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Norway's Fjords
God's Gift to the World
by Ed Boitano
Urnes Stave Church near Lustrafjorden, Norway
Norway's Urnes Stave Church.
Credit: Courtesy Hurtigruten

love top ten lists. Whether asked or not, I am always more than happy to submit my pretentious list of everything from favorite French New Wave films and Beatle songs to regional Italian dishes. Curiously enough, when asked to list favorite travel destinations I am always reluctant to answer. When pressed, I'm known to say annoying things like my favorite travel destination is the one just around the corner. Recently my ten year old nephew demanded in his own special way that I at least name what I thought was the most beautiful place in the world. I finally succumbed, but explained to him first that everyone's concept of beauty is subjective. He in turn explained to me that I never refrained from saying the obvious

With its jagged mountain peaks that jolt vertically from the sea, stunning waterways, cascading waterfalls, tiny fishing villages and mountain farmhouses, the fjords of Norway would be my pick for the most beautiful place on the planet. I'm not exactly going out on a limb when I say this. Two of Norway's most famous fjords, the Geirangerfjord and Nærøyfjord, have joined the Great Wall of China, the pyramids of Egypt, and the Grand Canyon as a UNESCO World Heritage Site-a prestigious award whose purpose is to preserve the cultural and natural importance of a site for future generations. And National Geographic Traveler Magazine also rated Norway's fjords as the top travel destination in the world in their first "Index of Destination Stewardship" - an elite list of the least spoiled, great places on earth.

To understand the fjords is to understand the Norwegian character, whose national identity has been formed by its passionate bond with nature. When a Norwegian goes on vacation-an average of six-weeks a year-the destination of choice is (usually) the Norwegian countryside.


Geirangerfjord with the Seven Sisters waterfalls

The Geirangerfjord and her Seven Sisters is an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Credit: Courtesy Hurtigruten

Nestled on the western coast of Norway, the fjords were carved out in a succession of ice ages. When glaciers retreated approximately 12,000 years ago, plants soon appeared, animals thrived and man eventually made his way into this spectacular, but remote, heaven on earth. Small fishing villages were established and tiny sod roofed farmhouses quietly dotted the landscape, some situated on mountains so steep that they required a ladder to ascend the terrain. Once tax collectors realized there were people living in this isolated region, they made an annual trek to the farms, only to find that many of the ladders had mysteriously disappeared. When the first tourists arrived-primarily European aristocracy-who came to fish in this untouched paradise of crystal-clear waters, they were guaranteed all the fish they could carry. Word spread, and the fjords became the sportsperson's paradise. Soon the rest of the world heard about them.

HURTIGRUTEN: "The World's Most Beautiful Voyage."

a fishing village in the Lofoten Islands

Lofoten fishing village, along the fjords. Credit: Courtesy Hurtigruten

In 1891 Norwegian Coastal Voyage (now Hurtigruten) established a daily, year-round boat service along the western coast of Norway, with Bergen at the southern terminus and the Russian border at the north. With 34 ports of call, the coastal trek became a lifeline along the west coast of Norway, carrying cargo to isolated villages and farming communities. Tourism quickly became an important component of the voyages, giving people the opportunity to experience the fjord-filled coastline, Midnight Sun and the Northern Lights.

Travelers came in the thousands, making Norwegian Coastal Voyage one of Europe's biggest attractions. On my four-day journey, I found that more than 60 percent of the tourists on the voyage were Norwegian. It was wonderful to travel with locals and see the county through their eyes-and the fact that it was a real working cargo vessel made the experience even more authentic. The vessel makes an interesting hybrid of a working ship and tour boat, with all the comforts of spacious cabins, lounges and dining rooms. Sitting on the deck at midnight, sipping a glass of aquavit-the national drink of Norway-while the sun refused to go down was an amazing experience. The journey also includes land tours by bus; which meet back with the vessel at future ports.

Bergen - Gateway to the Fjords

Your journey will begin in Hanseatic Bergen, but before you hop on-board the boat, it is essential that you spend at least two days in this World Heritage City. Bergen boasts endless tourist attractions, and the Bergen Tourist Card is an important component to your tour of this historic harbor town. The price allows you free or reduced- price admittance to the Bergen Art Museum, Fantoft Stave Church (a medieval wooden cathedral), harbor boat tour, Bergen Castle, St Mary's Church, and Troldhaugen, composer Edvard Grieg's home. If you're lucky, you might catch a concert in Troldhaugen's intimate concert hall, discreetly built into the landscape and overlooking Grieg's working studio, where he wrote most of his later work. Wander through the harbor fish market and down the wooden streets of the historic warehouse district. A fish buffet should be on everyone's list for a sampling of Bergen's world-famous fish soup, gravlaks (cured Atlantic salmon), fish cakes and hearty breads, all washed down with the city's own Hansa beer. The local watering hole, Café Opera makes for a great late night stop.


Trondheim - City of the Viking King

the Edvard Grieg Museum, Bergen

Caption: Troldhaugen, the Edvard Grieg Museum, is located on
Lake Nordås in Bergen, Norway.
Credit: Courtesy Hurtigruten

Trondheim is the third largest city in Norway, and was the country's first capital for two hundred years. Two millenniums ago, Viking King Olav Tryggvason sailed up the Trondheim fjord in his longship and established this city. Trondheim's most important tourist attraction is St. Olav Catholic Church, built on the site of his grave. Numerous kings of the middle ages have found their final resting place in Trondheim, and the city has gained popularity as one of Europe's most important medieval pilgrimage centers.

