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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: August 2008

Piano Concerto in A Minor

I have never been to Norway before.

But when I was sitting on a rocky quay in Utne, waiting for the ferry and trying to optically digest the lavish backdrop of the Hardangerfjord, I had a nagging feeling that I sat there before. And when I hiked along a narrow trail 600 meters over the Lysefjord, and could almost hear the vertigo humming its siren song, I would have sworn that I heard that song before. When I biked down the narrow valley to Flåm alongside a rushing river and my mind was snapping images of the stern beauty of steep mountains and the warm poetry of little farms stealing land from its slopes, I realized that those images were already stored in my memory. And when I walked around the stave church in Borgund, I instantly recognized the smell of its ancient rafters and the simple perspective of the valley in which it stood.

But it was not some strange case of a geographical deja-vu. I knew the spirit of all these places from Edvard Grieg's music, and specifically from his Piano Concerto in A minor.

A minor is a scale that makes use only of white piano keys, and in a few places of Grieg's score you can easily imagine that the ivories have just turned into a flock of sea gulls streaming across the ocean inlet and their flight lets you experience the three-dimensionality of Norwegian fjords on a very personal level.

Czech composer Bedrich Smetana once wrote a series of symphonic poems named "My Country" in which he celebrated the charm of the Bohemian countryside. Although his music was intentionally very descriptive and visual, it still does not compare to Grieg's. No other music that I know of is so deeply rooted in the substance of a country than his Piano Concerto.

You can think of it as a guided audio tour. No expensive air tickets to pay, no exorbitant transfer fees. Just close your eyes and you can almost see a pensive lake and the surrounding mountains smoothly reflecting off a polished soundboard of a Grand Piano. And you'll get to see much more if you turn your mind into a finely crafted Viking ship and let it sail on the crystal clear waters of this instrumental masterpiece.

Grieg wrote it when he was 25.


Tunnel Vision

Norwegians like to keep their roads low, which obviously poses a bit of a problem because much of their country chose to reside at pretty high elevations. But where there is a will, there is a way. Or - not to exaggerate - at least a one lane road.

Norwegian anthem begins with the verse "Ja, vi elsker dette landet" (Yes, we love this country) and after a week of driving through Norway I have to admit that it is completely true. Norwegians really dig their country. Literally. Never before have I seen so many tunnels as in Norway. And some of them can be quite impressive - on our way from Aurland to Laerdal, we drove through a monster which was 25 km long. That must have really involved some quality jackhammer time.

But it explains why you have to drive with your lights on while in Norway. In tunnels, it is essential that you are seen by the oncoming traffic. The rest a simple statistics really - with all those tunnels and all those cars moving in them, Norway gets more underground movement than Britain during the Beatnik years. If even a small fraction of drivers forgot to put their headlights on, it would be a tunnel clogging disaster. So why take chances and deplete the country's stock of Draino?

Sometimes you go through a tunnel, emerge briefly, cross a fjord or a lake on a bridge and zip into another tunnel. Their sheer total length is mind-boggling. I wouldn't be surprised if Norway possessed more than 20% of the known tunnel reserves of the whole world. If they ever run our of oil, they could export them.

I am not sure whether Norwegians have a national animal - but if they do, I bet you five crates of high grade dynamite that it is a mole. Paws down.

Stumbling Water Galore

Thanks to its unique morphology, Norway is the waterfall capital of the world. Its high mountain plateaus are instrumental to this title in at least two ways. First, they hold the thawing snow long into summer, providing a rich supply of water, and second, they have nearly perpendicular slopes which don't give the water any other chance to get down but fall.

In most languages, the words for common things are short. Why waste the energy of a multisyllabic word on something that gets used day in and day out. It is therefore no surprise that Norwegian has an unusually short word for a waterfall - foss. Compare that to wasserfall (German), cascada (Spanish), vodopad (Czech), vizeses (Hungarian) or cachoeira (Portugese). Even Swedish, which is in the same language group, uses vattenfall. But Norwegians would go crazy if they had to pronounce three syllables any time they see a waterfall. So they just say foss.

