At ten on July 26, we hopped a cab from our London hotel to Waterloo station, and onto South West Trains to Southampton, then another cab down to the docks, and onto Cunard’s new Queen Elizabeth, for a one-week cruise to Norway. This was the third vessel to bear that name. Though the U.S. megacruise firm Carnival now owns the line, they maintain a reasonable modicum of authenticity and commitment to a long tradition. We ambled around the ship all afternoon, and at five weighed anchor and sailed east, past the Isle of Wight, and out into the English Channel.
Wednesday was at sea, headed 600+ miles to our first port, the oil boomtown of Stavanger. It was a relaxed day of exercise (great gym), reading, and bringing this journal up to date.
I was more than ready to get off the ship in Stavanger. Linda was more relaxed, and she waved me along. We anchored about a mile from downtown, because the Tall Ships were in port, part of a summer race from Ireland and Scotland to Szczecin in Poland. So I hopped on an orange tender and got back on land ten minutes later, just after nine.
It took me a few minutes to get my bearings (the compass in the iPhone is handy), but once I oriented I set off for the center of town. It looked just like all of this country looks: prosperous. I walked past the 12th century cathedral, the Domkirke. In the front and along the sides were hundreds of flowers and candles in memory of those massacred in Oslo six days earlier. (Later in the day, I saw a solemn-looking working-class family, husband and wife in their early 30s, and kids about ten, walking toward the cathedral, each carrying a white rose.)
I found an ATM at the Sparebank, withdrew 1,000 kroner, and ambled down to the long, skinny inlet that was the historic port, and that day teemed with Tall Ships from Russia, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, UK, and elsewhere. It was totally awesome. Everyone, young sailors (the ships are either used for naval training, or for youth development), locals, tourists, were in high spirits, and the easy camaraderie and mixing stood in stark contrast to the xenophobia of the Oslo terrorist. It was fun to watch the Dutch Eendracht docking, the marine equivalent of parallel parking. Once roped, cheers from the crew met welcomes from Stavanger people, including a song from preschoolers in day-glo yellow vests. I walked past the Norwegian Christian Radich, a well-known schooner that was purpose-built as a training ship in 1937. The Nazis seized it in 1940; five years later, just before the end of the war, it was bombed in Flensburg, and sank. It was restored in 1947. The Russian Kruzhenstern, a four-masted naval training ship built 1926 in Bremerhaven, was open to visitors, so I climbed the gangplank for a look around. Way cool.
At noon I walked back to the tender dock to find Linda, and we ambled back to the center past these and other Tall Ships. She wanted some pizza (two slices, a Pepsi, and a zero-alcohol beer ran to $32.67, which is why I had a huge breakfast; but the wi-fi was free, which was really nice after paying 40 cents a minute on the QE). Walked up the hill and into the cathedral, which had an ornate pulpit and impressive vaulting. Back down the hill. Passed a small sound stage just as a Zydeco band started up; they sounded quite authentic, and turned out they were L’Angélus from Lafayette, Louisiana, heart of Cajun country. Linda headed back to the ship, and I ambled a bit more, reboarding the Kruzhenstern to buy Jack a logo T-shirt (the enterprising Russians had a large souvenir table set up on deck!).
Back on board, I was a bit hungry, so headed to the cafeteria. While eating a cookie, I spotted an older couple looking for a place to sit. My table had three empty chairs, but they walked past, so I hopped up and invited them to join me, launching a lovely Talking to Strangers encounter with a couple of Scots now living with one of their sons in outer London. The husband was 87, and like my father had served in the field artillery during World War II (thanking him for his service, he demurred, like so many vets, saying “well, I really didn’t do very much). We talked about kids, jobs, and ended agreeing that too many companies had lost their moral compass. It was a nice chat.
Slept in Friday morning, until seven a.m., up to the gym and onto the bike, then breakfast and out on deck to watch our arrival in for, up to the gym and onto the bike, then breakfast and out on deck to watch our arrival in Ålesund. Most of the town that was built of wood burned in 1905, and the core was rebuilt almost exclusively in the Art Nouveau style, which results – even a century on – in a wonderfully cohesive and attractive townscape. Buildings were built either of masonry painted in ochres, taupes, blues, greens, and even a couple of pinks, or of grey granite. Solid.
