The Vikings had nowhere to turn but the sea.
Their home, the ragged west coast of Norway with its deep fjords, sheer cliffs, and countless islands, is unsuitable for farming.
And so, the Norsemen developed newfangled longships and sophisticated navigation techniques. These advancements enabled them to expand and dominate their world.
They raided and colonized northwestern Europe, including parts of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, England, Iceland, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Russia, and Newfoundland in North America.
Over the centuries, their influence waned as other empires rose. Today, the Kingdom of Norway is slightly larger than New Mexico with a population of over five million.
Again, however, the sea has provided Norway with a pathway to wealth.
Today, the country has the most crude-oil and natural-gas reserves in Europe.
The Human Development Index, published by the UN, ranks countries on a composite of per-capita income, education, and life expectancy.
Norway is number one.
Coast to coast
The train from Oslo on the east coast to Stavenger on the west was mostly empty, as the Norwegians were celebrating Constitution Day. (For more on Constitution Day, please see “Free Norway.”) Throughout the journey I caught glimpses of local parades and townspeople in costume.
The train rolled through broad green valleys, along pristine blue lakes, and into small towns. Extensive rapids tumbled through downtown Kongsberg. Streets everywhere are lined with white red-roofed houses. (I suspect there is a law in Norway that every building must be white with red trim.)
Rural Norway reminded me of northern Ontario with its boulder-strewn streams and waterfalls. Cabins are tucked into the edges of lake shores. Patches of melting snow clung to distant grey mountaintops.
Sheep, horses, and cows graze in rocky pastures, stacked with boulders. Norwegian farmers seem to compete as to who can live on the highest perch.
I ate one of the goat-cheese sandwiches I packed for the trip. The train passed through Bø (pronounced brr). With a name like that, it must get cold in the winter.
Finally, near the ocean, the terrain turns desolate. Piles of gigantic rocks are stacked in rubble fields.
After seven hours, the train pulled into Stavenger, a city of over three hundred thousand on the water. I disembarked and found my hotel along the harbor.
A sign in the hotel’s elevator said the staff was on strike and apologized for the lack of service. “Help yourself to clean towels from the cart in the hallway.”
At N.B. Sørensen’s I enjoyed a dinner of fresh salmon, roast potatoes, and asparagus. (Nearly every meal in western Norway involves these same three ingredients.)
The restaurant is located within a former shipping company, where emigrants in the 1800s arranged transportation to America. The place is filled with memorabilia from that era.
All along the street the bars were jammed with high-school kids, many wearing brightly colored overalls, decorated with patches and pins. Russefeiring is a traditional month-long celebration for graduating students. Authorities attempt to control the parties and keep the revelers safe. The tradition dates to 1905.
The preservation of Stavenger’s Old Town has pushed most of the city’s population to the suburbs. As a result, downtown Stavenger retains a quaint character.
I visited Saint Swithun’s Cathedral, built in 1125. Its elaborate carved wooden pulpit is held aloft by mighty Samson.
But the real strength in Stavenger is petroleum.
The city’s growth has boomed in recent years due to its offshore industry. Stavenger is considered the oil capital of Norway. Major international petroleum companies have established offices here, adding jobs and attracting foreign workers. Over eleven percent of Stavenger’s population are immigrants. Its unemployment rate is less than two percent.
The “Norwegian model” ensures that revenue from oil underwrites the funding needs of the society as a whole. The government oversees it.
On the harbor sits the shiny Norwegian Petroleum Museum, built to resemble an oil rig. They let me in for free as they were hosting a reception in honor of a new exhibition. Lots of people in suits with name tags and only a few tourists.
Both the oil industry and the community are proud of the museum, which honors the main driver of Norway’s economy. The displays, however, seem mostly geared for oil professionals.
The speakers at the reception droned on endlessly—in Norwegian. At least they served chocolates and champagne.
Despite the offshore oil boom, the cliffs and fjords of western Norway appear to have resisted development. They are, of course, not isolated, but connected by ferries and trains, many designated to shuttle tourists in and out. And their cellular coverage is much faster than ours in the United States.
The journey by bus from Stavenger to Bergen is practically a flume ride. The bus picked its way from island to peninsula to island over bridges and through underwater tunnels. In one tunnel beneath the North Sea three roads merged at an underwater roundabout!
Twice we rode ferries, once between Mortavika and Arsvågen and again between Halhjem and Sandvikvåg. Each time, we disembarked, followed the bus on board and then reboarded the bus on the far shore.
The trip took 5½ hours. The bus was modern and comfortable, and the scenery spectacular with rocky landscapes and water views.
