I've been studying European birds in preparation for the trip, but not enough, of course. We were lucky to be able to get a copy of the very new Birds of Europe from the Princeton University Press, which has been getting rave reviews. (I was touched a few days ago when Laurie offered me her precious copy of the British edition of the same book.) Just before we left, Jennifer sent along a URL for a good birding trip that had ended only a week ago, so I printed that off to study on the trip, too.
Our dear friend Victor drove us to catch the airport limo around noon yesterday. We had to stop by our house to pick up the luggage (lots of stuff, because we know it's going to be cold some of the places we'll be) and that gave me the chance to show him my hummingbirdless new hummingbird garden. (I saw a quote from an ancient Chinese philosopher a few days ago, "Life begins when one starts a garden", and that's about how I've felt all Spring, as I've struggled to learn from my mistakes. (It's my first time ever to do any serious gardening.) I believe that I now have flowers enough blooming to attract a reasonably tolerant hummingbird, should one pass by. Lee has been helping me fortify the garden for our absence by laying out soaker hoses throughout and setting up a hose timer to turn the water on for a while each morning.)
Waiting in the departure lounge at Newark, I studied The Birds of Rost. Rost is a small island off the shore of Norway; we won't actually get to Rost, but we'll have a few days on one of the the next islands up the chain.
On the flight, I re-read Jennifer's trip report, looking up all the birds she found. I was particularly amused by her tongue-in-cheek account of The Sender, whom she learned about on Day Four of her trip:
As we are about to leave Soytsjorvi Dick clambers down from the road and leaves his last Fisherman's Friend on a rock. A Fisherman's Friend, incidentally, is an industrial-strength menthol lozenge used to induce wakefulness on those long fishing expeditions when nothing is biting. When asked what he's doing, Dick tells us about The Sender.By Day Seven, the other trip leader is resorting to The Sender:
Forget everything you've ever learned about vagrancy patterns--The Sender is the one who sends all the good birds. For example, once there was a birding tour in Churchill that had no luck finding Ross' Gull. In desperation, the leader left his last three red jellybeans on a rock in the shape of a triangle for the pink gull's wedge-shaped tail. When the group returned, the jellybeans were gone but there was the Ross' Gull. The key is to sacrifice something that is precious to you in return for the desired bird. It sounds to me as though The Sender originally was in charge of sending game animals to hunters, but with changing times she has diversified her operation and now includes importunate birders among her clientele. No matter, as a pagan at heart I file this away for future reference. A female deity who sends her devotees good birds is definitely someone for whom I would consider converting.
As we drive south we keep our eyes peeled for Snowy Owls, with no luck. At perhaps our last stop before taking the tunnel to Vardo, Killian takes an apple left over from lunch and tucks it into the branches of a low bush as an offering to The Sender. I review my knowledge of occult cause and effect and wonder if a red apple will really deliver a white owl. Perhaps Norway's first Summer Tanager is on the way?On Day Ten, after a number of days that Jennifer describes as "Pine Grosbeak death marches":
Next we continue our search for the possibly mythical Pine Grosbeak. Finding a unicorn might be easier than finding the grosbeak. Some of the more disenchanted members of our group have suggested we up the ante by leaving The Sender a human sacrifice. Although I volunteer for sacrifice duty, in the end I don't have to come through on my offer. This is a pity, as I'm finding sitting in the woods waiting for birds pleasant. The crowberries and cloudberries would keep me alive for a little while, anyway.On Day Twelve, she becomes a convert herself:
As we get out of the vans on the next road, I take a biscuit with me. It's a sandwich-type biscuit, like an Oreo, with strawberry cream filling. I tuck it into some of the long yellow grass at the side of the road and mentally ask for a visible Little Bunting for the whole group. To those who see me make my offering, I shrug and say, "Why not?" The Sender can only say no.As we were enjoying the nice salmon dinner served on our flight, Lee pointed out the sunset, which had to be the most vivid red I've ever seen. It lingered a great while. An hour or so after the sunset ended, as the plane was threading between Iceland and Scotland, we had an almost equally beautiful sunrise.
We start scanning for the bunting and, before long, a songbird hops up into a tree. It's the Little Bunting! The usual stampede for the scopes ensues but the bird stays in view so all of us see it well. There's obviously something to The Sender's cult.
Not having slept on the flight, I was in zombie mode by the time the plane landed in Stockholm in bright sunshine around 7:30 this morning. The transfer into town on the handsome new train was easy (but too high speed to allow for any birding). The taxi queue at Stockholm Central was very long, but we finally got a taxi for a slow rush-hour trip that gave us a chance to see some of this really lovely city. The buildings are almost all painted in pastels and are usually six stories tall. Even in the city center, everything is on a human scale and one senses that people actually live there; one sees many baby carriages, for example.
Our rather excitable driver was not enjoying the traffic jams; the good classical music on his radio didn't seem to be sufficient to calm him when he was cut off going around a traffic circle. (In the center of the traffic circle was a big fountain with my first Black-headed Gull swimming in it, so I was happy.)
However, as he drove us up to our hotel and spotted a huge dumpster in front, he laughed and pointed out that they'd got our room ready for us. Our real room is all blond wood, with big windows looking out onto a courtyard and letting in lots of sunshine. My courtyard bird list quickly got started with Black-headed Gull and Coal (I think) Tit.
We slept until evening and then Lee dragged me out (I enjoyed it once I got going) to a nearby plaza and the church whose tower (and rooster weather vane) we can see from our room. The plaza was sunny even late in the evening, and there was a beer garden there full of happy looking people. Nearby was a large flower stall overflowing with cut flowers and flowering plants. The churchyard gave us several common birds, Fieldfares (close relatives of the American Robin, but without a red breast), (Common) Redstarts, and Hooded Crows. (I had rather a struggle working out the female Redstarts. The reason for "(Common)" being in parentheses is that the British gave bunches of birds unqualified names like "Redstart", "Gull", etc., but now those have to be differentiated from the other kinds of redstarts and gulls and so on elsewhere in the world.)
I was still dragging, so we settled for a room-service dinner, another nice salmon. Lee's dessert had orange caramel sauce, a combination I'd never encountered. He gave me a bit, and it was very good.
As he was reading aloud to me from some of the "What to Do in Stockholm" things, we were both struck by the fact that we hadn't packed the rain parkas we got for our trip to Peru, so one of the things we'll need to Do in Stockholm is look for rain gear. It would be folly to count on three weeks in Scandinavia without some serious rain.
As we were about to set out, me with my binoculars and Lee with his camera and wearing his "Cape May Bird Observatory" baseball cap, we looked at one another and laughed and said at the same time, "Do we look like tourists?"
Lee had scouted out the nearest subway entrance ("subway" is "tunnelbana"--nice word), so we headed off to the Old City, which is even more beautiful than the areas we drove through yesterday--elegant old buildings along narrow winding cobblestone streets, again all in pastels and all six stories tall. Everywhere, we saw street musicians and flower stalls and little very-blond children.
We stopped first at a sweater shop to buy mother-and-daughter sweaters in the Swedish national colors (teal blue and yellow) for our niece Bonnie and her wonderful little Kamille. We saw a Blackbird (another very common relative of the American Robin) in the yard of the German Church and photographed a nifty statue of St. George and the Dragon a little further on. In another shop, we bought delicate pewter Christmas tree ornaments for me and a small wooden rooster for Lee's father. When we got to the fjord that serves as the city's main harbor, we stood eating ice cream cones and watching the inevitable "Viking ship" pass by.
Walking along one of the rivers that flow into the fjord, we saw Mute Swans and Mallards demanding handouts from the people eating at a riverside cafe and a kayaker practicing tricky turns in the current.
Walking by the Reikstag, we chanced upon the daily Changing of the Guard--a white-uniformed band marching along followed by teal-blue-uniformed soldiers whose spiked brass helmets gleamed in the sun. (While Lee frantically changed his film and then ran to catch up with the marchers, I noted that the four mounted police guarding the marchers were all women.)
We stopped for lunch at a sidewalk cafe--really nice steak Bearnaise accompanied by our first glasses of lingonberry juice. (One of the guidebooks explains the large number of sidewalk cafes here by saying that the Swedes take advantage of every opportunity to be outside, in reaction to being cooped up so much in the Winter.)
Walking a bit further, we recognized the square where we were stuck in traffic for so long yesterday morning. The fountain was still full of gulls. After photographing the fountain, we headed back to the hotel by subway for a brief rest.
Once our feet had recovered a bit, we walked along more elegant streets in another direction to go to the Museum of National Antiquities. We hadn't time to do the museum justice, but I wanted at least to visit its Gold Room, which contains splendid prehistoric gold work, mostly recovered from hoards buried in violent times by people who didn't survive to retrieve their family treasures.
The floor of the Gold Room's foyer is covered with a reproduction of a well-known "rune stone" set up by a widow in memory of her husband. As is typical, the runes are written along the body of a snake carved sinuously around the flat face of the stone.
The Gold Room has some very interesting pieces from the Middle Ages, much of it booty from sacking the other side's cathedrals during the Thirty Years War, but the earlier pieces were the ones we kept going back to. The delicate gold filigree of the massive Migration Period neck rings was really stunning. I recently read Seamus Heany's lovely new translation of Beowulf, so the sight of these neck rings (and finger rings and arm rings) brought to mind "our noble king, our dear lord, friend of the Danes, the giver of rings". These are the rings the ring-givers gave to their henchmen as rewards for their service.
I was surprised by the heaps of coins with Arabic writing on them, an indication of the extent of trade during the Viking era. There seems to be a bit of defensiveness here about the Vikings; we keep noting an emphasis on their having been traders as well as raiders. I've been reading a book on Scandinavian prehistory that I got at the museum this afternoon that goes so far as to claim that the line between commerce and theft is a very fine one, but somehow I can't help believing that people can generally distinguish between the two when it's being done to them. (There also seems to be a widespread view that the Vikings' bad reputation is partly due to the fact that the English monks knew how to write and the Vikings didn't, so only one side of the story got told.) The book also shows a little bronze Buddha from India that made its way to Sweden via the trade routes in Viking times.
After lingering in the Gold Room quite a while, we stopped in the museum cafe for a glass of black currant juice and then raided the bookstore. Fortunately for our luggage, there weren't many books in English.
Coming out of the museum, we spotted our first (Common) Magpie.
We walked back to our hotel along a double avenue of square-cut trees, through a park with Jackdaws and Great Tits and got to our hotel just before a short downpour started.
Once the rain was over, we walked down the street a short way to a nice tapas restaurant for dinner. We were served by a rather droll waiter who had lived in Jersey City for a while to "improve" his English. He tried to convince us to stay in Stockholm for Midsummers Night--"It's the best time of the year here".
The Scandinavian prehistory book I'm reading, in discussing the beginning of agriculture, quotes a Danish historian, "The period of porridge drew mercilessly nigh".
I was also amused by a photograph of a goldsmith's mold for casting religious amulets from an age of transition; the mold had three slots, one for making hammers of Thor and two for making the equal-armed crosses preferred by the early Christians of Scandinavia.
We soon acquired some good Swedish-made rain parkas in good-for-birding colors and then walked back to our hotel through more charming streets to pack and check out and catch a cab to the train station. Driving to the station, I noticed that some of the busier intersections have special traffic lights just for the bicyclists.
The train to Uppsala took only about 20 minutes. Many of the other passengers were backpackers with huge packs taking the train north before getting out to hike. I was surprised to see one also carrying a bag of golf clubs.
We were ready for lunch by the time we got to Uppsala and there was a small cafe in the train station, so we decided to continue our tradition of trying pizza in every country we visit. Number 8, Italia, pepperoni, was interesting in that it had an egg, sunny-side-up, in the middle.
Walking out through the train station grounds, we had Wood Pigeons and Jackdaws.
Uppsala is primarily a university town (many famous names--Linneaus, Celsius, Angstrom), very ancient (it has royal burial mounds dating back to the 500s). We had only a few hours to explore it, and that wasn't nearly enough.
It had begun raining by the time we left the train station, so we stopped in a shop to buy an umbrella for Lee, who had packed his new parka. The young woman who was helping us kindly volunteered to show me how to adjust the hood on my new parka so that I could see better, which was a definite improvement.
The town of Uppsala is bisected by the small River Fyris, which is lined on both sides with elegant old buildings painted yellow or ochre or russet or rufous.
We first walked through part of the old town, across the river (there were Mallard ducklings swimming near the bridge), and up the hill that dominates the town, to the royal castle (begun in the 1540s). In the parklands leading up to the castle, we found (Common) Chaffinches singing loudly. (These are pretty little birds with rusty-red breasts and blue-grey heads.) When we stopped to rest for a moment, Lee spotted a (Eurasian) Nuthatch on a nearby tree trunk (upside-down, of course).
From below, what one sees of the castle is mainly an enormous red-brick tower topped by a hemispherical black roof. Once one gets to the top of the hill, one sees that that is only a small portion of the castle and that there is a matching tower at the other end of the long brick building.
Dag Hammarskjold spent his childhood in this castle; his father was the county governor. In Markings, he wrote:
The sky deepens towards evening. The instruments are packed away, and the Gunilla bell tolls nine; the castle hill lies deserted once more. The silent swains of the early summer night take over. Among the lilac bushes the lovesick hedgehogs stand guard. Round the whitebeams on the Green Mound the cockchafers swarm. For a few short hours the castle hill again lives its quiet life as one of the many rises in the Uppsala ridge's long line of hills.Also atop the castle hill are cannons aimed (not by accident) toward the cathedral, to make sure the archbishop understood who was in control here.
The view from the castle hill is extraordinary, with the cathedral and the university and the town spread below. Looking down from the front of the castle, one sees a large Baroque-style botanic garden in front of the Linneanum, a stately yellow building with white columns.
Standing on the hill, we spotted Rooks in the woods below. On the way down we identified White Wagtails (charming little birds that do indeed wag their tails) and then stopped to watch a frantic Great Tit feed her constantly begging young, which was clinging to a tree trunk very near us. (These Tits belong to the same genus as our Chickadees and have very similar calls.)
We continued toward the cathedral, past the very beautiful old Helga's Church. Like the castle, the cathedral is built of red brick. It was begun in the 13th Century but has, of course, been burned down and rebuilt over the years. Its twin towers can be seen from everywhere in town. It is remarkably light and graceful for a brick building.
Walking through the cathedral precinct, we kept pointing out interesting old buildings to one another, including one with an arch right through it to allow a road to go through. Many of the most handsome buildings we passed are part of the university. My favorite was the Gustavianum (from 1622), with its huge cupola added on to house an anatomical theatre. (Atop the huge cupola is a huge gold sundial.)
We walked back toward the river and crossed at a different bridge, just above a small waterfall. Each Spring the engineering students have a contest to build a float that will survive going over that waterfall (with them on board). We stopped in a bookstore and then walked back through town, through gracious squares lined with handsome buildings from many eras.
Back at the train station, Lee photographed the incredible number of bikes parked in front and the fountain with a sculpture of "a grinning water-sprite with both instruments raised, the physical and the musical".
We were soon on an overnight train bound north. The scenery quickly became quite rural, as we passed scattered farmhouses, all with red tile roofs, set in the very green countryside. Almost every farmhouse had a birdhouse on a pole outside. From the size of the opening, the houses are meant for a very small bird. I have read recently that the Inuits and Aleuts of North America have traditionally provided houses for Snow Buntings, which are believed to bring good fortune to the community; I would like to think that these are Snow Bunting houses, too. (And I'm longing to see a Snow Bunting myself.)
The train was advertised to have a dining car, but that turns out to be a snack car that makes NJ Transit look good. We settled for rubber sandwiches, with me regretting that I hadn't bought us some good food in Uppsala. (Uppsala is particularly known for its pastries; we should have looked for the famous Ofvandahl's. Sigh. The original Ofvandahl, who was a great baker but not so great a poet, once wrote a poem comparing himself in his white baker's clothes to an angel.) We had, however, bought some glorious strawberries from a street vendor, and we have just shared those.
I am lying in the top bunk of our little compartment and have finished reading the Scandinavian prehistory book (I'm grateful not to have lived in such violent times) and have begun reading a book on Uppsala. I was charmed to read that near the Centre for Genetics there is an avenue of birch trees stretching from south to north, containing trees that were transplanted from different parts of the country from south to north. These trees respond to their genetic timers so that in the Fall the avenue changes its leaves from green to gold progressively from north to south, and in the Spring the trees put out their new leaves progressively from south to north.
Lee went to the snack car to fetch us some Danishes and reported back that the lady had seemed slightly miffed at his having used that word to describe her pastries.
After breakfast I retreated to my bunk to read. While I was reading, I heard Lee exclaim and make a grab for his camera to get a picture of the Arctic Circle whizzing past. (The Circle is marked by a line of stones running off into the distance; he'd been expecting the train to slow for the occasion, as it did the last time he was here.)
