Pining for the Fjords

Norwegian Blue parrots apart - and not quite pining - we'd always intended to visit the fjord country of western Norway. The opportunity arose to do so by perhaps the most civilised method, a sea cruise, travelling on one of Classic International Cruises' ships, the M.V. "Arion", on their Apple Blossom Cruise. Our only previous experience of long-distance sea travel was on Cunard's "Queen Elizabeth 2" back in December 1981, not really a cruise as she was on a scheduled transatlantic crossing. This was clearly going to be a new and, we hoped, pleasant experience.

Our trip commenced early one Saturday morning in May with a coach journey. Something of a bone-shaker, this elderly vehicle delivered us to Harwich International Port's Cruise Terminal at around 8am. With embarkation not due to commence until 1pm this seemed a tad premature but it was a cost-cutting measure to use the same vehicles to convey the passengers leaving the ship from the previous cruise. Personally we would have preferred to pay a bit extra and arrive at a more appropriate time. With all due respect to the Harwich port authorities there's not a lot to do there to occupy 5 hours!

M.V. Arion at Harwich
Embarkation

Embarkation mercifully commenced around 12.30pm and, after the obligatory photo, we went aboard and took possession of our cabin. Life on the "Arion" revolves around a constant series of meals; starting with breakfast from 7.30am, via lunch and dinner, ending with late-night buffet. It was time to start the ball rolling by taking lunch. This was completed in good time to enable us to view the departure from Harwich from the top deck. Before long we had cleared the harbour, entered the North Sea and set a north-easterly course for Norway.

There's always something to do during waking hours, even on a smaller cruise ship such as the "Arion". Energetic types pounded the decks in the morning Walkathon while the more sedate took refuge in one of the lounges with a book, a pack of cards or a board game. There were daily organised activities, ranging from craft demonstrations to talks about the various ports of call. On the second day, spent at sea, we made a visit to the bridge, escorted by the multi-talented comedian, vocalist and impressionist Dave Ferry. Despite the array of navigational equipment it seems there's still a place for good seamanship! The weather was very good for late May and much sunbathing took place on deck.

Day three dawned with the "Arion" making its way along the Hardangerfjord, past apple orchards for our first port-of-call, Ulvik. Hardly a port and better described as a large village, landing was by the ship's tenders which plied from ship to shore betwen our arrival at 9.30am and our departure at 2pm. Some joined an organised excursion but we went ashore independently and took a leisurely stroll in the fine mist. Not far from the landing stage is the wooden church which has some interesting wall-paintings of roses (done in 1923 by Lars Osa, a local artist) and is well worth a visit.

M.V. Arion at Ulvik
Fruit and Vegetable carving

We departed from Ulvik at around 2pm and retraced our path along the Hardangerfjord. One of the more unusual craft demonstrations of the cruise took place that afternoon; a fruit and vegetable-carving demonstration by the ship's Filipino vegetable chef. Here's an example of his work which graced many of the ship's buffet spreads, including the showpiece Magnifique Buffet on Day Four.

Later that evening, after dinner, we were treated to Dave Ferry's one-man show; 1¼-hours of comedy, impressions and songs. It's difficult to describe how hard Dave worked; let's just say he won our admiration, no mean feat considering we're not greatly into stand-up comedy. Such was this man's reputation that the Main Lounge was packed, with people standing in the aisles.

Farmland above Gudvangen

We awoke on Day four to find the "Arion" moored across the Naeroyfjord, the narrowest fjord in the world, just below Gudvangen. The purpose of the call was to land those people going on tours. There is not much to do in Gudvangen so we decided to stay aboard and take advantage of the grandstand views of the magnificent scenery. By 11am we were under way for the highlight of the day - our visit to Flåm.

Waterfall near Gudvangen

Our arrival at Flåm was delayed by about 20 minutes while Cunard's "Caronia" left the berth. Once moored, we descended the gangway, made our way to the railway station and boarded the showpiece Flåmsbana - the Flåm railway. Work commenced on this 20km-long marvel of railway engineering in 1923. Track-laying started in 1936, a steam-hauled service began in 1940 and electric trains followed in 1944. The journey takes about an hour, rising 863m from Flåm to Myrdal where it forms a junction with the Oslo-Bergen line. For the technically-minded, the maximum gradient is a steep 55‰ or 1:18, the minimum curve radius is a sharp 130m and the trains have 5 independent braking systems. This latter gives one considerable peace-of-mind on the descent!

M.V. Caronia Flåm Harbour Flåm Railway carriage Passing loop at Berekvam

 

Kjos Waterfall

At the exit of the Bakli Tunnel the train stops to allow passengers to leave and observe the Kjos Waterfall. There's a legend of a spirit in the form of a beautiful woman who emerges from her cabin at the foot of the falls and sings to lure travellers to their doom. You mustn't believe all you hear!