Numerous archaeological sites are in the area, including those of a twelve-thousand-year-old village north of Sørbø church and an eight-thousand-year-old bog-preserved body found near Førland.
In Bergen I rolled my bag through the smoky fish market and along the pier to my hotel near the fortress on the harbor. The fish market has been in operation since the 1500s.
Bergen, the second largest city in Norway, has a population of 250,000. The city was founded in 1070 by King Olav Kyrre and served as Norway’s capital in the 1200s. Seven mountains ring the city.
Bergenhus Fortress, built around 1270, guards the harbor. Nearby is the site of Bergen’s first cathedral, built in 1070. A monument lists the names of Norway’s early kings, starting in 1184.
A bunker built by the Nazis sits abandoned nearby. I toured the Fortress Museum, which focuses not on the fortress, but on Norwegian resistance during the Nazi occupation.
Bergen’s resistance was emboldened by the support of Great Britain, just across the North Sea. Underground communication tools and Gestapo torture devices were on display.
Saint Mary’s Church is Bergen’s oldest building in continuous use. Built in the 1100s near the harbor, it served the German merchants. Nearby is a statue of Snorri Sturluson, the Icelander who recorded the Viking’s oral mythology in the 1200s, thus preserving it for history.
Playwright Henrik Ibsen and composer Edvard Grieg both lived and worked in Bergen. They collaborated on the play Peer Gynt, featuring its popular classical pieces, “In the Hall of the Mountain King” and “Morning Mood.” The play was performed at Bergen’s National Theater.
In Oslo, I saw Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream, one of the most recognizable images in all of art.
Many more of his soul-searching paintings (with titles like Jealousy and Melancholy) are on display at the Art Museums of Bergen.
After two days of rain, the weather cleared. I rode the Fløibanen funicular one thousand feet to the peak of Mount Fløyen for an expansive view of Bergen, its harbor, and seven hills.
At the top was the finish line of a race. Scores of runners were recovering with bottles of water and energy bars.
I asked one about the event. “How long is the race?”
“It took me about 25 minutes, but the faster runners finished in under 13.”
“No, I mean how far is it? How many kilometers?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know how far you ran?” I was thinking, “How could he not know? A 5k? A 10k?”
“Oh, it’s 320 meters from the fish market in the harbor to the top of Mount Fløyen.” Three-hundred-and-twenty meters is less than a quarter of a mile.
He was, however, not speaking of the race’s distance. He was speaking of its elevation.
In Norway runners time themselves from the bottom to the top of a mountain, distance be damned. Three-hundred-and-twenty meters above sea level (in Norwegian, meters over havets, abbreviated as moh) must have been a steep uphill sprint, as the grade of the funicular I rode is twenty-six degrees!
“Gyda says go home”
The star of Bergen is the area along the harbor called Bryggen, once a Hanseatic trading town and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Hanseatic League was a powerful confederation of German merchants who banded together to protect their ships, trade routes, and market towns throughout northern Europe. They dominated Baltic Sea trade between 1400 and 1800.
(For more on another Hanseatic town, Tallinn, please see “Survivor: Estonia.”)
In Bergen the merchants set up shop in 1350 and built long wooden warehouses with narrow fronts facing the harbor. The insides of the trading houses were built like ships with low ceilings, narrow passageways, steep stairways, and built-in bunks. The remaining warehouses line the harbor like a border of colorful flowers.
A merchant, a foreman, and up to eight apprentices, all males, all bachelors, lived in each warehouse. I visited the Hanseatic Museum, located within one of the original trading houses. Its exhibits explained the lifestyle of the merchants. Upstairs in the museum, the dark, creaky rooms were furnished authentically.
Between the warehouses were narrow plank lanes and overhanging winches used for moving goods. The German merchants traded dried cod, caught by Norwegian fishermen, for grain and other goods. The merchants and their employees ate, kept warm, and socialized in community halls built behind the warehouses.
The defensive tower at Bergenhus Fortress was expanded in the 1500s by the Danish-Norwegian king who wanted to demonstrate his authority over the Hanseatic merchants.
So, instead of pointing his cannons toward the mouth of the harbor, he aimed them at their live-in warehouses instead.
But fire was the more-feared enemy. Open flames, including candles and fires for heating and cooking, were not permitted in the warehouses. Despite this rule, Bryggen burned to the ground numerous times over the centuries and was rebuilt each time.
The Bryggen Museum is built on top of an archaeological dig. It contains the nine-hundred-year-old foundations of some trading houses, part of the hull of a ship, and artifacts from the medieval port city.
Digs have uncovered numerous examples of the Viking runic alphabet, carved onto wood scraps the size and shape of Popsicle sticks. Several samples were on display, which translated to sales receipts, ownership tags, labels, letters, religious inscriptions, and poetry.
