Shock and Thor: an epic trail along the Norwegian coast
Sankha Guha braves the Norse gods' anger – and a terrifying exchange rate – on a journey to the vertiginous Pulpit Rock, via dramatic fjords, colourful towns and art by Edvard Munch
Saturday 28 September 2013
The Norse Gods are playing ping pong with my plane as it descends into Stavanger. Thor, Odin, Tyr and Sif are in a foul mood. They've sent hellfire, thunder and torrential rain to greet new arrivals. The cloud base is low. The sky is perma-grey. The message from the Gods is loud and clear – anyone entering here should abandon all hope of ever seeing the sun again.
Two hours later I am in a T-shirt having lunch, al fresco, in Stavanger harbour, which is bathed in Mediterranean-style sunshine. I have reached one conclusion already. Whatever else happens on this week-long fly-drive, there will be a lot of weather.
Stavanger can offer numerous museums for a rainy day, though the Canning Museum or the Petroleum Museum may initially seem a bit niche to some. The Canning Museum is in effect a sardine-packing factory preserved in near working condition. In contrast, the Norwegian Petroleum Museum is a much slicker (no pun intended) affair. The severe stone-clad geometry of the outline references the bedrock of the North Sea which has yielded such riches for Norway. Inside, one exhibit highlights the dangers inherent in harvesting "black gold" in such unforgiving conditions. It is part of the bracing – or what was left of it after a rig collapsed in 1980 killing more than 100 oil workers. The structure was engineered from two-inch-thick plate steel – but here it is, bent, twisted and ripped like a discarded paper cup.
About 100 yards from the museum is the shopping area of Ovre Holmegate, where the traditional wooden buildings have been painted in eye-smacking tropical colours. The effect is almost hallucinogenic – as if a small section of Buenos Aires's La Boca district has been transported to these northern latitudes.
Ovre Holmegate has an easy-going, bohemian feel to it. But my mellow vibe comes to a jarring halt when I get the bill for a small beer in one studenty café: 72 kroner which translates as £7.70. Be afraid, drinkers. Be very afraid. This is the land of The Fifteen Pound Pint.
The Business Insider website ranks Stavanger as the third most expensive city in the world. In No 2 slot is – oddly – Luanda in Angola. And No 1? That's Oslo, the city where I will end my journey.
First stop though is Preikestolen, or Pulpit Rock, one of the truly iconic landmarks in a country with an embarrassment of natural wonders. Seen from a boat the rock is an impressive granite cube projecting from the top of a 2,000ft wall that rises from the depths of Lysefjord. Experienced from above it is simply terrifying.
Don't be fooled by the municipal tidiness of the car park. The hike to Preikestolen is no walk in the park. It's not particularly long, about 2.5 miles each way, but the vertical ascent is about 1,300ft. The terrain is an unforgiving mix of steep rocky trail and bogland yet it attracts more than 150,000 visitors per year and many of whom seem utterly oblivious to the conditions.
There are kids in flip-flops, gnarly Norwegians walking their dogs and a Japanese girl in pristine white trousers who clutches a handbag and an umbrella as she tumbles down a waterfall. I witness numerous flustered wives and furious husbands. At least two marriages look like they won't survive the day. A young man is shouting at his inappropriately attired and teary partner. "You can go back if you want to!" he yells. "It's that way!"
After the low farce, the high drama. Norway is a nannyish state. Speed limits are painful, alcohol sales in shops are strictly regulated – but here on Pulpit Rock, with certain death just inches away there are no rails, no fixed ropes and no warning signs. Parents seem incomprehensibly relaxed, letting their sub-teenies run around the rock platform, even encouraging them to peer over the edge. I try this and experience an instant rush of vertigo; the abyss is pulling me down – the ground on which I kneel seems to be tipping up, sliding me over the edge.
The key photo moment on Pulpit Rock is to pose on the corner with your feet dangling over the 2,000ft drop. Some lift their arms and wave, while others lean forward so the balance of their weight is shifting forward. For me, just looking at these idiots is enough to bring on a panic attack. According to the authorities no one has died here "accidentally". It is surely only a matter of time.
My next stopover is Bergen. The stay is all but rained off; an occupational hazard of visiting the city. The oldest building here – the 13th-centiry Hakon's Hall – would have been a rainy-day standby but it is being renovated. Eating out is out – Bergen's prices are consistent with Stavanger's. What else is there to do? There is the Leprosy Museum, but I decide it is unlikely to lift my dampened spirits.
