NORWAY: ROCKS, FORESTS, TORRENTS – AND SEA
GEOTOURISM” WITH HURTIGRUTEN
10-18 August 2013
It has long been an ambition of ours to see the west coast of Norway, with its magnificent fjords and picturesque scenery. This summer our dream was fulfilled.
There are many ways in which to explore this famous coast, from the various large and luxurious cruise liners, to smaller private boats, and travel by road. The latter is more complex, as the often rugged coastline of this long, inverted-spoon-shaped country, is too rugged for roads. Ferries – which take on board cars, busses and trucks – are sometimes required to link the various routes where the roads succumb to impassable terrain.
The Norwegian coastline measures around 25,000 km in length, if one includes all the fjords, numerous islands, and minor indentations. The view of this interesting coastline from a large ship is quite marvellous, while smaller vessels are better able to explore the inlets and skerries (tiny islands, usually too small for habitation).
There are a number of cruise lines that offer this scenic voyage, some adding other Scandinavian and/or European cities to the itinerary (for example: Stockholm, Tallinn, Riga, Copenhagen, Helsinki and St. Petersburg.)
Soon after having arrived in Stockholm some years ago, the HURTIGRUTEN Shipping Line was highly recommended to us by our Norwegian friends (http://www.hurtigruten.com/ ). And we were not disappointed.
Literally translated as “the express route”, Hurtigruten was established by the Norwegian government in1893 to improve communications along the country’s extended jagged coastline – a difficult task during the long dark winters. The ships initially transported freight and passengers, plying the areas between Bergen and Kirkenes (http://www.hurtigruten.com/schedule/map/ ).
But during the 1980’s, the role of the line began to change; discerning the touristic advantages of additional comfortable cabins, they expanded to a fleet of 11 vessels which visits 34 ports daily, both northbound and southbound.
At each stop, which varies from 15 minutes to several hours, goods, cars and passengers are loaded and offloaded. During the longer stops, optional extra excursions are offered by Hurtigruten, allowing passengers to explore still further the wonders of the Norwegian coast and the Arctic Circle. It is judicious to pre-book these excursions in advance, as many sell out rapidly. (In addition to the coastal route, ferries, and high-speed regional express ships in Norway, the company also operates cruises around Greenland, South America and Antarctica.)
We chose one of the larger vessels, MS Trollfjord, and a sea-facing cabin on the starboard (right hand) side. Every day we could thus enjoy an uninterrupted view of the magnificent Norwegian coastline, with all its fjords, towns and cities, and varied scenery which ranged from rolling green farmland to abundant pine forests and, further north, barren granite islands with little or no vegetation at all.
Trollfjord was built by Fosen mekaniske verksted in Rissa, Norway in 2002, and weighs16,140 tons. She can carry 822 passengers (600 during our trip), including 73 crew. The latter includes the “hotel” section – the main dining area, cafeteria (open 24 hours) and souvenir shop. There is also an internet café on board, and two Wi-Fi hotspots (of which I knew) with intermittent reception.
This ship is named after the Trollfjord, situated between the Vesterålen and the Lofoten Islands, and is famous locally for the Battle of the Trollfjord which took place there during the winter of 1890.
The ship has a very comfortable interior, with much of the decoration employing Norwegian woods and stone. There are also original paintings by the Lofoten artist Kaare Espolin Johnsen; these were originally on board the old Hurtigruten ship, MS Harald Jarl.
There is a small gym and a sauna, two jacuzzis on the uppermost (9th) deck, and a library, which,
apart from a few books, also has a few games and puzzles, and checkered tables for playing chess. Each of the comfortable cabins has a tiny bathroom with a shower, and towels and liquid soap are provided. There are no personal safes, but valuables may be kept in the ship’s safe if handed in at reception.
Trollfjord has a sister ship, MS Midnatsol (Midnight Sun), which shares many of the same characteristics: beautiful panorama lounges (8th and 9th decks), and private suites. The passengers were predominantly older than us, with very few youngsters. This is not surprising, as the Scandinavian schools return in mid-August, and the topographical, historical, ornithological and nature offerings of the voyage and excursions are not typically of much interest to teenagers.
There is no disco on board, or infrastructure for young people. This is a trip for NATURALISTS – or simply lovers of nature.
Announcements on board are broadcast in Norwegian, English and German, with occasional significant pronouncements made in Italian for a special group that joined our voyage.
I always enjoy listening to the symphony of different languages that surround me when I travel, and there was certainly a wide variety of nationalities represented on this trip. Apart from the obvious Scandinavian and Germanic languages, I heard some Slavic languages, French, Italian, a little Spanish, and English in a variety of accents, from Irish to Australian. I engaged with a Bulgarian lady on one of our excursions, who now lives in the UK, but could not distinguish her native tongue from Russian. Norwegian, Swedish and Danish are very similar to one another; a fellow Norwegian passenger described them as simply different dialects, or pronunciations, of the same language.
Thus, Peter and I, now with some Swedish in our repertoire, were able to comprehend most the announcements, notices and information conveyed in Norwegian.
The Norwegian coastal trip has been called “The Most Beautiful Sea Voyage in the World”. The landscape there is at once serene and placid, and wild and forbidding. This is why I borrowed the title from an exhibition of Norwegian painters held at the National Gallery in London in 2011: Rocks, Forests, Torrents, in which the works by Johan Christian Dahl (1788-1857) – who “invented” Norwegian landscape painting, and his countrymen Knud Baade(1808-79) and Peder Balke (1804-87) captured the sometimes brutal, but beautiful, rugged landscapes of Norway. (Highlights for me were Dahl’s The Lower Falls of the Labrofoss (1827): http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/johan-christian-dahl-the-lower-falls-of-the-labrofoss , and the romantic Scene from the Era of Norwegian Sagas (1850) by Knud Baade: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/culturepicturegalleries/8675720/Forests-Rocks-Torrents- Norwegian-and-Swiss-Landscapes.html?image=5 .
Highlights included in the cruise are the old Hanseatic city of Bergen, the Geiranger Fjord (in summer only), Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, the Lofoten Islands, and the North Cape in the Arctic Circle.
A one-direction trip takes 6 nights and 5 days, and a round trip takes 11 days. We chose to do the former, starting in Bergen and ending at Kirkenes, near the Russian border. In summer one can enjoy beautiful rolling green hills with sheep and cattle, forests of trees in varying colors of green, russet-red cottages and barns, and picturesque fishing villages. In June and early July there is the midnight sun, a permanent bright presence all day and all night. In winter the sea is filled with great sheets of ice, the scenery is clothed in snow, temperatures plunge well below zero, and – the crowing glory of the Scandinavian winter – the fantastic Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights).
Excursions differ considerably between the seasons, so a judicious choice – based on one’s personal preferences – is essential. But whatever time of year you travel through Norway, it is at once evident that this is a land of contrasts – fertile valleys and enchanting villages, snow-capped mountains and a dramatic rugged coastline, warm sunny days, and dangerous stormy seas.
Breakfast and lunch are generous Norwegian buffets, the latter with the famous “Cold Table” – a wide choice of fish dishes, cold meats, salads, desserts, cheeses and fruit. Dinner is a three- course set menu, of professional gourmet quality. (No choice, but requests for dietary requirements may be made.) It is safe to drink the water on board all the ships.
A compulsory short safety demonstration is presented in the Hurtigruten terminal building in Bergen before the ship leaves port.
