Go Norse, young woman

Cleo Paskal rides on a funicular and finds love in Viking country
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The Independent Travel
I never wanted to go to Bergen. In fact, I had rather ostentatiously not gone to Bergen once before. A few years ago I boarded the famous, beautiful Oslo-Bergen railway in Oslo and got off again in Voss, two stops short of Bergen (one stop short of Bergen would have been just too obvious).

Yet what I do like is playing "Amazing Grace" on my harmonica. And skiing. And while I was in Voss, busily ignoring Bergen, I had promised myself one day to return to the area in winter. The mountains were stunning, as was Thor, the lift attendant.

So when I heard that you can take a boat from Newcastle to Bergen for pounds 50 return, I was off.

The 26-hour boat ride primed my excitement with on-board Norwegian bingo. You know when the caller says "Six. Just Six"? Well, in Norwegian, that translates to "Sex. Ankle Sex". And nine is pronounced "knee". "Knee Sex" - the hours just flew by.

We arrived in Bergen at about 9:30pm. I marshalled my two travelling companions and we sprinted to the train station. I approached the woman behind the ticket wicket.

"Hi, I want to go skiing in Voss. When does the train leave?"

Was that pity glinting in her eye? "Haven't you heard? It's been a very unusual winter. There is no snow."

No snow. The words echoed around the station. They jumped up and down, laughing. Bergen had caught me.

I vaguely remember stumbling into an ornate restaurant in a large, high- vaulted, marble room, a one-time bank lobby. There was a band playing waltzes for a flowing, gliding dance floor and women in evening gowns eating steak and laughing. We asked if we, too, might have dinner. "Oh no," the handsome doorman replied. "The kitchen is closed for the evening."

Unfed, we headed instead for the funicular.

This is a cross between the London Underground and a skiing gondola. The car itself is steeply angled and it is pulled up the side of a mountain via an underground cable system. It is used as public transport for those who live in the ornate houses on the side of the mountain and, according to the brochure, as a tourist attraction for those wanting to reach the top, above the "hustle and bustle" that is Bergen. As if.

My companions sat in the lowest section of the funicular, so they could watch the town dwindle and sparkle as we rose. I got into the uppermost section so that I could turn my back on the place and sulk in peace.

There were two others in my compartment. A young woman and a young man. At the first stop the woman got off. The young man, with shoulder-length blond hair and laconic smile, started softly singing. He had a beautiful voice. He was singing "Amazing Grace". I was in love.

He paused for breath, and I jumped in. "We're going up to the top because we're tourists. Why are you going up?" Not the best line in the world, but it gave me a chance to look straight into his clear, green eyes.

"I live at the top."

"No kidding. I didn't know there were any houses up there."

"There are just three. And one is mine."

We had come to a stop. My young man said something in Norwegian to the conductor, and soon after we had started up again, the lights in the compartment went out.

"I asked him to do that," my viking said, "so you can better see the stars and the fjord." And he started singing again.

We all got off at the top and, while my friends took flash photos of each other next to an 8ft sculpture of a troll, the Man and I went over to the look-out. From up there, Bergen was beautiful, its twinkling lights mirroring the stars, and all of them melding to shimmer off the water in the fjord.

And then he hit me with the world's best pick-up line. "My name is Trond. In Norwegian it means 'He Who Eats And Is Happy'."

Trond invited us all back to his place. He and I discovered that we had even more in common than "Amazing Grace". His favourite musician, Daniel Lanois, was from my home province, Quebec, and we had both caught dengue fever in the South Pacific. Unfortunately, group dynamics (and the desire not to be called a vixen for the entire boat trip back to Newcastle) meant that I would have to leave with the others that night.

We made vague plans with Trond to go walking in the mountains the next day, and then, as a group, we started off down the mountain.

The funicular had closed for the night so it was 45 minutes of slipping and sliding down a Norwegian mountainside in the dark. But I was starting to feel distinctly better about Bergen.

The next day I woke up at noon to find a note under my door from my companions. It said: "Want to meet at the top of the hill? Trond's 11:30? Hopefully see you there." Bastards. There I was, staring bleary-eyed at a scrap of paper while they were tramping through the underbrush with my singing Viking.

OK. Contingency plan. Let's say they go on a two-hour walk. They'll be back at 1:30pm. That gives me time to get up, get dressed and buy Trond a present.

I wandered into Bergen, a bit wary, but willing to reconcile. It is, in fact, a lovely town. At the mouth of a fjord, embraced by wild, wooded mountains, the fronts of its beautiful medieval houses stand shoulder to shoulder hiding charming, idiosyncratic back alleys.

Armed with a box of amazing-looking chocolates I headed towards the funicular. As it rushed me up the mountain the view was panoramic.

I knocked on Trond's door, expecting no answer, vaguely making back-up plans, deciding what chocolate I would eat first to console myself. Dark chocolate with pecan? Trond opened the door, saw me and greeted me with a big hug. Seems my travelling companions had arrived just as he was starting breakfast, so he had passed on the walk. He invited me in. I gave him the chocolates. He Ate and Was Happy.

We lived happily ever after until 4:30pm when I had to run to the funicular to make it to town in time to run to catch the boat for Newcastle.

And that is how I learnt to love Bergen.

How to inspect a Norse

Cleo Pascal paid pounds 50 for a four-day mini-cruise from Newcastle to Bergen with Color Line (0191-296 1313). It is possible to fly to Bergen from Heathrow on British Midland (0345 554554), Gatwick or Newcastle on Braathens (0800 526938) or Aberdeen on Air UK (0345 666777).

Romantics are advised to take duty-free drinks (up to one litre of spirits and one litre of wine) and smokes (200 cigarettes) to avoid subsidising the Norwegian exchequer with taxes of 300 per cent.

For longer stays, a rail pass sold by Scandinavian Travel Service (0171- 559 6666) allows unlimited travel all over Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark. Five days' travel in any 15 costs pounds 132; 10 days in one month for pounds 180; 21 days' continuous travel costs pounds 198. First class is about 25 per cent more. The Norwegian Tourist Board, Charles House, 5-11 Lower Regent Street, London SW1Y 4LR (0171-839 6255) can provide information and free maps.

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