- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 13, 2003

ABOARD THE MS TROLLFJORD — They once were marauders and plunderers, skilled craftsmen, superb navigators and fearless sailors. They were the vikings. Today they’re cautious folk, highly protective of their democratic ways; fishermen, farmers and tradesmen. They’re the Norwegians, a thousand years beyond the vikings, inhabitants of this beautiful land who gave up their swords and sailing ships for fishing tackle and skis.

The Norwegians still ply their waters; up and down the coast, into the deep fjords they go, transporting people, goods, automobiles and machine parts. Their boats link isolated villages and are school buses for farms reachable only by water. They’re still fine craftsmen.

I came aboard the Trollfjord, a very modern motor vessel with luxury, good food and bonhomie in a group of several journalists to discover for myself the natural beauty of this northern land, the charm of its cities and the friendliness of its people. Most of them speak English. It was a week’s idyll, far from the brutal cares besetting much of the world embroiled in war, sectarian violence and anger.

Serenity, it’s wonderful. Norway is 1,700 miles long, about the size of California but with just 4.5 million people, which leaves lots of room and solitude within the fjords that slice and dice the peninsula’s western coast. The top of Norway curves eastward, bordered by Russia and Finland in the north and Sweden to the east, and it’s a land of rolling hills, valleys and lakes.

In the south are stretches of uncrowded beaches — the water along the western shore of Norway and in the fjords is never as cold as you might imagine, thanks to the warmth of the Gulf Stream. The north, the land of the midnight sun, is bathed by daylight almost without interruption during the two months of summer. It’s the province of the Sami, as the Laplanders now are called, and their reindeer.

It is the western section of the country, however, that offers the stunning scenery travelers from all over the world come to see: the magnificent fjords, those narrow inlets of sparkling clear water with sheer cliffs rising on either side, often with tiny villages or lone farms clinging to the grassy patches on the shore.

About 10,000 years ago, fishermen and reindeer hunters migrated north behind the receding ice. Rock carvings show that the first Norwegians had begun to till the soil and use skis as a form of transportation about 4,000 years ago, although the first ski jump wasn’t built until 1832.

Harald the Fairhaired, who swore he would not cut his hair until he had united Norway, finally called in his barber in the ninth century. In the thousand years between the founding of Norway and its independence in 1905, the country was ruled either by Denmark or Sweden. When independence from Sweden took place in 1905, the people elected a Danish prince to become king.

Oslo, Norway’s capital and a small city of half a million, is the usual point of entry for visitors. Founded in A.D. 1000, the wooden city burned 14 times until it was rebuilt after the fire of 1624 in brick and stone by Christian IV of Denmark, with a stone wall surrounding the city to protect it from the Swedes. The town was named Christiania; the name was changed to Oslo in 1925.

Oslo welcomes about 100 cruise ships every summer. It’s dominated by the imposing 1310 Akershus fortress. Since 1970, a part of the fortress next to the spot where the Germans executed Norwegian patriots during the World War II occupation has been Norway’s Resistance Museum. Chronological exhibits convey a historic perspective from the beginning of the war to the liberation in May 1945 with documents, posters, photographs and artifacts. They include a tape of Prime Minister Vidkun Quisling’s speech of April 9, 1940, calling for Norway’s surrender to the Nazis, which contributed his name to the dictionary as a term for a man who delivers his friends to the enemy.

Riding at anchor in the harbor is the Christian Radich, the tall ship used as a training vessel for young sailors. Solsiden is a lovely restaurant at harbor’s edge, where flowers grace tables by the large open windows and delicious fish from Norway’s clear waters reign supreme. Norwegians feast on the bounty of the sea. Shocked, we watch in awe as a woman at the next table puts away an enormous platter of shellfish.

Across the road from the harbor is the red brick City Hall, where every Dec. 10 since 1990, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded. Although Alfred Nobel was a Swede, he decided that Norway should be the nation to award the peace prize.

