Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Norge III: Route 55

Lom is a pretty town, set in the picturesque Ottadalen valley, with a raging river running through the centre. We stopped there for some coffee and cinnamon buns. We walked around a bit to take in the stave church, one of the few original ones surviving in Norway. The one we'd seen the day earlier was a restored church.

Lom is the gateway to the Jotunheimen, a mountainous area which forms part of the larger Scandinavian Mountain range. The name literally means the abode of giants, extremely apt, considering that 26 of the highest mountain peaks in Norway are found here. Route 55 starts at Lom and then goes through another adjacent valley which climbs gently till it meets the high peaks of the Jotunheimen. Thereafter, the road cuts across the mountains and then descends dramatically towards the Sognefjord. Superlatives abound for describing this route - Norway's first national scenic route, the highest mountain pass in Northern Europe, the most beautiful bike ride in the world etc. Well, let me tell you, none of them is even a wee bit off the mark and even though I was not on a bike - the beauty was still intact.

We drove along a river in a valley for sometime before coming to a halt near a huge column. The Sagasøyla or the Saga Column, standing 108 feet above the ground level is a memorial celebrating the Norwegian Constitution. It was initially intended to be placed by the Parliament in Oslo. Interrupted by the Second World War and later political disagreements the memorial languished in storage, incomplete and without a place to show off its magnificence. The matter was only resolved a couple of decades later when a gentleman named Elvesæter managed to set it up in its preset location with the same name. This name had a connection with my travel partner too as she informed me that their surname was derived from this name and they trace their roots to this area.

We resumed driving and a little ahead at a place called Galdesanden, turned off the road to take the narrow asphalt road that would take us to within 5 kilometers of Galdhøpiggen, the highest peak in Northern Europe (2469m). We drove for about 14 km into the mountain range till we reached the Juvasshytta Lodge, a summer ski resort as well as the base for scaling the Galdhøpiggen. At 1850m, this was the highest point that we were going to reach on this trip.

We returned to route 55 and continued our drive, through some of the most breath taking landscapes. We stopped for coffee, taking pictures and snowfights along the way and crossed Fantesteinen, at 1434m, the highest pass. The snow was packed high on both sides of the road even in peak summer!

After driving along the most undulating road ever, we started the descent to Sogn og Fjordane – the fjord country!! Route 55 ends at Gaupne, in Luster municipality. What was incredible was that in just a matter of hours I would be moving from an active ski resort and wading in a fjord in the glorious Scandinavian summer!

Saturday, 18 August 2007

Norge II: The Road to Inspiration

Finally the day arrived to begin the part of the trip I was most excited about. The road trip to Sognefjorden! We took the E6, that runs from the absolute north of Norway through Trondheim to the south-west of Sweden till Malmo, and headed south. The route plan was to continue on the E6 till a place called Otta, turn right onto Route 15 till a place called Lom and then get onto the awe inspiring Route 55. Though it is not publicised as such, the journey till Lom turned out to be a great introduction to Norwegian literature for me! Soon as we left Trondheim we were to cross the Dovrefjell or the Dovre mountain range. This brought us into the Gudbrandsdalen valley. We were driving through really breathtaking landscape consisting of undulating grasslands fringed with snow covered mountains. My friend told me that this was the area where Peer Gynt the eponymous hero of the Henrik Ibsen play had his (mis)adventures with the mythical trolls. Ibsen had been inspired by his travels on the very route we were taking, and it wasn’t hard to imagine why. The importance of trolls in Norse folklore was evident in the numerous statues, dolls and paintings that one saw everywhere. The region is a protected wildlife sanctuary which boasts of herds of Reindeer and Muskus, the Musk Oxen, roaming freely there. We stopped at a small museum depicting a Sami settlement. The Samis are the indigenous people inhabiting the north of Scandinavia across Norway and Sweden. There I saw a reindeer, which was good, because I was not to see any in the wild.
At Sel, we went off the road to go to the Jørundgard Medieval Center, a reconstruction of a medieval farm which has a special literary significance. It was the setting for the Nobel prize winning author (1928) Sigrid Undset’s novel ‘Kristin Lavransdatter’. There was a festive air about the place and we realized that there was some event on. On enquiry, we found out that there was to be a stage performance of one of Undset’s works later in the evening. My friend was pretty excited as she spotted quite a few film and theatre celebrities in the crowd. Since the performance was only later in the evening we decided to give it a miss and move on.
We took frequent breaks to just step out and breathe in the crisp mountain air. I had to regularly take deep breaths to just come to term with the fact that I was in Norway, and the view around me was for real. It just felt so unreal, so beautiful. To be surrounded by vast expanses of nature at its brilliant best, wow!
We left the E6 behind at a place called Otta, claiming to be the city with the lowest population in the world! That’s one record India is not going to claim in a hurry! Now we were on the road less travelled. Not that the E6 was very crowded, but this was even less used. Bliss! Had we continued straight on the E6 we would have passed near the village of Kvikne, the birthplace of Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, another Nobel prize winning author (1903). Like Tagore did for India, he is celebrated for writing the lyrics of the Norwegian national anthem. But we turned into Route 15 and hit the birth place of another Nobel laureate! How can a region so small, produce and inspire so many great writers? That was all I could ask myself as I looked around myself in amazement. We were halting for the night at a place called Vågå, the birthplace of Knut Hamsun, the winner in 1920. If Ibsen is regarded as the ‘father of modern drama’, Hamsun is widely considered to be the ‘father of modern literature’. This trip was turning out to be truly inspirational. I decided that someday I will do this again, with my daughter.
We dumped our stuff at the camping ground that we were staying in and walked into town for supper. On the way we visited the old wooded ‘Stave Church’ dating back to 1150 AD. The influence of the seafaring Vikings was clearly evident in the architecture of the church, with the roof designed something like a ship’s prow.
The next day we set out early towards Lom. Short of the town we stopped to visit the cottage where Knut Hamsun had spent his childhood. It was under renovation and was striking only by the fact that it was really small! Not small enough to reign in his imagination evidently. Hamsun had a weird position in Norwegian history. Though celebrated before the Second World War, he lost a lot of popularity during the war as he was a German supporter and a strong critic of British Imperialism. With the painful memories of the German occupation slowly receding in public memory, there seems to be a gradual revival in his popularity. After spending some time chatting with the lady responsible for the cottage, her grandson and their dog, we headed for Lom. That’s where we were to hit Route 55, the highest road in Northern Europe “high in the mountains among glaciers and sharp peaks”.

