“Can you move the curtain a little to the left.. no, a little to the right. There, that should keep out the sunshine.” This was our nightly ritual around 10 PM each night in Norway…adjusting the curtains in our hotel room so we could sleep without the sun in our eyes! Imagine going 10 days without seeing night or any darkness, just constant sunshine. I just returned from 10 days in Norway, a beautiful Scandinavian country that reminds me of my home state of Colorado but it also reminded me of Alaska, Canada, and Switzerland because of the mountains—and a little bit of Minnesota because of the many lakes.
It is a land of steep mountains, deep fjiords, and incredible beauty…and in summer, very long days. The sun doesn’t set until 11 PM and rises again around 4 AM. We happened to be there on June 21, the longest day of the year known as the summer solstice, so I can safely say that I spent the longest day of my life in Norway.
WHAT IS A FJIORD AND WHAT’S SPECIAL ABOUT NORWAY?
I know you’re wondering: what is a fjiord?A fjiord (pronounced fee-yord) is a long, narrow and very deep inlet with steep sides or cliffs, created by glacial erosion. They occur in many places in the world, but we were drawn to Norway because of its incredible beauty. We weren’t disappointed!
Our trip began in Oslo, then we traveled by a 7-hour train ride over the mountains of Norway to a harbor town called Bergen. Then we joined our tour group for a 5-day tour called “Land of the Fjiords.” Our sightseeing included gorgeous scenery in the fjiords, towering mountains, glaciers, waterfalls , and rushing streams along the roads. We traveled by bus, train, and ferry as we made our way back to Oslo, via Lillehammer—the site of the 1994 Winter Olympics. It was interesting to see a 25-year-old Olympic site, compared to the mega-sites built for today’s Olympics. This trip has been on our “bucket list” for many years.
GLUTEN-FREE DINING IN NORWAY
Except for a little pre-trip reading, I knew little about Norwegian food…except that I could expect lots of fish and that Scandinavia was well-versed in gluten-free dining. Both were true.
I had alerted our tour operator, Robinson Scandinavia, about my gluten-free diet and our wonderful tour guide, Anne Marie Reinholdt, did a superb job of making sure my needs were met. There was gluten-free bread, usually whole grain (some of the best I’ve ever eaten in Europe) at every meal….although I had to ask for it each time.
My favorite fish was a Norwegian catfish at the Scandic (formerly Rica) Ornen in Bergen in its restaurant, called Roast. If this is Nordic cuisine, I want more. The fish was delicious, served on a bed of delicately roasted vegetables. The staff, like most of the other restaurants we visited, understood gluten-free, spoke excellent English, and understood what foods were appropriate for me so dining was very easy.
While on the tour, some evening meals were buffets and I was surprised to learn that most of the main dishes were gluten-free, even the sauces were either reduced or thickened with something other than wheat flour. So, I had lots of choices. Also, on the buffet tables there were many types of fish such as shrimp, stone crab, herring, and mussels. One day, for lunch, we had the most fantastic roasted salmon.
But the most unusual fish I ate on the whole trip was whale. It was, as our tour guide explained, a “nuisance” whale called “minke” and not one of the endangered types. Apparently, Norwegians eat it often. It was smoked, looked like dark-colored dried beef, and was thinly sliced. It tasted like very salty fish and I can honestly say I didn’t like it at all.
It is very easy to communicate in restaurants because Norwegians speak excellent English. In fact, I never had to use my Norwegian dining card! One day, we ate gluten-free pizza at Peppes (a chain across Norway) in Oslo. While it was good, our American versions of gluten-free pizza are better. Another day, we tried the gluten-free hamburgers at Burger King (in the Oslo train station). Again, our American hamburger buns are better, but I appreciated their effort. The main difference? The Norwegian pizza crust and hamburger bun were composed primarily of white rice flour and lots of tapioca, giving it a texture similar to sponge cake. But, as I mentioned earlier, the whole-grain breads served with meals were phenomenal.
On some days, my desserts were actually better than the rest of the people in our tour group. For example, this dense, dark chocolate
mousse was fantastic and I was the envy of everybody!!
FOODS I TOOK WITH ME
Of course, I always travel with food. My favorite muffins are made by Flax 4 Life and they are not only dense, hearty, and filling but that same density makes them extremely good for traveling. They don’t crush or break apart, even after jostling around in my purse or suitcase. I also took a container of gluten-free rolled oats that just need hot water to make instant oatmeal, an indispensable food I always have in my carry on in case there is no edible food on the airline. I also took nuts, crackers, and some dried fruit… my usual snacks. As it turned out, Icelandair had a gluten-free meal for me, so that worked out well.
GETTING THERE: OUR BATTLE WITH ICELANDAIR
If you have read today’s blog this far, then you know the trip was wonderful. But, international travel is always fraught with possible disasters and this trip was no exception. Maybe you can benefit from our experience. Here is what happened:
Despite meticulous planning, a hint of potential debacle arrived in the form of a vague e-mail from our air carrier, Icelandair, two days before departure. We had flown Icelandair before with excellent results so we had no reason to expect complications on this trip.
The ominously vague e-mail mentioned a change in our itinerary, but no details—we were instructed to call the airline to book the required changes. Except no one would answer the phone, for 2 days! From the airline’s website, we learned that the 2nd leg of our trip, from Iceland to Oslo—was cancelled due to a 24-hour mechanics strike, but the website does not allow passengers to rebook flights online. Instead, we were instructed to call the airline. But, remember… they do not answer phone calls.
We are seasoned travelers and know that there are several ways to address a problem, so we even drove to Denver International Airport (DIA)….thinking that if we could just talk to a real live person, then we could rebook the needed changes and all would be well. Unfortunately, Icelandair contracts with Lufthansa to handle their gates at DIA,—and Lufthansa is only empowered to do check-ins, not book or re-book flights.
Acting on faith, we departed Denver for Iceland making sure to carry on our luggage rather than checking it, to allow flexibility to catch another flight. When we arrived in Iceland after a 7 hour flight, we (and 12,000 other stranded travelers on 65 flights all over the world) were again instructed to call the airline to re-book the next leg of our journey. We were told to stand in line at the airport, but only 4 airline representatives could rebook our flights in person. At the rate they were going, we would have been standing in line for 12 hours waiting for our turn.
So, while waiting in line, we decided to try the phones one more time. After 20 minutes on hold, an airline representative re-booked our flight for the next day. While many airlines may take the initiative to put you into a block of hotel rooms that they have reserved for just this purpose (Lufthansa says that is what they do for stranded passengers), Icelandair leaves everything to the passenger’s initiative. Icelandair’s 24-hour strike required us to stay overnight, incurring hotel, meal, and transportation costs to and from the airport. Icelandair promises to reimburse us for these unexpected expenses, but we will see if they are true to their word.
This whole experience makes us wonder if we want to fly Icelandair again. I’m sharing this with you because you should know that, unlike flying to continental Europe where you have many more airline options or perhaps can use a train, bus, or rental car to reach your destination, Iceland is an island-nation and you’re trapped! You can’t just hop a train or bus or rent a car and get off the island. However, Iceland is a fantastically interesting country (we visited for 5 days in 2012) so don’t pass up the chance to visit—but do go knowing your options.