The preparation for Norway is a string of complicated visa forms, much documentation and long flights, chipping slowly away at my enthusiasm. But the moment the cruise from Copenhagen docks at the Oslo harbour, the wonder is back. I am met by a blond Norwegian guide who says, to my utter shock, “Aapka hardik swagat hai.” Gro was an airhostess with Air India in the 1980s and she can still turn on the old-fashioned elegant Hindi and namaskar manner at will. “It was a rite of passage, to see the real world,” she says. “Young Norwegians still do it.”
From its youth travelling halfway across the world to work South Asia into their bildungsroman to their diplomats brokering peace treaties with militants in conflict-ridden countries and from their love for curries to their generous refugee acceptance policies, Norway is a country with a global soul. It is the seat of the Nobel Peace Prize. Fifteen percent of its population is from the EU or the Middle East or Sri Lanka. Nearly everyone who discovers my nationality asks me informed questions about the new Indian prime minister. And as I check into the stunning Grand Hotel in Oslo’s main square, portly south Indian men film an upbeat Tamil movie song with Norwegian extras. By the end of the day, the square has attracted perhaps every brown-skinned film-lover in town.
Over my five days there, however, it is not the global accent, but a distinctly Norwegian quality that turns the trip from an itinerary into an experience, complete with philosophising, self-reflection and a deep sense of having seen more than the sights.
First off, the capital Oslo is as un-concrete as they come, shattering my idea of urban landscapes. Then, as I go westward, witnessing snow-capped mountains, waterfalls and lakes, I have a recurring, embarrassing, thought: where are the flotillas of beer cans and chocolate wrappers? Perhaps this is conservation envy. But it is more. I covet the tenacious lungs of the tall Norwegians always excited about steep climbs and deep dives. Salmon fishing is a child’s hobby, and so are sailing and skiing. The forest walks are winding and tough but marked perfectly by the municipality. The workdays are short, the weekends long enough for a ski trip. The salmon is pinker than the eye can trust, the tap water astonishingly pure. In summer, there is the mind-bending vision of the midnight sun. There is something that ties them all: a certain something not quantifiable in Unesco heritage lists or describable in tourist brochures. It’s something that lies in the tenuous relationship between human and nature.
It is when I stumble upon the word Allemannsrett that I get closest to that something that underlies the Norwegian way of life. It translates to ‘All man’s right’, or the freedom to roam in any uncultivated land, no matter who it belongs to. It is an old Nordic custom now enshrined in law, guaranteeing the public the joy of being one with their surroundings. It celebrates recreation and the interaction between man and nature as well as the ability for a community to jointly own, use and preserve its trees, rivers and hills. It comes with implicit responsibilities: you don’t light a fire in a forest, you don’t leave behind your picnic garbage by the lake, you don’t taunt the birds. It is Nordic for coexistence.
I hear of Allemannsrett only as I leave the country. Instantly, it is the thread connecting my three out-of-body moments in Norway.
At Geiranger, I stand at the floor-length glass window in my fifth-floor hotel room, looking out. It is seven in the morning, orange spears of light pierce the clouds. The coniferous trees and the sloped house-roofs are aglow. Below, the ultramarine water is a million blinding diamonds, as if right below my feet, as if I only have to bend to dip a finger into a thousand years of natural history. Yesterday, I did not know what a fjord was. Right at this moment, it defeats me.
Geiranger is science and geography and civilisation all at once. It is over 4,600 million years old, but it was the last two million years of glacial engineering that created the fjords—narrow, deep, long tongues of the sea, flanked by steep cliffs. The valley was worn out by cycles of geological persistence, first by the power and flow of melting ice carving out a passage to the open sea, and then by the same water turning into solid ice and snow, their compressed weight shaping the mountains. Mountains widen, and the sea level rises and falls with the cycle of melt and freeze of creviced ice. I imagine this dizzying activity on repeat for millennia, in utter slow motion.
