Fjords Revisited

Much as we'd enjoyed our Norwegian cruise (see Pining for the Fjords) we didn't expect to return to western Norway so soon but an unmissable opportunity arose shortly after our return. As a result we left Brentwood one Wednesday morning in late September, bound for Gatwick Airport and a flight to Bergen via Oslo. For once we can truly say that we suffered no travel delays whatsoever in either direction; a credit to Newmarket Air Holidays, Braathens Airways and all the airports concerned.

Our arrival at Gatwick was met by an appropriately-dressed gentleman from Pinstripe who directed us to the check-in desks. After a coffee and purchasing some duty-free goods (Norway being outside the EU and having a punitive tax regime for alcohol and tobacco) we moved to the departure lounge and, not long after, boarded our flight for Oslo. It was our first time flying with Braathens and perhaps one of our last. At the time of writing it was about to merge with SAS, the Scandinavian multi-national state carrier. We were very impressed with all aspects of this airline on all three flights of the trip. Landing on schedule in Oslo we cleared Immigration and Customs and waited a short while before boarding our connecting flight for Bergen.

We arrived at Bergen in bright sunshine and were met by Sue, Newmarket's local Tour Manager. A lady of uncertain age and something of a cross between Miss Marple and your first primary school teacher, she worked incessantly throughout the holiday with a cheerfulness that would have been a credit to Pollyanna. With boundless energy she guided, informed and educated us in all manner of things Norwegian. She was assisted by Mary, a demure young lady in her late teens with looks like a young Nigella Lawson, "seeing practice" in the travel trade. Whenever a hand was needed Mary was there, whether it was moving luggage or helping to dispense beverages at our various refreshment stops.

We also met Per, our coach driver, who safely conveyed us for the entire holiday and endured our excruciating attempts to say "good morning" and "thank you" in Norwegian. After nearly 4 hours of road and ferry travel we arrived at Kvikne's Hotel in Balestrand, Sogn og Fjordane County, situated right on the edge of the Sognefjord. The best hotel in the district and one of the best in the entire fjord region, we thoroughly recommend it as a base for touring or just for relaxation. Our superior room afforded us good views of fjord and village from its balcony.

Kvikne's Hotel

Breakfast at Kvikne's is a sumptuous buffet-style feast of everything one could possibly want to start the day with plus some that can only be described as an acquired taste, such as Norwegian "old cheese". Even a local variation on the British cooked breakfast is available. Later that morning we attended Sue's welcome meeting in one of the hotel's many comfortable lounges.

Gaularfjellet

Day 2, the first full day at the resort, was officially a relaxation day but Sue arranged an informal picnic excursion for the afternoon. Taking us high into the Gaularfjellet area north of Balestrand we negotiated hairpin bend after hairpin bend until we came to a tarn above the tree-line where we got out to stretch our legs. The local weather wasn't suitable for our picnic so we retraced our way back down the valley to a sunny spot near the village of Vetlefjord. There we filled ourselves with biscuits and cakes, like a Famous Five outing, with lashings of hot and cold drinks.

Perhaps we should have exercised restraint. Apart from on one evening, dinner at Kvikne's was a gargantuan Scandinavian smorgasbord, a multi-course meal of cold meats, fish and salads, followed by a choice of never less than 6 hot dishes. If that were not enough there were usually around a dozen dessert items plus a large selection of cheeses. Needless to say, our attempts to sample as much as possible led to over-eating that was frequently regretted later!

One unexpected but pleasant entertainment that evening was a recital by the Norwegian pianist Age Kristoffersen who played a selection of items by the national composer Edvard Grieg. After the concert there was the opportunity for an informal chat with Age and to buy some of his recordings.

Age Kristoffersen

Jostedal Glacier

We took the optional excursion on Day 3 to the Jostedal glacier, the largest on mainland Europe. Apparently the ice-falls can be quite spectacular but we only saw (and heard) a minor one. On the outward journey we made a refreshment stop in the small town of Fjærland. Like Hay-on-Wye in Britain, it is renowned for its second-hand bookshops.

After seeing the glacier from two viewpoints we visited the Norwegian Glacier Museum, also at Fjærland. There we saw the superb IMAX cinema presentation, after which there was the opportunity to learn more about glaciers and to conduct some hands-on experiments with 1000-year-old ice.

