A couple months ago, I experienced a vacation that it had never really occurred to me to even dream about.
But due to life’s strange twists of fate (as well as the combination of means, opportunity, hard work, and choice that landed us here in Denmark), we were able to take the trip of a lifetime to visit Bergen, Norway.
Our journey began with a three hour drive to Hirtshals near the northern tip of Denmark. There (after waiting in a long line) we drove our car onto a massive ferry.
The ferry ride was about 17 hours, which included overnight. After purchasing your ticket, you had the option to buy a “chair” to spend the night in–basically like an airpline seat–or you could cough up a little more cash and secure a cabin. Now, this was to be the trip of a lifetime for us, so we did actually purchase a cabin, and we even paid an extra $15 USD for one with an ocean view :O!!! But since we’re not actually Rockefellers, we did hold off on the super deluxe cabins that had normal beds and looked like a posh hotel room. Besides, it was part of the ship experience to have the tiny ship’s cabin with the pull-down “bunks” and the weird airplane-like bathroom.
One deck of the ferry had a ridiculously expensive buffet, a cafeteria that reminded me of one you might find at a hospital, a “24hr night club”, a small gambling den, and an even smaller ballpit/slide room for kids. The top deck had an outdoor area where you could go outside for the brief periods that you could handle the intense wind and cold.
Done being Rockefellers after splurging on the cabin, we opted not to pay for inflated ferry meals, and instead enjoyed our meager rations of fruit and bread out of a cooler that we had packed. All in all, fun–kind of like a short, budget cruise (not that I’ve ever been on a cruise).
The ferry was certainly an experience in and of itself, and something that the kids will always remember. We even had the opportunity to visit the bridge of the ship, where the kids got to meet the captain and see all the cool gadgets and equipment, as well as enjoy the stellar view.
We docked in the incomparable city of Bergen on Norway’s west coast.
The big mountain overlooking the city of Bergen, known as “Mount Floyen”, as well as something called a “Funicular” were listed on Trip Advisor as Bergen’s top attraction, so we decided to check them out. The “Funicular” turned out to be a trolley that carries you at a steep incline up the mountainside to the top of Mount Floyen.
I kind of thought “funicular” was a made-up word, but turns out it’s an actual word–
(of a railway, especially one on a mountainside) operating by cable with ascending and descending cars counterbalanced.
–and in spite of now having the word “funicular” stocked away in my vocabulary, I have my doubts as to whether I’ll ever have the opportunity to use it again…
At the top we enjoyed a breathtaking view that showed the many harbors and inlets that make up the entry way to the fjord.
We spent several hours on Mount Floyen, and easily could have spent the entire day there. There are places to eat, a very nice playground, a zipline, an obstacle course, lots of random troll statues (We watched the movie “Trolls” right before leaving for Norway, and I was quite elated to realize that the bad trolls in the movie are named “Bergens”–me thinks I know why). There was also free canoeing in a picturesque little lake, and several hikes, including one that goes all the way down to the city of Bergen.
We, however, opted to take the lazy way back down in the Funicular to begin our trek to our first overnight location–a place a bit off the beaten path, but directly overlooking Hardanger Fjord.
It took about an hour and a half to get there, but we didn’t mind the drive because of the everpresent jawdropping views. We literally had to stop a few times just to take in the gorgeous scenes, such as a thousand-foot waterfall cascading down the mountain into an idyllic green valley occupied by a single quaint little farmhouse.
Which leads me to my new-found obsession: Airbnb. If you have read my HGTV post, you might remember that I have a thing for houses, real estate, what-have-you. Combined with a fascination with travel and exotic locales, Airbnb is a dangerously good fit. (Airbnb.com is a website allowing hosts and travelers to lease and rent short-term lodging). Through this website, I was able to book a luxurious vacation house directly on the Hardanger Fjord, including a private beach as well as access to a motor boat and canoe, for only $150 USD/night. We spent three glorious days boating about the scenic fjord, visiting the pebble beach, and hiking the small mountain immediately behind the house.
We weren’t ready to leave, but we had to. Next, we drove the two hours from Hardanger to Voss. It was probably the scariest–but most beautiful–drive of my lifetime.
This route is evidently not traveled frequently enough to justify the expenditure on wide highways and tunnels, so the freakishly narrow road winds steeply around the mountains. Most frightening, however, is the fact that–without warning–the two lane (already narrow), road would suddenly turn into a ONE LANE road for a short distance. At first I thought, Are we just supposed to intuit when another car might be coming and stop and wait for them? And yes, that is part of it, but I did eventually realize that if you see a narrow pulloff, that is a good time to crane your neck and watch for anything that might be coming your way, and if think you may see something, you best wait at the pull off
In Voss, we stayed in a cabin perched on a mountainside. We had to take some intensely steep switchbacks to get there, and the Airbnb ad warned that during the winter, guests must park 400 meters down the mountain because cars wouldn’t be able to make it up. Evidently sleds and snowmobiles are the vehicles of choice for the area.
