Isn't It Good?
Day One, 18 May 2019.
This cruise is to Norway, hence the cryptic title. Brilliant arrangements for boarding the Braemar. We arrived at noon, were met and greeted by the car parkers and porters, strolled straight through check in and security, and were eating lunch by 12.15. Cabins were ready for 1 pm, luggage waiting outside. Don't you just hate airports?
We spent a leisurely 20 minutes peering over the balcony watching ship's provisions coming off the back of vast lorry and being shuttled about by forklift. Also observing the arrival of passengers who had followed instructions not to get to port before 1.30. The Heavy Brigade were engaged in a valiant charge up the gangplank. Stormed at with shot and shell, boldly they strode and well. They boarded, but not, not the six hundred (Alfred Lord Thomason). One poor soul was borne away in an ambulance, accompanied by concerned companions. Better than cruising around the fjords in the ship's morgue.
On Fred Olsen, dinner seating is fixed for the trip. We are on a table for six and if the company is dire, you have the option of taking another roll of the dice by changing restaurants. Fortunately, we deem this to be unnecessary. However, we will not know until tomorrow whether the other four decided that we are dire!
Anthea does not get the cryptic title of this travelogue. Her soul must be made of rubber. Made it to the gym by seven this morning, despite the clocks going forward and a smidgeon of over indulgence on day one. They seem to have added more equipment or maybe my equipment has diminished.
We do not arrive in port until tomorrow, so we could go line dancing, listen to a classical concert, or win a quiz. Instead, we opt for a general acclimatisation day, i.e. boozing, snoozing and shmoozing
Tonight the dress code is formal in the main restaurant and the overwhelming majority of cruisers are happy to go along with that, leaving the tracksuit two club to order another ten rounds of Newcastle Brown. The Romanian captain quips his way merrily through his welcome cocktail party and introduces his executive team. In matters maritime, Croatia and Bulgaria rule the waves, leaving the Welsh and Scots to boss the galley slaves.
I am happy to report that all our dining companions showed up, so we can't be that bad.
Our first stop in Norway is the city of Kristiansand, on the Skagerrak Sea. Its most attractive feature is a 17th Century quarter called Kvadraturen. White clapperboard houses line the grid planned streets, the last survivors of city wide fires which eventually prompted the city authorities to require all new builds to be in brick. The clapperboard houses are roofed with orange tiles from the Netherlands, the trade exchange being one lobster for one tile.
We then move on to the Vest Adger County Museum. Here they have re-assembled a 16th century farmstead, complete with turfed roofs. One of the grain stores has a removable section in the wall to enable the storage of bodies of those who died in winter when the ground was too hard to dig. The smoky dark interiors of the houses accommodated up to fifteen people in two rooms, but if you were young and healthy you slept with the pigs and cows. A woman's most attractive feature was considered to be weight lifter calves for lifting buckets.
At first sight modern Norwegian living appears to be very functional and politically correct. The Greens call the shots, beer is £12 a pint, 58% of all new cars bought are electric, and income tax is over 50%. Suddenly, those smokey dark interiors with a wood fire and a bucket of mead don't seem so bad, especially with a flash of bulging calf!
We rise early to watch our progress along the 100 kilometre Oslo Fjord, a route which takes us past the house of the Olsen family. Our boat is followed in by the larger Balmoral, the new rigid inflatable boats (RIBS) make up the rest of the flotilla and a special flag is run up in salute of the company founders when we pass the small village they came from in the 1840's. The scenery is very attractive on a sunny morning and crew bustle around with early morning tea, coffee, hot chocolate, Buck's Fizz, pastries and bacon, sausage and mushroom butties. Breakfast comes later.
There are just 5.2 million Norwegians but civic pride looms large in the architecture and layout of Oslo. The decision to have a royal family was made by referendum in the early 20th century. A splendid avenue leads up to the palace, bordered by elegant anti terrorist devices consisting of large metal saucers full of flowers. Norway has the largest public reserves in the world derived from its oil revenues, and this is reflected in grand scale building projects such as the 'glacier styled' opera house. But the highlight of the trip so far is a visit to Vigiland Sculpture Park. Gustav Vigiland was commissioned by the city authorities in the late 19th century to produce statues for public spots. He somewhat over-delivered and there are now over 200 groups of these in a beautiful landscape. Made in iron, bronze and granite they are a exhilarating expression of the human form and experience from cradle to grave. Some are in simple repose, contrasting with others which are engaged in extreme contortions.
