We’ve seen so much since I took the time to really get in depth about the ports on this trip, that now that we have a few sea days, I thought I’d take the time to share some of the things we’ve learned along the way about this part of the world. I’ll go back to the beginning of this itinerary and start with Bergen.
Bergen is one of the larger cities in Norway, and has a long history as a sea port, fishing port and trading city. The oldest part of the city is around the old port and there you can find the remains of a medieval fort, the Bergenhus Fortress and King Haakon’s Hall which houses a well-preserved medieval tapestry. Near these are the wooden buildings – some original, some reconstructed – that served as warehouses, shops, and homes for the merchants of the Hanseatic League, and the Schotstuene, a medieval assembly hall. Together this area is called the Bryggen Waterfront and it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Adjacent to the Bryggen is the famous Fish Market, now selling prepared food, arts and crafts and tourist trinkets as well as fish, and about a block away from this area is the entry to the funicular that goes to the top of Mt. Floyen. This is one of the most popular attractions in Bergen, at least in clear weather, as it affords a panoramic view of the harbor and the city. There is also a café, gift shop, playground and a network of hiking trails at the summit. Outside of town, reachable by bus, on tour, or by taxi, you can find the summer home of Edward Grieg, Troldhaugen, and a replica of a stave church, the Fantoft Stavechurch. The original burned down in 1992.
From Bergen, we cruised almost due west, to Lerwick in the Shetland Islands. The Shetlands are a part of Scotland, but are actually closer to Norway than to Scotland, and were a part of Norway and the Danish Empire before becoming a part of Scotland when they were ceded to the Scottish king as part of the dowry of his Viking bride. Said to be more Norse than Scottish in heritage, the Shetlands are home to a number of festivals, chief among which is the Up Helly A, a fire festival which takes place annually on the last Tuesday of January. A longboat replica is built, then burned after a torchlit procession through the streets. A gallery/museum showing the costumes, photos and videos of past celebrations is in downtown Lerwick, and there is a website as well – www.uphellyaa.org Other indicators of the strong Norse connections are found in the place names which borrow heavily from Old Norse – endings such as ‘sta’, Ulsta, Tresta come from the Old Norse ‘setr’ a summer pasture for cattle, ‘tun’ or ‘toon’ come from ‘tun’ a township, ayre – a sandy or gravelly bank, from the Old Norse eyrr – there are many more including ‘dale’ for valley, ‘wart’ and ‘ward’ for watch tower, and ‘ness’ for a headland, and ‘ting’ from the Old Norse for an assembly place, part of the system of administration and justice. But even before the Vikings arrived some 1,000 years ago, the Shetlands had long been inhabited, with the first settlers arriving from the south, making their way slowly northward from one visible island to the next, arriving in the Shetlands something like 6,000 to 7,000 years ago. The Jarlshof site contains six main levels of habitation, some going back to the Neolithic period, perhaps as much as 5,000 to 6,000 years ago, and including an Iron Age broch (round stone tower) and ‘wheel houses – stone structures in the shape of a wheel, with the spokes defining living, sleeping, and work spaces; the remains of Viking longhouses and village buildings, including a forge, a medieval farmstead, and the remains of the laird’s house, from around 1600 for which the site was named by Walter Scott in The Pirate. Other archeological sites include Mousa Broch, a 2,000 year old Iron Age tower, and St. Ninian’s Isle, home of a tiny Celtic chapel from around 800 AD. Other points of interest in learning about the history and way of life in the Shetlands are the Crofthouse Museum, a homestead restored to what it would have been like in the late 1800s, including the barn and byre, home-made furnishings, and home and farm tools and implements. Nearby is the restored Quendale Mill, a water mill providing grinding of grains for the surrounding farms. Both provide a glimpse into the bygone era of subsistence farming.
From Shetland, we made our way northward, crossing over the Arctic Circle to visit Iceland. With three stops in Iceland, we also had a nightly watch for the Northern Lights, and at least some of the passengers managed to see them on three different nights. Personally, I only managed one sighting, which was also the least spectacular, but still, I did get to see them. Most of the time, the activity level was low to moderate, and the weather was cold and overcast, so the glimpses were few and generally, quite late at night – the best one was at around 1 AM on the night we left our first port of call, Akureyri. I had given up the watch about 11 PM after a long day of sightseeing. Akureyri is the largest town in the north of Iceland, with a population around 18,000. It was established by the Vikings in the 9th century, and officially chartered in 1786. Points of interest in Akureyri are the Godafoss Waterfall, the waterfall of the gods, so named because a Viking chief who had converted to Christianity threw his images of Odin and Thor into the waterfall to prove his new faith, Lake Myvatn, and Myvatn Nature Baths – natural geothermal spring mineral baths, and the Namaskard geothermal area with boiling mud pools and steam vents.
Isafjordur, our next port in Iceland, was created from several smaller communities in 1997, and was a fishing port until the fisheries began to fail and quotas were imposed. Today it is largely an administrative center with about as many people employed in civil service as in fisheries, about 20% each, with the remaining jobs mostly in the service and commerce sectors. Tourism is a minor part of the economy and mostly concentrated in wildlife, particularly birding on Vidur island, home to thousands of birds of many species, and five people.