The Old Fogies go to Belfast in Northern Ireland

One of the places we were especially looking forward to visiting was Belfast which is the capital city of Northern Ireland, standing on the banks of the River Lagan on the east coast of Ireland.
We travelled along the Belfast Lough before we saw the large yellow cranes nicknamed Samson and Goliath in Harland and Wolff shipyard. As we docked in the port, we could notice planes coming into landing at the nearby George Best Airport.

Being old enough to have seen the mercurial footballer in his prime, I could not help but wonder what Best would have thought about an airport named after him.

From the early 19th century, Belfast became a major port and Harland and Wolff shipyard was once the world’s biggest shipyard. Belfast was one of the major Industrial centres in the late 19th and early 20th century and was once known as the biggest linen-producer in the world. Belfast became the capital of Northern Ireland following the Partition of Ireland in 1922 and was heavily bombed during World War II leading to a considerable loss of life.

Unfortunately the problems did not end there, Belfast declined as an industrial centre after the war and sectarian conflict between republican and loyalist led to the ‘Troubles’, conflict that continued from around 1969 to 1998. The signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 has led to economic growth and some large-scale redevelopment of the city centre and other parts of the city.

Within the last 10 years, Belfast has found its way back on the tourist trail and has become a popular city break and base to explore the Northern Irish countryside especially the world famous Giant’s Causeway.

It has also drawn on its shipbuilding history with the development of the Titanic Quarter. The RMS Titanic was built on the site in 1912 and the large Titanic-themed museum is not the only  attraction in the quarter, with a number of outside maritime exhibits like the SS Nomadic and the HMS Caroline. The waterfront has been developed with restaurants, cafes and there are even film studios nearby used for filming of the very popular Games of Thrones Tv series.

The Titanic Belfast attraction stands proudly like a ship in the middle of the quarter and although we went inside to have a look around and a coffee, we really didn’t have time to explore the attraction.

To get some scale of how large Titanic was, it is worth standing on the slipways outside the attraction, the outline of the Titanic and sister ship Olympic are marked out where they stood before they were released down the slipway.

In a nearby dry dock is the SS Nomadic which was a former tender of the White Star Line and launched during 1911 in Belfast She was built to transfer passengers and mail to and from the Olympic and the Titanic, and is the only White Star Line vessel in existence today.

A walk along the waterfront takes you The Great Light which has one of the largest optics of its kind ever built in the world, and is around 130 years old. The Great Light’s Fresnel Hyper-Radial lenses were originally made in 1887 for Tory Island Lighthouse, situated off Donegal and were made by the famous Saint-Gobain glassworks in France, and then finished by the lighthouse optic manufacturers, Barbier and Fenestre, in Paris.

In the enormous Alexandra dry dock, stands the remarkable HMS Caroline, the light cruiser of the Royal Navy that saw combat service in the First World War. When the ship was decommissioned in 2011 she was the second-oldest ship in Royal Navy service, after HMS Victory.

The Caroline is the last survivor of the Battle of Jutland still afloat. She is also one of only three surviving Royal Navy warships of the First World War. Located near the Caroline is the Titanic pumphouse and dock.

Walking back to Belfast city centre, you get a closer look of the gigantic yellow cranes nicknamed Samson and Goliath in Harland and Wolff shipyard standing guard.

As you make your way over the River Lagan, you seen the Albert Memorial Clock, the rather grand Custom house and a large blue ceramic fish sculpture.

You also pass McHugh’s Bar which promotes itself as Belfast’s oldest bar dating back to 1711.

Belfast city centre is dominated by the imposing Belfast City Hall, which was completed in 1906 and stand in a square of other large grand buildings including the Ulster Bank and Linen Hall Library.

With limited time, we decided to wander around the city centre and a little beyond, a walk down Donegall street took us to St Anne’s Cathedral and St Patrick’s Church. Nearby was the Kremlin club with a statue of Lenin outside.

Belfast is a fascinating city, but is in transition, with many of its old Victorian buildings failing out of use and new development taking place around the city. New ‘quarters’ are springing up to attract visitors to the city. Visitors can even visit some of the conflict spots related to the ‘Troubles’.

Old Fogies Travels are the adventures of two elderly Londoners (The Old Fogies) as they explore their home town and travel around the world looking out for the strange, unusual and absurd.

Our articles are published on our blog but also listed on the website of our friends at Visiting London Guide.com here

The Old Fogies go to Amsterdam in the Netherlands

Amsterdam is the capital city and largest city in the Netherlands which is known for its picturesque canals, interesting history and extensive cultural scene. We last visited Amsterdam over 10 years ago when we stayed for a few days and explored the city. This time we were only here for the day and were keen to visit the Rijksmuseum and the important Rembrandt exhibition.

Amsterdam has a number of similarities with Venice and is not the easiest place to navigate but the best starting place is Dam Square.

Amsterdam began as a small fishing village in the late 12th century but grew to become one of the most important ports in the world during the 17th century. Many of the canals date back to the 17th-century and are on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Fortunately the Cruise Terminal is only around 15 mins walk from the rather grand Central Station and then it is a straightforward walk up the Damrak and Rokin streets to the Bloemenmarkt which is a large flower market on pontoons on the canal.

