Onward into Norway

This is the second part of our Norway trip account. If you missed the beginning, read it here, for coverage of our arrival in the country and our Bergen tour. It is part of the ongoing account of our Big Anniversary Trip, the adventurous beginning of which included Passport Woes and a Hospital Tour in Iceland.

We awoke Wednesday morning with two predicaments still on our minds. Foremost was my health: I had spent the entire previous day too sick to do anything without the help of strong medication, and had used half of my supply to get through it. The pattern of these attacks was roughly every other day, so I thought I might enjoy our visit half the time. If this 'alternating day' theory held accurate, then my medicine would get me through Friday. We would then have to seek medical assistance once again - which certainly meant abandoning the trip. Despite these worries, we decided to carry on with our traveling plans. We reasoned that we weren't going to see any more of the country if we didn't take a chance, and either it would all work out or we would end up back in Bergen anyway. Since I felt fine this morning, the gamble was worth taking.

We had one remaining obstacle: Robin's missing pack. We hadn't heard a thing about this since leaving the airport. Time became a pressing issue, since the hostel would close at 11am, and we wanted to be well on our way by then. We didn't have reservations here for that night - nor for that matter anywhere else - so we couldn't leave a forwarding address. Though we had another hostel in mind, we hadn't been able to contact it nor were we certain how long it would take us to get there from Bergen. Purchasing replacement items was out of the question: it would have cost us too much for clothes. It was a great sense of relief therefore, when the pack arrived just ten minutes before closing time, decorated thickly with destination tags of places we've only dreamed of ever visiting. It seems Robin's pack had traveled the world, but was finally back with us. All was now in place for our departure!

The Adventure of Driving in Norway

Yesterday's short jaunt between the rental center and the hostel intimated that driving here wouldn't be entirely intuitive. For States-based drivers, Norway presents some challenges. Though most traveling conventions and traffic signs are familiar, a few are strikingly not so.

There are approximately ten thousand species of No Parking sign, for instance. Some have a single diagonal slash, some an 'X'; many include a sub-sign of amended specifications: No Parking on Weekends, No Parking between 8am and 4pm, No Parking for Trucks, No Parking without an 'A' permit, No Parking Overnight, No Parking For More Than Ten Minutes If You're An Octogenarian Pluralist On Tuesdays When It's Sunny…you get the idea. Add to this the peculiar similarity, to Americans at least, between these signs and Norwegian 'Do Not Enter' signs, and the potential for significant confusion, erratic driving, and potential calamity increases exponentially. Once I mentally began ignoring the plethora of No Parking signs, I skirted dangerously close to neglecting 'Do Not Enter' ones. In fact, I'm pretty sure I drove a few streets the wrong way after doing so.

Speed limit signs are for the most part easy to understand, except for one type. Most display the legal maximum speed, but when leaving a town or other cautionary locale, a sign displays the previous speed limit in a pale gray shade, with several narrow diagonal slashes running through it. To the American eye, it appears to mean "NO DRIVING AT XX SPEED" when in fact it means one can now drive the legal speed for that road. We had read about the national speed limit, but were never confident as to which limit held for the road we were on at any given time. Why the actual speed limit isn't posted instead - eliminating the production of one entire sign format - I don't know. Perhaps the road crews don't know what that limit is, either.

Norway is known for its legal intolerance of highway scofflaws. Speeding is punished harshly, expensively, and often automatically, using roadside cameras and radar. Every tourist book we read emphasized this aspect of driving in Norway, so we were highly sensitive to its implications; expecting at every moment to be pulled over, yanked from our vehicle and sent home in handcuffs or rendered so poor by fines that we would have to leave. Fortunately for us, the reality is a bit different than our trepidations. While Norwegian traffic infractions are fined heavily and no one, citizen or tourist, can heedlessly neglect the rules with impunity; the politi grant some grace to bungling visitors. We would observe and appreciate some of this mercy in the days to come.

Nothing is expressed in miles. The U.S.A. must be the only country in the universe still using them. Kilometers are the standard throughout the rest of the galaxy, and even though I consider myself pretty 'with-it' in the metric-conversion mindset, I found myself struggling to actualize what it meant in terms of time-to-arrival. Despite having no need to do so, I found myself running the conversion in my head instead of simply adopting the information in terms of our car's metric speedometer.

