By Priscilla Lister
Picture a dark-blue crystalline sea that winds through narrow passages flanked by vertical rocky cliffs rising some 4,000 feet, where isolated, historic wooden farmhouses dot leaf-green meadows. Imagine a small coastal island city where almost all of its central buildings date to around 1905, when they were designed in a charming art nouveau style. Place yourself in a new boutique hotel in an area where once thieves were but today is alive with nightlife and just a short walk away from the magnificent building where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded.
Then realize that every photograph or description you've seen about Norway is pale in comparison to the breathtaking beauty of its real wonders.
It was sunny and warm — in the 70s and 80s — every day my friends and I were there in early August. But even in winter Oslo, Alesund and Bergen are not as cold as you might think since the Gulf Stream keeps them remarkably temperate.
"There is no bad weather here, only bad clothing," Inger Carter, our guide in Bergen, told us.
We landed in Oslo and based ourselves at The Thief, a new bespoke hotel in an area called Tjuvholmen, or Thieves' Island. This former wharf area has been transformed in the last 10 years, especially since last year's opening of the Astrup Fearnley Museet, a modern art museum designed by Renzo Piano.
The hopping area's only hotel, The Thief is a cutting-edge getaway rendered by top Norwegian designers that sits on a canal on the waterfront; guests to the enclave have already included Rihanna, Diana Krall and Elvis Costello.
"Oslo is tiny; you can walk everywhere," said Hilary Sem, a licensed Oslo guide with Guideservice, whom we hired to show us around.
Within a five-minute stroll from the hotel we were touring City Hall, the classic building constructed between 1930 and 1950 where every element is Norwegian, from the marble and wood to the wooden carvings of Norwegian legends outside and the monumental oil murals depicting Norwegian history inside. This is where the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony is held every year on Dec. 10.
We wandered a few blocks to the National Gallery, which has a fine collection of paintings by Edvard Munch ("The Scream"), as well as Monet and Cezanne.
We walked up tony Karl Johan Avenue, Oslo's main street, which is filled with shops and grand historic hotels, such as The Grand, where playwright Henrik Ibsen lunched every day. At the end of Karl Johan is the Royal Palace.
And we wandered over to the stunning new Opera House designed by Snohetta, the firm that also designed Ground Zero in New York and the library in Alexandria, Egypt.
Covered in Carrara marble with a roof that is also a slanted walking platform, "the architects wanted it to look like an iceberg," said Sem.
We dined at the reborn historic Ekeberg Restaurant high above the city where views take in all its seacoast glory and where the charming maitre'd, Robert Berggren, told us, "Everything you need lies within 20 minutes of Oslo: beaches for bathing, small islands for camping, Olympic ski resorts."
We raved about the seafood delicacies we enjoyed at Tjuvholmen Sjomagasin, two blocks from The Thief, declaring it among our best dining experiences anywhere.
One day we departed from Oslo Central Station on the Dovre Railway to Dombas, climbing mountains that seemed to be filled with myths and trolls, transferring to the Rauma Railway that follow the emerald-green River Rauma through spectacular mountain scenery and arriving at Andalsnes for a two-hour bus ride to Alesund.
If you must choose just one place to spend time in Norway, make it Alesund. One of the most picturesque coastal villages I've ever seen, Alesund lies on an island where a huge tragedy turned into an opportunity.
"We probably have the biggest concentration of art nouveau buildings in the world," Bente Saxon, our guide from Destination Alesund, told us. The reason: A devastating fire on Jan. 23, 1904, "erupted in a sea of flames that destroyed the entire city — some 850 buildings — in 15 hours, leaving 10,000 people homeless."
"Alesund's great fortune was the fire coincided with a depression in Norway so costs for labor and materials were low," she said.
Norway's finest architects and master craftsmen of the day came for the work and re-created the town in that era's new style of art nouveau, which celebrated curves and arches with simple adornments fashioned after organic elements in nature, especially trees and flowers.
We wandered all over Alesund, a town of 55,000, from the town park of Aksla (the shoulder), a 418-step hike uphill for a panoramic bird's-eye view of the entire coastal village, to Alesund Church from 1909 with its peaceful graveyard, to the Art Nouveau Center in the historic Swan Pharmacy, to the Fisheries Museum on the harbor, one of the few buildings that escaped the fire. It dates from 1861 and shares the history of Alesund as Norway's — and the world's — major exporter of salt cod.
We walked from our comfortable hotel, Quality Hotel Waterfront, to Sjobua, a cozily atmospheric restaurant in an old wharf-side warehouse where we enjoyed excellent fresh seafood with fine wines.
Just a few miles from the city center is Sunnmore Museum, a collection of old houses and boats that show what life was like in the 1800s. These fascinating wooden homes are covered with sod roofs, complete with green grass and wildflowers growing on them.
"They used to put goats on them," Saxon told us.
Then we took a trip to the fjords on the Fjord Experience by 62-Degree NORD Cruises that disembarked from the center of Alesund.
Combining boats and buses, we ventured to Geirangerfjord, "one of the most scenically outstanding fjord areas on the planet," a sign declares, and it's true. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Geirangerfjord is characterized by narrow and steep rock walls punctuated by many waterfalls cascading through deciduous and coniferous forests, where remnants of age-old summer farms attest to a life once known here.
On some of these verdant farms, perched on vertical cliffs that fall thousands of feet to the sea, "They'd have to tether their children" to keep them from falling off, the cruise guide said.
The tiny town of Geiranger is a hiker's paradise, where a zigzag road is one of only two into town. Small cruise ships arrive in summer.
At Geiranger Skjolade, a chocolatier in the small village, owner Bengt Dahlberg told us that Norwegians may be reserved, but when you see them in nature, they light up and talk more. People are downright chatty in gorgeous Geiranger.
We had one of our best meals at the small Brasserie Posten on the water in Geiranger in the old post office, where the chef prides himself on procuring local produce for the 2-year-old, already beloved restaurant.
Tearing ourselves away from Alesund, we ventured to Bergen, the largest city in Norway until the 1830s and a major European trading port, where the colorful harbor-side wooden buildings of Bryggen, a World Heritage Site, house the Fish Market, the Bryggens Museum, and lots of outdoor cafes and indoor shops. We rode the funicular for its seven-minute climb up to Mount Floyen and enjoyed a sweeping view of the city and gaped at the sterling-silver collections in the decorative arts wing of the four Art Museums of Bergen right downtown. And we had a two-hour private tour from Carter, a guide with Bergen by Expert.
WHEN YOU GO
For more information on all these destinations, visit:
Priscilla Lister is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.