Circling Norway’s Fjords


Circling Norway’s Fjords 


                        Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2008 All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.             


abstract:  I came to Norway with certain predilections. They were mostly based on reading about the country and personal encounters with a few Norwegians. Two were especially memorable. A budding journalist attended a summer school with me in college and a veteran diplomat shared a l with me last panel year to discuss international relations. In the fifty years that separated these two meetings, as the saying goes, “Ekofisk changed Norway.” The discovery of oil in that offshore field in 1969 has transformed Norway from a small, poor, and almost inconsequential country to a very rich state that often plays an active, generous role in global peace projects. The image of Norwegian as a people has undergone a commensurate transformation. Once known as frugal farmers and fishermen, Norwegians are now considered masters of energy production and environment. Norway has also become a renowned destination for paying homage to the aesthetics of nature. I decided to go when I saw a photographic exhibit of its magnificent fjords. I hoped this would also be a journey of discovery, helping to anchor my predilections. Some embellished stories I could not verify but I have incorporated them in this account as they are folklore.


On water’s edge


            “It is not any cheaper in Denmark,” the chic Norwegian woman told me. We were standing on the deck of the ship that was pushing away from the harbor in Copenhagen toward Oslo. Below us the Jacuzzi was already jammed with young women and men. She had come with three of her children for a weekend in Copenhagen. The recent riches of Norway, due to its abundant oil and gas, were proverbial this summer in Scandinavia. Perhaps she was defensive. Presently, we talked about another aspect of her society. “I recently had a stomach problem and I am very satisfied at the way the public health care system took care of me.” To that extent, Norway’s wealth was spent equitably. Then she asked me about Barak Obama.

            The horizon seemed unlimited. I considered the meaning of the word Scandinavia: islands on the perilous edge of the world. Behind us were windmills in the water lining the fading shores of Denmark. Connected to the continent, Denmark with its rich agriculture had long dominated its two neighbors Sweden and Norway. I was now sharing this part of the deck with a family from Denmark. It was the grandmother’s 75th birthday and they had all come to celebrate on this ship because her granddaughter “was in service” here as a waiter. I asked the grandmother what she wanted for her birthday. “Nothing. I have had everything I have wanted in life,” she smiled as her son  interpreted. He looked equally content. I asked him what he thought of Norway. “They should fix their roads,” was all he said.

            This was not a luxury liner. We had to pay for our own coffee and the entertainment consisted of a band trying to play country music. A man who was eating ice cream at a table next to me turned to say “I was in Florida and the country music was different.” He introduced himself as the Swedish driver of one of the tourist buses which were loaded on the ship.  I told him about the Danish man’s comment about the roads in Norway. “He was right, “ the Swede laughed. “Those roads are very narrow in the mountains. The Norwegians could afford to widen them. They are very wealthy.” He continued: “If their wealth were distributed everyone would get one million dollars. The very rich are very rich, but the middle class is OK too, and nobody is poor.”

     The next morning we woke up to a splendid view as we approached the Oslo fjord. This augured well for my ten day loop around the belly of Norway.


            We had been told about the strict enforcement of limits on the amount of liquor one could import to Norway. It had been a long time since I last thought “duty free” meant value. As we disembarked someone commented on the absence of customs officials. “They are around,” a “schoolmarmish” woman in her sixties responded. She turned out to be the guide who would show us the sites of Oslo. Many were right at the waterfront. There was the opera house that “some don’t like that much,” the monument to the Resistance in World War Two, and two poignantly empty chairs on a lawn “for our Jewish people who left in the war.”

            The guide pointed out, with a trace of prideful frugality, the tracks that carried Oslo’s trams: “we did not remove them as they did in Stockholm and Copenhagen. Now that the cost of energy is so high, they are sorry; it is very expensive to rebuild them.”

            For our first stop, she took us to the Viking Ship Museum. We were told that Scandinavia’s greatest impact on world history was made by the Vikings… The three ships in the museum had been taken out of the sea to be used on land as burial vassals for the wealthy. Kept in blue clay, they had been preserved since the 9th century. The Vikings supplied the coffins with belongings, including live servants, which they believed the deceased might need. These artifacts are valuable in teaching us about the Vikings. “However, our knowledge about the Vikings still rests largely on Muslim sources,” the guide said.

