I got a lot of funny looks when I told friends that I was heading to Norway in December for my last big trip of Gap Year – but I had never been to Scandinavia and it was definitely “on the list”. So when my long-time friend, Audrey, offered last July to join me for a trip there before the end of the year (knowing Lee would be back at work by then), it seemed like a great idea at the time – and as it turns out, it was! We set a plan to do some cross-country skiing, explore Oslo, and with some luck, see the Northern Lights – and while Mother Nature didn’t cooperate on the last one, we had a fantastic time doing the first two!
After meeting up with Audrey in the Franfurt aiport, we flew to Oslo, caught a train to Lillehammer (site of the 1994 Winter Olympics, for those of us old enough to remember!), and got a ride up some incredibly icy roads through the tiny town of Oyer to the Hotel Hornsjo, a lovely old rambling “Mountain Hotell” overlooking a gorgeous snowy landscape and dating back to the 1870s.
As a long-time survivor of changing times, Hornsjo has evolved from its early days as one of many mountain farming communities in the area, to TB sanitarium, to boarding house, to its current iteration as hotel and international learning community for young people from all over the world – making it a perfect home base for three day of X-C skiing. Thankful for the beautiful, expansive views and easily three feet of blanketing snow, we easily slipped into a comfortable rhythm of watching the sunrise (9:30AM!) over morning coffee and a leisurely breakfast, before stepping into our skiis and heading off on an incredible network of beautifully groomed X-C trails for a day of skiing. While the sun never got above what would be a ~”10:00AM” position for us here in the northeast, it provided plenty of light, and gave us the pleasure of enjoying the beautiful scenery draped with long shadows.
With a full 6-7 hours of daylight (the sun set at ~3:30PM), and an unbelievable series of perfectly groomed trails (the X-C trail system apparently was used for the 1994 Olympics, and continues to be used for training and even the World Cup races), we got to enjoy the countryside in both sunshine…
… and with clouds and fog, making for a gorgeous range of grays.
Luckily, the Hornsjo offered a wonderful spot to relax at the end of the day as well, always ready for us with hot tea, the infamous Norwegian sauna, crackling fireplace, and wonderfully warm and welcoming staff – a great place to relax and catch up (Audrey and I became friends in 1977 while we were summer students at the Jackson Lab, so never any shortage of things to talk about!).
After three wonderful days at Hornsjo, we headed back to Lillehammer and Oslo (taking advantage of the wonderful Norwegian train system) to spend a few days exploring there. Even with my experience of growing up in the snowy cold of Maine, I was struck by the vitality and energy of the city in the midst of winter, with everyone – from young to old! – appropriately bundled up and enjoying the outdoors, particularly the abundant “Jul Markets” (outdoor Christmas Markets).
We of course got to enjoy our own share of the now-famed Scandinavian concept of “hygge” (basically, an excuse to drink hot chocolate with friends in blankets, I’m pretty sure)…
… between visits to the Viking ship museum (still cannot believe they took those ships out onto the North Sea way back in the 800’s!)…
… the Norwegian Folk Museum, complete with reconstructed wooden stave church…
… and the Nobel Peace Prize Museum (and of course, couldn’t resist taking a photo of my favorite recent recipient!).
We also were able to make a visit to Fredrikstadt, a traditional Norwegian town reached via train ride down the east side of the Oslofjord and a short ferry hop, complete with antique shops and of course, more hygge. We also saw a reference there to the North Sea Bike Route, a ~6000km route that relies on several ferries to circle the coast of England, Scotland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands – sure sounds like a good target for a future Gap Year!
We enjoyed our last night in Oslo taking in more of the magical sights of a city that knows how to do winter (and apparently, just about everything else – I’ve been reading the book, “Nordic Theory of Everything” during the trip – have to say we could learn a thing or two from those Scandinavians!).
So with gratitude once again for another opportunity to see and experience new places, enjoy physical adventures in an amazingly beautiful setting, and share time with a good friend (thanks again Aud!), I headed back to Maine to enjoy the holidays with my family, reflect on this amazing year, and close our Gap Year where we started it – while of course thinking ahead to how to keep the adventures going!