Karl Johan’s Gate (“gate” means “street” in Norwegian), the wide central street leading from the Lutheran cathedral to the royal palace, is flanked by the Parliament (35 percent of the members are women), the university, the Historical Museum, the National Theatre and the Grand Hotel, Oslo’s elegant Victorian hotel where Henrik Ibsen could be seen every day imbibing brandy in the Grand Cafe.

Although Norway was Catholic in the Middle Ages, the practice of that religion was against the law from the Reformation to 1843. Catholics, like others, worship freely now, but the country has remained staunchly Lutheran.

The Royal Palace, situated in a lovely park on top of a hill, is more akin to a patrician Victorian home than a palace.

Napoleon’s Gen. Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, who changed his name to Karl Johan (Karl XIV) when he was elected king of Norway, built the palace in 1848. Today’s King Harald V owns 100 cows and is the largest supplier of milk to the city of Oslo.

The city’s residential neighborhoods, particularly along and around Bygdoy Alle, are graceful, enhanced by attractive villas and chestnut trees. In 1914, the governor of North Dakota erected a memorial in the neighborhood to Abraham Lincoln, but it was not so strange because the memorial was paid for by immigrants from Norway to North Dakota.

The Bygdoy Peninsula is the site of some of Oslo’s most interesting museums. Vigeland’s Park — also called Frogner Park — is the masterpiece of Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland (1869 to 1943). The sculptures, resembling the work of Gaston Lachaise and Jacques Lipchitz, depict the stages of life from birth to old age.

Male and female nudes dance and play along the sides of a path leading to a central fountain, which is adorned with sculptures. Fully 121 of these figures climb upward on a tall column in the center of the flower-bedecked park.

The Viking Museum gives visitors an opportunity not only to see three real viking ships, but to get close enough to touch the elegant vessels. The ships had been in the ground 1,100 years before they were unearthed and put on display; they are the best-preserved viking ships ever found. The ships had been placed in royal burial mounds to carry the dead to the other world. Many of the jeweled objects and handicrafts from the graves are also on view.

A fascinating museum is the outdoor Norsk Folkemuseum with its more than 153 authentic period houses collected from all over Norway. In some of them, young women in traditional garb demonstrate weaving, spinning, baking and other old-time occupations. The museum includes a lovely stave church, built in about 1269, that resembles a Chinese pagoda from the side. Indoor exhibits show folk costumes and art; outdoor exhibits primarily involve animals. There are children’s activities throughout the year.

Perhaps Norway’s prettiest city is its second-largest. Bergen is surrounded by seven mountains. There’s a splendid view of the city from the top of Floyen, one of the seven, reached by a funicular that makes the trip up the 1,050 feet in eight minutes. There’s a cafe at the top for lingering over a cup of coffee or glass of aquavit on fine days and summer evenings. In the summer months, concerts take place every evening. (Bergen has Europe’s oldest orchestra, established in 1765.)

At the marvelous Fish Market, fishermen and farmers sell their goods; crafts such as sheepskin rugs and slippers also are available. A sandwich made on the spot of some fresh-as-can-be shrimp or smoked salmon on a baguette is a fine lunch. If you’re there in summer, Norway’s famous cloudberries, which look like pale raspberries but taste a bit like a peach, will be ripe and abundant.

A visit to the Hanseatisk Museum in an old wooden building on the wharf will give a visitor a firsthand impression of what life was like for the men and boys living and working on the docks when Bergen was the trading center of the Hanseatic League during the Middle Ages. The league was established in 1350 and had a trading monopoly in Bergen for 200 years. The building, one of the best-preserved in Bergen, was the 16th-century office and home of a German merchant.

The cathedral, although Lutheran, has retained wooden Catholic sculptures, kept at the insistence of the German Hanseatic League. The oldest parts of the cathedral are the choir and the lower portion of the tower, which date to the 13th century.

