New Year’s Eve is a tricky holiday for us. Katie absolutely loves it – toss together glitter and fireworks with bubbles and a clean slate, and you’ve got a literal perfect holiday. No stressing over gifts. Celebrate with 2 people or 200. It’s socially acceptable to get champagne drunk and hug strangers. Or kiss them. Whatever, it’s New Years! We try to celebrate it some place new every year (we are so over New Year’s Eve in NYC), but it’s difficult to plan something unique each time without falling into a deep dark abyss of options. Favorite holidays come with pressure. Last year, we planned to spend NYE in Portugal, but an unexpected surge of covid and the resulting restrictions forced us to reroute our trip at the very last minute. We ended up in Tucson, Arizona in a whirlwind of re-planning, and that last minute adventure was its own brand of unique. This year, we anxiously awaited the arrival of Katie’s new passport before booking anything. We were too cheap to expedite it and chose instead to live on the edge (cue my functional anxiety). It arrived on December 22nd, and we booked our flights for December 29th…to Norway. Nordic NYE, here we come. Hopefully.
I’ve been fascinated by Nordic regions for a long time. It’s rare for us to repeat a trip, and we’ve been to Iceland three times now. It keeps pulling me in like a magnet. But we’ve never seen it in the winter, and I craved the experience of endless banks of snow, swirling storms, and infinite land. I needed it. We decided to stay south, focusing on Bergen, Flam and Oslo by train. I later regretted not trying harder to make it up north, but in January the popularity of “northern lights tourism” might have priced us out with so little planning. So, in another whirlwind, we set off. I hadn’t been to Norway yet, but I already knew that I’d be back eventually.
After a layover in Paris where they forgot to stamp our passports (and in our jetlagged delirium, we didn’t ask why), we landed in Bergen to a small, quiet airport with nothing between us and the exit except for a pair of double doors. The air was crisp, and the light was slate grey. In the winter, the sun rises around 9:30am and sets around 3:30pm. But rarely does it get truly bright and sunny, even midday. We had also prepared for rain – supposedly Bergen is the rainiest city in Europe, and its unique location shields it from much of the tundra-like snow that the rest of the country experiences.
We were perhaps slightly less prepared for the rain than expected. We dropped our things and walked a block and a half from our hotel in the famous Bryggen neighborhood to a grocery store (to stock up on snacks and booze, as most of the city closes on New Year’s Eve) and were immediately soaked with sideways-moving ice rain. We packed 2 pairs of waterproof hiking pants (think, light ski pants) and waterproof duck boots and immediately put them to use. Function over fashion was the theme of the remainder of our trip.
That night we went to an outdoor light show called Lumagica on its final night of operation. We caught the city at the tail end of the holiday season, but it was still adorned with twinkle lights and over-the-top decorations. The rain was piercing as we wandered through the dark paths that surrounded the show, soothed by the sound of holiday jingles that timed to the changing of colored lights. There were few visitors. A cold beer in the bar tent topped things off as the rain hammered a tarp behind my chair aggressively. So much for a winter wonderland.
On New Year’s Day we finished stocking up just before the shops began to close around noon. A trip to the “world’s largest gingerbread village” was the icing on the cake (no pun intended) – a great daytime activity for kids (and Sara & Katie). The cookie-constructed landscapes in the display looked something like I imagined the areas outside of Bergen to look like. This would later turn out to be true.
The city is small and manageable, something like Reykjavik. It surrounds an inlet of water that leads to fjords in the distance, and the houses dotting the shore are painted in bright colors. Behind them are wavy hills and homes that sit high above downtown. It was striking, even through the hazy rain. Being here on New Year’s Eve was such a different experience than it is in so many places – so much of the city closes down. Actually, most of the country takes a 2-week vacation around Christmas. Instead of feeling disappointed by it, I was oddly soothed. It was an opportunity for me to slow down. We got a 1-page printed list from our hotel that contained every single open restaurant in the city that night. It’s comforting to just be told…eat here, drink there, watch the fireworks over there. I’m often overwhelmed by too many choices.
The only dinner reservation we could get was at 4:45pm, which I can’t even call grandma-hour because I’m pretty sure grandma isn’t even hungry for dinner yet at that time. But it was 4:45 seafood or day-old pastries at 7/11, and I’m pretty sure even they were closed by 5:30. We got a table at Fjellskaal overlooking the harbor, where lights from the houses in Bryggen shone below. The sky was finally clear, and the rain had stopped completely. We dug into amazing plates of Monkfish with garlic oil and shellfish sauce and creamy seafood stews. The fish was buttery and perfect. The seafood in Norway is apparently even better (and fresher) in wintertime. I immediately forgot about the fact that I was essentially eating a very bougie late lunch.
