Mountains, glaciers, deep coastal fjords and colourful wooden houses. This is Norway – an experience like no other!
Staying 7 nights in Kviknes, a four-star Swiss-style hotel on the edge of Sognefjord in Norway was out of this world. The journey was via plane, coach and ferry organised by Newmarket Tours. It was our first time with this company and we weren’t disappointed.
Our flight from Gatwick to Bergen with Norwegian airlines went smoothly with no untoward incidents or hold-ups.
After landing, we were met by our tour guide, Peter who we had throughout our stay. We transferred to a comfortable, air-conditioned coach which was to take us on our four hour journey from Bergen to Kviknes Hotel in Balestrand. Once we left the outskirts of Bergen, we found ourselves travelling through many long tunnels to areas of spectacular scenery.
The journey from home to our final destination had made it a long day and so we were pleased to finally arrive and enjoy a buffet supper before retiring for the night. When booking, we had asked for an upgrade (room with a view), as we knew that group bookings similar to ours usually occupied the large block of apartments standing just behind the original hotel.
It turned out that we had room 661 on one of the two floors which had been refurbished. The view from the room was wonderful overlooking the fjord and mountains beyond. The bathroom had underfloor heating, with soft, vinyl tiles. The shower and bath were fine but no complimentary toiletries. A hair drier was provided and fresh towels were supplied every day. There was a large TV in room and even a small kettle, which really pleased me. Nothing like a nice cup of tea!
The food was really good – buffet breakfast between 7 and 10 am and buffet supper from 7 til 10 in the evening. There was a large selection of dishes to choose from and the fish was especially good. The cuisine is international, as are the chefs.
Staff were delightful – very kind and helpful and nothing seemed too much trouble. I even managed to get a recipe for a dessert I was curious about.
Kviknes has a most interesting story to tell of how it started in 1752 with Holmen’s grocer shop. Ole Kvikne bought the general store and guest house, with room for 4 travellers, in 1877. People then, only seemed to travel by boat everywhere and a niche opened up to offer fishermen/travellers somewhere to stay overnight. We had the opportunity, as a group, to hear about the history of the place and see some old film by today’s fourth generation owner, Sigurd Kvikne. Over the decades Kviknes has grown into the largest Fjord Hotel in the country, famous beyond Norway’s borders.
Emperors, royalty, presidents, film stars, prime ministers, and artists from many countries have stayed at Kviknes, including Kaiser Willhem II who often visited. He had a special, engraved chair and this is still in the hotel today – you can even sit on it! The seat lifts out and the engraving can be seen carved on the base. Yoko Ono and Kofi Annan are but two, of the well known visitors.
An extensive collection of artworks and antiques can be seen inside the hotel, which gives it, its special style. Hoyvik Room has an impressive, unique collection of ‘dragon’ style furniture.
Our time, whilst in Sognefjord, was to include a journey by boat through spectacular scenery to Bergen. To discover the region on a fascinating fjord-life tour and optional excursions to the Jostedal Glacier, Mydal, Flam and Gudvangen.
Sognefjord is Norway’s longest and deepest fjord, and extends from the coast just north of Bergen to the mighty mountains of the Jotunheimen National Park and the blue ice of the Jostedalsbreen glacier. At its deepest, Sognefjorden is more than 1,300 metres, and the mountains along the fjord rise to more than 1,700 metres.
Balestrand, where the hotel is based makes a perfect base for excursions in any direction. 20 nationalities live in Balestrand.
From the hotel, you have gentle paths across wooded hillsides to challenging hikes up steep mountains or glaciers.
We walked through Balestrand one day to the two Viking grave mounds with King Bele. The statue of King Bele was given by the German emperor Willhelm II as a token of gratitude for his many visits and represents a figure from the saga of Fritjof the warrior.
The landscape of Balestrand, with its Nordic light inspired artists as early as 1825 and contributed to visitors. Some artists settled here and built villas in the style of the day. Many of these can be seen from the Heritage Trail. These can be seen as tall buildings with jutting roofs, verandahs and decorated gables, often with dragon head ornamentations. These were a symbol taken from the Nordic Sagas and pre-Christian world of mythology.
The Heritage Trail takes in some churches, the Ciderhuest, situated in a fruit orchard and produces cider, wines, brandy, juice which is served in the restaurant) There are also galleries, the Norwegian Museum of Travel and Tourism, an enamel workshop, an aquarium where children can spend a week during holidays to collecting samples and studying the fjord.
