Northward to the Sognefjord

Hopperstad Stavkirke


We drove out of town, following the E-16 to Vinje, where we turned off onto Route 13. From here, we began climbing steeply upward, our view opening up more and more below us; until at last the switchbacks ended and we climbed into the clouds.

High Mountain Lake
We drove through cold rain along a high, desolate plateau. Snow lay deep in remnant drifts along both sides of the road. High, cold lakes appeared, grayish green depths chopping in the wind, beside us. An occasional sheep or two wandered within the twilight, stoically oblivious to the rain.

Sheep grazing in rough, high mountain weather

Descending out of the clouds, we entered the Sognefjord valley. The cloud we had just escaped still hung across the sky, but it wasn't raining down here. The road undulated through hilly pasturage, field, and forest into a small town clinging to a hillside. We spotted the sign for Hopperstad Stavkirke before reaching the foot of the hill; and turned off to find it.

Dragon Ornament on Hopperstad Stavkirke
One of my personal aims in visiting Norway was to explore several aspects of early Christendom in the country; stavkirkes being one of the most unique examples. These are wooden churches, most built previous to the 1300s, some shortly after Norway's conversion out of paganism. Wooden construction rarely lasts long - rot or fire take their toll - but a very few remain. Of the estimated two thousand stavkirkes built before 1350, sixty remain; of which several are reconstructions. Carved into the walls of the few originals are images made by men who had known pagan worship; and runic graffiti of farmers, lovers, pranksters. Built into the structure are the means and methods of ancient carpenters; the same who built ships to go a-Viking. After reading so much about them over the past few years, I was excited at this first opportunity to see one myself.

Hopperstad Stavkirke

It was unmistakable, standing on a knoll at road's end. Dragon-studded turrets guarded each gable peak; wooden shingled slabs sheltered the vertical planks paneling its sides. As we walked from the small parking lot, we could see this church was in the process of reparations. The side facing the road was a half-circle gable end surrounded by construction scaffolding. The path took us around this up to a booth, where a high schoolish aged young man waited to sell entry tickets, brochures, and a small assortment of other souvenirs. His name was Sindre and he spoke excellent English. We pumped him for information about the stavkirke, about living in the area, what grade he was in, what school was like here, and a motley array of other topics; all of which he answered engagingly. We could tell this wasn't a busy venue, so we made the most of our conversation with Sindre. After perhaps ten minutes, another party arrived, so we gave him over to his duties and went to tour the building.

Hopperstad Stavkirke
Hopperstad stavkirke lies off the standard tourist route and so hasn't received the attention and publicity of others. I purchased an information booklet from Sindre, but it covered all the Norwegian stavkirkes in general detail only, so we gleaned little from it about this specific one. Walking around it, guessing at construction methods and such, trying to decipher the intent of a stone slab lying in the middle of the main room, peering into the inky shadows of another, only added unanswerable questions to our list. We were running out of avenues to explore, when Sindre joined us in the main room. Everyone else had left. Outside, the weather spit and threatened; he had come in to see what kept two gabby Americans from following the brevity of his normal visitors. We mentioned our interest in the history, the stories behind the stavkirkes; and Sindre brightened to the task. A bit hesitantly at first, he began telling us what he knew; but our eagerness to hear bolstered his enthusiasm for sharing, so for a long while more, we walked around as he shone the beam of his huge flashlight into various corners, unraveling small mysteries, revealing details in dark corners, and answering our questions.

Hopperstad Stavkirke

The slab lying in the middle of the room? It is a gravestone, marking the site of a particularly saintly - or influential - member of the congregation. At one time, burial on church grounds - within the kirkegård - was critical, and the closer one could be buried to the inner sanctum, the better. The church was practically surrounded by gravestones, but more: under the floorboards were several gravesites; remains of the holiest congregational members. What of that lady's portrait? She was a matron of the church; wife of at least two priests. Apparently, when a priest died, his replacement not only took over the business tasks but his domestic affairs as well! And those the engraved plaques round about? These detailed the accomplishments of various priests through the ages; each striving to leave an impressive legacy. We had been wandering around a dead and dark building; Sindre made the hollow, crumbling edifice come alive.

We spent perhaps forty minutes more with him, learning about the church and spiritual life in Norway. Sindre made this stop priceless. He was always polite, even as we stumbled on the subtleties of Norwegian pronunciation or struggled to understand an esoteric idiom.

Looking for a Home in the Heart of the Country

We finally had to continue our journey. Hopperstad has a 'newer' church, a medieval steinkirke similar to Voss', but looking at the ferry schedule, we had a boat to catch; so regretfully, we passed on visiting that one. Mentally, we added yet another place to return to if ever we manage to come back to Norway.

Lærdal Ferry

We drove down to the fjord and northward alongside it, heading to the ferry landing at Vangsnes. We were tight on time to catch the 5 o'clock ferry, so we didn't pause to appreciate the scenery as we curled around bend and turn toward road's end. We arrived with some spare time as it turned out; and joining a line of other travelers, we waiting as the ferry disgorged vehicles and passengers heading the opposite direction. We paid our toll, ninety NOK I believe; and when the time came, drove on board. Fluorescent-vested ferrymen directed us to a berth inside, and that was it. For awhile, we could leave the driving to the ferry's captain. We walked up the stairs from the parking deck onto the bow. Here on Norway's longest fjord, it was windy and overcast; a bit chilly but not unnervingly so. The ferry blasted its horn and pulled away from the pier. Gradually, Norway's longest inland breach, the Sognefjord, opened up around us.

