In travel, there are always little tidbits to encounter. Seemingly insignificant at the time, but memories none the less. A carving above a doorway. Cultural norms. Wildlife. Fun finds. Here are some of mine.
It was an alien feeling. Walking down the jetway in Copenhagen in 81 degrees of sunshine felt like a blast furnace. Just the day before it was 42 degrees when we awoke in the Norwegian Arctic.
Clearly my head was on bike touring when I made my packing list. I brought every layer of warm bike clothes I owned. I didn’t think very clearly about our post-bike adventures in the far north. I looked on with envy at the passengers on Hurtigruten, snug in their quilted jackets, hats and gloves. Thankfully, hunkering down in my layers of cycling clothes was nearly as good. I admit to feeling silly in my sandals. In fact, in four weeks in Norway, where sturdy hiking shoes are the norm, I only saw one other person in sandals besides the two of us. And he was wearing socks. Okay, so I resorted to the same measure of desperation.
Norway and especially its islands are reputed to be wet. After 16 days of cycling in near perfect sunshine and moderate temperatures, I could hardly argue with cloudy skies and a few showers once we were off the bicycles. Our timing was impeccable. I could easily deal with cold and damp from the protected environs of the ship. And after all, it wasn’t too far removed from a typical Duluth summer.
The remoteness and low population density of Norway also reminded me of Northern Minnesota. With one big exception – the mountains. They were everywhere, a constant backdrop to the coastal views, the picturesque fishing villages, the harbor scenes and even sandy beaches. Ranging from towering rocky peaks to softer tundra mounds and sheer cliffs, I never grew tired of them.
We just missed the last day of the midnight sun. But we still had 18 hours of sunlight each day accompanied by near light on each end. Sunsets lingered forever, as the sun reluctantly retreated toward the horizon. On the flip side, the length and quality of my sleep depended on the effectiveness of that night’s blackout curtains.
Breakfast was always included in our lodgings, and consistently meant a breakfast buffet that rarely varied in its offerings. Skipping over the cold fish, meats, cheeses and relishes that are Norwegian staples I’d head straight for the fresh loaves of hearty warm bread, wrapped in a cotton cloth just waiting for me to cut a thick slice or two. A bowl of muesli – not to be confused with granola – soaked with milk and topped with raisins and almonds would hold me long into the afternoon. Sweet options were noticeably absent.
At dinner time I was in my element. As a fish lover married to a solid meat eater, I relished the opportunity to indulge my tastes. I made it a point to order fish every evening, which wasn’t hard given the ubiquitous coastline and fishing industry of Norway. I’m rather proud of my record, eating meat only 4 times for dinner. And three of those were evenings when we had set menus.
If there’s anything I’m looking forward to eating at home, it’s fresh fruits and vegetables. We rarely had them beyond a few offerings at breakfast, and leafy salads as we know them did not exist. Beyond that, I admit to having a hankering for a thick chewy chocolate chip cookie.
Our travels often reveal a favorite drink of the day. This trip we discovered pear cider. Already fans of hard cider, we quickly adapted to this local variation. The cold slightly fizzy brew went down easily after a long day of cycling. Or just sightseeing.
We certainly never had to worry about being connected. No matter how remote the town or how modest our lodgings, we nearly always had free WiFi. Even on board the ship, it came with our passage. You won’t find that on any cruise ship!
Norwegians do love their bicycles. City centers were full of them. Kids all ride them to school, just as their parents cycle to work. Bike trails are the norm, both in town where they are shared with pedestrians, and out in the countryside. And colorful bikes posing as flower pots adorn many front yards.
It seems I got it all wrong. Here I thought that by steaming to the end of the line on the Hurtigruten ferry, we would be way up north. Right up at the top of the continent. As it turns out, in Kirkenes we are at the same latitude as Tromsø. Heck, we got up that far last time we were in Norway. It hadn’t occurred to me that we were going over the top and then back down again.
While I’m confessing my geography misconceptions, I might as well point out that we are now as far east as Cairo. And almost all of Finland is west of us. I had to check the map. Sure enough.
