June 2012

Norway

Gulf Stream Country


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Norway is a wonderful place, filled with so many different types of scenery that you think you’re traveling in a series of countries and not just one.  To start with it’s very long and narrow, much like Chile in that regard.  From Kristiansand in the south to Kirkenes, almost on the Russian border in the far reaches of the northeast, is nearly 2800 kilometers (1750 miles) by the most direct route.  Naturally, we never follow the shortest path from A to B so our mileage is much higher.  While you’re driving all those miles, a constant flow of beautiful scenery is right out your window.  From the famous fjords to the snow-covered mountains to the lovely farmlands, it’s all amazingly attractive.  Add the almost never-ending presence of water in rushing rivers and waterfalls, lakes and ponds, and of course the sea; well, it’s really worth seeing.

The top of Norway is the northernmost area in Europe.  Yet there are parts of this country that are surprisingly lush and full of wildflowers and very warm – at least in the summertime.  But the same country endures long, dark winters and contains icy peaks covered with snow in July – real frozen tundra.

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Norway’s southern tip is further north than Edmonton, Canada and the capital, Oslo, is actually located at the same latitude (60 degrees north) as the line that divides Canada’s western provinces such as British Columbia or Alberta from the Yukon or North West Territories.  The southern tip of Greenland is on that same parallel, and Moscow is quite a bit further south.  These are all well known as really cold places, so how come Norway is so lovely and warm all summer?  Try thinking Gulf Stream.  How come far northern Norway has areas that are lush and green all summer, and year-round ice-free ports?  The Gulf Stream.  We could give more examples, but you get the idea.  This far north, the only thing that keeps Norway so lush and green and beautiful is that flow of warm water coming up from the caribbean.

It’s been a while since we’ve been in a country with so much geographical variety.  Some of the terrain is so rocky and barren that nothing grows there, but seemingly right around the corner is productive farmland.  Whatever you come expecting, Norway will almost surely surprise you if you look past just the fjords.

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We began our explorations in Oslo, the capital.  Having just crossed from Sweden into yet another country with its own currency, we needed to find an ATM, which gave us a bit of trouble because the security companies that service those machines in Oslo were all out on strike.  We finally found one attached to an open bank, and it gave us some NOKs (kroner) and we were in business.  Our wandering had taken us through some lovely neighborhoods, however, so the benefits were two-fold: money and an introduction to the city.

Now Oslo is known as a museum town, and there are some doozies.  We spent our first night in town at a motorhome parking area alongside a marina; it was near the maritime museums we were interested in, so that was pretty cool.  The Viking Ships Museum was first on our list, and it was absolutely amazing.  They had real ones, not replicas – two pretty complete, and parts of a third.  Real Viking ships!  From the 9th century!  We were overawed. We stayed for hours.  

In the same area was the Kon-Tiki Museum, which was just as interesting.  It was all about the explorations of Thor Heyerdahl, and contained two of his most famous ships: the Ra II and the Kon-Tiki.  There was also a lot of very interesting material on Heyerdahl’s life and accomplishments – along with the film about the voyage of the Kon-Tiki, which you may remember.  It won the Oscar for best documentary in 1967.  We had to come back a second day in order to see the film, but it was worth it.

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Another nice one, though somewhat less interesting to us, was the Fram Museum, which houses the Gjøa, the ship in which Roald Amundsen made the first complete trip through the Northwest Passage, in 1906.  This could have been a terrific museum, but it was confusing, not well laid out, and quite difficult to follow.  They were in the process of making new display panels, which they hoped to have set up in a few days; perhaps they will help.  I think Rick enjoyed this museum more than I did. I was quite disappointed, because the topic interests me, and I was eager to learn more.  

These museums are all on an island across from the Oslo old town area, and we took a ferry across and poked around for quite awhile.  Oslo is charming, and it was a pretty day.  Late in the afternoon we moved the truck over to the main part of the city, to the huge park where the Vigeland sculptures are.We got ourselves settled for the night, and then headed into the core of the park, passing old-timers playing soccer, folks enjoying picnic dinners, couples laying on the grass, bicyclists, joggers, baby buggies on parade, a croquet game in progress, a dog obedience class, you name it.  It was great to see all the folks out enjoying the warmer weather.  

