Murder in Myrdal!
Part 3 of a 2008 Norway/Copenhagen travelogue
by Thor Iverson
4 September 2008 – Myrdal
Though the train itself still leaves a bit to be desired, the journey from Bergen to this forbidding, rocky outpost is a pretty one, even when the vistas consist in their entirety of a cold, nearly lifeless horizon of rocky nothingness. However, all is not beauty on this day. For ours is a Train of Death.
Clinging to the edge of a steep, forested hillside about halfway through the journey, our train grinds to a surprisingly rapid halt. There’s no announcement of the reason, not even in Norwegian, and heads are craning. Presently, we see the conductor walking past our window. We peer forward, then back; there are sheep scampering down the hillside, a few men and dogs doing their best to herd them down the precarious slope.
Our guess is correct: the train has hit a sheep, and there’s a collection of shepherds and train personnel gathered a few dozen meters behind us. As we’re pondering the length of the delay, and whether or not it will affect the scheduling of our onward journey, the conductor approaches our window once more. He yells ahead, and in response the train inches forward for a minute…just far enough to take us out of a line-of-sight view of what’s about to happen. For now, gripped in each of the conductor’s hands, is a pair of rather fierce-looking hatchets.
I guess the sheep’s not dead. I have a feeling he’s about to be.
In Myrdal, we board the famous Flåmsbana, a beautiful and character-filled tourist train that links the major rail lines to and from Bergen with the no less major ferries, both commuter and touristic, of Norway’s Sognefjord.
It’s a steep ride, and we’re taking it to the water. So with the clank and grind of clutching gears, we inch down mountain slopes, though cliff-piercing tunnels and narrow ravines. An occasional waterfall plunges alongside; we stop at one for a brief sightsee, which turns into an unconscionably cheesy “performance” by a small band of blue-clad “water fairies” or something – it’s all too silly to detail – that dance and cavort to music in and amongst the spray. After a while, we speed up, traversing narrow and impossibly postcard-ready valleys of vivid green farms and picturesque structures.
Eventually, we arrive in Flåm, a busy hub of train, car, and ferry activity. The beautiful Sognefjord stretches before us. Or rather, we assume it’s beautiful and stretching before us, because rain, fog, and cloud obscure all but the nearest ground-level vistas.
We search for somewhere to stow our bags, which aren’t heavy (we’ve left the bulk of our luggage back in Bergen), but are a pain to drag around in a downpour. No luck. We search for somewhere to eat. The options are typically larcenous and of dubious quality, so we settle for some rather pedestrian smørrebrød, pre-packaged lefse, and the like from a self-serve café counter.
And then, foiled by the elements and the albatross of our luggage, we spend the next two hours waiting for our onward transportation and looking for some way to amuse ourselves. Which isn’t easy. Flåm consists of little aside from tacky shops and counters selling various ways to explore the natural beauty of the region, and as our excursions are already planned and the rain has not abated, there’s little to do inside or out. The best of the various shops is attached to the small, but relatively interesting Flåmsbana Museet, from which we wrest every possible minute of exploration. Mostly, however, we sit and wait, hoping for a change in the weather.
The ferry from Flåm to Balestrand is functional rather than tourist-friendly – there’s precious little outdoor standing room, and what there is lacks protection from the rain – but given the weather, there’s not much to see in any case. Thankfully, the rain has let up a bit by the time we pull into Balestrand, a pretty town perched on a point between the main expanse of the fjord and one of its smaller arms. The waterfront, and in truth the town itself, are rather dominated by our hotel, which directly fronts the quay and is a good deal taller than everything around it. There’s not a whole lot to this town either, but it’s definitely more livable than Flåm, and manifestly prettier even aside from its surroundings.
Kviknes Hotel – A study in contrasts, this rather massive establishment consists of an historic central building, a more modern wing tucked behind the former, and a very modernistic business center attached to the water-facing side. We check in with the first of many breathtakingly beautiful Norwegian women I’ll fall in temporary love with on this trip (in this, I’m a slave to my genes), at which point we’re informed of our dining options and pointed towards our room, which is in the modern wing.
We’ve been warned about this wing: stunted views and interior decay. Truth be told, however, it’s not all that bad. It’s not all that modern, either, and there are definite signs of wear. That said, a view down half the length of a majestic fjord is better than nothing, and the room’s a bargain in comparison to those in the main structure. We even have a balcony, which improves the views somewhat.
