Despite writing about Harald Hardrada, the King of Norway in 1066, I had no intention of visiting the country of his birth; it was all my wife’s doing! Not that I was given reason to complain, I have been interested in taking a cruise for a while now but I had also been thinking of warmer climes. It was coincidence, or serendipity as my wife likes to call it, that proved to be the deciding factor. She saw an advertisement in the local paper announcing that the MV Azores would be sailing from our home town of the Port of Hull to Norway in July and booked us a cabin.
It is perhaps fitting for an author of historical fiction that the MV Azores is, according to extant records, the oldest oceangoing passenger ship afloat. She was launched in 1946 as the Stockholm and came into service in 1948. She is can carry 550 passengers in reasonable luxury and is equipped with 2 restaurants, a bar, an auditorium that also doubles as a cinema, a nightclub, a casino, a show lounge, a library (where copies of my books now reside), a boutique, fitness centre, sauna and beauty spa. The Azores has a colourful history having sailed under the flags of Sweden, East Germany, Panama, Italy, and currently Portugal. She has also had 9 names and will change to her tenth, ‘Astoria’, at the end of the 2015 cruise calendar. In 1956 the Azores, under her original name of
‘Stockholm’, collided in thick fog with the Italian liner Andrea Doria off the coast of Nantucket. The Italian ship sank and 5 crewmembers of the Azores were killed but greater loss of life was averted due to the prompt response of other ships in the area. Despite suffering severe damage the Azores assisted in the rescue and managed to sail under her own steam to New York. The last notable event that the Azores was involved in was while she sailed the Gulf of Aden in 2008 and was attacked by pirates! The crew defended the ship with high-pressure water cannons and was assisted by a US Navy P-3 Orion maritime patrol craft and she completed her voyage unharmed.
I have to admit to feeling quite privileged to be travelling on board such a vessel, even more so when we discovered the BBC filming the embarkation process! There was a time when many such ships sailed from the Port of Hull but they are few and far between these days, mostly limited to P&O’s North Sea ferries that sail to Zeebrugge and Rotterdam. My father was an engineer in the Merchant Navy and remembers even the cargo vessels he sailed on being equipped with passenger cabins that were more often than not occupied on voyages to West Africa. I think our cabin 316 on Atlantic deck was better appointed however.
Setting sail on Friday 17th July we reached Norwegian waters on the following day and began our exploration of Scandinavia with a ‘technical’ stop at Ulvik. From there we began the actual cruise of the fjords heading for Eidfjord. The landscape was breathtakingly beautiful; even with low lying mist and light rain. At Eidfjord we went ashore and visited the impressive Voringsfossen waterfall at the top of the Mabodalen valley.
As we sailed round to Flam (pronounced flom) we enjoyed a reception dinner with the ship’s captain. I had practiced tying a bowtie prior to this event and, I believed, become quite proficient in the art but on this inaugural dinner suit event the little bugger proved most recalcitrant. It took a bit of swearing, sweating and numerous attempts before I managed to subdue my bowtie and present myself with my beautiful wife, who had not experienced any difficulties in getting ready whatsoever, for photographs with the captain.
Visiting Flam was fun, not least because the Azores’ berth was still occupied by an Italian liner that had been impounded by the Norwegian police who were busy investigating a suspected murder on board! As a result we had to be ‘tendered’ by lifeboat to shore. This was the one and only occasion where we took part in an organised excursion ashore, the main reason being that we were guaranteed a seat on the very popular Flam railway; Flamsbana – The Most Beautiful Train Journey in the World as it is advertised. It did not disappoint.
The Flamsbana has a steep gradient of 1:18 or 5%, 10 stations, 20 tunnels, and a bridge. It
terminates at Myrdal but today we were going the stop immediately prior to that, a place called Vatnahalsen where we were to have coffee and waffles. Along the way we stopped at Kjosfossen to view the spectacular waterfall and listen to the enticing song of the huldra, singing female trolls! Vatnahalsen was a place of contrasts. We walked around in t-shirts enjoying warm summer sunshine and trying to avoid the attention of mosquitos some 2662 ft. above sea level. Snow was present and not just on the nearby mountain tops but also within reach. I was attacked with a snowball by a huldra who looked suspiciously like my wife but fortunately she threw like a girl and I was able to dodge the icy missile.
Flam proved to be a very entertaining place to visit, a fact demonstrated by the large number of tourists who had to be dodged like huldra thrown snowballs wherever you went in this small but beautiful town. However, the cocktail of the day was waiting for us so we tendered back to the ship and another wearisome evening of good food, good company, and surprisingly good entertainment in the show lounge.
Our next stop was the village of Olden situated 61° north, the closest we were to come to the Arctic circle and representing our best chance of seeing the Aurora Borealis. Unfortunately it was overcast and rainy so we never did get to see the Northern Lights; maybe next time? On disembarking down the gangplank I was accosted by a young Norwegian boy trying to sell me tickets for a sightseeing trip on a tourist land-train. Sadly my Norwegian was as good as his English so we totally failed to talk to each other. We did buy tickets for his train, however, and it proved an entertaining ride simply because the English commentary was unintentionally funny what with the narrator telling us how his teeth shiver in winter!
Although Olden is not very large it is set once again in stunning scenery, surrounded by snow-capped mountains that form the Oldedalen valley through which the Oldeelva River flows. It is subject to severe winter weather and has suffered several fatal avalanches. A survivor of the last one who lost his father and brother still lives in the village.
Next came Bryggen, better known to us English as Bergen, a beautiful former hanseatic port with friendly people and the most expensive beer that I have ever bought! Bergen has a population of 278000 approximately, which puts it on par with Hull, but it is frequently inflated by the presence of pesky tourists; like ourselves for example. England has a bit of involvement in the history of Bergen, none of it respectable unfortunately. In 1349 an English ship called at the port and unwittingly unloaded a cargo of Black Death; the first instance in Norway. A few years later in 1665 an English flotilla chased a Dutch treasure fleet into the port and attacked it believing that an agreement allowing for this action had been reached between King Charles II and King Frederick III of Denmark-Norway, sadly the orders for the garrison commander, Claus von Ahelfeldt, were a bit tardy in arriving and when the English attacked he decided to help the Dutch; he must have felt a bit of a ninny when he discovered 6 days later that he was supposed to be helping the English? The battle did not go well for my countrymen but we never held it against the Norwegians!
After a tour of the famous Bryggen and fish-market we retired to a bar on Rosenkrantzgaten that was disappointingly decorated in Union Jacks although mostly on the furniture. This was the hostelry where I spent the equivalent of £40 on 2 rounds of drinks! Well it had to be done. No one comes to Scandinavia without buying an expensive drink so that they can brag or complain about it when they get home.
A slow walk back to the ship ensued, mostly because my wife had not yet given up on doing some shopping. High tea on board the Azores gave me time to rest my weary feet and another cocktail of the day helped me forget the price of the beer. As the ship set sail for England we enjoyed a last formal dinner and this time I won the fight with the bowtie at the first attempt; it was my wife’s turn to suffer a sartorial struggle, but she won out in the end.
I have come to the conclusion that I like cruises. The MV Azores may well prove to be an exceptional ship in that she has such a long history and stands out against the floating hotels that are currently in vogue, the kind of ships that just do not appeal to me. Having visited Norway do I feel any closer to King Hardrada? No, not really. Too much time stands in between us. The Norway of the 11th century is very different to the Norway of my day. It is still a beautiful land and I will wear my ‘Moose of Norway’ t-shirt with pride but this expedition was neither a fact finding mission nor an attempt to understand a historical personage any better, it was just for fun and we had a ship’s load of that!