Reprinted from March 2003 Roadbike Magazine
It was just before 7 o’clock in the morning, I was cold, the view was breathtaking, and I was having breakfast sitting on top of the Trollstigen, trying to contemplate where I was and what I was doing there. I couldn’t. Trollstigen, which roughly translates to The Path of the Trolls, is actually a road that cuts its way up through one of Norway’s most spectacular mountain passes. I was sitting on top of one mountain, surrounded by others, with names such as Bishop, Queen, and King, that towered around me as I took it all in while waiting for the other riders to arrive. Cold, hungry, and beginning to think I was seeing trolls. It was just what I wanted to be doing and just where I wanted to be. It is an experience that I will never forget, and just one of many that I enjoyed in the two weeks I followed the Trail of the Trolls.
Norway is nature at its best. Between the fjords in the west, the countless waterfalls, glaciers, forests, lakes, and streams, the countryside is unreal. I was impressed the very first day even while the guides kept telling me that things would only improve the farther west we drove. I should have never doubted them. To give yourself a mental image, try thinking of starting out in the southern Appalachians and driving right into Colorado, just skip the whole mid-west thing. That would be Norway. Well, even that does not quite do it justice. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Rockies, live at the foot of the Blue Ridge Parkway, but a fjord is a fjord, and we don’t have them. Sorry.
Fjords make it hard to build roads. Luckily, the Norwegians, maybe with a bit of help from the trolls (How else could you explain it?), have mastered the skill over the years, and the results make for some very interesting roads. Hairpin switchbacks to be more exact. You start at sea level and just work your way up, back and forth, back and forth. Then, to be completely honest, for I did this several times, you just turn around and do it again. Up and down, back and forth. One rider, and I won’t mention any names in case a loved one is reading this, actually turned around and coasted down a huge set of switchbacks with the engine turned off – for the challenge. I was behind him and the real challenge was trying to keep up with him. I couldn’t and didn’t.
These are the memories after spending two weeks on the road chasing trolls. The mountains, the lakes, the trees, waterfalls, and more waterfalls. Oh, and the roads. I drove up mountains, and down, alongside lakes and streams, through snow covered mountain passes with seven or eight foot snow banks on each side of the road, over countless bridges, and within inches of cliffs on one side and water on the other as I skirted along the thin edge of the base of a fjord. Many of the roads in Norway are just that, thin edges. Too thin. Several times a tour bus would come along and I had to pull off the road to the right, leaving myself three or four inches to spare, and let the bus crawl past at the base of a fjord. I assume that the trolls did not consider the size of modern tour buses, or did, but just like to amuse the tourists in strange ways. Whatever the case, it did make for some exciting moments and excellent photographs.
Besides the natural beauty of the country, Norway is really about the people. Thoughtful hosts would sum up the Vikings of modern day Norway quite well. I don’t know the whole history of the country but I must have missed something somewhere. I even majored in history in college but I guess I spend too much time with my Asian studies. We all know about the Vikings. I believe the words rape and pillage come to mind. Huge warships, ruthless killers, adventurers with a lust for the unpleasant. I guess I skipped a chapter or a few thousand years or so. How the people who live there now descended from the Vikings of old is beyond me. Not that I’m complaining, they were the friendliest, most helpful, thoughtful people I have encountered in a long time. True, it might have been the fact that they, for the most part, spoke better English than I did Norwegian, knew the country and customs, and were used to having helmet clad road warriors running around looking lost and confused, I don’t know. But they were extremely nice and very helpful whenever I had the chance to mingle within the crowd.
I must say that their language made for some interesting moments. The problem is that it is too close to the English language with some very amusing overlaps. Road signs made for great comedy as well as signs on buildings, newspapers, etc. The spoken language just blew over my head and was beyond hope, but the written language tended to stay still long enough for me to absorb and giggle over. One example is a sign I noticed as I pulled into a gas station. Right in front of my bike was the sign - SPILL HER. I looked twice and tried to figure out what the heck they were talking about but couldn’t. Turns out, as I found out later, that "spill" translates to play and "her" means here... Play Here. Still quite odd until you think of American signs where lottery tickets are sold. Makes sense unless you ride a motorcycle and are asked to "spill her". That is one aspect of travel that I relish. It wouldn’t be Norway if it was all in English and made sense now would it? Europe is Europe and that is why I flew across the Atlantic in the first place.
Which brings us to another point, Norway and Europe. Interesting connection. Yes, I know Norway is part of Europe, I just felt that something was different. I lived in Europe for a number of years, thought I knew Europe, yet there was something different about Norway. I guess that is why they use the term Scandinavia to set themselves and the other Northern countries apart from the "mainland". Sort of like living on the east coast all your life and then moving to Arizona, different, but still America. I can relate, I grew up in "Northern" New York, not New York.
