Fjords. Glaciers. Waterfalls. Vikings. Reindeer. Leprosy.
What do these things have in common?
Norway. The Scandinavian kingdom that brought you the Nobel Prize, pickled herring and Disney’s Frozen (don’t hold that against them) had long been on my to-go list, and with a direct flight from Boston on Norwegian Airlines, it’s an easy 7-hour trip. (Cushy, too, if you spring for Premium.) Upon arrival, we checked into the Oslo Grand Hotel, which is where the Nobel Peace Prize banquet is held, where Henrik Ibsen ate lunch every day and where I experienced my first aquavit hangover.
A short stroll away, past the Royal Palace, is Frogner Park, home of the world’s largest sculpture garden by a single artist, Gustav Vigeland, who didn’t shy away from eroticism. Facetiously called the “Penis Park of Norway,” it’s an astonishing artistic achievement that less well-endowed men might find intimidating—with more than 200 sculptures, mostly of nude figures in sometimes eye-popping poses, there’s a statue for pretty much every kink. The rest of Oslo is chock-a-block with art, from the National Gallery, where you can see hordes of tourists mimicking Edvard Munch’s The Scream, to the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, designed by Renzo Piano. The architecturally daring Opera House, meanwhile, gives Sydney a run for its money, while the Viking Ship Museum shows a more amiable side of a people best known for raping and pillaging.
From Oslo, we set out north through country that at first resembled Downeast Maine and then slowly ascended to an alpine plateau: an otherworldly landscape of tundra, pock-marked with lakes and snowdrifts. On the way, we stopped to see the Gardnos meteor crater and a shopping mall that sold seal skins and reindeer hides. Eventually, we reached Vøringfossen, one of the country’s most famous waterfalls, where the memorial to people who died there combined with the warning signs showing a stick figure plummeting over the edge were enough to make an acrophobe reach for the Xanax. In Lofthus, we bedded down at the Ullensvang Hotel, where Edvard Grieg composed some of his most famous music, and we enjoyed dinner overlooking the fjord, followed by a few drinks accompanied by a lounge act straight out of Saturday Night Live, Scandinavian Edition.
With cherry farms disappearing up into the clouds on the left and a turquoise fjord to the right, after passing waterfalls that beggar description, we reached Rosendal, where we toured one of Europe’s smallest palaces, the Baroniet, and drove up to see Folgefonna, Norway’s third largest glacier. The Rosendal Turisthotell, besides epitomizing Nordic chic, made the best fish stew I’ve ever tasted, and judging by the number of wealthy Europeans driving luxury cars and arriving on expensive yachts, it seems we stumbled upon Norway’s version of the Hamptons.
Our next stop was the village of Utne, and one look at the room in the Utne Hotel, where the present king and his parents both honeymooned, tells you everything you need to know about how low-key and unpretentious Norwegians are. A pair of twin beds, with a desk and a dresser, are pretty much it, but what the 18th-century inn lacks in amenities, it more than makes up for in hospitality. There are few towns more twee, and a visit to the Hardanger Folkemuseum offered a glimpse at life in the fjords from the 1600s until today.
After a ferry ride and overnight stay in Voss (the country’s extreme sports capital but strangely not where they make the water), we made our way to Bergen, the bustling thousand-year-old port city. It draws hordes of tourists on cruise ships, but most of them don’t bother to venture much beyond the waterfront area called Bryggen. We did, with a guide, who showed us the old wooden neighborhoods that have survived the centuries. In what used to be the red-light district, the whorehouses used Staffordshire dog figurines in the windows as a signal: If the dogs were facing out, there were prostitutes available; facing in, there was a wait. While we didn’t visit the Leprosy Museum (for centuries, Bergen had Europe’s highest incidence of the disease, and the doctor who discovered its cause was a local), we did see the equally unappetizing work by American artist Tony Matelli at KODE, the city’s cluster of art museums. A major highlight, however, was visiting Edvard Grieg’s home, Troldhaugen, where a hugely talented pianist named Christian Hundsnes Grøvlen gave a lunchtime concert in a hall overlooking the cabin and the lake where Grieg composed.
So is Norway perfect? Hell, no. There’s a whale burger on almost every menu, and in winter, the sun barely makes it over the horizon. But it’s a place of staggering beauty where the unexpected is the norm. In fact, there’s a town in Stjordal called Hell, and every winter it freezes over.