A Stranger Comes to Town

Travel journal from Sunnmøre

There’s something pleasantly childish about sitting by the window on a plane traveling over a mountain range. The white ripples of the snow-covered mountains are a feast for our plane-weary eyes. As we fly closer to the coast I see the first fjords. The steep mountains drop into the velvety sea and we are left wondering “what next?”.

The plane tilts, curving towards a group of whitish dots in the ocean, our balance momentarily challenged by the disconnect of a bright sky on one side and the dark sea on the other. We descend, requiring a momentary leap of faith to accept we won’t be landing in the ocean.

The tiny airport spits us out quickly into the sharply fresh air, after we collect our suitcases in the shortest luggage carousel in the planet. A tall blonde girl is driving us to town, and in an impeccable English sparse of sentence and rich of intent shoots a side grin and tells us that “to get to town, we will be driving under the sea not once but twice” (“What? How?” – I think to myself – “She’s probably joking…”). The islands here are connected underwater, via road tunnels. I later learn that Norwegians learned to burrow their way into rock to connect places. It’s either that or ferries.

Resurfacing in town, we drive through a road with city buildings on our right and fishing trawlers on our left. The air is dry, the sea commands the visual landscape but doesn’t carry the scents of port towns at lower latitudes.

We stop at the entrance of Hotel Brosundet. The ochre building looks terribly inviting after the visual overload of granite. Once inside, the visual warmth translates into other shades of comfort – old wood everywhere, old rough wood softened by time. We smile to each other, at the attention to detail; good art everywhere - and eclectic too - tall ceilings, textures everywhere. There’s an unexpected sight of a fireplace of rare dimensions, which climbs to the roof in an island of warmth. Exploring, I find a piano, sit and play it next to a large painting by the Sonja, the Queen of Norway. We drop the luggage in our rooms, freshen up. I drink directly from the tap and delight at the exquisite taste of the water, reminiscent of … a certain world-famous Norwegian artesian water. After hours in airports and planes, dehydrated to bits, this water – and the fact that it actually flows from the tap - feels like an ultimate luxury. We get busy – in our program, there’s a walk around town, a fishing trip in the fjords, a dinner. We leave.

I love cod – always did - from the gourmet perspective. It never ceases to tease my appetite. It’s cold outside, and I am intrigued by the prospect of cod fishing. We are given cute and warm overalls to wear on top of our clothes. I expected a long boat ride, but the we sailed no more than 500 meters and slowed down: the cod fishing happens in sight of downtown. Ålesund is one of the very few seasonal cod fishing grounds in the world. The technique is fun and looks silly: you are given a short fishing rod with a long thick line and an elongated silvery metal shape that ends in a large four sided hook. Throw the line overboard, let it sink for some 40 meters, yo-yoing the line until a fish is caught. I brought one up, surprised with how little fight it gave me on the way up from the depths. Too cold to express disapproval about becoming dinner, I suppose.

It’s time to dine. We sit down at a round table by a window facing the town’s channel, the reflection of winter night’s lights glittering on the water. The restaurant is warmly lit by smiles and good design, and the food is exquisite: a topographical menu, foraged vertically from the top of the mountains to the depth of the seas. While our taste buds are cleverly and delicately tested, we roam the very well-appointed wine list. We eat, we drink, in love with life.

Lying in my room, looking down the city channel and the motley group of moored small ships and tiny boats that bob softly, I fall asleep, floating into a personal sea of deeper inner peace.

We wake up, it is still night this far up north; the sun does not rise until past 8:30. A bit disconcerting, but I take it as exotic. The darkness outside underlines the warmth of the cinnamon colors in the breakfast room. The croissants, the butter, the bread, the coffee, the table, the beams, all seem to function visually as a ton-sur-ton. The espresso pumps agency into my veins. Out we go, into our winter of discovery.

Alnes… I want to carve this name somewhere. It’s like if I had found the absolute center of the universe. The lighthouse follows, to a tee, the dictionary definition of a lighthouse. The shape of the island seems hand-carved by a giant. The fields of Alnes are white and the wintry wind is trying to make us cry. We laugh. Our guide takes us up the Storhornet trail. We huddle naturally as we walk up, zig-zagging upwards between stones and patches of snow. The view is increasingly breathtaking. On the top, I feel a moment of reverence – one bite of a piece of bread with this strangely sweetened brown-cheese and I feel ready to ask for a Norwegian passport. We come back down and regain the full function of our fingers and toes. It smells irresistibly of freshly ground coffee and cinnamon buns in the Lighthouse café. One knows that Alnes is a place where one can retire to, to write a book. My girlfriend leans her head on my shoulder. It’s getting darker outside, I can see her smile reflected on the large window. Short full days.

