Places I Remember with Lea Lane

Norway: The 'New North,' Beyond Mountains And Fjords

March 30, 2021 Harald Hansen tells of the art and foodie scene, Northern Lights, and more -- from Oslo to above the Arctic Circle. Season 1 Episode 9
Places I Remember with Lea Lane
Norway: The 'New North,' Beyond Mountains And Fjords
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

 Harald Hansen, travel expert from Visit Norway, shares his expertise with us from Oslo.

-- He talks of contemporary Norwegian architecture, and lodgings with spectacular views; even igloos where you can see the Northern Lights from your bed.

-- We learn of cruising up the Norwegian coastline, above the Arctic Circle, to Tromso, the "Paris of the North."  You can go dog sledding or on a reindeer safari, and see reflective Northern Lights in the Lofoten Islands.

-- Harald tells us  his favorite fjords, near Bergen, and talks of ancient stave churches. He tells us of the 18 Norwegian Scenic Roads,  designed only for cars, combining gorgeous new lodgings, restaurants to complement the scenery, and even special toilets with views!

-- We hear of whales, and an anecdote of polar bears seen very closeup. And of the Sami people in the north; travelers can join tours, celebrating the ancient family culture that revolves around reindeer.

-- Lea remembers the beauty of Oslo's City Hall, and Harald tells of how that capital city has transformed in the last few years; it's now hip and filled with restaurants.

-- We talk of Bergen, with its ancient warehouses, a center of the new "Fjordic cuisine." You can even catch your own seafood.

-- We mention Alesund, the art nouveau town in southern Norway. And of course we end with a favorite memory.  And Harald has a great one.

Harald Hansen,  Media Specialist and Industry Specialist at Visit Norway, lives in Oslo and has been a Norwegian travel specialist  for decades.,,
Podcast host Lea Lane has traveled to over 100 countries, written many travel books, including Places I Remember, and has contributed to dozens of guidebooks. She's @lealane on Twitter and  blogs about travel at  Contact her at
Please follow  Places I Remember with Lea Lane wherever you listen to podcasts, and  write a review on Apple! New travel episodes every  other Tuesday.

* Transcript edited for clarity.

Lea Lane  00:04

Hi, I'm Lea Lane, an award-winning travel writer and author of Places I Remember: Tales, Truths, Delights from 100 Countries. On this podcast we share conversations with travelers about fascinating destinations and memorable experiences around the world. Our guest is Harald Hansen, media specialist from Visit Norway's head office in Oslo. Welcome, Harald.


Harald Hansen  00:31

Thank you so much. I'm looking forward to this.


Lea Lane  00:33

How's the weather in Oslo today?


Harald Hansen  00:36

Tonight, stormy, it's about 37, 38 degrees. I mean, spring is slowly creeping in.


Lea Lane  00:45

Yes, you know, I'm aware of the beauty of Norway, I've been privileged to go there. But there's so much that's new, as well as the glorious art, the glorious beauty. There's also glorious architecture. And I wanted to start off asking you, what is new in Oslo, and in Norway, that we wouldn't know about?


Harald Hansen  01:07

Well, over the past few years, we've had some very, you know, innovative young architects that have started building these, we call them tree top hotspots are not really hearts, these are like, you know, unique architectural designed buildings. Some of them are in Trieste, some of them are right on the ocean front. They have luxury bathrooms and, and living rooms and, you know, and and they give you fantastic views and you're there by yourself. I mean, you can bring your loved one or a family or just go by yourself and just sit there relax, you know, build up your inner, inner self, if you put it that way, and you find them all over Norway, they are like in Northern Norway, we have a glows and glassy glows and, and I mean anything go there in winter. All of these places are now you know, available all year round. And which is, you know, besides all the fantastic hotels and you know, guest houses and all of that you have these unique buildings.


Lea Lane  02:30

You know, the lights are something I want to ask you about because everyone is interested in the Northern Lights. And where would you find these wonderful opportunities to see what what are the best places to see the northern lights? And what is some of the best lodgings to go to to stay inside and see them?