On our first day, when we were free to do whatever we wanted, we went into St Olaf’s Church,(or the English Church), a short distance from the hotel. It was completed in 1897 in memory of Margaret and Sophia Kvikne. Margaret was the English wife of Knut Kvikne who was a pioneer in mountain climbing. It’s architect, Jens Zetlitz Kielland designed the church with features taken from the old stave churches.
Margaret was a vicar’s daughter from Yorkshire and although she got on well with the Norwegians, she never felt at ease with the Lutheran rituals. Shortly after her marriage, she contracted tuberculosis and died in 1894. She had told her husband she had had a dream of building an English church in Balestrand, so on her deathbed, he promised to build an Anglican church.
During the summer, the church is used by the Anglican church for services every Sunday. Services can be on weekdays when priests are available. It is run on donations from tourists and priests work for free. Since the church was consecrated, Kviknes Hotel has provided free room and board for the priests.
Our second day of the holiday was a trip to Bergen which meant an early rise for a 6.30 breakfast in order to catch the catamaran at 7.50 am. It was a four hour trip, and sadly the weather was not too kind! We arrived at 12 noon and had 4 hours to explore before returning at 4 pm. As we headed off towards the fish market, I had to put up my umbrella!
The fish market is in the heart of the city and sells seafood, fruit and vegetables. It has been there since the 1200s and been a meeting place for merchants and fishermen. It’s certainly a hustle and bustle with traders tempting you to buy.
We walked on towards Rosenkrantz Tower then Haakon’s Hall, built between 1247 and 1261 by Hakon Hakonsson. It was a royal residence and banqueting hall. However, it was closed, so we never got to see inside.
Instead, looking for cover from the rain, we came upon Bergenhuus Fortress Museum where we enjoyed free admission and a cup of coffee. The exhibition deals with both civilian and military resistance. The German occupation force used extensive resources to stop the resistance work and many people from Bergen were cruelly tortured before being executed or sent to their deaths in concentration camps. This history is presented through photographs, weapons,espionage equipment, sabotage materials, film footage and interviews etc. Sadly, we didn’t have enough time to take in much detail.
St Mary’s Church was our next stop. It is the only remaining of the 12 churches and 3 monasteries that were built in Bergen. It is said to have been started in 1130s/1140s and completed in 1180. A few past fires have burnt the church as well as there being several renovations and reconstructions.
It was taken over by the city’s large German population in 1408, after which it was called the ‘German Church’. St Mary’s is richly adorned and escaped the fate of being turned into a ruin. When the Germans vanished it became an ordinary parish church.
Our last port of call should have been the city’s Leper Hospital. By the time we reached there just before 3pm, it was about to close! We asked for a quick look around but were denied access apart from being able to look in the hospital’s herb garden.
St George’s was a hospital for lepers until the middle of the 20th century. Bergen had 3 such hospitals for leprosy patients and the largest concentration of patients in Europe. Now, St George’s is but a monument to thousands of personal tragedies. It is important for the dissemination of Norwegian work and leprosy research. Having recently listened to a talk by Dr Margaret Burgess, founder of ‘Promise Nepal’ we were interested in going to see this place. Alas, we were disappointed.
So, through the continuing rain we made our way back to the ferry port for the 4 pm return journey which finally got us back to the hotel at 8.30 pm. What a long day!
On the Saturday, another early 6.30 breakfast to board the coach at 7.20 for our trip to the Flam Railway. This is an incredible train journey where, nowhere else in the world is there an adhesion-type railway on normal tracks with a steeper climb.
En route we passed a place called Vik where a special ‘old cheese’ called ‘Gamalost’ is made. Here, a Gamalost festival is held each summer. It isn’t that the cheese itself is old, it is the recipe which contains spoiled milk and mould – and the smell which seems very, very old. It contains large amounts of vitamin K2, high in protein and low in fat – and contains no salt. Studies show this cheese has better blood pressure scores.
Not far from here is the Hopperstad Stave Church built around 1130, with a triple nave. It has a Gothic altar-baldaquin with sculptured heads as well as decorations and paintings in the ceiling depicting Christ’s childhood.
We were able to stop for a while to visit Sogn Fjordmuseum, opened in 1989 and situated by Kaupanger ferry quay. Here is a unique collection of old , fishing gear and other maritime objects as well as a film showing boat building. There is a cafe and museum shop.
We reached the Flam railway at 1.25 for our 1 hour journey up and another hours return journey. We were allocated train coach number 10 for our group, although some other nationalities were on board.
This mountain line had to be laid along steep slopes and round sharp bends to enable the train to snake its way up and down the sheer inclines. The hour’s journey covers 20 kilometres of track, through 20 tunnels totalling a distance of 6 kilometres. 18 of the tunnels were excavated by hand. The journey provides a spectacular, panoramic view of some of the wildest and most striking examples of Norwegian mountain landscape. Waterfalls cascade down the sides of mountains and rivers cut through deep ravines.