            From Sweden, beginning in 864 A.D., the Vikings sailed the rivers of Russia to the Caspian sea region where they came into contact with the Muslim people of Khazar. From there they proceeded to Gorgan in Persia and other points in the southern littoral of the Caspian. These Vikings came to be known as Rus since they arrived from the river Volga which the Persians called Rus – according to some scholars. Their expeditions ended by 1040 A.D. The name Rus, now generally applied to the Slavs of Russia, is still used in Scandinavia to refer to the Swedish Vikings.

            We have a detailed description of the Rus by the 10th century Arab diplomat, Ahmad ibn Fadlan, who met them in Volga Bulgaria:

I have never seen more perfect physical specimens, tall as date palms, blond and ruddy; they wear neither tunics nor caftans, but the men wear a garment which covers one side of the body and leaves a hand free. Each man has an axe, a sword, and a knife, and keeps each by him at all times. The swords are broad and grooved, of Frankish sort. Each woman wears on either breast a box of iron, silver, copper, or gold; the value of the box indicates the wealth of the husband. Each box has a ring from which hangs a knife. The women wear neck-rings of gold and silver. Their most prized ornaments are green glass beads. They string them as necklaces for their women.

His contemporary, the Persian explorer Ibn Rustah, added the following about the Rus:

They carry clean clothes and the men adorn themselves with bracelets and gold. They treat their slaves well and also they carry exquisite clothes, because they put great effort in trade….. They have a most friendly attitude towards foreigners and strangers who seek refuge.

            Our guide said: “while the Swedish Vikings were more interested in trade, the Norwegian Vikings, literally ‘men from the bay,’ were adventurers.” Their era effectively began with the sacking of the Lindisfarne monastery in England in 793 AD and ended with their defeat by the Scots in 1263. In the meantime they left their mark in France (Normandy which means Nordic men is named after them) and “there is proof that they landed in America –Newfoundland– some 500 years before Columbus.”

            The Norwegians continued their conquest of the seas even after the Vikings. The Fram Museum which we saw next housed that famous ship that was the first to go both to the South Pole and North Pole. Nets and lines discovered in rock-carvings indicate a tradition of fishing in Norway that dates back to the earliest people who arrived nearly 10,000 years ago. They were the ancestors of the present day Samis whose beliefs focused on the circle of life.

            It was this ancient concept, I found, that also unified the remarkable collection of some 192 contemporary sculptures in Oslo’s Viegland Park. Carved on stone by Gustov Viegland (1869-1843), they showed nearly every type of human emotion on models of all ages. They were all in nude to project universality.

            Oslo which has a population of 500,000, gives the impression of being a small town because almost all of its major buildings are around its main street, Karl Johangate.  There is a wide green area in the middle of this boulevard. I sat on a bench at its edge. The edifice of the law school was facing me; the national theater was behind me. On my right at one end of the boulevard was the parliament building and on my left, perched on a hill, was the king’s palace.

            All the big hotels were here too. The largest crowd I saw in Oslo was gathered around the entrance to the Grand Hotel, waiting for the American singer Bruce Springsteen to come out. Cameras were held up and kids were hoisted on shoulders. Two members of “Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band” with black T- shirts showing his face were sitting outdoors at the hotel’s venerable café, which once had been a favorite of the playwright Henrik Ibsen and the painter Edvard Munch. A few block away vendors were selling those T-shirts, spread on the ground. Next day at breakfast I saw a man wearing one of them. He had gone to the concert.  “40,000 people were in the old Stadium,” he said.

            I asked our hotel concierge if there was a local paper in English. “Due to supply and demand it is sporadic,” he said, “not enough English language speaking locals.” The cosmopolitan diversity of the eastern sections of Oslo occasionally showed on Johangate Street: a Middle Eastern man strolled with a group of women. Muslims are the largest religious minority in Norway, estimated to number 150,000. A side street led to the Noble Peace Center building, facing the 13th century fortifications which had been built against the threats from Sweden, then at war with Norway. Inside the Center the pictures of all the winners of the Peace Prize were on display. Alfred Noble directed that the Peace Prize be given in Norway which he believed was more peace-loving than Sweden, where the other Noble prizes are awarded.

            The Peace Prize is presented on December 10 in the lobby of the nearby Oslo City Hall, identified by the inscription “Hotel de Ville” at its entrance. On its front steps three boys were skate-boarding and on its side there was a display of panels about the Amazon rain forest. Under the picture of two naked children was a rhetorical plea for protection: “what will happen to them and their culture?”