Harald Hansen  02:47

Well, I mean, everywhere above the Arctic Circle is of course, the best places for Northern Lights. We might have noted lights in southern Norway, but we're so anywhere above the Arctic Circle. Great places like Tromso, which is sort of the Paris of the north, as we call it, or they call themselves because back in the 17th 18th century, the traders went to Paris and picked up the fashion and brought it back to Tromso. And there are other towns like out in Boulder. And the good thing about it, I mean, not an always so I mean, it's populated and as opposed to maybe northern Canada and Alaska, not to say anything bad about those places. But in Norway, people actually living there. So you can and and because of the Gulf Stream, the coastline of Norway is ice free, so you can sail you can go on winter expeditions on boats. Hurtigruten, I think you went with me on that one.


Lea Lane  03:53

Yes, I went on there. Yeah, up the coast.


Harald Hansen  03:57

Yeah, that's cool. That was big for me back in the 90s, right.


Lea Lane  04:01

Way back way back I remember very well because it was absolutely, it's called the most beautiful cruise in the world and it was on the way up, but on the way back, unfortunately, it was all misty and you couldn't see anything. And I think that's one of the things you have to worry about a little bit when you go anywhere in the world sometimes. You know, it happens but we had a good time.


Harald Hansen  04:24

Yeah, so what you can do when you go for the Northern Lights? I mean, people love going dogsledding, reindeer safari, you go out with guides and you go hunting for the Northern Lights. I mean, of course everybody wants to see the Northern Lights. But the fun thing is to go to chase it because then you bring food and hot drinks and and the excitement of you know, are we going to see Aurora tonight or so? Yeah, I mean, so that a lot of places above the Arctic Circle where you can stay in hotels. And as I said, these are unique with ice hotels and snow hotels and, and beautiful lodges. So a lot has happened in past 30 years since you and I traveled.


Lea Lane  05:17

Absolutely. One of the things about the Northern Lights in Norway is there are so many places where you can find reflections because there's so much water and to see the Northern Lights reflected in the water for photographers is just the best. The Lofoten Islands is one place I know that. People go for that. Okay. Yeah, yeah.


Harald Hansen  05:40

So no, it's something that we have. I mean, we've seen a huge increase. I mean, apart from of course, the last year. I mean, we've seen a huge increase of travelers from the US in North America coming to Norway in winter. I mean, actually, for Northern Norway, the US have become the most important market for for Northern Lights. And, and of course, when we get back to normal, I mean, it's, it's still going to be there. Oh, yes. And yeah, the docks are waiting.


Lea Lane  06:14

The docks away. Tell me about the fjords. The fjords, of course, are the most gorgeous places to drive and to take ferries and so forth. What one or two, would you recommend if a person only had a little bit of time?


Harald Hansen  06:29

Well, I mean, I normally would say if you haven't, not too much time, I would say go fly into Bergen. Or you can go first into Oslo and then to take the train over the mountains to Bergen. So you get, you know, over the hardener plateau and national parks and you get that beautiful nature. And then you can do either you can do day trips into the song of fjord, which is the longest and most impressive fjords in Norway. And then you have the queen of swords, which is the Hardangerfjord, which is south of Bergen. And I mean, a lot of these fields have beautiful hotels and some of these cabins or whatever we could we call them are actually in the fjords. So, and the difference between Norwegian fjords, I mean, of course, as again, I've compared with Alaska and New Zealand or chiller. They also have beautiful fjords, but the difference is that in Norway, people live in the fields. So you have the old history, the old wooden stave churches and the old farms and the local food. So it's a living society. I mean, I haven't been to New Zealand mochila. So I shouldn't say anything. And, and I'm sure they've fantastic, but I from what I've learned is that since people are living there, it's a totally different experience.


Lea Lane  07:53

Yes, the stave churches are something that I think there are only 28 of them I read that are left, but tell us a little bit about that. That's the symbol of Norway.