But I do know that we are nearly on the Russian border. And our excursion to see King Oscar II Chapel brought us as close as you can get without crossing. The first clue was the road signs. Below the place names we recognized were Cyrillic characters. Turning just short of border control, we followed a small road for the final 20k. The further we went, the narrower and bumpier the road. We followed a river. Signs informed us that the boundary went down the middle. The also listed a whole lot of things we must NOT do. Including point our camera toward the other side. I knew we were harmless Americans, but it felt onerous. We were being watched.
The chapel was built in 1869, in hopes of resolving the disputes over the fishing border with Russia. Instead of the gunboat that was requested to patrol the waters, it was deemed that a church would serve to peaceably mark the Norwegian territory. Whether it succeeded is unknown, but it seems a good example of diplomacy.
Having paid our respects to the church, we continued to the end of the road. Norwegian military personnel were in evidence, but gave us a friendly wave. A watch tower stood on the top of the nearest rise. Despite the fact that the temperature hadn’t reached 50 degrees and dark clouds portended rain, we lingered on the long sandy beach nearby. While Rich patiently waited for birds to draw nearer, I walked the beach from end to end, taking care not to venture past the yellow border obelisk.
Our AirBnB in Kirkenes turned out to be a lovely Scandinavian modern cottage behind our hosts’ home. We took advantage of the cozy environs to hang out for our final morning, knowing it was a long day until our 9pm flight. We were awakened by sunlight streaming in at an absurd hour, but delighted by its surprise reappearance. Setting out for an early morning walk that took me up to the rocky hilltop, not only did I find great vistas, but a little lake and the eerie call of red throated loons. The whole aura of the city was transformed by the change in weather.
We made use of the car to go on another field trip, this time to see a stave church and a fishing village. But our favorite attractions were along the route. In the midst of the barren, scrubby, rocky land we saw several herds of reindeer and two moose!
And now we start the long process to get home. I get this geography. Going from one small town in Norway to another small town in Minnesota requires five flights. And a lot of waiting. I’m already looking forward to being on home territory again, and sleeping in my own bed. I don’t need any lessons to tell me how good that will feel.
My heart sank as the man uttered the words I feared I might hear. “It’s out in the open sea. The boat has no stabilizers, so it is likely to be rough.” He was talking about the Birding Safari that Rich had signed up for near the North Cape. I wasn’t interested in birding, but the prospect of seeing puffins, sea lions and maybe even whales was alluring. Just not under those conditions. The judge had ruled against me. I would have to pass.
We were above the tree line now, as a member of the Expedition Team explained to the gathering out on deck. The only vegetation on the rocky slopes were low tundra grasses, mosses and lichens. Many faces were shear rock. These mountain ranges were lower, smoother, devoid of the sharp peaks and pockets of snow I was used to seeing. But impressive in their own way.
The harbor in the tiny town of Honningsvåg was surrounded by colorful houses and a dramatic backdrop of mountains. As Rich eagerly rushed to his tour, I headed straight to the Tourist Info office. Soon afterwards, I emerged. Map in hand, with a plan.
So far, our weather on the ship had been far from stellar. Low clouds and dreary skies dampened the impact of the passing scenery. But as I made a circuit around the harbor filled with fishing boats, the sun staged a comeback. Reaching the far side, I consulted my map and headed uphill.
The Info lady had recommended two hiking trails. They started together then one branched off to an overlook. Indeed, it provided a bird’s eye view of the harbor, and even our Hurtigruten ferry shrank down to toy size. A nearby trail map showed where I was, as well as the trail she suggested I take. It followed a mountain pass and continued on to a lake. In theory that sounded good, but I found the wide gravel path unappealing.
In contrast, a narrow wiggly foot-worn path continued up the mountainside. In groups of two or three and representing all ages and abilities, walkers passed by and headed up the trail. None hesitated as they passed the sign. They just marched forward, conquering that hill. Soon a whole line of colorful dots squiggled up the mountainside, illustrating exactly where the path led.
