Picture a dark blue crystalline sea that winds through narrow passages flanked by virtually vertical rocky cliffs rising some 4,000 feet high, where isolated, historic wooden farmhouses dot leaf-green meadows.
magine a small coastal island city where almost all of its central buildings date around 1905 when they were designed in a charming Art Nouveau style.
Place yourself in a hip boutique hotel in an area that once hanged thieves but today is alive with nightlife and just a short walk to the magnificent building that bestows the Nobel Peace Prize.
Every photograph or description you’ve seen about Norway is pale in comparison to the breathtaking beauty of its real wonders.
That’s what we thought after an eight-day visit simply whetted our appetite for more. We may have stuffed ourselves with the finest seafood available anywhere, but we will never have enough time to explore that northern marvel.
t was sunny and warm — in the 70s and 80s — every day we were there in early August, too. But even in winter, the three cities we explored are not as cold as you might think, since the Gulf Stream keeps them remarkably temperate: Average daytime temperatures in Oslo in January are around 25 degrees Fahrenheit, with Alesund and Bergen typically about 10 degrees warmer.
“There is no bad weather here, only bad clothing,” Inger Carter, our guide in Bergen, told us.
We landed in Oslo and based ourselves at The Thief, a bespoke hotel that opened in 2013 in an area called Tjuvholmen, or Thieves’ Island, a former wharf area that has been transformed in the last 15 years, especially since 2012’s opening of the Astrup Fearnley Museet, a modern art museum designed by Renzo Piano.
The hopping area’s hippest hotel, The Thief is a cutting-edge getaway rendered by top Norwegian designers that sits on a canal on the waterfront; guests in the enclave have included Rihanna, Diana Krall and Elvis Costello.
“Oslo is tiny; you can walk everywhere,” said Hilary Sem, a licensed Oslo guide with Guideservice, whom we hired to show us around.
Within a five-minute stroll from The Thief, we were touring City Hall, the classic building constructed between 1930 and 1950 where every element is Norwegian, from the marble and wood to the wooden carvings of Norwegian legends outside and the monumental oil murals depicting Norwegian history inside, where the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony is held every year on Dec. 10.
We wandered a few blocks to the National Gallery which has a fine collection of paintings by Edvard Munch (“The Scream”), as well as Monet and Cezanne.
We walked up tony Karl Johan avenue, Oslo’s main street filled with shops and grand historic hotels, like The Grand, where playwright Henrik Ibsen lunched everyday. At the end of Karl Johan is the Royal Palace.
And we wandered over to the spectacularly stunning Opera House designed by Snøhetta, the firm that also designed Ground Zero in New York and the library in Alexandria, Egypt.
The magnificent Opera House is covered in Carrara marble with a roof that is also a slanted walking platform. “The architects wanted it to look like an iceberg,” said Sem.
We dined at the reborn historic Ekeberg Restaurant high above the city where views take in all its seacoast glory, where the charming maitre’d Robert Berggren told us, “everything you need lies within 20 minutes of Oslo: beaches for bathing, small islands for camping, Olympic ski resorts.”
We raved about the seafood delicacies we enjoyed at Tjuvholmen Sjømagasin, two blocks from The Thief, declaring it among our best dining experiences anywhere. This canal-side restaurant is all about seafood, even including its fresh fish market. Mosts of its dishes are are cooked on a charcoal grill, “which is why they taste so heavenly,” notes the restaurant. Wine pairings here are equally delectable.
Heading to Alesund, we departed from Oslo Central Station on the Dovre Railway to Dombas, climbing craggy mountains that seemed to be filled with myths and trolls. We then transferred to the Rauma Railway that follows the emerald-green River Rauma through spectacular mountain scenery, arriving at Andalsnes for a two-hour bus ride to Alesund.
If you must choose just one place to spend time in Norway, make it Alesund. Literally one of the most picturesque coastal villages I’ve ever seen, Alesund lies on an island where a huge tragedy turned into an opportunity.
“We probably have the biggest concentration of Art Nouveau buildings in the world,” Bente Saxon, our guide from Destination Alesund, told us. The reason: a devastating fire on January 23, 1904, “erupted in a sea of flames that destroyed the entire city — some 850 buildings — in 15 hours, leaving 10,000 people homeless.”
“Alesund’s great fortune was the fire coincided with a depression in Norway so costs for labor and materials were low,” she said. Norway’s finest architects and master craftsmen of the day came for the work and recreated the town in that era’s new style of Art Nouveau, which celebrated curves and arches with simple adornments fashioned after organic elements in nature, especially trees and flowers.
