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TRAVEL TALES

Norway
An Air of Freedom

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All images by Michael Poliza

The waters of the Hjørundfjord mirror the sky, the cliffs and the forests: all is stillness, all is silence. I am paddling on a kayak, dwarfed by the towering walls. The sound of my paddle on the smooth water becomes a thundering splash. I stop to take in the silence, to find myself in nature, not just surrounded by it. This is a place for introspection and isolation. This is a landscape whose essence has been preserved.

 

The western coast of Norway is splattered with fjords and dramatic landscapes, a dreamlike contrast between the sea and the mountains. My journey begins in Ålesund. The city is a surprise for the unwary traveller, who might come to off-the-beaten-track Norway expecting to find only grass rooftops and old Viking farmsteads. Ålesund’s art-nouveau architecture might be unexpected but not out-of-place. The sinuous curves that mimic natural patterns speak of a deeper relationship with nature, one that has sprung from centuries of toil and a hard life earned at sea. Modern Norwegians have internalised this relationship: their connection to the sublime is seeded in their souls yet rooted in survival. Now that Norwegians have moved away from hardship, their approach to life has garnered international appeal: it is the slow life movement, idealised by the likes of the Kinfolk magazine; it is shaped by nature.

In the centre of Ålesund, I encounter a statue that grabs my attention: a timid, frightened boy looking out to sea, about to embark for the first time to face the wild waters, the waves and the storms, the mythical sea creatures of the Old Norse poems. The statue pays homage to the fishing industry but also to the coming-of-age for every child. In this nation of seafarers, every boy could be the protagonist for Kipling’s novel Captains Courageous. But in true Norwegian fashion, the moral of the story is not the glorification of adversity: adaptation, beauty and inspiration in nature are dearly held values.

An Air of Freedom

Today, the fjord has become peaceful, a place for contemplation. The battle is fought from within, and the prize is to find contentment with one’s own self, to come to terms with the distance we have from others. One comes to the fjord for emancipation, the acceptance of loneliness: a passage to the sublime.

From Ålesund we drive to Storfjord Hotel. Driving along the Atlantic coast is beautiful, as the roads wind from island to island. In the old days, before the miraculous roads that manage through engineering prowess to accommodate the rugged geography, these stretches were only transitable by sea.

The hotel is picturesque and cosy. The breathtaking views of the Sunnmøre Alps as they melt into the Storfjord give a sense of drama that at first impression clashes with the homeliness of the hotel: log cabins with grass rooftops and a farmstead aesthetic. It is the quaint Norwegian home that has been popularised. But depictions fail to grasp the philosophy and the concept behind it: Hygge

An Air of Freedom

For all the wild nature, the perilous peaks teeming with trolls and the seas populated with abyssal sea-creatures, the Norwegians have Hygge, an approach to life to warm their hearts, to balance adversity, to find well-being and connectedness. Hygge is, at its core, a craving for simplicity, kindness and cosiness. It is one of the guiding principles of the Nordic way of life.

I am sitting comfortably on a couch by the fire, sipping hot tea from a kåsa ― a traditional wooden cup. I look at the blue shades of the long Scandinavian dusk that has set over the Sunnmøre Alps. It is comfortable and delightful. I don’t feel separated from nature. This kind of comfort embraces nature, it not only becomes part of the landscape, but it also enhances it.

Storfjord Hotel is stocked by local produce, they even have their own brand of beer that is served exclusively at the hotel. The isolation of the fjords has given locals a very strong sense of self-reliance. In the morning, we visit a farm and learn of their traditional preservation techniques. The long, harsh winters are unforgiving: preservation is at the core of Norwegian cuisine.

Livelihood came not from the fjords. The sea was the provider, that open, flat, monotonous and gigantic realm. Fish and oil were its bounty. Only now are the fjords becoming a gold mine for the travel industry. Fortunately, mass tourism is focused on big cruise ships. The roads are quiet and practically deserted. To gain further introspection, travellers should drive around, go on a small boat, or paddle an even smaller vessel…

An Air of Freedom

True to myself, I enter the Norangsfjord on a boat but continue on a kayak. And so we come to the place where I began my tale.

The seamless wilderness is only timidly interrupted in isolated places near the water: farmsteads and the neat grass around them. Soon, the cliffs become too steep again, no barn nor cabin could possibly sprout there.

Today, these charming places are the high price of real estate. In centuries past, luxury was not even a distant consideration. Quite the opposite, harshness and the hard truths of self-sufficiency were the only harvest from these lands that yield next to nothing. Solitude and isolation for most, small communities for some lucky few.

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As I paddle on, I am at awe at the sheer rocks, the ice on the mountaintops that has not melted, not even though it is September. It will remain there for evermore. Nature is a felt presence. Men did not manage to take over, to become masters. Norwegians have figured out a workaround: coexistence. Today, it is picturesque; for most of history, it was about survival.

In the distance, I glimpse the place where we are headed. It is a small hamlet of some 40 souls. It is also home to one of the best hotels in Europe, Union Øye, built in 1891. The hotel has been one of the preferred hideouts for royals and artists since the late 19th century. Such as my eyes see it, such was it then. Nothing has changed.

