Norway has held a mythic place in my mind for most of my life. In grade school in Billings, Montana, I read everything I could find about Norse mythology and history. Once, I asked my father if our Norwegian ancestors had been Vikings. He dashed my hope for toughness by ancestral connection by explaining that our family had been bonded farmers, like serfs. One of our surnames from Norway was Bonde, after all, which means "farmer."
Most of my Norwegian associations were through my great-aunt Corinne Bonde Ackley, a matriarch of my family, who prepared lefse, meatballs and gravy, lutefisk and other traditional Norwegian fare for every holiday. I heard her talk about her friendship with her second cousin, Kjell Nilsson, who was a hero of the Norwegian resistance during World War II. According to Corinne, he was an engineer who helped thwart Hitler's nuclear ambitions - a fact so momentous that I doubted its veracity.
So when I saw a sale on tickets to Oslo last fall, I booked a 10-day stay. It seemed like a fun twist on a regular vacation, although I wasn't sure whether we would be able to connect with anyone in my extended family. Before long, though, we had a full itinerary, with our first meeting with relatives scheduled for the afternoon of our arrival in Oslo.
Although pursuing family connections was the impetus for the trip, we happily discovered that Norway is an ideal vacation destination for all ages. Our group included my parents, my spouse, our preteen daughter, and two of my nephews of about the same age, and we all appreciated different aspects of our Norwegian sojourn.
After I bought the plane tickets I procured a test kit from Ancestry.com, which showed loads of direct DNA matches in Norway. The majority of the matches were in Oslo and the municipality of Vang, in the mountainous region of Valdres. That made sense, as I'd been told that Vang was the launching place of at least one ancestor who immigrated to America.
In the second half of the 1800s, nearly 20,000 Norwegians came to North America from the narrow rocky valleys in the region around Vang alone. It was a huge population drain, and it is, in part, why there are nearly as many people in the United States of Norwegian descent (about 4.5 million, according to Census Bureau data) as there are in Norway itself (about 5.3 million in its latest report). It's also why Norway is enjoying a surge in tourist traffic as distant relatives come back to sightsee.
I'd been told that Norway can offer stunning scenery or rain, fog and more rain. We lucked out with blue skies the whole trip - although I did feel the need to buy a wool sweater.
We started our visit with three days in Oslo. Still bleary-eyed from the flight, we checked into our rental apartment and boarded a bus for dinner at a restaurant on the top of Holmenkollen, a mountain neighbourhood rising high on the city's north side and made famous by a giant ski jump. In downtown Oslo, we transferred to a metro train that soon began to climb.
Soon, the expanse of apartment buildings and department stores in downtown Oslo lay below us, clustered against the city's fjord and spreading up the arms of the surrounding mountains. It's a small, tidy city from above.
At one of the stops on the way up the mountain, I was surprised to see dozens of locals in snowsuits tromping on board with heavy-duty sleds and helmets. They told us in perfect idiomatic English about the public sledding trails from the top of the mountain to the metro stop halfway down. Almost everyone in Norway speaks flawless English, I found, which can almost be a drag if you've spent all winter practicing how to say, "God morgen. Hvordan har du det?"
At the peak, we walked a short, icy track through pine trees to the Frognerseteren Restaurant, where we met the first group of relatives we had planned to visit, among them Bjorn Wichstrom, the historian of the Oslo branch of our family, with whom my dad had corresponded for years.
Bjorn had invited his niece and her boyfriend, as well as one of his cousins, Anne, niece to Kjell Nilsson. My dad read aloud from a letter, written by in English by Nilsson, that spoke of his role in the resistance. During our time in Oslo, we met even more of his descendants: two of his sons, their wives and several members of their extended families.
After dinner, the bright sky and setting sun lit up the Oslo fjord stretching into the distance. We hugged our newfound family members goodbye and parted ways to walk down the mountain as the pines darkened around us. Our route took us past the famous ski jump at Holmenkollen, rising improbably far into the dark sky. Night had come, and the entire snow-covered structure was lit with floodlights.
We started our second day in Oslo with visits to the Vikingskipshuset and the Norsk Folkemuseum, which are only one stop apart on the No. 30 bus line. They worked perfectly as a one-two tourist punch, and our three-day metro passes included free entry to these and other popular sites.
The Vikingskipshuset, a treasure trove of archaeological finds, is built to resemble the interior of a Viking burial mound, with great vaulted ceilings showcasing its collection of the world's best-preserved Viking-age longboats. Most striking to me was the elaborate carving on the artifacts found buried with the ships: swords and coins, cups and silver armbands, all decorated with intricate, twisting patterns that resemble vines and serpents, or weird heads with gaping mouths.
