x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Oil-rich Norway also holds a wealth of beauty and history

Drawn to the country by its cool weather and spectacular scenery, Rosemary Behan travels by air, sea, roadand rail and comes away as impressed with the history of this isolated, oil-rich nation as its geography.

The village of Flåm from the historic Flåm Railway. Rosemary Behan / The National
The village of Flåm from the historic Flåm Railway. Rosemary Behan / The National

"Tall. Blue eyes. Blond hair. You know, you could actually be a Viking." We're on a boat to Bygdøy Island to visit Oslo's Viking Ship Museum and Iori Roberts, our Welsh-born guide for the morning, is giving us an accelerated city tour.

We've already been to City Hall, which depicts Norway's origins, history and identity through carvings, murals and sculptures, and seen where the Nobel peace prizes are handed out. We've discussed Norway's decision to stay out of the European Union and done the "depressed" period of 18th-century landscape art at the National Gallery. Then, Roberts says, "Norway was a bit like Ireland or Albania. Between 1825 and 1925 around 800,000 people left because of famine and poverty."

That angst-ridden time - note the words anger and angst can be traced back to Old Norse - could perhaps be represented by Edvard Munch's 1893 painting The Scream, which Roberts shows us up close. My response to the work - one of four versions painted by the artist - is more a sharp intake of breath, but it's wonderful to see and even more wonderful that it and the entire impressive collection is absolutely free to view. This in a country where the basic costs of any trip are, as the Canadian couple at breakfast at the Hotel Continental this morning put it, simply "frightening".

The Viking Ship Museum is an evocative collection of restored Viking burial ships and artefacts, from jewellery to armoury and furniture, all more than 1,000 years old. I studied Old English at university, but it's one thing to read the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and another to see real-life evidence of Viking activity. My mother was from York and my father from Dublin, so, spurred by maps showing the extent of Norway at the height of its attacking peak, we agree that some genetic genealogy could be in order.

Norway's new peak is, of course, oil. Since production started in 1971, Norway has become fifth-largest producer and the third-richest country in the world. With wealth per capita of US$97,255 (Dh357,207), it's only $1,074 per person behind Qatar. Roberts, of course - who married a Norwegian, had four children and has lived here for 30 years - is full of praise for the country's free health and education systems, made possible both by income from oil and a population of just five million.

Shielding ourselves behind an umbrella (we have arrived to find the worst summer in 20 years) we walk along the waterfront - a mostly modern development as Oslo has burnt down repeatedly in the past - to Tjuvholmen Sjømagasin seafood restaurant. Here the excellent three-course lunch of the day features "red fish" in a butter sauce with chives and garden vegetables and caviar, for 325 Norwegian kroner (Dh205) per person. When you realise that a small bottle of water in this country costs 25 kroner and cheese on toast will set you back 130 kroner, such prices seem attractive.

The rain has stopped, so we head north-east of the city centre on foot via the royal gardens and palace and Karl Johans Gate, the main street, which is stately yet sedate. Much like the Norwegians, who all seem ready to offer directions in English, or, if they don't know the way, to look it up nonchalantly on their iPhone. We stop at DogA, the Norwegian Centre for Design and Architecture, but at 4.30pm everyone has already gone home. Between Markvein and Thorvald Meyers gate, we enjoy a civilised evening hopping between cosy bars and restaurants, drinking in the hushed tones of intelligent conversation and the marked absence of loud music, shouting or crowds we've seen in other European capitals. The staff, of course, are mostly Swedish; one Spanish restaurant manager tells us that "the Norwegians don't like manual work. They prefer to study".

We head back to the Hotel Continental, which dates from 1900 (the adjacent National Theatre opened in 1899). The hotel is run by women, which is perhaps best reflected in the small details of the bedrooms, such as the thoughtful provision of two single mattresses side by side and two duvets instead of one. Despite daylight until midnight, I sleep better than I have in a hotel room anywhere. The pillows, the beds, the air conditioning and the fact that you can open the double-glazed windows to let in fresh air - all work wonders.

We leave Oslo on the Oslo-Bergen railway, slipping silently through woodland and skirting lakes before heading west into the mountains. Though some of the view is blocked by a tunnel, the highlight of the journey is at Finse, where, at an elevation of 1,200 metres, we're amazed to see the tiny hamlet surrounded by frozen lakes. With snow on the ground and swirling fog, it looks like the Arctic. If this is the weather in July, I wonder what it must be like in winter.

Back down at 867 metres, we switch trains at Myrdal to take the historic Flåm Railway further down to Flåm. We're on a "Norway in a Nutshell" tour of the Fjords, and all the other passengers are tourists, straining to take photographs of thundering waterfalls and the vertiginous valley below. At Flåm everyone gets off. "How did all these boats get here?" I hear someone say. "Did they bring them by helicopter?" Rather than sitting on a lake, Flåm is situated on the innermost part of the Aurlandsfjord, an arm of the Sognefjord which cuts like a deep gash from the sea into the western part of the country. The village is much less twee than I expected, and once the crowds have dispersed, we feel like we're on our own. Hiring bikes, we cycle along to Aurland, finding wild strawberries by the side of the road.

