Friday, 4 September 2009

Norway - a land of magic where all fjords lead to home



Last week I went on a five day whistle-stop trip to Norway. Here is my lengthy report on a trip to remember. It appeared in the Bath Chronicle's Travel Section on Thursday, September 3.

This may be something of an admission of my lack of journalistic skill but I have to tell you straight away that I’m going to find it very difficult to do justice to the wonderful country of Norway in this one article. However long it is!

If I was to tell you that Fjord Norway is breathtaking, awe-inspiring and unforgettable you may well feel they are just old clich├ęd words but the truth is they perfectly fit the bill for describing this magical part of the world just across the North Sea.

I went on a whistle stop five day tour of Fjord Norway, which is on the western coast of that country, and I saw many sights that will stay with me forever as well as experiencing the sheer majesty of nature.

And all just a couple of hours away from Heathrow . . .

During the course of my somewhat frenetic trip – and I would sincerely recommend that if anyone follows my footsteps you take it at a much slower pace – I stayed in great hotels, saw ‘genuine’ Vikings fight, ate reindeer, goat and large quantities of pickled herring, visited incredible museums and churches, traversed the country by planes, (an unbelievable) train and automobiles and got to know some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met while on my travels.

In addition Norway (unlike many of our Mediterranean countries) is one of those places that still loves the British and British tourists and the one thing I heard time and time again was “if only more Brits were to come here…”. That is not something I expect you hear too often in Falaraki and Benidorm.

The only way I can give you at least a glimpse of my experiences is in a mini travelogue below.

This can only however be the appetiser, if you want the bountiful main course and the sumptuous pudding, you are just going to have to go there yourself.

And, trust me, you will thank me for that piece of advice.

Here then is five days in Fjord Norway through the eyes of a hugely impressed Englishman.

DAY ONE (Planes and Vikings)

We flew from Heathrow to Oslo in a flight that took less than two hours before then taking another internal flight to Haugesund, in the heart of Fjord Norway. This is known as the homeland of the Viking kings and we were taken straight to Avladsnes, which is seen as their spiritual home. It includes an interactive museum and a splendid Viking farm complete with lusty looking Viking fighters who I’m sure would have looked completely at home 2,000 years ago.









Let’s face it, the Vikings don’t get too good a press over here what with all that pillaging and stuff but what we learned on our visit here was how accomplished they were, how intriguing their belief system was and how amazing it was such a small amount of people were able to conquer much of northern Europe.
I tentatively asked one of the many amazing guides we had (they were all, uniformly, superb) if Norwegians could be proud of the Vikings considering they had plundered so many countries in days of old. His reply? “I suppose we are aware of that but we still feel a little bit of pride in their achievements. After all, I gather you did something similar with the British Empire . . .”


Ouch.
Suitably chastened by this, we then enjoyed a splendid meal in a Viking settlement which included a goat wrap and which left us feeling suitably full – which became a problem when we were then put on an extremely un-Viking like speedboat and whisked off at high speeds on the high seas to the first of our many great hotels.


This was the Rica Hotel Maritime in Haugesund, a beautifully-appointed hotel on the waterfront.


From this base we were able to investigate the town a little bit and discover something which everyone needs to know before they go – this is not necessarily a cheap destination. I bought two pints of beer which cost thirteen hundred kroner which translates at about £6.50 a pint.
Suffice to say we didn’t see many drunken people.

DAY TWO (The food was deer)

This was a hectic and very enjoyable day where we saw both the tranquillity and staggering beauty of Norway – often at the same time.

We kicked it off with a visit to the delightful, historic fishing town of Skudeneshavn which looked almost like a toy town as all the houses seemed immaculately perfect and there were hardly any people around. Before we visited a bigger city on our last day it was noticeable how quiet everywhere was and it is like living in a city like Bath where only about 10 per cent of the population use the facilities. There is a beauty in that stillness that struck us all.


From Skudeneshavn we then headed for our first Fjord cruise. A Fjord (in case you’re wondering – as I did) is a large inland water area created by glacial movements hundreds of years ago and what it looks like to our eyes are long, deep, beautiful rivers surrounded by mountains, waterfalls and the freshest of fresh air.
Toddling along on our cruise from Akrafjordtunet we saw some spectacular scenery and the most dramatic waterfall I’ve ever seen in my life (called Langfoss). The water flowed down the side of the mountain at a speed of knots and was so pure our boat went close in and we were able to drink straight from the fall.
Water had never tasted so good.


