The door of the Reinli stave church. Norway. 2011

Years ago, in a galaxy far, far away, when I was young in the early years of high school, I used to regularly read, amongst many other things, Scientific American.  On one occasion when I was flicking through its pages I came across a fascinating article about thousand-year-old wooden churches in Scandinavia, known as Stavkirke (Stave Church).

Apparently those crafty old Vikings understood wood so well that they were able to construct wooden buildings that were able to last almost a thousand years.  The fact that they are religious buildings is of no interest to me but I do find it mind-blowing that something made out of wood and left out to the elements could last so long.

Like many things that seem so impossibly unobtainable, I put my new-found fascination for stave churches and the desire to see one in person on the back-burners of my mind.  Forty years later on this trip to Norway I have been able to indulge my adolescent wish to experience a Stave Church first-hand. Two weeks ago I went to Reinli and was shown around a small stave-church there by a really wonderful Norwegian woman who told us all about it.  Not only was our guide knowledgeable, she used understatement deliciously.  As she told us about the founding of the Reinli church by Olaf Tryggvasson, she said, “he was the one who Christianed Norway, and he wasn’t very nice about it”.

As a reader of many of the old Scandinavian sagas, I have a bit of a soft spot for the old pagan ways, and I was happy to hear about how Olaf met his end at the hands of peasant farmers who resisted him as he tortured and killed his way across the land in the name of Christianity.  That was until I visited Maere.

Whenever we go on fairly long trips overseas, my ever-inquisitive wife, Engogirl, downloads the entire wikipaedia (without photos) to her laptop (if you’d like to know how to do this, check out WikiTaxi here) and as we travel through new areas she reads out aloud information about the places we pass through.  Maere has a church built on a small hill, where archealogical evidence shows this used to be the site of what is now known as a heathenhof (literally “heathen house” or temple).  With the aid of Wikipedia, Engogirl read excerpts from the Heimskringla saga that detailed some of the goings-on at this heathenhof.  Apparently there used to be blood sacrifices of animals and sometimes humans. The priest used to dip a sacred twig into the blood and sprinkle the attendees with sacrificial blood.  As soon as I heard this I remembered about reading Cortes’ reaction to the Aztec priests he met during those first fateful encounters 500 years ago in Mexico.  Cortes was disgusted and enraged (it usually didn’t take that much to tick him off) by the foul smell and the dark sticky coating of dried blood that covered the Aztec temples and its priests.

All of a sudden, the murdering torturer for Christ, Olaf Tryggvason didn’t look so bad.  

The door of the stave church at Reinli speaks volumes of the mindset of the people who built the church at the behest of bloody-handed Tryggvason.  Although the foundations of original church that was commissioned about 1000 rotted, and then the next version burnt burnt down, the metal fixings from the original door were saved and used in the door of the church that was rebuilt in the same spot (possibly in the 1200s).  On close inspection, the escutcheon over the keyhole shows two heads, one of which is Odin (due to the fact that he is missing an eye, but you can’t see it in the photo below). 


Sure, you can terrorise people into building a church in the name of your god, but the guardian of the keyhole that controls entry into the church is Odin.  Which goes to show who they thought was really in charge.  For me, one of the really great things about stave churches is they aren’t some precious little exhibit behind glass at a museum, they are rather large substantial things that can be approached closely and touched.  Our guide could see how thrilled I was to be so close to something so old and with such cultural weight that she handed me the key so I could put it through the old escutcheon, turn it, and open the door.  As sad as it sounds, I think it’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever done in my life.

About 10kms north of Skora on road 15, Norway. 2011

It’s hard to take a photo in Norway, that doesn’t look like it belongs on a box of soft centred chocolates. Not that I’m complaining but I do feel such images could have been taken at just about any time in the last couple of centuries (the colour of the buildings do give a clue).


When I look at, and think about such images I’m reminded of the romantic landscape painters of the early 19th century.  All “beauty” but no real information other than the mindset of the painter.

The Post Modernists have said for quite a while now that photographs aren’t “documents” in an objective sense, because they are the subjective framing of small parts of reality that have been given significance and therefore changed into an artefact by the photographer’s choice of where to point their camera and click the button.