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We made our way over to the sculpture park, and spent a long time wandering among the statuary, enjoying the lovely evening and the amazing array of bronze and granite statues representing people in all their moods and ages.  Heading back to the truck, we watched the end of the dog obedience class; the animals had just been released and were having a wonderful time in the late evening sunlight.  Joggers and walkers were everywhere; it was well after 10:00 pm on an early June evening.  Oslo at its summertime best.

So, when you leave Oslo, what do you do next?  This is where it all can get a bit overwhelming.  Southern Norway is full of lovely towns and sights and – need I give a hint of what’s to come – plenty of waterfalls and fjords.  We wandered along enjoying the countryside and stopping to see whatever we came across.  

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Our first real destination was Bergen, but we had a choice of roads we could take and many good things to see along the way.  Heading west from Oslo, we chose Highway 134 as our route, so we could stop in Kongsberg to the see the large baroque church there, and also in Heddal, where we saw our first stave church, which was lovely, and in a pretty country setting.  

Kongsberg was the site of an enormous silver mine and was a very wealthy town, actually the largest settlement in Norway in the 1750s.  In 1761, work was completed on a brick church that was meant to demonstrate the wealth of its congregation.  It did this with an incredibly ornate interior, all made of wood that was painted or gilded in fine style.  The insides of the church are so at odds with the simple brickwork of the exterior that you have to wonder how it happened to be so.  The answer is simple; the original architect, who designed the structure of the building, died midway through the 21 years of construction and was replaced by a much more flamboyant character who subsequently designed the interior.  The building has a real split personality.  Anyway, the interior is great fun and the wonderful thing about it is that it is almost entirely original and un-restored.

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Norway is famous for its stave churches (stavekirke); we visited several during our meanderings, the one at Heddal being just the first.  The Norwegians did wonderful work in wood, and the stave churches are the most famous examples of their art.  They date back to the 1100-1200s.  They are so named because the interiors are characterized by upright wooden supports (staves).  They are small inside, with a very closed feeling; the wood is lovely and often intricately carved and highly decorated.  Standing inside and looking upwards, you feel as if you inhabit a much earlier time; the smell of wood smoke is strong, the light is dim, there are no places to sit; very evocative.  These churches are cool.  Amazingly, there are 4 of them in the United States, modern replicas, and one is in Rapid City, SD; we had visited it several years ago.  (The others are in Moorhead, MN, Epcot Center, FL, and Minot, ND.)

Leaving Heddal, we went over the Ankelfjell pass at 1004 meters, all snow and a frozen lake that was just beginning to thaw.  It was June 8.  We spent the night; it got down to 32 degrees – not part of our plan!  The waterfalls were full and glorious and frequent.  

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We dropped down from the pass and were at our first fjord; steep walls climbing up from the water, the road curving along near the bottom with little towns scattered along the way.  In Lofthus we stopped at Ullensvang kirke to enjoy its calm and lovely interior, so different from either the baroque extravagance of Kongsberg or the quiet simplicity of the stave churches.  We then took the first of our several ferry rides, across the top of the Eidfjord fjord and the Hardanger road; it was great fun!  Along the way, we saw cherry and apple orchards, finishing up their bloom, and plenty of small villages clinging to the bottoms of the steep walls of the fjords.  It was all quite lovely… and we were still pretty far south.  We wandered around the area; we rode along the edges of fjords, took ferries across them, and tunnels through the mountains in between. Regularly one of us would comment on how much southern and central Norway was reminding us of British Columbia.  

(By the way, the countryside may look a lot like British Columbia, but the ferry system isn’t nearly the same – the ferry guys are much more casual; it’s everyone for himself getting on and off the boats!  And road construction is pretty casual, too.  We were surprised.)

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And soon we arrived in Bergen, a destination town that everybody adores.  Well…. maybe.  Our experience was one of tremendous crowds, with both locals and cruise ship passengers out in force – it was a Saturday afternoon, which may or may not have made any difference.  We couldn’t even see the famous waterfront for all the people and the tents of the many vendors.  Others traveling as we do have said they got lucky and were able to find parking; we couldn’t do that, though perhaps we didn’t try hard enough.  Realizing that Bergen is much too small to handle its success, we decided to go somewhere else.  We’ve since been to two or three other towns that are very similar to what we were seeking in Bergen, and have taken our pleasure there instead.

