Friday, 23 July 2010

Norway 2 - The Road North

Now these are what you call fjords. Forget those ones we saw in Denmark, these ones are the real McCoy, fjords which take your breath away, providing awe and wonder in bag loads. The most dramatic had dark grey sides – craggy slabs of granite which dropped sheer into water of the deepest blue/green. The sort of colour you’d get if you mixed a rich emerald with an intense turquoise. You could almost see Kirk Douglas hopping along the oars of a stripy-sailed Viking longship, and these along the Fosen coast are not even renowned as the very best of Norwegian fjords.

Fjords and Coastline fit for Vikings – Bratjerfjorden and Bessaker

The Fosen peninsula was our next stop after Trondheim. It lies just across the Trondheim Fjord, and we approached it on the small but busy car-ferry from Flakk to Rørvik, joining the Friday (9th July) evening queues heading for a weekend getaway on Fosen’s quiet coasts and lakes. Our first night’s stop was a secluded spot perched above an inlet on an off-cut of redundant road that had been bypassed by a new tunnel. It looked great but abounded in swarms of midges, so that we were soon inside with all windows and doors shut.

Osen Panorama

We then spent three nights at Osen, a village on the north of the peninsula where the coast is cut by deep fjords and lined by an outlying archipelago of scattered, stony islands. It was a striking, impressive landscape, and, we felt, our first real fjords. There was an excellent parking place at Osen where we could have camped for free, but we opted to stay on a campsite (yes, paying) in order to have electricity, and ended up staying an extra day just because it was so, well, nice.

Osen at twilight and dawn

We soon noticed that almost everyone else was fishing. The seas and lakes teemed with fish, but you could not buy it anywhere, and we soon came to feel that we were missing out. Every caravan, tent, motorhome and hut seemed to have at least one angler, and whole groups of German men had taken over little harbours to fish for coley, ling, cod, salmon, you name it. On our campsite people seemed to be popping out on boats or off to the harbour and coming back with fish which they cleaned in the little hut provided specially for the job. Quite frankly we were getting just the teensiest bit jealous. We began to seriously wonder how hard it can be to get started in fishing, but maybe an easier option might be to sit Rob out by the harbour with a plate and a sign reading “gi meg fisk”. He’s a clever chappie and quite able to write a sign begging for fish in several languages!

Fishing at Yttervik

In addition to the fjords and the fish there are the huts. Huts, or hytter, are a staple part of Norwegian outdoor life. Ranging from garden shed size to substantial chalets, these wooden leisure homes crop up wherever the scenery is inviting, from rocky seashores to the depths of forests, where they often sprout like mushrooms in the undergrowth, their existence revealed only by occasional groups of cars parked beside a rural road, or the glimpse of red planking through the pines. They also a feature of almost all campsites – in fact some have little space for any touring vehicles at all.

Åfjord overnighting spot on the Fosen peninsula – with distant huts

One feature of lots of buildings here, old and new, are the grass roofs. They are fascinating and don’t just crop up on the small huts - we’ve seen them on quite substantial houses, on whole farm complexes, on the covers for post boxes, on dog kennels and even over a petrol pump. Sometimes they are just grass, but more often they are coloured with pretty wild flowers, which around here seems to be naturalised violet geraniums, large white daisies, lady’s mantle, deep purple lupins and tall buttercups. If left to go completely wild, the roofs end up with whole trees growing out of them. I (Lesley) now want a log cabin with a grass roof in my garden. Like fishing, how hard can it be to build one?

Grass roofs on various structures

The heatwave that we had enjoyed since Denmark came to an end while we were in Osen, and from Tuesday 13th we pushed on north through heavy, cold rain and mists that obscured the hills. We took the main E6 road north, and despite the appalling weather there was no mistaking the magnificent scenery as we drove through the Namsdalen gorges. A shabby, rain-soaked archway and closed visitor centre indicated that we had reached Northern Norway, but we pressed on, and turned onto one of the few side roads looking for a place to park for the night. We were in luck, for at the end of a long lake, beneath glimpses of the towering hills of the Børgefjell national park, we found a flat spot by a gushing mountain river that claimed to be a campsite, although its facilities consisted of three areas for wood fires, a picnic table and piles of logs for burning, unlimited cold running water and a wonderful location. An honesty box asked for 40 kroner (about £4.20), and we willingly paid. Here, in the rain, we had our first camp fire of the trip.

