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Norway – perfect and pure

I was invited to go to Norway in August by the Hurtigruten steamship company. The line has been plying the waters of northwestern Norway for decades, stopping at over 35 ports and small fishing villages on its dramatic route from Bergen to the tiny town of Kirkenes in the Arctic Circle and back again. Originally a purely functional route, the voyage now known as “The World’s Most Beautiful Voyage” has become one of Europe’s chief tourist attractions, drawing thousands of visitors a year.

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The following is taken from my broadcast on Believe it or Not, Talk Radio 702 and Cape talk 567, on Sunday 31 August 2008.

Let’s just talk a bit about Norway.  There are 4.5-million people living in Norway,  and it is the second-richest country per capita in Europe because of the North Sea gas and oil. Oil platforms, incidentally, are higher than the Empire State Building in New York and, like icebergs, they are two-thirds below the surface of the water.

Because Norway was on the side of the Allies, it was bombed extensively in World War II, and many freedom fighters who fought against the Germans were tortured and shot. There is still some ill-feeling about this among older folk. Many towns were burnt down and rebuilt after the war.

Unemployment is at only 1.4%. Maternity leave is a full year for women, and one and a half months for men. The state church is Lutheran. Schools are free, but not universities. There is a very high standard of living for all, as well as strict and good recycling programmes – each village and city has its own recycling rules. Citizens enjoy five weeks of summer vacation, and one week for Easter and Christmas, as well as public holidays.

But, there is no sun from the beginning of November to the end of February, and only one and a half hours’ light at noon in these winter months. There are rose-pink ‘light’ houses, where you can go to recover from seasonal depression.

My voyage is called the “Classic Voyage North”. You sail on a big Hurtigruten mailboat (1 000 passengers) up the coast of Norway from Bergen, nearly 500km north of the capital Oslo, to the tiny town of Kirkenes a couple of kilometres from the Norwegian-Russian border.

Wild and beautiful northern Norway is known for its fast-changing weather and vast distances, and is famous for being the land of the northern lights, midnight sun, and polar night. You’ll see high mountains, glaciers, fjords, islands and rocky shores. There are 30 000 islands in this area.

Imagine a giant hand had picked up a handful of 3D jigsaw pieces and scattered them in a broken line from south to north – that’s the coast of Norway. So many islands, skerries,  pieces of land, rocky humps; all lying haphazardly in the sea. Would they fit together? Probably not! And so there are many lighthouse, bridges galore and tunnels connecting them. One of my guides told me: “We build tunnels so that tourists can see what Norway looks like from the inside.” One tunnel that I travelled in was 140m below the surface of the fjord.

How do you go?

I travelled on a Hurtigruten mailboat from Bergen.  The steamship service started in 1893 – at that time there were only two marine charts and only 28 lighthouses. The first ship, Vesteralen, sailed from Trondheim, further up the coast from Bergen,  armed with a compass and a clock, stopping at only nine tiny towns, but it was sailed and navigated by the best sailors in the world – remember the Vikings got to America from Norway over a 1 000 years ago in their longboats.

Today, 12 big ships carrying passengers, vehicles and cargo ply the route back and forth from Bergen up into the Arctic   Circle and Kirkenes three times a week. The route is known as “the world’s most beautiful sea voyage” and tourists come in their thousands, making the Coastal Express one of Europe’s biggest attractions.

When do you go?

Go in summer, as I did, for the better weather and the quality of the light – one night there was a soft pink sunset at about 10pm. A blazing, perfect half-moon glittered on the silvery sea.

Alternatively,  visit in winter to see the northern lights –  the aurora borealis –when the sky puts on a natural firework display. Electrically charged solar particles, high in energy, enter the earth’s atmosphere at about 67 degrees north in the Arctic Circle. The northern lights are usually yellow-green, but can be green or reddish-violet. The colours light up the sky and usually form a bow from east to west – a huge belt of colour. They appear suddenly at great speed and fill the sky with colour.

Why do you go?

