Norway--Following the Vikings in 21st Century Comfort
Updated: Oct 8, 2020
I would love to declare that in July 2018, the explorer Donna set out to recreate the route of the Vikings, exploring the grand coast of Norway, visiting the hardy people of villages both blessed by the beauty of nature and cursed by the harsh winter winds of the North Cape. Maybe I’ll use that for a time-travel novel, as the reality was a bit different. I did cruise the incredibly beautiful and rugged coast of Norway, with close to 700 other pampered passengers. My most difficult challenges were deciding what to eat for dinner and finding a Norwegian pharmacy for local remedies to fight my husband’s upper respiratory infection.
While I can appreciate Viking seafaring skills, I’m glad my trip along the Norwegian coast had a lot more in amenities than did the ancient Viking ships. While the places I visited did not constitute an exhaustive foray into Viking history and Norwegian scenery, every stop was a reminder of why Norway is on the top of most traveler’s list.
Once an important stop on the mail train route, Flam now exists to take the thousands of yearly visitors on one of the world’s most scenic rail trips. That the train exists is an engineering feat. Opened in 1942, the twenty tunnels along the twelve-mile trip were largely dug by hand, taking twenty years to build at an estimated cost of twenty million krona. Today the train takes cruise ship passengers like me along a route with photo stops of waterfalls and steep cliffs to a lovely historic hotel overlooking dramatic terrain. Once there, passengers are treated to fresh waffles with local sweet berries and homemade cream.
At first it was hard for me to tell if Geiranger was a real town and not a Nordic version of a Caribbean cruise port, with rows of shops along the pier. That was a first and undeserved impression, before experiencing the Geiranger fjord, a World Heritage site, and Mt. Dalsnibba.
The panoramic views from the lookout posts on Mt. Dalsnibba are worth the long drive of snaking switchbacks. From the almost 1500-meter summit my ship was just a white speck on the water. The Geiranger fjord itself, fifth longest in Norway and almost 600 meters keep, has water so clear I wanted to fill my empty water bottle from it, or from any of the spectacular waterfalls cascading down the surrounding mountains.
In a land full of amazing natural wonders, Geiranger’s beauty has made it a vacation spot even among Norwegians, with several hotels open all year long despite the roads being completely closed during the winter months. I can’t think of a lovelier place to hibernate.
When thinking about island archipelago retreats, the far north of Norway is usually not top of mind. There are no beautiful beaches with warm water snorkeling, but there is plenty of birdwatching and fishing, opportunities for dramatic hiking and, perhaps most important for day-trippers and cruisers, the Trollfjord.
The main city of Svolvaer is largely forgettable, with a few shops and art galleries surrounding a small pedestrian area. It does have a hidden gem, tucked on a side street just steps from the cruise harbor. The Lofoten War Museum is bursting with hundreds of WWII artifacts. It’s an eclectic collection, everything crammed together in too-small spaces. There is a lamp from the battleship Tirpitz, dozens of uniforms—some quite rare—postcards, pictures, medals, insignia. There are so many typewritten notes and stories, I felt I was reading from personal diaries. There are glimpses into life in underground tunnels hiding from the Nazis, into life fighting in the frozen north, into heroic rescues and tragic disasters. There is no attempt to whitewash history—many Norwegians supported the Germans—but history presented from very personal standpoints.
The anticipated star of the Lofoten Islands, Trollfjord, did not disappoint. Our ship slid into a strait so narrow I thought I could almost touch the sheer cliffs. Waterfalls, little rivers of water, drop down the mountain sides into the spectacular fjord. Our ship stayed in the fjord for hours, a magical evening.
Almost the most northern point in Europe, perched on the edge of the North Sea, little Honningsvag is the epitome of a Norwegian fishing town. Despite its small size, it can host more than a hundred ships during the busy summer season. I was lucky—mine was the only ship in town.
The town’s little museum has interesting videos illustrating the issues of living and working in the far north, including hardships suffered during WWII. Of much more interest is the local art shop, filled with lovely watercolors and prints from famous artists. I was suddenly very glad I had brought a large suitcase. The rich blue and green hues of the pictures on my wall bring back memories of watching the ever-changing Norwegian sky late at night from my balcony.
As evening approached, our captain headed for the reason thousands of people journey this far every year—the North Cape or Nordkapp. These sheer perpendicular cliffs of Europe’s most northerly point are dramatic and forbidding. Seeing them late, in the eerie glow of the midnight sun, increased the aura of someplace mysterious. As the ship turned 360 degrees for panoramic views of the cliffs, the clouds began to roll in, reminding all of us we were in the north Atlantic where weather rules and can change in an instant.
The popular tourist destination of Olden is both strikingly beautiful and a stark warning of what climate change can look like. For years the hike to, or up, the million-year-old Briksdale Glacier has been a destination for cruise ship day trippers and serious climbers alike. The magnificent glacier snaked down the mountain into a pristine lake with some of the best scenery in all of Norway. At least, that’s what it used to be. The glacier is still impressive, the lake is still clear, but it all shouts “global warming.”
In the area directly above the lake, where the huge tongue of ice used to be, there is now barren rock. Our charming guide remarked the glacier has visibly retreated even since the beginning of the season, two months before our arrival. On the drive from the cruise port to the “base camp” for our hike we drive past a lake so swollen with excess water it threatens the highway and nearby streams.
Still, it is beautiful and the views well worth climbing up over slippery rocks. It’s just tinged with a little sadness. How long will the glacier last for others to enjoy and marvel at the wonder of nature?
Haugesund is a large city and not terribly appealing, so I joined a group for a two-kilometer hike for an uninspiring hike to a strategic lighthouse. The saving grace of the long morning was our guide Erin. Born and raised in Haugesund, she was a wealth of local lore—both historical and fantastical. The Norwegians love their stories of magical beings and the consequences of their antics.
The city’s importance came from its location at the entrance to the straits, giving early Vikings control over the North Sea fishing lanes through taxation. Hence the “nor” way. That first wave of prosperity was around 792-1030. The town then became a backwater as first steamships propelled Norway into ship building and later the discovery of rich oil reserves in the North Sea made Norway a major exporter of the liquid gold. A herring boom in the late 19th century briefly revived what had become a tiny town of only two families until the more lucrative Icelandic fishing areas opened.
The decline of fishing routes, the arrival of steamship technology, and industrialization of Europe all contributed to a poor and underpopulated Norway becoming allied with Denmark in what Norwegians call the “long sleep”. Norway did not shake the Danish yoke until after Napoleon’s defeat in 1814, after which it became allied with Sweden. Full independence for Norway wasn’t achieved until 1905, a reason why Norwegians are fierce defenders of their independence, both political and economic. (95% of their energy consumption comes from local hydroelectric plants.) What’s not to like in a country that consistently ranks among the top ten happiest countries in the world?