The English Church

Day 4 - Saturday - was scheduled for the "Norway in a Nutshell" excursion. We didn't take this one as we had covered a substantial part of it a few months earlier during our cruise. Thus we had an informal relaxation day, starting with the Balestrand Cultural Trail which we followed at an ambling pace. We made plenty of stops for photos at the many points of interest including the English Church, St Olaf's. This was built for an English lady living in Balestrand by her husband, an ancestor of the Kvikne family that owns the hotel. The afternoon was spent reading and sunning ourselves on our balcony without a care in the world.

The English Church - interior

We awoke on Sunday morning to find that the weather had changed dramatically and we breakfasted whilst looking out at pouring rain, hoping for an improvement. We didn't get one - from then on it was dull at best, steady rain at worst, right up until the end of our holiday. We set out for the day's excursion to Kaupanger, a little way past Sogndal, first to the Sogne Fjord Museum. This houses the collection of local boats, some of which plied the fjords within living memory. There is also a boatbuilder's workshop, complete with the traditional tools of the trade.

Next we went to see the nearby stave church which dates from the end of the 12th Century. Some of the original wall-paintings are still visible. Recent work there has involved reversing some of the ill-advised "improvements" made in the 1960s.

Kaupanger Stave Church

Traditional Sogn Cottage

Our final visit of the day was to the Sogn Folk Museum. This excellent attraction is both outdoors and indoors. Outside are over 30 historic buildings ranging from grass-roofed cottages with earthen floors, via comfortable middle-class houses of the 18th and 19th Centuries, right up-to-date with prefabricated timber houses of modern times. These are complemented by a large indoor museum on three floors, detailing many aspects of fjord life in the past including school, church, home, shops, birth, marriage, death and the annual round of festivals.

Enamel by Solveig Haukaas

We passed on the Day 6 excursion by express boat to Bergen and spent that day and the following one in relaxation and a bit of gentle shopping. On Tuesday morning we took a taxi-ride to the workshops of enamellers Solveig and Rolf Haukaas at Dragsvik. There they practise their craft, making all manner of items from jewellery to pictures. Later we went to Bjørg Bjøberg's small shop on the quay at Balestrand. This charming lady sells all manner of things; cards, books and decorative items, all produced by her and featuring her own distinctive art style.

Christmas Card by Bjørg Bjøberg

Our last afternoon at Balestrand proved ideal to visit the Sognefjord Aquarium, being wet, windy and totally unsuitable for a final stroll around the village. It's primarily an educational facility, a marine activity centre for local people including the schoolchildren who attended that afternoon. There are indoor and outdoor tanks featuring the marine species to be found in the fjord. The admission fee even includes the loan of fishing tackle and a boat or canoe for one hour. Given the inclement weather, readers will not be surprised to learn that we gave this facility a miss.

Dinner on Day 7 was preceded by a photo-opportunity - the chance to snap the buffet displays before the hungry hordes started the nightly demolition job.

Smorgasbord at Kvikne's Hotel

Vik Stave Church

All good things come to an end, holidays included, and after breakfast we took our leave of Kvikne's Hotel and Balestrand in torrential rain. This made the leaving somewhat easier as good weather would have made us reluctant to go. Once on the way the objective became getting home as soon as possible.

We made two stops, a fleeting visit to the stave church at Vik and a lunch stop at Voss. Unfortunately the rain didn't let up, though we did have a quick walk by the lake, heads bowed into the wind. Another hour and we were in the outskirts of Bergen, heading for the airport at Flesland. A brief foray into the duty-free shop and we were boarding our flight for Gatwick.

We must have had a tail wind as we landed about 15 minutes ahead of schedule. After clearing Immigration and Customs we were again greeted by a Mr Pinstripe and guided to the minibus pick-up point. Within minutes we were on the motorway heading north for the M25 and Brentwood. Oh, we did have one delay - the driver made a bad call at a traffic hold-up just north of the Dartford Crossing and thus lost us 30 minutes whilst trying to rejoin the M25!

Brian and Eileen Smith travelled with Newmarket Air Holidays, telephone 020 8335 3030.   If you are calling from outside the UK, use country code 44 and omit the leading 0.

© Brian Smith 2001

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