Tag Archives: experience

First day in Jordan: Bedouins, traditions and history

I had to stop to catch my breath. We did it! We climbed all the 800 steps carved into the rainbow colored rocks of the canyon, all the way up to the Monastery. I wasn’t dreaming. I was in Petra. “You can’t say you saw Petra if you don’t see the Monastery”. I heard this too many times the night before, in the restaurant, from the Jordanian guy who was trying to convince me and a couple of Americans to pay more to a Bedouin guide who could get us there. And now, Christine and her husband, they had made it too. Instead of a guide they opted for two donkeys to carry them for most of the way up. I waved my hand towards them, from the top of the rock facing the Monastery, as they were resting in the shade of one of the two large stone walls guarding the ancient monument. And I got back two thumbs up as an answer.

The view was unbelievable. I must have turned in circle a few times. The canyon where we came from in the front, hidden behind the rocks, the vast plateau with the Monastery facade in the left, where a donkey was trying in vain to get a few centimetres of shade from a pillar, a few kids were following a herd of goats with long years and two Asian girls were taking selfies. In the entire side in the back and the right were deep valleys with rocky mountains and sharp cliffs of dark green, contrasting the reddish shades of the so dry canyon. And they were reaching as far as you could see.

At 5am the day before I left Jerusalem. I was even more grumpy than the hostel host that was already awake and come barefoot to open the large entrance door for me, wearing only his shirt and looking like a cricket with his naked skinny legs. Who cared after a night when I couldn’t shout an eye… Maybe it was the too sweet black tea’s fault, the one offered by my Palestinian new friend or the stories about his life, which triggered a storm of thoughts in my head. The morning sky in Jerusalem was divine. The sun was coming out from a huge puffy cloud, spreading orange-pink shades and a multitude of rays of light so amazingly well defined, like in those old paintings depicting God. If you don’t believe in anything, Jerusalem will raise some questions to you and if you believe, probably some answers.

I was in no mood of socialising with the rest of the group. We drove by a wire gate with surveillance cameras for many km before finally reaching the border with Jordan.

Hello Jordan

The first impression of Jordan, right after crossing the border, was of that of a country facing strong economic difficulties, to say it gently. I’m not coming from a rich country myself, poverty and hardship is not something never seen before for me, but life there seemed tougher. It was the middle of the Ramadan month. Small towns with dusty streets, tiny shops with little to offer, mini eateries with almost no food and barely one two clients, simple buildings with 2-3 floors and old commercials in Arabic, small square houses with small windows. Only one color: limestone. From buildings to the streets, people’s clothes and the dust all around, all was matching that same color – limestone. I thought Israel landscapes were arid, but Jordan looked like a desert and the towns we drove by looked almost deserted. Rarely I could spot silhouettes of men wearing grey or beige thobe, touching the ground, or women covered in black niqab. All were moving slowly. A group of kids started running towards our bus, waving their hands. As kids everywhere, they were full of joy. Days after I realised I had no photo taken with the places I first saw in Jordan. I was completely absorbed.

As we were leaving little towns behind, an open plateau was stretching far away in that burning sun. Because of the heat, the distant areas seemed covered in mist. The road was just a line between two identical sides. And right there, where almost nothing grew and water exists only when brought by rain, a large black tent was rising sometimes out of nowhere. More like a large blanket suspended on a few wooden posts, with nothing else around on sides, just a few carpets covering the soil. A few goats around, surrounded by a fence or usually free. Always a blue water storage tank near. Never many people around. Sometimes only a woman in black niqab with a child following a herd of goats, other times two young men doing something around the tent, often 3-4 people sitting under the tent. All men wearing shemagh to cover their heads. Those were the Bedouins, the so called pure blooded people of Jordan, the first to live on these dry lands. For the next days their simple lifestyle in the middle of the digital age and comfort will not cease to amaze me. These people are the first to see the sun in the morning and the last to watch it in the evening. They don’t live in the wild cause they are often close to the cities and what we call civilisation, turning heads away from the comfort as we know it and living a different way, their own way. Closer to nature, in harmony with nature. For the Bedouins outside means home. These people of the desert, nomadic populations living in regions of North Africa and the Arabian peninsula, are free people.

Jerash, Jordan

We stopped in Jerash. The Pompeii of the Middle East. Except here, sand was preserving the ancient treasure of the city built by the Romans. Majestuous gates, colonnaded avenues, temples and theatres, all speak of times of fame and glory of the ancient city, once an important imperial centre. It was so beautiful and so terribly hot, I was using a scarf to cover my hands. My head was burning and the hat I forgot home was now becoming a basic need.  

We passed through a small bazar. I talked to a vendor about my country and his. He sold me a pomegranate juice. I felt I was alive again. And we left.