When I came down again, we had reached the Abisko National Park. ("Abisko" is a Sami (Lapp) word meaning "ocean forest", in reference to the forest that runs westward to the ocean.) We had gotten beyond the evergreen forests and into the boreal forests, where it is still early Spring. The leaves of the stunted, widely-spaced birch trees were only about half open. The ground was moss-covered with many bare black rocks. On one side, the land rose gently to bald, dark, very smooth mountains with a few still-bare trees further up the slopes and patches of snow here and there. When the clouds lifted, we could see a much higher range, mostly snow-covered, beyond those. On the other side, the ground sloped gently down to a big long lake with snow-covered mountains rising from its far shore. Many small streams rushed down from the melting snow.
We disembarked when the train stopped at the Abisko Tourist Station. (We will catch the same train two days from now to continue our journey northward.) The station is situated on the 68th parallel in the most northern part of Swedish Lapland, 250 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle. Its elevation is about 400 meters above sealevel.
According to the National Parks brochure:
The park's proximity to the Atlantic gives its climate a maritime character, with milder winters and cooler summers than the more continentally influenced areas east of the Scandes or Caledonian Mountains. Abisko is situated in a rain shadow area. When moisture-bearing air masses flow in from the Altantic, moisture is deposited mainly on the mountain regions further west. Once the air masses reach the wide, open Abisko valley they descend and warm up. As a result, precipitation usually stops and the clouds disperse. The sunshine over Abisko is a striking feature and the area holds the record for the least precipitation in all of Sweden.These things are relative, of course; nobody who has seen our western deserts would call this area dry (its annual precipitation is 322 mm), and "mild" doesn't seem to apply to a climate where it's 5 C at noon in the middle of June, as it was today.
When Lee was here before (he didn't get off the train then), the entrance to the Swedish Touring Club's lodge was just steps away from the train station, but since then a highway has been built between the railroad and the lodge, so we had a bit of a struggle getting all of our stuff down the road cut, across the road, and up the other side. (It's all I can do to lift my briefcase, due to my deep-seated fear of being stranded somewhere without enough books to read.)
As we were crossing the road to the lodge, I noticed something that appalled me, as I'm sure it will the gardeners among you: dandelions thrive even this far north of the Arctic Circle! Fortunately, they haven't completely overwhelmed the native flora; tiny wildflowers in yellow and white and pink and lavender are everywhere. In the wooded areas, the ground is covered with very small horsetail plants.
We were soon checked in and had dragged our stuff to our nice little chalet (which has a glorious view in every direction).
After a lunch of good lasagna in the diningroom in the main building (with splendid views down to the lake and the mountains beyond it), we returned to our chalet for a nap and a shower. It occurred to me, as I was indulging myself after my shower by spreading on some of the wild-huckleberry-scented lotion I got in the Hoh Rainforest last year, that that might not be entirely wise in bear country, but I did it anyway.
Before going out, we explored our chalet a bit. I was very much taken by the Sami weaving hanging in the livingroom. It is a simple striped rug, in rather dazzling colors that work very well together. (The park headquarters building has a Sami weaving even more stunning than the one in our livingroom; I hope we can find a place to buy one as nice to take home with us.)
Looking out the window, I could see that all of the chalets have ladders affixed permanently to their roofs to enable winter snow removal. We've seen many houses with such ladders even much further south in Sweden. The houses here are different in also having ladders affixed to the front. My first take was that they must be for getting out the second-story windows if the snow is too deep, but later I realized that the explanation is probably less exotic--that they're simply fire escapes.
The Abiskojokk River runs through a narrow sheer-sided canyon that it has cut through very hard rock. We set out down a nearby trail to get to the boardwalk along the top of the canyon wall. (Many of the trails here have boardwalks to protect the underlying permafrost.) The weather was sunny but windy. As we walked, we could hear a bird singing loudly from a high perch. We continued to hear him the entire time we were out (a couple of hours) but never managed to see him.
Just as we started along the boardwalk, we spotted what I think was a Garden Warbler, but it was scared off by Hans coming from the other direction. Hans soon reached us and told us his life story and insisted upon tape recording our voices for his collection. As we tried to break away politely, Lee spotted a bird on the far face of the canyon, which turned out to be a White Wagtail. We did finally get away, but the only other birds we saw while we were on the boardwalk were more of the Wagtails. The walk was lovely though, with wildflowers everywhere and the beautiful canyon with the river roaring through it. There is a particularly hard layer of yellow dolomite (it looks like the stone at Yellowstone) that breaks off the canyon wall reluctantly and glows under the water among all the dark grey rocks, looking like sunken treasure.
An enquiry at the National Park headquarters after our hike gave me the bad news that "the bird walk" is held only on Saturday mornings, so we have just missed it, and there is nobody available as a bird guide. It's a pity, as I know we'll miss many good birds here looking for them only on our own. The National Park brochure says:
Common bird species: Typical birds in the mountain region are the Dotterel, Golden Plover, Long-tailed Skua, Ptarmigan, and occasionally the Snowy Owl and Purple Sandpiper appear. The Lapland Bunting can be spotted in willow thickets, and out on the moors the Meadow Pipit is common. The Red-necked Phalarope and Temminck's Stint can be found around small lakes and marshes. The Snow Bunting and Wheatear are characteristic birds on the open moor. The northern variety of Ringed Plover nests here as well.Another list we've seen adds Pied Flycatcher, Robin, Ring Ouzel, Horned Lark, Wigeon, Tufted Duck, Goldeneye, Slavonian Grebe, Common Scoter, and Gyrfalcon, so I'm getting a bit panicked about missing too many good birds. I am determined to see a Bluethroat at the very least!
Small birds common in the forest region include the Brambling, Redpoll, Garden Warbler, Reed Bunting, and the Bluethroat--the latter known as the Nightingale of the Swedish mountains. Also common are the Fieldfare, the Redwing, and the Raven. In this region, the Willow Grouse replaces its "mountain cousin" the Ptarmigan. Predatory birds are represented by the Rough-legged Buzzard, the Merlin, and the Golden Eagle. The warning cry of the Wood Sandpiper and the neighing sound of the Snipe carry over the bogs.
The headquarters has a helpful one-room natural-history museum with mounted specimens of all the birds (the most beautiful is the Red-necked Phalarope) and the small animals of the region, as well as a system that displays photos and plays calls of all the local birds and speaks their names in several languages. I watched and listened through two complete cycles of the tape and finally decided that our mystery bird was a Willow Warbler.
I suspect that the birds I keep seeing fly over are Ring Ouzels (yet another Turdus species), but I can't seem to catch one quickly enough to make sure.
We had dinner in the diningroom of the lodge, surrounded by very fit-looking Swedes, both young and old. The food is hearty Swedish home-cooking and tasted very good after a hike in the cold. The menu this evening was roast pork with potatoes and gravy and applesauce; dessert was applecake with vanilla sauce. We are both becoming addicted to lingonberry juice, which is served with all the meals.
After dinner, the fog over the mountains had lifted a bit, so Lee went out with his camera to try to get a good picture of the outstanding example of a U-shaped valley that the glaciers cut through one of the highest nearby mountains.
It's 9pm and the temperature outside is 0 C (with bright sunshine). We've just agreed that we don't need to force ourselves to get up at the crack of dawn, since there will be no dawn. (The midnight sun shines here from June 12 to July 4.)
When we woke again at 7, the temperature was up to 0 C. We went to the main building for breakfast, bread with lingonberry jam and a big bowl of porridge, which, despite the Danish historian, isn't all that bad if you are as liberal with the cinnamon, sugar, raisins, and cream as I was.
After breakfast, we picked up the lunches that had been packed for us and headed off uphill to walk along a section of the Kungsleden (the national hiking trail). It was a beautiful clear day, with a powdering of new snow on the higher mountains.
The Kungsleden follows the river through the park. As we went along, there were good-sized streams coming down the mountain to join the river; we could see their origin in waterfalls very high up. The forest here is quite open; few of the birches are more than twice our height, and each is at least ten feet away from any other. The ground is covered with mosses and tiny flowering plants rising an inch or two above the ground and using their white or pink or yellow or purple flowers to attract flies to pollinate them.
We stopped when we spotted two Willow Warblers on the trail not far ahead. The male approached the female and stood facing her, then flapped his wings slowly several times--obviously a courtship display. He then flew over her and tried to mount her, but she was having none of it and snapped at him with her beak. He flew off down the canyon a short way and perched to sing, still hopeful.
Later we watched an adult Brambling (a black and white and russet relative of the Chaffinch) feed its young before the two of them flew off together down the trail.
When we got to a high point in the trail, I picked up a pebble of the dolomite for our collection, and we turned onto a side trail that went away from the river. Away from the roar of the river, we could hear the birds a lot better. We soon got a good long look at a male Willow Warbler singing from the top of a small pine tree. And then a much better look at a Brambling.
Finally, I noticed a small bird singing in the distance and raised my binoculars and found my Bluethroat! What a lovely bird! It is mostly a little brown bird, with pronounced white "eyebrows" and breast, but with a bright blue "bib" centered by a small rusty-red spot and with a band of black and a band of the rusty red below the bib.
As we watched, it flew from its far-away perch to alight atop a bush very near us. It sat there singing beautifully for a long while, allowing both of us to get very good looks. Surprisingly for such a small bird, it is an accomplished mimic and often mixes the songs of other birds in with its own. The book says that Bluethroats sometimes mimic reindeer bells, too; we didn't hear this one do bells, but the song was quite lovely.
And, true to received wisdom among birders, we'd gone just a short way and could still hear the first one singing in the distance when we found our second Bluethroat.
Now and then, the trail crossed a "permafrost heath", a wet hummocky area with no trees and even more wildflowers. (Fortunately, there were generally boardwalks where we needed them.) The air was very clear and the views were lovely--dark grey, snow-capped mountains in every direction and a lake as blue as the sky not far from the trail. One of the heaths had a sign warning us to be particularly careful not to damage the endangered Lapp Alpenroses, inch-high rhododendrons with tiny pink flowers.
After about four hours, we wound up back at the lodge (limping a bit). Lunch was still being served, so we stowed the packed lunches in the fridge to take with us on the train tomorrow (far better than what that snack car is likely to provide) and indulged in a good hot lunch, potato pancakes topped with bacon and lingonberry sauce. I wish I knew how to make such good potato pancakes!
While we were eating lunch, a young man from Taiwan (clearly an ardent birder) spotted our field guide on the table and asked to look at it. In halting English, he asked where we'd gotten it. He obviously coveted it so deeply that I felt horribly stingy not just giving it to him. I've not seen an English-language edition for sale anywhere in Sweden, although I did unhelpfully point out to him that the shop next to the lodge has the original Swedish-language version. (The transliterations of bird calls are still in Swedish in the English-language version, with lots of umlauts; this seems to be the only complaint folks have about the book, but I've decided I can cope with it.)
We were simply too tired for our planned afternoon outing, so we went back to our chalet for a nap. When we woke, we made another visit to the natural-history museum to see if we could identify the animals who'd left the droppings we'd seen along the trail in the morning: definitely elk and reindeer, no question about it (even though we hadn't brought any fewmets back with us). And a hoof-print Lee had spotted on the trail was exactly like the reindeer print in the museum. We saw so many traces of both animals that it seems odd we've not had even a glimpse of either.
The weather had turned a bit grey as we headed for dinner (reindeer hash and mashed potatoes--I was amused to see the huge helpings being consumed by some of the people who'd hiked more energetically than we).
Lee heard a rustling in the leaves under a tree as we walked back from dinner, so we followed the bird's progress until it revealed itself to be a Fieldfare--which is what I'm now suspecting my putative Ring Ouzels really are.
Back in our livingroom for a quiet evening, I read Pudd'nhead Wilson for the first time in about forty years and savoured the extracts from Pudd'nhead's calendar:
Adam and Eve had many advantages, but the principal one was, that they escaped teething.
The true Southern watermelon is a boon apart, and not to be mentioned with commoner things. It is chief of this world's luxuries, king by the grace of God over all the fruits of the earth. When one has tasted it, he knows what the angels eat. It was not a Southern watermelon that Eve took: we know it because she repented.
July 4. Statistics show that we lose more fools on this day than in all the other days of the year put together. This proves, by the number left in stock, that one Fourth of July per year is now inadequate, the country has grown so.
I'm sure by now that the birders among you are wondering impatiently why we've not gone down to the lakeshore. Don't we want to see Slavonian Grebes in breeding plumage? (For the non-birders, grebes are elegant aquatic birds, similar to a duck but more graceful. They have the endearing habit of carrying their babies about on their backs to protect them from underwater predators. This Slavonian Grebe, which is also known as a Horned Grebe, has particularly beautiful breeding plumage: a chestnut body with a black head, bright red eyes, and tufts of yellow plumes sweeping back from behind its eyes.)
Yes, we would dearly love to see the grebes, but the lakeshore is off-limits from May through July so that the breeding birds won't be disturbed. As we had only a few hours left in Abisko, we decided to try walking along the canyon rim toward the lake to see if we could at least find a point that overlooked the shore.
There is no way I can give you a clear idea of the beauty of the area along the top of the canyon. The canyon itself is about 50 feet wide and slightly meandering. Its walls are dark grey stone, absolutely vertical. They are dotted with oranges mosses and hanging plants. The canyon cuts through a slightly rolling area of light birch forest. The ground between the trees is carpeted with wildflowers. (We couldn't leave without buying a photo of the canyon for my office despite there being no more room on my office walls.)
The walk was very pleasant but not very birdful. A Brambling sang for us from a low branch with his head thrown back in exactly the pose shown in the book. (This is a really good field guide!)
The farthest point we could reach legally proved to look over a bit of the shore. With our binoculars, we could see dots swimming around in the water, which made me long for a scope, of course. As we stood watching, one of the dots rose from the water and flew up the river toward us, passing by only a few feet away. It was a Goldeneye duck, very handsome (black and white with a green head and yellow eyes), but not a grebe.
It was almost time to leave, so we headed back to the lodge, where Lee photographed the railroad bicycle out front (it looks like it would be great fun to ride), and then we started lugging our bags across to the train station (with Lee muttering that we should have taken the train to Narvik and rented a car and driven back to Abisko). We paused before the final ascent to catch our breath and as we stood there a particularly charming little White Wagtail walked to within three feet of us and stood chattering at us, as if to say goodbye.
While we waited for the train, Lee picked up some iron-ore pellets from beside the track to show to me. (This beautiful train line was built for the prosaic purpose of carrying the iron ore from the open-pit mines at Kiruna, Sweden, to the harbor at Narvik, Norway.)
We boarded the train at 11 along with a group of high-school students from around the world who had kept us amused while we waited. (We heard one of the Aussies bragging to his mates about having been able to speak Japanese well enough to be understood by one of the Japanese kids.)
The train headed west and was soon in Norway, rising gradually until we were back into late Winter with only a hint of green on the trees. The mountains became higher and starker with more snow, more tunnels, and more snow-sheds (buildings the train runs through to avoid avalanches). When we had reached the high point on the line, far up in mountains that had been polished smooth by glaciers and that showed classic cirques and U-shaped valleys, there was an announcement that the best view for the trip down would be on the right side of the train. Luckily, we were able to stand before a big window on that side to be dazzled by the scenery.
The train clung to the wall of a narrow valley, easing down as best it could (and going through lots of tunnels on the way). The mountain across the valley was flat-topped, a peneplain, with many, many shallow hanging valleys in it. Rivers flowed over its top and fell a thousand feet, only occasionally intersecting the steep valley wall. There were more waterfalls than we could count.
We were again traversing the seasons from late Winter to early Spring. When we got down to 350 meters above sealevel, the birch forest was in full leaf and the stewardess pointed out the beginning of the fjord far below us. The narrow flat-bottomed valley had finally intersected with sealevel. Above where the water reached, we could see the sand of old beaches from when the sea came higher (before the land began to rebound). As we continued downward, the forest changed from all birch to mixed, and the fjord was soon quite wide. Waterfalls continued to pour down the walls of the valley.
We soon reached Narvik, the port town from which the iron ore is shipped. We could see row after row of neat two-story wooden houses climbing the wall of the valley up from the fjord. Each is painted in a bright color, with its trim painted in a well-chosen contrasting color. Most have window boxes full of spring flowers (tulips are still in bloom here). Their porches and balconies are edged with lacy fretwork railings.
The train station is in the high side of town, as the rails need to go still further to ease down to sealevel. Inside the little station was a mounted Wolverine, quite fearsome looking for its size.
We picked up a rental car, checked into our hotel, and went out walking along the main street to see a bit of the town. We asked at the information center whether there were any shops dealing in Sami crafts, but the idea came as a surprise to the people there. They did tell us that the Sami often sell their wares in makeshift stands along the highways.
We stopped at a bakery a bit further along to buy goodies for tomorrow's breakfast and then at a bookstore (which was relatively safe, since most of the books were in Norwegian). Lee got some maps for his extensive collection and I found a guidebook to all of the remaining "stave churches" (very old wooden churches, some of them built originally not long after the Vikings were converted to Christianity). I was surprised to see that a Norwegian-language edition of a book of Calvin and Hobbes cartoons was titled Tommy og Tigern. Is this because the name Calvin is not to be taken so lightly here?
Walking back to the hotel, Lee pointed out a really beautiful wooden bell tower standing beside a church, as well as the place where he got a memorable pineapple-topped pizza when he was here nine years ago.
