My Erasmus Experience – Post #8 – Norway Part 1

Since the turn of the year I’ve been trying to do as much exploring as I can, realising that my time in Madrid is nearly over. With only a few months left, I’m trying to fit in as many trips as I can, and my most recent one was a weeklong road trip in Norway. Me and two other friends rented a car and spent the week driving around the most beautiful country I have ever been to, visiting the big cities in the south and the treacherous mountain roads in the north. The scenery was ever-changing from one moment to the next. One minute we’d be skirting the fringes of a seemingly endless fjord, and the next we’d be winding our way up the side of a mountain, flanked by giant rock formations all around. It was the perfect location to practice and improve on my landscape photography, and a chance to experience something truly unique.

We arrived in Oslo in the early hours, without any real plan at all. We’d reserved a small 4 door car but the rental desk didn’t open for another 11 hours (convenient), so we spent our first night spread out on the wooden chairs and tables of the airport waiting area. I soon ran out of things to entertain myself, and went to find an ATM to inspect the currency we’d be using for this trip. Norway, not technically being part of Europe, still used their own currency Norwegian Kroner (NOK). The exchange rate made even a cup of average-at-best coffee on par with Starbucks pricing, with Norway famously being one of the most expensive countries in the world. I took out 200NOK (Just over €20) and hoped it would last me at least until the next day.

Sleeping in an airport was actually a lot easier than I’d expected. People leave you to it, whether you’re on the benches, the floor and hidden away under a set of stairs. Tucked up in my make-shift blanket with a denim shirt as a pillow, I took my spot on a set of three Scandinavian inspired chairs and napped for a couple of hours. I’d wake up periodically and check to see if our bags were still with us. Looking around I’d noticed we’d been joined by a portly gentlemen with an Alienware laptop, who had taken the opportunity to charge all of his electronics in one go, using an ageing extension cable plugging into one of the few plug sockets available. He caught me looking at him and I simply nodded, with him returning the gesture. I fell asleep and felt confident that my attempt to communicate had convinced him not to steal our cameras and laptops.

It was soon time to get to the car, and after making ourselves familiar with the facilities on offer, and spreading the majority of my luggage around all the holders and compartments on the passenger side, we left the airport and joined the motorway. The car was fairly new, with only a few thousand miles on the clock. The woman at the desk had informed us that there was a device fitted to the car that tracked our toll charges, as most of the main roads in Norway have automatic toll booths to fund the maintenance and upkeep of the highways. While only being an average of 25NOK (€2.70), the thought of getting lost and having to pay 10 times to drive up and down the same road was a little unnerving. Thankfully I’d brought my SIM card from home, meaning I could use the data I’d bought in the UK out here. Windows Maps would be our saviour. The woman asked where we were heading, and we said “Not sure really, maybe Molde?” with her replying, “Really? That’s a bit bumpy up there…”. Worrying. Having set the GPS for Lillehammer, we ventured onto the motorway. We’d agreed to only have one driver on the trip, as to get another insured would cost too much, so my friend Charles drove and I navigated, with Emma roaming free on the back seats.

After a long drive, a stop at McDonalds and a break to pump up the tyres (Thanks Avis), we arrived in Lillehammer around midday. For those of you that don’t know, Lillehammer is a small skiing town in Oppland County, which is famous for hosting the 1994 Winter Olympics. We drove straight through the town and up towards the Lysgårdsbakken Ski-Jump, which was something I really wanted to see (Thanks to Top Gear). The jump was closed to skis when we got there, but there was still access to climb to the top, and the views were breathtaking. For the first destination, we’d picked a good one. After many photos and time-lapses we quickly visited the Olympic Village in search of the bobsleigh and luge track, but failed to find it thanks to poor phone signal. Leaving Lillehammer satisfied that the trip was going to be an incredible one, we drove on into the night towards a place called Åndalsnes.

