On the final part of my twenty-day journey, we travel to Stavanger, Eidfjord, and Bergen Norway, and end in Reykjavik Iceland.
Stavanger (pronounced Sta-vonger), a southern port of Norway, has one of the most interesting Old Towns. Gamle Stavanger’s cobblestone streets are lined with the highest concentrations of restored wooden buildings from the 17th through 19th centuries.
Numbering almost 250, these structures are protected under a conservancy formed in the 1950s after redevelopment threatened their destruction.
The real story of Stavanger is oil. Stavanger is often referred to as the oil capital of Norway and is home to Statoil, the largest company in Norway. The city hosts the Norwegian Petroleum Museum further signifying oil’s importance to the country and Stavanger.
You could easily spend four hours touring this museum with all its various exhibits. I would suggest you hold your visit to two hours so that you can spend more time touring the Old Town areas.
Due to its high concentration of wooden structures going back to the 16th century, it was often the victim of ruinous fires that destroyed major parts of the town. One such fire led to the formation of the fire watchers.
This group of three people was set up to patrol Stavanger at night for signs of fire. One man roamed the city looking for any signs of open flames while two others watched the city from the Fire Watch Tower.
Our local guide is very knowledgeable and enthusiastic and continues on a near-exhausting tour of the Old Town. The tour lasts almost an hour longer than scheduled. By the time we return to our ship, it’s nearing sunset and our feet are thankful for a break! It was truly a memorable day in Stavanger.
Travel to Eidfjord, Norway
Eidfjord is nestled in one of Norway’s most scenic regions. The village is surrounded by mountains up to 6,200 feet high. This height gives a breathtaking scene as you enter the harbor. A harbor where there is only room for one smallish size cruise ship to tie up.
On a day when the weather is less than picture-perfect, the fjord entrance to Eidfjord can be moody and intimidating.
Less than a thirty-minute drive from Lower Eidfjord, Upper Eidfjord is the home of the Hardangervidda Nature Center. It has displays of the indigenous flora and fauna set among the towering rock faces that form the fjord.
The Nature Center has a great aerial film of the Hardangervidda Mountain Plateau and other sites around Norway. Watching the film can give some people vertigo as the helicopter dives between the rock faces and then up sheer cliffs. It’s a great way to see these fantastic sights if you can’t afford (or stomach) a helicopter ride on your own.
At the Nature Center, there’s also a gift shop and restaurant with outdoor seating. If you visit the Nature Center be sure to look up on the roof of the gift shop/restaurant. It’s covered with grass and other small vegetation. Here is where three goats spend their leisure time munching away at the vegetation.
Our stay in Eidfjord is relatively short and soon were transiting the fjord and moving on to Bergen.
Entering the port of Bergen is one of the most picturesque transits on the journey so far. Nestled between mountains and magnificent fjords it is a city with deep Viking roots. The city was founded in 1070 on a site that was a former Viking settlement.
Bergen was also an important location for the Hanseatic League which had its local offices in the “Bryggen” — a row of colorful wooden buildings from which the League conducted its business. Today, the Bryggen hosts an array of shops that include high-end local goods.
In case you’re wondering, the structures in the Bryggen are settling causing them to be tilted in odd directions. The buildings with the worst movement are having their foundations shored up and straightened.
Store-Lungegardvann is a beautiful bay with outstanding views from along the roads that ring the bay. Get as high up the sides of the mountains as you can for spectacular views that will blow you away!
Bergen Cathedral and Rosenkrantz Tower
Bergen Cathedral deserves some notoriety for the five fires it sustained from the 13th – 17th centuries. Each time it was rebuilt/restored to its formal medieval magnificence. It holds a prominent position while entering the port of Bergen which made it a target during the Battle of Vagen. The Cathedral survived the battle taking a cannonball in its exterior where it remains to this day.
Rosenkrantz Tower is named for Erik Rosenkrantz who was lord of Bergenhus in the middle 1500s. It has served as both a residence and a fortified tower. It is considered to be one of the most important Renaissance monuments in Norway. The tower has served both kings and governors and the unlucky prisoners that were remanded to its notorious cellar dungeon. Parts of Rosenkratz date back to 1270 while the main facade was built in the mid-16th century.
Bergen is quite large with many interesting areas outside the main city hub that require a vehicle if you wish to see them. The best advice is to hop on a tour that will take you to the outer limits of the city and around the Bay.
Our final stop is Reykjavik Iceland. On the flight out of Bergen, Norway once again shows its magnificence from the air as we’re passing over the coast to views of mountain lakes and glaciers.
