25th June – 3rd July
Having discovered the economic delights of camping for free, we spend the next 5 nights in Norway in an array of farmer’s fields, mountain passes and pretty hilltops. Most are agreeable, some stunning – some not quite so. Our last night in Norway, the 29th June, is spent in a freshly muck-spread field belonging to Andreas, a gruff but friendly cattle farmer who’s toothless grin yet surprisingly good English stems from a mass of off-white stubble and chest hair, poulticed in an evidently much loved string vest.
Our days are spent heading circuitously northwards, winding through Norway’s plethora of picture postcard fjords: Hardangerfjord, Sognefjord, the tiny yet almost melodramatically beautiful Geirangerfjord (sadly marred by a cruise ship the size of Brighton discharging its geriatric inmates ashore for the day), Stovfjord, and Tingvolifjord to name but a few.
But whilst the landscape remains illimitable in its beauty, the towns somehow fail to match up. Ålesund, voted Norway’s prettiest town in 2007 by the Norwegian populace, is certainly the pick of the bunch with its colourful Art Nouveau streets lining its numerous harbours and inlets.
Drunks and fires
Maybe there is some subconscious national pride lurking here, for Ålesund was razed to the ground overnight by a fire started by two drunks in January 1904, leaving 10,000 townsfolk immediately homeless. This far north, we can’t think of a worse place to become suddenly homeless in the thick of winter. However the combined philanthropy of a regular German holidaymaker here and some local businessmen, coupled with the input of the pick of Europe’s most talented architects of the era, saw the town substantially rebuilt on a far grander scale than previously imagined, within three years.
Yet for some unimaginable reason, in the 1950’s the town’s principals saw fit to adorn the burnished yellows, ochres and blues of the centre with a selection of truly hideous, Soviet-style concrete high-rises, most notably the City Hall, now already visibly and startlingly disintegrating through concrete cancer. Soon it must surely be levelled, maybe others too, and this town can regain all of its former charm.
The Atlantic Road
Beyond Ålesund, the Atlantic Road to Kristiansund is a formidable piece of engineering and belligerence. This network of gravity defying bridges and pontoons link together over a dozen islands flung out in the Atlantic. Whilst highly commendable, there was already a perfectly servicable main road linking Ålesund to Kristiansund; we can’t help wondering why they bothered to build another one, except for the benefit of the tourists and fisherman and to keep their engineers employed. Constructed over roughly three years despite 11 hurricanes getting in the way, it now feels as if you are driving out at sea – exhilarating in the summer but possibly the bleakest road on earth in the winter.
A paltry ten days is of course no time at all to gauge the people of a country. Yet as we venture northwards and finally west on our way back in to Sweden, we can’t help thinking that this country is perhaps a little soulless. Its inhabitants are undoubtedly polite, courteous and, in a rudimentary sense at least, friendly. But they do not exhibit social exuberance, there are no visible social gatherings either formal or informal, indeed outside the main tourist centres we saw not a single pub or bar in the entire country (although this may have something to do with the truly exorbitant alcohol prices) and the people seem content to remain a little introverted, keeping themselves to themselves.
We certainly met enough of them, often engaged in lengthy conversations concerning suitable places to camp on their land for the evening, yet none seemed remotely interested in what a UK plated car was doing in the middle of nowhere (none of our night spots were near tourist destinations) in rural Norway in the early evening. Maybe visitors like us our commonplace, although we still have yet to see another British car since leaving Belgium. Who knows. We liked the Norwegians, but they are not a simple race to get to know.
We entered northern Sweden, via Trondheim, on 30th June. Leaving behind the pristine tarmac that winds through Norway’s immaculate upcountry farmland, we are immediately submersed into Sweden’s vast, elevated and bleak forested plateau. This land is proper wilderness. In just under three days we cover nearly 750 miles in Sweden, from Ostersund to the Arctic Circle, and do not leave forest. Heading north, the population density decreases from the comparatively urban Medelpad region (17 people / km) to the vast, spartan, fir and birch clad Nordbotten (7 people / km when it’s busy).
On day one this never-ending taiga-like landscape awes us, by day two we are comfortable in this enormous environment, by day three we are bored. Stiff. Morning is spent in an enthusiastic yet futile search for roadside moose. By lunchtime we are discussing the advanced engineering methods behind silage bale production and wrapping (we have seen much of this and now feel well qualified to talk at length on the subject). By the afternoon, there’s nothing else for it but The Rolling Stones on full volume, the whole way to the Arctic Circle.
Thankfully we manage to break up the day’s arboreal monotony by way of a lunchtime detour to Sweden’s principal cheese factory, Oster Lager, where six tonnes of the stuff is produced daily. We discover the surprisingly delicious Vasterbotten cheese and make a purchase - it goes extremely well with the smoked moose heart (another local delicacy) we had bought the previous day.
Into the Arctic
The Arctic Circle is as anticlimactic as we expected, complete with obligatory signpost and tourist tat-shop. We did learn, however, that this is not just some arbitrary line drawn around the chilly bits at the top of the earth: ‘…the most southernmost point at which the midnight sun can be seen on the summer solstice’. There you go, useful bit of trivia. We were actually quite pleased there was some scientific rationale behind this line, making our 60km detour more worthwhile. But nothing prepared us for the mosquitoes. Forget the tropics; the midnight sun brings out the worst in these winged agents of Satan. We got two hour’s sleep between us and are bitten to shreds. In the morning (albeit wearily) we were up, out and heading south away from the little b******ds as quickly as we could.
Which brings us to Finland, our last easy, European border (our passports haven’t been checked since Dover). So far, one day in, not hugely impressed: a worryingly similar number of mosquitoes, more damned trees and the occasional utilitarian town to break up the monotony. Added to that, a grotty, over-priced Soviet style campsite last renovated in the 50’s (the Russians were rulers here until 1917 and we have already noticed their influence). But we are open-minded (if tired) and will reserve judgement for another day…