An odd encounter
Part 4 of a 2008 Norway/Copenhagen travelogue
by Thor Iverson
5 September 2008 – Vik
The timing of the Norwegian commuter ferries means that one will not always arrive (or depart) on any sort of preferred schedule. For example, the short cross-Sognefjord trip from Balestrand to Vik deposits us in town too early to do pretty much anything, and will pick us up too early to do much of what we might wish to do. So as long as we’re here with nothing to do, we might as well enjoy the surroundings, right? A peaceful village in a lovely valley…there are worse things in this world.
So, we walk. Down a narrow, shoulder-free highway to a nearby waterfall that, unfortunately, can’t be seen from the road. Along quayside rows of colorful boatsheds. Around the nearly-deserted streets. Where is everyone? Gone for the season? Hiding from the last of the tourists?
And as for the thing we’ve really come to see, the Hopperstad Stavekyrkje? Still not open. And, alas, surrounded by scaffolding. We plop ourselves down on a bench in the midst of the church’s cemetery (really; there’s no other option available) and…wait. Eventually, a young woman arrives on a bike, somewhat surprised to see us (or, we’d guess, anyone). She unlocks a few doors, apparently takes pity on us, and waives the entrance fee (which we can’t quite understand; yes, she’s a few minutes late, but we’ve traveled in Italy…anything within the same calendar day can be considered “on time”). The church’s tarred exterior and aromatic, impenetrably dark interior are wonderfully sepulchral; reasons for the gloomy theology that informed the elders of my Lutheran youth are more clear than ever. And here I always thought it was the lutefisk…
There’s another church worth seeing in Vik, but it doesn’t open for another hour, and due to the odd ferry schedule there won’t be enough time to visit and before catching a boat back to Balestrand. So instead, we enjoy a pair of really excellent cappuccinos at the TINE Cheese Bar, passing what little time we’ve left in a most relaxing fashion.
Having been rushed back to our hotel, we now have an inordinate amount of time on our hands before our next scheduled transport. Five hours, in fact. (Note to self: next time, consider hiring a private boat.) We wander for a while – it’s a beautiful day, and the fjord is about as mirrored as it gets – sit on rock walls and garden benches, and ponder once more why fjords speak to us with such powerful voices. Mostly, we just soak up the colors, the crystalline air, and the peace.
Eventually, however, soaking becomes a little boring. How about a visit to the aquarium? Nope, it’s not open on Sunday. Maybe we’ll rent a boat and paddle around the Fjærlandsfjord? Sure, no problem…any day but Sunday. One thing that apparently does occur on Sunday: restroom janitorial services. The public restroom on the docks is beyond clean, and I swear one could eat a meal off of its shiny metal surfaces. (Not that I’m going to try.) Also – and you won’t find this on every dock – there’s free public Wi-Fi that reaches every bench in sight. Though I don’t know if it works in the restroom…
The lack of activities is enough to drive a person to drink…and so, drink we do, back on our hotel’s beautiful wrap-around veranda. Several Ringnes later, we’re hungry…but of course, having reached mid-afternoon, all the previously-open markets and restaurants are now closed. We manage to grab the last few smørrebrød at a just-about-to-close local bakery, plus a few tasty-looking rolls (the bread, especially that made with pumpkin seeds, is as excellent as we’ve now come to expect) which we squirrel away in our bags, under the assumption that we won’t want to go out for dinner…an assumption that turns out to be accurate.
But then, seemingly all too soon, the big commuter ferry arrives, and we’re chugging our way along the ever-widening Sognefjord. The surrounding mountains recede and sink, until eventually we’re tossed by the waves of the open sea, rocky islands all around us. We then turn southward, passing wind-denuded slopes spotted with vacation homes but little else, until at last we pull into the outskirts of Bergen. It’s not quite dusk, but the city’s lit up all the same, and from this angle it’s rather strikingly beautiful. The streets are packed with a youthful crowd, and every restaurant and tavern courtyard bulges with activity. In another mood, we’d find this compelling. Fresh from the tranquility of the fjord, we’re a little oppressed.
