I met someone in Copenhagen who compared Norway to the Qatar of Scandinavia. I thought that was a fairly silly idea but after almost two weeks in between Denmark and Sweden, this idea popped right back into my head after a few hours in Oslo. Lets me be clear here - Oslo has nothing to do with Qatar. For starters, weather wise the Norwegians consider themselves lucky if the sun shines and I'm sure Fifa would have no issues hosting the World Cup here during a Norwegian summer (probably give them more opportunity to sell useless swag such as blankets and wooly hats emblazoned with some Fifa approved and copyrighted symbol). Lets not even discuss their views on women and economic equality.
What is odd after so much time in places where the bicycle is king is the amount of very nice German made luxury cars and a lack, in comparison, of two wheeled self-powered transportation. Norway is after all an oil and gas state. Lucky them. I subscribe to the theory that sometimes the worst thing that can happen to a country is the discovery of vast hydrocarbon resources. Norway seems to be one of the few to have dodged the bullets of corruption, oligarchy, environmental catastrophes (helps that the gas fields are in the ocean) and all the other nasties often associated with your average OPEC country. (Though I need to have a chat with my more informed friends, they do seem to suffer from a particularly expensive form of Dutch Disease). That said, it does have a very different feel to egalitarian and New York Times-darling Denmark.
I arrived in Oslo with a plan to hit up all the museums but instead spent a lot of Norwegian Kroner and time persuading Norwegian Airlines to hurry up and return to me my misplaced suitcase. That put a damper on things, but I did manage to have a moment of zen and go the Nobel Peace Prize museum. The Nobel prizes are handed out in both Stockholm and Oslo (confusing right?). Well, all the prizes save for the big one are handed out in Stockholm. Alfred Nobel was Swedish after all, but at the time of his death Norway was part of Sweden, and in an act of "can we please stop arguing guys" he decreed that the peace prize should be handed out in Oslo (or Christiania at the time). For such a small country - 6 million or so people - Norway has a busy and old history. Two things I happen to enjoy tremendously.
The winner last year was the European Union and the museum is dedicate to the winner of each year's prize. I definitely had a little moment of emotion going through the exhibit, it may have been a reaction to how powerful an act the initial idea of the EU was or just being upset at loosing my damn bag.
The next day, suitcase in hand (returned at 10 pm) I was on a plane to the town of Ålesund. My plan was to rent a car and drive the 100km or so to the tiny non-village of Øye. Located in the non-village is a historic hotel where Kaiser Wilhelm (he of the Great War), Karen Blixen (she of Out of Africa) and Norway's greatest playwright Ibsen stayed. I found most of that out after arriving, so don't think so highly of me. My initial reasoning was to get away from cities, people, noise and see some mountains that end in the ocean, otherwise known as fjords.
What I overlooked in my planning was the difficulty of securing an automatic transmission car in northwestern Norway. Yep, you have deduced correctly, I can not drive manual. It's a bit embarrassing considering my history and my family's ability. I just never really saw the need, until, well, arriving in Ålesund and being faced with an array of cars none of which I could drive. (I should add that I have driven manual I just have never enjoyed it enough to practice and didn't feel like taking a risk on vertiginous Norwegian fjord roads. Safety never takes a day off). My only options, because this was a Sunday and everything shuts down in rural Norway on a Sunday, was to take two buses, two ferries, and a cab to the hotel. I had only one moment of panic, when I arrived in sad-looking Ørsta in the pouring gray rain, disembarked from the bus and realized there were no taxis in sight. I love the Internet and Norwegian Telecom.
I made it thankfully, five hours after arriving at the airport and astoundingly having made no savings whatsoever in 'choosing' public transportation over a rental car.
The hotel was a bizarre little Victorian time warp staffed by the most charming and good looking young Norwegians. I spent the first day going for a long walk in the rain and starring up at massive waterfalls that seemed to start in the clouds ringing the mountains. The second day I combined a bus with a bicycle to go see the world famous Geriangerfjord. We seemed to be all alone in the world on the ferry from Hellsylt to Gerianger until we got to the end of the fjord and half of the world's cruise ship fleet was anchored there. It was a jarring sight after the isolation you feel everywhere else in the area. A hot chocolate, a ferry ride back to the other side, an hour and half bike ride through freezing rain, dodging cows, and I made it back to the hotel.
This morning to make my first of two buses back to the airport (so much simpler on a work day), a lovely young man from the hotel named Magnus (yep) who, on his day off was off to literally jump off a mountain with a flight suit (seriously) dropped me off at the bus station. It was a fitting farewell to this interesting country. I plan to come back and explore these mountains more, this time though I'll either book my car way in advance of maybe learn to properly drive a manual car.