A Norwegian Adventure: Aurlandsfjord

Aurlandsfjord is a 29km long branch off of Sognefjord, the longest of the Norwegian fjords at 205km. In contrast to Nærøyfjord, Aurlandsfjord is broader and much more exposed to prevailing winds. Shortly after exiting Nærøyfjord on the Gudvangen-Flåm ferry, you come to the quaint village of Undredal, situated at the lower end of a deep, glaciated valley. Known for its goat cheese and stave church, the village was only accessible by boat prior to construction of the Gudvagen and Flenja tunnels. Because of 500m gap between the two tunnels, residents were still able to access Flåm despite the closure of Gudvangentunnelen.

Topographical map of Nærøfjord and Aurlandsfjord.

Topographical map of Nærøyfjord and Aurlandsfjord. Undredal is located at the end of the deep valley between the two. The green indicator denotes the approximate location of the truck fire which closed Gudvangen tunnel for over a month

Mountain farm perched high on the mountainside between the mouth of Nærøfjord and Undredal

Stigen farm perched high on the mountainside between Nærøyfjord and Undredal. Note the kayaks in the water

Undredal and heavily glaciated Undredaldalen

Undredal and Undredalen

Passengers disembarking from ferry, Undredal

Passengers disembarking from ferry, Undredal. The stave church (not seen) is the smallest in Norway and dates to 1147

Past Undredal, the fjord broadens and makes a sharp turn south. At the inner end lies the town of Flåm, terminus of the famous cog railway connecting Fjord Country with the Oslo-Bergen mainline (more in an upcoming post). Because of its importance as a transit hub (train, ferries, highway), the town is popular tourist destination for exploring Sogn og Fjordane and a popular cruise ship destination.

Flåm, with a cruise ship in port

Flåm. Because there is only one dock, passenger on subsequent ships must be transported ashore on emergency craft

View of cruise ship arriving, Flåm marina

View of cruise ship arriving, Flåm marina

For a more authentic Norwegian experience, the town of Aurlandsvangen (Aurland) lies on the eastern shores of the fjord at the mouth of the spectacular Aurlandsdalen (next post). Despite being larger than Flåm, the town falls off the tourist radar. Although we were scheduled to stay here two nights, the infamous tunnel closure meant that we were only able to stay one night. Our hytte was situated on a bluff overlooking the town with magnificent views over the fjord.

Aurlandsvangen (Aurland) and the mouth of Aurlandsdalen

Aurlandsvangen (Aurland) with low-lying clouds over Aurlandsdalen

Approaching the dock, Aurland

Approaching the dock, Aurland

Waving the ferry goodby. Similar to Styvi and Undredal, you have less than 5 seconds to get your butt off the boat...

The fery after dropping us off in Aurland. Similar to Styvi and Undredal, you have 5 seconds to get your butt off the boat…

Vangen Kyirke (Aurland church) in the center of town. It dates from 1202...

Vangen Kyrkje (church), dating to 1202, situated in the centre of Aurland

View of Aurland and Aurlandsdalen

View of Aurland and Aurlandsfjord

View of Aurlandfjord from our hytte

View of Aurlandfjord from the front porch of our hytte

Peaceful early-morning view over Aurlandsfjord

Peaceful early-morning view over Aurlandsfjord

Following our stay in Aurland, we took public transit to Flåm. In preparation for our hiking trip in the rugged Aurlandsdalen, we had kindly been permitted to leave excess luggage at a hytte we would be staying at later in the week. With no car (where we intended to leave our luggage), we decided to use the opportunity to ride the railway before catching one of three buses daily to Aurlandsdalen late afternoon. However, upon arriving, we found the train fully booked for the entire day, further throwing our plans into disarray (for those of you wondering, online booking is not possible). After purchasing tickets for later in the week, we visited the tourist bureau where we were provided with several hiking routes.

We chose one that followed the shores of the fjord back towards Aurland before climbing up to the mountainside farms of Otternes and Vikesland. While Otternes has been converted to a museum, Vikesland still functions as a goat farm.