Back at our Bergen hotel, we collect our stowed bag and trudge upstairs, to a smaller room than our last…this one with two non-functioning lights and some other random problems. We’re too tired to complain, though an extensive note is left on the pillow the next morning (most, but not all, of the problems are solved).
6 September 2008 – Bergen
Another beautiful day…sunny, but not too warm, and perfect for walking. Of which we do rather a lot, first strolling to the town’s stately Bergenhus Fortress, then through the wonderful, alternatively secretive and colorful maze of painstakingly-restored Bryggen, into the lovely St. Mary’s and far less-interesting cathedral, and finally all the way ‘round the harbor to the local aquarium, which is interesting enough, but perhaps not quite worth its $30 entry fee. Afterwards, there’s a magical walk down narrow old streets that wind through beautiful, white-timbered houses, and soon we’re back at the hotel, resting our feet and watching an ABBA concert on TV. (ABBA? Not a-ha? Where’s the national pride, I ask?)
Odd Rydland’s house – Combine two of our favorite things (wine and travel), and a third opportunity regularly presents itself: meeting similarly-disposed folk all over the world. And so here we are, getting into the car of someone we’ve never met outside the confines of online fora, collecting a few more city-dwellers, and driving up and out of the city to that someone’s home for dinner. The prelude to some Sideways-like slasher flick? Hopefully not.
Odd, his wife, and his friends couldn’t be more congenial or generous, and there are no machetes or giant troll hammers in sight. Better yet, the fact that it’s Norway means everyone’s fluent in English, so we don’t spend half the meal wondering if we’re missing the subtleties of the conversation. There is one sort of rule here, though, and it’s that all the wines are served blind. It’s not my preferred method of enjoyment most nights, but the occasional guessing game is fun, and the wines on offer are pretty darn wonderful (which, I’m told, is a result of the otherwise awful government monopoly; the absurd markups mean that, as one dining companion puts it, “no one can afford to drink cheap wine”). These are, as we sometimes say in such situations, high-class problems.
One actual “problem” – perspectives differ – is Norway’s extremely stringent drinking-and-driving laws, which reduce those who’ve driven here to tiny sips…though an early start to the next morning’s workday plays a role as well. One guest arrives, and will return, on his bike, though I don’t know if that exempts him from the regulations or not (given where we are, I guess most of his trip will be downhill, which seems doable as long as there’s light). And the rest of us? We’ll be taking taxis back. Won’t that be expensive?
(Because the wines that follow are all tasted blind, and because I enjoy public embarrassment as much as the next guy, I’ll include my guesses, where known.)
Joly 1989 Savennières Clos de la Coulée de Serrant (Loire) – Chalk, dry honey, complex minerality, and a long, very dry finish. Good acidity. A very good wine not all the way to maturity, but getting there. [Loire chenin blanc’s easy. The particular combination of intensity and semi-oxidation makes me guess Joly almost immediately, and then CdlCdS. Better yet, I’m only one year awry of the vintage. My blind-tasting bona fides thus established to the approval of our hosts and the other guests, I can take the rest of the night off…and based on some of my subsequent guesses, I pretty much do.] (9/08)
Guffens-Heynen 2000 Mâcon-Pierreclos “Le Chavigne” (Mâcon) – Very dry and structured, mild oak…and not much else. Seems OK, but there’s not a whole lot of “there” there. People whose palates I trust insist that these are good, atypically-Guffens wines to which I’m regularly unfair, but I’ve yet to see it. [Since it’s not like anything I tend to drink, I guess white Burgundy, but beyond that I’m useless.] (9/08)
Couhins-Lurton 2001 Pessac-Léognan Blanc (Bordeaux) – Stones and grass with a deft grace note of oak. Fuller-bodied than this note suggests, though the finish is short. [I say “white Bordeaux” somewhere amidst a plethora of guesses, but I eventually settle on some sort of outré white Burgundy. Oops. Go with the instinct. Worse, this is obvious to most everyone else.] (9/08)
