November 13, 2016
It’s a strange sensation being camped this close to a road that, while not busy, does play host to the occasional truck and car. The only level spot to pitch our tent is just off the shoulder which certainly presents an occasional what if… but somehow we’re always able to pretend that those are simply impossible inevitabilities.
After waking in Bjordal, we wait for the pitter-patter of rain on our tent to ease before jumping out to pack the bikes. There’s a cyclist in a single-person tent at the other end of the yard who decides not to emerge from his tent at all. Honestly, we can’t imagine what kind of mental fortitude it would take to spend a day peddling in the rain, wind and cold that’s greeted us today. Even through the fog that is our minds after an early morning rise in these frigid temperatures, Fuglsetfjord remains as humbling as ever.
It feels like we’re into the meat of Norway and the landscape is continuing to promise views that it surely can’t sustain. In almost complete silence we cross the bridge that delivered us to Camping Neshiem a day earlier and weave our way back along the the Sognefjord until meeting up with the ferry at Oppedal. You’re truly never far from a ferry in Norway.
The rain deepens the colors further which makes the four hours of it completely tolerable. Our route weaves us along the belly of steep cliffs and next to countless lakes and inlets. The heavy weather has another wonderful side-effect: almost all of the cliffs are decorated in narrow waterfalls that drape the rocks like wispy, silvered hair. The country is delivering glorious landscapes and the passing day seems to disappear in an instant.
Soon we pull into the campgrounds at Stryn, an idyllic town that instantly reminds us of Canmore back home. Flanked on three sides by nearby rounded mountains, the fourth edge is fortified by a giant rock wall whose peak is lost to the clouds and adorned by at least thirty waterfalls. It’s an epic place.
After a few days spent camping and riding in the rain we’re happy to discover that a small cabin is available – and at a rate that’s pretty affordable. It’s here that we really fall in love with cabin-camping as an option to tenting in the rain. They’re rustic, sport cold water, bunk beds with no linens, a single hotplate and a small covered porch where we can dry our gear while brewing a warm tea. Showers and toilets are still communal but they’re in pretty good shape and, after a day spent soaking wet in the biting cold, a (free) hot shower feels like heaven!
By the time we’ve settled into our home for the next two nights most of the main-street is closed – which is fine by us; a night in spent cooking what’s left in our panniers, listening to music and curling up in our sleeping bags sounds about as good as anything we’ve ever done. Eventually, the sounds of the rain on roof of our cabin lulls us to sleep as the blanket of night drapes the town.
The next morning brings no end to the weather and we spend a good portion of the morning working in the warmth of our cabin. Eventually a short break in the rain gives us a window of opportunity and, after cleaning ourselves up, we make our way back into Stryn for a nearby café we’d noticed on our way into town. It seems to be the only place that’s filling the coffee needs of the waking masses and the energy in it’s various nooks and crannies is wonderful. Stryn itself seems active and outdoorsy with a disproportionate number of camping, climbing and generally outdoorsy stores lining it’s main-street. We like it here!
With the absence of rain we’re surprised to see how diminished the number of waterfalls are on the nearby mountain. Unlike the steady and predictable flow we’re used to with falls back home, here they turn on and off with rain at surprising speed. Where there were thirty, today there’s perhaps a dozen. Nature never ceases to amaze.
The call of our retreat grows and we stop to pick up some supplies for dinner while slowly making our way home. It’s homemade, one-pot chilli night! There’s a little muddy path that begins just past a side-street, taking us through a chain-link fence and into the campsite. A few motorcycles are parked next to a second cabin and their owners have stopped by our bikes while their eyes take a moment to trace the stickers that cover our panniers. By the time we get within earshot they’ve moved on and, really, that’s kind of the vibe here; quiet, peaceful, solitary. It’s beautiful.
Even now in the middle of August, things in this part of the world are winding down. The light is flat but still lingers well into the evening as a reminder that we’re heading further north with every mile spent on the road. The hazy diffusion seems to gently threaten snow as much as the smell of icy moisture on the air. A moment on the deck with a drink could as easily foretell the beginning of a great adventure as much as the end and anyone would be fortunate for Norway to be a part of it.
The next morning the rain seems to have taken it’s leave of Stryn and, while the vast palette of grey now seems to offer glimpses of blue (glimpses of hope!?), the cold is here to stay. After two days our gear is thoroughly dry and warm from it’s time on the radiator. We pack the bikes excited at the prospect of another fantastic day riding north towards Ålesund wrapped in as many layers as possible while still being able to mount the bikes.
