You never tire of viewing the endless array of ancient glaciers interspersed with waterfalls cascading from dramatic rock spires, or the craggy cliffs looming over the salt water running deep into fissures and lined by near-vertical rock walls, let alone riding between snow banks 10ft high that never melt. This is Mother Nature at her most spectacular and impressive.
Our trip began in Stavanger, the Houston of Norway and capital of its oil industry, though in best Norwegian fashion there’s no obvious trace of the fabulous wealth that its low-rise buildings generate thanks to the black gold pumped offshore from the nearby Atlantic Ocean’s seabed.
Unable to spare the time to ride there from the UK, I flew in to find that Svein had arranged the loan
of a 2014 BMW R1200RT complete with side panniers from www.motorhuset.no in Sandnes, a well-heeled dormitory town 20km from Stavanger. The country’s largest bike dealer, Bikerstreet is a dealer for BMW (No.1 in Norwegian bike sales), Harley-Davidson (No. 2), Yamaha (No. 3) and Triumph (No. 7 and rising).
Depending on availability, Owe’s open to renting bikes to visitors: contact him on firstname.lastname@example.org There are 250,000 registered country of clichés – Nords, Vikings, trolls, glaciers, the Scream, oil, the midnight sun, fish and not much else. Perhaps that’s why its 94,000km of well- made, well-maintained but largely deserted paved roads lined with majestic scenery full of natural drama seem to have become Europe’s best kept secret for real-world riders.
Indeed, the cancellation of the Newcastle-Bergen ferry service in 2008, which had operated for well
over a century, means you can no longer go there directly today from the UK with a bike. In fact, the shutdown last September of the Harwich-Esbjerg service means there’s unfortunately no longer even
a ferry route between the UK and Denmark, so getting to Norway is indeed quite a haul.
Our first night was a short ride away at the historic Kronen Gaard Hotel www.kronen-gaard.no, built in 1898 as a summer residence by timber merchant Gabriel Block and lined with beech trees that must look spectacular in autumn. Speaking of seasons, June is by some way the best month to visit Norway, according to Svein – winter chills are but a memory, and the weather is more likely to be dry and sunny rather than wet. And as I found for myself insect repellent isn’t required then, although it apparently most definitely is in August, when it also rains quite a bit.
July is Norwegians’ holiday month, so best avoided as everywhere is jammed up, including the roads and worst of all, ferries – two-hour queues to get even a short crossing are commonplace. And being so far north the weather starts to turn colder already in September.
It was only after I’d spotted the first two or three that I started counting them, but on our five-day ride I saw no fewer than 137 expensive US-made Tesla electric four- door sedans – more than you ever see even in its San Francisco back yard. Turns out that 29% of new cars – but not yet bikes – registered last year in Norway were electric or hybrid, thanks to huge subsidies that make a Tesla barely any dearer than a 3 Series BMW.
Plus you get free road tax, free road tolls, free charging in any of Norway’s copious charging stations, and you can also use the bus lanes – though it seems pretty churlish to stop at a petrol station of all places, and park your Tesla right next to the only petrol pump for 50km while you go inside and eat lunch. Yes, really.
This bureaucratic munificence extends to motorcycles, which also pay no tolls to use the highways in Norway, which are otherwise stingingly expensive for private cars. But motorcycles have to abide by the rigorously enforced and pretty low speed limits – 100kph is the fastest you can go on the relatively few freeways, and there are long stretches of 80kph limits on deserted two-lane roads.
The upside of this is that Norway has the lowest motorcycle accident rate of any developed country, plus when you ride more slowly you do have more time to admire the breathtaking scenery.
But one thing that’s hard to get used to quickly is that outside major cities like Oslo and Bergen, there is no cafe or bar culture in Norway in the evenings. All midsized towns and villages are locked down from 4.30pm onwards when most Norwegians get home from work – there’s no pub for them to congregate with their mates in. So if you want to stop for a lunchtime snack you have to find a cafe – though they’re few and far between – that can serve you something until around 3pm, when they all close, and anyway you can’t get alcohol in them.