Dress is informal, with the “layered” dress approach recommended, and “smart/casual” is the dress code for dinner. A small waterproof backpack is recommended for the excursions, plus camera and binoculars.
Our journey began with the speed train from Stockholm to Oslo via Goteborg (Gothenburg) – just under eight hours (with the one change.) On the way we passed summery green meadows dotted with cows and sheep, blond vistas as far as the eye could see of golden-ripe corn, “Falun-red” houses, cottages and barns (named after the former iron-ore mining town in Sweden), and splashes of tall pink wild flowers. The route passes deep lakes which mirror the hills and sky, and other areas indicate the local industrial and farming activities: piles of neatly sawn logs, plump bales of hay wrapped in white plastic, and blue-and-yellow-striped beehives – the colors of Sweden.
The railway line passes through many small towns; one can see magnificent villas sporting ornately carved wooden facades and striped mown lawns rolling down to the water’s edge, and picturesque stone or wooden churches with neat, flower-filled cemeteries.
Occasionally an old stone fortress dominates a hilltop, it’s walls crumbling away, its purpose long past – most likely the wars against the marauding Danes.
The approach to Goteborg reveals grey and white warehouses, and a cemetery with serried ranks of dun-colored tombstones, leaning haphazardly, as if whispering conspiratorially to one another. There we left the Swedish train, and boarded the Norwegian train, bound for Oslo.
I was alerted of our passage into Norway by a “Velkommen!” announcement on the loudspeaker and a bleep from my mobile. Otherwise the scenery remains much the same as in Sweden.
We traveled along the Scandinavian west coast, watching squalls of rain sweep across forests of looking firs and rugged outcrops of slate-grey granite. Sometimes the train became sheathed by a dense tunnel of dark trees – too high to see whence we came or wither we were bound.
Sometimes it hurtled across bridges set high above plunging ravines, rivers frothing wildly far below our toy-train carriages.
As always, it is interesting to watch one’s fellow travelers: a young man with a long plait reaching down his back, querulous elderly couples anxiously conferring, and children engrossed with their iPads, playing games or watching movies.
I am ever impressed with the advances of technology; a ticket examiner no long clips a train ticket, but reads it on an iPhone, or some other device.
As in Sweden, we passed more dark mysterious forests and deep magical lakes, the homes of the mischievous sprites and menacing creatures of Nordic mythology. In these northern European lands, the tales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Andersson, and the operas of Weber and Wagner come vividly to life – or Tolkein’s endearing Hobbits with their capricious friends and enemies.
Then one’s head is cleared of such fanciful thoughts as vast wide spaces open out – wheat ripening for harvest, or green meadows with patches of white and pink wildflowers.
At last, in the late afternoon, we pulled into Norway’s capital – OSLO (population about 630,000). No passports were required on this adventure, as, once in the European Union, one is able to move around freely.
We had just one evening to explore this old city, founded in1049 by King Harald Hardråda (Hard Ruler). It was decimated by the Great Plague during the14th century, and, after burning to the ground in 1642, slipped into virtual obscurity. King Christian IV of Norway-Denmark (r.1588-1648) rebuilt the city during the late 16th century, and named it after himself. For three centuries it remained a defence post, and in 1814 was made the official capital of Norway – a move nullified by the current Swedish rulers. When the union with Sweden was dissolved in 1905, the city reverted to its original name: Oslo – a combination of Ás (old Norse for Godhead) and lo (pasture/field), thus yielding roughly “the fields of the gods”. (Lonely Planet Norway p89).
Norway is a constitutional monarchy. The King, Harald V (b 1937), is the head of state, but has no real political power (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harald_V_of_Norway ). He and Queen Sonja (a commoner) have two children: Crown Prince Haakon (b 1973) and Princess Märtha Louise (b 1971).
We quickly deposited our cases at a “Comfort” chain hotel, which I had chosen for its magnificent view of the new opera house. This impressive white edifice (designed by the firm Snøhetta), standing in Bjøkvika like a gleaming white iceberg, was opened to some of the greatest proponents of the human voice at a Gala event in 2008. Present were His Majesty King Harald V, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, and President Tarja Halonen of Finland, among other illustrious guests. Its construction was no doubt financed by the abundant North Sea oil which not so long ago catapulted Norway from being the poorest country in Europe to amongst the richest. The precincts of the Opera House are quite unique; a vast white concourse slants down to the water’s edge, and it commands a conspicuous position in the modern landscape of the city. Much of the building is covered in white granite and La Facciata, (an Italian Carrara marble), and the stage tower is clad in white aluminium.
Many visitors joined us on our steep ascent to the summit of the building’s slanting periphery, and there we enjoyed sweeping views over the city. The pulsating din of three different concerts, in what must have been a rock festival weekend, invaded what would otherwise have been a peaceful sight, the Oslofjord rippling far into the distance, interrupted only by the rugged outcrops of several islands.
The Oslo Cathedral dates from 1697. I was disappointed to find it closed, but marveled at the ornate red brick cloisters which surround it.
Supper, at Nilson Spiseri (an old Norse word for restaurant), was an experiment: whale steak for Peter, which tasted somewhere between liver and beef, served with the usual Nordic accompaniment of creamed potatoes. I lost courage when it came to the option of reindeer stew, and chose something familiar: baked salmon with new potatoes and vegetables.
The next morning we rose early for the start of our Norwegian adventure – a train trip to Myrdal. We were eager to explore the land of the famous Norwegians we knew: Grieg, Roald Amundsen, Edvard Munch and Henrik Ibsen. Departing from Oslo we passed through many tunnels, then were at last out in the open country. Here the train passes through more neat farms – checker boards of bright green and gold, alternating with dark firs, and forests of tall thin pines reaching on spindly bleached tip-toe for the illusive sun high above. Mirror-smooth lakes, sometimes punctuated with tiny granite islets, reflect the looming mountains beyond.
Rivers the color of rooibos tea, fed by the still-melting snow, tumble in a series of rapids through valleys cut deep by long-ago glaciers.
Most towns have wooden houses, many in a design similar to Swiss chalets, each with a newly- mown lawn, and apple, pear, and even apricot trees.
I caught fleeting glimpses of a barns stacked with neat piles of blond-white wood, patches of plump purple thistles, and lavender-colored heather. Picture-postcard scenery, with pine-covered granite cliffs reflected in glassy-blue lakes sped by, and as we slowly climbed higher into the mountains, snow-capped peaks came into view, and the temperature dropped to 10°.
Climbing still higher, the landscape became more barren, until we entered a dry, almost lunar landscape with patches of green and orange lichen and deep, emerald lakes. At Hangastöl we reached 988 m above sea level.
The train stopped again at FINSE – a cyclists’ paradise, with bicycle-hire shops, and warmly- bundled cyclists peddling along dusty-grey trails below the railway track.
At MYRDOL we took the Flåm Railway (http://www.visitflam.com/flam-railway/ ) – through some of the most magnificent scenery in the world – to FLÅM. This picturesque train has rattling wooden carriages, and makes frequent stops to allow passengers to either alight for photo stops, or to take pictures through the train windows – of plunging waterfalls, and other awe-inspiring sights.
On the train I met a charming young Swede, with the bookish look of a university professor, wire- rimmed spectacles and dreadlocks bundled, turban-like, on top of his head. He told me that he is a male nurse working at the hospital in Bergen. (He said that salaries are better in Norway than in Sweden. This was corroborated by one of the young waitresses on the ship, who told me that she earns NOK25,000 per month, before tax, on a three weeks on, three weeks off basis. Overtime may be earned for working extra days, and extra hours – over ten hours per day.)