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Before leaving the Bergen area, however, we searched out the suburb of Troldhaugen, the home of composer Edvard Grieg.  We had a lovely visit to this very nice neighborhood; the house where he lived and worked is on a point with a pretty view of the area, and there is a museum of his things and about his life and work.  Knowledgeable young people were all around, both keeping an eye on things and being ready to share information in multiple languages.  We had a chance to watch a film showing the beauty of the area, set to some of Grieg’s music; it was enchanting.  A side benefit: the rhododendrons are in bloom now, and they were in great profusion; they have seduced me once again; there’s nothing better!

We headed back inland, into the barren mountains covered with snow.  We were delighted.  We kept moving north, occasionally crossing a fjord but purposely avoiding the coastal route and moving along an interior path.  And it was truly a lovely, successful choice.  Inland Norway is stunning.  

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Making a short stop in Voss, looking for a telephone in order to call and straighten out some banking errors (on their part), we chatted with the local tourist office staff, who let us use their international line, and didn’t charge us an arm and a leg, either.  It was Sunday, and church was just letting out.  The service had involved the blessing of several babies, and many of the townspeople had attended dressed in traditional clothing.  It was a charming sight.  After they left we were able to explore this very interesting church, and then to watch the local bands marching along as they made their way to an annual competition.  All in quiet little Voss! (Which is not always quiet, we understand; it is a big adventuring destination during the summer.)

The stave churches really had me jazzed.  I would have enjoyed seeing them all.  During the period 1130-1350 about one thousand of these wooden churches were built.  There are 28 still extant in Norway, scattered all over the countryside.  We noticed one listed for the hamlet of Undredal so we went to check it out.  Not available – it was being restored.  The tiny little building had scaffolding all over it and signs in several languages suggesting we should keep our hands to ourselves.  Undredal is located right along the edge of a fjord, in a gorgeous location and we spent the night nearby, so the trip certainly was not in vain.  

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The tunnels in Norway were beginning to get us down a little.  There are so many of them.  Too many for our pleasure, as we would rather go over a mountain than through it.  Some of them were amazingly long – I think our longest was 11 km – almost 7 miles underground.  But then we’re not the locals, actually trying to get somewhere and get business taken care of!  Incidentally, we’ve decided that “tunnel” is the Norwegian word for “straight road” -- they are about the only ones that are!  (And further north we started going through ones that weren’t straight at all – curvy, up-and-down, even some with roundabouts in them!)  Interestingly, these tunnels are not new.  They were clearly dug a long time ago and are generally narrow, unfinished and quite dark, which does not add to their appeal at all.  

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We looked for ways to avoid the tunnels, and sometimes were successful.  We found small, old roads on our map, and took them when possible, though sometimes they were not yet open for the season.  Our biggest triumph was avoiding the world’s longest car tunnel, at 24.5 km (over 15 miles).  Instead, we took the Aurland Road that goes over the top.  It was a great and squiggly ride, through lots of snow to an ultimate height of 1310 meters.  Of course, it took us almost 3-1/2 hours to do it, instead of the twenty minutes the tunnel journey would have lasted, but we enjoyed every single minute of it.  At one point we stopped at an overlook, and a small tourist van pulled up and a bunch of folks hopped out.  They were more interested in us than in the view, and we had a lovely chat with a couple who were from South Africa.  We were interested in establishing a connection with them for when we visit Africa in a couple of years, but sadly they’ve moved to England.  Ah, well; they were great fun anyway.

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The stave church at Borgund is magnificent, and a worthwhile destination. The church had very recently received a fresh coat of protective tar over its entire exterior; the black color was quite striking, if the smell a bit of a deterrent.  No problem with keeping your hands to yourself!  We asked about it and learned that tar is indeed the historically correct method of preserving the wood and that they took great pains to make the tar in the old manner, from wood; it isn’t petroleum based at all.  This church is a particularly important example of the architectural style because it has been altered the least over the centuries, and it is quite impressive.  It’s very oriental in outside appearance, with dragonheads featured very prominently.   There were several “guides” in evidence, sharing information as well as making sure nobody started carving their initials in the wood.  The Borgund church is a very important artifact, and was purchased by the Norwegian Society for Ancient Monuments – in 1877.  It’s a national treasure, deservedly so.

The site includes a very interesting museum with lots of information on the history of stave churches in general, and pictures of many of them.  I had had great difficulty in taking decent pictures inside the church, and was delighted to see an excellent photograph in the museum, and so I promptly took a picture of it!  

