Geiranger: crown jewel of the fjords
Travel at home with the documentary Travels in Western Norway
VIDEO SCRIPT BY LORI ANN REINHALL
ADAPTED BY CYNTHIA ELYCE RUBIN
The Norwegian American
About a year and half ago, retired engineering professor John Woods reached out to Editor-in-chief Lori Ann Reinhall to see if she would be interested in working on a script for a travel video about Bergen, Norway. The answer was an enthusiastic yes!—She loves to travel, and Bergen is like a second home to Lori Ann, who also serves as president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association.
The Woods-Reinhall collaboration continues, as the new series Travels in Western Norway now includes Geirangerfjord. You can also look forward to the future episodes on Ålesund, Eidfjord, and stave churches.
While travel is on hold for most these days, a video travelogue is the ideal way to “get away” and prepare for your next trip. The following adaptation from the Geiranger will offer you a glimpse of what you will discover as you explore the online series, available at Amazon by simply searching for “Travels in Western Norway.”
Geiranger boasts a rich history. As in most of Norway, agriculture was always important, but with so much natural beauty, tourism became the important industry in the late 1800s.
The first guesthouse was built in 1867, and the first cruise ship arrived in 1869. That was the same year that the road connecting Geiranger and the mountain tourist destination of Grotli was completed after eight years of construction work, thus paving the way for even more tourism. By 1905, around 100 cruise ships were calling at Geiranger annually, providing the farmers with important income, which would, in time, change the region’s way of life.
To reach Geiranger, you may travel by train, bus, or car, and—of course—ferry. If you are flying, the nearest gateway is the city of Ålesund, Norway’s “little Venice,” with its ornate turn-of-the-century Art Nouveau architecture.
From Ålesund, you would head out on a road that leads to National Highway 63 in the direction of Geiranger. This road trip notably encounters the steep and winding “Trolls’ Road”—Trollstigen—with 11 hairpin turns, one of the more dramatic drives in the entire country. With its incline of 10%, about 2,500 vehicles pass daily during the height of the tourist season. When driving, you will want to take your time, for at every turn, there is something to discover and capture with your camera.
After eight years of construction, King Haakon VII opened Trollstigen in July 1936. Work on the road is continual, and in 2005, special repairs were made to guard against falling rocks, ensuring that the road is safe. A visitor center with overlook and restaurant was completed in 2012.
When you arrive at Geiranger, you are surrounded by majestic mountains that nearly reach to the sky and with dramatic waterfalls sweeping down the hillside. The village itself has only 250 residents, but hundreds of thousands of visitors arrive every year from all over the world to experience all that the area has to offer.
These unique natural surroundings were created during a succession of ice ages. Glaciers carved out deep fjords and shaped the high and steep mountains. But this striking landscape does not come without its perils. In 1934, part of a mountain crashed into the fjord, causing a tidal wave that devastated the nearby community of Tafjord. When the waves struck, some were up to 56 feet or 17 meters high. Sadly, 40 people died in three villages because of the giant waves.
The danger of a new rockslide and tidal wave still looms, and today this area is under constant seismic surveillance. The threat was even the subject of the 2015 Norwegian disaster film Bølgen (The Wave), in which a tsunami fictionally struck a Geiranger hotel, but only via movie special effects, thankfully.
The Geiranger fjord takes you back into another world of the old traditions of the Norwegian countryside. Its small fjord farms tell tales of days gone by as the magical landscape puts you under its spell.
Explore the town of Geiranger with its old wooden houses, juxtaposed with modern dwellings—all with a view of the fjord. Your senses will be delighted by the sound of the rushing waters and the dramatic sky above as you set off for your adventure on the fjord.
All about fjords
An important stop on your visit is the Norwegian Fjord Center or Norsk Fjordsenter.
