Norway: The land of whalemeat sandwiches - Europe - Travel - The Independent

Norway: The land of whalemeat sandwiches

Michael Williams is cheered to find that a cap on luggage doesn't limit his fun

I'm sure there are easier things to explain than why I'm sitting on the harbourside in Bergen at dawn, nursing a whalemeat sandwich wrapped in my underpants. The sun is freshly up and is picking off the Farrow & Ball palette of greys, gravels and pinks of the medieval clapboard warehouses of the quay - as romantic a sight on this pale northern morning as you will find anywhere in the world.

So let's not spoil the mood with scatological talk right now - let's get on to the whales. There is something deliciously naughty about indulging in any kind of vice in goody-goody Norway - surely the world's most politically correct nation. The Norwegians inhabit what is regularly voted the best country to live in on the planet, with one of the highest per capita incomes, magnificent fjords, unpolluted mountains and a population half the size of London. They are the only people in the world ever to vote overwhelmingly in favour of prohibition (in 1919). And in the unlikely event that global peace ever broke out, you could be sure it was brokered in Oslo.

But hunting whales? Here the Norwegian hunger for a rare whale steak has invited international pariah status. "How could such nice people end up so far beyond the pale?" I ask at the harbourside stall of Mr S Sorenson, purveyor of whalemeat to the distinguished citizens of Bergen.

"You British talk a lot of sentimental crap about whales," Mr Sorenson tells me, carving glutinous chunks of dried whaleflesh, the colour of his face, into a bap. "You think they are dogs and cats. But they are no different from cod - except you have killed all of the cod for your fish and chip shops, and we have plenty of minke whales. Eat here, or take away?"

Cue the underpants. Not any old John Major ones, you understand, but just about as state-of-the-art an article of underwear as money can buy. As it says on the label, they are "the most vital ingredient in your luggage", containing silver oxide "to reduce odour" and "dynamic moisture control to speed up evaporation and keep you cool". Nothing is more perfect than this nanotechnological wonder to wrap my increasingly whiffy sandwich, as I head up the hill to Bergen railway station on this warm summer's morning. Most important of all, I am smug in the knowledge that they weigh a mere 51g.

You see, I am here not just for exotic food, spectacular scenery, nor the miracle of Europe's last remaining wilderness, not even the awe-inspiring sight of reindeer herds charging through the tundra - but for something more prosaic. A bet to see how far I can go and how long I can last with the smallest weight of carry-on baggage allowed by any airline in the world.

Now, I can hear you saying, it's not exactly Around the World in Eighty Days. But there is a twist. I had also to perform three tasks: to travel stylishly by plane and train, to walk at altitude in snow at sub-zero temperatures, and to don appropriate formal wear as though I were entertaining the head of state in the smartest restaurant in the capital. The rules stipulated: no washing (cf. underpants), no purchases after leaving home and never looking less than stylish for any part of the journey.

Where else but Norway could provide such a variety of extremes in the early summer? I would start with a budget airline (Norwegian Air Shuttle) with one of the most cheese-paring luggage limits in the world (a strictly enforced 8kg). Then I'd join one of the world's great train rides, taking me over the snow-capped mountains from Bergen to Oslo. On the way I'd take in the world's steepest adhesion railway, plunging at a gradient of 1 in 18 from the snowy mountains where Scott of the Antarctic trained, down to the fjords, made balmy by the Gulf Stream. Journey's end would be in Oslo, not so prim and proper as it was in the days of Ibsen and Munch, but still sufficiently starchy to fulfil my last task with proper formality.

So here I am, on my knees on the living-room floor, hunched over kitchen and bathroom scales, making some fine calibrations. Musts include my clever Rockport Dressports - light-as-a-feather brogues, built like trainers, in which you could run a marathon. Also top of the list are Rohan Uplander trousers, made of space-age material that miraculously wicks away rain faster than it soaks in. Out goes the digital camera (all that charging gear) in favour of the lightweight 35mm Ricoh. I consider junking the Rough Guide (420g) in favour of the Lonely Planet (380g), but quality wins. Styling also tips the balance against the M&S washable suit - the Rohan alternative, even after two days in a stuffsac, looks so much more Paul Smith.