The young man, when I asked him why he did not follow us eager tourists, virtually hanging out of the train windows taking photos, said that he “would enjoy the sights with his eyes, and store them in his heart”. I felt humbled by this gentle philosophy, but consoled myself that unlike many of our “Kodak Kid” fellow travelers, on board this ship and elsewhere on my travels, I do not view my world entirely through the lens of a camera, including – to my horror, and to the disgust of our guide
– in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg!
Although the journey is only about 20 km from Mydral, an hour later we found ourselves in FLÅM – a small town situated at the head of the Aurlandsfjord, beleaguered by busloads of tourists, and the fjord was jammed with several large cruise ships.
The setting of the town is spectacular, surrounded by green meadows and high wooded mountains. A flagrant tourist trap, this little settlement boasts numerous eateries and lodgings. It is regarded as the “kernel” in the “Norway in a Nutshell” tourist route, or package. A vast crafts and souvenir emporium offers reindeer and seal skins, hand-made glass objects, amber and silver jewelry, and the ubiquitous ugly wooden-carved trolls and Vikings.
Various activities – hiking, cycling, fishing and kayaking on the fjord, are offered to the numerous fanatics of the great outdoors. Scandinavia is certainly the place for those who enjoy outdoor pursuits – skiing (cross-country and downhill) and skating in winter, and water and mountain sports
– usually with camping, or roughing it in cottages or shacks without modern amenities – during the few summer months.
Lunch was a salmon sandwich, and delicious seafood soup laden with plump black mussels, respectively, followed by a stroll to the water’s edge to test the salinity of the water. This far from the North Sea, and fed by the numerous streams and waterfalls from snowmelt, the fjord waters taste only slightly saline.
Instead of continuing by train to Bergen to meet the Hurtigruten ship, we chose to take the more scenic journey by ferry. This route takes passengers through the Sognefjord, where canoeing takes place, and holiday-makers cycle along its banks and hike in the surrounding mountains. Picturesque toy-town villages can be seen along the shoreline, nestled at the foot of steep granite cliffs, roughly scored by glaciers. There are farmlands, cottages, villas, and little stone churches with needle-sharp spires, tall rugged mountains, sea, lakes and plunging waterfalls. “This”, one of my Norwegian companions told me, “is the landscape that inspired Edvard Grieg. Remember it when you listen to his music”.
The magnificent Norwegian scenery around us did indeed bring Grieg’s music vividly alive for me, and all through our journey I could hear Peer Gynt’s Solvieg, his Ingrid, and the Trolls in the Hall of the Mountain King who danced around him with wild, malicious glee. The Piano Concerto, and the glorious melodies of the Holberg and Lyric Suites, and his ten books of Lyric Pieces for Piano, began to ring true, as I drank in the splendid environment in which this music was conceived. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edvard_Grieg
The capricious Nordic weather began to close in, and punished the ferry and its travelers with sudden squalls of driving rain and gusts of wind. At other times we enjoyed bursts of glorious sunshine, which lit up the sky and the fjords with flaming torches of yellow and amber light. Bands of brightly illuminated mist revealed iridescent rainbows – one minute mirage-like on the horizon, gone the next, as the sun disappeared behind another bank of bruised purple clouds.
We either docked at, or passed, numerous towns en route to Bergen. One such town, Balestrand, boasts a fabulous hotel on the fjord’s edge: Kviknes Hotel (above right), highly recommended by one of my Norwegian companions on board the ferry. http://www.booking.com/hotel/no/kviknes.en.html?aid=318615;label=New_English_EN_ROW_Hotl
-OAIlk_J4_GKPAUB*V8wv0AS25582900945:pl:ta:p1:p2:ac:ap1t1:neg:kw_inurl:en.html%23inurl:bo oking.com/hotel:ws=&gclid=CM3IvOigkbkCFW96cAod11IApw )
At 9.30 that evening we finally docked in BERGEN, a beautiful little city miraculously bathed in golden evening sunshine.
Our hotel, in the old Bryggen district (meaning “the Wharf”, above) – the old quarter – was easy to find, and I was grateful for a long hot bath after a day filled with magnificent sights, interesting history and wondrous mythology. I soon fell into a sleep peopled with trolls and forest sprites, flitting wraithlike through their mountain kingdoms, waterfalls, and magical glassy lakes.
Bergen was the capital of Norway during the Middle Ages. In the 13th century, the German trading league – the Hanseatic League (centred in Lübeck) – northern Europe’s most powerful economic entity, had over 150 member cities which included Bergen. The German traders brought much business to the city, especially the importation of grain and exportation of dried fish. With the advent of the Black Death during the14th century (which wiped out 70% of Bergen’s population), and competition from Dutch and English shipping during the 15th century, the League began to decline. But Bergen remained the hub of Scandinavian trade, and many Germans settled there, until the League finally closed their Bergen branch in 1899. The Hanseatic Museum is housed in a rough timber building which dates from 1704, and includes the fish storage room in which over 450,000 kg of fish were pressed and processed each month, and the fiskeskrue (fish press) which pressed the fish into barrels.
The St. John’s Church was built between 1891 and 1894, in the Gothic Revival style. A pretty bandstand, surrounded by flowers, stands in a park in the city centre.
It rains nearly every day in Bergen, all year round, and so I set out the next day in dreary drizzle with a specific mission: a long-planned pilgrimage to Grieg’s house museum.
Troldhaugen is reached by a small local train from Bergen city centre to a stop called “Hop” (25 minutes – no signpost to museum), followed by a 25-minute walk, uphill.
Here there is a well-organised complex with a small museum (and paltry little café), Grieg’s beautifully-preserved villa overlooking the sea, and an excellent concert hall with a grass-covered roof which blends in with the environment.
There, for an extra fee (NOK180 in all), Grieg pilgrims are treated to a daily lunchtime piano recital of his music. The performer that I heard was the Norwegian pianist Liv Glaser (b 1935), a charming lady who enlivened her presentation with anecdotes and biographical nuggets about Grieg’s life (1843-1907) and music.
Grieg enjoyed international fame and fortune during his 64-year long life. I had not known that this great Norwegian nationalist composer and his wife had lost their only child – Alexandra – to meningitis, at the age of only 13 months. A rift in the marriage followed some time after this tragedy, but was happily followed by a reconciliation, and a splendid Silver Anniversary celebrated with family and friends at Troldhaugen. (Of special interest to me – an ardent champion of women composers – Grieg met the English composer and Suffragette, Ethyl Smyth, at the Leipzig Conservatoire, and kindly encouraged and facilitated her career as a composer.)
After the recital, I took a reverent walk down a winding wooded path to the tomb of Edvard and Nina Grieg – a slate-covered hollow in the granite cliff face, several meters above the sea towards which it faces.
I took another meander down to one of Grieg’s numerous “composing huts”, where (similar to Mahler) he was able to enjoy total peace and concentration. A peek through the window revealed a desk and chair, facing towards the sea and surrounding fir-clad cliffs, an upright piano, a wood stove, and a shabby carpet and sofa.
The Griegs only stayed at Troldhaugen during the summer months, as such an abode, without heating against the harsh Nordic winters, was not habitable during the winter.