Back at the Fretheim Hotel, we eat a rack of barbecued local lamb with organic salad before going outside to watch the stars. The next morning, after refilling my water bottle from the tap for the umpteenth time, I hike back along the Flåm valley, alongside a thundering river. I wish it was warm enough to swim in, as its glacial freshness looks enticing. We catch a lunchtime ferry along the fjord to Gudvangen on the Nærøyfjord, a Unesco World Heritage Site. Perhaps it's the weather, or the crowds of tourists feeding the birds and taking photographs, but I'm not as impressed with this as I was with New Zealand's Milford Sound. More impressive is the bus ride, starting at Gudvangen, which takes us to the top of a mountain and then down the other side via dozens of hairpin bends. The scale of the fjord then becomes apparent. While I'd rather have been walking than on a bus, time limitations prevents us from doing anything else.

From Voss, the train continues to Bergen, Norway's second city. The busy fish market, piled high with giant crabs, salmon and smoked whale meat, is dotted with food stalls and staffed almost wholly by Spaniards, who sell us lunch of grilled salmon and vegetables for 160 kroner each. We enjoy a guided tour of Bryggen, the old Hanseatic wharf area, containing several dozen beautiful timber buildings, which often feature in promotional photos. Several have been preserved as museums, and it's fascinating to learn about the harsh but lucrative stockfish trade, which the city was built on. Sadly, only a small portion of the original area remains.

It's a 2.5 hour flight north to Tromsø, 350km north of the Arctic circle. It's like landing in Alaska - the city of 68,000 people is surrounded by snowy mountains, and the streets have the deserted air of an outpost town. The local newspaper, the Dagens Næringsliv - devotes several pages to birthdays and anniversaries, with photos of individuals of every age from babies to the elderly.

At the Polar Museum, part of Tromsø University and surrounded by attractive wooden buildings, we learn how, 120 years ago, the town was the starting point for brutal - and brutally cold - hunting expeditions to Svalbard and the North Pole. Just before we board the Hurtigruten coastal ferry, we take in a midnight concert at the Arctic Cathedral. The Sami folk songs are hauntingly beautiful, as is the town, viewed from across the water in the half-light that is 24-hour daylight in bad weather.

Our 17-hour journey south on Hurtigruten's MS Richard With, named after the founder of the huge fleet of vessels which ply the entire west coast of the country, promises to be "the world's most beautiful voyage", but the drizzle and mist say otherwise. Luckily, the ship is fast and smooth, the cabin is clean and comfortable and a small window prevents claustrophobia. The best part is the Trollfjord, a narrow channel with almost-sheer sides rising to more than 1,000 metres.

We disembark at Svolvær, the capital of the Lofoten Islands. Its population of around 4,000 makes Tromsø look like a metropolis. We head west in a hire car to the village-cum-outdoor centre of Henningsvær, situated in a chain of small islands connected by bridges. The Arctic Hotel is run by Briton Sean Clarke, whose Norwegian wife complains that she gets a headache from the pollution whenever she visits the United Kingdom. Again, there's a gift shop run by a Spaniard from Catalonia and the funky climbing cafe is staffed by Colombians.

We drive all the way to the end of the archipelago to Å, which is pronounced "or". It's ferociously beautiful: the road takes us past jagged mountains rising from sandy beaches with turquoise water. We stay at Nyvågar Rorbuhotell in Kabelvåg, in a small, two-bedroom wooden house. At midnight I look outside and see Norwegian children rowing stoically around the lake. It's 10°C, and they are in shorts and T-shirts. It's summer, and whatever the weather, they are having a good time.

rbehan@thenational.ae

 

If You Go

The flights Emirates (www.emirates.com) flies from Dubai to Copenhagen from Dh3,700 return including taxes. DFDS Seaways (www.dfds.com) from Copenhagen to Oslo costs 1,053 Danish kroner (Dh650) each way for two people. Scandinavian Airlines (www.flysas.com) flies from Bergen to Tromsø from €135 (Dh623) including taxes. Wideroe (www.wideroe.no) flies from Svolvær to Bodo from 222 Norwegian kroner (Dh140) including taxes. Norwegian (www.norwegian.com) flies from Bodo to Oslo from €100 euros (Dh460) with taxes

The trip For general information on travelling to Norway, visit www.visitnorway.com. The Hurtigruten ferry (www.hurtigruten.com) from Tromsø to Svolvær costs from €198 (Dh9,154) for two people sharing

The hotels The Hotel Continental in Oslo (www.hotelcontinental.no) costs from 2,190 kroner (Dh1,387) per night including taxes; the Fretheim Hotel in Flam (www.fretheim-hotel.no) costs from 1,250 kroner (Dh790) per night including taxes; the Nyvågar Rorbuhotell in Lofoten (www.dvgl.no) costs from 2,100 kroner (Dh1,330)