This past summer, a longtime friend and traveling buddy from Minnesota and I met up in Norway, hopped into a rental car and took off on an eye-popping road trip.
At the time, I hadn’t heard of “Frozen,” the Disney film that is captivating families this holiday season. But lo and behold, the producers of the film were as smitten with Norway as we were, and used its scenery and traditions as inspiration for the film.
Although the movie’s ice kingdom of Arendelle is fictional, there are many real-life places that are reflected in the film. Come along with me on a summer visit to the icy world of “Frozen.”
Gateway to the Fjords
Our journey begins in Bergen, one of the most beautiful cities in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage City, as well as the inspiration for the kingdom in “Frozen.” Bergen’s colorful harbor, with the much-photographed Bryggen district of wooden buildings dating back to the 11th century, bustles with activity.
The distinctive narrow buildings and peaked roofs of the Bryggen district are echoed in the village backdrop in “Frozen.”
There are museums, castles, restaurants, parks — plenty to keep a visitor busy for days, especially when equipped with a Bergen Card, the practical and cost-effective way to explore Bergen. A stroll through the fish market at the harbor turns into a sampling bonanza — local fish cakes, spicy shilling buns, hearty fish soup, smoked whale meat and much more.
But Bergen is also the gateway to the Norwegian fjords, and we hear their siren call. We load the car and set out on our road trip.
The first challenge is just to navigate our way out of the busy city streets and onto the quieter country roads that will lure us through the coming days.
National Tourist Routes
Our goal is to traverse several of the country’s National Tourist Routes — scenic byways that encompass some of the most spectacular scenery the country has to offer, not to mention some of the most incredible hairpin curves I have ever seen, let alone driven.
Norway is famous for its fjords, and rightly so. Although you can visit many fjords by boat or train, driving from fjord to fjord lets you get up-close and personal in a unique way.
From one mountain pass to another, with each viewpoint more stunning than the last, the national routes lead you through national parks and small villages, around lakes — or across them via an assortment of ferries — and deep into the heart of Norway.
Working our way from historic Bergen to the art nouveau city of Alesund, we journey along three major tourist routes, with detours here and there to see stave churches, folk museums and other things that pique our interest. Another bonus of driving is that you can adjust your itinerary to suit your whims.
Our National Tourist Routes include Aurlandsfjellet, Gamle Strynefjellsvegen and the fanciful Geiranger-Trollstigen, or troll’s road. We drive from sunny green valleys to snow-covered peaks, complete with summer ski stations. Narrow roads with hairpin turns lead to views of impossibly blue fjords, roaring waterfalls, and panoramic vistas.
From Reality to Movie
The tourist route landscapes set the mood for the wintery scenes of snow-capped mountains and deep fjords in the movie “Frozen.” The film’s art direction team traveled to several Nordic locations seeking a backdrop for the movie, which was inspired by H.C. Andersen’s story, “The Snow Queen.”
They chose Norway, not only for its natural setting but also for its rich culture, including folk costumes, stave churches, castles, trolls, Viking history and even the traditional hairstyle with thick braided plaits.
Art director Mike Giaimo explained, “Norway offered a cultural backdrop we’d never explored before and we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to blend its dramatic environment, architecture and folk costume aesthetic?’ ”
The kingdom of Arendelle, loosely based on the city of Bergen, lies at the edge of the fjords, where the northern lights dance across the sky and bustling ports are filled with fishermen and merchants.
Soaring Stave Churches
Our favorite stops on our road trip were the stave churches, wooden churches dating from the Middle Ages that are still intact, either as museums or functioning churches. During the medieval era, when cathedrals were being built in stone in other places in Europe, a similar technique was developed in Norway for building in wood and reflects the Viking heritage.
My two favorite stave churches were Urnes and Borgund, although I liked all six that we toured. The Urnes Stave Church on the Sognefjord is Norway’s oldest wooden church, built around 1130, and is also the only stave church on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List.
