The Ålesund you don’t see
My wife and I have decided to retire to Norway. More specifically, to the village of Alnes, just four tunnels and a bridge away from Ålesund, where all new visitors are welcomed with a parade.
We’ll be opening a modest wine emporium in Ålesund, as alcohol is clearly the easiest way to earn money (and double your restaurant bill) in Norway. Our friendly shop will be closed on Wednesday afternoons, when we will hold our weekly meditation session at the main tank of the Atlanterhavsparken aquarium, where big fish glide gently back and forth, their minds unburdened by thoughts of any kind.
But seriously, dear reader, what a wonderful coincidence that my first on-site travel assignment for KLM should bring me to Norway on Constitution Day, when young and old don their traditional costumes to parade through the streets in a celebration of national pride.
When we were in Bergen a few years ago, we witnessed something similar, when groups of teenagers in fancy dress, each with their own theme – superheroes, priests and prostitutes, raced back and forth in crazed anticipation of a Rihanna concert.
Based on these experiences, it’s tempting to conclude that Norwegians love dressing up and having a good party. But that would be the same as distilling the Dutch national spirit from the orange madness that is Queen’s Day. The truth is always far more complicated and too elusive to be generalised.
During our trip, I kept wondering about the essential difference between actually visiting a place and exploring it online as I have done so often in the past. The obvious answer is that an on-site visit reminds you that there is so much you don’t see, hear, smell and feel in photos. Allow me to demonstrate.
This is the view from the Fjellstua up on Aksla, the main hilltop overlooking Ålesund. What you don’t see in this photo are the deer that gather at the pond and pasture just behind the hilltop; the way the earth seems to bend towards the light; the sea winking with a million glistening eyes; the booming horn of the Hurtigruten ferry sounding its arrival and departure.
This is the Shetland Bus Monument commemorating the clandestine sea link between Norway and Scotland in the Second World War. What you don’t see in this photo are the many, many, many other statues, sculptures and monuments in Ålesund; the decorative fruit-festooned facades, many of which display the date 1906, marking the year of the devastating fire that left 10,000 people homeless in midwinter, but also prompted the wooden town’s resurrection as a Jugendstil phoenix, emerging from the ashes in brick and mortar.
This is the view of Alesundet from Hellebrua in the town centre. What you don’t see in this photo is the rite of passage, the graduating school kids in their red overalls and Russ buses decorated with the names of their occupants, their quick strip and streak along the quayside, the giggling girls and the thumping bass; the scent of the sea transforming the hotel window into a freshly opened oyster.
What you don’t see in this photo are the many other friendly, funny, forthright Norwegians we met on our travels: the sprightly cashier at the aquarium who said: “You smell nice! Is that Axe?”; the demure and gracious waitresses at the XL Diner, where they do delicious things to bacalao; sharp-eyed, dry-witted Julia who served us delectable seafood platters at C&C and kept apologising for the boisterous revellers at the other tables; the many locals who gave us directions in perfect English, but mistook us for kangaroos on speed when they said: “It’s just ten minutes maybe, around the next corner”; the truly spectacular landscape, sprawling snow-capped into the hazy distance; the longing to return with so much more to see and smell and hear and feel.
(Special thanks to Katarina and Roy at Hotel Scandic Ålesund for pointing us in the right direction, and to Elise and Janne-Beate for their travel tips via Twitter.)