Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Frodo's Summer Place

More from our intrepid correspondents, Gary and Lorraine. This time they provide a great guide to hiking in Norway.

It turns out that Peter Jackson got it wrong. His love of the southern hemisphere kept him from seriously considering the very best location for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, much to his detriment. But if you want to see the place where Frodo and Gandalf, as well as the Vikings would feel most at home, then you must avoid the South Island crowds and come to up-country Norway.

[Remember that Tolkien himself was a big fan. The recently published “Legend of Sigrud & Gudrun”, written before any of the Middle Earth books, retells a classic Norse legend and contains many passages that were later put to use in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.]

Yes, I know—mention a vacation in Norway and we all think of the fjords, and in fact they are every bit as breathtaking as we ever imagined. Our rental house was directly on the Aurlandsfjord, a branch of the biggest fjord in Norway. Hundreds of kilometers from the sea, this saltwater body plays host to schools of dolphins and a wide range of sea life thanks to its tides and depth (in some areas, nearly a mile). We looked across the fjord at a topography that varied from steep cliffs with Norway pines growing impossibly out of cracks, to sheer rock faces with cascading waterfalls originating at the snowfields that were still visible if you looked up.

However, those characteristics also create a friendly environment for those massive floating high rises known as superliners . Despite their 10 storeys of staterooms and roof-mounted waterslides, even these ships are rendered insignificant by the surroundings. And, if you time your fjord-level touring for days when the liners are elsewhere, you can have quite an authentic experience getting to know this world heritage site without the attendant onslaught of hundreds of camera-snapping cruise passengers intent on winning the “number of photos per port” competition.

Indeed, when we come back next year (and we will), we will rent kayaks at the little-known and unadvertised site at Gudvangen on the narrowest fjord in Norway, and put in at the isolated towns and verdant grasslands that line the beaches on both sides. From our observation, two kayaks at a single beach clearly constitute a crowd.

But it is up country – beyond the reach of the passengers who must be back at the dock at 4 for a 6:00 pm sailing – where the crowds truly end and the magic of Middle Earth begins. Let us tell you about one excellent day as an instructive example.

We started the day inauspiciously in Flåm, a cheesy tourist town dedicated to the cruise boats with nothing to recommend it save the Flåm railway, the Flåmsbana. The hard working railway rises 800 meters in 20 km, and so takes you to the Norwegian treeline in a bit over an hour, with magnificent views all the way. It also has the distinction of being a completely self-sufficient, energy-wise (halfway up the mountain we passed the hydroelectric plant built on a year-round waterfall that supplies all the electric power needed for the operation).

Take the first train in the morning at around 8:30, which often leaves before the cruise liners have finished docking (you can buy your tickets the night before, but not, as they proudly proclaim, on the internet). We did so and alighted at Vatnahalsen, near the end of the line, and within seconds we were alone, and very much in Middle Earth. Our chosen trail (a section of what was originally a supply trail for those building the Oslo-Bergen railway a century ago) took us along the shores of three pristine alpine lakes, each at a higher elevation, and emptying into the lower one through a dramatic waterfall. It was so perfect that we imagined them to be a water feature carefully built in the back garden of some upscale giant. We were high enough at the first lake to be above the evergreen line, so we were surrounded by airy birch forests that would have make Galadriel feel right at home. Rather than block the sun, birch seems to amplify it and add subtlety and a certain otherworldly quality.

Like Frodo, a morning of walking always made us a bit peckish, so by the time we had made our ascent to the second lake, our minds began to fill with cravings for second breakfasts, or at least elevenses. Alas, this was a wilderness trail - no guide book, no topo map had so much as mentioned any culinary establishment along the entire trail. Should we raid our lunch stash early, or soldier on until the crack of noon?

Imagine our surprise and delight, then, as we emerged from a section of forest, and there, on the lakeshore ahead of us, was Seltuft, the establishment of one Sue and Anders Fretheim ((the lone white house in the photo above). On the shore of the lake, at the base of a spectacular waterfall (with another dozen visible in the surrounding mountains), the place surely possesses one of the top ten locations of any eating establishment on earth. While sheep grazed contentedly by the barn across the track, the front yard hosted a couple of cyclists consulting maps and fixing a flat at the scattered picnic tables and stone seating. While perhaps not destined for a Michelin star, Seltuft was a Norwegian hiker’s Valhalla, with good hot coffee and what the signs said included “is, vaflen & øl, etc” (ice cream, waffles and ale). Sue fired up the waffle maker for us, and we drank our coffee while Anders answered our questions about fish in the lake (plenty of trout), and told us the sad story of the Norwegian salmon fishery. Almost extinct, he said, thanks to salmon farming, which delivers antibiotic-laden fish to your table while assuring that healthy wild salmon catch the increasingly drug-resistant diseases of their farmed brethren, and die either from them or the pandemic infestations of sea lice, also from the farms. We vowed never to eat farmed salmon again, and we headed back to the trail thinking that Norway was better for thoughtful, curmudgeonly innkeepers like Anders.

