Switch on and chill out in Norway

The Northern Lights over Trondheim in Norway — their activity seems to rise and fall in cycles lasting 11 years or so, and this winter, NASA has been predicting peak displays.

Norway may be hugely expensive for visitors, but the astonishing Northern Lights and Western fjords are worth every penny.

I’d love if there were a big switch to turn on the Northern Lights. Just think how much easier winter sightseeing would be. We’d book our flights, whisk ourselves off up inside the Arctic Circle, kick back in our winter woollies and, on cue, watch the latest showing of the aurora borealis streak across the sky.

Alas, the Northern Lights are a natural phenomenon; they cannot be turned on or off on a whim. Sure, they’re more likely to occur in winter, on crisp, clear nights and at northerly latitudes — but similar to humpback whales off the Waterford coast, or leopards in the Serengeti, sightings can never be guaranteed.

But here’s the thing. The Northern Lights spark up when particles shot from solar flares and explosions crash into molecules in the earth’s atmosphere, setting off those wonderful curtains of green, red and purple. Their activity seems to rise and fall in cycles lasting 11 years or so, and this winter, NASA has been predicting peak displays.

That’s as good as it gets for aurora-hunters, in other words. Fly to Troms¯ between now and mid-March, or join a Hurtigruten ship as it lumbers up the Norwegian coastline from Bergen to Kirkenes, and you’re highly likely to see some of the best displays in years.

And believe me, even on an off-day, the Northern Lights are astonishing.

Before science came along with its fancy explanations, myths attributed these displays to a magical fox that knocked the snow against the sky using his bushy tail. To stand by and watch as a black, star-studded sky is brought to life by undulating curtains of colour is to witness one of the world’s great natural phenomena. It’s some feeling.

Of course, they’re not the only natural wonders in Norway. This country is laden down like a Christmas tree with mountains, fjords, coastlines and other majestic sights. Its fjords seem so otherworldly, that Douglas Adams famously credited their construction to the planetary designer, Slartibartfast, in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

“Did you ever go to a place… I think it was called Norway?”

“No,” said Arthur. “I didn’t.” “Pity. That was one of mine. Won an award, you know. Lovely crinkly edges.”

Last summer, I got up close with those lovely, crinkly edges in a kayak.

Paddling down the Geirangerfjord with Michael Braun of Active Geiranger, the mountains to either side felt at once intimate and monumental. The fjord was barely 500m wide in places, and yet the sides towered above us — like nature’s take on Manhattan. The weather was cut straight from a Met …ireann manual, swapping beams of sunlight for wraith-like showers of rain, and at times, I did indeed feel like an intergalactic traveller.

We paddled for several kilometres, past hissing waterfalls and gnarly rock formations, eventually tying our boats up at the bottom of a steep cliff path. Hauling ourselves up with the aid of rocks and rails, we stopped halfway up the mountainside at Skageflå farm. Some 250 metres up, overlooking the fjord, the roofs topping the farm’s abandoned buildings were loaded down with grass and wildflowers and pagoda-like chimney pots.

Peering through the windows, I could see old furniture inside — wooden beds, photos on the wall, a table lain with a simple red and black cloth. It was like a mountainside version of the Marie Celeste, fronting onto a sheer drop. The drop was so steep, in fact, that children were once tethered to sticks to prevent them falling off the edge.

Afterwards, we filled our water bottles from a trickling stream, and made our way back down to the kayaks. Our paddle home drew company — several porpoises fishing so close I could see the whites of their bellies and the bulge of their eyes.

It was a magical adventure, the kind that demands a dramatic conclusion. So we pulled into Geiranger, threw off our buoyancy vests, and jumped clean into the water.

Norway’s fjords are obviously well-known (the Nær¯yfjord and Geirangerfjord both feature on UNESCO’s World Heritage List). These narrow inlets, hemmed in by soaring mountains, often as deep as they are high, were ground out by glacier tongues at a rate of one metre every 2,000 years, and they’ve fascinated tourists for centuries. But it’s only when you get inside them that the splendour really shines through.

