For those unfamiliar with Norway and it’s scenery, descriptions of it may seem a bit “out there”. People tend to use the word “magical.”
And after all, almost everywhere has been described as “magical” by someone, at some time. Especially here, within the often-imaginary world of the internet.
Even North Koreans, impervious to ridicule, advertise their Land of Make Believe as a little slice of Nirvana.
Good PR just takes a bit of imagination (“The effusions off the waste-treatment plant, back lit by the glowing fumes from the refinery next door, created a misty effect that was almost magical…”)
So when Norway is called a winter wonderland, you’ll only accept the truth of this when you witness it firsthand.
“Vinter” Akseli Gallen-Kallela, 1902
Well, I’m writing on the internet, you don’t know me, and you have no reason to trust me on this. But, sorry, it really is kind of magical. My pictures here don’t do it justice, and quite often, we just enjoyed it, and didn’t photograph it.
My father used to ridicule the trees and hills in landscapes by Asian artists. He thought they looked absurd, like illustrations by an opium-addicted Dr. Seuss. That is, he says, until he saw Japanese gardens and bonsai in real life, and photographs of the karst mountains in China’s Guangixi Zhuang region, and realized the Asians weren’t following some weird artistic license, but were painting these fantastical sights because that is simply how they actually look, misty and bizarre.
There are mountains in Norway like this, in a way – illustrations from a storybook.
And that is how this outdoor story of Norwegian mountains begins — indoors, in the city of Oslo, with some storybook pictures.
“Palace – Soria Moria Castle” Theodor Kittlesen, 1900
Oslo is a a very pleasant city, and very beautiful in parts, but it’s never been one of “The European Capitals” on the Grand Tour that draw flocks of fervent American tourists, like Amsterdam, Paris, or Rome. These are cities with Romance in their names.
Or at least, Paris has the romance thing, and the other two have pot and pasta, close runners-up. (Is it a bad sign that I think of pasta as a close runner-up to romance?) London and Berlin may be Europe’s most important capitals, and Prague and Budapest have amazing architecture, but Oslo is undoubtedly in the most beautiful setting, nestled among mountains full of pine trees and beautiful water.
The city’s harbor is clean and handsome, and the nation’s waters are among the purest in the world (tied with Finland, Sweden, and Iceland — no surprise, I think these are wise people). You can see ski-slopes from downtown.
What prompted us to leave the city was a visit to the National Gallery. It is much, much smaller than the Louvre or the Prado, the palatial, overwhelming showcases of Paris and Madrid. Oslo’s collection is far more modest, and the building definitely not palatial. When we walked up to it, it looked to be a disappointment — a dull, almost industrial-looking building– we could have been at a typical city museum in the U.S. rust belt. It turned out to be well worth a visit. Oslo displays a modest, but still excellent, collection of Impressionists. And of course, a lot of works by Edvard Munch – some communicating dark moods, sadness, despair. Hanging on the wall for a century, they should be harmless, but still seemed baleful and disturbing.
“Afraid of the Dark” Gerhard Munthe, 1906
And then a real stroke of luck. The current exhibition was “The Magic North” — Norwegian artists and illustrators, and it seemed to have drawn in a crowd not of tourists, but locals. A fantastic showcase of fantasy, talent and imagination.
“It Snows, It Snows” Theodor Kittelsen, 1903.
Wonderful paintings of nature, Norse mythology, folk and fairy tales, legends of trolls… as well as a large picture of some lumpy and very bluish mountains, which seemed to keep drawing the attention of the natives. I was critical of this painting, thinking the lumps of mountain looked childishly drawn. As my father had felt about the trees and mountains in Asian paintings, I would come to feel about the blue mountains.
“Winter Night in the Mountains” Harald Sohlberg, 1914
Having sworn to take only day-trips out of Oslo, on their excellent trains, we now decided to rent a car. We had to go find the countryside depicted in those paintings. Our rental was a Volkswagen, a model not sold in the U.S., called a “Polo.” (It is tiny. A sticker on the dash warned us against running the radio and headlights simultaneously. Another notice suggested limiting passengers to one, and no baggage, when driving on roads with grades exceeding five percent.)
The car rental office had no maps available, and was staffed only by Swedes for some reason, who could tell us nothing about the Telemark, apparently did not drive, and thought it sounded like an odd idea for anyone to rent a car and drive there. But we rented a GPS unit and off we went.
The Telemark is a region known for it’s natural beauty and its lack of development — if you’re a New Yorker, it’s similar to the Adirondacks, except on a larger scale. Norway’s total population is only five million, with 1 million concentrated in the Oslo area, so there’s a lot of fairly empty spaces in this country.
So, we set out in our tiny car, chosen in part because this oil-rich country has obscenely expensive gasoline, and not thinking to spring for something with four-wheel drive and snow tires. We had a tiny map, also, from our guidebook, which lead us to believe, that if we got lost, we were sure to get our bearings by hitting either the Swedish border, or the Atlantic Ocean.
What struck me first was how well everyone drove. Unlike Americans, the Norwegians seem to follow laws, and not use cars to express frustration or machismo, making driving there safe and pleasant. Outside of the capitol district, a lot of the roads were small, and sometimes bumpy. Very quickly the countryside reminded us of a largely unsettled frontier, with deep woods, unnamed (as far as we knew) lakes, and rapid shifts in weather, which I thought made the region seem even more mystical.
