Cruising amid the dramatic extremes of Norway’s fjords
Bergen is a city of slopes that plunge dramatically towards the sea; a port city built around a deep, natural harbour. The tall Scandinavian houses are scattered up the hills, thinning higher up the mountains, as though they are in a perpetual state of toppling towards the ocean.
The night we arrive, it is raining. In Bergen it seems to rain as often as not. It is not that fine European drizzle you might expect, but dense, clattering rain. Here we are in the subarctic, but the rain feels almost tropical. We ask our concierge for restaurant recommendations. When he queries our budget, we comment that everything seems expensive. “Welcome to Norway,” he laughs heartily and we laugh, too, if nervously.
Because of the rain we take his closest recommendation, where the waiters wear long black aprons and the decor looks suspiciously tasteful, the lighting carefully understated. In the cheese counter in the foyer the cheeses are spaced out behind glass like small, private islands. As the waiter walks us to our table, I’m struck by the giddy feeling that we are about to seriously blow our budget.
We decline the degustation menu, but say yes to a glass of single vineyard Bourgogne, which arrives in oversized wine glasses. The wine is a luminescent crimson, and it’s wonderful, with a soft and delicate flavour. We eat monkfish, a Norwegian staple, on a bed of parsnip mash, in a soy sauce reduction that creates a lovely salty blend of flavours.
Bergen is Norway’s second-most populous city, on the west coast of the country, beside a deepwater inlet. Along the wharves is Bryggen, a cluster of small wooden wharf houses that are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the oldest of which date back to 1702. Today they mostly house restaurants and pubs, as well as shops selling a range of tourist paraphernalia, including woollen jumpers knitted with snowflake patterns. They are in brash colours, dark blue and lurid red, reminiscent of Christmas though that’s still some time away.
Each day, fish markets are set up around the harbour. In the glass fridges are fat slabs of salmon cut in long orange sheaths and the disembodied arms of a king crab bound together with string. There’s also whale meat, which looks like beef, but darker, almost black like crude oil. Next to the meat, a sign has been drawn: a whale in outline, complete with spout and a smiling face.
Docked in the harbour are the huge red and white commercial fishing trawlers. Their decks are flat and the backs are open, to allow the nets to be hauled in over them. Against the backdrop of the modest Scandinavian houses, these vessels are imposing in Bergen’s narrow harbour. They are solid and sinister.
The next day, we take the funicular up Mount Fløyen, which travels straight up the mountain on a steep gradient. The train is crowded and we stand facing the mountain as the train advances slowly; it feels as though we are being carted up on a long escalator. It’s only a few minutes to the top, where the air is cooler and sharper. From there the pitched-roofed houses look like Monopoly pieces and the city seems to unfold below on time lapse, everything smaller and slowed down. A cruise ship, docked at an outer wharf, and the massive trawlers look like models of boats; the ship’s horn sounds and echoes, booming through the valley.
On Fløyen, we take a trail, wandering through the trees. A soft green moss covers everything on the ground and climbs up the trunks of the trees. As we walk, an elderly Norwegian couple overtake us, walking vigorously with their walking poles and all-weather gear. Hiking is something Norwegians take seriously and in an open-fronted cardigan and ankle boots, I realise I’m probably not dressed for a mountain hike. We retreat to the cafe, where I pay $7.50 for a cup of hot water and a tea bag.
That afternoon we visit the KODE museum; comprising four pavilions, it’s one of the largest art museums in Scandinavia. The Rasmus Meyer Collection contains an impressive collection of Edvard Munch paintings, across all periods of his work. Among the paintings are the characteristic Munch faces, pale and distorted by grief; images of a peculiar, haunting sadness. The modern collection in KODE 4 is also a surprise, with a handful of works by Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee and Joan Miró.
That evening, we walk out onto the streets where the light is still sheer, like afternoon light, although it’s after 8 o’clock. We walk through the cobbled streets in the city’s old area. Here, the houses and apartment blocks are tall and mostly wooden, with many painted in traditional colours. One in mustard and another in distinctive carmine create a vivid contrast with the green landscape.
The streets are narrow and the houses are built close together, as though huddling against the cold. They are compact, unimposing structures as though we’re in a small town rather than a city; people live so close together here, it feels as though they must be privy to each other’s business.
Amid the wooden houses, we find a small bar that serves an impressive selection of international beers. It’s cosy, with books on the walls and blond wooden timber everywhere. At one table a woman sits alone, drinking a glass of white wine and reading a book. She’s eating soup, which is the only food they serve here – a choice of two daily. It looks like the perfect place to spend a long dark evening in winter.
The bar is managed by a lithe man with dark Rastafarian dreads that hang past his waist. His appearance is distinctive among the predominantly fair-haired population. That day, a new barman had started work there – he’s Dutch and speaks no Norwegian. When people approach the bar and he greets them in English, there’s only a moderate level of surprise from the patrons.
The manager asks the Dutchman how old he is.
“Twenty-three,” the new help answers.
“That’s old enough to make me an Old Cuban,” he laughs, and proceeds to instruct him on how to mix one.
The next day the rain holds off again and we take a cruise out to the fjords. Our ship is White Lady, a high-speed catamaran, and once we’ve navigated slowly out of the harbour, we speed away. I discover that Bergen has something of a suburban sprawl, but rather than spreading outwards from the city centre, it creeps along the coastline. In a scramble for water frontage, the houses have spread out from the city along the lip of the fjord.
We pass under Europe’s longest floating bridge. At their deepest the fjords are 630 metres deep; too far down to sink bearings for the bridge, so instead it sits on pontoons that are anchored to the shore.
The fjords, still and blackwater, hardly seem to move. Around us, steep faces of rock drop sharply to the sea. The fjords have a stark and uncanny beauty, the vast rocky cliffs interspersed with green, forested hills. The landscape is barren in some places, but fertile and brilliantly green in others. Against the water, it makes for a scenery of extreme contrasts.
On the tidal estuary at Mofjorden, the boat slows down and the surface of the water becomes completely smooth, like blown glass. There are few houses clustered together in this area. From a farm, sheep look up, mildly curious, before nuzzling back into the grass. Further down stands a wooden schoolhouse that has fallen into disuse and is boarded up. The school gates are at the water, because the students used to arrive and leave by boat.
The finale of the boat trip involves passing through a narrow channel of water with sheer rock face on one side. The boat glides under the ledge of rock with a soundtrack of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg floating over the speakers, as though to lull us into the appropriate sense of awe.
The landscape’s spectacle is relentless – it becomes harder to find new reserves to appreciate it, more wonder to call on. In the fjords, one can suffer from beauty fatigue.
Eventually, the boat turns back for Bergen and the rain starts, softly at first, pattering on the water, and then more heavily. We retreat inside the boat’s cabin, where the view is obscured, but we’re warmer, more comfortable and slightly relieved. It strikes me that maybe this is the trick to enjoying Norway, finding the right place from which to enjoy its extremes.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 13, 2014 as "Fjord motion". Subscribe here.