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A Norwegian gastronomic and cultural tour

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23 May 2012

For six weeks every summer my mother transported our family back to her homeland where we stayed in a cabin on the edge of a fjord just south of Bergen, Norway. Although we did not have any modern trappings (and the same applies today) the long summer days were too short and there was never enough time to fit in all the mountain walks, swimming, fishing, boating and BBQ's we wanted to do.

I didn't realise how lucky we were - nor did I appreciate the sheer beauty of the area we were in, to me it was just one huge playground. I thought that the whole of Norway was like this and it was only as I got older, introduced friends to the region and travelled further afield I began to understand how special Bergen and the fjord area is.

My contribution to this itinerary involves the area from Bergen - Os - Utne - Voss.

The journey from Bergen airport to the Solstrand Hotel & Bad is deceptively easy. The suburbs of Bergen stretch far out and wide, with colourful houses up the mountainside surely affording residents delicious views of lush green fields and still lakes.

Within half an hour you've left any thought of towns or cities behind as you draw up to the Solstand Hotel. It's a welcome stop that allows you to absorb the surrounding panorama and acclimatise to a country that has a photo opportunity at every turn. Make sure you ask for a room with a view!

Charlie Gordon, Leisure Sales Assistant Manager, had lunch at the property recently and it was the best meal he had during his time in Norway, lobster nestled alongside slivers of steak and the desserts all made with locally sourced produce.

Norwegians take their breakfast's seriously, so do make sure you make the most of the buffet spread before you set off to the hop-on, hop-off ferry, which takes you to the edge of the Hardangerfjord region.

Although just 15 minutes long, we'd always grab an ice-cream and stand on deck to watch with a flutter of excitement as the distant mountains (often still snow-capped in the summer) edging nearer and nearer.

Getting off the ferry can seem a bit like the start of a grand prix. Pull over to the right and let the locals go in front. You'll have the road to yourself once they have gone.

Distances may not be far but the meandering road snakes around every curve and corner of the fjord - take your time and enjoy the unfolding views as you drive deeper into the mountains, which envelop you as you drive from Eikelandsosen to Mundheim, where you burst out onto the edge of the Hardangerfjord.

Photo opportunities are on every corner, but dining options are few and far between. I'd recommend stopping in Norheimsund to grab some lunch in the gardens of the Thon Hotel Sandven, a charming historical hotel built in 1857 and located right on the shores of the fjord. From here a little detour can take you to Steindahlsfossen. Sure it's a little tourist trap, but a charming one nonetheless. You can walk under the waterfall, take some wonderful views of the valley and a cup of coffee and a waffle in one of the little souvenier shops.

The drive on to Kvanndal for the ferry across to utne continues to hug the fjord. Check the ferry schedule as there are times when it goes every half hour and at others times there can be up to an hour wait. You'll have plenty of time for the drive however, as the last one doesn't leave until 10pm.

Utne typifies many of the tiny communities in this area. A church, an historial hotel and a small local shop nestle by the ferry stop. Everywhere is pristine. There is a folk museum and a look at the local notice board reveals advertisments for an exhibition of 1970's crimpoline dresses and a concert by 1970's pop sensation Gilbert O'Sullivan. It's this randomness of Norwegian life I love.

We ate in their café where fresh waffles were cooked in front of us with homemade jam served alongside.

The finger of land that Utne lies on is the centre of Hardanger. I'd recommend a circular route first driving south towards Jondal. During the first part of the journey the road is peppered with stalls selling the locally grown cherries and apples that Hardanger is famed for. Do take time to stop and gorge on a punnet of freshly plucked fruit.

Highly recommended is Folgefonna - Norway's third largest glacier that dominates the area. It's described as easily accessible by toll road, but I do have to say that the drive up to the glacier is not for the faint hearted. The final 5km are a series of hairpin bends that rival the famous Trollstigen further north in Norway.

I arrived with white knuckles and a very rapidly beating heart, but the views at the top are breathtaking and wipe away the trepidation of the journey down (which was actually very easy - just check your brakes!). During the summer months there is a ski lift here and escorted glacier walking along the blue ice as well as a small café, but do check opening times as activities are weather dependent.

The second stop of the day has to be the Barony in Rosendal. A manor house dating from 1665, with a 300-year old renaissance garden, which in the summer months overflows with a riot of roses and colourful flora. Tours of the house are conducted in English and Norwegian (and German when I was there) and are an interesting historical insight to a former way life. They regularly hold concerts and art exhibitions here. It's also an ideal place to have lunch - with many ingredients taken from the house's kitchen gardens.

There is a new 11km-tunnel that takes you under the ice-field to the aptly named town of Odda. It was home (until 2003) to the world's largest water power plant and despite the Norwegian government trying to get it recognised by UNESCO, I couldn't help thinking it was a monstrosity. There are I'm sure many that would equally appreciate its industrial and engineering triumphs to which there is a museum and several buildings that are dedicated to this.

Odda is also the starting point for Trolltunga - one of the iconic images oft used by Visit Norway. An 8-10 hour trek that should only be considered by competent walkers.

Depending on your interests, I feel there is enough to do in the area for another night's stop in Utne, but for those with a tighter time schedule, you'll need to hop on the ferry and drive on to Voss.

Many people by-pass this area in favour of the rush to Voss, Gudvangen and Flam and herein lies the charm of this part of the journey - you are travelling off the beaten track, but miss nothing. On the the contrary, you'll move on having truly experienced the essence of Norway.

The road to Voss is far busier and it's interesting approaching these switchback bends when you can see a tanker coming down the other way, but road improvements continue and as you approach Voss you are almost on a motorway.

It's almost startling to be back in a ‘big town' and I feel almost that my space is being invaded. I long to return to the tranquillity of Utne, but I think I was just having an ‘off hour' and a trip to the Folk Museum restored my good humour with fantastic views across the plateau.

We didn't spend that long here - victim's of Norway's ‘work to rule' ethic. It's worth noting that in Britain if a museum says it is open until 5pm, it usually means that you have a good half hour after that to finish your tour. Likewise if you see a restaurant that ‘closes at 10pm' and happen to go at 9:45pm, you still have a good chance of being served. Not in Norway.

A 5pm close means that is the time the staff go home, so they will start locking up, switching lights off at 16.30 or even earlier if that means they can leave at 5pm. A 10pm close in a restaurant means that you have to have completed your meal by this time as this is when the staff (including the chef) goes home.

You could initially be offended by this practice - but don't be. This is the ethic that preserves the work/life/family balance that the Norwegians are famed for and makes Norway second in the world rankings of top 10 of best countries to live in for a work/life balance.

This is where my particular journey ended, but your gastronomic and cultural tour could continue and I am absolutely sure that you will return from your Norwegian encounter with a sense of awe and wonder at only having scratched the surface of this marvellous country located on our doorstep.

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