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Bergen, Norway

This is the story of the almost mythic attempt to find Hardangervidda National Park. This is also the story of Bryggen, the Hanseatic League, and Constitution Day.

I arrived in Bergen, Norway with two unstated goals: the first to photograph reindeer. As with many of my overseas trips, they begin with general ideas but lack for specifics. I like to experience a new area with few preconceived notions and few plans. Given this was Scandinavia, the only thing I could be certain of was rain and cold. Plans would adapt as needed. I had a car and no limits for what I could see. The maps suggested the possibility of road trips to Sognefjellet and Stavanger. I could see the high mountains and glaciers. I could visit the sword sculpture. Six days. Everything was possible.

On paper that made sense. Closer inspection, once on the ground, revealed some of those assumptions to be incorrect. The road system was limited, most having the purpose of linking Bergen and Oslo, and to travel outside the general area would require ferries. The idea of relying on ferries to cross fjords wasn’t appealing. It made long day trips less likely.

I knew, though, that Hardangervidda was the goal. I’d done no research other than identifying the park on a map. I knew the roads that would take me to it. Time to get going!

We should get a few things out of the way. The Norwegian countryside is spectacular, to protect it – roads frequently burrow under mountains. Much of the drive time is spent in tunnels. When I emerged from those tunnels, dramatic fjords appeared, seemingly around every turn. To improve on those views, it was not cold and rainy at all. Instead, the week was cloudless and warm. Bright sunshine enhanced the fjords, forests, mountains and water. Everything glowed. The air was shockingly clean, almost to the point of having no discernible smell. And to make things better, the temperature was often around 70 F.

Groggy from jet lag, but stunned by the incredibly beauty of Norway, I drove towards Hardangervidda. I knew I was getting close. Fjords became more prevalent. Mountains seemed to rise higher. Snow dotted cliffs. I had always believed the entrance to the park to be on the western side. Not for the first time that week, I got lost and started heading along the northern side. That brought me to a place called Eidfjord.

Even though I didn’t find the park entrance that day, nothing was lost. Eidfjord was worth the trip. Still exhausted by the nine hour time difference, I decided to drive back to Bergen. I could find the park the next day…

Which just goes to show that Einstein was correct! The definition of insanity really is doing the same thing multiple times, expecting different results. I knew, was certain, the entrance was on the western exposure. The next day I began driving, but at some point accidentally went in the wrong direction. There was a sign for “Flam”. Wait a second – even my jetlagged brain realized Flam is one of the major ports for boat trips up the Sognefjord (i.e. “The King of Fjords”). That wasn’t, in any way, in the direction of Hardangervidda.

The second unstated reason for the trip was to see fjords. For anyone who has read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, they’ll know how proud Slartibartfast was of creating fjords and that he’d won an award for them. I could go see what all the fuss was about.

Flam, not unexpectedly, is a tourist trap. It’s largely just a harbor with places to buy t-shirts. Think of every small tourist town you’ve ever visited in Alaska, and you’ll know what I mean. I kept driving to a small town called Aurlandsvangen and what a difference that was. Everything about it was photogenic and welcoming.

I was tired at this point and felt I needed a day off from driving. May 16th, I’d hang around Bergen, do something cultural and then on May 17th, I’d finally do some research and figure out how to get into Hardangervidda – which just goes to show, again, how poorly I planned. More details on that later.

The centerpiece of Bergen is Bryggen – the old Hanseatic League hub. Centuries ago, a merchant class developed in Europe. They needed a way to safely sell their goods. At that time, there wasn’t much support from governments and there were risks everywhere. The merchants banded together to create the support network called the Hanseatic League.

In Bergen that meant having a headquarters for the “stockfish” caught in Northern Norway, along the Lofoten Islands. The merchants would then ensure safe transport for those stockfish to other points in Europe. Bryggen – the pointy buildings you’ve seen in pictures – was primarily an administrative office for exporting stockfish and importing cereal.

