Travel after the pandemic #22: Norway
Beauty comes naturally, and mankind does its best too
The natural gifts are the more visible. If you were to ask people around the world what they associate with Norway, chances are that a lot of them would answer “fjords” (perhaps to the chagrin of many Norwegians, who no doubt view their country as a lot more than that). Still, here is found the highest concentration of fjords in the world, and they are justly famous as a truly lovely sight to behold.
These symbols were formed when glaciers retreated and seawater flooded the U-shaped valleys, and the 1000-plus fjords vary in size and characteristics but each offers its own exceptional beauty. The Geirangerfjord and the Nærøyfjord, for instance, feature on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The two, among the world’s longest and deepest, are archetypical fjord landscapes and among the most scenically outstanding anywhere.
The long Sognefjord and the Hardangerfjord, famed for its cherry and apple trees, are among the most visited, and the Lysefjord just outside Stavanger (home to the famous Preikestolen, or Pulpit Rock) and the Nordfjord further north are also very popular holiday destinations. National Geographic magazine has named Norway’s fjords “the best unspoiled travel destinations in the world”.
Too many to mention, all along the coast, but the 17-kilometre Nærøyfjord is certainly notable, being characteristically narrow and thus making for a truly close encounter with the surrounding landscape when on a cruise. Nærøyfjord is actually a branch of the mighty Sognefjord stretching out between the charming village of Gudvangen and the Aurlandsfjord that cradles the popular Flåm village.
With its 205 kilometres and a depth of 1300 metres, Sognefjord is Norway’s longest and deepest and is known as the “king of the fjords”. It is also distinguished by height, with a south-eastern mountain range rising 2000 metres over the water, the peaks covered by continental Europe’s largest glacier, the Jostedalsbreen.
The Preikestolen, or Pulpit Rock, is often described as one of the world’s most spectacular lookouts. It rises 604 metres above the Lysefjord and is topped by an almost flat rock plateau of around 25 by 25 metres. The eight-kilometre trek to get there is one of Norway’s most famous mountain hikes.
The northern lights (aurora borealis) is a natural phenomenon most commonly observed above the Arctic Circle between late autumn and early spring. These hit northern Norway above the Lofoten Islands and follow the coast all the way up to the North Cape, resulting in the claim that no other place on Earth offers better chances of seeing the lights. In summer the sun does not set north of the Arctic Circle, meaning that visitors to the north of the country enjoy 24 hours of daylight this time of year – a phenomenon known as “midnight sun”.
One thing Norway is not short of is cruise companies. And a good way to reach your scenic area of choice is by the many Norwegian railway lines, considered to be among the most beautiful train journeys in the world according to travel experts. Rail journeys such as the Nordland Line and the Bergen Line make you part of the spellbinding landscape, with waterfalls and free-flowing rivers crossing deciduous and coniferous forests to glacial lakes, glaciers and jagged peaks on rugged mountains.
Railway book author Jan Helge Østlund says: “Switzerland and Austria provide stiff competition but I would still say that Norway is an excellent European rail destination. They may have faster trains further south but we rank highly in terms of history, interesting stops and beautiful nature along the tracks.”
Or, driving in Norway is also said to be an experience most people are unlikely to forget, with no lack of stunning roads and, again, often breathtaking scenery, albeit sometimes as nerve-wracking as spectacular. The most famous road is the intimidating but beautiful Trollstigen, the “Trolls Ladder” in English, with hairpin bend after hairpin bend to negotiate. Trollstigen is the ending point of the 106-kilometre National Route from Geiranger.
And expect the air to be pure. Norway is on track to hit 100 percent electric vehicle sales in April next year, with petrol and diesel cars disappearing three years ahead of the government’s target of 2025. Here, the internal-combustion engine will die.
Other World Heritage sites in Norway include Umes Stave Church, built of wood in the 12th and 13th centuries; Bryggen, the historic harbour district of Bergen, with wooden houses in a traditional style; more than 6000 prehistoric rock carvings at Alta; and Røros, a former copper mining town built entirely in wood.
If fjords are synonymous with Norway, so too are Vikings, also called Norsemen or Northmen, the pagan Danish, Norwegian and Swedish seafaring warriors who were famed for their boat building and navigation skills but also had a reputation as raiders, colonising wide areas of Europe from the 9th to the 11th centuries.
They were also traders and explorers, and their legacy lives on in Norway. Unfortunately, the Viking Ship House in the capital city, Oslo, is closed for rebuilding after 95 years of operation and will not reopen until 2025/2026. Then will come again the chance to see the world’s two best-preserved wooden Viking longships, the Oseberg and the Gokstad.
Meanwhile, objects from the Viking age can be seen in the Historical Museum in central Oslo, and Lofotr Viking Museum in Borg in the Lofoten Islands, Karmøy Kulturopplevelser in Rogaland and Stiklestad National Culture Centre in Nord-Trøndelag are all good places to learn more about Viking history.
If tourists must wait to see the new Viking museum, they are in better luck with the new Munch Museum dedicated to Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944), forever known as the painter of the world-famous “The Scream”. More than 200 of his other works will be seen in the 13 floors and 11 galleries of the museum on the Oslo waterfront.
This tailor-made building officially opens on October 22, 2021 and will be one of the world’s largest museums devoted to an individual artist. The venture is an event of such national importance that the opening will be attended by King Harald and Queen Sonja. A further report on this auspicious occasion will follow in The Budapest Times.
One of the sights of Oslo is the Royal Palace, among the country’s most important buildings, situated on a rise, the Bellevue, at one end of Oslo’s main thoroughfare, Karl Johans gate. The palace was inaugurated in 1849.
The Oslo City Hall (Radhuset), clad in heavy red bricks, is impossible to miss in downtown Oslo. The administrative seat of the City Council since its inauguration in 1950, the building may look simply functional but it houses important murals and artworks from celebrated Norwegian painters and sculptors, with motifs from Norwegian history, culture and working life. Here, within its stately walls, the prestigious annual Nobel Peace Prize ceremony was held from 1990 to 2019.
At the Kon-Tiki Museum, guests can experience original vessels and up-to-date exhibits on the expeditions of Thor Heyerdahl (1914–2002), who gained worldwide fame when he crossed the Pacific Ocean on the balsawood raft Kon-Tiki in 1947. He followed this up with spectacular expeditions on the reed boats Ra and Tigris.
A major urban renewal project called the “Fjord City” masterplan was adopted in 2000 to rejuvenate Oslo’s 10-kilometre stretch of waterfront. Bjørvika bay, immediately east of the medieval Akershus fortress, is the city’s new cultural quarter, with the now famous Opera House, home of the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet, which opened in 2008. Its design has won awards and admirers from around the world.
Alongside the Opera House is the five-storey Deichman Bjørvika central library, one of Europe’s most modern libraries after opening in 2020 and with space for 450,000 books. Also, a new National Museum of Norway is scheduled to open in June 2022, becoming the largest art museum in the Nordic countries, and the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art is one of Scandinavia´s most notable museums for contemporary art. The Munch Museum too.
Where once industry dominated at the waterfront, there are now flourishing public spaces, including swimming spots, boardwalks, fishing areas, cafés, residential areas and offices. Citizens and visitors are welcome to walk on the Opera House roof without getting arrested.
The Viking Ship House
The Opera House
Røros mining town
Oslo's central library