Navigating Norway

Our primary goals for the northern-most bits of Europe were to see some old friends in Norway, and to try and find Slartibartfast’s signature on its spectacular west-coast. We started off by spending a few days in Oslo, mostly hanging out and catching up with our friends who were in town.

We also explored Oslo, taking in the sights and sounds of the bustling capital. The central town and attractions are grouped around Karl Johan’s Gate, which concludes its path at the King’s Palace. The area is dotted by the Parliament and National Theatre buildings, with several shopping spots and eateries lining the street. One of the more remarkable achievements of this country is the sparsity of security personnel around these buildings, most countries are incapable of being this unafraid. Shweta was perplexed at how accessible the King’s Palace was, with neither suspicious eyes nor unwelcome x-ray machines and pat downs. Vigelands Park is a simultaneously fascinating and curious place full of statues of naked people doing ordinary and extraordinary things. Everyone who described the park did so with a bit of mischief and confusion, and now, we understood why. The central obelsik is a somewhat redundant phallic structure composed of a pile of people seemingly attempting to reach the top, all in their birthday suits. Some parts of the statues, specifically the angry baby’s fist, were polished to a golden sheen by all those hoping to get a bit of luck. We also had a chance to go to the Viking Ship Museum. There were no naked statues here but instead four ancient viking ships had been restored and put on display. These ships had been recovered from funeral sites that were discovered in the area.

A short train ride through the beautiful countryside of rolling lush hills and neat ploughed farmlands had us in the town of Kongsberg. Our friends were there to pick us up, and we spent most of our time in Kongsberg with friends, having dinners and barbeques, drinks and fun-filled conversations. Kongsberg is an old mining town, where silver was mined hundreds of years ago. We had an opportunity to visit the silver mines a few miles outside town. An actual mining rail-cart took us down into the mines, accompanied by a significant drop in temperature. They actually request that you take warm clothing down with you. A steep ride later, a walking tour put us through some of the large mining chambers. We also saw the central mining shaft and its old steam elevator system that allowed the workers to get in and out quickly.

After a good week spent with friends, it was time to make our move west, and to the fjords. We took the train from Kongsberg to Stavanger, our first stop on the west coast. We started our stay with a stop at the Oil Museum which is a very interesting look at how the discovery of black gold transformed both the Norwegian economy and culture. Stavanger, being home to some of the earlier oil workers has distinct characteristics. There are more places for those richer blue-collar folks to spend their paychecks at, and a lot more people partake in the evening social scenes. While in Stavanger we also stumbled upon their annual street art festival and happily added that to our calendar. But before all this, we had set our sights on Preikestolen.

The day started with a frantic rush to catch the bus to the ferry terminal, followed by an even more hectic hurry from the bus stop to the ferry, that was slowly pulling away from the pier. We only made it onboard thanks to the friendly crewman who waved at us somewhat calmly, and allowed us to rush on as he raised the gangway. The ferry trip was a lazy sail starting off under the bridge and into the Stavanger Fjord towards Tau. We gently sailed past the various small isles and inlets that formed this fractured, somewhat crumbly coastline. The weather was cloudy and there was a chill in the air. In Tau, the passengers and vehicles both disembarked, with the vehicles going on their way and the passengers boarding the buses going to different destinations on this side. We took a bus filled with people going for the climb, equipped in various levels of mountaineering and/or hiking gear. The gamut ran from walking sticks and ankle guards to nothing but sandals and shorts, so predicting the difficulty level of this undertaking was nearly impossible. The bus dropped us off at Preikestolen Hytte, the starting point for the trail.

The trail was a series of climbs, slight dips and plateaus, which didn’t seem terrible in the perfectly flat map on the information board down at the base. That said, the rain didn’t give us much confidence that it would be an easy hike. The trail started with a pretty heavy climb, which seemed to be a gravel footpath to the first plateau. After that, the trail was left mostly natural, with boardwalks covering some boggy parts, and markers showing the way and distance (which, like the cup half-full/half-empty conundrum can either act as motivation or as a deterrent). Steps and footholds had been created out of stones and boulders from the area by a project in conjunction with Nepali Sherpas. The most astonishing part however is the lack of any sort of guardrail or safety barriers on the towering cliffs with kilometer long drops. Nature here is unshackled, raw and dangerous, so people must take personal responsibility very seriously or succumb to that cruel and ultimate Darwinian reality.