Partly that’s because of the cost – at £7.50 per 0.4 litre glass of the local rather watery beer named Ryfylke, this is pricey even by Norwegian standards – and partly because there’s essentially a zero tolerance when it comes to drink driving.
With a .003 blood alcohol level ceiling, a single glass of wine will put you over the limit, punishable
by a minimum 21 days in jail and one year loss of your licence. After that hour, it’s a case of either
going to a petrol station for a snack outside a bigger city, or else a hotel.
Finding a Dutch tour bus party monopolising our Sand hotel’s restaurant, to the point they’d run out of many dishes, we went out looking for a cafe at 7pm at night, and found nothing in a village of 1200 people.
Being Saturday night, some locals had set up an impromptu bar in the loading bay of a transport company, selling beer and soft drinks – but no food.
It was a case of back to the hotel and whatever the Dutch had left for us – which turned out to be some freshly caught fish that had just arrived while we’d been out walking around, and delicious it indeed was, washed down with a glass of apple juice. This lack of cafes, and the expense of eating out, even at quite down-to-earth places, is the reason so many Norwegians take picnics with them to stop by the road to eat when they’re travelling, at any of the wide number of scenic stopover places along the way. Best to leave room in a rucksack to visit a supermarket before setting off on a day’s ride on a bike.
Okay, so where are we going, Svein – up to the North Cape and back? Not unless you came to Norway to do some box-ticking, came the reply. Rome is closer to Oslo than the North Cape, and apparently the last day of riding to get there is through bare, featureless scenery – and then you have to retrace your steps to come back again. Far better to do what we did, which was to explore Norway’s southwestern region which essentially comprises the country inland from Bergen, and the slightly softer but still stately scenery of the southern part of the country.
So we headed off north from Stavanger along the E9 towards Bergen, a superlatively beautiful and very scenic island-hopping road running practically through the Atlantic Ocean itself, which saw successive islands linked by tunnels (don’t wear a dark tint visor in Norway – you’ll ride through dozens of tunnels each day), bridges and a couple of ferries.
Generally you don’t need to book ahead for these, and can just turn up on a first come, first served basis – unless they run along one of the Nords on what amounts to a sightseeing cruise combined with getting from A to B, in which case it’s vital to do so, or end up being disappointed. Take the advice of your guide book – and it is vital to have a good one like the Rough Guide or Lonely Planet, with amenities like restaurants and filling stations that are so spread out, and a ferry timetable book is useful, too, though quite hard to decipher.
Gazing across stretches of water on successive stops often entailed viewing the increasingly controversial salmon farms, the effluent from whose fish is causing an environmental catastrophe, according to anti-farm Next morning after a quick visit to the open air Fisketorget fish market facing Bryggen to watch the piles of wet fish caught overnight being piled on to trestles, we headed inland to ord country, tracing the outline of the incredibly scenic Hardangerftord along the E7, justly nicknamed Turistvei – the tourist road. The numerous waterfalls along the way caused by melting snow were dwarfed by the mega-sized 46m high Steinsdalsfossen which you can actually walk through and stand behind if you don’t mind a refreshing light shower from the cool spray.
We then took a ferry to Utne and rode along the pretty Soerftord, with the tall Folgefunna glacier as a backdrop glistening in the bright sunshine. As we did so, we encountered a 40-strong vintage truck rally going the other way, mostly 60s and 70s Volvo/Scania/DAF Euro-tractors, but with a massive Kenworth and Peterbilt both hustling them along, the latter with flames painted down the side. Now THAT’s a Custom!
Then we turned off the main highway and headed uphill to the glacier, riding through snow-laid meadows and through deep crevasses with steep white walls on either side. Impressive – and also extremely beautiful, perhaps the most scenic afternoon’s ride I can ever remember having made.
As we dropped down to Sauna we saw a motocross track off to the right, and discovered the Solberg family spending dad Petter’s day off running their KTM minibikes, with mum Juli acting as flag marshal while their four kids aged from six to 12 practised for the races the following weekend. “I don’t ride a bike myself, but this is a great way to keep our kids busy and give them some skills as well,” said Petter.
