Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Explorations into the heart of Norway!

think that one of my favorite things about this trip so far, is that I came to this country with no expectations...I knew nothing about the country or people of Norway, beyond Lenore telling me that Marrit was really nice.  That really was an understatement, but it's not just Marrit that is nice...ALL Norwegians are from what I can tell!  My old pal Rick Steeves is dead right when he says "Norwegians are friendly but not overbearing, organized but not uptight, and with a lust for adventure befitting their gorgeous landscape.  Known for their ability to suffer any misfortune with an accepting attitude, Norwegians are easy to get along with."  Truer words were never spoken!  It is also a land of intense beauty...it is the most scenic and most prosperous of the Scandanavian countries.  With their rich natural resources of timber, fish, and huge oil reserves, they voted not to join the EU.  The have very high taxes, but in return they receive cradle to grave health and social care, free university education, yearlong paternity leave and 6 weeks annual vacation...they feel that there is no better place than home (and I am inclined to believe them!). With all this in mind, it is no wonder that our amazing hosts, Hans and Marrit, were eager to show us more of Norway than just their idyllic town of Nesbyen. And so we headed off on a fantastic 2 day adventure with these wonderful new friends. Hans and Marrit had thought ahead and borrowed a van so we could all ride together...apparently the Norwegian Army had some maneuvers and had rented ALL the vans in the area!  So we headed off in the borrowed VW van, Hans at the wheel, and Marrit as our guide!

We headed north a bit past the town of Lærdal to the Borgund Stave Church which is one of the best preserved of these unique churches. It's amazing to consider that this church was built in 1180!

You can see just one metal nail here...that is from past renovation.  Now they are using the traditional wooden pegs that is the original technique. 

We met this young man (just 16 years old!) who was a docent at the Stave Church. His knowledge of the church and life in Norway in the 1100s was phenomenal!  This photo shows very clearly how the church has been restored...to keep the original wood preserved, it is "painted" every 10 years with tar and smokey burnt ashes.  It gives the church a very unique smell (in a good way!). Our young guide told us that last time they painted it, they did not do a good job...that is why you see the natural color of the wood showing through.  This guide was so bright and thoughtful. When we asked questions, he answered so confidently and with such ease...often offering his particular interpretation and thoughts.  We all just thought it was so cool to see such a young man, so eager to share his country's history.  I don't think I've ever met a group of people more proud of not only their country, but of their particular region!  This is a great time to mention how good everyone's English is here...kids begin learning English in school and get a choice of learning either British English or American English.  Times have changed...the British form used to be more popular, but now, as a result of the popularity of American movies and music, the American English is more popular. They speak perfect English without any accent!  This makes traveling here so easy...please, I urge everyone to come travel in Norway...it is so easy!  (Although it IS the most expensive country in Europe...that's the only drawback I can see!)
The Stave church was really interesting, but we had many more things to see so we moved on!  I can't even begin to describe how beautiful Norway is...the thing that struck is is how green every thing is.  As Californians living through a 5 year drought, all this greenery blew our minds!  That combined with waterfalls everywhere you looked...there is just so much water here, it is hard to fathom (at least if you are from California!).  Fjords, rivers, lakes, waterfalls...it just got to the point where I kind of stopped taking pictures, because I figured why take a snap of this beautiful waterfall when I know there will be 10 more around the next bend in the road!  

We headed off, a merry band of travelers in our blue VW minibus!  Now we headed up to the Songenfjord. We boarded a ferry to cross the Fjord. This is a land of tunnels and ferrys...there are so many arms off each fjord that require crossing...the ferry was the most scenic route by far.  

We made our way to Songdal which is Marrit's home town and it was nice for Lenore to revisit this spot where she had been 44 years ago!  Like all places, it has grown and changed, but it was lovely nonetheless.  We had a great lunch at a cute little restaurant in an old house.  The "pie and salad" that we ordered, turned out to be a delicious slice of quiche placed atop a green salad...not the berry pie I was expecting!  

Driving on we pulled into the tiny town of Fjærland and dropped our bag at our hotel.  
This place was SO BEAUTIFUL...like something out of a fairy tale...but no time to linger...we were off to see the Jostedal Glacier!  We first visited the Glacier Museum where they had exhibits showing how glaciers are formed, had chunks of Glacial ice that you could get up close and personal with.  There was a very cool movie we watched in Cinaround that really gave you the impression of flying above the glacier...I was afraid Gary was going to need his Atavan just to get through the movie!  

But we wanted to see the glacier up close so we drove about 5 minutes and then walked in about 15 minutes to a beautiful spot for viewing tha glacier. 

That was some COLD water...pure glacial run off!
Hmmm...not quite sure what happened to Lenore's ankle here...must have been all that walking!

 It is not snow, it is not ice...it is "glacial ice" which has a completely different molecular structure than regular ice.  If you take a piece of ice and pour water on top, the water will slide down the sides of the ice.  If you pour water over glacial ice, the water flows into it and out the bottom, even though it feels hard and smooth.  Glaciers are in constant movement, the one we saw moves 2 meters a day!  The glacier is a very pretty light blue-green...not like snow at all.

