Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Fjordic Fun

Have you ever wanted to go to Norway – not just Europe, but specifically to see Norway? Chances are, it’s not on the top of your list of places to go (I know, it’s not at the bottom either, but it’s probably not at the top.) However, that’s probably because you haven’t heard very much about Norway, other than that 30 seconds you talked about it during your freshman or sophomore year of high school. I want to let you all in on a little secret though: those 30 seconds spent on Norway didn’t do it justice. From Fjords to a Fish Market to a Frozen Waterfall – I saw the land of the Vikings in all its winter glory and fell in love with the amazing atmosphere.
We started out by taking a train to Tampere, a bus to the airport, a plane to Moss, a bus to Oslo, and finally a night train to Bergen. (Yes, the traveling was a bit crazy when you think about it, but it was worth it!) You might wonder why we chose to go to Bergen, when we had all of the lovely country to choose from, and the most common stop is Oslo. Well, you can thank Mr. and Mrs. Lindaeur for that – because when they named their daughter “Bergen” after this town a little over 20 years ago, they unknowingly preset our Norwegian destination.I couldn’t be happier with their decision.

When we finally stepped off the train into the cozy atmosphere of Bergen, I had a feeling it was going to be a lovely visit. Walking down the cobblestone streets (at the time, untouched by snow) and taking in the surroundings was an experience in and of itself even before we began visiting the tourist attractions. The language was foreign, but not as much as you might think. There were so many words that were close enough to English that I could figure out what they meant, and it was a breath of fresh air after being in Finland where the language is very difficult to understand for a native English speaker. Bergen even said that it was really close to German, and she has Norway’s history to back up that claim – but I’ll get to that in a bit. After we checked into the hostel at 8 am, we began to meander through the city, just looking at what sights and sounds were afforded to us. The first direction we walked in took us to the sea front, where the colourful house fronts warmly greeted us.
These house fronts are the reason that Bergen is considered a National Heritage site. In order to keep the houses functioning, they must re-do the old-fashioned wooden foundation once every hundred years, and they have done this continually since the houses were built. They re-make the foundations using the same tools that were used in the time the houses were built, so it takes longer, but helps preserve the integrity of the house. After seeing these buildings and the sea, our walking brought us to Bergen’s castle.
Grey stone and tall walls towered over us in a traditional medieval look. Upon a closer examination of the castle’s history, I discovered that it is very well preserved, because it was only in one battle. This battle happened because a Dutch merchant ship used the fjord to try to escape a British ship, and the British followed them in not knowing that there was a castle, fitted with cannons, fortifications and all nine yards already there. Needless to say, the Norwegians won that fight. After we had wandered around the castle for a while, we made our way back towards town where we went into the tiny alleyways between the house fronts, and found some hidden treasures awaiting us.
The alleys were designed in a unique way, and the shops were quite unique as well. There was one shop we entered that had four large dollhouses in the first room we entered. We began to talk with the shop owner, and we discovered that she had decorated the houses, and her deceased husband had built the houses for the dolls. There was a story behind every room in the dollhouses, and they were decorated with so much detail! The shop sold the artwork of her deceased husband, but to me, the dollhouses were the most intriguing part of the store. What amazed me what how friendly the shop keeper and her friend were. They kept speaking with us, and asking us questions just to pass the time. They could tell that we were college students, and that we probably weren’t going to buy anything, but they took as much time to speak to us as they did to the couple other customers that were in there at the same time we were. The pictures we got of the dollhouses don’t do them justice, but they are at least a snapshot into what we saw.
The neatest thing about the dollhouses was the feeling you got while looking at them, and the atmosphere they created in the room they were in. It is indescribable, but something that I was lucky to experience and won’t forget soon. However, after we left her shop, the shopkeeper’s friend invited us into his little office that was like a tourist information center – but not the kind that gives you directions. This tourist center gives you information – in fact, I would call it a brief history lesson of the town of Bergen. He was so kind, and invited us in and gave us candy before standing up on a chair (This man had to be in his 60’s or 70’s) and beginning the lesson. This is what we learned:

