Cracking the Norse code

Property | Sarah Bryan Miller 10 Jan 2018

Sarah Bryan Miller

The ponies, shaggy and barrel-bellied, came up right to the car window. They were Shetland ponies, which made sense: we were in the Shetland Isles, on the largest island of the archipelago, the third destination on a Viking ocean cruise that took us from London to Norway.

Viking is best known for its river cruises; the company has added ocean cruises, with new, comfortable and small ships. They carry a maximum of 930 passengers and have lectures by academics in place of casinos.

Shetland is part of Scotland, but culturally it's more like southern Scandinavia; the local summertime celebration is called "Viking Days." It's almost equidistant between northwest Scotland and western Norway.

On a sunny morning in July, the Viking Sky docked in Lerwick, the capital of the Shetlands.

We met our guide, Jeff Goddard, and headed south. Goddard, a native of southern England, is married to a Shetlander. Our immediate goal was Jarlshof, at the southern tip of the island, before the tour buses did. Misnamed (Jarlshof means "earl's house," but there's no evidence that any earls ever lived there) by Walter Scott, the site has archaeological remains from the Bronze Age up to the 17th century.

Goddard took us where we could see seals basking in the sun and to a bird sanctuary rich in puffins, to historic lighthouses and the north coast. We drove past the Broch of Mousa, the best-preserved example of those mysterious round Iron Age stone towers; we took a walk along a cliff with a precipitous drop to the sea on the peninsula of Esha Ness, and saw the tiny island of Dore Holm, which looks like a horse taking a drink.

There were more adventures to come.

Norway

For much of Norway, a cruise is the best way to go. After sailing up the Vestfjord into the Lofoten Islands, we visited a charming old fishing harbor called Nusfjord; its banks were lined with traditional red-painted cottages (red paint, derived from copper and blood, was cheap; the wealthy bought white) called rorbus. All is rugged mountains, blue seas and interesting architecture.

We could have used more time at the Lofotr Viking Museum in Borg, a reconstruction of a Viking chieftain's house next to the remains of the original. Almost 85 meters long, it has a feasting hall, work areas, living quarters and stables. Costumed guides cook, work on handicrafts and explain Viking life to visitors.

The next day brought us to Honningsvag, the northermost city in Norway, and the departure point for North Cape, or Nordkapp. It's where the Barents Sea meets the Norwegian Sea. Remote though it is, it's a tourist magnet. There's a large museum and other amenities under the plateau.

This is Sami country, home of Scandinavia's only indigenous people; their language is unrelated to the Nordic tongues. Once known as Lapps, the Sami have unique rights in Norway (they're the only ones allowed to herd reindeer) and their own parliament.

Heading south, our next stop was Tromso, the "gateway to the Arctic." Tromso became a seal-hunting center in the 19th century and was the jumping-off point for many polar expeditions; the Polar Museum attests to both. It's the home of the world's northernmost university, Europe's only continuously operating cinema (101 years and counting) and the "Arctic Cathedral," a church with soaring roof lines.

Continuing south, we recrossed the Arctic Circle, catching more dazzling scenery on our way to Molde. Briefly the de facto capital of Norway during World War II, it suffered severe damage from the Luftwaffe but came back strong postwar. Today, it's thriving.

We visited the open-air Romsdal Museum, where 50 historic buildings were moved between 1912 and 1992; there are demonstrations of crafts, and children perform Norwegian folk dances. A little church was constructed from materials from nearby farmhouses and barns and decorated with salvaged religious art.

We were pining for the fjords; next morning, we arose early as the Sky glided through the towering peaks of Geirangerfjord. A Unesco World Heritage site, the year-round population is about 250, with close to a million tourists every summer.

We stopped at the most famous, the Seven Sisters, and at other photogenic spots on our way to the top of Mount Eidsdal. At 1,370 meters above sea level, it's decorated with rock cairns and snow in mid-July.

The cruise ended in Bergen; we started out early with a ride on the funicular to the top of Mount Floien, where there are cheeky goats and scenic views. After strolling through the fish market, we explored the 14th century wooden buildings of the Unesco-listed Bryggen wharf. That included the museum of the medieval merchant powerhouse Hanseatic League.

A final trip took us to Fantoft Stave Church and the home of composer Edvard Grieg.

Stave churches, with post-and-lintel construction and distinctive roof lines were common here during the Middle Ages; only 30 remain. Our next stop was the best of the day: Troldhaugen, the lakeside summer home built by Grieg and his wife, Nina, in 1885, now a museum with a concert hall.

The next day we took a scenic train ride to the capital, Oslo. We started our final day at the popular Viking Ship Museum then rode the ferry across the harbor to the Fram Museum, where the ship used by polar explorers Fridtjof Nansen, Otto Sverdrup and Roald Amundsen is housed.

After a tour of playwright Henrik Ibsen's house, we strolled through the gardens of the royal palace and back to the Opera House. Completed in 2008, its unique design invites passersby to ascend several stories to enjoy a grand view of the harbor, and a perfect place to end our tour.

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