We Like a Good Old-Fashioned Hike

On a solemn grey morning, when the skies were beset by heavy clouds and the brows of my husband by equal measures of frowns, we were on our way to Mount Fløyen. A city mountain in Norway.

Lille Lungegårdsvannet, the lake featured in the lead photo and with the unpronounceable name which sits pretty at the centre of the city of Bergen, gives you an idea of the kind of day it was.

A colony of seagulls took flight above our heads, alarmingly low, which meant we had to duck if only for the sake of retaining our scalps, quintessential you see in achieving the climb to Fløyen. Birds taking flight. Ah what a romantic sight ’tis on a sunny morning but under smoky skies it can acquire shades of the portentous. Alternately, it reveals the workings of a fanciful imagination.

The afternoon before, we had driven from Norheimsund to Bergen, the gateway to the fjords on the west coast of Norway. Our apartment was near the main wharf so we had time to dawdle over tea and a substantial breakfast. Adi was suitably miffed. Why anyone would want to Imagine the prospect of any kind of activity that required him to climb anything leave alone a mountain. We were in that phase of our travels where Adi had not warmed up to hiking on holidays. It was akin to tailing Tuktuk, our beloved lab, around the house and then dragging him for his bath.

Time and you, with laudable perseverance, may bring about changes in your spouse but watch out for the postscript. When Adi took to hiking holidays, he did so with a vengeance. He led me up hills which no one charts (for a reason) and where the wind in the grass raised my hair and hackles maniacally. Before I digress into the future, our path from the apartment to Fløyen took us past the busy wharf and the largest church of Bergen in its red-brick Gothic glory and its pristine wooden interiors.

My favourite part of admiring a church is to tip my head back and gape at its spire, which from our humble spot at the base of the church, almost always seems set to pierce the heavens.

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 The 19th-century St. John’s Church 
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Simplicity of its wooden interiors

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It was chilly and people were queuing up for the Fløibanen, the funicular that for the sum of NOK 45 (£4) whisks you up to the top of the mountain in the matter of a few minutes.

But who wants five measly minutes when you can have an hour and a half of panting up steep hills and stairs – in the jovial company of a husband who refuses to let a smile crack his visage. Halfway into the climb we had trudged up a steep hill, past doll-like slatted houses in shades of white and yellow, crowned by charming orange-red roofs. In the backdrop lay the steely grey waters of the harbour and a church steeple or two.

The contrast was stark when a fat black cat scampered past us. At the same time, Adi chose to lean his head on a pillar and bemoan his fate.

“What kind of a holiday is this? I want beer and food,” he bit out.

“But you just had a big breakfast,” I pointed out righteously.

This charmer of mine stomped ahead in reply. In this mode, we continued up the hill. When we had passed by red, black and blue houses with enviable views of the harbour and we thought that we had done it, that we must surely have reached the top, I skipped up some 100-odd stairs. Turns out that they were the private stairs of a cluster of hillside houses.

Retracing our steps down, we came soon to the foot of a steep forest path which led into the midst of a pine forest, its grounds primeval and mossy in parts. It could easily pass for an enchanted one. We were the only ones in Troll Forest, or were we? We should have stopped to have a word with the resident trolls but there was no time to be lost. Heavy showers were forecast for the next hour.

If Adi had been spectacularly grumpy, I took over from there. My vast reserves of joy had been depleted because there is only that much of annoying behaviour one can weather. And I will have you know, dear reader, that I can do it with panache too. Almost magically, Adi’s black mood lifted.

Between the two of us, we had handed over the baton of grimness from one to the other with perfect synergy.

It behoved my beloved then to placate me. Legs trembling – unknown muscles in the body had been worked all this while – I suddenly spotted the Fløyenguttene, otherwise known as the Boys of Fløyen behind electrified fences. They were white and horned, with innocent faces and baaa-ey measures of conversation. Cashmere goats. Please know their importance in the scheme of things be dignified in your comportment when you do make their acquaintance. They are employed by the local agencies to keep the vegetation at bay.

A brief look at a bald and squat troll besieged by the crowds and a quick coffee at the café later, we decided to experience the Fløibanen on our way back to the centre of Bergen.

When you find yourself in Bergen, and if the heavens do not burst upon you, do skip the funicular. Take the long way up because in life you have, at times, got to take the winding way up. And if a few of them are dirt, why you have aced it, champ.

 

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Steep roads that shoot up past these charming cottages

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Need I say anything?
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By the harbour
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Troll Forest
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‘Do not mess with the trolls you meet on this trail. If you meet one, make sure you look at the ground and talk only when talked to.’ (You did not just fall for that surely?)
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At the top where the pine forests lead to the vantage point
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The Fløyen Boy
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The hike with a view

 

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Troll Twinning in Hardangervidda

There’s drama in the Norwegian country. It is so replete with it that it seems to be made up of bangs sans the whimpers.

You might arrive at the conclusion that drama peaks at the heart of Eidfjord with the Kjeåsen Mountain Farm, but wait awhile, unless the lead photo has introduced you to the idea already.  