We had detoured to stop at Borgund, so returned to the Sogndal area and up-and-over on a tiny road (Highway 55) – the Sognefjellsweg, one of Norway’s many famous high passes.  At the top of the pass (1435 meters) it was misty and snowy.  There were folks skiing at the resort up there; it was 38 degrees.  We went past many frozen and snow-covered ponds.  It was real alpine tundra, and so different from the lush greenery of lower elevations.

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Next we had another neat encounter with an old church, in Dale.  Spotting a sign for a Bakeri, and finding ourselves in the mood for a treat, we pulled off the road and only after stopping noticed an old stone church next door.  We discovered that we had just happened upon a building that was built in 1250 and was really an amazing little place.  The stonework was beautiful, as were the many paintings in the interior, some dating to the 13th century.  Up near the altar was a prayer bench that actually predates the church, having been made in the 1100s;  we hope you will think it is as special as we do.  This was a wonderful little spot that should have been, but was not, in either our guidebook or any of the tourist information we had picked up along the way.  How easily we might have missed it; thank goodness for a sweet tooth!

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We arrived in Lom, a major road junction (if not much else).  Going left we could pick up the Trollstigen road, another very famous twisty with incredible views from the top – when the skies are clear.  We had intended to go this way, but it was raining by now, the cloud level was very low and the weather was not likely to improve anytime soon.  So we skipped.  We decided it was time to start north more purposefully. The good way to do this was to take roads up through the interior of the country.  We would be missing out on some of the most famous and therefore most visited fjords, but we also knew that the interior was lovely as well.  We’ve never regretted our decision.

So we turned right, taking a beautiful valley road over to Otta, where we found excellent internet and good shopping; we got caught up on the rest of the world and stocked up, expecting the opportunities for doing both would lessen as we got further into the hinterland.  (Actually, as it turned out, we have had relatively little trouble doing either even all the way north.)  In Otta we picked up the E6, the road that goes all the way from Oslo to the top of the country and east to the Russian border.

Meandering up the interior, we were delighted by what we saw: we drove past rustic homes set in lush valleys, then around a corner and up another 500 feet into the tundra and snow again.  We passed through Dovrefjell-Sunndalsfjella National Park – bleak and barren and arctic – and along the way suddenly came upon an Alvis group gathering for lunch in Turtagrø.  No, not Elvis, or Avis – Alvis.  It’s a British car manufacturer; now defunct, but well regarded in its day.  There were about twenty cars and they were pretty spiffy, ranging from the 1920s up to the mid 50s.  

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Then we worked our way back down below tree level again and into areas of old wooden houses with sod roofs.  We munched on an occasional goody from the Dale bakery, and enjoyed the drive.  There were signs warning of musk ox, and moose, but we never saw any.  Bummer.  It was mid-June, and definitely summertime, but the campgrounds we passed were empty and it was very quiet unless we were in a touristy area.  June is still ahead of the season.  It will be much busier later on.

Trondheim is the third largest city in Norway, and a nice town to visit.  It’s a good place to get supplies before heading further north, and has some stuff to see as well.  We drove there along the Gaula River, a pretty mountain valley and supposedly home to the best salmon fishing in Norway.  (Of course, I took that off a sign talking about things to do in the area…)  We saw sandhill cranes in a field, just like the ones we’d seen in Fairbanks, Alaska a few years ago.  They sure do get around.  There is plenty going on in this area, particularly on a lovely Sunday morning.  The ubiquitous bike paths were very busy, both with cyclists and folks out exercising on the summer version of skiing (ski skates?).

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We arrived in town mid-morning, and found ourselves a spot in a parking lot that was designated for motorhomes; pretty cool.  It was close to the old town, with a walking bridge to take us across the river and right up to the cathedral.  Now this was a very interesting Gothic cathedral; absolutely enormous.  We thought we were back in England.  We couldn’t get inside, but that was okay; we wandered the exterior, taking pictures of gargoyles and ancient gravestones.  Our kind of a morning.  There were plenty of interesting old buildings nearby that got our attention as well, along with the army museum.  

When you go to a military museum, you get lots of historical stuff, and also good narrative on how the fighting was conducted at various times in history.  Here, the museum included info on winter tactics in the Arctic, a new subject for us.  It was quite interesting.  The museum also houses several rooms on the resistance effort during World War II; it was the first time we were introduced to the idea of cooperative efforts with the Russians.  It’s so easy to forget that the Russians were our allies during that time, and of course Norway and Russia have a very long and involved history together.  

