Stuffing yet another chunk of minutes-from-the-sea Alaskan king crab into my mouth, I silently thanked the Russians for the 1960s experiment that introduced this scrumptious crustacean into the Barents Sea. Only three days into my Scandinavian adventure, and already I was smitten — not only by the food, but also by the art, culture, heritage and style.
Over the course of 10 days, I channeled my inner Viking, nourished my art-seeking soul and indulged my Aquarian sign by sandwiching a six-day, southbound Hurtigruten cruise between stays in Oslo, Norway’s capital, and Bergen, the 2000 European City of Culture. Although I traveled in February, almost everything I experienced is available year-round, making it possible to plan a trip seeking winter’s northern lights, as I did, or basking under summer’s midnight sun.
Clean, green Oslo wowed me with a vibe that blends urban cool with artsy chic. That’s especially true on bridge-connected Thieves Island, the once-red-light-now-red-hot district framed by the Oslofjord and Tjuvholmen canals. The islet where thieves were hanged now showcases contemporary architecture and design. It’s peppered with galleries, restaurants, boutiques and the chic Thief hotel.
A perk of staying at The Thief is free admission to the adjacent Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, an adventure in itself, exhibiting boundary-pushing artwork — did I really walk through a bisected cow? Sharing the museum’s spit of land is a sculpture park, with a time-travel view across the fjord to the late-13th-century Akershus Fortress. From here, I speed-walked along the waterfront to Oslo’s downtown, bent on taking in as many sights as possible in one day.
Two sheltered arms, both lined with woodcarvings interpreting Norse mythology, drew me into City Hall’s Norwegian heritage treasure box. Great Hall, site of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony since 1990, and the rooms flanking it are tricked out with Norway-centric artwork; think paintings, frescoes and murals by Norwegian masters such as Edvard Munch, Per Krohg and Henrik Sørensen. A wall of photos highlighting Nobel ceremonies provided the perfect segue to the nearby Nobel Peace Center, a museum dedicated to sharing the story of Alfred Nobel and the prize winners.
The Munch Museum, a short hop via tram from city center, is a humble home for the works bequeathed by the artist to Oslo upon his death. In addition to The Scream and studies for it, visitors can finger through Munch’s sketchbooks on tablet computers. A new Herreros Arquitectos-designed, 12,000-square-foot museum which will allow far more of the collection to be exhibited is slated to open near Oslo’s new opera house in 2019.
I departed Oslo on a morning flight to Kirkenes, sited about 250 miles above the Arctic Circle and just 6.2 miles from the Russian border. In summer, those hankering for crab travel by boat; but in winter, when the fjord is dressed in snow white and icy silver, a snowmobile-pulled sleigh serves as the chariot to king crab ecstasy. Suited up like a Smurf, I watched our guides saw into the ice, haul a netted trap and toss the crustaceans, which can weigh up to 33 pounds and attain a leg span of six feet, onto the ice. “Here, take it for photo,” said a guide, handing me a crab by the legs and then cautioning me to put it down on its back so it didn’t escape. Then he grabbed another, plunged in a knife for an instant kill and hacked off the legs with speedy precision. Within minutes all were prepped, and we zipped to a remote cabin for a napkin-intensive, all-you-can-eat feeding frenzy.
The fjord where we trapped the crabs is but one indent in Norway’s craggy coastline. Although the country is roughly 1,100 miles long, its coastline ebbs and flows approximately 64,000 miles, noodling around 1,190 named fjords and bays and 240,000 islands. I boarded Hurtigruten’s MS Midnatsol, eager to weave through Norway’s coastal islands and fjords on a voyage that offered the tease of northern lights above treeless snowy landscapes and the promise of luminescent, color-me-blue twilights.
My home for the six-day sail to Bergen blended expeditionary cruise-line comforts with local ferry services. Hurtigruten began transporting passengers, cargo and mail between Tromsø and Hammerfest in 1893. Today, 11 ships ply this expanded coastal lifeline, each docking at 34 ports of call, some for as few as 15 minutes, others long enough for explorations. Ships head north and south every day, making it possible to take a one-way or round-trip journey or hip-hop at one’s own pace.
It didn’t take long to settle into the cruise’s rhythm. I walked the decks, lingered in lounges, studied the ship’s art collection, admired decorated glass doors that evoked The Scream and read in the library. The outdoor decks became a second home as I drank in the fresh air while eyeballing the glacier-sculpted, watery web that laced the mountains and cliffs, fjords and bays, remote fishing villages and busy towns. And I ate — too much, too often. Expansive buffet breakfasts and lunches and served-to-the-table dinners, all drawn from primarily Norwegian fare, included a mind-boggling assortment of herring as well as dishes such as reindeer paté with Aquavit-marinated cranberries and wild cod with smoked mushy peas.