Lillehammer Ski Jump

Lillehammer Ski Jump

The small town of Åndalsnes turned out to be one of the weirdest places on the trip, we arrived early in the morning, around 2am, and after a lot deliberating and driving around we parked up in a grim-looking lay-by next to a quiet B road and settled down for the night. Seeing as the hostels in Norway were incredibly expensive, we’d decided we’d sleep in the car most nights, and try our luck at finding showers and toilets on the roads. Turns out this was a lot easier than expected, and Shell garage toilets were basically heaven. After the most uncomfortable nights sleep of my life (yes, I slept on wooden curvy chairs in an airport), we woke to find out we’d parked next to a giant mountain range clearly not visible at night. This would become a trend throughout the trip, with it actually becoming exciting to see what scenery the daylight would bring us. Like I mentioned before this small town turned out to be really strange. Stopping at a petrol station to decide our route, I noticed a giant blue American pick-up pull into the station and a grotesque, pig-like man jump out and walk over to a group of men in a decrepit Cadillac sedan (American cars are apparently really popular in this country). The men conversed and then separated, only to return numerous amounts of times within the next few minutes. I forgot about it and we drove off towards The Atlantic Road, which is a really incredible stretch of road that traverses the small islands that make up the Atlantic shoreline in the north of Norway. This was the ‘bumpy’ bit the Avis woman had mentioned. The government had built the road to make travel easier from Molde to Bergen, and had constructed giant curved bridges that jetted out over the water at incredible angles.

The Atlantic Road

The Atlantic Road

We drove around for a while, stopped in a cafe that was apparently closed even though it definitely wasn’t, and then drove back along the scenic roads towards Åndalsnes, to try to find somewhere to sleep. It was dark when we arrived, and we stopped in the same service station as before to try to get something more than rice cakes and peanut butter to eat. It was then that I heard the roar of a V8 engine, and into the station came the giant blue truck driving pig man. I bought some food and returned to car, and watched the commotion that followed. The man would drive up, walk into the petrol station then leave and drive away. Then another car would do the same, and the process was repeated for the next hour or so. A multitude of American pick-ups and other cars would mill around the pumps, all looking incredibly suspicious. We left quickly.

Mountains Near Andalsnes

Mountains Near Andalsnes

We had a rough idea of some of the scenic routes dotted around the country, and so we departed towards the nearest, which was Trollstigen. This translates literally to Troll’s Path (Trolls are a big thing in Norway, like, a ridiculously big thing). The plan was to find a place to stop along the route and have a look in the daylight. The road is described on the Geiranger Fjord tourist website:

Trollstigen is a road through west Norwegian nature at its most powerful, with a dizzying view of sheer mountainsides, waterfalls, deep fjords and fertile valleys. Since tourism was in its infancy, tourists from all over the world have visited Geiranger and Trollstigen.

Sounds incredible right? Turns out the road was closed at that time of year due to snow, which we soon discovered can appear from nowhere. Driving up the initial part of the road was fairly treacherous, as the road is lined with small boulders that would probably help you over the edge rather than hinder. About halfway up a small stretch of mountain road, the snow came. The weather in Norway can change in a second as the roads ascend and descend rapidly. Blind from the snow and terrified from local Troll abduction stories, we came upon a red barrier telling us the road was closed, and we returned down. Taking a huge detour we decided to visit the other end of the road the next day, which was also partially open. And hopefully free of trolls.

In part two: fjords, ferries, military bases and the longest tunnel in the world.


My Erasmus Experience – Post #7 – Segovia

The Erasmus scheme appears to have gathered considerable attention in various educational communities around the world, and it’s something that is especially obvious in Spain. Recently I have applied for a handful of cheap/free trips to various places that were being advertised on Facebook through student travel pages. A group called Smart Insiders advertised a free trip to a small town called Segovia, and after many frantic attempts to get a place I finally succeeded, and went with a group of friends.

