If I’d done my research before buying a flight to Norway, I would probably never have gone.
As it was, I got the ticket first and then bought a guide book which, with its grainy grey photographs of wind-blasted mountains, made it look like a landscape in perpetual mourning. Seeking reassurance, I got in touch with a friend who had recently returned from a coastal tour of Norway.
This is the email he sent me:
“Most expensive place I’ve ever been. Made Tokyo and the Middle East seem a giveaway, Madison Avenue a thrift shop. No pubs. Bad Viking tourist centres selling plastic helmets with plastic horns in plastic log cabins. Traditional sweaters machine-knitted out of mixed fibres in Southeast Asia. Tower block-sized cruise ships glinting in the sunlight. Black water. Cold.
“The salad is sold with roots on it. The cheese is a rubbery tan colour and sweet. There is no live music. (We did find an Eagles covers band one evening in Bergen.) The only upside is that walking in Norway in August will make Scotland in December seem Latin in its light, Mediterranean in its cuisine and Jewish in its humour. Even the fish are sad.”
But hey-ho. The truth is I had a smattering of air miles that needed using up, and Bergen was the furthest European destination to which they would carry me. Plus, my sister Liza had offered to come along, and being an artist, she likes mountains. Especially grim, grey ones. And anyway, the deed was done.
So, off we set to Norway’s second city (population 275,000). Bergen is the gateway to some of the most celebrated walking routes in Norway. From here you can strike out to the fjords, to Hardangervidda (the largest mountainous plateau in Northern Europe), or to the violent peaks of Jotunheimen, which translates as “the land of the giants”.
Bergen is pretty enough. At its centre, jauntily-painted clapboard buildings surround the port which looks out on a breathtaking archipelago to the east. To the west, the city’s outskirts spread like fingers into the valleys of the seven mountains that encircle it. A brisk walk (or a brisker cable car) will take you to the top of the tallest of these, Ulriken, 643m above sea level. From here you can take the whole thing in: the sea, the islands, the fjords and the chocolate box town. Lovely. But my gloomy friend was right about one thing. Hell’s bells, it’s expensive.
Norwegian salaries, in even the most menial of jobs, are vast and artificially inflated by the huge wealth stored in the country’s oil reserves. Prices are concomitantly high. On my second night in Bergen, sitting in a bar cradling a 400ml glass of beer that cost £10, I got talking to a local. He works six weeks on (as a waiter on one of the coastal ferries) and has six weeks off – in a villa in Brazil, with a staff of two, that he pays for with his crazy earnings.
For those of us without oil money, the Norwegian economy can feel pretty scary. It’s as if the country gets a mainline into your bank account as soon as you arrive at the airport, and begins to suck you dry. There is no way to fight it. You just have to get out of the city before cash runs out.
And that suited us fine. I’ve been reading the Norse myths to my young sons recently, and I wanted to see the Norwegian countryside. This, according to legend, is where Odin and Thor and the rest of the Aesir gods got up to their giant-bashing antics; and where, some day yet to come, they will meet for the final time on the battlefield of Ragnarök.
Loki’s evil army of giants and monsters will swoop down over the plains in a giant ship shaped like a dragon. Odin will be swallowed in one great gulp by Loki’s son, the wolf Fenrir, who will in turn be dispatched by the warrior god Vidar.
Thor will slay the Midgard serpent but will then only be able to take nine steps before he too falls dead, a victim of its terrible venom. Finally, the fire giant, Surt, will set the worlds ablaze, burning all their inhabitants, gods and mortals. The earth will sink into the sea.
So it is foretold.
For now, though, there’s an efficient train service taking you to the mountains from Bergen. Ravishing glimpses of fjords and plunging waterfalls flash past the window into blackness as the train rushes from one tunnel to the next.
By the time we arrived at Ustaoset, on the northeast corner of the Hardangervidda plateau, a drizzly mist had settled in, obscuring everything. We walked a few damp kilometres through the gloaming to the local motel. The owner explained her husband had died a few years back and he did the cooking. So there was no food. Instead, we popped open a tube of salt-sweet smoked cods roe Kaviar, spread it on rye bread and sat up late into the night – it never gets properly dark in the summer – poring over maps and planning our trek into the heart of the plateau.