Camping at its best at Børgefjell

We followed the E6 then for most of the way north to Bodø. It was single carriageway, and for a major national trunk road it was surprisingly pleasant to drive on, and the scenery on these stretches was rarely short of stunning. We paid the extortionate amount of 180 kr to stop on a campsite at Yttervik on Wednesday night. Rob was particularly miffed about this as he feels we are cheating if we don’t do something close to wild camping every night now we are in Norway, but he was mollified to some extent by the fabulous position on the headland from where he could view the ever changing colour of the skies over the snow speckled distant hills. Me, I just kept my eye on the handbrake and tried to put from my mind the visions of going over the edge.

A mystery - this pretty little table and chairs arrangement was set up in a layby near Grong!

We had a two-night interlude in the Svartisen valley just south of the arctic circle, which is the starting point for trips to a branch of the Svartisen glacier. I (Rob) had heard about the colours in glaciers but until I saw it for myself I could not imagine the almost-luminous turquoise that streaks the dirty ice, seeming to shine from its crevices and hollows. Nor did I realise that the edges of a glacier, at least in its lower reaches, do not abut neatly the enclosing rock, but rather shrink away from it, leaving gaps and caverns below the ice, whose ceiling of icicles glows with this same turquoise. The walk that day was full of ‘wow’ moments.

Foot and edges of the Svartisen glacier

Under the glacier - amazing shades of blue

Feeling on top of the world – Rob’s walk back

We reached the Arctic Circle on Saturday 17th July, still on the E6. You cross the Saltfjell mountains on a wide rocky plain, and just before the summit you are greeted by a huge carpark and a sea of motorhomes. Right on the circle itself stands a dome-shaped visitor centre that sells all types of tat but serves no informative purpose. Behind the visitor centre and still on the circle is a little hill covered in small stone piles that people have left, which looks like some amateur Andy Goldsworthy installation. The big, barren landscape is impressive in itself though, and we were in any case in a mood to celebrate, and took our pictures by the Arctic Circle markers in the warm sunshine.

We reach the Arctic Circle

Throughout northern Norway are a series of 33 artworks which make up Artscape Nordland. These are sculptures permanently placed in natural environments. The list of artists reads like a who’s who of modern sculpture spanning the last three decades, so when we are passing these we are going to make an attempt to see them. The one I {Lesley) really wanted to see was by Antony Gormley – he did Angel of the North – so his name should ring a bell. I like his work, which is largely based on human figure, and have given school assemblies and organised art activities based around it, so I wasn’t passing up the chance to see it in the flesh, so to speak, and at Mo i Rana the sculpture is a giant granite man standing in the harbour staring outwards. You make of modern art what you will. I liked the figure. He’s the strong and silent type. Apparently he was meant to be made from metal, as the town’s industry is based around this, but the local ironworks closed down, so he got carved in granite instead. When he was installed some of the locals complained because he didn’t have a penis, but then again he doesn’t have any features, so it would have changed the whole concept to have his tackle in situ!

Mo i Rana – Havmannen (Harbourman) by Antony Gormley

This second leg to the Norway part of our trip has suddenly got us digging deep into our pockets and we are now the proud owners of a 5kg bottle of propane from Statoil, the garage chain that is big throughout Scandinavia. One of our Camping Gaz 907s ran out near Mo i Rana and we calculated that the other one wouldn’t last us into Finland, so another solution was needed. As the brand Camping Gaz isn’t sold in Norway, possibly because it’s butane, we therefore needed to buy a Norwegian bottle. We asked around in vain for a supplier from the company AGA who apparently do a refundable bottle, but eventually our only helpful response came at a caravan centre, where they had no AGA gas, but the Statoil one seemed the best option available. The guy pointed out, rightly, that the gas itself was far cheaper than Camping Gaz, but we still had to buy the Statoil bottle, at around 400 kroner (£42), which is not officially refundable (although he said that they would refund it if asked). The total cost of bottle, gas and adaptor came to a stinging 800 kr, but no charge for the labour of three guys who got involved in changing it. We are keeping our fingers crossed that some Statoil dealer in Finland will look kindly upon us and buy back an empty gas bottle, otherwise we will have a large and expensive souvenir to take back to the UK with us.

Our morning view at Svartisvatnet

We are also, since Mo i Rana, the owners of a beginner’s fishing rod set. We are desperately searching on the internet for tips as to how to use it, but are hoping for just a few fresh fish dinners once we get back to the coast. Watch this space.

The ones that didn’t get away – fish drying in all weathers

Here’s a question for you. We keep seeing these little yellow balls on short rods along the roadside. They are about the size of a ping pong ball and the rod is about 6 inches tall. They are irregular distances apart, positioned sometimes low down in the grass, sometimes high up on rocks, sometimes near the edge of a road and sometimes a couple of metres away. So what do you reckon they are for?

