Wednesday, March 11, 2020

STAVANGER: Chocolate-dipped Goats and Sardines

One of the major reasons to visit Norway is to see the magnificent fjords, sea arms that stretch far into the landscape. One of the most spectacular is Lysefjorden, not far from Stravanger, a city between Bergen and Oslo, the capital. The 26-mile long fjord with waters 1600 feet deep is hemmed in by cliffs rising to 3000 feet. It’s no wonder that Victor Hugo used it as a setting in his 1886 novel, Toilers of the Sea, where he wrote that “Lyse-Fjord is the most terrible of all the gut rocks of the ocean.”  

Our visit was far more mundane—it’s not every day that one finds three domestic goats on a almost vertical rocky hillside with no visible farm buildings. How they got to this remote spot on the fjord and where they went during the fierce winter will always be a mystery to me. (Helicopter?) Nevertheless, they appeared to be having a great summer holiday. One was all milk chocolate colored, another milk white with a chocolate head, and the last one looked as though the front half had been dipped in chocolate.

The captain slowed the engine and a crew member lowered a ramp. She then picked up a bag of bread and walked to the goats who pushed and shoved to get the snack as we, the passengers clustered to take photos. Payment to their participation in the photo-op finished, the goats returned to their rocky perch and we continued up the narrow sea-arm to view waterfalls, villages, pirates’ hideouts, and the famous Pulpit Rock rising straight up 1982 feet from the saltwater. Along with serving as a spectacular viewpoint for hikers, the rock is used for BASE jumping—a terrifying thought.

The city of Stavanger makes its living from provisioning the North Sea’s oil drilling industry, and like everywhere scenic, tourists. We skipped the architecturally-innovative oil museum in favor of a museum honoring another ocean resource: sardines. The canning industry, with 70  processing plants in use from about 1880 to the mid-1950s, has long passed its heyday but the museum was one of the cleverest we’ve visited: installed in the old and nicely-named Venus Cannery, it takes a visitor through the process complete with movies from around World War One.

The machinery to make and seal cans still functions and the tin samples of fish sizes are laid out to show how the workers learned to sort. The office with its old typewriter stands ready to send out another invoice to somewhere in the world as demonstrated by the display of sardine can labels.

We arrived on a day when the smoking ovens with low-burning fires were lit over rows of sardines. The man tending the fire handed me one of the fish. Delicious!

Of course, there’s a gift shop. We filled a shopping bag with a couple of cans of King Oscar sardines, and an apron now in use by my chef —aka husband. It's not everywhere that one's chef wears an apron with a sardine can emblazoned on the front.

It was pleasant to stroll the old town where flowers flourish in the long summer days, before a visit to the cathedral, a Romanesque structure dating from 1125 later remodeled with Gothic touches. 

The cathedral is the largest cathedral in Norway. The stained-glass windows had been removed for restoration but we were fascinated by the unusual plaques apparently commissioned to honor the stiffly-starched pious and wealthy 17th century families associated with the church. The ruff on one woman looked like a crumb-catcher although I couldn’t see how she would actually have been able to eat.

The severity of the sober families was a complete contrast to the wildly-colored pulpit with primary-colored Biblical scenes in folk-art styles.

After, we browsed a small open market, considered whether we should buy a reindeer pelt, an inevitable troll, or sample unusual food choices before settling for a local Norwegian beer, comparing the feet on the glass to our own tired toes.

All photos copyright Judith Works

Sunday, January 19, 2020

BERGEN the Beautiful

Bergen, Norway, has a reputation for rain. Lots of rain: 83 inches over 230 days each year. But the weather gods smiled when were there. Located on the southerly portion of Norway’s fiord-fringed coast, the city originally gained prominence as part of the Hanseatic League, a commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and market towns from the late 1100s until the mid-1600s. Now it’s a busy and beautiful university city.

The old traders’ warehouses divided by narrow alleys line the waterfront. Instead of dried cod, they are now designated UNESCO heritage sites and are a magnet for tourists looking for trinkets like trolls, silver jewelry, weirdly-named snacks,

and high-end clothing like the divinely-inspired but devilishly-expensive Oleana sweaters. (There was no doubt I’d succumb to their allure. My indulgent husband sighed but gamely produced his credit card.)

These cute children's styles from another company caught my eye: Three little Norwegians ready for school in winter.