Segovia is a small historic town about 2 hours outside of Madrid by coach. High up in the mountains the drive there offered countless breathtaking views and photo opportunities, not to mention it was freezing that day and the mountain tops had a healthy blanket of snow covering them. Famous for its yellow-orange coloured buildings, Segovia boasted a castle, a cathedral, an aqueduct, narrow winding streets and of course, tourists. With dogs. When we arrived it was freezing cold, as I mentioned, and we began following a guide around the town. I’m sure the information she was telling us was probably quite interesting, but we’d soon got bored with standing around on the edge of a group of around 30 straining our ears to hear her, and so left the group to explore by ourselves.

There was plenty to see in Segovia, the aqueduct was impressive to say the least, and the cathedral was awash with golden statues and structures, exquisite stained glass and ancient wooden pews. Being a modern student however, it soon got boring and we left to find a coffee shop for something to eat. There were plenty of shops and restaurants, but with it being a sunday most of them were closed. There was even a Burger King and McDonalds, cleverly disguised with subtle stone signs and hidden away behind the facade of a row of old buildings. They clearly make a huge effort to keep the historic look to the town, which is probably the main thing drawing people there. With no attractions as such, it wouldn’t exactly be a great trip for the whole family, but it was free so we couldn’t really complain.

After having a tiny cup of coffee and something that was labelled as a ‘Queso Snack’, (Basically just a baguette with melted cheese on top), we left for the coach. The organisers of the trip seemed desperate to make friends with everyone, with one man standing up the entire coach trip just to walk around and chat. We got the usual questions about being from the UK, and were even asked if we were going for tea and scones at one point, and a friend of mine was given the title of Milton Keynes for the majority of the trip, which was funny. We left Segovia around 4pm to travel to a famous castle nearby, which is the apparent resting place of a famous king, but I was too tired to really pay attention, and by the time we’d gotten there no-one wanted to cough up the €4 to enter, so the trip was ended early.

Overall I enjoyed my time as I managed to get some good photographs, and I’m glad there are groups organising such free trips, especially as we have to watch how much we spend out here. I’ll definitely attend some more, and attempt to go further afield in the future. If you’re thinking of going on an Erasmus trip soon, I’d definitely recommend travelling as much as you can. While I haven’t done much myself, my friends have and they say it’s probably one of the best things you can do. Travel in Europe, save for maybe France and Germany, is relatively cheap if you don’t mind taking budget flights and trains. Inter-railing is definitely on the cards for the future, but Segovia is a one-off.

The title of the featured image this week is ‘The Mountain’.

My Erasmus Experience – Post #6 – The Festive Period

Christmas and the festive period is probably my favourite time of year, as cliché as that might sound, it’s true. Summer is great and all, with the hot weather and holidays, but as I’ve got older I’ve found less excitement in being able to go outside in t-shirt and shorts. The transition between Autumn and Winter is a brilliant time for photography. It’s as if the whole colour palette of the world changes, bringing a blue hue to everything and being accompanied by deep oranges, yellows and golds. That’s what winter in the UK is like, but Spain was different. The day before I left to go home for Christmas, I was sitting outside on our balcony reading a book wearing a t-shirt, jeans and sunglasses. It felt like a slightly colder summers day, and didn’t give me ‘that Christmas feeling’ at all. Which was disappointing, as I’d hoped to be in a festive mood for my journey home. I didn’t even have ‘Driving Home For Christmas’ on my iPod.

The centre of Madrid had been decorated for Christmas in a truly outlandish manner. In truth it was pretty, especially in the late evening when the sun was setting and the lights came on. But something I hadn’t considered was just how religious this country is. Now I have nothing against religion at all, and I am in no way slating the Christian faith, but a person can only see so many fake plastic recreations of the nativity scene before believing their going a little mad. Everywhere we seemed to go there’d be another beautifully crafted, perfectly arranged recreation of Our Savior’s birth, set into huge glass cases or wooden houses. They looked wonderful and seemed to make a lot of people happy, but what annoyed me was that nearby to these displays would be a conveniently placed, brand new cigarette machine, or a pop-up bar or baked corn stand of some kind. Any excuse to make money of people during the festive period seems to have been put in motion.