Once back in Bergen, I joined Peter for a ride up to the summit of Mount Fløyen in the funicular; departures take place regularly, roughly every 15 minutes. The hilltop complex, with a café, restaurant and souvenir shop, offers a wonderful view over the city and its surrounds.
No trip to Bergen is complete without seeing the famous fish market, which situated alongside the harbour. On display there are salmon and herrings in many different guises, huge baskets of prawns, and glass tanks filled with monstrous king crabs, their pincers tightly bound with rubber bands, presumably to prevent them from devouring one another.
As the rain had been showering the city on and off all day, we took a cab from our hotel to the Hurtigruten Terminal. Then, soon after 8pm, we began our Norwegian coastal adventure.
Once we had set sail, we were treated to a delicious Norwegian smorgasbord in the Saga Hall: cold seafoods, fish and salads, red and black caviar, hot salmon and lamb dishes with vegetables, and a diet-defying selection of desserts including strawberry mousse, creamy rice pudding, apple cake, chocolate mousse cake, brownies, cream caramel, vanilla blancmange, and fresh raspberries with cream or vanilla sauce. This splendid repast was rounded off with cheeses and crisp breads, tea or coffee.
Soon after, snug in our cosy bunks, we were lulled to sleep by our ship rolling smoothly northwards on the watery deep.
The next morning we docked briefly at Torvik, and then at the charming town of ÅLESUND (approx 40,000 inhabitants), the centre of which was built almost entirely in the Art Nouveau style (Jungendstil) after a devastating fire in 1904.
Unfortunately, with the dull overcast weather persisting, and strong winds, passengers were not permitted to disembark at Ålesund.
We then proceeded further up the coast into the so-called Norwegian Sea, joined at one point by playful dolphins diving in and out of the water alongside the ship.
EXCURSION 1: GEIRANGER FJORD (Panarama II)
Our first excursion (about 8 hours) was into the GEIRANGER FJORD – now a listed World Heritage Site. The weather was still overcast, with a little rain, and the temperature about 10-11°. Our Captain skillfully navigated Trollfjord up the Storfjord, and the Synnylvsfjord, and then into the slender finger of the Geiranger Fjord. The small bay at its end is flanked by pine-covered slopes, the bare peaks of which are still patched with snow during the summer months. Neat green squares of farmland reach down to the water’s edge, fringed with tumbled granite rocks. One such farm, Matvik (literally “Food Bay”), now abandoned, was thus named for its abundant production of fruit – including apricots – due to the fertile soil.
On either side of the narrow Geiranger Fjord – cut deep by long gone glaciers – are high vertical granite cliffs. We found the area alive with tourists, shipped in by other liners, such as MSC and Albatross (www.aida.de). There were holiday-makers in motorized dinghies, and groups paddling in kayaks.
Once our ship had docked we were shepherded into coaches requisite for our language groups. (We found ourselves with the French and English members of the excursion, thus becoming acquainted with Florence, an elderly French lady, and Laure, a young widow from Paris. Florence told me that she travels alone regularly, “crossing the ocean five times a year”.)
Vincent, our excellent young Canadian guide who accompanied us, kept up a running commentary informing us about our unique environment. We travelled up perilous narrow hairpin bends on the Ørneveien (Eagle Road), and stopped briefly at Ørnesvingen (Eagle Bend) for a photo-stop. Here there is a viewing platform offering a wonderful view of the Geiranger Fjord, the Syv Søstre (Seven Sisters waterfalls) and the surrounding mountains.
We then travelled downhill into a wide fertile valley, where cattle and sheep were grazing peacefully. Vincent told us that the bumpy grids over which we drove at the mouth of each tunnel were to prevent the cattle from entering; here they like to seek refuge on hot days – dangerous for both motorists and cows alike.
There is no sun here during midwinter, due both to the latitude, and to the profundity of the valleys. We passed many waterfalls – fed by the continuous snow-melt and recent plentiful rain – coursing down the cliff face above our coach, through culverts beneath the bridge, and plunging down the other side of the road into the valley beneath.
Vincent pointed out bare patches on the smooth cliff faces where previous waterfalls had removed foliage lying in their voracious path. At one point we passed the idyllic Eidsdalsvatnet (Lake), in which the towering overhead mountains are reflected.
After a while we stopped at the small settlement of Eidsdal, fully equipped with amenities and a large craft shop – guarded over by wood-carved trolls – evidently the national mascot of Norway, (and reproduced in their thousands as souvenirs.)
There is a danger that more of the mountain at the mouth of the fjord may fall away, resulting in a tsunami which would destroy the villages nestled in the valley floor around its inland extremity. Apple orchards surround this spot, evidently withstanding the harsh Nordic winters.
At one point, Vincent drew our attention to a distant stave church – a typical feature of Norwegian church architecture, in which roof-bearing posts (or staves) are sunk deep into the ground. Of the original thousand or so that date from the 12th and 13th centuries, only 28 survive, and have been much modified over the centuries.
The coach then drove onto a large ferry, along with several cars, and we crossed to the other side of the fjord to VALLDAL. Soon after, the route opened out into the VALLDAL Valley on the Trollfjord Plateau, where the abundant strawberry fields, apple and cherry orchards bear testimony to the fertility of the soil. Large round bales of hay, tightly wrapped in thick white plastic, can be seen in the recently harvested fields,
– winter feed for the cattle. These are known locally as “trolls’ eggs”. The meadows here are bisected by a number of rivers tumbling down to the fjords. On one such river Vincent pointed out wooden steps built up a set of rapids; they are designed to facilitate the salmons’ passage to their spawning grounds upstream.
Nearby is the impressive Gudbrandsjuvet (Gudbrand’s Gorge), a series of tumbling cascades that plunge around bends and beneath bridges, hurtling down towards the fjords.
As the route climbs higher, the trees become smaller and the vegetation more sparse. This high pass is closed during the winter months due to the dangers of heavy snow and ice.
We came to a stop at a remarkable view spot, complete with the usual craft and souvenir shop, cafeteria and amenities. From a raised platform we were able to see a waterfall cascading down the cliffs to the valley
far below. It continued drizzling, but visibility was reasonable. This impressive complex, with its turf-covered roof designed to blend in with the environment, includes a man-made lake built in a step-like design, the water a deep blue.
Trout fishing takes places in another lake nearby, lying in the hollow of the valley floor, surrounded by fields of purple heather and flower-bells.
Further along, in another little settlement, I caught a glimpse of neat piles of logs in a warehouse; timber is the principal industry in this area. But Norwegian law stipulates that for every tree felled, a new one must be planted, thus ensuring the green heritage for future generations.
At a stopping point called ÅNDALSNES, a “snack” was provided for our group: coffee or tea, open rolls with cheese and ham, and Norwegian pancakes (crêpes) filled with a sweet cream filling. Of course there was another “TT” (tourist trap) – a large store selling Norwegian crafts and souvenirs:
The next leg of the tour was a ferry trip from ÅFARNESE to SØLSNES. In between the two lies an island called VEØYA – an ancient Viking site for human sacrifice.
After traveling through an extremely long tunnel which plunges beneath another fjord, we came to the town of MOLDE, known as the “City of Roses”. Many public and private gardens are filled with these fragrant flowers, and a special rose has been cultivated there as their own.
Molde – The Rose Maiden, by Ragnhild Butenschön (1971) at the Town Hall.
Molde has 25,000 inhabitants, and is known internationally for its annual jazz festival.
