I had wanted to travel using only a vintage-era guidebook for some time. A truly old, and not just out of date, guide was surprisingly difficult to find, but eventually I managed to source one. I would be heading across the North Sea to travel the length of Scandinavia, to mainland Europe’s northernmost point.
In doing so using only my vintage guide, I would also be heading back to 1960, a time when Norway specifically, and Scandinavia generally, was still something of a northern backwater. Houses and cars were still rationed, and oil (the lifeblood of modern Scandinavia) wouldn’t be discovered off its extensive shores for another decade. The Beatles weren’t to have their first hit for another two years. Independent tourism was almost unheard of.
I wanted to see exactly what might have changed since the guide was first sold for the pre-decimal price of twelve shillings and six pence net (inflation saw to it that the price then rose to eighteen shillings, then fifty new pence, and finally £4.99 when it entered my possession).
At the same time, I’m loath to think about everything I don’t know, such as whether trains still even run between Aalborg and Frederikshavn, and if so when. Instead I relax in the knowledge that a night in a hostel will cost me a mere two to three shillings, which is just about my preferred price range.
All the guide really says of Frederikshavn is that it is “linked to Sweden and Norway by daily car ferries”. This hasn’t changed. The ferry is important to me as it is now the only way I can reach Norway by sea, the guide’s advert for UK sailings nothing more than an historical curiosity.
I spend the early part of the voyage watching the low ceiling of cloud from the on board restaurant, but as the guide promises “the 60-mile sail up Oslo Fjord will be an experience you’ll long remember”, as the walls of the fjord close in I head to the outside decks. The scenery is indeed spectacular, the water busy with everything from large ferries to open canoes. To find anything more than a simple hamlet at the other end is something of a surprise.
I arrive in Oslo just in time for the longest day of the year, and as I make my way along the west coast by train come late evening, we pass a number of bonfires roaring in still near-perfect daylight. The crowds around them are young, tanned, healthy-looking and expensively-dressed. In contrast, I feel poor and shabbily clothed in my best jumper. The roadworks and contraflow around Stavanger manage to remind me of home more than the fields do.
“Every visitor to Stavanger should walk around the older quarters with their picturesque alleyways, old style wooden structures and cobbled streets” says the guide; and it is something of a miracle I can do the same, since these streets came close to demolition. But in a way it is reassuring that I am not doing anything that hasn’t been done before.
History has perhaps been kinder to the lift in the Market Guesthouse in Bergen. In service since 26th June 1934, it’s the oldest form of transport I am to take on the journey, even if it does only last until I reach the second floor.
“Most visitors to Norway inevitably make the acquaintance either of Bergen, gateway to the western fjords, or of Oslo, the capital. There is a third town – Trondheim…reached by train, plane and road…which has ancient claims to being included”. The arrival of the Fjordexpress bus is the beginning of a 14 hour journey and several hundred miles to Trondheim. Snow up to a foot deep takes the place of Bergen’s rain as we crest the mountains. As it melts, ice-water trickles down the stark mountain-tops in narrow falls. There are enough tunnels on route to keep a 1939-1945 prisoner of war happy, and roads so smooth I can write at 50mph.
I continue on beyond Trondheim and its Gothic cathedral by rail to Bodo, crossing the Arctic Circle as I do so. Almost half of mainland Norway is therefore Arctic. Outside of the warm and comfortable second class carriage there is very little sign of human existence. It is my second night in a row without a bed, meaning I will have travelled for 33 of the last 72 hours in order to keep following the guide.
“From Trondheim, the North Norway Railway (Nordlandsbaren) will take you to Fauske and Bodo north of the Arctic Circle in a day. On top of that comes a one day bus ride to Narvik…on the longest bus line in Europe, called Nord-Norge-Bussen (North Norway Bus).” There are only four of us on Europe’s longest bus line, and only I seem to catch sight of elk trimming the grass on the roadside.
Narvik “can well stand on its own feet as a tourist centre in competition with any part of Norway for its panorama of fjords with rows of snow-capped peaks in the background”, eulogises the guide, though I’m more concerned about the next part of the journey: three buses with only five minutes interchange between each one in order to reach Alta, “a collective name for several hamlets”. Not much has changed in the passing of the decades, in fact I think the statement might be rather kind. Number 13 of Tripadvisor’s list of things to do in Alta immediately after my journey was a visit to the Tourist Information centre.
The stream of landscape passing the window of my next coach is broken by increasingly frequent naps – after several days of almost 24 hours of daylight my body clock is as confused as the landscape continues to be stunning.
I have just enough time in Honningsvag, “the important fishing center”, to find a hostel before darting onto a bus for Nordkapp, at 71° 10’ 21” N, the northernmost point of mainland Europe, and my ultimate destination on this journey through the decades.
It doesn’t matter that Nordkapp is on an island, or that it’s not actually the northernmost point at all. This is where the world has decided to celebrate the north, and where a statue was built several years after the publication of my guide.
However, North Cape Hall does still “greet you upon arrival with a panorama window offering a sweeping view”. The road to Nordkapp was only opened a few years before my guide was published, in 1956. Prior to that the journey required a leap of faith onto the rocks below by boat and a stiff 1,000-foot climb, as achieved by King Oskar II of Norway and Sweden in 1873.
Having reached journey’s end I realised that the interesting and surprising aspect of this journey has been how little has changed. The Hurtigruten passenger ferry still takes 12 days to reach Kikenes from Bergen as it did in 1960, although now its main customers are tourists rather than locals. Though I didn’t know times, and the prices listed were out somewhat, I was still able to follow my guide exactly. If anything has changed, it is that the low cost of contemporary flight – without propellers or the sleekness of 1960s aircraft – has killed off the viability of passenger routes across the North Sea.