A suggestion from Diane – a friend I met on a group hike in the Cinque Terra – that we try a group hike in Norway sounds appealing, as it is currently hot hot hot in Houston!
So…I arrive in Bergen after switching planes in Amsterdam, and take a taxi to the Hotel Neptun. The taxi driver, a surly sort, leans from the cab to spit every few miles, which of course, places him high on my list of attractions. Diane is waiting at the hotel with fresh raspberries…how great to see her after our brief meeting at Martha’s Vineyard! After planting the luggage, we walk into town for a light supper, and catch up on the news. Then to bed to try to get some sleep, so we will be fresh for the group tomorrow.
The Fishmarket of Bergen and the Funicular
We finally get to sleep after surviving a heat wave in the hotel room, and the screeching of traffic until the wee hours outside our third story window. Even with the window open wide, it is unbearably hot…in the 90s, not exactly what I expected! We finally fall asleep at 3:30AM, and awake at 9AM for breakfast.
After breakfast, we ramble to Bergen’s fishmarket…just down the road and on the edge of the fjord, where fishing boats, cruise ships and ferries all dock. The open-air market has it all, including whale steaks (black!), t-shirts, an immense variety of wonderful fresh fruit (we bought more raspberries and cherries), postcards, sweaters, cheese…and much more.
A restored area of Bergen is next on our list: old, old wooden buildings, once housing traders, now are home to shops and boutiques. A variety of beautiful things is on display: wonderful pottery, ceramics, lace, antiques… The flower gardens glow with roses, daisies, drip with honeysuckle, while the homes are quite austere architecturally, constructed of wooden slats, many covered with concrete and painted bright light colors. These homes are vulnerable to fire, and Bergen has had many conflagrations in the past.
At 2PM, we join the rest of the merry band (three couples and our guide Beate) back at the hotel. Again we walk through the market and town, then ride the funicular to the top of the mountain. We spend a little time looking over the remarkable view, then hike the 45-minute walk down the mountain through lovely ferny woods and huge oak and birch trees – beautiful!
After showering and changing for dinner, we meet to listen to a brief talk by Beate about the history of Norway, eat, and then return to our rooms to pack for Sunday’s hike – a 15-mile day to look forward to! And so to bed!
From Myrrdahl to Flam
We’re up at 6:30 as we need to be on the road by a quarter to eight. With little time to spare, we wash our hair, pack our luggage, carry it downstairs, grab a bowl of cereal then walk through Bergen to catch the train to Myrrdahl. Arriving at the station, we take various detours through other trains, in one side and out the other, finally finding “our” train only to find out it has engine trouble. Many solemn announcements later, in three languages, the train finally begins to move.
Two hours later we disembark at Myrrdal for the 15-mile hike to Flam and beyond. What an incredible hike…through beautiful valleys striped with waterfalls, rivers, and silver streams which descend from mountaintops, or rush pell-mell over boulders and rocks. The water is bell-clear; Diane has named the color Norge Blue. This is the land of 1000 waterfalls; water is everywhere. Forests of birch and pine coat the mountainsides.
We hike in a slight mizzle – the sun never fully appears, which is the Norwegian way, according to Petter, Beate’s son and our second guide.
Initially, the trail is not difficult: it begins as a flat, grassy track through rolling fields. Soon, however, the long grass hides stones and small boulders – I fall three times on these very slippery rocks. It is like walking on ice up and downhill…and crossing streams is not one of my best jobs! But the treacherous undergrowth finally peters out, and we continue on grassy trails through beautiful wilderland. A goat farm, then tiny buildings appear out of nowhere. Some buildings are smoking sheds, with roofs of long grass turves, with saplings growing from them.
Wild raspberries border our trail, and we eat them with relish. Divine!
Stopping several times for breaks and snacks, our final break is in a “troll bowl” – a hollowed-out cave with an open top, and a large stone slab for a table. Trolls are part of this country’s folklore – old as the mountains.
In Bergen, many shops have carved trolls standing watch in their doorways.
The final leg of the hike is on asphalt through rolling beautiful country (a little rough on the toes.) When we finally feel we can walk no longer (and we’ve made very good time) we approach our hotel, which is lovely – part new, part old. From the balcony of our room, we can see goats grazing in fields bordered by wild fern-splashed country.
