NORWAY IN A LARGER NUTSHELL
In everything I read while preparing for my first visit to Norway, the phrase, "Norway in a Nutshell" kept popping up. It turned out to be an itinerary that crammed a lot of Norway - mountains, fjords, boat trips, train rides, villages and cities - into as little as a single day. It sounded, briefly, like a good idea. Get a quick Norway fix and have time left over for...for what? For more Norway, of course. Because the more I read, the more I wanted to see. In fact my cynical side wondered if this was the old bait and switch routine. If you think Norway in a Nutshell is good, wait 'til you see what else we've got. If it was, I bit. By the time the dust settled I was looking at nine event-filled days. I was doing Norway, all right, but in a larger nutshell. The centerpiece of Norway in a Nutshell is the hour-long train ride from the town of Myrdal to Flam, at the head of the Aurlandsfjord. Begun in 1923, it took 17 years to complete the 12 miles of track. Dropping 2800 feet down water-drenched cliffs, switching back and forth around hairpin curves, boring through 20 tunnels cut by hand out of the rock, it's promoted as one of the wonders of the world. From Oslo it's 4 hours by train to Myrdal. I reasoned that after my flight from home it would be sensible to have a good night's sleep before plunging into serious sight seeing. So in my first deviation, I stepped out at Geilo and stepped up to a white colossus that dwarfed the little station. In the early 20th century, Dr. Holms Hotel had been a sanitarium where people flocked for a cure in the country. Now a rather grand hotel, it still has a salubrious effect. Next morning when the little red train pulled in, a new man got on. At Myrdal the tourists - and who could miss us? - transferred to the Flam Railway train. Soon it was laboring downward beneath a lowering sky, alongside gleaming threads of water, screeching through tunnels into banks of mist. As we descended it was announced in Norwegian, which to Americans sounds like gargling, and in English, which to Norwegians returns the favor, that this was a land of spirits. The train stopped and we poured onto a platform to gaze at a torrent of water that gushed over the cliff, fell to our feet, turned and roared out of sight. Suddenly music with a decidedly Irish lilt wafted over us. On a distant bluff a figure appeared, silhouetted against the falls. Slowly she lifted her arms, slowly receded and melted away. When the conductor whistled us aboard I wondered how long the spirit had between shows.
Flam was little more than a place to transfer from train to ferry. But what a place. Still reeling from the spectacular ride down, we found ourselves sailing under cliffs that towered over the ship and disap- peared into the clouds. Little villages nestled under a sweep of mountains. Waterfalls broke through solid rock and crashed into the fjord. It was the Norway of travelers' dreams. Long ago artists discovered the special light at Balestrand and filled the town with beautiful homes. Room 229 at Kvikne's Hotel, where the boat dropped me off, was a mini-suite with two small balconies tucked under the eaves on the second floor. From them the fjord was a mirror reflecting an onionskin sky. It was here that I seriously departed from the Nutshell routine.
"This is the realistic Norway," said Jarle Helgheim the next day as the rain started again. He was commenting on the photos in Norwegian tourist brochures where the skies are always blue. Yet the truth about Norway is that whatever the elements throw at you, the countryside is still magnificent.
For an hour Jarle led 9 Norwegians and 1 Yank briskly up a rocky path to a blue-white mass of corrugated ice. On the way he remarked that I hiked more strongly than other Americans he'd led that year. Head swelling, I overlooked the key word, "Americans," and surged ahead to demonstrate my prowess. Step- ping onto the glacier, my feet shot skyward and I was brought forcibly and amusingly back to earth. At least all the Norwegians laughed. The Haugabreen Glacier, Jarle observed, was not only slippery but dangerous. Very carefully he showed us how to strap crampons on our boots to grip the ice. Then we put on harnesses and tied ourselves at intervals to a rope leading back from Jarle. As we crunched up the glacier, Jarle guided us over alternating bands of white and blue ice along deep crevasses camouflaged by thin layers of snow. At the top of a ridge we stopped. Far across the valley a patch of sky opened and another huge glacier shone for a moment in the sun, filling the gap in the clouds.
