Janet Street-Porter: My love affair with Norwegian hiking
My love affair with Norway took a long time to get started. I'd always (wrongly) written it off as being cold and dark for a large part of the year, and somehow a bit serious. Long winters and a lot of outdoor activities such as cross-country skiing weren't for me.
The idea of cruising up the fabulous coastline never appealed (what if I didn't like my fellow travellers?) and I'm too old for a raucous weekend in Stavanger.
Breathtaking: The stunning landscape of Norway can be discovered on horseback or on foot
Plus, I don't drink much beer. So, what's happened to change my mind? I've gone from a Norway virgin to someone who can't wait to go back - visiting twice in the past few months and planning more trips next year. This is a country so close to the UK, but amazingly undiscovered.
It stretches from the beautiful islands around Oslo in the south to the fishing villages of Lofoten islands and the bleak landscapes of the Arctic circle in the far north. It's one of the emptiest places in Europe, with a population of just 4.6million.
Half of the country is made up of mountains - and the rest divides between forest, rivers and lakes. There are national parks where you can climb, hike, fish and sail all day without seeing another soul and, as I discovered, there isn't one version of Norway. You have to carefully plan your time there and you still will only see a fraction of what it has to offer.
It's a country with a strong commitment to green issues, a place where villages and small hamlets seem in total harmony with their surroundings. But the big question is: where to start?
You could spend hours staring at a map and end up none the wiser. Even guide books are pretty confusing, because the country is so long and narrow (bordering Sweden, Finland and Russia in the far north) that you have to decide which bit to focus on, and that's not easy.
You need a plan and for that I've got to thank my hosts, Helge and Morten, two good looking Norwegian brothers-in-law who run a customised travel service, Ziniry.
They aim to help you experience Norway in a unique way. Put simply, they're mad about the place. They are super-fit, keen photographers and thoroughly knowledgeable. Most importantly, they want you to do things you'd never normally try.
Which is why I find myself agreeing to climb a mountain, Kyrkja ('the Church'), more than 6,000 ft (2,032 m) high. But the view from the top made it all worthwhile - a panorama of peaks, around 60 in all, surrounding me in all directions.
I'll skip the agony of the three-hour descent, except to say that when I finally made it back to the nearest bar, the beer tasted like champagne.
Hard to believe that only the day before, I'd flown in from London. Helge met me at Oslo airport and we boarded a Cessna for the flight to my first hotel, the fairytale Per Gynt Garden, 270km (a three-hour drive) north-west of Oslo near Vinstra, in the beautiful valley of Gudbrandsdalen.
We flew over the former site of the winter Olympics at Lillehammer, over unspoilt ridges and vast expanses of forest in the late afternoon sun.
High and mighty: The Preikestolen Rock at 600m above the Lysebotn Fjord
On the ground, the first thing you notice about driving in Norway is that there aren't many people on the road and about one-tenth of all the horrible road signs we have in Britain.
In fact, the landscape is free of ugly billboards, unnecessary signage, and man-made detritus. Per Gynt Garden sits high above the valley, a collection of ancient wooden farm buildings dating from the Middle Ages.
There's no better place to soak up the true spirit of Norway. This was once the home of the wild farmer said to have inspired Henrik Ibsen to create his famous character, Peer Gynt.
In 1936, the great-grandparents of the current owner, Christian Mikkel Dobloug, bought the estate and started to restore it, attracting musicians and artists to visit them in this remote spot.
BY 2001 it was very run down, and Mikkel has spent a fortune painstakingly restoring the 17 buildings in the farm complex with slate and grass roofs to create 19 atmospheric rooms, and every one is completely different.
Although they are packed with antique memorabilia, thankfully all the plumbing and heating is brand new.
The oldest part of the farm has been left exactly as it would have been 200 years ago, with narrow beds built into the walls, open fires and sloping floors, old metal hinges on the doors and cupboards. I was offered the Royal Suite, with a romantic wooden four-poster and furnished with antiques, old prints, books and family photographs.
Windows on two sides overlooked the fields in the valley below. One of the most romantic rooms I've ever stayed in. Too bad I was travelling alone. Dinner on the terrace in the June evening sun was excellent.
Mikkel is a foodie, who enthusiastically promotes the new Norwegian cuisine, using local ingredients wherever possible. We dined on asparagus, reindeer steak and rhubarb, and after a bottle of excellent red wine I was persuaded by Helge to climb a mountain, which meant getting up at 7.30am and then eating a hearty breakfast in the wooden building housing the kitchen.
An hour-and-a-half drive through spectacular mountain scenery north to the village of Otta and then west to Lom, a busy centre for walkers and tourists, where we stopped for my second breakfast at a very good bakery (more carbohydrates, in the form of a delicious pain au raisin) and I bought a pair of high-tech lightweight waterproof hiking trousers from the shop next door and changed in the loo of the cafe.
