Nothing says Norway like massive glaciers, deep and winding fjords, and, of course, Vikings—those fearsome seafaring warriors who once terrorized inhabitants of the North Atlantic. Less well known, perhaps, is that Vikings were also explorers. Colonies founded by Vikings include Dublin, Normandy, Iceland, Greenland, and even Newfoundland in North America.
So, it was in the adventurous spirit of these infamous Norsemen that my husband and I set out on a Princess cruise to explore Norway by sea.
We first dropped anchor at Bergen—Norway’s capital until 1299, when Oslo took over. Now the town’s old quarter—Bryggen, with its cobblestone streets and historic wharf—is home to artists’ studios, galleries, boutiques and restaurants. But during the Middle Ages, it was a major trading center for the Hanseatic League—a powerful alliance of merchant guilds that dominated trade and politics from the Baltic to the North Sea.
There’s a cable car that takes you high above the town for a panoramic view, but on the day we were there, the entrance line was clogged by ships’ excursion groups, so we opted instead for a guided tour around the three floors and winding stone stairways of King Hakon’s Hall—a 13th century medieval fortress and royal residence. Just as in days past, the Hall is used for ceremonial events and concerts. Don’t miss the view from the roof, which encompasses the town, harbor and outdoor fish market.
Sailing from bustling city to nature’s grandeur, we headed north and then sixty miles inland to the terminus of narrow, steep-walled Geirangerfjord. My husband had jumped ship ten miles earlier at Hellesylt, where he’d been tempted by a hike to Briksdal glacier. I held out for a bus ride up a steep eleven-switchback road known as Eagles Bend, a stop for tea and scrumptious homemade brown-cheese pancakes, and a visit to Herdal Summer Farm, where goat-herd owners live in a cluster of log cabins during the summer, and where our group was treated to a demonstration of cheese making—and, of course, a delicious sampling afterwards.
Some say you can feel the magnetism of the North Pole from our next stop—Honningsvag. Also known as North Cape or Roof of Europe, the area receives two-hundred days of snow or frost each year. It would freeze over if not for the warm currents of the Gulf Stream.
Our friend, Jan, who joined us on the cruise, booked an excursion to the Christmas Shop in Skarsvag—the closest fishing village to the North Pole anywhere in the world. Nature lovers, hubby and I opted for a bird-watching boat tour to the Stappen Islands. Choppy seas tossed our boat, but we were rewarded with sightings of thousands of puffins skimming the water around us, sea eagles swooping overhead, and colonies of northern gannets, kittiwakes, razorbills and other sea birds nesting on the rocks. And during our bus ride over the treeless plain of Mageroya Island, we spotted grazing reindeer—part of Santa’s herd, perhaps.
Still well inside the Arctic Circle, our ship retreated south toward Tromso—the Gateway to the Arctic—where most polar expeditions once began. Sights to see here include the Polar Museum, which presents the history of hunting, whaling, trapping and exploration in the region; the Tromso Museum, devoted to natural and cultural sciences; and the Arctic Cathedral—a dramatic church that resembles an iceberg.
By the time we reached the Lofoten Islands—remnants of ancient mountains that enhance Norway’s filigreed coastline—we sensed a strong Viking presence. The islands served as home base for raids, and for legitimate trade in regions as far away as the Mediterranean. Following a trip to Nusfjord—one of the best preserved fishing villages in Norway—our excursion delivered us to the Lofotr Viking Museum with its reconstructed Chieftain’s longhouse where guides in authentic costumes share Viking culture and demonstrate crafts. Remnants of the dwelling—believed to be 1500 years old—were discovered on this site in the early 1980s by a farmer ploughing his land.
Norway’s coastline is riddled with majestic fjords, but Sognefjord is the deepest (4,291 feet) and longest (130 miles). At the terminus of a Sognefjord tributary—the Aurlandsfjord—we found the town of Flam and the Flamsbanen, a masterpiece of electric railway technology built in 1940 that winds twelve miles through the steep mountain terrain. The popular train ride starts at the Flam Train Museum, which is well worth a visit in itself.
Another noteworthy destination in this area is the Borgund stave church—a tenth-century, black-tar-covered edifice featuring both crosses and dragons on its rooftop gables. Only a handful of Norway’s stave churches are still standing, with the help of preservationists.
Our ship next docked at Stavanger, a hub of North Sea oil drilling. The city initially grew rich from shipbuilding and the processing and drying of herring and other fish, which is still big business in Norway. But at the turn of the 20th century, canning was king. More than fifty sardine canneries operated out of Stavanger, so our first stop was the Canning Museum located in a former cannery. After stuffing (plastic) sardines into a can by hand—the way it was once done—Jan and my husband elected to take a fjord cruise past famed Pulpit Rock, which looms almost 2,000 feet above Lysefjord. I chose to explore the picturesque town with its brightly painted buildings, cobblestone streets, and a unique children’s playground constructed from outdated oil-industry pipes and other fixtures.
Intriguing Oslo, Norway’s capital, was our final stop, and it provided a cornucopia of things to see and do, both modern and ancient. There’s medieval Akershus Castle, which sits on the edge of the harbor and was only a herring’s throw from our ship. Further out of town on the Bygdoy Peninsula, there’s the Viking Ship Museum, Kon-Tiki Museum (the famous raft sailed across the Pacific by Thor Heyerdahl), Fram Museum showcasing Nordic exploration, and the Open-Air Folk Museum where you can take a back-in-time walk through a forest and Norwegian village featuring 158 buildings from different time periods and regions. School was in session, and children took their seats in the classroom during our visit.
Elsewhere, we toured Vigeland Sculpture Park, which examines the human life cycle from birth to death and is the largest sculpture garden in the world created by a single artist. We also stopped to see Holmenkollen, considered the cradle of ski jumping, which has been modernized several times since its tree-branches-and-twigs-ramp beginnings in 1892. Crown Prince Olav jumped there in 1922 and ’23, and in 1952, more than 140,000 spectators gathered at Holmenkollen during the Oslo Winter Olympics.
To be honest, Norway surprised me. I didn’t expect to be so entranced by its colorful villages; baby reindeer on a treeless island; goats grazing on turf-covered rooftops, trotting across roads and nibbling my jacket; a tiny Viking ship sailing past our behemoth cruise liner; and endearing (yes, really!), larger-than-life statues of trolls everywhere we went—they’re apparently a big deal in Norse mythology.
It occurred to me that I might be part Viking thanks to my English ancestors’ proximity to those seafaring raids. That would certainly explain my penchant for exploring and my fascination with the sea. It’s too bad I lack their hardiness, I note, remembering the night we sailed north of the Arctic Circle and I shivered on deck watching the Midnight Sun dip close to the horizon, then rebound without missing a beat.