The most obvious way to do this is by ferry. Dozens of boats connect various shorelines in the Western Fjords, and I joined one (fjord1.no) for a passage down Geraingerfjord.

Our route was basking in waterfalls, with vista after vista punching up like a National Geographic stage production. A commentary pointed out various features along the way, although the addition of a soundtrack by Grieg and Andrea Bocelli rather gilded the lily.

You can drive the landscape too (taking the ferries as you go). Norway is home to the original Atlantic Road — just 80km long, but connecting the coastal towns of Molde and Kristiansund with an epic series of bridges, coastal views, stave churches and seal colonies that have seen it hailed the country’s “Construction of the Century”. Another scenic highlight — although closed in winter — is Trollstigen (‘Troll’s Path’), a mountain road with 11 hairpin bends corkscrewing through a backdrop of jagged peaks and hanging glaciers. I stepped onto one of the viewing points to take a picture, and was struck by just how much the zigzagging traffic seemed like toy cars. From nearby Trollveggen (Troll Wall), base-jumpers hurl themselves off a 3,000-foot vertical drop.

By then, I was sensing an unusual problem. Norway’s landscapes are so spectacular, so dramatically mind-blowing — like the sounds of New Zealand, Arizona’s Grand Canyon or the Swiss Alps — that you almost become hypnotised by them. This supreme, startling series of fjords, mountains and coastal scenery unfolds like one calendar page after another, until you’re almost taking them in on auto-pilot, unable to fully feel their reality.

That’s why it’s so important in Norway, I think, to get your boots on.

The outdoors lifestyle (‘friluftsliv’) is part of Norwegians’ DNA — a yearning to escape into nature, to explore the ski slopes and mountain trails together. It’s as if they see ‘real’ friendship as something that can only be cultivated at the cabin or by the campfire. Only 1% of the country is built upon, the rest covered in sprawling, wide-open spaces (even in Oslo, a quarter of the population heads for the Oslomarka, a green lung forming 80% of the city’s area, every weekend). Getting outdoors gets you under Norway’s skin.

“It is better to go skiing and think of God, than to go to church and think of skiing,” as the explorer and statesman Fridtjof Nansen said. That pretty much sums it up.

In fact, it’s while hiking, kayaking and cycling around the fjords and Sunnmore Alps that my conversations with Norwegians really begin to crack open. Hiking up God¯yfjellet Mountain with a local guide, I remember, we chatted about life and love, about our ideals, and our laughable attempts to strike that elusive work/life balance.

“Norwegians are the Italians of Scandinavia,” she told me. As a people, they are more likely to be late for an appointment, to laugh things off, to delight in irony.

“Swedes are the Germans,” she concluded.

We ended halfway up God¯yfjellet, daring each other to stroll out onto a six-metre ledge protruding like a tombstone from the cliff-side. It was about as wide as I am tall, with a sheer drop to the fishing village of Alnes below. I took a deep breath, stepped out from the blotches of purple heather, and felt like I was walking the plank.

The added benefit of all this fresh air, of course, is that it’s free.

That’s no small mercy. On my last visit to Norway, a wildlife sea safari out of Ålesund was priced at 795NOK/

€95. A 0.4-litre glass of beer set me back 75NOK (€8.90), and I typically paid 100NOK/€12 for a basic soup and sambo. There’s no massaging the matter — Norway can be a head-meltingly, spirit-crushingly expensive place to visit.

Unless you’re going to stay in mountain cabins, forget about family holidays. Every hotel stay, every meal, drink or entrance fee just piles on the pain — as with Iceland, it’s a short-haul trip with a long-haul budget, and best seen in a concentrated burst of three or four days, or from the self-contained, all-inclusive decks of a cruise ship.

