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 sophisticated longships and advanced navigation techniques, which 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 various empires rose and fell. Today, the Kingdom of Norway is slightly larger than New Mexico with a population of over five million.
Again, however, the sea 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.”) Occasionally I caught a glimpse of the 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. Rows of white red-roofed houses. (I suspect there is a law in Norway that every building must be white with red trim.)
The Norwegian farmers seem to compete as to who can live on the highest perch. Sheep, horses and cows graze in rocky pastures, lined with stacked round boulders.
Passed through Bø (pronounced brr) and imagined, with a name like that, how cold it must get in the winter. I ate one of the goat-cheese sandwiches I packed for the trip.
More and more, rural Norway reminded me of northern Ontario with boulder-strewn streams and waterfalls. Red-and-white cabins tuck into the edges of the lake shores. Patches of melting snow cling to distant grey mountaintops.
Finally, near the ocean, the terrain turns desolate, piles of gigantic rocks stacked in rubble fields. We pulled into Stavenger, a city of over 300,000 on the water.
I disembarked after seven hours on the train and found my hotel along Stavenger’s harbor.
A sign in the elevator said its 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 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 booming, jammed with high-school kids, many wearing brightly colored overalls, decorated with patches and pins. Russefeiring is a traditional month-long celebration for graduating Norwegian high-school students. Authorities attempt to control the parties and keep the revelers safe. The tradition dates to 1905.
Stavenger’s Old Town is on a hillside lined with small white clapboard cottages built in the 1700s and 1800s. More than 250 buildings have been preserved, including a canning factory from the 1920s. Quaint, even in the rain.
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 small-town character.
I visited St. Swithun’s Cathedral, built in 1125. Its elaborate carved wooden pulpit is held aloft by mighty Samson.
But the real might in Stavenger is petroleum.
The city’s growth has boomed in recent years due to its offshore industry. Stavenger is known as the Oil Capital of Norway. Major international petroleum companies have established offices here, adding jobs and attracting foreign workers. Over 11 percent of Stavenger’s population are immigrants. Its unemployment rate is less than 2 percent.
The “Norwegian model” ensures that revenue from oil underwrites the needs of the society as a whole, as enforced by the government.
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. Only a few tourists.
The community (and the oil industry) is proud of this museum, which honors the main driver of Norway’s economy. It seemed, however, 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 5-1/2 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 12,000-year-old village north of Sørbø church and an 8,000-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.
St. 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 laboring across and 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 distance, but of elevation.
In Norway runners time themselves from the bottom to the top of the mountain, distance be damned. Three-hundred-twenty vertical 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, built-in bunks, narrow passageways and steep stairways. 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 homes and warehouses instead.
But fire was the most-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 900-year-old foundations of some trading houses and part of the hull of a ship along with 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. Numerous 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. 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 quaint 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 kept coming back for years.
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.
St. Olaf’s Church was built in 1897. St. 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, buying my roundtrip ticket on board.
I walked through the still-waking town and out into the rolling countryside toward the Hopperstad Stave Church. Spring lambs and kids tinkled their bells and called for their moms. Snow covered the mountain tops 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 is mostly empty. 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, lighting the landscape 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 speed-boat 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 but stopped the boat several times for photo opps, such as near a four-hundred-feet 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 were 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.”