            “The Norwegians love the outdoors,” our guide said. For them being on vacation means being in close contact with nature.  Many have little cottages in the country. By one account there are some 300,000 of these “Hittes”. Families go there for walks to pick berries and mushrooms. There is an ancient unwritten law of common access to all lands. One may camp, fish, or hunt on public and private properties. This right is limited only by common sense; one may not get too close to another’s backyard or trample on his cultivated land. Foreigners are equally entitled to such enjoyment.

            It is not difficult to understand Norway’s love affair with nature. The beauty of its countryside is diverse and captivating. It is mostly the work of glaciers. When a glacier reaches a certain thickness, its weight makes the ice at the bottom soften and melt. The water pushes a pile of sand, gravel, and rocks into a ridge, creating a lake in front of the glacier. Going West from Oslo, the green rolling hills we saw were dotted with lakes. There are over 65,000 lakes in Norway.

            Equally ubiquitous were the waterfalls.  They danced down almost vertically into the lush valleys and deep canyons. Several of the world’s highest waterfalls are in Norway. They are called the “white gold,” because they are the source of hydroelectric power that “keeps the lights bright” in Norway. No other nation uses as much electricity per capita as the Norwegians; they are the world’s sixth largest producer of hydro-power.

            Close to the waterfalls, the white “mountain cotton” flowers we saw on the sides of the road were reminders of traditional Norwegian life. “From the cotton of these plants the locals made shirts which the bride wore on her wedding day and thereafter on every Sunday and special occasion,” our guide said. “The bridal sheet proof,” she added, had been very much the custom. “Also, after their wedding the women were expected not to show their hair.” She paused and then continued “these are customs similar to what some of our new immigrants practice.”

            Just then we stepped out of the bus to see a souvenir shop run by the Samis. Most of the 4.6 million Norwegian are decedents of northern and central European tribes who arrived around 8,000 years ago. The 40,000 Samis are different. They came earlier from Siberia on the east, are related to the Innuit of Alaska, and speak a language similar to Finno-Hungarian.  Formerly called Lapps, the Samis are treated as the indigenous people of the far north. As such they enjoy special privileges. The Sami language is one of the two official languages of the Norway –along with Norwegian which is of the same family as Danish and Swedish, all derived from German. The Samis have their own flag with the circular symbol of sun and moon from their naturalistic tradition, in contrast to the cross of the Norwegian flag which reflects Christianity.

            An older Sami woman was sitting outside the shop in colorful clothes. “Those colors are not indigenous,” our guide said. “The Samis saw them on the French, in the Middle Ages, and borrowed them simply because they liked them.”  There are still some Samis in the north who lead a nomadic life, herding domesticated reindeer. This occupation was what brought them to Norway in the first place. Reindeer in the wild, however, now only roam further south, in the plateau of Hardangervidda, which we were approaching presently. Reindeer are adaptable to life in this mountainous area because they can withstand the extreme cold and wind of the winter by reserving fat during the summer. We did not see any reindeer. Instead, I noticed the presence of another hardy animal who could survive in harsh environments. High on the mountains where snow was still on the ground a man was selling “real goat cheese” -a favorite food of the Norwegians.

            We had now passed the “great divide” and the rivers were running west toward the Ocean. Here was the land of jagged mountains and the deep U-shaped valleys of the fjords carved by the glaciers. “When the melting ice of the glacier is not stopped by the ridge, it continues to the sea, forming a fjord,” our guide tried to put it simply. In further explaining the differences with a lake, she said “a fjord is at the sea level, in it are sea fish, on its banks are sea type vegetation, and it has saline water.”

            As we descended toward the Hardanger Fjord plants changed from lichen to bushes and then to birch trees. Because of the cold and the winds that tear and break the trees, nearly sixty percent of Norway is above tree level. On the edges of its Western fjords, however, there is an abundance of alder, elm, ash, hazel and oak. Hardanger Fjord is special as it is famous for its fruit trees. I saw cherry trees on the side of road with fruit almost ripe, and orchards with apples still green.

            In the little village of Ulvik I sat and looked at the fjord, and appreciated the ravings by the likes of National Geographic Magazine. A forested green mountain surrounded the crystal blue of the water as a most brilliant sun shone, causing reflections in the fjord of the orchards and red barns on the slopes. It was past ten that July evening. I strolled toward the old pub to meet the villagers. There was a family on the sidewalk, the man crouching down to teach his children a game with marbles and a chalk circle drawn on the ground.

