fjaerland

Over the past few years, my father, James, and I have taken a few days to explore the Western Isles each time I return home to Scotland. Drawing on his experience as a landscape photographer, this year we cast our net wider by venturing to Norway. With Scandinavian heritage and a rose-tinted view of life in the darkest reaches of the northern hemisphere, my expectations are high.

With the intention of exploring the western coastline, we begin our drive in Oslo. A powerful wind sweeps through the city on the day we arrive, but that doesn’t stop the paddle-boarders and swimmers beneath Astrup Fearnley Museum. As we step into their private collection for a glimpse of Damien Hirst’s butterflies, the cerulean depths linger only a few metres below. It’s difficult to imagine a more captivating space for contemporary art.

A few hours later, I am entranced by the sight of the Oslo Opera House, submerged in the tidal Bjørvika peninsula like a beautiful shipwreck. You can lie across 18,000 square metres of Italian “La Facciata” marble to feel the warmth of the sun and watch athletic Norwegians diving from floating sauna huts into the waves. Designed by Snøhetta, the architecture blends with the environment as the glass reflects the impetuous mood of the skies above.

Once our appetite for culture is satiated, Vippa is the place to eat. A disused sugar warehouse at the edge of Vippetangen has been converted into a food market where you’ll find fresh Syrian shawarma, Peruvian ceviche, and everything in between. It’s a gathering place for the community where graffiti artists, musicians and chefs have created a joyful, inclusive atmosphere. From the salt shakers up, they don’t compromise on detail.

The following morning, we drive for five hours to the iconic Stegastein viewpoint, which juts out 30 metres from the mountain and overlooks both the opalescent Aurlandsvangen and Aurlandsfjord 650 metres below. The design by Todd Saunders and Tommie Wilhelmsen was commissioned by the Norwegian Highway Department in an effort to establish tourist routes. The sight is breathtaking – a brave work of architecture aligned with nature.

Continuing on our journey to Fjærland in Sogndal the roads become more challenging. As well as Sufjan Stevens and Michael Kiwanuka, we listen to our friend Charlie Gladstone’s Maverick podcast. A poignant line is: “kindness is a competitive advantage” – and that’s exactly the Norwegian approach to hospitality. At the peaceful Fjærland Fjordstove Hotel we smell rye bread baking in the early hours and every reading corner overlooks the emerald fjord with copies of nautical charts and Norwegian folktales within reach.

We borrow bikes, which they had repaired for us, and discover community libraries charmingly built into road signs and telephone boxes. Likewise, honesty boxes contain organic vegetables and so the love-thy-neighbour culture of Fjærland continues to enchant us. This feels all the more profound when exploring the striking Norwegian Glacier Museum, which was designed by Sverre Fehn. The devastating effects of climate change on their neighbouring Jostedalsbreen glacier are a haunting reminder of dark times ahead.

As our journey takes us further up the coast, I fall in and out of sleep and am disorientated when we arrive at Refviksanden beach. It looks like the Isle of Skye, but the water is turquoise and the sand is as white as snow. The landscapes aren’t wildly dissimilar from Scotland – they are simply wilder. We unwrap yet more rye bread and smoked salmon, our skin glowing as we inhale the clean air beneath the windswept cliffs.

Our last stop is Sagafjord, where we spend a peaceful afternoon on the deck. I re-read The Serious Game, a romance by Hjalmar Söderberg set in Sweden, which first evoked the lure of Scandinavian life. That was combined with a series of WB Yeats poems such as The Lake Isle of Innisfree, which inspired a closer interest in cabins. Again, we ride bicycles along the fjord and observe local fisherman at work on the water. A spectral bloom of jellyfish is a reminder that most of the 1,190 fjords in Norway are connected to the ocean.

The Sagafjord Hotel may lack Scandi charm, but it is undeniably functional. As with everywhere we stay, the hotel is on the water, and I fall asleep beneath the silvery lilacs of a pearly, nocturnal sky. I can always remember my dreams, but tonight there is a lucidity which the Norwegian air and the mysticism of near-perpetual daylight seem to create over the course of our journey.

A wild Scottish upbringing has left me torn between the intrigue of urban life and a longing to return to nature. Until now, I’ve struggled with a sense of imbalance, but Norway offers a compromise. Their emphasis on community, design and sustainability complements a beautiful environment, which is as stimulating as it is challenging. I had imagined expansive landscapes and therefore expansive thinking and was grateful to find that we did make time for the meaningful conversations, which can be forgotten in everyday life.

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