The places and people I saw when we first entered Jordan had nothing in common with the capital Amman. Beautiful buildings, large streets, residential areas, nice stores, parks and a crazy traffic. Basically the description that could suit any other capital. Only one thing in common: the limestone color. The city was proudly wearing an all limestone shade.AmmanThe cooler breeze and the panoramic view of the Promised Land on top of Mount Nebo were another treat to be spoiled with by Jordan. The place where Moses looked down in the past to what we call now the Dead Sea, Israel and the Palestinian Territories. And where now, Steve, an american born and raised in US, with old Jew origins, whom I’ve talked a little before about accents in US, asked rhetorically how come the Muslims admit the existence of Moses but without accepting the legitimate right of Jews to live in those lands.   Mount Nebo  It was passed afternoon and my last meal was more than 20h before. Others in our group of about 15 people were in the same boat. First we started joking about it and teasing Wael, our Jordanian guide who was really trying to find a place selling food. But in Jordan they take the Ramadan very seriously. Most of the people fast until sunset. This means almost no one sels food, as this is considered a temptation for those who fast. All the small restaurants he knew were closed. Every time we stopped and Wael went out of the bus in search of food, coming back empty hands there was a general  AAAA to be heard. First we joked about it and so we started talking to one another. As only a few places in the bus were occupied, since we were a small group, everyone had empty seats around. Now hunger crossed these barriers. Finally Wael came back successfully with two bags of some pastries. I wasn’t so happy when I got mine. But one first bite and I was the happiest. It was delicious, still warm and all filled with dates cream and some sort of spices. I still have gourmand fantasies with that.

The sun was burning less strong when we arrived in Madaba. In that place I got the chance to watch the making of two of the most amazing handcrafts: the handmade natural stone mosaics inspired by centuries of mosaic making tradition in Jordan and sand drawing inside bottles. The last one is something you can’t believe if you don’t see it: in a bottle with many layers of colored sand, a woman using only a stick was moving rapidly the sand inside and the results were camels, palm trees, mountains and whatever the client wanted. All in a few minutes. Here masterpieces are created every day. We tried local products in a store, delicious dates, walk a few streets and finally, after a long search, found my hat for the next days, with a nice discount offered by the owner of the shop: a beautiful white and red shemagh.

It was dark when we arrived in Petra. After the AirBnb in Tel Aviv and the poor hostel in Jerusalem, a four stars hotel felt soo good. The view was unreal, as the hotel was on a cliff above the canyon. We had an amazing dinner, I talked a lot with my new friend from Australia, Illa and finally went to sleep exhausted but happy to be in a country that was slowly revealing its wonders. And ready to add something new to those I called my beautiful places.

Next: Petra and Wadi Rum  

My Top 10 Beautiful Places in Venice

I started writing this list in the first day of spring, in March, at midnight, when outside was snowing with huge fluffy snow flakes. From my window all was white, beautiful and perfectly calm. It was the last and so unwanted winter episode that made (almost) everyone crazy throughout Europe. I thought then it was the perfect moment to mind travel back to Venice, back to the Carnival madness and to my favourite beautiful places there.

I don’t know where time has flown away so fast. Now spring rules the cities and our livers with summer like temperatures, blue sky, blossomed trees and flowers scent in the air. Anytime actually is a perfect moment to remember Venice. Soo…

First, let’s agree something. On blogs, sites, forums are countless tops and lists of do that – and go there – and eat that – and you must’t miss… blablabla. My advice: read and ignore 80%. The rest of 20% that maybe you’ll consider nice to do, you’ll remember for sure. it’s a fact that no one can make a top appealing to everybody. So if you’re not into museums, with long waiting lines, but rather prefer to walk till you drop on the streets, you think shopping while traveling is a waste of time, you chase sunsets and panoramas and are never too tired for a late night walk, you are not afraid of getting lost, you are more likely to choose street food instead of restaurants and you simply can’t say no to ice-cream… than you might find some ideas for Venice:

10. The Carnival. There are two types of Venice: the one during the Carnival and… the other one. Make sure you get to see the first and take part at the feast, because true Venice is during those weeks, when the city goes wild and fancy. You will feel as a time traveler among all those people in costumes of counts and countesses. Buy a mask, wear it and dance in San Marco. I got mine, a beautiful black one, from Zago & Molin, for 15 euro.

Carnevale marks Venice

9. Best panorama in Venice can be seen in Campanile, the tallest building in the city. The entire lagoon, the Lido, the roofs, all under the majestic picks of the Dolomites.

8. A classic one never hurt anyone. So go for a gondola ride! Take it from Rialto Bridge, go behind one of the most famous bridge in the world and head to the narrow canals with small bridges. See Casanova’s house and enjoy the gondolier’s Italian love songs and   stories about the old times. The maximum of people is 5, so if you want to save some bucks, share the ride with other people and you’ll pay 16 euro each.

7. Have some fun getting lost. Venice is a labyrinth. Try finding San Marco without using Google Maps. Start, let’s say, in Piazzale Roma. It’s not so much fun getting lost while searching for a toilet. Been there, done that 🙂

6. Walk. Eat. Enjoy. Repeat. You’re in Italy, it’s pretty hard to have bad food. Well, I did but let’s just call it bad luck. Follow your instinct and maybe check TripAdvisor, if you don’t like taking culinary risks. If you like Neapolitan pizza, try Rossopomodoro, close to San Marco. For ice-cream addicts, Gelato Fantasy is the place.

