Our cab dropped the six of us — my wife, four friends and I — at a little hilltop apartment house in Hareina, Norway, where we were spending the night after a fjord cruise. We’d moved our groceries and luggage into our respective apartments, one for each couple, and then reconvened outside to stretch our legs.
We expected little more than a place to lay our heads for a night before heading to Lillehammer.
Instead, the six of us stood together, transfixed. Across a narrow valley, in the golden light of a fading afternoon, towered a wedding-cake mountain. A majestic, cascading waterfall sent its icy waters crashing down to a stream that wove its way past neat little houses and a tiny wooden church. Here was idyllic Norway, the country each of us had long dreamed of visiting.
We’d been in the country for nearly a week. We’d witnessed the worldly vibe of Bergen and the majesty of deep green and gray fjords. We’d pursued individual interests. Some of us had peeled off from the group to look for relatives, or to shop along cobblestone streets while others hiked in the mountains. But this tiny Norwegian village seemed like the pinnacle of our friends adventure to Norway — because it was a moment made better by sharing.
Hareina radiated overwhelming beauty.
Our two-week vacation in Norway germinated over beers with friends. The six of us — Mark Wallin and Jodi Julsrud of Eden Prairie, Mike and Jenny Peterson of Northfield, Jim and Heidi Walsh of St. Paul — connected through watching our sons play football for St. Olaf College. I can’t remember which of us first said: “You know, we should go to Norway after the boys graduate.” But someone always managed to keep the idea alive until, over the past year and a half, we got serious and dreams morphed into a handful of meetings, and meetings became plans.
The pull of Norway on all of us was strong. First, there was the St. Olaf connection. Heidi and Jodi graduated from the college and took Norwegian as their required language while there. In addition, the Petersons had family connections, with grandparents and great-grandparents who emigrated from the Stavanger and Lillehammer areas, while Heidi’s family came from the Voss region. Those became required stops as we prowled the internet for lodging and sightseeing ideas.
To save money, we traveled in off-peak early fall, staying mostly at Airbnb apartments and relying on our feet, trains and buses to get around. We divvied up whose credit card paid for what — Mark and Jodi handled the hotel in Oslo; the Petersons took care of housing in Stavanger; and Heidi and I bought ferry tickets and reserved lodging in Bergen. An invaluable spreadsheet created by Mark broke down the trip by dates, times and final per-couple costs.
By the time we hopped aboard Icelandair to Oslo in late September, most of our lodging and transportation had been booked and paid for. Over the next two weeks, the six of us visited towns big and small, ducked inside old churches, climbed to the top of a ski-jumping hill and cruised past rainbow-palette houses hugging fjord shores.
Traveling as a group offered inherent advantages. Heidi could go with the gang on a hair-raising hike to Pulpit Rock, even if I opted to stay behind in Stavanger. And someone could stay with our backpacks at a train station while others returned rental cars. Another plus: Three times, our Airbnb hosts informed us that our lodging would not be available. But with six smartphones and web access, one of us was able to find alternate lodging on short notice each time. The group dynamic also offered minor frustrations, however. For instance, deciding where to eat each night could turn into a half-hour street-corner negotiation while stomachs growled and tired feet throbbed.
In the end, taking such a democratic approach to trip-planning wound up guaranteeing one very happy result: From the bustling nightlife of Oslo’s Karl Johan’s Gate to the timeless view in Hareina, we found something for everybody. Norway exceeded our loftiest expectations.
A taste of Norway
After checking into our hotel in Oslo, we decided to fight off jet lag with a late afternoon stroll about this compact capital city of just under 700,000. As luck would have it, we found the central plaza near Oslo’s harbor and its 700-year-old Akershus Fortress bursting with hundreds of food trucks and white tents offering delicacies ranging from reindeer meat to brunost, the country’s signature brown cheese. We’d stumbled onto the annual Matstreif Food Festival and soon joined an estimated 200,000 visitors meandering through the city center, enjoying inexpensive or free bites of the country’s finest food and drink.
We would spend our vacation’s first afternoon and evening — as well as its final three days — wandering accessible Oslo, from the City Hall and its vivid postwar murals created by Norway’s leading artists, to the Viking Ship Museum across the harbor that houses three reassembled ships unearthed from burial mounds.
Just about every travel guide we’d reviewed recommended spending no more than a handful of days in Oslo, but I found the city endlessly interesting. Especially memorable was a sunbathed morning strolling among the more than 200 bronze, granite and wrought iron sculptures created by Gustav Vigeland for a former manor garden that became a public park in 1907. Climbing the stairs to Vigeland Park’s 46-foot-tall Monolith — a tower of bodies piled upon one another, carved from a single block of granite — I paused to place my hand upon the cold, smooth stone as I looked back at the flesh-and-blood crowds that had come to see Vigeland’s representations of humanity from childhood to old age.