Part of why I liked it so much was the ferry ride on a sunny day to get to the village of Urnes, and the views of the surrounding fjord from the church high up on the hillside.
Likewise for Borgund Stave Church, getting there on a narrow back road was part of the adventure, and the destination was well worth the detour. This church, dating from the late 12th century, is the most historically authentic of all of Norway’s stave churches, and serves as the model for restoration of other churches.
The modern visitors center houses a fascinating exhibit on the development of stave churches, as well as a nice cafe and a gift shop featuring Norwegian-made crafts.
Just as the Vikings’ skill in woodworking influenced the stave church construction, their woodworking skills are immortalized in their longships, designed for sailing on both the ocean and the fjords. You can visit the best preserved Viking ships at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, which tells the story not only of the ships but also of the cultural traditions.
One thing you will learn in Norway is that Viking helmets did not have horns, as is commonly portrayed. You also will learn that Vikings were not just ruthless warriors but also skilled traders, administrators and craftsmen in metal and wood.
The Norse sagas, which still fascinate audiences today, demonstrate that the Vikings were some of Europe’s best storytellers.
Trolls and Bunads
Trolls are an important part of Norwegian folklore. They are not necessarily mean, but they are usually scary looking. Nevertheless, troll dolls are popular with both locals and tourists.
The troll tourist routes include the troll ladder, a hair-raising switchback route; the troll peaks, a row of formidable mountain peaks; and the troll’s lookout point high up on the mountain and offering spectacular views into the valley below.
Families traveling with children might want to include a stop at Hunderfossen, the Norwegian Troll Park, about 2 1/2 hours north of Oslo. This troll-themed amusement park is the epitome of everything troll, and also highlights Norwegian fairytales.
Bunads, or traditional folk costumes, are alive and well in Norway. There are hundreds of different bunads. Almost every valley or town has its own, often in several varieties and colors.
If you’re in Oslo on May 17, Norway’s national day, you will be witness to an amazing show of bunads from all over the country.
A great way to get a sampling of folk costumes and customs is by visiting a folk museum. We spent a lot of time at both the Sogn Folkemuseum in Kaupanger on the Sognefjord, and the Norsk Folkemuseum in Oslo. Both are open-air museums with many transported and reconstructed cabins, houses, churches and other buildings, and costumed historical interpreters. Both of these museums were highlights of our trip.
Not surprisingly, the movie has triggered a variety of “Frozen”-themed travel packages to Norway. Norwegian airlines, in collaboration with VisitNorway, offers itineraries that let visitors experience the country’s natural beauty.
Additionally, Adventures by Disney offers an eight-day package trip geared for families to follow the footsteps of the filmmakers. For more information, visit http://campaign.visitnorway.com/en/us/.
If you’re still looking for a Christmas gift for the person who has everything, a ticket to Norway and a seat on one of these trips should fill the bill!
Before You Go . . .
For those considering a rental car trip, take note that automatic transmission is the exception, not the rule, in most of Europe. If, like me, you can only drive an automatic, be sure to specify that when reserving the car.
For the most enjoyment, make sure at least two people on the road trip can take turns driving and navigating. Driving on those steep and curving National Tourist Routes can be stressful, so it is good to be able to switch between driving and just staring awestruck out the window.
For more information to help you plan your trip, visit these websites:
National Tourist Routes, http://www.nasjonaleturistveger.no/en;
In case you haven’t seen any of the advertisements for the Disney’s “Frozen,” here’s a short synopsis. The animated 3D or 2D film is appropriate for both children and adults. The story revolves around Elsa, the snow queen, and Anna, her sister, the fearless optimist.
Anna teams up with mountain man Kristoff and his reindeer Sven for a journey that includes trolls, a funny snowman named Olaf, and icy winter weather.
Visit disney.com/frozen to watch the trailer. The movie is currently playing at theaters in Washington, Union, Sullivan and Warrenton.