Sunday, July 29, 2007

On the Viking trail

It’s an explosion of blue and green. The two colours swirl, smudge and melt into one another in the quiet of the Norwegian fjords; like dolphins, dancing and diving around the boats that pass them across these waters.

This is the Sognefjord, Norway’s largest and most famous fjord. Framed by ageing mountains on the sides and an icy wind all across, these waters run endlessly, constantly teasing and flirting with the sky.

The sky is not one to be out done. It answers the teasing water with magic of its own, pulling on different clouds and sketching new patterns; some heavy like a dark cloak, some breezy like a summer shirt; the sky is thundering and dark one minute, it is bright and blue the next; a different sky every 2 kilometres.

Breaking the monotony of this blue-green symphony are the little villages precariously perched on the edges of the fjord. A cluster of orange, red, white, yellow and pink splashes dot the corners.

Bright hotels and tiny stores nudge each other, holiday homes and farms wink at the boats, full of tourists gaping at them. The old churches stand even taller and the grazing sheep ignore the crowds, as a car pants up the winding road. Life in the mountains goes on.

All along the waters you can see chunks of history floating past. Listen to the mountains carefully and you’ll hear tales of valiant Vikings, the men behind the heavy steel armours and fur coats; of their wives and their homes in the mountains; of their incredible ships that wondered the worlds.

The view throughout the ride swings prodigiously between spectacular to stunning and breathtaking. Adjective abuse is common here. And the songs of the birds and the wind are punctured by the continuously clicking shutters. As this five hour ride draws to an end, the mountains are replaced by more urban sights. But like everywhere in Norway, nature prevails and everything else dances to its tunes. The scenery changes, the brilliance remains.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The midnight sun and other stories

The first day of our Norwegian holiday begins on a slightly damp note. It’s been raining all night, and a slow drizzle still falls. It’s early; the streets are empty, the stores are still closed. We pass silent cafes and exhausted pubs. We pass last night’s big parties, being emptied into grabage trucks. Every now and then, we look up; hoping to find the sun. Instead, we spot a few backpacks bobbing up and down at the end of the street, we’ve reached the Oslo Train Station; slightly wet, but right on time, just like the Norwegian summer.

It’s been years since I have stepped onto a train without a book by my side. Today, I carry two scrumptious reads, waiting to be pored over as soon as the train starts. We’re travelling on the Bergen Line, known to be one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world. The Bergen Line is Northern Europe’s highest railway system, and connects Oslo and Bergen, Norway's most important cities. It runs through brilliant trails of Norwegian scenery and across spells of harsh winter weather. Every now and then the line throws up a beautiful stop, with little story-book villages. We plan to leave the train at one such stop, in Myrdal, and head down to the Flam Valley, before making our way around to Bergen.

The first hour goes by quietly. Everybody settles down in the right seat. Bags go up, come down, and go up again. Sweaters come off; jackets are packed up, and then pulled on once again. Hungry eyes watch the train pull out of Oslo’s suburbs. Beyond the station, life continues as always; work, newspapers, cigarette butts, ties. But in the train, the weekday just blurs past. As we leave the city behind, the stops get prettier. It's still early and you can see the mist kissing the mountains, good morning. Dainty little bed & breakfast places look eagerly for passengers getting off. Outside, it's still raining.

Norway is built around the nature that surrounds it. Whatever little space the mountains and streams can spare is crafted into a town or a little village. Instead of tall concrete buildings, you see giant pine trees. Instead of cold black roads, you see bridges jumping over forests and past gurgling streams. Highways run through mountains, and the rail track, around it. As yet another green patch bursts out in front of us; we make our way to the cafeteria. It's amazing how a few hours of being touristy can work up such a big appetite. We capture a little table in the cafĂ© and don’t let go of it for another 40 minutes. Through the huge viewing window we catch a stunning reel of the country side. Felt green farms with wooly dots of sheep grazing; chestnut brown horses catching some sun; delicious country homes, the white walls gleaming behind the cherry red flowers; colourful gardens full of swing-sets, trampolines and bicycles; picket fences and smoking chimneys. And not for the first time today, we envy the people who live here.

The higher we go, the faster our jaws drop. The landscape changes dramatically, like some twisty thriller; from bright green to shiny white snow. It is the beginning of July, and the snow is still deciding weather it wants to melt or not; waiting for the sun to kiss it goodbye.