We ended our upward journey at Vatnahalsen, 1km short of the end of the line. There we took refreshment at the Hotel; waffles with cream and strawberry jam, accompanied by coffee.

Vatnahalsen Hotel

 

Flåm Railway locomotive

Suitably refreshed, we awaited the arrival of the next down train and retraced our path of an hour or so previously. The line has a total of 20 tunnels (totalling 6km), 1 bridge and 4 water tunnels. There are 11 stations and halts, including the termini. The trains are maintained in superb condition and travel at maxima of 40 km/h on the ascent and 30km/h on the descent, allowing stunning views of the scenery.

M.V. Arion moored at Flåm

After a brief tour around Flåm's small shopping area it was back to the ship to prepare ourselves for dinner, taken while still at anchor, then departure at 8pm for our final port-of-call, Bergen. After the evening's entertainment it was the catering staff's turn to put on a show.

Magnifique Buffet

The Magnifique Buffet was displayed at 11.15pm, prior to being served half-an-hour later. We never took the late night buffet because dinner was always very substantial but we had to admire the work and imagination of head chef Joshy Cyriac, his chefs and staff. It seemed a pity that such works of art would resemble a battlefield within the hour!

Chefs

We awoke on Wednesday to find we had arrived in Bergen sometime during the early morning. After breakfast we walked the mile or so into town, past Håkon's Hall and the Rosenkrantz Tower, past tall ships at the quayside to the old town, known as the Bryggen. This once self-governing enclave of the Hanseatic merchants has had a chequered history, having been burned down on several occasions and totally destroyed in the Great Fire of 1702. Rebuilt on the original foundations, the Bryggen is on UNESCO's World Heritage List. The buildings, separated by narrow alleyways, are home to a myriad of offices, shops, studios, workshops and restaurants. The Bryggen Museum is housed in a modern building nearby.

Bergen - waterfront buildings Bergen - from the outer harbour Bergen - Håkon's Hall Bergen - the Bryggen

 

Fløibanen ticket

After a stroll around the Fish Market we decided to take the Fløibanen, Bergen's funicular railway, to the top of Mount Fløyen. There we found spectacular views of the city and its suburbs, a restaurant, a café, shops and a childrens' playground. From mid-June to mid-August they hold evening concerts there, but not on a cool May morning!

The energetic can take the footpath back but we rode down. Besides, we'd bought a return ticket. Once down we strolled back the way we'd come, window-shopping and wandering around in the Bryggen alleyways. We couldn't stay too long as we had to return to the ship for lunch, prior to our afternoon excursion.

Bergen - view from Mount Fløyen

Fløibanen crossover

Bryggen alleyway

This was of the nature of a pilgrimage; a visit to "Troldhaugen" (the Hill of the Trolls), the lake-side home of the composer Edvard Grieg and his wife Nina. Having been a fan of Grieg's music almost from the cradle, this was a "must-see" occasion. We arrived at a fairly quiet time and visited those rooms of the house open to the public, being most of the ground floor, albeit at the somewhat rushed pace one associates with organised tours. We fully intend to make another visit but at our own pace.

Troldhaugen - rear view Troldsalen concert hall Troldhaugen - Grieg's studio Troldhaugen - Grieg's studio interior

 

Troldhaugen - front view Grieg statue

You can also visit "Troldsalen", the grass-roofed 200-seater concert hall, and Greig's studio hut by the side of Lake Nordås where he composed many of his most famous works. A short walk from the house brought us to the cliff-face tomb that is Edvard and Nina's final resting-place. There is also the museum and multimedia centre where we made a brief visit, the brevity of which being due to the need to rejoin the tour coach that would otherwise have departed, leaving us a long walk back to the ship!

The Griegs' tomb

 

We were soon caught up in Bergen's afternoon rush-hour (don't laugh - they do have one) and ground our way back into the city. At this point we learned that the tour included a trip on the Fløibanen where we had been that morning. We could have stayed and awaited the return of the tour party but we've never been known to refuse a train ride, no matter how short. This time the carriage was packed with schoolchildren and people returning home from work. A brief rest at the top and an ice-cream, then we were back down at street-level and being whisked back to the ship. We embarked from Bergen at 5.30pm, knowing that we would return for another visit sooner or later.

Sunset off south-west Norway

The last full day at sea was a bitter-sweet one, enjoyable but in the knowledge that our cruise was drawing to an end. However there was still plenty to do. That evening the Captain's Farewell Cocktail Party and Dinner, followed by the Gala Farewell Show by the ship's entertainers, effectively put the finishing touches to a very enjoyable vacation on sea and land.

The following morning we were back alongside the quay at Harwich, awaiting our transport home. When the time came it was goodbyes all round to the ship's crew and the cruise staff, then a coach (modern and much better than the outward one) to convey us back to everyday reality.

© Brian Smith 2001

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