We were on the R55, the highest mountain pass in Northern Europe, cruising past a cavalcade of cut-glass peaks on a narrow, sinuous road punctuated by gigantic, cascading falls that dwarf any passing vehicles and lone buildings seemingly built for people who hate other people.
Our lush backdrop gets increasingly barren and surreal as we ascend, and I would’ve been thoroughly mesmerized…….had I not been holding my bladder.
Since there were no rest areas, we stopped beside a rickety wooden bridge strung across an ice-blue raging river and, while the boys took a little stroll, I relieved myself in the bushes. I felt like a survival expert. Pretty soon, I’ll be feasting on bugs and drinking my own pee like Bear Grylls.
After marveling at Norway’s mythical landscape from the warm confines of our car, we began our descent into Sognefjord, the mother of all Norwegian fjords by virtue of its size and depth. No other sight in Norway has captured the public’s imagination as much as the majestic fjords – there are about 1,000 of fjords both large and small in the country, all carved out by glaciers over a period of 2.5 million years – but the Sognefjord is the largest and deepest of them all.
Water began to dribble from the sky as soon as we arrived at Villa Solvorn, a small but beautiful bed and breakfast owned by an interior designer and her photographer husband in the quaint little hamlet of Solvorn, our base on the Sognefjord.
Had we known that it would continue to rain FOR THE NEXT FOUR DAYS, we would’ve just slipped on a pair of fluffy bear bedroom slippers and hogged the TV in the common lounge.
The iffy weather however, could not suppress our growing hunger, and we soon found out that due to its remote location and petite size, Solvorn had only one main street and two eateries – a reserve-in-advance, fine-dining restaurant in the town’s only hotel and the Linahagen Cafe, a Thai cafe-cum-convenience store that closes by 6pm.
As suspicious as I was towards any eatery that doubles up as a convenience store, it’s no surprise where we ended up. After begging the kindly Norwegian owner of Linahagen to please let us in just as she was about to call it a day, we managed to score some decent fried rice and spring rolls – cooked by a dour Thai girl.
The next day, we took the Laerdal Tunnel to Flam. A tunnel isn’t usually a tourist attraction, but this one is – at 24 kilometers long – the longest road tunnels in the world. It is so long that the authorities have designed three rest chambers illuminated by lights to break up the monotony and reinvigorate sleepy drivers. The boys were entranced, and grudgingly agreed to move on only after they were allowed to test out tunnel acoustics by yelling out Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.
It was still pouring when we pulled into Flam, the main hub for all fjord-related activities including hiking, biking, cruising, railway riding, souvenir shopping and – a perfect rainy weather pastime – getting pissed in the only microbrewery in town. The place was crawling with cruise ship tourists but…
Aegir Bryggeri is designed to look like an old Viking longhouse and serves up hearty portions of Viking-inspired food in the restaurant upstairs.
In the smoldering – and most importantly, warm and dry – wooden interior reminiscent of Games of Thrones, we had the most satisfying lunch of Viking burger and shellfish soup. It was good to know that Viking cuisine has come a long way since Olaf the Mad snacked on boiled lamb head and pickled intestines.
It was also my first time trying – don’t laugh – non-alcoholic beer. And yes, it is every bit as awful as you imagined, although the kidlet doesn’t think so.
Our hearts filled with dread when the time came to go on our Fjordsafari Cruise. A damp chill hung in the air as we schlepped to their headquarters, dragging our boys along like two broken suitcases. Once there, we were instructed to suit up in several layers of clothing that looked more like garbage bags than high-tech, well-insulated garb.
“They say there is no bad weather, just bad clothes!” chirped the captain, who obviously need to attend a course in Fashion 101. In the tropics.
After what seemed like hours spent heaving and squeezing into those clothes, I was ready to take on the fjord in wet, 8 degree celcius weather, while looking like a Yeti with a weight problem. I shook my fists at the sky and yelled “Try pissing down on THIS parade, Odin!!!” (Well, not really, but you get the idea).
We rocketed across the waters, bouncing around like Courtney Love on cocaine. Rain fell like pitchforks but we were indestructible in our suits of water-resistant armor. Zipping past larger boats, I was awestruck by how it was all so damn majestic, even though the scenery have taken on the weird color of orange cola, thanks to the goggles we were wearing.
