Text: Mikael Lunde
Longyearbyen, the largest town on the Svalbard archipelago, has a gourmet restaurant and one of Europe’s best wine cellars. Sound urban, does it?
Well, think again – this place lies at the very outskirts of civilization, halfway between the Norwegian mainland and the North Pole. Its kindergarten employees are armed to protect the kids from polar bears!
It’s a place of striking contrasts. And so, indeed, is Norway as a whole – a country that is larger and more diverse than most people probably realize.
Go to Oslo, and what you’ll find is a sort of bustling metropolis in miniature, with not a polar bear within a thousand miles. Across the mountains, some 200 miles to the west, are the famous, narrow fjords, surrounded by snow-clad mountains and lush, green valleys.
Whether the fjords, the city or the arctic is the “true” Norway depends on whom you ask. To make up your mind, of course, you should see them all. And if you plan it right, that just might be possible – within just a single week. For instance, with an Ultimate Norway Historic Fjord, City & Arctic Roundtrip.
“A large establishment, with large, magnificent hallways, comfortable stairways, a spacious vestibule with a fireplace, an elegant salon, large rooms with wide beds and verandas outside (…) with all windows facing out towards Bjørnefjorden and the glittering ice desert of Folgefonna.”
In 1903, that’s what the engineer and writer, Ole Wilhelm Fasting, found at Solstrand Hotel & Bad – sitting on the water’s edge at the entrance to the western fjords.
The establishment was built a decade earlier by the ship owner and future Norwegian Prime Minister, Christian Michelsen. “It was, for the wealthy of the time, an escape from the stresses of daily life in nearby Bergen,” says its modern day proprietor, Pernille Schau-Larsen.
Today, Solstrand is part of De historiske (literally “The historic ones”), an organization that includes many of Norway’s top hotels and restaurants. They all share deep roots in history, and membership requires the highest standards in comfort and cuisine.
In a series of round trips by De historiske, you can combine several of these in one all-inclusive package. The latest, Ultimate Norway, covers the fjords, the capital city and the arctic. Kicked off, if you wish, with a taste of the seasonal menu at Solstrand.
“We have a great, shielded location by the fjord, with huge windows letting in the sound of birds and the scent of the sea,” says Schau-Larsen. “Our kitchen, then, is closely tied to the coastal culture. We use fresh root vegetables, fruits and berries, and fish and shellfish, depending on the season. At the same time, Bergen has always been a city of trade, so it’s always been common here with international impulses”.
Across the mountains, it’s a rather different world. When Kristian Gahre first came to Oslo several decades ago, he encountered a busy seafront filled with heavy traffic and industry. Coming from tiny Mandal, the capital seemed huge and overwhelming.
Today, Oslo’s seaside industry has disappeared, giving way to parks, cafes and museums. Still, as Gahre came to realize, “huge” was never quite the right word. Compared to London, New York or Paris, Oslo is quite small and intimate. “After living here a few years, I realized that this is what makes it so charming. Almost no matter where you are in the city, you can walk to its centre in less than an hour,” he says.
The hotel where Gahre works, Camillas hus, occupies one of the city’s oldest, wooden Swiss style villas, centrally located right behind the royal castle. It is named after Camilla Collett, the Norwegian author who once lived there – in what was then pretty much the city’s first suburb. “When it was built in 1845, this was practically the countryside,” says Mario Rego, the hotel host.
At the turn of the century, this is where the successful car dealer Bertel O. Steen established his business. The hotel restaurant next door, Ni & Tyve (meaning “twenty-nine,” after the street address), was his private residence – and retains the atmosphere of a private house and garden. It serves Mediterranean food with a Nordic twist.
The most unique thing about Oslo is probably how close it is to untouched nature – and a whole lot of it, too. Oslo residents are very proud and protective of “marka” – the surrounding hills and forests that continue for miles and miles to the north and east of the city. You can take the subway from the city centre and be there in minutes.
“I believe Oslo may be the only city in the world that has a subway system made to transport passengers out of the city,” says Flemming Nilsen, the general manager at luxurious Lysebu, in the forest beyond Holmenkollen ski jumping hill. A 10-minute walk from the hotel there is, indeed, a subway station (above ground), where city people exit with their skis or mountain bikes.
