- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 28, 2007

OSLO

The fjords of Norway are a glistening fantasy, fabled but distant, exotic but foreboding, a Scandinavian dream of an ancient viking people whose women are all blondes.

Our journey into the Norse country takes us to Norway’s largest cities, up the coast of the Norwegian and Barents seas, traveling by fjords and isolated natural wonders to beyond the Arctic Circle near the top of the world. We find a fascinating view of Norway on a working cruise ship that is both coastal voyager and lifeline to the cities and ports of its coast.

We fly from Washington on an overnight Scandinavian Airlines flight to Copenhagen, and then a connecting flight to Oslo, arriving before noon. The taxi into the city is expensive, but direct, compared to the airport train, which is quicker and convenient but would drop us in the middle of Oslo, so we would have to take a taxi anyway.

We are staying in the Hotel Continental, a historic family-owned establishment in the heart of the city, directly across from the National Theater, the University of Oslo and Karl Johans Street (the main shopping district) and just up the street from the Aker Brygge, the wharf restaurant district. It is a grand hotel in the old-school tradition. Rooms are spacious and comfortable, with ours having a lovely view of the theater and the main square.



We will spend several nights in Oslo and travel by train across the spine of Norway to the coastal city of Bergen before boarding the Hurtigruten, the Norwegian Coastal Voyage for eight days up the coast to the farthest reaches of the Arctic north.

That night we have dinner at the Theatercafeen in the hotel, a beautiful room with grand vaulted ceilings and a pianist on the balcony. Large paneled mirrors cover the walls above the bar. I have my first reindeer steak, a filet that melts like butter with a unique flavor. A lingonberry sauce complements with perfection. Cloudberries, in thick cream, make a fine Norwegian desert. The Theatercafeen was restored to 19th-century perfection in 1972 and is an elegant spot for fine dining.

We tour Oslo’s center on a rainy day, taking in the City Hall, where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded, a grand, stark cathedral with a marble interior and brick facade. We visit the ramparts of the ancient fortress above the waterfront; see the parliament, a prominent structure of golden stone just off of the main square; and the Royal Palace, set on the hill just above it. We stroll down Karl Johans Street, named for the French Marshal Jean Baptiste Jules Bernadotte, who fought with and then opposed Napoleon, helping defeat him at Leipzig in 1813, and became King Charles XIV of Sweden in 1818, when Norway was part of Sweden.

In the evening, we have an amazing dinner in the embassy district at the elegant Bagatelle, which holds two Michelin stars. We learn why nine courses of increasingly complex dishes can make a meal last four hours.

Successive courses from chef Jonas Lundgren, who trained at the French Laundry restaurant in California, use fresh Norwegian ingredients: wild rice with halibut and shrimp, a multicolored beet salad, broiled scallops from Trondheim, turbot with Norwegian lobster, a savory and delicate dish. Quail with sweet corn mustard sauce is followed by sliced rack of lamb in a bean cassoulet with mushrooms and then an array of splendid deserts. Bagatelle’s 13 tables are a shrine to perfection, 12 stations of the cross, and an ascension into Heaven.

We leave Oslo on a rainy day by train for Myrdal, where we take the famous Flam Railway, more famous than fabulous, although it stops at a thunderously amazing waterfall and a fantastic view into the valley. After winding down the steep grade, we cruise through the emerald-green bottom of a beautiful valley into tiny Flam.

In Flam, we board a trawler for a two-hour cruise into the Naeroyfjord, Norway’s most popular tourist attraction and a World Heritage Site, at the far interior of the Sognefjord, Norway’s longest fjord. Between the jostling tourists and the rain, it is as much trauma as trip — although it is quite beautiful.

As we arrive at the tiny port of Gudvangen, the swarming hordes scramble for the buses for the steep ride up the hairpin turns to Voss. It all would have been much better on a sunny day, I’m sure. In Voss, a mountain ski town, we stay at the Fischer Hotel, a lovely old lakeside resort with a grand dining room and bar. A blues festival in progress provides fine entertainment.

