Of Fjords and Fisherman in Norway

 
 

Patti Nickell
Published April 01, 2014

So many superlatives have been used to describe Norway’s beauty that to be original, a writer would have to coin a new word. Since the last thing the dictionary needs is a new word — isn’t the addition of “twerking” enough? — let’s just leave it this way: The Land of the Midnight Sun is, quite simply, beautiful.

 

Cliffs of Geirangerfjord

Start with the fjord country. You really have to want to get to Geirangerfjord, as it takes a train, a boat, a bus and a ferry to get to the 9.3-mile-long inland arm of the sea cradled by mountains on either side. Boarding the steamer that will take you along the fjord to the tiny town of Geiranger, you’ll understand why so many are willing to make the effort.

Sheer granite cliffs rise from the water. Many have faces carved by the elements into stern visages resembling those of Norse gods; others are softened by cascading waterfalls with romantic names such as Bridal Veil and the Seven Sisters. Local lore has it that the sisters flirted with another waterfall, appropriately dubbed the Suitor, on the opposite mountain.

This is a landscape straight from the imagination of J.R.R. Tolkien — it’s easy to picture hobbits, elves and dwarves all coexisting there. One of the most fantastical sights, however, is not imaginary, but real.

Atop vertical cliffs, a few of the farms that once were common there remain. It’s hard to believe that the only access to the farmhouses is by steep paths that wind around sheer precipices and over bridges attached to  the mountain by iron bolts.

The steamer guide explains that adults, when they went out to work, and children, when they ventured out to play, were tethered to their houses with ropes to prevent them from toppling over the cliff.

The tiny town of Geiranger, tucked into a hollow at the fjord’s end, is a colorful collection of cottages painted robin’s-egg blue, pearl gray and cinnamon, whose watery reflection gives the appearance of an impressionist painting. The cottages house craft shops and cafes such as Brasserie Posten, in what was once the post office, and there are plenty of gentle hiking trails in the hills above the village.

Leaving Geiranger is as dramatic as entering. Buses depart via the Ornevegen, a road whose literal translation is “eagles’ way.” It spirals upward from the town by way of 11 hairpin turns. You might think that even an eagle — let alone a bus — would be loath to tackle it, but don’t close your eyes. With each of the 11 turns comes an increasingly spectacular view.

 

Fairy-Tale Alesund

At the northern tip of the fjord country is a town so gorgeous that it almost defies description. Standing at the vantage point atop Mount Aksla — reached by climbing 418 steps or, for the less ambitious, by taxi — you can look at the town of Alesund spread out before you.

Alesund is situated on a peninsula and a series of islands connected by causeways and is surrounded by a ring of mountains known as the Sunnmore Alps; it would be hard to find a more picturesque location.

That makes it all the more surprising to learn that Alesund owes its good fortune to a tragic event. On January 23, 1904, a fire raged through the city center, burning all 850 buildings. From the ashes rose the phoenix of a new city, rebuilt over three years (1904 to 1907) in the Art Nouveau style that was sweeping Europe at the time.

The restoration was spurred by leading architects from across the continent who clamored to be a part of Alesund’s rebirth. One of the city’s major benefactors was Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, who loved Norway, particularly Alesund, where he frequently vacationed. Wilhelm sent ships loaded with building materials, along with some of his country’s most gifted architecture students.

The result of all this love is a fairy-tale town with turrets, spires and intricate ornamentation, a town with not a single jarring note in its architectural symphony. For the best perspective on Alesund’s renaissance, visit the Art Nouveau Center in the old Swan Pharmacy. In addition to the “Time Machine” exhibit, which takes visitors back to the 1904 fire and reconstruction, there are galleries devoted to Art Nouveau furniture and decorative objects.

A stroll along the Brosundet, a deep inlet of the inner harbor flowing through the town center, is a reminder that at one time, Alesund’s livelihood depended on fishing, and the city is still Norway’s largest fishing port. There’s a pungent tang in the air there; fat seagulls perch on pilings, hoping for a handout, and former commercial fishing warehouses have been converted into restaurants where visitors may sample the area specialty, “klippfisk,” a dried and salted cod.

Just outside town, the island of Godoy seems tailor-made for an Ingmar Bergman film — OK, he’s Swedish, but close enough. The wild Atlantic slashes the coastline with unrelenting fury, and the sky is often an ominous slate gray. Adding to the brooding atmosphere is Alnes Lighthouse, a lone silhouette stenciled against the sky. Built in 1876, the lighthouse’s cyclops eye commands a 360-degree view of sea and city.

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