But Bergen is also home to two outstanding cultural treasures, the real object of our visit: The composer Edvard Greig’s lovely summer home, and an ancient stave church.

The composer is one of my favorites for his Peer Gynt Suite and the lovely Wedding Day at Troldhaugen expressing Norwegian nationalism among many other pieces. His home at Troldhaugen was built in 1885 near the shore of Nordås Lake, a suburb of Bergen. He and his wife lived in this idyllic location for 22 summers until he died in 1907, some say of overwork. Troldhaugen became a museum in 1928 and the complex set in lovely gardens now includes Grieg’s villa, the composer’s hut by the lake shore, the couple’s grave site as well as a café, modern museum building and Troldsalen, a chamber music hall seating 200 people.

The house, called The Villa, is surprisingly modest for an owner of such international fame. The exterior has the typical Victorian gingerbread elements, and like so many pictures I’ve seen of Scandinavian homes, this one had the typical geranium blooming in a window.

Like all tourist areas now, it was crowded and we had to wait our turn to enter the home.

One whole room is now devoted to a display of Greig’s manuscripts and collection of awards.

It was easy to imagine musical afternoons in the living room with the kettle steaming and friends like the famous virtuoso violinist Ole Bull gathered to hear his latest composition.

After the tour, we wandered down the steep hill to peer in the windows of the tiny cabin where Grieg worked accompanied only by birdsong and lapping lake waters. The building contains a piano, stove, desk, and couchall he needed. I pictured him taking a break on the sofa awaiting inspiration for the next movement of his latest composition.

On the way out of the complex, we joined others to dispose of the ubiquitous stickers stuck to their clothes to remind them what group they had been in (and probably annoying the maintenance workers).

Our heads and hearts filled with music as we moved backward in time to visit the reconstructed Fantoft Stave Church originally built when Norway was discarding the Norse gods in favor of Christianity. A stave church is a medieval wooden structure, once common in north-western Europe. The name derives from the building's structure of post and lintel construction, a type of timber framing where the load-bearing pine posts are called stav in modern Norwegian. There were once around two thousand such churches, but now only a few remain, some much larger than the one we visited which must have served a small congregation. The church was originally built around the year 1150 in a village near the end of a fjord north of Bergan. When a new church was built in 1879, the wooden building was moved to its current location.

The church is set in a wooded area that lends a mystical air with mossy ground snaked with tree roots.

The ancient rough-hewn stone cross stands on a hillock nearby looking like it was out of Ingmar Bergman’s medieval morality tale, Seventh Seal.

 Adding to the surreal atmosphere, the church’s roofline was topped by stylized Norse dragons spouting fire to protect the building. However, the dragons were ineffective when, after standing for over 800 years, ironically the building was destroyed by arson. Reconstruction, completed in 1997, took six years.

The interior is a complete contrast to the ornamented exterior: plain pine wood, simple altar and a  carving of a dragon that seemed to me to be of Celtic design near the entrance.

The small church and the surrounding woods are a place of contemplation in this troubled world and a reminder the past cannot and should not be erased.

All photos copyright Judith Works

Monday, November 4, 2019

DRAGON SKIN - The Faroe Islands


The wrinkled sea shining in the damp silvery dawn made me think of dragons’ skin and old Norse gods as the ship glided slowly into the harbor at Torshavn. The sun pierced dark clouds to illuminate buildings and harbor.

I imagined the characters from Norse myths: Grendel, Beowulf, Thor, Odin, and all the rest were hiding somewhere in the hills overlooking the harbor.

Torshavn is the capital of the Faroe Islands, a self-governing country within the Kingdom of Denmark (which also includes Greenland). A collection of eighteen islands rising abruptly out of the North Sea in the middle of a stormy triangle made up of Norway, Iceland, and Scotland, it’s low in population but high on atmosphere with mists, waterfalls spilling down the cliffs, sheep in green pastures, and sod-roofed homes. Although Celtic monks arrived in the 600s, it was the Norsemen in their dragon-prowed long ships who settled the country around AD 825. The inhabitants have made their living mostly from fishing ever since. And everywhere there are monuments to the enormous death toll arising from venturing into the treacherous waters.

I’d enjoyed a previous visit to the Faroes and was delighted to take another look at Torshavn (Thor’s Harbor) and to explore a different area of the countrythis time concentrating on the largest island, Streymoy, where Torshavn is located.