To Bergen with Grieg

            As we drove from Ulvik to Bergen soon after dawn, our guide said that we had a companion of sort from the past. Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), Norway’s greatest classical composer frequently traveled on this same road and drew inspiration for much of his music from its magnificent landscape. His “Spring” and his piano concerto recall rushing waters and foaming waterfalls. Our guide now played Grieg’s Peer Gynt Sonatas from a CD with a jacket cover showing morning at the fjord. The first movement was “Morning Mood.”

            Grieg’s music is called “an essential element of Norwegian national identity.” Grieg developed the musical part of Norway’s Romanticism on the foundations of its folk music tradition which he traveled around the country to collect. That music had been brought to Norway by its sailors. It was largely “the commoners’ version of the dance music of Europe’s royal courts and nobles,” our guide said, mentioning the Polka. Two of Peer Gynt’s movements -Anitra’s Dance and Arabian Dance- further illustrated the point. “This music then went to America,” our guide said, “and folk dances became square dances in the U.S., and they came back to Norway and influenced our local dances.”

            In Bergen, there is a statue of the diminutive Grieg in a downtown park where young people were lounging in the sunshine. Equal in importance is another local musician: Ole Bull (1810-1880), a virtuoso violinist who was mainly self-taught. The statute of Bull playing his favorite fiddle stood not far from Grieg’s, showing in contrast his athletic built. The Hardanger fiddle is Norway’s special contribution, but its music also uses accordion, flute, and mouth harp. “In the Sami music they only play the drums,” our guide said.

            In the square that is named after Bull, Bergen’s “meeting place” is located. It is around the Blue Stone, an artistic reworking of a rock from Brazil.  Not that Bergen lacks rocks. The city’s old name was “the green meadow among mountains.” Its biggest yearly community event is the 34 kilometer hike covering seven mountains. “This year 6,000 participated,” our guide said. She also pointed to the cobblestone paving of the streets in central Bergen. “These have lasted four hundred years” the guide said as she dismissed those critics “who complained of the discomfort of driving on them.”

            The guide’s attitude seemed appropriate for this Viking seaport that was founded more than a thousand years ago and was Norway’s capital in the 12th and 13th century. Bergen’s “old-world atmosphere” contrasts with Oslo’s modern. Defying its second city status, Bergen appears self-contented. On the day I was there, however, its reputation for “grandeur” was belied by a widely advertised sale in the downtown stores that was to go on until one hour past midnight.

            Much of Bergen’s current fame is due to the “little wooden white houses with black roofs close to each other with very small gardens which are unique in Norway,” as our guide described them. Branded as a World Heritage district by UNESCO, they are from the days when Bergen was a part of the Hanseatic League. Those German merchants dominated trade in northern Europe during the late Middle Ages. We saw the stone foundations of some of their buildings which were constructed with timber and projected the austere conditions of their seamen inhabitants. Those were “hard working single men under six year contracts,” our guide said.

            I walked by a colorful row of the refurbished Hanseatic buildings that now house restaurants and shops on the eastern edge of Bergen’s inner harbor. On the other side of this long rectangular harbor was the outdoor fish market, priding itself as the largest in northern Europe. A vendor counted the variety of catch that came here: monkfish, green and blue mackerel, pink salmon, redfish, wolfish, halibut, crabs, lobster, and fish roe products.  I bought an open face salmon sandwich and sat at a table near the counter. Around me were a dozen fish stalls, and some others selling produce, flowers, and souvenirs.

            With a large University population, Bergen has its share of “International foods”. In evidence, around the harbor, were a McDonald’s as well as Chinese, Thai, Indian, and Lebanese restaurants. Our guide, however, directed us to a nearby local institution where the Hagelin sisters served traditional dishes such as white fish dumplings. “Our fish soup is better than the French bouillabaisse,” some brag in Bergen.

            I joined a crowd of local residents and tourists in the funicular that climbed to the top of the 320 meter Mt. Floyen. In a panoramic view, Bergen surprised me by how spread out it was around its several harbors in the Sogne Fjord.  Our guide later drove us to a more tranquil lookout on the other side of the town with a vista that included the countryside. A passerby told us that this was “the favorite lookout of the King.” Disregarding the majesty of the spectacle before us, our guide was now saying: “The rats that came in a ship to Bergen’s harbor in 1349 brought the bubonic plague, called Black Death, that eventually killed the old royal family and up to two thirds of all other Norwegians.”

