April 2009 – Passport Magazine
by Rich Rubin
A mountain range coated in snow. A silvery fjord. A waterfall frozen in mid-gush as it plunges down a steep hillside. Just say the word “Norway,” and a host of romantic images are summoned up. While these images are likely to be wintry, there’s actually an abundance of romance year-round, from springtime vistas over wildflower-clad hills to the remarkable phenomenon known as the Midnight Sun. With same-sex marriage legal now (see sidebar), it’s a perfect destination to seal your love in a spot that’s guaranteed to fan the flames of ardent commitment.
Oslo To Bergen
You’ll probably fly into Oslo to start your romantic adventure. If you’re tempted to head straight out of town, don’t do it. There’s a new Oslo emerging, an Oslo of design hotels, hip restaurants, and thriving nightlife. The city is probably your best bet in Norway for finding a list of establishments where you can easily arrange your wedding (see sidebar). After you’re officially hitched, spend a few days exploring the wonders of the capital before moving on.
Celebrate your love like true culture mavens at the new Opera House, which opened in April 2008 and has drawn raves for its architectural style and acoustic perfection. There are also museums on subjects from design to Viking ships to the art of Edvard Munch. My all-time favorite Oslo sight, though, remains Frogner Park, where the sculpture garden of works by Gustav Vigeland is one of the most thrilling and romantic spots in the world, filled with stone and bronze figures that are more human than half the people I know. You’ll soon be creating stories about every statue you see: the two men, one old, one young, who sit on a bench staring at each other; the pair of women, one with her arm draped around her companion; the two guys sitting back to back in almost admirable self-involvement. As you ride the tram back to the city center, you’ll be tempted to look at everyone as if they’re a sculpted figure—which is only appropriate in a country where the beauty is so moving, so overwhelming, that you can’t quite believe it was put there by nature.
Traveling from Oslo to Bergen, here’s my suggestion: do NOT fly. The train takes many more hours, but if ever there was a “journey is more important than the destination” trip, this is it. I think the Bergen Line is one of the world’s great train rides. You won’t be able to help feeling romantic as the train glides past long inlets dotted with tiny red and yellow houses, water running black between snowy banks in winter and burbling up among deep green fields in summer. Snuggle together as the train rolls past high rutted cliffs, streams with floes of ice as thin as glass in odd, irregular patterns, and evergreens rising tall as the sun shines brightly in that clear Norwegian sky.
Combining old-world quaintness and university town sophistication, Bergen’s a charmer. There’s a certain romance to the lost-in-time feeling of Bergen’s ancient buildings, which can transport you back to the time of the Hannseatic League, a European union of merchants that was among the world’s most powerful. Twisting cobblestoned streets are lined with a rainbow array of houses. Walk along the Bryggen, or harbor, as anglers hawk their wares in the waterside market and a maze of centuries-old former warehouses now holds shops and restaurants. Fløyen, a hill above town that’s reached by funicular, boasts acres of wooded paths for a perfect outing in solitary togetherness, with stunning views over this seaside city. Wander to your heart’s content, then get back on the funicular heading toward town. Dismount a few stops before town and walk the rest of the way, wandering among kaleidoscopic wooden houses leaning precariously over winding hillside streets: pure Bergen charm.
Back in town, don’t miss the West Norway Museum of Decorative Art, one of five museums (including the fabulous Bergen Art Museum) lined up along an in-town lake on Ramsus Meyers allé. I confess, I’m a sucker for decorative arts museums in general, but this one is totally fabulous, with everything from elegant jewelry and historical glassware to wild furniture.
That’s the beauty of Bergen: a seamless combination of old and new, sleekly functional and breathtakingly romantic, young at heart but a city for the ages, Norwegian through and through and yet with an international outlook that comes from having long welcomed shipping-related visitors from all over the world. Small town and metropolis both, it’s as gay-friendly as a city could possibly be. Here, the gay community seems at ease with itself and with the city as a whole. In the city’s one gay bar, Fincken, a pair of honeymooning visitors will feel right at home with the eclectic mix of friendly people. Here, gay men and lesbians of all ages and types mingle with an ease I rarely see at home, and being young and pretty are not as important as being, well…a nice person.
Of course, this is Norway, so there’s certainly a preponderance of pretty people. This is the land of both geographic and human beauty. Like the casual appreciation of Bergen’s glorious setting and nearby splendors, people here seem to take the human beauty in stride as well. At home, people so good-looking would be full of themselves. Here, there’s a low-key quality that makes them all that much more gorgeous. The combination of confidence and modesty is quintessential Bergen.
