Sit back, ladies and gentlemen, and strap in for a blog documenting one of the prettiest places I have ever been.
I have a Norwegian friend, Martine, who I met in grad school. She moved back home to her parent's house in Ålesund after we handed our dissertations in. I have always wanted to visit Norway anyways, plus ever since getting an Instagram and seeing Ålesund on there all the time, I was positively thrilled to find myself with a friend who was from there. Thus, I arranged a visit. This blog picks up where my Oslo blog left off.
My alarm was set for 4am. I sleepily showered, and then grabbed my frozen butter out of the fridge. I didn't want to throw away what was a nearly-full container, so I figured I would bring it up to Ålesund and gift it to Martine's family (I know, I bring the most exciting "thanks for housing me!" gifts!). I caught the bus back to the airport at 4:45. I checked-in at the Norwegian Air desk and went through security, whereupon I learned that butter is forbidden in a carry-on. I sadly watched it get tossed into the trash, and then headed to my gate. It was a 7am flight, so the gate was relatively quiet as everyone was still bleary-eyed. The only interesting bit was that an airport employee was walking around with a cart full of tablets in order for people to answer a questionnaire about our airport experience. She basically just handed everyone a tablet without asking, and most people - especially at 6 in the morning - aren't especially inclined to push back. I filled mine out (all positive, Oslo has a really nice airport), handed it back, and then it was time to get on the plane.
It's only about an hour between the two cities. Oslo was rainy and cloudy, but as we moved north, the clouds parted and we were soon flying over stunning fjords. I lived on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska for a summer, so I thought I was prepared for the Norwegian fjords. But oh no, this was five times better. Which says something, because I also cannot overstate how lovely the Kenai Peninsula is. Anyways, I had the window seat (not that it would have mattered, the flight was mostly empty. I guess the Monday, 7am Olso to Ålesund route is not tremendously popular) and basically had my eager face pressed against the plastic casing of the window the entire time.
We landed a little after 8, and I texted Martine to say that I'd arrived. As I stood up, I realized that my stomach felt a little wonky. I thought I just needed to quickly get to a bathroom, so once I got into the (tiny) airport I headed to one. However, as soon as I sat down I realized it wasn't a stomach issue but rather the random pain I sometimes get in my abdomen. Less than a month earlier, I had received the news that I had an orange-sized ovarian cyst (found because I had gone in about this pain) that I needed to have surgery to remove. It was like the other times that this pain had occurred, where I had been completely fine and suddenly felt pain in my abdomen that was sometimes so severe I would be in fetal position on the floor, throwing up and blacking out. We're talking under three minutes from being fine to being on the floor. When the surgery did occur two months later, I was diagnosed with Endometriosis, which 10% of women have. But that morning, all I knew was that I had a cyst and that this pain might mean that the cyst had burst. I had medical coverage in the UK, but I did not have nor could not afford any medical coverage in Norway. So combine the pain (which thankfully was only about a six out of ten rather than nine or ten) with the panic that I might be in an emergency situation, and I went into full-blown anxiety mode. However, Martine is a friend but not someone I know well enough to have a panic attack in front of, so once I was able to stand straight I composed my face and went out to the parking lot to meet her. I mentioned that I had a slight stomachache, but that was it.
We had to stop at the grocery store on the way back to her house. Ålesund is rather small, so it was only a 15 minute drive from the airport to her neighborhood even though she lived across town. We got to the grocery store that was on the outskirts of her neighborhood, and went inside. However, between pain and anxiety I was really dizzy, so I told Martine that I was going to wait at the picnic table outside. To this day, I am proud of myself for not passing out because damn, I was close. I did end up throwing up quite a bit in the corner of the parking lot, while Martine patiently waited in the car. Finally, I was able to join her and we headed to her house. I immediately went to the guest room and crashed for three hours. When I woke up around noon, my abdomen still hurt but it was at a manageable level. That meant this was just a normal Endo episode (or what I later learned was an Endo episode. At the time, I had no idea why these pains would happen) and not my ovary contorting under the pressure of a cyst, which would have required emergency surgery. Phew.