Vos’s fame

            Bergen’s Hanseatic wharf used to be called the “German” wharf, but that name was dropped after World War II. Another change occasioned in Norway by that war was the temporary reinstatement of capital punishment so that Vidkun Quisling who had collaborated as Minister-President with Nazi Germany could be executed. “Independent of politics, a number of Norwegian girls married the invading German soldiers simply because they fell in love with them,” our guide said. After the war, Norwegians were hostile toward these women. “Their hair was cut. Their children were sent to Sweden. Now they are suing Norway for that treatment.”

            Norway attempted to stay neutral but was attacked and occupied by Germany in 1940. “An active Resistance movement was made possible in Norway by the fact that it was mountainous and there were few roads,” the guide continued as we approached Vos. “This town was bombed by the Nazis in retaliation for the Resistance.” The drab buildings which we now saw were the housing projects constructed in haste after the war.

            A sign on an ordinary general store, “Rockne,” indicated that it belonged to the family of Knute Rockne, the famous American football coach. Playing the role of the Gipper in a movie about Rockne gave President Ronald Reagan his lifetime nickname of “The Gipper.”  “Not many in Norway are aware of this,” our guide said. She invited us to drink Vos’s tap water, its current claim to fame: “This is bottled and sold in the U.S. as exclusive water.”

History as objet d’arts

            It was another world leader who put the village of Balestrand in history books. Kaiser Wilhelm II loved to spend his summers here. In August 1914 when the war broke out, the Norwegian government gave him an ultimatum to leave before six that evening. The Kaiser stayed until the last minute, sipping tea in Kvikne’s Hotel. In the grand lobby of that 19th Century timber hotel , I flipped over the cushion of the Kaiser’s chair and saw his name inscribed on the back; it was dated 1911. Not far away was another chair which had been favored by Norway’s most famous landscape painter, J. C. Dahl (1788-1857) as he sat contemplating the unsurpassed pallet of this place where green orchards filled in the slopes between the snow-capped mountains and the azure of Sogne Fjord.

            The line between history and art fades in Balestrand. “When Norway’s King recently came for a visit, he asked that Bjorg, a local artist, give him a tour of the historic buildings of the village, ignoring the loud protestation of the local historical society,” Bjorg’s friend told us. Naturally, our group asked for Bjorg’s tour. She showed up in full local costume, holding some old pictures. She took us on a walk. “Here are the steps that the Kaiser climbed when he disembarked from his ship,” Bjorg pointed to several concrete slabs connecting the Fjord to the embankment. A few yards further we stopped at a tree trunk near the Kvikne’s. “When they cut this tree, I came and counted the circles and concluded that Ole Kvikne, the founder of the hotel, planted it himself,” Bjorg said.

            History was a series of object d’arts. In succession Bjorg took us to the Viking mound where the Kaiser had erected a statute honoring King Bele of the Norwegian sagas; an English Stave church -which had been built “because most of the earlier tourists were from England;”  an old shack that “used to be a storage house,” [19] a kiosk that once had been “an ice cream parlor;” a house with add-ons which “was expanded repeatedly as the owners’ fourteen children were born;” and the new hilltop mansion of the current owner of the Kvikne’s Hotel. Ole Kvikne was the second son of a farmer nearby. The first son inherited the farm and the third, Knut, went to the United States.  Knut later came back and was given a position in the management of the hotel by his brother, but no share in ownership. “The hotel has stayed with Ole’s children for five generations now,” Bjorg said. “I love to tell the history of this town’s buildings.”

            This was not all of Bjorg’s talents. She interspersed her tour with four folk songs about Norway in her soothing voice, introducing each with a short English translation. The common theme, as she summed up, was that “a Norwegian is a person who lives through the dark and cold of November with the hope that spring will come eventually and lilacs will bloom in May.”  She added, “Norwegian are proud of their country; and they are a proud people, and stubborn.”

            Bjorg’s gallery displayed her romantic watercolors. I asked her what attracted her to Balestrand. She said, “the mountain, glacier, and the mild and cold climates.” She had come to Balestrand to teach. She sang at her church and “on special occasions.” The day before she had sung at the “funeral of a special friend -he was autistic, but the nicest person- at that church,” she pointed to a building in the village across the water on the other bank. There, the Norwegian flags were at half mast. “This is what they do; all villagers fly their flags at half mast when one of them dies.”

