(Guest post by Juliet Bothams – biography at end of piece)
We were at the top of the funicular high above the sprawl of Bergen.
‘Hello, we saw you at lunch in the FiskeTorget’. Two fellow Brits greeted us outside the souvenir shop. We were all, of course, instantly recognisable: Norwegians dress like everyone else in the world does, whereas we were dressed in salupets, eiderdown anoraks, hiking boots and matching bobble hats and mufflers with reindeer scampering round them.
‘Just starting your trip?’
‘Yes, just arrived from the airport.’
‘That’s our ship down there,’ the husband pointed to a floating city moored in the fjord, ‘she’s the Oriana. We’re headed back across the North Sea now.’
We asked the most important question: ‘Did you see the Northern Lights?’
‘The Aurora Borealis? Oh, yes. Almost lost count. How many times did we see the Aurora Borealis, darling?’
‘Three,’ the wife replied emphatically, ‘and for at least two hours each time. Absolutely marvellous. Breathtaking.’
‘Unforgettable,’ beamed the husband. ‘Mind you, we had some hellish days at sea. And feast your eyes on Bergen, this is as good as it gets!’
We’d already had a bit of a look at Bergen and yes, it was certainly good in parts but decidedly lacking in trolls, and rather more industrial than we’d imagined.
‘Oh,’ we said, in the way novices do when they don’t realise just how novice they are, ‘but we’re going with the Hurtigruten Coastal Express. Perhaps your ship was too big to access some of the more remote villages? We’ve seen some wonderful photos.’
We got an old-fashioned look in return. ‘Well, each to their own,’ the man said cheerfully as he clambered into the down-bound train, ‘but I’d make the most of your time here in Bergen if I were you.’
We did at least follow this piece of advice; in any case, it was getting very chilly now that the rather pallid sun had lost its battle with the pewter clouds that were bundling down the mountainsides, smothering the fjord and draping themselves over the town. Time for a hot cup of coffee in a cosy café, before boarding our ship, the MS Nordkapp.
There was an excited buzz in the ship’s dining room. Cheerful blonde waiters moved between the tables in their impeccable livery, calming passengers who had just found out exactly how much you had to pay for a moderate bottle of wine. We had to be pacified when we heard just how much you had to pay for a bottle of water!
But that couldn’t dampen the spirit of adventure. We were all on a hunt for the Northern Lights and it was the best chance in 50 years to run them to ground.
To say the early days passed uneventfully would be to bestow too great a sense of excitement.
We might have arrived in the year when solar activity was at its best, but we had also arrived in the worst winter Norway had experienced in 130 years. ‘Worst’ meaning the highest temperatures (rarely below freezing) and the most rain (which, of course, had the temperatures been lower, would have been snow).
The MS Nordkapp continued her steady path cutting through an iron-grey sea, which in turn cut between looming iron-grey cliffs and squat iron-grey islands. All practically devoid of any sign of life other than mournfully mewing sea-gulls.
One of our fellow passengers was permanently bestrung with a pair of very large binoculars, and she’d shout out from time to time with news of the sighting of some amazing new avian or other.
I asked if I could look at the enormous tome she had to help her identify them and found myself flipping through page after page of … seagulls. I’ve heard that Greenlanders have 50 different words for snow. I can only assume that Norwegians have a 150 different words for seagull and simply try to alleviate the tedium by pretending there is any difference at all between one seagull and another.
Had we bothered to read up our history before we left, we’d have known that the Germans had adopted a scorched earth policy as they were being driven back to the north towards the end of the war.
I don’t think there was that much earth to scorch – it seems it’s mostly granite – so they torched the towns instead. Which of course means that as soon as the Germans were got rid of a massive programme of urban regeneration was put under way so that old communities could be re-established. The end result is that most coastal villages and towns are drear, featureless, utilitarian and grey.
Picture a shopping parade with a laundrette, a Co-op mini-market, a Formica and vinyl coffee bar and a shop that sells anything from nylon housecoats to lobster pots and you’re picturing the average coastal settlement.
I’m not saying we don’t have dreary places too, but you can always take refuge in a church in England, where there’s usually something of beauty, even if it’s only an urn.
In Norway the churches are always locked. Presumably God likes to put his feet up six days a week and only works on the seventh; though I’m sure the Bible says it’s the other way around.
You could take part in organised shore excursions were you so minded. We’d already arranged two when we booked the trip, but once on board you could book any number of other options up to 24 hours in advance. Understandably, with so much organisation involved, once you had booked, you couldn’t cancel. Of course you could decide not to take part, but you couldn’t get a refund.
So people gamely boarded buses for scenic tours to glaciers and precipitous viewing platforms only to find that their view was limited to a range of just a few yards round the bus. We found ourselves taking pictures of Europe’s most northerly petrol station! Yes, really. By the time the tour guide is pointing out a petrol station you know you’re not somewhere that’s going to become a World Heritage Site any time soon.
And talking of most northerly, we took a trip to Nordkapp, the northernmost point of mainland Europe. You may have seen photographs of the iconic armillary sphere, the three-hundred metre high cliff dropping sheer into the sea, or the dazzling sunset, a flaming canopy of red and orange domed over the barren land.
We had seen the photographs, and so were well-equipped to imagine these wonders as we stared at the grey-tinged whiteness around us and contemplated its mysteries: where did the sky begin and end? Where was Nordkapp? Where was the cliff? The sea? Here at last we were in the grip of ice.
And soon to be in the grip of a Hurricane Force 13, 95 kilometre winds and 12 metre waves.
We’d all taken to our cabins. The public areas of the ship could have belonged to the Marie Celeste. Only blind faith reassured us that the Bridge was not similarly sparsely populated.
Our first warning that this was more than a north Atlantic storm was when everything not glued down in the dining room leapt a foot in the air and upturned itself. This included not only glasses and bottles, but plates, cutlery and even the serving staff.
All this mayhem was accompanied by startled shouts and squeals of surprise as a wall of water hit the stern windows of the dining room. The boat rocked. It rolled. It reared. It plunged. Occasionally it bucked and shuddered, but stoically stayed upright ploughing on relentlessly through the night as the black piling sea roared around it and presumably the sky did much the same thing overhead had we been able to see.
If you like that sort of thing it was very exciting, and particularly so, as we survived the experience. Which was just as well, otherwise I’d have to stop on a grey note.
I don’t have time to tell you about the Kodachrome bits, but there were some: a husky-sledding adventure, a fabulously sculpted and decorated ice hotel fit for the Snow Queen and a magical midnight concert in the Arctic Cathedral. They’ll have to wait for the day the Norwegian Tourist Board asks me to write something enticing for their brochure.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, we never did see the Northern Lights!
Copyright©Juliet Bothams 01March2014
JULIET BOTHAMS – THE LAST FEW YEARS
After 37 years of penal servitude in corporate business, 33 years of blissful conjugal relations and 20 years of financial profligacy I decided to call time on work. Now I am free as a bird to do as I like, as long as what I like is well within my nowadays straitened financial circumstances. Thankfully writing hardly costs a penny piece and so, as I have spent a great deal of my life telling outrageously tall stories, I thought I’d try my hand at short ones instead. And travelogues, poems, diatribes, letters to the Times and Telegraph; you name it! I live in a small village in Hampshire on the Hangers Way and a small village in Portugal surrounded by orchards, and have clocked up 38 years of marriage to the same amazing man who saw something of promise in me all those years ago. Ever the optimist and patient to a fault, he can still see that glimmer and hopes that one day it will turn into something useful.