5. Have a Prosecco at Caffè Florian in San Marco. Established in 1720, it is said to be the oldest café in the world. Imagine all the events that happened in three centuries. The place is not cheap, but it’s worth every penny. During the Carnival, when all the people wearing costumes gather in San Marco, it is an ideal place to admire them.

4. For those who enjoy the vibe, the colours and flavours in the city markets, the best place in Venice is Mercato di Rialto. And I guarantee you won’t leave without buying some fruits or food.

3. Find your quiet place. Escape the noise and find Calle Tranghetto Vecchio, a small dark street. Step into the light, on the wooden bateau bridge built at the end of it, facing a beautiful 180′ view of the Grand Canal. Watch the boats passing and enjoy the view away from the crowds.

The Grand Canal view

2. Midnight walk. Even during the busiest times like the days of the Carnival, you’ll own the city after midnight, when most of the people are already dreaming in their beds. Instead, you’ll live the dream. San Marco is now finally empty, quiet and amazing.

San Marco by night

1. Sunset on Rialto Bridge. This is my favourite view in Venice. The palaces, the Grand Canal, the seagulls and the gondolas, all in the orange sunset light. And if you feel like, take a waterside-bar break and enjoy a glass of Italian wine. Now that’s a moment you’ll always remember.

Now all you have to do is buy the tickets to Venice and have some great time in one of the most beautiful places in the world.

P.S. “Never to go on trips with anyone you do not love.” ― Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

My Top 10 Beautiful Places in Norway

The 8 days I’ve spent in Norway this January were one of the best holidays I’ve had. It  definitely exceeded my expectations.  The thing I loved the most in this country is the perfect mix between civilisation and nature, with a strong accent on preserving the second. In the most remote areas you could spot a cosy cabin and right there, at the corner of a major city you could experience views, landscapes, that only pristine areas can offer.

Sooo… Here are my faves based not only on what I personally saw, but also on what I found out talking to people there, so anyone who reads this could plan an even better holiday.  Sharing Is Caring, so here it is :

  1. Tromso: After all I’ve seen and heard about Norway, this would still be my first choice. It was the highlight of my holiday and a place I went crazy about since I first read about it, a year ago. Luckily, I got there fast. Why I like it? because it’s different from all I’ve seen before. It’s in the Arctic and you’ll feel it the moment you step your foot there. From beautiful landscapes of the fiords, to hills, small mountains covered with snow that surround you from all sides, to frozen vast lakes, to small fiords where the ocean takes the form of a river, surviving the cold without turning into ice; to breathtaking top views of the city where sunset is wow. And there’s more: the activities that you can do: husky dog sledding, seeing the wales, feeding the reindeers, getting to know the Saami culture, the indigenous people living for centuries in the far North, finding their stories, history and traditions. And even more… the northern lights. Tromso is one of the best places in the world for that. And, is not that cold compared to other regions around.
  2. Lofoten: I haven’t been there but it’s the new Tromso in therms of how much I wanna get there. Everybody I talked to in Norway had told me that this place is a corner of heaven. It was constantly the answer to the my question: where do you go on a holiday here, in Norway? It’s also a good spot for the northern lights. Me, I still can’t decided wether to see it in summer or winter.
  3. Train journey from Oslo to Bergen. If you wanna see one of the most beautiful railways in the world, by a ticket for this one. Words can’t describe this. I was sorry the time passed so fast when i finally arrived to Bergen, after 7 hours. If you book online, about one month in advance, as I did, it will cost you 20 euro. You can also stop in Myrdal and take the train to Flåm, on the even more famous Flåmsbana, a one hour train journey which is said to let you speechless.
  4. Bergen: In a recent top I’ve seen of the most romantic and less visited cities in Europe, Bergen was no 1. And I can confirm this. This city, a fishing village in the old times, is now the second largest city in Norway and it is adorable. Those small white houses on the tiny paved streets will make you wanna walk until you get lost again and again. Just forget about destination or time passing and enjoy it. And if you get to Bergen, go see the spectacular top view of the city on Fløyfjellet, the top of one of the mountains around, over 300m high. You can find the cable car starting point in the centre but I recommend walking to the top to see all the views. It will worth it. For those who love hikes, Bergen is a perfect place, with plenty of trails around.
  5. Stavanger: And speaking of hikes, here comes a spot with spectacular ones. You’ll surely recognise from photos seen before Pul Pit Rock (Preikestolen), a steep cliff which rises 604 metres high above the Lysefjorden and offers a breathtaking view. Or Kjeragbolten, a five-cubic-meter large stone suspended above 984m deep abyss, right between two mountains. And if you liked that a lot, you will also wanna see Trolltunga, (Troll’s Tongue), 700m high, offering a magnificent view of lake Ringedalsvatnet in Skjeggedal.
  6. Atlanterhavsveien: or The Atlantic Ocean Road. I think it’s the most spectacular  road I’ve heard of and a true masterpiece of engineering. Imagine a crazy ride on this 8 km road, that looks like it’s floating on the ocean, during a storm.
  7. Oslo: The capital of the country is not to be missed, no matter how much you would love nature and staying away of the city madness. Vigeland Park was my favourite spot, I’ve seen it on a snowy evening and was fabulous.
  8. Hurtigruten: in case you have the time and you want to see the entire western and northern coast, between Bergen and Kirkenes, this ferry journey is a good idea. It sails almost the entire length of the Norway, from the arctic circle and back to the south, completing the round-trip journey in 11 days. It was described as the “World’s Most Beautiful Sea Voyage”.
  9. Svalbard: The most curious fact about this region is that it is forbidden by law to die here. There’s a rational explanation for this: the ground is frozen so the body can’t be buried. But life in one of the world’s northernmost inhabited areas on Earth is something worth experiencing. Glaciers, frozen tundra, polar bears, reindeers and Arctic foxes. Also, the northern lights can be admired here, in the endless polar nights during winter time. The sun takes its revenge during summer, with 24 hours of light and the midnight sun.
  10. I will let this open for suggestions, if anyone has.

