Douglas Adams fans will recall that, in his sci-fi comedy novel ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, Slartibartfast, designer of planets, won an award for the Norway fjords, and I have to agree – they are spectacular. The fjords (spelt ‘fiords’ in New Zealand) nearest to home are those in the south-west of the South Island of Aotearoa (called, unsurprisingly, ‘Fiordland‘) – I’ve only been to Milford Sound but assume the other NZ West Coast fiords are just as impressive.
While Svalbard’s fjords are textbook examples of geology – the shapes are formed by glaciers moving down and scouring out valleys over thousands of years – they look somewhat bleak, with steep peaks of grey or black/brown stone, rubble or rocks at the bottom that have been dragged down by glaciers over thousands of years, and no tall trees, just short shrubs (e.g. the polar willow, Salix polaris, grows very slowly in the tundra to 2-9 cm [1-3.5 inches] high). The fjords are very atmospheric all the same. In contrast, the mainland fjords have lots of forests and in the summer are very colourful – steep sides, long waterfalls, still waters reflecting blue skies, and picturesque small villages with colourful houses. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Leaving the tundra of Svalbard, we flew to Tromsø, then to Bergen, for a couple of days at each. Both are pleasant towns – Bergen is especially charming – with lots of historic buildings, but very crowded in the summer holiday season (both suffer from the influx of many huge cruise ships each carrying up to 4,000 tourists; good for the economy but it must be a relief when the cruiseship season stops). Two days does not allow even skimming the surface of such places, but it was better than nothing, especially with walks accompanied by excellent professional guides who gave us potted histories. I’d love to go back and spend more time exploring them, but not in summer high season even though that is the best weather. Bergen is the wettest place in Norway, but we were lucky to have exceptionally fine weather throughout our trip.
From Bergen, we took the scenic route south, via the coastal ferry, to Balestrand, which is covered nicely on this blog. The ferry stops at various tiny villages along the way to drop off post and supplies. Our billet, the Kviknes Hotel, has two sections: one with interesting architecure, antique furniture and large framed paintings, finished in 1913, and a more boring one finished in the 1960s – guess where we were, alas. The decor in the old section was much more interesting than that in the modern hotels we’d been in so far – one of those places with a labyrinth of rooms that are fun to explore. The hotel is very popular and we shared the dining room with numerous other tourist parties. I’m usually an independent traveller with lots of flexibility so it took a bit of getting used to the crowds being ushered around.
We’d arrived early enough in the day to have a look around. There were a couple of cafes and a small aquarium but I didn’t go in, despite the advertised delights of Troll Soup.
The town is basically a waystation for travel up and down the coast and the Sognefjord (the longest and deepest fjord in Norway), and for hiking in the nearby mountains (Norwegians are typically very outdoorsy people).
I went out on my own for a walk, having heard there was a Viking grave nearby. Being an archaeology enthusiast, I was keen to see my first real Viking site.
Of the five original mounds, three have been removed and the others taken down and restored. The remnants of a boat, two skeletons, jewellery and several weapons were removed for study in the 1820s. Fortunately the information boards have an English translation. The statue on one of the mounds bears no resemblance to the sketch on the board, however.
On the way back to the town, I popped into a pretty stave-style church, St Olaf’s. It isn’t one of the original stave churches (read about them here), but was built in 1897 with the wishes of an Englishwoman living in Balestrand. It’s Anglican and still in use.
After a bit more exploring around town, and a companionable dinner, we were all looking forward to the trip along Sognefjord next day.