Our Norwegian Saga: Kirkenes and Arrival in Oslo

September 20, 2018

Today we were to dock at Kirkenes, the final stop on our journey up the west coast of Norway. It had been a busy night of packing up the luggage and ensuring that nothing essential had rolled under the bed or been lost in a closet. As on many cruises, suitcases had to be out in front of the cabin before midnight. Luggage sprouted like overnight mushrooms in the passageway, a tangible reminder that the trip was over.

We ate our last breakfast on the MS Spitsbergen, looking out the dining room window at the wake, the waters of the Barents Sea roiling behind us. The coastline scrolled by—as if we were watching a movie that we knew was soon to roll its final credits.

Final Port of Call at Kirkenes, 2018

Kirkenes is in Sør-Varanger Municipality in Finnmark, near the Russian border. We could pretend to cite some facts about the town, as if our visit there had been more substantial. But, truth be told, we have only vague impressions. We were loaded onto an airport transfer bus fifteen minutes after docking, and the only memories we have are recorded in some images taken from the bus window on the way to the airport at Høybuktmoen, some nine miles west of town. A two-hour wait for our flight to Oslo did not leave any particular imprint upon us.

On the other hand, once on the flight, there were intermittent views of the landscape below—the flight path taking us over parts of Norway we had not seen before. Through the cloud cover, every so often, we could see tantalizing glimpses of forests, rivers, lakes, and towns. As we approached the Oslo Airport at Gardermoen, about twenty-two miles from the city, we dipped down over the pastoral landscape of Romerike in Akershus county, spying farms and small towns out the window. There seemed to be evidence of lumbering in the wooded region, an artifact of human occupation more visible from the air.

Approaching Oslo Airport, 2018

The Oslo Airport was a sprawling beast compared to the airport at Kirkenes. We had to take some time to negotiate it, looking for a way to purchase travel passes for the NSB transportation system, the Norges Statsbaner or Norwegian State Railway. These passes would provide us with a way into town—a forty-five minute ride—and access to buses and the T-Bahn subway. There, with the help of a courteous NSB employee, we managed to get four passes and be on our way to Oslo-S, the Oslo Central Station. From there, after picking up our Oslo Passes (having calculated the benefit of doing so in light of our museum itinerary), we journeyed exactly one subway stop to the neighborhood of Grønland where we would stay in a spacious apartment just across from the Grønland church.

It was a bit of a slog to the apartment; it was beginning to rain. We were carrying backpacks and negotiating wheeled luggage through the teeming streets. Grønland is a multi-ethnic, vibrant area with produce shops, cafés, ethnic restaurants, and a mix of the usual Joker and REMA 1000 convenience and grocery stores. Nevertheless, we eventually found the apartment by dint of Justin’s GPS and settled in. Justin and Andrea forayed out to the nearby REMA and brought back some food and beverage. We fell into an early sleep, after discussing how to spend our upcoming long weekend in Oslo.

Our Norwegian Saga: The North Cape

September 19, 2018

The MS Spitsbergen continued its voyage, cruising steadily to the north: our destination for the day was The North Cape (Nordkapp) on the island of Magerøya. We were taken on a comfortable modern bus from the dock at Honningsvåg, the northernmost city in Norway we were told, along route E69 to a visitor center, The North Cape Hall.

On the way to the visitor center the landscape began to change. Trees disappeared as we made a steep ascent up the mountainous terrain. Free-ranging reindeer appeared every so often, to the left and right, grazing the increasingly arctic vegetation. Every turn opened a vista, calling for digital snapshots through the bus windows of this exotic view and that one. As if we could hope to capture, and never lose, the evanescent experiences literally passing us by.

We stopped about half-way there, to visit a gift shop. These stops—ten minutes or so in length—are a feature of most every organized tour we’ve ever taken. We don’t mind them; they are no doubt negotiated with local businesses and municipalities as an integral part of the local economy. They keep the roads open and the infrastructure healthy; if we visit, we buy. If we buy; it makes it more probable that we, and others like us, can continue to visit. Tourist economies have their own dynamic, and we must take these inauthentic experiences as part of a larger package with the more authentic and memorable.

Off to the side, a Sámi man stood with a reindeer, feeding the animal hay from a sack. He accepted the odd coin from enthralled tourists, who viewed him like an exotic specimen from some ethnographic zoo. Even we, more skeptical than most of these sorts of exhibitions, captured a few images. He seemed to be camped near the gift shop, drawn to the location by access to tourists. His lavvu, or Sámi tipi, looked well used and long inhabited.

