European Gems: Norway, France, Portugal

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This semester was the first time I visited Europe. In addition to visiting classic destinations (Barcelona, London, Rome), I also ventured to less popular cities, so here is a brief account of a few that pleasantly surprised me with the unexpected.

OSLO – NORWAY

What comes to mind: boats, whale meat, intolerably high prices, endless sunlight.

The cultural and geographic singularities of Oslo made it my most refreshing trip in Europe. The differences I found between Norway and the countries where I’ve lived (Brazil, USA, France) were at times small and inconsequential, but at times so significant that my short stay was not enough to truly grasp them. Whereas I stepped into Oslo with no set expectations or background knowledge of Norway, I left thinking: “what if I tried living here?”

As my flight landed at 10:45pm, I watched the sunset over a city that was still cold at the end of spring. Sunrise woke me up not much later at 4am, and it warmed the air enough so that I could take my coat off in the afternoon. In the following days, Oslo captivated me for its sense of pacifism, hospitality, open-mindedness and sheer natural beauty. The city is an urban spread around nature rather than a concrete block with scarce patches of green. Its mountains reminded me of remote places I’d visited in the American South, its spectacular views akin to those one sees when isolated in nature, except the city of Oslo was right there with its daring modern architecture and cozy cafés in the midst of fjords.

Based on my traveling experiences so far, I found the mix of urban development and geographical isolation to be unique to Oslo. The pacifism that I could feel in the air, added to the tranquility brought by nature, made the place seem at once foreign and appealing, a perfect combination to tempt me to move there.

After learning more about Norway from relatives who live there, I was also impressed by their approach to education, government, religion, and their definition of quality of life. I also became interested in possibly learning Norwegian (even if everyone there also speaks English), as I found out that it helps with understanding Danish and Swedish as well as with learning German. Sweet combo for language lovers.

But perhaps the most unattended surprise was: the sushi! I wish my words would do justice to the food quality at Alex Sushi, but I believe you must taste it in order to understand the gastronomic shock of pure satisfaction. The Japanese food was so mind-blowing (most likely because of the freshness of Norwegian fish combined with the chef’s talent) that it is hard to believe I could find any better, even in Japan. Fearing I’m the only person to have such a reaction to Alex Sushi (besides my friend who recommended it as the best sushi of her life), I googled it and found the following review:

“… I have managed to try a couple of [sushi] places in Oslo. Some things in life will make you alter your view on that particular category, such as the first time I tried real home made Italian ice cream. Ice cream was never the same again. Alex Sushi is that kind of place. Pure heaven” (from the Sushi World Guide website).

His words are my own. The only downside of my food experience in general was the elevated price.

In Norway, I saw people “skiing” without snow, going for a jog during blinding, pouring rain without expressing the slightest worry about the weather, wearing summer clothes and licking ice cream while the low temperature of the day was 37 F.

I might have fallen in love with Oslo but it’s important to emphasize that I visited in mid-May and wore a coat, scarf and hat (plus I used an umbrella which inevitably labeled me as a silly tourist). Would I have had the same positive experience had I visited mid-January? Not so sure, but I’d like to find out.

LILLE – FRANCE

What comes to mind: city lights, cozy atmosphere, best French ice cream, Flemish architecture, Donald Duck.

What an underrated French city. I chose to visit Lille only because it was halfway to the Belgian city of Brugge, my actual trip destination. When I told others I would be going there, I received no excited responses or tips on what to do. Instead I was told it’s one of the poorest cities in France, and that I shouldn’t expect anything like Paris. But after visiting, I can affirm that it’s one of my favorite French cities and one I would even consider living in.

The old part of town, “le Vieux-Lille,” was my favorite. Its Flemish architecture carries an undeniable charm and distinguishes this French city from the others. Many of the residential buildings reminded me of the ones I saw in Amsterdam, and its colors give life to the city. In addition, there are alleys that take you to little hidden gems, like one that took me to the back of a Gothic church where I found colorful, blossoming flowers and a “hidden” lawn where people read and played with dogs.