From Seltuft, the trail wound up the edge of a narrow canyon, strewn with boulders that had once calved from the cliffs above, which now formed obstacles in the class 5+ rapids below us. The monolith-sized rocks could have easily hidden an army of orcs, so we kept our guard up, just in case. But we were happy to be walking, taking in scenery which alternately reminded us of secluded lakes in New Hampshire or the Swiss Alps, trout streams in Montana, or the heather-covered dells of Scotland. We imagined that in many parts of the world, the breathtaking scenery would have been accompanied by admission fees, river tubing concessions, hot dog stands, gawking photographers and many, many signs declaring that the management was not responsible for you falling off the trail…but none of these were in evidence.

After lunch in a quiet glade above the river, we finished our ascent at the third lake, located incongruously on the far side of that main railway line high in the mountains. The tracks popped out of a tunnel on one side and back into one on the other, as if the planners had wanted to make sure that even their cosseted passengers didn’t miss this valley in their haste to get to Oslo. Finally above the treeline, the lake was surrounded by bald, lichen covered peaks dotted with snow (in August, mind you) and a mind-boggling assortment of cascades, rivulets and waterfalls. The quiet, nonstop roar of the falls was very much a part of the setting.

Returning the way we had come, we were treated to a new set of views down the valleys and canyons as we descended. Tradition, we felt, demanded that we check in with Anders on the way back, but this time to the accompaniment of a glass of a light Spanish red. He asked how far we had gone, and nodded in approval, as if to dismiss those newfangled mountain bikes parked in his yard as some technology fad. Hiking, now that was the Norwegian way.

Frodo, Sam and Gandalf would have approved…and in fact, as we left the inn, I could have sworn that I caught a glimpse of them sitting at a corner table, talking in low tones and planning their next adventure in Norway’s Middle Earth.

What you need to know

1. Norway is green for a reason. Bring wet weather gear, and be prepared for glorious sunshine and 20 degree temperatures, or rain and 10 degrees, even in August. In our experience, the occasional shower did nothing to diminish the grandeur of the surroundings, but rather enhanced it.

2. Aurland (a practical base of operations in the region, with an excellent hotel and a scattering of fjordside cottages for rent) is about 2.5 hours by car, 3.5 hours by train from the Bergen airport. Oslo, with more international connections, is 5-6 hours away. We suggest renting a car to give you the maximum flexibility to get to the trail heads and other points of interest.

3. Norway is expensive, especially restaurants and particularly wine at restaurants. If you are up for it and have the facilities to cook, buy your food at the markets. They are far more reasonable, and the state liquor stores, called the Vinmonopolet, have an excellent and competitively priced selection of bottled and boxed wines from all over the world at reasonable prices. A crisp sauvignon blanc poured from a Nalgene backpacker’s bottle may be inelegant, but it sure does go down well with charcuterie, wholegrain bread, olives and Norwegian Jarlsberg.

4. The country has an obsession with hot food at picnics, which means that you can pick up an A4-sized disposable charcoal grill at any grocery or convenience store. We found them very serviceable, although a bit too bulky to bring on a long hike.

5. The Norwegian Trekking Association (DNT) maintains a massive system of hiking trails along with serviced and unserviced cabins throughout the country, much like the Appalachian Mountain Club does in the US. Their website is quite informative, and their shop in Oslo carries every map and guide you could imagine. If you aren’t going to Oslo, you will find the Tourist Information offices in Aurland or Flåm carry a reasonable set of topographical maps and hiking guides for the area.

6. Norway’s laws concerning the right to roam are even more tilted toward the hiker than the UK’s. As a hiker, you can go just about anywhere you please, across anyone’s land, as long as you do no harm. Not surprising that hiking and cross-country skiing are the two most popular outdoor pastimes in the country.

7. For those with a hankering for an adrenaline rush (or with teenagers with excess energy to burn off), the trail we took is part of a system which can be ridden on a mountain bike. The trail, which descends all the way to Flåm, is identified by Lonely Planet as the steepest bike trail in the country. Truly a white-knuckle ride, and don’t expect to see much of the scenery on the way down – you will be totally focused on staying alive. You can rent bikes at Finse at the top of the run, and return them when you get to Flåm, where they will have their brakes replaced after every use and shipped back up-mountain.

To see a map and slide show of Gary and Lorraine's Vatnahalsen hike, click here.

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