ARTHUR: You… are you saying that you originally made the Earth?
SLARTIBARTFAST: Oh yes… did you ever go to a place… I think it’s called Norway?
ARTHUR: What? No, no I didn’t.
SLARTIBARTFAST: Pity… that was one of mine. Won an award you know, lovely crinkly edges.
Well. That’s the obligatory Hitch-hiker’s quotation out of the way. Which of course springs unbidden to the mind of anyone (of a certain vintage) who travels through the Norwegian fjord-lands.
We spent a couple of weeks with a hired car, wending our way from Bergen to Ålesund and back, crossing the ramifying drainage basins of the Hardangerfjord, Sognefjord, Nordfjord and Storfjord.
These fjords are so complicated in their windings and branchings that I found I couldn’t hold more than a day’s-worth of terrain in my head at any one time. And the mountainous complexity of the terrain led to three main driving experiences, all more-or-less unnerving when first encountered while sitting on the wrong side of a strange vehicle—tunnels, narrow mountain roads and ferries.
The tunnels were a doddle compared to the unlit, single-track-with-passing-places nightmares we encountered in the Faeroes. Almost all were wide enough for two cars, and all contained at least a gesture towards illumination, even in remote areas. The Norwegians do seem to delight in carving their tunnels in long curves or gentle spirals, which is a little disorientating when oncoming headlights suddenly appear in unexpected parts of your visual field. But from time to time, in mid-tunnel, we’d be suddenly overtaken by a local Norwegian, apparently confident there was a straight run ahead that would reveal any oncoming headlights. Or they were just crazy people—it’s sometimes difficult to tell.
The madly steep and winding roads were great fun, and the Norwegians have made a virtue out of them, incorporating some of the steepest and most winding into their 18 Norwegian Scenic Routes. We sampled a few, and in fact made a detour to take in the Stalheimskleiva, with its 20% gradient and 13 hairpin bends on the descent into Nærødalen. Here’s what it looked like in 1890:
Not much has changed since then, except it has been surfaced and declared one-way (descent only), and is now bypassed by the main road which travels (you guessed it) through a long curving tunnel. Well, I say one-way—but when we descended it, we met a young woman on a bicycle coming up. Quite slowly.
In the main, these mountain roads are not nearly as terrifying as some of the more breathless TripAdvisor reviewers would have you believe. But they can be a bit of a pain if you meet a fleet of sight-seeing buses coming up the hill from a cruise ship that has just docked in the village below, as we did on the pretty descent into Geiranger.
The only real exception we encountered is the madness that seems to prevail on the western end of the Aurlandsfjellet road. This is steep and hairpinned and about a car-and-a-half wide, with infrequent passing places, and unfortunately mobbed by traffic trying to get to the beautiful Stegastein viewing platform above the fjord. And a lot of this traffic seems to involve anxious people driving RVs they’ve apparently only just hired that morning, and on which they can’t find reverse gear. When we were there, a car towing a caravan had broken down about halfway up, and another driver was apparently attempting to reverse all the way back down.
And then there are the ferries. Foreign ferries are always a little anxiety-provoking: strange methods of payment, incomprehensible warning signs, unknown queueing systems, and brusque attendants making impenetrable hand gestures. But they’re an integral part of travel in these parts, and they establish a pleasant rhythm to the day—drive up a windy road; drive across a high plateau, stop for goats; drive down a windy road; take a ferry; repeat.
Some of these fifteen-minute ferry crossings are … informal. People drive on and choose a random lane to park in. On arrival, when the bow door opens, everyone drives off four abreast and then merges chaotically into one lane of traffic at the far end of the dock. Sometimes people start driving on for the return journey while the last few cars are still disembarking. And the triangular route between Dragsvik, Hella and Vangsnes adds a new level of excitement, as people who want to go on to the next destination have to drive off and then drive on again, so that their cars are pointing in the same direction as the people who’ve just boarded—disembarkation is followed by a mad little rally around a mini-roundabout before driving back on board. Norwegians travelling in Scotland must find the regimented approach of the CalMac ferry operators deeply oppressive.
So, apart from driving and sailing through astonishing landscapes, what else did we do?