The reason that people are so attracted to Bergen is because it is silent, colourful, and ancient. It still has about 1100 of the original houses, however, they have burnt to the ground and been rebuilt several times, because wooden houses burn quite easily and often.  In 1710, they had a huge fire that burnt everything down, except for the stone houses that merchants kept their valuables in. In 1798 there was another large fire that wiped out much of the town, but that was the last large fire in Bergen’s history. The main problem that Bergen has now is the same problem that exists in other large waterfront cities – such as Venice, Italy; Bergen sinking 5-89 millimeters a year into the mud it was built on.  One of the reasons that Bergen was so important in history is because of the fish that are found in the northern waters. Stock fish can be dried naturally in the sun with no salt and preservatives, and stay good for about ten years in this fashion. When you wanted to eat it, you could eat it like ‘fish jerky’ or you could soak it in fresh water, changing it out daily, for ten days, and then it would be soft enough to cook like a normal fish again. The Vikings knew how to take care of fish and because of that, it was like their gold. It was their source of money, and financial stability. It was known since before the time of the Vikings in the year 1000. The Germans began their 4000 year rule over Norway 1360, and it is viewed as a positive time in the history of Norway, because the Germans taught the Norwegians how to trade. By this point in time, the Hansiatic League was in place and Norway was getting good all the way from Italy through this agreement. The Hansiatic League was very good to the Norwegians, because it taught them honesty in trading as well. It is documented that one year, for whatever reason the Norwegians did not get enough stock fish to trade with the Germans, so they had to come from the North to Bergen to tell the Germans. Upon hearing this information, the Germans still gave the Norwegians everything they needed, but said that the following year the Norwegians would have to bring the fish to Germany in exchange. So it was truly a good and honest system that benefited everyone involved. Because the Norwegians were under the rule of Germany, they seem to have had better contact with England and Europe in general than the rest of Scandinavia. They had a good king and lived in good conditions.
And that was the history lesson that the kind elderly man gave us. It is quite interesting- huh. My favourite part was that it explained why Norwegian seems similar to German – it had close ties with Germany for several years! It was so kind of that man to invite us in and speak with us. His main reason for setting up this information center was that he thinks that you must look to the past to see how to progress in the future. He also said that when he saw kids like us going to college and being eager to learn, it gave him hope for the future. It made me sincerely hope that my generation doesn’t let him down!

Anyways, after our visit with the kind gentleman, we continued on our way and visited a few (overpriced) tourist shops, then went and visited the Fish Market. This visit reminded me of when I was a small child and looking at the lobster tank in Wal-Mart, because they had a tank with live fish and live lobsters in it. It all smelled veeeeery fishy in there, but I didn’t mind.
Logan made some interesting purchases food wise; so we all got to try a small bite of whale meat. It was really good, surprisingly, with an unplaceable taste that I’ve not tasted elsewhere. While there I bought a bun with marinated salmon on it, and it was soooo good. I never knew I liked raw fish before coming to Europe, where I’ve discovered the deliciousness of raw salmon. (Thanks to the Italians, I now know! ;)

We left the Fish Market and began to wander throughout the town some more, and we discovered the lake in the center of the town. It had frozen over, and they put a Christmas tree in the center of the ice, so we slipped and slid our way out to the middle in order to take a picture! The man who took our picture was from Bergen, and he told us that it is a rare occurrence to have the lake freeze over there, so we were lucky to see it. Soon after, we returned to the hostel for a nap and then dinner (the sleep we got on the train just wasn’t as good as sleeping in a bed). Laly made us a traditional Spanish rice meal, which consisted of rice, cream, mushrooms, and bacon, and was infinitely worthy of my praise. I loved it. Then Bergen and I went on a little walk throughout the city because we wanted to see more of it. Finally, we turned in for the night.

We woke up bright and early the next day, and got ready to go visit Norheimsund, a town that was more in the fjord landscape and would allow us to better experience it! It was a small town, and nothing was open on a Sunday morning, but we found ways to entertain ourselves until help was available.

We walked around the old streets for a while till we found the Norheimsund Kyrkje (a new Lutheran church built in the town) where a young man outside helped give us directions to a waterfall near the town.
We walked the long and scenic route to the waterfall and thoroughly enjoyed our time. At one point, I had Quique behind me, hitting a patch of ice on the ground with a stick, and I turned to Jane and Bergen and said, “Do you ever feel like you’re surrounded by Neanderthals?”, and then we looked ahead and Laly and Bronaugh were hitting icicles off the side of the path in a really funny fashion, and so Jane, Bergen and I had to start laughing, because we discovered that we were, indeed, the more evolved members of our group. Also along the path, Quique wanted to walk on a lake that didn’t seem to be frozen, so we insisted that he test it with a rock first. When he threw the rock at the ‘ice’, it made a beautiful and very loud splash. Then began the long period where Quique threw different sized rocks at different spots on the ice to see if it was frozen over. It really wasn’t safe to walk on. When we finally got to the waterfall, it was quite a sight to behold. It had frozen over completely.
There was a path that went up behind it, so we decided to go walk up there. About halfway up, the walkway turned into a solid sheet of ice, so we were nearly dragging our lower bodies up the path using the railing because the ground was too slippery to even stand still on it. When we finally got up there, it was worth it. There was a small, oval shaped hole in the waterfall that we could see through, and there were huge icicles hanging from above; it felt like we were in the liar of the Ice Queen.  There was also a very nice view of the space below the waterfall once we got past the really icy patches of the path, and we ran into a man who was walking an adorable Alaskan Husky puppy. Needless to say, the girls were very enthusiastic about that encounter. I was very lucky, because I got to see a Nativity Scene while waiting for the bus to come. It was unique in ways you can’t really imagine, so look at the picture below for clarification.

