Travel writer Nel Staveley escaped to Norway and revelled in its beauty – here’s her story…
The instructions from the mountain guide sound like a punchline.
“A cowboy mouse on the way to Everest,” he beams down.
But as the dark clouds descend ever further, the winds lash harder and the grainy snow of Folgefonna Glacier gets even deeper, I’m beginning to think it’s a joke I may never understand.
Until suddenly, theatrically and perfectly on cue, the dark clouds disperse. And there it is. Not the joke, as such, but certainly the reason our guide has been smiling: Folgefonna valley.
Arching grey stone mountains, pitted lakes and swathes of deep green forests lie ahead.
Of course, seeing such heart-stopping beauty in the middle of Norway shouldn’t come as a surprise. Since the 19th century, when the first boats of tourists arrived from England and Germany, this country has been a magnet for people wanting beautiful views.
Over the last decades, that pull has grown and grown, and now the Norwegian fjords, in the country’s southwest, attract endless hordes of eager visitors each year.
A vast majority of these will arrive just as their forbearers did, by water.
Nowadays, the method of transport is not so much boat, more hulking cruise ship, but I still can’t help thinking it feels, perhaps, old-fashioned, and almost definitely limiting.
Luckily though, there’s now a growing trend towards DIY trips around the fjords – booking a cheap flight, hiring a car and setting off into the vast and beautiful countryside with no timetable but your own.
For us, the cheap flight landed in “the gateway to the Fjords”, Bergen, a popular fishing town clinging to the western coast of the self-named region. Unusually for a port, it doesn’t just boast water, it also boasts lush mountains – the town is surrounded by seven peaks, known locally as De Syv Fjell.
You can climb all of these, in the ever-outdoors and active Norwegian style, on foot and bike, or – in a slightly less active, British way – by cable car. As the car edges up the Ulriken Mountain, the highest of the peaks, though, it becomes clear it doesn’t really matter how you get up there, just as long as you do; the view of the town and harbour below is breathtaking.
Back on lower ground, Bergen is equally as impressive, with its bustling fish market, serving everything from (ecologically-sourced) whale to caviar, and – most famously – the Bryggen Hanseatic Wharf. A row of brightly coloured wooden shops and houses on the edge of the harbour have, our town guide informs us, seen their fair share of fire, decay and war, but have now emerged triumphantly as an UNESCO World Heritage-listed site.
A 1.5-hour drive from Bergen is the Folgefonna Glacier, Norway’s third largest mainland glacier. Perched at 1200m above sea level, the road to reach it is long, slow and stilted by hairpin bends, but – genuinely – you don’t really notice.
Each awkward turn and glimpse out of the window reveals yet another plunging lake, thundering waterfall or – as you get nearer to the glacier – snow-smudged rocks.
There’s no denying it feels a bit unnerving to be in the middle of summer and to stumble upon snow. Not even just a bit of snow but an entire snow field, complete with ski lift, ski slope and skiing Norwegian teenagers.
Things are about to get even more unnerving too, when the guide for our imminent glacier hike appears. One bemused look at our flimsy waterproofs, and he heads to a nearby cupboard.
Moments later, he re-emerges, armed with climbing ropes, helmets, crampons and ice-picks. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting – for some reason, I thought our trip would be a quick amble to see some ice, then back in the car. But now, of course, I realise the clue is in the title; glacier hike.
Thankfully, the guide is more than willing to impart his advice on how this should all work. “Take little steps, wide apart for a good grip in the snow,” he says. “Like a cowboy mouse on the way to Everest.”
I can see my fellow hikers – all of us dutifully knotted together by the rope – are as baffled as me, and as we tug and trip our way up the thick glacier snow, I’m starting to wonder what the point of all this is. Until, of course, the cloud lifts and that view – the sort of view you know you may only glimpse once in a lifetime – unfurls before us.
That said, in this corner of Norway, “once in a lifetime” views are certainly not as rare as they sound. Around five hours east of the glacier, we take our trip’s one boat-tour concession: a cruise around Lysefjord, the region’s most famous – and most photographed – waterway.
Departing from Stavanger, known as Norway’s second city, we spend three hours doing nothing but point and stare at mirror-like waters and soaring rocks – only stopping when the captain pulls the boat over to feed three goats, perched precariously (but happily) on some grass under one of the rocky crags.
Similarly, the country’s infinite beauty is hammered home on a visit to Rovaer, a tiny island a short ferry-ride from the city of Huagesund. We meet the charming oldest member of the 110-person community. From her tales of the 1899 shipwreck that killed half the island, and how the island now only has one (electric) car, it’s probably not the easiest life.
“But look,” she says, smiling, arms waving in every direction. “The island’s beauty makes it worth it.”
IF YOU GO
For information on the area, visit fjordnorway.com.
For flights, check out Norwegian Air (norwegian.com).
The writer travelled as a guest of the Norwegian Tourist Board.