First, let me point out to you that we are in the traditional district of Hardanger. It happened to be a petty kingdom before it was, along with the other minor kingdoms in the country, united under the banners of Harald Fairhair, the first Norwegian king. The reason behind the unification is attributed to that reckless emotion of love. Our Harald wanted to marry the daughter of the king of Hordaland (one of the most important counties in western Norway), Gyda, and our fair lady would have none of him till he ruled over all of Norway.

Harald took a decade to achieve this aim but till then he did not cut and comb his hair. He acquired the unfavourable title of ‘Shockhead’/‘Tanglehair’ which he dropped in favour of ‘Fairhair’. After all we cannot see a strong woman like Gyda going for a king with malodorous locks, isn’t it?

Time to snap back from the world of strong queens and besotted kings to the present-day district of Hardanger which is home to two of the country’s important national tourist toutes – the Hardanger Route and the Hardangervidda Route.

The Hardanger route was framed by fruit orchards. Aplenty. The mist persisted in hugging the mountain tops as we took off from the village of Eidfjord. Driving down the Rv7 ( short for the Norwegian National Road, Riksvei 7) we found ourselves in the valley of Måbødalen. The mountains towered above the hairpin bends in the roads, brooding away in the doom and gloom of the day.

Two paths diverged at a stop which was for an ancient farm at Måbø. Ignoring the path leading down to the building which we had spotted from the road, we made a beeline for the woods instead and arrived upon Måbøvatnet, the lake that adjoins the area. Giant boulders stood in attendance upon the lake, with an accompanying army of smaller rocks, and it was all very slippery and mossy as the water gurgled and gushed by us into the bend around the corner.

The icy waters and the slimy outgrowths on the boulders made me yearn for the cosiness of a coffee shop. I am strange, I know. I crave the lap of nature but then I often end up feeling intimidated. On a damp, dark day in the woods, it seems to me that the visible roots of gnarled old trees wait to entwine their solid strength around me and not let go. Wiping away all traces of my existence. But let it be sunny. Then the dappled sunlight, the soft play of light and shadow as it streams in through the canopy, uplifts my heart.

We got going after and the road kept climbing higher and higher till we reached a point when a wall of mist showed up, dense and impenetrable. We were at Vøringsfossen, one of Norway’s iconic waterfalls. A bouquet of waterfall, of varying degrees of girth, converged into a chasm with thunderous notes which were strangely hypnotic. A bus load of Oriental tourists chattered around us excitedly as they hurried to hold their selfie sticks into the air, the Vøringsfossen forming a suitably dramatic backdrop for their self-portraits.

This was our gateway to the flat country that marks Europe’s largest mountain plateau, Hardangervidda.

The landscape started changing obviously. At one point in the afternoon, we stopped for a spot of lunch on a summit. The view was that of a broad expanse of marshy land interspersed by lakes and we munched on boiled eggs and sandwiches as the wind tore through our hair and thick jackets.

When I lay my eyes upon such vast tracts of solemn, barren beauty, loneliness steals in upon me. Just like it did whenever I was in the heart of the English moors – the way I felt in Haworth in Brontë country on a grey, grey day. Dark thoughts come swooping in. It is no wonder that you feel the presence of the moors seep into the text of Wuthering Heights

The spell was broken by a group of Norwegian boys and girls who happened upon this parallel world of ours. It did lead us however to my favourite memory of the day, Adi meeting his troll twin. Why no, I am not calling my husband a troll.

Outside a cluster of yellow and red buildings, which happen to be a mountain lodge on Rv 7, stands the Dyranut troll in a red jumpsuit. His sleeves are dark green, the face marked by large eyes and pendulous nose, his hair is white and he wears a toothless old man’s smile. He does look quite harmless and silly as he peers into the horizon scanning for I know not what. Maybe his troll wife who has been gone long to bring him soup after stirring it well with her bulbous nose? Now consider yourself warned, if you are offered soup by a troll woman, think twice. She is known to use her nose as a ladle.

Punctuated by the occasional presence of small black or yellow cottages – possibly outposts for fishing and camping – the desolation and primordial air of Hardangervidda clung to us for a couple of hours till we found ourselves quite ready for civilisation.

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Måbøvatnet

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Making our way through sleepy hamlets nestled at the foot of the mountains

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Reaching Vøringsfossen

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Trolls of Vøringsfossen
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Merry double-headed troll
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Vøringsfossen free falls into the chasm below 
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The view from our lunch spot in Hardangervidda
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Making his way to meet the Dyranut Troll
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I shall have to carry my head in my arms for safekeeping when Adi comes across this
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Hardangervidda 
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The stark, the cold and the beautiful brings with it a mingling sense of exile and desolation.

 

Mountain Farms Mantled in Mist

Mist did not make itself scarce on our Norwegian vacation in the August of 2016. Our plan to hike Trolltunga – and jump at the end of the troll’s tongue while aiming not to fall off it while doing so  – was interrupted by adverse weather. For as you know, it is not a good idea to set out on a hike in slippery conditions when you would in all probability need to be hoiked midway through the hike. Airlifts have indeed taken place a few times in Trolltunga. Let me assure you that the authorities do not shower you with kind looks and cupcakes when that happens. Expect thin-lipped looks, heavy with disapproval, at you being an utter git.

