Friday, July 16, 2010


After overnighting in Loen Wednesday night, we had as our destination Ålesund, via the Hellsylt-Gerainger ferry.

Shortly after leaving Loen we spied a good omen for our journey: the rainbow, here only moderately enhanced for viewing by Photoshop.

Other than its setting at the head of the Geiranger fjord, the little village of Geiranger has little to offer. It is mostly a dense conglomeration of tourist-related businesses, from glacier bus tours to kayak outfitters. We did, however, have a nice lunch halfway up the nearby mountain at the luxe Hotel Union; the prices were no more than you'd pay at a lesser establishment. My open faced shrimp sandwich was excellent, the side order of french fries crisp and not greasy (though fried in an unknown oil). Jean Sue to an exquisite chocolate cake, which had very little cake but lots of creamy, frothy chocolate filling.

The journey from Geiranger to Ålesund required us to first ascend the Eagle Road, a series of 11 switchbacks from sea level to where the Eagles fly. Lots of turnouts for gawking along the way.

Half an hour out of Ålesund it was time to board another ferry, then onward to our next stop.

Herewith, some additional photos from the day's scenic journey:

Our Hellsylt-Geiranger ferry's twin, heading to Hellsylt.

Waterfall into the Gerainger Fjord

The lower switchbacks of the Eagle Road wind their way up.

A Hurtigruten makes its way on the northward sail to Kirkenes from Geiranger.

Onward In Our Rental Car

By mid-morning Wednesday (July 7) we had picked up our rental car, a VW Golf hatchback, and were off on the last leg of our trip, a grand tour of Norway's West Coast via Loen, Gerainger, Alesund, Molde, Kristiansund and Trondheim.

First stop: Loen, where glacier melt-off comes tumbling down the mountains to sea level into Innvik Fjord. The Loenfjord Hotel is locate precisely where the last rapids meet the fjord, and there are plenty of benches from which to contemplate the effect of gravity upon water. Most of the water is melt from Jostedalbreen, Europe's largest glacier just a few miles inland (a distant view of one of the glacier's arms is seen in this view above from the village of Jølster en route to Loen). If you don't want to bother with a winding car or bus trip you could take a quick helicopter tour. One left every 15 minutes or so from the hotel's lawn.

Our one-night stay at the Loenfjord Hotel was marked by lots of celebration among a couple of tour buses worth of Spanish visitors. They crowded into the bar to watch the Spain beat Germany, 1-0, on a header in the 74th minute. Given that celebration, it's hard to imagine the festivities the following Sunday when Spain beat the Netherlands for the cup.

Varg Veum

No discussion of Bergen can be concluded with at least a fleeting mention of Varg Veum. 

Varg Veum is Norway's Philip Marlowe, the creation of Gunnar Staalesen, one of the current crop of Scandinavian mystery writers drawing attention. Veum's office is located on Strandkien in Bergen; indeed, his address is the same as our Bergen Hotel, the Strand. His statue reposes in front of the entrance where many visitors (including Jean Sue) repose also. And Veum drinks his favorite aquavit, Simers Taffel, at the hotel's bar, Femte I Andre, where I enjoyed the same quaff.

The bar's name is a bit of a word play, the Norwegian version of Abbott and Costello's Who's On First. When we first stayed at the hotel 15 years ago it was located on the fifth floor. With The Strand's remodeling, the bar is now on the second floor. In translation the bar's name would be Fifth on Second. The bar includes a fake door marked as the office of Varg Veum.

Veum's detective exploits frequently center around children, since before taking up private eyeing he was a child welfare worker. (He was asked to leave because he was too inquisitive in investigating the causes of his charges' situations.) Only two of the novels in the series are available in English translation (list them here), and they are hard to come by; I ordered one in advance of the trip from, and purchased another at the Norli bookstore chain in Norway.

We learned about Veum last fall through the International Mysteries series broadcast by one of the minor public television stations in Philadelphia, WYBE. (The series is distributed by mHz Worldview network and also includes films featuring Sweden's Wallendar, France's Maigret, as well as detectives from Germny and Italy. This past week the only four Veum films made have been rebroadcast at 9 p.m.; tonight it's The Woman in the Refrigerator).