Well I said straightforward as long as you keep your wits about you because bicycles come at you from all directions as well as trams and other traffic.

This part of the city was where stayed before, so we found our way to the Museum Quarter where the imposing shadow of the Rijksmuseum appeared in the distance. We have fortunate to visit many of the top museums and art galleries around the world, however for some reason we have never been to the Rijksmuseum before. Whilst we are visiting there is a large Rembrandt exhibition on, so we were looking forward to have a look around that. Like many museums, you have street musicians and performers, here was no different except the majority were very good.

Once inside the Rijksmuseum, it was time to pick up tickets and head for the exhibition. Although the exhibition has been on for some time, it is still extremely popular and the galleries were pretty crowded. The exhibition covered a wide range of Rembrandt’s work with paintings and drawings, after a quick look around we explored the quieter parts of the museum and enjoyed a more leisurely walk around.

The Rijksmuseum is one of a number of museums in this quarter as well as the Concertgebouw, which is the concert hall which we visited the last time we were here. Around the museums are gardens and playgrounds where the children were working off their excess energy and us old timers sat and enjoyed a baguette and coffee.

Our plan was to slowly walk back through the city and enjoy the sights and sounds of this unique location. Near the flower market is the Heineken Brewery which I looked longingly towards, come on said Mrs Nice, I want to look at the flowers.

My drink would have to wait till later as we made our way past the flower stalls. Their nice I said sounding interested, ‘you do know their plastic’ came the scathing reply.

Mrs Nice kept disappearing and came back eating cheese, I though you did not like Dutch cheese ? Mrs Nice mumbled I don’t but I have to try it.

We next visited Begijnhof which is a secluded old convent in the middle of the city, which was formerly home to the Beguines, a group of religious women who lived in a community within the medieval historical buildings arranged around a central green which includes one of the oldest wooden house in Amsterdam.

Amsterdam is one of those places where the city itself is entertaining with a strange mix of old and new. There are various museums dotted around the city but it is often nice to find a place near the canals and watch the world go by.

Many of the canals have narrow streets and picturesque buildings with plenty of independent shops, small art galleries, antiques shops and atmospheric bars and restaurants.

We had already been to the Anne Frank House on a previous trip, so we decided that we to explore some of the areas around Dam square. The square is dominated by the imposing Royal Palace, with the Nieuwe Kerk, National Monument to the Dutch killed in World War II, De Bijenkorf department store and Madame Tussauds close by.

Further on is the grand Beurs van Berlage which used to be the Stock Exchange but now is used for concerts and exhibitions. In the distance is the large Centraal Station which was built on three artificial islands and over 8,000 wooden piles.

We then had a slight detour into some of oldest parts of Amsterdam, Zeedijk was built-in the early 1300s and was part of Amsterdam’s original fortifications. Zeedijk is on the border of De Wallen, Amsterdam’s Red-light district which offers legal prostitution and numerous coffee shops that sell cannabis and other substances.

In a city with a wide range of cultural attractions, it is odd that this neighbourhood has become a famous attraction for tourists. Working on the idea that sex sells anywhere, sex workers offer their services from behind a window or glass door, often illuminated with red lights. Needless to say it is not the workers but the packed streets of gawpers that make it a less than pleasant experience and the area attracts more than its fair share of drug addicts, pickpockets and drunken groups of people.

When we arrived in Amsterdam, we noticed a large green building and being close by decided to investigate. The building is called NEMO and is Amsterdam’s science and technology centre, nearby is a large replica of a Dutch East India Company ship.

From here is was a short walk to the very modern Amsterdam Cruise Terminal and the ship. Sitting abroad and watching the lovely sunset and river traffic going by, it is worth noting that much of Amsterdam has been reclaimed from the sea and the relationship between the sea and Amsterdam is strong. From the Golden Age in the 17th century, Amsterdam has attracted significant numbers of visitors and is still a major attraction for visitors from around the world.

It is not the easiest city to get to know because of its many small areas and numerous attractions, but everytime you visit you tend to uncover different parts of the dynamic city. All in all it a vibrant city with always plenty going on, walking is the best way to explore but beware the cobbled streets and the thousands of bicycles.

Old Fogies Travels are the adventures of two elderly Londoners (The Old Fogies) as they explore their home town and travel around the world looking out for the strange, unusual and absurd.

Our articles are published on our blog but also listed on the website of our friends at Visiting London Guide.com here

The Old Fogies go to Olympia in Greece

 

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After the spectacular scenery of Santorini, we headed to the home of one of the world’s biggest sporting events. With blue skies and warm sunshine, we sat back and enjoyed our trip down the Greek coast to the small port of Katakolon or Katakolo.

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After departing the ship, we walked through a shopping parade with plenty of taxi drivers and bus companies offering to take you to Olympia. We had decided to take the local train but finding the station was not that easy because it is only has two small platforms and does not stand out from other buildings. There was a little kiosk where you buy your ticket which is a very reasonable 10 Euros for the return journey and waited for the train. There are generally three trains a day to Olympia and three trains back, so you do need to find out the timetables.