Queen Sonja originally opened the center in 2002. Then in 2005, Geiranger fjord and Naeroy fjord became officially inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Then in 2015, UNESCO officially authorized the center itself. In the museum we have information regarding Geiranger’s history, the culture or how people used to live here in the area, how the tourist industry exploded and evolved, and also about nature and how the geological processes formed the fjords. There is also a 10-minute slide show that gives a panoramic impression of what Geiranger looks like in all four seasons of the year. There’s also information about the Green Fjord 2020 Initiative, the environmental policy done here in the region because of the great passion on the subject in the local community.
Inside the Fjord Center, you can explore the history of the old ferries with photographs and paintings. Board an antique ferry as you look out on the fjord with its timeless natural beauty. You can even enter a recreated room from an old farmhouse and read about past life.
But the highlight of your day will be the “Fossevandring,” the waterfall walk. The walk runs from the Norwegian Fjord Center and Union Hotel down to the Geiranger fjord, down 327 steps. There are plateaus with dramatic close viewpoints of the Storfossen waterfall.
And hikers, be prepared: make sure you put on proper footwear and take along raingear, for the weather changes quickly. The lush greenery of the beautiful Norwegian nature will surround you: trees, bushes, grasses, and moss—and then, there is water, water, and more water. It’s easy to understand that hydropower regularly accounts for more than 95% of total Norwegian power production, thus, creating clean, sustainable energy.
No less than an architectural wonder and engineering feat, the waterfall walk took 20 years to complete with a price tag of about NOK 12 million or $1.4 million, but judging from the scenery, it was well worth the investment.
But your adventure will reach new heights with the Geiranger Skywalk at Dalsnibba. Some 5,000 feet above sea level, it offers Europe’s highest fjord view from the road. Dalsnibba is located at the end of the Geiranger valley, about 4.4 miles south of the village of Geiranger and the fjord.
The word “Dalsnibba” means “mountaintop jutting out over the valley.” Once there, you understand how this extraordinary place acquired its name with its sweeping views of the fjord.
You come by bus or car from Geiranger as you travel up the Nibbevegen toll road, a pioneering project completed in 1939. The road opens mid-to late May, and closes in October, but expect snow at the top year-round. Open 24 hours a day during the summer tourist season, the road’s scenery is magnificent by day or night in “the land of the midnight sun.”
An old-fashioned homestead
An excursion worth making is a visit to the Westerås Gård, an old family farm. At this idyllic old working farm high up in the mountains, you can stay in a farmhouse apartment or a pine cabin.
The current owner, Arnfinn Westerås, explains: “Actually it is not a farm, but a small homestead, and we do farm work here like harvesting grass and keeping goats and sheep, and we have a few llamas, and that is mainly the production we have here. We also produce meat and wool from the animals.
People were self-sufficient. The roots from my family go back as far as we know to 1603; that’s written in a church book. And before that we don’t know, but we have found evidence that there have been people living here since the Stone Age. One day my great-grandfather was breaking up the soil for planting corn and vegetables, and he found an ox head and spear from the Stone Age. But we were unlucky, we had a snow avalanche, and we stored these things in our houses, but they disappeared when a snow avalanche destroyed a house in 1907. On the mountain peaks here, there are some traps, animal traps for reindeer. So people were walking up in the mountain here and hunting reindeer back in the Stone Age. So, there’s a long history of people living here in this area.
“People produced everything they had for living at the farm. For example, to obtain salt, they went down to the fjord and harvested seagrass, dried and crushed it, and used that for salting, a useful salt. They also have a special root. They call it sweet root. They used it for sweetness to get the food sweeter. They had to produce everything. And they smoked it so it could last for some time. Everything from a single nail, they had to make, and they had to make it themselves. Today life is much easier.”
As you walk along the farm trails, you can admire the farm animals, still the pride of Westerås. Sheep and goats graze in the lush green grass as they have for centuries, and today, you find non-native llamas. As Arnfinn explains, “They are very good to handle the terrain here and seem very comfortable in these conditions as well. So I think that it’s a quite nice animal to keep in Norway as well. So I’m very happy with them.”
