Wandering in the West

Following our very touristy few days we took off away from the main attractions onto some of the fjords and islands on the West Coast. A couple of ferries, a few bridges and some very quiet roads and we found ourselves well off the holiday routes on the island of Ertvagsoya. We had no reason to head there other than we saw it on the map and decided to have a look. Linked on both hips to other islands by bridges it seemed more of a transit point down to the ferry points, especially now the toll of the main road has been removed.

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Mile after mile of fjords, forests and not much else. The odd small village tucked in here and there but even those didn’t really seem too worried about tourism – no souvenir shops, no ice-cream sellers, no cafes.  People seem quite happy to just wander around and look at the views – not hard to see why.  As with everywhere in Scandinavia picnic spots abound, find a good view, a quiet corner and they put in tables, chairs, some good parking and even a bbq, we have found a couple where even charcoal has been left by the previous incumbents for the next visitor.

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Lunch spot just for us

Despite it being peak summer holidays for the Norwegians as well as the most of the rest of Europe the roads are very quiet, nowhere seems overly busy. Whilst we have loved the scenery here without a doubt we have also been amazed at the sense of space – we looked it up to double check there really is that much more room here and there is. Norway has 14 people for every square metre of land, whereas in the UK we have 267 people for every square metre – amazing – oh and we feel very justified in not visiting Monaco as they have 19,183 people per sqm, they must have to stand way too close to each other!

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We have used a few campsites and all have had plenty of pitches, parking hasn’t been a problem and we have yet to queue for a ferry rather than just be waved straight on. We expected the wild / free camping areas to be similar to those in Spain, bursting at the seams, but we have parked up for nights on stunning spots overlooking fjords and beaches and not had another vehicle join us on several occasions.

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Views we would happily pay for

Last night we tucked ourselves away on a marina, a Norwegian motorhome joined us, had their tea and then left, just us a few passing cruise ships and a couple of dolphins out in the fjord for the night. Not sure a spot like this would be empty anywhere else in Europe.

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Last nights stopover

The whole do we don’t we visit the Lofotons has been a major topic for the last few weeks. We are close in that we are in the same country and it seems a shame not to go, then we checked ‘close’ and found we are 715 miles away, and on Norwegian roads the driving time is estimated at 18 hours to get there. We both agree its too far and too rushed, hey ho will need to come back in a couple of years to see the Lofotons and Nordkapp.

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Fishing huts on the fjords

Instead we took to a few more of the back-roads, if the main tourist routes were quiet and the Western islands quieter then these were deserted. We drove around the coast and didn’t see more than a hand-full of vehicles in two or three hours.

Our route North was capped at Trondheim, so we found a campsite next to the fjord and have sat out in the sunshine for our last few hours in Norway. The weather has turned from drizzle grey to “way too hot” and we have joined the mass ranks of the beetroot look-a-likes :).

Tomorrow we turn around so our route South will be through Sweden, we have no fixed plans of what to see and do so will see what we find on route. Our first stop will be supermarket to stock up – the supplies have lasted well but we are looking forward to getting more than half a carrier bag full of fresh fruit and veg for less than the national debt of several small countries.

Two of the world’s great road journeys

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View of Geirangerfjord leaving heading North

Two nights at Geirangerfjord was enough, we had done a month’s worth of washing, had a sit in the sun and watched the ships come and go, wandered round way too many souvenir shops and were both looking forward to somewhere a bit more peaceful and maybe seeing some trolls :). The route out of the fjord continued on Route 63, one of the tourist roads or ‘Veg’ as they call them. Pretty much as impressive as the road in, the Eagle’s Road has hairpin bends climbing steeply with not too much in the way of Armco, the worst bits were the dread of meeting a bus coming round the corner at the same time as us . Half way up there was a view point looking down the fjord, somewhere to stop for a photo whilst gathering nerves for the last few bends.

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Mountain pass on Tourist Road 63

It’s been surprising to us just how often the road stops and we have to take a ferry, if we had a proper road map this possibly wouldn’t be so surprising – however as we are still working with our trusty atlas the scale throws up a few surprises. We are the 6 metre length required for the lowest car charge and it’s cost us £8-£10 on most crossings. Eisdal was our only unlucky crossing where we were charged the next length (fairly as we have bikes on the back) and it doubled the cost to £20.