Sámi Lavvu at the North Cape, 2018

Perhaps his reindeer herd was no longer profitable and herding another kind of domestic animal was more sustainable. He looked a little the worse for wear—teetering on the edge of a life he knew well but could barely sustain. So, we used him, and he used us. We continued on, leaving him behind, as we traveled on by coach to North Cape Hall.

Sámi Man on the Way to the North Cape, 2018

Nordkaphallen, as it is called in Norwegian, sits in virtual isolation on a barren plateau whose northern edge is sheared off by a giant one thousand and seven foot cliff dropping dizzily down into the conjoined waters of the Barents and Norwegian Seas. The cliff top is a popular spot for viewing the Northern Lights, but we were there in September, in the afternoon, and, sadly, would not be seeing any lights today. Perhaps, on another trip to Norway, only now germinating in our travel ambitions, we could gaze at the aurora from the rocky, lichen-covered edge of the world. For now, the view is spectacular, desolate, bleak, and wild. The world feels so large, and we so small in it.

This clifftop, marked by a massive steel globe, is promoted as the northernmost point of Europe, although this is a bit of an exaggeration. It is simply the northernmost point that tourists typically get to visit. A nearby point, Knivskjellodden, is actually four thousand, seven hundred and eighty feet further north. Still, it is as far north as we have ever been—or ever expected to be. Can we imagine ourselves traveling to the Svalbard Islands another five hundred miles North, or to the North Pole six hundred and fifty miles further still? In our late sixties, we doubt it; but such imaginings cost us nothing.

There was a running joke on the bus, as we travel to, and return from the Cape. We are traveling the northernmost road, we will have the northernmost coffee, see the northernmost souvenirs, rocks (and reindeer droppings) in all of Europe. We will use the northernmost toilets. These claims might not have all been strictly quite true, but they were true enough for most of our fellow travelers.

The Hall was built in 1988 and is a thoroughly modern building with theatre, restaurant, and gift shop, the latter a ubiquitous constant of modern tourist Norway. Before the modern amenities appeared, there had been a succession of wooden buildings to greet hardy adventurists.  Tourist travel dates back only to 1875, when Thomas Cook organized the first brave group of twenty-four to make the visit. After this, the first wooden buildings began to appear, including Stoppenbrink’s Champagne Pavilion, an octagonal wooden structure built between 1891 and 1892. This building played host to the North Cape tradition of commemorating the arctic visit with a flute of champagne, a tradition that seems to be the oldest ritual, dating to the 1840s, associated with the Cape.

We could see no trace of this or any earlier buildings, the Pavilion having been blown away by the wind in 1914, to be replaced by a post office and washrooms in 1928. In 1933 another building was added, and the washrooms moved there, while the existing space became a waiting room. We were offered no champagne, in any case.

Nordkapp, too, was on Casper and Gjertine’s itinerary. In his journal Casper wrote about their precarious journey to the cape. The E69, the road we took to Nordkapp in relative comfort, was built in 1956. Before that, the usual landing site for tourist ships was at Hornviken, the Horn of the North Cape. Visitors climbed up a trail on the side of the North Cape Plateau using a set of steps, one thousand and eight to be exact, to gain access to the plateau and the few amenities located there in those days.

From Casper’s translated journal entry, dated Saturday July 16, 1932: “We… got to North Cape at 5 PM. The weather was fine but the waves were still in motion. We went ashore at 8 PM and climbed on top of the hill. The path was narrow and steep in some places. Ropes were fastened to posts for to hold onto. It took about an hour to get to the top to the first house and then 15 minutes to walk across the top to the Post Office.”

Those one thousand and eight steps remain visible today, although, alas, we did not get a chance to see them. After their ascent to the plateau using the steps, Casper and Gjertine lingered a while at the Post Office to purchase postcards and stamps. They most likely peered out over the cliff northward, towards distant Svalbard.

The Steps to the North Cape Plateau at Hornviken

From reading his journal we know that Casper and Gjertine then sought out the King Oscar monument. “There was a monument of granite with King Oscar’s name on it and the flag was waving on both places. It gave us a pleasant feeling to stand on the northernmost part of the world.”

The King Oscar monument, a modest stone erected in 1873, commemorated Oscar the II’s visit to Nordkapp on July 2, 1873. Our first attempt to locate the monument failed. Did it still exist? Had it been moved? While making our own purchases at the North Cape gift shop, we asked the two women at checkout about the monument. Yes, they said, the monument still stands but has moved, and they directed us to its new location.

