We’ve visited our last palace, avoided our last blitzing bicyclist, and toured our last Viking museum (which is hard to believe . . . okay, this is not quite true since we will see one more museum in Oslo on the final day of our trip with four authentic and amazing Viking longboats). We are now on to the part of the trip that brought us all this way to begin with: Norway, with its scenic mountains and glaciers, and most of all, its spectacular fjords. Our first stop, after we catch a couple of SAS flights from Copenhagen, is to the town of Kirkenes high above the Arctic Circle and just a mile from the Russian border. It serves as our port of entry for a cruise down the Norwegian coast.
Getting off the plane, it quickly becomes apparent that we aren’t in Kansas anymore. The landscape is devoid of trees revealing only rock and ice. It doesn’t get completely dark at night this time of year ("the white nights") and the day temperature is pretty mild, making us wonder what we are doing with all of this cold-weather attire we have packed. But we also wonder what kind of person chooses to live in such an unremarkable and bleak place where for half the year there is so much darkness and cold? Kirkenes is a fair-sized town of year-round inhabitants. Ellen queries our waiter at the Chinese restaurant next to our hotel about why he is here. However, he doesn’t give any great insight. He is here for work. A Lithuanian, his boss decided to open up a restaurant in Kirkenes, and he followed. We suspect that the stories of other locals in this rather unattractive town are similarly mundane. But we are not here for anything mundane. We are here to get onboard the big ship at the docks, Hurtigruten’s MS Spitzbergen, to begin our adventure south. In the morning, we move into our upper deck cabin with limited view (which means a full on view of a life boat along with a glimpse of sky and the Norwegian Sea) for the next 5 days. No matter since we spend most of our time out on deck or inside the numerous observation rooms, dining in the wonderful restaurant or relaxing in the outdoor jacuzzi and sauna onboard.
The beginning of the trip is a continuation of the bleak and desolate arctic scenery we have already seen in Kirkenes, with lots of ice and rock but with only the occasional signs of human habitation. Eventually the islands begin to show signs of vegetation. Trees appear, most still in winter dormant mode, but many exhibiting the early signs of spring. It becomes greener the further south we go until we are sailing through majestic tree-filled passages with waterfalls and walls of granite for which you need to arch your neck back in order to see the top. But this is only the beginning of a gorgeous cruise down the Norwegian coast.
Six days later, we get off the ship in the western city of Bergen. Here we begin to notice cultural differences that set Norway apart from the U.S. Also, it doesn’t hurt that we are visiting Bergen on Norway’s Constitution Day, a national holiday, when many Norwegians dress in traditional clothing.
We should have known something was up when we went to the state-controlled liquor store, aptly named Vinmonopolet, and found it packed with frantic shoppers scooping up all the booze they could carry away since liquor is not sold on holidays nor on Sundays in Norway. In fact, almost all stores are closed every Sunday. We are old enough to remember when this was also true in the U.S. But, unlike anything in the States, this Constitution Day is a serious holiday, not just something celebrated by old fogies or rowdy teenagers, but by both generations and everyone in between. People dress up in the traditional costumes of the towns they were born in. Sometimes, these outfits are quite elaborate and beautiful. But what is even more interesting is that those who don’t have costumes to wear, still get dressed up in honor of the day. Even boisterous 15-year-old boys are seen waving small Norwegian flags and decked out in shiny cobalt-blue suits with white shirts and ties. Practically the entire city closes down for the day as people flood the streets, attending boat races, concerts, pole climbing competitions, dances, torch lit parades and eating street food. On this day, it’s easy to pick out the tourists in their shorts and t-shirts.
The next weekend, when we drive north to Balestrand, we encounter another holiday. This one is called Whit Sunday, but since many people already get Sunday off, they also have Whit Monday. Our hotel manager warns us that there may not be any stores open on Whit Monday since many stores are mandated by law to close down for the holidays, the apparent belief being that everyone deserves a break now and then.
Fortunately, we find one of the town’s two small convenience type grocery stores open, if only for a few hours in the afternoon. A hand-written sign on the potato bin translates unevenly on my google app: something about “take one, take two, take five, take six, tra la la la.” Confused we ask the clerk for an explanation. He and some of the customers giggle as he explains it is a song or rhyme or some such thing and not to worry about it. Still we wonder if we aren't missing something lost in translation. The small bags of shiny sweet local apples also have a hand-written sign on them that translates perfectly, "Healthy Candy". Not only are we not in Kansas, we are also not at Kroger.
Another thing to note about Norway, unlike the other Scandinavian countries, is that this is troll country. There are folk legends involving trolls for nearly every remarkable geological feature of the landscape. A troll widowed seven sisters, and now they are mountain tops. A troll got caught in daylight, and now he is a mountain. A troll got mad and threw a boulder at his adversary, and that’s why that huge rock is there. Outside restaurants there are troll statues. Souvenir shops sell troll sculptures. We can’t even take a walk through the woods without finding gigantic troll carvings. This is apparently much more than just a tourist board's promotional gimmick which makes us wonder if the real crisis in America is that we have lost any kind of national sense of humor or playfulness.
The next several days consist of a blur of ever increasingly beautiful photo ops. The camera can’t take it all in and of course can never capture the feeling of what it is like to be there in the picture. We are very fortunate to have our Norwegian friends, Anne and Helge, who offer to be our tour guides on a road trip (chauffeured by Helge) through fjord country, indulging our every curiosity and even stopping at the many treasured Stave churches along the way.
Oslo gives us a chance to cool down from our busy itinerary despite the air temperature heating up and breaking all previous records. Now our ski clothes and sweaters seem truly ridiculous as we swelter in heat registering in the mid-to-high 80s F. The city has a very livable feeling to it if you can ignore the head-spinning prices of everything. We enjoy our final few nights here even though our beleaguered credit cards are looking forward to getting out of town.