As soon as we arrive in Balestrand, my mother and I fall in love with the place. We had largely expected it, for the very name had enchanted us: Bal-e-strand. Saying it conjures romantic visions in my mind of a rocky beach, a castle on the hill.
“Balestrand,” I learn after a quick etymological dive, derives from an old local farm name (Bale) from Old Norse bali, meaning a hillside or sand bank that meets the shore (Old Norse strönd). And while there’s no castle in town, there is the famously elegant 200-room Kviknes Hotel, where Kaiser Wilhelm II often summered before WWI.
Imagining the digs for Kaiser Wilhelm might be a bit out of our price range, we congratulate ourselves for booking in advance the more modest Balestrand Hotel. A quaint place offering a chef’s gourmet dinner and a free continental breakfast, the Balestrand Hotel’s only drawback is a steep staircase up to the rooms. But the hotel’s quiet location and easy-strolling proximity to city center makes up for any awkward luggage-wrangling scenes.
Taking in the sites
We find Balestrand charming without being precious, and the village is very walkable. On our way from the hotel to town center, Mom and I stop by St. Olaf’s, an Anglican church built in the medieval stave-style and, apparently, the inspiration for Elsa’s coronation scene in Frozen. See any resemblance?
Another short stretch of our legs takes us to the wharf, where we visit the Norwegian Museum of Travel and Tourism (Norsk Reiselivsmuseum) and an artists’ gallery. In the same building as the gallery is the homey Art Café, where we enjoy delicious “troll soup” (Secret ingredient? Trolls love mushrooms!) before touring the studio upstairs. The top floor of the building is crowned with a geodesic dome offering an exhilarating 360-view.
A village defended by dragons
Before arriving in Balestrand, Mom and I had heard about its history as an artists’ enclave in the 19th century, but we’re enchanted to see a legacy of that era preserved in the town’s distinctive architecture, specifically in its drakestil (“Dragon Style”) buildings.
A motif or decorative element copied from Viking ships and medieval stave churches, the “Dragon Style” or Switzerland Style housing trend out of Trondheim (a day’s journey north), featured villas with built-in dragons guarding the gables. Ordered from a catalog and shipped as pre-fabricated kits, the homes found favor in Balestrand, notably among the romantic painters for whom the wild northern landscape and their own cultural past provided artistic inspiration. Norwegian landscape artist Adelsteen Normann built the very first dragon-style chalet in the village in 1891, and Hans Dahl, renowned for his fjord paintings and nostalgic scenes, built a similar summer home on the banks of the Sognefjord.
As Mom and I stroll by a ridiculously cute drakestil villa overlooking the water, I imagine us as turn-of-the-century tourists that had walked this same path, hoping to catch sight of a resident artist at home or on their way down to the shore, canvas and paintbrush in hand.
The villa is not far from the Cider House Restaurant (Ciderhuset), where we are headed for an early dinner. The climate here is ideal for growing apples (eples), and after passing so many orchards during our long drive, it felt right to indulge in some cider tasting. When we arrive, we first visit the tasting room, where we learn the reason why one doesn’t eat cider apples (they’re very bitter), which makes them perfect for cider-making. The strong taste survives the fermentation process, which smooths out the bitter and preserves the apple’s flavor.
At the Cider House (and later at the Norsk Reiselivsmuseum), we learn about Emma Normann Pastor, daughter of Adelsteen Normann and a well-known local painter herself during Balestrand’s time as a thriving artist colony. Mom and I enjoy a cider wine named after her that incorporates crisp flavors of apple and gooseberry—garden plants Emma once grew beside her own dragon-headed villa.
Sipping the wine, I conjure Emma in her house by the shore, gooseberries in her garden, waters lapping at her door. Since it’s just as scenic outside as in my head, I ask Mom if she’d like to go out on the water again (there are small boat tours from Balestrand), and I even offer to row her around in a little row boat (I’m an expert rower). But she reminds me we’ll be on a ferry again tomorrow, so I make a different suggestion for enjoying our final day in Balestrand.
I convince Mom to go on a short forest walk with me along the foothill ridge above our hotel. Mom had already logged many walking miles this trip; kudos to her for being game enough to take on a few more.
The path is part of the Nature Trail Kreklingen, a system of hiking trails of varying lengths and difficulties. The nature walk takes us along an interpretive trail through the forest where we encounter shallow-rooted spruce, birch and pine trees, and a stately larch with spindly needles weeping like a willow. We spot tufted-ear squirrels, hope for a glimpse of a rare Artic fox (to no avail), and learn about the area’s ancient juniper.
Tomorrow we leave Balestrand for a brief water crossing and short drive to our main destination: Vik i Sogn. A village on a bay surrounded by farmlands, it’s also the ancestral home of Mom’s great-grandparents, and we are eager to learn about their lives…
Read Part 3 – Fjord Travels With Mom: Ancestral Farmlands of Vik i Sogn (to be con’t)