A fire, fjords and ferries

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The fire that broke out in the town of Ǻlesund in western Norway in 1904 became an act of creative destruction. There was one unfortunate fatality but the other 10,000 inhabitants, escaping the conflagration that razed their houses to the ground,  lived to see the town rebuilt in a dazzlingly new way. The style so beloved by architects at that time was Art Nouveau and so it was that dedicated Norwegian followers of that fashion poured into Ǻlesund with contracts to design and build a new town.

Its Art Nouveau architecture and design is now Ǻlesund’s claim to fame, a town publicly displaying features and details of the art movement that once swept across Europe. Art Nouveau  was enthused by the beauty of organic forms in flora and fauna, enthralled by exotic designs from Japan and the Far East and stimulated by discovering decorative arts from the almost forgotten Middle Ages. All this is on show in the town’s stone-clad facades with their decorative motifs and friezes, spiced up by a Germanic influence that peppers buildings with faux-fortress towers and turrets. Even the prison  – a mustard-yellow building and the prettiest-looking place of captivity you are likely to see this side of Alcatraz  – looks  easy on the eye.

A walk, drive or a train accesses Flellstua, an aerial viewpoint atop the town’s hill from where Ǻlesund becomes a dinky settlement charmingly squeezed into a fractured landmass of islands joined by bridges and ferries. You can’t see the tunnels that also connect the islands but you travel through one on the journey from the airport – before it opened to traffic passengers could miss flights if a rough sea delayed the ferry. What can be spotted is the town’s best hotel, Brosundet, a converted fish warehouse on the water’s edge. Each room is individually tailored around bare 100-year-old oak beams, complemented by ultra- modern furnishings and enormous duvet-covered beds. Thick curtains are a blessed relief in this land of the midnight sun; those of us accustomed to darkness falling in the early evening might otherwise find it hard to get to sleep.

Especially cute in Brosundet’s rooms are the tinted glass-walled bathrooms, spacious wetrooms with natural-stone tubs of  unnatural dimensions. For a special night, ask for room 47 – a converted lighthouse at the end of a pier, its proper-sized bed somehow fitting a tiny space with circular walls. Tiny porthole windows provide  views of the harbour and the vessels which slip silently in and out as you sleep. Breakfast is delivered to your door if you stay in the lighthouse otherwise the restaurant in the hotel provides a typically Nordic breakfast with lovely baked bread, fresh fruit and cold meats.

Brosundet’s restaurant, Maki, looks out through arched windows onto bobbing boats and its tasting menus offer a yummy introduction to Norwegian cuisine – never overwrought or arch, always scrupulous about freshness – though it helps if you like seafood. Roasted monkfish or baked hake is lovely but I draw the line at whale, despite the protestations of the waiter that they were ‘only the small ones and there’s lots of them’. Tell that to the minke, I kept to myself. No such reservations at friendly Lyspunktet, a designer café only a troll’s step away from the hotel, perfect for a post-shopping coffee break or a light meal.

After a stay of one or two nights in Ǻlesund, hearing the fjords call to your traveller’s soul, it is time to head into the wild west. Not wild as in lawless – au contraire – but the road west takes you into an untamed smorgasbord of lush valleys, majestic mountains and, always close at hand, the serene presence of fjords. My destination is Geiranger, from where a car ferry glides slowly for an hour through a spectacular fjord, but along the way there are two experiences to remember. Driving is extremely safe in Norway, which is just as well because the eleven horseshoe bends on the Trollstigen (Troll’s ladder) road as it winds its precipitous way up the side of a mountain would otherwise occasion some trepidation. But everyone drives faultlessly and from the viewing platform at the top your sense of well-being is enhanced by seeing the scale of your bravura achievement.

From the summit of Trollstigen it is a half-hour drive to the unique Juvet landscape hotel, unassuming from the outside but instantly  hip once you step inside your individually-designed room where at least one of the walls is pure glass from floor to ceiling. The décor comes courtesy of nature. The guestroom interiors, while spacious and comfortable, are designed to be as unimposing as possible; you experience forest and river from the comfort of a warm armchair or fluffy pillow. No need for a soundtrack here; music come from birdsong, the wind rustling the birch trees and the rushing river below you.  If that isn’t relaxing enough there’s a spa with a hot tub, sun terrace, steam room, vast glass-curtain wall and views over the river. Dinner is a communal affair where travellers exchange stories over local salmon, reindeer or – be warned – minke whale. The hotel is a destination in itself,  only nine rooms  and expensive enough to feel rather special.

Like the pyramids or the Eiffel Tower, the fjords of Norway have to be seen – though, unlike them,  the visual reality does not disappoint. Awesome clefts in the land, hundreds of metres  deep, were carved out by glaciers and, after the sea poured in, the sides of the remaining land became vertical cliffs of imperious and sometimes eerie-looking mountains. At Geiranger, tucked snugly into a hollow at the eastern end of one especially fabulous  fjord, a ferry takes you and your vehicle for a slow cruise through this magical landscape. Nearly everyone is busily taking photos of the 250m high waterfalls and abandoned farms where early settlers thought they could live – they tied their children to boulders to prevent fatal falls – but without a wide-angle lens it is better to sit back and just lazily ponder the puzzle of existence.

On the route back to Ǻlesund, involving two more short ferries across fjords, there is one place you must stop for an overnight stay. This is Union Øye Hotel set in a postage stamp-sized village of manicured gardens with cultivated flowers and small  farms utilising every inch of the valley floor between towering mountains cut by cascades of meltwater.

The hotel is an elegantly restored late 19th-century building, so splendiferous that its unoccupied rooms are left open for guests to inspect. A  huge sunroom, complete with grand piano, is a grand place for afternoon tea or a rest following a mountain walk or kayaking in the fjord. After the lonesome  grandeur of Juvet a stay at Union Øye, with a nearby fjord gently lapping against a small stony beach, is a pastoral idyll.  There are no distractions – televisions and phones are absent (cheating permitted by way of wi-fi) – and with staff in period frocks and  pinafores this is almost fancy-dress territory and if there’s an evening dress in your luggage you could really enter into the spirit of the place.

West Norway is a big bag of surprises: a graceful Art Nouveau town with a lighthouse bedroom; the raw nature of majestic fjords and  a landscape hotel on tap; a make-believe grand house straight out of The Sound of Music with staff dressed in period costume. It’s all very expensive but equally exclusive, there’s nowhere else quite like it, and  getting there from London is a breeze.

by Sean Sheehan

For more information about visiting Norway, please visit here  and for West Norway please go here

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