Otternes, a former farm converted into an open-air museum

Otternes, a former farm converted into an open-air museum

Simple yet solid construction...

Simple yet solid construction…

View back towards Flåm as we climb towards Vikesland

View back towards Flåm as we climb towards Vikesland

Vikesland. And in case you can't tell, it is still a functioning farm...

Vikesland. And in case you can’t tell, it is still a functioning farm…

With land freely available, they are free to roam where ever they want (and block the road)

These boys and girls are free to roam where ever they want, including blocking the road if they wish.

They are also shockingly nimble on the steep. rocky terrain

They are also shockingly nimble on the steep. rocky terrain

Are you looking at me?

Are you looking at me?

View over Vikesland towards Flåm. This was our view for our lunch break

View over Vikesland towards Flåm (bottom right). This was our view for our lunch break

View of our hiking route from Flåm. Otternes is located directly above the cruise ship while Vikesland is in the upper right corner.

View of our hiking route from Flåm. Otternes is located directly above the cruise ship while Vikesland is in the upper right. Note the emergency life boats transporting passengers ashore

Our departure from Aurlandsfjord on the Gudvangen-Flåm ferry

Our departure from Aurlandsfjord on the Gudvangen-Flåm ferry

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Noma

What makes a restaurant great? Is it the food, inventiveness or quality of ingredients? Or is it the ambience, décor and quality of service? And what makes a restaurant “best” in the world, if such an accolade can even be assigned? Regardless how you respond to the above, Noma is at the pinnacle of global cuisine, ranked first in the prestigious “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list three of the last 4 years. But perhaps I should start from the beginning…

For the first decade of this century, Spain’s El Bulli was the undisputed leader in haute cuisine. Ranked as the tope restaurant numerous times between 2002 and 2009 and assigned three Michelin stars as early as 1997, the restaurant attracted talent from around the world, including young Danish chef René Redzepi. Following his stint at El Bulli, Redzepi made a brief stop at French Laundry, a three Michelin star establishment located in Napa Valley which was ranked best in the world in 2003 and 2004.

While many young chefs try to replicate the formula of restaurants they have worked in, Redzepi took a different approach. In 2002, Danish chef Claus Meyer approached Redzepi about opening a restaurant in Copenhagen’s Christianshavn district. Together, they developed “New Nordic Cuisine” which they showcased in their new restaurant opened in 2004.

“New Nordic” focuses on fresh, natural products foraged from land and sea. It espouses use of local, in-season products from Nordic countries which meet the tenants of purity, simplicity and freshness. It is also explores the use of everyday, edible ingredients not on your typical menu.

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I visited Noma earlier this month with several friends. I had always wanted to go but it is notoriously difficult to obtain reservations and the price is high enough that I had never made it a priority. However, I jumped at the opportunity when a friend informed me she had been contacted about an opening for 4 people (she and another friend had put their name on a waitlist).

More than a restaurant, Noma is an experience, evoking pleasure, surprise, bewilderment and a host of other reactions. 50 chefs and 25 support staff serve approximately 20 courses over 5 hours paired with a wine or juice menu. Dishes explore the interplay between taste, texture and mouthfeel, highlighting contrasts between them all. Rather than explain each dish, I have included pictures of most of them along with a brief description.

Menu for the evening

Menu for the evening. 20+ courses paired with 8 juices or wines (several course were not listed)

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Gooseberry and elderflower appetizer. Tart but good

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Nordic coconut, drinking the milk which had an anise/licorise flavour. This was a unanimous winner and one of the standout presentations

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Deep-fried moss and cep, served with creme fraiche. A unanimous winner with a unique crispy flavour melting in your mouth

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Pickled and smoked quail eggs. Marginal at best although the puff of smoke when you opened the lid was a winner

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Cheese cookie and herb stems, a unanimous winner

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Savoury æbleskiver and greens, a take on the classic Danish holiday dessert.  Another unanimous winner 