Nikolaihof 2003 Riesling Steiner Hund “Reserve” (Kremstal) – Steel, wet aluminum…but also, some pointy alcohol. Good balance otherwise. A bit of a victim of its vintage. [Clearly riesling, and the alcohol makes me guess Austria (several in the room zero right in on the Kremstal), though I don’t finish the job and draw the ’03 connection with any confidence.] (9/08)
Trimbach 1993 Riesling “Cuvée Frédéric Émile” (Alsace) – Metal (mostly iron) with huge acidity and receding complexity. Very slightly oxidized on the finish, and while the wine’s still quite intense, I think it needs to be consumed…though with extended aeration, it does freshen a bit. [Unquestionably riesling, and though I identify it as Alsatian without much trouble, I don’t guess the actual identity of the wine. I should be ashamed.] (9/08)
Raveneau 2003 Chablis Butteaux 1er Cru (Chablis) – Corked. (9/08)
Louis Carillon 2002 Puligny-Montrachet Les Referts 1er Cru (Burgundy) – Gorgeous texture, very tactile (to the point that it almost feels like there’s residual sugar, though obviously this is highly unlikely), melony, long, and quite complex. Impressive. [I draw no closer than “white Burgundy,” but then I drink very, very little chardonnay from anywhere, so this is hardly my area of expertise.] (9/08)
d’Angerville 1993 Volnay Clos des Ducs (Burgundy) – Earthen, with dark fruit and strappy tannin. Some mature flavors, and some less so…is this a wine in clear need of additional age, or is it showing a slight tannic imbalance that will be exacerbated as time marches on? I’ll leave the debate to those who own some, but despite the chew it’s pretty extraordinary right now. [I’m proud of guessing “1993 red Burgundy” with a fair amount of confidence, but beyond that I prove useless.] (9/08)
Edmunds St. John 2001 Syrah (California) – Smoked meat, a little bit of brett (a first from this wine, at least in my experience), blackberries, and a dusting of char. Smooth and elegant in the context of California syrah…which isn’t, in a wider context, all that smooth and elegant. Still, I like it, and this is the first bottle that, to me, seems like it might be sniffing around the edges of maturity. [Not served blind, and stored in a slightly warm luggage room during our Sognefjord stay, so the performance may well be suboptimal due to external factors.] (9/08)
Rinaldi 1999 Barolo Brunate “Le Coste” (Piedmont) – Corked. (9/08)
Gerin 1999 Côte-Rôtie “Champin Le Seigneur” (Rhône) – Dense, chewy leather, and earth studded with peppercorns. No “fruit” as such, but who needs it? Basically, you either like this sort of thing or you don’t. I do, despite believing – apparently mistakenly – that I’m not a huge Gerin fan. [Obviously Northern Rhône. I manage “not Hermitage or Cornas,” and I think I’m sure it’s not St-Joseph, but struggle with greater specificity. In retrospect, it’s clearly not Crozes either, so I’m not sure what stayed the obvious conclusion.] (9/08)
Léoville Poyferré 1990 Saint-Julien (Bordeaux) –Tobacco, cassis, dark black fruit, and still-immense but balanced structure. Rather fantastic at the moment, though obviously well short of maturity. [Guessing that it’s Bordeaux is as easy as can be, but it’s late, unlike the others I haven’t been taking mincing little sips, and so I don’t muster up the energy to probe further.] (9/08)
In terms of comestibles, there’s a seafood mousse on toast, scallops, beef bourguignon, and a few interpolated snacks as well…good, well-prepared, simple food that enhances but does not compete with the wines, as I’m sure was the intent. And this is a most interesting group of friends (or maybe they’re enemies who just like to drink each others’ wine, who knows?), whose initial reticence turns – in the Norwegian way I know so well – to opinionated bonhomie as the proceedings are gradually lubricated.
A taxi is called as we say our farewells, and though the ride (shared with several other diners) is unbelievably expensive according to the meter, we are not allowed to pay for it; the fare has been paid in full by the time we arrive at our destination. This goes beyond generosity to ridiculousness, but we are immensely grateful nonetheless.
Copyright © Thor Iverson