In Haugesund we are met by our old friend: the Atlantic gale. It will chase us through all of Norway, but once we get off the western coast, it stops being a nuisance at night.
It is, however, a nuisance during the day. The engineers who carved the E39-E18 through Norway’s mountains and fjords have inadvertently created the perfect corridor for all the air from the west of the country to move to its east. It is a remarkable thing to witness, if a bit disconcerting: not a blade of grass moves on the roadside, but the car is almost flying on the gale, as if in an aerodynamic tunnel.
These same engineers, when building the stretch linking Haugesund with Stavanger, decided to make up for the relative flatness of the terrain by constructing along the way long v-shaped tunnels, going up and down at steep angles for miles. It’s a painful test for our poor van, and a harbinger of things to come the next day.
Stavanger! The very name screams “Vikings!”. But today the only sea invaders are the pensioners disembarking from the massive cruise ships which blot the city’s skyline. Despite this, and despite being Norway’s oil capital, Stavanger succeeds in retaining its charming character. The old town – huddling in the shadow of the cruisers – is a real jewel of white timbered houses bathed in flowers, one of the most beautiful we’ve seen so far, if a bit on a small scale (as everything man-made in Norway).
We skip the museums showcasing the town’s former and present prosperity: canning and petroleum (the later far too expensive – the nerve of Norwegians, earning money not just from digging out oil, but even talking about it!) but we do stop to admire the architecture of both: understated old style of the former, and the steel-and-glass modernism of the latter.
A brief meeting with a friend from our WoW-raiding days and a stop at a random nearby campsite later, we follow the advice of every single Norwegian tourist guide and leave the E39 for the “scenic route”, Rv44, linking Egersund and Flekkefjord. The words “scenic route” raise a moan of despair from both M. and the car, and they are soon both proven right. Rv44 leads through wondrous country – the middle of the billion-years old magma fields, falling deep into the sea and cut through with several fjords, rivers and waterfalls; it looks unearthly, at times like Iceland, at times like the Irish Burren. The Jossingfjord itself is worth the detour, cutting deep into the 500m-tall pillows of frozen lava. The views are literally breath-taking, and the experience of driving above the tops of the lighthouses and the radar towers of massive oil tankers is nothing short of surreal. But…
The road is nothing like the relatively smooth and flat E39. There are no big tunnels and cut-through corridors here, only a truly alpine serpentine, winding up, down, left, right, as the terrain goes – and the terrain here rises from the sea level to sheer mountaintops. The van protests; the engine screams uphill, the brakes whine downhill. Miraculously, however, at the end of the day – touch wood – although we’ve added significantly to the array of strange noises coming from both inside and outside of the vehicle, nothing major seems to have broken or fallen apart, and as we join the E39 in Flekkefjord, we are able to continue the journey with no delay.
For two more days we drive along Norway’s southern coast, taking in the views and soaking in the Mediterranean sun. This is Norway’s “riviera”, dotted with sandy beaches – the longest, and southernmost of them in Mandal – and pretty white-washed towns. The towns, though picturesque, and all filled with what looks very much like an averagely talented child’s drawing of a “small house” – white walls, red roof, two windows and a chimney puffing smoke – begin to meld into one in your mind at some point. You can take a pick of a few to stop by, and that should do you well enough.
Kristiansand, among all this, is the only one with a difference. It’s large – though still deceptively small – sprawling, and laid out in a systematic grid of perfectly square blocks, the “kvadraturen”. It has a great cafe in the art museum’s building – first proper coffee since Copenhagen – the longest timber street fronts in Europe, a cathedral, an italianate townhall, and… palms and olive trees scattered around the town centre, in an attempt to make it even more mediterranean than the weather already does. The trees are potted, and kept in greenhouses in the winter, though if global warming has its way with this coast, I imagine the practice won’t continue for very long.
Grimstad is the last of the uber-cute white-washed towns on our way to Oslo. Apart from looking resplendent in the summer sun, it also boasts Henrik Ibsen‘s house and pharmacy he worked in while writing some of his earliest work. From there, we speed on down the E18, and through the second of Norway’s GeoParks. It’s easy to see why there’s a GeoPark here: the highway cuts through a multitude of rock types, each dynamited boulder a different colour and texture from the other. The rocks in Lillesand look like heaps of slag from an iron foundry; further on, they become pink granite, then grey, then white, then layers of black and white clay, all twisted and bent out of shape by the massive geological forces shaping Scandinavia.
There’s more of the same raw, wild elements – rocks, forests, water – on the Molen Peninsula where we make the last stop before Oslo. The peninsula is divided equally between granite quarries, potato fields and beach-side campsites: we pass at least half a dozen before finally deciding on one looking the most rural and wild.