 

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Sea urchin toast. I found the sea urchin to be much like foie gras which I don’t care for

 

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Burnt leek, another classic. The inside was very tender and flavourful

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Squid and fennel, served in an ice bowl. This one was marginal as I found the squid tough

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Dried scallops and beechnuts. The scallops had an intense seafood flavour which was a bit strong for my taste

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Onions and fermented pears with ants. I found this suprisingly good. Aparently different ants have different acidic flavours

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Potato and sea trout roe in oil. The contrast between roe and potatoes was overshadowed by too much oil 

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Purple carrot and truffle. This was the highlight of the night for me. The carrots are left in the ground for up to 2 year

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Wild duck, pear and kale. This was another winner although we were warned in advance we might find buckshot in the duck

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Potato dessert in plum sauce. Another unanimous winner 

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Frozen yeast cookies (not on the menu). This was very unique but not a particular success

Classic Danish with beet icing if I remember correctly

Classic Danish with beet icing if I remember correctly. It was good but not particularly unique (apart from the beet)

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Pig skin dipped in chocolate and freeze-dried blueberries. This topped the uniqueness chart. I really liked it but opinions varied widely

The most common question asked since I visited is “Was it worth it”? My response is an unequivocal “yes”. The food is highly innovative and forces you to explore new culinary boundaries. One of the benefits of going as a group was the range of opinions from dish to dish. While there was unanimous agreement on some, others resulted in much more animated debate, which only made the experience that much more enjoyable.

One of the things I appreciated most was the attitude of staff. After reaching the pinnacle as the best restaurant in the world, it’s easy to let success go to your head. However, everyone was exceedingly friendly without being patronizing or condescending. An added feature was a visit to the kitchen and development lab where chefs work on inventing new dishes.

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In the kitchen. It is more spartan than my own. There is also a prep kitchen downstairs where much of the plating is done

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Development lab where they invent new dishes

Staff kitchen

Staff dinning room. Given the long hours, chefs are served lunch by apprentices between the lunch and dinner sittings

 

Sous-chef giving us an overview of the development lab and restaurant operations

Australian sous-chef giving us an overview of the development lab and restaurant operations

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Kitchen, 12:30 A.M. Chefs work from 9 A.M to 12 A.M, Tuesday -Saturday

If I have one criticism of our dinner, it was the quality of service. While everyone can make a mistake, wait staff made several routine errors which are simply unacceptable at a world-famous restaurant. Much has been made of the fact tha while Noma has been ranked best in the world on the 50 Best Restaurant’s list, it has never been graned three Michelin stars. While I can see Michelin being put off by the laid-back Danish service approach, I agree that it simple was not up to the standard of a three star restaurant. Although it didn’t detract that much from the evening, it is a key feature Noma needs to address if they want to continue to improve their patron’s experiences.

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A Norwegian Adventure: Kayaking Nærøyfjord

With our plans altered because of the closure of Gudvangatunnelen, we decided to make the most of our opportunity. Gudvangen is a hamlet situated at the head of the famous Nærøyfjord, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and listed as the number one natural heritage site by National Geographic. With mountains towering up to 1,800m (6,000 ft), the fjord stretches some 18km (11 miles) and is a mere 500m (1,600 ft) wide at its narrowest point. This combination of height and width keep it almost entirely protected from the wind, making it an ideal spot for kayaking.

Our first glimpse of the spectacular Nærøyfjord

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A Norwegian Adventure: Fjord Norway

Someone once said that Norway is like Canada without the prairies in the middle. While they don’t have the majestic Rockies, they make up for it with spectacular fjords. The west coast of the country is littered with thousands of them, making it one of the most stunningly beautiful yet inhospitable regions in the world. “Region” is perhaps too modest a word as Fjord Norway stretches thousands of kilometers from Stavanger in the south to Tromsø in the north, the primary gateway to the High Arctic.