Stopping for fuel at the edge of Stryn, Nita smells something burning on her bike and when I take a sniff something does indeed smell suspiciously like overheating electrical. While there’s no doubt that the smell exists, finding it’s source proves difficult and we decide to press-on while keeping our eyes (and noses) on it.
The sky tries to break for most of the day and it’s efforts are appreciated. While it does little to off-set the cold, the light it lays on the landscape is wonderful. Over the course of the day we’re always by either a lush, daunting mountain or a beautifully serene lake. We lift and fall with the road as it guides us through a place that truly seems to defy description.
The temperature continues to drop and, after trying to bear it unnecessarily for a while, I pop my heated grips on bringing them to life for the first time in a while. Suddenly, I smell the burning rubber emanating from my bike too; it’s the grips. Whenever we fire them up after an extended break they smell terribly. With the mystery solved we’re able to enjoy the day without fear of sudden breakdown.
Our path leads north past a giant cruise ship near Ørsta and it’s majestic Sunnmørsalpene mountains which rise straight up (1700 m) from the fjord. Through town, then northeast along the Vartdalsfjorden and, eventually, to our only ferry of the day near Festøya. It’s one of those days that makes us feel incredibly fortunate to be alive.
Even the short wait for the ferry is fantastic. The view in all directions is epic and there’s not a sound to be heard. It’s a rare treat to feel as peaceful as we do here. Two ferries arrive almost simultaneously – one to Solavågen (ours) and the other to Hundeidvika. Which one we’re supposed to board isn’t abundantly clear to us but either way we’ll get somewhere which is just fine by us!
Ferries and trains are two of our favourite ways to travel in-country. They offer a unique perspective of the lands we visit and Norway by water is fantastic – even at it’s most utilitarian. After a half-hour on the water, the road to Ålesund winds along a river before sending us up a steep hill which deposits us in front of our hotel for the next few nights.
The parking situation in front of the Rica Parken seems to slope away in every direction making the sidewalk our best bet. After a quick u-turn, we jump the curb and park the bikes – much to the dismay of a couple of onlookers. Sometimes we just have to do what works. After checking in and unloading the bikes, we’re directed to a parkade that’s down the street (a steep decline) followed by a sharp right (on a steep incline) and another sharp right (a wet and oil-covered off-camber ramp). Parking in cities is always an adventure.
Of course the real benefit to all of the hills that brought us here are the fantastic views of Ålesund from our room. Old buildings swapping whites with bright yellows and reds spring up from the water and weave along the river pathways which dominate the townscape. The sun is out, the sky is clearing and a walk around the town is definitely in order.
The abundance of hills here help to keep the glutes working hard which feels great after a day in the saddle. Walking through town it’s hard not to notice that taco’s and kebabs are a pretty big deal here with their presence seemingly as common as water and rock. Making our way over a small bridge to the island of Aspøya we stop into a local for a celebratory drink. While the environment inside isn’t the best, a bevy by the window is well-deserved.
Having had little to eat, we find a taco stand inside a nearby mall – a relatively cheap place that helps us get dinner in for under $50 for a change. Did we mention that Norway was pricey? Staying in any hotel in Norway is going to cost, so finding a way to minimize the financial damage while we’re here is a unusually satisfying. Well, that and tacos taste delicious.
By the time we’re finished the sun has dimmed but isn’t as low in the sky as we’d expect. While we’re quite far north (nearly 62.5°N), we’re still well shy of the Arctic Circle (66°N) and the possibility of seeing a midnight sun – but we’ve been hoping for some kind of residual effect. This evenings sunset seems to stretch out forever and by 11:30pm the sky still has fiery shards of orange streaking from one side to the other but by midnight it’s completely dark and soon we’re fast asleep. We’re too late in the year and too far south for a sun that stays all day.
We spend most of the following day in Ålesund walking it’s streets which is a wonderful way to see the towns personality bubble to the top in it’s people. College kids are everywhere with a good number of them in yellow t-shirts busily working their way through challenges for some unknown event. In one park not far from our hotel, a handful of guys have stripped down to their underwear and recite a missive while holding a placard for passersby to see. It’s not long before a handful of women join in and suddenly the little cloth left hiding any insecurity is completely abandoned. This place is interesting!
A little further down the street, an different group sporting the same t-shirts are competing in a kayak race with no clear start or finish. From one end of the canal, to the edge, and back with looks of confusion the entire time, the crowd cheers with every seemingly wrong move. There’s a level of abstraction here that’s truly fun to watch.