A Nordic island in the North Atlantic, Iceland has a land mass of about 40,000 square miles but a population of only 330,000 of which Reykjavik has 130,000 residents. It wasn’t until 1944 that Iceland became independent of Denmark. A geologically active island, Iceland derives all of its hot water needs from the geothermal hot springs created by the constant volcanic activity.
The airport (Keflavik) for Reykjavik is on a peninsula on the Southwest coast of the island. After its 2008 economic collapse brought on by poor banking regulations, tourism saved the country from total ruin. Still, for someone coming from the West, the prices for common goods and services were eye-popping.
Our first dinner in Reykjavik consisted of two hamburgers and two cocktails for the stratospheric price of $100! Our server tells us that the high minimum wage (around $20/hour) helps offset the high prices for residents.
A bit of history
At one time, Iceland and Norway shared the same language. But, the Norwegian language has advanced and adapted and bears little resemblance to the old Norse language the two counties once had in common. Today, native Icelanders and Norwegians would have a difficult time understanding each other in their native dialects.
Iceland is a country of stark contrasts. From the modern city of Reykjavik to the volcanic terrain outside the populated areas. It is a mind-jarring leap at times. The volcanic areas can be akin to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Mordor or at least what I think it would be in my mind’s eye.
Iceland was first settled around 874 AD by Ingólfur Arnarson who named it Reykjavik. Reykjavik translates to “Smoke Cove” for the volcanic steam he witnessed when setting foot on the island.
As early as 930 AD, Iceland was a democratic society. It formed the first parliament (Althing) that met at Thingvellir once per year. Iceland’s parliament continued to meet at Thingvellir until 1798 when it was moved to Reykjavik.
One of the most breathtaking views on the “Golden Circle” tour is Gullfoss Waterfall. Honestly, pictures cannot do justice to the immensity and power of Gullfoss. It became a tourist attraction in the late 1800s and a local girl, Sigridur Tomasdottir, and her sisters became local guides.
When there was word that foreigners wanted to turn Gullfoss into a hydroelectric project, she threatened to throw herself over the falls in protest. While she is locally credited with saving the falls from development, many historians doubt her actual impact on saving Gullfoss.
Another stop along the Golden Circle is Kerid Crater. Kerid was once an active volcano that flooded the Tjarnarhólahraun field (approx. 4.5 sq. miles) with at least half the lava that now covers it. It’s currently believed that the crater was formed from a small magma chamber that was beneath the crater.
The Icelandic horses are famous for their rugged beauty. No tour of Iceland would be complete without a stop to see some of these beautiful creatures. More compact than the Thoroughbred horses we typically see, these horses exude their own personality.
Undoubtedly the most iconic structure in Iceland is the Lutheran Cathedral, Hallgrímskirkja. The church took 41 years to complete and with its 244-foot-tall spire rising above the city. It is visible from almost anywhere you might be within Reykjavik.
Our twenty-day Viking Homelands odyssey draws to a conclusion on this day. All of the countries we visited have their own unique history and sites but, all have the Viking heritage running through the core of their cultures and local mythos. My tour really only scratched the surface of these wonderful countries. You could spend a week or more exploring each.
If you go, be sure to enjoy a glass of Aquavit. Skoal!
- Is photography a priority on your trip? — Attempting to take quick snapshots while hurrying from one location to another will ultimately leave you not very satisfied. If you’re on an organized tour, see if you can step out on your own for a bit before the tour.
Talk to your tour guide ahead of the day’s excursion and tell them what you’re interested in photographing. See if they can accommodate you in some way during the tour. They might surprise you.
- Look around — While the sites at the location are the highlights that everyone will see, be sure to look around and not just be where everyone clusters. A bit away from the pack may be a more interesting view with a more dramatic impact. Keep your eyes open for the possibilities.
- Don’t obsess — If you’re constantly worried about how to get the “best” photos, you’re not going to have a lot of fun. Go with the flow and stay open to whatever possibilities present themselves to you as you travel. It’s good to have a plan for the day but don’t let it narrow the possibilities.
Editor’s Note: This is a four-part article from our reader, Bob McCormac. It encompasses a 20-day trip to the Nordic countries that spawned the Vikings and where they left their mark on civilization. In most areas, those direct influences have long since been erased but the impact on the cultures is still apparent in each country.
Read Part 1: Stockholm, Sweden
Read Part 2: Helsinki, St. Petersburg and Tallinn
Read Part 3: Berlin, Copenhagen, Aalborg