Norway

Beautiful, moody Bergen, snuggled in between the sea and the mountains

From Finse our next stop was Bergen, over on Norway’s western coast. The second largest city in Norway (after Oslo) and Norway’s capital in the 13th century, today it is an important commercial port and major tourist destination. The historic buildings on the eastern side of the old city harbor known as Bryggen form a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

One of Bergen’s picturesque streets

First though, we had to get here from Finse. We’ve traveled by train a lot in Europe and we’ve come to expect reasonably timely service, reasonably comfortable service, a reasonably easy trip. OK, not so much in Norway. Our train was some 45 minutes late getting into Finse, it stopped a few times en route to Bergen due to technical problems, there was no café car, and we’d been warned that at the penultimate stop we would have to get off and transfer to a bus.

OK, things go wrong. But when we got off the train to finish the trip by bus … there was no bus. The signs all pointed to the place to catch a bus, but there was no bus. I just assumed they would have that all arranged but … not so much. Now eventually we only had to wait 10 or 15 minutes, but then the bus didn’t have enough seats for everyone so some people had to stand the full 30 or 35 minutes it took us to get to Bergen. Not exactly what you expect for Europe’s train system.

Eventually, though, we got to Bergen. The first thing to note about our stay here was that the weather was not normal. You know those European heat waves you’ve heard about recently? Totally missed Norway. Mark was here 36 years ago in August and he remembers normal summer weather. Our three-night stay was all rain and fog and cold and more rain. You’d look at the forecast on your iPhone and see that there was a high chance of rain, and sure enough it was raining. You’d look at your iPhone and see there was zero percent chance of rain and … it was probably raining then anyway.

Three American tourists, three new raincoats!

One result was that the tourist stores along the harbor were full of tourists buying rain coats and rain pants and sweaters and coats and gloves. And when I say “tourists,” of course I’m referring to Mark and Jim. And Bart and Ann, who joined us here for the three days. And as you walk around the city you can see all these tourists who, just like us, have the nicest, cleanest, newest cold wet weather gear on. Quite the sight.

What’s to do in Bergen? Parts of it are really beautiful, you’re surrounded by water and mountains, and with all the precipitation the greenery is practically exploding. So you walk around (in your rain coat and rain pants, maybe an umbrella) and enjoy the moody beauty. A funicular takes you high above the city where there are great views and beautiful trails.

Bart & Ann enjoying the views from above the city

But there’s only so much of that you want to do in the rain. So there’s always laundry to do. Mark had done the research and found the service where you can drop off your dirty clothes in the morning and pick up clean, folded clothes in the afternoon. Sadly, though, the owners were on their summer holiday so instead I had to schlep some two miles north of the city center to a laundromat. Not ideal, but there’s little that makes us happier than a suitcase full of clean clothes.

Mark, Ann, & Bart getting high

And then spending time with Bart & Ann. Walking around, laughing, joking, finding places to eat. Talking politics and catching up on stories of the people we know but don’t see anymore. And playing Hearts. Lots of playing Hearts. Mark was the big winner if you’re wondering.

Now the sun is trying to poke out so it’s time to get the heck out. From here we board a boat and will spend six days sailing up through the fjords, up past the Arctic circle to the very northeast edge of Norway. Despite what one might think after reading about our two weeks on a boat in Croatia and now this trip, we’re honestly not cruise or really even boat people. But I didn’t want my first fjord experience to be some cheap day trip, and the chance to get that far north just seemed too good to pass up. So here we go.

More moody Bergen

Cozy streets

Cute houses

Historic wooden buildings in Bryggen

There’s a lot of green in this city

Oh right – history and culture. This was the King’s Hall next to Bergen’s old fortress. It is still used sometimes for events and concerts.

Political street art

Mark is always making new friends

A trail up above the city

Another pretty, wet street in the old town

Hard to believe that 25 years ago Bart was building our condo in Cambridge. A quarter of a century later there’s no couple we enjoy traveling with more.

