We’re traveling through heaven. (Well, the official name is “Norway.”) For five days and 1111 kilometers, we’re driving the cream of the country’s National Tourist Routes, selected to capture the most glorious patches of Norway’s way-too-beautiful scenery, punctuated by architect-designed viewing points. Unlike our own bland superhighways, the drive IS the destination: an ultra-dramatic moving picture of powerhouse waterfalls gashing through titanic mountains, lush green hills fading to barren rocks aside primeval glaciers and mirrorlike fjords fingering their way to the sea.
Picking up a car in Bergen, we follow the banks of Hardanger , “Queen of Norwegian fjords,” pulling off for photos at Steindalsfossen Waterfall, gushing like God turned on the spigot. At its gift shop, I became willing victim to a Norwegian sweater and reindeer-pelt rug. (And broke my own rule: Souvenirs should never be big, heavy, or expensive. Demerits for all three.)
Valleys of blinding green shelter houses where goats munch on grass roofs, huddled in the shadow of rocky slopes, formidable and gray. Driving through Ostense, we brake for its white wooden church from the 1600s, all pink and green within, like a cozy cottage, monitored by a sculpted angel floating above the baptismal font, tootling on a trumpet. At Hardangervidda Nature Center, near Voringsfossen—the most famous waterfall in a land of famous waterfalls—we explore the interaction between glaciers, man, and Arctic animals, then bed down at Eidfjord, after a hyper-local dinner of salmon soup, Norwegian crab Caesar, fresh trout and blueberry-topped cheesecake. From my balcony I count the ranks of big-shouldered hills receding in the mist.
Today it’s the Snow Road, Aurlandsfjellet—looping over a barren, otherworldly plateau dressed only in boulders and snow (in July!). We’re well above the tree line. Cotton-wool clouds hover low enough to pluck from the sky. A rainbow glints through the sprinkles, announcing our arrival at the top of the world. We brake for artist-designed lookouts, such as the Stegastein Viewpoint, 30 meters of timber and steel over nothing but (gasp!) thin air, or a sculpted bear hibernating in his cave upon a stash of tourist junk. Then, Gudvangen and, oh, just another spectacular waterfall.
A bonus detour: the Borglund Stave Church, one of 28 remaining of the multi-gabled medieval wooden churches unique to Norway out of, once, a thousand. From wood hewn and treated in 1180 A.D., it was built in the style of Viking ships. Wood was cheaper than marble, so early Christians carved its timbers in intricate designs— scrolls, flora, faces—and outside, on the eaves, wondrous dragons’ heads, to scare off evil spirits. Topping its lacy layers of tarred shingles? Not a cross, but a cockerel. In the nearby interpretive center we examine Viking artifacts—an antler-bone comb, an iron key. Pause here for another Norwegian artifact: crepe-like waffles topped with whipped cream and strawberry jam. Dinner, in Sogndal, saluted other culinary icons: lobster bisque, then reindeer meatballs with a side of lingonberries. And herring for breakfast, herring every day, from buffets that looks like Easter brunch.
Next morning, we follow the Sognefjellsvegen Route. But first, smitten with stave churches, we detour at Kaupanger’s, whose stave poles have welcomes worshipers since 1150. It’s plainer outside—no dragons—but glorious within. Magnified with floral paintings added “recently” (i.e., the 1600s) covering every surface from pulpit to crucifixion altarpiece, it’s the third church to be erected here, after the king burned down the town in vengeance for an uprising.
Brakes once more at the Norsk Folk Museum, an open-air foray through 30 historic buildings from medieval days to the present: grass roofs and windows shuttered “to keep out bad weather and goblins.” Inside, spinning wheels, sleigh beds, butter churns. From a barn from 1800 scramble pigs, cows and scolding chickens. The site’s formal museum hosts homespun artifacts, from a Viking drinking cup to embroidered wedding clothes.
A ferry—we’re getting good at these—sails us to the Urness Stave Church, preserved by UNESCO, midway up a forested mountain, the oldest still standing: simple exterior again, but lush with carvings from 1070 that hark back to Viking-Irish trading: dragons, snakes, and lilies. Inside, Romanesque bones bear Baroque figures added five hundred years ago.
As we drive, the temperature plummets and the pale blue ice of glaciers appears. We pull off for viewpoints, including one heralding ancient stone-pile cairns that marked the way. Beside us, guys in shorts slide by on cross-country skis. We slow down for sheep to cross before pulling into Lot, with yet-another glam stave church.
We bed down in Hjelle at its sweet, gingerbread hotel, family-run since 1896 at the head of the fjord, crouching just below a glacier. Sitting at breakfast is like watching a movie as ships glide across the clear, clear water, and clouds scoot by, well below the snowcapped mountaintops. Those mighty hills stood guard long before us and will be here long after. It’s hard to leave.
