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.
Norway is green. No really–it is green. Of its 385,252 square kilometres, most of it is dominated by nature: mountains, glaciers, fjords, forests, and other natural features. The rugged coastlines are jagged with fjords, the largest of which is the Sognefjord not far from Bergen. At 2o4 km, it is the second-longest in the world, and according to the world-renowned magazine, National Geographic, Norway’s fjords are the ‘world’s top tourist destination.’ The part of the country facing the Atlantic Ocean is even greener than the rest of the country as it sees more precipitation and milder winters than the inland bits and the lands far up north. Bergen is Europe’s Seattle in terms of high rainfall percentages. As a result, hiking up any of the mountains that rise behind the city of Bergen–such as Mt. Fløyen–leads you immediately into a green, moss-covered forest. Instead of oozing with fear or unease, the solitude of the forest is quiet and echoing, hugging the solitary traveler as they explore the magic of the winding paths. Not only is this relaxing and curative, it is made easier by Norway’s traditional allemannsretten, or “all mans right of access,” a law that permits everyone the right to the countryside no matter who owns it. Pretty cool, huh?
If you like nature, beauty and adventure, Norway is the place for you. The land of the Vikings is teeming with rugged beauty and sheer excitement. Steep winding roads, dramatic fjords, plummeting cliffs, silent waters, miniature wooden fishing towns, happy people, angry waterfalls crashing into the pools below them–this is what Norway is. Explore via train, car, boat or kayak, by horseback or bike or foot as you realise that anything is possible in this ancient land. For in Norway, one has the feeling of being connected with the earth, with the peoples who have walked this path before you, with the ancient gods of Norse mythology. After setting foot in this magical place, it’s hard not only to fall in love, but also to feel as if you too are part of its ancient, never-ending sagas.
Hopefully, you’re not afraid of heights. Oh you are? Hmm, well, perhaps it’s best to avoid driving in rural areas in Scandinavia, especially on the western coast of Norway in the direction of the fjords. This is the kind of place where you’ll find zigzagging roads that curl back and forth, criss-crossing each other time and again. These are the kinds of roads that cut through cliffs, chipped away by Norwegian laborers using rough tools and dynamite. These are the kinds of roads that plummet suddenly downwards, seemingly trying to follow the path of the countless waterfalls you’ve already passed along on your drive. Curving around cliff sides, these are these kinds of roads that leave you hanging over steep drops, with the sound of thousands of tons of water pounding onto the rocks below. These are the kinds of roads where you can imagine literally falling off the face of the earth, disappearing into the cavern far below. And yet—these are the kinds of roads that leave you excited and exhilarated by the end, dumbfounded at the wonders you’ve encountered along the road and breathless with the magnitude and sheer danger of driving on them—because at the end of the day, it’s the journey not the destination that matters. And this, you must admit, looks like a pretty unforgettable (if slightly terrifying!) journey.
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.
The Flåmsbana rail system—built to allow easier access to the Sognefjord—traverses the beautiful Flåm Valley, giving voyagers breath-taking views of Norway’s amazing scenery. The Flåmsbana railway is one of the steepest railways in the world—something like 80% of the 20-kilometer-long railway is over 50% gradient. That means it gains one meter per every 18! One of the most remarkable aspects of the rail (views aside!) are the twenty tunnels. All but two were constructed without the use of machinery, meaning about one meter per month—so it’s amazing that they ever finished. Not only that, but the Flåmsbana has enjoyed amazing success, and is still one of Norway’s biggest attractions. As for the theme of ‘reflections,’ this photo was shot from the window as the train headed into a tunnel. The reflection of the women sitting opposite was reflected by the glass, appearing as if she were part of the mountain in true Pocahontas-style. The symbolism seemed appropriate!
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!
Founded in 1070, Bergen was largely settled by merchants that made their living from the sea – and Bryggen remains the oldest part of the rainy city. In 1360, the Hanseatic League established a trading post in Bryggen (called a “kontor“), the only surviving kontor today. Over the years as Bergen thrived, the town developed around Bryggen, improving the wharfs as well as the city itself. Bryggen became the claim of the Hanseatic merchants, who used the warehouses to store goods such as fish from northern Norway as well as grains from Europe. Today, Bryggen consists of roughly 30 buildings, though more are currently under renovation. It is a UNESCO site and Bergen’s trademark. The rows of colourful wooden buildings with narrow covered passageways always smelling a little bit like fish just seem so utterly…Scandinavian.
If you need a reason to escape Bergen, just behind the city rises Mt Fløyen. Bergen is known as the city between seven mountains, of which includes Ulriken (the highest), Fløyen, Løvstakken and Damsgårdsfjellet, as well as three of Lyderhorn, Sandviksfjellet, Blåmanen, Rundemanen, and Askøyfjellet (depending on how you’re feeling at the time…). There is a cable car carrying tourists to the top of Fløyen, but to experience the mountain as the Norwegians do, grab a map and start climbing! Besides being rewarded with amazing views of the city from a birds-eye point of view, you may also stumble across this beautiful mountain lake. Carved into a lakeside tree, it says, “Dagen i dag er morgendagen du drømte om i går,” translating to something like the whimsical phrase, “Today is the tomorrow you dreamt about yesterday.” Well, sign, I hope that’s what I’m doing!
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.