I weigh in at Stansted at 5.6kg - less than four bags of flour - which comprises all I have to live with for a week. Ideally, I would have chosen not to travel in my Salomon hiking trainers, which are designed for fell-walking. But the Rockports are more packable, and the trainers are street-smart enough, and wearing them on the plane is the only compromise I make on the entire trip.

In any case, I am vindicated when I arrive at Bergen, which is living up to its reputation as one of the dampest cities in the world. (Local joke: tourist emerges from airport and asks a boy, "Does it always rain here?" "I don't know," the boy replies. "I'm only 13.") I fish in my bag for my Cloudcover jacket - little bigger than a tennis ball, and lighter.

Apart from the brief glimpse of Bergen morning sun, it rains/snows/rains, not necessarily in that order. At Finse, bleak and treeless, the snow is two metres deep. But although minimalist, I remain snug in my layers and muse on how miserable it must have been for the early Polar explorers slogging round in all that sodden wool and leather. At Geilo, where I break my journey, the stationmaster says it has been the worst Norwegian spring for 30 years. The only respite is when the train grinds down precipitously to Flam on the Aurlandsfjord, where I bless my fake linen trousers (dry in 10 minutes).

But two days along the line in Oslo, it is the suit that proves the biggest test. It's easy enough to put hi-tech extreme wear through its paces. But what should I do with the jacket and trousers (plus formal shirt and tie)? I remember the story of the dying Ibsen, who refused to pass away until he had donned his suit and parked himself upright in his favourite armchair in his apartment at Arbins Gate. Sadly it is closed for restoration, so I stroll down the hill to the Grand Café, all bow-tied waiters and cut glass, where the great man held court. But now it is full of tourists chomping pizza and quaffing chardonnay.

"Try the Engebret Café," one of the older waiters suggests, "it's just what you're looking for." He's right, and my dark blue two-piece seems entirely appropriate for the fin-de-siècle atmosphere - all dark-wood panelling, cut glass and starched tablecloths. I am the only customer, but, as I tuck into a comfortingly large reindeer steak, it seems just possible that Mrs Alving could walk in any minute off the set of Ghosts, which is playing at the National Theatre down the road.

At Oslo's sleek Gardermoen airport, I check in like a bantamweight, even though I have stocked up on a hoard of hard-to-find Norwegian literature in the city's excellent bookshops. Thinking of all that aviation fuel saved, I feel smug enough to spend my last few krone on a souvenir packet of air-dried whalemeat in the airside deli. OK, I know that one man travelling light doesn't save the world. But, I rationalise, he's not going to dispatch the world's whales to oblivion, either.

Michael Williams travelled to Norway with the following items in his bag: Rockport Dressport shoes (390g); Rohan Globetrotter jacket and trousers (1,060g); Rohan Travel Linen trousers and shirt (760g); Rohan Cloudcover II jacket (395g); Vivienne Westwood tie (50g); two pairs Marks & Spencer odour-free socks (120g); X-stinctive T-shirt (120g); X-stinctive briefs (51g); toiletries in Eagle Creek "Pack -it" bag (250g); 'Rough Guide to Norway' (420g); Ricoh GR1V camera (200g).

(Rockport, 0161 831 9771; Rohan, 0970 6012244; Vivienne Westwood, 020-7439 1109; Marks & Spencer, 0845 609 0200.)

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Similar trips can be made with Inntravel (01653 617906; www.inntravel.com) and Great Rail Journeys (01904 521980; www.greatrail.com). A 15-day tour of Sweden and Norway with Great Rail Journeys costs from £1,790. Airlines serving Bergen include Norwegian Air Shuttle (00 47 21 49 00 15; www.norwegian.no) from Stansted, SAS (0870 60 727727; www.scandinavian.net) from Gatwick and Wideroe (00 47 81 00 12 00; www.wideroe.no) from Aberdeen. Oslo is served by SAS, British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and City Star Airlines (01224 722610; www.citystarairlines.com). Ryanair (0906 270 5656; www.ryanair.com) flies to Torp.

EATING & DRINKING

Engebret Café, Bankplassen 1, Oslo (00 47 22 82 25 25; www.engebretcafe.no).

FURTHER INFORMATION

Visit Norway (020-7389 8800; www.visitnorway.com)

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