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Eventually the quite modern train arrived and we began our 45 minute ride to Olympia. One of the joys of train travel is that you sit back and look at the various landscapes. The train went through the quite large town of Pyrgos and then it was fields and countryside till we finally arrived at Olympia.

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From the station it is a short walk to the archaeological site and museums. You will see groups of people going onto the site but before you are allowed in, you must get a ticket from the wooden booking office. The tickets are a very reasonable 6 Euros which gives you admission to the archaeological site and museums.

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Olympia was a major religious sanctuary of ancient Greece, where the ancient Olympic Games were held every four years from the 8th century BC to the 4th century AD. The archaeological site is within a wide valley next to the small Alfeiós River.

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Despite the thousands of people, the setting is very peaceful with trees, woodland and hills in the distance. Before fully investigating the site, it is worth looking at the boards which show the buildings before they were ruins. On the site in its prime were over 70 major buildings, and ruins give some idea of the enormous scale of the temples and other important buildings.

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One of the biggest buildings was the Temple of Zeus which had a statue of Zeus that was the cult image in his temple, sculpted by Pheidias and considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Unfortunately the statue is long gone but the size of the stones give some indication of its enormous size of the temple.

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The first Olympic festival took place in around 776 BC, but the site was continually redeveloped over the centuries. One of the most familiar parts of the site is the stadium which provided the template for all the other stadiums that followed.

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When you go through the vaulted archway into the stadium, you do get a sense of the history of the place. The large banked grass terraces would have been covered by thousands of people watching the action on the track.

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The stone starting line is still there and I offered to give Mrs Nice a race over the course. Instead she raced over to a stone where the victors used to stand and said she was the winner.

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We spent quite a lot of time in the stadium which is in a lovely setting before making our way out, just outside the stadium is a row of stones called the Bases of Zane which were statues of Zeus  paid by fines from athletes that had cheated. Somethings never change, we said as we thought how the modern games had fallen prey to doping and cheating.

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The boards in front of the ruins provided lots of interesting information about the buildings like the Philippeion, Temple of Hera, Palaestra, Metroon and Treasuries. However we thought it time to visit the museums before making our way back to the station.

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When we got to the museums, we were surprised to see long queues. We had visited Athens some years ago and visited many museums so was not too disappointed to get in. Instead we decided to wander back into the town and have a cup of coffee at one of the many cafes near the station.

As we sat down, we both suggested that unlike many tourist sites, Olympia was inexpensive and happy to let the visitors imagination do the work recreating some of the excitement of the ancient Olympic games.

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The train back to Katakolo was a little busier but we quickly got back to the port and had a look around the shops before go back on board.

Even from the ancient times, people realised that sport was better than going around killing each other and although the site is now in ruins, its ideals are still with us and stronger than ever.

Old Fogies Travels are the adventures of two elderly Londoners (The Old Fogies) as they explore their home town and travel around the world looking out for the strange, unusual and absurd.

Our articles are published on our blog but also listed on the website of our friends at Visiting London Guide.com here

The Old Fogies go to Santorini in Greece

 

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After the changeable weather, it was clear blue skies as we approached  Santorini. Therefore we saw the main island in all its glory with the white buildings of the main city, Fira perched high on the cliff.

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Looking around the spectacular landscape and the deep blue Aegean Sea, it was easy to understand why Santorini is ranked one of the world’s most beautiful islands by many magazines and travel journalists. One of the reasons for this appreciation of Santorini is the unique nature of the island. The main island is the remnant of a volcanic caldera which is when the land sinks below the water after a volcanic explosion.

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Santorini has been formed over centuries by volcanic activity, the island was the site of one of the largest volcanic eruptions in history, the Minoan eruption occurred about 3,600 years ago and is said to have led to the collapse of the Minoan civilization. It is believed that this eruption is the source of the legend of Atlantis. More recently, a 1956 earthquake resulted in the demolition of many buildings in the north of Santorini.

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Cruise ships anchor off Skala Old Port near the volcanic landscape of Nea Kameni island and small boats bring people to the shore. There are number of ways to get to Fira, you can use the cable car, walk up the steep winding path or sit on a donkey up the path.

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We decided to take the easy option and boarded the cable car and enjoyed the short ride up the side of the cliff. Over 2 million tourists visit Santorini annually and the main town of Fira is full of restaurants, cafes and shops. We decided to get away from the main tourist areas and explore some of the narrow alleyways.

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Rising above the city gives some dramatic views over the Aegean Sea and you enjoy the remarkable architectural landscape with lots of whitewashed houses with the blue domes of churches dotted here and there.

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In contrast to the ridiculously picturesque front of the island, when you look at the plains beyond the cliff, it is quite ordinary with lots of fields that slope downwards the beaches on the other side of the island. The beaches are unusual with different coloured sand, you can visit the Red Beach, the Black Beach and the White Beach. Another place to visit if you have more time is the Akrotíri archaeological site.

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In the bright sunshine, we were content to wander around the city and sit in the local park and watch the world go by. Near the main church we were treated to the scene of donkeys being used as pack animals bringing materials for building works.

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We visited a small cafe with amazing views to enjoy a coffee, although Santorini has limited water resources they do have a small wine industry and because of the unique growing conditions produce some highly prized vegetables like cherry tomatoes.