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The weather was looking ok for driving the Trollstigen Pass, a bit overcast but no rain all day. As we pulled over the final brow to the visitor centre we hit a wall of cloud and fog, visibility was so poor that just parking up was testing. We walked to the view-point, we couldn’t even see the a few feet ahead of us let along the famous pass, a series of harpin beds, 11 in all, that zig-zag up the side of the mountain to 825 metres above sea level in a 9% climb. It’s only open for 5 or 6 months of the year as snow closes the road from October through to early May.

For us it was a must drive, we had missed driving the complete Transfagarasn in Romania due to snow,  so we really wanted to do this one in reasonable weather so we could at least see it.

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They must be real then!!

Several hours later we were still sat there waiting for the cloud to lift, most of the tour buses and other tourists had gone down, the café and visitor centre had closed but at least 20 motorhomes were sitting it out with us overnight.  Come the morning it was looking just as cloudy, we had breakfast and pottered around and then suddenly the cloud lifted.  We shot along to the plateau viewpoint that looks down over the pass and our first view of Trollstigen – one of the most scenic drives in the world.

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Trollstigen – worth the wait

There is a viewing platform at the top from which nearly the complete road can be seen, its looks great until you start spotting the vehicles trying to pass each other. Coaches crawling along allow motorhomes, cars and caravans to take the outside edges with absolutely no room for error. The longer we watched the worse my nerves become so of course Iain added to it by standing on the largest viewing platform that has a sheer drop of 200 metres, a glass fence oh and just a few holes in the steel floor so you can see the valley floor below.

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Iain ‘hanging out’ over Trollstigen

Suffice to say, we made it down, credit to mon chauffeur – he did great, not sure I did anything other than scream how close the edge was several times!  Once you are on the road (navigator view) it’s actually not as bad as some of the serpentine routes we have come across in Norway, the fact that 130,000 vehicles drive it every year means it seems better maintained and safer than some of the other mountain routes.Bud (6)

As we were in full tourist mode the next thing to do had to be to drive what the Norwegian tourist blurb calls ‘the most beautiful  journey in the world’ the Atlantic Road. We had been debating whether to do this one as a few people had told us that many other roads were as good. But, being suckers for a well named road we just couldn’t resist.  The route started in the old fishing town of Bud and followed the coast up through numerous small villages and hamlets, each one having the prerequisite small harbour, red wooden houses, thousands of tiny islands and views over the Atlantic.

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For us and probably for most that visit, the small section that actually traverses the Atlantic is  the piece de resistance. Eight bridges that come up one after the other in just over 800 metres linking small islets and skerries. A breathe catching moment when the iconic Storeseisundet bridge comes into view, appearing to be twisting into the Atlantic. In the middle they have built a floating walkway around one of the small islands, view out over the Atlantic with a few small islets and then nothing much until Greenland.

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Storeseisundet bridge from the West

When we reached the end we took the advice of  several who had been before and didn’t continue through the tunnel into Kristiansund, as if we didn’t make the cheap price it was going to cost us £40 to get there and then either the same to get back – or even more for a ferry. Instead we parked up on one of the many viewpoints along with plenty of other motorhomes and spent the evening looking at the Atlantic, end result was we then drive the whole thing again the next morning and it was more than worth it.

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Storeseisundet bridge from the East

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The Atlantic Ocean

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Geiranger – jewel of the fjords

We had read a couple of reports that the Briksdals glacier was worth a visit, not sure what we expected but finding 12 coach tours at the base wasn’t one of them. Would love to have said we hiked up to the glacier, it was steepish but very like doing the Snowdon Conga – follow the kagool in front and you couldn’t go wrong.  For those not wanting an hour uphill walk there was an option of using a “troll cart” being  a 4×4 golf buggy, popular with many of the Asian visitors until they found out it dropped them a good 15 minutes walk to the glacier :).

