One might suppose that it’s always very cold in Norway because of its northerly latitude. But not so, especially not along the Atlantic coast where the Gulf Stream from the Caribbean tends to moderate its climate. However, the wind can make it feel colder.
Almost half of Norway is located above the Arctic Circle. There, during the summer months, the sun never fully sets. During the winter months the sun hardly rises.
Norway is a virtual photographer’s paradise, what with its jagged coastline and the seemingly endless spectacular fjords, the plunging cliffs and waterfalls, the many solitary - seemingly inaccessible - cabins and summer homes tucked along the fjords. Because of its coastline many communities are connected chiefly by a multitude of bridges and tunnels, as well as by ship.
Ten ships of the Hurtigruten cruise line sail on a fixed schedule to service the cities, towns, and small settlements year-round, day and night, along the coast. The primary focus of these “working ships” is to transport goods, mail, walk on passengers, cars and Norwegian as well as international tourists travelling to various destinations.
Several tour groups were included among the 400+ passengers on our ship. Our ship, the Ms Nordnorge, made 32 stops, each way, north and south, on its way from Bergen to the Russian border. We had tours at many of the major ports. Most of the sail was relatively calm, with several exceptions when we encountered open water.
The breakfast and lunch buffets on board were exceptional. They featured fruits, salads, and especially fish dishes. The watermelon was some of the best anywhere. The served dinners were delicious and varied. The service by a friendly international staff was excellent.
The Norway coastal voyage on Hurtigruten ships is unlike traditional large ship cruising. Instead of formal entertainment there were various presentations by staff members, focussing on the history, life, and customs of the Norwegian people, including that of the Sami people scattered across the northern parts of Scandinavia. About 10% are reindeer herders following their free range flocks. The majestic surroundings provided our primary entertainment.
Our adventure began in Bergen, on the coast, with its fairytale atmosphere. It had been one of the members of the powerful Hanseatic trading league in the Middle Ages. Even though it rains about 250 days a year in Bergen, we had no rain. We began our sail northward. We would tour Bergen on our way back.
We visited the majestic Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, built from 1030 to 1300 AD (at 63+ degrees latitude, the latitude of the northern portion of Hudson’s Bay). During the Middle Ages this distant cathedral became the major pilgrimage site in northern Europe.
Shortly afterwards, we crossed the Arctic Circle (66 2/3 degrees latitude). To commemorate the crossing, passengers were invited to a “ceremony of baptism.” Those who wished came forward and knelt on a kneeling bench while one of the crew poured an ample amount of ice water and ice down the back of that person’s shirt.
We then detoured to enter the 2 km long Trollfjord (68+ degrees latitude), with its narrow entrance and steep mountain sides. There was another ceremony to appease the “troll.” As the ship came to the dead end it made a 360 degree manoeuvre, with little room to spare, impressing and delighting the passengers.
We enjoyed a longer stop at Tromso, “The Gateway to the North”. Much of this beautiful city is situated on an island. We travelled by cable car to a lookout point high above, to view this city with its spectacular, glistening white cathedral. It’s best known historically as the departure point for Arctic explorers such as Roald Amundsen, and as one of the better places to see the Northern Lights.
We would soon be above the tree line, with patches of snow covering parts of the ground. We saw reindeer grazing on the roadside. We left the ship and travelled by coach to the North Cape (at 71 degrees latitude, north of most of Alaska). On the way we stopped at a Sami summer encampment. The Cape includes a 300 metre high, large, flat plateau. It is the northernmost point in continental Europe that can be reached by car. Here the sun does not set from April 22 to August 22. The Cape often tends to be shrouded in heavy fog at midnight.
The ship continued its sail, now southeast, towards the little town of Kirkenes, about 15 km from the Russian border. We visited the small but very informative Borderland Museum in which we learned about Norway’s, and this region’s, important role during World War II. Though occupied by Germany early in the war, Norway never capitulated but continued guerrilla resistance. They sabotaged the German “heavy water” plant and other military installations. We were also reminded of the Canadian-Norwegian connection during World War II. As they continued to resist, Norwegian airmen came to Canada for training, first on Toronto Island, popularly known as “Little Norway,” and later in Muskoka. It was in the little town of Kirkenes that Germany had deployed 100,000 troops in preparation for an invasion of Russia from the north. Moscow was only 1,500 km away, almost directly to the south. A large number of western convoys sailed across Norway’s treacherous North Cape to supply the larger number of Russian forces nearby with military hardware. Eventually Russia managed to stop the German advance.
The following statistic reminds us of the heavy price the people of Kirkenes paid during that war. This small town and its surrounding area was bombed over 300 times by the Russians during the war, more than any other location other than Dresden, Germany, and the Island of Malta.
Our ship then began its westward, southbound, return journey. En route we passed a large liquid gas plant. Gas is brought by underwater pipe from a well 150 km away. It is then liquefied and exported to southern Europe. A parallel pipe returns the excess back to its source, thereby not affecting the fishing industry in the region.