Here, the world is deceivingly still, hiding centuries of lumbering glaciers, hot and cold thrusting winds, tightening and layering of granite and limestone, all slashed through by countless years of escaping ice. Norway’s extensive Storfjord fjord system includes four fjords, the most spectacular of them all being the aptly named arrow-head of Geirangerfjord.
As I take a ferry along the fjord, every twist and curve reinforces the drama of its evolution. As only a very old place will, Geiranger echoes with the myths and mysticism of people who passed through. The stories bring the rocks and water to life—the edge of a cliff that becomes a man with a large nose; the 750-feet-high, seven-fingered waterfall that are the seven beautiful sisters who had rejected proposals from another lone waterfall, which then drunkenly took the lovelorn shape of a whisky bottle. On the hill ledges, a handful of tiny cottages and farms comes into view. They used to grow apricot, apples and rear cattle, but the last of them was abandoned in the 1960s due to harsh winters. Friends of the Fjord, a community organisation, now conserves the huts. On the day excursion climbing steep rocks, guides tell panting city-bred tourists that the harder the trek, the greater the reward, and the sweeter the submission. In a yellow kayak, a lone rower looks panicked and lost, but a neighbour on the ferry tells me getting lost is the way to experience the fjords (someone will come and get the rower before dark). Above us, atop the mountains, are glaciers glistening like puddles of mercury. Someone mutters about climate change, about the right to behold, and the duty to protect. Fully gobsmacked, I’m never more aware of my being a tiny organism made mostly of water, only 100,000 years young, and mortal as hell.
It is a cold morning, there is a slight drizzle, and the only noise in the cod-fishing port town of Ålesund is that of screeching sea gulls. I’m huffing up a street that is at a 45Ã‹? incline, wondering if I can run fast enough uphill if one of the parked cars starts to roll backwards into my path. At the top of the road, I look back. The sea licks the edges of the town, but it is the eel-like canal that is the heart of Ålesund, and after which it gets its name. The sculpture of a fisherman’s apprentice—a grubby boy with a coiled rope—and only a few paces away, another of a beefy woman sorting herring. Ålesund is a true port town, with sails and decks never out of sight. Everything is grey, white and ivory, but the bright rows of houses, offices and hotels stand apart like a seagull’s bright beak. They are vivid—fuchsia, canary, cobalt blue, blood red—uniformly spaced, and profuse in their decorativeness. It is the determined face of a city that rose from the ashes.
At 3am on January 23, 1904, a naked flame from a factory was blown across the canal by a storm, and in 16 hours, burned 650 wooden houses to the ground. About 12,000 people lost their homes, and one elderly woman died. A renovated chemist shop today chronicles that night—the residents running out of their homes in their nightwear, the woman who wore an elaborate hat but only an underskirt, the doctor who had grabbed only a lamp shade, the strange absence of screams or tears, quiet and stunned people walking. In just three years, the residents rebuilt Ålesund, understanding their environment better, giving the wood up for brick-and-mortar construction. It became a hub for architects from Europe and across Norway. Whether it is time, perspective, or submission to an unavoidable catastrophe, the retelling of Ålesund’s Big Fire in the chemist shop, now a museum, does not have a note of tragedy, but renewal. “A clean slate to rebuild a city… a dream come true,” the voice of one of 30 Norwegian rebuilding architects quivers with excitement. They built it in the art nouveau style, fashionable then, but also one that is inspired by their everyday surroundings. Ålesund’s buildings today are highly decorated, with intricate floral and plant-inspired motifs, asymmetrical lines, images of ships and silhouettes of mermaids, seaweed, grass and even insects. No testimony in the museum is angry about the fire or the wind, because as a local and tourism director, Geir Vik, says, “Nature is nature, we have to learn to live with it.”