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On the way up

Briksdalsbreen ends in a small glacial lake  346 metres (1,135 ft) above sea level. For us the most astounding thing was the marker posts showing where the glacier has grown and receded over the last few hundred years. Even in the 20 th century it receded by over 2500 ft in the first half of the century revealing the lake and then grew by 1600 ft in the second half recovering the lake again. It looks like the ice is going to break off any second, we sat for half an hour with our butties and a flask waiting for an ice slip but nothing doing.

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Briksdalsbreen – lake currently visable

Following our trek we treated ourselves to coffee and cake in the cafe at the car-park. Fully expecting to shell out enough to buy a new kidney we were pretty happy at less than £5 for cake and coffee for two. Norway is without doubt a bit contrary on prices, its either eye wateringly expensive or cheaper than your average trip out to the seaside in the UK.

We have found campsites at £35, then again we have found just as many charging £15 – usually on the side of a fjord with everything thrown in on the cost. Service Points for motorhomes wild camping (water fill / empty and loo empty) are all over the place – usually free. We found one the the other day that was the 5-Star of service points, so much so it even had a guest book so you could comment on how you found the facilities to empty your loo!! it was amazing, Iain was in there 15 minutes he was so impressed.

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Jostedalsbreen National Park

With wall to wall sunshine forecast for Friday we chose that as our day to arrive at our latest Unesco site, Geirangerfjord. Two hours drive on wonderful roads, scary tunnels and views that delay progress as they beg for photo stops every mile. We have never come across so many switch-back roads before, up and down each mountain on route, the smell of smoking brake pads (usually ours) pervades the air at the bottom of every mountain.  Again there were surprising amounts of snow and ice covered lakes as we crossed the mountains, whilst the roads are completely clear we passed drifts on the sides well over 7 and 8 ft deep.

The tunnels are freaky, too empty, too eerie, often no lighting and rough sides. Midway through many of the longer  tunnels are sets of gates with traffic lights which go red if the gates are closing (if floods are due!) – so 3.5 km in if they close am intrigued as to what your average car and caravan does to turn around as there isn’t usually a turning point.

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Frozen lake on the road over Dalsnibba mountain

The route over to Geiranger took us along Oppstrynsvatnet, a fjord that stretches forever with towering cliffs and the greenest water we have seen. As with everywhere we go in Norway most houses, sheds and holidays huts had grass roofs, it’s the norm rather than the exception to see them even on modern family houses. Many have flowers growing and we have seen loads with small shrubs and trees shooting out from the roof tops. It is on the project list for when we get home – maybe the shed first and then see if it catches on with the rest of the street :).

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Hairy houses – the norm in Norway

Geirangerfjord is listed as one of the most visited and photographed places in Norway, it is so easy to see why. Sheer cliffs each side with the small village at the head of the S shaped end of the fjord, visiting cruise ships come and go throughout the day and evening.  We were told it has rained every day for the last  three weeks, the luck of the trolls was with us then as we came down the mountains to clear blue skies, snow capped cliffs and pure green fjords.

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Our first view of Geirangerfjord

The village consists of a good number of souvenir shops, a couple of restaurants and a large hotel. It caters very much to the cruise ships and to the out-door adventure types – trips on offer ranged from Rib rides, a Renault Twingo safari (no really) and Road Skiing. The latter seems popular here, we pass someone skiing along tarmac roads at least a few times a day, and have even seen a few going up the mountains – we have so far resisted the urge to hurtle along on 4 ft long roller skates and pretty sure we are not going to be tempted any-time soon.

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Home for the weekend

Today its been less sunny, a fair bit of rain on and off. We wandered around the village and the tourist shops checking out the millions of wizened trolls for sale and mingling with a few thousand Brits off the Arcadia cruise ship that is docked in the bay here, it felt a bit like being in the Lake District on a wet Bank Holiday. Arcadia left at tea-time to the sound of guns being fired from the quay-side, returning the salute with several loud blasts from her horn.

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Big and noisy neighbour last night – Arcadia

The Norwegian Tall Ships race has been on this weekend, lucky for us three of the ships arrived this evening, then an further four have appeared to yet more gun-fire and all anchored just outside our windows :), whatever else may or may not be expensive here the views are priceless!

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Two of tonight’s neighbours

Fjords and glaciers

We fully expected Norway to impress, it has already gone beyond impressing and is fast becoming jaw dropping. The weather has been up and down, sometimes that just adds even more, seeing somewhere in a mist and cloud, then the sun pokes through and the view changes from stunning to breathe taking.

