Of all the European countries I visited, I’d say that Norway is, without contest, the most scenically beautiful and serene country. Norway didn’t have grand palaces like Russia, England, or Germany, but its natural beauty left those countries in the gutter. We visited 4 cities in Norway: Bergen, Alesund, Geiranger, and Hellesylt, although I would consider the latter two to be more like villages.
If I had to sum up Norway in three words, it’d be: waterfalls, peace, and trolls. Nope, not that kind of troll. Legitimate trolls. If there’s one thing I learned about Norway from my travels, it’s that they have a fetish for trolls (as do other Scandinavian countries, to be honest). There are statues of trolls, as well as unlimited troll dolls and trinkets in any given store. I think trolls are just a part of Norwegian culture, much as Bigfoot is a part of American culture, and the Loch Ness Monster is a part of Scotland’s. It’s weird as hell, but it’s their thing.
*P.s. please ignore my hat. I bought it in Alesund and loved it so much, that I wore it all over Norway like a goober. However, it did majorly come in handy in Bergen, so I can’t complain too much. And I still own and wear it!*
The 6th largest city in Norway with a population of 47,000, Alesund is as cute of a medium-sized city as it can get. It’s extremely colorful and picturesque, and is quite often the poster child for quaint Norwegian cities. It’s made of 3 small islands, and if you climb to the fjellstua viewpoint (mountaintop viewing area), you can see all 3 islands (we unfortunately did not get to do this #regret).
Alesund is where I first learned that Norwegians share the Swedish and Finnish passion for trolls. We encountered multiple souvenir shops dedicated to the little creatures, as well as the first “statue” to them (the Swedes and Finns apparently drew the line at erecting troll statues). One thing which ate up a large chunk of our time (worth it though), was touring the town’s police station and jail. If you’ve read my other European blogs, you know that my stepdad is a retired sheriff who loves to talk to foreign police officers, as well as exchange patches and other police items with them. So off we went to the police station; however, this time they gave us a lot more than just a patch.
It’s been a while, so I can’t recall exactly how we ended up talking this kind policeman into a tour (or if he offered), but we got one (and picked up a second officer along the way). I was in awe at how nonchalant and tiny their police station/courthouse/jail was. All three were lumped together, that’s how little crime they get – in fact, the worst crime they usually deal with is cellphone theft. There were exactly zero prisoners in the jail, either incarcerated or awaiting trial. The officers informed us that they already had court today, and the judge saw all three cases before 9:30 am, that’s how minor the crimes were. We learned that Norwegian police officers do not carry guns, but they do have them locked in their vehicles just in case. In my older years, I am very grateful for these two policemen who took the time out of their day to give an impromptu tour to four nosy Americans.
We also went to the Art Nouveau museum, which is in an old pharmacist’s building. It’s open Monday to Wednesday/Friday to Sunday 10 am to 5 pm, Thursday 10 am to 8 pm, and costs 85 krone to enter ($10.55 USD). Children under the age of 18 are free. I’m not a huge fan of art nouveau, but for those who are, you’ll love this place.
Geiranger is extremely small- only around 250 people call it home year-round – yet, it’s the 3rd most popular cruise ship port in the country of Norway, generally coming in behind Alesund and Bergen. One of the main reasons it’s so popular: it sits at the end of the Geirangerfjord, home to the famous Seven Sisters Waterfall and is considered by many to be the “most beautiful fjord in the world”. Well, the beautifulness must have rubbed off on the town because it’s very picturesque and charming. It’s safe to say that tourism is by far Geiranger’s biggest industry.
Sadly, we had very limited time in Geiranger because 1) we had another town to visit that day; Hellesylt, and 2) it’s honestly so small, there is not much to do there. They had an impressively large souvenir shop, and as expected it looked like a shrine to trolls.
After browsing through the shop, we strolled through the village, eventually finding ourselves at a waterfall near the base of a long stream that emptied out into the fjord. There are literally thousands of waterfalls in Norway and luckily this place was no exception. We were able to enjoy the peacefulness of this rushing, deadly stream of water completely uninterrupted, but regrettably our time was very restricted so that’s all we got to do here.