The festive period is definitely a lot shorter in the UK. After Christmas it’s just a countdown until the New Year, and then after that it’s a slow trudge back to school, uni or work. In Madrid the celebrations keep on going for a while afterwards, with a festival called The Three Kings being one of the main highlights of the year. This article explains it very well. I’ve heard this festival is more beloved than Christmas, as it’s the Spanish time for giving gifts more so than the 25th of December. Not that festivities should be enveloped in the glory of the modern Capitalist world, but who doesn’t like opening presents under a tree that was more expensive than the neighbours’. So the decorations are still hanging and the parties are only getting better. As I write this I wonder if our town of Villaviciosa de Odon are having some kind of community wide celebrations, and if come this evening of the 5th of January, I’ll be watching a float go past in the street with three men dressed up as kings throwing sweets into the crowd. I doubt it. Clearly the only way to bring the masses together to celebrate an ancient tradition on a national scale is to give away free food.

The image with this weeks post is titled: “New Years Walk”


Creative Commons Licenced

My Erasmus Experience – Post #5 – The People of Spain

It’s not often I say this, but I absolutely adore this photo. There’s just something about it. The woman in the dress pulling an awkward face, the fact that the man’s head in the suit is half covered by the baby, the fact the baby has spotted something off-camera? I think it’s the feeling that it’s not quite 100%. It’s an image that came about almost by accident. I was taking a shot of the people across the street, when they (seemingly a wedding party) emerged from around the corner. I had only a split second to frame the image, focus and snap. Thankfully the settings were near perfect and I managed to capture one of my favourite photos I’ve taken so far in my photography life.

Now that I’m comfortable in Madrid, one of the most entertaining things to do is people watch. The culture out here is so vastly different from back in Coventry, but also incredibly similar in some areas. You still get the classic stereotypes within the crowd, but the people just seem much more entertaining and care-free than in any other city I have been to. For a country that isn’t used to saying please and thank-you after every phrase, it’s a nice surprise to find that the majority of people are welcoming. Behind this image is the end of the Royal Palace of Madrid, which is regularly swamped with tourists from every country imaginable. It’s the Buckingham Palace of Madrid, if that helps you imagine. The proximity of the palace to the bar we were sitting in would suggest that it was a busy place to be. Not at all. Madrid is full of these quiet little havens of beer and free tapas. (I should explain, there’s a law in Spain unwritten or not, that means if you order alcohol you get free tapas either in the form of a bowl of olives, crisps, bread and meat or something similar). We sat out in the sun after a long day of filming a music video for the Coventry band Flygone, and watched the world go by.

Back to the people of Spain. The only issue I have had so far are the street vendors and the Policia. The street vendors seem to pop-up out of nowhere, and have refined the art of running away quickly when the police arrive. They could be selling anything, from legit-fake Ray Ban sunglasses to designer handbags and other items of expensive clothing. All fake of course, but not that that’s stopped me from spending a fiver on a pair of sunglasses at 6 in the morning on the walk home from a club. It feels like there are a fair few of these unsavoury characters, especially as it’s the capital city, but the police seem to have everything under control and the tourists can mince on by without any worries at all. In contrast, I recently took a trip to Paris for Pitchfork Festival, and on one of our first trips on the metro my friend nearly lost his wallet to a pickpocket. We were in France for less than a day.

The Policia here are incredibly intimidating. Being a big group of students who like to make inconceivable amounts of noise at 3am in a residential area, we’ve had a few run ins with the local authorities. There is a strict noise curfew here, which means that if you make any loud noise after 11pm, the neighbours have the right to call the cops who’ll turn up at your door, armed to the teeth with pistols threatening you with a €300 fine. Me and a friend were once chatting on a street corner after a few drinks at a local bar in Villaviciosa, when the Civil Guard came out of nowhere, hopped out of their 4×4 and demanded that we empty our pockets onto the nearby wall. Safe to say the event with humorous to us, as we weren’t drug dealers, but if you were you would’ve been in for a rough night.

