Tuesday, June 28, 2011

One last fjord expedition -- and a steep railway ride

It was raining hard when we woke up, and the fog on the fjord was so dense we couldn’t see anything across the way.  But the boat for our final fjord expedition was not due late morning, so we read for a while, and I chatted with the proprietor of the hotel and her daughter. Because the hotel is run as a summer business, the entire family lives more than half the year in Marin County, where her husband’s family still lives, and the girls have gone to school in the US as well.  The owner’s father was part of the Kvikne family that founded the big hotel in town, although because he split his shares among his children, she has but a small stake in the Kvikne’s Hotell ownership.
Our expressboat approaches the Balestrand dock

As we rode the exspressboat toward Flam, it was clear that our ride was going to be even more dramatic than the ride to Balestram, and even though the mountains and cliffs beside the fjord were sometimes masked by clouds.

At one point a ferry approached us in the middle of the fjord and we stopped to allow some of our passengers to get onto the ferry so that they could ride to Gudvangen in the very narrow Naeroyfjord, where they would pass periloously close to towering cliffs, part of the “Norway in a Nutshell” route.  I was regretting that we were missing that. 
Note the house in the middle of the slope, peeking from behind the cloud

After that the cliffs of the fjord seemed to get still closer as we turned into the Aurlandsfjord.

Finally we reached Flam, where our boat ride ended.  Having enjoyed its amber Rallar brew in Balestrand, we were happy to have our picnic lunch in the Aegir Brewery.  We started with a witbier and then tried the sampler; finally we bought a bottle of the porter planning to have it with our dinner in Bergen.  Aegir is sold only in Norway and Finland for now, but we were told that they expect to be in the US soon— something to which we will look forward.

We boarded the Flam Railroad for the steep climb from the Aurlandfjord to Myrdal where we would meet the railroad to Bergen.

The valley walls were steep and full of waterfalls. We even stopped at one waterfall where we were able to go get out on a platform to watch the thunderous falls. 

Finally, we reached the top of the line and waited at the Myrdal station for our train to Bergen.  The scenery on this leg of the trip was familiar, because it was the last part of the ride we had taken from Oslo to Bergen.  But it was so rainy and the windows were so fogged that the visibility was generally much lower.

We arrived in Bergen, headed back to Steens Hotel, and went out to grab dinner, passing Ole Bull Plass on the way.  Where else?  We went back to Husebø’s stall in the seafood market for one last meal – I had grilled catfish and Nancy had grilled salmon, and the young Italian woman who did the cooking threw in a few slices of laks with herbs as a gift because we had been regular customers.  We enjoyed our dinner with the superb Aegir Sumbel, the porter we had brought from Fläm.  A fitting last meal for a great vacation!

Monday, June 27, 2011

A rainy day in Balestrand (and Vik)

We set our alarm the night before to make sure we were up in time to catch the morning express boat to Vik. We woke up to see the rain falling steadily; it was to rain off and on all day.

Hill across the Esefjorden

The views across the fjords and into the mountains were still dramatic, but different — instead of being able to see mountains into the distance, sometimes the clouds were so thick that we couldn’t see across the fjord or even nearby mountains.  Other times, it was clear at close range but the clouds hung across the mountains or in patches on the mountain sides so defined as to look like wisps or bits of cotton clinging to the slopes.

We had breakfast and caught the 7:50 expressboat to Vik. The land here was much flatter and more arable, which was reflected in the fact that there were several churches visible in the landscape, including the very old stave church that was our main destination for the morning, the Hopperstad Stavkirke (photo), built in AD 1130.  We walked up the main road out of town past interesting houses (photo) to the  Stavkirke (photo).  A stave church is so named because, instead of the roof being supported by both the walls and the interior columns, in a stave church the roof is wholly supported by the church’s massive interior “staves.” (photo)  We noted the intricately carved door jambs and lintel at the main entry door (photo) and the carved pulpit (photo) with sweet faces (photo).  Otherwise the church was relatively plain.   The church can be seen from tee outside for free, but there is a nominal charge to go in; the guide whose services come with the entry fee was excellent.  The cemetery in the churchyard was jammed with headstones, almost all with one of five surnames such as Tryti (photo) and Hopperstad.  We were told that this did not reflect that just five families were part of the church community, because originally surnames reflected the area of residence rather than the identity of ancestors

Then we walked another kilometer to find the Hove Steinkirke, a church built entirely of stone in about AD 1180. All of the tombstones in this much smaller cemetery bore the surname Hove, as did the mailboxes for the families in the area.  We could not get into the church itself so had to be content looking from the outside (photos).  Like the Stavkirke, the Steinkirke is now just a heritage site, and is not in regular religious use.