“Anyway, we have a race against the town next door at their local track – we have lots of these all over Norway where people of all ages can come and ride bikes. It’s a great sport!” There are just three road racing tracks in Norway, two close to Oslo and the other way north, the Arctic Circle Raceway north of said circle. MX is the go in Norway, in spite of the green environmental lobby.
It had been a lovely sunny day as we left Stavanger, but the closer we got to Bergen the darker the sky got, until it finally started drizzling. Not surprising, really, since rain falls on 250 days of the year in Norway’s picturesque second-largest city, whose stunning Nordland setting is best appreciated by taking a six-minute ride 320m above sea level on the 26o steep Fløibanen funicular that scales one of the seven mountains Bergen is built on – hence the name (bergen means mountains).
A thousand feet below once the sun comes out you can clearly see the way the city clings to a pair of peninsulas washed by the Atlantic, with slivers of silver Nord glistening through the passes in the southern mountains we’d be heading for next day.
Down at sea level our Radisson Hotel www.radissonblu.com/hotelnorge-bergen didn’t break the bank even with underground parking for the bikes, in spite of its convenient location adjacent to the row of 17 original wooden warehouses called the Bryggen which line the harbour, mostly now populated by pricey shops selling upmarket souvenirs like lined woollen Norwegian sweaters designed to cope with two types of weather – cold and very cold! But a must-do stop is at Baker Brun www.bakerbrun.no to sample one of their scrumptious cinnamon buns baked to a centuries old recipe – or maybe two….
A magnificent feature of the Bergen harbourscape is the Statsraad Lehmkuhl www.lehmkuhl.no/english – a three-masted steel-hulled sailing barque built in Germany in 1914 as a 22-sail training ship for the German merchant marine. This was acquired in 1923 by Norway and is today rented for cruises and shorter trips, both public and private. In addition the Statsraad Lehmkuhl has also participated in several of the Tall Ships’ Races starting and finishing in Bergen, most recently in the one held in July 2014.
Between the ancient wooden structures of the Bryggen are passages like Bredsgarden, which penetrate deep into the planked recesses of this medieval quarter. Slightly incongruously, these are dotted with shops selling modern handmade silver jewellery – a local Bergen craft thanks to the silver mines at Konigsberg, en route to Oslo. One is run by Zeva Jelnikar www.zj- d.com – a former Slovenian landscape architect turned jeweller who settled here 11 years ago and in between teaching her daughter Anya how to beat silver, speaks warmly of her Norwegian hosts.
“Norway is a very conservative country where everything is done the right way, not the cheap way,” she says. “It’s wealthy enough that people can afford to choose to do things like this, but the result is that everything works well, there are really no poor people, and there is a very active programme of social security. It’s a very fine place to live, and especially to bring up children.”
But ferociously expensive, it has to be admitted – £17 for a coke and a couple of pieces of fried chicken at a roadside petrol station is typical pricing, although being an oil-based economy you’d expect petrol to be cheap, at least. Only it’s not, because it’s taxed sky-high for budgetary and environmental reasons – another reason to buy a Tesla – making it around 30% higher than in the UK, and the most costly in Europe.
An average working-class Norwegian earns £60,000 a year, and pays 23% of it in income tax, but VAT is a steep 25%. Given the cost of eating out, maybe that’s another reason restaurants and cafes are so few and far between. Dinner in Bergen was our one chance to splurge by eating reindeer steak at the famous To Kokker (as in, two cooks) Restaurant www.tokokker.no upstairs in the Bryggen. This is ultra lean and very tasty indeed, a kind of light venison traditionally served with the local specialities of yellow beetroot, and the potatoes which accompany every single dish you ever get served in Norway – they’re a core crop.
Next morning after yet another superb buffet breakfast – given the cost of eating out, it’s always a good idea to eat a hearty breakfast in Norway, as this is always included in the price of the room – we headed south through Nord country to Forsand to catch a long ferry up Lyseftord. Norwegians are lovers of US culture, hence the fact that Harleys are the second best-selling two- wheeled brand there, plus it’s quite commonplace to see delectable pieces of America’s automotive yesterdays in everyday use, like the mint 1958 Corvette roadster waiting in line behind us for the Lyseftord ferry.
