In Norway and Finland, Steve Creedy toasts the significant anniversaries of two great composers
AFTER finally tumbling into the comfortable bed that dominates my modest waterside room, I am woken at 6am by the sound of distant drums. It’s Norway’s national day and there is apparently no better way to show your patriotic fervour than to march around the street at dawn banging a drum. These are quickly followed by cannon fired from the historic fort on the other side of Bergen’s picturesque harbour.
The opportunity to sleep is well and truly over. Even at the best of times, sleep and various lands of the (almost) midnight sun are not so much strange bedfellows but concepts that reside in entirely different buildings. The days are so long and the nights so short that any visit to Scandinavia in late spring or summer will inevitably lead to insomnia. But Norway’s celebration of its nationhood takes this to new levels.
I have been warned by Norwegians that some outsiders view their national celebrations as slightly over the top. A reporter from Norwegian national radio swings by the hotel to see if I am one of them. The fact she is wearing national costume suggests those outsiders may well be right and, as we step outside, I am not disappointed. The streets are a colourful riot of traditional costumes of various shapes, sizes and eras as the good citizens of Bergen show their enthusiasm for Norwegian independence.
Edvard Grieg would no doubt have heartily approved, not only of the patriotic fervour but of the festivities that last long into the night. Norway’s famous composer is the reason I’m in Bergen on the first leg of what I’ve dubbed, with apologies to Monty Python, the Decomposing Composer Tour. Grieg played a big part in my childhood and this year is the 100th anniversary of his death.
It all began when eight-year-old Creedy went home and hummed a few off-key bars of Morning , from the Peer Gynt Suite , after hearing it at school. Delighted that her son had discovered something a little more cultural than lizards and white mice, my mother rushed down to the record shop to buy me my own copy of Peer Gynt . The album’s cover featured a glossy picture of a green meadow framed by snow-capped mountains that would forever be associated, regardless of Ibsen’s play, with Grieg’s music and Norway.
So it was with some excitement that I had two days earlier looked down on Bergen from my SAS flight to see the kind of mountain and coastal scenery Grieg’s music evoked and author Douglas Adams had, somewhat less romantically, described as ‘‘ the crinkly bits’’.
It seems obvious why the millennium-old city on the west coast of Norway has become a tourist mecca. Founded in 1070 by King Olav Kyrre, it hugs the hills at the entry to the fjords, surrounded by seven mountains and dripping with history stretching from the Viking era through to modern times. It was once the north’s biggest city and from the 13th century was an important port for the Hanseatic League, the German medieval guild of merchants whose distinctive wharfside buildings, the Bryggen, still grace the colourful harbour.
A good way to get a feel for the town and a sense of Grieg’s earlier years is with a guided walking tour that includes the medieval churches and the older residential districts. Many of the quaint wooden houses have been repeatedly burned down and rebuilt, but the charm of the old town remains. Restaurants and bars are liberally sprinkled through the old sector but they are expensive. Expect to pay as much as $50 for a main course at a good seafood restaurant in the tourist district and to take out a second mortgage if you want to drink decent wine.
Nothing here is cheap but one way of reducing overheads is to buy a Bergen Card offering significant discounts on attractions. The card also includes a free round-trip on one of the must-do features in the city, the Mt Floyen funicular railway. The extremely fit can walk up Mt Floyen, but most tourists are content to ride the funicular.
As I have a VIP Bergen Card, and I’m not even vaguely fit, the funicular is a lay-down misere and proves well worth the trip. The views of the surrounding valleys and waterways are truly spectacular and the sun even sets over the sea. However, sunset junkies be warned: civilisations have been built and crumbled in less time than it takes for the Nordic sun to go down. Fortunately, spectacular views are only part of the reason I’m here. I’ve already seen where Grieg went to school and the long walk he endured as a child after his parents moved out from the town centre.
I’ve also been to the Old Bergen Museum, a village-like setting about 4km from the town centre that is home to 40 older buildings. A short walk down its cobblestoned streets leads to a cabin overlooking the water. This is where Grieg is said to have composed some of Peer Gynt and I can imagine him staring thoughtfully across the fjord to the mountains beyond.