Back to the hotel where we explored a bit.  The location was not to be believed...it is literally right on the fjord surrounded by gorgeous green cliffs with waterfalls flowing down.  

The little hotel was delightful...small and quaint, just what you should stay in while visiting the fjords!  

Ron had done a load of laundry back at Hans and Marrit's, only to find out that they don't have a dryer...they hang their clothes to dry!  So Ron brought his wet clothes to Fjærland  and had to hang them to dry (they didn't...so those wet clothes went all the way to Bergen with us before finding a dryer!)

This town is known as "book-town" as there are many little shelves spread through the town where you can put used books.  
There is a little cash box and it is the honor system, if you take a book you just put some coins in the box! 

 Apparently that was the inspiration for the decor in our adorable and cozy room!

We rested a bit before meeting in Hans and Marrit's room.  Hans had a bottle of chilled champagne for us to share before heading down to dinner...H and M are the best tour guides ever!!!  

Lots of "skol" and clinking of glasses before retiring to the pretty candlelit dining room, serving this delicious meal of locally sourced foods...the 3 course meal was delightful...the homemade rose ice cream was a bit weird...that's my only complaint!  

Ron's only complaint is that they were all out of the homemade beer that is quite renowned.  The owner had been out of town at a confirmation in Oslo and got a little behind in his beer making.  Oh well, maybe we will be lucky enough to return sometime to try the famous beer! (Fingers crossed!). We fell into bed and slept soundly after this awe inspiring day filled with good friends, wonderful food and magnificent scenery...what more can you ask for!?

Morning came early and we enjoyed a traditional (and now very familiar) Norwegian breakfast.  We headed off in our blue van.  We stopped back in Songdal and went into Marrit's old home. Lenore remembered it fondly and I just had to take a few photos of some of the old family photos hanging on the walls! 

Hans and Marritt on their wedding day...she is wearing the traditional costume of her home district.

Marrit with her mother, father and little brother.

And this is what Marrit looked like when she came to Susanville as an AFS exchange student!

We stopped at a bakery and bought some pastries and headed off. 

We drove up and over the mountain on a road that was basically one lane, open only in the summer! For some reason it is called The Snow Road.  Family farming is very viable and respected here...and we saw farm after farm on this gorgeous road...farm, waterfall, farm, waterfall...We maneuvered around sheep resting in the road, we pulled over for some amazing photo spots, and we chatted all the way.  

 We eventually arrived at one of the most amazing things I've ever seen...the Stegastein Lookout. This is a wood and glass platform shaped like an inverted number 7 or downward curving letter C. You are literally walking out over the edge of the cliff at the top of the world, looking down on the tiny town of Aurland and the Songenfjord.  With a little bit of coaxing, we even got Gary out to the end for a quick photo!  

I don't think the photos do it justice!  Suddenly Marrit whipped out a thermos of coffee, 6 cups and the pastries we had purchased at Songdal.  It was the most spectacular coffee break I've ever had (and probably ever will have!). But my mind was really blown when I went to use the public restroom at this scenic stop.  Like all Norwegian bathrooms, it was modern and clean...this one however, had a big picture window opposite the toilet, so as I sat I had a beautiful fjord view!!  Never have I seen anything like it!  Hands down the best rest stop bathroom in the world!  

And the view out the window...that's the Songenfjord!

It was a quick road down to Aurdal with some seriously crazy hairpin turns!!  Once in Aurdal we went to the famous shoe store where the shoes are all handmade.  They basically make one style, a penny loafer, but there are lots of choices for color, type of leather and type of sole.  This is what I picked...the pebbled leather is the same material they use on Norwegian army boots.  
My shoes will be made by hand (it takes 3 days), shipped, and hopefully will be waiting there for me when I return home!  Lenore opted for blue nubuck.  

And no, EF ladies...I did NOT get these patent leather ones!

And this is where our shoes will be made...I should have taken a snap of the young woman who is the cobbler that will be making mine...missed opportunity.

Hans rounded us all up (he had been off buying chocolate!) and we continued a few minutes to the town on Flåm where we had lunch together one last time.  The 4 Californians hopped on the Flåmsbana train after saying goodby to the best Norwegian hosts in the world!  I know the 4 of us were all sad to leave Hans and Marrit, and I thank Lenore for introducing us to such warm, interesting and generous people.  I truly enjoyed every single minute with them.  

The Flåmsbana train is short, only 12 miles/55 minutes.  This scenic high altitude train wound up and up, going through 20 tunnels carved into the rock as it climbed 2,800 feet.  At one point the engineer stopped for us to get out and take photos of the best waterfall, the Kjosfossen.  

Norwegian legend has it that a temptress lives behind these falls and tries to lure men to her with her singing...suddenly we heard singing and the temptress appeared and began dancing!  

Lenore and I held on to Gary and Ron so they didn't chase after her into the waterfall!  Once we arrived at Myrdal, we switched to a regular train and made our way to Bergen, and to our hotel, The Park Bergen.

Hans and Marrit provided an adventure we will never forget.  :-)

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