Whenever I looked at a map of Norway (Norge in Norwegian) and dreamed of actually getting there (and I did for years), I always found myself pointing to Bergen, the city engulfed by the fjords. It was an easy choice and one I found to be better than imagined. It is a city of seven fjords and seven mountains with a proud history. Fascinating is one word to describe it. The city does not translate that well into English. Seattle does have Mt. Rainier and San Francisco has the Golden Gate, but they would be stretching it a bit. Not even close. No, Bergen is Bergen and let’s leave it as that.
They say I was lucky. The weather was not normal and that was good. Bergen is best seen on a clear, sunny, and warm day from atop a mountain overlooking the city connected by a cable car. I’m sure I would have enjoyed myself there in any type weather but I’m not complaining. Clear, sunny, and warm worked for me. It made for a nice "off" day of driving as I toured the city on foot.
Up early, I took the local bus into the city and was joined by the commuters and school children. I’m not sure what time school started in Bergen, but it was not the same as in North Carolina. I had a great time trying to figure out who was saying what about whom and it helped pass the time away. As a school teacher, I was just glad it was them and not me headed for school.
Due to the fore mentioned fjords and mountains, Bergen, for the most part, is not a big city. Once I got off the bus, I made my way to the hub of the city by just following the people, or if I was really good, by following my nose. The Fishmarket was were I spent most of the morning taking in the sights, sounds, and yes, even the smell of the place. The shops and the wharfs are the true center of the city. Just across the street was another aspect of the city that makes it special, the Hanseatic section of town where the Germans settled hundreds of years prior to my visit.
The colorful, close-knit buildings with their distinctive triangular roofs give Bergen a unique city scape that is unmatched in all of Northern Europe. Gabled wharehouses are transformed into modern-day restaurants, boutiques, and museums that give the city it’s well deserved charm. The fronts of the buildings are a work of art in themselves, but to really appreciate their architecture splendor, a trip up to the Floybanen, or overlook, is mandatory, tourist or not. Just a block away, tucked inside the mountain, a cable car connects you to the top of a mountain where the view is priceless, no matter the price. Once on top, I found out why the people kept telling me I was lucky. Fogged in most of the year, Bergen is breathtaking when seen from above on a clear day.
Besides Bergen, the tour also offered side trips to Lillehammer and Oslo, as well as an overnight stay in Stavanger, a large city on the west coast known for oil refineries and a NATO military base. Although I tend to view Norway as one big fjord covered with glaciers, forests, waterfalls, and lakes, truth is that it also has some interesting cities as well.
Lillehammer, as you might recall, hosted the 1994 Winter Olympic Games and that is what I remember about her. Well, to be truthful, just the bobsled run. Our guides set it up so that anyone crazy enough could run the official bobsled course in modified sleds with wheels that moved along at, or above, 60 mph. Crazy indeed. I was content on just driving the bike up the dirt road that weaves underneath and beside the course on the way to the start. The fun began once the others convinced me to hop in the funny looking cage with tiny wheels and "bob" my way down the bottom (and sides) of the course - the official Olympic bobsled run! Ha, you would have to be crazy not to if you made it all the way over there and didn’t try it at least once. Yes, a few of the other tour members made two runs, trying for the Gold perhaps. I won’t forget Lillehammer.
On another "off" day, I drove down to Oslo in the luggage van with Knute, our trusty van driver and all around good-guy, to take in what the city had to offer. Normally, while on tour, I’m not a big city type person. Fighting traffic, leaving the bike, the whole helmet, jacket, and glove thing. All the hassles of motorcycle touring come to light when I head for a city of half a million people. Knute made all the hassles disappear - he drove. I sat in the passenger seat, wearing shorts, and just relaxed on the way to Oslo.
I did not know much about Oslo and really didn’t expect too much from a one day visit, but I was pleasantly surprised. There was one thing I remembered from highschool, and that was the fact that a Norwegian sailed a reed boat across the Pacific to prove that the South Pacific was settled by people from South America. I remember reading about the Kon-Tiki. I had forgotten the facts, but I did remember the name of the ship and that it sounded like a great adventure. I found the Kon-Tiki in Oslo. In fact, I up-dated myself on the Kon-Tiki, the Ra (another reed vessel), Viking ships, and Polar Exploration while visiting the many museums within the city. Great adventurers those Norwegians.
Another highlight of the city, and one that I vaguely remember seeing a TV special about, was the Vigeland sculpture park. A highly skilled artist, Vigeland carved thousands of pieces that he felt showed the human experience. From the very young, to the very old, the artist believed that it was the everyday person, and not just the rich and famous, that best illustrate what being human means. Whatever the statement, the work is impressive and on a scale that is hard to comprehend. One artist (OK, he did have some help), thousands of pieces, and all within one very large and well cared for park. Impressive.