Of the four towns we visited, Hellesylt is hands down my favorite. With a population of 253, it is slightly larger than Geiranger. Even though it’s tiny, I simply enjoyed the way this town was set up, and we had much more time to wander about (which again is really all we were able to do). If you have more time in these small little villages, you can do things like hiking or rent a kayak and glide through the fjords. Unfortunately, when you’re on a cruise or on a tour, your time is limited to what they give you (if you miss the ship’s boarding time they can – and will – leave without you).
We entered a couple of shops, but mainly we spent our time making our way up a large hill to the top of Hellesyltfossen or the ‘Hellesylt waterfall’. It was another impressive waterfall that runs right through the center of the village. It was breathtakingly gorgeous, and I couldn’t believe that people get to live here year-round. Hellesylt looks straight from a fairy tale, complete with princes, singing birds, talking deer, and evil stepmothers. There was even a small bridge that looked like it was from a Hollywood movie set.
Both Geiranger and Hellesylt sit in the Geirangerfjord, so they’re completely encased in mountains. If I ever get the chance to go back to Norway, this is one of the places I’d like to re-visit and possibly stay for a few days. They even have camping!
The last city in Norway we visited, Bergen is the second-largest city in the country, with a population around 270,000, coming in behind the capital, Oslo. It puts in perspective how sparsely populated Norway is, given that that it’s their second most populated city. The United States’ top 10 cities all have a population over 1 million.
When we woke up that morning in Bergen, we were once again greeted by the gloomy, infamous European rain and nasty weather. We attempted to see Bergen the best way we knew how – on the HoHo – however, in hindsight, that may not have been the best course of action. This HoHo was open and had no windows, and we got poured on the entire time. We pitifully tried to block ourselves with flimsy umbrellas but eventually gave into our fates. We stuck it out and got a nice little wet trip all around the city. One thing that struck me the most about Bergen: the graffiti. It was everywhere! I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. As an American, I thought all Europeans were dignified and things like defacing public buildings was only an American big-city kind of thing. Maybe it struck me as so odd because it was literally everywhere, and on more buildings and surfaces than even L.A. Unfortunately, due to The Great Computer Crash of 2011, I lost 99% of my pictures of the graffiti.
Once we had enough of being drenched, we headed to the Leper Museum or the Lepramuseet. Lepers suffer from the disease leprosy, which is a bacterial infection and is mainly only now seen in poverty-stricken countries. The museum is in a now-defunct leper hospital, called St. Jørgen’s Hospital, which opened all the way back in the 1400’s. It served as such until the 1800’s, when it became a general hospital, and then went back to a leper hospital until the last patient died in 1946. 100% honesty… it was scary being in there. There is a lot of misconception that leprosy is highly contagious (which turns out not to be true) and I had this faint, if not irrational, fear that I could catch the disease just from being there. I’m glad to report that I am still leprosy free.
The museum is open Monday to Sunday, from 11 am to 3 pm, and costs 90 krone for adults ($11.16 USD). Students get a discount (45 krone, $5.58 USD) and children under the age of 16 are free. You can either pay for a guided tour (20 krone, $2.98 USD) or wander about yourself. You can go in and out of the various rooms that were used to house the patients, and you can see photos, illustrations, and only one medical specimen – a preserved foot of a leper patient. All-in-all, for the price, this place is worth it.
Of the 9 countries in Europe I visited, I feel that I got the best representation in Norway of what the country is like. We were able to visit four places there instead of just one, and they ranged from big, bustling cities down to small, quaint little villages. We glided through the beautiful and tranquil fjords (thanks Great Computer Crash of 2011 for stealing all those pictures), and it’s something that I can’t wait to do again. I loved Norway so much, that I would make it my sole destination instead of on a cruise with multiple stops. It’s certainly on my short list of countries that I absolutely MUST go back to!