Travelogue: Fjord Country

Prior to this trip, if you’d asked me what the second-biggest city in Norway is, I wouldn’t have known. It’s Bergen, on the west coast. For centuries it was a tiny but crucial port where enormous quantities of cod from northern Norway were traded for goods from the Hanseatic League, a powerful commercial confederation that rose in the twelfth century. (Talk about things I didn’t know!) We made it our base for an exploration of fjord country.

Bergen itself is delightful. A few buildings from the Brygge, the old trading post, have been preserved despite their wobbly knees:

By the harbor in Bergen.

And the city is spectacularly situated, at the base of a fjord and surrounded by mountains:

Bergen from the hilltop above (Mount Fløyen).

I always thought the fjords were high-walled to the ocean, but as this photo shows, not so. They start as delta-like islands, grow to hilly archipelagos, and only as you sail deeper into them do they begin to resemble Yosemite Valley under a thousand feet of water.

We took two fjord cruises. Both were on rainy days, typical weather for Norway’s southwest coast. The Fabulous Wife and I spent more time staring out the windows of the ferry cabin than we liked; when we ventured onto the deck, the cold, pelting precipitation prevented us from seeing much.

From what we did see, the Yosemite Valley reference holds. The fjords are a stark combination of granite walls, tumbling waterfalls, and tree-line vegetation. Fed mainly by snowmelt, the waterfalls become bigger and more numerous when it rains. On our first cruise, we got close enough to a waterfall to touch it. I haven’t mastered the interface between Google and Medium yet, but if you move your cursor to the middle of the box below a video link should pop up. Turn on the sound to get the full effect:

We took a day from fjording to watch Bergen’s Constitution Day parade. The holiday is comparable to July 4 in the US, but Norwegians dress for it differently. The men typically wear black or gray suits with white shirts and dark narrow ties (a few wear bow ties). Some wear nineteenth century garb featuring black breeches met by thick, knee-high socks that signal regional origin. The women wear bunader, traditional outfits consisting of white blouses, vests that are usually red but can be green, white, black, or some combination thereof, and black skirts often topped with white, ankle-length aprons. Bunader also vary by locale and are highly adorned. According to The Fabulous Wife, they can cost upwards of $10,000 apiece. It’s impolite not to wear nice clothing on Constitution Day, including to parties with friends. We figured it would be impolite to overtly photograph the costumed locals, so we did it discretely (and therefore not well):

Wish we could have gotten more of her outfit, but politeness counts!

The parade was simple, happy fun, with plenty of “hip hip, hoorah!” calls and responses. Mainly it was a celebration of kids. I think every elementary school in Bergen had a delegation of little marchers. The parade’s final contingent consisted of the town’s high school seniors, all of them in spangly, usually red uniforms with their first name written in big, metallic letters down their left pant leg. They danced to contemporary tunes blasting from a pickup truck and mingled easily with the crowd and one another.

From Bergen we headed up Norway’s longest fjord (the Sognefjord), to the small town of Flåm. I wanted to hike up a fjordside. The Fabulous Wife, a much better risk manager than I, wished me luck. I needed it. Once the trail crossed into the Norwegian equivalent of backcountry, it required the use of arms and legs to stay upright and very deliberate decisions about which slick or muddy spot to put one’s foot next. I pushed myself until I sensed my limbs about to give out, then snapped a photo:

I was climbing along the waterfall feeding the river below.

The next morning we were scheduled to leave for Oslo, so of course we finally got decent weather. Here is what the fjords look like when they’re not getting rained on:

View from the waterside in Flåm.

And here is a sample from way up in the snowfields. This is Myrdal, a stop on the train ride to Oslo:

Nice in May, but imagine how much snow there must be in January!

The highlight of the steep train ride from Flåm to Myrdal is 305-foot-high Kjosfossen Waterfall. The train stops so you can disembark and feel the bracing spray for yourself. Unfortunately, the locals blare a hokey song whenever a train arrives, and some poor unlucky woman — or a marionette, I’m not sure which — comes out in a red dress and dances by the top of the fall to re-enact the myth of Huldra, who seduces men into the mountains and their deaths. It was the cheesiest moment of the trip and so ridiculous I don’t know why the Norwegian authorities tolerate it. I mean, really? That’s going to compete with the scenery? I was able to shoot this video around her, but as you’ll hear, the music is louder than the rushing water.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.