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  • Writer's picturePete Jonson

Norway - mountains, fjords and dancing swallows

A reader has commented on the first report of Henry’s 2016 liason expedition. ‘We too noted incredible civility and politeness on our trip – not only in the hotels but also on the street, with folk actually taking us to where we wanted to go. I think web pages such as Trip Advisor and Stayz may have something to do with it, where you are invited to comment and people actually read your comments. Civility in the hotels (middle range) might be catching– I think even my behaviour towards lost strangers (Chinese students with no English) has improved.

We survived Washington and then London. In both cases security people were very twitchy and aggressive - maybe a terror alert. Mrs Thornton had her large handbag put aside for careful checking and that took the best part of 30 minutes. Henry’s knee brace caused more trouble than it was worth as bossy security persons interrogated my reasons for wearing it and asked if they were hurting me when they checked it for weapons and drugs. Could we present as an elderly version of Bonnie and Clyde? One was forced to consider.

Three days in Washington included a tour of the Capitol building, a nostalgic visit to Georgetown University and long sessions in various Galleries. The wealth of art captured by the yanks is extraordinary, and three days was hardly long enough.

Now we are in Oslo and tomorrow we begin to progress to Bergen by rail and ferry. At Bergen we join a ferry ride to the most Northern Port in Norway, Kirken.

Sunny and 20 degrees in Oslo and countryside as viewed from the fast train from airport to Central Oslo looks very lush and prosperous. City is rather grand and there are many signs in English so we feel more or less comfortable. The fast train from the airport to central Oslo leaves Australian public transport to and from major airports for dead. North Sea Oil has been spent more wisely than Aussie iron ore.

Mrs T volunteered to venture out to get some local folding money. When a person in the street was asked the way to a bank he could not think of one. 'All the banks have disappeared', he advised. 'There is a cash machine in the 7Eleven'. After a serious hunt Mrs T eventually found a bank that dispensed only high value notes. The Norweigen Knone is worth about 18 cents Aussie so she now has a bulging wallet, as credit cards often have a merchant fee of up to 4% and are best not used.

Balestrand - the Kaiser's playground

We found our way back to the Oslo central railway station and boarded a train to Myrdal. Tourists’ luggage created difficulties as people struggled to fit it into carriages designed for people with only light luggage. Passengers had been allocated seats and ours were at the rear of a carriage with a relatively poor view. Naturally being brash Aussies we moved to vacant seats with better views. A kindly ticket inspector who checked the tickets of everyone who joined the train explained that the seats we moved to would be needed by others later but we were welcome to remain in them until the others arrived.

Lovely train trip through lush farming land with valleys and hills gradually topped with snow as we gained altitude. We arrived at Myrdal on time and with full carriages. At Myrdal we were instructed to put our luggage at one end of the platform so that it could be loaded into the baggage space of the FLAM train we were about to join. Some people were untrusting and said they’d prefer to keep their luggage with them. ‘OK’ said the porter, ‘but it will create difficulties’.

Then followed ‘one of the great railway trips in the world’. This was the claim and it was impossible to dispute for someone who had only used trains on various underground railways and from suburbs in Sydney and Melbourne.

Gradually the elevation increased and we were treated to stunning snow topped mountains and valleys with occasional settlements involving houses like those one builds for model railways, mostly small, always (with one exception) neat gardens merging into farmland whenever there was any spare moderately flat land not needed for houses and small but perfectly formed churches.

Waterfalls abounded, it being spring. The train stopped at Kjosfossen and we were invited to leave the train to experience the ‘mighty Kjosfossen waterfall’. Despite being nearly blown away, and damped by water blown from the raging torrent, this was an experience not to be missed. We were told of a recent flood when heavy rain combined with melting snow to wash nine houses away, fortunately with no loss of life. We wondered just what people living in tiny villages in the valleys, with some houses perched well up the mountains could possibly do for a living. According to the announcement, one of the villages specialised in a particular variety of goats’ milk but this was the only hint provided.

On the train we sat with a glamorous Asian couple with whom we struck up a conversation, as one does. They were heavily tanned and Mrs T at one stage asked if they were from Tibet. (Henry had assumed they were Japanese, and elicited puzzled amusement when he explained he had supported the Japanese option for Australia’s new submarine fleet.) Mrs T’s question produced more mirth but the lady explained they were Chinese, but had been hiking in the mountains, producing their Tibetan style skin colour. She then unveiled a camera almost large enough to make movies with. Along with her tales of holidays in exotic places, with a sister living in Melbourne, this convinced Henry these were not just Chinese but rich Chinese.

