Monday 30 April 2012

All aboard, we're going to the Mountains!

Traveling the Norwegian Fjords takes the mind up to a test. We all know holidays in the mountains, we all pass time at the sea. Very often we have a favorite, there are clear "sea people" and determined "mountain goats". With FRAM, you don't have to make this distinction. We bring you right into the mountains, on board a comfortable ship...
But the mountains are incredibly near, not only on one side but on both, when we enter Naerøyfjorden this morning - BEFORE sunrise. A surprisingly large amount of people is already milling on the decks, and it is worth it, the steepness of the surrounding cliffs is mind boggling.
Around we turn, just before the little old Viking village of Gudvangen, in order to make it on time to our scheduled morning destination, Flåm. Situated in the very end of Aurlandsfjorden, it is the departure point for one of the most famous train rides in Europe. Built in 20 years of rock-scraping agony, it winds into the mountain slopes with remarkable steepness, raising more than 860 meters on a mere distance of 20 kilometers. The resulting slope of 5.5% doesn't sound so much if you drive a car, so for dramaturgical reasons the operators rather call it 55.5 per mill...
A large group has signed up for this shaky adventure, and precisely at 08:35h in the morning we take off in our own coach, which certainly adds to the touch. A squeak, a hiss, a rattle and a clank - this is the music this trains dances to. A brief stop right next to the roaring waterfall Kjosfossen is THE photo opportunity, before we roll into Myrdalen, tiny little train station in the mountains. Here you can change to the Oslo-Bergen rail, which makes the Flåmbana such an important piece of infrastructure.
After a brief stay it's "all aboard" again, and we backtrack down to Flåm, where FRAM is waiting in the sunshine.
This shall not be our last mountain episode for today. The afternoon sees us in Balestrand, cosy town on the border of the wide expanse of the ...fjord. It houses a couple of boarding schools, sports a beautiful Anglican Stave Church and several culturals projects, relaying to its past as an artist's colony in the late 19th century. So it invites for walks as well as for one of our two excursions. One is entirely dedicated to the cultural history and present of the place, people learn a lot about churches, art history and the early days.
The other tour is physically demanding, but a real treat on a sunny day like this: A hike into the slopes of Furefjellet, the sugarloaf-shaped mountain that forms the towns backdrop. A small group of intrepid hikers takes the ascent and is rewarded by probably the most amazing views on this trip so far. The forest is untouched and with its gnarly trees even in the sunshine a stimulus to bring up stories about saga creatures like Trolls, Hildas, or Shota. None of them show up, though. However, it is a sweaty business, and a muddy one, too, as the hike leads above the snow line, where the spring melt has transformed the ground into a wet swamp. With dirty boots and a big smile everybody returns to the ship, and we sail into a fairy-tale sunset.

