From Oslo it was due west (when I say that I mean geographically, because due to the country's steep topography, there's no such thing as a straight road in Norway) to Bergen, Norway's second city, erstwhile capital and important Hanseatic trading town (those Hansa guys again). Bergen is renowned for the Bryggen, a neighbourhood of wooden wharfside buildings that date from the Middle Ages, although much more of the downtown area is made of quaint, wooden houses stacked up on the city's steep hillsides.
|View of Bergen's Bryggen from across the harbour.|
For me, however, Bergen was more important as a gateway to the incredible fjords of west Norway. The largest of these is the Sognefjord, which stretches over 200km inland from the sea and has many smaller fjords branching off on either side into the mountainous surroundings. Unable to visit them all I plumped for Nærofjord, which is famed for its steep, narrow sides, making it the archetypal fjord. I had initially planned on being lazy and taking a ferry through the fjord across to the other side but I had come a little too late for the one daily service (from the 1st of June the tourist season starts warming up a little more and services increase, but until then even many attractions and museums are shut) so instead I discovered there was a path to the plateau, some 800m above the water, and since I had nothing better to do off I set. I was actually very surprised that it was even possible to climb the sides of the fjord as they were so steep, but sure enough, there was a small, indistinct trail zig-zagging its way through the trees and up towards the summit. After an hour and a half's slog up the trail I was rewarded with a breathtaking view along the lush, green fjord valley on one side, and a rather bleak, windswept, snowy plateau on the other; the contrast could hardly have been greater.
After a night spent camping by the water's edge (here in Norway you can camp pretty much wherever you want, though more on that in my next post) I headed back to the main road and tried my luck hitching further north and east. I only got as far as the next fjord along at Flåm which, because the fjord is wider and more accessible, and there is a mountain railway (perfect for sedentary excursions), is a magnet for tourist cruise ships of which, I was to find out, there are many in Norway. As I got there one had just arrived and disgorged its geriatric cargo many of whom were wandering rather lost around the quayside and buying up various nick-knacks at the several souvenir shops. I wasn't getting anywhere fast and so I got a bus to take me across to the other side of the fjord to see a beautiful stave church, of which there are several that dot the region. It is quite amazing to think that these simple wooden structures have withstood the elements and time for so long - this one was 850 years old.
|The wonderful stave church of Urnes|
That hadn't got me very far though so I wandered up to the main road once more to see if I could hitch a ride anywhere further north and east (the general direction I was headed in). I didn't have to wait too long before a car with 3 Swedish guys who were working in Norway (many Swedes work in Norway doing the jobs that locals generally don't want to do - most waiters, waitresses and bar staff are Swedish) picked me up. They were on their way to a "folk music festival" (they weren't too sure themselves) in a small town some 30km up the road in the direction I was headed so I joined in for the ride. First, however, they had to stop and meet up with some friends to get a little drunk before going out. This is essential in all Nordic countries where buying a beer in a pub or club can easily set you back £10. Whilst at the pre-party party I got the chance to sample a very Scandinavian peculiarity: snus. Snus is a type of steamed tobacco that is placed under the upper lip next to the gum where the sensitive blood vessels absorb the nicotine. Most people who do nicotine round these parts do snus rather than cigarettes and it is said to be healthier as it does not cause cancer and is not harmful to surrounding people. I had always been put off trying by the very pungent, and not particularly pleasant, odour of the little tobacco sachets, but in the spirit of experimentation, discovery and adventure I said "what the hell" and gave it a go. Unfortunately the only type available was Xtra Stark (extra strong) and I managed to put up with it for about 7 minutes before I felt really light-headed and thought I would have to throw up (the usual result for most first-time users). Not something I need to have, but perhaps more pleasant for those already with a nicotine addiction.
Once sufficiently inebriated, the group, very responsibly, got a taxi to take us the last 10km to the festival ... which in fact turned out to be country music concert (a mix between Irish and country and western). My new-found friends amazingly paid for my entrance ticket which I was baulking at paying (at over £30 it was more than my day's budget and I'm not that big a fan of country music to begin with), and I spent the rest of the night jumping about inanely (I wouldn't call it dancing) and having a fantastic time until the early hours of the morning before I had to slink off and get some sleep (I managed to find a quiet and cosy little corner in the local dock) before another long day of hitching.
As well as being an amazingly unexpected, surreal and, most importantly, fun experience, the little adventure made me realise something profound: Norwegians secretly want to be Americans. After making enquiries I discovered that, far from being isolated events, such concerts are hugely popular in small-town Norway and are held with extreme regularity, which could be witnessed from the authentic looking gear that many people were wearing and the moves they were busting - certainly no amateurs. Then there is another phenomenon that had me scratching my head. On weekends in smaller Norwegian towns (and many Swedish ones close to the border) people cruise around in vintage 50s and 60s Cadillacs, Oldsmobiles and Buicks, not with any destination in mind, but just cruising. Many are even dressed up in their rock 'n roll finery and one could be forgiven for thinking they had stepped into some strange time warp or onto the set of Grease. I have still to find a reason for this strange Norwegian obsession with Americana, but it has been very surprising to see.