But the real beauty of the hotel, other than its setting, lies in its common rooms. Each is done in a different style – one a dark, moody drawing room with a bar, the next full of giant-sized Viking furnishings and artwork, the one after that a warm and sunny sitting room – fronted by large windows that overlook the fjord. The last of these is adjacent to a massive, cruise ship-sized dining room with commanding, panoramic views. I spend a while in each, sitting with a decent (though too-sweet) mug of Ringnes and scrawling in my journal. Apparently, we’ve arrived at the very end of tourist season; the bar staff leaves for home in two days, and the entire hotel will be empty in a matter of weeks. Even now, the place seems largely empty (though dinner will somewhat belie that assessment; the hotel isn’t exactly packed, but there will be very few empty tables).
There are three dinner options: a prix fixe menu, a buffet, and casual but perhaps more inventive dining in the bar area. We choose the first, leaving the second for tomorrow. And while I’ll somewhat regret not exploring the third, the fact is that all the options are about the same price, and it’s hard to choose without having tasted the food.
At a very nice table right up against floor-to-ceiling windows, we enjoy a very pleasant meal. Our expectations aren’t overly high, considering the size of the room and the culinary compromises that usually entails (especially with a buffet to service from the same facility), but the kitchen here does pretty good work despite the teeming masses. We start with extremely tasty Sognefjord lobster in a sort of timbale of avocado and other greenery, followed by an outstanding course of fried goat cheese with picked pumpkin; the combination of flavors is unusual and yet perfect. Then it’s a slab of veal almost cooked the way we’ve requested, with fried local porcini in a “nest” of similarly-fried potato shreds. It sounds like something from a cheap chain steakhouse, but it actually verges on outstanding. Only the veal hold the dish back. Dessert consists of white chocolate mousse, a tart sorbet of some unidentified berry, and other delicacies.
From a typically rapacious wine list very heavy on white Burgundy, we manage to select an interesting bottle that doesn’t entirely detonate our price ceiling (it’s only about twice what it would be on an American wine list).
Josmeyer 2001 Pinot Gris “Le Fromenteau” (Alsace) – Pristine and mineral-driven, fruited with crisp pear and ripe apple, and seasoned with just a bit of salt. (No, really…there’s a hint of salinity that I’ve never found in an Alsatian pinot gris, though it’s fairly common in certain coastal whites.) Neither fat nor aggressive. The finish is long, suggesting hints of the spice that will emerge with more age. While this is drinking well now, were I to own any I’d wait a while, because it’s still holding back, and because the crystalline minerality that’s slowly being revealed is a little more zirconium than diamond at the moment.
Coffee is taken in one of the common rooms and at our leisure. It’s a lovely way to end the day, though clouds continue to loom low over the fjord.
5 September 2008 – Balestrand
We’ve got yet another window table for breakfast, as we nosh our way through a fancier, more artsy version of the groaning-table buffet we’ve learned to expect in this country. And there’s no doubt where we are, either: the buffet features five different preparations of herring. Ah, bounty…
The weather is clearing but still cool, making a stroll around Balestrand a highly pleasurable way to spend the morning. The St. Olaf church, a/k/a “the English church,” is quite charming, and we sit for a while atop a pair of Viking burial mounds, gazing out over the Sognefjord.
Since our formative fjord experiences have all been in New Zealand, it’s interesting to compare and contrast our experience here in the place that named the thing. We’ve been told that the fact that Norway’s fjords are inhabited would be the big visual difference for us. Surprisingly, it’s not. Though some of this is specific to the massive Sognefjord, the difference is that the sheer scope of the thing removes one of the biggest sources of a fjord’s appeal: the dwarfing verticality of surrounding cliffs and slopes. Something the size of the Sognefjord looks, to our eyes, more like a mountain lake, on which habitation seems only natural. The major effect of the habitation is, to us, not visible but rather auditory, as a constant background hum of boat, car, and ferry never quite goes away, except for late at night. None of this takes away from the still-startling beauty of a fjord’s epic scope, just the immediacy and intimacy of it.
And that is about to change. For the better.
The are certain costs to self-booking one’s travel experiences, and we’re faced with one now. Having just taken a ferry down the breathtaking Fjærlandsfjord, its narrow-gauge majesty everything we have ever loved about these natural cathedrals, we’ve disembarked onto a quiet quay and are now watching nearly everyone else from the ferry climb onto a waiting bus.
No one mentioned anything about a bus.
Thankfully, ubiquitously-spoken English means that we can ask the driver where it’s going. It’s headed towards the Jostedalsbreen (continental Europe’s biggest glacier), which sounds intriguing, though the actual endpoint seems to instead be the Norsk BreMuseum, which sounds…well, it sounds indoors. We’ve come here to be one with nature. And having just spent a mere $110 on a short ferry trip – this country is such a bargain, especially for those of us toting semi-worthless American dollars – we’re going to do what we want.