Norge I: Uppsala to Trondheim

So here I was in Uppsala, my semester there was over and most of my friends had already left. It was the beginning of summer and after spending the winter there I decided that I deserved to spend some time in the awesome Scandinavian summer. The ostentatious motive was to use the excellent university library housed in the beautiful Carlolina Redviva building and work on my master thesis. However I found myself stricken by a twin attack of writer's block and wanderlust. Not many have survived that. I was no exception. That is how I found myself Norway bound.
The plan was to catch a train to Trondheim to meet a friend. She had a car, which we were to use to drive south on the amazing Route 55 to the village Sogndal on the banks of Sognefjorden, the second largest fjord in the world. The largest is somewhere in Greenland. Thereafter I was on my own, and had to somehow find my way to Oslo and then return to Uppsala via Stockholm. I hadn't quite decided how I would do that.

For the first leg of my journey I caught a train to Sundsvall, in central Sweden, a city with a habit of burning down regularly. Apparently it has been rebuilt four times already. I had a couple of hours there before I caught a connection to Trondheim via Östersund. I spent that walking around the city centre. I was quite amused to find various sculptures of what appeared to be a flying dragon scattered all along the city centre. Apparently the work of some local artist. (See http://maxmagnusnorman.com/artist_blog/art_day_338.shtml ) I later learnt that their basketball team is called the Sundsvall Dragons, don't know if there is a connection!

The journey from Sundsvall to Trondheim literally takes you through hell. Well, that's what a railway station in Norway is called - Hell! The views though remind you of paradise. Especially as you near Trondheim and get your first glimpse of the fjords. Breathtaking! I reached Trondheim in the evening, but it was still bright. I had to remind myself that I was in the heart of the land of the midnight sun. My friend was there to receive me at the station and looked approvingly at my small backpack. I realised why when I saw the car she was driving, it was one of those miniature electric 'smartcars'! We would use a bigger car for the road trip she assured me.

Trondheim is a beautiful city in central Norway. My friend lived across the old town bridge on a small hill overlooking the city. This hill also has the distinction of having the only bicycle lift in the world! Known as the Trampe (tramp) bicycle lift, it can be operated by a keycard to go uphill with your bicycle. You have to stay mounted on your bike, keep your left foot on the pedal and your right foot rests on a footplate at the start point. The footplate moves along a railing and as a result pushes you and your bike up the hill. It took me a couple of attempts to master the art of hanging on when I tried it out. Keycards can be rented by tourists like me to get a feel of how the students commute in Trondheim. It costs about a 100 kroners.

The imposing Nidaros Cathedral dominates the city. Built in the Romanesque and Gothic styles it is considered the most important cathedral in Norway. I was particularly impressed by the church organs there. One can see the thousands of pipes housed in the high reaches of the cathedral. Luckily for us there was an organ concert on when we visited the cathedral and the acoustics were just spellbinding.

Spent two days walking around in Trondheim, which my friend informed me was more than enough. I managed to visit a brewpub called the Trondhjem Mikrobryggeri (Trondheim Microbrewery) where I tried out their seven different brews served in 100ml sampling glasses. Yum! Missed going into another great pub called the Den Gode Nabo (The Good Neighbour), though it was actually very close to my friends place near the old town bridge. Apparently they stock the Nøgne Ø, which I would go crazy searching for in Oslo. But that is another story...