It was one of those mind-gratingly persistent melodies. The sounds of "Morning" from Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite had tinkled away in the background over breakfast at my hotel. Now, as I swish, swish, swished along neat, parallel tracks in the snow, it followed me with every sweep of the ski and every squeak of the ski pole into deep, clean powder. In fact, the melody's rhythm matched my pace so perfectly I decided that Grieg must surely have been a cross-country skier.
Whirring quietly through the snow-covered forests and past a vast frozen lake near GÃ¥lÃ¥, in the uplands of southern Norway, it struck me that the reason why "Morning" was still soaring between my ears well after lunchtime was that there was literally no other sound to drown it out. Never mind cars or crowds of people, here there was not even the holler of a solitary bird or the screech of a falling pine needle. The almost "unnatural" quiet was deeply unsettling.
In an attempt to rid my head of the tune, I studied the landscape for signs of the suite's central figure, who, according to folklore, spent his formative years in the area. Henrik Ibsen's 1867 play, Peer Gynt, accompanied by Grieg's catchy orchestration, tells the story of a good-for-nothing country lad who falls for a girl he meets at a dance but, forbidden from marrying her, takes off on a series of adventures before eventually returning to win the hand of this lucky (but now rather elderly) lady.
For some Peer Gynt fans, the adventures and the music are merely entertaining. But the story has a more serious side. Alongside themes of self-examination are references to fusty social attitudes and cultural complacency. This was a time when Norway was struggling to create a distinct national identity and Ibsen, peeved at the events taking place in his homeland, cleverly took the elements of an old Norwegian folktale and wove them into a satirical statement on the politics of the day.
Thanks to my rather looseknit knowledge of Norwegian history, I fell firmly into the first category and arrived in this part of Norway eager to be entertained. The idea of skiing through a real fairy-tale landscape had enticed me to GÃ¥lÃ¥ and now I found myself meandering through a northern vista of sparkling snowfields and stately pine trees.
Fortunately, the sound of music in my head didn't last as long as I'd expected. My doubts about covering 10 miles on my first day on skis had seemed overly cautious as we left the hotel, pushing easily along carefully carved tracks in the gently undulating terrain. A few miles further on, it was a different matter as we came to a sharp stop at the top of a very steep, narrow slope. I froze. "If you stay here any longer you'll never go down," said Roar, my companiable instructor and, with that, we pushed off with our poles and took off downhill.
I bent my knees and crouched as low to the slope as I could before the inevitable tumble began. Before I felt the eventual thwack, though, I'd got hooked on the adrenaline of the ride and Roar was soon coaching me round tricky turns, giving me lessons on how best to waddle through the occasional uphill section and keeping me company on the last few glides.
The valley through which we had skied, Gudbrandsdalen, is known as Peer Gynt's valley for the straightforward reason that a man called Per Olson (on whom Ibsen is thought to have modelled Peer) lived here, at HÃ¥gÃ¥ farmstead, in the 1700s. Within the ski area, the only signs of a link with Peer are the cafes, shops and chairlifts named after him, an annual Peer Gynt festival, a road that's been christened the Peer Gynt Way and, of course, the strains of "Morning" oozing from hotel speakers.
I was hoping for more tangible evidence and was glad to have an excuse to rest my ski-sore muscles, so I spent the following day driving out to the nearby town of Vinstra. Here, beside SÃ¿dorp chapel, is a small, modern monument to Per Olson. Beyond the dates of his life (1732 to 1785), it offered no great insight so I carried on, beyond the town, to the large, ramshackle farmstead, where Per is thought to have grown up.
Walking down the ice-covered track to the farm buildings, the weak winter sun reflected off cracked window panes and lit up tufts of unruly grass blowing lonesomely in the cold air. The buildings were locked up, abandoned to the wrath of this cool, northern climate.
In an area which is so heavily reliant on tourism, the locals are bewildered over why the owners refuse to develop the farm and tap into the lucrative Peer Gynt connection. As it is, the neglected farm is a chilly spot. The timber buildings have been freckled by years of sun and, here and there, splashes of orange lichen warm the stone but the view beyond the buildings is all dappled blue and streaked with feeble threads of grey smoke.
As I was leaving, an elderly couple creaked past, stiff and cold. If it was as unwelcoming a spot in the 1700s, it's little wonder Per went travelling. Myself, I travelled back to GÃ¥lÃ¥ as sunset scorched a path across the slender mountains. I hadn't discovered much about Peer Gynt but the joys of cross-country skiing had left me healthier and with some satisfying aches and I was pleased to have found such a romantic retreat.
Reminding myself that Peer Gynt is, after all, just a story, I boarded a train back south for a final fling with Norwegian folklore. At the Folk Museum, you can discover a wealth of ancient information on this relatively new country (Norway made the final split from Sweden only in 1905 after centuries of Swedish and Danish rule) from the flower designs and farming motifs that are embroidered onto clothes, painted onto wooden chests and carved into the lintels of timber buildings, all devotedly salvaged and carefully conserved on the outskirts of Oslo.
As I made my way around the exhibits, something suddenly stood out. Hidden away between ornate bridal crowns and some particularly spooky larger-than-life-size models of folk dancers was a pair of giant cream-coloured men's stockings. As I pondered who they might have been made for, I saw that tiny, intricate flowers had been lovingly embroidered down each leg. Most striking of all, though, the soles of each foot were smeared brown with dirt. Perhaps the story of Peer Gynt, the fantastical Norwegian wanderer, wasn't so far-fetched after all. Somebody had done some serious travelling in these.
Rhiannon Batten travelled as a guest of Braathens (08705 074 074) and Inntravel (01653 629010, inntravel.co.uk) which offers seven night holidays to GÃ¥lÃ¥ and Fefor from £552 per person, including flights and accommodation. The Norwegian Folk Museum is at 10, BydÃ¿y, 0287 Oslo (00 47 22 12 36 66). For more information on GÃ¥lÃ¥, visit peergyntskiregion.com or contact the Norwegian Tourist Board, 5th floor, Charles House, 5 Regent Street, London SW1Y 4LR (020-7839 6014, visitnorway.com)Reuse content