GEIRANGERFJORD, Norway — You really have to want to get to the Geirangerfjord, a 9.3-mile-long inland arm of the sea cradled by mountains on either side. I've taken a train, a boat, a bus and a ferry to arrive at this isolated spot, halfway between Bergen and Trondheim, a good six hours from either. It was worth the effort.
I have seen places that are so utterly breathtaking that it's difficult — even for a professional writer — to do them justice: the walled city of Petra in Jordan and the tomb of Ramses the Great in Egypt, Stonehenge in England and the Great Wall in China, the vast plains of Argentina's Patagonia region and the snow-capped peaks of the Canadian Rockies.
Spectacular sights all, but in my mind nothing compares to the grandeur of western Norway's fjord country, with Geiranger arguably the most beautiful.
I'm on board one of the steamers that regularly cruise this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Standing at the rail I gape, as on either side of me sheer granite cliffs rise straight from the water.
Many of the cliff faces are carved by the elements into stern visages resembling those of ancient Norse gods; others are softened by cascading waterfalls with romantic monikers such as the Seven Sisters and Bridal Veil (its lacy flow makes the choice of name obvious). Local lore has it that the Sisters flirt and cavort on their mountain, while on the cliff directly opposite, another waterfall, the Suitor, patiently woos them.
This is a landscape straight from the imagination of J.R.R. Tolkien — think Aragorn marveling at the giant statues of the Argonath as he makes his way to Gondor in The Lord of the Rings.
But even Tolkien couldn't imagine what came next. Atop the vertical cliffs are a few of the remaining farms that once proliferated here. It's hard to believe that the only access to the farmhouses is by steep paths that wind around sheer precipices and over bridges attached to the mountain by iron bolts.
The guide on the steamer tells us that adults, when they went outside to work, and children, when they ventured out to play, were tethered to their houses with ropes to prevent them from toppling over the cliff.
As he talks, a group of paddlers in butter yellow kayaks floats into view — trailing their leader in single file, like baby ducks following their mother. They wave and I greet them in return, camera clicking madly.
Disembarking at Geiranger, the tiny town tucked into a hollow at the spot where its eponymous fjord ends, I am amazed at how colorful it is. Cottages painted robin's egg blue, pearl gray and dusty cinnamon are clustered at the water's edge. I'm even more astonished at how uncrowded it appears. The town has fewer than 300 permanent residents, so that shouldn't seem surprising, but I've been told that during the four-month tourist season (May to September), some 150 cruise ships and several hundred thousand people come calling.
Yet, even in the middle of August, it seems blessedly crowd-free, especially if you get away from the dock with its cafés and craft shops, and take one of the gentle hikes in the hills above the village.
After a leisurely day here, my departure from Geiranger proved as dramatic as my entry. I left by land, although calling the Ørnevegen land is stretching it, a lot. The Ørnevegen, a road whose literal translation is "eagles' way," spirals upward from the town by way of 11 hairpin turns.
I can't believe that an eagle would tackle it, let alone a bus. I wanted to close my eyes, but with each turn a more spectacular scene came into view. Clenching my hands and biting my lip, I forced my eyes to stay open, catching every one of those 11 picturesque vistas.
Rebuilt city's a stunner
At the northern tip of the western fjord country is a town so beautiful that, again, it almost defies description. Standing at the vantage point atop Mount Aksla, reached by climbing 418 steps or, for the less ambitious, by taxi, I look at the town of Ålesund spread out below me. Situated on a peninsula and a series of islands connected by causeways, and surrounded by a ring of mountains known as the Sunnmøre Alps, it could not be more picturesque.
That makes it all the more surprising to learn that Ålesund owes its good fortune to a tragic event. On Jan. 23, 1904, a fire raged through the city center, burning all 850 buildings, most of them wood.
From the ashes rose the phoenix of a new city, rebuilt over three years (1904-07) in the Art Nouveau style that was sweeping Europe at the time. The restoration was spurred by leading architects from across the continent who clamored to be a part of Ålesund's rebirth.
One of the city's major benefactors was Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, who loved Norway, particularly Ålesund, where he frequently vacationed. Wilhelm sent ships loaded with building materials, along with some of his country's best architecture students.
The result of all this love is a fairy-tale town with turrets, spires and intricate ornamentation — a town with not a single jarring note in its architectural symphony.
For the best perspective on Ålesund's renaissance, visit the Art Nouveau Center, in the old Swan Pharmacy. In addition to the "Time Machine," which takes visitors back to the 1904 fire and reconstruction of the city, there are galleries devoted to Art Nouveau furniture and decorative objects, as well as a replica of the pharmacy.
At one time, Ålesund's livelihood depended on fishing. The city is still Norway's largest fishing port, but today tourism rivals the bounty of the sea in the town's economy.
One way to combine both is to stroll along the Brosundet, a deep inlet of the inner harbor that flows through the town center. There's a pungent tang in the air here; fat seagulls perch on pilings waiting for a handout, and former commercial fishing warehouses have been converted into restaurants where visitors may sample the area's specialty, klippfisk, a dried and salted cod.
Just outside town, the island of Godøy seems tailor-made for an Ingmar Bergman film locale (yes, he's Swedish, but close enough).
The wild Atlantic slashes the coastline with unrelenting fury, and the sky — at least on this day — is an ominous slate gray. Adding to the brooding atmosphere is Alnes Lighthouse, a lone silhouette stenciled against the gray sky. Built in 1876, the lighthouse's cyclopic eye commands a 360-degree view of sea and city.
The exterior is forbidding, but the interior is warm and cozy, with a photo gallery of nautical images and a café where you can get a bowl of steaming fish soup to ward off the sea's chill.
The lighthouse provides a perfect metaphor for Norway's fjord region: simultaneously stark and sheltering.
IF YOU GO
Norway's fjord country
Where to stay: Quality Hotel Waterfront, Ålesund. While not luxurious, the hotel, part of the Choice Hotels International chain, is warm and inviting, with an ideal location on the waterfront close to the city center. Qualityinn.com/hotel-alesund-norway-NO120.
Where to eat:
■ Sjøbua, Ålesund. If you believe that a good test for choosing a restaurant is to go where the locals go, book a table here. In a converted warehouse on the Brosundet Canal, it's always packed; definitely make a reservation. The menu is limited (and expensive), but there are always some excellent fish dishes available. Sjoebua.no.
■ Brasserie Posten, Geiranger. Right on the water in a cottage that once served as the town's post office, this charming brasserie serves up Norwegian specialties with its incomparable views. If the weather is good, request a table on the deck with the majestic fjord as a backdrop. Brasserieposten.no.
Learn more: Visitnorway.com