Not far away, we pull into Jostaldahlsbreen Park Center for a tutorial on glaciers. In times past, we learn, men crossed them for three reasons: to trade cattle, attend church, or find a bride. We also learn to dread an avalanche. Boulders tumbling into the ocean create tsunami waves that have destroyed whole villages time and again. A movie tells the story of Strynefjell National Route, our next adventure. The 50-km. mountain road was built over 100 years ago by grueling manual labor. To open it every spring, crews hand-shoveled their way through snowdrifts higher than their heads. Barren and windy, it’s marked by cairns.
It deposits us in Geiranger, anchoring a UNESCO-cited fjord where cruise shops lounge. At its fine Fjord Center, we step back in time via reconstructed sites: the quay drawing us to a steamer, which rocks us on “waves” till we land at the “farm” where one Ragnild was said to brew the best beer. Shelf farms stand in a row directly under a glacier so an avalanche would fall clear. Nonetheless, the takeaway is, glaciers are moving objects to be treated with caution. A sign reads, “Stay inside.” We did.
That night, we wandered to the historic village church for vespers with Norwegian folk songs—not unlike an Irish tune. Its young pastor offered English greetings in our honor.
After conquering many a hairpin turn, we surrendered the car in Aselund, catching our breath at Ornesfingen Outlook, far above the fjord. The Trollstigen (trolls’ path) stole our breath again, as did a stop at Gudbrandsjuvel, where rampaging rivers’ mist form a rainbow-kissed waterfall atop the “kettles” it’s carved into the stone.
Aselund, on the Atlantic coast, unlike our previous overnights, is a true city—and a unique one, with its treasury of Art Nouveau buildings—built, in fact, by fate. A huge fire, lashed by a hurricane, destroyed the town in 1904, leaving its citizens out in the January cold. Aid rushed in, and with it, the plans of forward architects to build a brand-new town in the simple, flowing style. Trace its highlights at the Jugendstil Center with its Time Machine back to the past. Then climb the 418 steps (you bet I counted) to the peak of the vast city park for an overlook. Trace the streets to see why its designers decreed of its new style, “Here is the direction we should choose for Norwegian architecture of the future.”
The city is also all about the sea: an aquarium highlighting the critters we’d been eating; a fishing museum depicting cod: drying it, selling it worldwide; and also, in its History Museum, a section devoted to World War II’s Resistance Movement, especially pivotal in this Nazi-occupied strategic port. (Hitler was convinced the Allied invasion would commence in Norway.)
Aselund anchored the North Sea escape route in 1940, sailing refugees via the “Shetland Islands Express.” Old-timer Einar Gustaffson shared stories from his father and uncle, when escapees sought by the Nazis were given clothing to blend in, and ocean passage. “Be there in ten minutes” is all the warning Einar’s uncle got. A parachuting hero from Aselund destroyed the Nazis’ heavy water plant, robbing them from perfecting the atom bomb— a turning point in the war. (Other locals, however, acted as infiltrators, turning in their brothers.)
More sea: an 1852 lighthouse, whose spiral steps we climbed to view art on exhibition in its present gallery. Then a table, sheltered from the wind, to savor coffee and waffles before dinner at Sjobuc, the town’s premier seafood restaurant, under the beamed ceilings of a former warehouse. Tomorrow, the scenic Rauma Railway to Oslo. For information, visit Fjordnorway.com and innovationnorway.no.
Bergen and Oslo, bookends of Norway’s Fjords
Bergen, Gateway to the Fjords and Norway’s first capitol, is where our adventure began. Oslo, on the opposite coast and capitol today, was our grand finale. The two cities, as different as Boston from New York, delight travelers by their contrasting vibes. Founded by King Olav in 1070, Bergen is cozy, intimate and close to its historic roots. Oslo polishes its urbane image, convivial and trendy, yet anchored in its heritage. Both honor green spaces, the lure of outdoors, and the call of the sea.
Bergen prides itself on its postcard-pretty red and ochre wooden warehouses guarding the wharf since Hanseatic times (now UNESCO-protected), starting from medieval King Haakon’s Hall, Rosencrantz Tower, and venerable St. Mary’s Church, the city’s oldest. At the U in the water, the fish market lodges, where vendors offer try-before-you-buy tastes of smoked salmon, smoked whale, fish cakes, caviar. Beyond the bend rise layers of tiny houses, once home to the fishermen and factory workers who caught and packed the catch, now gentrified with pastel paint and roses.
