Monday, July 23, 2007


From London, we made our way through copious amounts of cloud cover to the northernmost destination that either of us had ever set foot upon. Touching down in Oslo, we quickly realized that Norway would be a marked contrast to our primarily-sundrenched travels to date. Our arrival was greeted by stern, overcast skies and temperatures at least an order of magnitude lower than we had experienced in recent weeks.

Our first impressions, based on Oslo Airport’s ubiquitous pale wooden tones, clean lines and friendly Asian-origin immigrations officer, invoked recollections of the U.S. Pacific Northwest. Once we emerged from the airport, however, we gained a more traditional perception of the country. We found ourselves surrounded by a host of tall, mostly-fit blonde men and women with backpacks and tow-head kids in tow (Norwegians are ranked second in the world for average height, but alas, the popular notion that everyone there looks like a model is a tad overblown).

As we waited for the train bringing us to the center of town, we were forced to unearth our long-forgotten North Face fleeces and rainjackets from the bottom of our bags. Upon arriving at Oslo’s National Theater stop a half an hour later, we quickly surveyed the ominous skies above before embarking upon a fifteen minute walk to our hotel. Ten minutes later, we were bombarded by a cold and unyielding downpour. Arriving at our hotel drenched and shivering, we had been thoroughly deterred from any imminent notions of emigrating to Scandinavia.

As we holed up in our room waiting for our shoes, socks and pants to dry out, we finalized our weeklong Norway itinerary, opting to spend the considerable majority of our stay surveying the country’s long western coastline. A few hours later, the clouds receded and we ventured into town to buy some reading material for our five consecutive nights on the Hurtigruten, a modern take on a Norwegian steamship. Our brief excursion quickly acquainted us with the strength of the Norwegian currency, the kroner.

Swimming in oil revenues (Norway is the world’s third largest oil exporter after Saudi Arabia and Russia and boasts over $280 billion in its national coffers), the entire country is essentially priced like a movie theater. Kaberi’s book purchasing was sadly limited to a mere $25 paperback copy of A Thousand Splendid Suns. Only imagining at what an Oslo restaurant meal would cost, we forlornly returned to our hotel to partake in the complementary “light supper” of soup and salad offered.

We awoke the next morning – Vik’s birthday, July 18 – to catch an early flight to Bodoe, a city located north of Oslo near the Arctic Circle. Ironically, Vik’s birthday wish had been a day of uninterrupted sleep, but what he received instead was a day of uninterrupted travel. After at an ungodly 5:00 a.m. wakeup call, we checked out of our hotel before local tram service commenced, leaving us to lug our bags during a hurried 15-minute walk to the train station. Once at the airport, we splurged on birthday breakfast muffins (delicious, but priced at a ludicrous $8 each), and bemoaned missing the free hotel breakfast.

After a 90-minute flight to Bodoe, we used the four hour layover before our connecting flight to fit in a neckstraining catnap or two. By 2:00 p.m., we had made our way via puddlejumper to Svolvaer, a picturesque town on the Lofoten islands located northwest of Bodoe. With four and a half hours to kill before the Hurtigruten docked in Svolvear, we headed straight for the largest grocery store in town (a Mega Coop) to stock up on foodstuffs in lieu of paying for the undoubtedly-exorbitant meals on the boat. A few hours later, we strolled along the docks before a stiff easterly wind forced us to seek shelter indoors. We soon discovered Bacalao, a friendly restaurant with creamy hot chocolate and free wireless internet access.

When we finally boarded the Hurtigruten, essentially a floating motel with an overzealous P.R. department, Vik spent the first hour choosing between two equally-unappealing available interior cabins on two different decks. After he finally chose the higher-situated of the two, we expeditiously unpacked our backpacks, transforming the cramped dresser drawers into our own personal pantry. While our inside cabin afforded us no views whatsoever, it did promote restful sleep by shielding us from the never-ending summer sunrays above the Arctic Circle. When we fell into an exhausted slumber at 9:30 p.m., the skies were as bright as they were six hours earlier.

Over the course of the next three days, we made our way south from the Arctic Circle to the southwestern port city of Bergen. In the process, we unhurriedly passed by green mountainscapes dotted with neat yellow, white and red cottages perched above craggly shorelines. Our days invariably consisted of staking an early claim to a windowside table in the ship’s observation lounge where we would read, journal and blog prolifically (at one point, even catching up to real-time with our posts). Kaberi kept her camera at her side and, when the scenery warranted, would sprint outside to snap away in the face of a consistent gust.

Highlights of the journey included a marker designating the Arctic Circle crossing point and Torghatten, a striking mountain with a 480-foot long doughnut hole in its center. For the first thirty hours of the trip, overcast skies muted the natural beauty of the landscape. When we docked at the small coastal town of Rovik, however, a full sweeping rainbow leaped out of the mist. The weather continued to improve as we made our way further south toward the fjord region. By the time we reached Bergen, the bright sunshine and mild breeze had lured us outdoors to absorb the sights from the ship’s forward lounge and attached outdoor deck. We proceeded to spend most of our time tracking the sun’s progress until it began to play hide-and-seek behind the mountains during its 11:30 p.m. descent.

Disembarking at Bergen, Norway’s second-largest city, we made our way into town to locate a bookstore selling the final Harry Potter book, which had been officially released earlier that day. After securing our $36 copy, we walked to the undistinctive fish market and then around the cobblestoned city center until it was time to reboard the ship for our two-night voyage to Trondheim, Norway’s third-largest city. For this journey, we had fortunately secured an exterior cabin for the slightly-different northward route through the fjords. The next day, at noon, we arrived at the World Heritage-designated Geiranger and Storfjorden fjords. We alternated between imbibing the magnificent fjord views and reading the Deathly Hallows furiously; by the time we had docked the next morning, we each had managed to finish the book.

During our voyage, we enjoyed the daily ritual of stopping in different ports of call as a way of breaking up the monotony of the journey. We would take in the atmosphere of a different town while fervently searching for a café serving hot coffee or the nearest grocery store. Our favorite stop was at Molde, just north of the fjords, where an annual jazz festival coincided with our visit. We enjoyed warm, freshly-grilled street food while reveling in the ambient outdoor music. We also relished our last day, which was spent in Trondheim, an atmospheric and picturesque town where we wandered under sunny skies and amidst ubiquitous St. Olaf monuments.

While we certainly could not complain about the relaxing pace of five days aboard the Hurtigruten, the atmosphere on board was a significant departure from our time on the Yangtze River in China. We sorely missed the jovial and funloving camaraderie of that voyage which stood in stark contrast to the relative absence of warmth from the unsmiling European tourists onboard with us. Nevertheless, Norway’s distinctive coastal beauty was worth seeing. After returning to Oslo, we looked forward to our onward journey to Prague, where we hoped to once again bask in the warmth of friends and abundant sunshine.

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