            Our guide said on tombstones in Norway “you often see the inscription takk for alt which means thank you for everything.” She continued: “The Norwegians say thanks a lot. After dinner, the guest does not say, ‘the food was delicious;’ he says ‘thank you for the food.’“ In the guide’s view, this related to the harsh conditions that poor farmers once faced: “food was scarce.” On the other hand, “there is what might appear rude behavior in some cultures,” she said: “the Norwegians shove their way through in line waiting for the bus; they want you to get out of their way.” She thought that this might be due to “their upbringing under the Social Democratic regime of the recent past.”          

            In duly orderly single file we now climbed the narrow stairway to the attic of Bjorg’s gallery to see an “installation” by her English partner. This was the interior version of Bjorg’s exterior tour: a collection of curio items gathered to tell quirky stories about Balestrand’s history. The artist showed us a picture of the Kvikne relative who had built this building, with two women standing next to him. “He died soon afterward, one of the women a few years later, and the other lasted till 100.” There was a big wheel-lift that had been used “to bring the supplies up when this place was a general store.” Next there was a picture of Hitler on a boat visiting the town. “He did not land but said ‘this will be mine’.” There was a 1966 TV which “still” worked. The most recent relic was a Rubik’s Cube from the 1980s.

Huldra of the Flam Train

            The Norwegian sagas that produced the legend of Balestrand’s Bele -the Fylke King (independent chief) of the Sogn district- also gave rise to tales about the Huldras and Trolls. While Trolls who are male lived in the seemingly unreachable mountains, the female Huldras lived in the mysteriously dense forests. “A Huldra is a stunningly beautiful woman but she has a cow’s tail,” our guide said. We saw her perform from the distance when the Flam train -the steepest in Europe, climbing 866 meters in 20.2 kilometers- stopped at a roaring waterfall which gushed through the trees. The Huldra danced to the sound of the water amplified by clashing music. “This Huldra is trying to seduce a Christian man,” our guide said. “The problem is that although she is very young looking, in fact she is several centuries old, and if she drops her cow-tail to be like humans she would look her age and lose her appeal to the man.”

            The Huldras and Trolls are from cult practices of worshiping forefathers in sacred groves and on grave mounds which lasted in Norway until the 11th Century. To diminish the hold of that tradition, the new religion, Christianity, degraded not only the Huldras but also the Trolls who have came to be depicted as stupid, ugly, and always losing when they threaten humans. Especially effective against this threat are said to be Christian symbols: Church bells, a cross, and words like Jesus and Christ.

The Originals

            In the hamlet of Skei, we “raised our bowls in honor of Odin,” as we said “skol!” In Norwegian mythology Odin was the Lord of all gods and humans, and the Vikings toasted him as they drank mead out of their vanquished enemy’s skull. Skei is the site of a big roadside shop, famous for a demonstration of weaving by the local farmers. They were not there today. The owner also told me that “frankly” the pewter figurine of the Viking I had chosen was not made in Norway. I liked it, nonetheless, because of a disheveled, inebriated look on his face pondering the emptied bowl in his hand.

            “These sweaters are all made in Norway, however,” the shop-owner assured me. The variety of their designs was astounding. “Each design represents a different village,” she explained. “As you see, they are very heavy. This was for a purpose: the sailors who wore them wanted to sink quickly if their ship was wrecked on the sea. And the specific design of their sweaters would ensure that their bodies, once discovered, would be sent to their home village for burial.”

            If the seamen who sailed Norway’s waters were farmers, it was evident that the farmers also ruled the land as we climbed toward the Briksdalsbreen glaciers. Their cooperative, the Oldeen Dallen Skyss Association controlled access to the glacier by providing transportation. “They used horses before but in an accident one horse went off the cliff and took the others, hurting many tourists. The road was closed,” our guide said. “But soon the farmers came up with a solution. Why not use a smaller version of their farming tractors? Norwegian farmers are very enterprising,” she concluded.