The barn houses a restaurant where Arnfinn and Iris serve dishes made with their own produce.
Tourism has been important at the farm for a long time just as in the entire area, Arnfinn said:
“The farmers here early figured out that it was possible to live and get a living from farming as well from tourism. So they figured out when the first tourism started in the late 18th century, they began taking advantage. And they organized horse coaches so they could carry the tourists up to the mountain. Later on when cars were introduced, they got together and bought cars from the States and from Opel in Germany. I was actually driving the tourists in the cars up to the mountain and back to the fjord. I earned a great income from this, so I could actually get income, as much as I earned on the farm for one year, only in the few summer months.”
Staying in style, soaking up history
There are a wide variety of accommodations in Geiranger, but if you’re looking for history and atmosphere, you’ll be drawn to the Hotel Union and Spa, high up on the hill. You can take in the scenery from the hotel terrace, or set out on the hiking trails — or you may enjoy a ride in one of the hotel’s antique cars. The conference hotel, with its 197 rooms, indoor and outdoor pools and spa, is run by fourth-generation hosts, Monja and Sindre Mjelva.
Sindre Mjelva explains: “Geiranger had a long history up until the 70s with the vintage cars, but the really big number of cars were in the ’20s and ’30s here in Geiranger, related to the increase in demand from the tourists to get to transport from the sea and the fjord up in the mountains. The road they went to was a particularly famous road because it was built in 1889 and won the gold medal for greatest engineering in 1900 when the Eiffel Tower was built. So it was a famous road, and going in their open seven-seat cars was a wonderful popular excursion. And then we had an increase in cars so the number of cars was 50 cars, of these big seven-seat American cars with about 450 inhabitants in 1930, and then we had World War II, and afterward most of the cars were actually dumped in the fjord or taken away. And in the ’80s and ’70s, Father and some friends started to renovate the cars and returned them to their original condition. They’re all running perfectly well now, and my father has 12 of these cars, and the village has now around 18 cars in total, from the original 50 that were in use in the ’30s.”
Mjelva continues to explain how the tourist industry got started in Geiranger: “In 1869, we had a banker coming up with his yacht to Geiranger fjord, who wrote a book afterward recounting Geiranger’s history and his journey. And then there was a second factor that made us famous. The government of Norway decided to make a connection line between this part of Norway and Oslo, which was the capital. They built a famous road through the mountain passes here, which was started in 1881 and finished in 1889. The project was later was exhibited in 1900 in Paris, winning the gold medal for brilliant engineering, competing with the Swiss and Germans and other countries renowned for road engineering.
“Norway was at the time ruled by the Swedes, as you might know. And this was in the time of independence activity. So Norway made a lot of noise about this because they wanted to show the world that there were more than just peasants under Swedish rule. And then we also had the fact that the photographers were as artists kind of chased up here from the other southern part of the fjords where the painters worked because the painters were looking down on the photographers. So when the photographers came up a lot, they took a lot of photographs which was, of course, marketing-wise, much better than painting. So these factors made it also a very successful history for Geiranger. By 1906, we had 112 cruise ships and 11,000 tourists coming into Geiranger.”
When you leave Geiranger, you may feel like you’re leaving behind a fairy tale, with its spectacular scenery, rich history, and friendly people. Geiranger casts its spell, calling you back to the incredible natural beauty that is Norway.
Purchase the Geiranger and Bergen episodes of the Travels in Western Norway series at www.amazon.com; search for “Travels in Western Norway.”
Woods Productions started 22 years ago with the premise of producing travel documentaries on European destinations with an emphasis on the history of the regions. Past programs take you to England, Wales, Berlin, and the Dordogne region of France. To learn more about Woods Productions, see “Western Norway through a new lens” by Lori Ann Reinhall, The Norwegian American, Oct. 4, 2019.
This article originally appeared in the April 17, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.