A trip to Bergen... in search of trolls

| July 22, 2014

Inspired to choose Norway as a holiday destination by the sight of a familiar troll, Ruth Holgate found what she was looking for in Bergen… and so much more…

Bergen, Norway

The row of pink orchids was exquisite. It could have been an exhibit at Chelsea Flower Show, but it wasn’t. It was in an airport toilet, in arrivals next to the luggage carousel. By the time I’d pampered myself with the accessorised orchid hand lotion, our bags had arrived and we were on our way.

Our children are grown and flown, though we don’t like to think of ourselves as ‘empty nesters’. More ‘free nesters’ – free to come and go as we please. The novelty of this still thrills us beyond words.

“Let’s take off for a couple of nights,” my husband suggested.
“Your birthday, you choose,” I said.
“Suggest somewhere,” he said.

That morning, passing a charity shop, I saw one of those plastic trolls with orange hair, identical to the one I had as a child. I loved that troll.

“How about Norway?” I suggested.
“Great.” So I booked three nights in Bergen.

The flight, under two hours from Heathrow, was easy, but then we were flying British Airways. I know they’ve had a lot of stick over the years but I love BA, even though I dislike flying. Good cabin pressure, no ear pain sort of flying. If you do go, book a window seat. Generally I’m the ‘look ahead and we’ll soon be on the ground’ type of flyer, but the pilot treated us to an exceptionally smooth descent so I actually looked.

I knew then I was going to love Norway like I’d loved that troll.

Archipelagos of granite, herds of goats cropping their way round the edge of the inlets, pine trees, Christmas red houses, white clapper board churches, mirror lakes. It was like flying over Toytown, twee in a non-twee sort of way.

Bergen from up high

The orchids were not out of place in that pristine airport. No queues, no confused weary travellers, just a Zen-like calm. Comfortable shuttle buses pull up every 15 minutes outside arrivals. Norwegians are marvellous drivers. They wait for pedestrians to cross the road, rarely sound their horns and smile a lot. In 40 minutes we were sitting in the sunshine on Bergen’s harbour eating skewers of grilled prawns.

The Norwegian language is a joy to listen to. It sings. Not that you have to understand it as everyone speaks English. Smiles are radiant. Maybe it’s the high cheekbones and perfect teeth. I suspect the teeth are a product of the country’s excellent healthcare system. Norway is rich from oil. It has full employment; a good work life balance. It shows. Norwegians sort of glow, as though they’ve just finished an exhilarating bike ride – which they probably have. This is no Stepford though. Wholesome it may be, but it also feels real.

If you like clapperboard houses you’ll love Bryggen, a world heritage site on the waterfront. Painted in earthy reds, mustards and greens, the buildings look slightly drunk as though they might topple into one another. They house restaurants and workshops selling traditional Norwegian produce, including leather, silver and very warm sweaters. Even McDonalds is discreetly contained in seal grey clapperboard. Of course we gave that a miss and headed for Tracteursted, a rustic family restaurant hidden at the end of a narrow alleyway. For the birthday meal we ate famously fresh fish in the charmingly wonky Enhjorningen (The Unicorn).

Bryggen at 10pm

The Leprosy Museum is a stroll away. That Norway housed its lepers in the middle of a city rather than casting them out to one of its many islands says a lot about this nation. Founded in the 15th century, it provided refuge for lepers until the 20th century. Although, the rosy- cheeked guide did tell a gruesome tale of the uncharacteristic cruelty of one Norwegian doctor, who injected a patient in the eye with bacteria of a different strain of leprosy, just to see if it was contagious. Miraculously they lived to tell the tale and see the doctor banished to the forests!

We took the funicular to the mountain top where we spent several hours following well-signed trails through the forest. It’s a tranquil place but not lonely. Norwegians use their countryside. We passed groups of pond-dipping school children and smiled at an office team decamped to the lakeside for the day. We admired those mirror reflections close-up before heading deeper into the woods where we found some friendly trolls carved from fallen trees.

Friendly trolls

The next day was overcast. I hoped our Sognefjord trip wouldn’t be five hours of mountains obscured by mist. It wasn’t. Clouds crept low across the peaks but rather than obscuring the view they added to the mystical atmosphere. The fjords are awesome, and pleasingly there was no regatta of giant cruise ships. On our five hour boat trip we only saw one in Flam itself, though even that didn’t detract from a pleasant hour in the village spent chatting to a Viking barman selling beer from a small distillery while we waited for the train to Myrdal.

Boat trip to Sogneford

The Flam Railway is steep. The terrain is wildly beautiful and remote. Here I could believe the tales of cave dwelling ogres and huldra. The huldra are mythical creatures in Norwegian folklore; beautiful women with flowing, flower-decorated hair. Long red dresses conceal a cow’s tail that cannot be shed until they ensnare a husband. At Kjosfossen, passengers alight to admire the waterfall. In summer months, the Flam tourist board hires student dancers from the Oslo Ballet to dance to the haunting melody of the mountains. Apparently there are hundreds of applicants each year, though we weren’t told if any had ever ensnared a husband from the tourist train. At Myrdal we changed trains for the picturesque roll down to Bergen arriving in time to enjoy our last evening in the town.

Would I go again? Definitely, though I’d save up a bit first. Would I recommend taking children? Definitely, though I’d also take out a bank loan. It is pricey, but so worth it.

Mr and Mrs Holgate travelled on a short break to Bergen.

The Flam Railway

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