A music-themed cruise through the Norwegian fjords on Saga Sapphire offers a medley of delights, says Gilly Pickup
There’s a joke about a tourist in Bergen who asks a local lad: “Does it always rain here?” to which the boy replies: “I don’t know, I’m only seven.” But I can’t use it here, because the sun was sparkling on the sea like diamonds when Saga Sapphire, our floating home for the week, berthed. Bergen was our first port of call since departing Dover a day and a half earlier and it was my very first sight of Norway. We were scheduled to stay there for the whole day, setting sail again at 11pm. Plenty of time then, to explore Norway’s second-largest city, dubbed ‘gateway to the fjords’.
Squashed between seven hills and seven fjords, comely Bergen has been prosperous since the Middle Ages, thanks to fishing. Its most famous area is picturesque UNESCO World Heritage-listed Bryggen which runs alongside the harbour, and is considered one of the world’s foremost medieval showcases. It has something of a toy town ambience with immaculately clean cobblestone streets, ancient alleyways with a whiff of ancient intrigue and a maze of wooden, delectably-painted Hanseatic merchants’ houses.
Another of the city’s popular attractions is bustling Torget fish market, where besides fruit, vegetables, flowers and freshly-baked, aromatic skillingsbolle (giant cinnamon rolls), vendors sell everything from smoked salmon, calamari and monkfish, to bowls of catfish soup, fishing-net-fresh fish and chips, prawn baguettes, spekesild (herring) and local caviar. Stallholders will make up a fishy take-away platter so you can eat lunch with your feet dangling over the water.
From there, we swung by another must-see, the Mariakirken (St Mary’s Church). This ancient building – Bergen’s oldest – dating from the early 12th century, is one of Norway’s best examples of Romanesque architecture and a fantastic venue for the concerts which are performed here regularly throughout the summer months. There was an opportunity to visit Bergen Art Museum, where a highlight is a collection of around 150 prints and paintings by famously tormented artist Edvard Munch. Not that Bergen’s main claim to fame on the cultural front is art; indeed, it is music and the city showcases countless music festivals throughout the year, from rock, blues and chorales, to jazz and tango. Annual summer concerts are held at Troldhaugen, Edvard Grieg’s swish lakeside home while the world-famous Bergen International Festival takes place every June.
So much to see, so much to do, but time was getting on and our coach was waiting to swish us off to Ole Bull’s house about 10 miles out of town, along a narrow road with seriously scary hairpin bends. Ole was a musician, Norway’s first superstar, and so handsome that ladies would queue to buy flasks of his dirty bathwater. In 1873 he built the fantasy Little Alhambra on Lysøen island, the ‘Island of Light’ as his summer residence. He went to town with his extravagant vision of onion domes, curved staircases, gingerbread gables and marble columns, surrounded by juicy views, foliage and flowers and winding paths leading to all sorts of secluded hidey-holes. It’s ideal for composing, or indeed for picnics, swimming or relaxing.
Back on board Saga Sapphire, it was time for pre-dinner cocktails in Cooper’s, a bar named after late comedian Tommy Cooper where a selection of his one-liners are embroidered on the scatter cushions. Then I headed for the Verandah on deck 9, where it was still warm enough to eat dinner al fresco, enjoying the sights of bustling Bergen.
Refurbished in 2012, Saga Sapphire now has 65 balcony cabins. The redesigned public space The Drawing Room, with its panoramic views and library is where passengers can help themselves to snacks from the larder, use computers, iPads and enjoy unlimited free wifi. The ship carries a small troupe of singers and dancers to entertain in the evenings while the classical Moonfleet Trio accompanies afternoon tea and plays for pre-dinner dancing. But for me cruises are really all about seeing different things every day. And of course you can’t visit Norway without seeing the fjords.
Next morning, we sailed to Hardangerfjord, renowned for its fruit trees which blossom in spring. We were tendered ashore to Ulvik, a time warp settlement surrounded by glorious scenery as far as the eye could see. Majestic waterfalls plunge to the valley floor from impossible heights while elm, birch and pine forests cling where they can on dizzyingly steep mountains. In Ulvik’s tiny village hall we went to see a show, part of the annual Hardanger Musikkfest Programme and were entertained brilliantly for an hour by the Hot Club de Norvège, who packed a punch providing a non-stop repertoire of heartfelt ballads, happy swing and gypsy jazz.
The musical theme continued the following evening when we were whisked on an escorted excursion to the hamlet of Lofthus, home to the annual cherry festival, which incorporates the Norwegian cherry stone spitting championship (apparently the record is 46.7 ft). Our destination was the Hotel Ullensvang where Grieg often stayed, and where he was inspired to create The Holberg Suite.
In the hotel’s conference hall we listened to one of the world’s oldest orchestral institutions, the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, who performed two pieces, Harold en Italie by Berlioz followed by Beethoven’s magnificent Eroica. But it wasn’t just the stirring music that did it for me. The view through floor-to-ceiling windows – the huge Folgefonna glacier; snow-capped peaks tickling the clouds and a symphony of pink apple blossom – was itself a perfect composition. There was still more to savour when we anchored off Odda, our final port of call. Opening the cabin curtains in the morning revealed yet another tourist board brochure scene outside the window; rugged mountains, hanging valleys, fjords smooth as satin and more vertical waterfalls. We hiked a little way into the forest, past tiny grass-roofed farmhouses and orchards of cider apples and cloudberries before returning to the ship for lunch and our final sailaway of the trip.
I was well and truly smitten by my first taste of Norway; this Scandinavian country had cast its spell on me and what’s more, the sun had shone throughout. No getting away from it, for me, this cruise on Saga Sapphire had definitely struck the right chord.
GETTING THERE: Seven-night On the Trail of the Vikings cruise on Saga Pearl II departs Dover 5 Sep 2014. Prices from £1,499pp (0800 096 0079; saga.co.uk/cruise).
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