Updated: Jan 15
I’ve has this theory for a while now that being able to train our eyes on a distant point is good for our mental health. In other words, one of the drawbacks of being in a room with no windows is not just that there is a lack of natural sunlight, but that our eyes can only focus on something no more than a few feet away. It’s why I sometimes feel claustrophobic in a city, especially if I’m near skyscrapers looming over me. I remember being in a Mexican village some years ago for a month-long writing program, and while the town was architecturally beautiful, I was all-too aware that the narrow streets I walked each day were framed with the continuous high walls of businesses and gates of homes. At any given time I could see a square of sky above me, but could rarely see into the distance either east, west, north, or south. Every direction I turned, I found walls no more than twenty feet away.
It’s one big reason why we find looking at the ocean such a joy, or the mountains, why we stare at these things for so long, why we try to capture them with our cameras or with paints and pencils. Part of the attraction is that our eye is able to flex its muscle, to focus on things far, far in the distance. We equate being able to do this with beauty. Maybe it’s why the earth looks so beautiful from the window of an airplane.
In that vein, the stunning western fjords of Norway are about as eye-healthy a place as one can find on this planet.
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We had no intention of traveling to Europe during the summer of 2017. I’d spend a month-plus overseas in both 2015 and 2016 leading undergraduates on a study abroad program, and then met up with my wife to venture off on our own for another week or ten days. The following summer, we were content to find local discoveries, explore New England some more. But then we came across an alluring deal from Norwegian Airlines, flights from the airport an hour away in Providence, Rhode Island to several European destinations. Over the course of a few days, I kept circling back to their website and honing in on a flight to Bergen, Norway for a tempting low fare. Before long, we were planning a two-week trip.
Bergen is a small city on the western coast of Norway and feels even smaller than it really is. The air was raw—we were pretty far north, of course—and an unpleasant drizzling rain punctuated the ground. We zipped up our rain jackets and made the most of it. Bergen has a picturesque stretch of wood structures that once made up the city’s gritty fishing village but now serve as the heartbeat of tourism. It was here, among the mustard-yellow and brick-red buildings, that we had coffee and pastries, then later a simple but charming anniversary dinner, the water and boats painting our background. Up close, we realized how old and lopsided these structures were, the winding staircases tilting sometimes dramatically, walls leaning, giving me a bit of a seasick feeling though I was on solid ground.
The next morning we set out early for what would be a long day: we picked up our tickets for the “Norway in a Nutshell” tour, a self-guided full-day venture out into the fjords, mountains, and tiny villages that decorated the raw landscape outside of quaint Bergen. It was an ambitious itinerary: the scenic Bergen Railway, a switch to a bus through what seemed like pretty treacherous snaking switchbacks, a once-in-a-lifetime ferry cutting through the dramatic rock walls bookending the narrow Nærøfjorden, then another train through small villages peppering the hills before switching to a final railway that would bring us back into Bergen late. We had a fourteen-hour day ahead of us, though with the sun not setting until close to midnight, the days felt long and open to such ambition.
On the train out of Bergen we sipped coffee and ate our breakfasts from a bag. We’d brought a book to read, just in case, but the scenery through the windows hypnotized us. In the small town of Voss, we boarded a tour bus that would bring us to our boat, the roads treacherous, narrow and winding and descending through the wild Nærøydalen Valley. Christine kept grabbing hold of my upper arm.
In the waterway town of Gudvangen we boarded our boat—a ferry not unlike the large ferries we’d taken from Cape Cod to Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket, or from Nova Scotia to Portland, but we were surprised at how modern and comfortable this boat was. We ate lunch down below and watched the rock walls crawl by, then ventured up to the deck for better views and photos. It was brisk out here—I pulled my hood up onto my head—but here we seemed the only two on board. We moved to the front of the boat, the churning waters of the Nærøyfjord roiling below, and took advantage of the panorama before us: the winding rope of water, the rock walls stretching toward the sky in an indefinite climb, our boat dwarfed by the scope of it all. In the distance, green hills tumbled to the Aurlandsfjord dotted with red-house villages, like freckles or chicken pox. We kept seeing jagged slices of white cutting vertically down the mountains, and only when we grew nearer did we see that they weren’t static but were in fact plunging waterfalls, cascades of water tumbling hundreds of feet. It felt like Lord of the Rings country. The magnitude of the landscape created a kind of sensation that I had actually shrunk, everything in my surrounding environment suddenly gigantic in size.
I took a photo of a group of kayakers, paddling through the fjord in their red kayaks, moving in unison, but when I looked at the picture later it was difficult to see them at all, swallowed by the scope and awe of their background. I guessed that they’d shrunk too.
We docked in the village of Flåm where we meandered and took more photos. There was a massive cruise ship looming over the village, dominating it really, and I wondered first how it had even made its way through the fjords and, second, how this small village could handle such a sudden invasion of people. I kept looking up at it. It seemed completely out of place.
From there, the iconic Flåm Railway took us through rural, even wild, landscapes, often stitching precariously over dramatic ledges, passing up-close waterfalls and chugging by the occasional remote village.
We changed trains in the village of Myrdal but had thirty minutes until our connecting train arrived. Once our original train pulled away, we felt almost stranded, ten or fifteen of us left on the platform, a village to our right nestled on a green slope below the tracks. We took advantage of the extra time to hike down and explore, checking out a meandering river and taking pictures on a pedestrian bridge. Christine put her hand in the water and said it was ice-cold. She wore her new Norway knit hat that she’d bought back in Flåm, and I noted that this had to have been the first time either of us had worn winter hats in July.
We sat down on a couple of smooth rocks embedded in the ground. It was quiet, green and lush and lovely, and when our train rolled in, we almost didn’t want to leave.
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Back in Bergen it was after nine p.m. but the sky was still lighted with silky gray. Over the ocean, the sun struggled to slice through. We were hungry and ate at a small restaurant tucked in the corner, fish and chips for me and probably salmon for Christine. We talked about the day—there was a lot to discuss and review. I’d taken well over a hundred photos and would later sit up in bed choosing the best and deleting the rest. We both felt a chip of pride that we’d done something that not everyone gets to do, that we were spending our nights in this cozy little Scandinavian coastal town between the North and Norwegian Seas. It felt like the kind of trip you allowed yourself to take only after you’d checked off the mandatory introductory boxes of Paris, London, Rome, and Venice. The kind of trip that marked you as seasoned travelers. I’d spent summers abroad in 2005, ‘06, ‘07, and ‘08 as a graduate student, came over with Christine for a couple weeks in 2013, led my own study abroad groups in 2015 and ‘16. Collectively, I’d spent twenty-four weeks in Europe and was at the start of two more. After dinner, we meandered over to a bar with outdoor seating, the midnight sun fading. We went inside to order and sat on bar stools repurposed from horse saddles. It was comfortable, and as we clinked glasses to toast the success of our ambitious day and the excitement of the weeks ahead, we both understood that—back in Europe again—we were just as much home here as anywhere.