We plan our escapes depending on our preferences. Wether we want to try new experiences, or to push ourselves to the limits or we prefer to relax and enjoy the places in quiet. In the end, the best holiday is the one that each of us prefers. So enjoy!

My best friends in Tromso: 200 hungry reindeers

I was a passer by in Tromso, Northern Norway, for a few days. People like me come and go, hoping to come back, but never knowing if that place that got so deep into their heart will ever be seen again. We, tourists, travellers or those wanderlust infected, try to see in a blink all we’ve read about on TripAdvisor; we taste the food, try to spell the language, talk to locals, take lots of photos, post them and then talk about how it was with family and friends. But this land actually belongs to them ever since before we existed, before Tromso was a tourist hot spot and a popular hashtag on Instagram, from old times, when no borders were drawn in the North between the regions of Lapland, from Norway to Sweden, Finland and Russia. Back in the days when winters were harsh and snow could reach more than 2m high, the reindeers were already there.

They still live free on the hills of Troms, many of them in herds which are taking care of by the Saami people, the indigenous population in the North. This union lasts for hundreds of years, in perfect harmony with nature, both parts helping each other survive the rough conditions in the Arctic. And a family just like this, with a herd just like that, of 200 reindeers, I was visiting in my last day in Tromso.

For someone like me, coming from a place where reindeers are the fantastic flying creatures in Santa Claus stories, actually seeing them for real is a true excitement. The moment I got off the car and saw a few reindeers behind the fence, on the white vast field covered with snow, among big snowflakes, all I wanted to do was run there and hug every single one of them. But, I hold my breath a bit cause we met our guest first: Lune, a beautiful tall woman, with long red hair, blue eyes like ice, snow white skin and the kindest of smiles. Do you know that type of person that you like instinctively and immediately? That was her. There can’t be a more friendly host. We were invited in the lavvu tent, a very high one made of wood piles and some sort of beige material, with a whole in the top where I could see the big snowflakes coming down to us and disappearing before reaching the fire above. This is specific to Lapland and the people living here for centuries.

We all gathered around the big fire in the middle of the lavvu tent, sitting on wood benches covered with reindeer hides. It was warm and a light scent of wood and smoke made me feel so comfortable. We were told that our mail job for that day was to feed the reindeers, all of the 200 hungry souls outside the door. And since we were going to have a bucket full of food, they will be make an exception and be friendly. In the wild, it’s not gonna happen, they usually run when they meet people but now, during the cold months, the Saami family was protecting them from predators like the links or the sea eagle. The last one usually attacks the small ones by injuring them and than waits patiently a few days until they die. Since during the last years the eagles were protected by the law in Norway, their number has increased and they now represent a main danger for the reindeers. But the worst is climate change. Maybe the most affected areas are those where cold is a vital condition. If we can cope with a few hot days, with an unusual rain fall or with The beast from the East (the recent cold wave that affected most of Europe last week), warm temperatures in the Arctic are fatal for many species. Rain for example was not seen before in those regions, during the winter months. A few days with positive temperatures and rain are followed by icy temperatures and so the ground gets covered by a thick layer of ice that the reindeers in the wild can’t break so they can reach food. So they starve or get too weak to survive the predators.

Maybe one of the most amazing example of how perfect everything is organised in nature is that related to the reindeer’s horns. They grow and fall as a natural process but those belonging to the males, if found in the wild, are picked by the Saamy people while those from females are never taken. They are very easily decomposed and high in calcium. So the female will get back to that place to eat it after she has her calf, this will help her produce milk. Also, other animals like foxes enjoy a good dose of calcium in the harsh conditions in the Arctic, where every source of nutrients is valuable.