A rationale has to be struck, I guess. Costs can be cut with forward planning, but you will always haemorrhage money in Norway. The trick is to realise that the value is around you, in once-in-a-lifetime experiences like the fjords and Northern Lights.

Lots of visitors use Troms¯ as a staging post for the aurora (SAS flies direct from Dublin) — sitting, as it does, some 400km inside the Arctic Circle. It’s a pleasant stay, with highlights including its Arctic Cathedral, the cable car up Storsteinen Mountain, and more pubs per capita than any other Norwegian town. For a longer stay, however, try Bergen or Ålesund.

Bergen, with its fabulously preserved waterfront (Bryggen) is the big hit, and a super base for sightseeing along the Hardangerfjord, Sognefjord or taking the Norway in a Nutshell scenic tour. Ålesund, by contrast, is one of Norway’s surprise packages. It’s your launching pad for Geirangerfjord and the Sunnm¯re Alps, but also worthy of a day in itself.

In 1904, a fire ravaged Ålesund, razing 850 buildings in less than a day. Climb the 418 steps up to the viewing point at Aksla, however, and the bird’s eye view shows you the happy ending to that particular tragedy. Treating the charred town as a carte blanche, its citizens proceeded to build one of the most complete Art Nouveau cityscapes in the world. You can learn all about it in a ‘Time Machine’ experience at the local Art Nouveau Centre (jugendstilsenteret.no), itself hidden in a former Art Nouveau pharmacy.

Lots of European cities have their Old Towns, of course. But this one is different — there are towers and turrets, romantic curves, flowery stonework detailing Norse mythology. Old waterfront warehouses have been transformed into characterful stays like the Hotel Brosundset, where ceiling beams cut right through the rooms, or Sj¯bua Restaurant overlooking the ice-clear harbour waters outside.

Walking around the harbour, I stopped to watch one of the hulking Hurtigruten ships set off, continuing its journey towards Kirkenes inside the Arctic Circle. I was stone-broke, but envious of its passengers on their journey to see the Northern Lights. It was a cold, clear night. I had a feeling that switch would be flicked.

GETTING THERE

Flights

SAS (flysas.com) flies direct from Dublin to Tromso. Norwegian (Norwegian.com) flies from London Gatwick to Ålesund Airport Vigra.

In terms of packages, Project Travel (project-travel.ie) has a Hurtigruten Arctic Highlights voyage from €1,330pp plus taxes, including return flights, two nights’ B&B in Tromso and three nights in an inside cabin on the cruise.

Getting around

For independent travellers, rental car is the freest and most efficient way to get around Western Norway. Buses (www.fjordnorway.com) and ferries (www.fjord1.no/en) are widely available also.

When to go

January to March is best for the Northern Lights, May to September for hiking and kayaking the fjords (in winter, the activity focus switches to skiing). No matter what the weather, take local advice and check forecasts before hiking — and bring suitable equipment, clothes, food and water.

Where to stay

I really liked the Hotel Brosundet (brosundet.no) in Ålesund — it’s an earthy boutique hotel housed in a former warehouse with doubles from around €180.

For a cheaper stay, the Norwegian Trekking Association (english.turistforeningen.no) maintains around 460 cabins in the wild. Bunks are available to visitors from NOK195/£21 per night — offering a cheap and authentic alternative.

What to do

A four to five-hour kayaking trip on Geirangerfijord, with a guided hike to Skageflå, costs 850NOK (€100PP) with Active Geiranger. You can learn more about activities in Western Norway at fjord-norway.com, and more about where to see the Northern Lights, and what to do while you see them, at visitnorway.com.

Norway in a nutshell

This is the quintessential country-in-a-day tour, and a solid bet if your time in Norway is limited. A one-way trip from Bergen or Oslo takes in the Aurlandsfjord, Nær¯yfjord, the famous Flåm railway and the hairpin bends of Stalheimskleiva. The trip runs daily year-round, costs 1,550NOK (€184pp) and lasts about 14 hours.


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