A thousand miles of Norway's lovely, crinkly edges
The slow boat to the Russian border takes Mark Rowe to 34 ports in six days - passing some of the most dramatic scenery on earth
Sunday 25 July 2004
Remember Slartibartfast? In Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy he specialised in custom-built planets. He won an award for designing Norway's "lovely crinkly edges", and he came to mind as our ship reached a dead-end in the minuscule Trollfjord, performed the neatest of three-point turns and then chugged away towards the horizon.
Delicate and canal-sized; vast, languorous and graceful; bleak and wild: Norwegian fjords come in all shapes and sizes. The Trollfjord, 2km long and just 100m wide, is one of the cuddly ones, and among the most beautiful. You will find it just north of the Lofoten Islands, some 80 miles above the Arctic Circle. It was 11.35pm and still the sun shone brightly through the light mist that topped the sheer sides of the high granite peaks.
I was travelling on the Hurtigrute, the Norwegian coastal ferry service, which begins in Bergen in the south-west and nudges and bobs its way north through Norway's crenulated coastline for six days, stopping at 34 ports. Journey's end is Kirkenes on the Russian border, 1,250 miles away.
"Hurtigrute" translates as "rapid route". It began in 1893 as a service to take goods and people - including tourists, even then - to towns with no road access. Today, while tourists are increasingly significant, the goods element of the service remains. At each port, the stuff of everyday life - new cars, crates of drink, photocopiers - is off-loaded.
There is no better way to experience Norway's periphery of skerries, peninsulas, mountains and inlets. The scenery is unyieldingly beautiful. On the second day, the boat twisted and turned its way into the town of Molde at 9pm; the sun threw an extraordinary orange glare, creating the colours of Munch's The Scream, which bounced off the Romsdalen Alps in the middle distance.
Two days later, the ship struck out across the Vestfjord for the Lofoten Islands. From afar, they appear as a backbone of sharp mountain ridges, seemingly carved with the precision of a surgeon's scalpel, and presumably representing Slartibartfast's finest hour. The towns, too, are fascinating. Each is laid out neat and tidy as Legoland and achieves a sense of community and prosperity. This is clearly the case in Trondheim and Tromso, the two cities of the north. Trondheim's cathedral has a beautiful façade and stained- glass window. There is a lovely wooded quarter, full of snug coffee shops. Arrival at Tromso, 220 miles north of the Arctic Circle, is a thrilling affair. The city straddles two flanks of Tromso Sound, which are joined by a huge arched bridge, at one end of which stands the dramatic Ice cathedral, whose shape echoes Sydney Opera House.
The boat arrived at Hammerfest, Europe's most northerly town, at 5.15am on a Saturday. Huge snow breaks lined the precipitous hill behind the town while vast, extended peninsulas reached out into the calm waters of the fjord, which here resembled an inland sea. A little later, the ship stopped at Honningsvag, enabling us to visit the North Cape, which, thanks to a 17th-century navigational error, is officially Europe's most northerly point. The genuine northernmost point, Knivskjellodden, lies a few miles away, unvisited but clearly visible from the North Cape visitor centre. The scenery here is treeless, bleak and genuinely Arctic (and just 1,200 miles from the North Pole).
The mountain landscape is unrelenting, and gets increasingly wild and vast as you head to the extremes of the country. Even so, nature ratcheted the beauty up a further notch or two as the ship trundled through the region of Finnmark and turned into the Kjollefjord, another dead-end at the end of which lay a tiny village. This is the land of Grimm fairy tales, where the north wind lives.
GIVE ME THE FACTS
How to get there
Mark Rowe travelled with Norwegian Coastal Voyage (020-8846 2666; www.norwegiancoastalvoyage.com), which offers a seven-night package travelling on the Hurtigrute from Bergen to Kirkenes, from £1,090 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights, transfers, six nights' full-board on the ship and one night's b&b in Oslo. Voyage-only prices start from £636 per person.
Norwegian Tourist Board (0906 302 2003, calls cost 50p per minute; www.visitnorway.com).
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