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  • Hi, I'm Rick Steves back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're traveling

  • in Northern Europe, where the mountains meet the sea - it's the best of Western Norway.

  • Thanks for joining us.

  • Rugged is putting it mildly when it comes to 80 percent of Norway. Historically, it

  • was a challenging place in which to live. That's why Vikings ventured south and that's

  • why so many people here chose to leave and settle in America. But today, when you explore

  • the west of Norway - with its majestic mountains and fjords - you'll find plenty of reason

  • not to leave...but to visit.

  • We start in what's called Giant's Country - Jotunheimen. High in the mountains, we'll

  • hike on Europe's biggest glacier, then descend into fjord beauty. We'll take scenic cruises,

  • see how medieval peasants lived...and where they worshipped, before enjoying Norway's

  • historic capital with its Hanseatic heritage, a little high Norwegian culture, and its rugged

  • love of life.

  • Norway is long and skinny. It stretches nearly the length of America's west coast. We'll

  • zero in on the scenic west - along the biggest of the fjords, Sognefjord, with stops in Jotunheimem,

  • the Jostedal Glacier, Solvorn, Flam, Balestrand, and Bergen.

  • This is Jotunheim or home of the giants - a high plateau that feels like the top of the

  • world. These are northern Europe's highest peaks and they're steeped in Norse legends

  • and folk lore.

  • This is the land of Thor and Odin whose spirits still inhabit the misty peaks.

  • For centuries villagers trekked across this pass to reach the coast. It was an arduous

  • journey. But, today crossing it's a pleasure. At 4,600 feet, the Sognefjell road is Norway's

  • highest pass. At this latitude, even these modest altitudes take us high above the tree

  • line with snow through the summer.

  • Norway's lunar-like mountain-scapes and deep fjords were shaped by glaciers that covered

  • most of the Continent 10,000 years ago. Europe's largest surviving glacier, Jostedal is still

  • hard at work. It covers 180 square miles and - though shrinking - is still mighty.

  • Of the many tongues of the glacier, this one - called Nigardsbreen - offers the best visit.

  • The valley comes with a quintessential glacier view. The approach includes a cruise across

  • the glacial lake. The scale is enormous and blue cliffs of ancient ice dwarf awestruck

  • visitors. Park guides lash on crampons and rope up adventurous travelers in preparation

  • for an icy hike.

  • While there are more demanding Nigardsbreen routes, I'm joining a family hike - just an

  • hour, but offering a unforgettable experience and bringing you face to face with the power

  • and majesty of nature.

  • While tentative at first, hikers soon gain confidence in their crampons as they climb

  • high onto the glacier.

  • 75 years ago, this glacier filled most of this valley. Guides teach a respect for nature

  • and any visit heightens one's awareness of the impact of climate change.

  • Rivers of ice like this carved huge valleys creating the defining feature of Norway's

  • landscape - the fjords.

  • Those glaciers - as much as a mile thick - spent eons carving up western Norway as they worked

  • their way to the sea. Slowly, they gouged u-shaped valleys that later filled with water.

  • The distance from seabed to mountaintop around here is as much as 9000 feet - nearly two

  • vertical miles. Dramatic waterfalls continue to cut into the mountains.

  • This viewpoint makes sure car hikers get out and appreciate the view. Sognefjord is Norway's

  • biggest and that's the one we're exploring. Of its many arms, the most scenic is called

  • Nærøyfjord.

  • Rain or shine, traditional ferries offer a relaxing yet thrilling fjord experience. These

  • ferries, while popular with tourists, are the lifeline of many fjord-side communities.

  • Some remote farms are connected to the outside world only by ferry. Mail is dropped and visitors

  • come and go by request.

  • And the visual highlight of this ride, Nærøyfjord is ten miles long and breathtakingly narrow

  • - as little as 800 feet wide.

  • Guide: So we ready to go? Rick: Let's go!

  • For an exhilarating alternative, we're suiting up for a much speedier tour with the Fjord

  • Safari company.