We took the expressboat back to Balestrand and had a picnic lunch in our hotel room because it was raining so much.  After lounging around for much of the afternoon, we tried to get to the Arboretum at Dragsvik; but although it is only a few hundred yards across the mouth of the Esefjorden,  a ferry runs across the fjord only once each day and the road around the fjord goes 10 kilometers.  We walked down the main road around the Esefjorden in the off and on rain until we got to the spot where the water from the waterfalls forms a raging river that plunges into the fjord.  Then, we turned around and came back for supper.

Finally, having had several cheap lunches, we decided to splurge for dinner.  We went to Kvikne’s Hotell, the fancy hotel in town (see photo of the “historic”wing), and feasted on their famous buffet, a range of smoked, marinated and cooked seafood and fish, cheeses, meats, salads, breads and of course desserts.

 Having returned to our room in the Balestrand Hotell, the view out the window was particularly striking.

An afternoon and evening in Balestrand

We loved the view from the balcony of our room at the Balestrand Hotell (photo).  But it was such a pretty sunny days that we decided to go for a walk in the mountains.  We quickly changed into lighter clothing but we were in such a hurry to leave that it was not until half way up the mountain that we noticed that, underneath the sausage, bread, cheese and fruit that we were bringing for lunch, there was the rather hefty novel (the final installment of the Clan of the Cave Bear series) than I have been reading on this vacation was nestled in the bottom underneath the emergency item of warm clothing.  Oh well, a little extra exercise!

We paused to look at the lovely St. Olaf’s church near our hotel (photo).  We also enjoyed the wildflowers along the road as we walked to the trailhead (photo).  Our trail began by climbing through the woods, then some nice views of the nearby mountains began to open up (photo).  After 90 minutes and 1200 feet of elevation gain, we paused at spot with a nice view to eat our lunch. We chatted with a fellow who arrived shortly after we did – he ran a restaurant down in town and was out for a ramble before they opened for dinner. He pointed out the location way down below us.

We finished eating and headed out again, aiming for the top of Raudmelen some six hundred meters above us (photo); soon we were out on the open mountain face, and a dramatic vista of waterfalls, snowfields, and fingers of fjords stretching out into the distances around us.  We could see the Esejorden right below us (separating Balestrand from Dragsvik), plus the waterfalls descending from Mt. Vindreter and Mt. Keipen, as well as the mouth of the Vetlefjorden on the other side of Dragsvik, plus the Fjaerlandsforden leading off to the nearby Jostedal and, of course, the Sognefjord itself stretching into the distance.

We hiked steadily but we had agreed to turn around at 4:30 so, a bit short of the top of Raudmelen’s 978 meter summit (photos of the vistas from near the top), we paused for a last snack before heading downward.  One of the usual reasons to head down in the late afternoon did not apply – because it stays light so late at night, we could have come down at 10 PM and still have had no trouble seeing our way.  It doesn’t stay completely like – it is more like dusk all night long (not sure what it would be like to hike in such lighting).  But we were getting tired and we wanted to be sure to get back to town before the restaurants started closing.

We decided to try the Cider House Restaurant about which we had heard at our lunch spot on the hike.  The menu seemed a bit precious but the food was excellent – for our main dishes I had manti filled with veal an cooked in cider, and Nancy had cigar böreks.  To drink I had Rallar Amber Ale from, the Aegir brewery over in Flåm, and we split chilled cider that was still but quite potent, made from the apples they grow beside the greenhouse / dining room; then for dessert an OK apple pie with an excellent vanilla sauce.  Restaurant highly recommended! On the way back to our room, we took a detour to look at several Swiss chalet style houses and Viking burial mounds along the road.