Trolls, Fjords and Vikings
Bergen is, reportedly, the wettest city in Europe, and it certainly lives up to its reputation when we arrive in mid-September to join our Hurtigruten cruise.
In between rain showers, we enjoy lunch at the Fish Market, explore the Bryggen’s gingerbread-house row of Hanseatic warehouses and climb Ostet’s narrow lanes of white timbered houses. The rain finally drives us to the shelter of the Klostergaten Café, where we sat at pastel pink and green tables, sipping beer and coffee and watching the rain pelt onto the road while a boy enjoys splashing through the torrents on his skateboard.
The following day we board the Vesterålen, our home for the next 11 days, and set off for an adventure along the grand and rugged north-western edge of Europe.
I use the word adventure for this is not a cruise in the traditional sense, and Vesterålen little resembles a normal cruise ship. There is no swimming pool, no day-spa, no casino, no faux-Broadway show, and no nightclubs in which to disco until dawn. Which at certain times of the year is frighteningly early. Our cabin is small and functionally furnished, but comfortable enough, and includes a strange feature, a switch labelled ‘Northern Lights Alarm.’
Vesteralen is also a working ship, carrying mail, freight, vehicles and passengers travelling to the remote ports of northern Norway. So it is not unusual to waken during the night and find her berthed and forklifts busy loading and unloading pallets. If it disturbs us we don’t mind, it is part of the adventure.
With so many wonderful and interesting sights along the 2,500 nautical mile return voyage between Bergen and Kirkness, it is hard to distil the most memorable. But these are mine.
Hjorundfjorden and Urke
In some ways, the journey up the long narrow Hjørundfjord comes too early. Less than a day after departure from Bergen, and we are in breathtakingly classical Norwegian scenery, with towering mountains pressing close on either hand, their sheer sides tumbling almost straight down into the water, while here and there a farmhouse clings to a tiny patch of level ground. One almost expects to hear the Lurs and watch the longships rowing home – for often there is little wind in the depths of these sheltered fjords – after plundering another unfortunate English coastal town.
The high tension power cables strung across the fjord remind us this is the 21st century, and the eye traces them as they curve dizzyingly up and up, until they reach the pylons anchored into the rocky summits, and one marvels at the skill and engineering that strung them over such forbidding terrain.
But it is the cloud haloed, snow-capped peaks of the Sunnmore Alps ahead of us that send shivers down the spine, evoking Greig or Wagner’s thrilling symphonies as they thrust their way into the pale blue sky, their rippled images reflected in the deeper blue water of the fjord. A steep-sided valley opens up to starboard, and Vesteralen swings to port to enter a curving inlet on the northern shore of which, nestled at the foot of the Alps, is the village of Urke. She anchors and we proceed ashore by launch to explore on foot. There are gardens full of late summer flowers and fertile meadows on the sheltered floor of the valley. We sip coffee on the terrace of the waterside pub and soak in the view. Our ship, dwarfed by the majestic peaks, looks tiny in the grandeur of the fjord. We wonder how anything could be more spectacular. Patience, we have hardly started yet.
Stokness is the stuff of mariner’s nightmares, where the ship threads its way through a narrow channel between the island of Stokkoya and the mainland, avoiding several smaller islands on the way. Only 45 metres wide in parts, with a bridge and hairpin bends, it is the sort of navigational challenge that makes one fully appreciate the genius and skill of Captain Richard With, the founder of the Hurtigruten service in 1893.
Armed with only a stopwatch and a compass, and with only rudimentary charts to guide him, Captain With plotted the route the Hurtigruten captains still follow, in daylight or darkness, fair weather or foul. There are light beacons now, and the ship has radar and GPS to help keep it on track, but, as it weaves its way past Stokness, blowing a long warning blast on its whistle as it enters the last 90 degree turn, one can still imagine what it must have been like on a foul dark night, with only the mark-one eyeball, and With’s table of courses, distances and times to rely on.
The Northern Lights
A jangling alarm drags us unwillingly out of Lethe’s embrace, but as we struggle into warm clothes and lifejackets, the reassuring voice of the tour leader promises that if we turn out onto the deck immediately we shall see the Northern Lights.
The Hurtigrten guarantees its passengers will see the Northern Lights between October and April. It is now only mid-September, but we had been told the previous evening that conditions looked promising. So we turned on the Northern Lights Alarm before turning in, and now it is summoning us to see them.
It is cold up on deck and we huddle in the lee of the entrance to the stairs, gazing up at the sky. It is also very dark, there is no moon and just a sprinkling of the major stars. But then, as our eyes adjust, is that it, that shimmering veil of pale green light, halfway towards the zenith? Sometimes it ripples like a curtain, at others it flickers or shimmers in streaks, waxing and waning between a strong glow and feint green hints.