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Fenalår: Better Than Prosciutto If You Like Lamb (I Do)

Writing about the supermarkets reminds me of a food stop I made in Oslo to a small shop near Radhuset: Fenaknoken.

The shop, which I discovered on our long weekend in Oslo in March 2009, is owned and operated by a father-son team, Gudbrand and Eirik Bræk (the photo was taken during that visit).

Upon entering, the nose is suddenly aware that this is a temple to cured meats: the odor of salted, cured and smoked fat and protein lets one know that this is not a store for the faint of heart. Hanging from the rafters are scores of meat parts, primarily lamb and pork ribs, and lamb legs. Gudbrand is quick to offer tastes, even to the casual shopper who insist he’s “just looking”. Ask where the meat you tasted comes from, and he lifts up an entire cured leg of lamb, with the shank pointed upwards. This, he says, is Norway. (And a leg of lamb does follow the contours of this Scandinavian land.

The Braek’s are proud to offer what they consider the best of artisinal cured meats to be found in Norway. Although they do not do their own curing, Eirik cooks fresh meats, including carbonnade (basically, meat loaf) and roast reindeer, which is as rosy and flavorful is a good roast beef. When I stopped by during our Oslo visit this year Gudbrand offered a taste of smoked whale: not high on my list, but it would be an interesting addition to any charcuterie plate.

But it’s the salamis (I tasted a goat salami), sausages (pølse), and cured meats that star. Just as on my previous visit, I walked out of the store with some fenalår, cured lamb leg served boneless and thinly sliced, a sort of lamb prosciutto, only slightly drier and smokier. It’s meant for out of hand eating, or perhaps over a single thin slice of hearty bread. A 50-gram purchase set me back 38 kroner, or about $6 for a little less than two ounces, or roughly $50/pound.

Fenalår can be found in any supermarket, pre-packaged and vacuum sealed. It's pretty good, too. But what the Bræk's offer is a superior product and not much more expensive that the version found at the Mega Coop.

Gudbrand also showed me a split smoked sheep head (the skull and meat, not brains or eyes), asking what I thought it was. My first guess, because of the indentations, was split beef heart. There’s not much to eat on it; an entire split head will serve two, he said.

Here's a lunch I made during our Lofoten stay from fenalår and reindeer salami purchased from Fenaknoken:

Supermarkets: The Key To The Norwegian Soul

When traveling abroad there are many ways to learn about local culture. Taking a stroll down a local supermarket's aisles can help you understand, just a little, about local tastes and preferences.

In Svolvaer I was a frequent visitor to the Mega Coop, Coop being a chain (I was told government-owned, but I'm not entirely sure about that) with varying size stores depending on the needs of the community. In Svolvaer (as in Rørvik and other towns I visited) it was located within the Amfi indoor shopping mall.

The importance of fish is obvious from that section of the supermarket. According to one of the desk clerks at Svinøya Rorbuer the Mega Coop is the best place to buy seafood, the only better being the fish sold by a vendor who irregularly appears at the town square.  I purchased half a kilo of rekke (shrimp) to cook in our cottage and can vouch for the quality.

While the fish department was staffed for special orders and personal service, all the meats were pre-packaged, including cold cuts. Likewise the potato, shrimp and similar salads came pre-packaged.

Although the depth of selection is limited (you won't find six brands of toilet paper) the breadth was more than adequate, the shelves stocked for every need.

After multiple trips, I wonder how much home cooking Norwegians do. The aisles were filled with convenience foods, including the Toro brand which Sonia Wallace said provides the base for an excellent fish soup. (I'm dubious about that.) Mexican appears to be big.

As in American supermarkets, beverages took up considerable space, especially beer. As previously noted, it's a lot less expensive to buy your beer at a retail store than at a bar or restaurant: you save about 50 percent. All the popular Norwegian and many some international brands were available.

