How to spend a cheap holiday in Norway

How to spend a cheap holiday in Norway

Travel

Image: From “How to Spend a Cheap Holiday in Norway” from
The English Illustrated Magazine, July 1892 issue
The Norwegian farmhouse’s bedrooms were described as “odd,” but the bed linens were exquisite.

CYNTHIA ELYCE RUBIN
The Norwegian American

If you are surprised by the title of this article, you are right to be taken aback. Norway is known to be one of the most expensive countries in the world. 

But, no, you didn’t read wrong—although there is one catch: “How to Spend a Cheap Holiday in Norway” is the title of a magazine article published in the July 1892 issue of The English Illustrated Magazine.

That said, vintage travel articles can be very useful. They provide a look into everyday life of the past, and in doing so, they help us understand Norwegian culture during an earlier era, giving us unique insights into what helped shape the culture of Norway today. 

In her detailed account, author Mary Howarth explained that Norway, as the subject of a travel article, had already in her day been explored to death: “We have all read about, and most of us are acquainted already with its fjords, its midnight sun, its rivers, and its moors.” 

However, Howarth continued that Norway could be seen from a different point of view. Many people, particularly sportsmen, like it, and as long as the journey takes some 40 hours by steamer from England, this happy hunting ground will not be overcrowded, she said. 

But she is curious: With no desire to so much as mention a fjord, or a midnight sun, a snowcapped mountain, or the Arctic Circle, coasting excursions in luxuriously fitted steamers . . . and the British tourist,” what else is there?

And so, the author set out for a Norwegian vacation to answer the question once and for all and ended up staying on a farm, very unusual lodging in1892.

“Tonight is Saturday, and if I keep very still and try to separate the sounds, I shall hear above the wind that is so soft and balmy, and the rustling of the trees, and the murmur of the river, and the low roar of the sea, the singing of the farm servants in the back quarters of the house . . . the quaintly monotonous soothing songs of the Scandinavian peasantry.”

The travel writer continues: “Inside the spese-sal, or dining room, I see the husfru, her husband, his aged aunt, and perhaps if tomorrow is the one Sunday in three that is kept in church, I will meet the good old priest, who lives in the small fishing town 15 miles away and stays here when he comes to . . . marry, christen, prepare for confirmation, or bury anyone in the neighborhood. Upstairs the children sleep: 4-year-old Lauritz, dreaming perhaps of the ‘storr fisk’ he will catch with the rod his mother made him . . . Maria,” who can talk and dance at age 2, and baby Paulina.

“In appearance the house . . . was not unlike a Noah’s Ark—all of wood, painted . . . white with green window sashes and a creamy brown front door that opened in two . . . Entering this front door, you found yourself in a small square room or hall fitted with a cupboard in which the husfru kept glass, china and the table linen . . . there ran a row of pegs . . . for outdoor gear . . . Here also fishing tackle, consisting of lines, rods, waders . . . guns, and their gear, umbrellas and sticks.” 

The wooden farmhouse was more than a century old. “The walls in the sitting room were a pale aquamarine green . . . and in the dining room of a shade or two darker, while the bedrooms were browns” and simply furnished. Hard chairs and sofas are plentiful, with not one easy chair in sight. 

She continued to explain the beds were “odd, just boxes” and a “pulling-out contrivance,” making them bigger than single size if necessary and with a liberal layer of straw in the coverlet. But the pillowcases and sheets were “exquisitely needled and monogrammed,” and lace adorned the towels.

Traditional stoves occupied positions in corners of the uncarpeted rooms; behind and around them the walls were cemented, so there would be no risk of fire. The family burned oil and candles at night, while a huge candle-lit lantern was provided for those who like to wander over the fields and pathless meadows in the dark. The author remembered being astonished one evening when the lantern was with much circumstance prepared for the housewife, because she wanted to go outside and search for a lost button. Why not wait for the morning light? the author wondered.

