The first time I visited Norway, it was creeping up to winter. I took the iconic 371-kilometre rail journey from Oslo to Bergen, straight through the heart of colossal mountains, taking in words-can’t-describe vistas as the hours flew by. After tramping around the hills of Bergen and divulging in too many trips to the daily delicacies of the fish market, I headed to Tromsø. Anchored in the arctic circle for three – admittedly, rather miserable – icy days and nights, it wasn’t until my departure that I was rewarded a spectacular display of the Aurora dancing across a star-studded sky. The lacklustre weather didn’t matter anymore: I was in awe.
Returning to Scandinavia this year, I caught the last of the sweet summer days and I took to the water to explore by fjord, hoping that those jaw-dropping natural experiences were not only reserved for colder climes…
Spoiler: they’re not. Winter or summer, Norway is one of the planet’s must-see, out-of-this-world destinations. Steeped in rich, brutal, society-shaping history, it’s the home of the Vikings; the Middle-Age warriors that lived, breathed and dominated the harsh landscape. As comfortable gliding through the glacial waters that weave in and out of Norway’s coastline as they were rampaging through the inhospitable mountains.
Maybe it’s the Viking blood that runs through their veins, but the people that live in the fjords of Norway are just the same today. Well, to some extent. Their axes and battleships may be long gone but that connection to a raw, natural life is still very much alive. As I discovered on my virgin journey, Norway is an awe-inspiring place. But I was surprised to find modern-day Norwegians still as fiercely connected to the ebbs and flows of nature, generation after generation.
One such person is Edmund Harris Utna. Steadily cruising from Bergen, we arrived at Edmund’s Hotel Ullensvang in the Hardangerfjord at sunset, getting our first glimpse of the mid-19th Century building as heavy clouds cleared and the last rays of light peaked over the Folegefonna glacier. Picture-perfect just doesn’t cut it.
Heading inside, it soon became obvious that this was a special place. No, this was incredible. From accommodating some of Norway’s very first expeditioners to a Nazi occupation during WW2, since Edmund’s ancestors opened their doors in the 1860s, this hotel has seen it all. The walls adorned with revered Norwegian art pieces, Viking artefacts and rare historic photographs, the pièce de résistance was undoubtedly the wine cellar. Thick iron gates lead to a cavernous room, where dimly lit stone walls surround a giant wooden table. Here, Edmund told me, his face positively beaming, is where you can experience Viking life. A feast accompanied by some very, – “very”, Edmund emphatically grinned – special tipples. Viking life, albeit, of the more aristocratic kind.
Unsurprisingly, Viking’s shadowed our Norwegian adventure – and I didn’t mind one bit. Next was the Viking Village in Gudvangen. Nestled at the end of the Nærøyfjord, the village offers a true Viking experience… or as true as it can be 1,000 years after the fact. Sounds like a tourist trap, and that’s partly true. But when the tourists depart, a woman who you have no trouble imagining as a Viking warrior welcomes a lucky few by yacht or helicopter for a more intimate encounter. We spent a memorable night listening to old stories spoken into the silence of the fjord, huddled up underneath looming cliffs and crashing waterfalls.
The next day we fast-forwarded to more modern times. Cruising through yet more of those trademark awe-inspiring mountains, at the end of the Sognefjorden of Lærdal is a fishing hub that has served the world’s most high-profile anglers since the late 19th Century. Our host grinned, introduced himself as Rolf Michelsen Bjørum, fifth-generation owner of the river, and sat us down to a delicious Lærdal lunch of sweet cherries, cured goat sausage and potato salad. Washing everything down with blueberry juice, we jumped into his car for the scenic drive to his fishing retreat a little further inland.
We weaved in and out of mountain passes, stopping at unmanned fruit stands dotted along the road where people can exchange a couple of coins for juicy apples and fat plums. Rolf told story after story of legendary catches in Lærdal’s waters, stopping some more to peer into ravines at impossible-looking ledges hammered into the mountain to get the best catch.
Upon arrival at our destination, once again I was awe-struck. A handful of idyllic cabins stood clustered in the secluded forest, a stone’s throw away from a river teeming with fish. You could almost hear the princess singing in her tower. As night fell, we feasted on fresh shrimps and tender venison our chef had saved from last season’s hunt, rounded off with seemingly bottomless glasses of wine. We went to sleep that night filled with good conversation, a deeper appreciation of the magnificent nature of Scandinavia, and a strong desire to go hook some river-monsters of our own.
Upon a reluctant return to home to city-life the next day, I laughed at my fear of this journey not quite living up to its winter counterpart. All I should have been afraid of how I was going to shake the Norwegian wanderlust the country forces into your heart.