The capital is a combination of modern glass-sided buildings, and sturdy old sod-roofed houses jumbled together, some dating from the 1500s.

It was obvious that beyond fishing, the tourism industry is growing rapidly, with birdwatchers, hikers, and other adventure tourists. Several four- and five-star hotels are under construction in Torshavn, and for those who want the very best and can afford to pay, there is a Michelin two-starred restaurant, KOKS, on the nearby island of Vagar serving such traditional foods as fermented lamb, wind-dried and air-salted, along with high-concept presentations of bounty from the sea.

Tradition is much in evidence. I strolled through the oldest part of town, stopping to watch a man in old-style clothing re-sod his roof while his helper clad modern safety-orange helped lift the heavy squares of dirt and grass.

The Faroese language is a variant of Old Norse and, judging by the music stores and ads for performances, very much a living language. With the exception of Viking heavy metal, most of the music videos I’ve watched seem melancholy and feature the weather. Besides the music stores, the main shopping area has a shop with traditional clothing, a bookstore with books in Faroese, and sweater shops common to all Scandinavian countries for good reason. With a cool, wet, and windy climate combined with a long dark winter, knitting is a natural pastime although the islands’ sheep are grown only for meat, the wool unsuitable for craft work.

The landscape on our way north was mystical in keeping with the ancient myths. Clouds rose and fell, fields of grass bent in the breeze, showers fed the eternal waterfalls, sheep grazed, orange-billed Oystercatchers poked along the fjord shorelines.

Village churches and farmhouses with their wild-flower-covered roofs looked as if they had always been there.

But when I turned my attention to the present, it was easy to see what a wealthy country it is. The houses are perfectly kept, the cars are new, the roads are perfect and the closer islands are connected by bridges or underwater tunnels. The infrastructure is paid for with high income taxes like other Scandinavian countries. The people I talked to were happy with the arrangement. With good infrastructure, free schools, medical care and old-age support, they said they got their money’s worth.
The end of the journey was the settlement of Saksun, in an enchanted valley with a lacy waterfall spilling down a slope, an old barn built of stone, and a sod-roofed church facing the fjord.
 It was if we’d stepped into a magical scene from time immemorial.

In keeping with the atmosphere, I visited a nearby farmhouse, abandoned at the beginning of the 20th century and now a museum. The main building of stone and wood was constructed around 1820, although an older building once occupied the space. Within its thick walls was a smoke-room, cow-barn, henhouse, potato shed, as well as the living quarters where the occupants raised their family, sheltered the village priest when he passed by, ate their simple meals out of wooden bowls balanced on their laps, and no doubt, watched their children suffer with no medical care. How hard it must have been in the isolated spot when the long summer days turned to long dark winters.

As I enjoyed coffee and home-made waffles in the tiny kitchen flooded with summer sunlight, I couldn’t help but wonder if the family told stories of the old times when dragons appeared in swirling mist shrouding the farmstead. Then, after the cows in the stall were settled and evening prayers were done, the wick on the oil lantern was trimmed and the family slipped into beds built into niches to await another day of toil.

All photographs copyright Judith Works   

Saturday, September 7, 2019


Sometimes a respite from all the jangles of our livesthe clicking, beeping, dinging, and talking headsis necessary to preserve our sanity. Sometimes when we don’t know who to believe or even why, it's a balm to mentally return to a time when certainty ruled people’s lives. A time when few expected a change in their status; when having a "brand" was not an objective. A medieval world most of us would find hard and confining but tempered by a close relationship with the divine and a secure place in the social order.

A first stop to contemplate that medieval world on a day out of London was Salisbury Cathedral. Some 90 miles west of London, the cathedral is most famous for its ever-so-slightly skewed spire, at 404 feet, the tallest in Great Britain. The cathedral sits in the middle of an immense greensward in the middle of the town of the same name. Because of its easy access from London and nearness to Stonehenge, it has a heavy influx of tourists.

As we approached the entrance, the magnitude of the attraction was evident with lines of tour buses in a parking lot disgorging passengers. We joined the crowd to enter a medieval world from floor to vaulting.

