Olav Mjelva’s Norwegian Road Trip
A Norwegian travel service with a fiddler’s twist
The Norwegian American
When I travel, I look for the ends of roads. I like to search for what Ishmael, the infamous narrator of Moby-Dick, calls “true places”: those places like Queequeg’s island country that are “not down on any map.”
It’s rare that a travel bureau can offer passage to such places, especially in a tourist’s paradise like Norway. With all due respect to travel agents (of which there are many good ones!), there are some things that you simply can’t get, or see, on a pre-packaged tour with a large group.
For access to a country’s famous pearls, one must often exchange the freedom to explore the unexpected backroad, or clamber down to some remote rocky shore. You won’t see the local dive bar or a surprising small-town community theater production of Peer Gynt.
Yet, without some guidance, it’s awfully difficult for an uninitiated visitor to discover those places. Where does one begin to look for those “true places” without prior knowledge or a friend on the inside?
Back in October, I had the fortune of interviewing the members of Norwegian “epic folk” band SVER. The band is fronted by Olav Mjelva, one of Norway’s premier Hardanger fiddle players from the mountain town of Røros in the southern part of Trøndelag, eastern Norway, whom I’d already admired for his skill by way of his collaboration with Swedish nyckelharpa player Erik Rydvall in Rydvall/Mjelva.
Not long after SVER’s performance in Seattle, I learned that Mjelva had also recently started up a unique travel service called Norwegian Road Trip (www.norwegianroadtrip.com). As a traveler himself, having played his fiddle all over the world, Mjelva began to wonder how he could offer travelers to Norway something special—a culturally connected way to encounter all the hidden gems Norway has to offer, gems that lie beyond the reach of the tour bus or cruise ship.
I recently caught up with Mjelva by email and he shared some about the origins and possibilities of his unique travel offering.
Andy Meyer: You are first and foremost known as one of Norway’s premier Hardanger fiddle players and folk musicians. How did you become interested in developing a Norwegian road trip service? Are you an avid road-tripper yourself?
Olav Mjelva: I have always been interested in traveling, and I’ve always loved to travel and experience Norway. As a musician, I’ve gotten to travel all over the world, but there is something special about traveling around in a country so diverse as Norway, from the sharp mountains of Lofoten to the beautiful fjords in Hardanger, and to the more continental south. On top of that, I have a slightly greater fondness for driving a car than your average Norwegian. I really love to experience new places in Norway, but also to return to well-known gems. In addition, I enjoy both the urban and the rural; I love cross-country skiing, biking, and fishing, but I also very much appreciate good restaurants, concerts, and fine hotels.
I think I can offer something to tourists with lots of various interests, whether they simply need a driver with knowledge about the country or they want a guided tour of the mountains or a city, with a more specific itinerary.
AM: Has this been a long-time idea, or is it something that you recently began to think about?
OM: I have had an underlying thought for many years, but I haven’t believed it was possible to realize it before I was contacted by an American PBS affiliate, Pioneer Public Television, about a year ago. To begin with, they wanted to make a documentary about Scandinavian arts and crafts, but it ended up becoming a documentary about the Hardanger fiddle. It was an unbelievably fun job to get, and I took care of the whole travel itinerary, driving, hotel-booking, and all the arrangements with those who would be interviewed and filmed. We had a great tour from Valdres to Hallingdal, over Hardangervidda to Eidfjord and Utne, and finally to Telemark.
I liked the job quite a lot and thought that there must be others who have the need for a little guidance when they come to Norway. And I’m not thinking about a guided tour with a big group or just a museum tour, but a guide who really knows Norway, the culture, and where it’s worthwhile to go.
AM: How has your experience traveling informed what you offer as a travel service?
OM: As a musician, I have traveled to innumerable places myself, but I know from experience that it can be difficult to come to a new country when you don’t have any local contacts to show you what’s worthwhile to see. For example, I’ve been to Tokyo two times. The first time, I didn’t know anybody. We ended up going to pretty uninteresting places and we didn’t really know where we should go or where we could go. The next time, we were there with a Norwegian who was living in Tokyo. It was a totally wonderful experience—we got to see fantastic places, meet people we otherwise would never have met, and we had some unbelievable dining experiences. It felt like we had gotten beneath the surface of the city and that we understood the culture a little better. That is exactly what I think many people are missing when they come to Norway as well. It is fine to do “Norway in a Nutshell” if one wants to, but I think you also miss out on a lot.
I also know that there are many who don’t want to drive around in Norway themselves. It is, indeed, a little different from the broad roads in the United States. Some people might also think it’s nice to get a break from having to drive on vacation—to actually be able to look at nature. There are still others who think bus tours are a little too “mainstream,” and here is where I come into the picture.
What I can offer is a little more exclusive. We’re not talking about big group tours, so everything can be customized to each person. I think that anything from one to five people is optimal. Both organizations and private individuals are heartily welcome!
AM: I understand it’s still a new service (it started in September or October), but do you find it challenging to balance the demands of being a touring musician with offering a travel service?
OM: A musician’s life goes in waves. It’s extremely busy during periods with tours and performances, so the travel service is put on pause. But then there are also slower periods, where I’d love to take a tour out into Norway’s countryside.
AM: Is there any connection between your identity as a musician and as a road-trip guide? Do you offer any music-oriented itineraries, for example?
OM: If it’s desirable, absolutely. I have a very large network of contacts in the cultural scene in Norway, so I can offer everything from private folk music concerts to mapping a road trip to some of the classic festivals or even metal concerts, for that matter. Everything can be tailored to the travelers’ interests.
AM: Have you guided any particularly interesting trips so far or had any interesting clients?
OM: The trip with PBS was certainly the most fun tour so far. There was everything from private concerts to fine hotels—we even visited my simple cabin in Hallingdal, 1,200 meters (ca. 3,937 ft.) above sea level, where it rained horizontally.
AM: As a traveling musician, you get to travel to lots of interesting places, so I’m wondering if this travel service lets you explore your “backyard” in Norway. What are some of your favorite Norwegian places to visit yourself, or to take people? Do you have any favorite places that perhaps aren’t as well known by tourists (like Preikestolen, Kjerag, Reine, Flåm, Geiranger, etc.)?
OM: There are so many places. Røros, where I’m from, is a gem in the mountains with fantastic hiking all around. Femundsmarka National Park is well known among Norwegians, but still not known among tourists. If one favors the city life, both Tromsø and Ålesund are very fine cities.
Otherwise, I think it’s fantastically beautiful around the whole Hardangerfjord and Sognefjord, but also southward along the Oslofjord, where there are lots of truly lovely hidden gems.
Kystriksveen (the Coastal Route) northward [from Steinkjer to Bodø] is also an experience.
I could certainly name so many more places, but there’s not enough room.
I think this is a unique offer in Norway and an interesting alternative to the bus tours and group tours. Here, everything can be tailored, and you get both a driver and an itinerary planner in one, with a network of many contacts in the travel, culture, and nature scenes in Norway. And there may even be a little Hardanger fiddle tune on the mountain.
For more information about Norwegian Road Trip or to set up a tour with Olav, visit www.norwegianroadtrip.com.
This article originally appeared in the January 24, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.