And so, with a very good reality check about life in the North I took my bucket full of food and entered the paddock. I couldn’t make more than one step cause 5 reindeers surrounded me, each of them trying to get his head first in the bucket and keep it as long as he could there, enjoying his meal. While one was eating another one was coming from his side and using his horns was telling him that he had enough and was time to leave the bucket for the next one. I wanted to get in the middle of the heard, 20m away so I hold the bucket up and walked as fast as I could. Once there, I was surrounded by reindeers, some big, some smaller, some brown, others almost white, some with small horns, other with big large horns and some even with only one horn, looking quite funny. It’s true, in the first minutes, seeing some of the males with large horns coming towards me fast or starting to hit others with the horns I was a bit afraid. But they are the cutest and harmless creatures. While they were eating I got the chance to touch them and feel how thick and soft in the same time is their fur, the horns that look just like bones and their fluffy noses, breathing with noise every time I got close to them. I think I spent around two hours with them. Since we were told to try to feed the shy ones too, I accepted the challenge to get the bucket to the shyest reindeer of the heard, the one that ran every time someone was getting 3 m close. I moved slowly, closer and closer, stood still when he looked ready to run again and let him come. Finally I won his trust and he came to eat.

It was a beautiful place, a large field surrounded by the forest, mountains and hills, nearby a fiord, all was white and it was still snowing. The sky was turning pink as 1pm o’clock was announcing sunset. I tried the lasso and the 5th try was a success. I took a short reindeer sled ride and I was happy I choose the short option so I could spend more time feeding 4 buckets to the reindeers.

I could have stayed there another 2 hours when lunch was served: freshly reindeer stew, a traditional meal served at weddings by the Saami. Was very good but it didn’t felt right that after playing with the reindeers I was now eating one of them.

We gathered once again around the fire, in the lavvu tent. Now it was snowing so heavily  outside that I couldn’t see a thing. Lone, our host, told us stories about the history and culture of its people, about their traditional clothes full of motifs, each of them having a specific signification like weather the man or woman were married, a signal for others to keep the hands off. She showed us the traditional Saami shoes, made of reindeer or seal skin, with fur on the bottom used in order to prevent slippage. We’ve learned craftsmen secrets like how to remove the hair from the reindeer skin with the help of the water from a river. It was a wonderful lesson about the Saami culture, no better place for that. We ended the day singing yoiks, traditional songs of the population in the North. Those sounds are so out of this world that during the middle age people who were heard singing them were accused of witchcraft and burned alive.

I left the farm happy. It was the heaviest snow I ever saw falling in my entire life, in 1 minute outside the tent I was all white, covered in snow. But that’s how it should be there in the Arctic and that’s what make the reindeers happy.

 

 

Husky sledding in Tromso: becoming a musher

If you have never tried husky sledding before, you might think it’s either a piece of cake or some risk of breaking a few bones. Still, doing something new, for the first time, feels damn good and getting new skills is even better. You never know what kind of rides life might be offering you. So here’s how I added a new “talent” to my CV: being a musher (driver of a dog sled):

It was 10am. My second day in Tromso, Northern Norway, right there in the Arctic. I was already confronting the dark icy morning, rushing to the next new amazing experience in the North: husky sledding. Yeiii! In spite of the freezing temperatures, I was so very sleepy. Traveling for me is equal with sleep deprivation. This is never my intention but somehow I’m really good at doing and seeing a lot but terrible at getting enough sleep. The night before, after 7 hours of northern lights hunting, I came back to my room at 2am. I was too exited to sleep after gazing the breathtaking aurora and having such a unique experience. Somehow, zombie as I was, I got just in time for the tour that was suppose to take us away from the city, to meet the 200 huskies and have a ride as seen in movies!

After a 30 minutes ride through winter wonderland, white landscapes and fiords, there we were at our destination! I could immediately hear the huskies barking the moment we got off the bus. We were offered warm suits, which benefits I was lucky to test already the night before, so a got myself into a red one, picked really fast since I didn’t wanna end up with a blue one. We were told that the training will start outside and we will be taught how to handle the sleigh, the dogs, the speed and the breaks. Wait! What? I was suppose to share the sleigh with 6 dogs with someone who was doing this also for the first time, just like me? Oh, boy! I was presuming experienced mushers will guide us… I got even more worried after seeing how this is done, the do’s and don’ts: How to always use the breaks, one of the 2 types (stronger and weaker) while standing in the back of the sleigh, or, if you are the person that seats down, the anchor, the strongest break available, which was quite heavy and had to be carefully hold in your lap. Otherwise the dogs just run as if this was their biggest purpose in life and you’ll loose them and the sleigh, or you might even fall of. What to do if the dogs will start fighting each other or they get their feet tied up in the ropes, changing places in the wrong way. How to help them pushing the sleigh when needed, how to keep enough distance from the sleigh in front of you to avoid having the dogs injured. And how to pay attention to your phone since the day before someone just lost his in the snow, during the ride. What a ride poor thing must have had!

And so we went to the place where the sleighs and huskies were waiting for us while I was thinking “Why have’t I read more about this before paying the 170 euro?” It was a huge noise, every single husky was barking, looking really excited to start the run. I was welcomed by two white bleu eyed young females, one of them jumped straight on me, with her pows on my chest, hugging me for a few minutes and making my heart melt.