There’s something exquisitely exciting about fast-boating on the Nordic sea: we commute by sea to the restaurant where we’re eating: Skotholmen. We are greeted, on a tiny islet, the restaurant’s friendly and borderline nautical crew. The ultimate seafood eating experience is thus added to my sensorial repertoire. Skotholmen is the first restaurant where I felt that what we were eating was brought straight from the ocean bottom through the kitchen’s window, to our plates.

Today we are to soar the skies like eagles. I never manage to be blasé about flying in a helicopter – I find it hard to contain my excitement and to pretend it isn’t fun. Going upwards feels like being snatched away from Earth. Our flight over the roof of the world is extraordinary; lucky with the weather, a crisp morning with low sunlight and clear blue skies, the sea embracing the rounded shape of the planet, and the larger specks of the outer islands contextualizing true physical distance. The pilot knows his stuff well and circles the most dramatic peaks hovering on the ragged hanging cliffs… what a rush! It is an impossibly beautiful Norway we’re flying over. The wave of adrenaline recedes as we land next to an organic-looking set of massive log buildings: the famous Storfjord Hotel of which I’ve heard so much about, and for so long.

I’ve been lucky to enjoy wooden cabins all my life. There’s always something transient about a cabin, the feeling that it was built of foraged surroundings under the rule of Nature’s cycles and wishes. The setting is beautiful, perched on a lookout into a majestic fjord (Storfjord means The Big Fjord, in Norwegian). We are all quite overwhelmed, I confess. The meal is excellent and we know we’ll need the calories: there’s a kayak trip in the day’s plan. The outing into the fjord is as memorable as it sounds – a fjord is the perfect playground for kayaking, and there’s the frisson  of the possibility of meeting seals, or even orcas. 

Once back inside the warmth of the hotel, tired but happy, I catch myself trying to read the passage of natural time written on the convoluted veins of the wood walls. The decoration is rife with interesting antiques, a reference to the passage of human time; the experience is made unique for this mix between the human and Nature’s time, enriched by soft music, doubly-enriched by the dancing fire burning in every fireplace – there seems to be a fireplace in every room.  Every single square inch seems to be, for lack of a better word, drenched in comfort. Everything seems to conspire to be memorable. We dine, we seat in one of the reading rooms, feeling an unstoppable urge to read a book, to chat, to toast. Palpable Time.

We all love skiing, and I’ve heard of Stranda many a time. We are chauffeured to a ferry, hop across the Storfjord, and after a 25 minute uphill drive we are on the slopes. In Stranda you ski beautifully crafted rides that end by the shores of the fjord if you are adventurous enough to go off-piste. This good skiing, and with hardly any bottom time – I had forgotten how good it is to go straight into the ski lifts without the slow crawl that seems to be the norm everywhere else. Tired but happy, we drive back to the hotel – and immerse ourselves in the goodness of sitting around in the beautiful hotel Wellness, relaxing, chatting, letting our muscles melt back-to-basic. This is, indeed, “next-level”.

The program today is to go to Geiranger. The Hotel’s breakfast is so good it is hard to peel us off the table. Geiranger is Unesco’s Heritage, for many a good reason, the boat-trip is stunning, the fjord gets narrower and narrower until it ends in an impossibly steep mountainous backdrop, in a tiny hamlet with housing that seems to crawl up to get away from the sea. On the way we are told about the wild stories of the remote cliff-hanging farms, from when Norwegians were tougher and tax-collectors were scared. When back to the Hotel, we hike to the Storfjord Hotel’s lavvu – a Sami traditional tent that looks like a fatter Native American teepee. I can see clearly the overwhelming charm of the “Nordic way-of-life”: a mix of ultimate comfort and ultimate embedding into Nature, so thoroughly mixed as to be impossible to be in one, without the other.

This morning we went snowshoeing. It is a remarkable activity, one gets surprisingly hot, surprisingly fast. The setting was stunning, on a wide white plateau on top of the mountains. It feels remarkable to be able to walk on top of snow this soft. I drop my phone and it disappears momentarily into the snow, the shape of its entry point so small as to make me wonder if I’d ever see it again. The weather is cold but there’s no wind, and when the sun shines everything is impossibly white. We huddle close to one solitary tree, stomp the snow around into sitting shapes, and eat a wholesome outdoor lunch. Later we are driven into Sula, for a bit of Nordic shopping indulgence: a shopping center cleverly built into an old factory of Devold woolen fabrics. It’s full of outlets of Norwegian world-class brands and charming studios of famous local artists. It seems like the perfect way to return to our recognizable 21st century fuss.

We feel sorry to leave. Thankful that we pulled ourselves out of the beaten path and aimed to this very uniquely Nordic North. It is said that there are only two stories: a man goes on a journey, a stranger comes to town. Thanks to 62ºNORD I feel I lived those two stories in one single, unforgettable, go.

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