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After a lovely relaxing day, it was time to take the long winding path down to the port. I had told Mrs Nice to wear her walking shoes but she decided to go for comfort.

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Walking down the rough gravelly path, I was grateful for my walking boots and said to Mrs Nice that she should have listened to my advice. At that very moment, I slipped on donkey droppings and was only saved by Mrs Nice holding my arm. Just at that moment a team of donkeys made their way down the path. A colourful local character riding a donkey rode past and said ‘Do you need a donkey’. I smiled and said ‘No, thank you, I have already got one’ pointing at Mrs Nice. He did not get the joke and neither did Mrs Nice who remarked (I should have let you fall).

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Back on the boat, we sat down and enjoyed a drink whilst watching the sunset over the cliffs of Santorini. The remarkable colours of the cliffs and the settlements of Firá, Oia, Imerovígli and Firostefáni created a beautiful scene, but the volcanic island of Nea Kameni was a reminder of some of the dangers of living in this area.

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Santorini is definitely a one-off and in recent times has became very popular with those looking for wonderful photography opportunities. Anyone visiting is unlikely to be disappointed but Santorini like many destinations is faced with how to balance tourism whilst maintaining its unique character.

Old Fogies Travels are the adventures of two elderly Londoners (The Old Fogies) as they explore their home town and travel around the world looking out for the strange, unusual and absurd.

Our articles are published on our blog but also listed on the website of our friends at Visiting London Guide.com here

The Old Fogies go to Kotor in Montenegro

 

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After the excitement of Dubrovnik, we made the short journey to Kotor in Montenegro. Kotor is located in the secluded and picturesque Gulf of Kotor and is surrounded by the limestone cliffs of Orjen and Lovcen which create a spectacular landscape.

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Like Dubrovnik, Kotor has been an important port for centuries, The town was first mentioned in 168 BC, was settled during Roman times, when it was known as Acruvium, Ascrivium, or Ascruvium and was part of the Roman province of Dalmatia.

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After the Romans, the city has a varied history becoming a Byzantium Dalmatian city-state when it got its name of Kotor. In the following centuries, it was controlled by the Bulgarians, Serbia, Hungary and Bosnia. However in 1420, Kotor asked the Republic of Venice for protection and it remained under its control until 1797. In World War I, Kotor was the homeport to the Austrian Fifth Fleet. After 1918, the city became a part of Yugoslavia and officially became known as Kotor.

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It is the Venetian architecture that dominates the old city and contributed in making Kotor a UNESCO world heritage site.

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When we were making our way to the city, all thoughts of its turbulent past was put to one side and the short ride from the boat bought us to a pier near the old town. Kotor has one of the best preserved medieval old towns in the Adriatic and we were anxious to explore some of its treasures. The old gate was into the town had a Venetian Lion on the wall nearby to give a reminder its past.

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The ancient walls stretch for around 4.5 km (3 mi) directly above the city, but were not the type to walk upon, so we made our way into the old town. One of the main sites in the town is the Cathedral of Saint Tryphon which was built in 1166.

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One of the more unusual aspects of the city is the number of cats hanging about, Kotor has a large population of cats they have become a symbol of the city. The city has few cat shops and a cat museum, as well as the Cats’ Square (Trg od macaka).

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Although many of the cats are wild, they are not feral, water and food is left throughout the city for the cats to feed on and the cats are generally seen to bring good luck. There was certainly not much signs of mice or rats, so the cats are earning their food.

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Wanting to stretch our legs, we went over the bridge next to the old town which was above the raging waters coming down from the mountains and walked along a long promenade up to the church.

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Nearby was a cafe, so we ordered a coffee and had chat to the very friendly staff. Kotor has only become a popular destination from the turn of the 21st century. Not surprisingly it has become a bit of favourite with cruise ships with its protected bay and dramatic landscapes.

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It also seems popular with other visitors with plenty of hotels, hostels and restaurants around and lots of newly built villas around the bay.

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In the Kotor Bay itself, is the Our Lady Of The Rocks Roman Catholic Church, legend has it that some sailors found an image of Madonna and the Child on a rock in 1452 and started throwing more stones on the exact spot after every successful voyage until it was big enough to build the church.

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Kotor is a real hidden gem full of dramatic scenery and some quirky places to explore. The people are very friendly and welcome visitors to their city which manages to be intimate amongst the black mountains of Montenegro.

Old Fogies Travels are the adventures of two elderly Londoners (The Old Fogies) as they explore their home town and travel around the world looking out for the strange, unusual and absurd.

Our articles are published on our blog but also listed on the website of our friends at Visiting London Guide.com here

The Old Fogies go to Dubrovnik in Croatia

 

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After boarding the Royal Caribbean’s Rhapsody of the Seas, we waited for the evening departure and then enjoyed a trip down the Adriatic coast to the Croatian city of Dubrovnik.

Although Mrs Nice and myself have travelled extensively all over Europe, we had never travelled the Adriatic coast or visited any of the Balkan states. Therefore it with some excitement that we looked forward to walking around the old town of Dubrovnik.