We played with the huskies for minutes and then my ride partner and I found our sleigh and our 5 beautiful and big mouth huskies. And there we were, starting our ride through the forest, one sleigh after another, in line.

Our start was a little slower since one of our two beautiful leading alpha dogs kept stopping to take…well… a piss. We was having a huge dog dilemma: to run or to pee? So he decided to do both in the same time: running on 3 legs with one raised up in biological purposes. It was hilarious to watch him and the other dogs quite angry with him for stopping them too. But when a dog has to go, the dog has to go! Happily the 3 stops were enough for him to solve the problem and he finally started running like a champ. What you don’t see in movies with husky sledding is that they even poop while running. This just adds more fun to the whole experience.

We crossed small wooden bridges build on frozen rivers, valleys with mountains, got close enough so I could see the lake there, then through the forest covered with snow. All was white! And all was beautiful!

If the first minutes I spent them all on efforts to avoid falling off, at our first stop I wanted to change positions with my partner on the sleigh, so I could be the one leading it and the dogs, to be for the first time in my life a musher. And I did it perfectly. I used the breaks when needed, used my body weight in curves, push the sleigh to help the dogs sometimes. It was fantastic, feeling the cold wind on my face while standing on a sleigh covered with reindeer hides. I definitely prefer this instead of sitting. We were laughing, joking, admiring the views and fully enjoying a new experience together with to the cutest huskies, right there, in the Arctic.

 

Hunting the northern lights – a lifetime dream

The Dream:

Ever since I was a little girl I’ve been dreaming about the northern lights. It all started as dreams usually do, in childhood: with a tale, one about a polar bear. For a very long time it seemed difficult and definitely too expensive for me to travel to places where this dream was reality and was taking place more than half of each year. I thought the aurora is something that only the polar bears and seals at the North Pole or Antarctica can enjoy.

Finding that you can see it even in Iceland and Northern Europe starting September till late March, in places where you don’t need a fortune to get to, set me on for this experience. I told myself: This must happen!

First Try:

Two years ago, in December, I had my first try in Iceland. I made the plans deeply convinced I was on my way to see my dream come true. Well, nature had other plans. The sky was cloudy for the entire time I spent there. A reality wake up for me: as spectacular as they are, as difficult they might be to catch. I wasn’t disappointed at all, I had an amazing time in Iceland. And I found out interesting facts about the aurora from locals: sometimes even they were not sure wether it was the lights or a funny cloud and that the best moments are when they dance in the sky in multiple shades, from green and yellow to purple, which is more rare. I found this saying about the lights dancing really impressive. I was even more determined to see it. Didn’t know when it was gonna happen or where, I just knew I will.

The Plan:

Getting back home I started looking for articles about this phenomena and the best places in the world to see the northern lights, watch videos, see photos, read about other people experiences. I thought maybe going farther to the North is a good plan. In February last year I came across this article in National Geographic about the best 7 places in the world where you could enjoy a perfect display of the aurora. This is how I first found out about Tromso, a small town in Northern Norway, close to the Arctic Circle. An idilic place among the fiords, surrounded by pristine lands and freezing waters of the Arctic Ocean, where orcas and mink wales come in large numbers, reindeers and moose run free and huskies can’t wait for a sledge chase among the valleys covered by snow.  Just search the hashtag Tromso on Instagram and you’ll see what I mean.

Tromso:

A year have passed, winter came again and here I was in Tromso! In the first evening, at 18:45PM, I was at the starting point for my 7 hours northern lights hunting tour, booked 7 hours before only, on my flight from Oslo, after obsessively checking the weather and the northern lights forecasts and a miraculous last minute change of predictions. The joy of this news kept me awake for long the previous night. It really seemed possible! The sky was so clear, I could see the stars from the city and I was soo excited hearing one of the guides exclaiming: what a great night will be tonight! Her excitement was contagious.

The experience:

And we started our northern lights hunt. It was a cold arctic night, -8 degrees C and windy. The guide checked on his phone the magnetic level of the Earth. Hmm? From 10 to 0 he said now it was 2. Oh, no! A new condition? He continued that the lights are unpredictable and this doesn’t necessarily mean a bad forecast. I remembered than about what Icelanders use to tel me: you shouldn’t go some place only for the northern lights because then you won’t see them. Instead, enjoy your time, the place, nature with all its beauty and if the lights show up, than perfect. But be patient, it’s nature’s will. I have already heard about people trying so hard to see the lights, like the Japanese couple traveling for one week to Iceland for the 3rd time and with no luck. Or the ones that after so many unsuccessful attempts have rented a cabin in the wild and every hour they  used the alarm to wake them up to check the sky and went out in the snow for that. But what people can do for their dreams, right? So I decided to enjoy it and get the chance to see some beautiful landscapes outside the city.

The tour is a very practical and safe idea, though not cheap at all. You can’t find any cheaper that 100 euro. But the guides worth all the money, this is their home, they know the region by heart, know the best places where you can have open sky and even in cloudy nights they can find spots with clear sky. Because in the Arctic weather changes fast, you can leave the city where the sky is cloudy and in 15 minutes drive you’ll have the clearest sky. Besides that you hear great stories and you get to know people from all over the world. And the main thing, you are away of any light pollution.

