This was most unusual. Nearly all of my flights to Europe go over England's south-eastern coast, the shape of which my mind has by now memorised with precision. There could be no mistake: I was heading to Norway.
In person or in spirit, Norway appears in many of my posts. I love Norway dearly. There simply isn't a country in the world more rough yet beautiful, more mysterious yet logical, more developed yet undiscovered. Norway is unique and luring in its contrasts.
I first visited Norway seven years ago, travelling to Oslo, Grimstad, Arendal, Horten, Bergen and along Sognefjorden, Norway's longest fjord. The magnificent Westerly fjords took my breath away; the quiet coastal towns south of Oslo were delightfully peaceful; the train journey over the snow-covered mountains between Oslo and Bergen made me wish I, too, were coming from a mountainous country. One visit to Norway was enough, and I have not spent one year in seven since without revisiting. I was truly enchanted by Norway. And I still am.
It has recently occurred to me that, in the past seven years of my regular pilgrimage to Norway, I rarely ventured outside Oslo or the Vestfold area. Good friends of mine live there, which makes my visits worry-free and comfortable. Excuses aside, it is comical to neglect other parts of a country as vast and diverse as Norway. Stretching for 1,752 km from North to South, Norway is in fact the longest country in Europe. For comparison, if you fix Norway's southernmost tip, Pysen in Mandal, and move the country's fake (but famous) “northernmost” tip, Nordkapp, 180 degrees clockwise, you'll hit the very south of Italy. No joke.
Needless to say that I needed to get out of the loop of visiting the same Norwegian locations over and over again. For geographical and historic reasons, there are well-maintained links between the UK and major Norwegian cities. My choice was more than decent. Out came the map of Norway for examination. Where to go?
My eyes inevitably wandered away from Oslo towards Bergen, Norway's second largest city. It had been a long time since my first visit there in 2003. It rained non-stop back then, and all my pictures looked tie-dyed at best. Besides, I had upgraded my then retro film camera three times since seven years ago. To top it all, Bergen to me was forever the home city of my favourite classical composer. Who else but Edvard Grieg, the creator of timeless Peer Gynt?
The decision was hence an easy one. I was going to Bergen – and was even going as far as replaying the Sognefjorden boat tour I had already taken seven years ago.
Umbrella? Check. Raincoat? Check. Sunglasses? No, thanks.
Of all Norwegian cities, Bergen has quite a reputation for lousy weather. On one hand, the city’s location on Norway's south-western coast means direct contact with the warm Gulf Stream and relatively mild winters. On the other hand, the combination of North Atlantic air with the high-rising mountains surrounding Bergen means rain. A lot of rain. They estimate that it rains on 235 days in Bergen in an average year. If you think London is rainy, just imagine the amount of rain about three times that, and you'll get the idea.
As if on purpose, I had opted for a trip in September, decidedly one of Bergen's rainiest months. Perhaps the earlier experience on the Faroe Islands had taught me to stay philosophical about the weather. It may be also that I was testing my luck. With rare exceptions, almost every one of Bergen’s September days features generous amounts of precipitation, so there was a lot of luck to count on.
Two weeks before my trip, I registered on Norway's Meteorological Office website for frequent updates on the weather in Bergen and the surrounding areas. Following weather developments turned out to be so addictive that I also picked up a habit of logging in extra between the updates. It was like following a stock market, where the value of your portfolio goes up and down in a seemingly random fashion.
The market in my case was a bearish one. Over two weeks, I followed its stark deterioration from brilliant sunshine to miserable rain. Thankfully, no stock can ever have a negative value; the market hit the floor and stabilised at that. It was too late to moan. I packed a sturdy umbrella, a raincoat and a few pairs of woollen socks into my luggage – and set off for Bergen.
Back in Norway
The inflight magazine of Norwegian.com (which the Scandophile in me immediately grabbed) revealed a neatly dense flight network all over Europe and especially Scandinavia. A brief look outside the window of our aircraft into London Gatwick gave further comfort: within barely 10 minutes, one Norwegian flight took off, another landed and the third one taxied beside us. It looked like SAS was not entirely unchallenged in its home region, after all.