I am a git at the best of times. But I did have the experience of climbing boulders on the way to Pulpit Rock and that made me think twice. Despite all my hankering for Trolltunga, I did bow down to the wayward weather deities. There is no fighting nature for she will have her say.

I made plans instead for us to hike up to a mountain farm high above one of the fjords, Simadalsfjord.

That crazy man, Woody Allen, remarks that “if you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” I did not tell the weather gods about our plans but they have powers of prescience I am told. My plans were foiled again.

It was drizzling and it had rained heavily all through the day before. Double drama. Which meant that we had to abandon all thoughts of the steep climb to Kjeåsen Mountain Farm.

The other way up was to drive up a winding road that was constructed in the 1970s (maybe to allow people like me a route into this mountain farm which has been declared the most inaccessible one in the world?). No you hike-loving twat (reference to the self), it was built keeping in mind the need for hydroelectricity development. 

The road up a one-way tunnel runs for just 3-odd miles, but what it lacks for in length, it makes up in steepness. The tunnel comes across as dark as a subterranean passage because of the lack of lighting. How do they avoid kissing vehicle mishaps here? The authorities have put out strict timings. You can go up at slots that start dot on the hour (such as 9am, 10am, 11am…). The journey down can begin at 9.30am, 10.30am…You get the drill.

The latest time till which you can drive up is 5pm. There are a handful of people who still live up there on Kjeåsen.

We passed through Hardangerbru, the suspension bridge that spans the length of Eidfjorden (a branch of Hardangerfjorden), and stopped at the hamlet of Eidfjord for a coffee break, before we carried on up to Kjeåsen. It was a quiet community – all of 950 people share it between themselves.

Mountains towered above us, lush beacons of goodness, slender waterfalls tracing their paths down the steep slopes, as we wandered around Eidfjord and paused at the port where cruise ships stop before entering Norway’s largest national park, Hardangervidda, which is also the largest high mountain plateau in Europe. I shall take you into its open barrenness in the next post. I will throw in some trolls too to make it good.

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The drive to Eidfjord paved by mists hanging low over the fjords.
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Mist was constant in her affections through the day.
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She rolled in and out.
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In the hamlet of Eidfjord.
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Mesmerised by the mountains that loom over Eidfjord.
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Winding roads in Eidfjord lead to the old mountain farm.
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The sparse population of Eidfjord makes it a wonderful hideaway if you crave solitude.
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Eidfjord residents. Be sure to say hello to his bearded contemplative personality and spare some tobacco.
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The hamlet sits by a branch of the Hardangerfjorden.
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Views from Eidfjord of the surrounding mountains and tiny communities.
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On the drive to the area around Simadal Power Plant in the valley below the farm.
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Gushing falls
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The mountains around Sima Power Plant

When we reached the foot of the road near Sima Power Plant, we were part of a queue of cars that had lined up to start the one-way journey on the hour. The cars have to maintain German-sharp timelines. After a tortuous drive (which is still less crazier than the Scafell Pike drive in the Lake District of England), we were walking through wild fields.

Veils of mist hung above us. As we kept walking up, the mountain tops appeared to let off steam which made it a stomping field for the imagination. Ancient and all-imposing.

For 400 years, the farm has had inhabitants who eked out their existence from the rich soil and forests through hunting and fishing. The story goes that the farms, which stand in solitary glory at the top of the mountains, were built during a lengthy period spanning three decades. The hardy people who lived there had to carry planks of wood, stone and building materials up the slopes. Their children had to attend school in Simadal below in summer. They lived with their relatives in the valley during the winter months when the paths leading up and down the mountains became too risky for them to chart. I could almost feel the sorrow that would have filled their tiny hearts as they pined away for their folks and the spectacular place they called home.

High above the fjord, shivering in the cold, we walked past the farm and stared at the surrounding mountains which plunged into the fjord. The waters were not smoky blue or steely grey. They were on the brink of turning a deep bluish-green.

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Fjords, mountains, mists, waterfalls and lonely farms. We were caught in the clutches of time.

 

 

 

 

The Art of Chilling

When I say chilling, I mean Nothing. Let me relent here because there are the basic functions of living to be considered. Breathing, eating, checking into the loo and the works. Then there is the glorious prospect of gazing dreamily into the fjords beyond the windows, sighing from time to time, because you could live with such a view for a long time. As long as you lived.

Add a lifetime’s supply of books, coffee, tea, husband, hikes and two dogs. Now did I just describe Els’ life?

But before you get down to the art of perfecting nought, there is a condition that has to be met. The weather gods will have to conspire to make the heavens burst asunder till you will have no option but to sit tight within. If you are in a cottage by the fjords would you even consider complaining about thunders and showers?

The first day of our Norwegian vacation was about sparkling blue skies adorned by billowing clouds. As a cloud chaser, I could not have asked for a better start to the vacation. The second day materialised into an overwhelmingly grey one. That dirty, washed out hue which can only cast equally grey shadows upon the mind. But happiness is a state of the mind. Here I shall quote Anne (of the Green Gables) whose words firmly stuck in my teenage mind as I was growing up: “It’s been my experience that you can nearly always enjoy things if you make up your mind firmly that you will.” You do need inspiration to make light of the weighty moments in life.