We stopped at a famous “stave” church, from 1204. These stave churches are like no other church you’ve ever seen, not suggesting Christianity somehow, and a bit eerie and unearthly-looking, more suited for a mead hall for Odin and Thor. So that was an almost unsettling starting place to begin our journey into the mountains.
At first, we stopped along a dam where we walked in some beautiful woods, with little snow, although very icy trails. The mountains were far off, so the natural element of Norway felt pristine but rather familiar and American, even if the trees were different. But as we neared the mountains, I knew I wasn’t home anymore.
Suddenly, before my eyes, were the same lumpish blue mountains that I had silently ridiculed in the art museum. They looked exactly the same, only much bigger. And colder. Even though the mountains were only in the six to eight thousand foot range (which is still bigger than Mt Marcy in the Adirondacks), they were imposing and huge, with the countryside dominated by them. I did not take a picture. I don’t know why.
I’ve been in the Adirondacks and Catskills (getting an impressive vibe from the former, and always feeling a bit uneasy in the latter, as if feeling haunted by the old Dutch spirits) and I’ve spent a bit of time in the Wasatch Range in Utah. I have even had the good fortune to ride a narrow gauge railroad up to Silverton, Colorado, right through the most beautiful scenery I have ever laid eyes on, with pristine mountain lakes and dense evergreen forests, juxtaposed against impossibly clear mountain streams and cool temperatures, next to the giant Rocky Mountains. Still, the Rockies felt less imposing, and there was some sort of sensation generated by the Norse mountains that made them feel very ancient, far older than the rocks in Colorado.
At once, I felt like I was in a fairy tale, in an adventure story, one of the old Norse sagas perhaps. Danger, excitement and beauty and calm all descended on me. The drive was so gorgeous, with tiny winding,empty roads going by mountain lakes and forests. Arriving at a pull off, we could see a large lake and hiked up the mountain overlooking it, in the very snowy woods. Up until that point, we’d seen no snow in Norway, making the mountains seem all the more magical.
Soon, we were walking in woods which apparently were full of moose. We didn’t encounter any, but their hoof prints and droppings were everywhere.
Back down the mountain and we returned to driving, a bit unsure of where exactly we’d fetched up on the tiny map. The GPS was switched on, but had become delusional, possibly treacherous in the cold, or perhaps, far from Oslo, had developed a death wish, trying for hundreds of kilometers to send us back farther and farther north.
It began to get darker, and we could see streams of ice crystals blowing over the mountain at the head of the valley.
The beautiful countryside, beautiful but starkly empty. faded as the light disappeared and the temperature dropped. The roads had been clear, but were now drifting over in places, and we drove on packed ice. Our tiny Volkswagen, not a rugged car and without snow tires, suddenly felt too small and scary as we drove by lakes frozen over, snow piled six feet high or higher and blowing towards us, as we passed buried trees, summer houses, cars, and bodies of water. The engine seemed to be making a bit more of a high-pitched whine. What appeared to be abandoned ski centers were the only marks on the map, which was becoming less and less helpful.
“The Ash Lad and the Wolf” Theodor Kittelsen, 1900
The way back was the most terrifying, driving alongside dark lakes with no cabins or lights, through the same mountains where people died in an avalanche only the week or so before. I was feeling elated the entire time, my dad not so much. I was pumped to be seeing this preternatural wintery and rocky landscape, that seemed straight out of Middle Earth. Had the varied and exotic locale of New Zealand not been used for the Hobbit movies, Norway could’ve done a fine job, at least for most of the scenes. At some point, we took a turn into what appeared to be an alpine Christmas village, and saw welcome signs of human life, except the roads had only a few ski junkies roaring down the road in hulking four-wheel drives, and we began to feel hopelessly out of place and lost.
Taking the next turn took us back away from any other cars or lights, on a narrow, dark road through forests. Passing the mountains, now just black shapes in the dark, and alongside dark bodies of water, I knew that we were in a fantasy realm, no place on earth is actually like this. Suddenly, I could understand the Norse monster stories. In an earlier era of superstition, violence, and illuminated only by firelight casting eerie shadows, it was easy to imagine things that didn’t exist. Trolls living in the hills could seem very real. And the very real creatures, moose and elk, also posed a danger. An enormous pair of moose waded out of the snow to cross right in front of us, and had we not slowed for a sharp turn and a narrow bridge, we’d have hit those massive beasts. Who would probably have been fine, while we would have turned to raspberry jam in our little tin can.
Magic is all based on perception of the audience. In this case, I was a true believer. There was life in these old hills and rocks; the dark pristine lakes held secrets. The Norse sagas materialized before my eyes. Even the quiet, intense austere nature of the local people supported the perception that we were in a storybook land and time. It was in Norway that I came to believe in the magic of travel. This trip seemed to be more of an adventure than my other trips, even ones when I was alone, due to this drive into nowhere.
Every fantasy and mythology story I’ve read seems to describe Norway. While I’ve not ridden a camel across the Arabian peninsula, or hiked in Tibet, motorcycled across Vietnam, or bungee-jumped off a TV tower, I drove in mountains straight out of Narnia, on roads too narrow for more than one vehicle, bounded by massive drifts of snow, with moose in the hills and spirits in the crags and dales. This trip, already fantastic, and ending in equally stunning and interesting locales later on, was highlighted most by this adventure. By the end, after nearly falling asleep when supposed to be navigating, and then talking about a great deal of things, my Dad and I both started laughing. A close call, with death, fatigue, or just being lost in an alien landscape can turn into something humorous. It was. We laughed the rest of the way home (to Oslo) where we finally turned in, exhausted but satisfied.