After a hot bath and the obligatory hair washing, we convene in the bar for drinks. The view from the bar’s amazing floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall window, is awe-inspiring: a silvery-golden fjord, stretching for miles and surrounded by mountains and lush forests of pine trees, backed by the setting sun – absolutely glorious.
We walk downstairs for a light dinner. It was a challenging, tiring day and so by 10PM, we say goodnight, pack our luggage as we were moving on the next day, and go bed! Tomorrow should be a little easier, but soon comes the glacier hike!
From Flam to Balestrand
A late morning: we don’t need to be packed and downstairs until 10AM. Heaven! We sleep until 7:30, shower, eat breakfast, and pop our things into the waiting luggage, which will be taken to our next stop. Pulling on our backpacks, we begin the hike – up, up, up to a small settlement on the mountainside – buildings built centuries ago which are now part of a farm.
The wooden buildings are tiny, almost miniature in size. All have pots of red geraniums in the windows, and the interiors are museums, with old instruments, stoves, sinks, beds, all as used in days gone by. We see how cheese used to be made – a nine-hour process. If more milk was produced than necessary for one batch, another batch had to be started immediately making an 18-hour day for some poor woman.
After the museum and farm, we continue our hike through the woods towards the ferry. Beate calls this a “tricky” hike. The trail is extremely narrow, with a sharp drop on our left, and the mountain rising sheer to our right. Sometimes our hiking turns into rock climbing! The mist and off-and-on mizzle make the mossy rocks extremely slippery, so we have to be very careful where we put our feet. But the views of the fjord, and the beauty of the forest (that lovely green smell) through which we are hiking make it all worthwhile.
The scent of the pines, the green ferns, the moss that covers the rocks and boulders, and below us, the silver-gray fjord, like a living mirror of the sky: all is so beautiful, so pristine. Just breathing in the air purifies lungs and mind. Many flowers show tiny heads along the track: Ling, a heather-like bush with tiny, tiny purple bells; buttercups and celandines; and an occasional violet, poking its head through the grass. But the surroundings are mostly green, green, green – from the forest floor to the treetops.
It never rains – unless you can call “mizzle” rain. But the air is always moist, and mist often hangs low over the mountains. The sky is bright white, and the longer we hike, the hotter we become.
We emerge from the forest on the road at the ferry, which I just manage to get on by the skin of my teeth (the gangplank starts to rise as I set foot upon it.) An hour’s ride through the fjord to Balestrand – and we come to a beautiful gingerbread hotel on the water, surrounded by the loveliest little town: small colorful Norwegian houses, all painted in pastels and alive with flowers in gardens and pots. Red geraniums abound, as do vivid hollyhocks, some tall as houses, and purple-black in color. Marigolds, roses, daisies – all in full, riotous bloom. Diane and I walk around the town drinking in the beauty of it all.
Our luggage doesn’t arrive when we do, so we have an anxious two hours waiting for it to turn up. Finally, in it comes and we are able to clean up for dinner. The smorgasbord offered a truly astounding buffet, with more food than an army could eat in a week. All sorts of seafood, including the whale steaks, caviar, chicken, capon, turkey, a table full of cheeses, fabulous breads, a hot buffet table with roast beef, fish and veggies, a dessert bar with ten different desserts – I’ve never seen so much food!
After we eat, three of us attend a concert given by Age Kristofferson, a Carnegie Hall pianist who plays eleven brief Edvard Grieg compositions. It is absolutely delightful, as he tells short stories to accompany each song, some of which are funny, all of which are interesting. The concert is held in a small hall within the hotel. A Japanese man records Kristofferson’s playing, and although asked to stop, he doesn’t. I want to haul him out of the room! But what a treat to sit back and listen to the lovely melodies at the end of the day.
Yes, up at 6:30 indeed! Breakfast is at 7:15, then we must finish packing and be ready to leave for the ferry by eight. An hour and a half later we reach Fjaerland. The day has become steadily mistier the further north we progress. The mountains rise on either side of the fjord, green and majestic, covered with pine trees and wreathed in mist. Absolutely awe-inspiring and beautiful, the mountains are striped with silver waterfalls at intervals.
