When I started my Instagram account, I called it Places and Books – the intention being to have a blend of books and places content. Well, it turned out to be about 95% books, and then only if you include bookshops as places! Starting now, I’m going to try to redress that balance. Here’s a little blog about my recent trip to Norway and the Norwegian books I read there.
The travel itch
About four or five years ago I saw a picture of a strange tongue of rock hanging hundreds of metres above a glacial lake, and something in me knew I had to go there, to stand there and see it for myself. It was Trolltunga in Norway.
I believe in setting goals, short-term purpose is as good as any. I decided I wanted to visit this land of giants and trolls, of legend and myth, and after lockdowns, procrastination and other priorities, I finally managed to make it happen.
After a modicum of research, and some very hopeful marks on a map, I booked a cheap flight, a cheap car, some cheap accommodation, packed my bags and set off into the unknown.
Right from the start I was impressed. Bergen Airport was clean and efficient. Everything was quick and smooth. Before I knew it I was out on the road, trying to remember how to drive on the right, in a left-hand drive, in an automatic, in a car I’d never driven before, and navigating to somewhere I’d never been before, with road signs in a different language. No problem!
Book 1 - Tarjei Vasaas, The Boat in the Evening (1968)
What I thought: ‘Very hard to describe. Poetic, fluid in style and disjointed in subject, abstract and intense. A series of thought/emotion memoirs, impressions. Strangely reminddd me of Caradog Pritchard’s One Moonlit Night.’
I struck lucky with all three of my bases. Whilst I expected deficiencies (poor service, tiny rooms, no en suite, cracked tiles, etc – all of which I’m fine with to save a few quid) the locations were all fantastic. Firstly, Vangsnes, right on Sognefjord, next to a ferry link to the north of the fjord. Secondly, a loft apartment in a historic wooden house in Laerdalsoyri. Thirdly, a hostel at the start of the track to Trolltunga, up in the hills by a lake.
I did long hikes every other day, interspersing it with some bookish adventures, some regular sightseeing (like Borgund Stave Church, below) and some more sensible walks. The hills here are often bigger than the biggest in the UK, and those around fjords tend to start from sea level – so no cheeky 300 metre headstart!
My first hike was up the 972m Raudmelen from the oh so pretty town of Balestrand. A few things jump out from this walk. Firstly, the routes tend to be very well marked, so competent walkers should have no difficulties. Especially if you have a decent sense of direction. Secondly, in Norway, even in summer, you will be trekking through snow as you get higher. This in exceptionally arduous. Don’t underestimate it. Thirdly, “Hi!” is a universal greeting. And fourthly, the views are breath-taking!!
Also, in England I am used to walking times being exaggerated, so that a ‘three hour walk’ usually takes under two hours. In Norway the estimates are accurate. A six hour walk takes six hours. Weather conditions can change. Always take more clothes than you think you need, and more food and water.
The second hike was relatively straightforward. It was a section of Mount Prest called Royrgrind. This towers 1366m above Aurlandsvangen, and has views across a range of mountains, and down the fjord to the town of Flam. The good news is there is parking halfway up, which is hard on the car, but easier on the knees. So my actual climb was less than 700m, but I’m not proud, I’m here for the rarefied air and the views. Which were amazing of course.
My third big hike was the one I came for, Trolltunga. I had planned to do this on Saturday, but I arrived just after lunch on Friday and the weather was good, so I thought I would nip up there. Nip up there. Honestly. It was the hardest three and a half hour slog that I have ever done. Straight up the side of a hill, across snow fields, up and down. Following canes planted in the snow to avoid snow bridges over chasms and thawing frozen lakes which looked a pretty glacial blue but meant almost certain death. You don’t get this in England.
I was under-resourced for food, which was an annoying oversight, but OK for clothing and water. Ultimately, it was completely worth it. The primitive monolith hanging so high above an aquamarine lake was stunning. I am told that often in summer there are queues of people waiting to have their picture taken, but there was only one couple there when I got there, and we exchanged photo-taking duties with each other in a mutually beneficial way.
By the time I got down again in the evening I was exhausted. And hungry.
Book 2 - Sigrid Undset - Jenny (1911)
What I thought: ‘Like Kristin Lavrensdatter this is top quality writing. At times it is Tolstoyan in its psychological insight. A sad story, but a great read full of subtlety and beautiful writing.’
Wherever I go, I open google maps and search “bookshops near…”. Imagine my joy when I found that one of the places I was staying was only an hours drive, not from a bookshop, but from an entire book town.
So three days into my trip I made a beeline for Fjaerland on the north of Sognefjord. It was a glorious day, and I had no idea what to expect. Still, I parked up in the middle of town (free parking nearly everywhere as far as I can tell) and started a wander. It’s not a big town, and four hundred yards separates the furthest bookshelf at one end from the bookshop at the other end.