Not far from the city center is the home of Norway’s most famous composer, Edvard Grieg. His lovely Victorian wooden gingerbread house, Troldhaugen, painted white with bright green trim, was built in 1885 and was Grieg’s home until his death in 1907. A small concert hall on the grounds is the locale for chamber music and summer concerts.

The trip from Oslo to Bergen can be made by water, but it also can be an overland adventure by train. It is one of the loveliest journeys imaginable and a way to see Norway’s natural beauty — the wild mountain landscape, deep ravines, cascading waterfalls and the gentle green Flam Valley.

The Flam Railway is a 12-mile-long branch of the Bergen Railway that descends more than 2,800 feet from Myrdal to Flam. Passengers leave the train and rush to the railing for a unique view of the magnificent Kjos waterfall.

Suddenly, fragments of a faint melody waft from the mist below, and a mysterious figure in red appears to be rising from the water. Could this be the Huldra, the mythical woman with a cow’s tail? The legend goes that the Huldra sings to attract men, and if one agrees to marry her, she will lose her tail and lead a normal life. None of the gents on my train pays heed to her plea.

The trip down the mountain to Flam, a little village at the tip of a narrow fjord, doesn’t take long. A ship is waiting at the pier for a tour of the narrow arm of the Sognefjord, the longest fjord in the world. It reaches great depths so that even large cruisers can sail up the narrow arms of the fjord.

At Flam, the mountain rises almost 3,000 feet straight up from the water. As we glide through the calm water, we see small farms along the water’s edge, orchards, livestock and an occasional church. At Gudvangen, we leave the ship and make the rest of the journey to Bergen by bus.

In Bergen, we board the MS Trollfjord, one of the newest ships of the Norwegian Coastal Voyage line, for a four-day cruise up the coast to Tromso, the highlight of any trip to Norway.

The Norwegian Coastal Voyage ships are not the usual cruise vessels, for they serve the communities and towns along the coast. Stops are made every few hours, sometimes for as little as five or 10 minutes, long enough to disembark or embark a passenger or cargo. Sometimes the ship stops for half a day, if necessary, to supply a village with everything from foodstuffs to automobiles.

Norwegian Coastal Voyage ships operate all year, back and forth from Bergen in the south to Kirkenes, close to the Russian border and the land of the Sami people in the north. It takes six days to make the journey one way, but a passenger can disembark at any time, and many use the ships the way city people use streetcars and buses.

In the summer, the sun shines day and night; in winter, the snow gives off a mysterious light while the northern lights brighten the sky with magic.

The Trollfjord, although a working ship, is comfortable and well-equipped. It has 674 berths and 12 suites, five with balconies. The lounges have large windows for viewing the extraordinary landscape. The dining hall serves breakfast and lunch buffet style and a seated dinner. Norwegian wood and stone are used throughout, and the excellent artwork is by Norwegian artists.

Crewmen work 22 days straight and then have 22 days off. There’s space for 50 cars on the cargo deck, and a tiny jail serves as a cooling off corner for sailors who have had a little too much aquavit.

Our first major stop is Trondheim, originally called Nidaros because of its location at the mouth of the Nid River. Trondheim is one of the country’s oldest cities and its first capital. It’s a university town, high-tech center and a center for maritime and medical research.

During World War II, the Germans built a submarine warehouse with walls between 8 feet and 25 feet thick. The roof is 30 feet thick. Nine subs were kept there in dry dock. Now the building is used for the state archives and to store chocolate and liquor.

Trondheim has a delightful museum of musical instruments housed in an 18th-century estate. The Ringve Music History Museum houses thousands of instruments. The guides who show tourists through the museum are often music students who play the instruments, such as the 18th-century pianoforte in the Mozart Room.

A fortress built in 1684 to protect the inhabitants against the Swedes rises on a hill outside town. The Germans executed Resistance fighters there. From the fortress, there’s a great view of the town and of Monks’ Island in the middle of the Nid River.