For the first time, the air is extremely chilly; I have to put a sweatshirt over my shirt, and top it with the rainjacket. (Note: this was the ONLY time it was chilly.)
We disembark from the ferry, and proceed to haul our luggage to the Hotel Mundal – uphill! At least the hotel is not too far from the ferry! The hotel is run by Billie, an expat Englishwoman who, by marriage, has become part of the Mundal family and history <Note: Vice President Walter Mondale is connected to this family>. After dropping the luggage in the lobby, we immediately begin our hike.
Fairly flat at first, the trail takes us alongside a river – now rushing, now fairly quiet. No-one else is around – it is peaceful and beautiful and the overcast sky cools the air and makes for very pleasant walking. I have to divest myself of my sweatshirt, and soon after, the raincoat. Grass-green moss covers the stones and ground beneath the trees, in many places forming a broad mossy floor – absolutely enchanting.
As we continue, the trail begins to ascend. Soon we are climbing steadily up, over boulders and rocks and tree roots into the heart of the forest. It becomes steeper and steeper. We reach a small plateau where we drop off our backpacks (very safely) before continuing the climb. It is tricky, as the path narrows to a wet, and in many places, rocky trail. The boulders are slick and a stone can easily turn an ankle. We stop for a brief lunch of cheese and rolls and tomato, then on we go.
The river splashes merrily down from us, and the sky becomes lighter. We finally halt at the foot of the mountain. Diane, Paul and I continue up to see the ice cave at the very top. What seems a short jaunt at the beginning is in actuality quite a climb – and the smoothness of the grass, deceiving. It is actually brambles, grass and briar covering stones and boulders. Again we have to watch where we step and climb. It is challenging, but worth it to get to the ice and snow, and pose atop the mountain in front of the ice cave (which was actually an ice bridge.)
We feel as if we are on the roof of the world, with the rest of the group just pinpricks in the valley below.
After our photography session, we trot back down the mountain like goats, join the group and begin the hike back to our hotel in Fjaerland. Not too bad going down: narrow trails, stony, mossy, and damp. The day is overcast.
And then a lovely thing happens: when we reach a leveling out of the trail, the sun breaks through the clouds, the sky becomes blue, blue, blue, and the fields stretch before us, emerald green and literally glowing in the sunlight. And it is exactly like this the remainder of the trip. Beautiful, beautiful.
The little tiny town of Fjaerland perches on the edge of the fjord and is exquisite. A book town copied on the image of Hay-on-Wye in England, its tiny bookshops are everywhere, and bookcases actually line the narrow roads. The Hotel Mundal is very old and historic, and our room has a glorious back view onto lawns and fjord – peaceful and calming.
Although our hike is only four hours, it is challenging, and we return for a restful afternoon readying us for the hike tomorrow – 3000 feet up to the Flatbreen Glacier. Billie gives us a short talk on the history of the 100-year old hotel, which is fascinating. Much of the hotel is still the way it was “back in the old days” with marvelous old, old leather armchairs studded with nails, a fire glowing in the immense fireplace, and a great room set for dinner. So much history and tradition: it is wonderful. Tomorrow – Flatbreen!
The Flatbreen Glacier
We are up and out of Hotel Mundal by 10AM, and take a taxi to the base of the mountain where we will climb to the Flatbreen (which means “glacier” in Norwegian.)
The first 500 feet of the hike are straight up. It’s very, very difficult for me: my lung capacity is not large, and I have to keep stopping every few yards, breathing deeply and drinking water. My heart is banging in my chest by the time I arrive at the top of this first stretch. Beate tells me everyone has had trouble – including her! – but that from then on it will be easier – more streams and rivers to cross, more rock climbing.
It is true: while it is a very challenging hike, it’s easier for me to climb the rocks and boulders than just hike on a straightforward uphill path. As we climb the mountain, we cross streams over many and various bridges and boulders, the last bridge a wobbly couple of pieces of wood. Then begins the major rock climb: I use all four limbs to get myself to the more traditional trail. In some instances, I am flat against the boulders while trying to get a purchase on the stone. Petter guides us across and up the more difficult parts of the track. What a challenge – exhilarating!