“It’s a stark contrast to the higher tempo of the city. When you come to the hotel, we want you to leave behind your stress and problems,” Nilsen says.
Apart from its location and history, Lysebu is best known for its award-winning restaurant and the world-class wine cellar. Many of their ingredients are from their own garden, and they have a seasonal menu. “Sensory experiences are a large part of what De historiske is about: the atmosphere, the architecture – and the food”.
If Oslo represents Norway’s urbanity, then Svalbard lies at the opposite extreme. The archipelago ranges from 74° to 81° north latitude – or, in simpler terms, considerably further north than most people will ever go.
When you step off the plane, you’re greeted by a barren, windswept landscape devoid of trees or any other signs of vegetation. Still – it’s incredibly beautiful. “The first thing you’ll see are the snow-capped mountains across the fjord, and a landscape with an entirely different set of shades and colours than you’re used to,” says Bård Heio from the Svalbard Adventure Group.
For him, Svalbard is first and foremost a place full of surprises. Actually, the first surprise is the fact that the settlement exists at all. “Many are startled by the fact that Longyearbyen is such a thriving community,” says Heio. The town has more than 2000 inhabitants, and even sports a gourmet restaurant.
The restaurant is called Huset, meaning “the house”. And at Svalbard, it really is the house, serving as the town’s natural gathering place since its 1951 construction.
At this unlikely place – where you’re not to walk outside without an armed escort, and where any temperatures above zero Celsius usually means “summer” … this is a place where Huset’s cellar keeps upwards of 20 000 bottles of wine. It is one of the finest collections in Northern Europe.
After a long day spent hiking, taking a boat trip along the coast or visiting the nearby Russian mining town (!), it’ll probably taste extra good.
Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago, midway between the mainland and the North Pole, in the Arctic Ocean. Almost two thirds of the 61 000 square kilometre archipelago is covered in massive glaciers. The islands are large indeed – include them in Norway’s total land area, and the country will be larger than Germany.
Longyearbyen is the largest settlement, but there are others – including the Ny-Ålesund research station, the Norwegian mine at Sveagruva, and the Russian mining community of Barentsburg. According to Statistics Norway, the archipelago had a total of 2 667 registered inhabitants as of July 1, 2015.
The Svalbard Islands is known for its incredible nature and wildlife, the mines and research facilities, and the much-publicized Global Seed Vault. And, of course, Huset’s wine cellar.
Map source: Kartverket (Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0)
Have you seen the Disney film, Frozen? A primary inspiration for the filmmakers was the Norwegian city of Bergen and the nearby fjords. The incredibly narrow and dramatic Nærøyfjord, with snow-capped mountains rising up from the water on either side, is one of two Norwegian fjords on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
A fjord is a long, narrow inlet of seawater that can reach upwards of a hundred miles inland, carved out by massive glaciers during the ice ages. Their waters are typically deep and calm.
Staying at Solstrand, you are near the entrance to the Hardangerfjord, whose shores are brim with Norwegian culture and history. Just over two hours travel north-east is the aforementioned Nærøyfjord – decidedly one of the best areas to explore Norwegian nature and culture. Go there by train, and catch the world-famous Flåm railway.
Oslo might be small, but it is also Europe’s fastest growing capital city, and holds an international level in food and culture. Visit for a few days, and it may still be overwhelming.
One of Oslo’s most popular tourist destinations, and rightly so, is the Frogner park and its world famous sculpture installation by Gustav Vigeland. Here, Kristian Gahre has one insider’s tip to share – about the much less known work of Gustav’s brother, Emanuel.
“The Emanuel Vigeland mausoleum is, in my opinion, one of the most spectacular art projects in all Oslo,” Gahre says – referring to a church-like, window-less building covered on the inside in frescoes. “He has captured a whole lifecycle, just as his brother did in the park”. Note that the Emanuel Vigeland Museum is only open on Sundays.
Meanwhile, at Lysebu, you can relax in their swimming pool, saunas and spa, or do yoga to complete the meditative mood. Just as importantly, you can head into the huge forest, or try some of the area’s organized activitites. There are summer and winter parks, bungee jumping, a Frisbee golf course, and endless tracks and trails for hiking, mountain biking and cross-country skiing.