But you shall need to give into sadness and woe too because those are inescapable emotions, isn’t it? What kind of a person would you be if you did jigs at a funeral? (Which makes me think that I would indeed want people want to dance at mine, tuck into a pile of good food and drink away. In death too, it would be good to know that I have not left sadness behind. Life is too short to allocate enough time to ennui and glumness, is it not?)

Leaving thoughts of mortality behind, it is a Sunday after all, and I do not want to make you too contemplative on a day that should be about just nothing really, it is a rare feat to achieve nothing on a holiday. I have rarely indulged in that wonderful feeling and it felt grand. Delicious.

We had to step out in the morning and get a fair chunk of groceries beneath those leaden skies because realisation had rapidly set in upon us during our time in Stavanger. Eating at the cottage and taking packed lunches for our drives were going to be part of the essential ritual of eating in Norway, unless we wanted to head back home as paupers with our heads in our hands. There is that little matter of subsisting upon a pittance for the rest of the month once you get back home. But there needs to be careful planning to have even that pittance at hand.

The mists swirled in and around the bridge like wraiths smoking their way through, parts of the bridge often disappearing behind them. Nature is such an effortless magician. The sight that morning reminded me of the first time I laid my eyes upon the Eiffel Tower on an autumn’s morning, when only the top of the tower loomed in upon me, above a sea of mist. The waters of the fjords looked mysterious. A uniform sheet of leaden blue.

Right, time to scamper back to the cottage, after we had armed ourselves with a decent stockpile of food from the store nearby. There was the added incentive of demolishing a large cache of organic chocolates I had amassed at the store. Those chocolates count high on my list of best chocoholic experiences. They were expensive and Adi did grumble, but later, how he ate his words as he gobbled the bars up with lasciviousness equalling mine.

Upon our return to the cottage, we were greeted by the sight of a cute little pot of mint and a couple of organic eggs with a hand-written note. A welcome breakfast thought from Els. If you have not added mint to your omelette, you would not know the fragrance it adds to the fluffy piece of goodness. We went about a brunch laden with hot dogs and eggs, all the while facing the fjords so as not to lose out on the changing landscape that unfolded right before the eyes. Adi watched movies on the ipad while I sat and read, looking up from time to time to soak in the unreality of it all.

Then came the best part of the day. Els dropped by with organic chicken from her farm. She sat for a couple of hours, her legs folded up on the sheepskin rug upon the couch, and we chatted. It is rare to come upon with individuals who you can achieve a connection with so easily. She was one of that breed, highly unconventional, a bit flighty, a bit wise and a bundle of quirks. We shared confidences during that time to the tune of a few cups of tea, discussing husbands, the importance of fighting in a relationship, meeting the loves of our lives, hiking, travelling and then reflecting upon the art of how to go about making this one life we have a wonderful happy place to be.

Giving into the whims of nature is not quite a bad idea as it turned out.

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Getting to Flåm

The road to Flåm from Gudvangen has opportunities for deep sleep. The kind of sleep that is delicious, because like all forbidden things that carry the tag of deep delight, it is not a good idea to nod off behind the wheel and in the middle of a tunnel. For one, you stand the risk of disappearing into another realm – akin to the road safety warnings that pop up all over the Norwegian country. Of a girl fading away. That road sign gave me the heebie-jeebies. You shall see in the roll-call of photos below that it is eerie.

There is also the distinctly unappetising thought that there would no possibility of a picture-perfect village tucked into a valley encircled by steep mountains, no oohing and aahing at the thundering waterfalls in close quarters and trying to catch a reflection of the self in the emerald waters of the fjord. Instead there would be a foray into the vast unknown.

The purpose of the extensive prattle is to lay it thick about the fact that tunnels in the Norwegian country can and will call upon your patience. We had passed a fair line-up of tunnels starting from Norheimsund that morning. The fatigue was setting in fast as we had woken up at a ghastly hour, when only lost souls and drunks roam the streets of Northampton, to make the journey to Heathrow. As much as it was bang for your buck to take these early-morning flights into Europe, it also meant that we were sleep-starved zombies, walking around in a kind of daze, on the first day of all our trips.

The Gudvanga Tunnel stretched out for 7.1 miles, and by the power of finding childlike joy in every little thing that life throws my way, which includes tunnels lit up in psychedelic colours, I wanted to scream with frustration. You see, we had to take the tunnel twice over. Now the tunnels lead into each other in quick succession often, cutting through hills, and there is no space for error while driving on these roads. Part of the fault lay in the fact that we could not identify Gudvangen and kept wondering if we had missed it along the way.

By the time we got to Flåm (pronounced ‘Flaam’, where ‘aa’ is enunciated as in London), we were two wilted humans. It was the sight of the man and the woman sitting on the bench by the fjord with their cups of coffee that made us sit up. The pretty yellow cottages with red roofs beckoned. Somewhere inside one of those cottages life-affirming coffee awaited us. And a bite to eat possibly. The deal with eating in Norway is that your heart shall be in your mouth. I know I repeat myself if you have read one of my earlier posts. But a medium-small pizza marked up at £25 (roughly 270 NOK) is enough to send anyone’s blood pressure rocketing up. But what needs be must be.