I had always been fascinated by the pictures I had seen of the region and promised myself that I would one day visit. Researching a potential trip, the greatest challenge was choosing between hundreds of equally stunning locations. After convincing two friends to join in on the adventure, we settled on the Aurlandsfjord region, situated 150km northeast of Bergen, the primary hub on the west coast and Norway’s second largest city.

There is something you should know about Fjord Norway before you visit. Distances are deceiving. Very deceiving. There are also tunnels. Many tunnels. If you look at a map of the region and find that a road looks excessively straight, it’s as tunnel. As we were to find out, these are arteries which can be quickly snuffed out…

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Our adventure began about an hour east of Bergen on E16, the primary highway between Bergen and Oslo. After making good time, traffic quickly brought us to a halt in one of the tunnels. After inching ahead for an hour or so, we learned that an accident had partially closed the next tunnel. As it turned out, our adventure was only beginning…

Traffic delays due to a tunnel accident. Our adventure was only just beginning...

Traffic delays due to a tunnel accident. Our adventure was only just beginning…

When we learned about the accident, we were informed that there had been a much more serious tunnel incident on E16 the previous day. 160 people had been rescued from the 11 km long Gudvangatunnelen tunnel following a truck fire, with 73 hospitalized for smoke inhalation. Structural damage to the tunnel meant that E16 would be closed for up to a month. Welcome to Fjord Norway…

Looking at a map, we quickly realized that we had to pass Gudvangatunnelen to reach Aurlandsfjord. Recognizing our predicament, we continued to the regional town of Voss to assess our options. Soliciting advice from friendly locals, we quickly realized that it would be impossible to reach Aurland that night. Options included a 6 hour detour on secondary roads through treacherous mountain passes or a 10 hour detour involving two ferries.

Sunset over the town of Voss

Sunset over the town of Voss

After much searching, we found a hut (hytte) outside of Voss where we could stay the night and regroup. Although Norway has an extensive network of huts, demand is high during the busy summer months and we recognized our luck finding one on such short notice. The location of our huts was gorgeous, situated in a deep glacial valley beside a swift-flowing stream.

Toulen Hytte, our last-minute accomidations

The site, situated next to a fast-flowing mountain stream, was a popular destination for playboaters

The site, situated next to a fast-flowing mountain stream, was a popular destination for playboaters

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With our entire travel itinerary in limbo, crisis talks began on how to salvage our trip. It quickly became apparent that our car was a liability and would have to be abandoned. However, we faced the cold reality that doing so would leave us reliant on non-existent public transit. In other words, we would be on our own…

After weighing our options, we decided to abandon our car in the hamlet of Gudvangen at the head of the famous Nærøyfjord. Although Gudvangatunnelen is the primary route between Nærøy and Aurlandsfjord, there is also frequent ferry service. Traditionally catering to tourists and small communities accessible only by boat, the ferries had been transformed into a vital transportation link between the two largest cities in the country overnight. Needless to say, they were being overwhelmed by traffic.

Gudvangatunnelen linking Nærøy and Aurlandsfjord. The location of the truck fire is denoted by the marker

Despite the rather inauspicious start to our trip, luck was about to turn in our favour. On our way to Gudvangen, we visited the famous Stalheim hotel in the upper Nærøydalen (Nærøy valley). Although rather mundane, the hotel is perched on a cliff several hundred meters above the valley floor, surrounded by Stalheimsfossen and Sivlefossen (fossen = waterfall). Between the two lies Stalheimsklevia, the steepest road in Northern Europe. Our Norwegian adventure had well and truly begun…

Oppheimsvatnet, an alpine lake situated between Voss and Gudvangen

Oppheimsvatnet, an alpine lake situated between Voss and Gudvangen

Nærøydalen, viewed from the patio of the Stalheim hotel. There is a sheer drop of several hundred meters on the other side of the wall

Nærøydalen, viewed from the patio of the Stalheim hotel. There is a drop of several hundred meters on the other side of the wall