The train stops half way through its journey at the Kjosfossen waterfall, a 93m tall hour-glass shaped waterfall. You hop out onto a large viewing platform, which gets quite crowded. So many cameras clicking and ‘posing!’ One international lady in particular, who had a long, colourful scarf, swirling it around her body as someone captured it on film.
Music blares from the train and a PA announcer tells you there are spirits or fairies who haunt the area – (actually they are ladies who dance on the peninsula in the middle of the waterfall).
This was certainly the highlight of the day – so much to see before arriving back at hotel at 7 in the evening.
Our next excursion was to the Jostedal Glacier, the largest in continental Europe. The glacier covers an area of 487km and is 80 km long and the mass of ice corresponds to about 300000 million baths of water – all of Norway’s water for use for 100 years.
Our coach stopped next to a remote cafe and we had to walk a short distance to see the glacier from below. I must say I was rather disappointed as it was not as I had imagined! All I could see was a wedge of dirty looking snowy/ice draping from a great height to the ground below.
It was here that a catastrophe happened to an elderly lady in the group. She was walking over some stones on the way to see the glacier when she fell headlong on her face and did a lot of damage along the bridge of her nose. After a call for assistance, she had to be taken away to a doctor and hospital where she was later treated, before returning to the hotel late that evening, heavily bruised and dressings on her nose.
On our return from the glacier we were taken on a tour over the Gaular mountains which were covered in quite a bit of snow as well as being wet and misty.
Nearing the end of our stay we visited the Sogndd Folk Museum which was very interesting. On the way we stopped to have a look inside the Kaupanger Stave Church with a pre booked tour guide.
This church has been in continuous use, and still is the parish church. Built in the early 11th century, it was replaced with one twice the size. Just before 1140, the church burnt down and led to the construction of the existing church, dating probably between 1140 and 1150. It was then extended and today has 22 posts, is 102 square meters in size and seats 165 people. The pulpit, altarpiece and font are from the 17th century.
At the Folk Museum we started off with a pre-booked group lunch costing 95 kroner and consisted of bread and soup.
Our group was split into two with guides to show us around the outdoor museum. The first of the 30 houses from the Middle Ages to the present time, were moved to their location here in the 1970’s when the place was covered in pine wood.
It was in the mid 80’s that Sogn og Fjordane University College developed a cohesive plan for the entire open air museum. Animals are those of old breeds and not only are they nice additions to the scenery but they help protect the cultural landscape. Livestock maintains the pastures by grazing it. The horse is used for work and the meadow is traditionally harvested from July 10th for animal fodder. Sown fields fed the people in the area and consisted of barley, rye and oats. Flax, potatoes and various root vegetables were also grown.
We had an interesting time going inside the buildings and listening to their histories. We had one very old lady, dressed in costume waiting for us just outside one of the houses, with nearby chickens pecking away at the grass. Once inside the house the woman relayed the activities of her yesterday years and life growing up. We were able to ask questions, and her English was very good.
The school house too was interesting, as we sat at the desks and listened to the guide giving us some detailed information. We even sang a Norwegian song, with a little help from her. Then we had to teach her a song……’All things Bright and Beautiful.’ Certainly, a good place to visit.
The day before we left, we were free to roam as we pleased – and no early rise to dash out for transport!
It was rather wet so we went into the Norsk Reislivsmuseum next to the hotel and accessed from a connecting passage downstairs. The main aim of the museum is to exhibit the history of tourism in Norway from the beginning of the boom in the 19th century, until today. A cafe is available inside and we spent quite a length of time, fascinated by all the exhibitions on show.
We had had a wonderful week and were fortunate to travel with a very nice group of people from various parts of the UK. There were 2 departure times as some of the group had different connecting airports depending upon what part of the country they had travelled from. Ours was a straight journey to London from Bergen, but the others had to travel to Amsterdam and then change planes!
11.40 am was our hotel departure time which meant no rush, but we discovered that the much earlier group had a hold up at Bergen for their departure flight. So we were very surprised to see them still waiting when we arrived much later!
Norway – a great country to visit with phenomenal scenery and hospitable people. However, it is expensive, so best to consider this. Visitors should also be aware that drinking in a public place is illegal in Norway. It is also known as the’ land of the midnight sun.’ It felt quite strange still being so light late at night!
We heard quite a few tales about the Trolls – but never managed to catch sight of one! Did give me inspiration for inventing another Norwegian, fantasy tribe though!