I do not expect the world’s largest anything made by man to hold my attention for more than a few minutes, let alone move me. But the 80 acres of Oslo’s Vigeland park, the world’s largest sculpture park made by a single artist, and protected as Norwegian heritage, has me enthralled for hours. There are 212 sculptures, and it is at the highest point of the park where stands the Monolith carved from a single granite block, that I sit down. The Monolith depicts the cycle of life—men, women, children and infants climb towards the heavens as a column of bodies contorted with apparent sorrow, desperation, need, pain and hope, in the true essence of evolving together towards spiritual salvation. Around it, 36 encircling figures show human relationships in brutal honesty—the calm of an elderly couple, the indifference of friends, the violent love of brothers, the bovine stance of a mother with her children, the duty-bound silence of a son holding his ageing mother.
I touch the twisting calf muscle of a woman near the bottom of the Monolith. The granite is cold and silvery as the fjord it perhaps came from, but her face, looking up at the infant right above her, is every shade of warm.
There are daily flights from Aeroflot from Delhi to Oslo for about Ã¢?¹ 22,000 per person. KLM Royal Dutch and Jet Airways have one-stop flights from Mumbai from approximately Ã¢?¹ 27,000 to Ã¢?¹ 34,000 per person. You could also go via Copenhagen, Denmark on the DFDS Seaways ferry (dfdsseaways.com) or on the daily service trains from Stockholm. From Oslo fly SAS Airways for $200 return to Vigra, the closest airport for Ålesund. Rent a car or hire a bus from Ålesund to Geiranger, connected by roads and half-hourly public ferries that you can drive into. Indians need a Schengen visa to visit Norway (norwayemb. org.in/visaandresidence). NOK1=Ã¢?¹ 8.1
Where to stay
In Oslo, I stayed at the elegant Grand Hotel (from NOK 1,738.25 doubles including breakfast; grand.no/en) at Karl Johans gate in the heart of Oslo. The Thief (from NOK2,190 doubles including breakfast; thethief.com/ en) is stylish and overlooks the water, while Saga Hotel (from NOK 1,395 including breakfast; sagahoteloslo.no/en/the-hotel) is a pretty art deco building in a residential district. For an expensive city, the clean and basic Cochs Pension (from NOK 720 doubles; cochspensjonat.no) near Royal Park is a good option. At Ålesund, stay at Rica (from NOK 1,245 doubles including breakfast; rica-hotels.com/ hotels/alesund), or Hotel Brosundet (from NOK 1,390 doubles; brosundet.no/en) where Room 47 is a 150-year-old lighthouse. In Geiranger, Union Hotel (from NOK 1,930 doubles; hotelunion.no/ en) and Hotel Geiranger (from NOK 1,260 doubles; hotel-geirang er.no) are among the oldest and best places to stay.
Where to eat
Seafood is a must all over Norway, especially the traditional salmon and cod. Eat at the famous Annen Etage, the arty Theatercaféen, or the legendary Grand Café in the Grand Hotel. In Ålesund, sample the Bacalao de Noruega made traditionally with salted, dried cod. The lovely Milk Bar & Lounge that juts into the jetty, with the waves under its glass floors, is lovely.
What to see & do
In Oslo, go to the Vigeland Sculpture Park, the open-air Norwegian Museum of Cultural History, the Holmenkollen ski jump, and the breathtaking Oslo City Hall, where the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony takes place every year.
In beautiful Ålesund (booking.visitalesund.com, or tour planner ut.no), take a guided walk or kayak on the canal, go to the Art Nouveau Centre for the ‘Time Machine’, the spectacular Fjellstua viewpoint, and take the kids to the award-winning Atalnterhavsparken aquarium. Ålesund is also a great starting point for glacier hikes or round trips to the fjords.
At Geiranger (visitgei rangerfjord. com), collect a trekking map from the Fjord Centre and choose between Nordic Mindful Walking (meretesZengarden.no), medium waterfall treks, and tough climbs to the abandoned farms on the cliff edge. In summer, take helicopter rides (fjordhelikopter.no), guided kayak trips and fishing (activegei ranger.no), or go mountain biking (kragebakk.no). In winter, ski or snowboard (strandafjellet.no) at the region’s largest alpine resort.