Fjords & Mountains
Bergen is not just an evocative and romantic city, it’s the gateway to the fjords, and if you’re looking for a sure bet for romance, the fjords are it. There are many options just a short way from town. Whether you take a tourist-oriented boat or simply do a trip on a commuter fjord boat with locals riding to work, it’s an incredible ride. On one journey, we plow down the Aurlandsfjord, mountains looming majestically on either side of the boat. More mountains rise up in the distance, seeming to pierce the sky. From time to time a brightly-hued little village appears by the water, patches of green in front of the houses reflect in the water before overhanging mountains. I wonder how it’s possible to live among such beauty on a daily basis.
As we weave through a narrow passageway of water, I look back and see the scene we’ve just left, the mountains appearing upside down in their watery reflection. While nature has created this amazement, I can’t help but think: “It’s like a painting,” the mountains and reflection are so perfectly-wrought. Just as I’m admiring the form, though, the mirror image is staggered into pieces by the wake of the boat, creating loopy mountain reflections and majestically-rising real mountains. I do stop to wonder, between snapping pictures, if this is all real. It’s not just that it’s so beautiful, but that it changes so frequently, so that a still-life of water, mountains, reflections, snow, and sky becomes so much more than that. It actually seems to take on a life, as if you’re watching a video of this achingly gorgeous landscape, the editor cutting smoothly from image to image so that they appear almost superimposed on top of each other, they come at you so quickly and from every side. I actually find myself gasping aloud as a new pair of mountains rises on either side of us, surrounding us with nature at its most awesome.
As much as it changes moment to moment, it changes even more season to season. In winter, the mountains are a vision in white, whereas in summer they’re swathed in green. In summer you’ll spend most of your time on the ship’s deck. In winter you’ll cuddle together inside as the wind grows biting and the chill starts to penetrate. Either way, it’s Norway at its romantic best, and you can’t help but fall under the spell of its glory.
Don’t limit yourself to a fjord ride, as even more amazements await. One great way to be astounded by Norway’s romantic scenery is in the Norway in a Nutshell trip, a day-long voyage out of Bergen that puts you on just about every kind of transportation known to man (except planes) and shows you some of the most scenic wonders in the world. In addition to a long ride on the fjords, you get a bus trip through rolling hills and unblemished countryside, a ride on the marvelously steeply-plunging Flam Railway, and a jaunt along the Bergen line. You can do it in either direction, saving the Flam Railway for the end of the trip, or plunge right into it and do the nice and easy Bergen Line ride at the end. Either way, it’s a journey that is the essence of romance, the essence of Norway. Well, that’s a little redundant, as I’ve come to believe that the two are really one and the same.
The Shining North
For me, the country’s north contains the most romantically unspoiled scenery that Norway has to offer: miles and miles of untrammeled landscape and tiny villages seemingly untouched by time. A weather-beaten splendor rules this otherworldly land above the Arctic Circle, where summer days last twenty-four hours and nighttime grips the winter, the sun emerging for a matter of mere minutes. It’s life on the edge, literally as well as metaphorically, and it takes a special type of resident to endure the extremes—and a special type of visitor to appreciate the magic.
For those who do, however (I count myself among them), there’s nothing more gorgeous. I love the Lofoten Islands, an archipelago up above the Arctic circle, where I drive across islets connected by bridges, past craggy mountains rising straight from deep blue seas, brightly-colored houses arrayed along harbors backed by snowcapped hills, and A-framed structures laden with hanging fish (the locally-produced stockfish is a major industry). Hiking’s a favored pastime here, as are birdwatching and boating. As I drive from village to village, I stop in a series of galleries, including that of the Lofoten’s master painter, Dagfinn Bakkes, whose evocative lithographs and dramatic watercolors are the quintessence of this isolated paradise, from a stormy cliffside to a placid, deep blue sea. I don’t need a destination though, I simply hop in the car and drive through such villages as Reine (voted Norway’s prettiest village in a local publication), or the pretty, one-lettered town of A.
Here we’re miles away from the trendy restaurants of Oslo or the university-driven sophistication of Bergen. Here nature is the ruler, and there’s nothing more awesome than a trip up north in midsummer, when Norway’s famous midnight sun is on view. I remember every detail of our midnight sun trip as if it occurred yesterday. It’s the kind of experience you just don’t forget. I remember the drive past low hills carpeted in fuzzy coats of red and green, long silvery fjords, and craggy mountains streaked with sprays of heathery brown. We turn and drive along the coast, yellow and red houses sitting jauntily waterside, copses of birch trees scattered along the rocky coast, the sun low but bright in the blue, blue sky (at 11 P.M.!).