Dinner that night was at the elegant Quality Hotel Alexandra in Molde: baked white fish topped with bacon bits and shredded carrots and leeks, and the ubiquitous Scandinavian mashed potatoes. Dessert was apple pie and cream. A delicious local repast with which to end a spectacular tour, before re-embarking on Trollfjord.
In Molde we found a shop selling Norwegian national costumes, which our guide had told us are called bunads, and which are very expensive, due to all the hand-embroidery. Each area of Norway has its own pattern of national dress.
After Molde, we docked briefly at KRISTIANSUND (population 20,000), which was founded in 1742. It takes its wealth from both the sea (cod-fishing and drying) and from the interior (timber). And as it is the most significant town between Trondheim and Stavanger for servicing Norway’s North Sea oilfields, it takes its share of the “black gold”. (Lonely Plant p270.)
On the second morning of the cruise we docked at TRONDHEIM, the third largest city in Norway (population 170,000). It was the country’s capital until 1217, and ruled an empire that extended from western Russia, to possibly as far as Newfoundland.
After a fire burned most of the city to the ground in1681, Trondheim was redesigned in the Renaissance style, with wider streets. The city became significant again during WW II, when it was used as a German naval base; fortunately the city was not much damaged during the War. Our guide pointed out old German U-boat pens in the harbour, impossible to remove because of the depth and strength of the reinforced concrete with which they were constructed.
To quote the Hurtigruten excursion guide book: “Trondheim is a large city by Norwegian standards, though it has still managed to preserve many of the charms and intimacy of a small town. It is also a city full of contrasts, with monastery ruins, impressive wooden buildings, colourful wharves, and a beautiful red-painted bridge dating back to 1861. Trondheim is home to a world famous research and educational community, modern sports facilities, and a lively night life.”
This neo-Gothic Gamle Bybro (Old Town Bridge) used to be the only way to reach the town centre.
We had pre-booked the city tour excursion of Trondheim, which includes the famous Nidaros Cathedral and the Ringve Music Museum – Norway’s national museum for music and musical instruments.
EXCURSION 2: TRONDHEIM
The local guide who accompanied us on a coach kept us informed about this interesting little city, which was founded by the Viking King Olav Tryggvason in 997. It was strategically situated on a natural harbour for defence against the warlike pagan chiefs of Lade, who were a threat to Christianity and to the region’s stability.
Trondheim was originally named Nidaros (meaning “mouth of the River Nid”), and the Nidaros Cathedral is Norway’s national shrine – a destination for pilgrims from all over Europe (along with Rome and Santiago de Compostela.) It was built between 1070-1300 on the burial site of St. Olaf – the patron saint of Norway. It is the country’s only Gothic cathedral, and the largest medieval building in Scandinavia. Interestingly, its bishopric embraced not only Norway, but also Orkney, the Isle of man, the Faroe islands, Iceland and Greenland. The cult of St. Olaf continued until the Reformation in 1537, when Norway was placed under the Lutheran bishopric of Denmark.
The west facade is ornately decorated with statues of Biblical characters, and Norwegian bishops and kings sculpted in the 20th century. The interior is subtly illuminated by a magnificent rose window above the west portal, as well as other modern, vibrantly-coloured stained glass windows.
Our guides through the fascinating Ringve Museum of Musical History were a tall slender young man with shoulder-length hair, a long aquiline nose and wire-rimmed spectacles, and a pretty young girl who sang us a welcome song in Norwegian. They both played us eager listeners short excerpts of the relevant classics on a spinet, a harpsichord, a pedal organ, a clavichord (the true ancestor of the piano, with little metal tangents that strike the strings), and an old piano such as Mozart and Beethoven would have owned. On the walls of each beautiful room hang many interesting instruments, such as a viol da bracchio, a cittern, a Norwegian Hardanger fiddle, and bizarre musical experiments such as a guitar with three sets of strings. There is also a piano with about half a dozen rows of keys, said to fall more comfortably under the fingers. Mercifully this extraordinary contraption did not find a permanent place in the stable of keyboard instruments. (Regrettably no photography is permitted inside the museum.)
The beautiful manor house in which the museum is housed was once the childhood home of the Norwegian naval hero and nobleman, Petter Wessel Tordenskiold, and is surrounded by an 18th century botanical garden which includes a herb garden, with all the herbs labeled in Norwegian and Latin. It is situated on the Lade peninsular, and from the front lawn there is a marvelous view of the Trondheimsfjord. The estate was bought by the Bachke family in 1878, and the collection of musical instruments was begun by the Russian-born artist wife of one of the sons (Christian Anker Bachke), Victoria Rostin, who had fled the Russian Revolution. The museum was opened to the public in 1952, and there are now around 1,500 instruments in the collection, alongside other artifacts associated with music – pictures, recordings, etc. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ringve_Museum ).
Whilst we enjoyed another excellent dinner, we bade farewell to Trondheim, the old fortress on the island of Munkholmen just visible in the fading light. This islet in the Trondheimsfjord has served as a monastery, a place of execution, and a WW II anti-aircraft gun station. Today it is a popular tourist attraction, and a place simply of recreation.
Dinner: Asparagus and parmesan cheese wrapped in cured ham.
Entrecote loin of veal with herbed butter, green beans, baked tomatoes and cream potatoes. Orange crème brûlée with strawberry and pineapple salsa, flavoured with peppermint.
After a brief stop at Rørvik, our route continued past constantly changing scenery – one moment a barren landscape bereft of vegetation, a rugged coastline broken by granite skerries, the next moment green meadows reaching down to the sea’s edge. The tiny settlements here are connected only by boat, as the terrain is too rugged for the construction of roads. Sometimes we saw a plant for the manufacture of fish food for the salmon farms (about which the health-watch fundis constantly debate). Now and then the salmon farms themselves could be seen from the ship: round or square wire enclosures set close to the coast. Occasionally we passed an oil refinery, tall chimneys spouting fiery plumes into the pearly night sky.
On the third morning, we rose early to improving weather, and consumed another generous Norwegian buffet breakfast: cereals, breads with various jams and cheeses, cold cuts and salads, cut fruit (doubtless to prevent thrifty travelers from secreting fruit in their bags), and a hot buffet with eggs, meatballs and sausages, cold fish dishes and Norwegian pancakes with syrup, jam and honey.
The ship then docked at ØRNES, one of Hurtigruten’s ports of call between Nesna and Bodø. (Population only 1,623.) The village can be traced back hundreds of years, but the year 1794 is generally regarded as the founding year, when one Elling Pedersen was allowed to set up an inn there. In this part of northern Norway, temperatures can drop well below freezing during the winter, and summers are mild.
EXCURSION 3: SVARTISEN GLACIER
We boarded a smaller boat for our excursion down the Holandsfjord to the SVARTISEN GLACIER (meaning black-ice) – the second largest glacier in Norway. The old ice of the glacier is considerably darker than the fresh ice and new fallen snow – hence the name.
In 1030 this area was the site of a ferocious battle – the Battle of Stiklestad: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Stiklestad ) between two Viking chieftains, one of whom intended bringing Christianity to Norway. On the way down the fjord, we saw another smaller glacier (Glombreen), which is already shrinking back up its valley due to global warming.