We puzzled over the meaning of road signs, as you do in a foreign country. In particular, we couldn’t deduce the meaning of “Over fartsgrensa?” from its accompanying picture. You can find at least one person on the internet who thinks it has something to do with driving fatigue, which sort of vaguely makes sense, but plugging the phrase into translation software reveals that it actually means “Over the speed limit?” The significance of the half-blurred girl eluded us, though.
But then there’s another puzzle, because an internet search on “over fartsgrensa” turns up lots of pictures of otherwise identical signs that read “Over fartsgrensen?” Why the different endings? It’s because Norway has two official written languages, bokmål and nynorsk, and it turns out that grensen means “the limit” in bokmål, while grensa means the same thing in nynorsk. And although much of Norway uses bokmål, our fjord-land journey was taking us through the heartland of nynorsk. (I get excited about these little revelations, but I completely understand if you don’t.)
We wandered pleasantly around Bergen and Ålesund, the two towns at either end of our trip. Both have pretty little centres facing on to the harbour, and both have scenic hills looking down on them.
We looked at a lot of waterfalls—as with our experience in the Faeroes, we pretty soon re-calibrated our perceptions of what constituted a noteworthy waterfall.
We took a train up (and then down) the Flåm valley. This is a (predictably by now) steep and winding scenic ascent that links the ferry port of Flåm to the main line between Bergen and Oslo. At the railway junction sits Myrdal, a station in the middle of mountainous nowhere which exists only to allow people to change trains. But as the train gets close to Myrdal, something positively surreal occurs. The train halts at a viewing platform overlooking Kjosfossen, a spectacular waterfall even by Norway’s standards. Passengers get out to photograph the waterfall. After a brief pause, a female voice begins to sing from the direction of the falls (hauntingly and slightly threateningly), and a succession of dancers in red dresses appear among the ruined buildings and rocks. They’re depicting hulders (singular, huldra)—members of that apparently endless list of mythical female creatures who seduce men only to kill them. (Don’t you just hate it when that happens?)
After a while, the song ends, the hulders drop out of sight, and everyone piles back on the train. It’s a remarkable little interlude.
And we wandered accidentally into a Viking village. Looking for a place to stop, stretch our legs and take a look at the head of the Nærøfjord (a branch of Sognefjord), we drove into the village of Gudvangen. We found ourselves being flagged into a huge informal parking area by a woman dressed in Viking costume (with a hi-vis jacket on top). When we arrived in the parking area, people dressed as Vikings were getting out of the cars—and some were carrying bladed weapons. We had strayed into a weekend market in the recreated Viking village of Njardarheimr. I could have bought a battle axe. (Only the puzzle of how to get it home prevented me from actually buying a battle axe, to be honest.)
It’s only a little unnerving that the otherwise peaceful and rational Norwegians have so enthusiastically embraced their blood-thirsty Viking past. It reminded me of our visit to Mongolia, where we discovered that the national hero is Genghis Khan.
Finally, I’d like to draw your attention to this rather splendid Norwegian object:
It’s called a kokosbolle, which I think means something like “coconut bun”—marshmallow, chocolate, grated coconut.
Now consider this homegrown Scottish object, locally known as a “snowball”, and reputedly invented in Scotland* by Tunnock’s in 1954:
Marshmallow, chocolate, grated coconut.
I find this as unreasonably satisfying as my previous find of Tunnock’s Tea Cakes, Caramel Wafers, and Barr’s Irn Bru in the Faeroe Islands. Though I do think the lady in the café in Ålesund was a little surprised when we photographed her kokosbolle.
* You may (or may not) be fascinated to know that the snowball, as manufactured in Scotland by Lees and Tunnock’s, has been legally declared a cake. Apparently confectionery in the UK is subject to Value Added Tax, whereas cakes are not. The two companies went to court to challenge a decision by Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs, who had classified the snowball as “standard rated confectionery”. Judge Anne Scott upheld their appeal with the words, “A Snowball looks like a cake. It is not out of place on a plate full of cakes. A Snowball has the mouth feel of a cake.”
I’m glad we got that sorted out.