These and their contemporaries in the late 19th and other early 20th centuries were frequent patrons of the Grand Hotel Cafe, where they met for morning coffee or in the evening, for conversation and beer. And the cafe is still popular, packed with residents and tourists. You won’t have to ask who’s who among the crowded faces painted onto a wall-length mural behind the tables. Norway’s best and brightest, they are identified by name and position on the back of the menu.
Heading north to Lillehammer we stopped briefly to see the “long jump” facility, where Olympic-bound skiers practice during the winter. But we spent most of the day at Maihaugen, exploring its more than 140 timbered houses, barns, craft shops and even a stave church. Farther north, we stopped in Lom to tour another stave church, this one a 12th century relic, and like its kin, built entirely of wood. The gloomy nave and massive beams left a frisson of darker days; fierce dragon heads topped a half dozen peaked, wood-shingled gables.
Beyond Lom, a sign on a dirt road pointed the way to the Juvbre Glacier and the summit of 8,148-foot Galdhopiggen, a mystery we couldn’t miss. Icebound year around, the mountain is the site of the SkiCenter, a summer host for Olympic skiers in training. And there, unexpectedly, was the U.S. Women’s Ski Team, taking slalom runs.
“We spend a week or two here in August, because it has Europe’s best snow,” one of the skiers told us, pausing to smile and chat on her way in for lunch.
Crossing over Norway’s snowy spine, (the roads are plowed), we paused to snap photos, then continued down windings twists and turns, on the last leg to Bergen. The road skirted some fiords and crossed others, via daily car ferry service. Eventually we reached the mighty Sognefjord, 112 miles long and 4,000 feet at its deepest point.
Though many a far-flung village boasts that Grieg ate there, slept there or taught lessons there, the town of Lofthus, on the Hardanger Fiord, makes an honest claim to his presence. The composer spent several vacations here, staying in the Ullensvang Hotel, breathing the fresh air and hiking the mountain trails. Later he stayed for a year to compose, retiring to a hut on the hotel grounds in search of the inspiration that so often failed to come. The hotel owner, Mr. Utne, the great great grandson of the first Mr. Utne to befriend the composer, guided us through the cabin and pointed out Grieg’s desk and chair.
As they say in Oslo, “Bergeners are a different breed,” and so they are. Bergen, historically separated from eastern Norway by the mountains, is a waterfront town, built by Hanseatic traders and shipping merchants. To learn more about its origins, we joined a tour at the Bryggen Museum, built above the excavated foundations of the town’s first waterfront dwellings. Stay for both portions of the tour. The second half, the most interesting, we thought, goes through the excavated portions of the town’s 16th century row houses to show how the merchants lived and worked.
Don’t miss the other attractions: the waterside fish and vegetable market, the restored Berghus Fortress and King Hakon’s Hall, with relics dating from about 1250; and the waterfront houses and shops. If a half-day tour includes a ride up the mountain for an aerial view of the town and bay, jump on it.
At the urging of friends, we saved time for a farewell pilgrimage to Troldhaugen (“the Trolls House”), Grieg’s country retreat. This spacious house, where he and his wife, a singer, spent their last years, overlooks a lake outside Bergen, surrounded by a green lawn and quiet garden. The piano, which Grieg played when the couple entertained, is touted as the highlight of the tour. But it was their everyday things — the Victorian sofas, lace dresser covers, mixing bowls, plates, thumbed music on the piano and the family photographs — that gave me a sense of a man finally at rest.
Not long ago the Grieg Foundation built a hall at the end of the rear garden, where recitals and chamber concerts perform year around. In summer, musical events are held here almost daily, a fitting way, we thought, to come full circle.