This means 'speed bump'...take the speed limit seriously over these!
Partly, this was due to another, less-tangible conversion from American to Norwegian driving: the mental adjustment to a slower traveling speed. A few major highways include stretches of road where one can zip along at 100kmh - all of 58mph - but 90kmh is generally the legal limit. Don't bother estimating travel times based on this however, since even major highways spend considerable time passing directly through towns, where the speed limit falls drastically through 60, 50, and even as low as 35 kmh (22mph); or tunnels (speed limit: 60 or 70 kmh); or twists, bends, hairpin turns, and whatnot that make 35kmh seem risky. The roads - even the highways - are shared by local fauna and livestock alike, so drivers must remain alert for cows, sheep, goats, and the occasional elga (moose) while tooling along in Norway. After several days of driving, we found that for highway travel through the more inhabited sections of the country, an average of 60kmh works well for estimating travel duration. As one follows the major highways into the north, this average picks up considerably, but any diversion onto secondary roads devastates progress. Traveling off-highway inevitably means averaging around 30kmh. We eventually travelled from Bergen to Bodø - well over 1000 miles - roughly equivalent to traveling from New York to Miami. Imagine doing that at an average of 40mph or less!

Despite these factors, driving in Norway isn't a difficult adjustment. If one comprehends standard traffic signs, plans a route ahead of time for each day's travel, drives slower, and accepts that a few 'interesting events' will happen along the way; car travel will provide the mobility to go wherever one wants when desired. Norway has an incredibly-thorough public transport system to almost everywhere in the country, so one can rely on this for travel, and possibly save money in the long run. But renting a car eliminates reliance on mass transit timetables, so each day can start when desired, without waiting; itineraries can change on a whim; and rest stops happen when convenient, not according to schedule.

On Tuesday, we took about a half-hour to drive the 3 kilometers from the Nygardsvei Hertz to the Hostel; of course covering roughly eight times that distance in the interval. We would fare the same as we started out on Wednesday. We wanted to take the E-16 toward Åsane. Looking at a map, we thought the E-16 split toward Oslo to the southeast and Åsane to the north-northeast. But every time we steered toward Åsane, we would see within a mile or so a sign placing us toward Oslo. I think we managed to drive out of and back into Bergen three times before finally deciphering the context of this particular mystery; an expensive error, since every return to the city meant paying a toll. In the end, I decided to get well out of Bergen, find the next identifiable town, and make my way from it to Åsane rather than drive through Bergen again. The mystery resolved itself shortly thereafter: the E-16 doesn't actually split; there is a direct tunnel route through Bergen and an inner-city spur. With that problem solved, we maneuvered into the correct lane and with some assurance began touring in earnest, moving out of the city and rapidly into rural surroundings.

I don't think it possible to travel east of Bergen without traversing a tunnel or two, at least not by automobile. There are plenty of little ones passing under roads, railroad tracks, or small knobs of rock; but additionally there are long tunnels skewering through entire mountains to reach the other side. The result is a sort of Stygian experience of traveling along busy urban streets into a huge, black gate; continuing on through a twilit nether region surrounded by formless stone walls, eerie lights and ugly smells; and finally bursting into sunlight, surrounded by unspoiled wilderness. Each shift is a jolt to the senses, an instantaneous transformation of environment. There is no transition zone, only day and night, night and day: City, Styx, Sylvania.

Much of Norwegian history recounts the hardship of overland travel before these passages were drilled. Several ancient roads still traverse the steep mountainsides on their way from one fjord to another, but most of these are now reserved for cyclists, trekkers, or tourist wagons. The few that remain open to public passage are harrowing experiences, twisting through hairpin after hairpin as they switch back and forth along a precipice. Often they are single lane roads with occasional turnouts; a traveler meeting a tour bus on one of these is in for a thrill. One cannot help wonder what the bus drivers feel as they negotiate each corner, the front of their cab sweeping out over space as they do so, momentarily nothing but sky visible in front of them.

The country's abiding love of sea and ship are further reflections of this difficulty. For thousands of years, boat-travel was far superior in comfort and safety to foot, hoof, or wheel. Anyone with any sense and enough cash to hire water transport did so. Only very recently have highways made car transport a viable alternative - using of course, tunnels. Even with those, road travel still relies heavily on ferry transport to cross the fjords.

We drove past Dale, home of the famous sweater company, our passage tucked tightly between the small town and cliff-sided mountains. Having barely left Bergen a half-hour earlier, neither of us wanted to stop. Silently, I determined to return before heading home in order to find a nice sweater for Robin. That decision would spice up my last days in Norway considerably, but that was a long way off yet.