Joan at the King Oscar Monument at the North Cape, 2018

We found the small stone obelisk honoring King Oscar II in a spot overlooking the Barents Sea, and Greg snapped a photo while Joan stood in front of the old memorial. Perhaps Casper had photographed Gjertine in front of this monument some eighty-six years earlier. Perhaps it was one of the many photographs documenting that visit that have been lost.

The modern metal globe—the modern, contemporary symbol of the North Cape—displaced the Oscar Monument in 1974. The old monument, maybe not quite large enough, quite impressive enough, not quite meaningful enough for the throngs of non-Norwegian tourists, was shunted off to the side of North Cape Hall, to the West, no longer occupying pride of place on the north-facing promontory.

The Iron Globe at the North Cape, 2018

Today tourists thronged the large iron globe. Posing, posturing, speaking the body language of the tourist—look at me, I am here. Only we, and Andrea and Justin, and a few others, located the older monument, and stood there thoughtfully for a few brief moments, contemplating the past and the swift passage of time, before our bus driver herded us like two-legged reindeer back onto our bus.

Past and present. One does not proceed as directly from the other as we might imagine. Joan had stood, and, simultaneously, not stood, in her great-grandparents’ footsteps. The Oscar monument was at once the same, and yet not the same. It had been displaced, in both place and time. Members of an extended family, removed by four generations, had all voyaged to the North Cape and spent a few memorable hours upon the same plateau.

Joan had never met two of her fellow travelers to the North, great grandparents Casper and Gjertine. The relative brevity of the human life span usually prevents such meetings.  Yet here, with the obelisk behind her, she has, nevertheless, joined with them somehow. She, and son Justin, have built, and then crossed, a bridge of common experience and shared emotion to greet them. They stand together and look, as one, out over the gray waters of the endless sea to the uttermost North.


Our Norwegian Saga: Tromsø and Northern Lights

September 18, 2018

Today, while Justin and Andrea went to visit Norwegian huskies, we went for a walkabout in downtown Tromsø. Unlike Bødo and, indeed, much of Finnmark, this vibrant Arctic city seemed to have preserved some of its historic wooden architecture. There were nineteenth century wooden houses all along the main thoroughfare, the Storgata, that flanked the waterfront.

Wooden Houses along the Storgata in Tromsø, 2018

We could have taken an excursion, or visited a museum or two today, but instead we visited a small selection of antique, vintage, and thrift stores. For some reason Tromsø seemed to have quite a few. In Norway the Salvation Army, especially, seems to have locations in every city or town of any size. These “Fretex” shops, hold the same kind of objects that Goodwill and Salvation Army stores hold at home: clothes, housewares, used books, and the usual suspects. Of course, for us, the difference is that here is always a chance that someone’s old cast-off will be an exotic treasure. Value truly is in the eye of the beholder. Someone’s familiar and unwanted becomes another’s object of desire.

Shopping in Tromsø, 2018

We purchased a colorful handmade woolen tapestry, a hand-knitted ethnic ensemble for a young girl, and a pair of klokkestrenge (Norwegian bell pulls). These textiles were wonderful mementoes and suited to our luggage and weight restrictions. For us there is a certain thrill generated by this modern-day hunting and gathering. We are no longer tracking down the forage and game needed to survive, certainly. But there is a faint echo of the daily hunt our long-ago ancestors pursued.

Satisfied and laden with treasure from an afternoon’s excursion, we returned to our ship, the MS Spitsbergen. Except, for a short uncertain moment, we couldn’t, much to our surprise, find it. We know we were in the right general location, but the ship was nowhere to be seen. Then, we saw a sliver of the bow peeking out—the ship almost entirely hidden by the embarkation hall. We walked gratefully up the gangplank. Tromsø was a thrill, but we weren’t prepared to spend the night.

That very evening, in fact, a treat lay in store for us. Just around the time we had finished dinner, about a quarter to nine in the evening, the ship’s tour coordinator announced the long-awaited appearance of the Northern Lights. Everyone, it seemed, rose at once from their tables and rushed for coats and scarves to escape to the open upper deck. Only to be disappointed. Everyone wondered aloud. Where are they?  What Northern Lights? False alarm?

Then there was a small emergency with the automatic doors controlling access to the deck, and for a time, the two of us were stuck in a small vestibule, unable to access the deck or return below. The crew appeared with screwdrivers, access keys, and worried expressions but succeeded in freeing us from our temporary prison. We rejoined our fellow travel companions, Justin and Andrea, who had gone topside before us, when the doors were still operational. But the anticipated display of colorful lights had not appeared, and we began to notice discouraged passengers returning to their rooms below.