Go to experience the world’s most beautiful sea journey, and to see the little towns and fishing villages along the route. The ship stops 35 times and you can get on and off at will.

You’ll see painted houses, fishing boats, fish hung out to dry (cod lasts 15 years when preserved like this), and spare, austere architecture that fits in perfectly with the rugged landscape.

My fellow passengers were locals, a number of Germans, the rector of West Wittering, John,  and his wife Judy, as well as a Boston family with mum in a wheelchair.

Highlights

1. Geirangerfjord, a magnificent Unesco World Heritage Site, where tumbling waterfalls, rugged cliffs and majestic mountains are mirrored in the still, deep water. National Geographic has described this fjord as the world’s most untouched travel destination.
A fjord, according to plasstik.com, is “a glaciated valley flooded by the sea to form a long,  narrow, steep-walled inlet”.

2. We drove up the Eagle Road with stunning views over the fjord – the ship looked like a toy boat – past a beautiful lake, and took a ferry from one island to another (remember 30 000 islands!) Then we negotiated the incredibly steep mountain roads and 11 hairpin bends on the way down the really scary Trollstigen pass.

3. Trondheim was founded by Viking King Olaf in 997. Trondheim Cathedral is a huge Gothic cathedral dating from 1160. It is austere, forbidding and gloomy, but with gorgeous rose windows.  King Olaf is buried here, and many kings were crowned here. The crown jewels are on display.

4. Trollsfjord is 2km long and only 100m wide at its mouth. This is where, according to legend,  many Norwegian trolls hang out, but they sleep for 1 000 years after their midday nap.

Extract from my notes

:  “It’s nearly midnight. Dark, ominous, oppressive mountains loom up in the dim light, which is like twilight. Charcoal rugged shapes,  imposing dramatic grandeur, swirling mist and grey wraith-like shreds of clouds. Rocks and rock formations like ‘frozen’ trolls crouching, sitting,  hunched up, petrified in stone. A grey light breaks through the grey sky and a deathly pallor cloaks the mountains and rocks. Reflections of the frozen trolls are perfectly still in the oily-looking water as we silently make our way along and through the fjord. No colours except greys, blacks. The occasional call of a lone bird.”

5. Tromsø: home of the northernmost Protestant church in the world, the northernmost Catholic cathedral and the northernmost brewery.

6. The Arctic Cathedral in Tromsø is like a cross between a Sami tent and an iceberg. The 140m glass window is the highest in Europe.

7. Birdwatching: 71 degrees north, Gjesvaerstappan in the Arctic Ocean is one of the world’s most exciting nature reserves. Although there are whiskered seals, it’s birds that you come here for. Puffins,  kittiwakes, guillemots, cormorants, shags, arctic skuas, and huge flocks of northern gannets, a purple sandpiper, and over 50 sea eagles. Puffins return on 14 April each year between 3pm and 8pm, regular as clockwork, and they come back to the same holes. In summer, there are 1.6-million birds within these 1.5km.  You can also see other animals, such as whales, reindeer, mice, and hares.

Extract from my notes on my last night:

“So here I am, having just sailed past the northernmost point of Europe’s landmass, alone on deck 6. It’s half past ten at night. I walk eight laps around the deck (2km) and watch scores of lighthouses twinkling from grey promontories, islands and skerries. Still light in the west. Sea is steel grey and it doesn’t feel cold. A lone gull accompanies the ship, its strong silent wings beating easily against the wind. The air all day long has been like champagne – the light pure and crystal clear. It’s as if the world has just been made – perfect and pure …”


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About

Kate Turkington is one of South Africa’s best-known broadcasters, travellers and travel writers.

Her weekly Sunday night three-hour live Talk Radio 702 / CapeTalk talkshow, Believe It Or Not, which came to an end in early 2013 was South Africa’s longest-running radio talkshow with the same host in the same time slot. She continues to broadcast as a regular guest on travel shows where she talks about the when, where, why, what and how of travel both locally and internationally from her vast personal experience. She also blogs for several travel websites.

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