Wednesday 23rd July 2008, Røldal
There was still a murky light at midnight! After that we fell asleep so cannot say whether darkness eventually fell. This morning however, we woke to the hottest, sunniest weather we have experienced since leaving Greece. So comfortable was it that we lingered over breakfast and decided to catch up on preparing the photos for the blog. Across the field a small group of outward bound kids and their leader went fishing for breakfast as they learned the art of self-sufficiency in the wild. With their campfire ready and a small pile of fish they realised they'd forgotten the butter to cook them! So much for the "great outdoors"! Fortunately those kind old folk in their funny English camping car came to the rescue.
Having watched them load all their equipment into canoes and set off across the fjord to camp in the real wilderness, we drove to the nearby little town of Sauda where we spent a couple of hours in the library using the internet for free. The staff were charming and spoke perfect English, telling us we were welcome to come back every day if we wished. We have been very impressed at the command everyone has of English and it has made us rather lazy to learn even a few basic words of Norwegian. We are though, beginning to make some sense of the written language. Supermarket shelves are a brilliant way to learn everyday words and phrases. Sometimes they are obvious, other words are completely different. Kylling, for example, means chicken. How could you guess that?
It was late afternoon before we had caught up on our admin and explored the book shelves in the library, trying to understand how the Norwegians learn English. There were surprisingly few English books on the shelves for everyone to have such a superb command of our language. After a picnic lunch beside the fjord we drove on towards our destination of Oslo, avoiding the main route and taking the narrow, winding road up through the snowy mountains. On the way we stopped to explore a rugged footpath lined with blueberries, ferns and harebells. It led between huge granite rocks above a surging river of melted snow that crashed its way down through a narrow gorge sending spumes of white foam into the air and creating an arching rainbow across the ravine. This was ours to enjoy. Norway is an empty country and there was nobody else around to share it.
We climbed and twisted our way through spectacular mountain scenery, past isolated lakes of crystal clear water of frightening depth. Sometimes there were sheep roaming amongst the rocks and occasionally we passed an isolated wooden house with grass growing on the roof. Beside the road were poles, a good ten feet high, to mark the route during the snows of winter.
At the summit we stopped for Modestine to cool down, looking around at countless mountain crags and moss fringed lakes. Up here it was too high even for the birch trees that crowd the lower valleys. The surface of the granite was frequently smoothed and gouged by the action of the ice that formed this magical landscape. Here the snow surrounded us, several feet deep, in any north facing hollow. As we started our descent we passed a couple of motorcyclists, camping up here on the roof of Scandinavia. They were lying in the snow happily sunbathing in their underwear and waved cheerfully to us as we passed. It would have been so nice to spend the night alone in the mountains, surrounded by snow, but Ian is reluctant to do this and really we do need electricity for cooking and computing.
So we came down, and down, and down until we entered a tunnel through the rock face that spiralled on down like a corkscrew inside the mountain to emerge above a huge lake, Røldalsvatnet, where we found a campsite for the night at Røldal. As we prepared supper a French camper came to moan to us about the price of wine, which is ten times what they pay in France. They dreaded the grim prospect of surviving with only the three bottles they had brought with them. It is quite true. Today we explored the Vinmonopolet in Sauda. These are state run outlets for wines and spirits, the only place they can be legally purchased here. We have a three litre bag-in-box we purchased in Caen for six euros (£4.80). The same one here costs well over 300 kroner (around £32)!
Thursday 24th July 2008, Ulvenes, on the banks of Seljordsvatnet
It has been hot today, nearly 30 degrees and the sun has been uncomfortably bright. Maybe it's the latitude but it seems to be permanently in our eyes as we drive. Bearing this in mind, as we are heading east, we lingered this morning at Røldalsvatnet, leaving after lunch when the sun was high in the sky. This gave us the morning to investigate the village of pretty wooden houses, each in its own garden with a bright green lawn and beds of roses, Sweet Williams and even strawberries. Many had turf covering the roof and sometimes birch saplings as well.
Norway has several stave churches. These were constructed in the middle ages from large, upright wooden planks, usually birch. They were frequently carved and elaborately decorated inside with Viking designs. Twenty nine still exist and we discovered one right near the campsite, dating from the 13th century. It used to be a place of pilgrimage as the wooden crucifix inside was believed to exude perspiration on midsummer night. It lies at the centre of a pretty, grassy cemetery with neat rows of low granite tombstones, typical of many we have seen in Norway. We found the Norwegian names there to be very attractive – Margit, Olav, Njall, Lars, Helga, Sigrid, Hendrik.