At Hammersfest, many of the passengers got off the ship to catch sight of the white beluga whale in the harbour. The whale had been spotted with a harness and thought to be a Russian spy whale. The whale seemed to be accustomed to humans and did not seem to want to leave. The mystery of the beluga whale continues to puzzle the experts.
As we passed one of the early historical trading posts along the coast (Oksfjord), about 50 people of the village and region (population 500) came to the pier waving flags, as they often do for passing ships. The captain of our ship acknowledged their greeting by blowing the ship’s horn.
The sun was still up as we returned to Tromso. Many on our ship attended a midnight concert arranged for the passengers on our ship at the Arctic Cathedral. The performance by three persons (soprano, pianist, flautist) of Sami and Norwegian folk songs, hymns and classical pieces was first class. After the performance we took photos outside in increasing daylight.
Enroute the next day we attended a most unusual concert at a most unusual venue, named The Royal Neptune Hall. The “Hall” was a gigantic fish oil tank which had been repurposed as an unique concert hall. One of our group compared the acoustical effects within this empty oil tank to the music of New Age musicians with the sounds within the tank reverberating for up to 20 seconds. The atmosphere within the tank was haunting. The inside of the tank was lit only by a ring of candles. Two men performed a variety of Norwegian music. One gentleman sang but also played a tuba. The other musician played what seemed to be a type of electric guitar to produce a most unusual, reverberating sound.
A visit to the Hurtigruten Museum gave us an overview of the history and the importance of the shipping line for connecting Norwegians to each other along its long and sometimes treacherous coast.
As we again crossed the Arctic Circle, this time sailing southbound, many of the passengers participated in a cod liver oil ceremony in which each received a spoonful of cod liver oil. The spoon was ours to keep as a souvenir.
The Norwegian composer, Edvard Grieg (1843 - 1907), has acquired international recognition. As part of our city tour we visited his old home on a picturesque site overlooking the water. The site includes the little cabin in which he created many of his compositions. This was followed by a visit to the Fantoft Stave church, built entirely of wood in 1115 AD without the use of nails. We stopped at the UNESCO site of the Hanseatic League old wooden buildings in the city and walked down several of the wooden alley ways.
The final leg of our Norwegian adventure began with a 5 hour sail on the scenic Sognefjord to Flåm on a large catamaran travelling at speeds up to 65 km/hour. In this little town we transferred to the renowned Flåm Railway, a major engineering feat in its day. The train takes about 1 hour to cover the 20 kilometre track, travelling through 20 tunnels (6 km total) and winding back and forth from a beginning height of 2m (Flam) to 866m (Myrdal), the last stop. At the halfway point, we stopped on the only side track, allowing the descending train to pass us.
In Myrdal we boarded the high speed train for a 4 ½ ride to Oslo, arriving there late in the evening. Our first stop in Oslo was the Viking Museum. Various wings of the museum contain a well preserved Viking Ship as well as numerous other fascinating artifacts. We were reminded that between 800 and 1,100 AD Norwegian Vikings sailed in small, open vessels exploring far and wide, including North America. They even established a settlement, albeit for a short stay, in L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, about 500 years before Christopher Columbus’ discovery of North America. Our second stop was at the museum dedicated to Thor Heyerdahl (1914 - 2002) who led the 1947 Kon-Tiki expedition. His goal was to see how ocean currents could take a balsawood raft across the Pacific Ocean and to prove his migration theory. Few believed he would be successful. Heyerdahl followed his Kon- Tiki expedition with other expeditions.
Gustav Vigeland (1869 - 1943) dedicated much of his life to create a great many human figures out of stone or bronze, many life-sized. These sculpture figures portray the interactions of people at various stages of their lives. These now occupy a huge outdoor park in Oslo which we explored.
Today’s Norway is prosperous and ultramodern, well on its way to being a cashless society. Its riches come from oil, shipping, fishing, and increasingly tourism. It has invested almost all of its oil revenues into a heritage fund for future generations and has designated a great many resources to fight environmental degradation and pollution. For instance, we were told that Norway has more Tesla and other electric vehicles per capita than in any other country in the world.
Norwegians are a very hardy, resilient, ingenious, enterprising and adventurous. They have built countless bridges and tunnels. The Norwegian waters are full of protruding rocks and jagged shoals. One of the future projects Norway is presently contemplating is the construction of the world’s first shipping tunnel to bypass one portion of its most dangerous coastline.
The population of Norway is a little over 5 million people. For such a small nation, Norway can be rightly proud of her considerable accomplishments. Norwegians have been inveterate explorers throughout the ages. Remarkably, Norway has won more medals in the Winter Olympics than any other nation.
And all too soon our wonderful Norwegian adventure drew to a close leaving us with many happy memories of a journey not soon to be forgotten.
Visit with Craig Travel next May to see some of the world's most spectacular scenery!
Norway May 6, 2020 with Group Escort Karen Cullen.