The city atmosphere felt so cozy, young and vibrant. It might have to do with the abundance of pretty lights, cafés and independent stores that struck me as hipster (and marvelous). Like in many other European cities, everything is in walking distance, and unlike Paris, Lille has a big park circled by a river.

Although I only met two guys from Lille, people there seemed more open, warm and lively than in other French cities. I must also mention the best French ice cream I’ve ever had was at a local shop called La Pause Givrée, which offered delicious, unlikely flavors.

Last but not least, the city has a vibrant cultural and artistic scene. Everywhere I went there were art galleries, and the Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille was one of the best museums I’ve ever visited – probably because I so enjoyed their exhibition featuring Donald Duck parodies of famous paintings.

So, after living in Oslo, I would move to Lille.

CHAMONIX-MONT-BLANC – FRANCE

What comes to mind: awesomeness, awesomeness, and more awesomeness.

Ah the Alps! Ah the Alps! Ah the Alps! Words cannot contain their beauty, atmosphere and all-around awesomeness. After years of dreaming of these mountains, I finally made it there this winter and none of my expectations were let down.

The decision to take trains from Paris to Chamonix-Mont-Blanc was very worth it for the scenic views during (what should have been) a five-hour trajectory. I got to see different French regions as well as different parts of the Alps as the trip wasn’t, well, a straight line (think: taking the wrong train (because there were three involved) and ending up literally facing Switzerland, stuck for a night in the town where Evian water comes from).

The trains sloped around the mountains, revealing breathtaking scenes that made me abandon the paper I was writing on my laptop and stare for long periods of time, dreaming, while all the teenagers around me were just taking the regular train from their village to the school at a nearby town. Once actually in the Chamonix Valley, the ski slopes were gorgeous (and intimidating for a first-time skier), the mountain peaks beyond praise with fantastic views of the seemingly unending mountain range.

But what I least expected was to find the best burger of my life in Chamonix. Yes, I found the best burger of my life at Poco Loco, a place that a local I met at a ski shop suggested I go. The burger was different than American ones with its fresh “French” bread bun, three small meat patties and a special sauce. Their succulent burger, followed by the Nutella crepe they also sold, provided me with the needed calories to fall every single time I skied down a slope.

The highlights of my Alps experience were the Aiguille du Midi, Mont Blanc, Argentière, École du Ski Français, the river Arve, Glacier des Bossons, travelling by train, and the cheap nearby Carrefour. I would very much like to move there next winter and disappear from the rest of the world, tucked away in a cabin, taking turns between writing and skiing. I can dream.

SINTRA – PORTUGAL

What comes to mind: tropical-like nature, history, Portuguese pastries, hikes.

On my second to last day in Lisbon, a friend suggested we take a day trip to Sintra, a nearby town that is home to castles and ruins. Lisbon was fantastic, but Sintra, a town I’d never heard of before, enriched our adventures in Portugal with its fairytale-like nature and the most adorable castle I’ve ever visited.

The nature in Sintra reminded me of Brazil: a dewy forest with very tall green trees, sprinkled with beautiful flowers everywhere, so well preserved that you can get lost inside the parks and forget that cities exist. The hikes lead to mountain peaks with beautiful overviews of the region as well as to lakes, gardens, castles and ruins.

I visited the National Palace of Pena and the Moorish Castle. The former was the castle where the Portuguese royalty once lived, painted in lovely pastel colors and reminiscent of a fairytale home, while the latter was a collection of medieval ruins that offered a different but equally interesting experience.

After the hikes and castles, more awaited at the village, where I ate the most mind-blowing pastry in Portugal. Yes, pastéis de nata are fantastic, but nothing compares to the experience of eating a travesseiro, a pastry called pillow and so deserving of its name. It’s like biting into a pillow of delicious sugary cream. Traditionally from Sintra, this piece of heaven will both give you a sugar high and reinstitute your hope in humanity. Sintra served as the ideal escape from the city and an excuse for gourmandise.

Du coup, en gros (So, in essence), I just want to live everywhere (and eat their food, of course).