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Iain’s stunning photo of Hardangervidda

Following route RV7 – across the Hardangervidda we pulled in for morning coffee break at Lake Skiftessjøen, where the edge of the lake is lined with hundreds of small cairns and has views over the glacier. Along with several other moho we stuck the kettle on, poured the coffee and spent an hour taking photos as the view changed every few minutes as the sun broke through more of the clouds.

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Lake Skiftessjøen

Once we left the lake the day settled into a pattern that has continued all week, drive for 10 minutes, stop get out and take photos, drive for 10 minutes, repeat. As we headed over the pass the snow thickened, and at every parking space small groups of children were running around in the snow. Snow in July is too wonderful to ignore, as soon as we found a parking spot to ourselves we were out there – and yes we avoided the yellow bits! In some places a few inches deep, in others literally several feet deep – if this is summer cannot imagine it in winter.

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You can’t beat snow in July

Just before Eidfjord, there was a small cafe, a car-park and over-looking the area a 7ft troll stood high above on the next hill. Most of the snow had gone on the path up to the troll, making it somewhat of a tricky, slippy and muddy path but our first real troll so we needed to brave the elements. Since then there have been more waterfalls than we could count, several gigantic trolls, too many tunnels to mention and yet we still stopped for photos every couple of miles.

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Baxterbus down below from the troll point

Another day another bridge – the Hardanger Bridge opened in 2013 – another of the longest this time in Norway. Overshadowed by another first for us – as we left the bridge we entered a 7 km tunnel and after 500 metres there was a roundabout in the tunnel! We had heard of tunnel roundabouts but experiencing one is one of the strangest driving experiences, it looked like the Starship Enterprise was beaming down through the rocks. We took the wrong exit off the roundabout and had to come back to it again, our most worthwhile wrong turn to date.

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Tunnel roundabout – mind boggling

Waterfalls have ranged from the spectacular to the unbelievable, Voss was incredibly busy with bus loads of tourists, others as we climbed up and down the mountains were just as stunning but not a soul around.

Everywhere we go the hardy Norwegians are out in force, we see them at every picnic stop be it at a tourist attraction or at the side of the main road. Rain or shine, the tablecloth comes out followed by picnic hampers that Fortnum and Mason would be proud of.  Guess that they have long winters so make the most of the long summer days, sun set this week has been at 1114 pm, the days just never end its fabulous :).

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Voss waterfall

The roads marked as tourist routes are not subject to tolls so we followed the E13 from Voss to Vangsnes, . The switch back roads up some of the passes were views I could have done without. At the top of one of the passes there was a platform being built that hung out over the valley to give a view back down over the roads, I left Iain to get that photo. Some of the roads are not very wide, despite the fact there are buses and wagons, along with a few hundred  motorhomes, trying to squeeze through. Too often for my liking we were breathing in to get through a gap with a sheer drop on my side of the road.

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Switchback heaven – Utsitken RV13

Sognefjord was our first ferry crossing,  a 15 minute hop over for just under £12, not quite a cruise but as close as it gets as we were first van on so had the view over the open deck.  Whilst we are sure Sognefjord looks perfect in bright sunshine, it has to be said it is far from shabby in any weather. The third largest fjord in the world, 127 miles long and at it’s deepest over 4100 ft – which is deeper than Ben Nevis is high. Dotted along the edges are numerous small fishing villages, some of which date back to Viking times. The pace of life seems slow, no-one rushes, cars wait to over-take, people have time for a smile and a word – the Norwegians have got the pace of life just right for us.

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Sognefjord

We are quietly parked up on Nordfjord at Olden for the evening, well it would be quiet if we weren’t within spitting distance of both the Caribbean Princess and Balmoral cruise ships, moored less than a couple of hundred metres in front of us with generators working over-time.  At the quay side it’s a hive of activity with a few thousand people racing around the dozen shops trying to buy as many souvenirs as possible, taking trips on the toy town train or a double decker bus trip up the glacier (rather them than me!) and rib rides on the fjord. Strangely mesmerising just sitting looking at cruise boats that are going nowhere.