The Norwegian wilderness is vast. It will dwarf anything you have experienced. Walking here makes the Scottish Highlands feel like Hyde Park. You can go for 12 hours without meeting another soul. For the most part of the seven days we spent on the plateau, we were at least a six-hour walk from the nearest road. Walking through this vast emptiness, mostly in silence, a strange thing happened to my thought patterns.
At first the same old thoughts dominated, chasing each other round my head to the rhythm of my breathing. But gradually they evaporated and new thoughts bubbled up. New ones. Businesses to start. People I wanted to spend more time with. Things I wanted to experience.
Each thought would pop up and I’d examine it, then it would drift off to be replaced by another. It was exhilarating. I was pounding vast distances, a crazed smile on my face, enjoying the internal show as well as the external one.
That initial day we walked for 14 hours before arriving for our first stay in a state-run hut, perched on the edge of a long lake punctuated by huge rocks, which looked like water-buffalo drinking in the dusk. There is a network of these huts spread across rural Norway for the benefit of walkers and (in the winter) skiers. The maps show the walking distance between them: typically six or seven hours. There’s no electricity, no mobile phone reception, no iPads. You have breakfast by candlelight, read books and talk to strangers.
There are two sorts of hut. Serviced huts are run, most often, by a couple, who provide dinner and breakfast. In self-service huts, you bring your own food, or buy from the storeroom via an honesty system. The set-up is all very Nordic. You sleep in large dormitories and cook and have dinner in a communal room.
Occupants – mostly Norwegian, with a few Germans – are expected to share tasks such as collecting water from the river or sweeping the floor. Do so when there is someone around to see, or you may get dark looks from other guests who assume you aren’t pulling your weight.
The only other custom you need to be aware of is not to ask anyone you meet what they do for a living. This is considered the height of rudeness. Norwegians come to the mountains to escape the restrictions and labels of their daily lives.Over the following few days we gradually climbed from the eastern plateau up into the mountains. The panoramic rolling moorland, glinting with a thousand lakes, transformed into a wilder, bleaker place as we passed lakes, peaks and valleys with names that seemed to come straight from Tolkein’s Middle Earth: Rauhelleren, Hadlaskard, Torehytten. The land is wild, but in summer it is giving. You can pick wild blueberries almost anywhere. Sweet, translucent cloudberries are also common. If you are thirsty, you can drink from any stream. The Norwegians are proud of this, and it is a wonderful feeling.
If you fancy meat, there are plenty of lemmings to hunt. These little mammals are cute and furry, like wild hamsters. They are also famously stupid. At one of the huts we stayed in, the Norwegians hosted a quiz which my sister and I won (with the help of some local ringers). The prize was a “grill spear” – for local pronunciation think of a Sean-Connery-esque “grillshpeeer”. This wooden-handled prong expands telescopically to a length of about 3ft, the idea being you spike your meat on one end and grill it over an open fire. I am convinced they were designed with lemmings in mind.
Other than the fresh berries, the food is not much to speak of. If you are in a serviced hut, the best value comes from having soup and bread at night but taking the full breakfast in the morning. These are epic and it is considered completely acceptable to stuff your pack with goodies for the day ahead. A typical spread will include: porridge (delicious, made with yoghurt), cereals, three types of herring, home-baked bread, six types of pickle, daintily sliced vegetables and salad, all sorts of cured meats, patés, cheeses, crispbreads, boiled eggs, butter and jam.
It is also worth stocking up on essentials before leaving the city. We had bought some dried whale and the aforementioned Kaviar. “We’ve got hardly any Kaviar left,” my sister said to me on our penultimate day, as we picnicked on the top of a precipitous cliff. “Will you pass the whale?”
On our last day, we climbed up into the mountains as the sun came out. As we trudged along a path covered in permafrost, the air temperature rose to more than 20°C. And as we descended, baking hot, a crystalline lake with a sandy beach appeared below us. The permafrost at one end of the lake glowed blue and fresh. We raced down the path and plunged straight in.
That night we made our way up to the hut at Stavali, where the owner had built a hot tub. It was warmed by a large metal bucket, submerged in the water, in which we burned logs. We bought a £10 can of lager each and sat in the tub in our underwear with six Norwegian women on their annual walking holiday. A gale blew up and whisked water into our faces, and we laughed with mad happiness.
If I’d done my research first, I’d never have gone to Norway. Sometimes, it pays to be disorganised.