Norway’s Coast: In the Path of the Vikings
There are summer people and then there are winter people. Most of you, when you dream of travel to lands distant and near, conjure up visions of sunny beaches, skimpy outfits on hot bodies and lots of sunscreen. Not me. I'm a cold-water fish. I cherish the clarity of the winter sun, the bright stars of the northern sky, and the crunch of snow beneath my feet. So when I had the opportunity to take a cruise on a Hurtigruten ship to chase the Nothern Lights in late winter, I was thrilled.
Experiencing the Northern Lights up close and personal was always high on my bucket list, and, believe me, they did not disappoint. Whatever photos you have seen pale in comparison to the real thing. Seeing the Northern Lights is like watching God finger painting: It's the divine made sensible.
Even better, the trip took me to some of the most picturesque towns and cities in the world. This article explores those towns as I experienced them, in the clear light of the Far North, but below the Arctic Circle.
Later articles will detail the magic of the ship's passage along the magnificent mountains and fjords of the Norwegian coast; life on board the ship itself - a far, far cry from the all-you-can-eat-all-the-time mange-outs typical of non-adventurous American-based cruise ship lines; inside the Arctic Circle, where dog sledding, an ice hotel, ice fishing for king crabs and snow shoeing are among the attractions; and Norway's capital city, Oslo. Because Norway, one of the most beautiful and ancient countries in the world, offers way too much for just one story.
Bergen: Hanseatic League’s Footprint in Norway’s 2nd City
My trip began with a plane ride to Copenhagen, and, from there, another flight to Flesland, the airport that serves Bergen, the second-largest city after Oslo. Like the rest of Norway, Bergen is prosperous, the people well off and happy - and very, very friendly.
Bergen is the oldest city of any size in Norway. Oslo is a comparative arriviste, having been founded as the royal capital in the modern era. I stayed at the Radisson Blue Royal Hotel Bergen (Radisson, which was founded in heavily Scandinavian Minnesota and once co-owned by Scandinavian Airlines, is the Hilton of Norway; they’re everywhere). All of the major hotels are located within a short walk of Bryggen, the ancient wharf.
Bryggen is a relatively narrow spit of water far enough from the modern main port to be sheltered from the often-churning waters of the North Atlantic. From here, the city rises up almost vertically, not unlike San Francisco.
Although not susceptible to earthquakes, like San Francisco, the city has been subject to several intense fires during its 1,000-year history. Fortunately, many of the ancient houses and commercial structures alongside the Bryggen have survived, as has the royal castle that long doubled as the seat of the Viking kings and the town’s fortress to repel the not-infrequent invasions invited by the city’s renowned prosperity.
Cod and Oil
There are two words, one ancient, the other recent, that explain Norway’s commerce, and both are essential to Bergen: cod and oil. Bergen is both a depot for the North Sea oil, and that has fueled the country’s present prosperity, and a center for outfitting, manning and building the giant rigs.
As for cod, the fish is plentiful in Norwegian waters; because it can be dried and stored for long periods, it has long been popular throughout Europe and everywhere else (especially Brazil and other former Spanish and particularly Portuguese colonies).
It was primarily cod that brought German traders to Bergen in the middle ages. They established a colony within the town. The authorities tried to limit their contact with the locals, but, of course, there was inevitably intercourse (of all kinds; prostitution probably flourished among traders deprived of female companionship?).
The Germanic flavor still permeates Bryggen, and a guided tour will yield all kinds of surprises, such as a still-extant latrine right smack dab in the middle of town. The tall, narrow, still-standing drying houses give one a taste (if no longer smell) of what life was like hundreds of years ago when they were full of drying fish destined for the tables of European cities.
From Fish Market to Funicular
Today, these quaint buildings mostly house art galleries, craft shops and a visitor’s center, where you can browse the products for which Norway is best known: sweaters, mittens and anything wool that reflect the hardiness of the local sheep; pottery; gnomes of every size and description; and, inevitably, all things Munch, including every possible iteration of "The Scream," which last year became the most expensive painting after being bought at auction. I’d also recommend doing your serious shopping downtown. I’m still kicking myself for not buying the all-purpose pea coat that was on sale for US$80. (Sorry, North Face, but the winter activewear here puts you to shame.)
There’s so much to see and do in this art-crazed city that you’ll have to visit the local tourist website for all the details. The three musts are the Fish Market, the Aquarium and the Funicular.
Far from a Disney exhibit, the Fish Market is heavily patronized by locals, who appreciate the literally just-off-the-boat freshness. You can enjoy deep-fried fish and chips washed down with Hansa-Berg, the local beer. Besides, you might as well get used to fish, which unsurprisingly is the staple main course along the coast - fortunately, the many carefully farmed species are all delicious as well as healthy. Enjoy living fish at the Aquarium, one of the largest in Europe.
The Fløbanen Funicular is an inexpensive way to see the whole city while dramatically climbing the side of a mountain from one climate to another. Don’t think it’s for tourists: The day I rode the train was full of young kids with their moms out to enjoy a playground on top of the world. Be sure to leave lots of room in your camera or smart phone for photos, because the views are spectacular.
Ålesund: Art Nouveau Treasure
Having visited Brussels and Vienna, I thought I had "done" Art Nouveau. But the next day’s port-of-call introduced me to a whole city dedicated to this this swirly, color-crazed, ornate style of decoration, which flourished at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.
