I must admit, despite Sovereign Tourism operating groups in Norway for sometime, until a few weeks ago, my personal knowledge of the country was very limited. For example, I didn’t know about the national brown cheese (brunost) which is sweet and eaten all the time by the locals, nor did I know anything about the people called ”idlsjel” which translates to ”fire souls” – a word to describe people who burn for what they do and live their passion and make that their lifestyle; people I encountered repeatedly on my recent short visit to this stunningly beautiful country.
Now, there is no denying that Norway has captured my heart! From the moment I stepped off the train in Lillehammer (along with another 24 travel folk) and breathed in its crisp air, I felt a rush of exhilaration through my body and knew immediately that I was hooked!
The first impressions were incredible. Everything in Norway was green! It is also one of the few countries I have visited where towns and cities are just as beautiful as the nature which surrounds them. In fact, you are never far from a fjord or a mountain, meaning you get the best of both worlds.
There were so many highlights on my short trip to Norway; Lillehammer is known to the world for the Olympic winter games in 1994, but there is also plenty to do in summer. Regardless of when you visit this small town, don’t miss Maihaugen, Norway’s largest open-air museum. The museum offers more than 200 buildings from different eras which have been rebuilt on the site and offers a superb cultural experience, better than any similar open-air museum I have visited to date.
From here, my fellow travellers and I drove on Route 55 across the Sognefjell mountain area which includes the highest mountain pass in Northern Europe (1430 meters) and was already covered in snow in mid-September! This road closes during winter due to the heavy snow. We stayed overnight in Skjolden where the mountain ends and the fjord begins.
Before leaving Skjolden, we visited Skåri farm, located on a hilltop overlooking Skjolden and Sognefjord. The medieval farm has been restored and maintained by Geirr Norman Vetti who is known for his many works in projects restoring old houses and farms all over the western part of Norway. He bought the farm and moved to Skåri in May 2000. He then started his biggest project ever; restoring the buildings and the cultural landscape on the Skåri farm.
Some of the other highlights of the trip for me were the Rib boat ride from Sogndal to the village of Balestrand where we had afternoon tea at the historic Kviknes Hotel on the Sognefjord. Here, I tucked into warm scones, jam and cream while sitting on a chair once sat upon by the Kaiser Wilhelm on 25 July, 1914 (no kidding!). This was when he and his entourage paid a visit to Professor Hans Dahl in his villa at Strandheim, Balestrand, when the war broke out. He left on the Hohenzollern for Kiel when Austria and Serbia were on the brink of war.
When I wasn’t sitting on the Kaisar’s chair, I was on The Flåm Railway, described rightly as one of the most scenic and beautiful train journeys in the world; a spectacular train journey that offers panoramic views of some of the wildest and most magnificent nature in the Norwegian fjord landscape including waterfalls, little wooden farmhouses and rugged peaks.
One of the best photo opportunities of this journey was a stop at the Kjosfossen waterfall. Here, as passengers disembark on the viewing platform, a mysterious woman with long hair and a red dress emerges from the forest, dancing to a Norwegian folk song! No, this isn’t as Disneyfied as it sounds. She is apparently the Huldra, an elusive forest spirit from Norse mythology who according to local folklore, lures men into the woods to seduce them! The combination of the magnificence of the waterfall, the folk song and the lady in red somehow works a treat and creates a magical few moments high up in the mountains.
Last but not least, we arrived in Bergen, Norway’s second largest city and one with a reputation for a lot of rain; but we were lucky as we had wall to wall sunshine.
I don’t know if it’s all the cobbled streets and colourful wooden houses, the large number of independent shops and great restaurants, the views over the water, or all the immaculately-maintained trees and public parks and gardens, but to me the city is the epitome of elegance and about as liveable as a ‘big’ city can be in the 21st century!
Our trip was over in a few short days. However, the memories and appreciation of this magnificent country live on in my heart. There is so much more to see and whilst this was my first visit, it certainly won’t be the last!