Our hotel room is very handsome, richly decorated in burgundy. It has five big windows looking out over fjord (but slightly fogged by salt spray). After we showered, Lee made dinner reservations in the hotel restaurant, which has a good reputation, and we indulged in a short nap.
We were the first dinner guests of the evening. The hostess kindly translated the menu for us and took our order. As we sat all alone in a room that must seat 300 people, another couple came in and asked to be seated. The hostess brought them by us and gestured about the totally empty room and said, "As you can see, we have no seats unless you want to wait for the 9 o'clock sitting". We continued to dine (on lovely beef tournedos) completely alone until shortly before we were ready for dessert. Then the local Rotary Club showed up, followed by a busload of German tourists and then another busload of German tourists. Dessert was black raspberries on vanilla ice cream in a caramel cup flambe. We almost ordered seconds.
After dinner, Lee went out to check the visibility, as we had planned to take the chairlift to the top of the nearest mountain to be there for the midnight sun. But, since it had begun raining lightly and the clouds were settling on the mountain tops, there didn't seem to be much point to that.
Instead, we headed off to find the rock carvings shown on the local map. There are thousands of rock carvings in Northern Norway made over millennia during the Stone Age. They are mostly rough (but often evocative) line drawings made by chipping at the rock with a harder rock. The lines are typically painted red nowadays to make the figures clearer. The images tell a great deal about the technology of the era; there are corrals, bows and arrows, boats, fishnets, people on skis, etc. But mostly the figures are animals (whales, reindeer, elk, dogs, rabbits, geese, sheep, bears) often with humans hunting them. The images are assigned tentative dates based on how far they are above sealevel, the assumption being that the rocks were most accessible and cleanest (not yet covered with moss) while they were still near the shore (and that the land later rose). That makes for fairly rough dates but most of the images are believed to have been made between about 4000 BC and 500 BC. Motifs from these red line-drawings are used widely in contemporary media in Norway.
We circled about the winding streets of a nice residential neighborhood with lots of flower beds (and the biggest dandelions I've ever seen) and finally found a sign indicating that the carvings were down a wooded hill overlooking the fjord. When we climbed down, we found a large flat rock protected by a little fence. On the flat part was carved a female elk. The lines of the carving were filled in with pink paint. It was not a really memorable piece of prehistoric art. (Being there reminded Lee that he'd come to see the carving nine years ago; he'd never told me about it because it really wasn't memorable. It may have been fairly old, however, as we were standing at least a hundred feet above the fjord.)
As we were standing there in the woods somewhat disappointed and looking about to see if there were other, better carvings we'd missed, I saw a large black bird thrashing about in a nearby tree. My thought processes were:
Black Guan!and then:
No, silly, this is the wrong hemisphere for a Black Guan!
If that's a Capercaillie when I don't have my binoculars with me, I'm going to kill myself!
(I'd realized when we got into the car that I didn't have the bins, but I decided I wouldn't need them and didn't go back to get them.) The bird (or, to me, the blob) flew off into the woods, but Lee soon spotted it again and pointed out that there were two of them in a distant tree. We watched for several minutes before the blobs flew away.
Back in our room, I checked out Capercaillie in the book. This is an enormous grouse (the coal-black male can be almost three feet long and is noted for its display in which its very large tail is raised and opened like a fan). The book says that they much prefer conifer forests, so I'm trying to convince myself that this was just a clumsy Raven.
I've begun reading Mark Twain's Autobiography (also for the first time in about forty years):
I was born the 30th of November, 1835, in the almost invisible village of Florida, Monroe County, Missouri. My parents removed to Missouri in the early 'thirties; I do not remember just when, for I was not born then and cared nothing for such things. It was a long journey in those days and must have been a rough and tiresome one. The village contained a hundred people and I increased the population by one per cent. It is more than many of the best men in history could have done for a town.Describing his uncle's farm:
I can see the farm yet, with perfect clearness. I can see all its belongings, all its details; the family room of the house, with a "trundle" bed in one corner and a spinning wheel in another--a wheel whose rising and falling wail, heard from a distance, was the mournfulest of all sounds to me and made me homesick and low spirited and filled my atmosphere with the wandering spirits of the dead; the vast fireplace, piled high on winter nights with flaming hickory logs from whose ends a sugary sap bubbled out but did not go to waste, for we scraped it off and ate it; the lazy cat spread out on the rough hearthstones; the drowsy dogs braced against the jambs and blinking; my aunt in one chimney corner, knitting; my uncle in the other, smoking a corncob pipe; the slick and carpetless floor faintly mirroring the dancing flame tongues and freckled with black indentations where fire coals had popped out and died a leisurely death; half a dozen children romping in the background twilight; "split"-bottomed chairs here and there, some with rockers; a cradle--out of service but waiting with confidence; in the early cold mornings a snuggle of children in shirts and chemises, occupying the hearthstone and procrastinating--they could not bear to leave that comfortable place and go out on the wind-swept floor space between the house and kitchen where the general tin basin stood, and wash.And:
Doctor Meredith removed to Hannibal by and by and was our family physician there and saved my life several times. Still, he was a good man and meant well. Let it go.When we woke in Abisko this morning, I had some nasty-looking insect bites on one foot. Tonight they are much nastier looking. I hadn't expected to get worse bites in the Arctic than I've ever gotten in the Tropics!
We soon had the car packed and were headed (even further) north to Tromso. The countryside was wonderfully green everywhere, except when it rose to the higher mountains, which are starkly black and white. The road took us over ridge after ridge, across fjord after fjord, with waterfalls everywhere--thousands of waterfalls. It's impossible to describe how lovely it all was.
Some sights along the way: Two gulls sitting on a child's swingset; a Raven atop a utility pole; a small herd of reindeer that I didn't spot in time to point out to Lee; old sod-roofed buildings, some in good repair and others with trees growing from the sod; ever more gigantic dandelions lining the road; vegetable gardens newly plowed or freshly planted with the plants peeking through sheets of black plastic; ferns unwinding in the woods; elk-crossing signs but no elks; sheep-crossing signs but the sheep all safely behind fences; small groups of soldiers working along the road or out on runs with full packs; and waterfalls, waterfalls, waterfalls.
After a while, we turned onto a side road to find a mudflat Lee had read about. That gave us (Eurasian) Oystercatchers and (Common) Shelducks. When Lee pointed out a small bird far out on the flats, I raised my binoculars expecting to see one of the small sandpipers and instead found a White Wagtail doing a sandpiper imitation.
Back on the main road, we came to a rest stop where there were a few Sami teepees (very like those of the Plains Indians). We stopped and bought a few small souvenirs--a wooden cup for Lee, a polar bear tie for his father, and an intricately carved stone egg for me--but we haven't yet found any serious Sami crafts.
Before long, we had reached the 70th parallel and had a view of the city of Tromso on its island in the middle of the fjord, with the imposing (and very modern) Arctic Cathedral near the foot of the striking bridge leading over to the island. Tromso is similar in style to Narvik, but a city rather than a large town. It has both ornate old wooden buildings and interesting modern ones.
And it has wildly confusing (and narrow and winding) streets. Lee finally pulled over to a curb while I dashed into an information center to get a map, but we still made three circuits of the city before we could get onto the street that leads to our hotel. (That street is so narrow that it has a traffic light to control traffic, letting traffic flow in one direction for a while and then in the other.)
We did ultimately get to our hotel, which is right on the waterfront. We were given a nice garret room with a gable window looking out over the water. We can see the Cathedral and the wonderful bridge. The bridge is concrete, a high flat arch held up by very thin pylons with a wide space in the middle to let ocean-going vessels pass beneath.
We were soon back in the car and plunging into the extensive automobile tunnel system to head out to the University of Tromso. The university opened in 1972 and has very impressive grounds--good modern buildings and interesting sculptures. Eating a late lunch in the student canteen, we watched birds on the lawn, including our northernmost Fieldfare. (Everything in Tromso is the northernmost one.) The Fieldfare had so many worms in its beak it couldn't figure out what to do with them. After some struggle, I concluded that a mystery bird I was watching must be a juvenile White Wagtail. (Wagtails are much too nice to be called a "trash bird", but we are seeing an awful lot of them.)
After lunch, we walked about in the light rain. In one of the courtyards we found a large spiral path set with many kinds of water-smoothed rocks and a lovely streamlined black stone pool/fountain overflowing without a ripple except when a gull swam about in it (looking very pleased with itself). Near the pool (with no trees in sight) Lee picked up an eggshell the size of a small hen's egg, beige with dark brown splotches. Further on, there was a small sod building with glass windows, a wooden door, and a stove pipe coming out the top. A Hooded Crow sat atop a tower near there.
We also walked through some of the not-yet-developed areas of the campus, which have been left undisturbed, still the sparse native birch forest. We heard lots of twittering (and my mind suddenly brought up the image of Paul Klee's Twittering Machine, a long-time favorite), but we saw few birds.
We had come to see the show at the Northern Lights Planetarium. When the starting time neared, we walked toward the planetarium and noted several moss-covered stone or concrete ruins that obviously pre-dated the university. A bit further on, we found ourselves in a tiny secluded park that explained the ruins. In the center of the park was a broken column surrounded by eleven smooth beach stones, a memorial to eleven Resistance fighters who slipped into the harbor in the ship Brattholm, were betrayed to the occupying Germans, captured, and killed. One died of injuries received during his "interrogation", but the others were brought here to the military post that is now in ruins and were shot on the site of the little park.
The planetarium show was very well done and really made us want to come back here in the Winter to see the Northern Lights. At this latitude the lights are mostly green; the film showed local children waving their handkerchiefs at the eerie green veils in the sky (to make them move). We were amused by the narrator's comment, "We read in our textbooks that the Sun rises in the east and sets in the west, but we know that it sometimes rises in the north and sets in the south and sometimes it's the other way around". The film also showed the launching of rockets from the Andoya rocket range (which we'll see soon) with instruments to investigate the Northern Lights. (Aurora research has been a point of national pride since before Norway got its independence from Sweden.)
After the planetarium show, we got back in the car to go to the Tromso University Museum ("the northernmost university museum in the world"), which is way at the other end of the island. That meant going back into the amazing tunnel system. (What a blessing it must be in the Winter!) Unfortunately, our city map shows only the many tunnel entrances, not the connections between them, so when we got to the underground traffic circles, we weren't at all sure which direction to choose. As it happened, when we came up on the surface again we were on the road to the museum.
If you are talking to a group of birders anywhere in the world and you say "University of Tromso Museum", the chances are good that someone will answer "Wim Vader". Wim Vader is a zoologist on the museum staff and a birder's birder. Now and then, he sends a posting to various of the birding lists around the world describing the birds of Tromso or of his native Holland. His postings are so beautifully (and lovingly) written that many of us feel as though we know him. Here's how he has described winter in Tromso:
Tromsoe, at 70*N in northern Norway, has now entered moerketiden, i.e. the two month period that the sun does not rise above the horizon. It is 2:30 pm while I'm writing this and pitch-dark outside, after a few hours of twilight in the middle of the day. Today is darker than most, because we have a fierce SW storm and rain showers, one of a few short mild spells that come every winter, make the streets extra slippery, and are generally unpleasant: two degrees below freezing is much to be preferred to two degrees above, in my eyes! There is about 40 cm of snow, below average for December.I'd already decided we shouldn't impose ourselves on Wim, but I did want to see his museum. As we walked toward the entrance, we stopped to watch the complex interactions of four Magpies on the lawn. There is definite intelligence in those eyes. From another of Wim's postings:
Birdlife in town and the sounds around has not changed since the last time I posted, although the adult White-tailed Eagle has returned to our side of the island for the winter, and ravens are commonly heard. A family (I think) of White-fronted Geese has spent the last week on some fields at the agricultural station on the island; the flock of Grey Herons is still around; and a friend came across a late Lapwing last week. But in the main the birds are the same few species as last month, just so much harder to see in the gloom.
At my feeders the tits arrive quite early, and when I first look at 7:30 am there is full activity; mind you, my window lights are on all night. As usual, there are Great Tits and Willow Tits, with more of the former; this winter we have not yet had really heavy snowfalls, so many Willow Tits still remain in the forest. When I leave for work around 8:00, I most mornings also hear the tentative whistles of my favourites the Bullfinches. Yesterday at noon there were as many as six! Three pairs, I think, as they usually arrive in pairs. Still hardly any Greenfinches, which saves a lot of sun-flower seed, compared to 1996.
Lest this sounds too gloomy, let me finally tell you about the magnificent light-effects of our so-called "dark period". On clear or, still more, on partly cloudy mornings, the entire south skies (and my office overlooks the Balsfjord in a southerly direction) can light up in a wonderful combination of light-azure, almost transparent skies, punctuated by a series of reds and yellows in the clouds, changing as the morning goes on from very dark red through a series of vermilions and oranges to orange yellow. At night the Aurora Borealis displays its glittering show free for all (weather permitting), and in the snow millions of tiny diamonds are twinkling under the many many street lights of this cheap-energy town. So even though birding comes almost to a stand-still these two months, don't feel sorry for us: this is a great place to live!
¢. . . the ubiquitous Black-billed Magpies that are so much a feature of suburban Tromsoe, where their large stick nests decorate many street and garden trees. They even know the schedule of the garbage cars and wait on Friday morning when we put out the garbage bags early, so that they can steal a little before the car arrives.We had barely entered the museum when my eyes were drawn to a display in the stairwell going down, a Gyrfalcon stooping on a pair of Ptarmigans. In the next case were several Ruffs in breeding plumage. The Gyr is the bird Laurie is most hoping I will see here, and as I stood gazing at this one I could understand why. It is a falcon as large as a hawk, white with grey markings. I found myself trying to memorize the pattern of dots and stripes along its wings and breast. And I kept coming back to it, fascinated, the entire time we were at the museum.
(The Ruffs (the female is a Reeve) were great, too; it's so odd that a plain little shorebird that usually looks like any other sandpiper should in the Spring grow these extravagant collars and crests and plumes in all sorts of colors. They make me think of Philadelphia's Mummers' Parade.)
We were surprised by the small but exquisite exhibit of Rosebud Sioux artifacts on loan to the museum. There was also an interesting Viking archaeological exhibit with a few very lovely pieces of silver, but it was the Sami culture section that we were most interested in. That was extensive and very well done, but not understanding the language of the captions definitely detracted. I was also disappointed that the buttons to push to hear joiks (traditional Sami songs) sung didn't seem to do anything. (I especially wanted to hear the one that was said to echo a Long-tailed Duck, but I was happy just to see their specimen of the duck, which is black and white and tan and quite striking.)
It was worth the trip just to see the Sami carved bone implements--intricate and elegant. Other displays included various crafts, clothing, even houses, all illustrating the ingenuity and creativity that humans seem universally to exhibit when coping with harsh environments.
One of the displays showed snares and traps that the Sami traditionally used to capture animals and birds. I cringed at the sight of three Snow Buntings about to be caught up in thin wires, but now at least I have seen a Snow Bunting (although I'm still hoping that The Sender will send me some live ones).
We spent some time in the good bookstore buying more books than we have room for and then took one more long look at the Gyr before heading out into the rain again.
Back in the city, we stood watching a skein of gulls flying behind a fishing boat and keeping pace with it so exactly that they appeared to be being towed on invisible cords.
We walked about in the city center for a while and then stopped at a nice pasta restaurant for dinner. The waiter commiserated with us about the rain and said that Tromso residents expect to see the sun in July only and are happy if they get a few days of it then.
The gardens here still have daffodils blooming in them. It's not only the dandelions that thrive on 24 hours of light each day. The midnight sun does amazing things for flower gardens! The bleeding hearts in front of the hotel are three times as tall as mine.
We'd puzzled over the name of our hotel here (Comfort Home Hotel With), so we were glad to see the portrait of "our founder", Hans Rudolf With, in the elevator.
Reading in bed, I devoured a small book on "Way North" bird life that we bought at the museum. Two of the articles are by Wim Vader. One of them shows a photograph of a Black Grouse (smaller than the Capercaillie but as beautiful, jet black with white wing bars and bright red fleshy "eyebrows"). It is up in a birch tree eating the buds. This is obviously the explanation for the black blobs I saw so dimly in Narvik.
Wim discusses the effect of the midnight sun on the behavior of birds:
Generally, this superabundance of food means that nesting birds do not have to forage day and night, even when they are feeding young. Comparative studies have, nevertheless, shown a somewhat longer active period than further south. Owls, of which there are many species in North Norway, have to hunt in daylight in summer and in doing so, are probably more vulnerable to predation by birds of prey. The likewise normally nocturnal and very vulnerable storm petrels have solved the problem of predation on the nest sites during the light summer nights; they postpone their nesting season until August, when the nights are again dark.Since eighteen of Norway's twenty largest seabird colonies are north of the Arctic Circle, there may well be advantages for some species to nesting in perpetual daylight.
We went south by the same road we took north yesterday but after a while turned southwest to head to the coast. (One wry scene from the morning was half a dozen cars and trucks being held up behind a bicyclist laboring up a hill on the two-lane highway.)