The highest point reached, if memory serves, was 1.222 metres. Flam railway came down the mountain sometimes at slightly scary speed. We exited at Flam Station, ‘nestled in the innermost corner of the Aurlandsfjord’. We learned that the railway line was unique in the world in combining ‘an adhesion-type railway on normal tracks with a steeper climb’.

The Flam Railway is ‘one of Norway’s major and most spectacular tourist attractions’. Our luggage was unloaded onto the wharf and we guessed which ferry was the one we were booked on to take us to the Kvikines Hotel at Balestrand.

This was to provide one of the great evening entertainment we have experienced. The Kvikines Hotel, we were informed, was a place when the German Kaiser had taken his summer holidays in the early 1900s. We had been given a room with a large balcony overlooking the fjord.

During a pre-dinner walk we met a Scot who explained he was part of a choir that was going to perform in front of the hotel before dinner, right under our balcony as it turned out. We sat in the balcony sipping our imported single malt scotch (Tallisker since you asked) while this first rate choir warbled beautifully while swallows danced seemingly to order – descended from swallows trained to perform for the Kaiser perhaps – and the changing light painted wonderful abstract shapes on the water.

Next morning we joined another ferry to proceed to Bergen


Bergen is Norway’s second largest city. Its CBD wraps around its harbour in a neat Nordic way.

The city itself was a major participant in trade from the best part of a thousand years ago. Its people fished and preserved fish in the warm breezes of spring and summer. They exchanged dried fish (and cod liver oil) for grain as well as beer and other essential products from warmer and more southern climes. This trade was done by German merchants operating out of the semi-autonomous port of Bryggen. Norewgians were strictly excluded from this high margin enterprise. Not unlike multi-national enterprises today setting up enclave in less developed nations with low tax or no tax to be paid.

Low margin fishing and drying fish was mainly done in the warmer months by Norwegians when it was relatively safe, but it was often dangerous even then. Voyages to other European ports could be quick if the wind was kind, or anxiously long if the wind did not cooperate. Fishing was hard physical work mostly using individual lines but without rods. Long lines with many hooks created great controversy when they were introduced. The material I read did not mention the introduction of nets.

Drying fish so that they could be kept for long periods was skilled but also hard work. Prices depended on the quality of dried fish. We toured a typical old wooden merchant house, newly build in 1704 after the great fire of 1702. Tiny rooms were for office work. Senior men had their own tiny bedroom that consisted of a snug hole with a mattress, blankets and a pillow – no en suites with gleaming porcelain were in evidence. Apprentices slept in a bunk room, we were told two to a bed. No fires were allowed in the house for fear of conflagration. Imagine a Norwegian winter with no heating. Cooking, eating and socialising were done in a separate building.

No women were allowed into the business of fishing and trading fish, and indeed the traders had to agree not to mess with women while they were involved in the business. A young German had a lonely presumably mostly celibate life unless huddling for warmth at night led to experiences over which it is best to cast a veil. The height of ambition was to rise to become an owner of a fishing pod, install an honest manager and return to Germany to marry and procreate.

Bergen was not technically a Hanseatic Port, but as this discussion suggests German traders formed an enclave who were part of the system of Hanseatic Ports. A map showed the massive extent of trade in fish, grain and other goods.

Our ferry docked in the CBD and we set off to find our ‘Clarion Collection', hotel, wheeling our suitcases over the cobbles and dodging the natives who showed an obvious tendency not to make ones passage simple. (Did we detect passive hostility to tourists – probably, comrades, probably.) Sadly the travel agency’s directions were wrong and we were to drag our bags to three ‘Clarion Collection’ hotels within the CBD before we found the right one. We imagined the cheeky Nordic smirks as at each place they advised us how to find the allegedly correct one. Later we read the travel agent’s fine print to the effect that ‘Your hotel booking may be changed’, not that it could possibly have helped with no separate message telling us where the new booking had been made.

Bergen is stunningly beautiful. There are of course many attractive old buildings and houses wend their way up the steep hills surrounding the CBD in a most graceful manner. Many houses seem small, and from a distance look like the structures one glues together for junior’s train set. But there are some impressively large houses, so presumably even Nordic socialism has allowed some variation in wealth and income.

After a day’s wandering about the CBD and acquiring a nice piece of art we packed our bags and caught the bus to the ferry. This stops nearly 20 times on the way to Kirken near the Russian border and will be wonderful fun.

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