I tried to want to hike to the lake. It was the sensible thing to do. But that little trail called to me. I checked the map again. Even on there, it was all switchbacks. But the other way way so ugly. “I’ll just go a little higher,” I rationalized.
The going was easier than I expected. The rise was steep, but I navigated the dirt and rocks despite my woeful footwear. Having packed for a bike tour, I brought only my Keene sandals. They served me well post bike ride each day, but were hardly ideal for the cold weather and hiking on this segment of our trip. I wasn’t about to let my lack of foresight prevent me from this adventure. One foot in front of the other, I continued.
Getting a grip going up was one thing. It was going back down that had me concerned. So far I hadn’t seen a soul come back this way. But I kept going. By then I was committed.
Nearly to the ridge line I was feeling triumphant. Scrambling up the final bit, the harbor on the opposite side came into view. That was my definition of success, even though I discovered another ridge just beyond. With the departure time for the ship weighing on my mind, I called it a summit. And celebrated with selfies.
The journey down started with crab crawling, using three and four point contact to stay on the hillside. I took pains not to look down, but when I jiggled a rock free I noted how far it tumbled before stopping. I took heart in knowing that the trail would get easier as I went.
In truth, the hike was barely three kilometers. But the path to the lake looked just as ugly on the way back down. Surely a mountaintop view was a superior choice. And I finished in plenty of time to seek out ice cream and consume it in a sunny sheltered spot by the harbor.
Rich returned triumphant. He glowingly expounded on the hundreds of puffins, the sea eagles and reindeer that he saw. I was envious. Almost. “It was really wavy out there,” he reported. “At times I couldn’t even stand up.” Just like me up there on that mountain. Only I didn’t risk getting seasick.
Goodbye bikes. So long Audi. Farewell land touring. We about to set sail!
Three years ago we spent five days on a Hurtigruten ferry. That time we only went as far north as Tromsø. This time we intend to complete the journey up to Kirkenes.
The advantage of Hurtigruten is that it’s primary purpose is to serve the communities along the coast, delivering mail and foot passengers along the way. So the ships never stray far from land, delivering up close views of the dramatic shoreline. Once a day it stops for a few hours in a town of interest, where cars can get on and off and cruise passengers like us can have a look around.
As a frame of reference, we started this trip in Tromsø. The green dots are the places we stayed while bike touring. Today we depart from Bodø, stopping at all the red dots to the end of the line at Kirkenes.
We are curious to see what it’s like at the Nordkapp (North Cape), the northernmost point in Europe. View the landscape above the tree line. Imagine life in these extremes.
Bring on the finale.
Photo courtesy of Hurtigruten
It didn’t seem quite like a fair trade. Our two bicycles for an Audi. I felt like we lost on the deal. But it was the right thing to do.
Following our 14 days of touring the Arctic Islands with the Discover Norway Tour we planned four more days of cycling on our own on the mainland. This was more the style of touring we were used to. No more swanky lodgings. No more 3-course dinners. This involved two out-and-back trips to accommodations Rich scouted months ago via the Internet. Roads that he scoped on Google Maps.
The first went off without a hitch. Mostly. Following the coast north from Bodø we cycled quiet roads that skirted the mountains and provided sea views most of the way. We traversed farmland and passed secluded reservoirs. Sheep grazed alongside the road, their bells alerting us to their presence. The lack of traffic made it relaxing, and even the hill climbs seemed milder than anticipated. After taking a ferry to cross a fjord, we had the road nearly to ourselves. The final 33 kilometers dead ended at our lodgings.
The Kjellingfjord Rorbusenter sat on a quiet harbor. Boats bobbed on their moorings, and the whole place was suspended above the water, built on pilings. Our humble rorbu had two sets of bunk beds and a small living area. I spent the afternoon on the deck out front. It felt like the middle of nowhere. Which it was.
Our return trip reversed the route the next day, and being Sunday it was even quieter. Stopping for a break at a beach, we lingered in the warm sunshine. It would prove to be a fatal choice, as we got caught in a sudden torrent of wind and rain before reaching our hotel. The duration was about what we spent at the beach… But we agreed it was worth it.