We docked and headed onto a tour bus. We normally eschew shore excursions, but this one combined a look around town with a two-hour cruise on a smaller boat, up the steep-sided Hjørundfjord. The young guide was abysmal, but the roll through town was sensational, and the view from an overlook 500 feet above even better. We then motored about ten miles and hopped on the boat. There was some low cloud, but also a few (well, very few) sunny patches. It was about 50º F on the water and we felt chilly – a good feeling we’ll need to remember four days hence in Texas.
The fjord was sensational, with patches of snow on the steep green slopes, small farms with grazing sheep, barn-red houses in the Nordic style, altogether a serene landscape. The boat returned us to Ålesund. Linda went to our room. I grabbed my laptop and headed back out, snapping some shots of the wonderful old buildings, then setting down to work in a bohemian café on a quiet side street. The young barista, a nice fellow, said the wi-fi was a bit unstable, and invited me to try it out before buying a drink. He was right, but it was steady enough to work my e-mail to zero and send some videos from my iPhone, so all was well. Headed back to the ship. A good day.
Saturday morning found us well inland but still in salt water, at the head of the Geirangerfjord, part of the Storfjord, or great fjord. We were more than 75 miles from open sea. The weather showed promise, a few patches of blue sky. It was overcast all day, but it did not rain. I again hopped off early for a walk around, or in the case of Geiranger, up. Ambled up to the pleasant octagonal church, built 1842, and a bit farther along, then back down and onto the ship.
Grabbed a quick lunch and at one Linda and I went ashore and joined a group for a hike to Storsøeter, a tall waterfall about 1000 feet above sea level. We zigzagged in the bus, around a dozen hairpin curves, to a parking place and began the walk. Linda opted not to make the climb to the falls, which was on a quite steep and very muddy trail. Storsøeter was magnificent, nearly 100 feet of drop, and you could walk down the side of the cliff and stand behind the water. Way cool. My creaky knees did fine, better on the climb than the descent. On the way down I got much better at reading mud depth and finding rock footing, but my shoes were still brown. We regrouped, had a waffle and a coffee, and rode the bus back down. The cruise out of the fjord, entirely in daylight, was spectacular. It was very narrow in most places, with waterfalls everywhere. Truly stunning – and not surprising that the fjord was a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Sunday morning saw us docked in Bergen, Norway’s second-largest and Europe’s wettest city (I had been there once, on a rainy day in 1994). But we again lucked out – no rain and indeed blue skies all afternoon. I peeled off about nine and ambled toward the train station, admiring some solid old buildings that showed the city’s historic affluence – Bergen was the northwestern-most enclave of the Hanseatic League, a German invention of the 13th to 15th century, created to encourage trade and economic development. And it worked, as those ideas always do! (I later learned that Bergen had essentially the same status, called kontor, in the league as the smaller Steelyard that I had visited a week earlier in London.)
I hopped on a suburban train, through a long tunnel to suburban Arna, then walking three miles to Garnes, where the Norwegian Railway Club ran a 1913 steam locomotive and antique cars about ten miles south to Midttun. I actually reached Garnes by walking along the tracks (only used for the antique railway), something I had not done in years, at least for any distance; the view from the line is always different from that of the road, and I passed some interesting things, not least an old milk can and sign that read, in Norwegian, “Holm’s Station, 12.5 meters above sea level” – a reminder that the railway was the means to get farm produce to market in many parts of the world.
At Garnes, the Transport Geek was sweaty from the brisk walk but in a good state, and I bought a one-way ticket to Midttun (third class, the only standard that was offered!) and admired the club’s effort to create bygone ambience, for example in the newspapers and magazines (including a girlie publication!) hanging behind the (digital) cash register in the waiting room. Snapped some pictures and hopped on the train.
With a whistle and a bustle of steam we pulled out at 11:35, rolling back along the way I walked, then continuing south at a respectful pace. It was a good ride.
At Midttun, I walked a block, caught a bus to Nesttun, then onto a brand-new light-rail line, the Bybanen, back into central Bergen.
Met Linda, did a bit of shopping, and ambled back to the ship. Thirty-six hours later we were back in Southampton, and ten hours after that were home, in record-setting heat (110F/43C) in Dallas.