For more interesting beers you have to visit Vinmonopolet, the state wine and liquor monopoly. (Just like Pennsylvania!) On its shelves I spied some great Belgian beers at about the same price I'd pay in Philadelphia (NOK 50, or about $8, for a Westmalle Tripple, as an example). Most of the inventory was devoted to wine, though there were plenty of distilled spirits, especially cognac. Not nearly as extensive was the selection of aquavits: maybe a dozen, just a few more than you'd find at many bars.

Edvard Grieg

Besides the remnants of Hanseatic traders Bergen's greatest claim to fame is that it was the home of composer Edvard Grieg. Though trained in and aspiring to the German tradition his music is clearly associated with Norway. There was even a Broadway musical in the 1940s based on his music, inexplicably titled Song of Norway.

You probably known at least some of his music, including selections from Peer Gynt Suite, especially Hall of the Mountain Kings.

On our previous trip to Bergen we obtained tickets to the Bergen Symphony Orchestra playing in central Bergen's large concert venue, Grieghallen. That program, however, did not include any Grieg compositions (it did feature a Shostakovich cello concert played by Michael Sanderling with the orchestra conducted by his father, Kurt.)

I rectified the lack of Grieg music from the previous trip by booking tickets for a recital at Troldhaugen, Grieg's home on a hill overlooking the water just outside the city. A 10-minute bus ride and five-minute walk from the parking area led to Troldhaugen's museum, the recital hall, and home.

The relatively new recital hall offered fine acoustics and clear sight lines, seating only a couple hundred music lovers. The tiered seating takes advantage of the hilltop location, with the large window behind the stage opening to the water and, at the edge of the hill, the small red cabin in which Grieg did much of his work. The roof of the hall is sod-covered, like many of the small outbuilding and homes you find in rural Norway.

At the Sunday evening program I attended (July 4) pianist Sandra Mogensen interposed pieces by Grieg and Ravel to mixed success. Some of the juxtapositions worked, others did not. But her mastery of the material and the instrument was evident, and even those combinations that did not work held interest.

Grieg's house, built in the 1880s, includes a grand piano in the parlor, which is occasionally used for very special recitals (with hard to get tickets). I commend to you Leif Ove Andsnes's records of Grieg's lyric pieces made in this room on this piano.


Fløybahnen, Bergen's funicular railway, is both a tourist attraction and means of commutation.

The paired cars (the red one goes up while the blue one comes down, and vice versa) traverse the 1,050-foot Mount Fløyen where nature trails, picnic tables and a restaurant await.The view, when weather permits, is wide and wonderful: all of central Bergen, the university district, Bergen's harbors, the hills, the inlets and nearby islands. Even in cloudy weather (so long as the clouds don't descend to the top of Fløyen) the view is worth the round trip.

The cars make three or four intermediate stops for commuters, since the hills surrounding central Bergen are residential zones. Like all funicular railways, the cars are paired, with the weight of each one providing balance on the funicular. Therefore, the intermediate stops are also paired: when the red car stops for passengers at the second station from the bottom, the blue car stops  at a station from the top. A sign along the wayside warns downhill travelers not to disembark when the first stop is made: when the car going uphill stops at the first intermediate tation, there's no corresponding station in the downhill direction.

The Fløybahnen is now on its fourth set of cars since it went into operation in 1918. The first generation lasted from the funicular's opening until 1954; the second generation cars from then until 1974; the third set until 1994 when the current set went into service.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Pølse Pørn

Norwegians love their hot dogs, known here as the pølse (POLE-sah). Here it's the lamb version, adorned with curry sauce (really a curry-flavored mayonnaise) and fried onions (the type you'd put on top of your Thanksgiving stringbean and cream of mushroom soup casserole). It was quite delicious.

I purchased this particular pølse at this red stand on Kong Oscars gate near Brygge in Bergen, which I first found 15 years ago on our initial visit to this city. The lamb hot dog was only the beginning of its selections. There's the cheese sausage with bacon, Jadgwurst wild game sausage, San Francisco sausage (apparently Bergensers think putting garlic and chili on a hot dog makes it San Franciscan), Smoked Bratwurst, Hot Chili sausage, the classic Frankfurter, Reindeer (flavored with juniper berries), Kabanossi (cayenne pepper and garlic, like the San Francisco, but a less emulsified grind), and Krakauer (nutmeg and garlic).