The adventure of a Hurtigruten cruise is the serendipity of what awaits at any given port, whether that’s a dip in Arctic waters, a magical midnight concert at Tromsø’s Arctic Cathedral, prowling through the Hurtigruten Museum and under-restoration M/S Finnmarken in Stokmarknes or tossing back an ice glass of Arctic crowberry wine at the year-round Ice Palace in Svolvær — this, after a friend showed me his glass melting from the warmth of his hand and warned me: “Drink quickly.”
We docked in Vardø during the period of ethereal, pre-sunset light known as the blue hour. At the Steilneset Memorial, aka Witches Monument, honoring the 91 people burned at the stake here in the 17th century, lights flickered like twinkling stars against the darkening sky-and-sea backdrop, a mesmerizing sight.
In Hammerfest, I joined a guided tour of the world’s northernmost town. “Back in 1891, Hammerfest became the first town in Norway to have electric street lighting generated from its own hydropower station,” our guide said. He pointed out a church built in the shape of fish-drying racks; a humongous offshore monolith, a remnant from the Ice Age; a distant port, from where liquefied natural gas from the Snøhvit Field is shipped worldwide; a Sámi hut, where traditional cuisine is served in summer when reindeer fill the surrounding pastures; and the Struve Geodetic Arc, a UNESCO World Heritage site commemorating the first accurate measurement of Earth’s circumference.
The Vesterålen Islands were the first — and gentler — of two eye-candy archipelagos, each sprinkled with remote villages, forlorn fishing shacks and pasturelands and backed by jagged peaks plunging to the sea. The late-12th-century Trondenes Church, a fortress-like seaside beauty with six-foot-thick walls, soothed my soul with evidence of its once richly ornamented interior. At the adjacent historical center, I delved into the region’s Stone Age, Viking and medieval heritage.
The Vesterålens gave way to the rugged and rocky, cod-is-God Lofotens and the Raftsundet Passage, a roughly 15-mile-long suck-in-your-gut squeeze. As bluesy-pink pastel skies ceded to the blue hour, we nosed up Trollfjord, a skinny-bordering-on-anorexic waterway edged by muscle-bound cliffs. I’m still haunted by this still life, a moody blues image of land and sky reflected in the sea.
Trondheim, founded by King Olaf Tryggvason in the late 990s, wooed me with Viking roots and old-world charm overlaid with youthful New World buzz. Nidaros Cathedral, dating from the 11th century and built over the grave of Norway’s patron saint, now rubs shoulders with the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and Rockheim, the national museum of pop and rock. I crossed the Old Town Bridge’s “portal of happiness” to a neighborhood comprising beautifully preserved wooden buildings. And here’s where I found a meal that ranks right up there with the crab safari: waffles and hot chocolate at Baklandet Skydsstation, an almost-too-quaint café dating from 1791. Not just any hot chocolate, but rich hot chocolate poured over pieces of chocolate and topped with self-serve bowls of fresh whipped cream and chocolate shavings. And the waffles? Hot, fresh and served with jam, sour cream and Norwegian brown cheese. Heaven!
The final day aboard, we passed through a final geological masterpiece, the 1,000-island Strait of Steinsundet, before docking in Bergen. With only one full day to explore, I set my personal speedometer on screech level and hit the cobblestoned streets, beginning with the Bryggen UNESCO World Heritage site. The German Hanseatic League controlled northern Norway’s stockfish trade from here from the mid-14th to mid-18th centuries, and Bryggen’s warren of 62 colorful, gabled, wooden, wharf-side buildings date from that era. Next, I expanded my wanderings, ascending the Mount Fløyen funicular for expansive city views, savoring a fish soup for the record books at the Fish Market and racing the clock to visit the Kode Art, Hanseatic and Bryggens museums.
Steeped in culture and heritage, I bid Norway goodbye with an experience that showcased its future, Lysverket restaurant. Chef/partner Christopher Haatuft, a Bergen native, once jokingly dubbed his contemporary Norwegian cuisine “neofjordic.” The name stuck. The set menu emphasizes seafood prepared with local, natural and organic ingredients, some sourced by Haatuft on foraging — or is that “fjoraging” — expeditions with his staff. As a Norway parting shot, it was, in a word, “fjabulous.”
Scandinavia Info to Go
Major airlines service both Oslo Airport in Gardermoen, 30 miles northeast of Oslo, and Bergen Airport in Flesland, about 12 miles southwest of Bergen. The Flytoget Airport Express Train operates between Oslo Airport and Oslo’s Central Station, departing every 10 minutes for the 19-minute trip. Alternatively, the Flybussen Airport Express Coach operates every 20 minutes between the airport and city hotels, a roughly 40-minute journey. From Bergen Airport, Flybussen Airport Express operates every 15–20 minutes to the city’s major hotels, a roughly 25-minute journey, dependent upon traffic and stops. Taxis are available at both airports.
Read more about Kirkenes.
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