At the village of Brenna, we head out onto fields sitting above a rock shelf, looking out to open sea. We have the hillside to ourselves, surrounded by this flat rock carpeted with green, the tiny white flowers of the cloudberry plant dotting the verdant lawn.
The sun makes its way toward the horizon, still shining bright. Overhead, gulls give a couple of loud squawks before retreating into silence. The still-bright orb continues its journey seaward. Eleven thirty, fellow scenery-gulpers have arrived, and as the midnight sun, now flushed with a tinge of orangey-gold, continues its slow movement toward the horizon line, I hear a strong voice singing softly. “En himmel flammer i nordlysets brann,” it intones, “a heavenly flame, the northern lights…” The sun approaches sea level. We gaze out in silence. Something incredible happens: the sinking sun suddenly changes its mind, pausing just before it sinks into the sea, and begins, implausibly, to head upwards again. If I were the overly romantic type, I’d compare it to a relationship that will never end, that even as it occasionally sinks it begins to rise again.
Still, summer holds only a fraction of the glories of this far-north wonderland. If you have a winter honeymoon planned, not to worry: the allurements of Norway’s Ice Hotels beckon. These establishments are unlike any place you’ve stayed before: hotels built of ice and snow and rebuilt every year after melting away in spring (the north offers two, Alta Igloo Hotel and Kirkenes SnowHotel). Have a drink in the ice bars, or pay your respects at the austere ice chapel. Then settle in for the night in your private “igloo,” reindeer skins and body heat providing the warmth (the heavy-duty thermal blankets don’t hurt either). Talk about Norway in a nutshell.
Perhaps the most romantic possibility in all of Norway is a journey: the coastal voyage offered by Hurtigruten. You can fly from the southern cities to the north, but why not partake of this one-of-a-kind expedition? Carrying you from the pleasures of Bergen or Oslo to the splendors of the north, it’s a very special cruise, heading up the coastline of this long, narrow country, carrying you from village to village. It starts with the ships themselves, some offering Art Deco décor, Jacuzzis, or suites with bay windows, perfect for snuggling up in your room while the astounding scenery passes by in everchanging splendor—and what scenery it is! Narrow fjords flanked by mountains. Tiny islands set in a shimmering sea. Glaciers rising straight from the ocean. Jagged peaks covered in rows of deep green pines. Farmland set like emerald jewels in a windswept and unbelievably isolated plain. You’ll venture from the Art Nouveau town of Alesund to the venerable Trondheim, Norway’s first capital and a visual feast of ancient wooden buildings, Gothic cathedral, and placid harbor. From these charms it’s on to the Lofotens through fjords teeming with swooping birds to the far-north outpost of Kirkenes, near the Russian border.
Whatever awakens your sense of romance, Hurtigruten has something for you. Wildlife lovers can join a polar bear or whale-watching cruise. Epicures love the Gastronomy in a Musical Framework voyage, with gourmet dining, wine and aquavit tastings, and even a midnight concert in Tromsø’s Arctic Cathedral. Want to explore another culture? The Sami Encounter reveals the unique world of this northern people, combining the coastal splendors with visits to a reindeer farm and an overnight in a Sami village.
Remember what I said about the midnight sun? Imagine experiencing the amazement from the sea, with nothing between the two of you and the now-sinking, now-rising orb but the glittering waters tinged with crimson, magenta, and flamingo-hued swirls. You don’t have to cruise in summer to witness miraculous spectral scenes, either: an autumn/winter voyage brings you face to face with that most incredible of phenomena: the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights. If you’re lucky enough to catch it, you won’t forget it. As you’re watching the deep blue sky, suddenly a shimmer of green appears, tinged with gold. Stripes of cream and pink appear, then vanish. Swirls of color tease you with their evanescence and then are gone. Pastel “comets” dance through the sky in a bold and beautiful array of light that’s as astounding as it is ephemeral.
When it’s over you’ll wonder: did I really see this, or was it the fevered working of my romantic imagination? It’s a question you might well ask yourself about Norway in general, where the most fantastic of sights is the rule rather than the exception. I think, in the end, what gives Norway its ultra-romantic quality is the sense of sheer, overwhelming spectacle, whether it’s a summer cruise through a leafy fjord or a winter voyage to the Northern Lights. Seemingly perched on the edge of the world, there’s a sense of going places no human has ever gone before, even though the more realistic side of you knows you’re hardly the first to have visited. Put aside that realistic self. It has no place in Norway. Let your imagination flourish. Let yourself become a contemplative and utterly unworldly dreamer.