My enthusiasm about returning to Norway was soon put to test. As the plane approached the ground at Bergen Flesland airport, it was attacked, vertically and horizontally, by the crossfire of ravaging rain. Entire clouds seemed to have descended upon the earth and condensed into their rain-worth at the spot. The rain was so thin and dense that it seemed to be hanging in the air. Oh well, no luck, then.
“Was it raining here all day?” I asked the driver of the airport coach to Bergen. He looked at me as if I had asked something grossly inappropriate. “Of course”, was the answer. “All day today. And tomorrow – the same!”
On this promising note, we had arrived in Bergen. I made a mental note to ship my London friends here one day. What better way to start appreciating the beautiful weather we have in London?
DAY TRIP TO FLÅM AND SOGNEFJORDEN
The next morning, I set off for Bergen's railway station to catch the first leg of my day-trip – the 2-hour train to Myrdal. Myrdal is well known for connecting Norway's national railway with the famous Flåmsbana, the 20 km steep rail link to Flåm village on the Sognefjorden. The country's longest and deepest fjord, Sognefjorden is likewise a famous name in Norwegian geography. The tour I was doing was called "Sognefjorden in a nutshell" and was identical to the one I had done seven years ago. Just the right time to refresh my travel memory, then.
I was afraid that the weather would ruin what was a rather expensive tour (over GBP 100) – but I was lucky. The rain came in a form of a subtle drizzle, and the blackened clouds even dispersed occasionally to reveal a patch of blue on the other side. I never though I would call myself lucky to get THAT, but there you go.
Compared to seven years ago, the Flåm train was decidedly empty; probably because it was August, not September, back then. The proportion of camera-armed Japanese tourists among the few present truly impressed though. I wonder how they come across Norway, of all the places in Europe they could possibly visit? Somebody on the Norwegian side must be making some good promotional effort in Japan.
I could understand their overwhelming joy though. Flåmsbana is a mountain railway unique in its steepness. The route features breath-taking views of what Norway really does best: cascading waterfalls (Kjossfossen is the most famous one and is honoured with an individual 5-minute stop), mountain tunnels (of which there are 20, built almost entirely by hand) and high mountain peaks. No bridges? – I hear you ask. Nope. Norwegians are probably the most sophisticated nation in the world when it comes to managing their water resources. To avoid bridge construction, the river had been directed UNDER the Flåm railway. Now, could you beat that?
After the 1-hour journey, admittedly a bit too much of a tourist affair, I escaped the crowds in the old centre of the Flåm village. Conveniently located about 3.5 km from the train station in the river valley, it featured Flåm Church built in 1667, as well as some perfect peace.
The Flåm Church was a cosy, simple building built entirely of wood in the traditional Norwegian style. Norwegian mini-flags and fern branches were lining up the aisle between the high wooden benches. The simple altar, covered by a spotlessly white cloth, was facing the miniature organ. Everything in this church looked like a diminutive version of the much larger original, yet none the less real for that.
Several Flåmsbana trains passed me by as I was returning to Flåm. There are around 12 return services between Myrdal and Flåm daily, making Flåm the only Norwegian village of its size to receive such substantial tourist numbers.
The locals were visibly failing to notice Flåmsbana's frequently blown loud horn. It was the most obvious non-natural sound in the area, breaking the timeless harmony of tumbling water, tinkling of the sheep's bells, melodic streams and wailing seagulls. The symphony of Norway!
Bye-bye, open passenger deck
I came back to Flåm just in time to catch the ferry back to Bergen. The village serves as a water transport hub to other settlements on Sognefjorden, making around 10 stops before returning to Bergen. The entire journey takes six hours.
I remembered the same transfer I took seven years ago. The passengers were allowed to step out to the deck to enjoy the most stunning fjord views Sognefjorden had to offer – vertically rising stone walls of the surrounding mountains, low-hanging clouds occasionally opening up to show some blue and dark waters reflecting all of the above.
Unfortunately, Fjord Tours must have upgraded their fleet recently. The passenger deck was gone, and the familiar views could only be enjoyed through the safety glass from the inside of the vessel. Given the suddenly worsened weather conditions, however I doubt I would have rushed outside, anyway.
