I stand on the brakes with my full weight, and the six huskies pulling my sledge slow down. The leader turns his head and looks at me: “It’s only a moose, don’t worry, wild animals live here too” I imagine he says. I slacken the brakes, the huskies follow the leader and we move on.
We are above the tree line now. The heavy pines are gone, only birches remain. It’s 2pm and getting dark. Soon we have to switch our head torches on, but the huskies know what they are doing and run fast. Suddenly we are in the open, crossing a frozen lake, and the horizon is ablaze with crimson, orange and the darkest indigo. “This is pure Edvard Munch!” I shout, ecstatic. A couple of seasoned Norwegians ahead of me laughs: “You see, he wasn’t that clever, he just copied.”
It is dark now, we stop to rest the huskies, build a snow bench, put some reindeer skins on it to sit on, and have a hot drink. The silence is so profound, one can hear snow falling. I think of a sentence I’ve read somewhere, ‘Claudio Abbado once said, there is a certain sound to snow’.
Norway is that very narrow strip of land to the west of Sweden, the southern corner starting north of Denmark and the northern finishing beyond the Arctic Circle, bordering Russia at the top. Narvik is up in the north too, where Allied forces including four Polish battalions, forming the Polish Independent Highland Brigade under Zygmunt Bohusz-Szyszko, fought the Germans in one of the heaviest battles of the Second World War.
The last piece of land before the Arctic ice, the Svalbard archipelago with Spitsbergen also belongs to Norway and is its largest island. It is where the Polish Polar Station, a research platform for the Arctic system has operated since 1957. There are some parallels with Poland. Norway was an independent country until Haakon VI, the 23-year old king of Norway, married the 10-year old Danish princess, Margaret, in 1363. Haakon died after 17 years of marriage. Margaret became Queen of Norway and Denmark and later, of Sweden too. Norway lost its independence through the union with Denmark. A couple of centuries later, a third of the Union’s state income came from a single silver mine in Norway. Comes 1814 and the battle of Waterloo, a promise was made to Sweden that if they helped to defeat Napoleon, they could have Norway. So it was done. Another hundred years passed and the Norwegians had had enough.
“So, what did they do to get their independence back after almost 500 hundred years?” I ask one tall and bearded descendant of the Viking Kingdom. “What did they do? They took their pitch-forks, marched up to the Swedish border and told them to bugger off!”
There is a certain grit and tough spirit under the fair skin of those amazon-like girls and their tall, blue eyed, men and on meeting them, I can’t help thinking that if they needed to, they would not hesitate to pick up an axe.
For a small nation, there are just five million of them, (as few as half the population of London), Norwegians have had some remarkable people throughout their history: Edvard Grieg, the composer, the writers Henrik Ibsen and Knut Hamsun. Edvard Munch, the painter of darkness and light, as well as Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole and Fridtjof Nansen, the Arctic explorer, inventor and scientist. It was Nansen who first worked out how the fish’s brain works. He was also instrumental in forming the League of Nations passports in 1922 to help the thousands fleeing the Russian civil war. Nearly half a million ‘Nansen Passports’ were issued to stateless refugees at the time.
Norwegians appear to be fair, straight and a down-to-earth. They have a hard work ethic and don’t like to be cheated on, or taken for a ride. Amundsen? Yes, but he was also a crafty, scheming man. In 1911, he borrowed the ‘Fram’, Nansen’s revolutionary and unique new ship, specially built to cross the Arctic ice, (it was said to be the world’s most famous ship before the Titanic), but Amundsen didn’t tell him that he was planning to take it to Antarctica. He did that quietly, and it helped him later to outrun the unlucky Captain Scott. Oh, yes, he was better prepared, but also a sneaky cheat. Even though he discovered the North-West Passage and was the first to reach the South Pole, they don’t think as highly of him as they do of Nansen.
I ask what they think of Knut Hamsun, described as the father of modern literature, whose Growth of the Soil won him the Nobel Prize in 1920, and those who read his Hunger will never look at a beggar on the pavement in the same way again. Apparently, when James Joyce read Hunger, he vowed to learn Norwegian to read it in the original. Jan Pettersen, a gentle soul, who survived the war, suddenly rises up, “Hamsun? When I hear his name, I see red!” Dagfinn Skjerden, an engineer and art lover is serious too: “I don’t touch his books ever!” Dagfinn was eight years old when he read Hamsun’s eulogy after Hitler’s suicide. The Germans were still in power in Norway. Dagfinn’s opinion was formed then, and he’s never touched Hamsun’s books. Knut Hamsun, despite the Nobel Prize, and being hailed by many as ‘the greatest writer who ever lived’, was tried, fined and imprisoned in an asylum after the war for his collaboration with the Nazis.