For me such arguments don’t ring true because I think the Post Modernists have gotten too hung up on “titles”.  Just as we once thought that the sun revolved around the earth because we assumed man was the centre of the universe. In short I’m saying all material things have a nature of their own that is completely separate from what we think of them.

We’ve all seen Post Modernists playing with notions of  “reality”, by staging photos to look “real” (such as fake murder scenes) when in fact they are still recording phenomena that has a reality of its own, independent to the intention of the “artist”. Sure you can stage a photo and call it anything you like (much like the surrealists) but the photographic apparatus has recorded a simulacrum of what we perceive with our eyes (because that’s what cameras are designed to do). The camera makes no intelligent decisions it merely records in a mechanical fashion what it was pointed at. Photographs are products of machines and have a “reality” of their own and are “documents” as much as a crushed rock that has been hit by a hammer. To give a scene a title to change its meaning doesn’t really matter one bit, because to quote Shakespeare, “a rose by any other name is still a rose”.

What a difference a day makes. Mount Dalsnibba, Strand, Norway. 2011

The top of Dalsnibba (about 1500 meters or 4500ft) is reached by a toll road run by the locals and it is well known for the views from the top…. if the weather is good. The first time we went there the summit was completely covered in very dense fog (cloud, really considering we were so high), but the tour buses kept coming and the hapless and ill prepared punters spilled out into the mist to wonder what they were doing there as there was very little to see, other than little cairns of rocks piled up by thousands of other visitors.


The woman in the picture above was standing, shivering in the cold (2 degrees C or just above freezing) while her male companion gave her directions as he took photos of her. When the photos had been taken, the woman bent down and picked up a rock and threw it quite hard at the guy with the camera, and hit him with a rather loud WHOMP! One couldn’t help but think she was nonplussed with being there.

The next day we (Engogirl and I) went back to the Dalsnibba with the hope of getting a better view.


Is Geiranger the best travel destination in Scandinavia? Norway. 2011

It’s a silly question I know, but I raise it because just about every reference to Geiranger I’ve come across on the net has things like ” voted best travel destination in Scandinavia by Lonely Planet” or “Geiranger is the crown jewels of the fjords”, etc, writen in them.

There is no doubt about it, Greiranger and the surrounding area is jaw-droppingly beautiful…… that’s if the weather is good. It would be very easy to go to Geiranger and not see much except for rain and clouds, but when the clouds lift it’s hard to imagine many places in the world that would be more spectacular.


I find it interesting that we as humans like to create hierarchies. The web is full of silly lists like “10 most beautiful places to wake up in” (Lonely Planet isn’t what it used to be and has much to answer for nowadays). Such lists tend to be written about places which recieve the most visitors, not necessarily the “best” (whatever that would actually mean and how could it be measured?). Luckily there are still quite a few very beautiful places left that are visited by so few outsiders that any publicity in their direction gets lost in the noise about the more well know places.

Mercifully, places like Geiranger which are so well known and crawling with tourists (like me)  are truly beautiful and seem to be able to withstand the influx of its many admirers. As for the other little gems that haven’t attracted the world’s attention, let’s hope Lonely Planet never hears about them.

My idea of Hell, and is schadenfreude a sin?


The reason why I didn’t identify where this picture was taken in the title, as I usually do, was because I didn’t want anyone to think that the lovely little Norwegian town I took the photo in was terrible. What I found Hellish was the concept of travel that some people would have us believe, is desirable. I think that for most people who haven’t done it, a cruise would seem like an ideal holiday. A cruise of the Norwegian fjords sounds even better. The trouble is that reality doesn’t match the sales brochures.

The Norwegian fjords are beautiful but I don’t think taking a cruise is even close to the best way to enjoy them.

When I was in Dubrovnik a few years ago there were four cruise ships in port and the place was overflowing with people who had been ferried in for a few hours to look around, only to be hustled back onto the boat before nightfall for dinner and departure for the next destination. I asked one of the passengers where they had been the day before and I was told “Venice”. Venice one day, Dubrovnik the next and Athens the day after.

Thank you MA’AM!