Bryggen had been destroyed by fire a number of times. The buildings that remain are the ones that survived and were rebuilt. Today if you want to buy Norwegian trolls to bring back home, this is the place. It’s highly photogenic and overwhelmed by tourists. It wasn’t unusual to see entire tour groups taking pictures and selfies of themselves in front of the buildings.

When I returned to the hotel, the staff behind the counter looked up. One of the women asked anxiously: “are you planning on driving tomorrow?” I appreciated that they frequently provided advice about things to see in Norway. I particularly appreciated that after the cold distance I’d remembered from Oslo the prior year. But why did tomorrow matter? I looked blankly, as only an American could, at them. They replied: “tomorrow is Constitution Day, the city will be shut down, the prime minister will be here. There will be parades all day.”

I’m not usually a big fan of crowds. I’d rather be miles, or kilometers in this case, away from them. But no self-respecting photographer, or tourist for that matter, would pass up an opportunity to take part in Constitution Day. While an oversimplification, it’s analogous to July 4th for us and is used to celebrate independence from Sweden and later Nazi Germany. Courtesy of Wikipedia, here’s some background:

The Constitution of Norway was signed at Eidsvoll on May 17 in the year 1814. The constitution declared Norway to be an independent kingdom in an attempt to avoid being ceded to Sweden after Denmark–Norway's devastating defeat in the Napoleonic Wars.

The celebration of this day began spontaneously among students and others from early on. However, Norway was at that time in a union with Sweden (following the Convention of Moss in August 1814) and for some years the King of Sweden and Norway were reluctant to allow the celebrations. For a few years during the 1820s, King Karl Johan actually banned it, believing that celebrations like this were in fact a kind of protest and disregard — even revolt — against the union.[2] The king's attitude changed after the Battle of the Square in 1829, an incident which resulted in such a commotion that the king had to allow commemorations on the day. It was, however, not until 1833 that public addresses were held, and official celebration was initiated near the monument of former government minister Christian Krohg, who had spent much of his political life curbing the personal power of the monarch. The address was held by Henrik Wergeland, thoroughly witnessed and accounted for by an informant dispatched by the king himself.

After 1864 the day became more established when the first children's parade was launched in Christiania, at first consisting only of boys. This initiative was taken by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, although Wergeland made the first known children's parade at Eidsvoll around 1820. It was only in 1899 that girls were allowed to join in the parade for the first time. In 1905, the union with Sweden was dissolved and Prince Carl of Denmark was chosen to be King of an independent Norway, under the name Haakon VII. Obviously, this ended any Swedish concern for the activities of the National Day.

By historical coincidence, the Second World War ended in Norway nine days before that year's Constitution Day, on May 8, 1945, when the occupying German forces surrendered. Even if The Liberation Day is an official flag day in Norway, the day is not an official holiday and is not widely celebrated. Instead, a new and broader meaning has been added to the celebration of Norwegian Constitution Day on May 17

Parades began around 8am and continued till almost noon. Men traditionally wear suits and women wear clothes that identify what region of Norway their families are from.

I was also able to photograph the prime minister, although she had her back to me:

The amazing thing was the lack of apparent security for a world leader. Norway absolutely had a different approach. During the children parades, motorbike stunts and gymnastics occurred in the street, with no safety measures at all. In both cases, it wouldn’t be hyperbole to say someone could have “broken their neck”. It was refreshing, instead, that Norway’s attitude was: if that happens, the kids will just be safer next time.

I had one more day to find Hardangervidda! On Thursday evening, I finally did some research. I learned that there are no roads into the park. There is a road that runs alongside the southern border of the park and is considered one of the great drives in the country, but it would take 5 hours just to get to the start and by then, I'd be more than halfway to Oslo. I decided that finding reindeer maybe wasn't that important. I needed a rest from crowds and cities. I changed plans and went to Handangerfjord instead.

While not as spectacular as other fjords, it’s one of the few where you can drive almost the full length of it. That made taking pictures easier.

When my last day rolled around, I was ready to go home. But there was one tourist site left I had to visit: the funicular over Bergen. The top of the mountain afforded great views of the city, harbor, and surrounding areas. Plus I took another opportunity to photograph the downtown in the amazing light conditions.

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