I found Martine in her living room, and we had lunch. She was a dear in that she knew how obsessed I was with brown cheese, so she had some stocked up for me. I had never heard of the stuff before I met her, but it's a Norwegian speciality that anyone who goes the country needs to try. It's cheese, though much sweeter than most (I have a friend who calls it cheese fudge). In London, there is a splendid little Scandinavian shop near Oxford Street that sells it. I would often have it with rye crackers, and it is just amazing. Anyways, Martine had ensured that there was some in the house. They also had fresh, homemade jam in the fridge. It was a light lunch, but so refreshing and delicious, especially considering the morning I'd had.
Afterwards, we headed to the local shopping mall in order to buy some wine. Martine was going to have some girlfriends over that evening for a wine night and we needed to stock up. She had worked at a clothing store at the mall when she was younger, and a lot of the management was still working there, so we stopped in to say a quick hello on the way to the wine stop. Or, well, she did while I admired some fluffy sweaters. I'm all about fluffy sweaters.
The wine store taught me a quick lesson about Norwegian culture: I was, at the time, being quite stingy with my money as I was an unemployed grad student, and Norway is well-known for being expensive (remember the $18 ham and butter grocery store run in Oslo?). I gazed longingly at the row of German wines, as I found a couple that had been grown near my beloved Freiburg. But I bought the cheapest one I found in the shop, some Spanish something or other, and then joined Martine as she grazed the shelves looking for a good red wine, as her standards are higher than mine. I told her that I'd wanted one of the German ones but had settled for a cheap one because I didn't want to spend the money. Martine immediately swung to look at me, and said, "shhh!! You can't talk about things like that here. It's really inappropriate to talk money matters in public!" So just FYI, don't complain about the cost of one of the world's most expensive countries while you're in said country.
We headed back to her house afterwards, and lounged for a couple of hours. I admired the scenery out the window - Martine's family lives right on, and I mean right on, the sea. The dining room and living room look over the fjord and mountains. I cannot imagine what it must be like to have that be your daily scenery. I spent the entire time I was in Ålesund cooing over the nature, with the most common reaction of the locals being confusion. "It's just normal!" one of Martine's friends told me that evening.
Martine's friend Solveig came over with her dog in the late afternoon. Martine has a friendly Spanish Waterdog named Rufus, and she and Solveig often take their pups on walks through the Norwegian nature. This day, we walked to the base of the mountain that lies behind Martine's neighborhood. There was a small path that ran along the base, and we walked through the drizzle with the dogs. While clouds had rolled in as the afternoon had worn on, the beauty of the place hadn't diminished but had merely changed. Now the sharp cliffs were covered in mist, and who doesn't love mountains poking out of mist?
Our destination was Skjonghellaren, a cave that was an easy climb from the path. It's a popular destination in Ålesund, though we were the only people there at the time (I guess a drizzly October Monday afternoon isn't peak hiking time). The cave opens out to the sea, and is a popular photography destination. Solveig took a picture of Martine and I at the entrance, but I didn't get the memo that the whole point of taking a picture there is because of the cool shadows, so I just did a normal pose. I was thus relegated to photographer duty, and the two of them used their bodies to create fun pictures. This was the best one of those. Imagine how boring my pose much have looked!
We then hiked home, bade farewell to Solveig, and headed inside. Martine's family had returned from work and school at that point, and I met her mother, stepfather, and teenage sister. All three of them spoke English, because of course they did. Oh, Scandinavia. Marvelous place. Anyways, I chatted with her stepdad while her mother made dinner. It turns out he had tracked down the portion of his family that immigrated to the US in the 19th century, and their descendants live in...you guessed it, Minneapolis! He had actually visited them in Minnesota a few years earlier.
Dinner was served about an hour later, and it was a beauty. Meatballs in a sauce made from the brown cheese. As we sat down, I answered a question asked of me that yes, I had been to Sweden once. Then we tucked in, and I happily munched on a meatball. Then I glanced up, and realized everyone was staring at me. I quickly swallowed and tentatively, confusedly smiled back. Then, Martine's mother asked, "well? Are they better than Swedish meatballs?" "Oh, yes, of course!" I said, deciding it was best to not mention that the only Swedish meatballs I have ever had are in Minnesota's IKEA.