A gravel path outside led us to the Folkemuseum, which claims to be the world's oldest outdoor museum. It includes about 160 buildings with exhibits covering 500 years of Norwegian history - something like a Norse equivalent of Colonial Williamsburg. There are replicas of 1950s-era apartments complete with rotary telephones, and a cluster of homes built low and sturdy, with long hearths in the center of the room and sod on the roofs to keep the occupants warm through the long winters.
In one exhibit, a replica of a 400-year-old house, two women in medieval dress prepared the tasty Norwegian flatbread called hardanger lefse. Our family recipe relies heavily on butter, cream and potatoes, which are boiled and then riced. The Folkemuseum's hardanger recipe is flour-based instead, but no less delicious. Eat it carefully, though, or the butter will drip onto your jacket - as it did on mine.
The next day, we threw aside most of our plans and rode the metro back to the top of the hill at Holmenkollen to spend the afternoon sledding. It was hard to steer, and the sleds went fast. My nephews shot ahead of me while I dug my feet into the icy slope to slow down. We whipped down the trail, around banked corners, through the pine trees and over jumps where I caught moments of air and landed hard.We rode again and again. If I could do one thing on the trip over, I would have gotten us to the mountain earlier and stayed longer.
On our fourth day in Norway, we boarded an NSB train for the scenic six-hour ride to Bergen on the opposite coast. Our idea was to spend a few days in that historic trading city, then drive a rental van back from Bergen so we could visit Vang, which is high in a mountain valley about halfway between Norway's two main cities.
As the train rose through Oslo, it passed through industrial neighbourhoods splashed with graffiti and piled with snowdrifts. Higher still, my ears popped, and we began to pass farms, pine forests with grand firs and spruce and stands of birch trees, ice-covered lakes and frozen waterfalls. Everywhere in the fields, cross-country skiers shushed along. Some of them waved their ski poles at the train in greeting.
The train climbed until there were no more homes outside the windows, only endless fields of snow, belts of timber and snow-covered peaks. The sun was bright despite a temperature of about 20 degrees. As the train shot through tunnel after tunnel, our ears began to pop again. After it passed through a particularly long one, we emerged in the heart of downtown Bergen at the city's elegant stone train station.
Bergen is a city of contrasts. We saw sleek, new apartment buildings a few blocks past cobbled streets lined with narrow, two-story structures with ancient, low doorways. The town is small enough to explore on foot. We walked the medieval lanes of old Bryggen and rode the funicular to the top of Mount Floyen. Down below, the Bergen valley looked like a teacup, except where it's fjord stretched shining and glittering into the afternoon sun.
The next day, we picked up our rental car and drove 140 miles to Vang. The highway is an engineering wonder: We passed through 52 tunnels, in and out of Norway's mountainous spine. The longest is nearly 25 kilometers and took us half an hour to drive through. Between tunnels, the road clung to the mountainside above gorgeous fjords and picturesque villages, and some of the first terrain that looked like good farmland. Our ears popped once again as we drove up and across the interior mountains. Ice and snow were everywhere, but the road itself was well-ploughed and dry.
Initially, we had worried about finding accommodations in Vang, which is in a sparsely populated rural area. But it turned out that the Valdres has scores of homesteads that cater to urban Norwegians and cultural tourists who, like us, arrive to search for family connections. We settled on a small inn called Sorre Hemsing, which is operated by Arne and Berit Nefstad.
Once we found Arne and Berit, it was easy to make family connections. They knew the Bonde name immediately, and introduced me to relatives by email. Arne checked birth records at one of the local churches and located the house my family lived in before they immigrated. The former mayor of Vang and his wife, who live on a homestead once owned by one of my relatives, even treated us to an afternoon array of cookies, cake and coffee.
Bergen had been pleasant, almost warm, with buds on the trees, but springtime was far behind in Vang. A deep blanket of snow covered the fields, farms and hillsides. By the time we met them in person, Arne and Berit felt like old friends, and we were excited to find that the homes at Sorre Hemsing were of the same style as the ones we had seen at the Folkemuseum. I immediately banged my head on the lintel above the tiny front door of the 400-year-old cottage.
That first evening, we had a dinner of rommegrot, a kind of sour-cream porridge, and spekemat, the pungent, cured reindeer meat sliced thin from a hindquarter in the kitchen. Afterward, Arne produced a long roll of paper, which he spread onto the dining room table. On it was our family history going back nearly 1,000 years - he had compiled it himself, mostly from local church records, and it had been added to by visitors from across Norway and North America. My dad added our family details to the sheet, too.
