Norway’s Harsh Beauty
Travelling among the clouds, crevasses and cherries of Bergen, the fjords and the Folgefonna glacier
I teetered apprehensively at the edge of the pebbled beach, still wearing a woollen hat and thick hoodie sweater.
Runa, however, a hardy Norwegian, had already stripped down to her swimming costume and was striding into the blue-black water of the Hardangerfjord, a vast lizard’s tongue of water licking its way inland from the North Sea.
The morning mist was rising from the water and revealing more of the steep-sided mountains that crowd around Norway’s second largest fjord. Finally, I summoned up some courage, threw down my clothes and waded in behind her – yelping as the cold hit.
I felt kelp underfoot and, when I finally ducked my head in, the water felt salty on my lips – this was, after all, the sea. As I swam, my skin tingled as the blood rushed to the surface. I felt deliciously alive.
The deep fjords of Norway have long been a honeypot for travellers from the south.
English lords came here in the 18th century to fish and hunt, and in the late 19th century Kaiser Wilhelm II was a regular guest. Fearing Norwegian sanitation, he brought his own wooden toilet with him everywhere, finally leaving it at the white-wooden Fleischer’s Hotel in the small town of Voss, where it is displayed with pride in the lobby.
"After big party nights we always check nervously that nobody has used it," confided the manager Alette Hjelmeland, as I admired the imperial potty.
I’d arrived in Norway via the port of Bergen, flying in over a cluster of jagged green off-shore islets that looked like parts of a jigsaw puzzle waiting to be attached to the island. Bergen is Norway’s second largest city. It’s the birthplace of the country’s most famous composer, Edvard Grieg, and its hippest modern musical export, The Kings of Convenience. Proud locals claim it is the "soul of the nation."
A sadistic history
Bergen was also one of the most important trading ports of the medieval Hanseatic league, who have left their legacy with a huddle of pointy-roofed and brightly-painted wooden warehouses and merchants’ offices by the harbour. Bryggen, as it is called here, was once an enclosed German city within the Norwegian city that burrows back from the harbour towards the natural barrier of Mount Floyen.
The German traders profited from the chaos left behind by the Bubonic Plague, which killed off the Norwegian grain importers and nearly starved the agriculturally barren land, winning concessions for privileged trading from the King. But they didn’t seem to have much fun.
Terrified of infernos and for some reason also of women, this all-male guild banned both fires and sex, dedicating themselves to accumulating wealth while sleeping alone in wooden bunks in their unheated houses, and relieving their boredom with sadistic initiation "games" involving pouring freezing water over their young apprentices and beating them with sticks.
Like a British public school without the consolation of cricket.
From Bergen, I headed up to the Folgefonna glacier to hike across the rapidly changing ice-sheet’s famously magnificent views back over the Hardangerfjord to the North Sea. The Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen lyrically described it as "lying like a virgin in plain linen". But the bed was wet and grey as our group of eight arrived.
Glacier guide Filip was perversely cheerful as he led us off, roped-together like a string of onions under the pouring rain: "This is why we have a glacier so far south in Norway," he explained.
"There is so much precipitation. The snowfall in winter is extreme."
From glacier to garden
Extreme conditions attract extreme personalities. Roald Amundsen trained near here before launching his successful expedition to the South Pole. And a knowledgeable guide was imperative, as we strode over crevasses and hauled ourselves with ice picks over walls formed by the constant movement of the glacier.
As we crunched the blue ice under our crampons, Filip told me of an English lord back in 1910, who ignored the safety advice of his local guide and disappeared in bad weather never to be seen again.
"Since then a figure in a black coat has haunted the ice-sheet," reported Filip cheerfully. I took the hint and followed in his footprints as if he were Good King Wenceslas himself.
The regular snowfall also means the ice-sheet has survived for millennia despite peaking at a relatively low altitude of only 1600m. But recently, the annual melt has consistently outpaced the snowfall, so with temperatures predicted to rise steeply in coming decades, there are fears about the ice-sheet’s long-term survival.
Today, even on a rainy day, walking on the Folgefonna was an epic experience. Sandwiched between two layers of cloud, buttresses of dark granite flanked the lower slopes of the glacier and a waterfall frothed down the edge of the ice. Then the wind ripped a hole in the cloud blanket, and I could just make out the dark finger of the fjord pointing in from the ocean.
The next morning, the sun out was out as I looked back up from the apple orchard of local farmer Ola Steinstø. Now the fearsome Folgefonna looked like a harmless dollop of cream poured over the green mountains. The Gulf Stream and relatively warm water of the sea fjord make the Hardangerfjord Norway’s garden, and its banks are awash with apple and cherry trees that blossom flamboyantly in spring.
It’s a lucrative trade but since the discovery of vast quantities of North Sea oil and gas reserves in the 1980s, it has not been lucrative enough to keep young Norwegians on family farms:
"They’re getting more lazy, there is no doubt about that," worried Steinstø as he offered me a delicious slice of home-made apple pie: "Those that have a good education start in the oil industry at 18. All the best people go there."
That may be changing, said journalism student Sigrid Skjerdalm, as we tucked into the brown cheese she had helped make on her mother’s goat farm perched high above the Sognafjord.
"My generation wants to reconnect with nature and re-establish that close relationship that Norwegians have always had with our environment," she said. "We like to work hard."
Birthplace of sagas and fairy tales
Bad weather moved in again that afternoon as I raced along in a speed-launch hoping to see porpoises. The clouds clung in wisps to the walls of the Sognafjord and cloaked the forests and wooden villages.
You could see why so many fairy tales and sagas were born in this magical land. But it was an isolated beauty, with some villages only approachable by boat well into the 1980s.
We passed a farm called Stige, peering down from a balcony of rock once accessible only by a ladder – that was quickly retracted whenever the taxman was spotted.
As we passed the old Viking market at Gudvangen, the sky cleared, transforming the kilometre deep water of the fjords from inky-black to blues and spotlighting the emerald of the rare terraced agricultural fields – a muscular landscape showing its softer side.