That’s the effect Norway has on the soul (and no, I don’t use the word “soul” lightly). If there’s a romantic in you, Norway will awaken it. If there isn’t, Norway will create one. There’s no underestimating its power, and no resisting its force. Lose yourself in the romance, since you’re going to fall under its spell eventually.
October 8, 2010 – The New York Times
Nobel Peace Prize Given to Jailed Chinese Dissident
by Andrew Jacobs and Jonathan Ansfield
Beijing — Liu Xiaobo, an impassioned literary critic, political essayist and democracy advocate repeatedly jailed by the Chinese government for his activism, has won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of “his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” Mr. Liu, 54, perhaps China’s best known dissident, is serving an 11-year term on subversion charges, in a cell 300 miles from Beijing. He is one of three people to have received the prize while incarcerated by their own governments, after the Burmese opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, in 1991, and the German pacifist, Carl von Ossietzky, in 1935.
By awarding the prize to Mr. Liu, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has provided an unmistakable rebuke to Beijing’s authoritarian leaders at a time of growing intolerance for domestic dissent and a spreading unease internationally over the muscular diplomacy that has accompanied China’s economic rise. In a move that in retrospect appears to have been counterproductive, a senior Chinese official had warned the Norwegian committee’s secretary that giving the prize to Mr. Liu would adversely affect relations between the two countries. The committee, in announcing the prize Friday, noted that China, the world’s second biggest economy, should be commended for lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.
But it chastised the government for ignoring basic rights guaranteed by the Chinese Constitution and in the international conventions to which Beijing is a party. “In practice, these freedoms have proved to be distinctly curtailed for China’s citizens,” committee members said, adding, “China’s new status must entail increased responsibility.”
The Chinese Foreign Ministry reacted angrily to the news, calling it a “desecration” of the Peace Prize and saying it would harm Norwegian-Chinese relations. The Chinese government summoned Norway’s ambassador to protest the award, a spokesman for the Norwegian Foreign Ministry told reporters. “The Nobel Committee giving the Peace Prize to such a person runs completely contrary to the aims of the prize,” Ma Zhaoxu, a spokesman said in a statement posted on the ministry’s Web site. “Liu Xiaobo is a criminal who has been sentenced by Chinese judicial departments for violating Chinese law.”
Headlines about the award were nowhere to be found in the Chinese-language state media or on the country’s main Internet portals. Broadcasts about Liu Xiaobo (pronounced Liew Show Boh) on CNN, which reach only luxury compounds and hotels in China, were blacked out throughout the evening. Many mobile phone users reported not being able to transmit text messages containing his name in Chinese. But on government-monitored microblogs like Sina.com, which regularly blocks searches for his name, the news still generated nearly 6,000 comments within an hour of the announcement.
The announcement also energized international calls for Mr. Liu’s release, including one from President Obama, who urged China to free him “as soon as possible,” saying that political reforms in China had not kept pace with its economic growth. Given that he has no access to a telephone, it was unlikely that Mr. Liu would immediately learn of the news, his wife, Liu Xia, said. On Friday night, dozens of foreign reporters gathered outside the couple’s building in Beijing but they were prevented from entering by the police, who posted a sign saying the complex residents “politely refused” to be interviewed. His wife was also barred from leaving her apartment.
Given his imprisonment, Mr. Liu is not expected to accept the prize in person. The award includes a gold medal, a diploma and the equivalent of $1.5 million dollars.
July 24, 2011 – Gawker
Lesbian Couple Rescued 40 Teens During Norway Massacre
A full week after their incredibly heroic efforts made the pages of Finland’s largest daily newspaper, their story has bobbed its way across the Atlantic and onto our shores. It concerns Hege Dalen and Toril Hansen, a lesbian couple from Norway who were sharing a quiet dinner near the doomed island of Utoya when they began to "hear gunfire and screaming" coming from the island: Anders Behring Breivik’s shooting rampage had begun.
Translated from the Helsingin Sanomat account:
"We were eating. Then shooting and then the awful screaming. We saw how the young people ran in panic into the lake," says Dale to HS in an interview.
The couple immediately took action and pushed the boat into Lake Tyrifjorden. Dalen and Hansen drove the boat to the island, picked up victims in shock, the young and wounded, and transported them to the opposite shore to the mainland. Between runs they saw that the bullets had hit the right side of the boat. Since there were so many and not all fit at once aboard, they returned to the island four times. They were able to rescue 40 young people from the clutches of the killer.
In other uplifting Norway news, Muhammad Ali sent a letter to the people of Norway, in which he wrote that his "heart goes out to each of you as you deal with the unimaginable grief of your loss…I see the same wishes for our children to have happy, healthy lives; I see the same concerns for others less fortunate than ourselves; I see the same desire for peace and dignity."