Emily and I spent last week in Norway, visiting the cities of Oslo and Bergen and the fjords of the country’s west coast.
We began our trip in Oslo, Norway’s capital and largest city. We had a few hours to burn before checking into our hotel so we took a walk down to the harbor nearby to explore, waking ourselves up with some stiff Norwegian coffee.
The harbor’s main attraction is Aker Brygge, a neighborhood occupying a former industrial area full of ultra-modern apartment buildings, restaurants, and shops. At the end of the wharf we went to the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, which had a lot of bizarre works, including one made up of hundreds of plastic heads resembling Tom Cruise bunched up on the floor. Another was a cow sawed in two and suspended in preserving fluids with its innards visible. Gross.
Most of Oslo’s sights lie between the Royal Palace and Oslo Central Station. Within this stretch are a few parks and promenades and shopping areas.
A must see is the modernist Radhuset, the city’s seat of government, housed in a dark red brick building that rises from the harbor side. Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 in its impressive main hall, which is painted with Art Deco murals depicting agrarian and industrial themes.
Other sights nearby are the Akershus Festining, a 700-year old fortress overlooking the harbor, and the city’s new opera house. You can walk right up its slanted white roof to get a view of the harbor.
The next morning we grabbed a tram to Vigelandsparken, a park with an impressive collection of sculptures depicting the various stages of human life.
On our second day we took a ferry to the nearby island of Bygdoy, the site of several of Oslo’s museums. If you have time to only visit one, go to the Norsk Folkemusem. We spent about an hour walking through recreated traditional Norwegian villages with stave churches and wooden houses. At first we thought it was going to be a little cheesy but ended up really enjoying the visit.
Oslo to Fjord Country
The next day, we left Oslo for Norway’s western coast. We used a convenient transportation service called Norway in a Nutshell, which uses the country’s existing transportation network to shuttle tourists around Norway. Just punch in your origin and destination on the website and your desired stops along the way, and it spits out an itinerary including trains, trams and ferries–whatever your route requires.
Oslo to Myrdal
The first leg of our trip was a three-hour train ride through the beautiful mountains of southern Norway. With its steep mountains and snowy patches even in late May, the scenery reminded me of the Swiss countryside. I half expected to spot Heidi out on the pastures and hear yodeling as our train flew by.
As we climbed in elevation, the snow cover, which first could only be seen at on the mountain tops, got deeper and all signs of spring disappeared to reveal a winter wonderland of white mountains and ski towns. At the town of Finse, the skiing area was right next to the train tracks. If there were a ramp next to the tracks it would have been possible to ski onto the train and be in Oslo in a few hours.
On the train, we enjoyed watching Norwegian families in vacation mode, including one that boarded at a Finse, fresh off the slopes and decked out in ski attire. One family (all tall and blonde of course), loaded up their skis and sat down with their packed lunches. When we got up to exit a few stops later, at Myrdal, we noticed that the unattended baby stroller we were standing next to was moving slightly. There was a very young baby in it. It was the family’s. That would never happen in the USA.
Flam Line and Ferry
The next part of the Norway in a Nutshell route was the famous Flam Line, a railway that runs from the snowy mountaintop town of Myrdal through a picturesque green valley to Flåm, a coastal village on Sognefjord, Norway’s largest fjord. Along the route, tall waterfalls drop down from the mountainsides and a crystal clear river flows below.
At Kjosfossen waterfall, the conductor let everyone out on a viewing platform. As we were taking in the sight of the beautiful 700 ft waterfall, music began to play from the hillside. Up above, a small woman dressed in red dress emerged from behind the ruins of an old stone building and began to dance, disappearing behind the building before making a dramatic reappearance, waving her arms as she danced around. After the music ended she disappeared behind the ruins. Emily and I couldn’t stop talking about this fairy nymph. It was so bizarre and unexpected. Researching it later it turns out that the fairy is none other than the legendary Huldra, a “seductive forest creature in Scandanavian folklore”.
At the base of the railway we got our first view of the fjords at Flåm. Despite being very touristy, Flåm was beautiful. After getting lunch, we jumped on a ferry that was swarmed with dozens of Chinese tourists.
The views of the mountains from the boat were right out of a landscape painting. We disembarked at the village of Balestrand, a hamlet nestled in a quiet corner of the Sognejord. The waterfront town sits at the base of a steep hillside lined with evergreen trees. Snow-capped mountains provide a dramatic backdrop.
Balestrand’s reputation as a resort destination goes back to the mid-1800s, even drawing an annual visit from Kaiser Wilhelm before he blundered into Word War I. Balestrand is probably best known for its 19th century-era Kviknes Hotel. As our boat pulled up to the dock we spotted its gleaming white wooden facade, which contrasted starkly with the green mountainside and sparkling blue water.
The hotel lived up to its reputation. We enjoyed walking around the lobby of the hotel and its sitting rooms with views of the water. The walls were filled with paintings and historic photos of hotel. The Kviknes reminded us of the Mohonk hotel we stayed at for our “mini-moon” last year.