After dinner, I offered to help Martine's mother clean but was shooed out of the kitchen. So instead, I went up to her room while she got ready for the evening of wine. I had not brought any nice clothes with me, as I am no fancy traveler. When I told her that I was just going to wear the somewhat ratty jeans I had on, her eyes narrowed. "I told you that we were having a wine night." "Yeah, but I didn't know it was anything other than drinking wine!" I had admittedly been a bit confused when she had messaged me a week earlier to say that she would be having some girlfriends come over for wine while I would be there, so that I could experience that part of Norwegian culture. I had thought, "but...most cultures drink with their friends...??" Now I understood better - in Norway, when there is a "wine night", you get dressed up. And sure enough, when the three friends arrived, all of them looked like they were about to head to a four-star hotel's bar rather than someone's living room. Otherwise it was like any other evening in a living room with alcohol and friends. They were good about speaking English at first, but once enough wine had been drunk the conversation was almost entirely in Norwegian. I didn't mind at all though, the existence of smart phones means one never has to be too bored!
I finished my bottle and said goodnight to everyone. My abdomen still hurt a bit and even though I had taken a three hour nap, that had been more because I was sick not because I was catching up on the 4am alarm. The others made fun of me for turning in "early", but I just smiled, went upstairs, and was asleep within minutes.
The next morning, I awoke before Martine. I had brought the newest Ken Follett book with me, so I was more than entertained while I waited for her to sleep off the wine. And then I continued to read, as she woke up with, as she called it, the worst hangover of her life. This meant that the day of hiking we had planned was cancelled, as she could barely move. I made a lot of progress on my book anyways, and took a walk back to the grocery store at the edge of the neighborhood, partially to buy some food for the travel day the next day, but mostly to get out and enjoy the pretty scenery. However, the blue skies gave way to drizzle during the hour I was gone, so I returned and decided to take a nap instead of continuing to explore (it's a good thing it rained though, as when I returned to the grocery store's parking lot, my pile of vomit from the prior morning was still there. Hopefully the rain washed it away. Ugh).
I woke up around the time that Martine's family came home, and she felt well enough to take us out on a drive. Martine's sister joined us. We were gone for about 90 minutes, driving to and around Godøy Island, on the outskirts of the city. As the rain fell, I enjoyed driving the small roads past the beautiful Norwegian houses. One thing I noticed about the country that I don't see often around Europe was that the houses and yards were similar sized to American ones. Most in Europe are much smaller, as there simply isn't the space, but Norway has a bit more open-space than most European countries.
At one point, we pulled over onto a beach near the small suburb of Alnes in order to get closer to the water. However, the rain had turned into a full blown weather event. The wind was immense, which yes made the waves great fun to watch but it was practically blowing us about! I've rarely felt wind that strong before, and all I could do was giggle endlessly at the experience. Unsurprisingly, this beach is quite popular amongst surfers, so if you're so inclined, head on over! We personally did not last long on the beach, and we spent the rest of the drive enjoying the views from the warm interior of the vehicle while singing along to the radio.
Dinner was ready when we got back, this time a whole lot of meat and vegetables. As we served our plates, I asked if the two dinners we had while I had been there were typical, or if they were especially nice because they had a guest. The question was met with blank stares from the four of them, and then Martine tentatively asked, "what do you mean? It's just dinner." Well, that answered that! These meals were both so good, so well plated, and had taken Martine's mother a long time to cook. For me, that's a special occasion meal! But alas, here was a reminder that Americans treat the art of eating a lot less respectfully than do most countries.
Afterwards, everyone retired to the living room. When Martine and I had gone to the grocery store the morning before, she had purchased a few classic Norwegian snacks (this included the ever-popular dried fish skin, which is apparently so beloved that they sell it in the check-out lanes, the same way Americans sell Doritos. I tried a piece because "when in Norway." I did not try a second. See photo at the bottom, I didn't want to sully this part of the blog with it's image). This meant that she had bought lefse, which is basically rolled potato-based flatbread with butter and cinnamon and sugar in the middle. It is pretty popular in Minnesota, and when I said that I immediately disappointed everyone because they had wanted to introduce me to Norwegian things. But I quickly reassured everyone that I love lefse, and doubly-pleased them when I said something along the lines of, "besides, it's more real in Norway than Minnesota anyways!" We munched on them while watching a drone video that Martine's stepdad put onto their tv. They vacation on a remote island in northern Norway every year, and they wanted me to see the drone footage of the place. Just like seemingly everywhere in this country, it was beautiful.