Search for family
To quickly get up to speed on what Norway had to offer, we’d started our trip with the “Norway in a nutshell” tour. While the tour can be done in a single ambitious day — Oslo to Voss to the fjords to Bergen and back — we decided to start with just the first leg of the trip. We began with the 6:30 a.m. train from Oslo’s central station, spending several peaceful hours passing through verdant countryside before stopping in Myrdal. There, we boarded the Flam Railway for what’s considered one of the world’s most beautiful train rides, descending nearly half a mile to a waiting fjord cruise in Flam. We spied roaring waterfalls and tiny farms built alongside cliffs that rose thousands of feet.
A few hours after a brief cruise of the Aurlandsfjord and the narrow Nærøyfjord, our long day ended in Voss, a cozy town of 14,000 surrounded by lakes and mountains. We stepped off our bus and set off on a 10-minute walk to our Airbnb apartment at the city center.
For two of the three couples on this journey, coming to Norway was also a search for family members. Mike and Jenny each traced grandparents or great-grandparents to the countryside of southern Norway. Over two weeks, they visited several farms and churches where relatives once lived and worshiped.
Somewhere near Voss was the ancestral home of Heidi’s family: the Slen, or Slaen, farm.
One night after dinner, armed with a letter from Heidi’s dad containing not very detailed recollections from a trip 26 years earlier, we mentioned to our waitress what we hoped to find the next day.
“Oh, you should talk to the owner,” she said of Tore, who owned the restaurant and the apartments where we were staying. “I am sure he can help you.”
Minutes later, Tore came into the restaurant and promised that if we could get out to a gas station he owned just outside of town, he would help us find the farm. The next day, Heidi and I took a bus to a stop near Tore’s station. True to his word, he spread a map on a table showing several places nearby that his research hinted might be the Slen farm. He even drove us around to help us get oriented.
Then he handed us the keys to his car. “Good luck!” he said.
Despite Tore’s generosity, we never did find the farm. After hours of pulling into driveways and knocking on farmhouse doors, the closest we got was Heidi standing on a porch with an elderly woman who could speak no English. As they tried to understand each other, the woman pointed vaguely down the road to a place she might have remembered. We returned the car to Tore’s restaurant, unsuccessful.
That night, as we did most every night, we gathered to reflect on the day and recount our experiences. Over pizza, our laughter flowed like the wine we enjoyed as we shared our near-miss in finding Heidi’s family farmstead while the other couples described their day scrambling up the mountain behind the town.
Sunny ... Bergen?
While each couple had specific points of interest that we made sure to see, we left room for spontaneity and surprise.
Reflecting on what “wowed” him about the trip, avid outdoorsman Mike said he especially enjoyed the hourslong hike to Preikestolen, or Pulpit Rock, a 2,000-foot tall, wind-buffeted cliff that our group visited while we stayed two nights in Stavanger. Jenny said one of her most memorable unexpected moments was a 2½-hour hike to a ski village atop a mountain near Voss. Jodi loved “being at the front of the ferries on the fjords, anxious to see what was around the next corner.”
And, for all of us, Bergen was an unexpected — and unexpectedly sun-drenched — joy.
As we arose early on our first morning in Bergen, the godsend of a sunny day was not lost on us.
West coast Bergen gets 240 days of rain, an average of 89 inches, per year. We were scheduled to take a five-hour ferry ride to Stavanger early that afternoon, so we used the sun to full advantage, taking the city’s famous funicular railway to the top of Mount Fløyen. What we saw when we exited the train — unobstructed panoramic views of a gleaming city built onto mountainsides surrounding a busy harbor — made us gasp.
May, we were told, is the driest time of year to visit. Yet, for much of our early autumn time in Norway, we enjoyed mostly sunny days and mild nights. So we packed a lot into our time, strolling past cosmopolitan shops, supping on reindeer soup, visiting the city’s famous fish market and enjoying German-style beers in the Bryggen neighborhood.
Bryggen, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is Bergen’s old wharf, recalling the town’s role in a trading empire from the 14th to the mid-16th centuries. While its centuries-old wooden shops and pubs have been ravaged by fires over the years, the area has repeatedly been restored.
The wharf was a short walk from Mount Fløyen. Basking in the rare sunshine of a late September day, we were reminded with every lingering look just how incredible this moment was.
“Can you believe we’re really in Norway?” Jenny asked.
We would repeat that question, again and again.