Voss: First Stop on the Tourist Trail

We continued on the E-16 into Voss, where the stone church Vangskyrkja, squatting stolidly in the center of town, caught our attention. We decided to stop and look around awhile. The town lies at the far end of a high lake (Vangsvatnet), surrounded by snow-capped hills and near several whitewater rivers, so it is a major adventure sports center. This day's weather put off their usual assortment of extreme activities: there were no parasails above the lake or gliders in the air that we could see. However, Voss also boasts several museums and a couple historic artifacts, despite being heavily bombed by the German Luftwaffe when Norway was invaded in 1940. We stopped to look at those.

The weather was threatening as we searched for a parking space, but the worst of it held off as we walked to the church. The ten NOK fee to get in is pretty standard in Norway, and I think there were tours available for an additional price, but we took a brochure and just wandered around. Unlike many churches, there seemed to be no ban on taking photographs, and gradually I warmed up to the task. Other tourists came and went while Robin and I struggled to decipher the writings or guess the subject of the dozens of paintings. An eclectic assortment of artwork litters the main rooms, ranging from good canvases to freakish sculpture. A grotesque effigy of Christ on the Cross, flanked by what appear to be two cherubs tormenting him, stands above the archway, while further along, a well-proportioned angelic toddler flies above the Bible stand. The stained glass windows are beautiful, though situated as they are near the outside of the church's font-two-meter thick walls, they're difficult to capture on film (i.e. card).

The main part of the church was completed in 1277, and won for the town a letter of congratulations from Norway's king. It was erected on the same place where a wooden church - a stavkirke - had stood, and possibly a pagan temple prior to that. Wood has been the favored construction material in Norway for ages, despite a long list of fires that have ravaged every town in the nation. Trees are plentiful here, while stonework's one most important component, cheap abundant labor; never has been. Building a stone edifice required a huge investment of time and capital. Accomplishing the task gave the town a durable center of worship and a stout sanctuary in case of attack; advantages that helped attract and retain settlers for the town through the centuries.

Legend has it that King Olav (later to be dubbed Saint Olav) came to town around 1020 and offered Christianity to the citizens, their alternative being decapitation. The White Christ was unanimously accepted by all remaining townsfolk, and Olav erected a cross to commemorate the conversion. We stood outside the church, wondering where that cross might be. A matron told us it was by the kino, the cinema. I thought I had seen that on the way into town, so we walked westward. Shortly, we reached the outskirts of town with no kino in sight. Back we strolled into the main part of town, when it began raining in earnest. We ducked into the nearest refuge, a tourist shop across the street from the church.

Inside, we found a virtual What's-What of souvenirs: the typical run of T-shirts, posters, key chains, caps, hats, magnets, trinkets, booklets, postcards, and whatnot; but some esoteric items as well: a calendar stick - a yardstick for measuring time; reindeer, polar bear, and seal furs; Helly Hansen rainwear; and of course everything imaginable concerning trolls.
There were the expected troll effigies in sizes from tiny charms to man-sized carvings; children's books, flashy picture books, and fully serious treatises; note cards, post cards, and posters; troll-headed spoons; troll chess sets; pencils, pens, and paintings. Whether they actually exist or not, they are a vital and vibrant part of the Nordic tourist economy.

The rain settled down slightly, so we headed back outside to find St. Olav's cross. Crossing the street, we went round the church toward the lake, walking along a path to the Vossevangen, expecting to see the cross nearby. Vossevangen is a meadow, flatland from the gradual siltation of the lake; so we could see quite a distance around; but no indication of a major cultural artifact anywhere. The shifty weather made any long stray from shelter undesirable, and everyone we had asked indicated the cross was close by; so we turned back toward the church. By this time I thought it might be among the gravestones in the churchyard, but our search turned up nothing obvious. We strolled toward the business district of town, opposite our first foray. A modernish hotel lobby held the town's information center, so we went in and inquired; after some discussion between the two young ladies there; they indicated something like "just out back"…so we walked along the side street, through the hotel parking lot, past the delivery berths. We were heading back toward the Vossevangen again. We stood on the edge of the parking lot, looking back and forth for a shrine or memorial or fence; something that would delineate a major religious monument. Suddenly, Robin burst out laughing and turned me around. Twenty yards away, an old, crumbling stone cross stood unceremoniously alone in the middle of a small yard; no sign, no fence, no pavilion.
We took a long, leisurely inspection of the cross, took some pictures, and then decided to move onward. Voss boasts a lot of museums and other attractions, but we were itching to continue our trip. In retrospect, this would have been a good place to settle in for a couple days; book a whitewater raft trip or go skiing or paragliding. If ever we return, we probably will stay here longer.

Northward to Sognefjord