Flåm by itself is an unassuming village made up of a small bridge, a handful of eateries and a public toilet, all of which stand at the end of an arm of the second-longest fjord in the world, the Sognefjord. But the most important thing that you need to know is that it is a gateway to a world of unparalleled beauty.

First on the list is the Flåm Railway. It has been touted to be one of the world’s best train journeys. You must have seen it on pinterest, and if you have not, it spans 12 miles and cuts through mountain tops while affording you spectacular views of fjords, ravines, waterfalls and mountain farms. A friend of ours just told me that she has booked this journey and I am excited to hear about it from her. We could not take it. It is on my mind that we shall return to Flåm, hike, take the Flåm railway into the mountains, and then, hike further to Trolltunga.

The second possibility for all you lovers of hiking is to go up into the mountains and explore Aurlandsfjord and Nærøyfjord which is known to be the world’s narrowest fjord. Imagine standing on the cliffs and peering down into the glassy waters of the fjords. It is bliss. I can vouch for that. If there is one hike you want to do in Norway, however, make your way to Pulpit Rock. You shall remember it forever. And forever is a long, long time.

Bikers, you have the option of setting off on the Rallarvegen, an old works road that runs along the Bergen and Flåm Railway. It is called The Navvies’ Road because it was the construction road used to build the Bergen railway tracks. The route starts at Haugastøl, follows the Bergen railway to Finse, Hallingskeid and Myrdal before it takes you down into the village of Flåm. Bicycles are available for rent at Haugastøl, Finse and Flåm and accommodations too. You would possibly want the option of resting tired muscles out on a 50-mile long route. Just keep in mind that the season is between July to September.

It is only when you find yourself in a certain situation that you appreciate words that have been spoken by another person in another age. You identify. Flåm put me in mind of Lord Byron. The poet had remarked once: “There is pleasure in the pathless woods, there is rapture in the lonely shore, there is society where none intrudes, by the deep sea, and music in its roar; I love not Man the less, but Nature more. Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished. Nature always wears the colours of the spirit.”

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Norwegian countryside 
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Cautionary signs
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Driving on the roads of Norway. Everyone drives in a sane and well-ordered manner, but once the clock strikes 6, something comes over the Norwegians. They speed up and how. A Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde kinda situation crops up. Go figure.
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Reed thin waterfalls stream their way down the mountains 
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Flåm
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The lovely cottages in Flåm
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By the fjords in Flåm
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Exiting Flåm
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Quaint mountain cottages
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Toodles till the next tale from Norway

 

Chasing Illusions in Gudvangen

Google Gudvangen. ‘Has she gone crazy?’ you might interject. ‘Here I pop by her post and she asks me to google the name?!’ Humour me for two seconds.

Atop the wikipedia page (for you do not have to click it open) dedicated to the small Viking village in Norway, you find yourself staring at an image of marvellous lofty peaks. The main peak in the photograph’s been squished and stretched up to look like a glamorous model lengthening her glorious body. Then you notice later, much later, that the topmost peak seems to show you the middle finger.

Somebody’s idea of awful humour.

The very day that we reached Els’ cottage in Norheimsund, we drove into the county of Sogn og Fjordane. The Gullible Two got closer and closer but the peak did not materialise. Something was wrong. The GPS informed us that we were there.

If you can look high and low for a peak, we did it.

Then there we were in the middle of a valley that looked like it had been scooped out of the surrounding steep mountains, parts of which carried patches of fresh snow. A row of waterfalls gushed in slender threads of white down the mountains, at the foot of which stood a handful of white and red cottages and a harbour.

This was Gudvangen. Not least like the photo we had seen. The jaws dropped once in disappointment, I cannot lie about that, but then it did drop once again in awe at the beauty dwarfing us. Ah but it was a stunning place blessed with tranquility to lull our travel-worn senses.

Dwarfed by the mountains, I stood there and wondered about what the Vikings must have felt when they arrived in this scenic spot on Nærøyfjord and transformed it into their market place. Did their seafaring nature make them glad that they had chanced upon this spectacular piece of Norwegian landscape? Or were they intimidated by the mountains that stood guard around the valley like ancient sentinels of grandeur. Who knows but they did not survive the 12th century onslaught of black plague when the inhabitants died. People returned only once hundreds of years had passed by.

The graves of some Vikings are to be found nearby and hiking paths lead you into other pretty villages but it was too late for us to start a hike. We never got the chance to do any hike (Trolltunga or Gudvangen) given the rainy weather that took hold of the next few days that we spent in Hordaland.

We did however bask in the shadow of those mountains as we popped into Gudvangen Fjordtell, a hotel that makes you think that you are entering a Viking home, its roofs charmingly sheathed in grass. Inside the hotel’s cafe, I bought a wrap, the price of which spelled pure extortion. Then in Norway, you are holding onto your purses in vain if you decide to venture into a cafe or restaurant.

