(From Pat's Journal)
We decided to take the 8hr fjord trip after all on the bet that we'd really kick ourselves to learn "these" fjord were really spectacular, and we'd passed them by. AND WE ARE SO GLAD WE DID. We met our charming young guide, Alexander, while waiting for the ticket office to open - joking with him that we'd seen New Zealand fjords, and had pretty high standards to be impressed! We started off on a bus with about 15 others: 2 Dutch, 2 German, 2 Norwegian, 1 Slovenian, and those rowdy 5 Spanish folks that were on our Bergen - Alesund trip(!). The bus took us about 45 minutes to a short (10 minute) ferry hop across a fjord, then another bus leg to a big fjord ferry along the "urinefjord" or Hjorundfjord as the Norwegians spell it, for about 90 minutes of splendor.
There are hamlets (30-50-100) all along the way, and isolated farms at every feasible (and nearly unfeasible) spots. They are all now linked by ferry, and have tv, phone, and internet. Many have roads in between them - but not all. Many had electricity starting in the 20's with hydro power from the many rivers and waterfalls. In the winter, these roads are not maintained - so they rely on ferries. Many families fish (not season now, so we didn't see this) or work somehow in the oil industry with two weeks on, two weeks off schedules. Our guide says with access the bigger villages are actually growing in size since the 60's. One has to think about how hard life must have been 100+ years ago when people were really isolated 5+months of the year (when the days were 4-6 hours long!).
There were many, many ragged high peaks of the Sunnmore Alpson either side of the fjord, but no porpoises. We huddled up top ship to take it all in - it wasn't cold, so much as windy. We came to shore at Hellesylt, and stopped at the Union Hotel - a victorian hotel all swiss gingerbread to see where Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and English nobility/mountaineers held up between roughing it on yachts and mountaineering.
The rooms had names of famous guests on the doors, including Grieg, Ibsen, the Queen (of Norway), and the Kaiser. A short way on, we stopped at a museum center for a quick but lovely lunch plate of lox, prawn, lamb salami, prociuto, a soft cheese, potato salad, topped off with apple cake with a huge dollop of whipped cream and coffee. The museum housed an incredible collection of 13 hand-carved wood panel reliefs depicting the story of Peer Gynt from the Ibsen play. Our guide quickly narrated the story in English and Norwegian. He was in a hurry to meet our next ferry, and the tale is long and tedious, and the panels a bit disjointed - so I don't think any of us really got the gist of the tale (which brings me back to my brother Ken's stage managing Peer Gynt at Solvang which I also managed to shiver and sleep through).
Back on the road to Leknes where we board a smaller 62 Degrees Nord boat to do the famous Geirangerfjord (on the UNESCO World Heritage list). This is a much narrower and shorter fjord (about 16kms long), so the trip is just 40 minutes. Although the sky is quite threatening now, we brave the top level for the shorter trip. This fjord has several magnificent waterfalls - the first we've seen that are actually named, e.g. Seven Sisters, the Suitor, etc. Unbelievably, there are farms perched precariously on the steep sides of the fjord near them. The last was abandoned for farming in 1962, but are all still privately owned and kept in the farming families for summer homes. Some are so steep that the tracks up to them end with ladders, and they are said to have roped the young children from danger of falling off. There are many frequent landslides and avalanches, and you can see their wakes in the denuded trees on the hillsides. Some of the farms rowed their milk to a village acroos the fjord daily!
After the cruise, we ended in Geiranger - a smaller version of Flam. There, Alexander walked us to a Fjord1 bus, and bid us farewell. Another part of the tour group was going back on a longer route through Andalsnes - a mountain resort and Molde - an offshore island town before ferrying back to Alesund. We, however, took a 3-hour bus (and bus ferry hop) back, starting with an 11-switchback climb on Eagle's Road for a stop at a great viewpoint that looked up and down Geirangerfjord.
We then proceeded over the top and down a lush narrow valley with bigger farms. We pretty much followed the fjords all the way back. It is clear (as pointed out by Alexander) that it is national policy to encourage people to spread out and stay in smaller towns and villages instead of flocking to Oslo and the bigger urban areas. They intentionally maintain roads well, have built bridges and tunnels and have ferries to the smallest hamlets. Everywhere, the houses are sharp and and neat. It is obvious that in 50+ years, Norway has gone from being one of the poorest to the wealthiest country in Europe. Tomorrow, we get up to catch the 9AM Oslo bus for a 10+ hour trip. We did a shop today for road trip snacks.
It was raining when we got back, but soon cleared up. Alexander told us that it rained here 200+ days a year as well, but I still doubt it gets the awful Bergen on-again,off-again drizzle-rain-drizzle routine. Anyway, we were happy to have the weather we've had since leaving Bergen.
Here is a link to all of the photos we took today: Geiranger