The reason why Ålesund became a center of Art Nouveau is an accident of history. In January 1904, a fire raged through the town, possibly the worst such catastrophe in a country where such occurrences were all too common thanks to the wood houses. The whole country rallied to the aid of the 10,000 homeless. Among them were architects steeped in the aesthetic of the time. Thanks to thousands of worker bees, the city rebuilt itself in near-record time, despite the wintry conditions.
The best way to see Ålesund is probably with a guided tour, although, armed with a good guidebook, you can walk through the port’s winding streets at leisure to discover one treasure after another.
All roads eventually lead to The Jugendstile Center ("Jugendstile" is the German word for Art Nouveau). Located in a former pharmacy, many of the original shop details remain, as do the private quarters of the owner’s family. What makes this building so special is that it is much more than a museum; that is, rather than merely a repository of artifacts, this is a faithful recreation of - actually maintaining - the original furnishings, everything from a table set for a formal dinner to a to-die-for restored stairway that is the epitome of this proto-psychedelic style.
During World War II, like the rest of the Norwegian, Ålesund became a central player in the battle between Britain and Germany. When we Americans think of the war, it’s usually the islands of the Pacific Theater where we fought the Japanese or the Normandy Invasion. But for Norway, the war remains up close and personal. The Germans invaded Norway early in the war, because of its large reserves of iron ore and its proximity to the United Kingdom.
It was eerie riding up the long, winding road up Mount Aksla after my guide told me it was built by Russian prisoners of war enslaved by Nazis. You can also hike the 418 steps up the hill. At the top is a charming building where you can get a great traditional Norwegian meal and view the inlets and mountains that surround the town. But take some time to view the still-extant bunker used by the Nazis.
The view is considered one of the very best in Norway, so don’t miss it. You may notice how the roads seem to end at the beginning of a mountain. This is because, like the other coastal cities, Ålesund is full of tunnels often longer than the ones connecting New York City to the mainland - the path of least resistance to road builders confronted with nearly vertical mountains.
Trondheim, Viking, Religious & Higher Education Center
Norway’s third-largest city is also its most historic. For centuries, it served as the capital during the height of the Viking period, when Norway’s fierce warrior-explorers rode sleek ships (seen to wonderful advantage in Oslo’s famous Viking Ship Museum) throughout the Atlantic, Mediterranean and as far as Russia.
Today, Trondheim is a charming town that somehow managed to preserve its major buildings. In the center of town is Nidaros Cathedral, parts of which (the stone parts, of course) date back at least 700 years. Even though the remains of St. Olav, the Viking king who converted Norway to Christianity, were scattered during the Protestant Reformation, the cathedral remains a major pilgrimage site. The director of pilgrims explained that people come from all over the world to meditate and pray in an adjoining hostel.
The cathedral maintains a central place in Norwegian life. The king of Norway still travels here for his final consecration by the (Lutheran) archbishop. Many of Norway’s sovereigns are buried in the transept. There is a fascinating museum and permanent display of the Norwegian monarchy through the ages and current totems of his rule (current occupant of the throne, Harald V) such as his crown, scepter and even a throne. The museum will fill in your knowledge of Norway, with an array of military uniforms and weapons.
Don’t get the idea that this is a stodgy city stuck in the past, however. The main "industry" here is higher education. Many of Norway’s major universities are here, and the dominance of students give Trondheim the air of other ancient university towns like Oxford or Cambridge. Like everyplace else on the coast, there is a river rushing through the heart of town.
You should make your way on the cobblestone streets to an out-of-the-way little café called Bakklandet Skydstation. This is one of those tiny family-run jewels that seem to flourish only in university towns, where generations of students fill up on traditional fare like waffles and berry tea.
Trondheim is nothing if not a city of contrasts between the ancient and the now. Rockheim is Norway’s answer to Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Only this is much more interactive, hands-on and fun to explore. The building itself, the candy-colored neon top of which seems to be floating, is as sensational as what’s inside.
Much of the permanent collection is devoted to Norwegian rock, which is interesting, although it lacks a breakout act like Sweden’s ABBA. Still, it’s fun to see how U.S. and British culture helped revolutionize the change from a conservative Lutheran society into one of the most progressive on the planet. The interactive exhibits allow you to play instruments, construct songs and play air guitar to your heart’s content.
There’s so much to see in Trondheim that it may be best to book a guide. The city’s website has more information. For the gargantuan cathedral, it’s best to arrange for a docent, or you will miss out on many facets and history.
What You Need to Know
Norway is ranked first in the world for its democracy, standard of living and prosperity. Thanks to generous universal healthcare; enlightened government policies; and a hell of a lot less (and way less influential) religious crazies, homophobes and garden-variety racists, you don’t see many overweight people, or the homeless ranging through garbage or much poverty at all. There is a leveling of income that drives the right crazy here, but don’t believe them: People are perfectly fine with the status quo. You don’t see any McMansions or slums; just well-tended, middle-class homes.
So many Norwegians travel to ski resorts that school holidays are staggered. And many people own "vacation homes" - ironic quotes because the whole country is so beautiful and bucolic.
Oh yes: The people are gorgeous. I mean, seriously good looking - the men tall, well proportioned with cheek bones to die for. I would compare the women to actresses on the red carpet, but that beggars a comparison.