The hills, the fans, the nudity and the party are an entertaining distraction; we haven’t noticed how hungry we are! We find a decent water-side burger joint which provides a spot in the sun and a lovely view of all the action. As we grab lunch, groups of these kids meet up for a bit to eat; undoubtedly a chance to recharge their dwindling batteries after a day full of public stunts. The energy is fantastic as we watch them tell each-other about their day so far.
The burgers aren’t too bad either and the sticker price of everything in Norway is becoming less shocking daily. Perhaps that’s a worry in itself? It’s possible. Two burgers (no fries) a beer and a pop: $50. Ouch. But with the sun shining and the world passing us by it seems worth most of those pennies.
Crossing back onto Aspøya, the streets are quiet and the sun is warm. A number of the classic waterfront buildings have been converted into hotels and, judging by the cars parked in front and the people emerging from the lobbies, they’re most definitely priced well out of our imagining. Still, it’s nice to see the traditional architecture of the town preserved rather than a series of modern blights set in counterpoint to the beautiful style that defines Ålesunds skyline.
There’s a mellow edge to the energy here that easily draws us in. The air is brisk but the sun is warm. The light is bright but doesn’t make us squint. The town is old but filled with youthful optimism. There’s a mix of opposing forces that blend in a way that really works.
We wake the next morning to a wall of black and heavy rain. It’s also our departure day. Looking out the window we hope for one more day in our room – and a chance to ride in something other than a downpour. With a look of sincere disappointment, the girl at the front-desk lets us know that the hotel is fully booked. But, as we walk away, she yells to us excitedly – a cancellation has just come in! Fate, it seems, has given us another day in Ålesund and out of the rain. We’re very grateful.
With weather like this, it’s a day made for writing by the large lobby windows with a warm drink in hand. Since the debacle that was Morocco, I’ve been having a difficult time writing and it’s been a game of catch-up ever since. It may work out well while we ship our bikes to Australia in October but for now there’s a writing cloud hanging over me.
Tonight, the sun is completely gone by 11:30; no shards of orange to keep us wondering about the midnight sun.
The next morning, we pack our bikes and say goodbye to what has been a great break in Ålesund. We’d be lying if we said we weren’t excited; the rains that are forecast for today haven’t arrived and we’re heading to Trollstigen – an epic mountain road whose alpine pass yields some incredible views.
We choose to approach the pass from the south along the Rv650 and Fv63 which are, in themselves, beautiful beyond words. Far less travelled than the E39, the route is ours alone for most of the miles we cover. The Rv650 winds gently around the eastern shores of Storfjorden before cutting inland at Stordal and diving between towering peaks covered in a rich blanket of evergreens. Even away from the calm of the fjords Norway impresses. Silky white lines of water fall from somewhere high in the peaks that flank us while a dwindling river transforms into a narrow plain which, with every bend in the road, appears to end at the point where mountains appear to converge.
While many people approach from the north, coming from the south allows us to descend the Trolls Ladder while also getting an eyeful of the switchbacks and valley as we go. Eventually, we reunite with Norddalsfjorden and the Fv63 which will take us all the way to our campsite on the other side of Trollstigen. At Valldalen we say our goodbyes to the fjords for now as we head north, inland along a truly majestic backdrop. While parts of Norway remind us of Canada (and, in particular, the Rockies), it’s truly a landscape unlike any other.
The road leads us higher into the mountains where the seemingly impenetrable green cracks under the thin air and yields to the rock below. Grey and silver now dominate the peaks that surround us and the trees diminish in both size and frequency until they simply don’t appear at all. We’ve made it to the tundra. Up. Up we go. It’s a steady climb free of drama, filled with the flow that makes a motorcyclist smile from ear to ear. Beside us the rock and brush that covers a truly alien landscape fills our visors while gently pressing the mountains aside into a sweeping valley floor.
“It’s beautiful” Nita says over the headsets.
“Norway is epic.”
And she truly is. We stop at the boundary into Rauma and sit for a while to take it all in. The sight in every direction is awe-inspiring and everything in me feels as though this could be it – if there was nothing else, this is worth everything. We don’t move for quite a long time.
Feeling quite full, we start our short push to the top of Trollstigen and pull into the parking lot where we’re met by a surprisingly well-sized crowd. There are quite a few motorcycles and of course the requisite tour-buses. There’s an interpretive centre and café at the top and a nice cuppa sounds like a great idea.