Harald Hansen  08:02

Well, when Norway was Christianized, 1030, I guess Yeah, at the Battle of stick list, I actually sent out a press release today about pilgrim pilgrimage tours, you can do a Norway right now. And, and along those routes, St. Olavs ways. There are a lot of these wooden churches that were built right after you have to decrease in our stations. So they go back to the 11th century. And they are built almost like Viking ships upside down. So and kind of pagoda like also. So you have this an old wooden churches and and, and they've stayed there for I mean, some of them are almost 1000 years old. And they're still remaining there. So


Lea Lane  08:53

Tell me about I read about the 18 Norwegian roads. What is that?


Harald Hansen  09:00

Yeah, that we've seen in the weekend scenic routes, they started the project about, I would say, 20 years ago, when the Norwegian road authorities decided they picked 18 roads that are specifically scenic, and where you cannot go with, you know, huge buses or commercial traffic. And they invited architects, designers, artists, to put out their art there. And so you have all these fantastic viewpoints. You have toilets, one is actually even gold or an old gold toilet.


Harald Hansen  09:43

We call it the golden toilet. So you find all I mean, from all the way up north way above the Arctic Circle. You find these roads that have been designated so all along the coast and down to southern Norway and Do find rest stops. And it's also mean it's meant to sort of enhance the experience of traveling around in Norway. So I mean, the nature is beautiful, but it's sometimes it's nice to sort of complement the nature with something other than beautiful to start.


Lea Lane  10:20

Absolutely. There's nothing better than to have the two together. I would love to see that. Let me ask you about polar bears, because that's another thing people love to do. There's a certain bucket list things Northern Lights, polar bears. Do you have that?


Harald Hansen  10:35

Oh, yeah. Not on mainland Norway. A lot of people think that a lot of people but some people, people think that the polar bears are walking around in the streets and ours, our towns and cities in Norway. But that's, that's not the fact could have been interesting. But but on the island of Svalbard, which is halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, you find there are more polar bears than are people. And but Svalbard is there's a town called Longyearbyen, which was actually founded by a American American called long year, way back in time, where you now have, you know, beautiful hotels, restaurants, we have one of the best wine cellars in Norway, located in this little town up there. And you know, all year round, you can actually go on expeditions, if we don't call them polar bear expeditions, because we're not allowed to do go search for polar bears because they are protected. But of course, you will see them, but you will see them in the distance.


Lea Lane  11:43

How are they doing in this?


Harald Hansen  11:46

Yeah, you know, smartboard has been affected by the I mean, the warming effects of you know, what's going on. But so far, the polar bears haven't been that much affected as we thought they would have been. But, but I mean, I've been to Svalbard several times. And sometimes the polar bears sort of come into town to look for food, if it's if it's it. Yeah, it depends on what kind of winter there has been. And but I mean, most of them are living so far away. I mean, they're okay, right? What's the one thing you can do is go on a small expedition cruise, because then you're definitely not messing with the polar bears. But I remember the first time I went there, we were sitting eating, and we were sort of sailing among some islands. And suddenly, I mean, these islands are so close to the ship, and we were sailing and I were looking out the window and there was a polar bear with two two pups, I guess they call them or what? I don't know what they called polar bears.


Lea Lane  12:51

That sounds good.


Harald Hansen  12:54

You got the gist of it. And, and, and the mother was looking at us and she was eating from seal. But he was just looking at it. I mean, it almost like if you went on deck, you could have touched the cupola experience and then the kids would just like looking at us and one stood upon it behind me like I get goosebumps just talking about it.


Lea Lane  13:20

Sounds terrific. Is your whale watching along the coast as well?


Harald Hansen  13:24

Yes, both on mainland Norway Of course. You mean north of Lofoten islands. We have humpback whales. We have white whales we have orcas and awesome Svalbard, you have what are called in those yellow, whitish beluga.


Lea Lane  13:48

What time of year would you


Harald Hansen  13:50

Sona mostly? Yeah, yes. Because when I was bald by I mean, we did this little, you know, rip Safari. I mean, you know, and the flow the flow the book. And suddenly we had like 50 beluga whales swimming along with us. And they're the only way to can turn their heads. So they looked at us from sideways. And it's almost like anyway, certainly I want to go back to


Lea Lane  14:14

Oh my gosh, let me ask you because Norway is a very, very long and very coastal country. It goes way above the Arctic Circle. Where did the Sami people live? Can you tell us a little?


