Thursday, 30 June 2011

Norway - Land of Tunnels

We have spent longer in Norway than anywhere so far, and we have also seen more of the country than elsewhere. On our first day we took a train north from Oslo through Lillehammer, site of the Winter Olympics to Alesund.

Not long after leaving, we pulled into a station where it was announced that due to flooding we had to swap to buses. After a trek out to the street; up some stairs and down some stairs and some people duly piled onto the only bus there. It had no facilities for luggage, so there was a fair bit of confusion. Turns out it was a local bus so the enthusiastic were obliged to disembark just as everyone was directed back to the train - up the stairs and down the stairs and we headed off again, with a free cup of coffee from the dining car as compensation for the inconvenience. We got another 45 minutes travelling before we got to the real spot to offload to buses. The bus trip to Dombas took much longer than the schedule, so we missed the connecting train to Alesund which was to have been the highlight of the days travel.
The train trip is through a spectacular gorge, but the good news is that the replacement bus goes roughly the same route, and has bigger windows.

It was a valley maybe 30-40 km long between spectacular mountains still capped with patches of snow and streaming with waterfalls or near vertical creeks and following an ever-growing river – all the way to the fjord at Alles.
On the journey we passed the largest vertical rock face in Europe which soared above the bus and disappeared into the clouds that were cloaking the highest peaks.

After another long wait for a connecting bus, we eventually arrived at our destination at 8pm, 4 hours late to our hotel just meters from the harbour had no time for exploring but found a restaurant nearby serving Mexican food Norwegian style. Over the course of that day and the next we found that the Norwegians are rather fond of tunnels. Some go through the mountains, others go under the fjords, or to some of the 18,000 islands. There is not a lot of tedious hill climbing on the roads. Some tunnels are a few hundred meters and others are many kilometres. Most are narrow, but somehow manage to allow two buses to carefully manoeuvre past each other without loss of wing mirrors. There was only one single lane tunnel, it had a bend in the middle so had to be navigated with care in case the vehicles meet on the bend and one had to reverse 200m backwards.

The next day was travelling on a series of local buses and ferries through the mountains and fjords to Hellesylt at the far end of the Geiranger Fjord, one of the most beautiful stretches of steep-sided mountains plunging into the water on both sides. Snow-melt streams cascade down the mountains into the water. At one point, a group of seven adjacent waterfalls – The seven Sisters on one side counterbalanced by one large one – their would-be Groom - opposite. The real surprise is the old farms perched on minute patches of slightly less than vertical land, with or without ladder access. These were productive up to the early 1960s, and the buildings have since been preserved.

In two days we managed a taxi, a tram, two trains, 6 buses, two ferries, and a ship – and 5 or 6km walking. Next day we flew to Trondheim in the middle of the country, and the closest point of our trip to the arctic circle. Very close to the summer solstice too, so we are getting around 23 hours of sun, and gorgeous weather too!

Trondheim is a fascinating city, Norway’s second largest, and the original capital, and home of the King Olav in the early eleventh century who was responsible for unification of much of Norway and establishing Christianity, exiled by the parliament, returned for an abortive coup, then made a Saint because he apparently laid down his weapons during the battle, but only after he was wounded, and just before he was killed. Apparently some people still liked him. But a magnificent cathedral built here to house his remains. It has taken the last 150 years to renovate it to its former glory. We were treated to an organ recital and a trip 40 metres up an extremely narrow spiral staircase to the base of the spire with wonderful views of the city.

Next day we boarded the coastal passenger and cargo ferry service, the Hurtigrueten line, which sails daily along the length of the western and northern coastline. Normally a 12 day round trip. But we travelled the last 2 days as it sailed south to Bergen, between the mainland and the myriad of islands, past many fijords and coastal towns, farms and industry. Magnificent scenery, and very calm waters. Somewhat glad however not to be sailing for 12 days. Could be too much of a good thing.

Much excitement in the country as one of the other ships was carrying a full camera crew to show the entire journey live 24 hours coverage on Norwegian TV. We were TV stars for a while as our ship sat next to the TV ship in Trondheim harbour. Everywhere the ship went there were bands, crowds, singing, dancing and small boats. The TV was shown on the screens of our ship, so we could follow its passage. Actually the best footage we saw was when we turned on the TV about midnight in Bergen to see the ship passing through a breathtaking fjord up north, accompanied by 15-20 small boats in full daylight. I do not know when people sleep around here.

Spent an afternoon and night in Bergen, Norway's third largest city, and really enjoyed it. Saw the most exquisite and inspired silver jewelery here made by an artist living up in the arctic, and enjoyed a cable car ride to the summit of the local mountain to walk in the forest. A tipi hidden away in the bush is the only indication of the indigenous Sami poplulation, though we have seen their tipis in other towns as well.

The train trip back to Oslo was also short-lived as the line was closed, meaning most of the trip by bus again. We were told a train had caught fire in a tunnel entrance the previous week and was completely burnt, damaging the tunnel, but no casualties we heard about. A great trip nevertheless.

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