While they seem expensive at 45 kroner (about $7), they still represent good value. Each pølse weighs in at 150 grams -- more than five ounces, about the same as my favorite domestic dog, the five-to-a-pounder from Best Provisions of Newark.

Pølse are ubiquitous in Norway, though I didn't see any other stall devoted to the sausage during our month-long trip. Every "kiosk", however, offers them.

The kiosk is essentially a convenience store, with the big brands throughout Norway being Narvesen and 7-11. (Yes, 7-11: same logo design as back home.) Kiosks are essentially walk-in newstands, selling everything you'd expect as well as soft drinks and limited sandwich and fast foods. When I was in a pølse mood and not in central Bergen I went for Narvesen's bacon-wrapped dog.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Hanseatic Heritage

Bergen is a city by the sea. It traces its modern beginnings to the Hanseatic  traders from Germany who established a center for the export of furs, timber and fish to the rest of northern Europe. Many of their warehouses and residences remain standing today along Brygge, the Norwegian word for pier or wharf. (Just like Aker Brygge in Oslo.)

The Hanseatic structures are responsible for Bergen's categorization as a World Heritage Site. We skipped touring that area on this trip because we covered the area 15 years go on a private tour conducted by Jean Sue's friend Tønnes Bekker-Nielsen, who was teaching once a month at the University of Bergen when he wasn't at his regular post at the University of Aarhus in Denmark.

It should be no surprise that the local brew is Hansa beer.

It is also renowned for its fish soup. In most places, fish soup is a simple affair. Combine fish stock with milk and/or cream, sweat some onions and maybe carrots and/or celery and add them to the broth, maybe some potatoes, and finish by adding fish. Not so in Bergen, at least among the purists. The ingredients are the same for Bergen's fish soup, but everything from the selection of the proper fish to its cooking and serving can become an involved ritual. Just read Alan Davidson's account in his classic North Atlantic Seafood.

Time To Catch Up

It's been a busy week, go go go from Bergen to Loen (July 7), Loen to Ålesund (July 8), Ålesund to Kristiansund via the Atlantic Road (July 10), Kristiansund to Trondheim (July 11), all via rental car, and today via train from Trondheim to the Oslo Airport Thon Hotel, a six hour ride that allowed me to draft some catch-up blog posts, which follow.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Our American Cousins (Us)

When a lady asks for a cigar, one must oblige.

Such was the case Saturday night on the island of Radøy, a 75-minute ride from Bergen where Jean Sue's cousin Sonja Wallace and her husband George hosted a reunion of all available cousins, including Elin Kvalheim (she married into the family!) who requested the stogie from my stash sometime well after midnight.

Sonja and George, who reside most of the year in London, occupy the old family homestead, "Johannes's Hytte" in the community of Kvalheim on Radøy. It was a wonderful setting for a party, with a large deck with a view of the fjord through a new cut in a stand or trees, no rain and even a fair amount of sun. Much of the evening (and morning) was spent out-of-doors.

Formal portrait of all the cousins, standing
behind Uncles Bernhard and Inge and Aunt Berthe

Cousin Leslie Kvalheim and his wife Gry picked up Jean Sue, her cousin Sharon Sliker from Racine, Sharon's friend Chris from San Diego, and me shortly after we arrived at our hotel in Bergen after our Hurtigruten voyage. (We had first met Leslie and Gry two summers ago when they were traveling between New York and Chicago and all points in between and stopped in Philadelphia for a brief visit.)

Because Norwegian laws regarding driving and alcohol consumption (see an earlier post) are notoriously stringent, a number of cousins who lived on the island arranged for a taxi to chauffer them home when the drinking was done, (And there was lots of drinking; though no one was close to fall-on-the-floor drunk, all were feeling very high as the evening became morning.) Others from farther afield brought SUVs or caravans (a.k.a. RVs), including Leslie and Gry and Leslie's brother Jan Terje Kvalheim and his wife Maibritt.