Jim crosses a bridge at the far end of our hike outside of Finse

We left Oslo on the train headed for Bergen, a pretty six-hour ride across the Norwegian heartland. But we stopped along the way in the tiny settlement of Finse for a couple days of hiking and bike riding.

When I say tiny, I mean it. There is very little here, other than a train station and a hotel right next to it. In fact, this charming hotel, Finse 1222, can only be reached by train or by a gravel path that brings in hikers and bicyclists.

The “1222” in our hotel name refers to the elevation of 1,222 meters. Apparently this is enough elevation to dramatically alter the weather patterns, compared with the coast. We were pretty excited to head out on a hike on our first day in temperatures in the 40s Fahrenheit, under partly sunny skies. The dramatic landscape really sparkled in these very comfortable hiking conditions.

Mark takes in a sunny moment on our hike

There are a scattering of cabins in the area. This is for when you really, really want to get away.

Crossing a bridge on our hike, before we appreciated how nice the weather really was

The first day was all bright sunshine and greens and blues. Then the weather turned bad and there wasn’t so much color.

Lunch on the train to Finse was going to be modest – just a salad with some salmon – until we discovered these hot dogs. Turned it into a feast!

A roaring stream on our hike

The next day we decided to rent bikes so we could make our way further out from Finse, though we were somewhat concerned about a weather forecast that included rain all day. As I suspected though, it was that kind of Scandinavian rain that doesn’t bother you too much — a really light rain, the kind where the sun sometimes peeks out even while it’s raining. At least that’s what we got at first.

We headed west on our bikes toward the next “town” of Fagernuten, about 10 km away. The gravel path was a bit rough, but not too bad. But as we went along, some stretches got a little worse, the rain kicked up a bit more, and we hit occasional patches of snow that you had to walk the bike through. As the conditions worsened, I made up my mind that reaching Fagernuten would be enough accomplishment for me.

As we guessed, Fagernuten, with its one building, made Finse look like a bustling metropolis. I turned back for Finse there, and Jim decided he wanted to try going a little further. On the way home the wind was in my face and the rain got worse and worse. I was totally soaked and unbelievably relieved to make it back.

After I peeled off my dripping clothes and took a hot shower, I headed to the cozy lobby to await Jim’s return. Meanwhile I met a super friendly couple — Mike from Chicago and Ina from Bergen, though they live near Oslo now.

When we somehow got on the subject of the Munch museum, Ina told me she was actually an art historian specializing in Munch. I responded that I’d just has dinner with another Munch expert, to which she immediate asked, “Pat?” Now that is a very small world!

At the high point of our bike ride

Jim bikes through the moody weather

More Jim on bike

Mark glides through lovely scenery — before the weather went completely to hell

Time to play in the snow!

Mark & our fabulous friend Luba

After nearly three weeks in Croatia we flew from Split to Oslo, Norway. Over the last few days in 90 degree heat on the bike trip, we started fantasizing about Scandinavia in the 60s and 70s. Well, that’s what we got and it felt great. There we were on August 1 thinking it felt like a perfect fall day. Quite the welcome change!

I don’t know why Mark insisted on posing me by this ad

It’s worth noting that though Mark was here 36 years ago, this is my first time ever in Norway. And now both Mark & I have been in every country in Europe except Belarus. We’d like to go there, and even tried to get a visa there nine years ago, but given the geopolitics these days – that’s the country that cooperated with Russia in the invasion of Ukraine – it might be a while before we check off that last European country.

Much of the stop in Oslo was about seeing friends. First up was Luba, a woman we first met five years ago on a bike trip in Japan; since then we’ve spent time with her in London and Corfu. This time, when she learned we were going to be in Oslo she decided to fly up from London where she lives and have dinner and drinks with us. Such fun! And the great news is she’s taking some important new job that will require her to come to NY periodically.

The next night was dinner with Bart & Ann, our old Cambridge neighbors, and their friends Pat & Sam. This was just a one night overlap with Bart & Ann, our last night in Oslo, but we’re spending three days in Bergen with them later in the week.

