Friends in the Fjords
The Norwegian countryside with its classic routes, and a very special woman for a guide - timeless
MY SCANDINAVIAN JOURNEY began when I befriended Bente Brenna online 10 years ago. Bente was feisty and bright and in her 50s. Although worlds apart, we soon became like neighbours gossiping over a virtual fence. I listened to stories from her Norwegian village and much of what Bente knew about India she learnt from me.
We finally managed to meet five years ago. I was in London and Bente took the short flight across the North Sea, laden with creamed cod, smoked salmon and mussels she had gathered from the fjord. She used to call me 'little Indian lady' and I imagined her to be this tall statuesque blonde. How we laughed when it transpired she was petite and I the taller one. Back home, she sent me surprise packets through the post with wild mushrooms she'd picked and dried. Their mossy scent transported me magically to a Norwegian forest.
Our children left home, our husbands neared retirement as we kept each other posted. Meanwhile, Bente's witty repartee caught the eye of a TV crew and she became the star, along with husband Pal, of Sofa, a popular Norwegian reality show. With an empty nest, she also started taking bed-and-breakfast guests at her home in Hvitsten. She called it her 'car-wreck hotel' because Pal enjoyed retrieving and restoring old camper-vans that were let as rooms.
'I will perish if the temperature goes over 25 degrees,' Bente often declared. Since I couldn't guarantee that in Mumbai, I finally went over to Norway instead with Mohan, my husband, last autumn. Bente immediately shut her B&B business for the 12 days we were to be there and planned a road trip.
Bente and Pal live in what could be called a 'millionaires' row' just off the Oslofjord. Few houses, large gardens, really expensive cars and old ships' figureheads at strategic locations characterize Hvitsten village, an hour's drive from the capital Oslo. Bente, though, has no pretensions. Her home reflects her personality: Bohemian, mismatched and charming. There are two big black cats, and moose and deer come to visit from the surrounding woods.
Pal and Bente work part-time for the Norwegian billionaire Petter Olsen, of the family that owns the famous Fred Olsen shipping line and oil companies, among other things. Olsen has a mansion amid breathtaking gardens in Hvitsten, and Bente has been catering their summer parties for years, rubbing shoulders with the cream of Norwegian society. Renowned theatre companies stage open-air performances in Olsen's green amphitheatre, popularly known as the Shakespeare garden. Pal gave us a tour of the incredible property, where we helped ourselves to apples, peaches and more from the trees.
Rullebu, or the 'rolling home', Bente's camper-van, was well set up with provisions and a steady 6G Wi-Fi connection provided by Telenor. Pal also loaded up their two motorized bicycles so that he and Mohan could go off exploring. It was a bonus that the men instantly hit it off. When we left, Pal didn't even lock their house, a level of trust we could not fathom. 'May we lock our room at least?' asked Mohan.
The next week was a delightful blur. Pal drove Rullebu past acres of harvested fields dotted with 'tractor eggs', as he calls them-bales of hay packed in white plastic wrap. For us the sky stayed blue and the weather warm. We soon reached Lillehammer, site of the 1994 Winter Olympics, with stadiums and apartments built for the games still being put to good use.
Our first night away was in Lom, surrounded by mountains. From the minerals museum there, I got a rough sample of Norway's national stone, pink thulite, named after Ultima Thule, an ancient name for the country. Bente and Pål slept in the van and we checked into a charming log cabin near an icy-blue glacial waterfall and an ancient wooden stave church. Norwegians don't seem so religious, but they adore their heritage. Bente, Nordic-cool in jeans, wears an heirloom bunad, the prettily embroidered national costume, to weddings. 'I look best in our folk dress,' she laughs, 'like you ladies do in saris.'