The foundation stone was laid in 1220 and consecrated in 1258 but the cathedral isn’t far from the ruins of an Iron Age settlement, later Roman fort and then a Norman town known as Old Sarum where an earlier cathedral once stood. The stones of that cathedral were used to build an English Gothic architectural wonder where we stood among the others gazing upward at the vaulting supporting the building. Most extraordinary are the curving scissors arches leaping into the air where the nave and arms meet to form the traditional shape of a cross. The mason, Master Nicholas of Ely, who designed and oversaw the workers didn’t need computer programs – his architectural vision and skill was in his brilliant mind and hands.

I want to say I was moved by our visit, but in truth, there were so many people I was just another gaping tourist and that so-called thin space where heaven and earth are separated by only three feet wasn’t in evidence. And so, after admiring the medieval clock still working since 1386, and shuffling along with others lined up to glimpse the copy of the Magna Carta (one of four in existence), it was a relief to enjoy an early lunch in an old mill where swans leisurely paddled and a view of the distant cathedral echoed one of John Constable’s Romantic 18th century paintings.

The discussion over a sandwich of crusty country bread filled with cheddar and diving Wiltshire ham washed down with local ale, centered on what to see next. Stonehenge is jammed, Avebury sounded interesting, but where I’d long to go for years was Wells. Our driver blanched when he thought I said Wales but after convincing him that wasn’t the case, we headed cross country to the small town set in the rolling Mendip hills deep in Somerset. And there I found my transcendent experience: The thin space where sacred and profane meet.

The small town of Wells is without railroad or freeway connections and therefore lacks day-trippers. It exudes a sense of peace because the center of life is the magnificent Gothic cathedral. The first known settlement was around a holy well in Late Roman times: 400 – 600 AD, a time when the Roman Empire had collapsed and England was a conglomeration of small Saxon kingdoms. The King of Wessex gave land for a church to a bishop in 705. The small church became a cathedral in 909. The foundation for the current masterpiece, the first Gothic-style church with its pointed arches and abundance of stained-glass windows in England, was laid in 1175 but the building wasn’t completed until 1508, a testament to the power of faith to persevere.

Visitors were few and quiet allowing us to wander at will and to contemplate the structure in a hushed atmosphere. Time stood still, or even ran backward. The entrance to the nave made me think that the ribbing on the ceiling was like looking into the insides of a fish or whale—a view Jonah might have seen. But again, it was the scissors arches that captured my awe. How could have William Joy, the master mason in 1338, known that to brace the central tower he needed to build magnificent swoops of stone on three sides of each of the four pillars? They were a divine inspiration.

Time slowed as we wandered the vast space, contemplating the beautiful Nave, Lady Chapel, Cloisters, and the substantial area behind the main altar called the Quire and Retroquire. The lower part of the beautiful windows are a simple jumble of glass - the remnants of the biblical scenes smashed in a time of religious strife in the 17th century.

But we returned repeatedly to the arches to wonder at their perfection and to imagine the candle-lit processions with Choristers chanting and singing as they still do.

All was silent as I imagined Evensong in my mind’s eye.

We climbed a set of stairs to enter the octagonal Chapter House.

Around the sides are seats where the Canons, who managed the church and its business affairs, sat under their name; their assistants, the Vicars, sat at their feet. In the center of the room is a pillar with 32 vaulted ribs springing from it as if it were a fountain.

The windows are mostly clear glass as the originals were smashed in the 17th century as they had been in the main church. We crept carefully down the stairs that that resembled a gush of cascading water imagining how many Canons and Vicars must have lost their balance and fallen to their deaths as they descended in flickering candlelight.

We paused for reflection in an ancient graveyard

 before strolling in the lovely quintessentially English Vicar's Close, a stone-paved street connected to the church by an overpass called the Chain Bridge. The street is lined with about twenty lovely homes and gardens, originally built in 1348, and still occupied by fortunate cathedral staff such as the Organist and choir master. Although I have no doubt the interiors of the homes are modern and have high-speed internet, the exterior of the Close is an English dream encapsulating everything magical about English villages.

Too soon, it was time to leave.

We headed east back to London, stopping along the way to allow a herd of cows heading for their own barn. Traffic stops at milking time in the countryside. But as we approached London the present day took over and the conversation returned to the subject on everyone’s mind: Brexit and what the future held.
All photos except that of Constable painting copyright Judith Works
Constable painting from Wikipedia, pubic domain