The Geirangerfjord is one of the region’s smallest fjords, but also one of its most breathtaking. A convoluted branch of the Storfjord, it cuts deep inland and is marked by impressive waterfalls, with a village at either end of its snake-like profile – Hellesylt in the west and Geiranger in the east. Of the two, Geiranger has the smarter hotels as well as the tourist crowds, Hellesylt is tiny and not very interesting, but it is but a troll’s throw from the magnificent Norangsdal valley.
Any approach to GEIRANGER is spectacular. Arriving by ferry reveals the village tucked away in a hollow at the eastern end of the fjord, while approaching from the north by road involves thundering along a fearsome set of switchbacks on the Ørnevegen (Highway 63) for a first view of the village and the fjord glinting in the distance. Similarly, the road in from Highway 15 to the south squeezes through the mountains before squirming down the zigzags to arrive in Geiranger from behind, passing two celebrated vantage points, Flydalsjuvet and Dalsnibba, on the way.
There can be little argument that Geiranger boasts one of the most magnificent settings in western Norway and the village itself negotiates the steepest of hillsides, its scattering of houses built on a series of narrow shelves. The only fly in the ointment is the excessive number of tourists at the peak of the season, though, to be fair, the congestion is limited to the centre of the village, and it’s easy enough to slip away to appreciate the true character of the fjord, hemmed in by sheer rock walls interspersed with hairline waterfalls, with tiny-looking ferries and cruise ships bobbing about on its blue-green waters.
Tiny, inconsequential HELLESYLT is now little more than a stopoff on tourist itineraries, with most visitors staying just long enough to catch the car ferry down the fjord to Geiranger or scuttle off along Highway 60. For daytime entertainment, there is a tiny beach and bathing jetty (bådehus) beyond the mini-marina near the ferry quay, the prelude to some very cold swimming, or you can watch the waterfall crashing down the cliffs a few metres from the dock. Otherwise, the place seems more than a little down-at-the-mouth: the main dampener has been Mount Åknes, a great chunk of which is eroding away from the rest of the mountain, threatening to collapse into the Storfjord and create a tsunami which will hit Hellesylt in six minutes; experts are monitoring the mountain closely, but of course no one knows if or when it will go, but it’s a very real danger – as evidenced at Tafjord.
No one bats an eyelid when the cruise ships nudge their way up the Geirangerfjord today, but the first one to arrive – in 1869 – gave the Norwegians a spiritual shock: it was packed with Quakers bearing tracts and bent on saving souls at a time when the locals thought themselves good Lutheran Christians already. The Quakers may not have had much luck as missionaries, but they were certainly taken with the beauty of the Geirangerfjord and spread the word on their return home: within twenty years the village was receiving a regular supply of visitors. Seizing their chance, local farmers mortgaged, sold and borrowed anything they could to buy ponies and traps, and by the end of the century tourists were being carted up from the jetty to the mountains by the score. In 1919, the horse was usurped when a group of farmer-cum-trap-owners clubbed together to import cars, which they kitted out with a municipal livery – the region’s first taxi service. The present owner of the Hotel Union has restored a dozen or so of these classic cars, including a 1922 Hudson, a 1932 Studebaker and a 1931 Nash, and garaged them at the hotel: hotel guests can sometimes admire them for free – ask at reception.
With every justification, the car ferry trip between Hellesylt and Geiranger is one of the most celebrated journeys in the whole of Norway (May–Sept 4–8 daily; 1hr; passengers 150kr one-way, 200kr return; car & driver 300kr each way; wfjord1.no). With rearing cliffs to either side, the ferry follows the S-shaped profile of the fjord, whose cold waters are about 300m deep and fed by a series of plunging waterfalls up to 250m in height. The falls are all named, and the multilingual commentary aboard the ferry does its best to ensure that you become familiar with every stream and rivulet. More interesting are the scattered ruins of abandoned farms, built along the fjord’s sixteen-kilometre length by fanatically optimistic settlers during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The cliffs backing the fjord are almost uniformly sheer, making farming of any description a short-lived and back-breaking occupation – and not much fun for the children either: when they went out to play, they were roped to the nearest boulder to stop them dropping off.