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Dubrovnik was previously known as Ragusa and was founded in the 7th century, its position on the Adriatic coast had led to the city being a valuable port which have been fought over for centuries. In 12th and 13th centuries, Dubrovnik became a commercial centre which was for a while came under the sovereignty of Venice. Between the 14th century and 19th century, Dubrovnik ruled itself as a free state, although it paid tribute to the Ottoman Empire.

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The city suffered a catastrophic earthquake of 1667 which killed over 5,000 people and in 1806, the city surrendered to the Napoleonic army. Later, power was taken by the Austrian Empire until 1918, and then the city was incorporated into the newly formed Yugoslavia in 1929. During World War II, Dubrovnik became part of the Nazi ruled Independent State of Croatia, occupied by the Italian army and German army. In 1944, Yugoslav Partisans occupied Dubrovnik and became part of the Socialist Republic of Croatia and Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

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In 1979, the unique nature of city was recognised and was included on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. Unfortunately, the city’s new status did not prevent it being attacked in 1990s with the fall of Yugoslavia and the following Balkan conflict.

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Dubrovnik’s complex history lays before you as you enter the Old Town through Pile Gate, the main street known as Stradun takes you into the town amongst the old buildings and shops. Just inside the entrance is the Onofrio Fountain, built-in 1438 and many people look around for a way to get onto the old city walls.

You walk up a staircase to get onto the walls, halfway is an entrance office where you buy a ticket, the cost of admission is 100 HRK (kuna) which is about £18 and must be paid in local currency (kuna). Be aware, the ticket office does not accept pounds, euros or dollars.

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Over one million visitors walk the wall each year, the wall runs almost 2 kilometres (1.2 miles) around the city with a series of turrets and towers connected by long walkways. The walls of Dubrovnik are a popular filming location, well-known to the fans of the television series, Game of Thrones.

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As we made our way onto the walls, the grey skies created a very atmospheric scene and we looked at the rough seas crashing at the bottom of the cliff underneath Tvrdava Bokar, a massive fortress built-in the 15th century.

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The Old Town has fortresses at its four corners, which are the Minceta Tower, Revelin Fortress, St John’s Fortress, and Bokar Bastion. Inside of the old city, you look down on the hundreds of buildings with their brightly coloured new roofs. The churches and cathedral push up to create a wonderful panorama.

The width of the walkways vary from wide to quite narrow, but fortunately the less than wonderful weather did mean that the windswept walls were relatively quiet. It is worth wearing decent shoes to get up the often steep walkways and the walk is quite strenuous with lots of walks up steep steps.

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However, you are rewarded with wonderful views especially over the old harbour that overlooks the wooded island of Lokrum in the bay.

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As the rain descended, so did we and found a small café to have a warming cup of coffee. The old town itself was full of interesting steep little alleys and plenty of shops and museums. Near the Onofrio Fountain is a Franciscan Monastery, the Orlando Column, the Church of St. Blaise and the fascinating Rector’s Palace is now a city museum.
We entered the cathedral and an old building with a few paintings and reminders of those that fell in defence in the latest conflict to plague the city.

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Since, the 1990s and early 2000s, Dubrovnik has re-emerged as one of the top tourist destinations in the Mediterranean. In fact it has become a victim of its own success and the city is taking steps to reduce the excessive number of tourists, especially in the Old Town.

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Dubrovnik especially within the Old Town Walls offers a fascinating snapshot of the region’s complex history. It spectacular location and original architecture has made it very popular especially with cruise ships. As we made our way back to the ship, we both thought we would like to come back to the city and discover more of its delights and the area around the bay.

Old Fogies Travels are the adventures of two elderly Londoners (The Old Fogies) as they explore their home town and travel around the world looking out for the strange, unusual and absurd.

Our articles are published on our blog but also listed on the website of our friends at Visiting London Guide.com here

The Old Fogies Get Wet in Venice, Italy

 

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Some fifteen years ago, I took Mrs Nice for a romantic few days in Venice and enjoyed discovering this unique destination. Venice was not the main focus of this particular journey but was to be the starting point of a cruise down the Adriatic. However we intended to have a little time in Venice by staying overnight in a hotel before we joined our ship.

We flew from London and arrived at Venice’s Marco Polo airport, the short trip to Venice can be undertaken by a number of means including water taxis. However we decided to use the coach for the short 20 minute ride to Piazzale Roma which is the main dropping off point for most visitors for Venice.

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We were careful to book an hotel that was not too far from Piazzale Roma because one of the main problems being in Venice is travelling around the city, especially with luggage. We were walking over one of the small bridges when we approached by a man asking if he could carry our cases over the bridge. In many places, this might be seen as a good deed, however in Venice there are a number of scams and nuisances that visitors should be aware. The rather over friendly attitude of our good Samaritan was a bit of a warning and sure enough he expected some payment from the people he was ‘helping’.

We quickly passed the large Santa Lucia train station and took the small walk to the Hotel Continental which stands on the side of the grand canal. Despite being quite inexpensive, the hotel was a pleasant surprise with an ‘unusual for Venice’ large room.

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After dropping off our bags, we decided to have a wander around some of the backstreets of Venice. Venice is made up of a number of neighbourhoods and is a fascinating place to walk around. It is a place to explore without a map because you will find it almost impossible to successfully navigate the labyrinth of alleys and small passages with a map.