High above the city is the Holmenkollen Ski Centre. A new ski jump and biathlon arena are under construction and testify to the obsession this country has with the sport. What an excellent obsession! The word 'ski' is Norwegian for flat plank. Ancient carvings depict folk on skis, presumably Nords winning the Bedrock Downhill.
The approach to Arendal is reputed to be one of the most scenic in the world, and very pretty it is. We berth close to the town centre adjacent to a steep cliff with houses on top. A footpath zig zags to the top. Along this and in the garden of the house about three dozen school children perform a dance to a piece from 'Frozen'. This has not been announced on board but all the cruisers with starboard cabins or taking a deck stroll give an enthusiastic round of applause when the performance has finished. A great way of showing of the best side of ŷour culture. Norwegiansare still deeply wounded by the massacre of the children by the right wing nutcase in 2011. The guy responsible is never named and is referred to simply as 'the traitor'.
We take a small boat ride around channels and skerries of the archipelago. The hills and coastline are covered with beautiful forests and white clapperboard houses. Apparently the place has won the European award for the best maintained properties. Almost every house has a boat and this is a very popular summer resort. Today, the misty waters are very calm and the gulls and cormorants have it to themselves - apart from us!
We go along with the suggestion to dress up for British night. Escapist patriotism and mythical identities run riot in the sing song featuring national twaddle songs, and there is no hint of Xenophobia, even though folk are balling
"Red, white and blue
What does it mean to you
Surely you're proud
Shout it out loud."
Harmless enough. Probably.
Into the fjords proper this morning covering Maurangsfjord, Fureberg Waterfall and Hardangerfjord. Isn't it good, Norwegian Wood, hums Anthea, the Penny having dropped.
All very epic. The minimisation of humans and the omnipresence of nature bring on a serious case of pseuds corner, an overload of awe and wonder, and a swelling of the numinous. It is rumoured that some passengers have had to retreat to their cabins and lie down until scenic sickness abates. Not this one.
In the afternoon we get up close to the elements by boarding a RIB. We don bright yellow thermal floatation suits, goggles and gloves and wizz around Eijefjord at up to 40 knots. At one end of the water there is a hydro electric power station big enough to power the city of Bergen. Hardly any of it is visible, as the pipes and turbines have been inserted into the cliffs.
On a plateau 400 meters high is an old farm, and in former times the children had to go up and down a footpath to school. "Late again Ibsen. What's the excuse this time?" Norway had universal literacy much earlier than the U.K. And it was one of the reasons why the small nation was economically successful even before the discovery of oil.
Before we return to the ship our driver takes us close to the bottom of a tumbling waterfall, and we really feel we've earned a tumbler of Bailey's.
We go into the Lysefjord during the morning, regarded by those who are supposed to know these things to be the ultimate expression of fjord topography. Royal Caribbean would get wedged in the first bend! High vertical cliffs on port and starboard give way to stretches of open water with mountains receding in rows to a vanishing point. Don't try to paint the scene unless you have mastered perspective. We pass the famous Pulpit Rock and the world's longest wooden staircase (4,444 steps ) which has something to do with another hidden power station. It has become a tradition to bring over a Gang of Sherpas once a year to repair and maintain stone footpaths used by hikers. They have celebrity status, which probably means feature articles in 'Hikey Hikey Ho' magazine.
The second and final formal night of the trip concludes with the ever popular crew show, which demonstrates that the workers have considerately more talent among them than we would ever guess over the breakfast table. As I have said in a previous report it is an ingenious way of stirring up the feel good factor all round. The status of the crew is elevated, while the guests feel they're making a small contribution to world social mobility. Indeed, during the final song, in the little bubble of suspended reality that is the Neptune Lounge , "We Are The World".
The day of the gala buffet. Being new to Olsen, our dining companions can't quite believe their taste buds as they range across sumptuous seafood, the finest cold meats and a giant cooked gammon in a shortcrust pastry, an overwhelming display of cakes and pastries, not to mention the chocolate fountain. "Oh the buzzing of the bees, in the cigarette trees...."etc.
We have now left Norwegian waters and are churning our way through the North Sea back to Blighty, the land we love, but also the land of blubbing bungling ministers, broken promises, and Brexit Bollocks. That said, would you really want to live in a land of welfare economics, equality of opportunity way beyond the U.K. model, the highest Human Development Index in the world, the top spot in the World Happiness Report, the Better Life Index and the Index of Public Integrity and Democracy?
Perhaps not. But we might like to take a closer look at it!
This room has a double width balcony, as it extends over a storage area. Next to a lifeboat, but the view is not restricted.