The highlight of the morning was a stop for birding that yielded a beautiful flock of (Common) Eiders. One of the males was in eclipse plumage, but the others were all in full breeding plumage, black and white with pale chartreuse napes slashed by a line of white. As we watched the eiders swimming below us, four oystercatchers flew past. It's just amazing how much noise four oystercatchers can make!
Further along, we spotted a gull nesting in a nest box in a meadow above a mudflat and another nesting on a hummock in a meadow. (Somehow one doesn't think of gulls as being responsible enough to sit on their eggs, but there has to be somebody producing all these confusing birds in first- and second-year plumages.)
Passing through one small town, we noticed a dollhouse on a tiny island in a pond in the town park. (It was occupied by terns rather than dolls, however.) We saw more of these little houses sitting by other ponds as the day went along.
We stopped for lunch at a camp/lodge of the Norwegian Automobile Association. We chose open-faced sandwiches topped with "pieces" (the best translation we could get of what seemed to be ground corn cooked to the consistency of mashed potatoes). We also got some of their chocolate-covered donuts to take with us for breakfast tomorrow.
The lobby of the lodge had mounted specimens of a Bobcat and several other birds and mammals, most specially a Capercaillie, which turns out to be far larger than I had envisioned, so it definitely wasn't the bird we saw blurrily in Narvik.
The birding highlight of the afternoon was a Willow Grouse that shuffled across the road in front of us in his white feather pantaloons. Because of the season, he was still mostly snow white, but with liver-red head and neck. We even caught sight of his fleshy red eyebrows.
As we headed west on the Senja Peninsula, the mountains became steeper and steeper until the valleys reminded us of Hawaii. As we reached the coast, we were delighted by another reminder of Hawaii, patches of glowing turquoise water set off by bands of cobalt blue water.
We were to take a ferry from Gryllefjord, a handsome little town with a stunningly beautiful setting--it is built around a tongue of the fjord with green mountains rising very sharply from the grey water. We had some time to wait and enjoyed exploring the wharf area (and watching the feral cats that had made themselves a lair in crannies among the big stones that had been put in place to protect the shoreline).
A Spanish ship sank off the coast of Gryllefjord in the 17th Century. Some of the sailors were rescued, however, and spent the rest of their lives in Gryllefjord, which is said to be the reason that there are so many people on the Senja Peninsula who have dark hair.
The ferry trip was not quite two hours, first down the beautiful fjord and then across the open water (officially a fjord, but it looks like ocean to me) to Andenes, the northernmost town on the island of Andoya, one of the Vesteralen Islands. From the ferry, we had wonderful views of snow-capped mountains on both sides of the water and fading into the distance up and down the coast. On the ride, I indulged in a bit more of Twain's autobiography:
I know the look of green apples and peaches and pears on the trees, and I know how entertaining they are when they are inside of a person. I know how ripe ones look when they are piled in pyramids under the trees, and how pretty they are and how vivid their colors. I know how a frozen apple looks, in a barrel down cellar in the wintertime, and how hard it is to bite, and how the frost makes the teeth ache, and yet how good it is, notwithstanding. I know the disposition of elderly people to select the speckled apples for the children, and I once knew ways to beat the game. I know the look of an apple that is roasting and sizzling on a hearth on a winter's evening, and I know the comfort that comes of eating it hot, along with some sugar and a drench of cream.My heart caught when he described the slaughter of Passenger Pigeons:
I remember the pigeon seasons, when the birds would come in millions and cover the trees and by their weight break down the branches. They were clubbed to death with sticks; guns were not necessary and were not used.Coming in through the breakwater, we could see that Andenes is as brightly painted and as tidy as all the other towns we've seen in Norway. The island has tall, very steep mountains rising at right angles from low, flat, sandy areas that seem to have been built up by the ocean since the bases of the mountains were drowned. The population of the island is about 6,000. The economy is based primarily on fishing, the military airbase, and the rocket base. The island had a dense population by the late Stone Age, but most Stone Age settlements are now submerged. (This change in sealevel was confirmed by 9000-year-old peat taken from the bottom of the harbor a few years ago.) Andenes is almost as far north as Tromso but has a milder climate because of the proximity of the Gulf Stream.
Our first task after going ashore was to confirm our whale viewing trip for tomorrow morning. (A sign near where we got off the ferry said to book whale viewing trips near the lighthouse--easy instructions to follow, as the handsome red lighthouse is visible from everywhere.)
By the time we'd reached the lighthouse, our island list was up to two: White Wagtail and Great Black-backed Gull.
From Andenes, we drove about five miles south along the western coast of the island to the tiny town of Bleik, going past the rocket range with its Nike rocket out front. Without much trouble, we found our rorbu (plural rorbuer), a modernized fishing hut right on the beach. Originally, these fishing huts on the Lofotens and Vesteralen were used by fishermen from the mainland during the summers, but in recent years they have been converted into the most common form of tourist housing on the islands. Ours is one of half a dozen rorbuer standing on pilings in a row over the sand; they are painted ochre with red trim and black roofs. Inside, they are all knotty-pine--walls, floors, ceiling, furniture. From our windows, we see very steep mountains, treeless but green, with small patches of snow remaining near the top.
As soon as we'd unloaded the car, we went out for a walk along the white sandy beach (Norway's longest beach and the reason for the name of the village--in Old Norse "bleikr" meant "light" or "white"). We'd soon added (Common) Gull and (Eurasian) Oystercatcher to our island list.
We drove back to Andenes for a really good salmon dinner. (I was disheartened to see whalemeat pizza on the menu.) During dinner, I could see a Garden Warbler working over the nearby bushes. Lee chose "Sex on the Mountain" for dessert--who could resist? It turned out to be cloudberries and raspberries on a waffle with three different kinds of ice cream. I was more demure and chose a blackberry crepe with vanilla ice cream--the best blackberries I've ever had! Lee gave me one of his cloudberries; it looked like a fat golden raspberry and tasted quite lovely. Andoya is supposed to be one of the best places in Norway to pick cloudberries, but we are too early for cloudberry season.
Back in Bleik, we walked about for a while, noting that one of the houses across the road has a fish-drying rack built onto it, full of fishes.
Back in our hut, I climbed into my upper bunk and read a bit about this area. One interesting thing I learned was that a fisherman in Bleik a few years ago found a silver coin when digging a new potato patch; the coin had been minted in Persia in 818 AD--more evidence of the extent of the Viking trade routes. (Well, actually, the fisherman surmised that Vikings from Bleik had gone on a raid to Mauritania and had brought home coins and other treasures.)
It was a lovely, bright sunny morning but a little windy. Indeed, the captain decided that it was too windy and cancelled the trip. We were told to return at 17:30 in the hope of better conditions then.
That was a good enough excuse for us to go back to Bleik and sack out for another hour or so, but then we were ready to do some exploring. We drove toward Andenes again, this time stopping to bird and take photos along the way. I decided to declare the hundreds of little birds we could hear twittering in the seaside meadows to be Meadow Pipits. That seemed to be consistent with our few distant looks at stripey little birds cavorting in the air feeding on insects; at any rate their calls seem to be right.
Lee got a photo of the rocket in front of the rocket range (finally out of the shadow of the mountain). It's too bad their next launch isn't until August. Unfortunately, we couldn't get close enough to photograph the sod-roofed aircraft hangers at the airbase.
We took the opportunity to visit Strikkebua, a shop near the Hvalsenter that sells local hand-knitted goods and is open only a few hours a day. I selected three (blush) sweaters for myself and a wonderful little red coat and hat in a traditional Norwegian style for our grandniece Kamille. (The very pleasant lady who knitted the coat explained to me that she had adapted the pattern on the bodice from the design on an ancient rune stone.)
Leaving Strikkebua, we stopped to admire the fretwork of the lovely old wooden buildings all around the lighthouse area. Every gable here is filled with filigree.
We grabbed lunch in a nearby cafe sitting under a painting of the terrible 1821 storm that killed 30 of the town's fishermen--there is a memorial to them at the town's main intersection.
We then stopped at Andoya's famous bakery to buy breakfast things for the next few days. We were impressed by the beauty of the baker's creations, particularly the marzipan-covered cakes.
Munching some little chocolate-covered marzipan confections that had somehow hopped into our bag, we drove along the island's other main road (along the coast that faces the mainland) to the small town of Dverberg to see its beautiful octagonal church (built in 1843). It was well worth the trip. The church is wood, painted white, gracefully inspiring. It sits on a hill just above the shore with stunning views of the snow-dappled mountains on the mainland and on the other islands.
Leaving Dverberg, we found a cross-island road and headed homeward. When we got to the eastern shore, Lee stopped to let me get a better look at the pipits. I finally got one up close and moderately still and decided I felt comfortable with Meadow Pipit. Meanwhile, Lee was looking along the beach and spotted a White-tailed Eagle (!) sitting on a rock in the sand so far away that it was made difficult to see because of the heat shimmer (and it wasn't a hot day). It sat there for a very long time, turning about, stretching a wing, flexing a claw--no question what it was! Very impressive (wingspan of 2.6 meters).
Because the White-tailed Eagles tend to live close to the sea (and eat lots of fish), they are commonly known here as "sea eagles". There are now believed to be 1350-1650 pairs of them in Norway, up by about a thousand pairs since laws to protect them (i.e., to end persecution) were enacted. Norway has even given young eagles to Scotland in an apparently successful attempt to reintroduce them there. Biologists here, in defending the White-tailed Eagles against farmers' claims that they kill large domestic animals, say that all the cases that have been reported were actually the eagles scavenging the kills of larger predators. They insist that the only domestic animals the eagles take are chickens, geese, and household cats. (We told Mudgie she didn't want to come with us!)
We finally left the eagle and drove home (past a cemetery with ornate iron crosses above many of the graves).
We again threw on all of our extra layers and then walked along the road (through knee-high dandelions) to Bleik harbor to catch the Bird Rock boat trip. This trip goes out to Bleiksoy ("Bleik Island"), which is a noted seabird colony with an estimated 80,000 pairs of Atlantic Puffins and thousands of Kittiwakes and hundreds of Razorbills, Guillemots, and Shags. (Storm Petrels come to Bleiksoy to breed, too, but later in the year. Their chicks aren't ready to leave the colony until Christmas!)
We'd been told to go way out on the long wharf, so we waited there for the boat. I soon spotted an eagle soaring overhead, giving us a much better view than we'd had earlier. It even banked once, when being harassed by some gulls, which allowed us to see the upper wings and tail. (The White-tailed Eagle is in the same genus as our Bald Eagle and is clearly very closely related. Like the Bald Eagle, it starts out all dark brown and acquires its white tail only as a mature bird. The main difference between the mature birds is that the White-tailed's head is yellowish-brown rather than snowy white.) Soon Lee had spotted another one, also soaring.
Fortunately, while I was eagle-gazing, Lee realized (about 15 minutes before departure time) that the boat loading passengers across the harbor was the one we wanted. It was far too cold to swim, so we raced around the harbor and got there in time. It was quite a small ship, a fishing boat really, with room for about 15 passengers to stand at the railings.
It was a wonderful trip, a glorious trip!
(I'd never before had occasion to learn whether I get seasick easily. It's a good thing I don't, because the water was very rough. Even hanging on to the railing I worried about being pitched overboard. But that didn't matter at all as long as I could have one hand free to hold up my binoculars.)
I spotted the very first puffin, a little black bullet flying low over the water. Soon there were thousands and then more thousands, some on the water, some flying low over the water, and more swarming like bees around the island. (The island is a witch's hat cone, with a hole through it near the top that Lee did his best to photograph.) Between the Kittiwakes and the puffins, there was cacophony. It was wonderful!
Puffins sat in the water all around us. It was marvelous to watch them take off and fly away with their bright red-orange legs splayed out behind them in what looks like a very non-aerodynamic fashion. One made me laugh out loud as it flew into a wave, swam for a few seconds, launched itself again, flew into another wave, swam again, launched again, and finally became truly airborne.
Just about the time we got into position to see the hole through the island, I looked up at the conical peak and was amazed by the number of sea eagles swarming there. (They are apparently quite fond of Kittiwake for lunch.) The most I could count at one time was 6, but there were clearly more than that; one trip report I'd read said they'd had 13 in view here at one time.
At first, because of the roughness of the sea, it was very difficult to see the puffins well; I kept aching to get a really good look at the colorfully striped beak of even one. Then the boat moved into the lee of the island and I could use both hands on my binoculars for short periods and got really good looks. I turned to Lee and said, "Now, that is a Puffin!"
We drew nearer to the island, which was simply aswarm with birds. I've been re-reading another old favorite, T.H. White's The Once And Future King, which has a wonderful description of such an island, as seen by White-fronted Geese on migration:
One of the peaks of the migration came when they passed a rock-cliff of the ocean. There were other peaks, when, for instance, their line of flight was crossed by an Indian file of Bewick Swans who were off to Abisko, making a noise as they went like little dogs barking through handkerchiefs, or when they overtook a horned owl plodding manfully along--among the warm feathers of whose back, so they said, a tiny wren was taking her free ride. But the lonely island was the best.Bleiksoy is arranged differently from White's island in that the turf areas are near the bottom, so that's where the puffins have their burrows. (I'll never forget watching one land and go into its burrow, which reminded me of watching the Little Penguins on the south coast of Australia returning to their burrows at night.) Above the burrows are steep cliffs with every possible inch occupied by nesting Kittiwakes.
It was a town of birds. They were all hatching, all quarrelling, all friendly nevertheless. On top of the cliff, where the short turf was, there were myriads of puffins busy with their burrows. Below them, in Razorbill Street, the birds were packed so close, and on such narrow ledges, that they had to stand with their backs to the sea, holding tight with long toes. In Guillemot Street, below that, the guillemots held their sharp, toy-like faces upward, as thrushes do when hatching. Lowest of all, there were the Kittiwake Slums. And all the birds--who, like us humans, only laid one egg each--were jammed so tight that their heads were interlaced--had so little of this famous living-space of ours that, when a new bird insisted on landing at a ledge which was already full, one of the other birds had to tumble off.
As we got into even stiller waters, we got many more good looks at the puffins in the water and finally had a chance to scan for other birds, too. I soon had a great look at a Razorbill, close enough to make out the fine white line down its blunt black bill. A dozen or so Shags sat sunning themselves on rocks not far away. Then Lee pointed out two Black Guillemots standing very near us on a rock. We had an excellent view of these lovely birds (all black except for white ovals on their wings and bright red feet). Shortly after the boat turned back, I got a good look at a Common Guillemot swimming near the boat (including the "variably streaked flanks").
As soon as the boat landed, we dashed home and got into the car to drive back to the Hvalsenter. We were not surprised to learn that the whale trip had been cancelled again, as we could see that the wind was stronger than in the morning. (I'll have to admit that I was sort of relieved; I'd been so overwhelmed by the bird trip that I was hardly up for four more hours on the sea.) Lee had planned our stay on Andoya with the knowledge that we'd need to be here for a while to be sure of a whale trip. We stood in line to make reservations for tomorrow morning, which will be our last chance.
We were cold and tired and ready for dinner, so we stopped at the same restaurant as last evening. We paused before entering to watch a pair of Herring Gulls on the chimney. They stood there facing one another. One put its head back and cawed. The other put its head back and cawed. Then they touched beaks. They repeated this sequence several times until Lee reached quietly into the car for his camera, which made them stop, of course.
Lee chose the reindeer stew followed by warm applecake with ice cream. I had a filled potato and another of the splendid blackberry crepes. We were considerably revived by the time we left the restaurant to go out into the gentle rain that had just begun falling. Later in the evening, it grew much stormier.
As we sat waiting, I greeted an older Japanese lady who had been thrown against the railing on the Bird Rock trip yesterday and had hit her head fairly hard. I was glad to hear that she was fine this morning. (I had decided I would like her and her husband from the way they treat one another, which is what emboldened me to speak to her.) We had a nice talk, chatting of our travels. They are going to Ireland next: "We Japanese are so crowded together that we like to visit places where there aren't many people." She envied us our trip to Peru, as she is especially interested in textiles. She, too, was frustrated at not having found anywhere to buy Sami textiles.
Finally, we were all called together and given seasickness pills (with warnings that they might make us drowsy and not to take them if we had certain medical conditions).
We were then led into the adjacent whale museum by a young guide who spoke "only" Norwegian, English, and French. (The German half of the group was turned over to another guide who spoke Swedish, English, and German.) The museum was useful for getting the scale of things and for learning to recognize the various species found in this area. I'd never seen whale baleen before and had never realized that whales use echo-location (which should have been obvious, now that I think about it).