Mystery object – answers as comments please

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Norway 1 – The Road to Trondheim

Our route to Trondheim

Crossing from Sweden into Norway was a breeze. No-one checked our passports. I don’t think we even saw so much as an official’s hat. We drove past the full car parks at the Swedish last post shopping centre, where there were many motorhomes - no doubt being stocked up with enough food and drink to last them through Norway. We’d got a few provisions in ourselves, but there’s a limit to what will fit in a small van. Anyway, we figured so what that it’s more expensive to buy your sausage in Norway, we are on this trip to taste sausage from every country in Europe and the only way to do that is to buy local. We have not just been eating sausages of course, but a good many pork related products have featured regularly on our van menus. Sweden didn’t seem to go in for a lot of little shops, like butchers, and as we sailed through the border we were keeping our fingers crossed for a change in this situation in Norway. No such luck though, we found no butchers and very few bakers, and our reliance on supermarkets was pretty much total – except in Trondheim where there was some great fish to be bought.

When the road signs warn of elks - believe them

We took secondary roads north for most of the 400 km from the Swedish border to Trondheim, including a long section on a gravel road though miles of forest. The final stretch took us alongside the river Gaula, through contrasting landscapes of sheer sided cliffs and wide, flat agricultural land. Hamlets were perched high up in the hills, with large farm complexes consisting of the farm house with decoration of carved mouldings at the windows and intricate fretwork on balconies, the barn with a ramp to the second floor and a bell on the top and grain stress which were two storeyed and jettied with grass roofs, often with tress growing from them. The Gaula itself was doing a roaring trade in fishing permits from the numbers of men in waders flicking their wrists and casting their flies along most stretches of the river. We passed one group taking photos of a guy holding a fine salmon of about 1½ m length which he’d obviously just caught. It turns out that the Gaula is famed in these parts for its salmon fishing.

Typically Norwegian - long gravel roads and farm complexes

The costs of food, accommodation, fuel and just about everything may be high in Norway, but on the other hand after our first five nights we had yet to pay a single krone for overnight stops. For the first three we wild camped, finding quiet carparks by lakes or at the start of footpaths, informal affairs where no notices said we weren’t welcome. On our first night by the lake we shared the site with midnight swimmers, who drove up just as we’d gone to bed and proceeded to whoop with excitement as they plunged into the cold water, before driving off again a short while later. 

Ant hill in the woods

At our other two spots we were alone but beside quiet roads, and were disturbed by no-one. Going to bed at midnight meant pulling up all the blinds to create a semblance of darkness and trying to sleep, but we found we could read at 12.30 a.m. by natural light. Waking up in such beautiful, tranquil surroundings was a real treat and seeing the wild life - elks, ant mountains, wild flowers, massive frothy lichen - was an added bonus, as was taking Charlie walking through some of the best scenery he's seen. Then in Trondheim we stayed on a carpark set aside by the city council for motorhomes, again for nothing. It was a small site with room for only 8 to 10 vehicles, and with no facilities, but was only a footbridge away from the historic centre.

Fresh air - good for lichen and dogs

After several days on rural backroads, Trondheim felt like a metropolis. I (Rob) was surprised at just how busy and cosmopolitan it was, having imagined it would feel somehow remote, an outpost, isolated behind its wall of mountains and twisting fjords. But it came across as a bright, attractive city, basking in a long warm spell that took the temperatures into the upper 20s, and with a clear light that came from the proximity of the sea and nearly 24 hour daylight. The local papers said that sunset was at about 11.30pm and sunrise at 3am while we were there, but a slight cloud cover and our inclination to sleep in the early hours meant that we never checked either.

Trondheim - view from our overnight parking

In its historic core, Trondheim is above all a wooden city, with many streets of picturesque clapboard houses in dark red or pastel colours. Some wooden buildings are both grander and older, such as the Stiftsgården, at the heart of the city, a palatial 18th century complex built for a provincial governor, or the elegant Hospital Church of 1706 with its slender central spire. 

Trondheim - pastel shades and old hospital church

Other buildings attested to Trondheim’s important role earlier in Norwegian history, from the independent kingdom at the end of the Viking era and coming of Christianity, as well as during the centuries of annexation to Denmark then Sweden. This was true above all of St. Olav’s cathedral, Trondheim’s oldest and most prominent monument, which dates in part from the 12th century and sports a magnificent west façade lined with statues of saints, bishops, monarchs and biblical characters, that somehow survived the reformation (although the present façade is in fact an 18th century recreation of the original, destroyed in a fire). If you’ve ever been to Lichfield you might have seen a smaller version of this west end, though in a different colour stone.

