BERGEN, NORWAY — There hasn’t been such a scrum of paparazzi since Kim Kardashian last strolled a beach in a bikini. There are strategically deployed elbows, selfie sticks raised like periscopes, and, amid the snapping array of pocket-sized smart phones, a few photographers wielding lenses powerful enough to count Ms Kardashian’s porcelain pores.
But in this instance, the shutterbugs’ insouciant subject isn’t the least bit concerned with craggy dimples peppering supernatural assets. That’s because those gob-smacking, gravity-defying slopes belong not to a cartoonishly curvaceous celebrity, but to the extraordinary fjords of Norway.
I’m on a three-hour journey through the Osterfjord, a round-trip cruise from Bergen — Norway’s second largest city after Oslo — to Mostraumen, where brightly-painted houses cling to the water’s edge beneath fir-fringed mountains. As our ferry surges through steel-blue waters, most passengers head to the deck to stand cheek by wind-blown jowl, eyes straining to spot the next bridal-veil waterfall or red timber-clad home perched in splendid isolation like a lone cardinal in a forest.
Above: The charming city of Bergen fans out into the water and its food scene is the envy of Europe.
For many visitors to Bergen, this bite-sized voyage may be their only experience of Norway’s famous fjords. Blame the gripping gravitational pull of this hip university city, with its picturesque harbour, colourful clapboard architecture and surf-and-turf scenery ranging from sea to sky-skimming summits, easily accessed via a funicular and a cable car.
In 2015, Bergen was also named a UNESCO City of Gastronomy. Take the Taste of Bergen tour, which veers from airdried “stockfish” in the historic Bryggen district to waffles at BarBarista, a psychedelic fever-dream of a local hangout. For a beer-tasting tutorial that’s fun even if you don’t know your head from your ale, book ahead at Bryggeriet Restaurant and Microbrewery overlooking the marina. And check out the funky bars and restaurants near the intersection of Skostredet and Sparebanksgaten, including vegan-friendly Dwell, with its hippie reggae vibe, and 50s-inspired Rock & Roll American diner, where you can eat in a converted convertible. Don’t miss a stroll around the Fish Market, where you can buy caviar in a tube. Caviar in a tube people. Despite, or perhaps in part because of that, Bergen’s culinary kudos are well-deserved.
But once you’ve gorged on Bergen, “the gateway to the fjords,” you really must move on to the sweet temptations of the Hardangerfjord, the second longest fjord in Norway. To reach it, I catch a bus from Bergen to Norheimsund. It’s an hour-and-a-half ride through undulating hills threaded with waterfalls, an amiable journey which would nonetheless be much improved if the bus had a toilet. (Did I mention the waterfalls? So many waterfalls!)
Left: Waterfalls and their rainbows dominate the landscape. Right: Dried fish in the Bergen market draws a big crowd.
From Norheimsund, I board a ferry to Eidfjord, a tiny town that serves as a launchpad for tours to Vøringfossen, the most famous waterfall in Norway. Not that this boat takes us directly to Eidfjord. No, this is a ferry with attention deficit order, prone to distractions, like a dog who has to “mark” every fire hydrant it passes.
In this instance, those fire hydrants are quaint little Norwegian towns, because the ferry operates much like a local bus — a basic, albeit beautiful, means of getting from A to Z, stopping at several letters of the alphabet in between. It takes nearly three hours to reach Eidfjord, but I’m not complaining. Tracking misty blue mountains as they advance and then recede in our wake, watching cotton-candy clouds flirt with sheer granite cliffs, ogling coquettish cascades that are suddenly exposed as our boat rounds a bluff, all conspire to lull me into a hypnotic reverie.
In Eidfjord, I meet Sigmund Saebo, a taxi driver with a passing resemblance to Albert Einstein, who is happy to chat as we drive up to Vøringfossen. The subject turns, as it often does among strangers, to the weather, specifically how warm and sunny it was in Norway this past summer.
“Is that unusual?” I ask.
“Not really. It happens every hundred years or so,” he shrugs, his lips twitching almost imperceptibly upwards beneath his bushy grey moustache.
Despite the rain deficit, Vøringfossen is duly impressive. Two separate falls froth and wriggle down opposite sides of a valley, which zigzags drunkenly into the distance. Where the falls meet, far below the observation platform where I stand, the mists mingle to produce a perpetual rainbow, like a scene from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Elven realm of Rivendell.
For me, though, the highlight of the Hardangerfjord is unassuming Ulvik, one ferry stop from Eidfjord. Admittedly, it doesn’t sound that appealing on paper. With a population barely topping 1,000, this quiet coastal community has just three cafés, two grocery stores, two gift shops with local crafts, a poetry museum and a 19th-century church, which is simple white clapboard without and elaborately painted within.
“The church is a bit like Norwegians,” says Vibeke Korsnes, the cheerful manager of Ulvik’s chamber of commerce and tourism office. “It can seem cold on the outside, but it’s fun on the inside,” she grins.
Mostly, Ulvik is defined by what it doesn’t have. “We don’t have a funicular. We don’t have extreme climbing. It’s just … nature,” Korsnes says.
And yet, that’s more than enough, particularly given Ulvik’s peculiarly mild micro-climate. Sheltered on three sides by mountains to protect it from the winds, and as inland as it’s possible to be while still sprawled alongside a fjord, it’s a perfect little Norwegian Eden.
Ulvik’s smattering of steep-roofed houses are tucked into hills carpeted by lush orchards, spiky evergreens and green fields where bleating lambs graze. There are hiking trails, cycling, kayaking and fishing, although the “fruit and cider route” is more my speed. This gently-ascending road rising above the fjord is dotted with a trio of farms producing apple juice, hard cider and fruit preserves. I sample an apple brandy at Hardanger Sider and enjoy a pre-booked lunch of perfectly seasoned lamb stew, washed down with two versions of hard cider, at the family-run farm of Syse Gard.
On a blue sky afternoon, however, there’s no finer place to be than the fjord in front of the Hotel Brakanes. With the crystal clear water highlighted by a swathe of white sand, it could actually pass for the Caribbean on Instagram … were it not for the snow-capped mountain peaks beyond.
JUST THE FACTS
• Tourism info: Norway: www.visitnorway.com; Bergen: https://en.visitbergen.com; Ulvik: http://visitulvik.no/en/
• Where to stay in Bergen: Det Hanseatiske Hotel is our pick: http://www.dethanseatiskehotel.no/en/
• Where to stay in Ulvik: Hotel Brakanes is located right on the Hardangerfjord, with a dock for sunbathing and a beach:
• See, do, eat: Fjord cruise Bergen to Mostraumen: https://rodne.no/en/fjordcruise/fjord-cruise-to-mostraumen/
• Bergen foodie tour: http://norwayinsight.com/en/activity/90124/taste-of-bergen