Stephen W Starling
Writer and Photographer

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Trespassing into Odin’s Domain – Bergen, Fjords, Norway

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

On an overcast October morning I splash through puddles across Holberg Square to board a boat in Bergen harbour for a five day adventure sailing deep into Norway’s fjord land. Venturing into an untamed wilderness which was once the home to Viking kings that is fabled to conceal an evil underworld haunted by mythical creatures. Out to sea an Arctic wind whips up waves and rolls in storm clouds that cast a feeling of gloomy foreboding— perhaps an ominous warning to deter inquisitive souls daring to trespass into the ancient Norse god Odin’s enchanted domain. 

Reaching the quay, I board Motor Vessel Njord, a 36 metre aluminium catamaran for a four hour voyage along the coast to Skjerjehamn, then into Sognefjorden to reach the hamlet of Balestand. The power of Njord’s four engines driving four water jets is soon felt as she rockets out of the harbour accelerating to 30 knots with ease. Soon we are threading through narrow channels between low lying islands, speeding along a sheltered inland passage heading north. Crossing the entrance of Fensfjorden, we are briefly out in the North Sea exposed to the full force of a blustery wind and a rolling ocean swell. It is hard to stand out on deck with spray flying and the ship pitching as she punches through the waves.

Off Skjerjehamn we turn westward to enter Sognefjorden, Norway’s largest fjord some 205 km long, 4.5 km wide and over 1,300m deep. This massive valley was carved out by a slow moving glacier over one kilometre thick. The scenery is spectacular, distant snow-capped mountains frame rounded hills of bare stone that slope down to a long ribbon of still water.  Vivid green moss and stunted orange heather cling to high rocky crags. In a sheltered canyon a copse of tall pine trees stand arrow straight. A foaming waterfall tumbles from a fissure to cascade down a gully. There is an impressive grandeur to this unique fjord landscape.    

As we surge on inland the wind abates and waves lessen, then the sun breaks through as MV Njord docks at Lavik a small settlement on the northern shore. Passengers disembark while new ones shuffle aboard; there are locals hopping between towns and hamlets, hikers with packs wearing sturdy boots ready to strike out on new trails, and a few independent tourists, older ones carrying cameras, the young with smartphones or trendy GoPros. Casting off we plane on down the fjord past Vik dodging car carriers, overtaking slow moving ferries, and steering clear of meandering cruise boats.

Around midday, we reach my destination of Balestrand: a rural hamlet of thirty homes and three hotels that has been base camp for hikers and mountaineers since the 1800’s. After checking in to the Midtnes Hotel, I take a rambling path that leads between orchards of apple trees. Beside a stone farmhouse with a shingle roof stands a wooden barn housing a cider shop.  I am greeted by a tall, thin man with angular features and greying hair. He beckons me in to sample his 14 brands of cider. My host, Agé Eitungjerde is a third generation cider-maker who knows his apples: over 17 varieties planted in orchards across the district, he tells me while filling a rack of five tasting glasses and slicing a selection of cheeses onto a slate platter.

We enjoy a convivial couple of hours sipping cider and nibbling cheese as Agé explains cider-making goes back to the Viking era. Even then ‘cocktails’ were created for special occasions: I sample a strong brew infused with hops to promote prowess in battle— it is certainly fighting ale! One month’s supply of sweet mead created by mixing cider and honey was gifted to newlyweds to promote other attributes. Apparently this tradition is the origin of the term ‘honeymoon’.

When I ask Agé about trolls, he takes a more serious tone. Trolls are hideous giant human-like creatures from Norse mythology he tells me. They are often depicted as wizen, bent, old men with large noses and ears. They live deep in forests, in caves, or under bridges sheltering from sunlight which can turn them into stone. Although simple minded and slow they are strong and dangerous. Folk tales tell of trolls maddened by the sound of church bells burning down churches and eating Christians. 

Changing topic, Agé begins to recite an old poem in sing-song Norwegian. Sitting there at a rough-hewn wooden bench in the warmth of his stone-flagged kitchen, looking out on the fjord while knocking back shots of ancient fighting ale, I feel like a guest at a Viking feast.

Walking, somewhat unsteadily, back to the village I come across a fairy-tale church perfectly positioned on a hill overlooking Sognefjorden. Constructed of timber in an ornate Stave style its steep slate roofs are adorned with carved crosses and a dragon’s head. Above, a slender belltower points skyward. Inside, under a vaulted panelled ceiling supported by turned wooden columns stands a carved alter displaying a painting of the risen Christ. Set into a curving wall behind are nine small stain-glass windows depicting saints, while to one side stands a wooden lectern and a small pipe organ. The church is named for Saint Olaf, the patron saint of Norway, Viking King, Olaf Haraldson II 995-1030, who united and Christianised the lands that became Norway.

I read this fairy-tale church has a fairy-tale history: it was built by a loving husband as a lasting legacy for a young wife who died too soon. Margaret Sophia Green was the daughter of an English clergyman who in the late 1800’s became a pioneering mountaineer. She visited Balestrand frequently and fell in love with Knut Kvikne whose family owned a hotel. They married in 1890, then, sadly she died of tuberculosis in 1894. She had cherished a dream of building an English church in Balestrand. After her death, Knut partitioned part of the family’s land, raised donations, and built this charming church which was consecrated by an English Anglican bishop in 1897. It is still overseen by the Anglican Church and presided over by English clergy who receive free lodging at the Kvikne family’s hotel.