With time permitting make a stop at the Trøndelag Folk Museum - an open air museum dating back to 1909. The museum showcases the various building traditions through time, with 60 vintage buildings on display, ranging from wooden huts to city mansions.


cruising along the Lofoten IslandsThe Lofoten Islands consist of stunning mountain peaks that seem to come right out of the sea, and sheltered inlets populated with little fishing villages. For centuries, fishing has been the very foundation of life on the islands. While on the deck of a vessel outside a Lofoten fishing village, I overheard an American passenger ask a Norwegian what those things were hanging on stilts. The Norwegian replied that it was air-dried cod for making Lutefisk. The American exclaimed, "And the birds don't eat it?" The Norwegian shrugged, 'No, they don't seem to like It.' Everyone of Scandinavian heritage knows of Lutefisk (pronounced lou-tah-fisk), but few have actually eaten it. Lutefisk is a traditional Nordic food of dried cod or stockfish, prepared in lye. It is soaked in cold water for five to six days (changed daily). It is then soaked in an unchanged solution of cold water and lye for an additional two days. When this treatment is finished, a final treatment of yet another four to six days of soaking in cold water (also changed daily) is needed. Eventually, the lutefisk is ready to be baked in the oven for 40-50 minutes. Some are known to even eat it.

Tromsø - Paris of the Arctic

Tromsø is the largest city in the Nordic countries north of the Arctic Circle and is home to the world's most northern university and cathedral, brewery, botanical garden and planetarium Less than a century ago, visitors were surprised to find culture and intellectual activity in a city so far to the north. Of all the destinations on my journey I found the residents of this city of 53,622 to be the most open and friendly in all of Norway. Look closely and you will see location used in the original film, Insomnia (1997).

The Sami - Scandinavia's Aborigines

cascading waterfalls viewed from cruise shipIn Tromsø was the first time I encountered the Sami - the nomadic reindeer herders, who have their own dress, language (they have 60 words for snow) and separate national identity. Today they even have their own radio stations and are represented in the Norwegian parliament. Once called Lapps, now regarded as politically incorrect, the Sami live in a horizontal world that crosses the northern borders of the vertical nations of Norway, Sweden, Finland and part of Russia. Many Sami continue their century's long nomadic lifestyle, living in tents and moving from place to place as the reindeer require new grazing lands. The Tromsø Museum houses more than 2,000 artifacts of the Sami, and offers the ideal opportunity to learn about their unique culture and way of life. *

Scandinavian Airlines

Hi Ed,

I was just reading your great story about traveling through the Norwegian countryside and the voyage along the coast – sounds amazing. Iíve been to Oslo, but definitely would like to return to Norway one day to explore exactly what you wrote about.

Sasha H.


The photos are spectacular. I can envision many a romantic novel inspired by these majestic sceneries. Makes me want to do a little more research on Norway. John Lenon must have been one of the converts when he wrote "Norwegian Woods."
--- Peter Paul, South Pasadena CA


Thanks for the kind words and taking the time to write. Indeed, Norway was paradise on earth, and I dream of returning again and again. You had a funny line about John Lennon being so inspired by the beauty of Norway that he composed the song, "Norwegian Wood." If I'm not mistaken, his reference to "Norwegian Wood" is just that: an inexpensive pine wood from Norway that was becoming popular in the UK. I did read somewhere, though, that "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was inspired by Norwegian fjord trek.
Thanks again… and please keep writing.



Reading Peter's implication that "Norwegian Wood" was based on a trip that John Lennon took to Norway led me to do some research.

According to Paul McCartney at a press conference in Los Angeles: 'Peter Asher [brother of McCartney's then-girlfriend Jane Asher] had just done his room out in wood, and a lot of people were decorating their places in wood. Norwegian wood. It was pine, really, just cheap pine. But it's not as good a title, is it, "Cheap Pine"? It was a little parody, really, on those kind of girls who, when you'd get back to their flat, there would be a lot of Norwegian wood. It was completely imaginary from my point of view, but not from John's. It was based on an affair he had. She made him sleep in the bath and then, finally, in the last verse, I had this idea to set the Norwegian wood on fire as a revenge. She led him on and said, "You'd better sleep in the bath." And in our world, that meant the guy having some sort of revenge, so it meant burning the place down....'

Of course, just cause it's on the 'net doesn't mean it's true.

Jeff M
Tacoma, WA


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Edvard Grieg - Troldhaugen, Bergen, Norway -

Despite his diminutive 5 ft frame, Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg was a towering rock star long before the expression existed. Born into a successful Bergen merchant family in 1843, his life dramatically changed when violin virtuoso Ole Bull recognized his talent and also introduced him to the treasures of Norwegian folk music. Grieg studied the masters abroad, but dreamed of reprieves to his beloved Norwegian countryside--a pattern which continued after he became a world-renowned composer, forced to perform in major European capitals.

Credit: Wikimedia commons

Grieg and his wife built a home on Lake Nordås on the edge of Bergen, which he called his best opus so far. Christened, Troldhaugen, the Victorian villa featured a tower, flag pole and rooftop vegetable garden. It soon became a center piece for Bergen's artistic community and visiting dignitaries. Greig loved the attention, but needed quiet to work, and built a composer's hut by the lake. Grieg died in 1907 of chronic exhaustion. But today his legacy lives on at Troldhaugen - a living museum consisting of the Edvard Grieg Museum, the Villa, the Composer's Hut, Concert Hall and Edvard Grieg´s tomb. The highpoint of a visit to Troldhaugen is a recital at the concert hall, which is discreetly built right into the grounds, complete with sod roof. The floor-to-ceiling windows behind the stage, overlooks the composer's hut, where Grieg would work, superstitiously sitting on a stack of sheet music by Beethoven so that he could reach the piano. At the end of each day, he would leave a note: "If anyone should break in here, please leave the musical scores, since they have no value to anyone except Edvard Grieg." Last November marked the 100th year anniversary of his death.

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