We decided to wait. The weather conditions have to be just right for the elusive Northern Lights to show themselves. Travelers have gone to Iceland, Norway, Finland, and other destinations just to see them, only to be disappointed when they don’t appear. Yet, for an experience said to be so beautiful, so magical and other-worldly, surely we could wait a little longer, for we may never have this chance again.

Justin, meanwhile, had met a seasoned traveler who told him the lights would be better viewed with a good camera. Apparently, our iPhones wouldn’t be able to capture the lights, should they choose to appear. Greg ran downstairs, retrieved his Nikon, googled the appropriate camera settings, and then ran back upstairs (through the now fixed doors).

And then we were rewarded for our patience, perhaps by the Norse gods themselves. The Northern Lights were beginning to be visible to the naked eye. But, through the camera lens, they were even more distinct, brilliant, and ethereal. Greg captured a half-dozen or so pieces of evidence on his camera. Not professional pictures, by any stretch, but, nevertheless, proof that we were here—that we four had stood together on this deck, on this very special night, and had seen magnificence in the heavens.

Andrea remarked that we four had been fortunate to witness two extraordinary celestial events together: first, a total solar eclipse in Oregon on August 21st, 2017, and now the transcendent and mystical experience of the aurora borealis.

The Northern Lights, 2018

Had Casper and Gjertine stood on the deck of the SS Stavangerfjord on just such a night? There is no mention in their 1932 journal about the Northern Lights, dancing green and blue in the sky. But Casper had described, eloquently, climbing to the top of Sankthanshaugen in Vikna at midnight to view sixteen bonfires burning for Midsummer’s Eve (Sankthansaften)—an ancient celebration when fires are lit to ward away the evil spirits most active at the summer solstice.  Had great-grandparent, great-granddaughter and great-great grandson all gazed out into the distance, across the span of eighty-six years, sharing a brief moment of the sublime, gazing at lights in the darkness?

Our Norwegian Saga: Trondheim, Rørvik and Leka at Midnight

September 16, 2018

There was sun and blue sky in Sør-Trondelag this morning, a welcome respite from the wet and windy weather we had left behind in Bergen. In fact, the further north we voyaged, the better the weather became. Joan had become convinced that the Norse god Njörd was pleased that his children had returned to voyage upon his waters and was rewarding us with good weather. Njörd was, no doubt, the god invoked by her ancient ancestors before they embarked on fishing and hunting expeditions along the coast centuries ago.

Haltdalen Stavkirke, 2003

We had risen early, to eat breakfast and prepare for our morning excursion into Trondheim. This was not our first visit to the city; we had been here once before, for three days some fifteen years ago in 2003. We had already crossed the Gamle Bybro (the Old Bridge) into the Bakklandet “old town.” We had been feted at the Erkebispegården (The Archbishop’s Palace) and stayed at the magnificent Hotel Britannia. One long afternoon we tried, and almost failed, to find the Sverresborg open air folk museum. There, in the old Haltdalen stavkirke, we listened to our tour guide, a young woman, unexpectedly sing an old Norwegian hymn in an ethereal soprano. Her angelic voice carried away the years, and in that moment we stood, transported back in time, assembled with the original congregants of the old wooden chapel.

This time we had less than three hours, not three days. Such is the lot of the Hurtigruten traveler. The timetable rules. One embarks and disembarks on time, or not at all. Stragglers are left behind and must find their own way to the next port of call to rejoin the ship.

Casper and Gjertine must have had a bit more time in 1932. Casper’s travelogue mentions a day spent in Trondheim visiting the Nidaros cathedral: “…at 12 noon went into the cathedral and saw the beautiful church. Walked up 173 winding steps (50 meters) to top of church—then walked around it on outside and then back again and all through and saw the beauty of it.”

In 2003 we had not been able to do more than wander the grounds of the Nidaros Cathedral, a magnificent gothic edifice whose foundations, reportedly the burial place of Olav II Haraldsson, better known as Saint Olaf, date to 1077.

This time we were able to enter, on a Sunday, just before the regular congregants would assemble for services. Inside, at the entrance to the old Johanneskapellet, Joan lit a small taper in memory of her emigrant Norwegian ancestors, who had embarked from this city at the end of the nineteenth century. Here they had given up their old lives and walked, with hope for a better future, onto a ship bound for America. They had left their old homes and hearths, but not their history, behind them.