That night we celebrated the birthday of Jane and Silke – it was actually on Jane’s birthday. Talk about a neat way to celebrate your birthday – getting to be in Norway is at the top of the list! We also had some of Logan’s great improve pasta cooking. It mimicked the meal we had in Tallinn, but you have yet to hear about that location. That night we played cards and had an interesting talk on politics, led by Bronaugh and Logan, with good insertions from Kati and Jane. 

The next day Bergen and I woke up early so that we could go see the Stave church, which is one of the tourism faces of Norway. It is an old wooden church with intricate and, in my opinion, Viking-looking designs on the top, and a very pretty landscape around it. It was originally built in 1150, but was moved to Bergen in 1883 because it was being threatened by demolition. It fell the target of arson in 1992 because of a movement of anti-Christianity that swept through Norway because of the location of Christian churches on sacred pagan grounds. It was rebuilt exactly like the original in 1997.
We also got to see the smallest street in Bergen, Dyvekegangen. As a side note, I would not suggest it for anyone who is claustrophobic, as it is a cozy 99 cm wide. It was named after Dyveke Sigbritsdatter (who died in 1517). There aren’t any house numbers in this passageway, which is good because there really isn’t any room for any.

Later we used the funicular to see the bird’s eye view of Bergen.  The Funicular is a train that goes up the mountainside at a fairly steep grade. It is a pretty view on the way up, but the true beauty is once you get to the top – you can see all the coves and inlets of the sea, and the mountains covered in mist, and we even got to see the sun glowing over the mountain tops.

While at the top, we took several good pictures, from random dead person photos to jumping shots, to combination dead person/jumping shots in front of the panoramic view.

I believe Logan and Quique even tried to moon the camera at one point – but Bronaugh saved the day with her coat, covering the unsightly view of the men’s backsides. We hiked back down the mountain, and had several more photo opportunities.
One thing I noticed was the prevalence of trolls in the souvenir shops. I figured out that this is because many of the mountain stories and fairytales involve trolls. In looking up information on the Norwegian view of trolls, I discovered a site that told me the basics of troll characteristics, so I’ll share it with you:

“[A troll is] a dwarf or giant inhabiting caves or hills. [They are] ugly, powerful and generally dangerous humanlike creatures, but stupid and naive. Some trolls were believed to be giants, and the biggest of them all was Dovregubben (their king in the mountain Dovre). They were shaggy and rough-haired, with trees and moss-like growth on their heads and noses, their noses were long and they would stir with it when cooking broth or porridge. Some even had two or three heads, some only had one eye in the middle of their foreheads. Their features differed from humans with four fingers and four toes and a tail resembling that of a cow. The trolls lived to be hundreds of years old, but would die and turn into stone if the sun caught them. They might have looked frightening, but were actually often good natured and terribly naive, so sly peasants would successfully trick them. Their supernatural powers consisted among others of transforming themselves, for instance into beautiful young ladies. Many hunters and farmers were such lured into the mountains and captured, but the trolls could never hide their tails, if you only could get to see them from behind you would know if the captivating creature was a troll or just a beautiful shepardess.”

Clip, Katrine F. "Norwegian Words - Troll." Norway Info. CyberClip, 1996. Web. 14 Dec. 2010.  

When we got down the mountain, we went and visited the bustling city of the Gingerbread man. Let me tell you – he has built up quite an empire. The city was created by people in the city, from children in grade school to older crowds who made very intricate Gingerbread structures. There were even a few Viking ships there, in the true Norwegian Spirit. The only bad thing about the entire exhibit was that you weren’t allowed to eat the pieces of art. Other than that, the lighting, music, and general mood of the city was very mystical and Christmas-y.

After that, we all returned to the hostel and made our final dinner in Bergen. There were 3 different groups, making 3 different meals. But it turned out alright. I was in the group that made Spanish Tortillas (an omelet with potatoes in it). Other than a bit of potato and egg on the floor it was a success. After dinner we played a card game thats name I can’t mention on here, and then we played a very dangerous game of spoons. I’m not sure if you know, but that game can really bring out the worst in people; members of the group were getting cut, and getting dragged off the couch halfway across the table. However, the element of danger always makes a game all the more fun.