I found a guide, which had all the shelves and shops highlighted, and set off on a treasure hunt. The first few shelves were picturesque, but only had one or two books in English. But then one had an entire row, and some gems. The shelves work on an honesty basis, and unlike most things in Norway, they books here weren’t expensive at all.
Alongside the bookshelves, there are beautiful houses, hills, meadows, waterfalls. It’s all a bit idyllic frankly, and enough to make a man lose his cynicism.
Towards the end of far end of town there are two big bookshelves and one of the most photographed bookshelves on Instagram. The bookshops are BIG! And all the books are second hand. There are sections for most languages and the English language sections were very respectable. I came away with eight books in total from the whole visit.
There were two more bookshops in town, but the antiquarian bookshop was closed unfortunately. Hopefully it’s only temporary. The other bookshop was at the entrance to the town, from the north, but whilst huge, it only had a very small English language section.
So there was nothing left to do but to sit and have a waterside picnic and look through my finds. If you are anywhere near Sognefjord, Fjaerland is a must visit, but research opening days and times, because they seem a little sporadic. Book 3 - Knut Hamsun, Hunger (1890)
What I thought: ‘Dostoevsky meets Goethe, if you love either you’ll probably love this. Powerful existential angst, madness and great writing. Others may find it depressing. I thought it was amazing.’
Driving around Norway was a joy, although it would have been more so as a passenger. Some of the roads are a bit narrow, so I wouldn’t use a bigger car than you need. The speed limit was. 80kph. Very sedate. No one seemed to be in a hurry. Pedestrians and cyclists have right of way pretty much whatever they do.
The country, because of it’s terrain, abounds with ferries and tunnels. The ferries are just turn up and get on, and you are charged automatically if you hire a car. Many roads are also toll roads, and again the charging is automatic.
On my trip I managed to drive through the longest road tunnel in the world (Laerdal Tunnel – 24.5km) twice, and also over the mountains on the ‘snow road’ with fifteen foot banks of snow on either side of me.
Everywhere you go there is something to see: beautiful villages and colourful wood-clad houses, vivid colours, glacial lakes, and so many massive waterfalls you almost become blasé.
I also got pulled over for a random breathalyser test. They take drink -driving very seriously in Norway. The acceptable blood-alcohol limit is very low. Luckily the beer is too expensive so no danger of me failing the test!
Norwegian Book 4 - Karl Ove Knausgaard, Fatherhood (2017)
What I thought: ‘Honesty of this kind can connect you, and it can unsettle you. This did a bit of both. Very good writing, but he’d be a nightmare as a friend.’
Now, I’m not a big fan of cities, so you need to put my words in context. Bergen is apparently the rainiest town in Europe, rainier than Manchester! It did not disappoint. I had to get up at 4am in order to drop the car at the airport and get the light rail into Bergen city centre. The entire three hour drive was slate grey and lashing with rain. I could tell that there were beautiful towns and landscape out there, but pretty much nowhere looks great in the pouring rain.
Still, I got there, and managed four and a half hours in the city centre. Norway seems to take Sunday closing very very seriously. Nothing was open. But there were plenty of pluses. It’s a pretty port, with steep hills around for great views, and it is festooned with golden cobbled streets and colourfully painted wooden houses. If you like cities, you’ll love Bergen, I’m pretty sure.
There is even a funicular railway to take you up to the viewpoint, but don’t get a return as it’s a lovely three kilometre walk down through public gardens, trees and the narrow streets of the old town.
Book 5 - Anne B Ragde, Berlin Poplars (1988)
What I thought: ‘The big twist at the end - that I saw coming a mile off - felt completely unnecessary, didn’t really explain behaviours, and changed the nature of the book, which was operating quite nicely as a disfunctional families psycho drama. Very readable nonetheless.’
People say Norway is expensive. It is. But it is possible to cut costs if you want to, and operate on a budget. If I were to come again I’d certainly consider using public transport, it seems pretty good, and what a great country to look out of the window at.
The season here for non-winter sports visitors is pretty short. June to August is hiking season. The days are looooong in summer though. I think there were only about two and a half hours darkness a night, so an eye mask is a good idea.
The people are welcoming and friendly, if not effusive, and it’s ideal for English speakers with no Norwegian (me) as 90% of the people in the country speak English. In the sunshine, I’ve never been to a prettier country.
Next on the bucket list
With Trolltunga visited, I need to decide what my next priority is and start planning. I’d love to go to Canada, but that will take a bit of saving up for. Then I’ve never been to Portugal, or the west coast of Ireland, or Salzberg in Austria. Also, seeing the northern lights in Iceland is something I’d love to do once. But maybe South next. Decisions, decisions.