I was ready for anything. Eventually we turned south into the Jotunheimen National Park. Parking outside the isolated motel, I met guide Kjell Nyoygard, who has spent 20 years hiking in the area and has climbed more than 60 peaks.
Now it was time to begin. Although the temperature was a pleasant 20 degrees, some winter snow still remained, although Kjell assured me it would all have vanished by the end of June. I dug my heels in (literally) and slowly followed him across the snowfield, gradually making my way up onto a ridge.
Before the final ascent up what looked like 500 feet of roughly stacked giant granite boulders, we stopped for lunch. Out of his rucksack Kjell produced some mini wooden planks, and arranged a picnic - delicious! I wolfed the lot down - now I really was carrying excess baggage.
After a combination of scrambling and careful footwork, the views made it all worthwhile. The atmosphere is so unpolluted that I could see for 50 miles. It really inspired me to return and tackle the peaks that encircled us.
My achievement was slightly undermined by the arrival of a couple of sweet little girls who reached the summit with Mum and Dad just after me. They must have been about ten years old.
We didn't arrive back at Lom until 9.30pm, but it was a beautiful evening with plenty of light and walkers sat outside the popular Fossheim Hotel, enjoying an evening drink. After my mighty trek, I was starving.
The chef here is excellent, and dinner was quite an event: crayfish soup with scallops, followed by reindeer with roasted wild mushrooms. Dessert was a concoction of local strawberries in a sour milk pudding.
I've no recollection of the journey back to the fairytale Per Gynt, but I slept like a log in my Royal bed.
Next day, Helge persuaded me to go riding. High above the hotel was the Sylseter riding centre, a popular centre for exploring the Rondane National Park.
I rode up narrow paths through windswept moorland, passing rocky bluffs and a series of small lakes onto a high plateau with great views over the empty national park to the north.
After a couple of hours we reached a sheltered spot, and Morten, who owned the riding school, grilled local trout over a fire.
I offered him my horse and enjoyed strolling in the silence down to the stables. Back at Per Gynt, I was ready for a nap.
had arranged for Karen, a local naturopath to give me a relaxing massage on the shady balcony outside my room. Totally chilled out, I clambered into my Royal bed for a siesta. Dinner was in the candlelit, wooden-panelled dining room, seated at the impressive oak table - ox filet and strawberry sherbet.
Next morning, I was driven to the local airstrip in an ancient Volvo which had once belonged to the royal family.
After the hour-long flight to Oslo, I ate lunch on the terrace of the Ekeberg restaurant overlooking the harbour. The building dates from the early 20th century and is a popular venue for parties and weddings. Oslo is in the middle of redeveloping the waterfront area, with the spectacular new Opera House the focal point.
This building is an amazing piece of architecture, jutting out into the water like a piece of origami.
The architects aimed to make the building accessible to all - I walked right up the white sloping roof from ground level to a series of terraces. Inside, the foyer is a jawdropping space with a series of undulating wooden curved balconies, a busy cafe and bar.
That afternoon I took a boat trip around the harbour and down the Oslo fjord, past dozens of wooded islands dotted with holiday homes. The water was full of people fishing - and there were even some brave souls in swimming.
That evening, having stowed my bags at the comfortable Hotel Continental, right on the main square, I dined with Helge and Morten at the legendary Palace Grill. This super-trendy spot doesn't take bookings and it's tiny, seating just 23. There's no choice, and you pay according to the number of courses you eat.
Nina, the head waiter, chose a glass of wine for each course.
We started with oysters, moving on to turbot, pigeon and elk. This was a truly memorable meal, by anyone's standards. Ten courses cost around £100 a head.
Next day, I just had time to fit in a trip to the Munch museum to see the Scream, before a stroll around Aker Brygge the new waterfront shopping area. Four nights, magical scenery, splendid meals and a big mountain. I can't wait to go back. Next time, I plan to go hiking in the Western Fjords - and eat a lot, naturally.
For tailor-made holidays to Norway with a host, visit ziniry.com. Costs from £1,000 per person, per day, including all accommodation, transportation, activities and meals. British Airways flies from Heathrow to Oslo from £171 return (0844 493 0787, ba.com).
Independently, Per Gynt Garden normally only takes full group bookings, except for the first weekend of every month, A double room from £310 (00 47 6129 5400, pergynt.no).
The Fossheim Hotel in Lom (00 47 61 21 95 00, fossheimhotel.no) offers double rooms from £130 including breakfast. Hotel Continental (00 47 22 82 40 00, hotel-continental.no) offers double rooms from £208 including breakfast.
Palace Grill is located on Solligt. 2, (00 47 23 13 11 40). For further information, contact Visit Norway (020 7389 8800, visitnorway.co.uk)
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