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One place we decided to explore not far from the hotel was the Ghetto. The area known as the Ghetto was where the Jewish population lived from the 16th century. Made famous by Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, it is a small atmospheric space with a number of memorials and plaques.

The grey and darkening skies indicated that rain was forthcoming, so we made our way back to the hotel where we enjoyed a meal, drink and pleasant evening as the rain bounced off the Grand Canal.

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To our surprise, the rain was still pouring down the following morning and the siren indicated that flooding was expected. One of the most unusual aspects of Venice is the duckboards that are laid down when flooding is expected, outside the hotel, the local market was doing a good trade in plastic ponchos, umbrellas and the strange plastic footwear which visitors use to protect their feet.

Our ship was not departing till late afternoon, so we decided to use the vaporetto to go down the grand canal and explore the main promenade near San Marco’s square and the Doges Palace. The large queues for the vaporetto indicated that many people wanted to do the same. Whilst waiting for the vaporetto, we were surprised how expensive the tickets were in comparison to the last time we were here. We also had a reminder of some of the problems in Venice when Mrs Nice felt someone putting their hand in her backpack, she quickly turned around to see a couple of young girls looking sheepishly. Mrs Nice asked them what they were doing and they quickly made their way back into the crowd. The queues for vaporetto are prime places for pickpockets, so be aware of your belongings in this type of areas.

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A trip down the Grand Canal is one of the joys of Venice and if you can find a spot at the back of the boat, you can see some of the various palaces and buildings alongside the canal and travel under the famous Rialto and Accademia bridges. Always entertaining is the traffic on the canal, gondolas nip in and out of the traffic, water taxis ply their trade and boats carrying all kinds of goods move up and down the canal.

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The famous Santa Maria della Salute church marks the end of the canal and the vaporetto has a stop near San Marco Square. Walking near to the square, it was obvious that flooding had taken place and crowds of tourists made their way tentatively around the duckboards or splashed about in their various winter footwear.

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The expensive cafes around the square was doing little business with many chairs and tables under water and the seagulls dived in the water for any morsels. Tearing away from this rather surreal scene, we decided to walk along the waterfront down to the Arsenale which is always quieter will a lot less visitors.

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We stopped at the bridge that looks over the Bridge of Sighs which reminded us of our last visit when we went into the Doge’s Palace and over the Bridge of Sighs into the prison section.

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Further on a number of photographers were taking pictures of a bride and groom, we thought it was less of wedding but more of a photo shoot with the wedding dress getting soaked trailing in the puddles.

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The Arsenale is the old docks of the city and are a fascinating reminder of Venice as a naval power, although you cannot enter the docks, the gates are full of statues, some which were stolen from Greece. We sat at a local café and enjoyed a coffee as the sun began to appear that lit up the scene in the lagoon and the San Giorgio Maggiore church.

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When we made our way back to San Marco’s square, the flooding had receded to some extent and the waterfront was coming to life. We caught the vaporetto back to the train station and made our way back to the hotel to pick up our cases. We were shocked to find out that water had flooded into the hotel reception area and the flustered porter in his wellington squelched through the water to get our bags.

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Fortunately, the pier for the ship was not far from the Piazzale Roma and within an hour we were sitting on the ship and looking forward to the next part of our journey.

Old Fogies Travels are the adventures of two elderly Londoners (The Old Fogies) as they explore their home town and travel around the world looking out for the strange, unusual and absurd.

Our articles are published on our blog but also listed on the website of our friends at Visiting London Guide.com here.

The Old Fogies go to Bergen in Norway

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Of all the ports we visited on our cruise, there was only one that we had visited before. We had a few days in Bergen around 14 years ago and had thoroughly enjoyed our visit. Back on our first visit we had taken the train up to Myrdal and down to Flam which is considered one of the most picturesque train journeys in the world. From Flam we took a fast cat ferry along the Sognefjord before coming back to Bergen.

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On this visit we were going to concentrate on the city itself and consider any of the changes that had taken place since we were last there. Bergen is the second-largest city in Norway with population of around 420,000 inhabitants. It served as Norway’s capital in the 13th century, and from the end of the 13th century became a an important city of the Hanseatic League. Its wooden houses may look picturesque but Bergen has suffered catastrophic fires throughout its history.

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We assembled on deck from early morning and enjoyed the stunning but rather precarious journey into Bergen. Houses and small homesteads dotted the islands surrounding the opening to the port.

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Bergen was a popular stopping off point for cruise ships back in our first visit, however it was only the odd one or two, as we approached the port there were at least four in port already.

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Because there was many ships in, we knew from past experience that the queues for the Fløibanen funicular which runs from the city centre to Mount Fløyen would be long and because we had already been up there, we decided to give it a miss.

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The panoramic views from the top of the mount are great in good weather but in overcast conditions the visibility is quite poor. A few miles out of town is the Ulriksbanen aerial tramway which runs to Mount Ulriken.

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Our main memories from our previous trip was the old Bryggen warehouses which are a World Heritage Site and the interesting market that included stalls selling whale meat and furs from a variety of animals. It did at the time seem that Bergen was on the edge of wilderness and very unusual.

