This article was originally published in Lifestyle Asia Philippines' June 2017 issue
When you think of Norway, scenes from Disney’s Frozen— of snow-capped mountains and the Northern Lights—probably come to mind. Last summer, I went on a 12-hour road trip from a seaside town in the Southeastern part of the country all the way up to Ålesund on the Western coast. From idyllic small towns to the majestic fjords, I quickly discovered that Norway is definitely more than just a winter wonderland.
The almost nearly perfect people
In his book “The Almost Nearly Perfect People”, author Michael Booth describes the Norwegians as some of the wealthiest people in the world. With the average pint of beer costing 80 KR (around £8), the country’s cost of living is one of the highest you’ll find. Despite this, the 2017 World Happiness Report recently proclaimed that Norway had bumped Denmark off its throne and is now the happiest country on earth. When it comes to what makes this young, Scandinavian nation so jubilant, many of its people will tell you to just look outside.
Norwegians love their nature. A country of only 5 million inhabitants, Norway’s sprawling landscape makes it easy to understand why its people feel so connected to their surroundings. Many Norwegians have their own private cabins out in the woods or by the sea, which they retreat to any chance they get. During the holidays, you’ll often find that the cities are empty, with most residents fleeing for the mountains to ski, go hiking, or just relax on the coastal islands. Indeed, Norwegians find true luxury in being able to unplug and retreat to the outdoors.
On the road
We began our road trip from Nøtterøy—an island municipality and popular summer destination—which is where my boyfriend Brage is from. Aside from summer music festivals and sailing trips, other attractions nearby are Viking graves and artist Edvard Munch (painter of The Scream)’s house.
From Nøtterøy, we passed the Vågåvatn lake and admired its emerald green waters. Pink wildflowers were scattered on the sides of the road, as were piles of rocks that had been stacked on top of one another. The small heaps of rocks—called varde—were once used by Norse sailors to help them find their way in the fjords before the invention of the lighthouse. This would become a common sight on our trip as tourists and locals alike take part in building these tiny towers to cordon off areas, indicate the correct direction on a winding trail, or simply say “I was here”.
The long car ride never really felt that drab or boring because of all the spectacular things we saw on the drive. One such site was the Ringebu Stave Church located in Gudbrandsdalen. Built in the 13th century, the church has a real medieval feel and looks like it jumped straight out of a fairytale.
Mealtime became another excuse to sit outdoors and take in the sights. We stopped for lunch at Avdemsbue, which is an old grocery shop dating back to 1878. The women who work in the shop are fourth-generation descendants who spend most of their lives in the mountainside. Along with homemade hot meals, the small store offers a selection of products from all across the country like brunost (Norwegian brown goat’s cheese), ribbe, and all sorts of jams and marmalades. We sat outside and enjoyed some delicious waffles that were soft, but crispy around the edges. They were also prepared the Norwegian way – with sour cream, brunost (which tastes more like caramel than regular cheese) and berry jam.
The hytte, best described as a cabin or cottage, is an integral part of Norwegian culture. Norwegians treat the hytte as an escape from city life and a chance to go back to basics—this is also why more traditional hytter have no electricity or running water. While many hytter are privately-owned, the Norwegian Trekking Association operates over 500 public cabins around the country.
While there are now many modern cabins with Internet, saunas and proper plumbing, we decided to get the full experience and stay at the Leggerhytta in Valdresflye. There we lit a fire to get some heat going inside and to cook our dinner. The hytte had beautiful carved doors and many windows where you could spend hours just looking out in awe at the breathtaking mountains.
The Troll’s Road
After a relaxing and quiet night in the hytte, off we went again and continued on to Trollstigen or “The Troll’s Road”. Trollstigen is a popular tourist route that allows you to embrace the wonders of the Norwegian fjords, valleys and mountain ranges. The road is carved into the actual mountains, with waterfalls and stone walls surrounding you as you drive up and down the serpentine route.
One of the stops on this route is Geiranger. Perhaps the most famous Norwegian fjord, Geirangerfjorden is the result of a series of ice ages, during which glaciers etched out the fjord and carved the mountains surrounding it. We jumped on a ferry that took us to the middle of the fjord, where we were immediately surrounded by the cascading waterfalls and high, rocky mountains. According to legend, the Seven Sisters waterfall –with seven separate streams—represents the sisters dancing playfully in the sunshine as the Suitor waterfall desperately tries to woo them from across the fjord.
Another interesting thing about Geiranger is that its village people are experts at making local artisanal food. One of the most famous is the Geiranger Sjokolade shop, which sells homemade chocolate with unusual flavors like blue cheese and olive oil.
The most beautiful town in Norway
When we finally reached Ålesund, we were welcomed by Brage’s brother, his wife, and their three children. They took us out on their boat and into the city center where there happened to be a boat festival. Food stalls lined the harbor area where you could find everything from hot meals (I even spotted three stalls selling Filipino dishes!) to wild game charcuterie like moose and reindeer salami.
After a fire destroyed much of the city, Ålesund was rebuilt in 1904 with an Art Noveau theme. This explains why Ålesund is also known as Norway’s most beautiful town. Climbing the 418 steps up to the Aksla viewpoint provides a panoramic view of Ålesund’s islands, town center, the nearby alps, and all the colorful houses and buildings below.
Being right by the ocean, it’s of no surprise that you can find some of the freshest seafood in Ålesund. Though Norwegians are most famous for their salmon, many will be amazed to find out that the cod used by the Portuguese and the Spaniards for their bacalao actually comes from Norway! Ålesund even has its own restaurant called XL Diner, which features klippfisk (the Norwegian word for salt cod) prepared over fifty different ways.
Spending the summer in Norway was a fascinating surprise. What was once purely a winter holiday location in my mind, has now turned into a year-round destination for adventure. As the snow melts and the Aurora Borealis dims, the rumble of the waterfalls awakens the sleeping trolls who guard the mountains. The waters in the fjords go back to their turquoise hue. The leaves return to the trees, guiding the way into a natural wonderland just waiting to be explored.