When Norway regained its independence in 1905, it was the poorest country in Europe. Then, oil was discovered in the sixties. Now, it is one of the richest countries in the world per capita, but has recently pulled out of the bid for the Winter Olympics. Why? They thought that the Olympic Committee was too corrupt, wanted too much money, too much special treatment for themselves, including roads blocked off for their convenience of speeding by in limousines. Too much waste, the Norwegians decided: thank you, but no.
They don’t mind spending money on asylum seekers and immigrants but they expect able people to work. Benefits are in place, taxes are high but life is good and fair. The Scots dream about being like Norway: we have the oil too, we want to have a fair society, they say. But they give free higher education to their own and to most EU students, but charge English students the full £9000 a year. Not very fair, a Norwegian might say.
Norway is a country of staggering, majestic beauty. The best time for a first visit is summer, with its long evenings and unearthly light. And if you want to fly to Svalbard in July, it is not so cold, the temperature hovers above zero, reindeers cross your path and a midnight sun shines bright in the sky. But if you want to visit a Russian coalmine town, see a glacier or explore the shores where the early explorers’ huts are still standing, you have to take a gun. Polar bears might want you for dinner.
Fjords are what cruise ships show to the tourists, but the best view of the famous, Unesco-protected Geirangerfjord is reached by the Troll’s Ladder road. The drive takes a few hours of hair-rising sharp turns up the mountains, and after listening to Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King, I half expected a troll to jump out from somewhere.
If I were to choose the cities to visit, it would be first, rainy Bergen, with its 14th century Hanseatic buildings. Brightly painted old warehouses line the waterfront known as Bryggen. Then there is Oslo, where there is a museum with the almost intact huge wooden Viking ship, and Trondheim with the biggest, most impressive cathedral in Nordic Europe.
But if you want to listen to the silence, go to Hitra, an island on the coast near Trondheim. To reach it, you have to drive through a tunnel under the sea, which is almost six kilometres long and 264 meters below sea level, (the Channel Tunnel is 75 meters at its deepest). Hitra is a rocky island, with not much vegetation, ocean weather and silent eagles soaring in the sky. Recently, one of the eagles took my friend’s cat off to the sky in its talons. Börre Johansen, the owner of the cat, is an architect well known for his unique, environmentally friendly approach to design; he takes the grass from where a new cottage is being built, and puts it back on its roof. The grass continues to grow on the house, watered by rain and provides an excellent insulation. From above, the landscape looks intact. “We need to give back, what we take”, he says. His wife, Hanne, forages for metal scraps in shipbuilding yards and puts them together into quirky sculptures. In the evening, we take a boat and ride out into the bay setting basket traps for crabs. Börre pushes the boat out a bit further, to show us how it feels to be in the open ocean. Next morning, we take the boat again to pick up fresh crabs for breakfast. When I leave Börre says he wants to give me a present and puts a little piece of black flint-stone in my hand.
The country has an impressive network of roads, tunnels and ferries, which makes it possible to reach the most remote areas of this narrow but very long strip of land. And of course, the best part of travel is to visit friends and family in their holiday cabins perched on the mountains, surrounded by a fjord on three sides, and see their young children speaking impressive English so early in life. It is almost like a scene from a film, when eight children, the youngest aged seven, all pile into a boat, to roam freely on the fjord for the whole afternoon on their own. The mother of the English contingent of cousins is worried, but the two Norwegian experts, both twelve years’ old, assure her: “Trust me, I know what I am doing”, says Victor. “I’ve been in worse situations”, agrees Brede. Victor has built his own sailing raft, which he frequently takes out to roam the fjord, and he does know what he is doing. His mother is not worried: a Viking is a Viking.
If you get bored by all this water and fjords, and don’t want to drive on the Atlantic Highway – a spectacular road with ocean on both sides, you can go on a trail of the Viking-age intricate wooden stave churches, the oldest, in Hopperstad, from the twelfth century, its lace pattern blending into the landscape. Historically there were about two thousands of them, now, only twenty-eight remain. One of them was saved from destruction and reassembled in Karpacz, Poland, in 1842.
Back in London I fondle the flint-stone in my palm, and tell a friend how romantic the Vikings can be. He can’t resist a joke: three Viking ships land on the shores of England. The chieftain surveys the crew in shining armor. “You!” he orders the first ship, “Pillage”. “You!” he turns to the second, “Plunder”. “And you!” he points to the third crew, but before he can finish, a scruffy Viking sighs, “Oh no, not rape again…”