There’s not much going on in Balestrand but we didn’t mind a little peace and quiet to go with the wonderful scenery. The town basically consists of one main street that skirts the coastline and severely others that beach off from it and head up the hillside. Besides the Kviknes, Balestrand has two or three other small hotels and as many restaurants. Our first night there we walked along the main road and saw a Stave church and two viking burial mounds overlooking the sea.
We were surprised at how light it stayed during the evening. Balestrand is even farther north than Anchorage, Alaska. In fact the whole time we were there we did not see darkness. Even at 11pm it was still relatively light out.
Our trip to Norway happened to coincide with Constitution Day, held on May 17th. It’s sort of like Norway’s July 4th. Oslo has the biggest festivities and parades, of course, so we were a little disappointed that we were going to the miss the festivities and the throngs of people lining up and down the main thoroughfare of the capital in traditional Norwegian costumes. But we were happy to realize that Balestrand also had a schedule of events planned for 17 Mai.
The next day, Emily and I timed our morning walk so that at the end of it we would be able to catch the beginning of the town’s parade. Shortly before the parade, we spotted the town’s inhabitants–women in traditional dresses and men in their Sunday best–headed down from their houses to congregate at the little town square near the church. We watched as the parade made its way through the town’s main street towards the Viking mounds where the ceremony was to be held. At the ceremony site a woman’s choir sang the Norwegian national anthem and another song while the whole town listened attentively, except for the kids running about in the background.
After the ceremony the parade continued up the hill to the town’s little middle school for the mayor’s speech. The Kviknes served up a buffet meal for the town and we set up shop in the sitting rooms to read and people watch.
The next morning we jumped on a four-hour ferry ride through the remainder of Sognefjord and the western archipelago to Bergen, a beautiful little city on a harbor surrounded by steep wooded hills. I found the city to be a little bit like Seattle -rainy and green. Bergen’s claim to fame is the UNESCO-designated Bryggen, a line colorful shops that once served as the main trading area for the city when it was part of the powerful Hanseatic League a few hundred years ago.
We spent the first afternoon and evening wondering around the cobblestone streets admiring the colorful old houses and shops. The city is quite compact and very walkable.
The next morning we took a funicular train (I love that word) up to the top of Mount Floyen, one of the hills overlooking the city.
We took in the sweeping views and then walked around a nice lake called Skomakerdike and some of the nature trails nearby before walking back down to the city.
After getting lunch and relaxing for little bit we headed back out to the other side of the harbor in a neighborhood called Nordnes, which has a bunch of cobblestone streets and alleyways decked out in flowers and Norwegian flags. The side of the town look a little bit like Pacific Heights in San Francisco, with its nice light colored homes and sweeping views of the harbor.
Emily and I were struck by how good-looking and tall and blonde the native Norwegian people were. Even people with ordinary jobs like baggage handlers or ferry operators or bus drivers looked like they could’ve been models. It was also interesting to see how the young women made an effort not to be blonde, by dying their hair black or by penciling in darker eyebrows.
Norway was more diverse than I expected, and not just in the big cities. During the Constitution Day party in Balestrand, we saw among the blonde kids running about a few children with African and Middle Eastern heritage. Some of their parents were even wearing Norwegian traditional dress. The issue about what it means to be truly “European” was evident in vivid color. It seemed to us, at least in our anecdotal example, that the Norwegians were willing to open up their society to people from far-off lands. In Oslo and Bergen, we did see many female Kurdish beggars though.
Norway’s public transportation systems were so efficient and clean and easy to use. There was no litter on the streets and even the public bathrooms were immaculate. Everyone spoke English, down to the convenience store clerks and the bus drivers.
The food in Norway was excellent. Seafood was the most common item but almost every ethnic food we have in America could be found as well. There were even a few vegetarian restaurants. I don’t know if it was a law or not but restaurants really made an effort to identify potential allergens in the food they served.
Norwegians love their pastries. An excellent dessert popular in Bergen was the skollebolle, a custard filled pastry sprinkled with coconut flakes.
Food prices were high but not exorbitant, mainly due to the strong dollar (8.2 kroner to the dollar). Alcohol was probably the most expensive thing relative to prices in the US. Bottles of beer went for $8-10. I even accidentally bought a 0.5 liter beer at the Kviknes hotel that was $22. I wouldn’t have ordered it if I had the price list in front of me.
Restaurants and Cafes
Elias Mat & Sånt: best meal we had in Norway; menu is half vegan
Der Peppern Gror: best Indian food we’ve had in a while; ate there twice
Vikingertreff: basic bar-type food but high quality
Pygmalion: mostly vegan menu in hip and artsy setting
Matbørsen: a food court occupying a former bank building, with four nice restaurants
Godt Brød: great pastries and coffee
Klosteret Kaffebar: superb cafe restaurant in Nordnes
Hotels were relatively cheap- we stayed at the some of the best hotels in each city and the rates went for $200-250 a night.
Oslo: Hotel Continental: not much to look at out outside but it’s beautiful inside; great location right on Karl Johans Gate in the city center; amazing hotel breakfast
Balestrand: Kviknes Hotel: Classic hotel with beautiful architecture and old world charm: stay in the old part of the hotel for the best experience, though the bathrooms were pretty bad
Bergen: Clarion Collection hotel Rosenkrantz: nice hotel with an unbeatable location next to the Bryggen: good buffet breakfast