Deprived of the possibility to use my camera, I dedicated the spare time to my audio language tutorial (I am learning Norwegian. Crazy, don't you think?) and sketching my future adventures in Norway. A grand discovery of Northern Norway is being planned for the summer of 2011, with details due to be revealed very soon. As soon as I am done with planning, that is.
It was close to 9pm when our brave little boat entered Bergen's harbour. After a bit of wandering around town in strong rain, I unconditionally surrendered to the weather and called it a night.
The final obstacle on my way to sleep was a group of loud teenagers outside my hotel. Bergen is not exactly swarming with cheap sleeping options, and I chose to stay in Citybox, a budget, no-frills hotel akin the CABINN chain in Denmark. Unlike the latter, however, Citybox boasted an even more spartan selection of furniture, manual check-in and absent TV. The check-in part eventually produced such an outburst of negative online reviews that system was being refurbished during the time when I was there.
I personally thought some further refurbishment was long overdue; the famously free wireless internet was suspiciously sensitive to the WEATHER, for example. That in the city of Bergen! The electronic keys had to be inserted in and out a few times before the door showed any signs of life. Some Norwegian teenagers were squealing past my door (literally) for most of the night. And those are only the selected highlights I am naming here.
But it would take a lot more inconvenience than that to ruin my visit to Bergen. And a budget option Citybox certainly was, too.
SUNSHINE IN BERGEN. NO, REALLY.
I first woke up at 7am, glanced briefly out and retreated back to bed. The grey, rainy morning outside was not the right motivation for an early start. There were too many other places in the world to get completely soaked, had I ever wanted to.
The situation at 8:30am looked only marginally better though. I sighed and braced for a long walk in the rain. The good news was that I was finally leaving that Citybox embarrassment of a hotel. For the record, the wireless internet was still hopelessly dysfunctional; "because of the rain", the voice on the phone apologetically explained.
On my way to the train station to leave my bag, I briefly considered begging at some church for a handful of coins. Since my arrival in Norway I had not needed cash at all and had not bothered withdrawing any.
Imagine my utter admiration when the left luggage facilities, too, turned out to be entirely automated and cash-free! The friendly touch screen led me through a set of options and eventually blinked a locker next to me. Press the button, door released, press the button, door locked, print the code to unlock it later, insert and remove your card, takk og adjø! It is apparently in Norway that electronic payment systems have been embraced the most. Helped by the highest density of card payment terminals in the world, Norwegians are the most frequent global users of debit cards. As a result, less than 8% of all transactions in Norway use cash as the means of payment. Perfect if your bank charges you fat pennies for ATM withdrawals.
Still impressed by those funky interactive lockers, I began my rain-walk to Bergen’s best known sights, Bryggen and Bergenhus. The Bergenhus fortress is one of the best preserved structures of its kind in Norway. However, it is Bryggen – the city’s oldest quarter made up of around 60 wooden houses – which is the undisputed number one attraction of Bergen. It was badly damaged by fire several times in the past and remains partly locked to the public. I wandered around the still accessible narrow passages between the houses. The city was not yet fully awake on a Sunday morning. Only several church bells – and a handful of Japanese tourists looking lost – marked some life.
Speaking of churches, it is worth mentioning that Bergen is the largest city in Norway’s so-called "Bible belt", the area covering most of the southwest of the country. Perhaps the empty streets on a Sunday morning were the reflection of the pious population all attending a mass rather than enjoying a long lie-in. God only knows.
Playing a quick recap of my pictures from morning till noon, I noted the gradually improving visibility. I looked around again. The skies had cleared up markedly, revealing plentiful blue and letting through the sun streams. It was turning out a beautiful day and a promising setting for pictures. To be on the safe side though, I hurried to my next photo spot – the Fløyen mountain. I would hate to miss the gorgeous panoramic views of Bergen it had to offer.
Here comes the sun
Bergen is allegedly surrounded by seven mountains, and decades have been spent trying to figure out the exact seven. There is little doubt however that Fløyen is one of those. A short ride from the city centre on the namesake Flåmsbana funicular, the mountain serves as a great viewing spot. It is also a starting point for numerous walking paths through the surrounding forest, and is frequented by the locals and the tourists alike.