A sign states there will be a service this evening at nine, so I make a resolution to return. Although later, after a substantial dinner and seeing a storm brewing, I am reluctant to venture out. However, when called by the sound of a solitary bell I don warm waterproofs to stride down a lonely lane through a gloomy, damp, twilight towards St. Olaf’s. I receive a warm welcome at the portico by an English lady vicar from Lancaster, not far from my home town. Commendably, a congregation of twelve brave souls have also risked the storm to line the first four rows of wooden pews. It is a charming Evensong service of readings, prayers, and hymns accompanied by, not the organ, but a soloist playing a wistful refrain on a flute.

Clouds cover a pale moon as the storm breaks pelting rain onto roofs and swirling wind around the bell tower. We are snug sheltering in our sanctuary, sitting in the warm glow of flickering candle-light, feeling the fraternity of fellow worshippers. Although, I do feel a little apprehensive because when this service ends I have to walk back along that lonely lane.  I’m fearful of encountering an angry troll so enraged by the sound of the church bell he is out hunting for a Christian to eat.

Next morning I venture deeper inland along Aurlandsfjorden which is 29 km long and only 2 km at its widest point. Tall mountainsides beside the fjord fall away to sheer precipices that plunge 900 m below the water’s surface. No roads can cling to these steep slopes and flat land for settlements is scarce. This is an untamed wilderness that remains as it was ten centuries ago when Vikings sailed this fjord.

After docking at the Flam interchange, I board a new age vessel that looks like a floating glass office block. Future of the Fjords is a 42 m carbon fibre, electric powered, catamaran purpose built to sail Naeroyfjorden.  Each of her three decks has wide outdoor observation areas and floor to ceiling windows to ensure each one of up to 400 passengers gets a clear view of the fjord.

Future of the Fjords moves away from the dock with an uncanny silence, no whine of engines or vibration from below decks. Then we glide effortlessly towards a narrow channel between tall cliffs. Naeroyfjorden is 19 km long and only 500 m wide its narrowest point. Its dramatic scenery and pristine condition led to an award of UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2005.

Entering the fjord, the vertical rock walls seem to close in. A stream of white foaming water tumbles over a high ledge launching torrents airborne to splatter and ricochet down hundreds of metres to pierce the surface of the fjord. We sail a crooked course into shadows between dark stone crags. No vegetation grows on these cliffs, no birds sing; there is an eerie stillness. You could imagine hearing the slow beat of a longboat’s oars dipping into the dark water. In this ethereal setting the border between reality and myth blurs, even bizarre legends become believable. I could be convinced we are fording the Styx River bound for the underworld, recklessly trespassing into Odin’s domain. 

Arriving at Gudvangen I am confronted by Odin, A statue of the ruler of Asgard stands guards at a wooden suspension bridge over a fast flowing river. A longboat is beached on the shore and wisps of smoke rise from a cluster of huts on the far bank. Drizzle damps my hair as I walk past Odin’s statue, across that bridge, and step back in time into 990 AD.

Njardarheinr is a Viking village of thirty substantial wooden huts with thick plank walls and steep shingle roofs. A peasant in a coarse woollen tunic is feeding goats herded in a woven wicker corral. A wench wearing a thick robe is spinning wool on a bobbin. Sparks are flying from a forge as a muscular blacksmith pumps leather bellows. Near the shore a shipwright is shaping timbers for a longboat by hand with a spoke-shave. These are not actors playing a part for a day, these people live in this village, some have been here for over two years, enduring life as it was in Viking times.

I meet Rricla, a two metre tall Viking with long blonde hair and a white beard who has a reindeer skin draped over his broad shoulders to keep off the drizzle. As we walk around the village he explains that when Vikings were not rampaging around Europe raping and pillaging, they lived orderly family and clan centred lives. Viking society had three principle social levels: Thralls, who were captured or kidnapped slaves engaged as labourers, builders, or servants; Karls, which were free peasants that owned farms and herded livestock; and Jarls, community leaders who were landowning aristocracy. Arranged marriages were common and the wealthy indulged in polygamy. Yet in other aspects Viking laws were liberal allowing women rights to own property, inherit, and divorce.

Entering a hut Rricka shows a collection of traditional swords, shields and axes carried by wealthy warriors. Lesser ranks would be armed with spears or bows. Vikings were feared as furious adversaries:  the word berserk is derived from the Norse term berserkergang coined for their frenetic, demonic, style of fighting. A warrior’s wild state could have been fuelled by ‘fighting ale,’ or alternatively by a belief that a valiant death will gain access to Valhalla, a heaven presided over by the god Odin. Mythology holds that Valkyries, “choosers of the slain,’ were female beings who oversaw battles, nominating who will survive and who will die, then leading the worthy dead to a bountiful afterlife in Valhalla. Those who died without valour were banished to Folkvangr, a hell of suffering shrouded in constant drizzle and swirling mist— much like today’s weather.     

Next morning; realizing I could not endure the rigours of a Viking life, nor bear being led to Folkvangr by a Valkyrie, I decide to take the next train back to Bergen and leave this enchanted fjord land of mist and legends. As beautiful as the scenery is, as friendly as the people are, I feel compelled to return to a modern city before some mythical creature takes me captive for trespassing too far into Odin’s domain.

© Stephen W. Starling

You too can trespass into Odin’s domain, view spectacular scenery, meet modern Vikings, and possibly encounter a mythical creature. To plan your adventure, visit these websites:    https://www.visitnorway.com/    https://www.norwaynutshell.com/




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