Old Norse myths and Sami shamanic traditions still linger. Everybody half believes in trolls, whose images are everywhere as conceived by 'troll-artist' Theodor Kittelsen. These goblin-like beings have their identities on many Norwegian landmarks. There's Trolltinden (Troll Peaks) and Trollstigen (Troll's Path), a winding road up into the mountains, which we managed to fit into our drive. Norwegian roads are as smooth as silk. There are barriers and fences and plenty of room to navigate, and we looked at glacier pools from a viewing platform that Bente whispered was 700 metres high. We politely refrained from telling her that the average Indian hill station was about 2,400 metres. Rich with abundant offshore oil, Norway has polar conditions. But we found everything tamer, simpler and safer than in India. The houses are basic, like a child's drawings with clean spare lines. 'Where are the people?' we wondered, as we drove through stretches of countryside.
A highlight was the fabled Atlantic Road, one of the world's most spectacular routes. We stayed four days at Atlanterhavsveien, in a luxurious seaside cabin with heather and birch growing on the roof. However, on our first night there, none of the lodge's cabins were free and we ended up sleeping on reindeer skins in the barbecue hut. We explored islands in a rented motor boat. There were Czechs and Germans who would go into the Atlantic and return with hauls of mackerel and huge cod, which they would fillet and store in their freezer-vans before heading back to their countries. Flavours are part of any journey. We picked mushrooms, and tasted raspberries and chanterelles, cloud berries and lingonberries from the mountains. And the fish-fresh caught, smoked or dried-besides venison, moose and elk. Travellers should try everything once. We got rather addicted to mountain butter on rye bread, and Hennig-Olsen ice cream. 'Its founder was my grandma's friend,'said Bente smugly.
If there is something we could learn from the Norwegians, it is their ingrained discipline. Geiranger, a UNESCO heritage spot festooned with lace-like waterfalls, is a prime tourist draw. Yet the environment is pristine. Bente has a hawk eye for litter and would pick up the tiniest scrap of paper. 'You have so many people in India. Why can't they also clean up the streets?' she asks. There is no one to watch you and enforce rules. At crossroads, in the middle of nowhere, with no other vehicle in sight, Pal would still wait for a signal to turn green before driving through. And we watched children leave their bicycles at a bus stop before hopping on to their school buses, sure nobody would take them.
Norway's best and brightest minds in school are encouraged to consider public service and politics as a career. It was at a Labour Party's youth camp on Utøya Island in 2011 that a maniacal gunman massacred 69 participants-a shocking aberration in a very peaceful country. Passing the serene lake where the heart-shaped island lies, we didn't take pictures out of respect for those who died there.
Waiting for ferries to take our van across the fjords, Bente and Pal were often recognized-a new season of Sofa was to be filmed after we left. People were instantly chatty. And while Rullebu rolled on, Bente was like a built-in guide with an entertaining commentary on anything. 'In Norway, broad-shouldered women have been preferred since Viking times, because in our steep mountains, they cannot use horses,' she says. 'They needed women who could pull a plough. So, today all Norwegians have broad shoulders and are more athletic than the Swedes.' There has always been neighbourly one-upmanship among the Norwegians, Swedes, Finns and Danes. Bente can also be an encyclopedia of politically incorrect anecdotes.
We didn't spend much time in the cities. But we walked about Alesund, a jewel-box of a town, rebuilt in art nouveau style after a fire destroyed it in 1904. Similarly, we didn't spend enough time at The Vigeland Park, a sculpture garden in Oslo, dedicated to Gustav Vigeland's work: some 200 gigantic statues in granite, bronze and wrought iron. We were also too early for the Northern Lights and too late for the roses. Sadly, our time slipped away.
Since Pal loves boats, we had taken them a little wooden replica of a rice boat from Kerala. 'The film crew put the Kerala boat on the window sill, so it will be in every programme we are in,'Bente wrote recently. 'I guess that should represent us as being more exotic than the run-of-the-mill Norwegians. LOL.'
Bente and Pal are now fired up with plans to visit India in winter, which would be a fun and fitting sequel to this story.