Reaching new heights in Norway
DRAMATIC is the best way to describe Norway for me.
It started with my bus breaking down and ended with me trying to check into the wrong airline desk.
But it was the overwhelmingly stunning scenery between which truly captured my heart.
I was about two hours down the road from Gothenburg to Oslo on a double-decker bus.
Then bang, sizzle and hiss.
Plumes of smoke billowed from the rear of the bus, a flurry of Swedish came over the speaker and then there was a mad rush to get off. I quickly made a friend, Lisa – a Swedish girl living in Oslo, who filled me in and later walked me all the way to my hostel at midnight.
I stayed at Anker hostel, only a 15-minute walk from the train and bus station, and then jumped straight on the Norway-in-a-Nutshell tour the next morning.
It's not a guided tour, but rather a succinct way of seeing what Norway has to offer through organised transport.
The first leg is on a fast train zipping in and out of tunnels (one about 10km long) to emerge among gorgeous scenery.
Quaint villages. Shimmering lakes. High alps.
I was there in early June, practically summer in Scandinavia, so it was magical to have front-row seats as vast patches of snow melted into gorgeous waterfalls.
I then took a special tourist railway, with old-style carriages, from 865m above sea level down to Flåm in the Aurlandsfjord, just two metres above sea level.
The magnificent scenery on the 20km train ride includes rivers cutting through deep ravines, snow-capped mountains and farms clinging to sheer slopes.
The carriages weaved through breathtaking scenery and stopped at an impressive waterfall where women in traditional costume performed amid cascading plumes.
A ferry took me through majestic Aurlandsfjord and into the narrow Naeroyfjord – now included in UNESCO'S World Heritage list – with occasional commentary about villages at the base of the deep cliff faces.
I was even treated to Norway's winning 2009 Eurovision song, Fairytale, over the loud speaker as we touched land at Gudvangen.
A bus ride through the steep and spectacular hairpin bends of Stalheimskleiva, complete with waterfall views at each turn, really topped off the journey before a train from Voss to Bergen.
My hostel, Bergen YMCA, was again 15 minutes' walk from the train station.
The rooftop terrace was the spot to see the sun set over the harbour of this charming and picturesque seaside city. Though with a population of 255,000, the old town still has a village feel and its old town tour, which leaves three times daily from Bryggen Museum with a woman in costume, was worth the token price.
I discovered on my tour that Bergen began in the 1100s but was virtually taken over in 1370 by the (German) hanseatic merchants who set up the fishing trade properly off the harbour.
One of the museums I visited had 100-year-old cods suspended from the roof, which had been dried up north.
Apparently, these cods, which had been there for the life of the museum, just needed a dash of water and they were fine to eat.
Young teens came from all over Norway to work on the docks and be educated in this all-male society with strict hierarchy.
They usually worked their way up over 10 years or so and to become managers so they could take their skills and wealth back to their families.
Initiations included the “water game”, where they would be held under water and, every time they came up, shoved back under, and the “smoke game”, where their heads were forced over a cauldron of cooking leather off-cuts – the smell divine, apparently.
They could not smoke tobacco because fires too often ripped through the fishing village and they often lived in cold and darkness just to avoid flames.
There was no swearing, waking the master or fraternising with girls who might share secrets.
They had a court once or twice a year and one of the most popular punishments was to beat people with an ox penis. Yes, an ox penis.
I had to ask twice because the guide was so nonchalant about it.
I spent the rest of the day exploring the souvenir and fashion shops, and the remains of the Bergenhus Festning, which was a 13th century medieval fortress.
Remember to ask for tax receipts while shopping so you can claim the tax back at the airport.
I had fall-apart-melt-in-your-mouth grilled salmon at the open-air fish market which was a smorgasbord of prawns, dried cod, crab claws, herring and much more.
Now, this is the part where you may think less of me but when in Rome ... er, Norway. I must confess I tried the smoked whale. I have already been berated by friends, but it was surprisingly delicious.
Another must is the The Floibanen funicular railway, which usually runs until about midnight.
The best time to head up is in the afternoon to get a stunning view over Bergen, which is surrounded by seven hills and often shrouded in mist because it rains two-thirds of the year.
Bergen is a great jumping point for exploring the breathtaking fjords or heading north to view the northern lights.