Listening to the questions people asked, I suddenly had a flashback to a delightful and totally fascinating book I read recently by a man who lives to count penguins (Ron Naveen, Waiting to Fly: My Escapades with the Penguins of Antarctica). Penguin researchers often get around from island to island in Antarctica by catching lifts on passing tour ships. They repay their benefactors by giving lectures for the passengers and answering a lot of questions, one of the classics being, "Is there such a thing as a female sperm whale?" But Naveen reported being asked a much more surprising question than that. It happened in the year following a year in which the breeding season had been disastrous, when almost all of the penguin chicks had died by the time they were three weeks old:
The shoreline was filling with adults and chicks, mud, and guano piles--back to the expected doses of noise, smell, and visual overload. Upbeach, among the carcasses, we were approached by an elderly tourist posed in one of the ubiquitous red parkas the tour company issues to its passengers. (Often, we call these folks "redhoppers"--a play on the name of rockhopper penguins, found on islands north of the Peninsula.) The British gentleman asked if he might pose a few questions. No problem for us. We were happy to give it a go. "Do penguins bury their dead?", he intoned solemnly. For long seconds, Louise and I were somewhat flabbergasted and couldn't react. This was one we hadn't heard before. Carefully, regretfully, I replied: "No, sir, as you can see, they don't." "Hmmmm. Most untidy, most untidy." And with a disappointed air, head dejectedly bowed, he sauntered away from us.After the museum tour, we were taken to a little theater and given a 15-minute slide show consisting of beautiful photographs (mostly whales but some birds, too) taken by members of the Whalesafari staff and set to music that combined whale songs and human instruments. It was very pleasant indeed.
After pausing to get a stack of our postcards from the car and leaving them to be posted with Whalesafari postmarks, we drove to the dock where the Reine was waiting to take us to see whales. I was amused to note that the entire first row in the parking area was occupied by RVs. That is as much a craze in Europe as at home, but at least the RVs here aren't such huge monsters, and they generally have bicycles on the back, rather than an automobile under tow.
We boarded the ship and sat on the lower deck for the hour-long ride out to the edge of the continental shelf, where the whales are most easily found feeding. A strange sort of lethargy came over me. It was a while before I realized it must be due to the pill; fortunately, I'd taken only one, rather than the recommended two. That was enough to put me into a daze. I could see that there were lots of birds flying out over the water, but it seemed like entirely too much trouble to stand at the railing and look at them.
In retrospect, I believe that most of the ones that were not gulls were Manx Shearwaters. A young American woman who wasn't wiped out reported seeing a skua trying to steal food from a gull. And I did manage to notice small groups of puffins floating or flying by.
I didn't get seasick, but I'd much rather have been a bit queasy and in my right mind. The ride was actually much smoother than the Bird Rock trip yesterday, but there were several passengers who had trouble dealing with it. A child on the upper deck managed at one point to vomit down onto the lower deck, which was a tad unpleasant for those of us sitting there, but most of us were in rain gear, so it really didn't matter. I, at any rate, was not getting excited about anything. One man who had gotten more than his fair share went into a rage, ranting and cursing and waving his fists at the child and calling him "Schweine". (I don't think the child spoke German, fortunately.) The man continued to rage for an hour, until suddenly he had to run to the railing himself, which I thought was well-deserved retribution. As I was towelling Lee off after the child's accident, I got a giggle from him by whispering that I'd never actually heard anybody being addressed as "Schweine" before.
One of the Whalesafari guides, a young Norwegian marine biologist, was asked about her dark hair, and she explained that she is from the Senja Peninsula, a descendent of those ship-wrecked Spaniards.
We reached the edge of the shelf about an hour out; the depth fell sharply from 50 meters to 900. We stayed there for about two and a half hours looking for whales.
The whales are spotted when they come up to breathe. A seaman up in a tower was searching the whole time for spouting whales. The whales tend to remain on the surface for 10-15 minutes before diving again, pretty much straight down. If one marks their location when they dive, there is a good chance they'll appear again in the same area about half an hour later.
We encountered five whales in all, all sperm whales. (We'd been told that any sperm whales we saw today would be males, as the females are further south at this time of year, helping the calves make their first northward migration.) Four of the whales dove before we got near, although some of the passengers saw at least the tail fluke in each case. (Lee saw one of those; in my stupor, I saw none.)
But we did have one really good look at a whale, the second one we found. He stayed on the surface, spouting now and then, for ten minutes after the boat drew near him. We were so close that I could see his barnacles with my naked eye. Then the captain called out, "Diving!". I hadn't noticed any change in the whale's behavior, but the captain obviously understood signs I didn't, because about 10 seconds later the whale up-ended and we had a perfect view of the tail fluke above the water before it went down.
The crew served coffee and cookies on the way out and soup and bread on the way in, but neither of us relished the idea of dealing with hot liquids while being tossed about, so we didn't take either. I smiled to see a young man walk along the pitching deck carrying a cup of hot soup in each hand, taking them to where his lady love was sitting.
We were thoroughly cold and hungry by the time the boat turned back toward Andoya. I think I would have been just as happy to go back after whale number 2, but I was groggy enough not really to care about anything. I finally began coming back to life on the way in, enough to figure out the Common Eiders flying about as we neared the island. The closer we got to the shore, the greyer and foggier the weather grew.
We didn't get back to Andenes until 3 (much later than we had expected), so we knew we had to get a move on, but we needed food (preferably hot food) first.
I remembered that the nice little bakery had had sandwiches when we were there yesterday, so we zoomed over to it. We chose two of the ham and cheese sandwiches on their beautiful fresh baguettes. I could have hugged the lady when she put them into a microwave to warm the bread and melt the cheese. We were also grateful for her hot chocolate (I had seconds on that). We shared one of the pieces of marzipan-covered cake and bought a few more of the chocolate-covered marzipans before dashing out the door just as the nice Japanese couple were coming in. I showed them the marzipans and gave them a strong recommendation. We were just about to drive off when they came out again. The wife raised a little paper bag, nodded, smiled, and waved goodbye.
We had barely started driving south when the rain started; it stayed with us for the rest of the day as we hopped from island to island going over fabulous high bridges (with one long ferry ride and one spectacularly deep tunnel). The bridges and the tunnel are a blessing, because the water flowing between many of the islands swirls into dangerous maelstroms. One of the maelstroms, the Moskenesstraumen, which is at the south end of the island we're on now, is so powerful that it was known to the seafarers of Arabia in ancient times.
The birding highlight of the afternoon occurred early in the trip when two Redshanks crossed the road ahead of us. (It must say something about our birding skills that so many of our best birds are seen either crossing the road ahead of us or bathing in a puddle in the road ahead of us.)
The scenery was lovely, but we knew it would have been much grander if the clouds hadn't been settled a few hundred feet above us, hiding the high mountains.
The islands were sparsely settled but every nice cove had a little fishing village, and every village had banks of wooden racks for drying fish.
We passed a number of cemeteries in which almost every grave was covered with tulips in full bloom, in every color imaginable.
As the rain and fog got heavier, we came upon a bridge that rose high to cross over a fjord and disappeared into the clouds. Unable to see the other side and feeling a bit like Jack in the Beanstalk, we plunged ahead.
We sympathized with the cyclist (a respectable-looking middle-aged man) whom we saw throw a finger at two cars that passed him too closely and drenched him thoroughly. And I felt guilty about having called gulls irresponsible when I saw so many of them sitting on their nests getting soaked.
As we continued south we began to see reindeer-crossing signs, but we saw no reindeer.
We were running much later than we had planned, so Lee figured out a pay phone (even recognizing a phone booth in a new country can be a challenge) and phoned ahead and found out where to pick up the key to our new hut after business hours. (One of the advantages of being north of the Arctic Circle this time of year is that no matter how late you're running, you won't have to drive after dark.)
Dinner was distinctly non-gourmet, pallid cheeseburgers on board the ferry.
After we got beyond the ferry, we began to see lots of sheep and goats around (and, in some cases, on) the road. We laughed at the sight of six white goats waiting in a rural bus stop shelter for the rain to stop. We stopped to wait for a ewe to decide that she and her lamb really shouldn't be standing in the middle of a highway. And we felt sorry for the lamb we saw crying outside the fence it couldn't find a way to get back inside of.
This is Midsummers Night, so we weren't surprised when after about 7pm every town and many of the farms we passed had a huge bonfire lit down on the shore of the fjord. (Despite the rain and the 10 C temperature, people were doggedly holding cookouts around some of the bonfires.) We imagined that on a clear Midsummers Night it must be quite a sight with fires lit all along the fjord. On this Midsummers Night, however, we could seldom see more than one of the fires at a time.
Toward the end of the trip, we began to encounter single-lane bridges long and high enough that we couldn't see the other side when starting across. Even though most had passing lanes in the middle, I thought it said something good about Norwegians' dispositions that such a thing doesn't lead to constant road rage incidents.
Around 9pm we reached the village of Reine on the island of Moskenesoy, one of the Lofoten Islands. The pretty little town is built around an inlet from the Kirkefjord. It is backed by the steepest mountains we've ever seen anywhere. One of the books says, "The landscape is wild with precipitous, polished mountains", and that is exactly right.
My eyes were caught by a huge bed of tulips and daffodils in full bloom in front of a small gasoline station. Just across the road, we found our little cluster of rorbuer, which are built on pilings above the rocks at the edge of the fjord. They are all painted brick red with white trim. Some have slate roofs, and some have sod roofs. Ours has a very luxuriant sod roof that is full of wildflowers, white and yellow and magenta. Inside, it is at least as gentrified as the rorbu in Bleik. The kitchen has a big table in front of a window looking out onto the cove and the incredible mountains. The livingroom has four bunk beds way up in the rafters. I gasped when I saw the ladders up to them, but then Lee explained that those beds are only ornamental and showed me the doorways to the two little bedrooms. The bedroom doors are too low even for me and I've already managed to bonk my head a couple of times.
Lee went out briefly to find the local Midsummers Night celebration. He returned to report that he had found a very large bonfire blazing away all by itself in the rain; it seems that all of the people have adjourned to the local social club to get on with the drinking phase of the celebration.
After the long day we had yesterday, I was ready for some downtime.
Lee went out exploring, while I stayed sitting at the kitchen table with its marvelous view of the cove edged by colorful houses clinging to the base of the extraordinary mountains. I enjoyed myself thoroughly, reading more of Mark Twain's autobiography, pausing now and then to gaze at the beautiful scenery.
Because our world view is so heavily influenced by Darwin, I was especially struck by Twain's comments in describing Macfarlane, a Scot who lived in the same boarding house Twain did when he was twenty:
I always spent my evenings by the wood fire in his room, listening in comfort to his tireless talk.... Of course his thinking and reasoning and philosophizings were those of a but partly taught and wholly untrained mind, yet he hit by accident upon some curious and striking things. For instance. The time was the early part of 1856--fourteen or fifteen years before Mr. Darwin's Descent of Man startled the world--yet here was Macfarlane talking the same idea to me, there in the boardinghouse in Cincinnati.When Lee returned late in the afternoon, he had found a number of beautiful places he wants to take me to tomorrow. He also brought back a book called Skulpturlandschaft Nordland (Artscape Nordland) that we wish we'd found earlier. It describes a remarkable project begun in the County of Nordland (which consists of the Lofoten and Vesteralen islands and much of the coast opposite them) in 1988. At a seminar on the conditions for artists in Nordland, a local artist named Anne Katrine Dolven suggested that each of the 45 municipalities in Nordland become the home of a significant contemporary work of art. Over the next few years, 33 of the municipalities did just that! The works are sculptures or constructions and they are located "in the landscape" (which is, of course, some of the world's most beautiful landscape).
The same general idea, with a difference. Macfarlane considered that the animal life of the world was developed in the course of aeons of time from a few microscopic seed germs, or perhaps one microscopic seed germ deposited upon the globe by the Creator in the dawn of time, and that this development was progressive upon an ascending scale toward ultimate perfection until man was reached; and that then the progressive scheme broke pitifully down and went to wreck and ruin!
He said that man's heart was the only bad heart in the animal kingdom; that man was the only animal capable of feeling malice, envy, vindictiveness, revengefulness, hatred, selfishness, the only animal that loved drunkenness, almost the only animal that could endure personal uncleanliness and a filthy habitation, the sole animal in whom was fully developed the base instinct called patriotism...
The book describes the politics of the project and the interactions (mostly very good) between world-class artists and relatively unsophisticated villagers who were being asked to spend rather a lot of money to bring a work of art to their locale. For example, the people on Andoya were upset by one artist's suggestion that he might "decorate" their severely beautiful red lighthouse (fortunately, that didn't happen), and another town had as its main criterion that the sculpture be big. There were delays and other problems, but:
There are also problem-free stories here. In Leirfjord, Waltercio Caldas' sculpture, Around, was produced in the barn belonging to Arne Meisfjordskar. Friendship and understanding were established between an artist from Brazil and an engineer and sheep farmer from Norway. When the two made the journey to the co-operative store at Liland to buy paint for the sculpture, Caldas went straight to the shelves and took down the mauve paint. The Norwegian was astonished by this choice. "It is the color of your country", was Caldas' unequivocal response. Around has taught me to see the colours of my own land: in most lights, birches are mauve when they are not green; this is the garb worn by large areas of Norway.Unfortunately, none of our guidebooks mentions this project, so we missed several of the sculptures on our long drive through the islands of Nordland yesterday. (We noted a few signs saying "Skulpturlandskap" and asked one another what that could possibly mean.) We also failed to visit the work in Andenes, an installation called Oy Museet (Island Museum), which we passed every day we were there but dismissed as likely to be the sort of grab-bag one often finds in small local museums. The book describes it thus:
The Island Museum is no ordinary museum for careful documentation of cultural periods and geographic areas. Instead of a scientific categorisation, the choice of objects in the collection is based on the aesthetic criteria of beauty and surprise.... Raffael Rheinberg's art has been described as the "archaeology of everyday life". By showing us the objects we use in our work and leisure, he holds up a mirror that tells about the way we live.Fortunately, several of the Skulpturlandskap sites are near Reine, so we will be able to visit them while we are here, but there are several others that I'm really regretting.
We had a very pleasant dinner in a nearby restaurant. The desserts were especially good: Lee had hot rhubarb soup with homemade cinnamon ice cream, and I had hot blackberry soup with homemade vanilla ice cream. A bit of sunshine and blue sky appeared while we were eating, giving us an even more stunning view of those precipitous mountains.
After dinner, Lee took me across the road to see the Kittiwake nests he had discovered. There are several small red buildings at the edge of the water, all with steeply pitched slate roofs. The roofs are covered with Kittiwake nests! The nests appear to be made of mud lined with grass. I can't imagine why they don't wash down when it rains.
Back in our "hut", I read a book about rock carvings like the one we saw in Narvik. I had just noted the continuity between these figures and the ones painted on the drums the Sami used in traditional religious ceremonies when the book described more evidence of cultural continuity. It showed a prehistoric carving of a bear's den with human footprints circling about it in the snow and said, "When the Sami hunted bears in the 18th century, the hunter 'drew' a circle around the den with his own footprints before driving the animal out and killing it. Such a circle is also depicted in this rock carving."
We drove south first to the little town of A (that's an "A" with a circle but I haven't the fonts to show it correctly), which is at the very end of the road. One of the many tunnels we passed through was so new that the roadbed had not yet been laid down. The Norwegians seem to be as enthusiastic about punching holes through mountains as the Swiss. Indeed, when we got to A we found that they'd made a tunnel through a small mountain just to build a parking lot on the other side (beyond the very end of the road).
From that parking lot, we hiked out on a point that overlooks a bird cliff--more Kittiwakes and some Great Black-backed Gulls. We then took a trail into the town, which was full of flowers and children playing. At the wharf we stopped to watch three men on the porch of a rorbu cleaning fish and throwing scraps to the gulls on the rocks below. That gave us good close looks at Greater Black-backed and Herring Gulls (both huge), and I even distinguished between the two in some of their immature plumages. Kittiwakes who had nests on the building tried occasionally to sneak a bit of fish, but they had no chance against the huge gulls. The water of the fjord was extremely clear, and the men occasionally threw a scrap into the water, instead of onto the rocks, for the fun of watching the gulls retrieve it.
Driving back up the road, we stopped to see the bird cliffs in Hamnoy. The natural one occurs along a cleft in the cliff that forms the island's harbor; every available space has a nest. The larger one is artificial; the Kittiwakes have taken advantage of a recent highway roadcut; the steep rocky cut makes a very good place for them to hang their nests.
Further north, we stopped in Moskenes at one of the Skulpturlandskap sites. From the parking area next to the sign, we looked down to a promontory above the fjord, with a couple of steep paths leading down to the water through springy beds of mosses and wildflowers. We headed down and then searched among the bare rocks on the coast trying to find the sculpture but couldn't. We took another trail back up to the parking area and still had no luck. We concluded that the paths we'd been on must have been made by fishermen getting down to the rocks.
Then it occurred to us to start looking from next to the sign itself. From there, a barely visible path led to the sculpture called Laurel Leaves (by Cristina Iglesias of Spain), two walls of aluminum (covered with reliefs of leaves) placed at the entrance to a natural rock formation known as the "Devil's Churn". The sculpture didn't actually do much for either of us, but there was a certain satisfaction in having found it. The area around the sculpture was very pretty, with wildflowers (including the first violets we've seen here) and flowering bushes. I felt guilty walking on the springy ground; they will need to put in a better trail soon if they are going to avoid having the site become badly eroded.
All day long, we passed people travelling on bikes that were laden with packs and bedrolls.