After about 30 minutes driving, we were in Kvaloya, the biggest island in Tromso area. We made a stop and our guide kept taking photos of the sky with the camera in order to check if there was any activity that our eyes could not see. Yes, this happens too with the northern lights. But nothing. It was the side of the road and the ground was covered with ice, was really slippery. We were advised to avoid the road in order to keep us safe and sound. In front was a small hill and above it I could see the dark water of the fiord stretching down and far away and the moon spreading silver rays in the white mountains.

The arctic night

Something was not ok… Even though I had 5 layers, thermal fabrics, snow boots and so on and left the house confident that I can fight bravely any temperatures, as I have already do the previous days since my arrival in Norway, in 10 minutes outside I was shivering as if I was wearing a t-shirt. The wind was cutting my face as if there were blades. I decided to bravely get in the van. 7 hours spent outside were definitely no option. And also I didn’t get that far to stay 7 hours in a van. But I have chosen this particular tour for three reasons: it was much longer that the most, the guide had a professional camera and was sharing photos after, for free (I tour I found was charging 36 euro for a photo taken by them), this was essential since you can’t have decent photos of the northern light with a phone, no matter how smart it is, and they were also providing us with thermal suits, also for free (some tours were renting them or not having at all). If at first I said no thank you, after the first stop I was then second person in the tour to try a thermal suit. And I’m glad I change my mind fast. After 10 minutes of struggling to put in on all my other clothes, including my winter puffer coat, I finally made it. I was big as a bear wearing this but who cares. At the next stop I tested it and I understand why they call it a warm suit.

The next stop was a beach, surrounded by mountains. Beautiful! In summer surfers were coming here, they told us. But waters in Tromso are only for those who enjoy a swim in frozen waters, even in summer. So definitely not for me. The driver and the guide were preparing a bonfire next to a small wooden cabin, with 3 walls only, facing the beach and build around a table. I was obviously heading down the hill, to the beach, my first beach this year. The wind was even stronger, I had to stop sometimes to stand against it, but the warm suit was doing its job as a pro, keeping me warm. The wet sand left behind by the tide was frozen, but it has kept the wavy shape that the waves gave it. It was dark, some clouds here and there. The moon not too bright. I was alone but could hear the group in the back. I was enjoying the view. A small river was meeting the ocean here but its surface was completely covered with thick ice. A crossed a small wooden bridge built upon it and looked down to the ice. Was white and all covered with frost crystals, some small some like immense flowers. A work of art that man hands can’t perfect. I looked at the stars wondering what’s gonna happen next.

I joined the group. We were from so many places: Andalusia in Spain, France, Hong Kong, Dubai, Germany. Our driver started its story firs. He was from Iceland, he said, “Hale to the Gods! It’s what my vikings ancestors believed in, and so do I” he continued. He told us about the founding fathers of the Norwegians, how their origins were in nowadays Iceland, about the Scandinavian dialects, the old language in the North which is the present Icelandic and about leaving its country after the economic crises in 2008 while his wife was expecting their first child. Life tides have taken him away for good, he then got a new life in Norway and a new family. He asked everyone where were they from and we talked about each place. We talked about movies, books, history and politics. Everyone claiming that the politicians in his country were the worst but the most vocal was the guy from China. We had hot chocolate, tea, coffee and fire roasted marshmallows while looking up to the sky. I approached our guide who was saving no effort to constantly take photos of the sky. It was already 10:30PM. One of a sudden he says: look, do you see it there? It’s a very light activity but there is. I concentrate to see something which I did not even know how it was suppose to look like exactly. And I answered: Yes, I see it. And after a second: Or I wanna see it.

We were preparing to leave again to another place. Sometimes they drive far away, close to the Finland boarder but at that time it was snowing there and the chances were higher around Tromso. One lady started feeling sick because of the cold. It’s when I realised this was not something to joke about. We took everything quickly and drove a few minutes back to meet the taxi that came to take her and the 2 others with her back to the city. We continued our ride on the small icy road where sometimes you have to stop the car to let the reindeers pass. The reindeers seemed to have other plans for that night.

We had our seatbelt on in case of sudden brakes. I was keeping my head close to the cold window so I could see better outside as we were passing by beautiful landscapes. On the left was the mountain, in the right the dark fiord. Our guide kept opening the window letting the cold inside the van so he could observe the sky or take photos in search of the lights. I got something, he said, look! And he showed us on its camera the image of the sky covered by some light green hazy clouds. It was only visible on the camera, not for our eyes and it didn’t look at all like those amazing photos you see on the web.

He said something to the driver. The van was passing fast by the fiord in the cold still night, it was past 11PM now. The road was white and I was wondering wether that was ice. I was enjoying the basket full of biscuits and chocolate candies next to me and I was just looking for another caramel candy when the guide said loudly STOP, stop it right there! The van stopped on the side of the road and I heard the ice breaking under the wheels. It’s the lights! Are just starting now! Quickly everyone, out! NOW!