Obviously the police are there to keep the neighbourhood under control, with it being rumoured that our local area is the Breaking Bad of Spain. However, the general public are some of the friendliest people you could ever meet, and it has definitely opened my eyes to the contrast that the UK has to other countries in Europe. We just need to lighten up!

The title of the featured image is ‘Wedding Party, Royal Palace of Madrid’.

My Erasmus Experience – Post #4 – Recession? What Recession?

Before I came here, I had heard a lot of stories in the media about how bad the economy of Spain was, particularly the housing market. The housing market collapse that brought about the recession in 2008 hit Spain especially hard, as their economy had been based on a housing bubble since the 1950’s. Since then Spain has been struggling with debt, along with almost all of the countries in Europe and the euro zone. When we first arrived, the extent of the damage was very difficult to see. In recent years Spain has enjoyed a revival of its economy especially in the Madrid region, which was one of the few areas of Spain on top of its debt problems. The tourism industry was still alive and probably one of the biggest earners in this part of the world, in terms of a steady income.

Villaviciosa de Odon, where our house is situated, is more or less the same. However one of the biggest indicators that everything was once not ok is situated a few minutes walk from our house. An abandoned building that could be anything from a hospital to an office complex, was clearly left before construction was finished, and has left it an empty shell on the horizon. Now covered in several hundred layers of spray paint, it’s a mecca for artists of all kinds. A group of us went to visit, which involved a 70-odd metre crouch/crawl/walk through a series of drainage tunnels beneath a motorway. With no fences of security of any kind to stop us, we exited the tunnel and were greeted with a view of the building in all its glory. The areas of the brickwork that weren’t covered in graffiti were a bright orange-brown coloured, and flanked in various places by tall grey support columns holding up a thin concrete roof. Three or four floors were visible from the outside, including what looked like an underground parking complex and a roof-top terrace.

We entered the building in the basement area, through an area that was possibly intended to be a huge garage door, possibly for working vehicles of some kind. A quick walk through the dark corridors eventually led to a staircase next to an open elevator shaft. The evidence of previous explorers was obvious, with a huge pile of broken rubble and metal covering the floor of the shaft, having been dropped from many floors above. We ventured up the stairs, still amazed at everything we could see. Graffiti, pitch black corridors and vandalism. This place has it all. We began to hear voices coming from within the building, and after a few minutes of panic we met a Spanish photographer doing a photo-shoot of a model on the rooftop. We greeted him and he asked us to stay out of his way, so we did. The views from the roof were spectacular, and we all agreed it would make a perfect set for a film. The landscape was like nothing I’d seen before. Desert and grassland littered with piles of bricks and concrete slabs, stretching towards a row of pine trees in the distance. The sun began to set, and after getting a hand-full of golden hour photos, we left back through the tunnel and went home. I’ll definitely be visiting there again.

I took an endless amount of photographs, which I regretted when we returned, as I’m still going through them now, but one of my favourites is the featured image I’ve used. Titled: “The Great Recession”.

My Erasmus Experience – Post #03 – Exploring The City

After checking into the hostel and unpacking, we left almost immediately to begin exploring and to get something to eat. The centre of Madrid is incredible. The architecture is stunning and even in the pouring rain it looks beautiful. It was still 35 degrees however, and we were still looking for somewhere to eat. We found a traditional tapas bar near Plaza Mayor, and ate there, sitting outside in the street observing the hustle and bustle of one of the most ‘touristy’ areas of the city. The chairs were comfy and the parasol above us was fitting with a mist-spraying system that periodically sprayed ice-cold mist onto the diners below. It felt amazing for the first few minutes, but after a while I was sick of having to de-mist my phone screen, and eating slightly damp bread was a little distracting. We ate our tapas (mostly potatoes and cheese for me, being a vegetarian) and left, continuing to explore the city by night.

