With a craggy coastline stretching for a huge distance (in the far north, it reaches around the top of Sweden to touch Finland, a bit of Russia, and the Arctic Ocean), Norway is a land that is never too far from water. There are always boats and ships in sight along the coast. In an Oslo museum, you can visit beautiful Viking longships, over a thousand years old. And a century ago, this small country had the fourth-largest merchant fleet in the world. Even today, while its ships are not as numerous as, say, Greece or China/Hong Kong, it is still a major player.
A couple of years ago, I traveled to Oslo while I was on break from Washington College, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a few blocks from the Chester River, which feeds into the Chesapeake Bay.
Maryland is also lots and lots of coastline — nearly sliced in half by the Chesapeake, and basically a fifth of the state is water.
But there were many times in Maryland that I felt far from the ocean or the bay, blocked by the masses of suburban housing and traffic congestion that seem to define life in the “Mid-Atlantic” states.
In Norway, whose entire population is about the same as Colorado, there is often no one between you and the ocean. Even when you are away from the coast, the sea feels accessible. All rivers run down to it, and even in the mountains you still feel close to the ocean somehow — there is nothing between you and the coastline but pastures, unblemished forests full of wildlife, and cold fresh water on its way to the sea.
While not as beautiful or awe-inspiring as the Fjords further North, the region is still gorgeous, mountains and sea, especially to someone who grew up in a pretty flat stretch of Upstate New York, among ponds and lakes, and tiny sand hills dumped by retreating glaciers .
Halden is on the Swedish border, and to me, it felt like a land on the edge of a frontier.
I’ve visited the western United States, and gone through some pretty flea-bitten border towns in New Mexico and Arizona. While at one point those old mining spots were “frontier towns,” I never felt like I was on the edge of anything, save for insanity, as you could only stare at a seemingly endless expanse of desert, between you and the Mexican border.
In Halden, I felt like I was on the edge of the world, which is an odd feeling, since it isn’t actually on the ocean. In fact, Hong Kong, where I’d just spent six months, was more geographically “on the edge” than Halden, existing on the edge of the sea, and on the edge of the Chinese mainland, literally and figuratively.
But even in the “wilderness”areas around HK’s New Territories, the woods were always crowded with people. Halden, initially, felt a bit like a Old West town in the Rocky Mountains — a small city huddled between some impressive mountains.
Walking up the steep hill towards the massive Fredriksten Festning (Fortress), close to sunset, I knew I was in a place quite unlike any I’d ever been before.
This fortress is old. It saw combat, sieges, and watched over the city for ages from its hilltop. Looking out from its walls, there was so much to see, in every direction, especially the beautiful fjord and canal glistening at sundown, while the city’s lights slowly turned on.
I’ve only seen the Mediterranean during three days in Malaga, but I felt like I might almost have arrived in Greece, with little houses all around the watery and rocky cityscape, lights coming on, ships tying up in the harbor, small cars quietly driving around. Looking down, the train station was quite small, but the railroad yard looked really impressive from atop the hill.
On top of the fortress ramparts (literally, on top, since unlike the US, they had no safety rails, and few warning signs) it felt like we were on the edge of a strange, different land. Indeed, Norway doesn’t quite seem to belong to this planet.
Even Hong Kong, with its alien ways and unearthly smells and sounds, seemed more American and familiar than did Norway, once we’d left Oslo. Norway really seemed like a country from a bygone era, or perhaps an alternative “Middle Earth”. Had Peter Jackson not filmed the Lord of the Rings in New Zealand (perhaps the only place on earth more extraordinary than Norway) the land of the Norsemen could easily have filled the role, with its fortress towns fitting the mood perfectly.
I loved that the Norwegians, unlike the American bureaucrats running parks and sites, believe people are intelligent enough to look out for themselves, and decide where they can walk or climb. Wandering around the old walls, after sundown, after the last sunset-viewers and dog-walkers had gone, we had the entire place to ourselves. There were few lights, no ugly chain-link fences, no trespass signs, no assumption that you’re incapable of looking out for yourself, that you’re sure to stumble and immediately blame and sue someone.
We walked by the spot where a king of Sweden had died trying to storm this place — and here we were, a couple of flatlander peasants, with free run of the fortress – incredible — cobbled streets, arched gateways, crumbling barracks, powder magazines and walls, and old rusty cannons.
If we could just pry the old gates shut, we’d be like little boys playing “king of the hill.” My father sighted along the barrels of old cannons and reported: “Gun #1 – we could hit the train station. No, we’ll need that to get back to Oslo. Gun#2 – take out a kebab shop? No, it’s late, we’re hungry, it may be the only thing open when we go down. (Good decision, it was). He remembered an old Steely Dan song “Got a case of dynamite, I could hold out here all night…” We used the little lights on our cellphones to peer into dank stone rooms within the fortress walls.
It is a commonplace observation, to talk of the lasting impression made by violence upon a blood-soaked battlefield – – but this place seems to have made its peace a long time ago. It felt nothing but peaceful and great.
This world felt like the true frontier and it fascinated me like no other place I’ve been.
Looking down at the little city, as more of the slope below us disappeared into the dark, I felt as if I could run down the fort’s high and rocky precipice, straight into the vast waters of the fjords, and out into the sea.