Every once in a while, I turn to look back at the spectacular valley views. They are incredible. Miles below us gleams the fjord, and forests stretch as far as the eye can see across mountains and more mountains. Up, up, up and up we rise – 3000 feet to the top…approximately three miles up, given that we are winding our way around the mountain.
Suddenly, Petter stops us and says: “clear your mind.” He leads us around a huge boulder and there is the glacier, icy blue and white, jagged and jutting to the sky in the brilliant sunshine – immense! The Flatbreen is called a “calving” glacier, because it drops chunks of ice at intervals. It is one of the most spectacular sights I’ve ever seen.
Sitting across from the glacier, we stop for lunch at a small hut built of boulders and wood. The man who built this hut had made a thousand trips up and down the mountain with the needed supplies, according to Beate. He had apparently climbed to the top in 40 minutes, a record to this day! We make it in about four hours.
After lunch, once a few hardy souls had returned from climbing the ridge on the morain, we begin our hike back down the mountain. Down, down, down we clamber- often on our rear ends, as we are descending yet again over boulders similar to those on the way up (although this is a different trail.) This trail is as treacherous as the upward track, the earth so dry, it slides beneath our feet. And after a couple of hours, despite the thickness of my boot soles, my feet begin to feel every stone beneath them!
A brief rest about midway down the mountain, where we sit on a grassy flat and just chat idly for half an hour, and we are on our way. The sun is high in the sky, and the world smells of trees.
Down, down we go, through fern and birch woods, often hanging onto the trees for balance. Flowers star the trail. The sun continues to shine, and it is a beautiful day. Our final climb over rocks and boulders in the river, leads us to a final stony descent. All in all, the hike takes about eight hours, and I am truly exhausted by the time I plonk myself in the taxi for the ride back to the hotel. And sweaty. And dirty. But we are nonetheless exhilarated…terrific experience!
Fjaerland and the Glacier Museum
Up and out by 10AM. We are staying in Fjaerland for a few more hours, and decide to walk to the Glacier Museum, which has some interesting exhibits, including a walk-in “glacier” formed of plastic. It is very eerie to be “inside” and hear the water melting, the stones and ice cracking within …I have no desire to walk inside a real glacier!
The visit to the museum is followed by a two-hour walk around the town, which included inching across a hanging – and rather wobbly – bridge, one at a time. Shera, Beate’s dog who accompanies us on this hike, is truly a picture as she crosses the bridge, legs splayed, eyes beseeching!
We return to town, purchase lunch at a local grocery store and eat on the lawn behind our hotel, alongside the fjord. The sun is again brilliantly hot, and the sky is dotted with one or two icy white clouds. Idyllic is the word that comes to mind. Diane and I sit on a bench on the lawn and read for an hour until the ferry arrives. I could stay here for the rest of the trip!
Our luggage is sitting in the hotel hall, waiting for us to drag it to the dock, which is not too far away. We catch the ferry back to the Kvikne Hotel in Balestrand. Diane and I stand on the prow, looking at some of the most glorious sights in the world…sometimes it’s almost too much. Everywhere we turn is beauty.
We land, drag our suitcases uphill to the hotel (thank goodness for wheels), have approximately two hours to clean up, and head down to dinner. Again, the wonderful smorgasbord has every kind of food we can wish for, but I am ready for bed. Tomorrow we must be up at 6AM, as we have a 12-14 hour day ahead of us.
Vik and Finden
Up at 6AM, it’s the beginning a long day. We are ready to catch the ferry for a ten-minute ride to our first hike, which starts at 8AM. After a hearty breakfast of muesli, orange juice, and that great bread, we convene on the pier, ready to board the ferry. Ten short minutes later, we disembark at Vik.
Our hike leads us through Vik, a delightful little town on the water’s edge, full of small painted wooden houses and shops and galleries. From here, we hike to the mountains, and a trail that is green, green, green – beautiful views on all sides of farmers’ fields, woods, ferns, and flowers -the fjord gleaming down, down, down below. From the heights, we see Vik as an illustration in a Grimm’s fairy tale, nestled in a valley bound by water and mountains.