Yes, the tour leader has explained it is the result of electrically charged particles of the solar wind interacting with the earth’s atmosphere, but that is far too prosaic. It is much was more than that, it is magical. According to Norse legends, it is the “Bitfrost Bridge,” the shimmering beacon leading fallen warriors to Valhalla, or the glow from the shields and armour of the Valkyrie, or the sparks caused by the tail of the Fire Fox as he dashes over the snow, or, according to the Sami, the spume of gigantic cosmic whales.
Meeting the Vikings
Set in a fertile valley on the Lofoten island of Vestagøya, sheltered from the north winds by snow-frosted crags, is the Iron Age Viking settlement of Borg. Discovered in 1983, the archaeological excavations have uncovered the remains of the largest Viking longhouse ever found in Europe.
Built alongside the archaeological site is the Viking Museum, an accurate replica of the longhouse, containing the living quarters, banqueting hall, storerooms and workshops, as they are believed to have been in the Viking era.
After examining the exhibits, and the 83-metre long replica longhouse, we are invited to join renowned local Viking chieftain Olaf Tvennumbrunni and his charming wife Ashild for dinner in the banqueting hall. Eating locally raised lamb and vegetables, washed down by glasses of mead, we enjoy singing, dancing, a blessing by the Shaman, Olav’s tales of trade and plunder, and he and Ashild’s invocation to Odin, Thor and Freya for his safe return from his next Viking raid on England. According the Icelandic sagas, Olaf was the last ruling chieftain at Borg, before migrating to Iceland after a dispute with King Harald Hårfagre.
After dinner, I ask Ashild if the HBO series, Vikings, is an accurate representation of life in the Viking Age. “Absolutely not,” she says, with a disdainful whisk of her Nordic blond hair, before assuring me that the popular image of the Vikings as rapacious, murdering bands of plunderers is a Hollywood invention. Having just experienced the hospitality of her hearth, who am I to argue?
Situated on the island of Tromsøya, surrounded by towering snow-clad peaks, is the Arctic capital of Tromsø.
With elegant stone and wooden buildings, churches, parks and gardens, Tromsø has been called the Paris of the North, although this may have less to do with its attractive streetscapes than with the snobbish condescension of visitors from the south, surprised by the level of sophistication of Tromsø’s 19th century residents.
Nonetheless, it is a very attractive and spectacularly located city, and one that, on a mild and sunny autumn afternoon, seems to belie its extreme northerly latitude, although the road works to install under street electrical heating tells the real story of the city’s arctic winter.
Of interest to the Naval historian is the fact that British bombers sank Nazi Germany’s last great battleship, Tirpitz, in November 1944 while she was anchored off Hakoya island, 6 km west of Tromso. The ship capsized, burying her superstructure into the bottom, and the wreck remained there until 1948 when salvaged for scrap.
Nordkapp 71° 10’ 21” North
It feels like the end of the world. The northwesterly gale whips the Barents Sea into white capped confusion, hurling the breakers against the shear hundred metre cliffs, buffeting our frail figures clinging to the safety rails around the Nordkapp monument, and biting into exposed flesh. Technically, it’s not the northernmost tip of Europe, Knivskjellodden visible to the west, is 1,450 meters more north, and Greenland (which is part of Denmark) and Svalbard are both considerably closer to the Pole. But it feels as if we are on the edge of the continent, with nothing but frigid, storm tossed water separating us from the Arctic ice.
Nearby are the Children of the Earth, seven plate shaped monuments designed by children, facing a woman and her child, that symbolise cooperation and hope. Their rock-strewn plateau is too bleak and cold to be endured for long and we retire to the warmth and comfort of the North Cape Hall. Where we sip hot coffee and browse the exhibition commemorating the naval and civilian sailors who lost their lives in the Arctic convoys, fighting their way around the Cape to deliver supplies to the Soviet Union during World War Two.
Iron ore was discovered in the region in the late 19th century and Kirkness processed and exported it for over a century until operations finally ceased in 2015. Nevertheless, with its good harbour facilities, fishing, tourism, and long cultural and commercial ties to nearby Russia, Kirkness remains a thriving, prosperous looking town and it is hard to imagine that we are inside the Arctic Circle, over 2,000 km from Oslo.
The trip to the Russian border passes lakes and stands of birch, pine, larch and spruce, the start of the great Taiga forest that stretches east all the way to Siberia. The border post is peaceful, the Russian side concealed in the forest, no trace or feeling of any cold war flashpoint such as Checkpoint Charlie. But relations between Russia and Norway have mostly been cordial, locals can freely cross the border, and once a month there is a traditional Russian market in Kirkness.
Under Nazi occupation during World War Two (the Germans needing the iron ore) the residents of Kirkness endured years of bombing by the Soviet airforce, sheltering in a giant air raid shelter carved out of the rocky hillside overlooking their town. When the Nazi’s were finally driven out the Red Army soldiers were welcomed as liberators, and the grateful townsfolk built a memorial to them.
