By Susan Kime
It is a late, long July afternoon of this Norwegian summer. The light fades, but does not die completely. Here in Southern Norway, at 11:45pm, the day glow diffuses, allowing for a long, ponderous twilight.
This is the blue hour, that in Norway lasts much longer than a mere hour. It is the period of twilight each morning and evening where there is neither full daylight nor complete darkness, the time between past and future, and in folklore, a time when spirits say their final goodbyes, as they pass from earth.
It is a time when light and dark, past and present mingle, and right now in Norway, the blue hour seems a perfect metaphor for the delicate, diverse equilibrium that has helped create the evolving cultural identity of contemporary Norway.
When we traveled to Norway recently, we saw for ourselves the complex, ever shifting balances of light/dark, nature/culture, past/present, that seem to pervade many aspects of travel in that country, and not just in the long blue twilight. These elements work to create a unique culture, infused with the restless strivings of old Viking DNA: adventure vs. home, with newfound wealth, and strong communitarian infrastructure, creating one of the most substantial Social Democracies in Western Europe.
The contemporary luxury traveler in Norway sees these moderations in two faceted ways: a strong sense of a living past, and an amalgamation of nature with culture. They have produced major and minor motifs for contemplative, reflective folk songs and folk tales. Norway’s past, embedded in stories of mysterious trolls, or friendly spirits that inhabit historic hotels and churches, inform and live comfortably with the vibrant Norwegian present.
In our recent Norway adventure, the dialogue between past and present emerged in fascinating instances, none expected, all memorable, all defining this unique Norwegian convergence in museums, hotels and even modes of transport.
The Norwegian Canning Museum, Old Stavanger
This little museum is located on the former premises of a major canning factory, tucked away in a semi-residential part of old Stavanger. It exemplifies a nature/culture confluence, where nature defines, informs and sometimes save the culture attached to it. It also is another exemplar of the living past: as the factory is a museum.
Indeed, it is said that the Brisling sardines and kippers saved Norway from poverty and famine. The museum itself is somewhat of a dark, dimly lighted place, but, surprisingly, all the machinery, built in 1900s, still work, which we saw for ourselves. We saw the past working in the present: a rare inspiring sight.
Hardanger Folk Museum
Founded in 1911, the museum is in Utne, on the Hardangerfjord. It is vastly different from the Canning Museum, yet of similar cultural importance, as it deals with cultural traditions of the Hardangerfjord country.
The Hardanger Folk Museum houses traditional Bunads, or formal, extremely complex costumes of the past, each Bunad representing a specific area of Norway. It also features examples of 17th century and beyond Hardanger cutwork, a tradition that is surely non-existent today. It is a type of tiny embroidery-like design that is hand cut into shirts, aprons and dresses. The work is so delicate that it looks like machine created lace, but it is all hand done, which, even when we were looking at it, is hard to believe what we were seeing.
The museum also has the most complete collection of old Hardanger fiddles in Norway, the earliest one produced in 1651. They are works of art, made with spruce, maple, cow horn, and the mother of pearl inlays were taken from local fjord shellfish. In addition to four main strings, this instrument has at least four under strings, which gives it a ringing, multiply harmonic sound different from the violin.
All of the exhibitions helped us understand the serious, yet melodic undercurrents of Norway’s national identity, but one event helped put these undercurrents into an more attuned perspective: when our tour guide, a young woman of about 22, was asked if she knew any old folk tunes, she said she knew many from her childhood.
When asked to sing one, she obliged us – and through the rooms of the museum, we could hear her sing beautiful, soulful melodies, with a soft soprano voice. Most of us had never heard a Norwegian folk song before, and it was a powerful experience, combining passion, sadness, and a kind of resolve: such a convergence of past composition and present performance, the play of light and dark tonality and melody, left us overwhelmed.
And it was not only in the museums where the past lives in the present: there were the hotels. We were fortunate to have toured some of the most historic hotels in Norway, both on the Hardangerfjord and on the larger Sognefjord. And when they said historic, they meant exactly that.
The Utne Hotel was built in 1722, and most of the furnishings and paintings are from that period. One of the paintings shows the wife of the original owner, Mother Utne. The present manager of the hotel said she believes that Mother Utne, a kindly spirit, still inhabits the hotel as she wants to see that her guests are well cared for. The Utne Hotel is located on the Hardangerfjord.
The Hotel Ullensvang, in Lofthus, also on the Hardangerfjord, was originally opened in 1846. Edvard Grieg, the great Norwegian composer, and his wife often stayed here. He also has a Composer’s Hut, still standing, where he did much of his great work, including The String Quartet in G minor, Opus 27, The Mountain Thrall, Opus 21, and Album for Mandssang.
We saw what he saw from his Composer’s Hut – again the past moving into the present – the clear, reflective water of the Fjord, emanating a kind of peace that only lake and fjord views can provide.
The Kvikne’s Hotel first opened its doors in 1752, and has been in operation since then. Five generations of Kviknes family have operated this hotel, and was one of the favorites of artists and writers in the mid-late 1800s. It also became, in the early part of the 20th century, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany often came to the Kviknes Hotel as a Summer guest, and also stayed with Professor Hans Dahl, a well-known artist of the time.
We sat in the Salon at the Kviknes, where there was original art, and original hand carved chairs, carved by one of the local woodcarvers of Balestrand, Ivar Høyvik, whose granddaughter and family run the local Ciderhuset, the apple cider mill. Under one of these chairs a plaque was found. No one knows who wrote it, but the note was burned into the wood. It said: “Kaiser Wilhelm sat in this seat on Saturday, July 25th, 1914 in the afternoon when he visiting Professor Hans Dahl… to say goodbye. He left at 6:00pm when he received the news that war had broken out between Austria And Serbia.”
The Flam Railway
This small railroad, the steepest standard gauge railway in Europe, goes from Myrdal to Flam, high up into the mountains and down into the small town of Flam. Though it is a short 12.6 mile ride, it seems longer because of its ascension and descending. The train conductor states that it has been said that trolls and other strange beings lives on the high cliffs and deep ravines, and near the waterfalls.
During our trip, when we left the train to see the Kjosfossen waterfall, we heard music coming from the thunderous waterfall, and an unexpected show of women in emerged the slippery rocks. They were re-enactments of the Hulder — the sirens of Norway, where in Norse mythology, they would sing to men and lure them to their deaths in the waterfalls.
This again, was one of those memorable, unexpected spectacles, and seemed to remind the visitor of how the darker side of the Norwegian folk tradition is tied to the present, especially at this thundering waterfall – both beautiful and dangerous at the same time.
Heart Of Light
Finally, the boat trip on the Sognefjord that moved us from Balestrand to Fjaerland seemed like a form of evolutionary, epistolary travel: moving from one form of civilization to an even more clarified form. It felt similar to the great Joseph Conrad novel, Heart Of Darkness, but in reverse, more of a Norway Heart Of Light.
Unlike Conrad’s novel, where the protagonist leaves civilization on a boat trip, only to find a darker, more ancient reality, we traveled by boat to experience a clearer, more lucid sense of the present, defining a unique Norwegian reflective transparency in all areas.
We passed small villages, farms, untouched by time, passed the old Hotel Mundal, built in 1891, home origins to Walter Mondale’s descendents, going toward the light of the blue Boyabreen Glacier. We observed the perfect, still waters that reflected the tiny villages, the reflections so perfect that it was hard to differentiate the virtual from the real.
So we travel in Norway, with yet another diverse confluence to consider, wondering which Norway is more perfect: the reality or the reflection.
Image credits: Susan Kime