As previously mentioned, ferries are a way of life here. One just cannot travel much without utilizing them, so I imagine the novelty wears off quickly for natives. But for car travelers, they provide a respite from roadway concentration and an opportunity to really look at the surroundings. Enjoyed as a brief sabbatical from the steering wheel and as a superlative vantage for taking in the scenery, they are worth every øre.

Laerdal Ferry

We stood on the deck, looking eastward where the fjord wound between precipices on each side, forward toward Hella, trying to make out its buildings among the tree-covered slopes, and upward at the cloud cover, raggering out in tatters off the waterside steeps and ghosting across the Sognefjord. For the first time since our arrival, Robin began to smile like she meant it. For a moment our worries were elsewhere. I recall thinking again that, if we had to deal with kidney stones every other day, we should make the most of these painless moments.

Us on the Laerdal Ferry

As the ferry drew near its dock, we returned to our car and prepared to disembark. With a few tentative thuds, the boat came to rest and the doors opened for us to exit. We drove out onto the northern shore and passed through the tiny enclave of Hella before we knew it.

Our road wound along the Sognefjord, occasionally dropping close to its banks and then sweeping upward to run frighteningly high above it, with little but air between us and its deep green waters. Finally, it abandoned the fjord altogether, gaining the highlands behind its flanks. We drove through forest and marsh, occasionally glimpsing snow on the slopes not far above us. The clouds too, loomed close by, every once in awhile slapping a moment's rain against our windows. We couldn't be sure, but it looked noticeably darker now, and we began to consider our options for a place to spend the night.

High, cold country above Sognefjord

The roadside was dense and damp wilderness; we saw no promising camping spot anywhere. Judging by our progress, we were still several hours out from Skjolden. Looking at our map, we could make for a closer town, Solvorn, that had a ferry crossing to Urnes, a definite part of our plans. Obviously, the town lay lower down, along the banks of the fjord, so if nothing else it would be warmer. We decided to make for Solvorn in hopes of finding a camping place along the way.

Solvorn, Norway
We reached the junction for Solvorn, turned off the main road, and began twisting steeply downward. The road was narrow, surrounded by trees, moss-cloaked cliffs, and on our left, somewhere nearby, a stream tumbled through a tight ravine. A pull-off or two appeared near each switchback in the road; perhaps enough opening to pitch a tent but frightfully close to the road. I could see no place where we could park and both camp near enough to guard the car but far enough to be safe from drowsy drivers. When a couple off-road motorcycles roared up the road and spun around in front of us, we abandoned the thought of camping out alone. We drove all the way to town, hoping for a camping place.

An elderly gentleman was walking along the road on the outskirts of town. He spoke no English, but fortunately 'camping' means the same thing in Norwegian and English. In reply to our mangled inquiry, he gestured to a sign on the dirt road beside us. 'Eplet' it said, displaying a symbolic apple and pointing up toward a house above a field of raspberries. We drove up the driveway to the house and went inside to find out if we could spend the night.

Home at Eplet

Approximation to Eplet's Logo
In Norwegian, 'the' is included at the end of a word, thus 'eple' and '-(e)t' means 'the apple'
Eplet consists of a modern house with a couple private rooms, an old farmhouse with bunkrooms, and some tent spaces. Kitchen facilities are available in both the main house and in the farmhouse for all lodgers and campers. It really is a wonderful place. For a moment we considered a room, but these were booked for the night, so we opted to pitch our tent despite the rainy weather. Several other tents stood around the yard, but there was plenty of room for another without being tight against anyone else.
View from our campsite at Eplet in Solvorn, Norway
In a heavy mist, we opened our gear for the first time, erected our tent, spread out our bags, and prepared to spend the night. Showers were available and Robin, her personal toiletries in hand, headed gleefully in their direction. I went back into the office to chat a bit and get my bearings.

The young lady in the office, Marei, was from Germany, staying at Eplet for her third summer. I asked her about activities in the area, and she spieled off several outdoorsy things to do close by. When I asked her about climbing opportunities, she went off to get more information, returning with the owner. Trond Henrik opened Eplet only four years earlier, but it is fast becoming a popular place to stay, both for its proximity to major tourist attractions and its 'out-of-the-way', informal atmosphere. Eplet lies in the shadow of a 300-meter tall cliff, though he told me they were of poor climbing quality and to his knowledge had never been ascended. He had put up some top-roping routes several years ago, but they hadn't been a popular draw, so he hadn't visited them in years. The old farmhouse had a small indoor climbing wall that I was welcome to play around on if I wished. He suggested some hiking and biking trails, and invited us to borrow bicycles if we wanted.

Robin came in, happy as a lark at having clean clothes and body. She went to work on the communal computer, sending emails to family back home and a few other tasks; while I wandered back to the tent and settled in, perusing brochures and planning the next day. I was delighted; the entire day had gone off wonderfully. We had driven an entire day on foreign roads without crashing or being arrested. We had visited an 700 year old steinkirke and a 900 year old stavkirke; met some wonderful people; and uncovered an ancient piece of history in a motel yard. I hadn't had any pain, Robin had her luggage, and we had discovered a perfect place to stay, on the very doorstep of our route. Things were really looking up.

Next Installment: A Day Outdoors and a Momentous Event

Foss (Waterfall) seen from Laerdal Ferry