We left Bergen by bus to Flam at the head of the Aurlandsfjord. There we boarded the Flam Railway for a spectacular ride across the steep and narrow Flam Valley. The one-hour ride took us through countless tunnels and switchbacks. We were dazzled by the glacier carved ravines, waterfalls and ski areas. In Myrdal we boarded another train to Oslo where we disembarked in Norway’s capital and largest city. If you can only have one day in Norway, make this the day.
Oslo is all you would expect a Scandinavian capital city to be with wide pedestrian streets, parks, museums, an ancient fortress, a waterfront with many restaurants and shops filled with beautiful Scandinavian designs. Our last full day in Norway we visited the City Hall where the Nobel Peace Prize is given each December, the Viking Ship Museum, Vegeland Sculpture Park and the Holmenkollen Ski Jump.
That evening our group gathered for our farewell dinner. We toasted a wonderful trip, new friendships and future travels!
When the sun comes out in Norway it’s impossibly beautiful. The backdrop is bright green on land and lovely blue on the water. Buildings are painted bright colors and the predominant color is a rich red, which contrasts beautifully with the environment.
The natural environment is spectacular – high mountains, lush green trees and fields, copious amounts of fresh and salt water. The cities are clean with orderly streets, many public parks and wonderful public transportation systems. The rural areas are studded with small summer homes, many of which were once isolated fisherman’s homes.
Bergen is the second largest city in Norway. The street facing the harbor has been granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Crowds of young people and tourists from the cruise ships docked in the harbor crowd the fisherman’s wharf and pedestrian shopping streets. Even outside the tourist area, the town is clean and bright. We took the tram to the top of the hill, enjoyed the view, and then walked back down to sea level. The trees and flowers were very reminiscent of another beautiful coastal city – Seattle.
Norway’s economy was based primarily on its fishing industry until oil and gas were discovered off the coast. It is now the 4th largest petroleum producer in the world. The economy is booming. Much of the income has been used to improve the country’s infrastructure - wonderful roads, bridges, ferries and tunnels connecting even the most remote villages. Our last day in Bergen we boarded a bus to an outer island to visit a museum which illustrated the traditional fishing culture in contrast to the industrial jobs made possible by a nearby oil and gas transfer station.
The economy is robust. Norwegians typically make at least $30/hour. Lower paid jobs are taken by immigrants. Income taxes are usually about 28% and goods and services have a 6-25% VAT, which makes things expensive. As in all northern European countries, prices are high - a beer and a modest sandwich or bowl of soup is about $30 in a restaurant, but groceries are comparable to US prices. Even with the current strong $US, this is an expensive place to visit. But with high salaries, free health care and education (though university) and, excellent pensions Norwegians enjoy a prosperous and worry-free lifestyle, ranking very high on the world’s happiness.
Our ship Internet service has been out of commission for 3 days so I’ve been unable to post a blog. That means this one is late and all the subsequent ones will be too.
We spent 3 days on the Kong Harald above the Arctic Circle. The scenery was spectacular, the weather cold (in the 40’s) and unfortunately the skies were gray nearly all the time. The only time I saw bright sunlight was at 11:30 PM in Tromso. It was an incredible view, but not enough to get me out of my cabin. After a quick look out the window, I turned over and went back to sleep.
On board the ship we alternatively watched the scenery, listened to Matt’s “Scandi-talks” (short lectures about Scandinavian culture, economics, language, etc), exercised (walking around the 5th deck or using the small on-board gym), conversed with new friends, read, slept and ate and ate and ate! Who’d have known there were so many kinds of fish and ways to prepare it? Each time we docked for 30 minutes or more Matt lead us on a tour around the town, pointing out the highlight - such as they are in these coastal villages. We saw a WWII and the Hurtigruten museums, cod drying racks, the best ice cream north of the Arctic Circle and the like.
Reviews of this journey are filled with complaints about too much time onboard, not enough shore time, no entertainment, etc., but none in our group concurred with these feelings My advice – if you want all the amenities of a big cruise ship don’t take the Hurtigruten. Like an intimate (300 passengers) and international atmosphere (mostly French, German and Scandinavian passengers) and a chance to see some interesting small towns and beautiful scenery? Take this trip!
The Sami people were previously called Laps. Today they prefer to be called Sami. These are the indigenous people of what was known as Lapland (now Samiland). Samiland is an area not a country. It’s the area north of Arctic Circle in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia. These people have been here thousands of years, since the end of the last ice age. It is not agreed where they came from, but most evidence is the Ural Mountains. They are not Inuits and don’t look at like them nor do they share their cultural heritage.
There are about 80,000 -100,000 total pop, though only about 1/5 of them live in Samiland. The constitution of the countries the Samis live in recognizes them. Legally, in order to be considered a Sami it’s a qualification based on language. You must consider yourself Sami and speak the language as your “mother” tongue or be the child or grandchild of someone who does. This is different than genetic inheritance and I wonder if the intent was to ultimately see the extinction of this group as they become assimilated into the broader culture.
Reindeer are important to culture and family is central. You do not ask Sami how many reindeer they own. That is considered the height of rudeness. Their extensive herds are allowed to roam, but are gathered and ear marked in the spring then allowed to roam again for the summer. They are gathered again in October for slaughter. Every part of the reindeer is used for food, household goods or clothing.
Like many indigenous peoples, they have their issues - alcohol abuse and their relationship to the nation states they are a part of. There are several distinct Sami groups. These elect a Sami Parliament within each country which interacts with the country’s parliament to ensure their interests are met. There is also an inter-national Sami Parliament which meets with representatives of Sami’s in each county - Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia. Complicated? Yes!
Today we left the city and headed north. We landed in Rovaniemi, where the airport is just a few meters south of the Arctic Circle. After a quick lunch and a few photos on the 66.5628° N latitude we boarded the bus for the 170 mile drive to Ivalo and Sami country.
I was amazed by the beauty of this boreal wilderness. This is not the barren tundra I’ve experienced in northern Canada and Alaska but rather verdant forests, small farms and villages. The highways are first-class, the hotels and restaurants very nice, it’s a popular hideaway for skiers and hikers alike.
Ivalo is also a gateway to Lapland, the home of the Sami, the indigenous people who have lived in northern Scandinavia since prehistoric times. Lapland, also called Samiland, spans northern parts of Finland, Norway, and Sweden. Although the Sami are a minority of today's population in northern Finland, their cultural traditions endure. The Sami have a proud tradition of nomadic reindeer herding and been a much maligned for centuries. I understand that is rapidly changing, but we’ll learn more about that today…
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