By Sarah Bryan Miller
The ponies, shaggy and barrel-bellied, came up right to the car window. They seemed to be welcoming us but were probably expecting a treat. They were Shetland ponies, which made sense: We were in the Shetland Isles, on the largest island of the archipelago, the third destination on a Viking ocean cruise that took us from London to Norway, with plenty of midnight sun on the way.
Viking is best known for its river cruises (hello, “Masterpiece” fans); the company has added ocean cruises and does them very well, with new, comfortable and relatively small ships. They carry a maximum of 930 passengers and have witty lectures by academics in place of casinos.
Viking offers lots of excursions, but for Shetland, we hired a private guide. One of my ancestors, Charles Edmondston, emigrated from the Shetlands to Charleston, SC, in the late 18th century, and I wanted to see – and learn – as much as I could.
Shetland is part of Scotland, but culturally it’s more like southern Scandinavia; the local summertime celebration is called “Viking Days.” It’s almost equidistant between northwest Scotland and western Norway.
On an unusually sunny morning in July, the Viking Sky docked in Lerwick, the capital of the Shetlands, on the largest island, known as Mainland. We met our guide, Jeff Goddard, and headed south.
Goddard, a native of southern England, is married to a Shetlander. A thoughtful man with a fine sense of humour, he’d researched the Edmondston family (of Scottish mainland descent, they were a litigious clan, prone to suing the neighbours and one another), and packed a lunch to save on time.
Our immediate goal was to reach Jarlshof, at the southern tip of the island, before the tour buses did. Misnamed (Jarlshof means “earl’s house,” but there’s no evidence that a Norse earl ever lived there) by Sir Walter Scott, the site has archaeological remains from Bronze Age inhabitants in 2500 BC up to the 17th century.
Goddard took us where we could see seals basking in the sun and to a bird sanctuary rich in puffins, to historic lighthouses and the north coast. We learned about the island’s geology and history, drove past the Broch of Mousa, the best-preserved example of those mysterious round Iron Age stone towers; we took a walk along a cliff with a precipitous drop to the sea on the peninsula of Esha Ness, and saw the tiny island of Dore Holm, which looks (if you squint a little) like a horse taking a drink.
Shetland was a high point of the cruise, but there were more adventures to come, from a visit to Orkney and its Neolithic standing stones to crossing the Arctic Circle.
For much of Norway, a cruise is the best way to go. After sailing up the Vestfjord into the northerly Lofoten Islands, we visited a charming old fishing harbour called Nusfjord; its banks were lined with traditional red-painted cottages (red paint, derived from copper and blood, was cheap; the wealthy bought white paint) called rorbus. All is rugged mountains, blue seas and interesting architecture – and drying racks for stockfish, the air-dried unsalted cod that was the basic foodstuff and export for centuries.
We could have used more time at the Lofotr Viking Museum in Borg, a meticulous reconstruction of a Viking chieftain’s house located next to the remains of the original. Almost 275 feet long, it has a feasting hall, work areas, living quarters and stables. (The museum’s fjord horses and wild boar live outside.) Costumed guides cook, work on handicrafts and explain Viking life and beliefs to visitors.
The next day brought us to Honningsvag, the northermost city in Norway, and the departure point for North Cape, or Nordkapp. It’s where the Barents Sea meets the Norwegian Sea, a little more than 1,300 miles south of the North Pole, located on an impressively steep cliff.
Remote though it is, it’s a tourist magnet, with campers, cars and motorcycles (some with Russian plates) parked alongside the coaches; some passengers from our ship skipped the bus ride and arrived by helicopter. It was sunny, and warm enough that some folks were down to T-shirts. There’s a large museum and other amenities under the plateau.
This is Sami country, home of Scandinavia’s only indigenous people; their language is unrelated to the Nordic tongues. Once known as Lapps, the Sami have distinctive rights and protections in Norway (they’re the only ones allowed to herd reindeer) and their own parliament. On the road from Nordkapp, the bus stopped at a little Sami encampment. I recognised the sad-faced Sami man with a reindeer, dressed in an ethnic costume and standing by a tipi-like hut, from photographs; his melancholy visage even illustrates the Sami Wikipedia page.
Heading south, our next stop was Tromso, the “gateway to the Arctic.” Tromso became a seal-hunting centre in the 19th century and was the jumping-off point for many polar expeditions; the Polar Museum attests to both. It’s the home of the world’s northernmost university, Europe’s only continuously operating cinema (101 years and counting) and the “Arctic Cathedral,” a striking church with soaring roof lines.
Continuing south, we re-crossed the Arctic Circle, catching more dazzling scenery on our way to the city of Molde. Briefly the de facto capital of Norway during World War II, it suffered severe damage from the Luftwaffe but came back strong in the postwar era. Today, it’s thriving.
We visited the open-air Romsdal Museum, where 50 historic buildings were moved between 1912 and 1992; there are demonstrations of crafts, and children perform Norwegian folk dances. A little church was constructed from materials from nearby farmhouses and barns and decorated with salvaged religious art.
We were pining for the fjords; next morning, we arose early as the Sky glided through the towering peaks of gorgeous Geirangerfjord. A Unesco World Heritage site, the year-round population is about 250, with close to a million tourists every summer.
There are ample reasons for that. The fjord’s rocky walls are steep and decked with scenic waterfalls. We stopped at the most famous, the Seven Sisters (where just four streams were flowing) and at other photogenic spots on our way to the top of Mount Eidsdal. At 4,500 feet above sea level, it’s decorated with rock cairns built by tourists and snow in mid-July.
The cruise ended in Bergen; we started out early with a ride on the funicular to the top of Mount Floien, where there are cheeky goats and scenic views. (By the time we descended, the line to ride up was out the door.) After strolling through the fish market, we explored the 14th century wooden buildings of the Unesco-listed Bryggen wharf. That included the historic museum of the Hanseatic League, the medieval merchant powerhouse with posts around the Baltic.
A final expedition took us to Fantoft Stave Church and the home of composer Edvard Grieg. Stave churches, with post-and-lintel construction and distinctive roof lines were common here during the Middle Ages; only 30 remain. Dragon-headed Fantoft was one of several burned down in 1992 by Norwegian black metal musicians; it’s been reconstructed.
Our next stop was the best of the day: Troldhaugen, the beautiful lakeside summer home built by Grieg and his wife, Nina, in 1885, now a museum with a concert hall, where we heard a recital by pianist Joachim Carr. The tour of the house included a wonderful surprise: one of the guides spontaneously sat at Grieg’s short-legged piano and performed. The Griegs are buried nearby; down a steep hill is his composing hut.
The next day we took a scenic train ride to the capital, Oslo. We started our final day in Norway at the popular Viking Ship Museum; it was worth being crowded. We rode the ferry across the harbour to the Fram Museum, where the ship used by polar explorers Fridtjof Nansen, Otto Sverdrup and Roald Amundsen is housed.
After a tour of playwright Henrik Ibsen’s house, we strolled through the gardens of the royal palace and back to the harbour to the Opera House. Completed in 2008, it’s a massive white structure on the waterfront, with a unique design that invites passersby to ascend from ground level for several stories to enjoy a grand view of the harbour, and a perfect place to end our tour. –St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS
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