Heading North to Norway
Recently we were able to fulfill a lifelong dream of my husband of visiting a Scandinavian country, which he had decided to do for his 50th birthday. He had the good fortune of flying to Paris, when he discovered that his seatmates were a lovely couple from Norway. This country has always been on our wish list as every year at the height of the Montpelliéraine summer, we were looking for a trip north to cooler temperatures. Our new friends graciously helped us plan a trip of a lifetime to their homeland and so we headed invited our two uncles to come with us, North to Norway.
Norway is attractive in many ways, not only to visit but also to live. It has a great reputation on the world scene as a Constitutional Monarchy with social Nordic Welfare Principles, including comprehensive social security system and egalitarian ideals. With the highest per capita income rate in the world, coupled with one of the lowest crime rates, it has ranked many times number one on the United Nations’ World Happiness Report, which is a sufficient incentive to settle there don’t you think? With the state maintaining control over large sectors and working with unionized workforces and employers to strike a balance with work and home life, most Norwegians start working at 8am and leave by 4pm, which gives them lots of time for family or to spend in the outdoors.
I have heard that Norwegians identify themselves are “not being Swedish”. It apparently comes from centuries of being dominated by Sweden, eventually ending in a “partnership” for another 100 years, which they felt never worked. As a people, Norwegians see themselves as being from east or west coast, and usually from a tiny island or village. This is due to the many dialects spoken over the country and in the 2000 inhabitable islands within the 5000 which dot their large coastline. Norwegians are very proud of their way of life and their land and celebrate their independence on May 17th every year with the entire community.
Due to its location near and in the Arctic Circle, Norway enjoys long summer sunlit days and short dark nights (which is great during a holiday, but bring sleeping masks), although in most of the coastal areas, the temperature never goes too far from freezing. However, in the mountain and some of the inland areas the temperatures can drop well below 20 degrees. Norway is also home to the Aurora Borealis aka The Northern Lights. The best time to see them are in the winter months (from October to March). They cannot be easily seen in the summer. Norway is a nature lover’s paradise, year-round, and that is part of the Norwegian identity. Norwegians are outdoorsy, with almost every family leaving the city every weekend to be in the country or at their own chalet. Many families have two homes, one from where they are from and one far away, sometimes in very remote areas, many families have boats and use them on a daily basis as well.
The city of Ålesund, at the mouth of the Geirangerfjord, is where we landed for our northern journey. This postcard–perfect little city is entirely styled in art nouveau architecture, after the entire town burnt down in 1904. Hotel 1904 was also the name of the superb hotel we stayed in, near the center of town (just a few blocks from the pier) which served the most wonderful breakfast fit for a Viking. When we arrived, the time was midnight and it looked like 7pm, with full light. Lots of restaurants and stores and a surprising number of record shops are located on the island. We did a quick walking tour of the town and then went to bed, ready for the next day’s adventures.
In Ålesund we went on a Sea Safari and spent a few hours looking for whales, seals, birds and the odd porpoise. The RIB boat travels at times high speeds through the islands along the coast and has the feel of almost flying. Certainly not for the faint of heart or small children, but it was fantastic and we did see seals and lots of birds like puffins, nesting on the Aksla rock, overlooking the city.
The road trip down south was also spectacular, driving along the fjords with picture perfect farms, then through mountain ranges which look like another planet. Some highlights included the the road from Utvik to Byrkjelo, the road from Myrkdalen to Vikøyri, and the area around Gaularfjellet, where we stayed in a gorgeous valley with a river and falls, in a historical farmhouse, you know, the ones with vegetation on the roof.
There are two main landscapes in western Norway, and besides the fjords you need to discover the islands off the coast. We stayed 3 days in a rorbu (originally a fisherman’s hut on the port) on the archipelago of Austevoll just south of Bergen. If you love the sea, you will love this place. Most people travel on boats (toddlers are taught to drive boats if you can imagine), we had a huge monkfish freshly caught by a neighbor’s friend, the local but world-known restaurant served gorgeous sea-food, the hikes on the coast allowed our botanist guncles to discover new flora with, and we ended up every evening with a sunset on the sea.
We then travelled to Fusa, to visit the Eikhaugen Gjestegard, located on the shores of the Bjornfjorden. Our new friends Arne-Richard and Siv are the proud owners of this fantastic operation. It was Siv’s parent’s farm, which has been converted into a home, restaurant, two guesthouses, orchards and general store. Siv is a chef and also makes a popular Norwegian dessert, Cinnamon Rolls, which sell all over Bergen. She makes an unbelievable 3000 every week, serving in a variety of flavours like lemon and plum. And now, they are bringing their skills to France and have purchased a Chateau near Agen, which they will turn into a Gîte and event space.
From Fusa we did fantastic hikes with discoveries of new orchids by our uncles, road tripped along the Hardanger fjord, visited of the beautiful Rosendal Baroniet, and again enjoyed fantastic sunsets on the Bjørnafjorden.
Our next stop was the large city of Bergen, with just under a half a million people living in the city and surrounding area. Bergen is a port city and is called the City with Seven Mountains. The city is also known as having the most rain in Europe, with around 300 days of rain per year, but we did not have any ourselves and were able to enjoy what the city has to offer in terms of nature and scenery, gastronomy and culture. We took the funicular to the top of the mountain to enjoy and 2-hour hike in the woods, culminating in a swim in the beautiful freshwater lake and a view of the Bergen bay.