Sonja and George graciously invited Jean Sue and I to use their spare bedroom overnight. Sharon and Chris, however, were relegated to the sofa bed in the living room. Which mean that, unlike Jean Sue and I who excused ourselves shortly before 2 a.m. for some sleep, they had to wait for the party to end. Which normally would be about 4 or 4:30 a.m., George informed us in his distinct Glaswegian accent. Sonja, feeling sorry for the weary Americans, cleared out the house by 2:30 so Sharon and Chris could get at least some shuteye.

All managed to arise well before noon where we consumed leftovers for breakfast that put to shame any of the hotel buffets we've had in Norway. Afterwards, Lesley, Gry, George, Sharon, Chris and I took a stroll down to the water through a park on land that Johannes Kvalheim gave to the community.

Here are more photos from the party and our walk.

Out on the deck

Cousin Helge Vallstad

Jan Terje Kvalheim

A walk from the beach

Leslie Kvalheim and George Wallace. George titled this photo "Heroes".

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Hurtigruten Dining

As I write this we're about three hours away from Bergen, the end of our Hurtigruten voyage aboard the MS Trollfjord. The sun has even decided to shine, just a little, on our last few hours at sea. Yesterday was sunny much of the day, giving me a chance to indulge in the jacuzzi one more time.

Once ashore we'll take the bus to our hotel, the Strand, stash our bags, freshen up then call Jean Sue's cousin Leslie and his wife Gry for a ride out to Radøy for the family reunion.

A few words (or more) about the food board the Trollfjord. Good and plentiful.

Although I'm sure it doesn't compare to the huge cruise ships plying the Caribbean and Alaskan waters, I enjoyed all our meals aboard the MS Trollfjord.

Breakfast was a typical Norwegian hotel buffet, with many different herrings (and a few other fish, like mackerel and sardines thrown in), eggs (usually scrambled, another hot egg dish which varied, hard and soft boiled eggs), breads and cheeses, cold cuts, breakfast sausages (which are more akin to cocktail franks), meatballs, fruit, yogurts, cereals, etc. Today's variation were some crepes with blueberry preserves.

The lunch buffert is even more plentious, with at least two hot entrees (one is always fish, the other usually some sort of meat -- I had delicious roast lamb one day) with vegetable and potato sides, cold meats and cold cuts, cheeses, salads, more herrings, soup, breads, etc. And the desserts. Sweet, but not cloying, almost always light in texture if not in calories. There would always be a couple mousse-like puddings, a couple of different cakes, various berry sauces, tea cookies, fruits.

Unlike the other meals dinners were served at assigned tables (we had a two-top so didn't have to make conversation with strangers). Fish was served three of five nights: arctic char, cod loin, and a triple whammy of halibut resting atop salmon with an accent of gravlax on top. Always served with delicious steamed potatoes and interesting vegetables. Reindeer steak greeted us the first night, and breaking up the fish nights was one dinner of a roast sirloin. First courses ranged from soups (potato leek once, fish soup another time), marinted reindeer, gravlax, etc. Desserts could be cheesecake, fruit soup,  panna cotta, ice cream cake.

If, for some reason, the dinner menu did not appeal (you can consult the week's dinner menu soon after boarding) you can request an alternate, though I highly recommend going with the flow.

Other than water, you'll pay extra, of course, for beverages, whether it be soda, wine or beer. And at normally high Norwegian prices, though not any more so than you'd pay at a land-based restaurant: $10 for beer no matter where you go, unless you buy at the supermarket. A glass of wine was abut the same price. Half-bottles of wine started at about $40, full bottles at $60 and up.

You won't go hungry, and what was even more astounding was the quality. Even if you don't like fish, you've got to eat it here. Norwegians depend upon and thrive on fish and, after a couple of milleenia, they've learned how to cook it. Firstly, it's fresh. Secondly, they cook it through but never too much. Even the fish on the buffet wasn't overcooked. Yesterday for lunch had a piece of saithe cordon bleu, saithe being a cod-family member (also known as coalfish). It was crisply fried, and maintained the crispness on the buffet; the interior was meltingly tender, juicy and tasty.