Now, reflecting on that history, we are amazed at how entwined this city has been in the history of Joan’s family, a history whose true depth and detail we had not grasped the last time we were here. During that trip to Trondheim in 2003 Joan had spoken of the uncanny sense of belonging and familiarity the city held for her. Now we know that Trondheim was not just the point of embarkation for her more recent ancestors, Casper and Gjertine and young baby Martin, but the geographic hub of a family history that dates back to November 20, 1449, to the ennoblement of her distant ancestor, Örjan Karlsson Skanke, by King Karl Knutsson on the stone steps of the old altar at Nidaros itself.

Now, walking back along the cobbled streets, with our son and his lovely wife, we cross the Old Bridge again. We wished, as legend has it, for good fortune and prosperity.  We wished, particularly, to impart some sense of this deep and personal history to them—and any future descendants.

The Gamle Bybro (the Old Bridge), 2018

At noon we left Trondheim behind, for a long, but endlessly interesting transit to our next port of call in Rørvik on the island of Vikna. We passed by, in, and through the endless peninsulas, islands, inlets, and straits. Sometimes the open sea on one side, and on the other rocky cliffs, villages clinging to coves at the feet of rugged mountains, and hills dropping precipitously to the water. At Harsvika we passed under a bridge, the locals waving at our ship from its span as the MS Spitsbergen sounded its horn. On deck, sun in our eyes, wind in our hair, we counted down the hours until we could sight the ancestral islands of Vikna and, especially, Leka. After returning home to America Justin and Andrea would give a fitting name to our upcoming evening’s vigil, “The Leka Watch.”

We had been to Rørvik once before as well. In 2003 we made a long day’s journey by bus and local ferry. We spent a long afternoon visiting the little museum and spying the old white church at Garstad, where Joan’s grandfather had been baptized, in the distance. Tonight, we docked there for less than half an hour. It was hardly enough time then, and certainly not nearly enough time now. We didn’t even set foot on shore, and it was dark, after nine in the evening. From the deck of our ship we could see the lights of the town spread out like a blanket over the low hills. But it is enough, and we promise ourselves another trip, another visit. And when we return, we will go inside the old church and will visit the old farm at Lysøen, where Grandfather Martin was born.

Rørvik at Night, 2018

In a little under two hours later, we bustled up to the open upper deck, Justin and Andrea having retrieved us from our cabin. Leka was approaching on the port side, westward, more quickly than we had expected. It was dark, and very windy at the bow, probably much colder, but maybe not much darker, than when Gjertine had stood on another deck in 1932, gazing out at the distant lights sliding by, waiting for a fleeting glimpse of home, long awaited, but quickly over.

We, too, watched the distant lights all too quickly pass by. It was just a few brief moments for Joan, scarf wrapped tightly around her face and chin against the frigid breeze. There was a faint hint of northern lights above the island, in the darkness there, off the point of Skeisneset. In those moments Great-Grandmother felt exceedingly close. Eighty-six years is not so very long ago after all, not to a woman who would herself turn sixty-eight on her next birthday.

Leka, off the point of Skeisneset to the West, 2018

Casper and Gjertine’s ship had passed Rørvik at 1:00 a.m. on that older journey. Gjertine had determined to remain on deck, waiting, peering expectantly into the northern darkness, looking for her lost, but not forgotten, home. Gjertine’s family had lived on Leka since at least the late eighteenth century, and likely centuries before that. Here were her roots. For hours, as Gjertine waited, watching the ship move through the waters, she, like Joan, must have reflected on the passage of time.

When she left Norway in 1887, Gjertine had been a young woman, just married, with a small infant son in tow. And now, as she stood on deck in the black Norwegian night, a seventy-six-year-old woman, she must have realized that this homecoming would be her last.

A memory had been made in 1932 and, now, tonight, remade on the dark waters surrounding Leka. Tonight, a link had been forged between great-grandmother and great-granddaughter, and between a mother and her son. Gjertine, Joan, and Justin, sharing the same timeless space, upon the same cold waters, peering out into the same deep darkness. They inhabit a single entangled moment and are, impossibly, both together and apart; both far and near; both estranged by time and intimate in memory.