Despite that success, there were signs that we needed to reconsider our plan. Rich’s sketchy eyesight was taking its toll. Cycling was mentally exhausting. As if in cahoots, his bike had begun to complain. It’s squeaks were amplified that final day of cycling, then accompanied by persistent pinging and intermittent rubbing.
Thankful for a safe journey so far, we chose to end our cycling while that was still true. Our do-it-yourself tours gave us the flexibility to change course. Rich arranged for a rental car, and visibly relaxed. When we retrieved our bikes the next morning to ship them back to Tromsø, Rich’s rear tire was totally flat. It was just the first indication that we had chosen well.
What would have taken us all day on our bicycles required only an hour in the car. So what better way to spend the afternoon than watching swirling water?
We were eager to see the Saltstraumen Maelstrom, which was right on our way. It is acclaimed to be the world’s strongest tidal current. Four times a day when the tide changes, the incoming and outgoing tides battle and create a confluence of rough water and swirling whirlpools. It is caused by water rushing through the narrow opening between two large fjords.
We arrived a couple of hours before the peak of the action. Feeling the warmth of the afternoon sunshine we quickly talked ourselves into having a snack at the the little cafe perched high above the water flow. There we could sit out on the deck and watch the fishermen as well as the growing clash of the tides. It was easy to while away the time, and indeed it was an impressive show. I especially enjoyed watching the seagulls spin around the edges of the whirlpools.
Turning into the drive for the Kjellingstaum Fjordcamp I admit to having my doubts. It was dominated by campers seemingly helter skelter on the unkempt grounds, with a few cabins that had seen better days. The elderly proprietor showed us to a small cabin with bunk beds, a tiny table and chairs and kitchenette – more time worn than quaint. The toilets and shower were located in a building just down the way, he informed us. And the restaurant we thought they had? No, the only food option was at the gas station 5 kilometers back.
First impressions aside, the place turned out to be a gem in its own right. Situated on the edge of a fjord with the tall suspension bridge in the distance, there were ample spots to sit and take in the view. I quickly adopted the big rock as my personal favorite.
Dinner was another adventure. True to his word, the gas station had a food counter. We paid a king’s ransom for fried frozen chicken and fish, with a hearty serving of fries and a bit of greenery. At best we could say we had enough to eat. A trip to the local Coop market scored a box of Musli and milk for breakfast. Let it never be said that our bike touring meals are not memorable. At least we didn’t have to cycle the extra 10k for these!
We returned to find a campfire ablaze on the shore. The chairs were all empty, but soon other campers drifted in and we joined the small group huddled around its heat. Despite the late hour and the fact that the sun had disappeared behind the mountains, it continued to paint the clouds pink and red. A long, lazy process this far north. Gradually the group’s quiet conversations began to knit together and camaraderie grew as we shared our stories around that fire. The kind of experience that can’t be planned.
Driving back to Bodø we acknowledged the obvious. The busy road. The lack of shoulders. The repeating hills. Challenging conditions even for a perfectly sighted cyclist. No room for mistakes. We had indeed made a good trade.
When Rich opened the curtains, the morning sunshine that streamed in came as a complete surprise. I assumed the cloud cover had moved in for the duration. I jumped out of bed, eager to see all the scenery that had been hiding for the past two days.
The dock just outside our rorbu was perfectly positioned for some of the iconic views.
Our itinerary said that the road into Reine “has been voted the most picturesque view in Norway.” How could I resist? Rich rolled his eyes when I asked for one more photo.
We had only five kilometers to cycle to Moskenes to catch the ferry to Bodo, on the mainland. It was no hardship to wait for the ferry in the warm sunshine, surrounded by mountains.
When we left port, I stood on the back deck of the ferry to catch my final glimpse of the Lofoten Islands, starting with the harbor views.
It was when we pulled away from shore that I gathered the full impact of the islands. Mountain peaks stretched from left to right. 180 degrees. As far as I could see. Not just a single ridge line, this scene was in 3D. I couldn’t do it justice with my camera, so I just stood to take it all in. Watching the mountain range retreat. A sunny and majestic sendoff.