Stavanger, on the other hand, was a city I never heard of. All I remember is that it rained for most of the day (two out of fourteen), I was cold, and I didn’t feel like trying to find my way into a city by myself. As luck would have it, somehow I ended up with Per, the lead guide and wonderful host, and just followed him into the heart of the city and into the parking garage of the hotel. Turns out, the rain stopped, the sun came out and I enjoyed the rest of the evening roaming the port city with camera in hand. Truly an international city, Stavanger is where cruise ships from around the world jockey for position with oil tankers and fishing vessels, as well as sailboats of all makes and sizes. Our hotel was twenty feet from the waterfront and made for a party-like atmosphere. There were bands playing and people watching people walk up and down the street until the cruise ships pulled up their boarding ramps. It made for a great place to stay before heading back to Kristiansand, our home base, and where the tour began and ended.
As far as I know, the coast of Norway is the dumping ground of all the boulders and rocks carved out by the glaciers. Now I know what happened to all the mountains during the last ice age, and how the fjords were formed. The ice sheets cut huge grooves into the mountains and pushed the debris out to the coast. Huge rocks line the southwest coast of Norway. No sand, just rocks.
After leaving Stavanger, I made my way to the coast. Some chose to head inland once again, but I wanted to see what the coast was like after spending most of the past two weeks among the fjords and waterfalls. Maybe it was waterfall overload, I’m not sure. In fact, I’m not even aware of such a thing, but I headed for the coast just in case.
I was not prepared for what I saw. Before actually making it out to the coast, the countryside rolled out before me like a carpet, with a few bumps, but nothing like the mountains behind me. Stone fences were the first clue. Farm land on each side of me for as far as I could see, separated only by stone fences. A true sign of hard working people, or very strong trolls.
Then I reached the coast. Nothing but rocks. I stopped at a lighthouse for some photographs and all I found were rocks, and all I took were pictures of rocks. No beach resorts here, just a lighthouse and rocks. Miles and miles of rocky coasts.
Which brings me back to Kristiansand. "Sand", I found out, does not translate to sand. There is no sand that I know of. I did make it back to the hotel just before a brief afternoon shower and had no trouble finding the place. I had just completed a huge counter-clockwise loop across Norway and was ready to try to put it all into perspective. I couldn’t and still have trouble trying.
The official end of the tour came later that night. We had our "last supper" as a tour group, said our good-byes, and went our separate ways. A few of us stayed on one more night to enjoy the Norwegian holiday celebrating the summer solstice. A kind of Fourth of July party with bon-fires instead of fireworks, Per and Knute went out of their way - once again- and hired a boat to cruise up and down the inter-coastal waterway alongside hundreds of other small crafts. Everyone enjoyed the sunset as well as the bon-fires along the coast. Two weeks in Norway, and I only experienced one sunset due to the almost twenty hours of daylight at this latitude. Very strange.
It made for a perfect ending to a perfect journey.
My journey to Norway began with a stop on the Internet. I have seen the ads for years in several motorcycle publications. Beach’s Motorcycle Adventures have been leading tours of Europe for over twenty five years, and offer trips to Norway and New Zealand as well. Based in Grand Island, NY, Beach’s is a family run business that started with Bob Beach and his wife Liz, and is now in the hands of their son, Rob Beach.
I mention the family aspect of the business because that is how it seems when you inquire about any of the trips they offer. I dealt mostly with Rob over the Internet, but have received books, brochures, letters, and other information in the mail from Liz, and even a telephone call prior to my departure from Bob, asking if I had any last minute questions. That seems like family to me. It also is what makes the whole experience rewarding. They took care of every detail, mailed out all the notes and information I could ever hope for, and made sure all the paperwork was correct and complete. Then they handed it all over to a group of people that know Norway better than anyone, the Norwegians.
Nordic Bike Adventure takes over where Beach’s Motorcycle Adventures left off, an extended family if you will. From the moment I landed in the country until the moment I left, Nordic Bike Adventures, and the people who run it, looked after me and made sure my journey went as smooth as possible.
Started by a group of friends, including two brothers, Odd Terje Dovik (OT), Borge and Per Bendixen, along with Per Frode Nilsen, the group works closely with Rob Beach and handles affairs once the guests arrive in Norway. They are, in many ways, the equivalent of Norwegian cousins of the Beach’s extended family - family in the broadest sense of the word.
Rob sets you up, takes care of the paperwork, then "OT" and company takes over and leads the way. A perfect example of how a touring company should work, and indeed, does work. Americans in America, Norwegians in Norway, it doesn’t get any better than that.
By Brian Rathjen, Backroads Magazine
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