Pining for the Fjords

A trip to Norway just wouldn’t be complete without seeing some of the fjords. The fjords aren’t just a natural wonder, they are the source of much that’s in the Norwegian character: ruggedness, independence, an arm’s length respect for nature, and a firm belief in the equality of everybody. To fully understand this, we would have to explore them all. That would be covering a lot of ground: the voyage up the coast from Bergen to Kirkenes takes six to eight days, and that’s with limited stops at each port. The roads to  the fjords are limited by choice; the Norwegians don’t want a lot of roads and tunnels carving up the landscape, so the best way to see a fjord is by boat.

Maggie and I wanted to see two fjords: the Sognefjord, the longest and deepest in Norway, and the Geirangerfjord, named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. That’s hard to do all in one trip, so we split it into two. To see the Sognefjord, we took the train from Bergen to Myrdal, then down the mountain on one of the steepest train trips in the world, the Flåm Railroad,  and then got on a fast tour boat that would cruise down the fjord and back to Bergen.

This is a great one-day trip. On the train, you get up close to the mountains, with the jagged peaks above you and a rushing river below, past raging waterfalls, plunging in and out of a series of tunnels, killing one landscape and being born into a completely different scene. In the middle there’s a stop at a waterfall for an interlude of a woman dancing to piped-in music, evoking the mountain spirits people once believed in.

Flåm is a nice little village, where you could spend an hour in the shops or a lifetime exploring the surrounding glaciers and parks. We just had three hours, so we ignored the cheesy cafe and snooty restaurant, getting a great meal in the pub instead, wandered through the railroad museum and boarded the boat to see the fjord.

FlåmRailway (15 of 16)

The Sognefjord is more than 120 miles long and up to four miles wide. When you’re cruising the waters, the bottom is more than 3,000 feet below you; looking up, you’re situated in a mountain range that rises 6,000 feet above. Sliding past the granite walls, we got an appreciation for the awesome forces that created this landscape. Starting from one hundred thousand years ago, northern Europe was covered by a layer of ice thousands of feet thick. At its furthest extent, the ice would have extended from the North Pole nearly to the Black Sea. When the ice retreated  eleven thousand years ago, it had taken the solid granite of the Norwegian coastline and carved it up into huge canyons. Even traveling at about 30 knots, it takes three or four awe-inspiring hours to go from Flåm to the mouth of the fjord, then another half hour or so through the protected waters of the coastal islands back to Bergen. It’s an all-day trip, but well worth it; as our friend Albert Cantara put it, the Sognefjord has a “majestic silence.” Passing through it is like a long meditation.

To see the Geirangerfjord, the Hurtigruten cruise line is the go-to choice. It’s like a water-borne bus service that carries passengers up and down the coast, 365 days a year. Maggie and I started in Bergen, sailing overnight to Ålesund. In late June, the North Sea should be just about the smoothest it gets – but for us non-sailors, we wouldn’t want to see it any rougher. The rolling and pitching was one thing, but the short jolts at irregular intervals were hard to sleep through. On top of that, the ship had a definite list to starboard, so lying in our beds, our feet were below our heads. (My brother Jeff, who is a retired deck officer in the Merchant Marine, told us that was normal, possibly due to the way they were taking fuel from the tanks.) Maggie and I slept fitfully and silently, hoping to let the other sleep through it. In the middle of the night I flipped the pillow to the other end of the bed, thinking that it would be easier to sleep if my head were higher. I think it worked, but when Maggie woke up, she looked over and saw my feet when she was expecting to see my face – not a pleasant sight first thing in the morning.

At 5AM we gave up on sleep and oozed out to the gray light of the observation lounge, to join the haggard passengers who had endured the night on couches and chairs, in the vain hope that staring at the horizon would bring some relief. They looked rough. I wonder if they thought we looked any better. I doubt they cared.

Fortunately, once the ship reached the fjord, the water was glass smooth. We could eat breakfast, drink coffee and generally start to feel human again. Once we got lost in the beauty of the fjord, the miseries of previous night were forgotten. The Geirangerfjord is much narrower than the Sognefjord, so we got a closer look at the villages that cling to the mountainside and the waterfalls that cascade over the cliffs. We wondered what it’s like to live there year round. The people at the top live a short distance from the people at the bottom in a horizontal sense, but the only possible road between them goes out of sight in both directions. We wondered if it’s a close-knit village, or if they live separate lives by choice.

Now we’ve gotten a visit to two of the major cities in Norway and a sampling of the fjords. We’re going to spend the next couple of nights in Ålesund before we’re off to Finland and the next leg of our self-guided tour. It’s hard to believe that’s it’s only been a month, and we still have July and August to go. We don’t have to keep reminding ourselves of how lucky we are to have this opportunity and each other – that’s obvious every day.


Pining for the Fjords

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