Once on terra firma, we enjoyed a brisk walk of about 3 km in the warm sunshine to the foot of the glacier. This pathway is very attractive, and redolent with the scent of wild flowers and cow dung. It is not possible to walk on the glacier, as it is too dangerous, and too far from the main path. This magnificent sight, reflected in the mirror-smooth surface of the fjord, and its surrounding nature reserve, are much photographed by tourists, and the area was alive with passengers from other ships (including Club Med.)
The Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate has monitored the mass balance of the glacier since 1970, and operates a sub-glacial laboratory near Engabreen. Svartisen is situated in the Saltfjell mountain range, within the Saltfjellet-Svartisen National Park, and it reaches closer to the sea than any other glacier in Europe (apart from Svalbard). Water from the glacier is collected and used for hydropower production; energy is derived from runoff into the streams and lakes, and through channels bored beneath Engabreen.
Returning along the same path to the ferry dock, we enjoyed the fresh air and rare sunshine. On either side there are fields of purple heather, and we could hear some sheep bleating, and the tinkling of the goats’ bells.
We then boarded a noisy small boat, and, with a running commentary from our Italian guide in his native tongue, Norwegian, English and German, we enjoyed a two-hour trip along different fjords, finally liaising with our ship in BODÅ. When I asked the guide what had brought him from his sunny native land to this far corner of the North Sea, he told me that he had been unable to find employment in Italy for the past four years, and probably never would. But now he is married to a young Slovak woman, and lives (hopefully happily ever after) with her and their 19-month-old twin boys in the beautiful LOFOTEN Islands nearby. Apart from guiding tour groups in the summer, he also teaches Italian to the local Norwegian women, enlivening his lessons with Italian cookery demonstrations.
I also enjoyed engaging with a Bulgarian lady on the boat. Her 13-year-old daughter was clearly bored with the cruise, confirming my perception that these Hurtigruten tours are designed for nature enthusiasts, ornithologists and naturalists, and most definitely not for the self-indulgent (there is no spa or casino on board their ships), nor the youth (no discos). These are working ships, transporting supplies to the supermarkets along the coast, especially those towns in the Arctic Circle where it is not possible to cultivate fruit and vegetables. The time of year – late August
– also dictated the older demographic of our fellow passengers, as the Scandinavian schools return around this time, well ahead of the rest of Europe.
I wondered at Hurtigruten’s claims to “greenness”, belching forth foul diesel fumes into the pristine atmosphere of the fjords, and their fleet of 11 vessels plying the Norwegian coast all year round.
Strict hygiene rules always apply when re-boarding the ship – compulsory use of the disinfectant dispensers strategically placed at the gangway. Signs advocating the use thereof, with more such bottles, are conspicuously placed all over the ship, especially at the entrance to the restaurant.
Great are the fears of the virulent Norovirus, which is subject to outbreaks on cruise liners. When one sees fellow passengers helping themselves from the buffet with their fingers, instead of using the tongs provided, one can see why such rules exist.
Our experience of BODØ was limited – but a brief sighting from the ninth viewing deck of the ship. As we sailed out of port, the sound of an angle grinder mending vessels in a small shipyard brought to mind the Viking navigators of yesteryear who also brought their longboats into these coves for repairs – but only to the sounds of hammers. They were then prepared for their next lucrative raiding expeditions of the vulnerable European coastal settlements.
The entrance to this port has, like many others along this coast, the remains of an old stone hilltop fortress, most likely to protect Norway from her erstwhile marauding neighbours – Sweden, Denmark and Russia.
Many passengers took advantage of the three sunny days with which we were blessed during the five-day cruise, sunbathing on the upper deck, or relaxing in the two outdoor jacuzzis.
I noticed many single women on board, but they were able to enjoy much lively companionship both during meals and on the excursions. Pairs of older women were also traveling together, sisters, cousins, or simply good friends. Such cruises can be recommended for these intrepid ladies, for there is never a lack of company – and never a dull moment for nature-lovers. For these northern climes are host to many interesting birds, including puffins, and – more spectacularly – the giant white-tailed sea eagle – the largest raptor in Europe, with a wingspan of 1.78 – 2.45 m (Norw: havsörn, Lat. Haliaëtus albicilla). We were lucky to see a nesting pair in flight on this excursion, swooping low over our boat – their impressive wide wingspan clearly visible to all eager photographers.
That afternoon, as we crossed the Arctic Circle (66,52,7°N), the ship’s crew treated us to an “Arctic Circle ceremony” – a fun-filled event in which King Neptune “baptised” intrepid passengers with a scoop of icy water down the backs of their shirts. The reward afterwards was a shot of strong Norwegian schnapps!
Other excursions offered on Day 4:
a) Bodø sightseeing and saltstraumen by bus
b) Bodø Aviation Museum
c) A Viking Feast (STAMSUND – Svolvaer)
Dinner: Green pea soup with chopped bacon and cream foam.
Herb and parmesan roasted trout fillet with fennel and spinach, amandine potatoes and butter sauce.
Strawberry mousse with pastry.
That evening our ship docked briefly at SVOLVAER, where we were delighted to enjoy an exhibition of fantastic ice sculptures in the Magic Ice Gallery and Bar. Each visitor is given a thick, wool-lined waterproof cape, against the freezing cold and damp interior.
The marvelously wrought ice sculptures feature people engaged in everyday activities such as fishing and boating, and there are other excellent sculptures, all wrought in crystal clear ice. The ice mermaid is particularly beautiful. All the pieces are skilfully and subtly illuminated with coloured lighting, creating a wonderful magical atmosphere. http://www.magic-ice.no/magic-ice.htm
Svolvaer also has the small Lofoten War Museum, exhibiting uniforms and memorabilia from the WW II. http://www.lofotenkrigmus.no/e_lofotraid.htm .
Seeing us off from Svolvaer harbour is a beautiful sculpture of the Fisherman’s Wife. Once on our way, we could enjoy the beautiful scenery of the Lofoten Islands at sunset:
That evening we sailed through the beautiful but very narrow Raftsundet Strait, and then the Trollfjord, with high granite walls looming barely centimeters on either side of the ship. Delicious “Trollsfjordsop” (seafood soup) was served in paper cups up on deck 9, and “Trollfjordsnaps” in the bar. The ship’s crew illuminated the narrow passage with a bright floodlight, so that we could grasp the brilliance of our captain’s skillful navigation, as, like a ghost ship, we silently crept into the heart of darkness.
Excursion offered at 04.15-11.30 on Day 5: A Whale Safari – breakfast packs provided.
The ship docked next at HARSTAD – for two hours, where, on the port side, the Trondenes Church could be seen. It dates from 1250, and is the northernmost medieval stone church in the world:
On the fifth day, TROMSØ was our next long stop – for four hours – while the ship offloaded people and cargo, and took on board fresh supplies. Here we chose to conduct a self-guided tour, rather than availing ourselves of the “Tromsø Sightseeing” excursion offered by Hurtigruten. Tromsø is northern Norway’s largest town (population 60,000), and is dubbed “the Paris of the Arctic”.
Enjoying the hot afternoon sunshine, we chose to walk across a long and impressive bridge which spans the mouth of the fjord and connects the two halves of the city. Our reward, on the opposite bank, was the magnificent modern Arctic Cathedral, built in 1965.
The beautiful stained glass window that occupies most of the east wall represents Christ re- descending to earth, and fills the interior space with a warm, iridescent glow. High up on the west end of the cathedral is a modern steel organ, and the hanging lamps, resembling icicles, are wrought from Czech crystal.