            I sat next to the driver in the John Deer tractor that pulled several open cabins as we crisscrossed the mountains. “Isn’t it beautiful?” I said more as an exclamation about the scenery surrounding us. “I don’t know, I live here,” was the driver’s matter of fact response. I asked him if he owned the tractor. He nodded, saying that he was a shareholder in the cooperative. The tractors operated from May to September. The rest of the time he was a farmer, “raising goats.” I asked if he took any vacation. “Yes, in October.” He had gone to the Canary Islands once but to Cyprus three times. “Because the kids like it,” he explained. In front of us, a chunk of ice fell with a thump from under the glacier which was turquoise as the density of its mass only allowed the blue to escape.

UNESCO’s Fjord

            The farmers are also credited for taking “the initiative” to build the road that “zips up 4000 feet” from the Geiranger Fjord in hairpin curves.  This is “a marvel of engineering which received a prize at the international event where the Eiffel Tower was similarly honored,” we were told by the manager of the Union Hotel in the hamlet of Geiranger.  He was showing us the hotel’s own proud possession: a collection of old cars, Studebaker, Buick, Opel and Cadillac, some dating back to the 1920s, which once ferried tourists on that road. The first foreign visitors arrived in 1869. The Danish king ruled this area then and “he agreed not to tax the farmers in return for their maintaining the road.”

            The international appeal of the Geiranger Fjord has been such that UNESCO has called it a World Heritage site.  We took the ferry and at a point where the Fjord splits from Sunnylvsfjorden to continue its narrow path between towering twisting walls for another ten miles, we saw the first of several old abandoned farms that clung to the cliffs. They seemed impossible to reach, let alone to cultivate. “The farmers used this inaccessibility to their advantage” our guide said. “They would pull up the ladder to prevent the tax collector from reaching them.” The tourist industry has since given the more dramatic of the waterfalls that once supplied these farms such accessible names as the Seven Sisters, the Suitor, and the Bridal Veil.

Cold Mountain Athletes

            Long before winning the Noble Prize for Peace, Fridtjof Nansen made himself an iconic figure in Norway by skiing 500 kilometers to Oslo from Bergen in 1884 to compete in a ski jumping competition. The many tunnels which have since been dug in the “long mountains” that Nansen had to traverse not only made our trip much easier by bus, but have also won Norway a special place in the road building industry.  There were 40 tunnels in the 100 kilometers between Bergen and Voss alone. Norway’s longest tunnel stretches for 24.5 kilometers. Norway “custom designs the tunnel and exports this technology,” we were informed.

            For exact numbers our guide often consulted a little book, published by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign affairs, entitled Minifacts. The “mini” in that misnomer inadvertently projected a broader concept of true national modesty. With all their vast means, the Norwegians were conspicuous in their restrained consumption. The roads were virtually empty of cars, save for tourist buses.  There are only 2 million private cars in the country. Norway does not produce them and it imposes an import tax twice their cost of purchase. I found that Norwegian gasoline was sold at a lower price across the border in Swedish stations. Norway is conscious of the damage that its exported oil and gas cause to the environment in the rest of the world, while its own immediate space is kept clean. It is almost unique in its earnest support for such global climate control measures as the Kyoto Convention.

            The Norwegians are proud of the special efforts they took to make the1994 Olympics in Lillehammer an example of environmental responsibly. Most of the structures were constructed to be mobile and reusable. None existed for us to see, as they had already been moved elsewhere for repeated use. Norway’s continued enthusiasm for ski jumping was in evidence as we witnessed teams practicing on the Olympics slopes which were grassy in this summer season.  Mjosa, Norway’s largest lake that had been used as a frozen parking lot during the games looked pristine in the distance.

            The same could not be said about Storgata, Lillehammer’s main street which the Olympics had made world-famous. It now was two blocks full of tourists buying trinkets as souvenirs. “The people of Lillehammer all had hoped to get rich by opening new shops during the Olympics, but the government put a cap on the prices they could charge as it wanted to encourage visitors,” our guide said. “Nevertheless, everyone was excited and we cheered the athletes from all nations except, of course, the Swedes, our perennial rivals,” the guide continued. “When the Olympics were over, there was a let down. The city hired psychologists to help treat the citizens.” 

            Oslo’s venerable Holmenkollen ski jump projected happier memories. Here was the sculpture of a contented veteran, the late King Olaf on skis with one of his five dogs, all named Troll.


­­­­­­­­­This article entitled Oil Can be a Blessing:  Circling Norway’s Magnificent Fjords was published on the Website of on November 24, 2008, with related pictures.

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