According to the Englishwoman, the tunnel-like kitchen looked as though it hadn’t changed for centuries; shelves, racks, and nooks were everywhere. The rafters were as useful as the walls, forming the receptacle of books, knives and tools and an endless number of pots, pans, spoons, and other cooking utensils. As for the fireplace, it was a picture in itself, quaint as the pretty husfru bent over the fire, intent on the waffles or pancakes.

But paying guests were not welcome in the kitchen. During the last luncheon, however, the author was permitted to watch the making of krumkage and pancakes, while others boiled potatoes and prepared stew. Coal, wood, and heather were the kitchen’s fuels, depending on the food that was being cooked. Flad-brød was made only twice a year, and all the women of the farm assisted in the making it for three days. The farm workers came into the house for their meals, as they did in rural England, and they ate in a second kitchen.

“Domestic arrangements were topsy-turvy. Thomina, who was supposed to be the cook,” works mainly as a housemaid. Bettina hated housekeeping and became a parlor maid. Martina, the nursery girl, was so strong she plowed the fields, while Kisten seemed content to remain in the parlor.

Before the author left this out-of-the-way recreation ground, where she was one of the only pair of Englishwomen who had ever stayed there, she had been forewarned of boredom and half-starvation. But there was neither. On the other hand, there was many a rare beauty to discover. Sometimes the visitors rambled miles upriver into the fields, with a basket of sandwiches, stopping to buy milk at some cottage with a quaint front room that contained the family beds fitted into the wall, just like on Scottish farms. 

People were hospitable and kind to the extreme. The author found them to be “a pleasant race and highly intelligent, and are taught well in their schools.” The farm’s owner, who had traveled a great deal, spoke not only Norwegian and English but German and French as well. His elderly aunt was an authority on Henrik Ibsen and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and other less-known Scandinavian authors. This knowledge came from a woman who had seldom moved out of her tiny corner of the world. 

The travel writer noted that the picturesque dress of country folk was becoming increasingly rare, but it suited them admirably and showed off treasured silver ornaments. The priest wore an ancient dress that survived, consisting of a long black gown and snowy white ruff of stiffly starched lawn, a thin fabric of cotton or linen. He was a greatly appreciated member of society.

As for men, the author noticed that they appeared in great numbers at the churchyard gate but did not go further. She reported, “Norwegian services are very long.” The priest, however, had a great deal of work and if his parish were a large one, he traveled widely. Consequently, the church attendees often conduct funerals in the priest’s absence.

And there are the British tourist’s observations about funerals. Funerals are very important in Norway and last a long time. First, a messenger goes on foot to alert all the neighbors of the event. Until his message is delivered to the head of the household, no one will offer him refreshments or even a chair. For days before, lots of cooking takes place in the house. 

One day before the burial, there is feasting and a reunion of friends. On the day of the funeral, there is another gathering, which accompanies the corpse and family to the grave. The day after is also spent in company, the idea being that consolation is helpful and thus given to the bereaved. Although the author did not attend a wedding, she believed it was an occasion when one must just substitute rejoicing for sadness.

As for meals at the farm, the boarders never fared better. They drank a good deal of milk. Coffee and tea, a luxury in Norway, were served liberally, and they enjoyed breakfasts of eggs and fish in salad, marinated, dry and fresh, also German sausage, meat and cheese slivered very thin. Dinners consisted of soup, fish and fowl, meat, and many kinds of puddings. The light confections of batter mixed with cream were extraordinarily delicious.

In the end, the author refused to identify this rural paradise. “Norway is becoming so crowded that precautions are needful,” she wrote, if one wants to escape fellow Britishers. Moreover, anyone who wants rest and quiet and no big bill will surely profit by finding a place like this, she said. The best way is to cultivate an acquaintance with a Norwegian farmer, to go over there and look around for what one wants. 

Expenses for the entire seven weeks of the author’s holiday, including the roundtrip steamer from England, did not “amount to the modest sum of five-and-twenty pounds,” about $31. Now, that’s a deal by any standard!

To read more about the importance of vintage travel books and articles, read “Vintage books highlight Old Norway” by Fredrik Delås in the Feb. 6, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

This article originally appeared in the May 8, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American

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