Norway 2006: Day Two (To Balestrand)
When it comes to boat travel, my mind tends to conjure up the slow, trundely ferry journeys of my youth – Dover to Calais; Portsmouth to Cherbourg; holidays to France. And so on.
It doesn’t tend to think of high speed travel between two places in the same nation over several hours. Probably because that’s the kind of thing that doesn’t really happen in the UK.
Of course, the UK isn’t Norway. Norway is a country with a huge amount of fjords, and often the easiest way to get between two places is to use that water. Which is why we found ourselves at 8am stood on board the Fjord 1 Fylkesbaatane express boat, Fjordtroll.
Fjordtroll is boat with the daftest name of the Fjord 1 Fylkesbaatane fleet that whisks passengers between Bergen on the coast, and Flåm at the end of the Aurlandfjord, via the Sognefjord – the second largest fjord in the world, and the largest on mainland Europe. The boats with the more sensible names incidentally are Fjordprins, Solundir and Starcücruise…
During the summer the principle reason for the boat seems to be to take hoards of tourists on a six hour journey to Flåm, home of the famous Flåm Railway. However it also stops at intermediate stops along the way – dropping people off at small, remote harbours with barely a soul around, and the occasional large town. At each one, at most a handful of people would depart. At some, no one would, and the boat would zoom up to the edge, cautiously wait a second, and then zoom off. Noticeably hardly anyone was actually getting on…
Our destination was Balestrand, a popular destination since the 19th century for artists, and for some reason, the British. Thankfully our journey wasn’t six hours. We were getting off mid-route – around four hours journey from Bergen. And in the meantime there was nothing better to do than stand on the top deck and admire the fantastic views.
That said, some passengers were amazingly blaze about such beautiful tranquillity. The number of people who ventured outside on the top deck for reasons other than having a cigarette was surprisingly few, and indeed a hardcore of the passengers seemed to prefer to ignore the world completely and sit inside concentrating on their knitting instead whilst looking miserable. Still, if that’s someone’s idea of fun…
Balestrand was by far the busiest stop we’d encountered as literally fifteen people disembarked on the quayside. Lined up on the small front was a fleet (well three) minibuses – one from each of the three hotels. As we were staying at the Midtnes Pensjonat, we opted to load our luggage in to their minibus, and sat in the back for the journey to the hotel.
“Is it far?” asked Catherine. No, not far came the reply. A few minutes drive. But much longer to walk by all accounts.
Actually we found that the journey could be walked in about five minutes, but hey, lets not quibble at good service! It has to be said that even the hotel that was right next to where Fjordtroll docked even met its passengers with a bus. Maybe it’s a bit excessive, but how many hotels have you been in where getting even basic service has been a struggle? I know I’ve been in a few…
It was gone noon before we’d checked in and admired our good sized room on the third floor (n.b. that’s third in English terms – Norway like most countries call the ground floor the first floor, hence in Norwegian terms we were on the fourth floor. Confused yet?) with a balcony and a great view of the Sognefjord and the famous church. And that, of course, means lunch time.
The Lonely Planet Guide to Norway describes sandwiches as the national food of Norway. Okay, a slight exaggeration maybe, but they’re supposedly popular. So, not wanting much, we decided to check out the local Spar in town for something bread related, with something in the middle.
Not for the last time on our holiday, we were to discover something about Norway. Whilst the sandwich may be king, the pre-packed sandwich certainly isn’t! Indeed we didn’t see a single one during the entire of our stay – not even in places like airports. Indeed Norwegian supermarkets seem to be completely oblivious to the concept of tourist picnic food. In a way, that’s probably a good thing…
Either way we left the Spar food-less and found instead the Galleri Cafe – about the only cafe in the area actually open – but conveniently located at the harbour front where we’d disembarked.
This then led to the second problem – nothing vegetarian on the menu! After a quick discussion, Catherine managed to order a ham and cheese baguette (hold the ham!), whilst I opted for a prawn baguette.
An Afternoon Stroll
Some food and a trip to the tourist information office later and we found ourselves following some signs for a “nature trail”. This popular walking route is conveniently signposted from nearby our hotel, although of course, omitted to tell people that the start of the trail is about a mile away from the initial sign.
Still we were not deterred, and after a while found ourselves at the beginning where we learned that there are four way marked paths. We opted for the blue one – not suitable for inexperienced children or something – and set off for an afternoon stroll in the hills. Naturally this involved going up hill, but the effort was rewarded by some fantastic views of the fjords.
At two points, whilst stopping for breathers, we also found signing in books – kept sealed up in case of rain. Naturally we signed both, although couldn’t help but pass a quick question in our minds as to what actually happens to such books when they’re full. I have images of dusty warehouses somewhere just full of old comments dating back to 1901 or something, where Robert from Margate has said he’s having a dandy time.
From time to time we’d also come across the sound of clanging in the woods – standing out amidst the silence of the area.
It took some time to work out what this mysterious sound was. Some ghost perhaps, rattling his chains? Or maybe just some small child out to tournament tourists?
Or indeed just some mountain sheep with bells round their necks to alert the farmers where they are? Err. Yeah, go for that one then. Obviously the bells worked just as well for the sheep as there was barely a bleat to be heard.
Saturday night in Balestrand
A good dose of exercise over, we returned to the hotel for the evening meal which offered Cream of Asparagus soup to start, and a platter full of gammon, sauerkraut, carrots, peas and boiled potatoes for me, and a vegetable lasagne for Catherine. All that was followed by a frankly strange desert that can be best described as similar to a firm Angel Delight, set in a mould and sliced and served with cold custard!
Washing all that down with coffee, we went into town to see how Balestrand swung on a Saturday night. The answer was of course, it didn’t. The main (only) restaurant in town seemed to shut at 8:30pm, whilst the main sights to see were two ferries moored in the harbour and an exhibition in a deserted building which we later found out to be part of the quite frankly mysterious oxymoron that is the Museum of Tourism…
With such excitement on offer, we eventually wandered back to the hotel to sit in the lounge and read, whilst sipping a dark beer called Bayer (malty with a hint of sweet fruitiness on the palette).
It was also at this point that we realised that everyone else – and I mean everyone – seemed to be at least 20 years older than us… Was someone trying to tell us something? Only time would tell…