Over the next few weeks we explored more and more, stumbling across famous buildings, squares and galleries. Ask us what these places are called and we couldn’t tell you, it would be “the park with the boats” or “the gallery near where I bought that Maxibon”. We visited a few art galleries, and I realised that I haven’t indulged in publicly available artwork for a long time. Being a photographer and interested in becoming an independent artist, this was bad news. Since then I’ve tried to visit as many interesting galleries as possible, including a Richard Hamilton exhibition and the famous ‘Guernica’ by Picasso.

One of my favourite parks in Madrid is Parque del Retiro, which is probably the most famous. It’s truly enormous, with pathways littered with street performers and entertainers, ice-cream vendors and shaded benches. There’s definitely something for everyone there, with a boating lake in the centre surrounded by impressive monuments to past kings and poets, quiet shaded spots hidden away and trees full of bright green parrots and red squirrels. We’ve visited there on various occasions, and it seems to be the perfect place to end a long day of shopping, eating, exploring or working. I visited that park for the first time in our first week, ‘the hostel week’ as it’s now so affectionately known. After a slow walk around the perimeter of the boating lake, we sat in the ferocious afternoon sun on the steps of the largest monument, looking out over the sparkling water and watching the people attempting to row the cumbersome boats from one side to the other. The sun began to set, and the scene was beautiful.

This weeks photo is titled ‘The Boating Lake’, and was taken from the steps of that monument in that perfect golden sunlight.

My Erasmus Experience – Post #2 – First Week In Madrid

I’ve never liked the idea of flying. There’s something about being in a giant metal box being propelled by explosions at 500mph over the sea that just doesn’t sit well. The flight didn’t last long, we departed from Luton airport at half 1 and it took us about 2 hours to get to Spain. The leg room on EasyJet is terrible, but that’s the price you pay for cheap air travel! I enjoyed watching the view from the window, seeing gloomy England shrink fall away beneath me and disappear into the clouds. I can’t remember what time we landed, I was too excited/nervous/terrified/confused to really remember anything. I felt the plane touch down and watched as we taxied across the runway, seeing billboards and signposts written in Spanish all over. It terrified me. I had no idea what to expect from this country, seeing as I had only been abroad a few times before and only once on a plane. It was a completely new experience for me, and I immediately felt out of my comfort zone. I suppressed the fear and moved off the plane, being instantly hit by the 35 degree air inside the walkway. I was sweating already, and I’d only been outside for a few seconds. How was I going to survive?

We’d booked a hostel beforehand, which was now our next task. To navigate the labyrinth that is the Madridian metro service. The transport in Madrid has recently been given a major overhaul, with a lot of public money being spent on infrastructure and travel for the masses. We piled onto the metro which conveniently came right to the airport door, each with two heavy bags to our name and no real clue where we were going. We’d managed to obtain a metro map from the only person in Spain that spoke English (Another culture shock, being ignorant English people), and had found a route to our hostel using the map id printed off and free GPS apps on our phones. The metro was hot and smelly, packed with people who stared at us as if we’d hopped into that carriage just to annoy them.

We eventually arrived at our station and disembarked, climbing the stairs to receive our first dose of vitamin D since we left the plane. I remember seeing a tall apartment building at the entrance to the station, looming over me as if waiting for us to emerge. It was painted a muted pink colour, and had bay windows and small balconies, each with either a potted plant or a chair of some kind. It was like something out of a painting. There was that heat again, by now it was around 6pm but was still above 30. The noise of the people and traffic completed the scene, we were finally here. We walked to the hostel, checked in and dropped our things off. We immediately headed out again and after a few hours of exploring found an authentic tapas bar near Plaza Mayor. We had tapas and sangria on our first night in Madrid, not knowing what lay ahead of us.

I was excited but anxious, ready to face the next week which would be one of the best and worst weeks of my life.

The image is titled ‘The View’, and was shot from the balcony of our room in the hostel.

The View