Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 18, 2017

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The S-shaped Geiranger Fjord is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the world’s longest and deepest.

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Norwegian wood (and water)

Scandinavia’s northernmost country isn’t short on raw beauty

Even on solid ground, it is the water that defines Norway’s landscape. The long, narrow fingers of the fjords stretch in from the coastline as if to mock the traveller: “Find a ferry to cross me, do a long, circuitous drive around me, look for the bridges over me. I’m here to remind you of the sea.”

Not that your average Norwegian needs any sort of reminder. The sea pumps through their veins. Saltwater has touched every generation from the Vikings to the klippfisk (salt cod) fishermen to the well-paid drillers on offshore rigs that have launched this country to the top of the world’s wealth pyramid.

“This fjord was once the main road,” explained Ole Henrik Nitter Walaker. Since 1690, his family has run the Walaker Hotel — the oldest hotel in Norway — on the shores of the Sognefjorden Fjord.

“A hundred years ago it was just two hotels and a few grocery shops. It was not a large village but it was an important local harbour. We’re known for our quiet.” He paused and smiled shyly as he explained that the harsh winters mean a short business season of five months. “In the seven months off we drink wine and make babies.”

Think of the coastline of Norway as an enormous hide-and-seek game filled with watery nooks and crannies. My weeklong travel goal was to stick to the land (more or less), journeying along several of the country’s 18 National Tourist Routes. These byways are certainly not the quickest way from point A to point B — but why would you want to rush? They hopscotch across landscapes, from vast swaths of forest, to rugged peaks with magnificent lookouts, past colourful shorelines painted with orange and red mosses, and into an unforgiving wilderness of expansive glaciers.

Beginning at the seashore

My first stop was the Atlantic Road National Tourist Route, a 36-kilometre stretch from Kårvåg to Bud, with seven storm-whipped bridges that were named Norway’s Architectural Monument of the Century.

It was lightly drizzling when I stepped onto the dock at Håholmen. The former fishing village isjauntily perched on a mossy outcrop at the head of the Atlantic Highway, with a view over the first of the blacktop’s sensuously arched bridges.

I got the impression that it rained a lot here. The sky broke open, rays of sunshine streamed down to brighten the land, and moments later the clouds took hold again and the heavenly-sent water started.

For centuries, fishermen pulled klippfisk from the ocean; in season the fishing industry kept hundreds of families busy on the small island. There was no road access, just boats. In 1975, the Atlantic Highway was built — connecting 17 rocky bits of land — and opening Norwegian coastal culture to mainstream tourism.

Travellers searching for seclusion, writers in search of a retreat, business types looking for a low-tech conference setting would find a good fit at the Håholmen Havstuer Inn’s renovated wooden buildings, painted mustard yellow and deep red and topped with traditional slate and sod roofs.

Even when the wind howls and the rain splatters, there is peace here.

Watch out for trolls

I had an appointment with a deep blue fjord, the symbol of Norway. I found it at the Geiranger Fjord, part of a UNESCO World Heritage List known as the West Norwegian Fjords, protecting some of the world’s longest, deepest and most beautiful.

Getting there proved to be a road-trip endurance test of sorts. I was travelling the Trollstigen National Tourist Route, 106 kilometres from Andalsnes to Geiranger that show off untamed nature, jaw-dropping views and one of the most-visited fjords in the country.

Heading south from Andalsnes along the Trollstigen (translated as the Troll’s Ladder and the only roadway in Norway with signs to “watch for trolls”), there are 11 dizzying hairpin bends up a precipitous mountainside. The payoff is a million-dollar vista from the viewing platform at the top.

Like most tourists, I was lasered in on the prize: the one-hour ferry cruise into the heart of the S-shaped Geiranger Fjord. We lounged around on the top deck, the afternoon broken by the sounds of cameras clicking, the Norwegian flag snapping in the breeze and the gulls squawking overhead. It was an hour of bliss.

Geiranger Fjord seemed more dramatic than the others. The steep-sided rock walls were deeper; the numerous waterfalls more breathtaking; the water a more intense shade of azure. And tucked into the mountainside were the remains of abandoned farms — proof that at one time this unforgiving landscape was a home.

On the dock in the village of Geiranger, I was met by Edmontonian Gwen Nickolaychuk who has carved out a niche as an expert guide to the area. In peak season, the village’s 350 residents serve a tsunami of 8000 tourists daily arriving via cruise ships.

“The people here have a very deep connection with nature,” Nickolaychuk explained. “It’s very much a part of the culture. Hiking trails are everywhere and you can camp free almost anywhere.”

There were more hairpin turns to the lookout at Ørnevegen — known locally as the Eagle Road — with panoramic views over the fjord, the mountains and waterfalls, as well as the small village. People come here for hiking and mountain trekking, kayaking on the Geiranger Fjord, fishing and skiing (including summertime skiing on the nearby icefields).

Snowy superlatives

Next up, a 108-kilometre route that includes the highest mountain in Northern Europe, the second longest fjord in the world and Norway’s largest glacier.

There was a tantalizing harmony between snow in July and the Nordic roller road skiers in training shorts who whizzed along the paved roadways. Uphill. The Sognefjellet National Tourist Route crosses the highest mountain pass in the country (at 1434 metres) — well above the tree line — and yet this stretch is the most popular hiking and outdoor sports destination in Norway.

“The whole area is called Jotunheimen,” explained my guide, Harald Hansen. “It means Home of the Giants. It is also home to reindeer, wolves, wolverine and lynx.”

It is a severe region of snow-packed peaks, craggy rocks and little vegetation. In the distance I could see the brightly coloured dots of skiwear against the snow: cross-country skiers enjoying an average summertime weekend.

In stretches where the rocky ground is exposed, there is a spider web of hiking paths, well used and well marked by stone cairns. True Norwegians love the outdoors — cold weather be damned — and they take to the high peaks region for walking and hiking, biking, glacier skiing, telemark skiing, rafting and kayaking. As many winter Olympic competitions have shown, they can be unstoppable.

Along the southernmost reach of this road of giants is the sinuous Sognefjorden, the longest and deepest fjord in Norway. At this lower elevation the grass is a lush green, there are orchards and farms, and the climate is milder than in either the mountains or at the open sea. This moderation is what drew settlers here to establish a community and to build Urnes Stave Church, the oldest preserved stave church in Norway.

Built in the 1130s, the church is a part of the UNESCO World Heritage List and is renowned for elaborate wooden carvings on both the interior and exterior, including Viking symbols of ships, snakes and dragons.

I spent an hour at the church, then slowly walked down a quiet laneway, past rows of raspberry bushes until I reached the small ferry dock. It was a stone’s throw across the narrow finger of the fjord and in the distance I could see the tidy, yellow clapboard of the Walaker Hotell. It was like coming home and if I was lucky, Ole Walaker would have a glass of wine already poured for me.

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