Back on board, I enjoyed watching more of the elegant “ballerina” jellyfish that can be seen floating in the deep green waters of the harbours. These fascinating sea creatures propel themselves through the water like shuttlecocks, and vary in size from tiny little parachutes to larger ones the size of a dinner plate.
Whenever we came close to shore – the Norwegian west coast was always to starboard – seagulls flew alongside, benefitting from the fishy feast churned up in the ship’s wake. Sometimes vast flocks of these ever-present sea birds bob on the choppy waters alongside the rocky shoreline, where there is the occasional small white sandy beach. There are more salmon farms, circular or square in shape, along this coast – the source of the abundant supplies available in all Scandinavian supermarkets (and Woolworths food stores in South Africa.)
Dinner: Rucola salad with toasted cured ham, trout and asparagus.
Rack of lamb with gremolata served with toasted pumpkin, sweet potato, roasted vegetable terrine and rosemary.
Ice parfait flavoured with cone flakes and chocolate chips.
After docking briefly at SKERVØY, we crossed an open stretch of sea known as LOPPHAVET.
On the sixth day, after brief stops at HAMMERFEST and HAVØYSUND, we docked at HONNINGSVÅG, the northernmost town in the world – situated at 71°N. It is also the capital of Finnmark, the largest and northernmost county of Norway, with a population of around 75,000 inhabitants. Here we were blessed with glorious sunshine, and an incredible (for that latitude) 18°C; they were experiencing the warmest summer in forty years. Overhead arched a dome of infinite blue sky, with not a cloud in sight – perfect weather for our interesting excursion to the North Cape.
High on the hill above the harbour stand serried ranks of tall wooden fencing. These are snow- breaks, designed to prevent avalanches from inundating the town nestled at the water’s edge below. On the quay near the harbour are more wooden racks; here codfish are strung to dry out in the sun and wind.
EXCURSION 4: THE NORTH CAPE (71st parallel)
As this was by far the most heavily subscribed tour, we were shepherded into seven different coaches, each for our requisite language groups. Our informative young Norwegian guide, Laura, then regaled us with
information about this inhospitable, but unusual area. She pointed out the town gas station, remarking with levity that it is “the northernmost gas station in the world!”
The terrain beyond the town is partially arid and barren, sometimes resembling a lunar landscape. Dusty patches of gravel alternate with patches of white wild flowers, tundra and mossy lichen – the principal diet of the reindeer herds that graze on the surrounding hills, or rest in grassy hollows. They are unable to tolerate high temperatures, and sometimes sit on the cool beach sand of the fjord, or in the lakes, when temperatures become unendurably warm for them. During the long icy winter months (which reach between
-20° and -30°), their special fur keeps them warm: each hair is hollow, facilitating the preservation of heat. They also have a special anti-frost component in their bones, which enables them to stay outside throughout the winter, and wide-spread furry feet, for moving through deep snow – in this area two to three meters in depth. When the snow ploughs clear the road in winter, high walls of snow on either side give motorists an indication of its depth and abundance. In summer, tall wooden fences are visible on the hillsides; they are snow-shields to prevent snow-drifts from collapsing onto the road.
Grey and white reindeer could be seen grazing on the hills, some with small white calves. They are farmed for their meat and skins. Here they can live in peace, as there are no natural predators, such as wolves.
Nowadays the Norwegian Navy offers to transport the animals in ships twice annually to and from their other grazing grounds further south at Karasjok. In previous times the herds swam to fresh grazing areas across the lakes and fjords, in zigzag formation in groups, to keep from drowning.
Laura also informed us that Rudolph the “Red-Nosed Reindeer” is a misnomer, as only the females grow antlers during the winter – Christmas time. Santa’s “helper” must therefore be – a “Rudolphina”!
These hardy animals belong to the Sámi, a Finno-Ugric people who have inhabited the Arctic area of Sápmi for centuries, living in harmony with nature. It is no longer appropriate to call them “Lapps”, or their territory “Lapland”. Nor is it polite to ask them how many reindeer they possess, for that is equivalent to asking someone how much money they have. They are not so much secretive, as private, about their wealth, culture and traditions. There are dark- as well as fair-haired Sámi people. Formerly nomadic, following the biannual migrations of their reindeer herds, the Sámi live in the northern reaches of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, and move freely between these countries. Today there are around 70,000 Sami people altogether. They do not brand their animals to determine ownership, but mark an ear of each reindeer with a special patterned cut. Today the Sámi are abreast with modern technology, and possess computers and mobile phones.
The North Cape holds a special significance for the Sámi as it is an ancient place of sacrifice. Here only animal parts were offered to their illusive deities, never humans (unlike their barbaric Viking neighbours), nor any other living creatures.
En route to the Cape, the coaches make a brief stop at a Sámi settlement with a few white teepee-like tents. Here one can met Neels and his wife Anna, wearing their kofta, and their reindeer, “Wilson”. His antlers are rather red and painful at present, as they are still growing. But he is happy munching on large tufts of tundra, oblivious of the eager tourists taking his picture. Neels’s four-pointed hat has a bell on the right- hand corner, signifying that he is a married man. Bachelors sew their bells onto the left-hand corner, indicating to the young women that they are “available”.
Neels and Anna run a well-stocked Sámi crafts and souvenir shop, which enables support of the entrepreneurial home industry of the community: knitted woolen bonnets, gloves, socks and cardigans, knives with ornately-carved handles made from reindeer antlers, leather and sliver bracelets and jewelry, reindeer skins, and soft reindeer-skin bags and shoes.
The nearby fjord – kept free from ice during the winter months by the warm Gulf Stream, (only 8° in summer), is rich in plankton, and therefore well stocked with fish: wild salmon, cod and other fish – the principle raisin-d’être of most Norwegian coastal towns. The abundance of fish in turn brings over two million sea birds to the area, including about a million puffins. Here there is also a fish factory; the fish is packaged fresh, not frozen. The waters are often very treacherous, when the warm Gulf Stream of the North Sea meets the cold currents of the Barents Sea. It is also very dark in winter – the “polar nights” – without any sunlight, lasting for two to three months from November until January. And in summer, the “midnight sun”, keeps the area illuminated all day and night from mid-May until the end of July.
The warm current makes life possible in these far-flung Arctic towns. One such is the tiny fishing village on the Cape’s peninsula, Skarsvåg, with a total population of only 52 inhabitants. Today Honningsvåg is host to many different nationalities, including Spanish, Cuban, Polish and Thai immigrants. There is an airport, and a helicopter for emergency medical transportation.
It is customary in this area to buy fish directly from the fishermen as soon as they return to harbour with their catch; fish is not sold in the supermarkets. Fruit and vegetables, which cannot be grown in these barren wastes so far north, are very expensive, as they are imported, brought by the Hurtigruten ships.
The North Cape (Nordkapp) was thus named by the English explorer Richard Chancellor, who discovered the Cape in 1553. The next important visitor was Francesco Negri, sent by the Pope in 1664 to study the fauna and flora of the area. “The end of the world” was regarded as a remarkable destination, as much in days gone by as today. (It lies 2,053 km from the North Pole and 2,300 km from Oslo). Dignitaries such as King Oscar II of Norway visited the spot in 1873, and in 1875 the London travel agent Thomas Cook organised the first tour there, with 24 travelers. The Thai King Chulalongkorn visited Nordkapp in 1907 – hence the Thai chapel in the North Cape museum complex. The road we traveled by coach was built in 1956, the Norwegian authorities having discerned its lucrative touristic potential.