Casper, Gjertine & Martin before they left Norway in 1887

Our Norwegian Saga: Geirangerfjord, Urke and Ålesund

September 15, 2018

Morning seemed to come too soon. It was an awkward night. Maybe we had pushed ourselves too far the previous day. There was the unfamiliar motion of the ship, and the distracting irritation of what turned out to be a tube of lip balm rolling back and forth on the nightstand during the night, click-clack, click-clack, over and over again. We were both too tired to reach over and investigate the source. Still, we managed some few hours of oblivion before rising to search out coffee.

While we slept, our vessel made scheduled stops, for people, cargo, and mail, overnight at Florø, Måløy, and Torvik. The first stop at Ålesund, at the mouth of the Geirangerfjord, was while we were still at breakfast. Such was the working rhythm of the MS Spitsbergen, a unique combination of practical boat and cruise ship.  In the early afternoon, after watching the western coast of Norway slip by, we moored in the Norangsfjord (an arm of the Hjørundfjord) and took a tender to the dock at the small village of Urke in Møre og Romsdal. We spent a pleasant hour in the light misty rain wandering past the rustic houses, snapping pictures of the grazing sheep, collecting quartz from the rocky strand, and listening to a mountain stream spilling into the fjord with a great and turbulent rush of sound.

Rushing Down to the Fjord in Urke, 2018

Later, we returned for a second stop at Ålesund. We disembarked and wandered the town for an hour, capturing image after image of the striking Jugendstil (art nouveau) architecture, almost the whole of the town rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1904. This is what we enjoy the most, wandering on our own down cobbled streets, peering at decorated doorways and facades, looking into shop windows and, in Ålesund, admiring an exotic and fanciful variety of rooftops: gables, towers and spires. We posed—an obligatory moment—in front of the MS Spitsbergen before embarking again, the huge letters on the black and red-painted bow announcing its presence to the gathering travelers.

The MS Spitsbergen in Ålesund, 2018

We met for dinner, our little group of wanderers. During a wonderful repast of Norwegian specialties, we recounted our day to one another. We reminisced about trips taken and dreamed about the journey ahead. We recounted misadventures we had experienced on previous travels, perhaps to ward off the mishaps that sometimes befall even the most seasoned of travelers.

Tomorrow brings Trondheim, the Nidaros Cathedral, and Rørvik in Vikna—Vikna, where Martin Cornelius, Joan’s grandfather, was born. Sometime before midnight we will pass by Leka and look for it in the velvet dark just as Great-grandmother Cornelius had done one night eighty-six years ago.


Our Norwegian Saga: Leaving Bergen

September 14, 2018

 When we first made plans to book our Hurtigruten cruise, it had dawned on Joan that our itinerary reminded her of a trip up the Norwegian coast that had been taken by her great-grandparents. In 1932 Casper and Gjertine Cornelius, who had emigrated from Norway in 1887, returned to their native home for a three-month visit after a forty-five-year absence. Joan had heard about this trip as a child. It was an event that held some significance for the family and was discussed long after her great-grandparents themselves had passed away in the 1940’s. Casper and Gjertine had returned to a homeland they had left behind with great sadness and regret. They had been forced by economic circumstances to try their luck in a strange, foreign land. This belated homecoming must have been bittersweet. Joan actually never knew (or remembered) that a travelogue from this 1932 trip existed and came across the treasure only a few years ago in a box of old photos and papers inherited from her parents. She discovered a twenty-seven-page journal entitled Norges Reise i 1932 [Norwegian Journey, 1932]. Great-Grandfather Casper’s original travelogue was in Norwegian, the language he was most comfortable speaking and writing, even after forty-five years in America. What Joan had actually found was not Casper’s original, but a translation into English by her grandfather Martin. If the Norwegian original still exists, we do not know where it is or who may have it. Among the many activities Joan’s great-grandparents undertook during their three-month stay in Norway was a trip on the SS Stavangerfjord that took them up the Norwegian coast to the North Cape. For some reason she remembered a small detail from the journal, that her great-grandparents had left Bergen at 8 p.m. to journey up the coast to the Nordkapp. Our itinerary on the MS Spitsbergen had us scheduled to leave Bergen at 8 p.m. as well. Could her great-grandparents have, coincidentally, also taken a Hurtigruten cruise?

S.S. Stavangerfjord Cruise Brochure, Norwegian American Line

Ebay solved the mystery for us quickly when we located and subsequently purchased a 1930’s brochure for a “Midnight Sun Cruise”:

Visit Spitzbergen, Its Arctic Fjords, North Cape, and the Glorious Fjords of Norway on SS ‘Stavangerfjord’ of the Norwegian American Line.

