Several years ago, two days after moving into my new house, two friends picked me up and we drove to Stansted for a trip to Norway. My friends had never been to Norway before and I had planned what I hoped was to be an epic “long weekend”! We flew into Bergen on a very rainy evening, and took a taxi to the hotel which we’d booked near the airport – it was nearly midnight so we weren’t going to go far!
For those who don’t know, Bergen has a reputation for being wet – the civic symbol is an umbrella : not really, but that’s a joke the Norwegians tell. I’ve heard tell of a tourist who asked a local youth whether it always rained in Bergen, and received the reply “I don’t know, I’m only 15”. To this day the friends I travelled there with and I always refer to heavy rain as “Bergening”.
The following morning (and in only light rain) we took a cab to the airport and collected our hire car. Once the formalities were over we hit the road, heading for fjords and mountains. You can’t avoid either when driving inland from Bergen, as the road either takes you along the edge of one or through the other in a series of tunnels.
Norway in a Nutshell was the slogan on many a tourist bus and poster – this trip was going to be all that and more!
After a couple of hours we arrived in Voss, which is a well known tourist spot, arguably more popular in winter than in the summer. Having had a look round the town and some coffee and pastries, we returned to the car just in time to talk to the traffic warden giving me a parking ticket. My very rusty Norwegian had led me to misunderstand the parking sign, and I still maintain that there was no ticket machine in sight so how was I to know? I went in to a nearby bank to pay my fine and found that it would cost extra to settle up in cash – that’s just strange!
Our journey then took us out towards and beside Sognefjord, the longest and deepest in Norway. We passed innumerable rivers and streams, and so many waterfalls of all sizes that we started to become blasé about them. We’d chosen to take a ferry from Gudvangen to Kaupanger along Naeroyfjorden, across Sognefjord and found that we had a long enough wait that we could have our lunch before getting on the boat. (I’ve mentioned previously that Norwegian ferries are a very efficient and cost effective method of travel.) One of my pet hates came to light during the ferry crossing: why do people insist on feeding seagulls, then get upset when the birds won’t leave them alone?
The further inland we got the lighter the rain became, and at some points we actually had sunshine! After a couple of hours we arrived at Kaupanger and drove off the ferry to continue our journey up into the mountains. As we climbed the weather started to close in again and the air became much colder, till we arrived at our high point for the day near Krossbu. We got out the car to look at the nearby lakes (which were mostly still frozen), glaciers and to walk on the vestiges of snow by the roadside. For travellers from the UK snow is quite exciting, and in summer it’s even more so!
The last bit of driving that day saw us arrive at Spiterstulen, a hotel in the heart of the Jotunheimen mountains about 1600 metres above sea level – that’s 200 metres higher than anywhere in the UK! (Jotunheimen is the “Home of the Giants”, and reputed to be where the biggest trolls live.) The hotel is run by DNT, the Norwegian Tourist Association, and we’d booked beds there. It has to be said that it’s unusual to be able to book beds or rooms at DNT places: normally you sleep where you can, and if that means in a mattress on the floor then that’s how it is. Think of them as a cross between Youth Hostels and bothies in the UK. After dinner and a quick beer, it was bedtime, as we had a big day ahead of us.
We were up early to find that the sun was shining, and that even at 0630 we weren’t the first to breakfast! We filled up on porridge, fruit, bread, cold meats and cheeses, and also made a packed lunch and filled our flasks with coffee. Our destination, and one of the main reasons for doing the trip, was just across the valley floor and up, up, up: we were headed for Galdhopiggen, or the “galloping hopping pig” as my friends called it. At 2459 metres, it’s the highest peak in the north of Europe, and we were determined to see the view from the summit.
The path is really well marked, as DNT trails invariably are, with a prominent red letter T painted at regular intervals to show the way, though to be fair on this day you could just follow everyone else. The sky was clear and the sun very strong as we hiked upwards, and in very little time we were high above Spiterstulen with stupendous views along the valley and up at the mountains around us. Initially the path was dry earth through silver birch woods, but it gradually became more rocky, then the rock gave way to smaller rocks and boulders, then we were weaving between patches of snow and rock outcrops, but always heading up. Numerous false summits appeared in the horizon above us, each one making us think we were nearly there. After several hours, and having made sure we skirted the steep drop down onto the Styggebreen glacier, a most welcome sight appeared: at the top of a steep snow covered slope, we got our first view of the hut at the top, and it wasn’t long before we were standing on the summit looking across what seemed like all of Norway. I’ve heard it said that you can see the sea, but I think that’s just wishful thinking! The skies had remained clear and snow covered peaks sketched off into the distance in every direction, the sun glittering and glistening off all that white expanse. Just as well we were wearing sunglasses, as snow blindness would have been particularly nasty up there. I used to work with a guy who was a keen climber: he’d been where I was three times and had never seen the view, so I was more than pleased!
I mentioned a hut: it’s actually a cafe and shop! Hot coffee and hotdogs were very welcome, and one of my friends bought a t-shirt which is only available from that shop – you can’t buy that design anywhere else in the world, even down at Spiterstulen.
The trek back down was almost as hard going as the route up, though we did find that for the snow covered slopes near the summit the best route down was to put on waterproof trousers and slide down – that was a lot of fun! We arrived at the bottom, still in glorious sunshine, at about 9pm. After getting cleaned up, we headed to the bar for a welcome couple of beers and to enjoy the view out along the valley. This was at the beginning of August and the sun hardly set, so it didn’t really get dark. It’s quite a strange experience if you’ve never seen that strange light that passes itself off as night before. And so to bed, tired, but happy.
We’d only been in the country 48 hours and had crossed its biggest fjord and scaled its highest peak!
Part 2 of this story, which covers the remaining couple of days, will follow shortly, so keep an eye out for it…