Since we were there in summer it wasn’t a problem. This was an older cabin from the 50s or 60s, very quaint with awesome mountain views that we could enjoy from the hot tub on the deck (Another Airbnb steal at only about $120/night). A bonus fun perk of this particular cabin were the two, equally strange but different toilet options.
Toilet Option #1 was the outhouse. I was a little scared as I turned the key before entering for the first time, but I needn’t have been. It was honestly the Rolls Royce of outhouses. Appropriately decorated with tacky cartoon pictures captioned with off-color jokes, it was lined with cedar wood, had a nice window with its own mountain view, and an electric vent that ran constantly. Although the toilet looked reasonably normal, I guess it was just a fancy port-a-potty with a hole that went straight down. The outhouse also came equipped with a wonderful invention called “hygiene bark” which is a fragrant bark that is to be scooped down the toilet after each use. Although it was a bit uncomfortably reminiscent of cat litter, it really did seem to do wonders at masking the smell.
Toilet Option #2
The second toilet option was an indoor incineration toilet. Didn’t know an incineration toilet was a thing? Neither did I, until I had the pleasure of seeing one with my own eyes. As you might guess from the name, the toilet actually burns the waste, turning it into ash which empties into a tray that must be emptied from time to time. To use this toilet, you put a paper thing that looks kind of like a coffee filter inside the weird metal toilet bowl. After using the toilet, you close it up and press a button, after which the toilet makes some weird noises and gets quite hot as it does its thing. Provided by the cabin’s owners was a several page, laminated, instruction booklet on how to correctly use the incineration toilet, as well as a reminder that we were liable should it become broken. Having googled the humorously named “Cinderella” incineration toilet (who could resist?), and having discovered that they cost a whopping $3500 USD, I informed the kids that they would be using the outhouse for the duration of our visit.
There are several benefits to Airbnb-ing it: you get to see how the locals live (or vacation), you have the option for an entire house, with yard, which is nice for children, and it’s economical. Generally you can get all this for as much (or less) than a single hotel room would cost. You can also save money on meals, because, when renting a house or an apartment with an actual kitchen–a kitchen stocked with cooking utensils, and sometimes even spices etc that you are welcome to use–you can cook for yourself and avoid the expense of eating out. We actually packed and brought most of the week’s groceries with us from Denmark since we had been warned about the food prices in Norway. We only ate out once during our weeklong visit to Norway, and it was, as well as being very overpriced, quite possibly the worst-tasting food that we have ever bought at a restaurant. Since I’m going to assume it wasn’t indicative of all food in Norway, I guess it was just bad luck on our part.
Since I’ve been kind of promoting Airbnb, I suppose I should mention a few posisble downsides. One is that often you are expected to clean up after yourselves (sometimes you have the option to clean up and prepare for the next guest, or choose to pay a cleaning fee). During our Norway trip, we did end up spending a few hours cleaning up each place, but we decided it was worth it to keep the costs down. Additionally, some places might require you to bring your own linens, others ask that you wash them after use. Another way that the experience can be a little different from a hotel is that there’s not a customer service/front desk person handy to deal with any issues, but generally the house owners are available via phone or text. ***Also, John wanted me to add that the fancy home entertainment systems never work–he usually spends an hour at each house replacing batteries, hooking up cables, and locating passwords.
During our two days in Voss, we visited the scenic town, and saw this beautiful medieval church.
As we walked through the charming streets, we also came to the conclusion that Norwegians look similar to Danes, except more mountain man-y. Which makes sense.
The drive from Voss back to Bergen, where we would board our return ferry to Denmark, was, once again, gorgeous. The entire route was along the fjord, with achingly beautiful vistas at every turn. I couldn’t resist pointing out all the scenic views to John, only to have him remind me that he was actually driving and trying to navagate winding mountain roads. Too bad for him 🙂
As we drove down the steep mountain roads and through the many, many, tunnels (some of them up to 3-4 miles long), observing the hazardous positioning of the Norwegian fishing cabins perched right on the fjords, and the farmhouses clinging to the mountainsides, I couldn’t help but consider that this terrain and this people are a visible testament to man’s indomitable nature.
In the face of this mountainous and fjord-y terrain, the Norwegians of yonder year figured out a way to make it work. They built houses, they dug tunnels, they fished and traversed the fjords.
Today, with our modern technology, this may not seem like such a big deal, but the Norwegians have lived on–and off of–this land for hundreds (if not thousands) of years.
I read an article once that had a unique perspective on the causation behind the “Scandinavian Utopia” concept. The author argued that perhaps harsh climates and landscapes actually CAUSE the people to develop–out of necessity–a strong and productive work ethic. That is to say that the Scandinavians of today are not productive in spite of their harsh climate, but because of it. The hard work and perseverane of the people living on this land, across the centuries and decades, has lead to the prosperous and happy society of today–the much lauded Scandinavian Utopia.
And seeing the unlikely farms stretching across mountainsides, the sheep picking their way down steep mountain paths, and the houses clinging precariously to the rocky banks of the fjords, I can believe that this is possible–these are a people that worked hard to surmount their environs and carve out a life for themselves. And their reward? A view of incomparable beauty.