Norway – the sights to sea

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Norway – the sights to sea
Norway is a lovely country, but there is rather a lot of it – especially if you try to see it by road. The first tunnel cut through a solid mountain is fascinating but, by the third or fourth, you get rather tied of the view of blasted rock. Of course, bursting out into a scenic fjord, and taking a ferry or a train offers respite but Norway is certainly one country worth seeing by cruise ship.

If nothing else, it also spares you the country’s hotels, too many of which offer what the brochures call ‘Scandinavian style’ but the rest of us might call ‘spartan’. After all, if I wanted to wake surrounded by Ikea furniture, I’d just stay home.

Norway’s capital Oslo is the usual jumping off point for cruises, and most passengers arrive a day or two early to take in the sights. The country’s relationship with the sea is highlighted here by the Viking Ship Museum and the Kon-Tiki Museum which displays the balsawood raft used by Thor Heyerdahl and his companions to sail from Peru to Polynesia. There is even a museum built around the Fram, the ship Roald Amundsen sailed in when he beat Scott to the South Pole in 1912.

Oslo’s most famous sight, though, is the Vigeland Sculpture Park, which displays more than 200 bronze, granite and iron nudes by sculptor Gustav Vigeland, detailing the stages of life. The park, the largest such display by any one artist in the world, is open all year and was built from 1939-49.

Sailing out of Oslo, the first stop is Kristiansand, jumping off point for the scenic Setesdal Vintage Railway, a narrow-gauge steam railway built in 1896. Kristiansand Zoo and Amusement Park is one of Norway’s most popular attractions, with a wide range of animals living in natural settings.

Stavanger is usually the next port of call, its cobbled old town contrasting with bright modern architecture in a picturesque typical Scandinavian setting. The 12th century Stavanger Cathedral, Norway’s oldest, sits unchanged amid a town that boomed after the discovery of North Sea oil. The Stavanger Museum tells of the city’s former glory as the herring capital of Norway.

A must-visit here is the village of Flam, at the bottom of Norway’s longest fjord, and one of its prettiest – the 204km-long, 1,300m-deep Sognefjord. This is the heart of the fjords, with waterfalls pouring off cliffs and calm, clear waters. The Flam railway climbs steeply up a mountain gorge to Myrdal, passing the mythical Kjosfossen Waterfall.

Said to be the haunt of the legendary Huldra – seductive creatures who lure travellers into the forest – the train stops in summer at the waterfall where, sure enough, one of these mythical creatures appears. Fortunately, they appear to wear wetsuits under their flimsy clothing, so you don’t have to worry about them catching cold at least.  This tourist-friendly sight is put on by students from the Norwegian ballet school.

Another tourist-friendly place is the World Heritage City of Bergen, a pretty town set below the handy viewpoint of Fløibanen that shows it off to its best. A funicular railway runs to the top, where a restaurant makes good business out of the spectacular mountain setting.

At night, Bergen’s harbourside is crowded with friendly young revellers, many of whom seem to make a point of getting very drunk. How exactly they manage that given the prohibitive local taxes on alcohol I have no idea.

By day, Bergen has a fresh fish market and a scenic area of quaint wooden buildings, Bryggen, that was once a centre for the Hanseatic League, the German trading bloc whose wealth was founded on salt cod.

Bergen is also blessed with great museums, with a unique collection of Edvard Munch paintings. You’ll also find memorials to Henrik Ibsen, who started his theatrical career here, and the picturesque studio and house of composer Edvard Grieg.

Bergen is also the jumping-off point for trips to Norway’s fjords, while Ålesund, a spectacularly pretty town slightly further north, makes a good base for exploring the North.

Rebuilt after a fire in 1904, this Art Nouveau port stands on several islands, many linked by road tunnels of claustrophobic length. Anything up to 30km long, they stitch together the various tiny communities, previously separated by the countless inlets that were once the source of this Viking nation’s seafaring strength.

Don’t miss Ålesund’s Atlantic Park, one of the largest saltwater-aquariums in northern Europe, where you can get an idea of what a shoal of cod looks like in its habitat. Fish and chips will never taste the same again.

Page & Moy have a nine-day ‘Oslo and the Timeless Fjords’ cruise from £995 – www.page-moy.co.uk

Norwegian Tourist Board  – www.visitnorway.com

‘Interested in more reading? For more articles about life in and on the sea, please visit www.themarineguide.com

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