So back to the image above. My wife and I have been in Norway for 5 days now and it’s rained every day. the thing is that it usually hasn’t rained all day and there have been pockets of sunshine.  As I drove into Olden near the end of the beautiful Nordfjord I saw two cruise ships moored close to shore and the tiny town (population of about 500) was packed with hoards of tourist trudging through the rain with nothing to really look at other than a rather ordinary town with a supermarket and a few souvenier shops selling tat. There they were, hundreds of people who’d probably dreamed and fantasized for years as they scrimped and saved to go on a cruise to the fjords, wandering around in the rain with the view obscured by clouds and rain.

As if to mock the poor wet punters, an idle fake fantasy train (I really hate those things!) was parked by the cruise ship, devoid of passengers save its crew who lounged dry inside.

As I drove past I thought to myself, “you poor bastards!” …… Then I turned around and took the picture with a smug sense of schadenfreude…… as one does!

The trouble, as I see it, with cruise ships and just about any other kind of group travel is that they aren’t that flexible. You can’t just get off when you want, you have to leave when the tour operators want to leave and you have to suffer the further indignity of queueing up for things all the time, like buffets (bleeeegh!), checking into hotels, getting into coachs or ferries to shore etc. ad infinitum. 

When you are in such a large group you have a much smaller chance to interact with the locals other than to buy something from them. Although the Nowegians have a reputation for being taciturn, I’ve found them to be a friendly lot, who are ready to spend a little time with people, who have the leisure to show a modicum of interest in them.

Lærdal Tunnel, Norway. 2011

At 24.5km (about 15 miles), the Lærdal Tunnel is the longest road tunnel in the world. Most of the tunnels that we’ve been through in Norway are grim dark affairs that evoke Grieg’s “In the hall of the Mountain King” mixed with death metal. The Lærdal Tunnel is a bit different. Sure, it’s mostly dark and scary to drive in but a third of the way in (also half way and a third before the end) there is a huge stopping area lit by blue lights from the top and yellow lights from below.


It’s amazing how a few coloured lights can seem so other-worldly and welcome when one has been driving in near darkness for a relatively short time.

Nyhavn, Copenhagen, Denmark. 2011

Whilst wandering around Copenhagen last week we came across this very picturesque part of town that looked as if it had been lifted from the lid of a box of assorted chocolates. The canal was spannned by a small bridge that had a little alcove poking out from the sidewalk where people were almost lining up to take photos from. One after the other we took our shots from exactly the same spot, to produce almost the same image in a Hockney-esque meditation into how time can divided up into little slices like a speciman being prepared for a microscope slide.


As I took in the scene I found myself thinking how we as humans like to congregate with other humans. Nyhavn’s picturesque nature attracts many visitors, and I noticed there were quite a few restaurants along the base of the colourful buildings that were full of people eating and drinking. I found it ironic that people wanted to eat in the middle of a “view” because so many people were milling around it, but the diners couldn’t take in the view because they were in the middle of it. Strangely enough, the other side of the canal, where the buildings weren’t so colourful wasn’t crowded at all although it offered a much better veiw of the part of Nyhavn (New Harbour) that was attracting the crowds. Surely it would be better to have the restaurants on the second floor of the buildings on the less crowded street so one could take in the full unobstructed scene.

Copenhagen is quite a small city and it’s mercifully flat which makes it an ideal place to go cycling. Fortunately the civilised and sensible Danes have built cycle lanes on most of the roads, so cycling around town is a real joy. The fact that cycling is encouraged in Copenhagen is lost on many of the tourists who choose to go on guided bus and canal boat tours to places that can be easily reached by bicycle or on foot. They can’t have all been infirm, could they?

One of the problems with traveling is that it is very easy to get into the well worn rut that has is used to help separate people from their money and to keep them unfit in the name of comfort and convenience.

Our comfort zones are a death trap.

The Aurlandvegen snow road, Norway. 2011

Into every life a little rain must fall and in Norway they get more than their fair share. From an Australian point of view, Norway seems so green and of course the greeness is a consequence of rain. From a photographic pespective, there’s nothing more boring than a landscape that has either a hazy or a totally blue sky.

For the last two days it’s been raining but we knew that interesting scenes were waiting to be experienced. This might sound perverse but I love alpine areas in less than ideal weather. There’s nothing like freezing temperatures and a stiff breeze with horizontal rain to give you the feeling that you’re “out there”.


To hell with fine weather and the sort of scenes that belong on boxes of assorted soft centred chocolates!