One read, “Gyda says go home.” Was this a wife’s message delivered to a husband too long at the pub?
Village of kings
The Norled express ferry covers the distance between Bergen and Balestrand in just four hours, jetting first through the Norwegian coastal waterway and then turning east into Sognefjord.
Island after island features hamlets of vacation homes. Some of the cabins are built of stained natural wood and roofed with sod. I saw a gas station with a sod roof!
In some places, the channel is narrow and the ferry slowed. Sognefjord, as the captain reminded us more than a few times, is the longest and deepest fjord in the world. It is nearly a mile deep in places and some of the surrounding mountains are nearly a mile high.
Even on a cloudy day, the sheer cliffs were spectacular to see, with countless waterfalls plunging into the sea. The deck was crowded with passengers, including me, trying to capture the view with cameras.
I disembarked in the tiny village of Balestrand with a population of two thousand. Eric, one of the hotel’s owners, met us at the dock in his Volvo wagon. He transported our luggage while we walked to the hotel.
Balestrand has a long history of hosting tourists. On the harbor is the huge, wooden Kviknes Hotel, built in the 1870s.
In front of the hotel, a set of concrete steps lead into the water. These are the Kaiser’s Stairs, built for the German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, who made his first summer visit to Balestrand in 1899 and continued to return for years.
I toured the new Norwegian Museum of Travel and Tourism, a rather disjointed yet high-tech exhibit in a stunning building carved out of solid rock. Much of the exhibit centers on the artists who congregated in Balestrand during the 1800s for the scenery and the extended hours of daylight.
I walked some of King Bele’s Way along the edge of the fjord toward the hotel. Numerous large homes were built overlooking the water in the late 1800s, many with dragons’ heads decorating the gables.
Saint Olaf’s Church was built in 1897. Saint Olaf, who brought Christianity to Norway in the 1000s, was once the country’s patron saint.
Just past the hotel are two Viking burial mounds and a statue of Viking King Bele, a gift from Kaiser Wilhelm II. (King Bele may have lived in legend only.)
Next morning, I hopped the 7:50 a.m. ferry to the village of Vik. I bought my roundtrip ticket on board.
I walked through the still-waking town and out into the rolling countryside past Vik toward the Hopperstad Stave Church. Spring lambs and kids tinkled their bells and called for their moms. Snow covered the mountaintops above the treeline. Waterfalls unfurled like white ribbons down the sides of the cliffs.
The Hopperstad Stave Church is situated on a knoll in the valley, overlooking the Sognefjord.
Stave churches are medieval wooden buildings, named for their framing with timbers. They look somewhat like pagodas, with several dragon-headed tiers.
Once, there were nearly two thousand in Norway. Now, there are less than thirty.
The Hopperstad church was built in 1130 and is mostly original. The exterior is coated with tar. A local guide unlocked the church with a foot-long skeleton key and provided an hour-long tour to a Canadian couple and me.
The inside is dark and somewhat mystical, as there are only a couple of high windows. Churchgoers stood for services, so the inside has no seating. A beautiful painted canopy that once covered an altar remains, dating from around 1300.
The guide, using a flashlight, showed us some colorful religious illustrations, runic inscriptions, and medieval graffiti on the walls.
Some American descendants of Norwegian immigrants have built a replica of Hopperstad at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead, Minnesota.
I walked back to the harbor and caught the next ferry back to Balestrand. Sea trout for dinner. Although the sun sets, the sky never darkens. The landscape is lit throughout the night.
Up the fjord
Next day at the harbor, I watched the summer-camp kids sort and identify their catches of fish, starfish, lobsters, and urchins.
Then I joined a speedboat tour of the fjord with Lars. Four other passengers and I put on insulated, waterproof red jumpsuits to stay warm and dry in the wind. We looked as though we were driving at Talladega, but without sponsor logos.
Lars spoke limited English. He stopped the boat several times for photo opps, such as near a four-hundred-foot waterfall. He played chicken, getting close enough to shower us with the spray. We cruised by an ancient stone church, built around 1290, on the small island of Kvamsøy.
Later I hiked the trail up to Orrabenken, overlooking the town and the fjord. School kids scampered past me like mountain goats.
While I paused at a viewpoint, a local women stopped to chat. She and her husband are trail runners. Of course, she knew the husband-and-wife owners of my hotel. Everyone knows everyone in this remote area.
Later at the hotel, I mentioned to Unni that I ran into one of her neighbors on the trail.
“Oh, she’s not really from around here,” Unni sniffed. “She’s from up the fjord.”