With my birthday and the Easter holidays falling nicely together this year, a trip to the fjords was planned this spring to relax with my girlfriend’s Norwegian family and to explore the forests and rocky valleys around Sogndal.
Words and Photography by Pádhraic Mulholland | @padhraic_mulholland
This was to be a trip of two parts. Slow days learning to knit, baking, walking in the forest and swimming by the fjord, interspersed with trips out into the mountains to explore new terrain.
I wanted the travel there to be relaxing as well, so instead of flying via Oslo we caught the big coastal ship from Stavanger to Bergen and headed up the Sognefjord on the express boat the same evening. It was a long day but the views of the islands we passed (sometimes only a couple of hundred meters away!) were beautiful! We even had time for a mini city break of sorts, exploring Bergen’s coffee nooks and seeking out tasty local food for lunch at Colonialen.
I can’t recommend this type of slow boat travel enough. It may have taken all day but we arrived at Sogndal quay feeling the most relaxed I have ever felt after a long day of travel!
I had a little bit of client work to finish up before Easter but for the first week or so, whenever the sun came out I dropped tools, packed my bag and headed up into the forests around Kaupanger and went off exploring the local hills and historic farms.
The woods are crisscrossed with tractor roads and single track trails. The area is well known for its mountain biking and from spring onwards you are spoilt for choice with downhill routes and windy trails through the trees and bilberries.
Unfortunately for me, I was without mountain bike this time (definitely going to have to visit again!) so spent my time searching out the various viewpoints and summits, each with their own individual letterbox and ‘Turboka’ to sign. There were often breathtaking views across the fjord from these spots so I made sure to bring coffee and chocolate and to take time to soak up the scenery.
Before we knew it, Easter was nearly upon us and we could finally plan out trips further afield into the fjords. Before arriving, my dreams had been to climb up to some of the high peaks above the fjord. However, after a morning’s recce, I soon realised that this was going to be impossible without skis! I reluctantly accepted that I had to shift plans.
If I have learnt one thing from this trip, it is that when I travel I have a habit of trying to understand new landscapes by comparing them to familiar places from home. Poring over maps to compare elevations and gradients and hunting out reading material has almost become an obsession for me. My complete underestimation of how long winter can last in Norway’s mountains certainly made me realise this! Although the Cairngorms might be almost snow-free at this time of year, Norway’s mountain plateau landscape above the fjord was still happily coated under at least a meter of snow. I got over my disappointment quite quickly however and now I am inspired to learn to ski tour in the mountains as soon as I am able!
So turning away from the peaks, with their avalanches and rock fall, we headed for the safety of the valleys instead. Our first destination, Supplehelledalen, a narrow glacial valley skirting the edge of Jostedalsbreen. We only went a short distance from the farmland before we found ourselves scrambling through meltwater streams and trudging through untouched snow.
Growing accustomed to the unfamiliar terrain around me and feeling dwarfed by the towering cliffs and glaciers I thought how quiet it seemed. But as we walked I began to tune my ears to the few birds that were out braving the cold to sing. Then to the white noise of the river. My ears have become so used to the sounds of modern life that when deprived of them I think all too quickly that anything else is silence.
Deeper into the valley, all thoughts of silence were lost when a loud rumble like thunder came from above. The cliff walls were so huge it was really hard to grasp a sense of scale but it eventually dawned on us that we were hearing rockfall high above us! We were safe far away from the cliff base but the rumbles continued on and definitely gave a surreal soundtrack to the rest of the walk.
On my birthday, feeling well rested and ready to head out again, we decided to head across the fjord to Lærdal to explore “Kongevegen” or 'King’s Road'. A paved road now runs parallel to a lot of the old sections so it was fun spotting old bridges and winding stone embankments as we wound our way up the valley in the car. When we had made the short walk to one of the most famous steep winding sections it was really hard to imagine anyone deciding that they could build a road there in the first place! Standing at the bottom of Vindhella and looking back up the track, I could almost see the horses and carts heaving there way up around the bends. To imagine someone having to walk with a cart for the whole 100km over the mountain was another matter! Perhaps one day I am going to have to recreate this journey myself!
Back down in the valley by Borgund stave church we had time to reflect on the trip over a flask of coffee. I think spending this winter growing my interest in nature and landscape through reading and research has made this spring trip particularly special for me. I am finding joy in observing even the most common birds and plants. I have found that slow-paced travel like this is also a really nice way to learn about how people in the past and today interact with nature. There is more time to stop and listen, to chat and wonder, to head back home with new ideas and a hunger to learn more.