  • Survival suits keep everyone cozy and comfortable at thrillingly high speeds. Our guide, Rune,

  • knows all the interesting stops.

  • Man: Long way down. Rick: Long way down!

  • Guide: So this is what \makes this fjords in Norway so special, cause it's steep, steep

  • walls down in the fjord everywhere. And this glacier's a very big glacier. And this is

  • only a little part of the glacier so it continues 100 meters down, it's very deep there.

  • This western region is important to the people of Norway. After four centuries of Danish

  • rule, the soul of the country was nearly lost. Then with independence and a constitution

  • in the early 1800s, there was a national resurgence and people from the cities celebrated their

  • Norwegian-ness by coming here to fjord country.

  • Along with those first tourists came artists. Romantic painters and writers were inspired

  • by the mountains plunging into the fjords and by the dramatic light. Paintings romanticized

  • both the nature and the traditional folk life it fostered.

  • For a present day taste of this romanticism, I like the mellow town of Solvorn with its

  • dramatic fjord-side setting. This sleepy village, with colorful boathouses lining its waterfront,

  • seems contentedly trapped in the past.

  • Solvorn's charming Walaker Hotel harkens back to the early days of tourism. A former inn

  • and coach station, it's been in the family since 1690. And nine generations later, Ole

  • Henrik keeps the tradition alive. A charming ambiance pervades the place. Relaxing before

  • dinner, guests feel right at home in the salon.

  • Dinner, served in this genteel elegance, caps a beautiful day. The menu is modern Norwegian.

  • It's based on local ingredients - many of them pulled right out of the fjord. We're

  • starting with scallops from just off shore. On a summer evening the twilight lingers causing

  • people to do the same. Our main course is arctic char from the north of Norway. To enjoy

  • the full effect of this fjord-side setting, I take my coffee and dessert out to the porch.

  • The berries, picked right out of their garden, go perfectly with the view.

  • The most scenic train ride in all of northern Europe connects visitors from Oslo and Bergen

  • to all this wonder by climbing over the mountainous spine of Norway.

  • The Trans-Norway line, an engineering marvel when completed in 1909, was important because

  • it laced together the nation. Today tourists follow the same route with a series of efficient

  • connections enjoying a quick and easy dose of Norway's best scenery.

  • Along with a scenic boat ride up Nærøyfjord, a highlight is this little train that takes

  • travelers from the main line in the mountains steeply down to the fjords. This popular day

  • trip is nicknamed "Norway in a Nutshell."

  • Passengers savor every scenic moment. Scenes glide by like a movie. The train stops at

  • a misty waterfall. The surprise appearance of mythic Nordic water maidens titillates

  • tourists. As we descend into the fertile valley, farms appear. Finally, the train hits the

  • fjord, where passengers catch a ferry for the next leg of Norway in a Nutshell.

  • Travelers with their own wheels can dig deeper into fjord country - just like those glaciers

  • did in the last Ice Age. For me, driving in Norway can be treacherous - not because of

  • the speed or traffic - but because of the scenery...it's simply hard to keep your eyes

  • on the road. In this rugged terrain, tunnels and fjord crossings provide valuable shortcuts.

  • Little car ferries make strategic crossings, allowing even the driver to fully enjoy the

  • views.

  • And tunnels - this one's the world's longest for cars, at 15 miles - save lots of time.

  • To help drivers stay awake, there are rest chambers with colored lights mid-tunnel. Norwegians

  • are making massive infrastructure investments to link their people and industries..

  • While breath-taking scenery is everywhere you look, the history is harder to see. For

  • most of its past, Norway was extremely humble. While wealthier parts of Europe were building

  • grand churches and castles of stone, most of Norway's architecture was made of wood.

  • Fires were almost routine, and little survives from centuries past.

  • This is the wet and wild homeland of the Vikings - whose culture lasted about three centuries

  • from roughly 800 to 1100. Setting sail from here, in their tough boats, they settled Iceland,

  • Greenland, and even made it to America. And Viking raiders terrorized much of Europe for

  • generations.