That astonishingly expensive wrap in our bellies and mixed feelings of satisfaction and dissatisfaction (which make for strange bedfellows) mingling in our minds, we left Gudvangen, the village whose name transpires to be “God’s fields by the water”.

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Weathered Viking of Gudvangen
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Roads that take you into Gudvangen. Flanked by dramatic mountains.
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Pretty cottages in the village
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Quaintness by the fjords
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One of the highest waterfalls in Norway is this, Kjelfossen.

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Gudvangen Fjordtell
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Ferry dock where cruise ships do roll in from time to time
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A last look at Gudvangen
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Hamlets that you pass by after leaving Gudvangen behind

Where to Stay: If you want to do hikes in the area, it would be a good idea to stay in Gudvangen. You have all of two choices: Pitch up a tent or mobile home at Gudvangen Camping. Prices range between NOK 500 to NOK 800 per night. Or  put up at the Viking-inspired hotel called Gudvangen Fjordtell.

What to do:

The Magic White Caves of Gudvangen

Take a ferry trip between Gudvangen and Flåm

Hike the mountainous paths for views over the fjord. From a tiny village called Bakka, which is about 5 km from Gudvangen, take the path to the steep mountain of Rimstigen. It is a steep hike which takes two hours one way.

P.S.: The misleading wikipedia photo that I talk about right at the beginning is that of Lofoten Islands, the dramatic archipelago in Norway. Only a photoshopped version of it.

Country Hiking in Norheimsund

In the Hardanger region of Western Norway – made up of the Hardangerfjord branching off into other fjords, gushing waterfalls, beautiful bridges leading to a chain of hills, and therefore a profusion of tunnels drilled into these tall green beacons of beauty – is the small village of Norheimsund. During Nazi occupation of Norway, during WWII, the village was the location of a training camp for the Germans and there would have been fortifications along the bay once upon a time. But now it has a clutch of houses built the local way with wooden panels and slate roofs, painted in cheery colours, small windows looking out from their facades.

Old cottages belonging to fishermen still stand in isolation at places close to the fjord, there are a few stores in the village and a beautiful harbour that makes you want to sit on the pier for a long, long time. Chuck in a few cafes, a church and a school too and there you have the core of the quiet village which was our residence for four days.

Now I have a confession to make. We started on a hike in the countryside around and above the village and *whispers* then we abandoned it after a fair bit of plodding along up steep hills. Why, you might wonder? Is she that big a wuss? Well, I am a big one but more when it comes to water. I am willing to take on hiking challenges of any nature unless you ask me to climb up paths made up of tiny rocks which I abhor with all my heart because of late we have ended up on such hikes.

The skies had opened up the day before and let loose their wrath upon the earth. The path was immensely boggy. My shoes kept sinking in and I felt all slimy and cold. It did not help that my darling husband kept warning me about the leeches that were creeping up my leg and getting fatter by the minute. Now try as I may I cannot develop a fondness for reptiles and creepy crawlies that are our fellow creatures too.

So I kept shrieking like an annoying girl – I do not scream anymore but when I was living with my flatmates in Delhi I used to specialise in it. Every time one of my flatmates’ boyfriend turned up at the door, I used to open the door, scrunch up my face and instantly scream without even thinking. We had no keyhole. Yet was it a valid excuse? Or was it a subconscious urge given that he would finish all the food in the fridge? I wonder.

Adi and I huffed and puffed as we climbed up while an old man in his training shoes ran up the hill we were climbing. Did he just run past us with youthful vigour? Overcome by incredulity, we quickened our pace and examined pretty mushrooms as we made our way through the woods. After a while we found ourselves walking along a water pipeline and found some sheep sitting on top of the hill, chewing and meditating. Eating and contemplating is such a noble combination, don’t you think? I often wonder what sheep think for hours as they graze or sit and reach out to eat more grass (have you noticed how they do it – ’tis an art).

If you remember I had mentioned in my last post about the Norwegian sheep. I sat near them and wondered if the sheep would scuttle like the English breeds. But no they sat there, appearing to be of a rather stoic nature. They looked at me, I looked at them. It was a silent communion that was broken only by the sniggers of the husband.

It was after this point, when we had a spectacular view of the village of Norheimsund below us and islets sticking out from the mysterious blue waters of the fjord, that we decided to turn around. It was a most dissatisfying feeling. You would know it if you have ever abandoned a hike after climbing a fair bit into the bargain. Do you have any such stories of abandoning one? It would make me feel better.

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Woody endeavours
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Mushrooms in the woods
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The hiking path along the water pipeline
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A communion of sorts
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Hardangerfjord
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The charming houses of Norheimsund
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Norheimsund
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Norheimsund’s harbour
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The play of sunlight and clouds above the harbour
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Tunnels and green hills maketh a lovely marriage
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Steinsdalsfossen
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Up and close with my favourite bridge in the region
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You see why I developed such a fondness for it
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The bridge on a day wreathed in mists. I could live in a house overlooking this stretch of beauty. If ever I were granted a wish that I could live in any place in this world, I would go bonkers trying to decide where it would be.