A friend of mine is from Trondheim and before we went on our trip, we asked her where we could find waterfalls in Norway. She said everywhere. And that turned out to be a pretty accurate pointer. But there are places where you can increase your chances of seeing falling water considerably. For instance, you can take Flåsbana, a scenic railroad from a bottom of Sognefjord up to Myrdal, which actually makes a stop for one - in Kjosfossen. From Myrdal you can then bike back through a narrow valley that features waterfalls on both sides. Not to mention a wild river running alongside the trail, which could qualify as one long cascading waterfall in its own right.

If you are not a biking Viking, you can take a ferry through Norway's many fjords and watch waterfalls from the comfort of a ferry deck. You can also visit any of Norway's glaciers, whether it is Jostedalsbreen, Folgefonn or one of the minor ones, and then feast on cascading streams that adorn their sides like little ribbons. Or you can just follow rivers and streams to places where they stumble. And in Norway, waterways stumble a lot.


Grieg to the Rescue

Not only is randomness a great source of beauty, but sometimes it can moonlight as a pretty sophisticated GPS, too. If you don't believe it, here is what happened on our trip to Bergen, Norway.

We spent a lot of time driving around that day, so we arrived in Bergen around 11pm. Having nonchalantly forgone making reservations as well as buying a good street map, we headed straight for the airport, where we expected hotels to be easier to find and more amenable to last minute price negotiations. Neither quite worked; our maneuvering through Bergen, including going back and forth on a toll road, resembled a run of a headless chicken, and the anticipated deep discounts at the hotels turned out to be a tad shallower than Paris Hilton's knowledge of Viking history.

After a few haggling fiascos, we resigned our search and started to look for a place to park and sleep in the car. It was midnight, we were somewhere in the greater airport area and soon we happened upon a cozy construction site, where we parked next to a homey looking bulldozer. The deciduous trees surrounding the site were doing a pretty good job shielding us from the prying eyes of police cars, but on a second thought we figured that being woken early in the morning by the din of construction workers wasn't exactly our idea of "car sweet car", so we hit the road again.

Finding a decent place to car camp in a dark and strange city at 1 am is lottery at best. We drove randomly through countless intersections, took side roads at will, we entered some condo complex, strayed in it, found a different way out, pursued well lit streets, pursued ill lit streets, completely lost any sense of where we were, or whether we were still in Bergen at all, and at about 2 am we got so tired that we decided to just crash wherever we were even if it was to be on the front lawn of the Headquarters of the Norwegian Parking Enforcement Agency. But then and there - just as we abandoned all hope - and after an odyssey that would soften the heart of a Correctional Treatment Specialist - the magical GPS of a random drive lead us to a parking lot of what seemed to be a decent looking hotel.

It was Edvard Grieg's Quality Inn, and for a price we were willing to stomach we got our best accommodations in Norway that night. The man whose music prompted this trip took mercy, and offered a hotel bearing his name to two weary travelers.

Fjell, Foss og Fjord

In English, being the F-word carries a definite stigma of a social outcast: you get bleeped out a lot, no loitering around schools and forget ever dining in a nice restaurant. Norwegian, on the other hand, cherishes its short F-words dearly, because they stand for the staples of the country's natural charm - the mountains (fjell), the waterfalls (foss) and the fjords.

Fjords are long and narrow sea inlets, often stretching deep into the interior, like a giant tug-of-war between ocean and land, with glaciers playing the part of a rope. You can feel the tension between the two elements. Here, the ocean and the mountains have a staring contest - two ogres breathing slowly before the final battle. And if you like mountains and waterfalls too, then you can think of Norway as one wall-to-wall Disneyland for all your scenic needs.

But we live in an era of one stop shopping experience, so let me make a recommendation which can save you a lot of driving - the Geirangerfjord. Surrounded by mountains climbing up to 5,000 feet, it offers variety of waterfalls and mountain sides so steep that one farm perching on a rock over the fjord has a ladder as the only access route to it. There is no road alongside the fjord, so you will have to take a ferry from Hellesylt to Geiranger, but it will be worth every penny (or in this case every øre).

In Norway, you cannot say that you have experienced the words which begin with an F until you have taken a boat ride through the fjord which begins with a G.


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