Folktales And Fjords In Western Norway

Folktales And Fjords In Western Norway

Tackling trolls and hairpin bends, Kate Hamilton journeyed across western Norway with Magnum photographer Jonas Bendiksen for SUITCASE Volume 17

“Fairytales are a way of explaining the world around you,” says
Jonas, as we trudge up the heathery hillside of Dovrefjell National
Park. “So if children ask why the mountains are shaped in such a
way, you can blame it on the trolls.” It is mid-morning in the
first week of October, and the sun is just beginning to stretch its
legs following a minus ten-degree start. Scrambling through craggy
rocks covered in lime-green lichen, and with the added possibility
of bumping into a muskox (the modern-day answer to the prehistoric
woolly mammoth), it is certainly a landscape that requires some

This is the beginning of my journey around western Norway with
Jonas Bendiksen, a Norwegian Magnum photographer who has been
commissioned by Land Rover to document some of the country’s most
remarkable vistas. With dense, evergreen forests, towering
snow-capped peaks and deep-blue fjords, the landscapes of Norway
look as though they’ve been torn out of the pages of an illustrated
children’s book.

But Jonas is hoping to capture something other than the
country’s beauty. Making use of the off-road expertise of a Range
Rover Autobiography, he wants to reflect the scale of the panoramas
we pass, as well as the integrated relationship that he has with
nature. Much of his life’s work has engaged with the theme of human
isolation, and this feeds his desire to document terrain that is
both rugged and remote. Jonas says: “For me, photography isn’t just
about capturing images; it’s an excuse to be interacting with the
elements – to have purpose.”

Our starting point is Dovrefjell, a mountainous region
associated with Nordic folklore and romanticised versions of
national identity. The poetry of Henrik Ibsen and the music of
composer Edvard Grieg celebrate the mystic qualities of this land,
and the founding fathers of the Norwegian constitution agreed in
1814 to remain under oath “until the fall of Dovre”.

The land is also home to Europe’s last wild reindeer herds, and
the Norwegian Wild Reindeer Pavilion has been built to observe
them. This lookout point lies at the end of trail I am walking
along with Jonas. A rectangular cabin, its rippled timber exterior
echoes the curves of the surrounding alpine peaks. Inside there are
tiered timber benches opposite a glass-panelled wall through which
a panorama of the Dovre Mountains floods in.

The range’s tallest peak is named Snøhetta – meaning
“snow-capped” in Norwegian – a translation that seems especially
relevant today, just after the first snow of winter has fallen.
(Snøhetta is also the name of the architectural firm that designed
the lookout as well as Oslo’s iconic Opera House.) I take a seat
and warm up by a floating, wood-burning fireplace, while Jonas
rounds the structure on the outside and turns his lens to the glass
wall itself, using it as a mirror to project the landscape back
towards him.

That afternoon, we carve through alpine valleys, the scenery
rushing past the window in watery streaks of blue and green. We
pause to take photographs beside a glacial river, and then refuel
at a petrol station with a gift shop selling toy trolls. Jonas
tells me that there was a revival in patriotism after Norway won
independence from Denmark in 1814, and part of that process
involved collecting Nordic folktales, in which trolls play a big
part. One such story says that when the creatures are hit by
sunlight, they instantly turn to stone, becoming part of the rocky
terrain around them. With twisted features and scaly skin, the
gruesome figures remain an important symbol of national identity

And so we arrive at Trollstigen (or “troll’s ladder”), a
spiralling mountain pass in the Rauma municipality that clings to
the rock face as it slides around 11 hairpin bends. Jonas shows me
a video of the road being cleared on the first day of spring after
winter’s snow. I zip up my coat a little further.

Our vehicle nips up the passage and we stop at the top of the
valley, where a number of viewing points allow for an outlook over
the feat of engineering below. I pick a couple of wild blueberries,
and before I can even entertain the thought of accidentally
poisoning myself, Jonas has popped a handful in his mouth.