 

Into a Norwegian Artist’s Retreat

Here was an artist who did the Charleston jig. All in a bid to tell us how her Pointer got his name. The Pointer is a dog, lest you are in the dark, and a hunting hound that gets its name from its inclination to point its muzzle towards the game. Now imagine if you will this beloved mistress of Charleston, a grown-up woman imitating him, lifting her chin up and arms pointed into the air in a stance that looked like she was about to release an invisible arrow off an equally invisible bow. All of which was enacted to emphasise upon the stance of a Pointer.

That is how I knew we had landed a prize here, Els and her Pointer, Charleston. I don’t know how well Charleston does the Charleston but he has a name to live up to. And he has a mistress who is quite capable of teaching him the dance.

We had Els’ cottage to ourselves for four days. That red cottage with Homlagarden painted on its entrance, as you see in the lead photo, is stationed strategically by the fjords of western Norway in a village called Norheimsund.

This was our big Norwegian holiday after our weekend stint in Stavanger when we hiked our way to Pulpit Rock. My aim was to get our behinds to Trolltunga and sit on the troll’s tongue dangling our legs into the fjord below. But that was not to be because just as in Stavanger we struck lucky with the weather, even though the forecast was for thunder and showers, our second Norwegian break was made up of enough mist and clouds and drizzle and downpour to make our hiking shoes hang their heads in shame.

What is life if our best-laid plans are not to be, right?

We reached Bergen on a fine day in August last year, the clouds conspiring to create a fleecy white backdrop to our glee at stepping out of the airport to the sight of bright blue skies. A blue sky is such an elixir on any given day and billowing clouds are just the proverbial cherry.

Soon we were puttering down in our rented hatchback towards the cottage that was about an hour and a half away from the airport. We drove through tunnels cutting the length of incredibly lush hills, passed a herd of sheep serenely trotting down the roads and possibly out for their morning stroll – you will see in a later post that the Norwegian sheep are remarkably self-confident unlike their English counterparts, and left behind the occasional church nestled in valleys along with colourful black, red and yellow cottages dotting the landscape or tucked in beside placid lakes.

It made me rather musical. To trill out ‘My Day in the Hills’ ala Julie Andrews and trill I did till Adi asked me to switch to the phone playlist please. I harumphed and sat sulking. But it is difficult to hold on to a sulk in the face of such pristine beauty, the lakes glowing an emerald green in the shadow of those hills and putting me in mind of a mysterious mermaid about to emerge from those waters.

This is how we found ourselves in Norheimsund, bleary-eyed after our early morning flight but the view of the fjord from our cottage driving our cares away in an instant.

It was the quintessential Norwegian cottage on an organic farm where clutches of hen and plump turkeys strutted around a red coop of their own, mini tractors stood with blue hues of the fjord and hills merging into the background, patches of snow showing up in the distance and Els’ yellow cottage facing ours. Inside the red cottage, the entrance was marked by paintings by Els, the ground level housing her workshop along with a carpentry shop. Warm wooden interiors, a well-kitted kitchen with all manners of pots and pans that would make a gourmet cook smile like a shark, windows that looked out into the fjords and made us sigh. This was the perfect start to a Norwegian fjord hopping holiday. Along with the presence of Els, Charleston and his mother, Kaisa.

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Bergen
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A typical scene in Hordaland county
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Where the roads wind past hills and lakes
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Emerald 
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Morning Strolls
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Colour pops up along the lake

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Entering the village of Norheimsund

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Els’ farm and cottage

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Inside our cottage
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Charleston and Els
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Undivided adoration and affection
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The kind of view I could get used to
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The lounge
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The view we woke up to every morning from the bed

To Book the Cottage: Get onto Airbnb and type in Hordaland and Els. However Els does not always let out her cottage (because it is not quite that commercial) so book in advance.

How to Get There: Bag tickets for as less as £39 on BA and Norwegian Airlines to Bergen. From the airport, it is best to hire a car for your stay because it is easier and economic to drive around the county of Hordaland.

 

 

 

Saskia’s Adventures in Beautiful Bruges

If you can imagine a fairy tale town from one of the fairy tale books of your childhood, it would be Bruges. A medieval town in the Flemish region of Belgium, it is easy to get to from the UK, for a long weekend. We went in July, the weather was glorious and the beer cold.

Pic 1 the hotel.JPGWhere to stay

Our two-night stay for the weekend was at The Hotel Dukes Palace, a palace from the 15th century which was absolutely perfect. It is right in the centre but has secure parking in the underground car park, and as we drove, this was essential. This is a luxury hotel, so it’s a real treat, and it is comfortable and central, which is what we wanted. There are many hotels to choose from and, as we always book at the very last minute, we can safely say that this works for us. This way, you can get some great bargains too.

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What to do

Whenever we go anywhere, we wander around, because we feel that it is the best way to get to know a place. Bruges is a great place to do this as it is easy to walk around. The streets are cobbled, so comfortable footwear is essential. It was warm in July but it does get very cold in winter and you will definitely need to wrap up accordingly.