So the bus departs without us, leaving only four people on the quay: us, and a youngish Asian-American girl, who’s being enthusiastically hugged by someone from the village that, apparently, stayed in the other’s house during a semester abroad (it’s so quiet here, not eavesdropping is impossible). Yes, of the four people on a dock in a remote Norwegian valley, three are American, and one has lived there. It’s a small world, after all.
Fjærland is most definitely a village, rather than a town, which is exactly what we’re in the mood for. There are a pair of pretty hotels, one of which is already boarded up for the season, and the other of which seems to be in the process of doing so. There’s a small general store. A café, of sorts. A tourist office. And a few of the sort of artisan shops that any tourist-friendly village will collect.
But all that almost goes unnoticed. Not because of the significant beauty of the surroundings, either. For as we depart the quay, we notice that the building adjacent to the docks seems to be a barn converted into a rather expansive bookstore. This is a little unusual, though not enough to engender comment. Then, a little farther down the only commercial street this village has, there’s a small shack open to the elements and stuffed to the rafters with more books. Just past that, another converted shed, itself floor-to-ceiling with volumes…this time, all science fiction- and fantasy-themed. A few meters farther on, even more books, this time in a multi-room barn; the library even extends into the haylofts. Across the road, next to the tourist office, are books in non-Norwegian languages, maps, and sheet music. What’s as striking as the blizzard of bindery is the fact that none of these structures are manned. Occasionally, there’s a chair where someone might sit , but otherwise the books are unattended.
Eventually, explanatory signs help us solve the mystery. It turns out that Fjærland is one of a worldwide association of “book towns,” a phenomenon of which we were previously unaware. And while I don’t know if every location is the same, here the books are just put out for the near-taking. Or rather, the borrowing; the idea is that the towns serve as far-flung branches of a single globe-spanning library. Back at the first building we passed, there’s a cashier, and one can pay for the books if one wishes there or in sporadically-placed “honesty boxes,” but the heart of the system is free-flowing exchange.
It’s a rather beautiful sentiment, and despite our desire to explore the countryside, we’re a bit captivated by the titles on offer. Soon, however, we’ve crisscrossed the full length of commercial Fjærland – there isn’t much – and are in the mood for a snack. So it’s back to the café. Of sorts.
Coffee comes from a self-serve air pot, squeezed into those little paper cups with fold-out “handles.” On sale are packaged ice cream treats for the kids and a tasty homemade coffee cake (with cranberries, according to the proprietress, though they look slightly different) for the rest of us. And in rotating attendance on this beautiful afternoon seems to be very nearly the entirety of the town’s population, all of whom seem to stop in for a daily chat with their neighbors. Of course, this means that our entrance as non-residents can’t help but draw a few surprised glances, especially from the children. But everyone’s friendly, and as we plop down outside to enjoy our appealing snacks (and appalling coffee), I’m suddenly struck by the realization that this place reminds me of home. No, it doesn’t look anything like it – the flat, nearly horizonless expanse of the massive lake I grew up on is here replaced by the vivid blue-green depths of the fjord, and there are certainly no mountains, or vertical features of any sort, in my family’s corner of northern Minnesota – but the people are very much the same…the same nationalities, the same facial features, the same vocal mannerisms, and the same polite reserve. “Minnesota nice” replaced by “Fjordland nice.” I’m most certainly feeling what the French call dépaysé, but a happier, less discomfiting version.
After our snack, we stroll rather than hike. It’s too peaceful here to wan t to work up much of a sweat. A pair of glaciers glitter at the far end of the valley, green slopes tower over us, and a slowly-setting sun does its own glittering on the mirrored opacity of the water. This is exactly what we’ve come for.
Soon, we hear the roar of the bus depositing its milling cargo quayside, and we head back to catch the last ferry. As the sun lowers itself behind a distant range and a chill darkens the air, clouds begin to wreathe the peaks and fog to nestle into every undulation. This is a fjord’s prettiest state, and it’s a perfect end to a lovely day.
Tonight’s fixed-price dinner seems like a series of variations on the previous night’s, so we choose the buffet instead. Like all buffets, there’s far too much food on offer, and inevitably far too much is consumed in an ultimately futile effort to sample the full range of options. The best elements are seafood-based, especially a full table of variations on smoked salmon and gravlax, while the worst are the meat dishes, especially a tragic reindeer loin cooked and brutalized into the consistency and taste of shoe leather. We also experience something I never thought possible: a cheese we absolutely cannot eat. It’s gamalost, yet another in the long line of traditional Norwegian foods known more for their preservation and longevity than their palatability.
Collet 2002 Chablis Montmains 1er Cru (Chablis) – Fattish nose of seashells. Good structure. Simple. Disappears rather abruptly on the palate. This is mostly bones, with precious little flesh.
Copyright © Thor Iverson