Inland, a statue plays tribute to violinist Ole Bull, “the Paganini of the North,” who married the daughter of a Minnesota senator (his statue also anchors our Uptown pocket park). Edvard Grieg, another local son, is honored at the theater where Ibsen’s dramas debuted. Just beyond, flanking a pond where all Bergen promenades past midnight in summer’s perpetual light, rises a quartet of art museums. One, home to Picassos and Klees, hosts Lysverket, a stylish new restaurant, where I swooned over a tasting menu of scallops with beet salad; “ham and eggs” starring bacon and quail egg on caramelized onions; confit of isgalt, a tender white fish partnered with shrimp mousse; then turbot partying with sweetbreads and garlic cream. The grand finale: strawberries with caramel, sorrel and white chocolate cream.
Oslo, on the west coast, never sleeps—at least, not in summer, when the sun rises at 4 and sets, kind of, near 11. All those with a breath in their body stroll down Karl Johans Street, from the cathedral—site of royal marriages—past Parliament, and a green promenade where kids cavort in fountains, right up to the castle, with locals picnicking on the king’s front lawn. At Oslo’s spiffy new Opera House, glitterati parade atop its very roof. Me, I’m slurping fish soup at the sidewalk café of the Grand Hotel, where artists, from Ibsen to Munch, habitually convened.
Fortified, I continue to the boardwalk lining Oslofjord, a vivacious playground pulsing with fish restaurants, pleasure boats, and boutiques to outfit their owners. Returning the following evening, I explored the tasting menu at contempo Tjurholmen Siegmagasin. First, an amuse of hake sashimi with mango sorbet and soy foam (Take that, Noma! Your Copenhagen dining temple is not the only Scando kitchen to wield a pressure gun.) A single langoustine boasts twin sorbets of coriander and melon. Hake reappeared in a “Pure White” cauliflower trio (foamed, grilled and a la couscous). For dessert, the kitchen’s futurists planted a “Spring Garden” in chocolate-crumb “dirt,” with yogurt powder “snow,” chocolate mousse and chocolate ice cream.
With only a day left, I sped through six museums, each deserving a lifetime to itself. A tram trundled past the King’s farm, where the royal cows were grazing, to the Viking Ship Museum, home to two actual Viking vessels from 832 and 888 A.D., which once traveled the seven seas with goods to trade and foreign lands to conquer. Richly carved and powered by 30 oarsmen, the oldest was owned by a priestess who died at 80 and was buried, according to custom, with possessions for the afterlife, in her ship-as-tomb, encased in clay soil (which is why it never rotted). The second ship, copied in recent times, proved sturdy enough to sail to America. FYI: Viking helmets had no horns—no superglue back then.
Nearby, an open-air Folk Museum showcases 150 buildings from medieval times onward, including a storehouse from 1300, constructed sans nails; a party house of 1738 flaunting the latest trends: glass windows and a fireplace instead of hole in the roof. Another show-stopping stave church. An apple-cheeked teacher checks for clean hands as costumed kids file into school. Another re-enactor carves a fancy ironing board for the girl he hopes to marry. (Meanwhile, she’s knitting him socks.) Yet another bakes lefse, which still more prance traditional dances.
Life of a far more somber sort is chronicled in the Resistance Museum, housed within the city’s imposing castle fort. Nazi invaders tried to kill the king, who narrowly escaped to England. Quisling, the Nazis’ puppet leader, imposed harsh new rules—no arms, no radios, no newspapers—inspiring strikes by Norway’s athletes, teachers, parents, pastors and resistors. Those resistors smuggled messages in fish crates, distributed underground papers, and sailed refugees in fishing boats. At the exhibits’ conclusion: the resounding cheers of VE Day.
The Museum of Decorative Arts traces gorgeous objects of everyday life, from a tapestry of 1600 titled “Five Wise and Five Foolish Virgins” (hard to decide which were which) on through each decade of the 20th century, from Art Nouveau to Pop and Postmodern Minimalism, demonstrated in jewelry, furniture, clothing, kitchen and office equipment, sports gear. On the pier, the Astrud Fearling Museum— a shiplike structure designed by star-chitect Renzo Piano— flaunts convention with works by up-and-comers.
Best for last: This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Edvard Munch. Two museums have collaborated to offer the most extensive exhibit ever of the artist’s works. The National Gallery showcases his early years, with his iconic themes of angst, melancholy, love (usually painful), and jealousy. “Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’ had a huge impact on me,” the artist wrote—and then painted his “Self Portrait in Hell”. Also the famous “Kiss” and “Scream.” His later works shine in the Munch Museum.
Finally, step outside to mellow in the sunlight. (It’s 10:30 P.M.)—a beautiful ending to a beautiful adventure in a beautiful land. For information, see visitbergen.com, visitoslo.com, and innovationnorway.no.
Gay marriage became legal here in 2008.
Gay couples go to the restaurant or bar of their choice, with no need to seek out GLBT venues.
In 2014, Europride will be held in Oslo.
Ett Glass, Bobs Pub, Brighton Pub, Eksker, Diplomaten, London Pub & Club, and, for girls, SO.