It is over half a century since I made my one and only visit to the land of the midnight sun, as Norway is sometimes called. Here’s how it came about. My friends and I in London decided to go skiing for the first time, but we knew nothing about ski resorts and had little money. Our research indicated that we could not afford any of the famous Alpine ski resorts in France, Switzerland, Austria and Italy. Then we discovered Geilo, Norway, which appeared to be a ski resort that we could afford. It was a really low price, which became even lower if we did not fly there and fell to practically nothing at all, if we traveled in early January. Now the Norwegians are among the smartest people on the planet, as they recently demonstrated by their refusal to join the European Union, with whose members they still trade without having to stifle themselves with expensive bureaucratic regulation from Brussels and Strasbourg. Norway gives away nothing so, if it was very cheap to ski there, had to be some very good reasons. We set out for Geilo in early January 1960, without having had the experience of life to have figured this out.
The first leg of our journey was by third class rail from London to the port of Newcastle in the north east of England. It was a long and uncomfortable trip, but worse was to come. In Newcastle, we embarked upon a small vessel called the TS Leda, known widely as “the vomiting venus” in a tribute to its ability to induce seasickness in even the hardiest voyager. In all fairness to the poor little ship, the North Sea in January can be rough, so it was not entirely to blame for all the passengers (including us) becoming rather unwell during the voyage of just over 24 hours from Newcastle to Bergen, Norway. Nobody was well enough to eat, so we could not take advantage of the smorgasbord offered to us on the ship. This was a word that we had never before encountered. We anticipated some exotic Scandinavian delicacy, so it was something of an anticlimax to find that smorgasbord is simply the Swedish word for buffet. Yet, at the time, we were in no condition to eat anything at all.
Suddenly, the decks stopped jumping around and we found ourselves in calm waters. In fact, the ship had moved into the long fjord that runs from the sea up to the beautiful old city of Bergen, which sits at the head of the fjord. Bergen is Norway’s second largest city. Until 1830, when it was overtaken by Oslo – the capital, it was the largest. There is a railway line in the shape of an inverted “U”, which heads north from Bergen, eventually curves around and which finally heads south to finish up in Oslo, another sea level city. In its route of 320 miles, the railway line travels through hilly terrain. On its route, midway between Bergen and Oslo, lies the little town of Geilo. Therefore this was the train that we took on the third and last leg of our journey to Geilo, which is situated north of 60 degrees latitude. When one considers that the Arctic Circle is at 66 degrees latitude, this means that Geilo is pretty far to the north and this is where the midnight sun comes into it. It follows that, if parts of Norway enjoy the sun at midnight in the middle of summer, then they must in return endure a good deal of darkness in the middle of winter. So there we were in Geilo in early January with daylight available to us only from 10am to 3pm. Finally, we understood the logic behind the pricing of this vacation. The whole area was only about 2000 to 3000 feet about sea level, which is hardly mountainous. We learned that skiing was created by the Norwegians simply as a form of transportation cross country. They were not in the business of making dramatic descents of high mountains at top speed for the fun of it. That was not why they invented skiing. Ski is a Norwegian word and for literally thousands of years Norwegians had used cross country skiing, not for sport, but as a way of allowing isolated snowbound communities to stay in touch. It was the British in the 19th century, with their passion for inventing sports, who moved skiing from Norway to an entirely different environment in the Alps from where it has developed to become a major Olympic sport.
We did our best with the conditions in Geilo and had fun. We returned home safely, after experiencing a return journey as traumatic as the outward journey. We subsequently took other skiing vacations in the nineteen sixties, but we had learned our lesson. We took care on those future trips to visit instead the Austrian Tirol in late February, where plentiful daylight and hot midday sun and tall steep mountains provide a wonderfully exhilarating experience.