The brochure promised tourists a journey “with Norsemen, the Pioneers of the North”—as if further enticement were needed! So, no, it was not a Hurtigruten voyage, but a similar journey with many of the same ports of call. And so, it was today, September 14th, that we began tracing the northern part of the coastal voyage that Joan’s great-grandfather and great-grandmother had embarked upon in 1932. Today’s voyage was both a gift to our traveling companions, son Justin and daughter-in-law Andrea, but also, for us, a memento mori, a reflection on mortality and the passage of time. Eighty-six years had passed since Great-Grandma and Great-Grandpa completed their voyage, but it will be remembered still in the voyage we embarked upon today.

Bergen didn’t seem to want to let us go. After we left the Hanseatic Museum in Bergen, it was still raining katter og hunder. We were soon soaked to the bone during our walk from the Bryggen waterfront to the Hurtigruten terminal, fighting the wind and driving rain with our umbrellas and weather gear, none of which seemed up to the daunting task.

We arrived, eventually, at our destination dripping and squelching. We camped out at the Hurtigruten terminal lounge for a short while, meeting up with our companions, who had, wisely, remained warm and dry in a café. Boarding at 4 p.m., we quickly arranged ourselves in the aft lounge—locating hot coffee and tea and finding out, much to our delight, that we had been upgraded to “select” status. We struck up a conversation with a pair of couples from Minnesota, all with Scandinavian heritage, and compared ancestral notes. Joan of course, as always, was the most Scandinavian in this transient group of adventurers. These were ephemeral travel friends, easily made, often soon forgotten, a phenomenon not uncommon on any trip. Sadly, we have already misplaced their names.

“Left Bergen 8 PM—(No rain).” Photograph by Casper Cornelius, 1932

When we went to our cabin at 6 p.m., a pleasant surprise awaited us. It was roomy, with a queen size bed, fluffy duvet, and two gigantic pillows fit for storm giants. There was more room in the cabin than in some hotels we’ve occupied recently (Birger Jarl in Stockholm, we’re talking about you). Rested and refreshed, we headed to the ship’s dining room. At the huge buffet there was more seafood than one could imagine. But this, on further thought, should have been of no surprise on this most quintessential of Norwegian coastal cruises. Our small family group found a viewing lounge and watched the MS Spitsbergen, our home for the next week, pull out of the Bergen harbor and begin its voyage up the Norwegian coast. It was 8 p.m., the same hour that Joan’s great-grandparents, Casper and Gjertine, had left Bergen on July 10, 1932, to begin their coastal adventure. Only unlike us, Bergen had favored them with good weather. From reading Casper’s journal, we were pretty sure he took lots of photographs, and yet only three survived among the ephemera that Joan had inherited. One was of their departure from Bergen. The first of our own coastal adventure photographs was snapped. A sliver of bright Norwegian moon appeared low in the sky. Gray storm clouds lowered. The sun played a brief game of hide and seek with them. The tangible quality of the light—the intense emotion of this indescribable experience—washed over us.

Leaving Bergen, 2018

Afterwards we ventured onto the open upper deck as night descended, peering into the dark ahead, facing into the wind, leaning into tomorrow as eagerly as we could. Finally, a long day of waiting, walking, and wetness had worn us down. A deep, but satisfying weariness descended quickly. We barely made it through our showers and bedtime rituals before throwing ourselves into starched white comfort—while the MS Spitsbergen sailed steadily northward toward tomorrow’s waiting adventure.



Our Norwegian Saga: Arrivals and Departures

From September 9, 2018 through September 24, 2018 we kept a daily journal to chronicle a trip to Norway we took with our son, Justin, and daughter-in-law, Andrea. This was, for reasons you will discover, going to be a very special trip: not just because we were traveling with loved ones, but because we were also recreating a journey made by family members who had preceded us some eighty-six years before. Today’s blog begins the tale of Our Norwegian Saga.

September 9-10, 2018

Today we departed, the four of us, Joan, Greg, Justin (our son), and Andrea (our daughter-in-law), for two weeks in Norway. The centerpiece of our visit was a cruise of the western and northern coasts of Norway on the MS Spitsbergen, a vessel of the Hurtigruten Line. On a seven-day tour we anticipated stopping at three dozen ports of call, beginning in Bergen in Hordaland, and ending in Kirkenes, in the far north of Finnmark.