Harald Hansen  14:26

Samis are coming, more Samis living in our soil and they're living in northern Norway. Well, because of you know, things have been changing but there are about 40,000 Samis of Sami origin in Norway, and most of them are living above the Arctic Circle, but you can find them in certain areas in southern Norway but the majority live in from Tromso up to Finnmark. Where you know, on the Finnmark plateau, the National Park where they live inland In the winter, and then at the end of April, they start migrating with their reindeer on moving with our reindeer out to the coast. So that and then they are just grazing for, you know, the whole summer and that's if you go to Northern Norway will always meet reindeer. Oh, yes, you will in winter you will in summer. But you know, it's it's fascinating and Assamese, of course, as you say, they have their own special history and culture and very colorful, you know, traditions, you know, their clothing, their food, if you like, Rudolph, I mean, it's good to go. I mean, that's, I mean, they live up the rain there and they live with the reindeer.


Lea Lane  15:42

Yes, they eat the reindeer too. Yeah, I've had some delicious reindeer. Yeah. Yeah. Can you take a tour? Are there other ways to do it in a, you know, simple way to see that?


Harald Hansen  15:55

Yeah, I mean, if you if you go north, mainly, if you go to Finnmark, which is the county, the northernmost county, you find these towns and villages that are more or less 100% Saamy to Karasok, or Kautokeino or Alta. And in all of Northern Norway, these families have started their own, you know, small businesses, not commercialized, but they show their own culture, and and actually can actually join families when they moved around there.


Lea Lane  16:31

Oh, that's the sort of thing.


Harald Hansen  16:35

Something really special. 


Lea Lane  16:39

I don't know, no toilets there. Let me just ask, I remember, Oslo for its magnificent city hall. I guess it's a mid century. I think it was finished in 1950. But is mosaic Sanat. It's just gorgeous. I know. There are some new buildings in Oslo, the foodie scene and there's some great, great new museums, can you just give us a little idea of what they are now?


Harald Hansen  17:06

Absolutely. I mean, so much has happened the past 20 years. I mean, the Oslo Opera House, opened in 2008, which is sort of a that really put Oslo on the map, suddenly, it was like, Okay, what's happening with our SLO, and it sort of created a bus. So now they built up, they just demoed a new museum will open later this year, which is also down by the Oslo Opera House. And we just opened up a library called Dykeman, which is next to the opera house. So the whole, the whole waterfront area has totally changed from when you were there. I mean, we I mean, there is no commercial areas anymore. Now, I mean, not not like, you know, commercial, industrial, whatever. It's now it's waterfronts which shops and bars and restaurants and art galleries.


Lea Lane  18:05

That's great to hear. That's wonderful. Revive, yeah.


Harald Hansen  18:10

Yeah, well, slow. It's really become that sort of a, the new Nordic.


Lea Lane  18:14

Bryggen has the beautiful warehouses along the along the waterside, is it also becoming a foodie Haven and all that sort of thing.


Harald Hansen  18:23

Bryggen has really become really popular now, just because of these new chefs that have started, you know, opening their restaurants and they go out in the morning. And they pick, I mean, they catch their own food. So because of there's a lot of seafood. And a friend of mine actually opened a restaurant like 10 Live, maybe not even 10 years ago, it used to work for the best restaurants in New York. And then he moved home and started up this. You know, they call it the Nordic cuisine with Mo mine Copenhagen, but we call it the fjord ik cruising. So yeah, to make us a little different from it doesn't mean it's better, but it's different. And I think we should all, you know, concentrate on what's unique for you.