After wandering around outside for a while, we found one of the only open bars within walking distance of the eventual fireworks. It was a kitschy American country music bar, which couldn’t have possibly felt more out of place. But inside it was packed with Norwegians. There’s power in having a monopoly on operational bars at the holidays. After being mistaken for locals (my actual favorite experience on the PLANET), we made friends with some bar-goers and eventually poured out into the streets for fireworks. The sky exploded while a crowd gathered, with no competition for space, and here we were in another year. After slipping and falling on an icy cobblestone on our walk back (I now understand why people wear crampons in downtown Bergen), we poured ourselves into bed.
Amazingly, we were somewhat functional on New Year’s Day. I opened the curtains to see bright sunlight streaming in and a rich blue sky behind it. I thought that maybe I was still drunk. Not wanting to waste the sunlight that we were told we would never see, we went to ride the funicular up to the top of Mount Floyen for a view of the city. Like most attractions around the holidays in Norway, the crowds were light and we had no wait. At the top the air was noticeably crisper, and we buried ourselves in layers of clothing and windproof ski jackets. Fresh snow covered the paths, and I turned around at one point to see a few rogue goats with bells around their necks walk past me lackadaisically. A nearby sign indicated that they were friendly and liked to be pet. Nobody seemed surprised by their presence except me. The view showed you the whole city, with snowcapped mountains in the distance and sunshine forcing its way through the clouds. It was so serene, and my mind immediately settled. It felt so instinctually right to be here.
The next day we were scheduled to take a 3-hour fjord cruise, but no sooner had we stepped on board the boat than they announced the tour was cancelled due to the boat’s electrical issues. It was the only day we could go, so we were extremely upset. We managed to re-book a 1-hour harbor cruise for that afternoon, which was anticlimactic after the promise of fjords, but soothing nonetheless. We sailed right around the afternoon sunset, when the light became soft and danced over the water. I was grateful for the merino wool hat liner that I’d just purchased, and the extra layer of long underwear I’d thrown on last minute. One cannot underestimate the need for functional layers in Norway, even in “mild” Bergen.
That night we had dinner at Pingvenin, a quiet restaurant filled with locals. Their specialty is Swedish-style meatballs with lingonberries and potatoes, washed down with French wine (which is in plentiful supply due to the close proximity of Paris). It was becoming clear that the cost of food and drink is pricy in Norway, but coming from NYC it was barely more than a bat of the eyelash.
Mornings and evenings here are equally peaceful. At 9am the streets are still quiet, as the sun still hasn’t risen, and nobody is rushing to start their day. We got breakfast most mornings at Godt Bread, which serves fruit smoothies and warm pastries. At night, shops and restaurants close early, and leave the streets to a few stray wanderers. The historic buildings of Bryggen, lined with holiday lights, are noticeably slanted from centuries of wear. A few wooden signs indicate that they are being restored for historical purposes. The buildings hug tiny alleyways which are open to evening explorers, and the wood boards groan underneath my feet and echo off the slanted walls. The next day we would set off for Flam, a tiny town of 600 in between Bergen and Oslo. I loved the cool and breezy vibe of Bergen, but I was ready to leave the city lights behind for a bit of rural land. It felt like I was heading home.
I just told Michaela about the horizontal freezing rain and it’s put her off Bergen for life! Love the fact that only an American could refer to Paris as being “in close proximity” to Norway – that’s so funny, for us Brits those two places are a world apart! Glad you enjoyed your NYE in the traditional way in the end…by getting rat arsed. By the way, remember me saying months ago that we are due to follow in your footsteps on the Glacier Express? Well…it’s this weekend! Can’t wait!
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Hahah the rain was no joke! But to be honest we got used to it, and were then spoiled by sun, like a reward. As for Paris, well, in America absolutely everything is far apart so it makes sense! Basically if it’s close enough to take a flight for the weekend, it’s close! And I’m so excited for you to take the Glacier Express!! I’ll be looking out for pictures in winter – I’m sure it’s a whole other world.
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What ever the season is , Norway has a lot to offer . Great Images.
fjords in Winter I believe must have been a different and good experience 🙂
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Thank you! It was a magical experience and honestly, going at “sunset” was surprisingly wonderful. The light was just so unique and mysterious.
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