The North Cape Plateau itself rises 307m, almost vertically, from the ice-cold Arctic Ocean. Today there is a marvelous modern centre there, the North Cape Hall, where we enjoyed a 180° panoramic film about Finnmark and the entire area. The film begins with the snow-melt of spring, water dripping from the eaves, and ends with the fantastic Northern Lights, and is set to atmospheric music by four contemporary Norwegian composers. There is also a restaurant, a coffee shop with pastries and cakes, and a large tourist shop selling souvenirs, crafts, books, DVD’s, maps, postcards and gifts.
Huge white globes can be seen on the barren hilltops around the Cape; they are NATO radar stations, monitoring the borders of Finland, Russia and Norway which meet nearby.
Other excursions offered on Day 6:
a) Bird Safari
b) Skarsvåg fishing village
Back on board for our last night, we were treated to a magnificent seafood buffet – an “Arctic Banquet”: seafood of every kind imaginable, including the legs and pincers of the king crabs, hot and cold meats, salads and vegetables, and over a dozen different mouth-watering desserts, including chocolate mousse cake, custard-vanilla slices, fresh berries and cream, strawberry mousse, ice-creams and apple tarts.
Frode, one of the waiters, told us that the Norwegian government has now stopped the practice of fishermen bringing the king crabs on deck for the passengers to see, as the camera flashes are harmful to them. He also told us that we might call him “Frodo” (one of Tolkien’s engaging Hobbits), as he had been married twice, and now regards himself as a “Lord of the Rings”!
Thoroughly sated from our delicious dinner, we repaired with our coffee to the panorama lounge at the bow of the ship, watching the northern Norwegian coastline pass beside us – a barren wasteland in which the odd solitary lighthouse illuminated a dangerous promontory – the only sign of human intervention.
That night our ship ventured out into open sea, and so turbulent were the waters, and so violent the rocking of our ship, that I feared I might need to avail myself of one of the many reisesyke pose (Nor.), Kranken Tüte (Ger.) sick bags (Eng.), perspicaciously placed at various points all over the ship.
During the course of the evening, we docked briefly at KJØLLEFJORD, MEHAMN (the northernmost port in Norway) and BERLEVÅG.
The next day – a Sunday – we docked briefly at VADSØ, on the banks of the Varangerfjord, and the centre of administration of Finnmark, before reaching our final destination, KIRKENES. Kirkenes (only 5,000 people), lies near the Kola Peninsular, and is only 10 km from the Pasviken River – the national border with Russia, and so street signs here are in both Norwegian and Russian. We had a couple of hours to explore this small town, the raison d’être of which was an iron ore mine, which was closed in 1998.
We soon discovered that there was not much to see in Kirkenes, as everything was closed – except for the small Grenslandsmuseet (Borderland Museum). The exhibits and show cases here illustrate beautifully not only the way of life in the Arctic Circle, but also tells the tales of the wars that took place in the area. The horrors of the WW II, and the suffering of the Norwegian people during the German occupation, are also brought vividly to life. I was particularly taken with a series of tiny tableaux, set at eye-level for children, with laminated sheets in several languages explaining the contents of each small showcase. Most of the vignettes, illustrating the WW II in Kirkenes, came from the memoir of an older woman (Greta Haagenrut), as seen through her eyes as a five-year-old child.
Here is one of her most moving stories:
THE BIG ROCK
When the war was on in Norway, my sister Katherine who was 7 years old and myself Sofie, nearly six years old, lived together with our parents in Vadsø. We knew nearly everybody there but there were quite a few people whom we didn’t know. Our enemies were the Germans, who came to our country and lived there during the war, in Vadsø too. We were not supposed to talk to them or take sweets from them, at least not when anybody was watching.
I loved playing with different kinds of stones and shells. One day, when the weather was very nice, I took my Red Teddy Bear with me and went down to the beach. I took off my socks and shoes and padded out to the big rock, which was a little way out in the sea. The rock as nice and warm, and it was lovely sitting there. I’d taken some shells with me and whilst I sorted them I sang “Lilli Marlene”. We had it on a record at home and it was my favourite song.
Suddenly I noticed that the big rock had become quite small. The tide had come in! I’d completely forgotten hat when he tide came in, you couldn’t see the big rock. I was very frightened. I was sure I would drown because there was no one to rescue me.
It was then I heard a voice coming from the edge of the town. I knew at once what it was. It was the German soldiers singing “Hei li, Hei lo” and when they sang they marched and there were a lot of them. I knew I wasn’t supposed to talk to them but right now I had to, if not I’d drown. It wasn’t quite the time to ask “Hast du Bonbon?” but that was the only thing I could say in German, so the nearer they came the more I shouted.
Suddenly the singing stopped and two soldiers ran into the sea without taking off their boots. The sea came right up to their waists by the time they reached the rock. One of them lifted me high in the air, my feet didn’t even get wet.
Katherine and Mummy came running to the beach, Mummy was terrified bit not Katherine. She was angry because I’d embarrassed the family. “Fancy being saved by the enemy”, said Katherine. “The tide has taken your socks and shoes. Now you’ll have to wear your winter-boots all summer.”
Grandpa came and visited us that afternoon. He didn’t say a word about being rescued by the enemy. All he said was, “Oh my dear child,, oh my dear child.” The following day he gave me a new pair of shoes, so I didn’t have to wear boots all summer.
From: “Children in Times of War – a Story from Norway”, by Greta Haagenrud. English translation: Joy N. Moen. http://www.ibby.org/index.php?id=901
Excursions offered on Day 7:
a) Russian Border
b) River boat safari
c) Quad biking
Flights from Kirkenes to Tromsø take place in small aircraft with Widerøe Airline. Thereafter we flew with SAS, via Oslo back to Stockholm.
Having taken the train and then a ferry to Bergen, I was able to gain a better grasp of the complexity of the Norwegian coastline from the air: fjords gouged by long-ago glaciers cut deep into the jagged coastline, which is in turn fringed with thousands of rocky islands and skerries. The numerous lakes that pock the landscape, filled by snowmelt and rain, also reveal former glacial activity across the face of the country. The nearly all-day sun that had filled our nights and early mornings in Norway, receded rapidly as we flew further south – a stark reminder that, with the scent of autumn in the air, the evenings will soon be drawing in.
But, for that moment, I savoured the stark but lovely beauty of Scandinavia from the air, watching bands of rainbows streaming through the clouds as we winged our way home.
That night, once snugly tucked up in a familiar bed, my head full of images of rocks, forests, torrents – and sea, I could still feel the motion of the ship, rocking me gently to sleep.
Bouquet for HURTIGRUTEN
While there are numerous more luxurious and glamorous ships in which to cruise the Norwegian fjords, doing so with Hurtigruten is surely the most interesting. Having stressed earlier that this is no voyage for the youth, nor for the sybaritic, it certainly is for nature-lovers. The scenery is spectacular, and the wildlife – while not always conspicuous – is unusual.
There is also something for the lovers of culture – the beautiful churches and cathedrals, especially Nidaros in Trondheim, and the Music Museum there, and history and museums in most towns.
There is much birdlife for the ornithologists, (binoculars essential), fauna and flora for the naturalists, and the sheer beauty of our “wonderful world” for everyone. It is an experience rather of NATURE than of nurture – not counting the fabulous, abundant Nordic buffet meals.
It is journey for the soul, definitely not to be missed.