Monday, October 08, 2007

Finding myself locked in the flat by The Lovely Jo (she's so possessive), I suddenly have enough time to blog. The wedding and the honeymoon went past so quickly, but not as quickly the last four weeks of work, not to mention the busy weekends, and I just haven't had a chance. But here I am at last. The Lovely Jo has already blogged/is blogging about the wedding, so rather than cover the same ground I'll jump straight to the honeymoon. I may do the wedding credits at some future point.

We spent our honeymoon in Norway – perhaps not an obvious choice, but we're planning to emigrate to New Zealand in a couple of years, so it seemed right to check out Norway while we're still living in the same hemisphere. Just a week, flying out on the Monday after the wedding (to allow plenty of time to recover, get all our precious things home, relax a bit) and back on the following Sunday. A short holiday perhaps, but we had friends' weddings to come back for, and besides it's not a cheap country to stay in. Nonetheless, a wonderful time was had.

First port of call on Tuesday was, of course, the bookshop. So we can't read Norwegian – what of it? We can't read Norwegian yet.) There we found a book of humorous cartoons by an Aussie immigrant to Norway (Brown Cheese, Please by Jenny Blake), with enough English in it to be helpful, and an odd-looking thing called Den Haikerens Guide Til Galaksen ("Ingen Grunn Til Panikk!"). The former is intended to give some insight into the Norwegian character, and this it does, but it's only with hindsight that I notice the clue that was right in the middle of the latter's title: the word "Guide" is lifted straight out of English (pronounciation and all, it turns out). There is no native Norwegian word for "guidebook". This, in view of later events, figures.

Other important things to note about Norwegians: they love hiking. Who wouldn't, when you live a country predominantly composed of mountains and scenic waterfalls? I'm a little amazed they aren't more jaded about it – oh for goodness' sake, another scenic bloody waterfall – but jadedness doesn't seem to be part of their temperament. They're also a pretty relaxed people – not too relaxed to go out hiking every weekend, but relaxed enough not to worry about things. Lastly, and this follows on naturally from the hiking, they love berries. (The Berlitz phrase book suggests they "go berserk over berries"...) They love rambling for them, serving them with every meal, making jams out of them. And this was borne out by the fact that, in the space of five days, I didn't learn enough prepositions to put a sentence together but I somehow managed to learn the names of five different berries. They're hard to avoid.

Tuesday was the day for short-distance tourism in Bergen – nothing further than a few minutes' walk. This included browsing the fish market, which was just over the road from our hotel; going to the train station to sort out the tickets for Wednesday and Friday; taking in the Lille Lungegårdsvann park on the way back; strolling past Haakon's Hall; and riding the Fløibanen funicular. This was great – the lower terminus was just one block along from the hotel, and seven minutes later (plus about half an hour's queueing time) we were enjoying the view from the top of Fløyen. Fløyen's only the second highest point in Bergen, but I preferred it to Ulriken, the number one – so much more affable. The good weather may have helped. The café can't have hurt either.

It was here too that we heard the only bit of live Grieg all week. There was supposed to be some sort of Grieg festival in force, yet the only concert that week turned out to be on the Sunday. So it all came down to one man with a trumpet, busking out extracts from Peer Gynt on a Tuesday lunchtime at the top of Fløyen.

For a number of our fellow tourists that was it. We were amazed to watch some of them come up the funicular, take a couple of snaps over the railings and go straight back down again. Wot no exploring? There was all manner of woodland and scenery in the other direction, and just twenty minutes' walk along a path up the back of Fløyen brought us to Skomakerdiket, a lovely little pond hidden away among the trees. Apparently the locals like to go up there in the summer and make use of the barbecue that's installed on the far side of the water. There's even a saw provided for you to cut down your own firewood, a detail that struck us somewhat at the time. (We later found that woodsaws were also provided in the emergency boxes on all trains, alongside the more usual window-breaking hammer. What this says about the Norwegian way of life is anyone's guess.)

Wednesday was the day of our first fjord tour, along the Sognefjord. The Sognefjord is Norway's largest fjord, but d'you know, I felt the same way about this as about Bergen's mountains – the second best won out because the biggest just wasn't welcoming enough. A large part of this was down to the complete absence of a tour guide. This bothered Jo more than me, and Fjord Tours do say on their website that they don't generally put guides on their organised tours, but it would have added something to the five-hour ferry journey to have a native talking to us, if only to name the sights for us. Getting transferred between ferries halfway along to save the operators having to run two boats didn't make us feel too special either. As for the scenery, the photos speak for themselves, or at least they will when I've got round to sticking some on Facebook. Again the weather defied the forecasts and we were able to spend all afternoon sat on deck, giving the camera some exercise.