We slowly made our way up the trail, the weather was much cooler and foggy with a slight cold drizzle-mist in the air, ensuring that glasses were a hazard the whole way up. This kept us cool on the trail but made many parts of the trail slippery. The initial gravel road through thick forest gave way to a flat boggy area leading to winding steep climb that opened up at the top. We walked past two lakes where people can swim, but I suspect that only those who have lost all ability to respond to temperature stimuli – probably due to some horrendous hiking accident – would partake in such an activity, otherwise I fail to see why this would be pleasurable in most months of the year. After a small open rocky area, still filled with fog, the path stuck firmly to the side of a cliff, and a few steep meters ahead the firmament on our right clearly fell off into an abyss. We had been climbing for around two hours and were, at this point, informed that the path ahead was closed for filming of the new Mission Impossible movie. As I plotted in morbid detail how I would bring an end to this completely unnecessary movie franchise and its key players, we were informed that the emotional turmoil I had undergone was just someones idea of a cruel joke. So unfortunately another unnecessary movie will be playing in a theater near you. We continued hugging the side of the mountain, the fog was dense and all we could see were the clouds sitting in the endless trench below, and vapor swirling around in the wind. Every once in a while we caught glimpses of the water body stretched in the inlet below. Finally, after one final corner we witnessed the pulpit rock itself.

The rock sits precariously on the side of the cliff like the carrot nose of a snowman ready to slide down the precipice at the slightest sneeze. A crack of sorts runs down the path close to the rock itself bestowing a good measure of drama upon the whole scene, in case some was missing. We sat down for our lunch of knakkebrod, cheese and meat watching the people pose in various superhuman, not-the-wisest-thing-to-do-so-high-up, poses atop the rock. After our meal, the fog and clouds cleared giving us a truly awesome look at the scale of this fjord on whose razor edge we were standing. Tour boats with tourists floated in and out of the watery finger below, while another knuckle rose up along the opposite lush green and rocky bank. We mustered up the courage to go to one of the edges and look down. The theoretical understanding of what a sheer drop is, the dictionary definition of it, or even this very description, doesn’t do any kind of justice to the true magnitude of it. The slight uptick in heart rate, the involuntarily held breath followed by its equally uncontrolled escape, the tingly knees, and the distant sensations of fear mixed with euphoria can only be experienced. The previously mentioned lack of protective barrier only works to enhance these emotions.

We followed the same varying modes of transport back to town. Walk, bus, ferry, bus put us back at our Airbnb completely exhausted. Succumbing to the insistence of our sore feet, we reconsidered our next day plan of hiking to Kjerabolten. We decided instead to spend the day walking around town exploring the street art. The graffiti art of Stavanger is an amazing hidden-in-plain-sight gem of the city. Strolling through the labyrinth of small streets had us in awe of the sheer number, scale and diversity of the artwork. The installations varied from small stamps and painted electrical boxes to entire building sides covered in intricate murals. Political and social statements abound, the city obviously attracts a variety of artists from around the world. In the evening we attended the opening party for the annual street art festival which included a showcase of some of the participating artists. That night we met an old friend, who happened to be in town for work, had a few drinks and shared old stories.

The next stop on our whirlwind tour through Norway was Bergen. We boarded a Danish ferry which serves the route from Stavanger in the morning. The ship weaved a route through the inlets and islets that were left behind as shavings from when the fjords were formed. There was ample evidence of Norway’s considerable shipping industry as we made our way through maneuvering ships and docks peppering the coastline. The ship cut a path through these inland waterways to arrive at Bergen in the early afternoon. There wasn’t much of an agenda in Bergen, other than sightseeing, since after much consultation with the locals, our Trolltunga hike had been indefinitely postponed until our fitness levels permit it. On our first day we happened upon a food festival, which we couldn’t miss. After sampling some of the local fare and taking away some absolutely delicious smoked salmon, we ventured aimlessly around town. The central part of town is the famous marina and fish market and of course Bryggen, the old wharf made of rows of colorful buildings.