We had first heard about the Hurtigruten coastal cruises in 2003, during a previous trip to Norway. This was an odyssey that began in Bergen, wove through the fjord country to Nordfjordeid, and then went overland to Trondheim—all by bus. From that northern base we had forayed as far north as Namsos and Rørvik, on the eastern side of the Vikna archipelago, by a combination of bus and ferry.  During that visit we had been told that the Hurtigruten coastal voyage was a truly memorable experience, a cruise considered by some as one of the “world’s most beautiful.” Having seen some part of the beauty of these regions of Norway through bus windows, we had hoped one day to see them from a different perspective, the deck of a Norwegian ship. Fifteen years later that day had come at last.

Hurtigruten had its beginnings in the late nineteenth century. Because of the nature of the western and northern Norwegian coastlines, rail travel was almost impossible. Therefore, the government contracted with Captain Richard Wirth to establish a cargo, passenger, and mail service to improve communication between communities on the otherwise almost inaccessible coast. Hurtigruten’s first voyage was on July 2, 1893, when Wirth captained the Vesteraalen from Trondheim to Hammerfest in Finnmark with stops at Rørvik, Brønnøy, Sandnessjøen, Bodø, Svolvær, Lødingen, Harstad, Tromsø, and Skjervøy along the way.

Earlier on, Hurtigruten competed with several other coastal carriers, the Ofotens og Vesteraalens Dampskibsselskab (OVDS) and the Troms Fylkes Dampskibsselskap. Over the course of the twentieth century, as road and air travel improved, the demands on the coastal carriers shifted increasingly away from freight, cargo, and local travel. Hurtigruten eventually combined with the remaining independent carriers, emerging with a renewed focus on tourism and passenger travel.

Nevertheless, Hurtigruten retains its roots as a working line. It still carries mail, cargo, and local passengers between the thirty-six ports on its north- and south-bound schedules. This is not your typical cruise ship and, frankly, the unconventional was what we preferred. No water slides, no casino tables, no Disney characters putting on a show. For us, the magnificent scenery of the fjord country and of the coastal islands—and, with luck, the Northern Lights—were the shows we had come to see.

We decided to bracket our voyage with three full days in Bergen at the beginning and three full days in Oslo at the end. We had fallen in love with Bergen on our first visit and wanted to share with Justin and Andrea some of what we had seen then—especially Troldhaugen where Edvard Grieg had lived. We hadn’t yet been to Oslo, so that was reason enough to add it to the end of our journey. Andrea had been to Norway, including Bergen and Oslo, before. Like us, she had fallen in love with the country. She had first seen these cities as a seventeen-year-old and, as she readily admitted, was glad to see them again, as an adult, with Justin—the only one of us for whom Norway would be completely new. The Hurtigruten voyage would be a truly novel experience for all of us.

The first days of a long trip like this are always a hectic blur. A limousine to the airport; waiting at gates; a layover in Detroit; a long flight over the Atlantic, squeezed into uncomfortable, economy-sized seats. Then there was a layover in Amsterdam and more waiting at gates. Finally, we landed in Bergen and figured out how to get into town—Bergen’s airport is forty-five minutes away from the city center via the Bybanen (City Light Rail).

Once downtown, it was just before noon, and we had to kill time to get into our apartment on the Vestre Murallmenningen, not too far from the harbor and the old Hanseatic waterfront, the Bryggen. We dragged our luggage through the rain to a coffee shop, the Espresso House on Olav Kyrres gate. A café mocha and sandwich later, we still had time to while away. We then lugged ourselves to the Bergen stasjon, where we found, to our great good fortune, an unoccupied set of chairs and a couch. The couch was hard and unforgiving, but welcome nevertheless to Greg, Joan, and Justin, who took turns resting on it. There are worse places to wait. Built in 1913 by Jens Zetlitz Monrad Kielland in the National Romantic style, it was our temporary refuge from the continuing downpour outside. Andrea was the only one of our small group who seemed unfazed by the tiring journey.

“I’m pumped—I’m in Norway!” she answered wholeheartedly when asked how she could not be exhausted from the trip.

We talked, we dozed, and the hours passed. Close to four o’clock we set off in search of our Norwegian home for the next three days.

Luckily, the apartment was only about a thirteen-minute walk, first down the Kaigaten, and then up a small hill on the Markevein. On the second floor, it was roomy, clean, and well-furnished. It was conveniently close to a REMA 1000 grocery store. More importantly, the apartment had comfortable beds and a large shower. After a small repast foraged from the store, we reviewed the day and opted, unanimously, for an early and well-deserved retirement to our pillows. Even Andrea was ready to turn in for the night.

Our pillows await!