Vesterålen is a mountainous region of islands to the north of Lofoten. The gentle lower slopes of its rocky peaks are thickly wooded and, below the trees, there are fertile green fields dotted with picturesque farms, so that instead of an Arctic landscape – we are still well inside the Arctic Circle - we are surprised to find ourselves in an Alpine one. Sheep graze in the fields, the dairy farmers send milk to the Tine Dairy Cooperative (who turn it into Jarlsberg cheese, amongst other things), and the warmth of the Gulf Stream and the long summer days produce a climate mild enough to grow strawberries.
The area is also well populated, Hinnøya, the largest island has over 30,000 inhabitants, who, according to the tour guide, never feel the need to lock their homes or their cars.
Approaching the Sortland Bridge, we pass a small cement works on the southern shore of Sigerfjord. The tour guide tells us that the works originally belonged to the family of the Norwegian Expressionist painter Edvard Munch. Seeing the ugly industrial blot amongst the idyllic Vesterålen landscape, would be enough to make anyone scream.
Raftsundet and Trollfjorden
Shortly after departing Stokmarknes, the original home of the Hurtigruten, the ship passes beneath the Raftsund Bridge and enters Raftsundet, a 20 km narrow channel between two islands. Grand peaks rise on either side, cottages nestle on the edges of rocky coves, tiny islets pass a stone’s throw away on either side, fishing boats trawl their nets, keeping out of the ship’s path, and an eagle soars on the updraft from the afternoon sun warmed rocks of a nearby mountain. It is breathtakingly beautiful, and the deck is crowded with passengers all trying to capture the grandeur on their cameras and smartphones.
And just when we think it can’t get any better, the ship slows and turns to enter Trollfjorden. A side arm of Raftsundet; it is 2.5 km long and barely 100 metres wide, nine metres narrower than our own ship's length. On the northern side, the sheer rock face of Trolltindene towers 1,000 metres above us, while ahead the fjord is enclosed by snow-dusted peaks. Fortunately, the end widens sufficiently to allow the vessel to turn. Still, it is a heart-stopping manoeuvre as the bow approaches closer and closer to the rock wall, so close you can almost spit onto it. Then the captain stops the engines and thrusters and the ship hangs motionless across the width of the fjord. The Tour Leader announces over the public address system that passengers are not permitted to miss the spectacle. The turn resumes, and we slowly make our way back out and resume course for Svolvaer.
Spectacular as it was during the daytime, that is not our first encounter with Trollfjorden. On the northbound passage, the captain took the ship in there in darkness, lighting up the walls of the fjord with his searchlights and playing Greig’s Peer Gynt Suite over the loudspeakers. Mugs of steaming hot rum punch were served on deck to ward off the cold, while junior crewmembers dressed as trolls danced in and out of the shadows.
Erosion, you will say, millennia of wind and water wearing away a crack in the rock. But it is not so. The fjord was formed by the one eyed Hinnoy troll. Angered by a herd of cows eating his grass, he chased them with his axe, tripped over a mountain ridge and fell, driving his axe deep into the rock. When he pulled the blade free, the cleft filled with water creating Trollfjorden. By then his cows had disappeared, never to be seen again.
The Seven Sisters and Torghatten
Trolls played a major part in shaping the Norwegian landscape, in just the same way that the dreamtime ancestors shaped the Australian landscape for their Aboriginal descendants.
Just south of the charming port of Sandnessjøen, the ship passes the mountain range known as the Seven Sisters. In the bright afternoon sunlight they are an impressive sight, a grand chain of rugged peaks that morph into various shapes - heads, faces, noses - as our perspective changes. Were they created by glacial activity, eroding the softer material and leaving the peaks of harder rock? Or are they really the bodies of seven sisters turned to stone? The Norse legend is certainly more romantic.
The sisters (I won’t bother you with their tongue-twisting names) were the unruly daughters of the Sulitjelma troll, who, desperate to control them, sent them away to the care of a strict governess called Lekamøya. Now Lekamøya had an admirer, a wild horseman called Hestmannen. One day Hestmannen caught sight of Lekamøya and the seven sisters bathing in the water. The sisters tried to entice him by making themselves as beautiful as they could, but it was Lekamøya he wanted. Unfortunately, as he pursued her, the sun rose and turned the seven sisters into stone, where they remain to this day.
However Hestmannen was thwarted in his pursuit. Angered that Lekamøya was escaping, he shot an arrow after her. A troll living in the mountains near Brønnøy threw his hat into the path of the arrow, which shot right through it. The rising sun also turned Hestmannen to stone, he still sits astride his horse further north near Lurøy, and the troll’s hat, still with a hole in it, rises from the sea just outside Brønnøysund.
Whatever the truth, the mountains of Hestmannen, the Seven Sisters and Torghatten are among the most spectacular sights of the Hurtigruten.
Berit Liland’s guide to the Hurtigruten runs to 423 pages and I am indebted to it for some of the details contained in my travel log. Berit has written the ultimate guide to the Hurtigruten, and reading it provides almost as much pleasure as experiencing the journey itself.