Michael Webb travels through Norway’s high and low roads discovering its hidden gems along the way.
A narrow road snakes up the side of a mountain, making nine hairpin turns before reaching the summit. Silver threads of water course down the rock face, merging into cascades that swell a rushing stream. The road is bounded with lichened rocks and embraced by pines and silver birches. At the top a steel walkway cantilevers out to provide an overhead view of the road, snow-dappled peaks and the green valley beyond. This is Trollstigen, a place of wonder in central Norway.
No other European country can offer such spectacles. The prices are high, the strictly enforced speed limits are low, and the weather is erratic, but the rewards far outweigh these small annoyances. Mountains rise steeply from deep fjords, and every journey is a succession of winding roads, tunnels, and ferries. The old Norway of poverty and puritan gloom has given way to an oil-fueled economy that is pouring money into infrastructure and social services. A few coastal cities are booming, and mobs of tourists descend from giant cruise ships, but the countryside is still pristine. For the super-fit, it’s a fantastic opportunity to hike, bike and (for six months in the year) ski cross-country. The midnight sun can be as elusive as the Northern Lights in winter, but the days are long from May through September, and mist – even rain – can add a layer of mystery to the vistas as it does in Japan. And, in contrast to Japan, the five million inhabitants are mostly fluent in English, and their long isolation has left a legacy of warmth and friendliness.
The Norwegian road authority has commissioned overlooks along 18 of the most spectacular routes, over the 1000 miles from north to south, and a circuitous week-long drive from Oslo to Trondheim, Bergen and back provides a good sampling of varied architecture and fantastic landscapes. Plotting a route that takes in the best spots is a challenge because they are widely scattered, but the detours pay off and everything is well signposted. Driving north from Oslo to Roros, a former mining town that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, you can linger to explore two extraordinary museums designed by Sverre Fehn, Norway’s greatest modern architect. In Hamar, the Hedmark Museum is built atop the stone ruins of a medieval bishop’s palace, and the Aukrustsenteret in Alvdal celebrates the work of an eccentric local artist. From there, a side road loops past the Sohlbergplassen overlook, with its thrilling panorama of mountains, water and forest.
From the ancient capital of Trondheim, it’s an hour’s drive to Mariakloster, a new Cistercian convent on the tiny island of Tautra, where you can experience the serenity of a luminous wood-framed church. Most of the founders came from Mississippi Abbey in Dubuque, Iowa in 1999, along with two Norwegians, one from the monastery of Wrentham (USA) and one from Laval (France). Now it attracts young women from all over the world wanting to dedicate their lives and prayers to world peace. The nuns are also happy to receive guests whether or not they belong to a faith community.
Heading south, past Trollstigen, for a more secular alternative, you should try to spend a night at the Juvet Landscape Hotel, an ideal fusion of nature and contemporary design. Nine wood cabins, with Zen minimal interiors, are scattered through magically beautiful landscapes, each framed by a wall of glass. Owner Knut Slinning welcomes you to a dinner of local produce in an old red barn, and offers advice on expeditions. You may never want to leave, but be sure to book well in advance.
In Alesund, a fishing port that was consumed by fire in 1904 and quickly rebuilt in Art Nouveau style, you can stay at the Hotel Bronduset, a fish warehouse that is now a comfortable design hotel with a stylish restaurant. Heading south, there’s a short detour to the medieval stave church of Borgund, a newly-restored masterpiece of wood construction, before continuing on to Aurland, a village that clings to the edge of a fjord. The longest road tunnel in the word carries the E 16 highway through the mountains, or you can climb over them on the old route 243, traversing a lunar landscape of granite scoured by glaciers. The ultimate reward is the Stegastein overlook: a laminated wooden walkway that ends in a balustrade of glass before dropping as sharply as a waterfall. From here, Aurland resembles a toy village and the boats seem tiny models.
It feels as though you had stepped into a landscape painting, but down below, reality awaits. Norwegians don’t flaunt their new-found wealth, but they love to indulge their hobbies, and one of these is driving exotic cars. A hundred vintage MG roadsters, tops down, rallied on the mountain road, and eight vintage Corvettes, impeccably restored, are lined up outside the Fjord Hotel. They add another element to a scene that has changed little in the past century.
For more information or to plan your next trip to Norway, go to visit.norway.com.
* Photos by Michael Webb and courtesy hotels.