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Iain and Caribbean Princess

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Me and Dora – happy as can be in the snow in July

 

Top of the world

Another day another country, time for Norway at long last. When we first talked about this trip it was with the intention to visit Norway, many countries and months later we are finally here.  Crossing the border was memorable for more than one reason – the rain was so torrential we could hardly see the Norway sign.

Despite our leaving the EC we didn’t pass through Customs, the choice was Red to declare or Green and just keep going, we did the latter and were in with no passports yet again.

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That sign says Norway – honest

The question everyone asks us when we arrive in a new country is do we see a big difference. The usual answer is not for the first few hundred miles. However, Sweden to Norway one notable – the elk / moose signs show more than a few family differences within a mile either side of the border.

We both agreed we weren’t spending a day driving in rain so pulled into Fredrikstad (birthplace of Amundsen). Possibly not high on the tourist list of must sees, but there was a water bus, offering a free service so rather than look a gift moose in the mouth we took the opportunity of a trip around the city, stopping off at the Old Town with well preserved fortifications dating from the 1660’s.

The fort closed in 1905 and was in danger of demolition until after WW11 when it was  developed by a handicrafts organisation.  Now the many shops concentrate on handmade clothes, second-hand books, artist galleries and craft items.  Iain was in school boy heaven finding the largest model rail-road exhibition in Scandinavia is housed there, 2 km of track, 30 train sets,  set out over 400 sqm I lost him in there for nearly an hour.

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Fredrikstad Old Town

That it’s not really a tourist town can be evidenced by the fact we are local celebrities! We had only been parked up an hour when we had a knock at the door from a reporter from the local newspaper asking to do an interview with us :). Apparently, we are the first known visitors from Wales. Interview given, photos taken we are soon to be plagued by the paparazzi as those pioneer Welsh visitors :).

The famous Welsh motorhomers 🙂

Oslo was taken off the visit list as a)we did Copenhagen last week and b) not sure we could afford it. The price of a kebab in Fredrikstad was £13 – didn’t even include chips! Working on the assumptions cities always have mark-up we decided against it and took the Oslofjord Tunnel toll a few miles South of the city.

Tunnels aren’t usually that thrilling but credit where it’s due Oslofjord tunnel is amazing. Just over 7 km (4.5 miles) it’s a subsea road tunnel that traverses the fjord. For the first 3.5 km its a steep downhill all the way down to a depth of 134 metres (440 ft) below sea level, then straight uphill for the next 3.5 km. Its been closed several times due to floods, fires and even a landslide – doesn’t instil the greatest of confidence and glad we read all that after we got out the other side.

We stopped overnight at Notodden in Telemark county, ‘Seasick Steve’ the Blues musician lives there – according the the local tourist literature he is currently “storming the UK”?? Notodden was our first experience of a Bobil-Camp, a very large piece of waste ground at the edge of the town with a few million Euro worth of monster motor-homes huddled along the fjord, we pitched in on the end and spent the evening watching sea-planes landing a few hundred metres in front of us.

As we left town we came across Heddal Stave Church, 800 years old and the largest of the 28 preserved Middle Age stave churches in Norway.  Local legend has it the church was built by a Troll named Finn who disliked church bells, so once the church was built he moved on. Stunningly beautiful, so glad we found it by chance.

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Heddal Stave church

Our route on the map is now governed by the ‘green line’. We no longer go for shortest or fastest, we just look at the atlas and if there is a ‘green scenic route’ line we take that road. So far so great idea as we drove up the Numedal pass and our first glimpses of some incredible Norwegian scenery. Some of the highest roads we have seen since Scottish jaunts a few years ago, the pinnacle was at Geilo, 1100 metres where we pulled over for the night.

We had never heard of it, but it has more claims to stardom than we though possible. First is that the opening episodes of the Empire Strikes Back were filmed there, second claim is that it was the first skiing resort in Norway and and  is still one of the largest. The 1980 Para Olympics were held in Geilo and the Queen of Norway gained her ski instructor certificate on the slopes there. If that lot wasn’t enough it’s also famous for having some of the most luxurious and expensive holiday cabins in the country – oh and now those celebrities the Welsh Baxters are staying for a night :).

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