Photography Eivind Senneset
On maps, the city of Ålesund is a tiny dot on Norway’s rugged west coast. So small, you could easily overlook it.
But upon landing, this little place makes a big impression. Set where spiky mountains rise straight from the Atlantic, here nature comes flooding in from all sides. This city of 43,000 people is surrounded by jaw-dropping vistas, and the locals explore them from every angle: the steeper, the better.
Mount Aksla is a good warm-up. Exactly 418 stone steps ascend from the city centre to the top of this natural, rocky observatory for an unsurpassed panorama of the string of interconnected islands that make up Ålesund.
Built right up to the water’s edge, the place seems to float on the fjord and people here like to boast that you can fish straight from your downtown window.
A tiny red lighthouse at the end of a skinny walkway marks the boundary between the harbour and the open water. It still works, and sleeps two in what must be the most romantic room in town. However, in a place brimming with art nouveau architecture, complete with fairytale turrets, silvery slate roofs and colourful facades, there are many candidates.
Marine engineering student Torstein Solem Lianes knows the steps up Mount Aksla only too well. "I ran them almost every day for three weeks," he explains. He was in training for the city’s annual stair race. Last year he won with a time of two minutes and 42 seconds, just missing the all-time record.
To say that Torstein likes a challenge is an understatement. A former skier for the Norwegian alpine junior team, he recently became something of a local hero for running around Hjørundfjord. The feat was entirely self-inflicted.
"It’s a steep and slippery route, with drops of 100 metres. I ran parts of it in the dark," he says. He completed the circuit with a friend in just under 20 hours.
He has also hiked up and skied down 36 local peaks in the last five months (ski lifts are for wimps in these parts).
Like any student, he enjoys a night out. But he is probably the only one to go for a mid-winter dip in the fjord ‘to clear his head’ the next day. "Getting in is the worst. After a few seconds, you just feel pleasantly numb," he says before striding into the frigid waters. He doesn’t even flinch. Viking blood isn’t quick to freeze, apparently. Or maybe the fishcakes and beer from the night before have natural thermal qualities.
Torstein may be a slightly extreme example, but there seems to be a culture here of pitting your strength against the surroundings. There are outdoor races for everything and Norwegian CEOs sometimes include their race times in their CV. Being physically strong is a sign of prestige: the idea being that if you can master nature and your body, then you must be fit to run a company.
But perhaps that’s only natural when your backyard is a giant adventure playground. From base jumping (jumping off cliffs with only a parachute) to ice climbing, sea kayaking, diving, skiing and hiking, the area around Ålesund abounds with possibilities for adventure sport, including the relatively new and highly adventurous ‘ski base jumping’ (base jumping with skis) and kite skiing.
But fear not, you don’t need nerves of steel to enjoy the scenery. There are ski and hiking routes for all levels. And, to add a maritime twist to the mountain experience, there’s something called ‘sail and ski’, a setup that lets you anchor on the fjord, hike up 1,500-metre peaks and ski down pristine powder before being rocked to sleep back on board the boat.
For unadulterated skiing pleasure, Stranda Ski Resort is a must. It is 50km away from Ålesund, in the Sunnmøre Alps, with views onto the Storfjord, seven lifts and 17 downhill runs. Stranda is also a known powder paradise for off-piste skiing enthusiasts.
And you can hit the slopes after dark, when bright overhead lights aimed at the piste make the snow positively glow. Above, a yellow crescent moon further illuminates the black night; the only constant in the ever-changing constellation of skiers.
A group of teenage girls kitted out in matching ski suits weave their way down in a mean slalom while a lone silhouette perfects his parallel turns, speeding down the slope backwards.
The road out offers thrills of its own. Winding past colourful wooden farmhouses, Christmas-card cottages, silver lakes and evergreens, the drive to Geirangerfjord is intoxicating. "Mercedes use the hairpin bends going down to Geiranger to test their new cars in winter conditions and Subaru are planning their next car commercial in a stretch nearby," says Ove Skylstad.
