Himakar Tata arrives in Alesund to encounter a postcard-perfect town
The non-stop Finn-Air flight from Delhi to Helsinki took about seven hours to cover a distance of 5,228 km. From Helsinki, the flight to Oslo took an hour and a quarter to cover a distance of 715 km. Our flight from Oslo to Alesund’s Vigra airport took another 45 minutes for a distance of 565 km. Finally the 16-km journey from Vigra island to the mainland of Alesund, which involved crossing three undersea tunnels. By the time I settled into my bed, it was past midnight. My fjord fantasy of schooldays was now a reality, albeit belatedly, in my middle age.
The next morning started off on the right note. I was greeted by the soothing view of the deep blue sea, the sea gulls and the island of Godoy with its lighthouse at Alnes – all in a single sweep from the window of our room at Radisson Blu Hotel. The trawlers and passenger ferries anchored on the jetty just beneath our window were tantalisingly close enough to beckon us to jump off on them.
Alesund is the fishing capital of Norway, having the most important fishing harbour as also one of the most modern fishing fleet in Europe. Its population of only 43,000 belies its importance in a country which is the 10th-largest fishing nation in the world, having an annual catch of more than 2.5 million tonnes. Norway has a coastline of over 25,000 km, the eight longest in the world, thanks to its unique and innumerable fjords which give it a high coastline/area ratio of 82%.
Despite being located at 62.5 degrees north, barely 650 km from the Arctic Circle, Alesund is blessed with a climate considered moderate by standards of continental places situated at similar latitudes in Canada or Russia. This is due to the Gulf Stream currents from Mexico warming up its shores.
There is a fresh, spic and span look about Alesund. It is a very young town, having had a Phoenix-like resurrection from the ashes of the Great Fire on the night of January 23, 1904. Practically the whole town was destroyed that night and the entire populace had to flee at a few minutes' notice. It was indeed a miracle that this conflagration claimed only one life, though more than 10,000 were rendered homeless. With generous help from Kaiser Wilhelm, the then King of Germany, the town was rebuilt in stone, brick, and mortar in Jugendstil (Art Nouveau), the architectural style of that time. As a result, Alesund has an unusually consistent architecture with most of the buildings having been built between 1904 and 1907. Some of the striking characteristics of this architecture are intricately detailed turrets, spires, beautiful ornamentation using faces of women and motifs from nature as decorations.
Soaking in the sun at every cosy corner, my co-traveller, Jagannath, and I became the perfect practitioners of ‘dolce far niente’, pleasant relaxation in carefree idleness! Having loitered around sufficiently on the cobblestoned streets, it was now time for us to catch our breath. We watched the world go by while sitting in the park adjoining Kremmer Gaarden. The still waters of Brosundet, the guest harbour for leisure craft, inspire the latent artist in you to capture on a canvas the reflection of the Art Noveau buildings like Hotel Brosundet.
The Town Park beckoned us next. We braced ourselves for climbing the 418 steps that wind their way up the Aksla Mountain, taking us to Fjellstua, the prominent mountain lodge at the top. Alesund lies at the foot of the Aksla Mountain with the Heissafjord on one side and Grytafjord on the other. The hilltop of Aksla is the best place to give you a bird’s eye-view of this pretty town.
The next day we headed towards Atlanterhavsparken (Atlantic Park) that hosts several giant landscape salt water aquariums. The special attractions are the daily feeding of fish in the giant aquariums by divers and of penguins in the open air.
Thanks to the generous supply of home food by my classmate Sundari who happens to be posted in the town, and the rich spread in the complimentary breakfasts of our hotel, I was already finding it difficult to squeeze into my trousers within a week of my arrival. It was therefore time to trek to Sukker Toppen (Sugar Top) Hill. (The other option was getting my trousers altered, a financially-deterring proposition in expensive Scandinavia!)
The hill is located on the island of Hessa, which together with the islands of Aspoya and Norvoya, defines the heart of Alesund. The 1.8 km trek to the peak at 315 m takes less than an hour. Getting to the mountain top was half the fun: we were richly rewarded with an all round panoramic view of the island of Alesund.
Not everything about Alesund is ‘fishy.’ Its surroundings host a large furniture industry. When oil was found in the North Sea in the 1970s, the local fishing fleet ship owners were quick enough to smell an opportunity to rebuild their fishing vessels to serve the nascent oil exploration and production industry. In the process, they were able to build purpose-designed offshore vessels at local shipyards facilitating the North Sea oil adventure. Today, this activity has become the mainstay of the residents in and around Alesund.
Beneath the laidback façade of the town, exists a shrewd sense of commerce. Who says that business and pleasure cannot mix without polluting the natural environment? Alesund shows the way.