We all went to bed soon afterwards, and I had one more good night's sleep in the lovely bedroom overlooking the fjord. The next morning, we awoke to an absolutely stunning morning. Martine had woken early in order to drive her mother to work, so that she could have the car for the day. We drove the short distance to the center of town, parked near the harbor, got Rufus out of the backseat, and set off. We didn't do anything, per se, just explored. I was most excited to see the inner-harbor, as that is what I had always seen on Instagram. While Martine scoffed slightly ("it's not really that beautiful, those images are always edited!"), I loved it. Yeah, it's not as bright as the interwebs make it appear to be, but it's still damn pretty!
Nor was it just the inner-harbor that was picture-perfect, but the whole dang city! I absolutely loved the architectural style of the buildings. At the turn of the last century, a terrible fire destroyed the town. When they rebuilt it, they did so in an Art Nouveau style. It was very Scandinavian. Plus, even though it was in the middle of the workday, it was quiet. It felt as though we had the entire, quaint, picturesque city to ourselves as we wove between the buildings and along the sea. As we walked, I became more and more jealous of my friend who gets to call such a magnificent city home. Sure, Minnesota is nice, but it's no Ålesund!
Martine saved the best for last. There are stairs up to Fjellstua, which offers the most amazing panoramic views I have ever seen, anywhere. Now, there are 418 stairs so it's not exactly a breezy climb. Martine was a lot more in shape than I was and even she was huffing and wheezing as we made our way up. As a distraction from our pain, we talked about Norwegian culture. She told me about the traditional bunads, or clothing. People are often given one by their relatives around their 15th birthday, when they have their confirmations (most people are secular but that the confirmation is a huge part of the culture, similar to how non-religious people often celebrate Christmas). The bunads are easily-altered - so that as people change in weight and height the outfit can remain wearable - and are meant to be worn on special occasions from there on out. I'm not sure how often they're really worn, save for May 17 (Norway's independence day), but it's a beautiful tradition linking present to past.
Finally, we reached the top of the stairs and the overlook. Wow. Wow wow wow wow wow. It's not possible to overstate the magnificence of the landscape, and the way that the city nestles itself into it. The mountains, the sea, the architecture, the fluffy clouds. It was simply stunningly perfect. That's all I can say. Add it to to your travel to-do list now
We still had a couple of hours to kill before I had to get to the airport, so we headed to the Sunnmøre Museum, which is a small open-air museum that's website claims it's entrance fee is 80NK ($9.50), but we definitely didn't see anywhere to pay, so.... There are the typical buildings representing different periods in Norwegian history. Due to its small size, there were no interpreters, but most buildings did have informational placards of some type. I especially liked the wooden cabins with grass roofs. One of my favorite places in the world is EPCOT, where there is a mini-Norway that has a building with a grass roof. It was really cool to see the real deal. Along with the historical buildings, there is a Medieval museum that was closed when we were there. Lastly, the museum had the most amazing collection of boats, including the oldest complete Vikings ship in the country. There are also a couple of other Vikings war ships, as well as a replica of a Vikings merchant's ship. The museum is also nestled against a forest, so we ducked into that for a few minutes for the briefest of hikes.
And then it was time to head back, grab my suitcase, print my RyanAir ticket (why? Read here), and head back to the tiny airport. I had a layover back in Oslo, where I ate a delicious hot dog for dinner (there were several shops in the airport that sold various styles of hot dog and sausages, with all the fixings. I love Scandinavia), and then it was back to London. I had such a delightful time in Ålesund, despite everyone's health woes, and Norway in general. This was one of those trips that I left feeling I hadn't had nearly enough time, and that I need to get back to Norway as soon as I can.
And as promised, the fish skin snacks.