Ove develops itineraries for local adventure organisations and knows every mountain here by heart. Conversations en route are regularly interrupted when a new peak enters the horizon: "See that? That’s a great one for hiking and skiing".
Finally, with one more twist of the road, Geirangerfjord swings into view. Although it only gained its UNESCO status in 2005, its natural beauty has been appreciated for over a century, with the first cruise ships arriving here as early as 1869. The area was a favourite with Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and is often visited by current Norwegian Queen Sonja, who is an avid hiker.
Every year on 21 February, the town of Geiranger, tucked into the end of the fjord, celebrates the return of the sun to the valley as it finally emerges from the shadows of the surrounding mountains. "That’s why people here are so fond of hiking – in the winter, the peaks are the only place people can get direct sunlight," Ove jokes.
Nestled along the shallows of this iconic fjord is a row of 100-year-old wooden boathouses. Yet it’s not the smell of fish or seaweed that emanates from here, but the unlikely smell of chocolate. For the past two years, Bengt Dahlberg has been making his Fjordnaer chocolate here, with an envy-inducing view over the fjord. He is inspired by local ingredients to create inventive combinations like blue cheese and chocolate. No kidding. "The cheese I use won the title of best blue cheese in the world last year. It’s made near here, in Nordmøre," Bengt says. It’s surprisingly delicious.
Back at the dock, a black and white ferry is already waiting. "Last year, there was a whale in the fjord that followed the ferry back and forth for two weeks," Ove says. Indeed, there is a certain likeness as the rounded vessel opens its large iron jaw to ingest a new meal of cars. Once safe in its belly, the boat heads across the water, setting a sea of white-crested peaks adrift. Reflected in the fjord, the entire landscape floats by, proving that when mountains meet water, it’s pure magic.
Out Of The Ashes
Originally, Ålesund was built largely of wood. But in 1904 a devastating fire swept through, reducing almost everything to ashes. More than 850 houses were lost and 10,000 people became homeless. Some 52 young Norwegian architects were given free rein to start from scratch. Four hundred houses were built in three years and Ålesund was considered the most modern town in Europe at the time, with electricity, running water, bathrooms and streetlights.
Ålesund has relied on fishing for hundreds of years, so seafood is a mainstay of regional cuisine. Specialist restaurant Maki offers a feast of fresh fish. From wild scallops to mussels, lobster, and cod, the fish are all caught in local waters. Founder Ole Jonny Hjelmeseth spent two years working as a chef on a fishing boat, so he knows his herring from his halibut. He started a restaurant to fill his time during shore leave. The restaurant became so successful, that he eventually gave up his stints at sea. "Making food from the sea, that’s my life. We change the menu every day, depending on the catch in the harbour," he says.
Ålesund Fact File
From 4 april, KLM will operate two daily, non-stop flights to Ålesund vigra airport from amsterdam airport Schiphol
When To Go
A spectacular destination all year round, but February to april is the best for skiing. However, with Stryn Summer Ski Centre two hours away and open in July and august, you can alternate summery pursuits like surfing, hiking and kayaking with a winter wonderland.
Where To Stay
Hotel Brosundet (www.brosundet.no) is an intimate waterfront hotel in a former fish warehouse incorporating original architecture into a modern interior. The hotel is home to fish restaurant Maki and a unique lighthouse suite in the harbour. Juvet (on the road to Trollstigen) is perfect for those who want to get close to nature. The only thing separating you from rustling pines and a rushing stream at this modern ‘landscape hotel’ of seven separate cabins is a wall of glass.
What To Do
In Ålesund, discover the town’s architectural history at the Art Nouveau Centre (www.jugendstilsenteret.no).
Don’t miss the superb hikes around Geirangerfjord, a UNeSCO site. Walking tours can be organised fvia Hotel Union (www.hotel-union.no).
You can take this magazine with you, or read the article again at www.holland-herald.com.