In Trondheim we once again tackled a problem inside the coach.  It seems we still had a mouse in the house.  We’d put off facing this issue, but for several days had been unable to ignore the rustling noises we could hear behind the couch.  It really was quite bizarre, as we never saw any evidence of his presence; no food packages chewed open, no droppings or piles of nesting materials, nothing.  You may recall that we’d gotten rid of our pair of mice in Belgium – in April.  How could we still have one with us?  We finally decided it was a love child that had been born in our home (were there others, that hadn’t survived?), and had grown up eating the insulation between the walls of the motorhome.  Still hard to believe, but apparently true.  

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Once discovered, we had tried tempting the mouse out with offers of cheese (which its parents had happily gobbled down), but it wasn’t interested.  So Rick finally took the couch apart – BIG JOB – and confirmed that he was indeed in the wall and basically trapped there by a mound of insulation stuffed into the hole so that he couldn’t get out.  Rick opened up the area for him, he came out to see what was what in the world, and wandered into the mousetrap we had set out.  He was quite small, but seemed healthy – and we hope managed to find a way to survive when we set him loose in the woods on Mouse Freedom Day.  We refrained from leaving him a small pile of insulation to tide him over.  We hope this is our last mouse story.  We named him Redux, by the way.

The next day, after doing our last stock up shopping for the road north, poorer but well supplied again, we headed on up the road.  We still had a lot of territory to cover, even to just get to the Arctic Circle.  The road followed the Trondheimfjiorden, a lovely companion.  We left the highway for a while and spent the night at the wetlands at Stiklestad, a quiet nature reserve.  There are many of them here, and tons of birds at various times, although not so many right now.  

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Detouring off the E6, we took a small road along the Snåsavatnet, at the head of which was the Snåsa kirke, with its lovely wood interior.  It was raining hard when we arrived, but the weather soon eased up, and we were able to spend time wandering the gardens and graveyard as well as enjoying the interior.  Much of this road was through rolling hills and forested areas, and a lot of small-scale local logging was underway.  The trees are a combination of deciduous and evergreen, and the different colors of green were really pretty; it seemed like spring had just arrived, with so much new growth showing.

We’ve been surprised at the variety of churches we’ve been seeing here in Norway.  The stavekirke are the most famous, and some of the oldest, but these country churches are a real treat.  Many of them are wooden, but lots are made of stone and even a few of brick.  We have no idea of the type of faith being practiced in them, we just enjoy the architecture and the history and the serenity we feel each time.  Sometimes they are prepared for tourists, and charge a fee to enter, but often the sanctuary is simply open and available to passersby.

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The small country towns have been delightful and quiet.  Early this morning, out of the blue, we heard the welcome sound of a cuckoo bird.  We had not heard one for a long time, and had been worried that we were too far north.  Rick woke up to the sound, and later admitted he was so groggy he was actually counting the calls to see what time it was because he thought it was a clock!  Honest.

We are making our way north to the Arctic Circle.  We have a life goal of trying to cross the Circle in every country where this is possible.  So far the Tiger has taken us to Inuvik, Northwest Territories, and to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.  We are getting close here in Norway.  After that, we will be faced with a decision of how much further north we are going to go.  

We are enjoying our time in Norway very much, but we tell ourselves we need to be practical. It’s expensive here, for starters; and you can’t ignore the distances involved in getting anywhere.  With fuel running around $8.50 per gallon, which for us equates to $0.60 per mile, northern Norway is a long ways up there.  From the Arctic Circle up to the North Cape is over 650 miles and on to the Russian border another 450 on top of that; and then you have to turn around and come back south, albeit via a different route of course.

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So, would we stop at the Circle or go on, all the way to the top of Norway, and then to the far eastern edge to say hello to Russia?

Well, ultimately, being practical lost out to our adventurous spirit; no surprise there.  We, who had gone to the top of Alaska and the highest point in Northwest Territories -- were we going to call it quits this close to the northernmost place in Europe?  Not on your life!  Nuts to keeping on a budget; we’d manage somehow.

So off we’ve gone – on into Nord-Norge, On Beyond the Arctic Circle – on to the top and then all the way to the end of E6 at Kirkenes, and on to the Russian border.  We’ll be back in touch soon to give you “the rest of the story.”

Rick & Kathy, mouse-less at last, with our Intrepid Tortuga making it all possible.


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