Dinner was notable in part just because the Japanese restaurant we went to screwed up pretty much everything. More interesting, though, was that their friend Pat is a Edvard Munch scholar. Munch is the most famous Norwegian artist (think The Scream) and in fact Oslo had recently opened an entire museum dedicated to his work; Pat consulted with the museum during its development.

The Scream

We had toured the museum the day before and, to put it mildly, it infuriated Mark. I was pretty annoyed but Mark was almost beside himself. The problem? At no point did the displays in the Munch museum tell you a thing about who Munch was, where he came from, what motivated him, who influenced him, or anything of the sort. And he’s a really interesting guy; as Wikipedia puts it in their introduction, “His childhood was overshadowed by illness, bereavement and the dread of inheriting a mental condition that ran in the family.” He drank heavily and had a mental breakdown while in his 40s. I mean, that’s worth at least mentioning, right? Maybe it would explain a bit about why his paintings have titles like “Anxiety,” “Despair,” and “Death and the Child” along with “The Scream” of course. Not so much, apparently, in the Munch Museum. Eventually we got over the frustrating lack of context and just enjoyed the art, but to us at least it definitely felt like a missed opportunity.

During our three-day stay we toured two other museums, an opera house, a library, and a large park with a huge collection of statues. Here’s a quick summary.

The modest modern art museum was forgettable. Enough said. The National Gallery, on the other hand was a great art museum. It covered the 16th century to contemporary art, it was very easy to follow your way through, and had absolutely great descriptions in every single gallery. It was like taking a survey course of Western art history with a heavy oversampling of Norwegian art. So good it made you wonder what the people who put the Munch museum together were thinking.

The opera house tour was fun, too. The building itself is the main attraction, a very modern and well done piece of architecture. And for an hour a guide took us and a reasonably small group through the back stage area to see how it all fits together. A good way to spend an hour but after seeing 10 operas at the Met last year we had to say that it all felt a little small.

The exterior of the Opera house. It’s a beautiful building, set in a great location near the city center but we can’t take credit for the photo – Mark just grabbed it from the Internet.

The other highlight was Frogner Park, a place that wasn’t remotely on our radar until Luba suggested it. She’d been in Oslo three years ago with her mother who really wanted to see it. It was amazing. The park itself is big, the biggest in Oslo in fact, but what makes it “pop” are the 212 bronze and granite statues by Norway’s premier sculptor, Gustav Vigeland. All the statues are of people – old and young, men and women, boys and girls. They’re sitting and standing and running and jumping and thinking and acting … and there’s not a stitch of clothing on any of them. This is a park that would drive former Attorney General John Ashcroft stark raving mad. (He once had a statue in the Justice Department partially covered with a cloth because there was a bare breast.) Vigeland’s style, though, was just so unique and interesting. Good call Luba!!

Boys running in Frogner Park

And then, just before leaving Oslo, we made time for a quick pass through the new library, right next to the new opera house. A case where great design and architecture really made you just want to hang out in the library. It even smelled like a library.Very well done.

And that was Oslo. You might note that there was no raving about the food here; that was not an oversight. And I didn’t rant and rave about the $2.11 it cost me to use a public toilet in Frogner Park. I know, bushes are a lot cheaper. But then I also didn’t spend enough time here talking about the amazing train from the Oslo Airport into the city. And our stop was too brief to enjoy the small beach or public saunas available. We still have a couple weeks in Norway, though, so we may be able to fit some of those in.

Mark in particular was really taken by Oslo’s architecture

A man and a boy in Frogner Park

A man … juggling babies?

Of course, like any good park Frogner had trees and flowers and lovely quiet spots to read, too

The main theater in the Opera house

The sparkling new National Museum is packed with Norwegian art and treasures. Here, four Norwegian artists have applied different historic glazes to IKEA plates.

Cutting edge design at the stunning new library

Doesn’t this just make you want to study?