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As we walked down to the Bryggen warehouse, we were surprised at the sheer number of people and made a detour to the market. The market still had a few stalls selling a variety of meats including whale, moose and reindeer but they were all packaged for visitors not for locals. The variety of stalls was limited to food outlets and Norway souvenirs.

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We were both a little disappointed with these changes, so decided to walk along the other side of the dock to the less commercial side and where we had stayed on our last visit. One of favourite places to sit on the last visit was a small promontory which had a large totem pole which was a gift of friendship from the city of Seattle on the city’s 900th anniversary in 1970. Mrs Nice come into her own with her directions and we sat and enjoyed a drink and a bite to eat.

After our enjoyable picnic, we began to walk back via a few sights, the first attraction was Bergen Aquarium, we did not have time to go inside but looked inside the Aquarium shop that had a comical large penguin and polar bear. Mrs Nice was taken by a fluffy white seal soft toy, ‘the girls would love these’ she said. Knowing it would be foolish to argue we bought the toys and moved on.

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We walked past some old wooden houses leading to the water and the Nykirken church before finding our way to the cultural centre of Bergen, Two internationally renowned composers who came from Bergen are Edvard Grieg and Ole Bull.

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There is a number of Grieg statues around including near the Logen theatre, there is also quite strange statue of Henrik Ibsen one of Norway’s most famous playwrights. New since our last visit was the Kode art galleries which are near the bandstand and small water feature. Crossing over near to the Bryggen, we went past the Hanseatic Museum which documents the city’s Hanseatic heritage.

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The Bryggen warehouses are geared towards the tourist market and draws customers in with strange little northern scenes or lifesize stuffed animals like polar bears, moose and reindeer. Mrs Nice noticed that one shop was having closing down sale and said let’s see if there are any bargains, I raised my eyebrows to show my disapproval but stumbled into the shop. I had to admit the prices were not outrageously expensive and even saw a bargain for myself. Mrs Nice tried on a multicoloured woollen coat which looked expensive, it Ok it’s half price she smiled. So there it was, one of the biggest surprises in a trip to Norway, we actually bagged ourselves a bargain each.

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Making our way back to the ship, we made a slight detour to two very old stone buildings, the Hakonshallen and Rosenkranz Tower, both reminders of the city’s Viking and Norse past.

Returning to Bergen left us with mixed emotions, we both believed that it had lost some of its naïve charm and catered more for the boatloads of visitors rather than for locals. It is a victim of its own success and is one of the most visited cruise ports in the world. However it still is one of the most picturesque cities in Europe amongst some of the most dramatic scenery.

Old Fogies Travels are the adventures of two elderly Londoners (The Old Fogies) as they explore their home town and travel around the world looking out for the strange, unusual and absurd.

Our articles are published on our blog but also listed on the website of our friends at Visiting London Guide.com here.

The Old Fogies go to Sortland in Norway

 

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Our next stop was the small town of Sortland in Norway which is one of the major towns of the Vesterålen. The Vesterålen Islands are located near the Lofoten Islands which created a stunning backdrop on the approach to Sortland.

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The snow on the peaks of some of the mountains were some indication of the wildness and remoteness of these particular islands and the scenery was spectacular as we made our way to the turning into the approach for Sortland. That said there were a number of small number of homesteads and towns as we entered the fjord into the approach to Sortland.

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Sortland is the largest commercial centre in Vesterålen. Sortland is located close to the Sortland Bridge, which connects the islands of Langøya to Hinnøya by road. Since a lot of houses in the town are painted blue, Sortland is sometimes referred to as “the blue city”. Sortland district has a population of around 10,000 with around 5,000 living in the town.

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As we approached Sortland , the famous Hurtigrutan ferry was making its way out, the ferries make their journey up the Norwegian coastline in all weathers and have become a legendary 11-day voyage.

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After the stunning scenery, Sortland is a bit of anti-climax, however it is worth remembering that Sortland is not on many cruise itinerary therefore is not really geared up the tourists who stop off for a few hours but rather those who want to go hiking, skiing, nature safari’s and those looking for the Northern lights.

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The Vesterålen islands were connected to each other by several bridges and Sortland´s place is the main retail area in the area. For a very small place it does a number of shopping centres and a large cultural centre.

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Our first stop in the town was the striking white church which was built-in 1901, inside a kindly gentlemen handed out postcards and invited us to explore the simple but attractive church.

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The name Ellingsen often appears, they were obviously important people here and we gathered that the Ellingsen family of Sortland had farmed and ran businesses in the area for 200 years. There were two large tombstones in the old churchyard and a statue to one of the family in the main square near the culture centre.

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We then made our way into the town to indulge in a little retail therapy until Mrs Nice saw the prices. For a small place it did have a lot of amenities for the local population especially the younger people who can be often isolated in these small places.

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One interesting statue was in the city centre which was of the local cleaner who had cleaned the streets of Sortland for 30 years. You did not usually see bronze statues to public servants and we thought it was a very touching tribute to a local character.

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We then made our way to have a closer look at the Sortland Bridge which elegantly spanned the water between Langøya to Hinnøya. As we sat there eating our picnic, the weather dramatically changed from a bright sunny day to a cloudy overcast one. The hills and mountains that sparkled with sunshine on our arrival began to look dark and foreboding.