Soon, it was time for us to get back on the night train and head back to Oslo. I somehow managed to get around 5 hours of sleep on the train, so I was better off than several people. However, when we arrived in Oslo we were a pretty bedraggled group. Our first stop there was at the Vigeland (Frogner) Park. This park consists of 212 bronze and granite sculptures created by Gustav Vigeland, and is separated into 7 parts: Frognerbroen with 58 bronze-sculptures and 4 groups of "lizards" in granite, then the children-square with 9 small children-sculptures made of bronze. Then there is the labyrinth-square with the fountain. The floors are yet another part. The parts of the park your eyes are drawn to are the monolith-plateau with 8 artistic gates, the circle stairs and the 17 meter-tall Monolith. The fountain in the middle Portrays children and skeletons in the arms of giant trees, suggesting that from death comes new life. The general theme of the park is man’s journey from the cradle to the grave. The last thing you see in the park is the Wheel of Life, which is more or less a wreath depicting four people and a baby floating in harmony. It is a symbol of eternity. This park was fascinating, and I really wish we’d been able to stay longer, but it was -18C (-0.4F) and we were all in agreement that we couldn’t function in that kind of cold anymore.

Afterwards the small group I was in took a short break at a coffee house before going to the University of Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History. On our way there we also got to see the Royal Palace and the guards in front of it. Thank goodness Princess Jane, Princess Kylie, and Princess Bergen were there to greet the few people that braved the snow to see the palace. (Yes, this is how Princesses look when they greet people btw.)

We might have taken a dead person picture in front of the Palace as well. But the guards didn’t mind, so that makes it ok, right?

This was the American Embassy – it looks really classy. We just happened to walk past it.

When we did make it to the museum, I was shocked that it was financed through a University. It is one of Norway’s largest cultural history museums, and according to the museum website, “It holds the country’s largest prehistoric and medieval archaeological collections, including the Viking ships at Bygdøy, a substantial collection of medieval church objects, a collection of antiquities from the Mediterranean countries, and a rune archive. The museum also has a comprehensive ethnographic collection that includes objects from every continent, as well as Norway’s largest collection of historical coins.”  I was most interested in the information it shared on tons of cultures, from the traditional Norwegian culture to the Sami, Chinese, African, and even Egyptian Ancient Cultures. It was very interesting to see all the different cultures juxtaposed in the same room.

Next we went to the Nasjonalmuseet, or the National Museum of Art. It has paintings by Picasso, El Greco, Monet, Edvard Munch and more there. It was interesting. I got to see ‘Skrik’ or ‘Scream’ by Edvard Munch. However, I figured out that one of my favourite paintings is “Livets dans” or “The Dance of Life” by Edvard Munch. If you want a variety of interpretations of this painting, this is a good link to check

However, the thing you should really look at is the difference in the three ladies in the foreground. Their differences as far as age, emotion, and mood. The rest of the painting just adds to that.

On the way back to the train station we also passed by the Domkirke Høsten, which is Lutheran I believe. This Cathedral was making a unique loom which consisted of tying together small bits of cloth. It was interesting because it was so many colours, and its pattern depended completely on those who chose to participate. The name of the project is called “Binding Together” and is organized by Amnesty International. It started in April of 2010, and will continue till lent 2011. It is there to show the activity and people who have been in the cathedral, and seeks to bridge Christian ideals and contemporary challenges. Amnesty International works to help people who are persecuted for their convictions – whether that be political or religious. When it is done, they will use it for several things – as carpet, or a wall hanging, as a tent cover, or even in performances. It’s a very interesting concept, and it shows the spirit of Norway quite well to me.
While there, I also lit a small candle. The mood in the cathedral was very warm and welcoming, and I think that some other churches should model after it more because it really seems like a church for the people.
After leaving the Cathedral we went back to the Train Station where they were having a Christmas festival outside. There were lots of lit trees, and free gingerbread and glögi (very similar to apple cider) with almonds and raisins in it.
 We had to hurry to catch the bus, but we made it on time. Then it was time for the plane, then the bus, and finally the train that brough us back to our lovely city of Jyväskylä.

It is admittedly very expensive in Norway, but the question comes down to whether or not you can place a price tag on happiness. In my opinion, there is a way to make things cheaper, and you just have to decide whether or not being a world traveler is worth it. Perhaps it may have cost more than several places you could visit, but everything there was picture perfect, and it was a trip that none of us will ever forget. From the amazing people to the unforgettable places and general feelings of happiness in instilled in all of us, Norway will always hold a special place in the hearts of those who visit her.