One of our goals this day is to see a stave church, built with no nails but supported by tree trunks, or “staves” which are felled and left to dry and naturally “resinate” for eight years, and which are then used to build the church. This particular church was built in the 1100′s, and has its original staves. Special services are still held within.
After a brief rest here, we ramble all over the mountain, returning down to Vik in the golden sunshine. All is heartbreakingly beautiful in the clear golden light.
When we reach Vik, we spend a couple of hours exploring. We shop for some supplies, checking out the shops and the grocery store: I love foreign grocery stores. It’s always so much fun to shop in them, checking out the different and unusual! Wandering the streets, I discover the most delightful little group of homes, almost like dolls’ houses, painted in pale pastels and hidden from the eye behind storage buildings. The windows are lace curtained, with windowsills lined with pots of bright geraniums or daisies. The houses surround a small village green, the grass bright as emeralds in the sunshine. It is one of the most delightful parts of our day here.
After eating our lunch at an outdoor table by the fjord, we ramble around for an hour or two, Diane buying a statuette of a “troll couple with tails.” Then we catch the ferry to Finden where we disembark and walk to a goat farm for another “lunch.” We are met at the base of the mountain by the farm’s owner, who leads us uphill to his delightful home, built entirely of wood, and beautifully decorated. One side of the room is filled with a very long table, lit with candelabra, and lined with benches on either side, all of which he has built. The table is set with exquisite china, napkins, silverware and wine glasses. When we are seated, he brings out immense platters of grilled goat and vegetables: beans, potatoes, carrots, cauliflower, mushrooms, and gravy. !t is a wonderful meal – a very special moment in a land of special moments.
Benches front the house, on one of which repose two adorable tiny black kittens – the sweetest little things – but they do not like Shera, Beate’s dog, who, however, is very patient, as always, and leaves them well alone after an initial bout of barking.
After taking photographs, we walk back down the mountain to the boat, which takes us up the fjord to another mountain trail. Ferns and high grass and trees surround our narrow track – and up, up, up we climb. Presently the trail becomes more and more difficult. We climb over huge moss-covered boulders, up steep, steep paths, grass covered – stones line our way, slicked with moss and dew, and tricky. Up, up, up we go, through wild raspberry, blackberry and blueberry bushes – the berries are delicious with that wild woodsy flavor.
The trail becomes steeper and steeper, and eventually one by one, we turn back to the boat.
! am drenched in perspiration by the time I make it back down. What an experience; I am climbing down alone, and keep hoping I won’t miss the trail. Never was I so happy to see a ferry!
We ferry back to Vik, where a taxi is waiting to drive us back to Balestrand. Back earlier than expected, we actually have a couple of hours to clean up for dinner. Then we pack for an early launch back to Bergen on Saturday.
Back to Bergen
Up at 6:15, we pack, zip down to breakfast, and roll our suitcases downhill to the landing by 7:45, where we board the ferry for a four-hour trip down the fjord back to Bergen. Unlike prior trips, we all stay downstairs many of us sleeping. The morning starts off cloudy, but ends sunny and hot.
My suitcases, which seemed relatively light at the beginning of the trip, now feel as if I am carrying two-ton weights within. It must be all the sweat and dirt packed on the socks and t-shirts!
!n Bergen, we say goodbye to our small group, then Diane and I roll our suitcases to the Admiral Hotel, overlooking the fjord, drop off our luggage and ramble round for a final farewell.
Then it’s back to the Admiral Hotel and my room, which is lovely, overlooking the fjord. However…noisy as all get out! If it’s not a ferry or catamaran revving up for an hour or two before actually leaving port, it’s the mass of people making merry at the top of their lungs – or someone on a bullhorn talking about who knows what ad infinitum – this town is unbelievably noisy, busy and social! And I can’t close the windows because it is TOO HOT! But I’ll survive – it’s been a great, great experience and adventure (oh, and now they’re setting off guns!)
Another observation: Some hotels, such as this one, do not put out soap, but rather have it in a wall dispenser in the shower. Not so good if you are sitting in the bathtub, and the soap is three feet above your head – it makes for some slippery moments!
Finally: I never saw a homeless person nor a stray animal on any streets in Norway.
I will never forget the incredible beauty of this country…so much unspoiled loveliness, you just have to be thankful you’ve seen what the natural world has to offer.