Lea Lane  19:14

I think your country is unique and beauty and it sounds like it's also becoming really hip or whatever the word is now a great place to visit for other reasons as well. The name of the podcast is places I remember. And I like to ask about a memory that you'd like to share. I have one that I share first and then if you can think of one special memory, mine is is is sort of, sort of memorable because it was difficult because I was on the fjords with my family. Many years ago, two young sons and my husband. We were taking a little ferry boat across a small fjord, and we got off we were getting off the ferry and my husband went ahead with the car and I stayed behind to tie my son's shoes. And then when I went to get off the ferry, I noticed we were moving. And my husband was left on the shoreline. So, oh my goodness, I was with two little babies, no diapers, no passports, nothing. So I ran to the captain. And he said, I'm sorry, you're gonna have to go all the way around. Today, you'll see him at the end of the day. And I was so worried that he wouldn't be there that he would go off somewhere. And I'd never see him again. But my kids had a great time, because the captain gave them chocolate and all that I was worried for, you know, eight hours, but we got back. And it was it was a memorable reunion. But that's my memory of the few hours beyond the beauty. How about you?


Harald Hansen  20:44

Sometimes it's hard to sort of come up what comes to mind. But I think this is like not that many years ago. And I actually traveled with a group of journalists and we were doing like, he his historical tells of Norway that it's a group of hotels that, you know, old wooden buildings that have been renovated, and you know, and we flew in from Oslo to the town called or listened. And we were picked up at the airport, and told we were going to do a rip Safari out to a bird island. Little bit when luggage was taken to this place where, you know, we were going to stay for the night. And we went on the boat. And you know, I would say we varied in fitness and sizes. And you know, and yeah, no, yes. Without. So you know, okay, so we started sailing out into the North Sea. And, lo and behold, it was pretty windy. And suddenly the wave started coming in. And we were sailing very fast. And people were like, holding on for the bear life. And suddenly, I just felt like a wish. And I was overboard.


Lea Lane  22:09

Oh my goodness, you were overboard.


Harald Hansen  22:12

I was overboard. Thank heavens, that was me. But I didn't feel much better because of it. But yet out here, I was like, you know, just seeing, you know, these waves all around over me. But they, I mean, they managed to stop the boat and get me on board again. But we were so far out. And there was you know, we just had to finish the trip. And and you know, we saw the birds and everything. And it was another hour and a half.


Lea Lane  22:40

How cold was the water?


Harald Hansen  22:42

Pretty cold. Pretty cold. It was summer. So and then we finally got back towards land. And we were sailing into a fjord and it was becoming beautiful. And we we docked near an old historic hotel from the 1790s with a ghost. And I mean, they rushed me in and I got to dry myself off. And then we getting these our rooms. And of course these rooms were fantastic. It was like they were I mean kings and queens have visited this hotel and stayed in it and I got because I'm a little incident I got the best room. Oh, good. And but it was haunted. 


Lea Lane  23:33

Oh, good news. Bad. Yes.


Harald Hansen  23:37

I woke woke up in the middle of the morning. I was sure that that young girl was you know.


Lea Lane  23:45

Sounds like you had a very interesting day. Yes. Anyway, I have to say Alison, by the way, Alison is beautiful town if you love Art Nouveau architecture. I think there was a fire around 1904 was those years. Yeah. And it's just all Art Nouveau and they call it I can't pronounce the European style. You'll get Stein. It's so pretty. So that that I have to say as well. But well, you can see even with even with difficulties, Norway is a very special place. I thank you so much, Harold Hansen. Thank you. Thank you, and I hope to be there again soon.


Harald Hansen  24:22

Me too. Let me know. Okay. Bye bye.


Lea Lane  24:32

Thanks for sharing travel memories with us. My book, Places I Remember, is available on Amazon and in bookstores, in print, on Kindle, and I read the audio version. Please subscribe to this podcast and consider giving us a review. Until next time, join us wherever in the world we're going.

Lodgings with views
Igloos, Northern Lights, above Arctic Circle
Norwegian coastline cruising
Dogsledding, reindeer safaris
Northern Lights in the Loftoten islands
Favorite fjords, near Bergen
Stave churches
18 Norwegian Scenic Roads
Polar bear story
Whale watching
The Sami people and tours
Bergen, and 'fjordic cuisine'
Favorite memory -- a dunking