Finding Fjord Norway
by Joseph Pedro
My bare feet are trying to solidly cling to a cold wooden dock. The snowcapped-mountain wind whips through the fjord as if the mountains are collectively sighing, and the gale hits my pale skin turning it cheek-pinched pink. I clutch the hand of my friend, Laura, creating such pressure it’s as if we’re gripping a knuckleball. Moody dark skies serve as the backdrop to floating ghost-like clouds that shield the mountaintops as their shadows dance against the uneven terrain. “We can do this,” Laura utters. A circus-crowd gasp is heard from a group of onlookers. “Ready?” I ask looking out at the foreboding scene as we take a step toward the ice-cold water. Another collective gasp gives us that extra push off the dock.
Like taking a terrible tumble, time slows down: I see the sun burst through layers of cloud coverage and light up the choppy waters that begin to glisten like a tear. And then, I hit the water and a sharp, needle-like cold shoots through my body faster than panic. Underwater quiet is quickly interrupted by above-water fighting for breath. It’s as if I’ve stepped into a million too cold showers. “Ahhh,” we yell as tourists snap photos from their balconies at the Hotel Ullensvang in Lofthus. After moments of prickly numbness, a beautiful calm overcomes us both. It’s no longer panic, it’s no longer fear, it’s no longer just a silly I-bet-you-can’t-jump-in-the-water dare; it’s a connection and a sense of belonging. The wind gusts bob the waves that gently rock my warming body, and I admire the soft clouds that hug the mountains and blanket their rough edges. We dove in and became part of the Hardangerfjord, part of Lofthus, and part of Norway. Like the creation myth, we’re every bit as much a part of the world as the world is a part of us.
It’s a symbiosis that Norwegians have with the earth, with one another, with their towns, and with their country that creates a balance and beauty seen in the preservation of its nature, in day-to-day interactions, in its collectivism, and in the perpetuation of its unique heritage. Because of this, finding a sense of place and belonging is easy throughout its cities and throughout the countryside. And as I learn journeying Fjord Norway in the southwestern part of the country from Stavanger to Bergen, finding this sense of place sometimes just takes a small dive.
I arrive on an early morning (like most flights from the US to Scandinavia) via Copenhagen to the enchanting city of Stavanger. Here, stock-image-like backpackers compete with curious vacationers for seats on the affordable Stavanger Airport Bus. Stavanger is a jumping-off point to Fjord Norway, a massive region consisting of four districts. It is in Stavanger where you’ll encounter the various tourists beginning their (land-based) explorations. Adventure seekers will find boating, biking, hiking, and camping. For those looking for a more relaxed affair: luxury hotels, cruises, and bus tours. And, for those who are like me: a mix of both.
I’m met by a gleeful guide, Gunhild Vevik, who picks me up at the Radisson Blu Royal Hotel Stavanger. It’s a short walk through rolling hills that lead us through a storybook village of wooden houses. The fully restored homes, which were built in the late 18th century and early 19th century, were once an object of contention in the city as many felt they needed to be razed in order for the city to fully move toward the future. But community activists saw their potential and importance and demanded they be protected. After many years of transition, the area has gained world notoriety (helping Stavanger become the European Capital of Culture in 2008). The winding road that leads down toward the Kartblad waterfront is so picturesque in June, that I think my jet lag is playing tricks on me. A great deal of time is spent discreetly peeking into windows and gardens speckled with pink cross-leaved heaths that pop against the freshly painted white.
As it turns out, demolishing wooden houses wasn’t going to modernize Stavanger, but the oil industry would. The area, now one of the wealthiest in the nation (in one of the wealthiest nations in the world), relies heavily on the oil industry. It’s an aspect of modern-day Norwegian society that evokes many contradictory emotions—it is because of oil that the nation lifted itself from an economic runt into a world powerhouse, but it’s also an export that’s a necessary environmental evil. These conflicting emotions are only heightened by the fact that Norway is often ranked as one of the greenest countries in the world (with one of the heaviest CO2 taxes anywhere, and one of the highest percentages renewable energy sources). It is also because of these high green standards that the oil industry has “…invest[ed] heavily in new technologies in the hope of reducing their CO2 emissions,” according to the Guardian.
The city center has a creative vibe that’s visible through the street art and funky stores. Fair Play is a must-visit fair trade store, but walking farther from the water, you’ll encounter gorgeous, unique street art (check out the troll mural on Bakkegata) and snap a shot of the hair salon you’re gorgeous, what’s with the hair? You’ll also pass a rainbow flag waving from the gay café that turns into a gay bar at night called MaMi Open Mind. I refresh with a coffee at the hillside Café Sting where a gay-friendly crowd is already enjoying beers and chatter. June is still quite cold here, so to better prepare myself for the rest of my journey I purchase a beautiful knit sweater from the only-in-Norway brand Dale of Norway and then discover Oleana that sells Norwegian women’s fashions.
After stopping for fish soup (so fresh and delicious) at a small restaurant in Vagen Harbour called Fisketorget, we’re excited to check out the nightlife. Despite the late hour, the sun is happily still up, and Stavanger’s population is gleefully enjoying beers while looking out at the harbor. I’m on a mission to find a gay bar, and ask a police officer who points Laura and me to a place called Hot Open Mind. It’s a huge cover charge ($16), and we’re disappointed by the lack of people in the neon-lit basement. The rainbow lights entice us to grab more drinks, and we’re surprised when we look around and see that the club is now nearly full. Mustering up some courage, Laura and I chat with the young crowd. Many offer to buy us drinks, and we eagerly accept (the Norwegian Krona is expensive and drinks in Norway are notoriously pricey), a bartender who is wearing a mustached-patterned suit hands us our drinks and smiles. Our friendliness then gets us invited to an after-party or nachtspiel, but we’re scheduled for an 8 A.M. hike, and, of course, we go anyway. (Sometimes you just have to dive in.)