Norway: trolls, trains (and stress-free skiing)

The last time Jeremy Atiyah tried his luck on the slopes he was a neurotic teenager easily put off by his smarter European counterparts, but in Norway he discovered friendly people, and lots and lots of space
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The Independent Travel
Even as a nervous non-skier, I couldn't imagine anyone hurting themselves in Norway. The environment was far too healthy. This was the place that gave meaning to the words "fresh" and "bracing". Even if there ever had been effluent-spilling factories around those pristine fjords, surely they would have been moved over to Humberside long ago.

And it seemed so empty. Four million people sprinkling a country that occupied seventeen degrees of latitude (Britain takes about eight). The only previous time I had dared skiing had been for a few hours as a neurotic teenager in Switzerland. On that occasion I had been emotionally tormented by the massed, posing ranks of Italo-French youth in search of apres ski.

Western Norway, on the other hand, labouring under all the social pressure of a trolls' tea-party, seemed an ideal place to have another discreet try at skiing. With this in mind, I set off for a four-day break, two days of which would be spent on the slopes in the resort of Voss.

It turned out that getting to Norway was exciting enough, never mind the skiing. This is the country that always appears in the top right hand corner of your TV weather map. If you set out from the British east coast at a right angle you'll wash up here. The ferry from Newcastle to Bergen for example is only twice as long as Portsmouth to St Malo (but more exciting).

Flying to Bergen feels like making an assault on an unknown land mass, a Viking invasion in reverse. You fly away from the unassuming flatness of East Anglia, aiming for the first shred of land you can find. A hour or two later you hit the great drama of western Norway. Suddenly there are cliffs, forests, lakes, inlets, houses on impossibly small islands. And you are landing on them.

"Is it raining?" asked a foreigner. Of course it was. But in Bergen, where it rains 275 days a year, I could not have asked for better quality rain - a heavy, icy downpour mixed with snow. The drive from the airport revealed black earth, wet boulders, big wooden houses. A huge troll of a man occupying several seats to my left was smiling benignly at life (Norwegians always do this, I later discovered).

Alas, time was short. Much though I wanted to explore Norway's second city, I barely had time to smell the fish, stroll the cobbles and take a snap-shot of the gabled row of houses on the water-front. It was Thursday night and I was heading for Voss, an hour from Bergen by train.

Peer Gynt's "Hall of the Mountain King" was inspired somewhere round here. On the Bergen to Voss train, tidily dressed passengers sat quietly reading evening newspapers and office memos, while the train careered in and out of tunnels, zoomed past fjords, glowering cliff-faces, tiny secluded valleys, torrential flowing rivers, waterfalls, glaciers. The commuters didn't look up.

This was only mid-March, but there was already a suggestion of late evening brightness in the sky. Patches of dull green pasture flashed past, along with black trees, driving snow, houses balanced on the edge of fjords. I arrived at Voss just in time for an excellent dinner of smoked salmon and reindeer steaks. Apres ski? Well I saw a couple of supermarkets open late and a child on a bicycle (that was enough).

Waking up the next morning was even better than falling asleep. Pink sun-rays were catching the tops of a bowl of snowy peaks surrounding Norwegian woods and an icy lake. Beauty in all directions. Ready for skiing?

Well, it had been snowing. But there was only an inch of snow on the ground outside my hotel. Did this matter? It was the moment for all that teenage angst to come flooding back. Should I put on my highly flashy (borrowed) orange ski-suit now for example? And where would I get my skis? How was it that hotels in ski resorts weren't buried in snowdrifts?

And this was before I had even hit the slopes. Not that I should have worried. I soon learned about ski passes, those expensive little cards that allow people to travel on a resorts' cable cars and ski lifts for an allotted period of time. I took a casual stroll through Voss, past lawns and brightly painted wooden house fronts to the cable car station. Happy locals crowded into the car, and off we went up the mountain side.

On top, there was plenty of snow all right. On one side was a precipitous drop to the town of Voss far below. The lake twinkled blue, mighty white mountains shouldered into the blue sky. Any activity requiring scenery like this had to be promising. And of Italo-French poseurs was there not a sign. All I could see were amiable Norwegians with woolly hats and welcoming smiles. The only stress anywhere was in the head of the boy who worked in the ski equipment shop beside the cable-car station. "God, when those British tour groups arrive," he was complaining, "I have to get out skis for ten people all at once."

I met a few English people over on the boat from North Yorkshire and Northumberland - visiting their Viking relatives perhaps. A happy old couple was looking for a slope to toboggan down on a plastic bag. I kept bumping into friendly locals too. "Hello, you are from London?" they would say. "This is your first time skiing? We envy you. We learned when we were two-and-a-half."

In the equipment shop, I began getting kitted out for the action in hand. I was already the height of fashion in my ski-suit and goggles, which were attracting comment. But what about boots? Putting on these monstrous, glistening contraptions, I could hardly walk, let alone ski. Like Darth Vader on a cat-walk, I slipped and hobbled with my instructor, the friendly Einor, in the direction of the chair-lift.

Getting on the chair-lift felt like reaching for Jesus. A still, monastic silence broke out. A warm sun shone through sub-zero air. Beneath my feet, snowboarding children slid silently round trees and protruding rocks like bear cubs. "Jump off now!" ordered Einor two minutes later, as I hit the snow.

We were as high as heaven. And with skis attached, I was soon sliding tentatively around. The instructor didn't give me poles - "beginners don't need them" - but he was ready to send me down a semi-serious slope as soon as I had learned two small lessons: how to (a) stop and (b) turn.

"Put your body out. Keep your hip in. Yes. Push down your right heel. No." Einor could get confusing as he skied backwards in front of me holding my skis together. "Please learn to accept that you will not always feel in control," he shouted, as I careered away sideways into a tree. But to my own amazement, come the afternoon, I was more or less able to get round the beginners' circuit without dying.

And by the end of the second day I had become hysterical with joy at the never ending cycle of downhill exhilaration followed by spiritual retreats in the chair lift. I had just become the world's latest skier, and no one had laughed. I put all the credit down to those healthy, happy, friendly Norwegians.

FACT FILE

Travel Flights with Norwegian Flag Carrier Braathens (0191 214 0991) who fly daily from London and Newcastle. From London Gatwick to Bergen costs from pounds 190 return. Trains Bergen to Voss: several times daily, the trip takes one hour.

Currency

10Kr equals approximately one pound.

Others

Alpine equipment can be rented at Voss on the slopes. Reckon on about pounds 60 per person for equipment and ski-pass for two days skiing; about pounds 130 for a week. Group instruction (minimum five persons) costs 100Kr per day.

Equipment

Ski suits and equipment in the UK can be rented or purchased from specialists Ellis Brigham, 30-32 Southampton St, London WC2 (tel: 0171-240 9577)

Operators

For package trips, various operators feature skiing in Norway, including: Crystal Holidays (0181 3995144), Ski Scandinavia (0116 2752750) Headwater (01606 48699), InnTravel (01653 628811), Mountain & Wildlife (015394 33285), Waymark Holidays (01753 516477). Breaks to Bergen are available through Scandinavian Travel Service 0171 559 6666, or Color Line 0191-296 1313.

Outing from Voss

"Norway in a Nutshell" tour, via the Flam railway followed by ferry through the magnificent Nroy Fjord to Gudvangen, and then back to Voss (280Kr).

The author travelled as a guest of the Norwegian Tourist Board, Charles House, 5 Lower Regent St, London SW1Y 4LR. (Tel: 0171-321 0666). Reading: The Lonely Planet Guide to Scandinavian & Baltic Europe.

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