Though we haven’t actually been down there, we thought that this aerial display of some of the most dramatic glaciers on Earth deserved a shout. Greenland is the world’s largest island, and is located between Canada’s arctic archipelago and Northern Europe. It is physiographically part of North America, but politically and culturally part of Europe due to its longtime connection to Denmark (and before that, to Norway, thanks Vikings). Sparsely inhabited, the whole island is home to about 56,000 people (there are more people living in the rural Irish county of Sligo!) making it the least densely-populated territory in the world. Most inhabitants are ethnic Greenlandic Inuit and are scattered across 60 some settlements, all coastal, mostly on the southwest coast, with fishing as the predominant industry. The rather enormous ice sheet that covers the large island means that glaciers are fairly common – but common or not, they are very dramatic. Like Greenland itself, most fjords and glaciers of Greenland are very hard to get to, and very few actually occur close to a town or village (according to Visit Greenland, most visitors either drive to Kangerlussuaq, helicopter to Nuuk or Illulissat or hike down to Narsarsuaq, though it is apparently a strenuous hike). That is what makes flying over these fjords and glaciers so magical – Greenland’s glaciers are so remote that they are visible only to a few. Glaciers, one must remember, are rivers of ice, and though they look stable, they are constantly moving (just very slowly!), and they play an important role in the planet’s ecosystem.
Pro tip: Netflix documentary One Strange Rock explores the importance of glaciers and their planetary interconnected role with the salt fields and deserts of Africa, the Amazon forest of Brazil, the mountains of South America and microorganisms of the world’s oceans. Visiting Greenland and want to get out to see the glaciers? A guide is definitely necessary – the harsh conditions, lack of waymarked paths, delicate ecosystems and danger of treacherous crevasses and unstable pinnacles all mean that an experienced mountain guide is mandatory.
Wooden houses on the edge of Aurlandsvangen, Norway
Wooden clapboard houses, dipped liberally in sombre yet sharp colours, hug the cold shores of one of the most beautiful fjords in all of Norway, the massive Sogneford. The village of Aurlandsvangen is located on one of the fjord’s thinnest and most stunning branches: the narrow arm of Aurlandsfjorden. Its sister arm, Nærøyfjord, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Home to a mere 770 people, the little houses of the village cling happily along the edge of the fjord. In this place, where the river weaves through the . mountains to cascade into the fjord, life is simple. Due to the influx of tourists, however, it has gotten more complex lately. When people travel sustainably, there is little impact on the destination. However, tiny fjord villages like Aurlandsvangen or nearby Flam have been overwhelmed with visitors, receiving double or triple their population daily in season. While visiting small communities such as these is great in that tourism spending strengthens the villages’ local economies, too large an influx who simply ‘pass through’ on the way to somewhere else (without spending locally) only succeed in leaving a negative footprint. Be mindful of local cultures and communities when you travel and make sure your euros stay in the local destination and don’t go to faraway international corporations.
6/6/1993 – darkness falls as the flames begin to lick the walls, the floors, the tower as the dark wood turns to ash. Built in 1150 in the magnificent Sognefjord, the Fantoft Stave Church was carried piece by piece to its current site near Bergen by a kind soul named Fredrik Georg Gade 1883 to save it from demolition. 100 years later, it was burned to the ground. What happened? In short, Norwegian Black Metal happened. A genre unfortunately synonymous with church burnings, this beautiful piece of history was lit afire by Varg Vikernes from the one-man-band, Burzum, who, in poor taste, later used a photo of the church’s burnt shell for his ‘Aske’ (Ashes) album. Convicted of 4 acts of arson (and other crimes), Varg is locked safely behind bars, though he apparently has ‘fans’ who applaud his crimes. Destroyed or not however, the Norwegians, much like the Poles after WWII, refused to give in, and instead painstakingly reconstructed the building to its original state. Today, the beautiful Fantoft Stave Church sails into its forest landing in all its original glory, one of the last remaining stave churches (many of which are UNESCO sites), or medieval wooden churches whose name comes from the pinewood support posts (stav in Norwegian). Fantoft has been through a lot, but for now, it rests in tranquility in the whispering woods below Bergen.
Sliding evenly through the tumbling waves, the ship makes its way through some of the most beautiful waters in all of Europe. Silently, you watch the boat-full of tourists just like you turn their necks up to look at the immense fjords. You follow their example, marveling at the innate beauty of something so naturally incredible. Untouched by humans, the Sognefjord has been left alone for centuries to grow and develop into the masterpiece we see today. Little wooden villages dot the inlets in between sheer cliffs, green hills, and cascading waterfalls. As you float by one of these such villages, you marvel at humanity’s ability to live in harmony among some of mother nature’s finest creations, and even though the moment passes when the other boat goes by, the feeling of utter relation, awe, and harmony does not.
One of the most naturally beautiful places in Europe – and in the world – is surely the Norwegian fjords, of which they seem to have no shortage! The Sognefjord is one of the most famous; not only has if been recognised by UNESCO, but it is also located not far from Norway’s fjord capital, Bergen. It also happens to be the largest fjord in Norway, and the third-largest in the world (covering 205 km)! What better way to see these beautiful fjords than by boat? Boat as a method of travel has certainly diminished in recent years with the invention and perfection of both the car and the airplane. Boats have been rendered old-fashioned – which, actually, makes them more picturesque and romantic. Travelling by boat – whether it be a row boat on a rural Italian lake, an eveningdinner-boat on the Amsterdam Canals, a cruise-liner down the Rhine River, an overnight ferry to Dubrovnik or a Norwegian cruise deep within these magical fjords, being on that boat, feeling the wind in your face, the hull rocking beneath you, the lap of the waves against its sides, the ability to actually see and enjoy and appreciate the scenery as they glide by – is an experience worth having.
Norway is a cold place. The average daily temperature in Bergen, for example, ranges from 2-17 degrees Celsius, depending on the season (sometimes in the twenties in the summer) . Far up north can get to -40 in the coldest parts of winter. Even in late spring, summer, and early fall, a scarf, overcoat and pair of mittens is a good idea. That said, when you look at the map, Norway should actually be a lot colder than it is, but due to the Gulf Stream, Norway has a much nicer climate you’d expect. It shares a latitude with Alaska, Greenland and Siberia- places that make shiver even in mid-summer when you hear their names- but luckily for the Norwegians, they got the better deal climate-wise. Regardless, I was still cold when I visited in late April, and wearing far more clothes than I had been wearing even in Poland. The Norwegians seem to have perfected the cold-but-stylish look – at least, everyone struck me as properly dressed for the weather while still chic (as opposed to the Spanish who insist on wearing heavy winter clothes when it’s 17 degrees out). Not sure I’m in a hurry to rush off to live in Norway…but it was still a pleasant surprise that I didn’t need to wear a parka. Not that this photo, taken from a train window just past Myrdal on my way back from the fjords, really helps the frozen-climate stereotype though!
Home to the famously beautiful Flåm Railway – a 20km historic railway that just so happens to to be one of the steepest railways worldwide – and tucked away in the innermost part of the Aurlandsfjord, a tributary of UNESCO site the Sognefjord, is the quiet village of Flåm. With barely more than 300 people- many of them seasonal – it’s really a charming village. You can’t go bar-hopping, it seems unlikely that there’ll ever be famous concerts, and you might be lacking in museums and other normal amenities. But…there’s the view! Does that make up for it? I think yes.