In fact, although the scenery in the afternoon was nicer to look at, the journey in the morning was more interesting. The ferry set out from Flåm harbour, and to get there we had to take the train from Bergen to Myrdal, then get on the Flåmsbana. Some call this "the 20 railway", because it runs for 20km, it took just over 20 years to build, and it has 20 tunnels. Not just plain old tunnels, you understand – in order to drop 860 metres from Myrdal to Flåm without exceeding a gradient of 1:18, the Flåmsbana zigzags in and out of the mountains, and nearly all the tunnels were dug manually. This might seem like showing off from an otherwise laid back nation, and it is – at one point the line diverts into the mountainside, loops through 180 degrees and comes back out again, just so that the builders could poke windows through the other side and give travellers a view of the back of the mountain. Reading about this at Flåm's museum was even more impressive than the Kjosfossen waterfall the train stops to admire halfway along the track.

The funny thing is that the Flåmsbana was supposed to provide a link for trade and communication between the ports of the Sognefjord and the cities of Bergen and Oslo, but it's become such a tourist attraction in its own right that the harbourside of Flåm has been reduced to half a dozen souvenir shops and half a dozen cafés to service the railway and the ferry line.

On Thursday we planned to take care of the long-distance tourism in Bergen – stuff that we couldn't see without taking the bus. In the event, we managed to take the cable car up Ulriken and visit Grieg's house. It was on this day that the mysteries of the Norwegian character were revealed to us through personal experience. Consider Edvard Grieg's house, Troldhaugen. Grieg was one of the most notable citizens of Bergen, even of Norway, and you would expect his well-kept house and its beautiful grounds to be a major tourist attraction. To get to it, you have to take a half-hour bus ride out of central Bergen and alight at an anonymous A-road layby. Using luck, your sense of smell and any maps you may have thought to bring with you, you then have to navigate a series of pavements and minor roads, and if you pick the right ones it takes you another twenty minutes to get there. You get one signpost at the start and one house at the end. The idea seems to be that if you really want to see the place, you'll be prepared to find your own way and to walk for it – remember after all that the Norwegians enjoy hiking and are a laid back people (and have no word of their own for "guidebook").

Much the same was true of the Ulriksbana, the lower terminus for which was at the other end of the suburb from where the bus dropped us off, and a hard climb away. The top end is a lot more bare than Fløyen, apart from the enormous radio transmitter tower, and when you tire of the tiny café and nasty little railings there's not much more to see or do. The actual peak of Ulriken was temptingly visible behind the radio mast, but there was no path and with worse weather that day we didn't fancy rock-climbing to get to it.

On Friday we took our second day trip, this time down the Hardangerfjord. It may only rank second in size, but it was a damn sight more interesting than the Sognefjord. We actually had a guide on this one, although he wasn't there for the ferry trip per se, but rather to sell tickets for a side trip to occupy those who didn't fancy spending a three-hour lunch break sitting in the harbour. Even so he livened things up no end, and here we had another little moment of insight: I thanked him for the tickets in Norwegian, and he immediately asked "Are you Norwegian?" Not as if to ask what the hell Norwegians would be doing on a tourist trip – quite the reverse. I'd expect a bit of sarcasm if I got on a sight-seeing bus tour of London or something, but he seemed to be delighted by the possibility that his clientele might include his own countrymen. But here's the weird thing: I spoke two words of Norwegian to him, possibly among the most commonly spoken in the language (certainly by foreign visitors), and he immediately assumed I was Norwegian. How little effort must the average tourist make for that minimal effort on my part to get that reaction?

The side trip took us to the Hardangervidda Nature Centre and to the Vøringsfossen, Norway's tallest waterfall (and here I'd say the biggest actually is the best). To be honest it would have been worth spending a day just looking around these attractions – three hours was hardly enough time to take it all in. The ferry trip back was a pleasure too, even in cloudy weather, cruising past the orchards and vineyards – you heard – that line the Hardangerfjord. At one point the captain killed the engine, raced onto the deck with his binoculars, and with a distinct "Oooh!" pointed out some basking seals to us all, which I think underscores exactly how much better than Wednesday's trip it was.

There's not much to tell about Saturday except the souvenir shopping, the crafty blagging of a gradual lunch of free samples in the food market and the rain-dodging. To think, Bergen's infamous for its rain yet, in a week when no sun was forecast, we'd had hardly a shower until that last day. I think it was this day that we visited the aquarium as well, but y'know, it's a bit of a comedown after the fjords. And so home, to try to assemble the photos into a presentable form to bore the family with. A task that still isn't finished.

1 comment:

Jo said...

We visited the aquarium on the Thursday, same day as Ulriken and Grieg's house - we got in for free because we had the Bergen card for the day. (for which I'm glad - I think I'd have been a bit miffed with what was there if we'd actually had to pay...!)