Heading into the Wild Blue Yonder: From Bergen to Norway’s Awe-inspiring Fjords
Gateways tend to be things you wander through without dawdling1, without expectation, on the way to somewhere else.
So I was wary on arrival in Bergen to see posters describing Norway’s second-largest city as ‘the gateway to the fjords’, even though they were high on the agenda during a short, but irresistibly sweet, trip to a part of the world about which we know far too little.
Mind you, I’d heard the joke about the tourist in Bergen who asked a local lad: ‘Does it always rain here?’ To which the boy replied: ‘I don’t know, I’m only seven.’
Sure enough it was drizzling as we arrived in town (a sort of Scottish drizzle, but with an hour’s time difference). We checked into the Radisson Blu Hotel along with a few hundred others who were there for a medical conference of some sort or other.
No, not exactly a boutique hotel experience, but one that plonked2 us bang on Bryggen, the famous and much photographed wharf3 with its higgledy-piggledy wooden buildings that rightly have made it on to Unesco’s World Heritage List.
Then, as we started exploring, we realised this particular gateway is one where dawdling is very much in order. Bergen is perfect to negotiate on foot. Safe, hospitable, self-assured, it’s no surprise that easy Jet has just added this former capital city to its roster of Scandinavian destinations.
Quaint doesn’t do Bergen justice, though it does have a toy town air about it with its immaculately4 clean streets and unthreatening, unedgy vibe. And here’ s a sweeping generalisation: Norwegians seem effortlessly (dread phrase) ‘comfortable in their own skins’ — and comfortably off, too.
The oil rigs in the north of the country keep the economy nicely lubricated while making the likelihood of EU membership as remote as ever.
That’s good news for Norwegians when they take their krones abroad, but not so good when the rest of us bring our pounds to Bergen. Make that £7 for a beer, £10 for a glass of wine.
Famous Norwegians? Tricky. There are lots of explorers and plenty of champion skiers. There’s the former Manchester United footballer Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the playwright Henrik Ibsen and the composer EdvardGreig, who came from Bergen and whose home is now a museum and concert venue.
For sure, it’s the country’s landscape that is the real star. And it’s certainly easily accessible from Bergen. We got an 8.40am train for the popular all-day trip known breezily as Norway In A Nutshell.
This unhurried, but substantial tour starts with two spectacular hours on Northern Europe’s highest railway to Myrdal, where the station staff wear Postman Pat hats and merrily blow whistles. From Myrdal you switch trains and drop down to the famous little port of Flam through snowy mountains and past dozens of waterfalls.
I expected to see Julie Andrews and her Von Trapp brood skipping beside the rickety track. And then, when we stopped at the Kjosfossen waterfall, everyone spilled out onto a platform 2,400 ft above sea level and two women in flowing red dresses appeared from behind a giant rock and began dancing seductively.
Apparently, they were dressed as mythical forest creatures called Huldras and their dresses were disguising cow’s tails. If they could lure a man, their tails would drop off and they could return to normal life in the city. A good summer job for budding ballerinas5.
Our return to normal life was an abrupt6 one in Flam, where a huge cruise ship occupied the main dock. This is cruise central in summer, so you just have to regard Flam — with its microbrewery7, museum, touristy restaurants and souvenir shops — as a fjord hub.
For us, it was where we hopped on board a boat and chugged all the way to Gudvangen via the Aurlandsfjord and the narrower Naeroyfjord, both magnificent, both virtually unsullied by the trappings of 21st-century living.
At one point on this two-hour cruise, I popped my head into the captain’s cabin to ask a question and he invited me in. He was a dead ringer for Captain Bird’s Eye.
‘Do you mind if I do?’ he asked, picking up a packet of tobacco and cigarette papers. ‘Not at all,’ I said. ‘Do you mind if I steer the ship?’ I asked a few minutes later. ‘Not at all,’ he said.
And so, for the next ten minutes, I was at the helm8, steering a perfect line through some of the most perfect waters in the world.
It was only later that the captain explained we had been on auto-pilot all along. After arriving in Gudvangen, we took a bus to Voss. The route included the Stalheimskleiva road, with its notorious hairpin bends that make San Francisco’s Lombard Street look like child’s play.
I concentrated on admiring the gushing9 water crashing over the rocks on either side of us, rather than imagining our bus crashing into the rocks and joining the gushing water.
While waiting for our final train back to Bergen from Voss, I bought a rug made from reindeer10, then followed that up later with fillet11 of reindeer at the excellent Bryggeloft&Stuene restaurant (founded in 1910) on the wharf.
After rounding off the night with a couple of Aquavits, the local liqueur12 made from potatoes, we were ready to sleepwalk back to the hotel. Next morning we took the funicular13 up to a wonderful vantage14 point high above the city: a busy port, a purposeful town, mountains, bridges and water everywhere.
We gulped the crisp air and marvelled at it all. We had read that 90 per cent of all the buildings burned down in the devastating fire of 1702, but brave Bergen bounced back — and today this charming, unpretentious15 city is far more than a mere gateway to somewhere else.