But there is one pot of gold in Bergen that no Grieg fan can miss: Troldhaugen. The approach to Grieg’s home for the last two decades of his life is a peaceful tree-lined avenue that ends on a rocky promontory over-
looking Lake Nordas, about 10km south of Bergen. It’s one of those beautiful and tranquil spots that make you wish you’d got there first and that you were a lot richer. It even beats the picture on the old Peer Gynt record sleeve. Grieg bought the land from a local farmer and planned his new home while he wrote the Holberg Suite in 1884-85.
The composer lived and worked here every summer until his death in 1907, widely touring warmer parts of Europe with wife Nina during the winter.
It is here and in the accompanying museum that you get the best sense of Grieg’s life. The surprisingly modest house has been carefully preserved and contains a fascinating array of original artefacts, including a Steinway piano given to Grieg on his silver wedding anniversary in 1892. He and Nina are buried in a tomb cut into the rock face overlooking the composer’s cabin. It is here that it is easiest to see how the area infused Grieg’s music with that evocative sense of landscape that even an eight-year-old could pick up.
But Grieg, of course, is not the only Scandinavian composer to have made it big. Two days later I’m sitting on a Finnish train watching forests of spruce and fir glide by while listening to Sibelius’s Violin Concerto in D minor. It’s one of those smooth-as-silk European trains and it’s whisking me to the lakeside town of Lahti, about 45 minutes from Helsinki by rail. The soaring violin of the first movement fits perfectly with the scenery. I’m off to Lahti to see the impressive Sibelius Hall, a wood-and-glass architectural masterpiece perched on the shores of Lake Vesijarvi and home to the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. Sibelius’s historical connection with Lahti is somewhat tenuous in that he used to holiday near the town but never lived in it.
But the dedication of the LSO and conductor Osmo Vanska to the composer’s music has seen the establishment of an annual Sibelius Festival each September and the construction of the imposing symphony hall. Lahti is a pleasant town that sells itself as the gateway to Finland’s lake district and it is gearing up to mark the 50th anniversary of Sibelius’s death. Like the Norwegians, the Finns love fish, and a pleasant lunch at the lakeshore Restaurant Casseli showcases the breadth of tasty local dishes. From here it’s a short walk to the symphony hall where the LSO and Vanska are going through the painstaking process of recording their latest CD. The hall’s interior is even more impressive than its exterior; the engineers recording the album say its acoustics are among the best in Scandinavia.
Finland may not have the scenic splendour of Norway’s fjords but its rolling, wooded countryside is dotted with lakes that provide the Finns with a recreational resource and place to build weekenders. It is one of these holiday homes that gives Lahti its historical link with Sibelius, although his house is near Jarvenpaa, about 40km north of Helsinki.
Sibelius was in his 30s when he decided the bustle of Helsinki was interfering with his ability to write music and, like Grieg, he needed somewhere more tranquil. Ainola, named after his wife Aino, was that place.
Ainola is another island of tranquillity: a two-storey house of uniquely local design with log walls and traditional tiled heating stoves. A grand piano sits in the drawing room and, as with Grieg, you can imagine Sibelius sitting in his study gazing at the lake that could be seen at that time in the distance. And again, it is the last resting place of the composer and his wife.
From Ainola it’s a quick trip back to Helsinki to sample some of that city’s many offerings. Helsinki is not huge but it has a rich history, a good nightlife and some great pubs. And because it’s part of the European Union and uses the euro, it is cheaper than Norway.
Buying a Helsinki Card is a good way to see the city because it gives unlimited travel on public transport, free entry to attractions and museums as well as free travel to the fascinating Suomenlinna Sea Fortress, a massive stone fortress built in the middle of 18th century during Swedish rule and later taken over by the Russians.
It is a suburb of Helsinki with a population of more than 800 and one of the nation’s most popular attractions. A sprawling complex built over four islands, Suomenlinna Sea Fortress houses museums, restaurants, cafes and even a youth hostel. An afternoon wandering around the complex fails to do it justice but works up enough of an appetite to warrant heading out on an evening stroll in search of a good cafe or bar. There’s time to briefly poke my nose into one of Sibelius’s old haunts, the plush Hotel Kamp, before heading to a bar discovered the previous night. It has beers from across the world, including some top locally produced boutique ales. And what better way to toast the anniversaries of two great composers? Steve Creedy visited Scandinavia courtesy of Star Alliance, SAS, My Planet and the Finnish Tourist Board. www.staralliance.com www.flysas.com www.bentours.com.au www.visitfinland.com/au www.visitscandinavia.com.au. Tim Heald in Helsinki: The Incidental Tourist — Page 4