Weekend's Wonder: Norway's Sognefjord
This week: Seduced by Sognefjord-Exploring Norway’s Most Enigmatic Fjord
Traveling at 100 km an hour and enveloped by total darkness, I had an eerie flashback to riding Space Mountain as a kid. The only difference is that Space Mountain was a short ride, and I had been rocketing through this tunnel for 20 minutes. The only break in the monotony are the tiny pockets of ice-blue light enveloping the emergency pull-outs and makes our car glow like its doused in radioactive material.
Our car finally zips out of the darkness and I am at once blinded by the light of day and bested by the sight before me. To the side of our car is a fjord; a nursery blue colour from eons of glacial runoff. The razor sharp peaks of Norway’s coastal mountain region loom over me on all sides, like domineering relatives over a newborn child. It is at once comforting and claustrophobic.
This is Sognefjord, one of the most magnificent places in all of Norway, and the longest fjord in the world. Extending inland for about 240 km, Sognefjord is located on Norway’s fjord-carved west coast.
My journey began in the tiny town of Myrdal, which appeared to consist of only a small railway station and a horde of Japanese tourists. Everyone that gathers at the station has one goal in mind: to take the train from Myrdal to the fjord-side town of Flam. This is considered to be the most beautiful train journey in Norway, if not the world.
As the rickety train pulled away from the station and the tourists (including me) brought out their cameras, I could certainly see why the journey was given such a prominent label. The train was rolling down the steepest incline possible with numerous tunnels, cascading waterfalls and sweeping vistas of the mountain ranges. At the bottom of a neighbouring gorge lay a winding river that flowed past humble cottages and cherry-red barns, a scene straight out of a cough drop commercial.
The train ended its run in Flam, a drowsy hamlet that only perks up when the train pulls into the station. The town itself is a major tourist attraction and where the majority of the tourists ended their journey. The craggy peaks and mint-green water were enough to entice me to stay awhile but my journey was only beginning. I had places to go and needed to meet my guide, Karin, who would be my driver and guide to Balestrand, a fjord-side town that was hosting their annual jazz festival, Balejazz.
Karin greeted me with a typical, gregarious Norwegian smile that made her face seem even more cherubic and ushered me into one of those tiny cars that was all the rage in Europe. With Sting on rotation on the CD player, we jetted off down the windy road and towards the cavernous tunnel that would take us from Flam, through the mountains, to Sognefjord.
The Laerdal tunnel opened in 2000 and is 24.5 km long, making it the longest tunnel in the world. The tunnel is considered to be “psychologically correct” with its various lighted caverns scattered throughout the journey, breaking up the dark monotony of the tunnel by adding bursts of open spaces and cool, artificial light. I must say that after being in the tunnel for ten minutes, I was grateful for the strategic brightness.
Out on the other side, we drove alongside the humbling Sognefjord as it wound its way east into the mountains. Charming little villages are nestled into the steep sides with an abundance of flowering cherry and apple trees scattered throughout. My North American stereotype that Norway was in a permanent deep-freeze, flew right out the window and into the mild air.
Sognefjord is blessed with a decided lack of tourists. I did see the occasional car or campervan bustling through, but other than that, people seem few and far between. It seemed odd that a place so large and so distinctive would lack international attention, so I asked Karin about it.
“Most people in Norway know about the place, but few have been here,” she said as she wheeled the car past a few goats that had gotten loose on the road. “Oslo and Bergen seem to get most of the attention. Of course, there are many Japanese and Germans who come here every year but for the most part, it seems like North Americans bypass the place entirely.”
The jazz fest, she went on to say, is the real draw for Norwegians. Balejazz started in 1990 and attracts thousands of local and international tourists each year with its three-day festival held at the end of May. While big Norwegian names mainly play at the festival, well-known international figures have been featured as well.
We arrived at the ferry terminal in time to board a ferry which barely fit our car. We putted out across the fjord towards Balestrand, gliding over the stillness. Located on the tip of a peninsula, on the other side of the fjord, the only way to reach the place is by ferry or seaplane. The town came closer into view, perched at the base of a mountain, a tiny smattering of houses are gathered around an imposing building.
“The Kvikne Hotel,” Karin told me, our place of rest for the night.