  • This mound marks the grave of one of those Viking rulers. Like the Egyptians, the Vikings

  • believed in a life after death. And they believed you could take it with you. That's why when

  • graves are excavated, archeologists find everything from jewelry and weapons to cooking pots and

  • even boats.

  • The end of the Viking age with its pagan Norse gods is marked by the coming of Christianity

  • to Norway in the 12th century. Those medieval Norwegians, now tamed, took their boat-building

  • skills and rather than sleek ships to raid in, they built fine wooden churches to pray

  • in.

  • These traditional Norwegian churches are called stave churches. While there were over a thousand

  • such churches in Norway back in the 1300s, today, only a couple dozen survive. The Borgund

  • Stave Church is one of the best.

  • Stave churches were supported by stout pine poles - or "staves" - and slathered with a

  • protective coat of black tar. Wood was plentiful and cheap. While the basic design reflects

  • the simple technology of the age, more elaborate examples like this one stand as proud testaments

  • to the culture.

  • Remarkable carvings survive - evoking the pagan roots of these early Norwegian Christians.

  • Stylized dragons - reminiscent of those that once adorned Viking ships - probably functioned

  • like gargoyles - to keep evil spirits at bay.

  • This building has changed little since it was built in 1180. Interiors were stark and

  • dark with tiny windows and simple X-shaped crosses of St. Andrew. The architecture guides

  • your gaze upwards, towards heaven. The people who filled these churches often walked hours

  • to worship.

  • Many hiked from tiny hamlets formed by several farms joining together. Otternes is one such

  • farm village perched high above a fjord.

  • Today, Otternes welcomes visitors with a rare look at Norway of old. It's an evocative huddle

  • of a couple dozen weathered farm buildings - many of which date from the 1700s. The farmstead's

  • population dwindled a century ago, when - like so many Norwegians - its residents emigrated

  • to America in hopes of a better life. Still, a handful of farmers remained, eking out a

  • living here until just a generation ago.

  • Laila Kvellestad works hard to make the story of Otternes a living history.

  • Rick: So I'm curious about how this community was organized.

  • Laila: Yeah and this was four farms, four families, who lived here.

  • Rick: So why not one family here and one family there? Why four families together:

  • Laila: You know to live in this area it was very hard life. So they learned to work together

  • and learned to share the reserves so they could survive.

  • Rick: So

  • this was an active farm actually until the last generation.

  • Laila: Yes and Eilert he lived here till 1980. Rick: So there was a man named Eilert?

  • Laila: Yeah. He was the last one. Rick: Now this looks like he left it yesterday.

  • Laila: Yes. And his last wish was we should try to take care of this house almost like

  • it was when he died. Rick: And you're doing exactly that.

  • Laila: We try to do it yes.

  • Today the action's down at sea level. Ferries are a lifeline of the economy - helping both

  • locals go about their lives and visitors efficiently explore these fjords. Just across Sognefjord

  • lies Balestrand.

  • Little Balestrand is dwarfed by the mountainous scenery. With its functional harbor front

  • and inviting marina, it serves as a springboard for local adventures. It flourished in the

  • 19th century, as a resort when Romantic "Grand Tour" visitors came from far and wide to enjoy

  • its dramatic setting.

  • As a matter of fact, these simple steps were built for the German Emperor. Back before

  • WWI brought the Romantic age to a halt, Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm spent five summers communing

  • with nature right here.

  • Those glory days of early tourism still echo in the venerable Kviknes Hotel, which remains

  • the grande dame of Balestrand.

  • In its fine old dining room, the Kviknes offers a classic Norwegian smorgasbord.

  • For locals, this all-you-can-eat extravaganza is traditionally a feast enjoyed on holidays.

  • But for travelers it's an any-day-of-the-week opportunity to over-indulge in Norwegian cuisine.

  • Pace yourself with small plates through many courses. Begin with an enticing variety of

  • seafood - mackerel, eel, smoked salmon, pickled herring and more. And the selection ranges

  • from rutabagas to reindeer. It all culminates with a rich spread of local cheeses and berries.