Sadly it had got dull, but at least it was dry, so we could stand out on deck craning our heads backwards to gaze up at the massive crags looming over the narrow waters, before going up to the bridge to meet Captain Rolf Nygaard, a 40 year veteran of sailing the Nords who had a very relaxed feet-up driving technique at the helm of this lovely 45-year-old ferry, the Tustna.
Turned out he was a reader of Svein’s, and the owner of a 1938 vintage DKW 250cc two-stroke that had been in his family since 1955. He insisted I took the helm for a few minutes, but I have to say that worrying about keeping this piece of nautical hardware away from the rock faces of the Lyseftord was a pretty nervy experience. I’d much rather take Bray Hill flat out in top gear than do that again.
Disembarking at Lysebotn we started climbing steeply up a narrow road – I counted 35 hairpin turns, not including the spooky spiral tunnel which while an undoubted engineering feat back in the 1950s when the road was built, in today’s context was dark, dangerous, old and narrow. We made it through, though I’m glad I didn’t encounter a car coming the other way. This was the gateway to another fabulously memorable ride, through the Borsteinen lunar landscape interspersed with snow walls up to 10m high, even in June.
Then the road narrowed again to twist downwards, though it had only been opened to traffic three weeks beforehand after the last of the reindeer herds had left the valley – too dangerous otherwise in terms of a traffic hazard. Then came a glorious high speed run for the next hour along fast deserted roads to the Revsnes Hotel alongside Byglandsnord, bathed in sunshine beside the still waters of the Nord. The hotel owns the world’s last existing wood-fuelled steamboat still in service, the SS Bjoren built in 1866, but though we could inspect it sadly it wasn’t a Sunday, the only day it’s still used.
Before hitting the high road for the long but enjoyable ride back to Stavanger via Kristiansand and Norway’s south coast, we retraced our steps 20km to visit the Bygland Folk Museum, a fascinating collection of genuine (so, not replica) Norwegian country homes transplanted there from all around and built over the past 400 years. Even today, 90% of the houses built in Norway are made out of wood, which is only natural,
I guess, with all those trees – we stopped at a tiny sawmill a little further on, and the perfume of the cedar oil coming from the newly hewn timber was sweet and addictive.
Bygland showed how the wood was used, with birch bark employed for roofing that was laid flat, then weighted down by stones. Grass and even mini fir trees were then encouraged to grow on top of that as a further means of insulation, making the home warm in winter and cool in summer, just like an English half-timber building with a thatched roof.
One of the several stops we made en route back to Stavanger was at Jøssingnord, the site of the Second World War’s Altmark Incident. In 1940 the German tanker Altmark was returning to Germany with 299 British prisoners of war on board, and contravened the rules of war by passing through Norwegian
waters to get to Germany – Norway was still neutral at that stage. After being intercepted by the British destroyer HMS Cossack, Altmark sought refuge in the Jøssingnord, but Cossack followed her in and boarded her, rescuing the prisoners.
This ultimately led to Hitler invading Norway in April 1940 – an act still unforgiven by many older Norwegians who suffered dreadfully under German occupation. Today the event is well described by placards at the site, which is also the home of some ancient workmen’s houses built in the 1800s under what are called Helleren, overhanging rock formations which provide shelter from the elements, and allow the houses to be built much less robustly, and thus inexpensively.
They’re open to the public for a look into Norway’s not so distant past – oil was discovered only in the 1960s, and began flowing hard in the mid-70s. Until then, Norway was a relatively poor country mainly subsisting on agriculture, fishing and raw materials such as timber and aluminium ore, as well as shipbuilding. Oil changed everything – mostly for the better. Today, it’s a prosperous, well ordered place still resplendent with some of the most dramatically beautiful natural scenery in the world. And it’s accessible, too – especially on a motorcycle. Not to be missed.