All we see now is a spread of white, with a log cabin here and a cold stream there. It’s so white; I have to shut my eyes from time to time.

At the mountain station of Finse, the train stops for a little longer than the previous stops. A voice over the loud speaker announces this to be the highest station on the Bergen line. It stands at a height of 1222 meters, cloaked in layers and layers of snow. The air outside is frosty, but pure, and sweet. It tastes delicious to my city bred lungs. As a bunch of tourists clamour around for group photographs, we explore the beginnings of the 10.3 km long tunnel ahead; this is the longest high mountain stretch in Europe. The whistle blows and the train slowly gets swallowed by the giant tunnel.

The tunnel spits us back out on to the white expanse. The sudden burst of white is harsh on the eyes. But as we inch towards Mrydal, I notice bits of green crawling back into the white. The closer we get, the greener it gets. Soon, it’s time to get off.

Mrydal is surrounded by green-white mountains, a falling valley, hiking trails and a little village. We wait on platform 11 for our next train. It reminds me of Harry Potter and platform 93/4. I have an insane urge to go crashing into the red structure; after all this is the magical land of vikings and trolls. As we wait I notice, for the first time today, the number of tourists around; enthusiastic camera wielding Japanese tours; loud Americans with gigantic guide books; seasoned Europeans, armed with their multi-purpose backpacks; a formally dressed Chinese crowd, with satellite phones to match; and a few Indians looking around with small, happy smiles - an old aunty in a pretty orange cotton sari clutches at her shawl, trying to wrap every inch of warmth around her crumpled sari.

Our way down to Flam is in the Flamsbana, a green carriage train. Unlike the fancy modern train that dropped us off at Mrydal, the Flamsbana is more traditional; it has an old world charm to it, and reminds me of a toy train chugging down steep mountain slopes. The ride through the Flam Valley is an engineering marvel, to say the least. The 20 km route has been carved across and through the valley, connecting Mrydal, perched 866 meters high in the sky, to the village of Flam, sitting pretty at a mere 2 meters.

The Flam Railway is the world’s steepest line (on normal gauge). It was built to link the Bergen Line to the Sognefjord. This complex system of spiraling tracks along the mountain edge dives into the heart of the valley, through 20 manually crafted tunnels. Little wonder the line took a good 20 years to build.

If you look closely you can see the spiralling tunnels embedded on the mountain edges.

There’s the science and then there is the view. Snow capped mountains tower around the Valley, spilling thunderous waterfalls all around it. The water roars, making the valley seem even quieter and calmer. Each time the train takes a sharp turn, a sheer cliff or a gorgeous ravine shows up. As the train chuggs downwards, the whole valley opens up, like a pop-up card, unfolding in all its glory. When I finally manage to tear my eyes away this addictive collage of white and green, I notice a crazy riot of wildflowers spread out on the slopes.

The train makes only one major stop in the valley, at the majestic Kjoss waterfall. A mass of white thunders down, drenching everyone in a sharp, cold spray. And as you take in this marvelous sight, suddenly from somewhere within the waters, a beautiful voice rises, drapping the valley in a haunting melody. You look around for the singer, startled, surprised. And up on the rocks, you see a woman dressed in a blue peasant’s dress, singing her heart out. It is all slightly surreal, but fairly exciting. We are later told it’s a tragic troll song, from Norse mythology.

As we get closer to the floor of the valley, the reckless cliffs make way for mint green meadows; broken in parts by crooked mountain streams.

The village of Flam makes a shy, quiet appearance towards the end of the ride; it looks more like a painting that has escaped from somewhere. I have to constantly remind myself, real people live here.

The village sits in the inner most corner of the Aurlandsfjord. 'Flam' literally means 'little place between steep mountains.' The mountains and the valley stand behind it, and the fjords open out in front, no wonder the tourists come in train loads.

Flam is teeming with tourists; especially near the souvenir stalls. You really can't blame the crowd, with little Vikings and trolls lined up on the counter, I couldn't resist either.

We sit at one of the little restaurants lined up on the waterfront. And immediately, accents from the world over join us for a meal. As we dig into our plates, the camera takes a much needed little nap. Next on the agenda is a fjord cruise; we wonder if it will match up to the train rides. And as we wrap up our meal, and head to the boat, I realize my books are still in my bag, unopened.