Words: Neil Geraghty
It’s Friday night in the small town of Voss in south-west Norway and the weekend is kicking off with a bang.
Not only have hundreds of excited school kids invaded the town for an annual mid summer football tournament, but Voss’s favourite folk rock band The Dumpster Divas are launching a video in the town’s coolest bar, the 3 Brør.
I’m on a Discovery Tour organised by Up! Norway, an innovative new tour operator that organises personalised journeys through an interactive app. I’m especially interested in local food and drink and at the 3 Brør I meet Totto, the bar manager. He tells me about a local beer that is making waves in the international craft beer scene. The ingredient arousing so much interest is kveik, a super resilient strain of farmhouse yeast that as Totto explains has an ancient lineage.
“A law in the Middle Ages ordered every farmer to brew beer for special occasions, especially Christmas. They stored the yeast on wooden rings which were hung in smokehouses and over the centuries the yeast developed unique qualities.”
Outside on the terrace he pours me a glass of Kveika Rugøl, a malted rye beer with a sweet, smoky aroma. The kveik adds zesty notes to the beer and the combination of caramel and citrus flavours is delicious. The Dumpster Divas dressed in long floral dresses come out onto the terrace for a photo shoot; there’s a touch of The Summer of Love as recordings of their quirky folk rock ballads fill the air.
Several beers later my head is spinning and I set off to walk back to my hotel, Store Ringheim, an ancient farmstead on a hillside overlooking Voss. At 11pm the sun is still shining and as I walk out of town I pass a farmer in a tractor mowing hay in a meadow. By 11.30 the sun has just set and when I reach the hotel I crash out to the sound of nightingales singing in a nearby wood.
In the morning I’m joined at breakfast by Svein Ringheim, owner of the farm which has been in his family for hundreds of years. He tells me that it was a leap of faith shifting the business over from farming to hospitality. But the ancient wooden farmhouse and barns with their spectacular 360° views of lakes and mountains are perfect for atmospheric rural breaks.
After breakfast Svein takes me for a spin to one of his favourite childhood haunts, the Bordal Gorge. Narrow gorges are a common feature in this part of Norway. During the last Ice Age glacial rivers containing hard granite and quartz carved deep gorges into the soft local phylite stone. Inside the gorge, Svein points out a circular depression in the rock. These are known as troll pots and were formed by eddies in the rivers. At the head of the gorge a waterfall cascades down the rocks sending up clouds of spray into the air which cool the air by a good 10°C, a perfect place for refreshing break during a hot midsummer hike.
The geography of Norway’s Fjordland is mind bogglingly complicated. Not only do the Fjords slice into the coastline for hundreds of kilometres, they have a confusing habit of splitting and sending off branches in all directions. This makes driving across Norway a real adventure during which you’ll need to make use of the excellent car ferries that cut hours off road journeys. From Voss I journey southwards and cross Hardanger Fjord to the village of Utne where just across the road from the wharf I check into Norway’s oldest hotel, the charming Utne Hotel which has been in continuous operation since 1722.
Hardanger Fjord is famous throughout Norway for its cider which is of such high quality it has been awarded Protected Designation of Origin status alongside the likes of champagne. Norwegian cider production dates back to the 1300s when English monks living in monasteries shared their brewing expertise with local farmers. A prohibition law in 1921 that lasted for 70 years severely curtailed production but the current worldwide craze for craft ciders has injected new life into the business and is attracting a new wave of millennial entrepreneurs.
In the historic hamlet of Agatunet, where a cluster of ancient medieval wooden houses double up as a folklore museum, I meet up with Joar Aga who recently gave up his job as a mechanic on the North Sea oil rigs to buy his uncle’s farm to start a cider brewing business. Our visit to Agatunet coincides with a folk music performance in a 12th century wooden hall where an aroma of ancient wood smoke hangs heavily in the air. A singer with flaming red hair introduces the concert with the story of Hulda a spirit of the forest who has a foxes tail and has her wicked way with men or women. Looking at me directly in the eye she says,
“If you’re nice to her, she’ll be nice to you”.
The audience bursts into laughter but I’ve an uneasy feeling I’m going to be sacrificed in a Viking cult. I’m glad when I sit down in a sunny courtyard cafe to taste some of Joar’s cider. My heart sinks though when he appears with a plate of Brunost, Norwegian brown cheese. Many a tourist has come a cropper at breakfast buffets in Norway thinking Brunost might taste like Red Leicester. It doesn’t! The only way to describe it is a combination of cheddar and fudge. To put it mildly, it’s an acquired taste.
“I’ve been exploring food pairings with the cider and discovered this brown boat’s milk cheese. I’d like to know what you think”, Joar says with an interested look in his eye.
I can hardly refuse and so steeling myself I pop a piece into my mouth. Expecting a mouthful of cloyingly sweet cheesiness, I’m pleasantly surprised. The sharpness of the goats milk cuts straight through the sweetness and washed down with the crisp aromatic cider, is utterly delicious; a genius combination.
From the 18th century quaintness of the Utne Hotel I travel to Nesflaten where I check into the stylish Energihotellet. Part of a futuristic 1960s hydroelectric plant complex on the shores of Lake Suldalsvatnet, it was designed by the acclaimed Norwegian modernist architect Geir Grung. For fans of mid century modernist architecture the hotel is a delight and the owners Olav and Gunhild Lindheim have lovingly renovated the sleek interiors that once housed apartments for managers of the plant. The most striking room is a cavernous lounge with a shimmering fireplace decorated with gold leaf. The original 1960s leather armchairs by Norwegian designer Sven Ivar Dysthe are still in situ where guests can get into the Norwegian habit of endless coffees while enjoying views of Lake Suldalsvatnet through floor to ceiling windows.
In the afternoon, I join owner Olav on a trip to his family farm to take some buckets of vegetable peelings from the restaurant to their flock of sheep. The road that runs along the lake is a section of one of Norway’s original scenic routes and has sweeping views of the mountains where waterfalls plunge down the steep cliffs in ribbons of white spray. During the summer months the sheep are taken to upland pastures and to reach the flock we need to clamber up a steep rocky path. When we arrive the sheep are pleased to see us and break out into a mini stampede to get to the peelings first which they wolf down in a cacophonous slurping frenzy.
In the middle of a meadow lies a cluster of old rickety barns and a wooden cottage overlooking the lake. Olav fetches some water from a nearby stream and we go inside to recover from the climb. The cottage is a delightful throw back to the 1970s and Olav and Gunhild occasionally let it out to artist friends as a retreat. An inquisitive sheep comes and stares at us through the window. Gazing out at the sunlit lake and mountains, I can easily imagine myself spending a couple of weeks here finding inspiration in these magnificent landscapes.
The itinerary in this trip between Bergen and Stavanger covers a section of Up Norway’s Discovery Route. For more information and bookings, please visit https://upnorway.com/campaign/the-discovery-route-adventures
Norwegian flies directly from London Gatwick to both Bergen and Stavanger, the starting and end point of The Discovery Route www.norwegian.com
For Scottish departures Wideroe flies directly from Aberdeen to both Bergen and Stavanger www.wideroe.no