It’s busy inside but somehow fairly unrushed with folks milling about slowly while taking in the incredibly mellow pace. The building itself is beautifully designed and offers a short hike to three different viewpoints – though many of the visitors seem to only travel to the first which offers a spectacular view of the valley below from just above a raging Stigfossen waterfall. The other lookout points give those willing to make the slightest effort an amazing view of the Trollstigen Pass itself. It’s truly a wonder of civil engineering.
With coffee in hand (and a small helping of local pie in our bellies) we make our way outside and down the trail to the lookouts. The first, overlooking Stigfossen, is fantastic, the second gives us a glimpse at most of the switchbacks we’re about to tackle, and the third shows us all of Trollstigen in it’s twisting glory. It also offers a lip where those unafraid of heights can step out onto a glass panel and feel as if they’re floating in the sky above the valley itself. It’s spectacular here. The only people with better views are a group of BASE jumpers off to our right who are gliding down to earth themselves.
In an effort to help tourism, some corners were widened and paved to allow for buses – though to be honest it’s still too tight for them to properly negotiate. On the eastern side of the valley a single unused gravel corner of the original pass remains, perhaps as a reminder of how rough this pass once was. If the entire pass was still like this lone corner, we’d probably be close to alone here!
To be honest, since my crash on the switchbacks in Morocco, it’s been taking me longer than I thought to get my serpentine-mojo back and looking at the road ahead has me a bit tense. Since throwing my bike down the road outside of Al Hociema I’ve been stiff and unflowing in switchbacks but the joy of roads like this is coming back to me.
As it is there are throngs of people relaxing in the parking lot by the time we return. Some are elated, some are in shock. A regular rhythm of motorcyclists pull in and share stories with one another, while some sit quietly to contemplate the road they’ve travelled. It’s a brilliant place to sit and simply observe people.
Our bikes are getting plenty of attention and a crowd of five to ten people constantly hang by their well-worn panniers taking pictures, smiling and, often, shaking their heads with a mix of wow and crazy.
With our (second) coffee away and a break in the crowd, it’s time to ride the road itself and, if we’re honest, the experience is much like any moderately trafficked twisty road. As with the Tail of the Dragon or the Amalfi Coast, nervous or ambitious drivers frequently creep into our lane and, on the first corner one particularly white-knuckled driver finishes the rising bend entirely in our lane before quickly moving over when I politely point to the other side of the road.
Nita and I haven’t “Flipped the bird”, “Given the finger” or delivered any other kind of angry gesture since we left Calgary – it just doesn’t seem like the right thing to do when we’re out in the world. Well, now it just doesn’t seem like the right thing to do, period. It’s one of those shifts in me that’s a reflection of larger changes that will hopefully last for the long run.
After seeing the whites of the drivers eyes, we immediately find ourselves stuck behind a tour bus which is far too large to cut a flowing line through the tight corners. The only solution for it’s length are frequent stops at almost every corner where it can back up and shimmy it’s way around the bend. Even the driver looks stressed as he passes by on the road beneath us. We find places along the road to sit and wait until the behemoth is out of sight; doing so gives us a few flowing turns before catching up with it once again. And so it goes. Though, it has to be said, stopping along the way provides some spectacular vantage points.
Finally, we make it to the bottom of Trollstigen and follow a comparatively modest road to a camping spot not far away. The road – even with the busses – was fun, exhilarating. Beautiful. With a few small turns we arrive at Camping Trollstigen which, being almost empty, offers us a fantastic spot at the base of the mountains entirely to ourselves.
It does’t take long to set up our camp and take in the views. Today was an epic day on the road. The rain was absent for the entire day and the sky is mostly blue with whispy clouds streaking their way in front of a diminishing sun. Up here, the temperature is already close to five degrees and we know we’re in for a chilly night. Next to the bikes, in amongst the clover, we find a small frog and try our hardest not to step on him for the rest of the night.
Inside the camps main building there’s a cafe where we enjoy a warm meal by the fire and meet two of the staff – one British and one Australian – both of whom are excited to speak English with us! They’re lovely souls and brave; they’re part of the local BASE jumping scene and indeed, the British girls boyfriend was one of the locals we’d seen jumping earlier from the top of Trollstigen. Sitting with a drink by the window we watch the last of the cars make their way down the mountain and past our camp. The only traffic after them is a herd of cows who call this stretch of road home and, like it or not, the route is their’s to share.
Fully sated with the day, we head into the tent for the night and fall asleep as the cold begins to surround us. Soon enough our sleeping bags are toasty and we slip into a deep slumber surrounded by the sounds of the meadow and hooves on the highway. We love Norway.