View down into Nærøydalen, viewed from the patio of Stalheim hotel

View of Nærøydalen from the patio of the Stalheim hotel. The path on the lower right was the one we took to Stalheimsfossen

View of Stalheimsklevia, the steepest road in norther Europe, with a max gradient of 20 degrees

View of Stalheimsklevia, the steepest road in northern Europe with a drop of 270 meters (885ft) in 2 km (1.25 miles)

Stalheimsklevia

Stalheimsklevia with a maximum gradient of 20 degrees

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A Norwegian Adventure: Nordmarka, Oslo

The hiking trip began as a casual invitation to a friend if he would be interested in a long weekend backpacking in Norway. As a Canadian, Denmark just doesn’t cut it when it comes to wilderness and nature so it’s necessary to expand your horizon. Naturally, I set my sights on its Scandinavian cousin to the north.

While Norway has wilderness in spades, I was looking for something readily accessible. I quickly identified Nordmarka (North Forest), part of a ring of forest surrounding Oslo known as Oslomarka. With much of it located within Oslo city limits, this vast tract of woodland stretches some 75K into the hills north of the city and is filled with dozens of lakes and rivers. Best of all, the park is readily accessible by public transit, a mere 30 minutes from downtown.

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As it turned out, my friend was unable to go because of other travel commitments. However, a couple of other friends overheard my invitation. Soon, the crew had expanded to six and we found ourselves at Frognerseteren, the primary entrance to Nordmarka just above Holmenkollen, the famous Oslo ski jump.

Our hike took us some 40 km (25 miles) over 3 days, north to the lakes of Østre Fyllingen (Eastern Dump) and Bjørnsjøen (Bear Lake) before swinging back to Frognerseteren in a big loop. While distances may not seem overly ambitious, this was done while carrying 20kg (45 lb) packs over undulating terrain and included several climbs of a 100 meters (330 ft) or more. To top it off, the weather was stunning with temperatures hovering in the high 20Cs (80F) the entire weekend.

Despite their unceremonious names (seriously, Eastern Dump?), the lakes were absolutely beautiful and crystal clear. Given the high temperatures, we took the opportunity to swim on a number of occasions although this was forbidden in several of the southernmost lakes as the watershed served as water source for Oslo.

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With the exception of Denmark, Nordic countries have extensive “freedom to roam” policies, meaning you can hike and camp on public and private land without permission. Although there is an extensive network of hyttas (huts) and stuas (cabins) throughout the forest where you can stay and eat (most also have showers and toilets), we took advantage of the freedom to roam policy and camped throughout the duration of our trip.

Despite it’s proximity to downtown, the park was largely deserted throughout our trip. Although some of this is likely attributed to most Norwegians being on holiday in late July, the forest is so large (we only saw a fraction of it) and the number of alternative outdoor recreational opportunities so extensive that I doubt it ever gets excessively busy.

During the winter, the park is a popular cross country skiing destination with approximately 350 km (220 miles) of groomed and ungroomed trails. Trails are labeled blue and red. This might seem logical until you realize that blue denotes summer trails and red winter. To further add to the confusion, there are often huge discrepancies in distances to the same destination as winter trails often cut directly across lakes and swamps. Despite these minor issues, the trail system is well signed and the Norwegian Treking Association (DNT) has excellent topographical maps of the area which can be bought online or at their center in downtown Oslo. As with all things in Norway, they are extremely expensive, especially if you are not a DNT member (175NOK or $30CAD/USD).

View of hills overlooking Oslo and the Holmenkollen ski jump. The trailhead at Frognerseteren is located near the radio towers

Øvreseter-tjern, a small pond located near the trail head

Øvreseter-tjern, a pond located near Frognerseteren, with the radio towers looming overhead

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A Norwegian Adventure: Oslo Fjord

I thought I would start a series of posts on my recent adventures in Norway. Despite living in Denmark for almost three years, this was the first summer I’ve had without family and friends visiting, providing me with the opportunity to explore Scandinavia further. Truth be told, I need the time to save up enough money to afford the trips. Although that’s a slight exaggeration, Norway is shockingly expensive, even by Scandinavian standard.