Of course, I immediately go for the herrings at breakfast and lunch. At breakfast they offer a plain pickled herring, another in mustard sauce, another in tomato sauce. At lunch the herring is served in three different sauces: matjes (sweetish wine sauce), curry, and sour cream.

Summary: When you travel the Hurtigruten, don't fear the fish.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Hurtigrutas Dag

Fireboat and fireworks from small craft greet the arrival in Rørvik of the MS Polarys for Hurtigruten Day. Taken from the stern of the MS Trollfjord as we pull into berth.

Munchkin Mayor (right) in ceremonial attire reads proclamation welcoming the two boats for Rørvik's celebration.

Below, crowd greeted the two boats' arrival on the quay. I estimated about 350-400 came out for the celebration, which included a pretty good band (the singer, to the right of the mayor, did a lively Joe Cocker take).

Down Time

A cool, cloudy day, no excursions to join, so Thursday was a mostly quiet day with plenty of time to relax, regroup, get ready to meet Jean Sue's cousin Sharon and friend Chris who join our ship in Trondheim Friday for the last leg to Bergen and the Kvalheim cousins reunion Saturday.

The only event of note was mid-evening when the MS Trollfjord arrived in Rorvik along with another Hurtigruta, MS Polarys. We were met with fireboats streaming water, dozens of small craft lighting smoke flares and launching fireworks and, on the quay, brass bands and about 500 cheering Rorvikians -- all because it was the "birthday" of the coastal steamer service. The mayor even made a speech snd awards were presented to both Hurtigruta captains.
Photos to follow when there is a better Internet connection.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Views From the Deck

Mountains along the coast within an hour's sail from Oksfjord. Photo taken Tuesday.

Late Wednesday afternoon, having reached the northern portion of the Lofoten Islands, the MS Trollfjord entered its namesake, the short but very narrow Trollfjord. Just about every passenger aboard elbowed for space on the sundeck or the panoramic viewing lounges in the bow to what the fjord walls close in on our ship.

After entering the fjord and nearing its end, the captain used the vessel's pod thrusters to pivot us 180 degees, so we could safely exit the fjord. These same pods allow the capitain and his crew to easily bring the boat to even the most crowded, hemmed in quay with precision and delicacy. These two photos show us entering and then leaving the fjord.

As we returned to Svolvaer, this time aboard the MS Trollfjord, we were greeted at the harbor's breakwater by this classic fishing town statue. It seems that every substantial commercial fishing center in the world has a similar statue of the fisherman's wife scanning the horizon hoping for his safe return.

Midnight sun worshippers on the deck at midnight, catching the rays.

It is as if the mountains nest the clouds on the Lofoten Islands, here a mid-evening view south of Stamsund. Below, the "Lofoten Wall" of mountains about 10:30 p.m., beautifully obscured by clouds


Yesterday was sunny and (relatively) warm, so Bob took to the sundeck's jacuzzi. After briefly returning to the cabin to change he spent most of the rest of the day and evening on deck, taking in the sun and balmy (low 60s) weather. Jean Sue took the photo after lunch while we were docked in Sortland in the Vesterålene islands.

Tromsø Concert at Arctic Cathedral

Our second excursion on Tuesday (after recuperating from the North Cape early rise) was to a midnight concert at Tromsø's Arctic Cathedral.

Six buses whisked us through the center of Tromsø across the bridge to the cathedral's site on a rise overlooking the port and into the midnight sun. A magnificent presence!

The 45-minute concert ranged from Bach to traditional Norwegian music (particularly Hardanger fiddle), a bit of Bach -- and of course Edvar Grieg -- and some church music. One setting in particular, the Te Deum (Laudamus te) by contemporary Norwegian composer Henning Sommerro was deeply moving as sung by the soprano, Bodil Onsøien, with a rich, dramatic delivery in which even her whisper carried through the cathedral's interior.

Alas, a couple of the other musicians weren't up to her standards, the trumpeter in particular, who couldn't carry out an entry attack to save his life. That took nothing away from my enjoyment of the entire program, however, and I reflected over the music, and a busy, enjoyable day, over an aquavit upon retun to the Trollfjord.