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The city is surrounded by canals and many of the streets are pedestrianised so it is safe and very clean. We headed for the historic centre called Burg Square which is very easy to find. The buildings that line the square are ridiculously pretty with tall, coloured walls and stepped roofs. There are lots of welcoming places to eat or sit and grab a ice cold Belgian beer. We decided to take an open-top bus as the teens don’t really enjoy sightseeing. This way we could still see some of the points of interest without dragging them around museums or churches!

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The bus leaves the square every 15 minutes, costs around 15 Euros per person and takes about 45 minutes. The commentary was easy to follow and, as a history nerd, I liked all the historical details that were provided. It’s good to learn something about the places that you visit. Bruges is known as the Venice of the North as it is surrounded by canals and has more than 80 bridges. Once it was one of the wealthiest places in Europe due to these waterways enabling trade.

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After the bus tour we wandered around the shops which were all enjoyable. There are about 50 chocolate shops in Bruges where the chocolates they display are like works of art. Many shops sell beautiful lace too.

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Now for the best part….the beer. Try the Dubbel Blonde which was definitely my favourite. Proost everyone!

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*Did you enjoy it? This is a guest post from a fellow blogger, Sophie (Saskia is her daughter and she features in the last shot). Do head over to Sophie’s and experience with her a life in the shires, where the lovely lady lives in an old house with a wonderful family, two cats and her dog Dottie (we clearly have something in common).

 

Torcello

“Don’t look now,’ said John to his wife, ‘but there are two old girls two tables away, looking at me all the time. I don’t like it. There’s something very strange about their eyes.’

The wife, Laura, turned and saw what she saw and laughed as she commented that they were two men actually.

He said: ‘…You mustn’t laugh. Perhaps they’re dangerous. Murderers or something going around Europe, changing their clothes in each place. You know, sisters here in Torcello this morning; brothers tomorrow, or tonight, back in Venice.’

We walked past a trattoria where Daphne du Maurier’s John and Laura might have sat as they demurred about the identity of the two women in the supernatural thriller ‘Don’t Look Now’ . 

Cross the commercialism of Murano, get past the chirpiness of Burano , and you find yourself on this tiny, once-abandoned island (about six miles off Venice) where tranquility has taken up residence. Most people would skip Torcello of the shy personality. You have to look beneath the reserve and maybe, just maybe, you will fall for Torcello?

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The vaporetto from Burano dropped us at a small pier where a Madonna with a child is carved into a niche on the walls. A stone tablet above confirms that you are indeed in Torcello. Past a curiously stagnant and winding river, framed by droopy willows and scraggly trees, you walk into the island. Red and green colours pop up along the promenade that leads into the heart of it. A small bridge straddles it with no protection on its sides. If you wobble on it, you would be in the river surely. Though I would not risk those waters. They lie strangely still and the weeds in them look like the life has been sucked out of them.

Plus the bridge was built by the devil himself in one night to win a bet. Then you have tales of unlucky lovers, the heartbroken heroine of the tale consorting with a witch (who you know is hand in glove with the devil) to bring back her dead lover to life, and then, the devil being the devil claiming the souls of children as his gift. The witch, however, died midway. Did the devil get his fix of dead children’s souls? Who knows. I climbed gingerly up that bridge and stood looking either way, staring at the lonely campanile sticking out above the pastel coloured house fronts, and wondered about Torcello’s ‘haunted’ reputation.

A handful of people live on it – the maximum number is possibly 20. A deep irony given that it was the first island to be inhabited in the lagoon, by the Romans of Altino who were fleeing marauding Huns. It preceded Venice. At the height of its glory when 20,000 people are said to have lived on it, Torcello acquired a utopian renown through the words of a 6th century writer. This man, Cassiodorous, wrote: “There is no distinction between rich and poor. the same food for all ; the houses are all alike and so envy – that vice which rules the world – is absent here.” Possibly laying the roots of for the democratic Venetian Republic that came up by and by. Torcello was eventually abandoned because malaria struck along with other problems. Now there are just two churches, a museum and a handful of eateries.

At an unpretentious trattoria called Locondo Cipriani, Ernest Hemingway spent four months in the 1940s as he wrote his book Across the River and Into the Tree. It is easy even now to slip into that world of Hemingway. Little would have changed since on this desolate island of reeds and bracken, where time tends to float by as if in a dream.

Get Your Pert Behind to Torcello:
Hire a private water taxi (if you are willing to fork out the big notes) or better still just board a regular ACTV waterbus from Venice. If you are working your way through the various islands, Torcello is a short boat ride from Burano. Vaporetto line 9 makes half hour runs between the two.

Where to Stay:

If you want to brood and contemplate upon the vagaries of life on the island of Torcello, do it like Hemingway and stay at Loconda Cipriani (www.locandacipriani.com). A double room is priced at €110 per night.

What to do:

You do not have much to do on the island – which is the delicious beauty of it.

Torcello’s Byzantine-Gothic cathedral, Santa Maria Assunta. Climb the 11th century campanile for views across the marshy island.

Museum of Torcello. Look out for the Throne of Attila. Who knows if he sat on it or not, but the bishops of Torcello surely did.

Church of Santa Fosca which is said to home the remains of a 15-year-old martyr beneath its altar.