In the end, my partner and I relent and splurge on dinner at Enhjorningen, a fish restaurant housed in the Bryggen, a group of wooden Hanseatic warehouses (a Unesco World Heritage Site). The interior is delightful – wonky beams and undulating floors. We stick to one course each and it is nice enough, but I calculate that a three-course dinner with some wine would work out at around £100 each.
Something miraculous happens outside as we finish our meal. Sunshine breaks through in the dying minutes of the day, flooding the city in a golden glow. The Bryggen lights up like a rainbow. The boats tethered to their various moorings appear more jaunty as they rise and roll on the swell. There is colour everywhere. Bergen seems to be shedding its larval skin and emerging as a butterfly.
The drive next day is also illuminated: a succession of lakes, mountains and waterfalls. The route disappears into tunnels, emerging into squint-inducing glare to reveal new delights.
The road descends to Hardanger Fjord, one of the longest in the world. It has an operatic splendour. The preternaturally blue skies, the Folgefonna glacier across the water catching the evening light, the gentle ripple of waves on the rocky shoreline; it's all almost too much. Every vista is a hyperactive kid, shouting for attention. In the end I capitulate. This route joins my list of unforgettable drives alongside the Amalfi Coast, Route 66 in Arizona, and Chapman's Peak Drive from Cape Town.
The Brakanes Hotel occupies the prime position at the head of Ulvik Fjord, one of the fingers of Hardanger that reaches deep into the mountains. The hotel was originally built in 1860. The current version is a post-war affair, as most of Ulvik was destroyed during the Second Word War. It retains an improvised charm despite its many remodellings. I am ushered to a suite on the fourth floor with glorious views. The interior, though, is schizophrenic. It is a 1980s corporate boardroom with testosterone chrome and grey/black furnishings, feminised by a chandelier that hangs over a rustic wooden dining table.
In the morning I wake to find myself eyeball-to-eyeball with a multi-storey office block that has materialised in the fjord. We are more than 100 miles inland but an ocean-going cruise liner has turned up. Three tenders are disgorging hundreds of passengers on to the hotel jetty. Adding to the jolly surrealism, one of the hotel staff, dressed in a comedy Viking outfit, is welcoming them ashore. Though seemingly at odds with the tranquillity of the location, cruise ships and their attendant hoopla have been a fixture of Hardanger Fjord for nearly 150 years. A few hours later they are gone and there is not a ripple to disturb the peace.
A day later, having crossed the barren wastes of the Hardangervidda and passed through more divine scenery than any single country should be entitled to, I am in the hurly burly of the capital. Oslo is a metropolis with the cultural heft one would expect. Thoroughly modern landmarks include the new opera house (opened 2008) and the Renzo Piano-designed Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art (2012).
I choose the Munch Museum which is hosting what they bill as a "once in a lifetime" exhibition to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Edvard Munch's birth. The exhibition runs until 13 October and brings together works from public and private collections all over the world. It is an eye-opener. The Scream is here, fresh from its restoration following its theft in 2004 and subsequent recovery. It bears an ugly stain from its ordeal but the iconic image still has the power to evoke Munch's desperation.
He was an irascible character with a drink problem. His dark themes and moods are well documented here. But there is another side to Norway's most famous artist. One of his final works Self Portrait With Bottles features an almost cartoonish rendition of himself. It is an unflattering self-image devoid of pomp with a clearly humorous edge. There is nothing grey or wintry here; there is light, energy and vivid colour. Bright green glass, red bottle tops, sunny yellow labels, purples and oranges swim around the canvas like a bright dawn over the fjords.
Stavanger is served by Norwegian (0843 3780 888; norwegian.no) from Gatwick and Manchester; by Eastern Airways (0870 366 9100; easternairways.com) and Wideroe Flyveselskap (00 47 81 00 1200; wideroe.no) from Aberdeen and Newcastle; and by SAS (020-8990 7000; flysas.com) and British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Heathrow.
You can reach Oslo's main airport on Norwegian from Edinburgh, Gatwick and Manchester; on SAS from Heathrow and Manchester; and on BA from Heathrow.
Radisson Blu Royal, Stavanger (00 47 51 76 60 00; radissonblu.com). Doubles from NOK908 (£95), including breakfast.
Scandic Strand, Bergen (00 47 55 59 33 00; scandichotels.com). Doubles from NOK893 (£92), room only.
Brakanes Hotel, Ulvik (00 47 56 52 61 05; brakanes-hotel.com). Doubles from NOK1,545 (£160), B&B.
Hotel Grims Grenka, Oslo (00 47 23 10 72 00; firsthotels.no). Doubles from NOK1,491 (£154), B&B.
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