We stopped for a hot-dog lunch at a roadside stand near the small town of Sund. It seems to me that the Norwegians must eat more hot dogs than anybody else. Many of the gasoline stations sell hot dogs, and one sees people eating them at all hours of the day. Sitting at a picnic table eating ours, we were amused by the contemporary figures of birds and animals painted on the rocky cliffs in the harbor area.
Twice during the morning, we had noticed gulls smashing sea urchin shells on the highway. Now, Lee spotted one of the empty shells as we walked to our parked car and picked it up to show me.
From Sund, we went across the island to the ocean side and the town of Vikten, which is situated on an extravagantly beautiful fjord. Nearing the town, we stopped for the sheep and lambs crossing the road. A little girl dressed in her Sunday best rounded up four of the lambs and herded them home. (The others then scrambled up a hill I would have been unwilling to attempt; I'd never realized until this trip that ordinary sheep are such good climbers.)
We stopped at a beautiful contemporary building that houses a glassworks. Behind the building was a delightful garden planted in Iceland poppies of many colors; beyond the garden was a view down to the fjord. A couple of glassblowers were at work and many of their works were on display. The works of a silversmith was also on display. We were intrigued by several that used a symbol for the Lofotens, a boat with people with fish below the boat, clearly contemporary but equally clearly descended from the rock carvings of thousands of years ago.
We drove back around the fjord and got out to look down toward Vikten with the dramatic mountains behind it and the white sandy beach and aquamarine water in front of it. Very beautiful! I decided that the best of the photographs Lee took there will have to be given the title Where the Vikings Came From.
We turned back east and stopped at Flakstad to see the beautiful brown wooden church from 1780. While Lee was photographing, I noticed a large bird fly over calling loudly. When I raised my binoculars, I was delighted to see the long down-curved bill that meant that it was a Curlew. It landed in the field across from the church. (I think it must have a nest there.) We spent fifteen wonderful minutes watching it, first in the field, then flying over us, then circling back and landing in a roadside ditch to look for food, and then walking on the road itself. We were very still and it came quite near us. Indeed, it seemed to be fearless; for several minutes, it refused to get out of the road to let a car pass. In the course of watching it, we heard it make almost all of the calls the book describes. I think it was a female, as its bill was extremely long. I had never seen a Curlew before, except way out on a mudflat, so the chance to be so close to one was something I cherished. Oh, and did I say that the church was really beautiful, too.
Just a short way down the same dirt road was the cemetery for the church, brilliant with tulips blooming on every grave, each grave ablaze with a different color. The wrought iron gate for the graveyard had a memorable stylized cormorant that we paused to photograph. Across the road was a sand cliff that was home to several Sand Martins; after watching them flitting about for a while going in and out of their burrows, we finally got a positive id.
Not far from there, we came upon another of the sculptures, Epitaph (by Toshikatsu Endo of Japan). There wasn't even a sign for this one, but it was easy to find, as it stood on flat ground not far from the road with a mountain rising sharply behind it. It is a simple fieldstone cylinder, very handsome. ("The sculpture is a memorial, even if the artist himself does not decide what is to be remembered.") As we stood looking at it, I thought I heard a grouse calling, so we walked a ways through the boggy fields but never found the bird.
Driving further, we stopped in a couple of places to photograph the graceful, high-arched bridges, some of which delighted the eye as much as the sculptures did.
We returned to Reine for a nap followed by dinner at the same restaurant (so that I could have more of the blackberry soup). After dinner we made another visit to the roof-nesting Kittiwakes and watched while a pair of greatly alarmed Kittiwakes drove two (much larger) Herring Gulls away from their nest site atop a chimney. The Kittiwakes' flying was amazingly acrobatic--and very like some hummingbirds' courtship display flights. Pendulum-like, they described half circles with the low point tangent to the gulls' heads. As the reached the high point in the arc, they turned with amazing agility to swoop back down toward the gulls, shrieking wildly. The gulls snapped at them on each pass, but finally first one and then the other decided it was too much hassle and flew away and left the nest site to the Kittiwakes.
We finally had real sunshine this morning, the first since we arrived in Reine. We packed the car and headed out to do bunches of things before leaving the island.
We stopped in Flakstad to see if we could find the Curlew again and had just a glimpse of her as she crossed the road and disappeared into the dense vegetation of the ditch. Later in the morning, another one flew low over our car as we were passing through a small town.
We stopped at a small crafts shop along the highway. It turned out to be closed, but walking through its parking lot we had the pleasure of noticing that the highway cut above the road was adorned with a very large bronze copy of the Lofoten symbol we saw in Vikten yesterday.
Soon we left the main road and turned onto a side road toward the little town of Eggum. The road became less and less official-looking as it skirted along a branch of the fjord. After a while, we got to a gate where there was a sign saying to deposit 10 kroner if we wanted to drive further. After consulting our map again to make sure this was the right road, we dropped the kroner into the very unofficial-looking toll box and opened the gate and went through onto a dirt trail through a sheep meadow. We stopped to wait for some Oystercatchers to move off the road and then again while I got out to open and close a livestock barrier and again while a sleeping ewe and her lamb woke up and moved off the road.
The road ran through the greenest imaginable grass very close to the top of a cliff overlooking the fjord. Down below, we spotted a rocky islet with half a dozen Shags sunning themselves. I was getting more and more suspicious that we were lost when Lee called, "There it is!" We'd found another of the sculptures, this one called Head (by Markus Raetz of Switzerland). It's very amusing, a stone pillar on which sits a classic iron head of a man. As one goes around it, however, the man's head inverts, so that the head is "standing on its head". One can walk around the pillar and see the head change between right-side-up and upside-down with each quarter turn.
However, even before we got close enough to it to get out of the car, our attention had been diverted from the sculpture. I'd been looking over the edge of the cliff to decide whether all of the cormorants were Shags when I noticed a small bird in the grass near the edge of the cliff. It was a Northern Wheatear (a pretty little black, grey, white, and buff bird). As Jennifer wrote in her trip report:
The most satisfying lifer, however, is the ever-maddening Northern Wheatear, a pair no less. The next time I miss one by moments in New Jersey, it won't hurt so much.These Wheatears are rather amazing little birds in that even the Greenlandic and Canadian populations (like the European population) winter in Africa. That gives the Canadian Wheatears a championship migration flight, so it's not surprising that every now and then one of them ends up in New Jersey. We had one in the Mercer County Park a few years ago, and, like Jennifer, I missed it, but now I've seen one.
We got out of the car only after the Wheatear flew off. I was going toward the sculpture when I noticed a Whimbrel standing frozen a few feet away. I got an intense but brief look at him before he leapt silently off the edge of the cliff. Now, I don't think I'll ever again have trouble distinguishing between Curlews and Whimbrels way out on the mudflats.
After that, we could finally give the sculpture enough attention to walk around it and appreciate the whimsy.
As we drove slowly back down the road, however, we stopped again to get a really good look at the Wheatear, who flew from rock to rock in the meadow posing in the bright sunshine until we felt we really know Wheatears now. We were just about to head on when Lee pointed out some birds swimming in an inlet at the base of the mountain, two Black-necked Loons with their half-grown young.
After watching the loons until they were out of sight, we drove a few yards more, just past the livestock gate, and got out so that Lee could climb up to inspect the ruins of a stone fort at the edge of the cliff. I stayed looking for birds near the car and was soon rewarded by loud calls from the nearby meadow that signalled the appearance of a Redshank who must be nesting nearby. She stood in the open very close by calling loudly and giving me a wonderful view. She was still there when Lee returned from the ruin (it had proved to be a German WWII installation), so he got to see her too.
We got out again down by the very informal tollgate and looked at a Black-headed Gull standing one-legged asleep on a rock in a little stream. I was reminded of another line from The Once and Future King:
Afterwards he went for a walk along the beach, admiring the gulls who flew above him like white quill pens whose heads had been neatly dipped in ink.This was the closest look at a Black-headed we'd had and I could finally see that the book is correct when it says that the head is actually the color of good chocolate.
The next sculpture had only Hooded Crows but it was very nice. It is another Untitled (by Dan Graham of the USA). It sits at the edge of the fjord just above another maelstrom, the Gimsoystraumen. It is a 3-sided construction of stainless steel and semi-mirrored glass. The side facing the fjord is curved inward. When one stands facing that curve, one sees oneself reflected among the mountains and the fjord; one also sees through the sculpture to other beautiful scenes beyond. We liked it very much and Lee had fun finding the best angle to photograph the two of us reflected in the sculpture.
We turned back toward the town of Borg and got stuck for a while behind a travelling carnival, "Lindstrom's Tivoli", with its slow-moving but gaily-painted trucks and vans.
We stopped in Borg to go through the reconstructed Viking chieftain's house that sits atop the highest hill in the area. The reconstruction is right next to the archaeological dig that determined the dimensions of the original building, the largest house known from the Viking world (83 meters in length). The hill is believed to have been a chieftain's seat from 500 AD to 900 AD, when the site was abandoned, possibly because the chieftain and all of his people moved to Iceland.
The reconstructed building is impressive. It is what is known as a "three-aisled longhouse"; it has posts located in pairs on either side of the middle aisle to bear the weight of the roof. The walls are sod-covered, but the roof has wooden shingles. (The reconstruction of the roof as shingled rather than sod is tentative and was based on the belief that the chieftain would have wanted his house to be visible from far away.) At each end of the roof, a wooden dragon rears up its head. The building has no windows but does have smoke holes in the roof that can be opened and closed. Inside there are cross-wise walls to separate the living quarters, the great hall, the store room, and the byre (where cattle were kept in the winter).
People in period costume were working inside the building demonstrating various crafts, such as weaving and leatherwork. A cook was serving lamb soup and mead (which we declined). Children were allowed to pick up the Viking sword and put on the leather helmet. Other children were giggling as they put on red, floor-length capes before viewing the exhibits of furnishings, jewelry, and other archaeological finds displayed in the house. Outside, ancient breeds of cattle (with very shaggy fur) were grazing on the green, green grass.
We grabbed a quick lunch at their little cafe. I gobbled mine down so I'd have more time in the bookstore. After I left Lee behind, he was offered some "traditional northern Norwegian brown goat cheese", which he was too polite to refuse. When he joined me in the bookstore later, he told me I'd had a lucky escape. As usual, we got more books than we should have.
Then we dashed back to Leknes to get to the airport. I had enjoyed the three tulip-filled traffic circles (each a different color) when we drove through Leknes earlier. We were surprised that the gasoline station we pulled into to refill the rental car was an ESSO, not seen at home in a long while. The Leknes airport is a handsome modern building of blond wood with the feeling of a ship.
The 20-minute flight from Leknes to Boda was really spectacular. The plane flew west briefly to the ocean coast and then circled back across the islands and the fjord to the inland, so we had gorgeous sunlit views of bright green fields, snow-capped mountains, and aquamarine and cobalt water.
We were soon checked in at our hotel in Boda and out walking along the nice new boardwalk that goes all along the waterfront. Our first goal was one more of the Skulpturlandskap works, another Untitled (by Tony Cragg of England). This takes the form of seven large granite boulders spaced all along Boda's concrete seawall. Each of the boulders has been drilled full of holes (the size of my arm) going all the way through it. We enjoyed walking along the seawall and stopped to photograph a small child coming up from the marina with her father. When we reached the last of the boulders, a slightly tipsy woman came over from the nearby tavern and asked us what we thought of the sculpture. We told her we were enjoying it and asked her what she thought. She said she thought the holes made a good place for chilling wine. She then pointed somewhat bitterly at the yachts in the marina and denounced them as evidence that most Norwegians want only to show their neighbors how much money they have. "These boats are never used!" We suggested to her that Norwegians aren't the only people in the world with that problem.
We walked back along the seawall and then most of the way across town, through a glassed-in shopping area and then to the train station (which had splendid tulip beds out front). We have grown so used to the absolute cleanliness of Norway's towns that I wrinkled my nose at the sight of a few cigarette butts on the sidewalk outside the entrance to the glassed-in area. (Earlier today, we both noticed a single rusting car sitting in a farmyard, the first untidiness we'd noted about any of the many farms we've seen in Norway.)
Walking back to our hotel by a different route, we came across a sculpture of a sea-eagle nest with two adults and two young (which likely isn't biologically correct, since most eagles practice the "an heir and a spare" approach to breeding in which the younger eaglet seldom survives if the older one does). Boda calls itself the "Sea-eagle Capital of the World" and offers membership in the Sea-eagle Society to anyone who sees one of the eagles while actually in Boda. We didn't qualify, alas, even though we saw at least eleven different White-tailed Eagles while out on the islands. (There was usually one in sight when I gazed out the kitchen window in Reine.)
We have had a quiet room-service dinner, and Lee has caught up on both CNN and the BBC.
We stopped at a nice bakery in the glassed-in shopping area to get sandwiches and pastries for our train trip and donuts for this morning's breakfast. (The beauty of the pastries in the bakeries here is just astonishing!) Then we were off to the train station to travel south to Trondheim, Norway's ancient capital.
We noticed before boarding the train that one of the cars had teddy bears painted on the outside and was labelled "Family Car". Walking through the train later, we found that the family car includes a nursery area with room for travel cribs and a playground section with a jungle jim and other things to climb on (and lots of padding), as well as a section of regular seats. (We've also noticed that hotel lobbies here have children's play areas. It seems so sensible!)
Once we were on board the train, we found ourselves all alone in a really handsome car done in blonde woods and glass, with seats that looked like modern versions of the choir stalls in a medieval cathedral (and that had side curtains for privacy).
We had a day of stunning scenery, as the train went along fjords and over mountains and rushing mountain streams. We were in birch forests early on but later descended to green farms. There were many, many waterfalls. While we were still high in the mountains, we crossed back over the Arctic Circle, so we will now have some nighttime again.
At one point, Lee spotted a reindeer grazing between the railroad track and the nearby highway.
As we got to lower altitudes, we had the glorious sight of thick banks of lupines along the track--blue and purple and lavender and white all mixed together.
It was a good thing we were alone because I couldn't stop crying as I finished Twain's autobiography and read of the deaths of Suzy and Mrs. Clemens and Jean. He made me laugh, too, of course, as when he wrote about their life in a villa outside Florence:
Sept. 29, '92. I seem able to forget everything except that I have had my head shaved. No matter how closely I shut myself away from draughts it seems to be always breezy up there. But the main difficulty is the flies. They like it up there better than anywhere else; on account of the view, I suppose. It seems to me that I have never seen any flies before that were shod like these. These appear to have talons. Wherever they put their foot down they grab. They walk over my head all the time and cause me infinite torture. It is their park, their club, their summer resort. They have garden parties there and conventions and all sorts of dissipation. And they fear nothing. All flies are daring but these are more daring than those of other nationalities. These cannot be scared away by any device. They are more diligent, too, than the other kinds; they come before daylight and stay till after dark. But there are compensations. The mosquitoes are not a trouble. There are very few of them, they are not noisy, and not much interested in their calling. A single unkind word will send them away; if said in English, which impresses them because they do not understand it, they come no more that night. We often see them weep when they are spoken to harshly. I have got some of the eggs to take home. If this breed can be raised in our climate they will be a great advantage.We saved our goodies for dinner and got a lunch of hot dogs from the dining car, as a result of Lee's theory that they were likely to be out of food by dinner time. (He has taken this trip before.) He was probably right, given that at lunch time they were already out of everything except hot dogs.
When I finished the Twain, I read a small book about the Vikings and am finally convinced that they really did have extensive trading networks going east as far as the Black Sea.
Glancing out the window at a plowed field, I spotted two large long-legged birds not far from the tracks, but we were whizzing by so fast that I don't have even an hypothesis as to what they might have been. I decided to do no more bird-spotting from the train, as it would only be frustrating.
I began reading A Confederacy of Dunces and was amused by the hero's (if Ignatius J. Reilly can be called a hero) frequent disdainful comments about Mark Twain:
You may remember that Mark Twain preferred to lie supinely in bed while composing those rather dated and boring efforts which contemporary scholars try to prove meaningful. Veneration of Mark Twain is one of the roots of our current intellectual stalemate.Later, we dined on the good things we bought in the bakery in Boda this morning. We had just finished eating when a dozen children came into the car, looked around at the luxury, and asked (I'm guessing) whether they could sit there. The children were different sizes, but all of grade-school age, and all were blond or strawberry blond. When they realized that we spoke English, they sat down in the seats all around us (with lots of giggling) to practice their English, starting with, "What Is Your Name?" We told them our names and asked theirs, which were Helga and Olga and Sigurd and Arne and Katrine and so on. Their best English speaker (a little strawberry blond named Katrine) took a big breath and said, "Are you here on vacation?" Emboldened by the success of that, they asked lots more questions (with much giggling and consultation among themselves). We told them where we'd been and asked where they lived (Bodo) and where they were going (Trondheim). We were trying to work out what they would be doing in Trondheim when an older girl, who'd obviously been sent to fetch them, scolded from the car door and they all went scampering off. Katrine stopped and turned back a few steps and took another deep breath and said, "Perhaps we will meet you again in Trondheim", before running off looking very pleased with herself.
We were charmed and impressed.
Although we'd had some sunshine on the way, it was raining steadily when we arrived in Trondheim late this evening.
