The Norwegian fjords are the first choice for most people going on their first European cruise. There are several good reasons for this. First, it’s not otherwise an easy place to get to but, by ship, you can reach some of the planet’s most peaceful and empty places. Second, many Norway cruises are just a week long, so if you’re not sure about the whole cruising idea, it’s a good way of putting your toe in the water (so to speak). And, third, it’s a place that ticks all the boxes for both the sublime and the beautiful.
Oddly enough, I’ve been on numerous cruises but never to the fjords, though it’s always been high on my list. I travelled with Fred Olsen who, besides being a Norwegian company and therefore with a bit of inside knowledge on the place, also has ships that – by the standards of many contemporary cruise lines – are positively petite, so can get into fjords bigger ships can’t. I was travelling on the Balmoral which carries 1300 passengers, as opposed to some of the giants of the seas that hold 4-5000.
I was not, though, travelling alone. I was with the Major – a virgin cruiser. Our drive down to Southampton went through Farnham and he pointed at fields on the way – “This was one of our routes with heavy weights”, “I used to jump out of the plane over there, roll up the parachute and run to Farnham for lunch.” Oh dear, was he going to find a cruise a bit inactive, I worried. But no. In fact he was quite excited by the prospect and, after a particularly stressful few weeks, it was indeed bliss to find ourselves splattered on sunbeds on the top deck enjoying enforced relaxation – there’s nowhere to go when you’re in the middle of the North Sea. The North Sea? Surely not. We basked in hot sun and the water was as flat as a pancake.
All this lazing about was short lived, though. After a day and a half at sea, there were four days of frenzied activity. Our first stop was Stavanger with its pretty old town and steep cobbled streets. There’s an oil museum and a canning museum (big herring country, this) and a tiny Workers’ Cottage museum with pretty painted furniture and a particularly fetching outside loo, the wooden door painted red with a heart carved in it. “What happens here in the winter?” I asked the curator. “Don’t you get a lot of broken bones with people struggling up here on the ice?”
“Yes, we do,” she shrugged philosophically. Stoical race, the Norwegians.
That afternoon we went off on a fjordkat – a catamaran that set off from the harbour at a cracking pace past hundreds of yellow-hearted jellyfish that floated on the surface looking exactly like fried eggs. We were heading for Lysefjord, a popular place for Norwegians to spend their holidays. So, plenty of pretty wooden houses with big verandahs – there are 5 million Norwegians who between them have 400,000 summer houses where they do all that outdoor Scandinavian stuff – climbing rocks, fishing and sailing, swimming with jellyfish.
Lysefjord means “fjord of light”, carved by the glaciers to create a dramatic long, narrow fjord in places almost as deep as the mountains are high. The remarkable Pulpit Rock is 604m with a completely vertical drop. “Ah,” sighed the Major, “I’d love to climb that. I was over the other side of the country when I did my Norwegian climbing.”
The next day our ever-northward journey stopped in Bergen. Although the wooden houses of its World Heritage old town, Bryggen have been ravaged by fire over the years, they’ve been repeatedly rebuilt on the same foundations and look pretty much as they did in the 12th century – all narrow alleyways and overhanging galleries once used by the great German trading organisation, the Hanseatic League, who particularly favoured Bergen because it is, somewhat surprisingly, an ice-free harbour. The trading still goes on but now it’s more Scandi jumpers and cuddly trolls for the tourists.
Further into town and you come to the fish market – the old fish warehouses are now rather gorgeous waterfront apartments. The market features enormous spider crabs, caviar and a great black lump that I couldn’t identify. “What’s that?” I asked the stallholder. “Whale meat,” he replied.
We spent the afternoon with Grieg. The composer lived here and built a house (now a museum) on a promontory. It has a small but stunning concert hall overlooking his composing hut (every man needs his shed, murmured the Major). The concert hall itself has a certain hut-like quality from the outside as it features a traditional Norwegian turf roof, full of grass and flowers. Inside it’s all pale Norwegian wood and a wall of windows overlooking the fjord and the composing hut. The only other thing was a black concert Steinway and a young and talented Christian Ihle Hadland played a concert of short Grieg pieces that showed off the composer’s declared intent “to paint in music the Norwegian landscape”. I’m sure I heard a troll in there somewhere.
The next morning we wake deep in Aurlandsfjord, steep, lofty and green, every detail perfectly reflected in the water. There are waterfalls, even patches of snow high up, though it’s Tshirt weather still, at least to start with. Today is all about trains and what’s billed, in fact, as one of the world’s most beautiful train journeys. The town of Flam has the most improbable railway station – in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by silver birch and rowan trees. The little train chugs ever upwards past increasingly impressive waterfalls until it stops halfway where we all pour out to take pictures not just of a particularly jaw-dropping waterfall but of a troll. Now this is no ordinary troll. She comes from the local dance school and is playing the role of the huldre, a beautiful seductress who lures men into the mountain with her song. She looks nothing like your usual (ugly) troll and apparently makes a good wife once you’ve cut her tail off…
We change trains at 800m and can now start looking out for lynx and wolverine. It’s decidedly colder, there’s a lot of snow lying around and the northern lights have started their season. We pass through Finse at 1222m, Norway’s highest station in a vast empty plateau of scree, sheep and rain, and on through long dark tunnels that open to reveal ever more powerful waterfalls, snow and dramatic drops into glacial valleys.
Our last really active day is in Olden. Our guide is called Odd (I’m not making this up) and we’re as far north as we’re going to get. There’s more snow here, thick forest, granite walls of rock and the water – streams and waterfalls – is frothing and boiling white down narrow crevasses and channels. Odd is taking us to the glacier.
We cross Lovatnet Lake on an old barge and pass silently through a still landscape of green water (pristine from the glacier), summer farms and silver birches already turning autumnal in late August. It seems the most placid, peaceful setting imaginable. Not so. In winter (so most of the year, here), the mountains form a tunnel that give major storms speeds twice that of hurricanes. Avalanches and rockfalls trigger tsunamis, walls of water over 70m high. Amazingly, after a history of villages obliterated and hundreds of deaths, a few people still live here.
There are hundreds of waterfalls – though the word doesn’t quite do them justice. Yes, there are some that slide down the mountainsides but most hurl themselves over the edge, dropping in curtains and torrents, spray soaring high in the updraft. Many fall around the Kjenndal Glacier itself that gleams blue on the mountain top and all you can hear as you walk is the thunder of roaring water.
The last day before we start our return to Southampton, we sail super slow through previously unseen fjords. This is what Fred Olsen call “green cruising”. Wood and water go majestically by and you just have to watch, contemplate and let it lower your blood pressure.
A similar cruise for 2016 with Fred Olsen Cruise Lines will be an 8 night ‘Mountains, Waterfalls & Fjords’ cruise (M1615) on board Braemar, departing Southampton 18th June 2016. Prices start from £899 per person, based on an inside twin-bedded cabin, subject to availability, and includes all food and entertainment on board, and port taxes. For more information, visit www.fredolsencruises.com.