An Air of Freedom

After check-in, we head outdoors, since it is the Norwegian thing to do. We ride bikes from the hotel and head out to explore the Norangsdalen, the dales around the Norangsfjord. It is a landscape fit to inspire genius. Both Ibsen and Grieg came here to court the muses. Being free outdoors is the second pillar of Norwegian culture: friluftsliv. We could attempt to translate the term as “outdoor recreation” or “being outdoors.” But it is a philosophy so profoundly ingrained in the Scandinavian culture that the best definition I can come up with is the experience of connectedness with nature.

We come to a lake and light a fire by the shore. We drink tea and eat fresh pancakes with homemade jam. Is this Hygge or Friluftsliv? For me, it is nothing short of pure beauty and happiness.

Back at the Union Øye, I find that the hotel is charming, full of history and pride. The hospitality is genuine. Before dinner, I enjoy a sauna and a gin and tonic ― old habits die hard. The chef shows us the cod he is to serve for dinner and fillets it masterfully. He places the precious meat in the oven without further pretence: you would be hard-pressed to find a fresher, more natural meal. He serves the cod with beetroot cream and micro herbs, asparagus cooked in cinnamon water and cauliflower grilled for just a few seconds.

I work under the duvet and begin the first draft of these very words. Sleep finally takes a hold of me and I spend the night surrounded by the celebrated ghosts of Union Øye.

An Air of Freedom

In the morning, I wake up early and go for a walk, still accompanied by the dreams and the visions of the night before. The clouds play over the cliffs of the fjord. I find solace in nature, it gives me freedom. This is the mood best described by the Norwegian word friluftsliv. Ibsen immortalised the term in On the Heights:

In the lonely mountain farm,
My abundant catch I take.
There is a heart, and a table,
And frilufstliv for my thoughts.

Freedom, a place for freedom, a place to roam free. In the sea and the forest.

An Air of Freedom

I remained in a contemplative mood even after the helicopter picked us up and we flew over the fjord. We landed by the shore where we then boarded a RIB boat. It was a fun ride, not in the sense of an adrenaline rush but rather as a complement to being in nature with the innocence of play.

The boat ride took us to Skotholmen, a private islet not far from Ålesund. Fishing is intertwined with the history of the place. For centuries, it was a herring processing site. Today, it is the setting for Kami, a restaurant that has, without a doubt, the kitchen with the best view in the world.

I took an apron to work in the kitchen with Chef Magnus Bergseth. I helped with finishing dishes and plating. When I enquired about the menu I learned of Chef Magnus’ approach:

“We don’t give out menus. We just serve what’s fresh every day. No one knows what they’re getting.

“When you’re based in a former salted fish factory, on an island, in the middle of the ocean, you have to serve fish! It’s always been about the fish.”

We had a 5-course meal which was superb. Crabcake, lobster soup, smoked cod and hake. As we enjoyed dessert, I became overwhelmed by the view of the Norwegian Sea. This is one of those places you never truly leave.

An Air of Freedom

Next morning, I fly across Norway, to Oslo, where I meet with Chef Mikael Svensson. He is the owner of Kontrast, and one of the top representatives of contemporary Scandinavian cuisine. I am to spend the afternoon working at his kitchen.

I barely open my mouth to speak when he hands me my apron, tells me to get in line, that we will talk later.

As I immersed myself in the din and clatter of the kitchen, I became aware of the continuity between friluftsliv in the countryside and the philosophy behind Mikael’s cuisine. Later, I would learn that he understands the relationship between nature and city living. His environmental awareness is something that is translated into his food but also something essential to the Norwegian ethos. It is what I found in the fjords, what I sense in Arne Naess’ Deep Ecology, the Stimmung present in Grieg’s music.

I came to Norway expecting breathtaking views and nature to fall in love with. I did find all that, but I also found treasures that lay hidden deep within me: Hygge and Friluftsliv. These are concepts you have to seek for yourself in the wild fjords. You have to listen for them in the silent dales. You have to look for them in the contrasts of the food, to truly understand. Come to Norway, and be free!

An Air of Freedom

 

How to get there:

There are no direct flights to Ålesund from Honk Kong. There’s a good chance you’ll have to make at least one stop. It is a wiser approach to fly to Oslo and spend a couple of days in the Norwegian capital. There are no direct flights there either! But the shortest route is via Helsinki.

Where to stay:

To experience Hygge, Storfjord Hotel is your best choice. The cosiness of the place is without equal and the Sunnmøre Alps are a prime location to experience the outdoors. My top-tip is to stay there since they have their own helicopters and boats, so you don’t even need a DMC to organise your Norwegian adventure.

What to do there:

Getting outdoors is mandatory. Let your feet wander and enjoy nature at its best. Driving to Norangsdalen is also quite an experience. If you are architecturally inclined, there are tours of Ålesund that focus on the Art-Nouveau buildings and the history of the city.

The Traveller Extraordinaire’s Take:

Stay away from big cruises! You should take the time to experience the outdoors, especially if you go during summer and autumn. Even if you wish to explore a larger breadth of the fjords, rent a car or hire a chauffeur: the roads are breathtaking and will grant you the spectacle without sacrificing intimacy. We at Blueflower can design your dream Norwegian trip. You can see some example itineraries here.

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