One advantage of a Scandinavian buffet breakfast is that the wise traveler can make lunch out of it as well. Cold cuts and bread are part of the spread so we make sandwiches for our picnic lunch. We will also carry an urn of hot water for coffee and tea. Some brave souls have eggs for breakfast--that is, soft-boiled gull and murre eggs on the half-shell. These eggs are larger than hens' eggs and blue-green in color with inky brown splotches spangling the shell. Those who have the eggs discuss their identification. I can't quite bring myself to share this culinary treat, however. Coward!We hadn't really noticed the hotel interior when we arrived last evening, but looked around this morning and were impressed by the three atria full of beautiful plantings. It must be a particular joy during the long winters here.
There was a light rain most of the day but we spent the morning and half of the afternoon walking about the city of Trondheim. Trondheim (which was originally named Nidaros) was established in 997 by the Viking king Olaf Tryggvason. The Icelandic saga of Snorre Sturlason says:
King Olav set off with his men to Nidaros. On arrival, he let there be built houses near Nidelva river and decided that this place would become a market town. People were granted plots of land to build houses, and a King's estate was built at Skipakrok. In the autumn, everything King Olav needed in preparation for the winter was brought to his estate. There were a great many people working for him.Olav spread Christianity throughout his realm (by brutal means in many cases) as part of his plan to subdue the traditional chieftains, whose power was derived from "heathen" religious beliefs. The sagas say that Leif Eriksson came to King Olav's court at Nidaros in 999, remained a year, and converted to Christianity before returning home to convert all of Greenland (and discover America).
The next King Olav (Olav Haraldsson) died in battle in 1030. His body was brought to Trondheim for burial, whereupon miracles began happening near the gravesite and he was made a saint.
Trondheim has been the royal capital on and off and was the archbishop's capital for most of its history. Because of St. Olav, it was a major pilgrimage site in the Middle Ages.
Trondheim is now a city of 150,000 people. Despite several major fires, it still has some 12th and 13th Century buildings, although most buildings seem to be from the 19th Century, sometimes with 20th Century towers built behind the earlier facades.
It is a really handsome town, with mostly wooden buildings painted bright colors. The areas along the banks of the river have wharf buildings much like Amsterdam's.
We hadn't walked far when we got to a bookstore, agreed that we didn't want to be carrying heavy books around all day, but went in anyhow. I quickly found the English-language section, and then the section titled "Norwegian Literature in English Translation", where I bought a really heavy book to carry around all day, Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy. Lee wisely settled for a few folk-music CDs.
Walking further, we found ourselves in the middle of a huge street fair (the Fiskefestival). There were vendors selling beautiful fruits and vegetables, candies, handicrafts of all sorts, flowers, and much else. People clearly weren't being kept away by the light rain.
The festival was being held in the middle of a large square. In the center of the square is a very tall stone column topped by a statue of Olav Tryggvason. At the time, with all the crowd around us, we didn't understand the markings on the pavement beneath our feet, but later we read that the pedestal and statue function as the gnomon for what is believed to be the world's largest sundial.
(The reason Trondheim has these large squares and broad straight streets is that a radical new city plan was put into effect after the 1681 fire.)
We walked further toward the river to the Nidaros Cathedral, Norway's most important medieval building. Construction started in 1070, but the oldest parts still in existence are from the middle of the 12th Century. St. Olav is buried beneath the cathedral, but it is not known exactly where; he has been moved several times. (First, the Danes stole his shrine and melted it down; then the Swedes stole his coffin and his body in 1564, but later his remains were returned and reburied, but nobody remembers where.)
The last time Lee visited the cathedral was on Coronation Day in 1991, when the current king and queen were crowned there. His photographs from that trip show the cathedral draped in bunting. (He arrived too late in the day to see any of the festivities.)
The cathedral has been burned down, rebuilt, restored, etc., many times, as one would expect. In its current instantiation, its handsome west front is covered by rows and rows of statues of saints, with St. Olav and his battleaxe in the most prominent position. (Olav Tryggvason is also there, holding a sword, with a heathen's severed head between his feet.)
We thoroughly enjoyed the cathedral tour. Let me mention a few of the high points:
We walked back to the Fiskefestival and sat on a park bench eating a pepperoni pizza in the misty rain. While eating, we amused ourselves by throwing crumbs of the "pizza bones" (Victor's term) to the Black-headed Gulls, who caught them in midair. (The poor dumb pigeons didn't stand a chance with the Black-headed Gulls around. A (Common) Gull tried hard and complained loudly, but he was not nearly as adept as they.)
Browsing through the fair, we stopped to get a box of lovely strawberries to take back to our room and also some licorice ropes for Lee. Getting beyond the fair, we noticed the joyous sculpture of two students celebrating their graduation, the young man whirling the young woman around in his arms.
We stepped in to look at the gardens in front of the royal residence Stiftsgarden (one is welcome to do so). Stiftsgarden was built in the 1770s and is northern Europe's largest wooden residence. The gardens are very handsome (I wish my columbines were doing half so well), but our attention was soon distracted from the flowers by the sight of a little downy chick wandering about the paths. It didn't seem to be at all distressed, but I can't believe its parents meant it to be there by itself. Its webbed feet were those of a gull.
We headed back to the hotel, walking along the wharves, and were pleased to see how attractively the modern hotel has been fitted in among the old wharf buildings. After a nap, I lay in bed reading (still A Confederacy of Dunces, which I'm really enjoying) and Lee dashed out to photograph while there were a few minutes of sunshine. (He also returned to the Fiskefestival for long enough to buy a CD from a street vendor who turned out to be the Norwegian country-and-western singer on the CD.)
We had dinner at a very good restaurant in the hotel. It's fortunate I don't have regular access to au gratin potatoes that tempting! Toward the end of the meal, Lee, who was sitting facing the open kitchen, whispered that his grilled pineapple dessert had just been dropped on the floor and that the chef was starting over.
Lee had been looking forward to the trip from Trondheim to Oslo aboard the new high-speed train, but the new high-speed train was broken, so we were put aboard the old, not-quite-so-high-speed train. The railroad bumped all the passengers up a class to compensate, so the two of us ended up all alone in the lounge car, which was very comfortable.
As the train headed south, we had more magnificent scenery. Part of the trip was across the fells, the high plains where shorebirds nest. We were moving too fast to see any of the nesting birds, but we did see one reindeer up in the highlands. In the lower elevations we crossed many rushing streams fed by the waterfalls coming down from the fells. The valleys between the fells were broader today and full of pretty farms. The banks of lupines along the railroad cuts were breathtaking. Now and then, we spotted a Grey Heron hunting along the water's edge.
We had a very good salmon lunch in the dining car, holding onto our plates to keep them on the table as the old train bounded along trying to keep up with the new train's schedule.
I spent much of the trip absorbed in Kristin Lavransdatter (which should keep me busy for the rest of our stay in Norway). I could simply glance out the window any time I wanted to see the landscapes being described in the book.
We arrived in Oslo in the middle of the afternoon. My first impression was that it is not as pretty a city as Stockholm, but I later decided that it is very pleasant, with many parks, fountains, flowers, and sculptures.
We're staying right in the middle of town, very near the parliament building. The woman ahead of Lee in the line to check in at the hotel was dressed in full Sami costume (all bright red wool), which was very handsome but looked terribly hot to wear on such a balmy day.
As soon as we were checked in, we headed out for a long walk around the city. We went first to the City Hall (where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded). Oslo is celebrating its 1000th anniversary this year, so there are banners everywhere in honor of that. Because there is a tiger in the city's coat of arms, there are tigers on all of the banners. In the plaza in front of the City Hall are about a dozen large wooden tigers that have been decorated by various local artists. The one I liked best used barcodes for the tiger's stripes. The tiger cow was rather amusing, too.
As we walked on toward the waterfront, there were rose gardens everywhere along our route. The harbor is quite lovely, with parks along the edges and stately buildings all around. There were many boats moving about (including a couple of "Viking ships"). We stopped at the tourist center there to ask if they knew of a place to buy Sami crafts. They searched the Web diligently but found nothing. They were able to help us get a small copy of the poster for the 1000th anniversary jazz festival, a grinning tiger with piano-key teeth.
In a small shop nearby, we bought some playful wooden Christmas tree ornaments for us and a small enamelled Viking ship pin for Jacqueline.
We walked back toward the center of town, going past the university and the National Theatre, a very elegant pale yellow building. The streets were full of people enjoying the lovely weather.
We wandered back to the park across from our hotel (which has some really good sculptures) and had dinner at an outdoor restaurant there. Just across the street is the parliament building, a not undistinguished yellow brick building with gardens full of salmon-colored roses. The restaurant, which is quite large, was full of red geraniums. It had four very large televisions set up because there was a soccer match on. We don't know who was playing, but it seemed to be an important game. Every once in a while all of the restaurant patrons would let out a huge groan or a huge cheer. Passers-by on the sidewalk would stick their heads in to see how the game was going.
We walked some more after dinner (still in bright sunlight) and found a bookstore with a large selection of new Penguins. In deference to our heavy luggage, we bought only three. When we came out of the bookstore, a light rain had begun falling, so we scurried back to our hotel for a quiet evening.
Not far from the National Theatre, we found the stop for the #30 bus, which was soon taking us around the bay to the museum district. Once we got into the older residential areas, we might have been in Stockholm again--very pretty. I was amused to see, as the bus went past a small square with a fountain, that there were trolley tracks right through the fountain.
We went first to the Viking Ship Museum. Wow! It was stunning!
Most of the museum is devoted to displaying three Viking ships, all of which were used for ship burials of great personages. The loveliest of them, the Oseberg ship, was a pleasure craft; the other two were workaday, sea-going vessels, not as beautifully decorated, but equally graceful. (The Oseberg ship was the burial place of two high-ranking women; the other two ships were from men's burials.)
The ships, which were badly smashed up from being buried, have been reconstructed, although largely with the original timbers. Each sits alone in a simple white arched hall, which sets off the graceful shape and dark wood. My response to these three ships was much like my response to some of the bridges we saw out in the islands: these are perfect human artifacts!
Another hall displays some of the grave goods found with the ships. The wooden carts and sledges were fascinating, intricately carved with intertwining animals in the Viking manner. There were also kitchen utensils, clothing, tools, and many other things these powerful people would need in the afterlife. One sensed that only the most exquisite items had been selected for display. The displays were not extensive, but they were glorious. The wonderfully carved wooden implements and furnishings were unforgettable. I was also astonished by a beautiful yew bucket with brass fittings decorated with two small Buddha figures.
From the ship museum we walked to the nearby Folk Museum. This is an extensive area of wooded hills among which are set buildings from all eras of Norwegian history. (The most recent is a mid-20th-Century telephone booth.) The buildings have been moved here from all over the country, from both rural areas and towns. Even the simplest seem to have been chosen for their unusual beauty. We walked through elegant town squares and a farm with sod-covered wooden buildings that made me think, "This is Kristin's farm!" (Few of the farm buildings actually date back to Kristin's era (early 14th Century), but the styles seem to have changed little over time.) Everywhere, the wooden buildings were lovingly decorated with carvings.
We'd come here particularly to see the stave church from Gol, which is from about 1200, even earlier than Kristin. (In my own personal time scale, Kristin's beloved stave church was destroyed by a fire last night, which heightened the poignancy of this building, but I'd been looking forward to seeing it ever since we began planning this trip.)
The little guide to stave churches I got back in Narvik says this:
The method of construction has given these buildings their name. The vertical staves are a key structural element. A stave-built structure consists of a framework of sills, poles, and wall plates. Wall planks are fitted into the framework and function as bracing "discs".I doubt that helps much, however. If you don't know stave churches, think of a wedding cake frosted with small diamond-shaped wood shingles, with dragons on top.
The first stave churches were built beginning around 1000 AD when Norway was converted to Christianity. There is speculation that the design derived to some extent from earlier pagan temples. That generation of buildings lasted only about 100 years, because their posts were set into the ground and rapidly deteriorated. This problem was corrected in the second generation of stave churches, starting around 1100, with staves and planks fitted into ground sills, raising the walls above ground level to inhibit rotting. A few of those buildings survive today (although some of the surviving buildings have suffered from "improvements" over the centuries). It is estimated that nearly 2000 stave churches were built; there are 28 today.
When we found the church atop its wooded hill, we had it all to ourselves in the light rain. We sat on a bench and looked at it for a long time before going in. Its builders, like those of many of the other early stave churches, hadn't hesitated to carve "pagan" designs on this church, in the Viking style. It is really lovely! (The stave church at Urnes (ca. 1130), which we won't see on this trip, has glorious carvings from an even earlier church (ca. 1050). Because of those carvings, art historians call the last period of Viking art the "Urnes style".)
When we went in, I was surprised at how dark the interior is. There are no windows at all. Once our eyes had adjusted to the candlelight (no wonder so many of the churches have burned down), we could see that the interior was also beautifully carved.
A tour group came along, so we went back outside to gaze and photograph. After a while, I wandered off to a little farm building nearby that is dated ca. 1300. It was also of stave construction and had a beautifully carved door. A (Winter) Wren distracted me from the carvings, as it perched on a low branch nearby and sang its delightful song.
After a while we left the church and wandered through more of the exhibits, including a good collection of Sami crafts, mostly clothing and tools. When we asked about Sami crafts at the information desk, we were told that there is an informal market at the museum on Sundays. We won't be in Oslo then, unfortunately.
After leaving the folk museum, we walked down to the water's edge through a neighborhood of beautiful old houses with pleasant gardens. We had a while to wait for the ferry, so we grabbed a quick lunch at a waterside cafe. The sparrows were so bold that they actually took bites out of the food on our plates! We also watched two families of Graylag (I think) Geese swimming by.
Taking the ferry back across the harbor was a good idea, especially as it gave us a close view of the ancient fort atop a promontory at the entrance to the harbor.
We walked back to the hotel to rest for a while and then walked through another park to a sweater shop where I selected a blue cardigan for my mother, a ski cap for Sandra, and two more sweaters for me. We walked home another way, past the National Gallery. There were so many roses blooming in its gardens that the fragrance reached us on the sidewalk.
Back in the hotel, we read for a while before dinner. When Lee suggested we go out, I almost asked him to wait, because I was in the middle of Kristin's first childbirth and was afraid she was going to die. Then, I considered the fact that I was on page 342 of 1047 and concluded that it was unlikely the heroine would die 700 pages before the end of the book, so I put the book down and went out without complaint.
We had been planning to eat at another open-air restaurant in a nearby plaza, but I decided it was too hot to sit in the sun. (The sun had come back out and the streets were full of people enjoying the lovely evening.) We looked around and found a good Chinese restaurant, where we treated ourselves to Peking Duck.
On the way back to the hotel, we stopped to buy chocolate muffins for breakfast and hazelnut chocolate ice cream cones to enjoy while walking back among the throngs on the sidewalks.
The hill country round them lay in sparkling sunshine--the mosses were red already, and the knolls yellow as gold with the birch copses; out on the upland wastes, tarns glittered and grew dark again, as the shadows of the great shining fair-weather clouds floated across them. They kept rolling up unceasingly, and sank down over the distant clefts and glens, amidst all the grey-stone peaks, and blue mountains with combs of new snow, and old snow-fields, that lay around as far as the eye could reach.The train rose gradually to the highest point in the Norwegian railroad system, 1222 meters. By then we were up among those grey-stone peaks with their snow-fields, and the train was spending much of its time going through tunnels and hiding under snow-sheds. There was still quite a lot of snow and the streams were really roaring. We had a view across a half-frozen lake to the edge of a glacier, two of its lobes flowing toward us around the sides of a small mountain.
Because of a power failure and signal problems, we were more than two hours late when the train reached our stop, the tiny village of Myrdal, which sits precariously at the edge of the high fells just below the snow-fields. We were almost to Myrdal when the train came out of the snow-sheds long enough for us to get a fabulous view over the edge of the fell down to the fjord almost 3,000 feet below.
Fortunately, the trip we were taking is made by many tourists in Norway, so the railroad had held the connecting train for Flam to await the arrival of the train from Oslo. As we ran across the platform from one train to the next, the photographer in the family muttered suspiciously, "These are new cars". Once we got aboard and he had confirmed that the windows open even though the cars are new, he was happy, especially as we had lots of room to look (and photograph) out either side of the car.
The trip from Myrdal to Flam is world famous. The views are beyond compare, and the track is an engineering marvel (it drops 1 foot in 18 and has many tunnels, two of which make full 360-degree turns inside the mountain).
As we travelled down the 22 kilometers of track, we had amazing views down to the green valley and the fjord below us and up to the snowy mountains above us. Dozens of waterfalls came over the edge of the fells and dropped to the valley floor, barely touching the walls on their way down. I think one would never become inured to the beauty of it all.
As we reached the narrow, flat-bottomed valley, we were once again among pretty little farms. The train passed close by a beautiful brown wooden church (dated 1667) before entering the little village of Flam.
We'd been scheduled to stop halfway down for 10 minutes and then to have a short layover in Flam, but the stop on the way down was cancelled and we were lucky that the ferry waited in Flam long enough for us to run from the train station and jump on board before it continued its run along the fjord.