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It was time head back to the boat, however there was one final surprise before we reached the port. A small blue military building complex had signs forbidding photography in Norwegian, English and Russian. I had a vision of a Russian spy walking up to the building and reading the notice and then deciding not to take photographs. Like a good law-abiding gentleman, I put my camera away and did not take any photographs.

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Near the boat was large blades for the large wind turbines that were on the top of the hill but were not yet in operation.
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One fascinating part of this journey is to visit places often a long way off the main tourist trail where the conditions are difficult and the population are more interested in enjoying the summer and surviving the winter than just catering for thousands of tourists.

Old Fogies Travels are the adventures of two elderly Londoners (The Old Fogies) as they explore their home town and travel around the world looking out for the strange, unusual and absurd.

Our articles are published on our blog but also listed on the website of our friends at Visiting London Guide.com here.

The Old Fogies go to Honningsvåg in Norway

 

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We had finally reached the northern edges of the European coast and was now in the Barents sea, enjoying the spectacular Norwegian coastline. Our last stop before Russia was the small city of Honningsvåg .

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Honningsvåg is the northernmost city in Norway. It is very unusual because legislation effective in 1997 states that a Norwegian city/town must have at least 5,000 inhabitants, but Honningsvåg was declared a city in 1996, thus exempt from this legislation, so it is also one of the smallest cities in Norway.

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In reality it is a small fishing village which is famous as the dropping off point for visitors who want visit North Cape which is a tourist attraction on the northern tip of the European mainland. It’s claim to fame is that it is the northernmost point in Europe but the reality is that it is not, that title goes to nearby Knivskjellodden.

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However that has not stopped busloads of visitors from taking the ride from Honningsvåg and the North Cape attraction organisers to charge visitors £19 to enter the complex. If it had been the northernmost point, we may have decided to join the tourist crush, however it isn’t so we decided to investigate this charming little fishing city.

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When we get off the boat, we are surprised to see a life size statue of a St Bernard Dog, reading the information board gave us some information about this remarkable animal. The dog was called Bamse and he was the mascot of the Free Norwegian Forces during the Second World War and a symbol of Norwegian freedom during the war. In its early days, the dog was a well known character in pre-war Honningsvåg before joining its owner on Royal Norwegian Navy as a coastal patrol vessel. When the Germans overran Norway, the vessel and Bamse moved to Scotland stationed in Montrose and Dundee. Bamse became a celebrity to the local Scottish population and often rounded up the Norwegian sailors from the local pub and escorted them back to his boat. When Bamse died in 1944, he was buried with full military honours. Hundreds of Norwegian sailors, Allied servicemen, schoolchildren and people from Montrose and Dundee attended his funeral.

In 2006, a larger than life sized bronze statue of Bamse, made by Scottish sculptor Alan Herriot was unveiled in Montrose. A copy of that statue was commissioned and in 2009 with hundreds in attendance, the statue was unveiled on Honningsvåg harbour.

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When we entered Honningsvåg it was teeming with birdlife over the cliffs and on the waterfront and when we set out to walk through the town it was only the sound of birds that you could here.

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We slowly made our way past the closed shops to the small Honningsvåg church on the hill, built in 1885, it was one of only twelve churches in Northern Norway that escaped destruction by the Germans in the Second World War. As we sat on a small bench within the small cemetery attached to the church, even the sound of the birds had disappeared.

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The silence was deafening and quite eerie as we looked at the small but beautifully formed gravestones. How many souls beneath our feet had been born and lived their entire lives in this northern outpost ?

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As we walked quietly passed the small wooden buildings, we began to notice that the local population displayed their sense of humour with interesting little figures dotted here and there.

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There was dressed little trolls, stone people and dolls in a little window box. Many of the gardens have flowers or colourful furniture, even the main street had an interesting selection of plants in wellington boots.

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Honnigsvag certainly had a quirky quality that added to its picturesque setting and has we made our way to the harbour we could see it was a working port.

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There were plenty of small to medium size boats which are used to fish the rich fertile waters of the Arctic Circle. Honningsvåg is considered one of the busiest fishing ports in Norway.

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The waters are remarkably clear and Mrs Nice was quite excited by all the starfish in the harbour.

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Honningsvåg does have a few other attractions including a small NordKapp museum and Icebar with gift shop where a massive husky stood guard. But we were content to get away from the crowds and take a little piece of downtime enjoying the (city) and the wonderful scenery.

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Whilst enjoying the late summer sunshine, we noticed the arrival of one of the Hurtigruten coastal ships, these ships have been a familiar sight on our travels up the Norwegian coast and Honningsvåg is one of the main stops before Kirkenes in the north.

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Honningsvåg may be seen as a gateway to North Cape but possesses a charm all of its own. The local population take a lot of pride in their houses and town and display a quirky sense of humour which no doubt brighten up the cold winter days.

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It is a place to enjoy the birdlife and scenery in a peaceful setting without too many distractions.

Old Fogies Travels are the adventures of two elderly Londoners (The Old Fogies) as they explore their home town and travel around the world looking out for the strange, unusual and absurd.

Our articles are published on our blog but also listed on the website of our friends at Visiting London Guide.com here.