In the village were three wooden houses kept much as they had always been, open to visitors by appointment. We had no appointment and they were closed, though the earth privy and smokehouse were left unlocked. We peered through the windows at the old farmhouse kitchens, the main rooms furnished with everything from a baby's cot to a wash tub, workrooms with tools and barns with farming implements.
Down beside the lake we found the remains of several iron-age burial mounds. At least one appears to have been in a Viking burial ship though now there was little to see except mounds of granite stones. Nearby was the hamlet of Seim. The family was also called Seim and had lived there for many centuries. They were anxious to share this continuity with visitors and had put together a small museum of grave finds and old agricultural equipment in a huge wooden barn constructed in the early 19th century. It had been built from re-used ancient timbers showing scratchings of different symbols used in mediaeval times to ward off evil spirits. Country folk in Scandinavia at the time were highly superstitious and feared elves, dragons and other creatures of the imagination.
We returned to the campsite for lunch before continuing our journey. Having come all the way down to the lake last night, we now had to climb up again, crossing viaducts, passing through long, dark, rough-hewn tunnels, shooting out into the sunlight only to disappear again into the next tunnel. One cuts through the Haukelifjell and is a good ten kilometres long. The roads have been dramatically improved but it is still an arduous climb. At the top we pulled in to look at a landscape of dark granite, white snow and hundreds of clear lakes reflecting the vivid blue of the sky. The only things that seemed to grow were low myrtle bushes and a few mountain flowers. As we watched, a helicopter appeared, flew low over the largest lake and landed by the roadside. We never discovered why but it was quite exciting.
As we came down the scenery was less dramatic and we left the snows behind. It became far hotter as we drove beside lakes and through pine and birch forests, for mile after mile with rarely a sign of habitation. Villages are so small even a couple of houses are marked on the map. Apparently Norway has in excess of 65,000 lakes each with a surface area of over four acres and many are used to generate hydro-electric power which supplies virtually all the country's requirements for electricity.
At Seljord we turned off to look at the mediaeval church, unusual in that it is actually built in stone rather than wood, though it has an impressive ancient wooden porch. Nearby we discovered a stone so heavy only one person has ever been able to lift it. He has gone down in the annals of history as a local hero with a commemorative plaque to record the event. Such is the excitement of life in the Norwegian outback!
This area is a popular holiday destination and being the height of the holiday season the campsites were heaving! As the countryside seems almost deserted we assume Norwegians crowd in together for their holidays, enjoying the opportunity for human contact before going back to their isolated wooden houses in the depths of the pine forests for the winter where they may not speak to anybody for weeks on end.
We did not like the campsites at all and they were very expensive. Wondering what to do for the night we stumbled across a very pleasant site along the quiet side of the lake. There are no real facilities but lovely views of the lake through the trees and only four other vehicles to share the field. We are delighted with it.
Friday 25th July 2008, On the banks of Seljordsvatnet
We are still here! It's really lovely. This morning as we sat in a shady hollow on the banks of the silent lake, five young otters passed along the water's edge, just four feet from us, stopping on a rock to preen and look back curiously towards us before gliding smoothly into the water and heading off in formation down the lake, their heads showing above the surface. The campsite owner says they may be beavers which he says are pests, gnawing away at his trees, but we are convinced they are otters. An amazing experience! We have also watched huge dragon flies laying their eggs in the water by dipping along the surface, and have been entertained by the many water birds, including a grebe, and several wagtails.
It has been far too hot to move, and with this area of the campsite to ourselves there has been no incentive to do so. There are several tents under the trees slightly further round the lake and occasionally a rowing boat passes by or there is the splash of a camper cooling off. Inside Modestine it is 28 degrees. Outside it's 35. Where we are sheltering under the lakeside trees, with a slight breeze it's just about okay. When I rake up courage I'll join the otters in the water. Across the field are huge granite boulders, polished smooth by the action of ice. We have seen similar ones elsewhere and have speculated that the Norwegians alleviate winter boredom polishing up the stones by sliding down them wearing leather trousers. It could be fun!
Later this afternoon we went for a bike ride with Hinge and Bracket along the side of the lake, through pine forest with little wooden chalets occupied by holiday makers. We needed bread but our only hope was six kilometres back along the road at the nearest campsite grocery store. By the time we arrived Hinge was whinging and Bracket making a racket, both complaining bitterly and insisting we got off and pushed them up the hills. They've been free-loading since we left England so it's time they earned their keep but they're not dedicated team members like Modestine. We gave them time to recover while we sat in the shade licking ice creams before setting off for the six kilometres return journey. By the time we arrived the bikes were hot and weary and collapsed on the grass where they remained for the rest of the afternoon.