It was quite a large ferry with comfortable seating and big windows. I was glad to find us two seats right behind the windows that looked through to where the captain was steering the boat and beyond to the view along the fjord. Lee stood out on the deck photographing until the rain got too heavy and then joined me to watch the scenes as the ferry continued along the fjord, stopping at little villages along the way.
We admired the imperturbable purser straightening out the problems of the folks who'd run from the train to the ferry and ended up on the wrong ferry (there'd been three waiting in Flam). He smoothly calmed them and then put them off at the next village where they could catch a ferry going the right direction.
Villages clung to the bottom of the steep mountains wherever there was a patch of arable soil at the fjord's edge. When one had a view that took in the entire scene from the fjord to a mountain top, one's mind refused to accept the scale and decided that those houses at the bottom must be doll's houses.
I thought we'd seen lots of waterfalls before, but now we saw myriads.
Riding along the beautiful fjord, I giggled when I realized that these are the fjords Slartibartfast designed (in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy):
"Perhaps I'm old and tired," he continued, "but I always think that the chances of finding out what really is going on are so absurdly remote that the only thing to do is hang the sense of it and just keep yourself occupied. Look at me: I design coastlines. I got an award for Norway."The purser told us when we were passing above the deepest point in the fjord (almost a mile). The trip continued for about 5 hours with wonderful scenery the entire way. Lee had seen many puffins when he took this trip before; this time we each spotted a single puffin flying along.
He rummaged around in a pile of debris and pulled out a large Plexiglas block with his name on it and a model of Norway molded into it.
"Where's the sense in that?" he said. "None that I've been able to make out. I've been doing fjords all my life. For a fleeting moment they become fashionable and I get a major award."
He turned it over in his hands with a shrug and tossed it aside carelessly, but not so carelessly that it didn't land on something soft.
"In this replacement Earth we're building they've given me Africa to do and of course I'm doing it with all fjords again because I happen to think that they give a lovely baroque feel to a continent. And they tell me it's not equatorial enough. Equatorial!" He gave a hollow laugh. "What does it matter? Science has achieved some wonderful things, of course, but I'd far rather be happy than right any day."
"And are you?"
"No. That's where it falls down, of course."
We'd been travelling for a few hours when the purser came over to Lee and asked him if he could help them out. The officers needed to know the monetary unit used in Israel. Lee suggested "shekel" and the purser smiled and said that that would fit--the officers were working a crossword puzzle.
We'd been told that the boat would "follow the coast" once it got out of the fjord but we never reached open water. Instead, we threaded our way among thousands of little islands along the coast. (There was a good video display plotting our route on a map.) We were never out of sight of land in any direction, and sometimes we wondered whether such a large boat was going to be able to squeeze through such a narrow channel. Most of the islands we squeezed past were bare of habitation, though some seemed to be sheep pasture. There was a moment of dischord when one of the more isolated islands displayed a full-fledged oil refinery out among all the beautiful wilderness.
Around 9pm we began seeing expensive-looking houses perched among the cliffs of the steep rocky coast. As we went further, the houses became more closely spaced. We had reached Bergen.
"Welcome to the most beautiful place in the world!" said the purser.
I could understand his claim. Bergen is very, very lovely, with its colorful wooden houses clinging to the lower parts of seven mountains rising up from the beautiful fjord. The red tile roofs glistened in the rain.
I was so fascinated by the view out the left side of the boat that I didn't notice until we had docked that more of the city could be seen out the right side. Out the left, we had passed the promontory of Bergenhus, with its grey stone buildings and fortifications built by Norway's early kings, and then Bryggen, the wharf district where merchants of the Hanseatic League had a self-governing community for four hundred years during the Middle Ages. (The wooden buildings of Bryggen abut one another, with their high-peaked gables facing the fjord, like a row of Monopoly hotels, but painted yellow or white or red or ochre.)
We soon caught a taxi to our hotel, which is tucked behind some of the old buildings of Bryggen and echoes their peaked roofs. We have had a long day, full of beauty, and we are ready for bed.
Bergenhus, the royal and ecclesiastical center from the Middle Ages, is very near our hotel, so we headed there first. When one approaches Bergenhus from that direction, the dominant building is the Rosenkrantz Tower, grey stone with a Renaissance facade, topped by an onion dome of copper patina. When one sees the Rosenkrantz Tower from the fjord, however, it shows quite a different face. That part of it was built in the middle of the 13th Century by the benevolent King Magnus Lagabote ("the law-mender") as a keep or fortress. (It has a very commanding position overlooking the entrance to the harbor.) In the 1560's, the royal governor, Erik Rosenkrantz, incorporated Magnus's keep into his new residence.
The Rosenkrantz Tower was open despite the early hour, so we wandered through its winding stone passages and stairways trying to imagine the furnishings the rooms must have had originally. (These stout old walls were left standing after the explosion of a German munitions ship in the harbor in 1944 that flattened much of the rest of town.)
We explored Bergenhus further, tracing the lines of ancient buildings and fortifications. As we walked through the gentle rain, we could hear church bells ringing all around the harbor below us.
The other important building still standing on Bergenhus is Hakon's Hall, grey stone with a copper roof, built by Magnus's father Hakon Hakonsson (reigned 1217-1263) to celebrate Magnus's wedding and coronation in 1261. (Hakon had Magnus crowned as his co-monarch at the time of his wedding to assure continuity of the line, so Magnus reigned from 1261 to 1280.) The Great Hall is still used for concerts and important gatherings; unfortunately it was not open so early on Sunday morning, so we didn't get to see the grand medieval banqueting hall.
Exploring some more, we found a monument marking the site of an early medieval church dedicated to Norway's St. Sunniva. On the monument was a list of kings who were crowned there, including some whose names I knew from Kristin.
Before we left Bergenhus, we bought a CD of a concert held in Hakon's Hall that includes a performance of a song written to celebrate the wedding in 1281 of Magnus's son, Eirik (reigned 1280-1299) to Margaret, the daughter of King Alexander of Scotland. (Margaret lived not quite two more years; their daughter Margaret grew up to be the "Maid of Norway" who died in the Orkneys in 1290 on her way to be received as the heiress to the Scottish throne.)
From Bergenhus, we turned back toward the city and walked to the Mariakirken, Bergen's oldest surviving building, a stately 12th-Century church with two square towers in the front. Services were just starting, so we didn't go in. I smiled to see a proud young mother standing at the church door greeting people and introducing them to her infant daughter, who was dressed in a long white christening gown with pink ribbons.
We strolled through more of the city, along hilly streets paved with stone blocks and lined with brightly painted houses. This is definitely the loveliest of all the cities we've visited in Scandinavia. It is full of flowers and architectural whimsies and is clearly much cherished by its residents.
We were soon at the base station of the Floibanen, the funicular railroad that climbs to the summit of Mount Floyen. We had decided to take the ride up the mountain despite the fog. When the train came, we managed to get a seat in the very front in the hope of a view. The train started out in a tunnel but soon surfaced. The view, however, was simply some beautiful plantings (mostly rhododendrons and roses) within a tunnel of fog.
It became clear that this railroad is not just a tourist attraction; there are several stops on the way to the summit where people got on or off at residential streets. In fact, there was a sign stating that the highest row of seats is reserved for kindergardners at the beginning and end of the school day.
When we got to the top, we looked over the edge and could just make out that there was a city down there. I didn't envy the gardeners who were responsible for the flower gardens at the top. They'd done a very nice job, but many of the plants were wind-burned nevertheless.
There is a pleasant restaurant on the summit, so we decided to have lunch (quiche and salad, ending with a fruit tart for me and an almond torte for Lee).
When we came out of the restaurant, there was so much fog that it was no longer clear that there was a city at the bottom of the hill. We went into the little shop for a few minutes, bought a couple of books, came out, looked downhill again, and were delighted to find that the fog had lifted completely and there was a marvelous view of the city and the fjord. We had about ten minutes to pick out the lake by the museum we were headed to next and the towers of the Domkirke (the cathedral) and the Mariakirken and to notice the boats in the harbor and coming along the fjord. Then we rode back down on the funicular, standing in the front row and getting a great view all the way down.
We walked through more wonderful streets to the Bergen Museum of Art and made our way through another travelling tivoli that was setting up beside the lake in front of the museum. The museum houses the Stenersen Collection, 248 works of art donated by a noted Norwegian collector, including some very good works by Picasso, Klee, and Munch. It was well worth the visit.
Leaving the museum, we walked back through a wide central plaza and stopped to listen to a Peruvian folk group playing wooden flutes and drums. Going further along the plaza, we stopped to listen to a brass quintet from Russia playing Mozart. I was delighted that we could buy CDs from both groups; civilization has been enhanced, in my view, now that musicians can self-publish so cheaply.
The gardens around the museum (and the planters in the plaza and the front yards of many of the houses we passed) held masses of tuberose begonias in all their extraordinary colors. Knowing how delicate these plants are, it was hard to imagine that the climate here could be so mild that one could simply plant them in masses out in the open. They were really lovely!
The fish market at the head of the harbor is said to be one of the more memorable sights in Bergen, but it isn't open on Sunday, so we walked through that area to Bryggen, the old Hanseatic offices and wharves.
As I mentioned yesterday, the buildings of Bryggen all present a peaked gable to the fjord, but walking there now we could see that behind each of the houses lining the wharf is a row of houses (with no spaces between them) going back from the wharf. Between the rows are narrow wooden alleys. These buildings are the "tenements" of Bryggen. They have existed from the earliest days of Bergen and were later rented and then purchased by the Hanseatic merchants to house their wares and staffs. (Well, of course, they've burned down and been rebuilt repeatedly.) Now, they are mostly shops catering to tourists.
Which brings me to trolls. I've not mentioned trolls the entire time we've been in Norway, because I've been trying to pretend that Norway isn't saturated with trolls, but in Bergen they are unavoidable. It wasn't until I watched a little boy of 6 or 7 approach one of the troll figures standing in front of a shop in Bryggen that I realized that there might be anybody who thought the trolls were a good thing. He went up to the troll, which was just his size, touched its long pointy nose, and let out a belly laugh.
I was averting my eyes not only from the trolls but from the contents of the shop windows, as I knew this was the sort of place where I could spend altogether too much money. I did want to see if we could find some nice Christmas tree ornaments (a long-time weakness), so we climbed up some steep and extremely slanted stairs to a Christmas shop. Luckily, I didn't find much I wanted but did get a few small wooden ornaments for Sandra and me.
Going further, I was incautious and let my eyes be caught by a display of stunning amber jewelry in another shop window. Lee urged me to go in, but I resisted, and we headed on to the Bryggen Museum, which is right next to our hotel.
The museum is built over an archaeological site. Part of its basement has no floor, so that one can see the remains of early buildings in situ. The rest of the museum displays objects found during digs in Bryggen. I was much struck by an early business letter, a strip of wood carved with runes. (Hundreds of runic texts have been found in Bryggen, containing everything from Latin and Norse poetry to mundane goods labels.) I was interested to see the drawings of Bryggen over time, showing the edge of the fjord gradually being filled in and the towers of the Mariakirken being made taller. One diagram showed the property lines in one strip of Bryggen during the 12th Century and from the same area today. Even though buildings have burned and been replaced, the boundaries have stayed much the same over the centuries.
Unfortunately, the Mariakirken was locked tight by the time we got back to it. That was a pity, as it is said to have wonderful works of art; the Hansa merchants treated it as their parish church, and many of them left large endowments for it in their wills.
Exhausted, we returned to our hotel for a nap. When we woke, Lee went out exploring some more while I read. When he returned, he told me that the amber shop was still open and that I should go look at it, but I still resisted.
We had dinner in an excellent tapas bar. Every dish was delicious, but we particularly liked the marinated aubergine stuffed with walnuts.
From dinner, we rushed to the Domkirke for a concert. (Bergen is such a musical city that we had our choice of three concerts this evening; one of the alternatives was a Grieg concert at Grieg's summer home, Troll Hill (Troldhaugen).) We chose the Domkirke concert because it was easier to get to and because we wanted to hear the organ. A good mezzosoprano sang folksongs and Bach and Dvorak and Brahms, and we enjoyed it thoroughly. Despite the hour, we still had bright daylight, so the stained glass windows of the Domkirke added to our pleasure.
(The Domkirke has existed for 900 years in one form or another. Magnus Lagabote is said to be buried here and to have given generous donations for improving its buildings.)
We walked back once more through the pretty residential streets. Every prospect here delights! I am sad that we will leave in the morning.
I've been reading a book we got at the museum this afternoon that discusses the early days of the Hansa in Bergen:
In the summer of 1186 the importation of German wine created disturbances in Bergen. Excessive drinking led to fights in which people were killed. Shortly afterwards, King Sverre summoned natives and foreigners to a town assembly or "thing" to deliver one of his most famous public addresses. According to his near-contemporary biography, the Sverris Saga, he spoke as follows:We want to thank all Englishmen who have arrived here, bringing with them wheat and honey, flour or cloth. We also want to thank all those men who have brought here linen or flax, wax or cauldrons. We would also like to mention those who have come from the Orkneys, Shetlands, Faroe Islands or Iceland and all those who have brought to this country such things as it could hardly do without and are for the best of the country. But as to the Germans--who have arrived here in large numbers and with large ships, and intend to take away butter and cod to the detriment of the country, and bring in return wine that people go in for buying, both my men and the townsmen or merchants--their trade has brought much evil and nothing good.
It was a bright sunny morning, with no wind. Once the train got out of the tunnel that it uses to go from Bergen to beyond the surrounding mountains, we had lovely views of still lakes reflecting the mountains towering above them. When the train stopped in Myrdal, we caught a glimpse of the little Flam train disappearing over the edge of the fell. Because of the clearer weather, we got a much better look at the glacier this time.
The trip passed pleasantly. (I'm now reading the third volume of Kristin.) We had lunch in the dining car, the same nice salmon and pasta dish we had a few days ago. (The menu on the Norwegian trains seems never to change, but I've learned to be relieved when they actually have the salmon dish, rather than nothing but hot dogs again.)
We arrived in Oslo in the middle of the afternoon. The streets and parks were full of people enjoying the hot sunny day.
We checked into the same hotel. This time we were given a room overlooking the park and the parliament. Lee was pleased to discover that the big window facing the park had a huge round awning that he could unfurl. Nobody had ever let him play with one of those before.
That done, he went off to raid the nearby music store and returned after a while with a stack of folk-music CDs.
Then the two of us grabbed a taxi to go to Vigeland Park, one of Oslo's "must see" attractions. How do I describe it? What comes to mind is: hundreds of sculptures, thousands of rosebushes.
In 1921, Gustav Vigeland gave all of his works to the city of Oslo, in return for which they gave him a house and studio and this 80-acre park to decorate. He worked on the project continuously until his death in 1943. The park contains 212 of his sculptures, in bronze, granite, and wrought iron. It is a very lovely place, with gates, fountains, lakes, paths, all designed by Vigeland and ornamented with his works.
It is overwhelming. One would need a long time to get to know it. By the time we left, I was definitely in sensory overload.
The most well-known sculpture (sometimes used as a symbol for Oslo) is the Sinnataggen (Hothead), a bronze of a very angry little boy (barely old enough to walk), stomping off nude, fists clenched, and crying tears of rage. It is one of dozens of bronze sculptures lining either side of the bridge across the lake. The others are also nudes, of men, women, and children playing together, walking, talking, loving, fighting. As it turned out, after we left the park, we realized we'd never actually seen Sinnataggen (one couldn't begin to see everything). I'd seen what I think was a reproduction in a fountain by the Art Museum in Bergen yesterday but had failed to point it out to Lee.
I think my two favorites were a granite sculpture of a woman being nuzzled affectionately by a Grendel figure standing behind her and the bronze of a full-term foetus standing on its head in the birth position waiting to be born.
I also liked the wrought iron figures of humans and animals in the massive gates, especially the lizard-like creatures that seem to be struggling to escape from their wrought-iron shackles. Another I liked was a bronze on the fountain of Death (a skeleton) parting a man and woman who are embracing one another.
The centerpiece of the park is the Monolith Plateau, which I found to be too much to take in (probably because I wilt very quickly when I'm out in the sun). The monolith is a 17-meter granite obelisk carved with 121 nude human figures (all about 3 times life-size) who seem to be struggling to reach the top. It is surrounded by three dozen other granite sculptures, most of them groups of several people.
The approach to the plateau has a huge rose garden, with the bushes planted in masses of the same color, all in full bloom.
There were fewer birds in the park than I had hoped, but we did get close looks at Graylag Geese, enough to feel confident of the identification. The only new bird for the trip was a pair of Tufted Ducks.
We took the trolley back and I was amused to notice that we went right through that fountain I spotted a few days ago. We got out to walk through the park at the royal residence on our way back to the sweater shop to buy hand-knitted sweaters for the two of our nephews who live in climates where a heavy Norwegian sweater would be useful.
We walked on to a Tandoori restaurant near our hotel and had a very good dinner. Now we're back in our room and have finished the tally of purchases for Customs. We fly home in the morning.
Love to you all,