Sleepless Nights in the Norwegian Venice
Updated: Apr 12, 2018
I have never felt concern or stress over the thought of solo travel. I've been traveling the world, solo or with friends, since I was 16. So when a notice for deeply discounted off-season flights to Norway dropped in my mailbox I made a cursory invite to a few travel-mates. It became quickly apparent that no one was available so I booked a ticket for myself and began planning. In summer, Norway is the perfect road trip destination. The infrastructure is vast and well-documented. The days are long and English is prevalent. In the Norwegian winter though, the situation can be very different. I’d learned to expect short days, long, cold nights, and limited travel amenities. My hope was to drive far north which meant uncertainty in the weather and possible road closures. I took the chance anyway.
Landing in Scandinavia is like disembarking into an Ikea. The buildings are clean and modern; simple yet refined. Everyone is blonde, fit, and well dressed. I rented my European compact and began the drive north. My day’s destination was Alesund, a coastal archipelago town at the mouth of two conjoining fjords 5 hours north of Oslo - Think Venice, only colder and without gondolas. The drive was beautiful; miles of winding roads, sweeping vistas, and long underground mountain impasses.
In a brief and metaphorical diversion: En route I took an hour detour to explore Lillehammer, the site of the 1994 Winter Olympic Games. In light of the extravagance of contemporary Olympics it’s hard to believe there was a time that an unassuming and remote town like Lillehammer could ever host the international event. One road leads in and out of the quiet lakeside village. Compare that to Sochi.
The winter sun in central Norway can set as early as 2 in the afternoon so by the time I arrived in Alesund it was well after dark. My Airbnb host was waiting for me at the door to her building and she led me upstairs to her flat. Heidi was a friendly and hospitable local in her mid-20’s who kept a clean downtown apartment with third-story views of the harbor. We took a polaroid together before she left me to get acquainted with her home. After a brief shower to wash off the travel and a change of clothes I set off for a dinner spot at Heidi’s recommendation. My seat in the corner was the right angle to watch the locals in action so I ordered a beer and sipped it in thought and silence. The night was waning when I settled my bill. The redeye flight had left me tired so I went back to the apartment and fell asleep. After some time I jumped out of bed in a haze, fully awake. Checking the clock I found it was just past 1 in the morning. Jet-lag fought hard and won that battle. Not wanting to waste time I dressed, grabbed my camera, and stepped out into the Alesund night.
The town is a collection of small islands strung together by bridges, walkways, and canals. The buildings are brightly colored and weathered by the hard North American winds. The streets were quiet and empty. At that hour with shops closed and windows dark there was nothing to do but wander and explore. I had the town to myself. The islands have harbors dotting the coast and winding roads that climb to the hilltops in the center. Cobblestone paths connect the neighborhoods in an intimate network, weaving through walled yards and past brick buildings. The hours ticked by and my feet tread on. In my previous research I had seen multiple photos of the town, all from the same angle; panoramic shots from a high vantage point. I had an hour left before the sun would start to brighten the sky. I'd determined to find that view before sunrise. Seeing as it was across town, I had a great distance and a long climb to get there. Once through the town center, the road turned sharply uphill and shrank into a footpath. I hit a few dead-ends and spooked one nocturnal dog before finding what appeared to be the right trail. The trees opened up and the view appeared; the village lights dotting the streets below and the sea spread out beyond. I had beat the sun’s arrival and I sat on the edge looking down; the locals still sleeping below unaware of my presence high above them. Over my shoulder just past the fjord’s ridge-line the sun began to brighten the sky in spectacular shades of red and blue. I sat in awe while the sky exploded in color. Gradually the lights below turned off as the locals woke to the day. Cars began to move about town and boats launched from the harbor.
That time on the overlook was a good reminder of the depth you can experience when you receive all that a destination can offer. Peaceful moments in places like these allow for mindful reflection. If I had stayed in bed through the midnight hours I could have missed out on the heartbeat of that striking moment.
With Alesund alive below I began the walk back to my car to continue the Norwegian road that laid ahead.