Saturday 26th July 2008, Oslo
We left our tranquil lakeside campsite mid-morning, forced to move because of the heat once the sun moved round beyond the beech trees that had shaded us over breakfast.
Our first stop was at Heddal, to visit the largest stave church in Norway. It was spectacular but questionable whether much of what we saw actually dated from the 12th century. The carpenters had created beautiful and fanciful interwoven carvings around the entrance portals depicting dragons, serpents and mythical creatures intermixed with Christian symbols. Badly neglected, it was restored in the mid 19th century. With no experience of such restoration it was a case of trial and error that subsequently proved to be largely error when mildew and rot affected the timbers. It was again restored in 1955 when much of the original restoration work was removed and placed in the nearby museum. What we saw today was an attempt to recapture the essence of the original church, retaining as many features as possible. The original shape is authentic, almost resembling a pagoda with its roofs at several levels. The carvings around the doors have been faithfully reproduced while inside there are the remains of original wall paintings around the altar. Everything is of course constructed in wood, from the huge, carved and decorated staves that are the corner-pieces supporting the huge panels that form the walls of the church, to the shingles of the roof, the pews, altar screen and even gargoyles carved as mythical beasts. The church is set in a pleasant, grassy churchyard of granite tombstones.
Nearby we discovered a bronze statue to an early collector of Norse folk songs, hymns and fairy tales. These were collected in the early 19th century, years before Sabine Baring-Gould started doing the same thing for England. The reason it seems is that Norway belonged to Denmark until the peace treaty of 1814 ordered Denmark to cede it to Sweden. Fear of losing its own identity and falling completely under Swedish rule caused Norway to rapidly draw up its own constitution and start to record its past, be that legends and songs, or crafts, customs and national costumes, all of which, we discovered, were documented during that period.
Despite the extreme heat we walked to the nearby village museum recalling rural life of an earlier age. Here there was a magnificent wooden farmhouse. Upstairs the horizontal timbers of the main room had been completely decorated in what is known in Norway as the rose design. Basically it is florid Baroque with roses and curling acanthus leaves that reminded us forcibly of the Florentine style of decoration. This same rose motif was carried through to embroidered waistcoats, skirts, jackets and aprons. The lady guide seemed very happy to have the chance to speak English with real English people, rather than it being the lingua-franca of other nations, and chatted about rural life in the past as well as current methods of education in rural areas.
It was late in the afternoon by the time we returned to Modestine who had been patiently waiting in the sun for hours. We drove on through the heat of the afternoon to Kongsberg, a town important for the mining and smelting of silver. The town was set up by the Danish king Christian IV about 1630 especially to exploit the high quality silver to be found there and at its height it employed some 5,000 men.
We stopped at the mine and explored the museum which fortunately had explanatory panels in English. Much of the information was already familiar to us after years of exploring mines and mining museums in South West England. Here though it was silver rather than copper and tin. There were interesting geological specimens displayed and nearby was the mine itself. It was too late in the afternoon to see around but it didn't matter. At the entrance shaft a blast of chill air was exuded. Apparently it is a constant 7degrees. As it was well into the 30s outside it was a wonderful place to linger!
The nearby town of Kongsberg was a great disappointment. When we were in Denmark two years ago we could not believe how deserted the towns were at the weekends. Norway is no different. We wandered around the deserted town centre for forty minutes without seeing a soul. There is a huge, attractive brick church built for the miners in 1761, facing onto a wide square edged by elegant wooden houses of the same period used as a royal residence and for the administration of the mines. Apart from that and a couple of empty streets of shops and houses laid out on a grid system, there was nothing much to see on a Saturday afternoon.
The only campsite was at the sports centre where facilities were shared with the swimming pool. It did not look at all pleasant and was expensive for what it was. So we decided to press on towards Oslo and look for somewhere on the way. The roads are excellent over this side of the country and there was little traffic around. Almost before we realised we were driving into Oslo. We stuck with the motorway across the city, emerging on the far side where we turned off to this campsite. The friendly man at reception cheerfully told us he was fully booked because of a children's festival this weekend and we'd have the same problem anywhere within miles of Oslo. Seeing how small Modestine is, he relented and told us to see if we could find a corner somewhere, which we have done, even finding electricity. It's not a lovely site but there are buses into the city and it's better than sleeping on the streets. It will be unbearably hot tomorrow morning though as there is no shade. We'll just have to get into town as fast as possible, leaving poor Modestine to bake in the sun on her own all day.