Our second day ended up being one of those unplanned yet oddly memorable days. We started off with a simple plan of checking out the science center, which turns out remains closed on Mondays, so instead we made our way to the Stave Church. We had no idea what this church was except that it looked really cool in pictures. We took the tram almost all the way and had to walk the rest. We turned off the road and onto this small pedestrian path through a forested area that wound uphill. Just as we started seeing the carved wooden gables of the church, we heard a boy yelling “Er du Norsk?” Although somewhat unfamiliar with the language, we could tell there was desperation in his voice, maybe even a tinge of fear. We quickly informed him that we weren’t Norwegian, and he promptly switched to English while yelling something about “tourists” to a friend. There was some discussion in Norwegian as the second boy set his bicycle down, and then the mystery was solved with an explanation. The boys had been out on the hill riding their mountain bikes, and one of them had inadvertently left his bicycle leaning against a fallen tree, which had, within its rotting hollow trunk, a bee hive. The bee colony had decided to immediately attack this uninvited invader, and now the bicycle was under fire from a very irate buzzing swarm. Somehow, we were supposed to help.

Completely ignorant to the art (and science) of extermination, but feeling sympathetic towards the poor boys’ predicament, we decided, with extreme uncertainty, to help. The first thing we figured was to have the boys inform their parents, which they did, and then they immediately informed us about how the Norwegian parenting style meant that they were told to figure this out on their own. Unfortunately our involvement was part of their solution, so we were still stuck. We began by arming ourselves with some rather large branches and slowly creeping towards the bike, followed immediately by running away as the sneaky bees unraveled this fiendishly brilliant plan. Then, we did the only thing we could think of, ask the gods of knowledge at Google. A spray of soapy water was the response, which was something we just hadn’t had the foresight to carry around in our backpacks. The kids ran up to the Stave Church and brought back one of the staff members – thus forging the coalition of the unwilling – with a bucket of barely soapy water. We tossed this on the bicycle from a safe-ish distance, and watched hopelessly as this did absolutely nothing at all. This was followed by a strategic blankly-stare-at-the-bike tactic, also futile. Finally, we found a long sturdy trunk with a knobby branch at the end which would act as our hook. With our jackets and hoodies acting as makeshift chainmail we prepared for battle. Approaching the bike from two separate angles, we were able to split their forces and hook the bike, dragging it part of the way. We once again ran frenziedly away, but the strategy had worked. After another three or four attempts, we were able to free the bike from its apiarian aggressors.

After having thus won the war, we said our goodbyes to our allies and triumphantly walked the rest of the way uphill to take a look at the Fantoft Stave Church. The church has a very unique structure, part viking-ship part pagoda, that is made of huge wooden beams that are intricately carved. This church is a replica built after an arsonist destroyed the original church in 1997; the original had stood here since 1150. The inside of the church is quite small and cozy and a wonderful woody aroma wafts throughout. We lazily strolled around the grounds for a little longer and left when a large tourist bus pulled in, we had had enough buzzing for one day. We took the funicular up and spent the evening watching the sunset from Fløien. This was our last night in Bergen and in Norway.

The next morning we took the train to Oslo, through the beautiful vistas of Hardangervidda we watched peeks of snow-capped peaks through the mist and the fog. Frigid lakes lined the way, but the clouds settled in and we slowly lost our picturesque views. We pulled into Oslo Central, and quickly took off towards the docks. We had a short layover before our ferry to Copenhagen. One of the first Norwegian folk songs I had learnt, thanks to a colorful set of friends, was “Drittafull før Drøbaksundet” – i.e. get shit-faced before the Drøbak Sound. The lyrics describe the journey on the Norway to Denmark ferry , which are frequented by folks looking for low-cost drinks and duty-free shopping. So of course we checked-in, dropped our bags, and went to the upper deck for a sail-away drink overlooking the overcast Akerbrygge and the Oslo skyline. Next stop Copenhagen.

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