The troll’s ladder looks at home in the valley, reflecting the
form of the Rauma River that runs alongside it. Like the reindeer
lookout and its understated, integrated design, the road seems to
resonate with its natural surroundings. I struggle to capture the
scale of the site with a photograph on my phone, and Jonas is
feeling it too. He says, thoughtfully: “It’s really about acting on
instinct and trying to capture the scale of things.”

As the evening begins to draw in, I leave Jonas at the lookout,
where he plans to photograph the Range Rover’s headlights as it
curves around the bends, leaving luminous trails along the road
behind it. On the way to our hotel for the night I think about
Jonas’s efforts to integrate himself with the landscape; to use
photography – like a fairytale of sorts – to make sense of the
world around him.

Cocooned in a down-filled duvet, the next morning I wake in the
blue light of morning to the sound of water rushing below me.
Blinking brings my surrounding into focus: there is a silver birch
forest moving with the wind through a glass-fronted wall at the
foot of my bed. I am grateful to have slept at all. Juvet Landscape
Hotel was the setting for the 2015 sci-fi thriller Ex Machina, and
before drifting off I had visions of being kidnapped by a murderous
robot. (I think I’d prefer a troll.) Eventually I had settled, even
opening up the wooden slats on the side of my cabin to let the
mountain air in.

I leave my room and set out to breakfast. The morning is crisp
with frost and the kind of air you want to breathe in and crunch
between your teeth. Over eggs, pickled herring and slices of sweet
brunost cheese, I chat with Juvet’s manager Nina. We sit in the
main house, which dates back to 1880, and is decked out with
Falun-red walls, dark-wood beams and lace-trimmed lamps,
channelling a Scandinavian ski-chalet feel. She explains that while
the hotel is only in its sixth season, people have been farming the
land here for over 500 years, and Juvet remains integrated with the
local farming community today. “We could have grown our own
vegetables, but there are people here who have been doing it for
decades, so it makes more sense to support them,” Nina says. And
the food makes a lot of sense indeed. Each night guests sit down at
a long communal table in the main house to a locally sourced feast,
which can include home-smoked trout, Jerusalem artichoke soup and
roast lamb with turnips, followed by poached pears with spruce
syrup and raw dairy ice cream.

That afternoon, Jonas and I make our way from Juvet to the
village of Geiranger, edging between variegated mountain slopes –
both autumnal and evergreen – as we go. From the Dalsnibba
viewpoint, the Geirangerfjord looks almost Jurassic in its raw,
unadulterated beauty. Thunderous waterfalls cast streams of
shimmering liquid from near-vertical mountain slopes towards the
depths of the fjord, creating gossamer veils of mist that glint
with rainbows in the light. A passenger liner slices across the
fjord’s shadowy surface – here, even this cruise ship looks quite
beautiful. On our descent we stop off at Lake Eidsvatnet, a smooth,
glassy body of water that reflects a perfect mirror-image of the
towering peaks above. It seems as though nature, in the act of
flawlessly depicting itself, is poking fun at our human efforts to
capture it.

In the evening we move on to our final stop, Ålesund, a port
town renowned for its Art Nouveau architecture. It has been named
the most beautiful town in the country by The Times. There’s no
doubt that its colourful harbour cafés are pretty, but it somehow
feels flat in comparison to the sweeping majesty of the fjords and
mountains that we captured earlier that day.

Jonas suggests that we walk the 418 steps up the Fjellstua
viewpoint on Mount Aksla in order to view Ålesund from above. And
here the port comes into its own. Arranged over a series of inlets
in the Atlantic Ocean, the twinkling town and surrounding mountains
emerge from the water like a pod of whales breaching the surface
for air.

So embedded in its surroundings, Ålesund is a reflection of the
integrated relationship with nature that Jonas has tried to capture
throughout the trip. And it is nature – along with the architecture
that echoes it, the food that champions it and the people that
respect it – that is Norway’s true modern-day fairytale

Discover More
A Very Scottish Road Trip