Exhausted but happy, I barely made the late afternoon bus to my next destination. Settling back in my comfy seat I prepared to close my eyes when I was shocked awake. On the foothills below, lush green fields had been carved out of the forest. Neat red and yellow farmhouses perched on the hills. From the shores of a large lake rose massive cliffs. This simple public bus was riding through some of the most stunning scenery I'd ever seen. Morning at the Hotel Alexandra in Loen gave the gift of the Nordfjord sparkling in the slanting light. The road to Hellesylt paralleled the shore before cutting into a deep valley, emerging at the Geiranger- fjord just as the ferry was approaching the dock. From both sides of the narrow 12 mile long finger of water burst stark rocky monoliths. Yet even here farmers had miraculously scratched out a living, building houses high in the cliffs.
At Geiranger, at the end of the fjord, I again boarded a public bus and rode back and forth up the mountain. Suddenly at the top the driver pulled into a parking area. There would be a 15 minute scheduled stop, he announced, so we could enjoy the views. At home I'd read about a narrow ridge that was flanked by lakes on either side. The Besseggen hike, Norway's most popular day hike, traversed it. So I spent the night in the smallest room of the country's largest tourist hut and at 7:45 joined a boatload of Danes, Norwegians and Swedes dressed in parkas and boots for the 20 minute ride to the trailhead.
It took the better part of an hour to reach the ridge on a trail that was relent- lessly steep and rocky. Soon I was being passed by my shipmates, stripped to t-shirts and shorts, walking as if on a stroll in the park. Finally the path dipped, rose and leveled out. Far below, Lake Gjende was a milky blue platter. Across the lake, snow fields lay between blunt peaks. Soon the trail fell to a long thin wall with Gjende on one side and smaller Lake Bessvatn on the other. There had been rumors that the crossing was perilously narrow. Exciting, yes. Dangerous, no. But once across, the real hike began. Using hands and feet we scrambled
up and up over rocks and boulders. At the rare level places, blond, crimson-faced Scandinavians had stopped to snack, to take photos and even to rest. After several false hopes the real summit was reached. When I arrived back at the tourist hut I was glad to have done it, thrilled at what I'd seen and happy it was over. So were the Danes, Norwegians and Swedes. Next morning I boarded another bus and rode through Norway's highest mountains in Jotunheimen National Park. At the lower elevations dark wooden farmhouses sat in wild gorges next to racing streams. Much higher, huge blue glaciers lay folded on barren heaths. My destination was Kroken, where I would again see if what looked good on the internet lived up to its promise. But then how could kayaking on a fjord be bad? "I'd been working on a vineyard in the south of France," said David Parmentier. "Then I visited a friend in Copenhagen, hitchhiked to Oslo and ended up working with a man who had a farm on the fjord. I met his beautiful neighbor and stayed. Nature played a part, but the real reason was that I fell in love." In 1995, David, born and brought up in Wisconsin, and Valborg, his wife, bought a historic farmhouse and decided it would be a good place for a kayaking business. "I love the tranquility of the Lusterfjord," David said. "In summer it's absolutely paradise." At the boathouse below the road, Adam, also from Wisconsin, outfitted me with a life vest and spray skirt and we launched a large two passenger sea kayak into a brisk wind. After an exciting, wet half hour, we rounded a bend and the wind died, the fjord turned to glass and the kayak skimmed over a surface of luminescent green. On shore, near bright vest pocket farms, a sizeable summer home was notable for its large modern windows. On top sat a newly cropped layer of grass. In Norway the rain is good for the roof. Finally, regretfully, we pulled the kayak onto the pebble strand of the little town of Ornes and climbed to its famous "stave" church. The oldest of several remaining from the 12th century, it was small, spired and made of darkly tarred, perfectly preserved pine. The interior was a marvel of intricate carvings, massive wooden pillars, or staves, sculpture and painting. And then I was back on the Nutshell. I picked it up in Aurland where the ferry took me to Gudvangen by way of the Naeroy fjord, the narrowest in Norway. For a too brief hour, passengers raced from bow to stern, port to starboard, trying to take it all in. Ten minutes after the ferry arrived, a bus bearing the sign, "NIAN" found its place amoung the tourist fleet carrying Japanese, Italians and Germans. At Voss we made an equally efficient connection to the train to Bergen. Those doing the Nutshell in a day returned to Oslo. Many used the route as a creative way to travel between the two cities. But I had more on my mind. So I overnighted in Bergen and caught the morning ferry to Stavanger.
