Thursday, July 6, 2017

Nordkapp with Explore: 10-25 June 2017

If it hadn't been for an Email from a fellow traveler notifying me of Explore's new series of recce trips, I would have missed this experience.  St Petersburg to Murmansk, with several off beat stops along the way, then over to Kirkenes to Alta via Nordkapp and the Knivskjellodden trek to the end of the earth,  finishing at Tromso.  Sixteen of us, all mature travelers.  Excepting me, all from the Commonwea[th:  English, Scots, Kiwis and Canadian.  More men than women.  One other in his eighties - managing with a cane. 

And we weren't the only visitors - there were buses with Asians and Europeans, particularly  in Norway where we were overwhelmed with a  plethora of caravans, trailers and campers.  The scenery was often extraordinary:  clear, crisp air.  Some glaciers and snow patches contrasting with the forests and permafrost.

 In Russia, the sky was overcast;  less  so in  Norway.  We traveled by minibus and train and big bus.   I found my Arctic jacket courtesy of Quark from last year's North Pole trip, an asset - good for rain and cold.  Bright yellow, I couldn't get lost. 

I like St Petersburg.  Been there four times, from the 1990s to 2015.  The old Imperial architecture
always awes me.  I could have skipped the Hermitage tour, particularly  as it did not take us to the new annex.  But then, I had been there before.  And it is a Must Do for the St Petersburg visitor.  Toured the City - always a joy.

Then came the crash!  Mine!  While the group visited Peterhof Park, Kronstadt Miliiary Fort and Ft Alexander 1, I conked out on the back seat of the bus.  It was a wet day but I cared less:  only got out of the bus when the driver escorted me to the toilet.  Sorry I missed the visits for I hadn't been there before, but just wasn't in the cards. ( I was told there was a substitution for one of the Forts.)   I was able to tote my bag onto the sleeper, where I barely made up a bed before crashing again.  Ah, the joys of the Night Train to Petrozavodsk!

Just hacked and coughed for the rest of the tour - mobile but not at my best.  Several others joined me, including the Scotswomen and my Canadian roommate. 

We were  at Kizhi and Solovetsky Islands. Both UNESCO sites:   one an open air  museum of traditional wooden buildings and the other, a  Monastery complex used as a political prison in Soviet times.  A guide at the  open air museum,  was  vehemently anti Gorbachev and pro Putan.  We were in areas rich in history, controlled by Finns and Swedes in the past.   Boat rides from the mainland to the Islands.  Then back to Kem for the Night Train to Murmansk!

I had been in Murmansk for the first time last year - a quick tour through town from airport to dock.  It had impressed me as a combination of St Petersburg  styling and crumbling Soviet design.  After several days there, my impression didn't change.  Unkept would describe it.  We went
to several museums - one of Political  History was most interesting.- the original nuclear icebreaker, Lenin  and  the small British Naval Cemetery -  better maintained  than most of Murmansk - but  well hidden by commercial ventures. Was impressed with local grocery stores - well stocked and organized. 

Then to Kirkenes - where I had been Christmastimer during the 1990s.  Though the Russians were loath to met me go:  the border officer, a perfectly groomed woman, went through my passport, age by page, had me take of cap and glasses to check identification, and then called over two colleagues to check me out.  Her concern was whether I had been in Moscow.  Our Russian guide was bewildered as, apparently, were the Russian border official's associates.  I finally passed through.  Suspect the US passport threw her off. 

Along the way, stopped at a rebuilt Russian monastery, most northern one in Russia.  Much history apparently hoping to manage as a tourist stop. Then Norway: Clean and neat,  Reminded me of a big IKEA store.
Except the Ekkeroy bird cliffs which sea gulls, buzzards and others had decorated in their distinctive fashion. And noisy?   Adjacent was a small museum/store run by a Dutch expat.  Most interesting woman. 

Than the Piece de resistance:  The eighteen kilometres walk to the northernmost end of mainland Europe,  Northkapp. just up the road, was the tourist spot but not the real thing.  I had dreaded but anticipated this walk.  As it turned out, didn't need to for i was not in shape to make a stab at it - though  was a dry though cold day. I stayed inside the hotel.  As did three others.  We didn't get to Nordkapp as there was a per person charge and our guide decided that was just too much.   The ones that did the walk deserved all  kudos for their effort. 

Then Alta, an important Finnmark town and related with the Sami 
culture.  An excellent museum built about amazing rock carvings from 4200-500 BC.   And time at the Tirpitz Museun where that docent took time to show us about the area, including where the Tirpitz was finally destroyed.  Got out and did some walking out to old German fortifications.

The final stop was at Tromso, a very New England looking town. Usual town tour. Ran into a waiter, originally from Pennsylvania via Canada.   Spent time at  a nearby island shot with sand and seashells.  Lovely place.  
  A fitting ending.

So started the trek home, which involved more time sitting in airports than in the air.  I'm still recovering.

Tour: They tried to get it all in. Even so, there was a fair amount of free time to do your own thing.   Several long driving days sans lunch break.  Guide was an attractive Russian woman who took us to her Dasha - met husband, son and mother-in-law.  Most importantly, I had a great roommate.  And was great traveling with my friend of past experiences..

Accommodations: Good to Very Good.  I really liked the hotel in Murmansk which was a rather anonymous building, identified only by a bit of  metal scaffolding and a small sign at the door.  The cook, also waited  tables, was a delight:  rushing about with the oatmeal, crepes and eggs for us in the AM.

Cost:  Close to $7000, including $1500 airfare, $3000 tour,and $720 cat care. 

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