  • Guests enjoy their coffee in the same rustic elegance that kept those first aristocratic

  • visitors coming back.

  • While the beauty of these fjords has changed little in the last century, today getting

  • around is a different story. From the heart of fjord country, the fast boat has us in

  • the biggest city in the West of Norway in just a couple hours.

  • Bergen is Norway's second city after Oslo. Situated just one sheltering island from the

  • open sea, it's long provided ships a safe port of call. It's a busy working port. It's

  • popular with cruise ships and an essential refuge when heavy winds drive in the boats

  • that serve the North Sea oil rigs. Much of Norway's current affluence is fueled by the

  • oil it drills just off shore.

  • Visitors enjoy charming cobbled streets which surround the harbor and climb the encircling

  • hills. Bergen's popular funicular rises high above the city offering commanding views.

  • Surveying the surrounding islands and fjords, it's clear why this city is known as the Gateway

  • to Fjord Country.

  • Back down at the harbor, the bustling fish market has become a food circus of eateries

  • selling fishy treats to tourists. Eager merchants provide tasty samples and they'll happily

  • assemble a plate to order.

  • This fine harbor has a long history. Seven hundred years ago, local kings established

  • Bergen as Norway's first capital. The 13th-centurykon's Hall was part of the royal residence.

  • In a city built of wood, stone buildings represented power. As in many Norwegian sights, the included

  • tour here brings meaning to an otherwise hard to appreciate attraction.

  • Guide: Welcome to thekon's Hall which is today one of the more important secular

  • buildings we actually have here in Norway from the Middle Ages. You're now standing

  • up as you can see in the main hall. I think this is also the best location where you're

  • able to appreciate actually how large this building is. And today it is by far the largest

  • secular stone building in Norway from the Middle Ages.

  • The adjacent tower dates back to the same period. It's simple design favored security

  • over comfort. It was basically four stout rooms stacked atop each other. This was the

  • chapel.

  • From the roof we enjoy a royal view.

  • Guide: For centuries this actually happened to be the tallest building in Bergen. What

  • I think the building is trying to represent today is the attempt the Norwegian kings made

  • in the 1200s to make this a political center.

  • Colorful wooden warehouses mark Bergen's touristy historic quarter. Since the 1300s, this was

  • its old German trading center - called Bryggen, or "The Wharf." Along with being home of Norway's

  • king, Bergen was a member of the mighty Hanseatic League and therefore a trading power.

  • The Hanseatic League was an alliance of cities stretching across Northern Europe from London

  • to Russia. They worked together for freer, safer, and more profitable trade in an age

  • before modern states could provide a reliable environment for business. German merchants

  • basically ran Bergen's trade for 400 years. In the 1500s, Bergen was essentially a Germanic

  • community of 2,000 workaholic merchants surrounded and supported by 5,000 Norwegians.

  • The Hanseatic Museum stands on the edge of the wharf. With creaky wooden interiors and

  • maritime hardware, it helps you envision the economy that made Bergen.

  • It was all about this fish. Cod - a form of protein that could be dried, preserved, and

  • shipped anywhere. Bergen is the place where cod from the north met traders from the rest

  • of Europe. The Norwegians were the good fishermen. The Germans were the good merchants. They

  • needed each other and Bergen is where they met.

  • Rooms upstairs - with hundred year old cod hanging from the ceilings - take you back

  • to the 1700s. It was an all-male society with strict rules and a focus on business. Because

  • of the ever-present danger of fire, it was generally cold and dark. People slept cozy-as-they-could

  • in cramped cupboard beds. While there was hardly room for company, this bunk came with

  • a pinup girl.

  • Bryggen's wooden core is made of long rows of planky warehouses leaning haphazardly across

  • narrow alleys. It's burned down and been rebuilt several times and it's now touristy and full

  • of shops and galleries. Still, strolling here, you can appreciate the heritage.

  • For a modern contrast to all this history, head for the urban heart of Bergen - which

  • has a thriving personality all its own. The main square, originally created as a fire