Beers throughout Norway are about $10. The sticker shock is amusing at first and annoying as the night goes on. The reality is that North Sea oil and a prudent investment policy have given Norway enormous cash reserves and a currency with an exchange rate that is exceptionally potent, outside the euro, and stronger than the United Kingdom’s pound.

We arrive in Bergen, a bustling cosmopolitan port city, gateway to the western fjords and starting point for our Norwegian Coastal Voyage. We stay at the Hotel Neptune, with views of the sweeping hillsides. Bergen, the ancient capital of Norway, is surrounded by stark verdant peaks overlooking a protected harbor. It helps that the sun shines down from a glistening blue sky. That augurs well for the journey ahead up the Atlantic seaboard into the polar netherland.

We depart Bergen on a Sunday heading north on the Hurtigruten line’s MS Polarlys for a week above the Arctic Circle, around the top of Norway and all the way to Kirkenes on the Russian border, north of Finland.

The ship is plush and comfortable, with large observation decks, nicely appointed lounges, a spacious dining room, a cozy cocktail lounge and a 24-hour cafe for late-night snacking. Our cabin is small but comfortable, with fold-up beds that can become a sitting area, but it clearly is designed for spending little time in the room.

We cruise overnight and begin the day in Alesund, a sleepy little town rebuilt in art nouveau style after a fire in 1904. Then we cruise in the Geirangerfjord, one of Norway’s treasures, a deep, narrow passage with towering peaks that ends in the village of Geiranger. The journey lives up to its reputation for spectacular beauty, with waterfalls, including the Seven Sisters, and endlessly clear water beside sheer cliffs.

Geiranger sits at the edge of an idyllic bay where the fjord ends abruptly and gives way to a sparkling small resort surrounded by rising green meadows below towering mountain caps topped with glacial ice. The ship turns around and glides back through the narrow passage as the sun glints off the sparkling water.

Dinner on the ship is a three-course affair with a choice of entrees, and the food is quite good. Breakfast and lunch are buffet-style and bountiful.

We cruise overnight and arrive early the next morning in Trondheim, a viking city where Leif Erikson received his military training. The centerpiece of this city of 150,000 is the 1,000-year-old Nidaros Cathedral, built over the grave of St. Olaf, Norway’s patron saint During the night, we pass through the most narrow sea passage on our way, the Stocksund, before landing in Rorvik, more settlement than village. This truly is a working ship, delivering cargo and supplies as well as tourists to a string of distant settlements.

Later in the night, the sea is as smooth as glass. The Panorama Deck is full of multilingual chatter as the moon glistens off the silky water. As the sun rises, we cross the Arctic Circle on a glorious day. As we pull into Bodo, home of a NATO air base, it is brilliantly sunny and 70 degrees, and the locals, 60 miles above the Arctic Circle, are in T-shirts and short pants.

Continuing up the coast, the shoreline is one spectacular jagged peak after another, punctuated with settlements, fishing boats, and boathouses painted a deep maroon, as if by regulation. That evening we reach Svolvar, the center of the Lofoten Islands and Norway’s cod fishing industry; cod historically was Norway’s economic mainstay before the North Sea oil boom. Svolvar has a main square, a small harbor and the lore of centuries hanging about it.

As night falls, we depart for the remote, mystical Trollfjord, and we reach it near midnight. We are in pitch blackness under a moonless sky, but about 400 passengers have gathered on deck as we travel into this narrow — 328 feet wide at its narrowest point — crevice into a mountain in the middle of the northern sea with a channel opening out of nowhere.

At the back of that channel, we proceed farther into the famous Trollfjord. The crowd gathers on the back deck to enjoy troll soup — suspiciously similar to Manhattan clam chowder — and marvel at this enclosed channel within a channel. It is like a larger party at midnight. The ship turns around in a space barely large enough, lingers, and moves on in the blackness. It is magical.