Named for the Benedictines who built a monastery there in the 11th century, the island was used by the vikings until the end of the 10th century as a place for beheading their enemies.

The wooden houses of the old town are still brightly painted. Trondheim is the first city in the world to have a bicycle lift, a rail contraption running along the side of the street up a steep hill.

Bikes are attached to the rail, and up they go. The city has 300 bikes available for locals and visitors to borrow. The green bikes are parked at stands throughout the city; a 20-kroner (about $3) coin is inserted in the bike lock to release the bicycle, and a coin is returned when the bike is dropped off at another stand.

Scandinavia’s oldest secular building is Trondheim’s Archbishop’s Palace, started in the 12th century and the residence of the archbishop until the Reformation in 1537.

Opposite the Archbishop’s Palace is the imposing Nidaros Cathedral, Norway’s national shrine. It is built on the grave of St. Olaf, the king who Christianized Norway with the sword in 1024. All the kings of Norway have been crowned in the cathedral since the Middle Ages, and the crown jewels are on display there.

We cruise northward, and the landscape becomes more austere; we pass through narrow straits between jagged rocks, past the charming Kjeungskjaer lighthouse, which can be rented for a quiet holiday away from it all.

The ship makes calls at some of the islands and pretty towns, such as Alesund, which burned in 1904 and was rebuilt in art-nouveau style. There’s just enough time early in the morning, after cups of good strong coffee and sweet rolls, for a quick tour of the center of town before the ship sails on.

We leave the ship for a few hours for an excursion to Svartisen Glacier, Norway’s second-largest. Svartisen means “black ice,” and the glacier, which slides down almost into the sea, does, indeed, gleam darkly in the sunshine with both invitation and menace. Although it is dangerous to climb on the ice, it can be done with a licensed guide.

A bus ride through beautiful country takes us back to the Trollfjord, past a lovely, almost deserted beach and the wooden Northland houses painted red, yellow or white. Many of the houses are painted yellow in the back and white in front — white being the most expensive paint.

A contest allows guests to pick the exact moment when the ship will cross the Arctic Circle and enter the land of the midnight sun. The event is commemorated on deck with Neptune (looking rather like Santa Claus with a trident) pouring ice down passengers’ backs. An anxious passenger asks the purser when the “other sun” will appear. “The other sun?” asks the puzzled purser. “I mean the midnight sun,” the passenger says.

Tromso, the “Paris of the north,” is our port of disembarkation. A charming small city of 60,000 and the most important city north of the Arctic Circle, it was founded in 1794, and the local dialect has many French words. The city is home to the world’s northernmost university and, perhaps not mere coincidence, a brewery that produces 21 varieties of beer.

Tromso has a fascinating museum and Polar Institute next to the museum, which is part museum and part research center. Visitors to Polaria, as it is called, can watch the feeding of bearded seals.

In the museum, they can see an exhibit of ecclesiastical art (most of which comes from Germany via the Hanseatic League), a Stone Age exhibit and an exhibit dedicated to the Sami, the first people of Norway. The Sami were hunters, and reindeer were important to their existence. In the summer, they live on the coast; in winter, they need to protect their herds and move inland.

Girls received the gift of a reindeer, marked in the ear, at birth. The Sami, who use a different alphabet, have 25 words for snow and 15 for reindeer. They are allowed to roam freely in Norway, Sweden and Finland in the area where the three countries meet.

As we fly back to Oslo, I reflect on the vignettes that have made this trip memorable: the small whales the size of dolphins in the bay; the soaring sea eagles with 7-foot wingspans, which mate with one partner for life; the open-air exhibit in the Oslo harbor of Frenchman Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s photographs of the Earth taken from a helicopter; baby salmon jumping in a round fish farm; a joyful passenger dashing from the ship to a village center at 2 a.m. during a seven-minute port of call; and the glorious sight of the narrow Geiranger Fjord as the Trollfjord delicately maneuvers its twists and turns. Such beauty cannot be forgotten.

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