Take the Empire State Building, add 52 floors at 10 feet a floor, top it with a 75 by 75 foot viewing platform (without a guard rail) and you have Pulpit Rock. The tourist brochure that seduced me pictured a small plateau hanging high over a fjord. On the rock, bathed in sunlight of course, perched tiny, fragile and, it seemed to me, very happy people. From Stavanger it's not far to Preikestolen - Pulpit Rock. Depending on many factors such as, for example, whether you're a young mother carrying your newborn on your back, it takes anywhere from one to four hours to walk up. However long it takes, the thrill is the same for all. It comes on you suddenly. You round a corner and down to the left, 1,970 feet down, the Lysefjord snakes off to the horizon. Up to the right a column of granite ends abruptly, simply stops flat. At the edge crazy people sit with their feet dangling over. Under them the column slants inward so the platform is truly suspended in air. Like the rest I bathed not only in sunlight but in the exhilaration of simply being there. Then, like them, I sat, broke out the food and picnicked on the eagle's perch. As prosaic as prosaic could be.
Pulpit Rock wasn't on the Nutshell itinerary. Yet visiting it was inspired by that collection of Norwegian highlights. Norway in a Nutshell can be a spectacular if much too short introduction to Norway or it can be the start of a wider exploration of one of the most beautiful countries on earth. Norway in a much larger nutshell. HOW TO GET THERE: Scandinavian Airlines - SAS (800 221-2350, www.scandinavian.net ), flies non-stop from Newark to Oslo and from there to Bergen and other Norwegian cities. SAS flies one-stop to Oslo from Washing- ton and Chicago. GETTING AROUND IF YOU EXTEND YOUR TRIP: BY AIR: The SAS Visit Europe Pass consists of 1 to 8 coupons for travel between Scandinavia and the rest of Europe and Great Britain. Inter-European flights on "Star Alliance" partners can be booked in BY TRAIN: The 5 day Norway Pass, 21 day Scanrail Pass and the 17 country Eurailpass allow you to avoid busy ticket counters. High speed trains cut down travel time while local trains provide access to smaller towns. For information, purchases, schedules and fares contact Rail Europe at 888 382-RAIL (7245), 800 361-RAIL in Canada. Website www.raileurope.com . BY CAR: Auto Europe, (800 223-5555, www.autoeurope.com ) provides cars at the guaranteed lowest price with no cancellation penalty throughout Europe. Especially helpful is their 24 hour toll free telephone number to the American office should assistance be necessary. WHERE TO STAY: Geilo: Dr. Holms Hotel ((47) 32 09 57 00, www.drholms.no ) is a large, comfortable tourist hotel. There are also lovely walks in the gentle hills around Geilo. Balestrand: Kvikne's Hotel ((47) 57 69 42 01, www.kviknes.no ) is a famous landmark in a charming town directly on the Sognefjord. Loen: The Hotel Alexandra ((47) 57 87 50 00, www.alexandra.no ) is the most luxurious hotel in the area, beautifully situated Marin, ((47) 53 05 15 00, www.firsthotels.no ), Radisson Hotels, (see below). Stavanger: Clarion Hotel Explore the neighborhood of old wooden houses, the fascinating Norwegian Petroleum Museum and Norwegian C Canning Museum. WHAT TO WEAR: Even in summer temperatures in Norway can be cool. Wear layers, heavier clothing over lighter. I wore convertible pants by Ex Officio, (800 644-7303, www.exofficio.com .) When the weather warmed up the legs zipped off. Their lightweight waterproof jacket and pants were indispensable. Bring a sweater, sun screen and sun glasses, a cap or hat with a brim, camera, small day pack. Collapsible walking sticks can be helpful. FOR FURTHER INFORMATION: The Norwegian Tourist Board, (212-885-9700, www.visitnorway.com .) Ask for the Fjord Norway and Norway Guides. RECOMMENDED READING: Rick Steve's "Scandinavia." The Rough Guide to Scandinavia for the Besseggen hike. TOUR OPERATORS: The best luxury biking and hiking company: Backroads, 800 462-2848, ww.backroads.com . Walking: Abercrombie & Kent, 800 323-7308, www.ambercrombiekent.com . Cruise: Lindblad Expeditions,