The next day, we arrive in Tromso, a university town known as the “Paris of the north.” Paris? A few traffic circles, but it is a charming town with interesting shops, pubs and restaurants, and a collection of well preserved wooden buildings. It has a substantial wharf with the architecturally distinct Rica Hotel, a high bridge leading across the inlet, and a large modern cathedral.

The geography of the far north is spectacular — and exceptionally stark. Glaciers cap mountain peaks near the shore, which is dotted with settlements in this middle of nowhere. Small islands, fishing boats and rocky coastline are in abundance. It is breathtaking and amazes in its isolation.

The next day we stop in Hammerfest, the northernmost town in Norway and center for the next phase of Norway’s oil-exploration expansion. It looks like an industrial town, all prefabricated housing and stark exteriors. But Hammerfest, like our next stop, Honnigsvag, and the end point of our journey, Kirkenes, were decimated in World War II, both by Allied bombing of occupied Norway and by the Nazis’ scorched-earth policy upon leaving Norway in 1945.

Kirkenes was occupied by 100,000 Nazi troops. To prevent any advantage to advancing Soviet troops, who liberated the city in 1944, every building and dwelling was burned to the ground. Kirkenes is two miles from the Russian border, and it was a strategic point on the way to Murmansk, where Allied shipping supplied the Russians with lend-lease support.

On our last night at sea, as we round the top of Norway and head into the Barents Sea, the ocean swells are rough and the ship rocks wildly. In the morning, we land in Kirkenes, a lovely, if slightly barren, town with a thriving fishing industry and a towering future as a center for Norway’s international status as an oil and natural gas power.

We visit a larger bomb shelter in the middle of town that was hewn out of solid rock and used through most of World War II. We tour a reindeer park and future Ice Hotel, courtesy of Radius Kirkenes. We take a Barents Safari open riverboat to the Russian border and peer across this former Cold War frontier.

We are staying the night in the Rica Arctic Hotel, a comfortable redoubt in the center of town. That evening, we dine on king crab, a species introduced into the Barents Sea 40 years ago and now the focus of a thriving industry supplementing and surpassing an overharvested Alaskan king crab fishing ground.

We fly out of Kirkenes for Oslo the next day, a distance that is surprising for how far we have come by sea. Oslo is farther from Kirkenes than St. Petersburg, Russia. We take the airport train this time and stay the night at the Thon Hotel Opera Hotel, a nice modern hotel next to the art deco train station. On this, our last day, we stroll down the length of Karl Johans Street, wistfully sharing memories of the past 12 days of adventure.

We stop for cocktails at the Grand Hotel, just off the main square, where Henrik Ibsen held court each afternoon during his long tenure as head of the National Theater. His booth is a shrine to the playwright. We walk along Aker Brygge and gaze at the many ships along the wharf side.

At night we go to Muddy Waters Blues Club for a jam session of local musicians. Like most of Scandinavia, Norway has an affinity for American roots music. Oslo is quite a contrast to the frozen north of Hammerfest and cosmopolitan fun-loving Bergen. It is sophisticated, beautiful and with much more to offer than we have had time to enjoy.

Theater and concerts abound in Oslo. The Edvard Munch Museum holds works of the great painter, including the recently recovered “Scream”; the Thor Heyerdahl Kon-Tiki Museum holds the original Kon-Tiki raft. The restaurants and the infrastructure of subways and streetcars are impressive, but all this is part, indeed the center, of a Norway of increasing prosperity.

The viking past, the seacoast and fishing industry and the lure of the fjords are staples of Norway’s iconography, but it is clear that Norway’s future is oil and natural gas.

A proud and independent country, Norway is using its national wealth to enrich its national endowment and secure its future.

Norway will always be a mystical land of the north, where man can become lost in nature. Gliding silently through the Naeroyfjord in a misting rain or inching our way in blackness through the magical Trollfjord, we feel the wonder of Norway around us, and we take that with us.

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