Trondheim - St Olav's Cathedral - or in Norwegian - Nidaros Domkirke

A must-see for us was Trondheim’s fish hall by the harbour, no longer a market but more an upmarket boutique and restaurant, but the range of fish – fresh, smoked, marinated and salted – was magnificent, and made up in part for Norway’s disappointing food culture where food retailing is monopolised almost everywhere by a small number of supermarkets selling a restricted, pre-packed and homogenised range, and variety or inspiration are hard to find. Outside on the quayside, boats sold boiled prawns by the kilo, or freshly-caught fish. These were a special challenge for the tourists as the boat owners spoke no English, and I (Rob) made my first effective use of Norwegian to order half a kilo of the crustaceans.

Boat selling fresh prawns - no English spoken for once!

Trondheim struck us as a very trendy city in lots of ways and it was incredibly easy to while away time there at cafés, especially as they give free coffee refills. The old wooden streets in the district of Bakklandet were particularly attractive for café-hopping, with their rather laid-back shabby chic feel, while the neighbouring area around the old wharves had been remodelled and resurrected as a fashionable hanging-out zone. We were surprised at the huge number of tourists around, some from the massive cruise ships that berth in the harbour daily, but others not.

Shabby chic in Bakklandet

On Friday 9th July we decided to move on, driving down the coast a few km to Flokk, where we queued up with the many weekenders to get one of the very frequent ferries over the Trondheim Fjord to Rørvik on the Fosen peninsular.
Trondheim - wharves

Saturday, 10 July 2010


Our route through south-west Sweden

We weren’t originally planning to visit Sweden, having been there for ten days in 2005, camping around the lakes in the central area and visiting Stockholm. However, when trying to book a ferry to Norway from Denmark, we couldn’t find a way to include the dog on the internet booking. Booking the ferry to Göteborg (Gothenburg) for Tuesday, 29th June, was actually very easy, and turned out to be cheaper booking it via a German website, rather than a British one. Charlie was duly booked a place in the dog lounge and we set off, via stops for diesel (cheaper in Denmark than Sweden) and a camping gaz 907 bottle (probably impossible to find in Norway).

Charlie wasn’t the only wildlife on board the ferry

The dog lounge allowed humans in so we spent time there with the other dog owners who asked if we’d been to some dog show (they said it in Danish and we never caught where it was). I think they were probably just being kind to our non-pedigree mutt, though they did seem to want to discuss which aspects of him were springer and which were border collie. Leaving the boat and going through customs was very easy. No-one seemed particularly interested in us importing a dog. His pet passport was glanced at briefly, along with ours, and we were waved through.

Approaching Göteborg

Garmintrude got us out of Göteborg and was allowed the rare opportunity to suggest a motorway, the E6, up the coast towards Uddevalla in the region of Bohuiä. The drive seemed long in the heat and we were glad when we reached the coast where we hoped to see a lot more areas for parking up for the night than indicated in the Swedish section of our Nordic Camper Guide. In an effort to find them we drove up and down many minor roads leading to coastal inlets, but they were all either very inhabited or definitely no overnight parking.

Hunnebostrand had lots of lovely places we’d like to have camped

The main problem seems to be that this area is incredibly attractive. There are huge – absolutely massive – outcrops of rounded, pink tinged rocks. These cover the hillsides, create sheltered harbours and form hundreds of tiny islands, and the Swedes have built their second homes here, along with their beach huts and boat sheds. The area attracts sailing vessels from yachts down to dinghies and there is just very little space for anywhere to park a motorhome. The only place for miles – the very only, jam-packed, crowded place – was a dingy car park stellplatz on the more industrial side of Hunnebostrand’s harbour. We looked at it, ummed and arred, moved on, tried a few other car parks, got worried about the no camping signs, chickened out and ended up back at Hunnebostrand some 3 hours later at 10:30 p.m. Rain had settled in for the night, which didn’t improve the look of the place and a certain type of “helpful” motorhomer told us we’d parked too close to the next van (not his) – we should be 4m away, not the 3m we’d managed – well, we’d hardly had much choice of pitch. After a bit of slamming about inside the van and grumping we had a bit of dinner and then went straight to sleep.

Where we chickened out of staying and our eventual camping place

The dingy stellplatz looked a bit better on a breezy, sunlit Wednesday morning and Hunnebostrand turned out to be a very attractive little town centered around a busy marina. We spent a small fortune in a fish shop – fresh Dover sole, fish soup, gravad lax, fish cakes, pickled herring – just how much fish did we really need?