The top of Fløyen was embraced in a thin cloud veil – but the view was there. I could even spot my hotel right next to the Grieghallen concert hall. The labyrinth-like older part of the city contrasted widely with the newer, perfectly geometric one. The water seemed to fill every available corner. I briefly thought Bergen could even contend to be my perfect city to live in. If only the weather was as lovely as this for the rest of the year.
I descended to central Bergen by foot. Numerous locals were briskly passing me by, with not one tourist in sight. Walking is a popular weekend activity in Norway, as it is in the other Nordic countries. The paths were cleverly routed to avoid the generous amounts of water making its way downhill. I had never seen so many small natural waterfalls concentrated on a single mountain.
A tribute to Edvard Grieg
Back in the city centre, I caught a tram to Troldhaugen, composer Edvard Grieg's former residence 7 km south of Bergen. The public transport link between central Bergen and Troldhaugen has only been operational since the summer of 2010. Interestingly, the tram was locally referred to as "bybanen" (literally "city train"). I wondered if the funny word for "tram" used in Oslo ("trikken" from Norwegian "electric") would ever be understood in Bergen, but decided not to check.
The brand new "bybanen" swiftly slid past numerous modern structures of function into what looked more like a residential area. I got off at a station memorably called "Hop" and followed the directions the sleepy girl at the Tourist Information office gave me for Troldhaugen.
The walk did not take longer than 15 minutes. I was soon standing by the little hut that composer Grieg was using up to the last days of his life. The hut is said to have been preserved exactly the way Grieg left it before he died in 1907. The quiet waters of the Nordås Lake were moving softly in front of the main window where the composer used to sit. The autumnal sun gently entered the hut’s single room. I was only missing the sound of Grieg's music to complete the picture. To me, every note of his inalienably reflects his home country – the power of its nature, the richness of its folklore and the abundant peace of its vast landscapes.
I sat down by the Nordås Lake for a few minutes and remembered my first visit there seven years before. Nothing seemed to have changed around me. The Troldsallen concert hall (built after Grieg's death, in 1985) was getting ready for a recital of pieces by several German composers. I would not care to listen to anything other than Grieg's own creations in Bergen, and headed back to town. My tribute to the famous composer had been paid.
Instead of catching the "bybanen" back, I used the walking and cycling 7 km route to reach Bergen by foot. The path mostly ran along a highway connecting Bergen with the airport and was not particularly interesting. Quite a few families were cycling past as I walked. Bergen seemed to be taking full advantage of a sunny Sunday – although I am somehow confident few Norwegians would have been turned away by a nuisance as minor as rain.
In my last minutes in Bergen, I stopped at a self-explanatory "Global Food" store opposite the train station. It must have been the only supermarket-style establishment open in the whole of Bergen on a Sunday.
"Dobar dan", I was greeted unexpectedly by a dark-haired woman at the counter. "Dobar dan" is the Serbo-Croato-Bosnian equivalent of "Good afternoon", but the lady did not look Slavic. Where was she from? "Iran", she told me, visibly undisturbed by the fact of being asked. With a population of around 16,000, Iranian immigrants are one of Norway’s largest non-European ethnic minorities. The Bosnian community is around the same size, and I had been unsurprisingly grouped into it. Blame my Slavic features.
The bus journey to the airport was far too quick. As we approached, the skies over Flesland lost their worst clouds, letting through the soft light of the evening sun. I wished it had come out a day earlier. I also wished I was coming back to Norway soon. Very soon. There are a handful of countries I really hate to leave, and Norway is one of them.
The air hostess by the door was beaming (as air hostesses do) as she saluted us out on arrival to London. Farvel, ha det bra, ha det fint, ha det godt, ha det, adjø, morna, ha en hyggelig dag, ha det så fint, på gjensyn, komm snart igjen, velkommen tilbake, hei-hei, takk og hei, takk skal du ha, ha en god dag... She seemed to have a different way to say goodbye for every passenger.
Goodbye, my beautiful Norway. See you next weekend!