CITY OF IS­LANDS

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Escape - - CRUISING | SCANDINAVIA - JOHN HUXLEY THE WRITER TRAV­ELLED AT HIS OWN EX­PENSE

It was shortly af­ter 2am, on the night of Jan­uary 23, 1904, that the post­card-pretty Nor­we­gian city of Ale­sund burned to the ground, re­port­edly af­ter a cow shel­ter­ing in a de­crepit, wooden sta­ble from the freez­ing win­ter winds kicked over a torch. So strong were the wind gusts that night that would-be fire­fight­ers were blown off their feet and the flames rapidly took hold. Re­mark­ably, only one life was lost, that of a 76-year-old woman. But by dawn about 850 wooden build­ings had burned to the ground and some 10,000 res­i­dents were home­less. Only one, more sub­stan­tial build­ing was left stand­ing.

More than a cen­tury later, this so-called “mi­rakel­huset” – “the mir­a­cle, last house stand­ing”, which wouldn’t burn – has be­come just one of many vis­i­tor at­trac­tions in the self­styled Ad­ven­ture Cap­i­tal of the Fjords – in their case, the Geiranger­fjord.

To­day, Ale­sund is an el­e­gant, pros­per­ous, “avant-garde”, art nou­veau city of more than 50,000 lib­eral-minded peo­ple, who paint the homes, of­fices, churches, sta­di­ums and other build­ings pre­dom­i­nantly in white and shades of yel­low, blue and red. It’s a pretty pic­ture.

Lit­tle won­der, then, that much like its big­ger Nor­we­gian neigh­bours such as Ber­gen and cap­i­tal Oslo, Ale­sund, a city of many is­lands, has be­come a must-see at­trac­tion for vis­i­tors. These days, they are com­ing in ever big­ger num­bers, by road, in car and in coach, and in­creas­ingly by sea in cruise ships. This year’s seaborne “in­va­sion” is ex­pected to num­ber more than sev­eral mil­lion short-stay vis­i­tors.

It’s not dif­fi­cult, even on a one-day visit, to see why. Or to un­der­stand why most vis­i­tors re­turn to their ship wish­ing more time could be spent in the city. But that’s part of the charm of cruis­ing, es­pe­cially “lux­ury” cruis­ing.

There’s al­ways so much to see, and so lit­tle time, both on shore and on the ship – as my wife and I dis­cov­ered on a mem­o­rable 14-day cruise on the el­e­gant Kon­ings­dam.

Start­ing and fin­ish­ing in the free-think­ing, bike-rid­ing, van Gogh-wor­ship­ping Dutch city of Am­s­ter­dam, the cruise also vis­ited Ed­in­burgh in Scot­land; Reyk­javik and other stops on Ice­land’s windswept coast, as well as the equally spec­tac­u­lar, moun­tain­ous Ber­gen.

As my wife and I demon­strated, af­ter a few days of train­ing in the good ship Kon­ings­dam’s hi-tech gym, the even higher spots of both cities are ac­ces­si­ble on foot: Ale­sund by a steep, zigzag climb of some 420 steps, Ber­gen by a much longer, though gen­tler hike.

Or you can take a ride. Ber­gen’s fa­mous Mount Floyen fu­nic­u­lar is, well, lots of fun, and of­fers stun­ning views. But it’s pricey, about $20 re­turn, and of­ten packed out, though tick­ets can, and prob­a­bly should, be bought in ad­vance.

Ale­sund, of course, also has its own trans­port up the moun­tain to the Fjell­stua van­tage point … and here it comes now, a chunky, bright blue and white road-train, chug­ging, “toot-toot”, out of the morn­ing traf­fic like some­thing from the pages of Thomas the Tank En­gine.

The ride through the city streets and up the moun­tain is not very com­fort­able, not very in­for­ma­tive and not re­ally very photo-friendly, but, hey, it’s a lot of fun, and the driver does point out “city at­trac­tions” well worth re­vis­it­ing later on foot.

They are an eclec­tic mix. Here the im­pos­ing Vols­dalen Church; over there the new Color Line foot­ball sta­dium, home of Aale­sunds FK. Here Klipra, where the great fire of 1904 was halted; down there the Fjell­tun Rd re­mains of an apart­ment build­ing which col­lapsed as re­cently as 2008.

And the lit­eral “high-lights”, per­haps, of the 70-minute ride, are the mag­nif­i­cent views of the out­ly­ing is­lands of Ale­sund, and the far-off glis­ten­ing fjords. Magic! But you’ve just got to love a city that has heated park benches. Ale­sund does.

All too soon, it is time to re­turn to the Kon­ings­dam … to re­flect on the day, en­joy the ship’s com­fort­able state rooms, its top-class cui­sine, its top-class en­ter­tain­ment and lec­tures. And, of course, to pre­pare for to­mor­row’s new ad­ven­tures; to pine, like Monty Python, for the fjords.

PIC­TURE: ISTOCK

Build­ings in the pretty Nor­we­gian city are pre­dom­i­nantly white, yel­low, blue and red.

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