Arne's family tree was slightly different than the American version. For instance, it said my great-great-great-grandmother Berit Bonde had left home two years later than my father thought she had. My father asked how she had traveled, and Arne explained that most immigrants walked the long road to Oslo to catch boats to Germany, where they boarded ocean liners to North America.
At the nearby 800-year-old Hore Stavkirke, which still has the names of our family on some of the pews, tour guide Bergljot Oldre showed us around and even let us climb steep ladders to the upper reaches of the church to see the ancient Norse gods whose faces remain atop the pillars near the roof. Many of them face north, ready to do battle with the giants who, according to legend, will someday come storming down to fight.
Later, we walked 100 yards or so from the church to the house my ancestor and her children walked away from so many years ago. It's a one-story house with a porch and two rooms in the same style as the ones at Sorre Hemsing. A relative who lives nearby now uses it as a wood shop. (We had planned to meet him, but he didn't show; apparently, he told his neighbours he'd had second thoughts. It's funny, but that actually sounds typical of some people in my family.)
When I tried I tried the handle on Berit's front door, it opened. There was hardly room for four of us in the workshop, yet 16 people had lived there before she and her husband followed their daughter to Minnesota. It must have been a desperate journey. When she left, she had five children with her. Two survived.
When we went back outside, the sky was a deep, clear blue, and the snow was bright. My dad stood on the porch, teary-eyed. He picked up a few small bits of granite from the foundation of the cottage and put them into his pocket. In time, I closed the door and we walked down the hill over the deep and crunching snow. It can be easy to make too much of family connections, but, at that moment, my family history felt close.
IF YOU GO
Where to stay:
Hensasvegen 90, Vang i Valdres
Rooms in centuries-old farmhouses from about $123 per night for singles and about $165 for doubles. Breakfast is included.
Where to eat:
Holmenkollveien 200, Oslo
A traditional Norse restaurant that sits atop Holmenkollen and offers expansive views of Oslo, its fjord and the surrounding mountains and valleys. It has both a sit-down restaurant with table service and a cafeteria-style cafe with good wine and beer on tap. Lunch entrees from the site's cafe include kjottkaker (Norwegian meatballs, about $20) and grillet laks (grilled salmon, about $29). Try the Eplekake (apple pie, about $7.30).
Vaskerelven 14, Bergen
A cosy, traditional Norwegian restaurant and bar with great service and wonderful beer on tap, including my personal favorite - N. O. Gjertruds Vintervarmer. Entrees include kjottkake (Norwegian meatballs with gravy and vegetables, about $24) and plokkfisk (cod fillet, potato and onions in bechamel, about $23).
Vulkan 5, Oslo
The fish-oriented restaurant is one of about 20 small eateries in an industrial brick warehouse along the Akerselva River in Oslo. The menu changes as the catch does, although mussels are a constant. Entrees include dagens fisk (daily fish, about $37) and fisksuppe (fish soup, about $23.
What to do:
Vetrlidsallmenningen 21, Bergen
A cable car rising up Bergen's dramatic northeastern ridge above the historic Bryggen neighbourhood to a lookout, playground, restaurant and cross-country ski trails. Rides from 7:30 a.M. to 11 p.m. daily. Round-trip lift tickets cost about $12; about $6 for seniors and children 4 to 15; free for younger children.
Norwegian Museum of Cultural History
Museumsveien 10, Bygdøy, Oslo
One of the world's oldest open-air museums, the site's exhibits include examples of early Viking-era cottages and cooking sheds, as well as reconstructed Oslo buildings from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Thursday, from mid-September to mid-May ; 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission costs about $16; about $5 for children 7 to 18; free for younger children. Closed certain holidays, so check ahead. Admission is free with an Oslopass (bus pass).
The Viking Ship Museum
Huk Aveny 35, Oslo
The museum houses Viking-era longships that were uncovered and reconstructed from burial mounds. The exhibits include details of the notable Vikings buried in the ships, as well as information on how the ships were built, where they sailed and how the sailors navigated them. Open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, May through September, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily from October through April. Admission costs about $12; free for children 17 and younger. Also free for all with an Oslopass (bus pass).
Holmenkollveien 198, Oslo
Skiers can rent runner sleds and helmets for the trails down the slopes below Frogneseteren. Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, except on holidays and in certain weather. An adult's sled-and-helmet rental costs about $19 or about $14 for a child's version.