We simply wandered all over Alesund, a town of 55,000, from the town park of Aksla (the shoulder), a 418-step hike uphill for a panoramic birds-eye view of the entire coastal village, to Alesund Church from 1909 with its peaceful graveyard, to the Art Nouveau Center in the historic Swan Pharmacy, to The Fisheries Museum on the harbor, one of the few buildings that escaped the fire, dating from 1861 and sharing the history of Alesund as Norway’s — and the world’s — major exporter of salt cod.
We walked from our comfortable hotel, Quality Hotel Waterfront, to Sjøbua, a cozily atmospheric restaurant in an old wharf-side warehouse where we enjoyed excellent fresh seafood with fine wines. Chef/owner Ove Fjortfoft restored this old fish warehouse in 1987 into a charming, wooden-beamed fish-centric restaurant lighted by candles that has justly becomes a locals’ favorite. His baked lobster soup is beloved.
We strolled along Kongens Gate (Kings Road), a cobblestoned street that is mostly closed to vehicle traffic where those lovely Art Nouveau buildings are home to shops and restaurants that spill outside in summer. Lunching at Lyst restaurant, we feasted on enormous plates of fresh boiled shrimp in garlic and butter with white bread and mayonnaise, just like Alesunders like them.
Just a few miles from Alesund’s city center is Sunnmøre Museum, a collection of old houses and boats that show what life was like in the 1800s. These fascinating wooden homes are covered with sod roofs, complete with green grass and wildflowers growing on them. “They used to put goats on them,” Bente told us.
Then we took a trip to the fjords on The Fjord Experience by 62º NORD Cruises that disembarked from the center of Alesund. This land of fjords — a Norwegian word that has entered the international lexicon — is a waterscape like no other. There are so many of these watery passageways that Norway’s coastline measures some 63,000 miles compared with its north-south distance of only 1,100 miles. These narrow inlets were created by ancient ice masses that carved out deep valleys with steep rock walls, then melted to let them fill with the sea.
Two of Norway’s fjords, Naeroyfjord and Geirangerfjord, have been named World Heritage Sites by UNESCO, simply because they are so spectacularly beautiful, “among the most scenically outstanding fjords areas on the planet,” according to UNESCO.
The Fjord Experience by 62º NORD Cruises combined boats and buses to take us to Geirangerfjord. Characterized by those narrow and steep rock walls, punctuated by many waterfalls cascading through deciduous and coniferous forests, the boat cruise to Geirangerfjord was jaw-dropping gorgeous.
Atop these seaside cliffs lie seemingly improbable old farms, attesting to a way of life now long gone. On some of these verdant farms, perched on vertical cliffs that fall thousands of feet to the sea, “they’d have to tether their children” to keep them from falling off, the cruise guide told us.
The tiny town of Geiranger is a hiker’s paradise, where a literal zig-zag road is one of only two into town. Small cruise ships arrive in summer. This charming coastal village features tiny wooden buildings with roofs covered in green grass and wildflowers.
At Geiranger Skjolade, a chocolatier in the small village, owner Bengt Dahlberg told us that “Norwegians may be reserved, but when you see them in nature, they light up and talk more.” People are downright chatty in gorgeous Geiranger.
We had one of our best meals at the small Brasserie Posten on the water in Geiranger in the old post office, where the chef prides himself on procuring local produce for the popular restaurant. It also carries more than 50 varieties of Norwegian beer from 15 different microbreweries.
Tearing ourselves away from Alesund, we ventured to Bergen, the largest city in Norway until the 1830s and a major European trading port, where the colorful harborside wooden buildings of Bryggen, a World Heritage Site, house the Fish Market, the Bryggens Museum, and lots of outdoor cafes and indoor shops. We rode the Funicular for its seven-minute climb up to Mount Floyen for a sweeping view of the city, and gaped at the sterling silver collections in the decorative arts wing of the four Art Museums of Bergen right downtown. And we had a two-hour private tour from Carter, a guide with Bergen by Expert.
You can also take fjord cruises and trains from Bergen, but we found the very popular “Norway in a Nutshell” one annoyingly over-crowded. The Geraingerfjord experience was far finer, we thought. And now all we want is more time in the breathtakingly beautiful land of the midnight sun and northern lights.
IF YOU GO