Big Fish

No one steps into the same river twice. This old saying by Heraclitus holds especially true for waters that are as cold as in Hardangerfjord, which is so deep it never gets warmer. Actually, you don't even want to step in it only once. Keeping that in mind, the participants of the Eidfjord Kayaking Tour pay extra attention to the guide's explanations on how to get in the boat with dry feet, how NOT to fall into the Fjord, and how to turn in the desired direction without slamming into each other.
And then it's time to take to the Kayaks, solid but shaky constructions that can teach your hips how to samba, if you are not handling your paddle right. Fortunately, the conditions could not be better: A bright blue sky delivers the perfect backdrop for the snow-covered mountains, the dark rocky walls underneath deliver a dramatic contrast to both of them. A little insecure but full of motivation, everybody tries the first strokes, gasping (secretly, of course) when a sudden jerk of the boat challenges the balance.
However, after a couple of minutes of practice we are ready to attack the Fjord. Gliding and splashing at first, gliding and a little splashing only later. In loose formation we move along the breathtaking scenery, feeling very small, but good. Our guide tells us exciting things about whales that have been prowling the Fjord only two days ago. Now, that would be something! Paddling among the blows of those big fellas, watching them in the clear, dark green water, wow!
So all heads are swiveling round and round, but no whale today. Only the odd sturgeon here and there, ogling us incredulously. Pretty small they are; considering the theory that fish grows bigger when you offer him a bigger bowl, these ones have a long way ahead of them. Never mind, even without the cetacean sensation this is a beautiful, if slightly exhausting way of passing the morning in the deepest Fjord of all!
In the meantime, another excursion rolls across the countryside to explore the lofty heights of Norway's most famous skiing area - the Hardangervidda. Before the bus brings the participants up the winding road, we thoroughly enjoy a visit in the Hardanger Nature Center, displaying the whole variety of the interaction of scenery and wildlife in a splendid manner.
After that, the ride into the white. With an average altitude of about 1.100 meters only, the peneplain of Hardanger is not particularly high. But the location and the exposure to the elements provide snow all year round. So we get the opportunity to leave footprints, nice touch.
On the way back we stop at Norway's best known waterfall, the Vøringsfossen. The immense masses of roaring water cascade 182 meters down into the ravine, dropping freely for more than 140 meters. Quite a sight, everybody agrees, slightly shivering in the chill. So the return to the bus is not entirely unwelcome, and so is lunch back on board.
We have to weigh anchor in good time, since we have a long way to steam, out of the Hardangerfjord and further on to our next destination, Flåm. Under the cloudless skies (and under the largest Norwegian bridge-to-be, the Hardangerbrua, where construction workers are attached in great heights), we make good speed until the night wraps everything up again.

Saturday 28 April 2012

An apple a day

The longest Fjord in Norway is a superlative not only in the region: With its near 180 km length it rivals most of the planet's water-filled valleys and brings a ship from oceanic climate a long way into its continental counterpart. In other words: From springtime to winter again. This is something we will experience today and tomorrow. The excitement of our guests, however, is rather directed towards the fact that the day begins with putting on a life-jacket. No, we are not going down, but since Rosendal has no pier big enough for us, it is Polar-Cirkel-Boat time!
And when the peaceful village of Rosendal presents itself with a fresh powdering of snow in the morning, fallen over night, there is more to it than just the charming looks. Although only a very thin layer, which will disappear during the hours that follow, it chills down the air considerably. So the boat ride is colder than many expected. But this is not a problem, since the first excursion of the day brings us to Bondhus Lake; this means taking a bus first (warm), then a brisk walk up the mountain (very warm). The scenery is exciting, the path winds up through masses of boulders, some so huge that it sometimes nearly squeezes in-between their clefts. And you should not walk around: The whole time a wildly gurgling creek accompanies us, polishing the rocks round and smooth. After an hour or so we reach the lake, an emerald green round pool surrounded by towering walls of grey. Far in the distance the Bondhus Glacier looks down into the valley. You can tell it reached all the way down in the past by the trail of polished rock underneath. The lake must have been much higher, too, the dark lines of ancient water level are very clear, and the wooden structures on the shore are actually mooring poles for boats, used by the old Emperor Wilhelm, who came here every summer. So much of change in a very short time.
The way back down is just as beautiful, only easier. We are welcomed with coffee and cake, then go back to the ship.
That wasn't it for today - far from it.
We are headed for Ulvik, even further into the Hardanger Fjord. During the passage, Expedition Leader Karin starts a series of lessons in - Embroidery. That's right, the iron lady who usually rather wields a stainless steel rifle is now handling tiny little needles and fine white thread with the same enthusiasm. We will never stop learning...
A red apple. Many things to say about it - keeps the doctor away, good for the teeth, gift by wicked stepmothers, and much more. But you don't have to eat it necessarily. And this you learn in Ulvik.
It is the center of apple juice production in the Hardanger area. It is certainly the most tasty juice you can possibly try, so some of the Expedition Team stock up their fridge on board. And it's not the only drink they produce here: Take the juice, put it in a place with a constant temperature, add a little sugar, let it ferment, et voilá - you have Cider, apple juice on turbo, so to speak. On one of these farms we are presented with a variety of juices that rivals the most famous regions in the Normandy. The cider, too, captures everyone. Unfortunately, Norwegian law forbids to buy it, but a nice bottle of juice will do.
Night falls gently, everybody is on board and in the dark we weigh anchor to go deeper inland, to Eidfjord.