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I got off instantly looking up to the sky. I made a few steps to get away of the van so I can see the entire sky and I turned. I felt how my eyes got instantly wide opened and an immense smile covered my entire face. In the dark frozen night, on the sky full of stars, in three different places, there were big green lines. I now realised the place looked fantastic, a valley where you could see the entire sky and there was no light except one, from a little isolated red cottage. In a few seconds the lines became greener and started to move slowly. I could hear a loud general whisper: Wooooww!!! They were now changing their shape and growing as they were coming closer, above us. I than realised I was actually watching the northern lights, I was there, in the Arctic and my dream was coming true. It was pure happiness in that moment. And I understood now what people meant when they were saying that the lights are dancing. They are indeed. Soon they conquered the entire sky, which became their scene and we were the spectators. It was fantastic how they were moving, as if they were alive. Like lines of smoke and then like curtains of lights very well defined coming down to earth and fading as they were getting closer. We kept our eyes to the sky, there was no time and space, only lights. The lights were then fading and appearing in other areas of the sky, some starting to dance, others just stayed there, still, but visible. This lasted for maybe 20-30 minutes, I don’t know. They called it an episode, the guide said this might be all for that night or only the beginning, it could be an episode or it can last for hours. Usually they start from 6PM till 3AM

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We were in a large valley all surrounded by mountains not very high and almost equal,  in the right there was a huge lake, the dark fiord, with small islands at the shore, all covered with bog reed. A part not wider that 10m was getting even more inland, it looked like a small river but was still as a lake. It was the ocean. Was easy the tell, the lakes were all frozen, covered with snow and those who were not the ocean, because of the salty waters.

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We started taking photos, the guide took patiently photos for each of us with its camera. Those I took with my phone were really bad. You had to wait still for 8 seconds to have your photo taken, knowing that behind you the northern lights were dancing and all the others were exclaiming: look at that, amazing! But photo memories need sacrifice. Anyway, in best moments of the aurora no one was taking photos, you couldn’t take your eyes from the sky.

Our driver prepare another bonfire. This time many of us got involved in the preparation. The bond between us was made, we knew each other not my name but by country of origin, we have shared a lifetime experience and it was enough. The lights were still on the sky, but not as active as before. No wind was blowing. We gathered by the fire, made roasted sausages and talked about politics, again. As our driver friend said: Here, tonight, by this fire, we’re all the same. Sitting by that fire, in that frozen night, looking at those flames, surrounded by those mountains covered with snow and than looking up at the sky and see the northern lights. What a moment! We were all happy and talkative as we were old friends.

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It was 1AM. We were all gathered around the fire, lost in our conversation when someone said: look up, it’s starting again! We all raised our heads to the sky and we knew immediately that what we saw was not just a still green line as those from the last two hours were. We all stood up in a second, being ready. It was right above us this time, it was just getting its shape, becoming bigger and bigger and faster than the previous ones. Was moving incredibly, impossible to anticipate its next shape. In the same time in other 3 different places on the sky new lines appeared, also growing faster. The one above us was getting now the shape of a spiral, extending its edges and once they got further from the centre they were transformed into walls of lights coming down to us and changing their colour from light green to deep green, yellow, than light pink and finally into purple. I heard our driver saying: this is why I love my job! For moments like this! This is an amazing activity! Than he disappeared, in search of a perfect stop to take its photos.

The sky was completely covered by moving lights. All were connected now and forming a 360 aurora display. I didn’t know where to turn my head to, wherever I looked the sky was on fire. Was the live description of what I heard: It’s in the darkest nights when northern lights dance the sky. And so they were. It has nothing to do with any video or photo of the northern lights you could ever see. Reality beats every possible recordings or descriptions of this phenomena. Those shapes moving, the vertical rays of colours coming down and disappearing the moment you think they are coming at you, all these can’t be described. We all stood quiet and still admiring the best show that nature does on Earth.

If you whistle to the lights and raise your hands up to them, they will come down to take you, says one of the stories in the North. It’s no wonder so many legends were born around the northern lights.

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The next day, everybody I heard was talking about the amazing aurora they saw the night before. Where they saw it, what was it like, what colours, what photos they took, how they took them and that the one at 1AM was fantastic. I know now what an amazing northern lights activity looks like, that a 360 display is rare and spirals also form in rare occasions. And most of all I knew I wanna see it again.

The second night the sky was cloudy and predictions were low. It started to snow. The third night the sky was cloudy in the city but predictions were good. We drove on an island and in 15 minutes drive we got the clearest sky possible. There was some activity but little compared to the first night. Still a truly breathtaking view: a huge valley surrounded my high mountains. We were right in the middle. The 20 cm new layer of snow from the previous night made everything look unreal. It was a few nights before the super moon, so it was so bright, its light was reflecting in the snow and you could even hand write a letter in that light. Green lights were crossing the sky full of stars from one side to the other. All was still and extremely cold, around -11C. A true night in the Arctic.