For those traveling to Norway via Copenhagen, one way to save is by taking the Copenhagen-Oslo ferry. Although there are frequent flights between the two cities, the ferry provides a more relaxing experience, particularly during the warmer summer months. Better yet, it serves as a de facto hotel, departing from the center of the city at 16:30 and arriving the next morning 9:45, leaving you well-positioned to explore the city.

But by far the greatest benefit is the cruise itself. The trip up the Øresund between Denmark and Sweden is beautiful, providing excellent views of Copenhagen, the Swedish island of Ven, Kronborg Castle and the Kullaberg Penninsula.  The highlight of the trip, however, is the last several hours as the ferry makes its way up Oslo fjord. The weather was absolutely spectacular for our trip with temperatures in the mid 20s (70s) and not a breath of wind.

An interesting piece of fjord history is that during the German invasion of Norway in World War II, the Germany fleet was repelled and the battleship Blücher sunk as a result of shelling from Oscarsborg fortress and accompanying batteries on either side of Drøbak Narrows. The attack was particularly daring as Norway was officially neutral and the German fleet remained unidentified when the order to fire was given. When questioned by subordinates, the commander famously stated “Either I will be decorated or I will be court-martialed. Fire!”

The sinking delayed the invasion enough to allow for the evacuation of the Royal family, Norwegian Parliament as well as the country’s gold reserves. The wreck of the ship remains in one of narrowest parts of the fjord.

The town of Tofte, entering the narrowest part of the fjord

The town of Tofte, entering the narrowest part of the fjord

Enjoying the view from the back deck

Enjoying the view from the back deck

Out for an early morning uhhh...sail

Out for an early morning…uhhh…sail?

Oscarsborg Fortress, site of the WWII "Battle of Drøbak Sound"

Oscarsborg Fortress, site of the WWII “Battle of Drøbak Sound”. The fjord is oly 500m wide at this point.

A close-up of Oscarsburg Fortress.

A close-up of Oscarsborg Fortress. The site was decomissioned following the end of the Cold War and converted into a resort.

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DHL Stafetten

Danes run. A lot. A highlight of the running calendar is the DHL Stafetten held throughout the country the last week of August. For 5 days, teams from virtually all companies, organizations and institutions compete in a 5 x 5km relay. Runners come in all shapes, sizes and age brackets with an emphasis not so much on speed but getting people active.

By far the largest Stafetten is the one held in Copenhagen with over 125,000 participants and up to 27,000 runners a night. Held in Fælledparken, the course is hopelessly cramped and congested due to the number of people. Although each relay team is provided with a food box, most companies splurge and bring in BBQs (and copious amounts of alcohol) to make it a special occasion. The worst part of the race is the last kilometer, gasping in fumes of grilled steak and hotdogs (pølser). The next challenge is locating your relay partner out of 5,000 other people waiting for the handoff.

Despite the congestion and fumes, the event is hugely popular and a good time is had by all…most, especially if the weather is good! I ran the last two years and anchored our team to two second-place finishes within our company and top 5% over-all. Although I was not able to participate this year, I did have the opportunity to go over and take some photos. Enjoy!

The beginning of the race. The course was particular dusty as a result of a warm, dry summer

The beginning of the race. The course was particular dusty as a result of a warm, dry summer

Still early in the course, before it gets too congested

Still early in the course. Each company/organization is assigned tent(s) for a specific night during the week

Enjoying the early-evening sun

Enjoying the warm glow of the early-evening sun. Carpet is used on the grass to prevent damage

Half-way through the course

Half-way through the course

A sense of scale…

View with the Rigshospitalet in the background

View with the Rigshospitalet in the background.. At least medical assistance is close…

The final stretch of the course before the finish line

The final stretch of the course before the finish line. Note all the grills and BBQs…

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