats in Sweden and I’m not sure about Norway, but if I had to guess, it’s probably the same deal. We need to survive till Bergen, at least, where we can probably find something, since it has a decent amount of travelers there.

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In Geilo we checked into our hotel, Dr Holms, which is an old historical hotel right up about the train station. Geilo is a ski town and it’s one of the few places in the world, where you can hop off the train station, walk literally one hundred stops, hop on the ski lift and go skiing. It’s pretty fantastic. We did a little hike up the mountain, of course Tiny needed to be bribed with a dessert for dinner. Oy, I’m really not liking this trend we’ve created, but he is absolutely hating any kind of hiking or physical labor, and if there is no reward, there is endless stream of whining, crying, tantrums the entire hike. Really not worth it.

The hotel where we are staying is old and pretty big. The lobby is full of stuffed animals and old ski memorabilia. There are two giant moose heads on the wall of the lounge. It has been built up for over 100 hundred years, so now it’s a combination of old parts, mixed in with the new parts, mixed in the semi-new parts, all combined into a “Shining-like slightly haunted creation of endless mazes”. It feels like if you take a long turn, you would end up wandering around for weeks, looking for exit. We went down to check out the spa and tried to get out, but instead we kept running into a bunch of dead ends, locked doors and weird spooky corridors. I started getting a little claustrophobic after a little while, so we had to literally retrace our journey back to our room step by step, which involved getting up few flights of stairs, then going back down few flight of stairs, then walking up and down half flights upstairs up and down, walking down several long hallways, you get the pictures.

We went for dinner at another Norwegian restaurant, mainly to see what kind of other weird stuff we could eat. They, unfortunately, didn’t have any walrus flippers or seal blubber, but they did have a shark, which Bunny wanted to order, but I didn’t let him because of too much mercury, so he ended up ordering reindeer. Of course that set off a whole night of making fun of him eating Rudolph. No Christmas presents for him this year from Santa! Boy, that kid will have some substantial shrink bills in the future…

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Tiny ended up ordering snails. What’s up with that kid and the snails? He orders them every time there are on the menu.For some reason, once they arrived, he kept calling them “shrimp”, which made me wonder…

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Bobby ordered a trout and a soup. The fish came, then the waiter brought out a tiny cup of something looking like soup. Bobby thought it was way too small of a portion for $11 that they charged for it, but it was kind of a fancy-isn restaurant, so he said, OK and started eating it. It was delicious, he thought. When he was almost done with the soup, the waiter shows up with a big plate of soup, the actual soup that he ordered. Turns out that the “little soup” was the sauce for the fish. Boy, did we have fun that night making fun of Daddy and his “little soup”!

For dessert I ordered an order of cloudberries. Cloudberries only grow in the cold climates and this is my first time trying those. They taste like a slightly more sour version of blackberries, with a specific aftertaste. Actually I have no idea how sour they are, because they were mashed up with sugar and topped with a vanilla ice cream, which Tiny immediately commandeered. They have the seeds the size of the dinosaurs, which Bobby enjoyed, but I not so much. I thought there were more seeds than the actually berries.

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