A splendid traditional lunch of cured meats followed and we then headed to our next major area HardangerFjord which saw us spend our second night in an astonishing hotel, the Hotel Ullensvang in Lofthus.



Our one night here was unforgettable. Apparently Queen Sonja of Norway spends time there every year and everyone else will feel like royalty from the moment they enter. The rooms are great, the food impressive and varied (this is where I tried my first and possibly last reindeer!) but the piece de resistance was the astonishing views over the Fjords which were, to quote our American cousins, “to die for”. You can see the image from my bedroom window on here.








DAY THREE (Cider and Kaisers)

Another day to remember as we travelled through HardangerFjord visiting lovely, unspoilt villages, splendid and consistently surprising museums and then a juice and cider house where, purely out of homage to the south west, I indulged in some magnificent fresh-as-a-daisy cider which certainly made the afternoon very “relaxed”.

As we tasted our tipple we were treated to a folk dance and music by three charming teenagers, one of who I’m sure I will always think of with awe as she spoke better English in a better English accent than any of us. She told me that at school they were given the choice to speak English either with an American or English accent – suffice to say she made the right decision!

On the night we drove high into the mountains to spend time at the Stalheim Hotel, a hotel seeped in history which has burned down a couple of times (90 per cent of the houses in Norway are made of wood so this is no surprise perhaps!) and has the somewhat dubious pleasure of having a monument to German Kaiser Wilhelm who loved the spot. I don’t think there are many things I would agree with the Kaiser on but you can see where the love comes from because the views high up in the mountain over the valley were eye-watering.

DAY FOUR (Train up a mountain)

Every boy loves a good train journey and on this day we went on one of the great train journeys of the world. The Flam Railway takes its passengers on to the steepest line in northern Europe, a journey which takes you 900 metres up to the top of a mountain at a gradient of 55 per cent. It is a train journey which you will never forget and has views that probably no other train in the world can match. At the very top we were allowed to briefly get off the train and stand beneath an incredible gushing waterfall.

Beat that.


We visited a number of other interesting places on the day including the delightful village of Undredal, an authentic working village populated mainly by goats and their herders, one of whom (who appeared to be dressed as Casey Jones) serenaded us as we ate his goat’s cheese. Norway, you see, is as quirky as it is beautiful.


Following our train journey we felt as if we stepped out of one magical world back to harsh normality as we entered the only city stop over on our trip – Bergen. It is a city with only 200,000 inhabitants but it is like going into a different galaxy compared to where we had been – albeit one within spitting distance of the magic lands.

Our night stop off on this occasion was the Clarion Collection Hotel Havnekontoret which as befitted the surroundings was a fantastic modern hotel which was stylish, contemporary and classy.

DAY FIVE (Culture and climbs)

Our whistle-stop tour finished with a highly enjoyable day in Bergen which included an intriguing trip to the remarkable Hanseatic museum (a UNESCO world heritage site) and then a trip on a funicular (a cross between a train and a cable car) to have lunch on Mount Floien and look down on the fantastic vista that is Bergen.


There was still time before we headed to the airport to visit the home of the composer Edvard Grieg for the culture-vultures to lap up and then before you could say “can I have some more reindeer please?”, we were heading home.

Overall, our five day trip had many highlights and frankly if I had to list them all there would be no space in this paper for anything else so perhaps the only thing I can say to you all is that if my words have in any way tempted you then please make your way to the travel agents (or to the computer in the corner of the room if that’s your preferred option) and start to find out for yourself.

To be honest when I told some people I was going to Norway they were a bit surprised and wondered what was there.

Well my friends, magic is there.

Now go and find it.

  • Our trip was organised by Innovation Norway (www.visitnorway.co.uk) and concentrated on the Fjord area and Bergen (see www.fjordnorway.com and www.visitbergen.com).
    The hotels we stayed in were (as mentioned in ‘day one’ above) The Rica Hotel Maritime, Haugesund (www.hotelmaritime.no), the Hotel Ullensvang on day two (www.hotel-ullensvang.no), the Stalheim Hotel (pictured top right) on day three (www.visitvoss.no) and the Clarion Hotel Havnekontoret in Bergen on day four (ww.choicehotels.no).
    Details of the rail journey we undertook is at www.flaamsbana.no while the Viking museum is at www.vikingkinmgs.com. More information on the various areas featured an be found at www.visithaugesund.no, www.akrafjordtunet.no and www.hardangerfjord.com

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