The port has many traditional tourist restaurants and an open air fish market stalls, and I recommend you try the different kinds of smoked fish that you can eat on large communal tables in the market, but also that you eat a takeaway sausage at Trekroneren that serves 10 different types of sausages. It is located just off the market centre. Be sure to get the Reindeer one, it was delicious.
Behind the famous and colourfully aligned houses of the port, you will also find the Hanseatic Museum and Schøtstuene describing life here in the fishing port in the middle ages and the connections that the German tradesmen of the Hanseatic League made with Norway’s fishermen, exchanging dried fish for cereals. The guided tour offered by the museum takes you through the old town and is quite interesting. Also to be visited is Edvard Grieg’s house on the hills of Bergen. Edvard Grieg was a cultural icon and classical composer from Norway. You probably would recognize two of his most important masterpieces, Morning Mood and Anitra’s Dance.
Our next stop was Flåm, a tiny but famous town located at the end of the Aurlandsfjord which is an arm of the over 200 kilometers long Sognefjord, one of the deepest and longest fjords in the world. From Flåm we took a 2-hour cruise along the Aurlandsfjord and the Nærøyfjord, with cliffs, snow-capped mountains, impressive waterfalls and idyllic farms clinging to the mountainsides, one of the 2 fjords on the UNESCO world heritage list.
Flåm is clearly a tourist hub packed with restaurants and gift shops, but also holds a brew house for a popular Norwegian craft beer called Ægir. We stayed there at the fun Flåmsbrygga Hotel, and then got up early in the morning up a narrow and windy road to the Stegastein Viewpoint, a concrete and wooden arm, which reaches out like an arm over the fjord.
Any trip to Norway should include a visit of one or two Stave Churches; these wooden churches can be found all over Norway and Scandinavia. Urnes Stave Church was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. They are quite important remnants of the Middle Ages and up until the Reformation of the country there were over 2000 in 1537. Today, there are only 28 left. Serving as important culture bearers and storytellers, they represent almost 1,000 years of Norwegian history. We had the pleasure of touring Hopperstad Stave Church located in Vik in Sogn, which dates from 11th century once we left Flåm, enroute heading towards the capital.
We ended our trip in Oslo, a very green city, in a sheltered location in the innermost part of Oslofjord with excellent weather, lots of parks and open spaces, and which some neighborhoods, like Grünerløkka through which a beautiful river runs, look so agreeable to live regardless a population of over 650,000. Norway’s biggest city and its capital since 1299, when King Håkon V, Magnusson moved to here from Bergen, however as it remained a small town under Danish rule and only became a major town in the 19th century, most of its architecture is quite recent, and now holds modern architecture jewels, like the new Opera House designed by Snøhetta and located near the pier.
Oslo is quite easily accessible and we had the easiest time getting around the city with the many bikes, buses and trams. We discovered the Royal Palace & Gardens, The Parliament and The Vigeland Sculpture Park with beautiful statues, many in humorous or erotic poses, created by Gustav Vigeland, a world-renowned 20th century artist. You can also visit the many wonderful museums in the city, such as The Vigeland Museum (his former home), The Munch Museum (which houses The Scream by Edvard Munch), The Viking Ship Museum (with a 3D show) and the open air Norwegian Museum of Cultural History (a stunning collection of 160 historic buildings from the Middle Ages to present time).
Oslo is a gorgeous, very green and vibrant city to visit in the summer or anytime for that matter. From tallish towers and a busy downtown core, to the smaller streets with cottages, post-war buildings and contemporary modern architecture, like the Opera Centre by Snøhetta, an iconic Holmenkollen ski jumping hill, rising high above the sea.
We discovered during our trip some typical Norwegian food, some of which we enjoyed more than other: plenty of smoked fish (including whale that you can find on the Bergen fish market), reindeer, hakkastein (a kind of ground meat to eat with roasted potatoes), and of course the national bricked shaped cheese called Brunost (brown cheese), for which Thor Bjørklund invented the world famous Norwegian Cheese Slicer shaped like a spatula in 1927 and which every Norwegian family has in its kitchen drawer. For those who like a glass at aperitif, note that wine and spirits can only be bought at the Vinmonopolet and the hours of operation are limited in some places to 16-20 hours a week. Beer can be bought in the grocery store but again only during certain times of the day.
To make new Norwegian friends is quite easy as English is spoken fluently by almost all, and even if you don’t have time to learn Norwegian beforehand, knowing some greetings will make the people smile at you. Any good travel book will have some for you to practice your inner Viking, and here are a few for you to start with:
God Morgen (Good morning)
God kveld (Good evening)
Takk, takk (thanks)
Tusen takk (thanks a lot)
I’ve heard that “Norwegians don’t believe in Trolls, but every Norwegians also knows that Trolls do exist”. Folklore or real, Trolls are everywhere in Norway. They are huge wooden carvings in front of many of the town stores; then there are Troll statues & graffiti, Troll bumps in the woods, Troldtintern (Troll peaks), The Trolltunga (Troll’s Tongue) rock formation, and even a mountain, Trollstigen (Troll’s path). Just in case, if you should meet a Troll, note they are not kind to humans, but can be repelled by lightning or turned to stone by the sun. There is even a great mockumentory called Troll Hunter (2010) that has a Blair Witch Project feel to it.
It is truly a wonderful place for a holiday especially if you like the outdoors, and hiking or biking. If you like road tripping or boating Norway is also for you. There are endless options and it is a fantastic country to feel in touch with nature.
Vivre ma France,
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