Friday 27 April 2012

The Magic of Light and the Power of Oil

When you announce a very early start for next morning, the reactions are not all the way unanimous, since sleep is a precious thing, especially on holiday. But as soon as we turn into Lysefjord this morning around sunrise, all is forgotten - this place is enchanted. Vertical walls of ice-polished rock are fencing us in, waterfalls are gushing down the slopes, and on the few ledges visible in the cliffs farm houses are squatted against the rocks, like glued into the landscape. Wet clouds are sitting in bowl-like depressions, and the morning sun is putting up a good fight to be seen here and there.
In silence we glide through this wonderland, no waves are disturbing the peace, the ocean is too far away. What a start!
The fabulous Preikestolen is looming high above us, a sheer impossible platform, several hundred meters high, destination and spectacular climax of many hikes in the area. We learn as we roll along, about the first settlers here who had to row their boats in and out, about farmers who tied up their children with ropes in order not to have them fall down into the deep. A rough life, a beautiful life.

The fog that enshrouds us when we exit the fjord seems to be a boundary between two worlds. As it lifts, we set our eyes on a modern, technical world, albeit with a touch of the past - Stavanger, the city of oils (No spelling mistake here - we will learn more about that in a minute). We pass oil rigs under construction, huge structures of steel, powerful stout supply ships are moored next to the old houses, where we also go to pier. It's like parking in people's front yard, only with a 114m ship.

Two excursions today, one with rain, one without. Murphy's law requires that the one with the rain is the walking tour... But nobody cares much, instead they are all ears for the many informations given by our guide about the old town, the connection between sardines and the graphic design industry (for the can labels, sounds funny but was a significant factor in the old days), the church, a rare specimen in roman and gothic style, built after a deal between king and bishop, involving the former's multiple love affairs, and the magnificent petroleum museum with its reconstruction of an oil rig for interactive fun.

Later in the afternoon the weather gods show mercy and the air gets crisp under the blue Nordic skies.

And suddenly it is time to board FRAM again, a full day in the town of two oils (olive oil for the sardines, and petroleum, of course) is over. Night falls quickly, the temperatures drop to chilly, so everybody is happy to be inside while we make our way out of the Stavanger Fjord.

Thursday 26 April 2012

The Place without Land

The day breaks with a gray light emerging directly from snakelike clouds that seem to follow us, here and there pierced by rays of sunlight. The sea is gently rocking our ship, and we make a good speed of more than 13 knots. Somewhere in the distance must be land, that's what the map says, Denmark to our starboard side, England and beyond to our port side.
A sea day. Most relaxing when you embrace it as the perfect opportunity to let the speed and bustle of every-day's life behind you, enjoy the slow movement and the omnipresent patience of the ocean. What about a good read in a quiet corner, what about writing a letter? Or what about - doing nothing...?
Choosing the more educative option, the lecture theaters are full of curious guests who want to learn about cloudberries and Trolls, stave churches, the very old past of Norway, UNESCO or our future destinations. We actually even have to enlarge the seating space, so many are coming!
A sea day, however, is also the time to wander around the ship and have a closer look here and there. Many of our returning friends on board notice the differences since the last time, before FRAM went to dry dock. Some of them are more visible, like the more streamlined shape around the observation lounge and the shiny new paint, others are not visible at all, like the renewed bow thrusters or the miles of cable and pipes that have been replaced as a routine.
Something for the dancers: the wooden panels in the Observation Lounge, wonderfully decorated with a pattern of symbolized driftwood, has been totally refurbished; it looks so nice you almost hesitate to step on it...
The dinner is seated, that means spending a good time of the evening in the nice restaurant over a three-course meal, chatting the time away and looking forward to our upcoming destinations.

Tomorrow, bright and early, we will enter the scenic Lysefjord around the time of sunrise. So, either listen to Bjørn playing in the Lounge, or getting a good nights sleep. Up to you, folks!