The porpoises and dolphins were in hiding, but the waterfalls were in full bloom because of the rain. The captain cut off his engine, and there we were, face-to-face with the most dramatic arm of Sognefjord, the Naeroyfjord. Both long and narrow (only 250 meters in some parts), with gallons of water thundering down on either side, the fjord’s natural magnificence has earned it a spot on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Souvenir shopping at the Mall of Norway, next. PETA would be flustered to see the amount of real fox fur in the place, while I was more flustered by the price. In the end, all we got was a pair of (discounted) mitts and a (free) picture with their resident trolls.
Gnarly weather followed us to Vik i Sogn, where we made our home in a beautiful Airbnb property set among raspberry fields. The place had an outdoor hot tub, and a glossy, all-wooden interior that’s furnished like a 60s porn set. Since we had children with us, the wildest time we had was bouncing on the trampoline as a family.
After days of abandoning us to the dogs, the sun finally agreed to play peek-a-boo for a few hours. We burst out of the doors and onto the valley like a bunch of nature-starved Von Trapp children, as a wooden church and pastures filled with horses and cows served as our backdrop. We walked off the lethargy, poking our noses everywhere and laughing at ducks as they dive-bombed the river for food, feathery bums quivering in the air.
After 3 weeks in Norway, some Peking Duck would be nice.
Instead, we went to the world’s only gamalost cheese bar, Ostebar, in Norway, because my 5-year-old loves the stuff. He has been hooked on gamalost – an “old cheese” that even the Norwegians themselves are afraid of – ever since he first tried it in Oslo. Called the “Viking Viagra” because it was so potent (and potently awful), gamalost is one of Europe’s oldest cheeses and produced using a special mold.
It’s crumbly, brown and very bitter, and I regretted the instant I stepped into the cheese bar to request for a tasting platter. The lady behind the counter looked shock at first, but quickly recovered to produce a plate with four tiny gamalost squares on salted crackers – one for each of us. Mika happily ate his portion and begged for seconds, something that no child has ever done in the history of this cheese bar judging from the look on the lady’s face.
I said a little prayer and popped it in my mouth, pretending it was holy communion and I was doing it for God. But the small dollop of sour cream and cranberry jelly managed to mask how awful it truly was, and the bitterness that lingered in my mouth evaporated once I got to the good stuff – freshly made bruschetta and melted cheese sandwiches, all washed down with a big glass of fresh raspberry juice.
Finally, it was time to say goodbye to the fjord. As we made our way inland, up the mountains that separated God’s Own Country from Bergen, we turned back for a final glance. A shaft of light has broken through the dense, grey clouds, bathing the town below in a warm glow.
God, if he exists, certainly has a great sense of humor.
Villa Solvorn The only mid-range dwelling in a pint-sized town. Tastefully furnished, with a cozy living room and board games if you’re stuck inside on a rainy day, as well as breakfast. Perfectly pleasant, if you’re willing to overlook the shared (but luxurious) bathrooms, small rooms and its remote location. $$$
- There are many fjords in Norway but we chose the Sognefjord because it offers a good variety of activities to please every member of the family.
- The best way to see the Sognefjord is on a boat cruise (to Naeroyfjord) that runs from Flam and Gudvangen. There are big passenger ships, but smaller (and faster) RIB boats provided by Fjordsafari are much more exciting with children and lets you get up close and personal to the waterfalls.
- It’s wise to set aside a couple of days for exploring, given the sheer scale of Sognefjord. Base yourself in one (or two) of the idyllic fjord-side villages – some say Solvorn and Balestrand are the prettiest. While it doesn’t have the postcard-pretty views of its small town neighbors, Flam is very convenient and great for those staying only one or two nights. It also has the coolest pub in Norway!
- If staying by the water’s edge is important, it’s best to book several months in advance. Otherwise, there are many self-catering apartments / chalets available inland. These are much cheaper during peak season.
- You can have your entire trip pre-planned for you by booking a Norway in a Nutshell tour (www.norwaynutshell.com). Trips are customizable, and perfect for those who want to see the highlights in a short amount of time.