We decided to see a bit more of the coast north of Hunnebostrand, and perhaps find a good picnic and swimming spot, before heading inland later on to see if less inhabited areas would offer more in the way of wild camping. Part of our drive went through nature reserves and conservation areas and the scenery was stunning. The rock formations give the impression of someone having blown giant pink bubbles, which have piled on top of each other to settle down to the water’s edge and create massive, eerie plateaus. People have built their houses and boat sheds on the rocks and have created their gardens and fields around them. Everywhere seems to have a rounded, dome-like quality, which contrasts with the sharp, clean lines of the wooden boarded houses, painted in white or pastel shades, and the deep red boat houses.


At Svenneby we visited the tiny old church, one of the oldest in Bohuslän, which dates from the 12th century. It is well worth a detour to see if you are ever passing that way. The 13th century bell-tower is most unusual, being detached from the church and built high up on the rocky cliff which looms over the building. Inside, there are wooden sculptures which have survived all religious upheavals since the middle ages, and the furnishings are 18th century wooden box pews, with a wooden gallery, all painted with patterns. The part which draws the eye though is the painted barrel ceiling of the nave. The biblical scenes of judgement day created by J. Alstedt in the 18th century with demons and angels didn’t quite fit in a Protestant church.

Svenneby Church 

The coastal villages were set around picturesque inlets, and all were crowded with the masts of leisure boats, such as at Hamburgsund. We stopped later in the afternoon at Veddö, a small place surrounded by a nature reserve, and had a swim in the sea, which was quite mild, the convoluted coastline here keeping the water warmer than in the open sea. We then decided to turn inland, as the coast was clearly too populated to leave quiet places for overnighting motorhomes, and the campsites too crowded and too expensive for our tastes, spoilt as we had been by the low cost of German stellplätze.

Hamburgsund harbour and upside down jellyfish

The route inland took us past more towering domes of rock set amongst farms and forests, then into an area of lakes, where we turned onto a minor road with a gravel surface in order to find quieter places. It paid off, for after several kilometres driving through conifer forests, the road turned to cross a stream as it tumbled over rocks, and there was the ideal overnight spot just off the road beside the bridge, and above a broad pool in the stream that just called out for swimming. The river was the Kynne Älv, and, had we known it, we were only a kilometer so from the hamlet of Flötemarken, just upstream. So we settled here and were counting our blessings when the downside gradually dawned on us – the dreaded midges! In Scandinavia, as in Scotland, these minute creatures can be the bane of outdoors life in the summer, and we were soon eating our meal in the van with all the flyscreens down. It was another clear night, and again proper darkness hardly seemed to come – the sky was still alight at midnight, and by 3am it was virtually daylight.

 An idyllic spot by the Kynne Älv near Flötemarken – 
It looks like we’re trying to camouflage the van

On the Thursday we carried on north and east through a landscape of more lakes and forests, at times taking secondary roads which were intermittently tarmacked. Villages were tiny, often more a collection of widely-spaced farms, and the rural buildings were almost without exception constructed of wooden weatherboarding and painted the same reddy brown colour, as if by decree. This is one of the distinct features we remember about Sweden from our previous visit. We passed from the coastal province of Bohuslän into lake-strewn Dalsland, and stopped for the night at a campsite at the hamlet of Vammerviken, on the Västra Silen lake, a long strip of smooth water running north to south between the trees.  We decided on a proper campsite this time so that we could stop happily for a couple of days, and Lesley could get on with some writing. We were also now coming to accept the inevitability of Swedish prices, and at 155 kronor a night, without electricity, it was at least better value than along the coast. It was a lovely spot, not too crowded, and we found a pitch looking over the water.

Vammerviken Campsite

The next two days were passed quite lazily, with a lot of lake-swimming and enjoying the tranquility.  I (Rob) went out on my bike for an afternoon while Lesley worked, and I found it increasingly hard to go to bed, so light were the evenings. Many people on the campsite had their own canoes, and we considered hiring one, but couldn’t see what we would do with the dog.

Södra Kornsjön lake in Dalsland 

Our stay at Vammerviken coincided with the peak of a heatwave, and the temperatures of over 30°C on Saturday did not make us feel like doing very much. So we didn’t and stayed Saturday night as well. Rob decided to sleep outside the van, wrapped in a quilt. This was the first time he’d actually done this and wouldn’t you know it, the heavens opened around three in the morning. I would have had a wry smile on my face if I could have been bothered to wake up enough as he clambered back into the bed.

Create a caption – Lesley’s one is “travelling with Rob sends Lesley crackers”, Rob’s one is “Lesley turns into a crack(er) head – what’s your caption?