By the time we pulled into Balestrand, the quaint town of 1,400 people was overrun by beer-toting jazz fiends with cars parked haphazardly on people’s lawns.
The hotel itself is the focal point of the town and where most of the action is. Built in 1877, the hotel was at first a small tourist house. Near the end of the 1880s it slowly grew to become the main tourist attraction in the area as Ole Kvikne began to capitalize on Balestrand’s prime location. He added on more buildings and wings until it was fully complete in 1894.
Today, that part of the hotel is still standing and presents a grand example of the architecture of the period. However, a new, modern section has been added to accommodate the growing number of tourists to the area. During the jazz festival itself, the hotel is usually completely booked months ahead of time.
Despite the hurried bustle of jazz-happy patrons coming in an out of the building, the hotel had a calm and elegant manner about it. We had their famous buffet dinner in the stately dining room where we were treated to superb views of the fjord and an abundance of the freshest Norwegian seafood available.
On the way out, I passed through their state room, where socialites in the old days used to curl up with a good book and drink tea while watching whales frolic offshore. Now it is used to showcase magnificent oil paintings which were given to the hotel by famous Norwegian painters who stayed here in the past and used their work to pay for their room. Each painting shows the fjord in a different light, as the scene outside changes with each passing cloud.
Karin stood in the corner of the room and gestured for me to sit down in an intricately carved wooden chair. She told me how their once frequent guest, Wilhelm Kaiser II, preferred this chair over all others.
She turned the seat over and I peered at the inscription, “Wilhelm Kaiser sat here when WWI broke out.”
I wasn’t sure if I should feel honoured or not.
For the jazz festival we found ourselves in the basement bar of white-washed stone house, located meters from the hotel. Most of the jazz festival takes place in random buildings throughout the tiny area.
In our venue, people were crammed into every possible sitting space, all crowding around Elizabeth Mo and her band. An enigmatic woman with wild dark hair, Mo is quite famous on the Norwegian Jazz scene and I could see why. Her voice carried clear across the cozy room, and even though she sang in a language I didn’t understand, she emoted her every word. The band swung into moody favourites by Billie Holiday and played a few original songs as well. This is jazz that speaks to a whole range of people, and I appreciated her humour in between sets when Mo would say the occasional word in English, then wink at the audience, “for the tourists.”
The jazz festival ended up rocking on into the wee hours of the morning but by the time Elizabeth Mo was over and I had been accosted by Icelandic men in the Kvikne Hotel bar, I was ready for bed. It must have been the fresh air and the copious amounts of wine that were flowing freely through the boisterous town.
The weather the next day left a lot to be desired, but the moodiness of the obscured mountain peaks and the way the glacial water changed with the darkening clouds had its own kind of charm.
Our goal was to explore the Jostedalsbreen Glacier, but the weather had made things impassible so I settled for a stop at the Norwegian Glacier Museum. For those who aren’t up for heli-hikes to the top of the largest glacier in Europe, the museum has an excellent film by Ivo Caprino that puts you right in the action. Afterwards you can explore the museum’s various exhibits revolving around the 1,000 year-old ice from the nearby glacier.
Of course, not all was lost. We did manage to stop at a lookout that was as close to the glacier as you could get without physically touching it. Seeing a hanging wall of ice balancing precariously on the edge of the sheer mountainside, coupled with the fact that the ice was constantly in motion, made me glad that our interaction with the behemoth wonder was limited to a few photographs and all at a safe distance.
The last stop of an interest on our way around Sognefjord was called Norwegian Book Town. Karin informed me that the bookstores outnumber the people in this village. Being a sucker for a good used novel, we pulled over and I was able to choose from about 20 different used bookstores. Some of these stores were nothing more than a garden shed, crammed to the roof with literature.
After bartering with an eager salesperson for the last copy of Hemmingway’s Fiesta, I took my purchase to the edge of the water and began to read. The fjord in this arm was a surreal color, like someone had dumped watercolour paints into the sea. The snow perched stoically on the ranges around me and all around were tiny bookstores, whistling wind and the silent feeling that I was gaily flipping through a classic novel in a magical place that few have been privileged enough to see. I guess you could say the same thing about all of Sognefjord. Like a best-kept secret, just waiting to be discovered.