June 4, 2015. We devoted the third day of our Norwegian road trip to the Stegastein viewpoint and the Borgund Stave Church. Quite a mouthful, huh? And no, the first is not related to Jurassic Park and the second is not dedicated to Ernest Borgnine (although both those connections have been assumed when I mention these two sites to people.) Simply put, Stegastein is a modern architectural marvel and the Borgund Stave Church is an ancient one.
For years, Matthew has been itching to see the award-winning lookout point, and since we’ve been in Norway, I’ve developed a fixation with dragon-style Medieval churches. My sister hadn’t heard of either, so we basically hijacked her for a super-nerdy day of architectural sightseeing. Our consolation prize for her patience was that we promised her a ride along Norway’s most picturesque drive that skims the sky at 4,000 feet in elevation and gives fabulous aerial views of the fjords.
We hopped in the car and set out on the road, which soon became one of those crazy, switchback experiences that you see in all the German car commercials: sports car hugging the road, tires squealing around every hairpin turn. I drove as usual for two reasons: 1) If I’m not driving when we’re on country roads, then we have to pull over every half hour for me to empty the contents of my stomach. 2) I’m horrid at directions, so if we want to reach our destination by sunset, Matthew navigates while I man the helm. This standard operating procedure has made it possible for us to survive 25 years of vacationing in the same vehicle together.
Unfortunately, when it comes to motion sickness, my poor sister is just as afflicted as I am, so we took it nice and easy to ensure we didn’t have a family performance akin to The Exorcist. The road narrowed at a couple of points to one car width, which left us holding our breath that we wouldn’t encounter a huge tourist bus going the opposite direction. But we made it to the viewpoint safely, with both the interior and the exterior of the car unscathed by buses or barf.
Let me digress a moment about the history of Stegastein. It’s one of the winners of a nationwide contest to design and construct rest stops and viewpoints that promote and enhance Norway’s spectacular landscapes. Two architects (who had yet to have any of their designs actually built) won the competition for the Aurland Overlook with their sleek, minimalist concept. It’s made of steel, concrete, glass, and pine cladding, molded to resemble a wooden waterfall (or the number 7, depending upon your perspective). The site incorporates both roadside bathrooms next to the parking lot as well as the viewing platform cantilevered over the valley.
We’d seen the design and admired its Scandinavian simplicity, but experiencing it first hand was another thing entirely. The 100-foot-long catwalk looks perfectly innocuous, however, stepping out onto it and walking to the end — where the only thing separating you from certain death is a piece of outwardly tilting, chest-high glass — is a real stomach churner. Does it provide a breathtaking view? Absolutely. Does it enhance rather than intrude on the environment? Most definitely. Is it an acrophobe’s worst nightmare? Without a doubt.
Upon our arrival, Matthew and Ruthie of course ran to the tip and immediately began oohing and aahing at the fabulous rainbow that had formed on cue over the fjord, as if under the direction of some supernatural AV production company. But it took me a good five minutes to negotiate my way to the middle of the walkway, and another five minutes to make it to the end. Of course, we’d no sooner snuggled together for a selfie when some yahoo began jumping up and down on the platform, making it bounce. I just about wet my pants.
The “my-balls-are-bigger-than-yours” guy then proceeded to hike one leg over the end of the glass and pretend as if he were going to jump. Next, he draped himself along the length of the railing, copping a shakily balanced “fashion model” pose. I had to take a tab of dramamine. No one wants to witness someone fall to their death. (Although at this point, I was kinda secretly praying he might. He was freaking the hell out of his poor wife — and I simply wanted to end her misery of being married to such an insensitive buffoon.) Oh well. If there’s one thing I can say, living in Norway is bound to rid me of my fear of heights.
At this point, all our bladders needed relief from the anxiety, so we headed over to the award-winning restrooms. And I must say, it’s the best view from a toilet I’ve ever experienced. A huge, plate-glass window gives the “squatter” a birds-eye perspective of the valley below, and I’m sure folks with binoculars on the other side of the fjord get a nice show, too. Stepping out one side of the structure also lets you in on the secret that, as scary as it looks, the platform doesn’t actually protrude unsupported over the gorge. It’s anchored into a gently rolling, grassy hillside that not only harbors a flock of sheep but probably provides a bit of cushion if you fall.
Our sightseeing challenge complete, we all headed back to the car to fulfill our promise of taking the most scenic drive in Norway along the tippy top of its domed granite mountains. But as luck would have it, a tour bus coming from that direction stopped next to us … and the driver was the same guy who’d provided us with our rental car the day before. (Folks in small towns tend to run several businesses.) He’d remembered that we’d talked about taking the drive and wanted to warn us that he’d just discovered that the road was closed with about ten feet of snow. Of course.
Feeling bummed, we were forced to take our second option — a 15-mile-long tunnel beneath the mountains — to get to our next stop. Here’s a piece of travel trivia for you: Norway loves tunnels. I think it’s probably the most perforated country in the world. You can’t really drive more than a few miles anywhere without having to travel underground. There are hundreds of tunnels all around the country, and a dozen just under Oslo alone, all theoretically designed to reduce traffic or avoid snowy mountain crossings.
I hate to relate everything to Lord of the Rings, but it’s clear where Tolkien got his inspirations. Having seen entire villages of hobbity, sod-roofed houses throughout Norway’s forests, I expected to witness dwarves pickaxing away at the interior of the Laerdal Tunnel, the longest car tunnel in the world. To keep drivers from falling asleep during the twenty-minute drive, three large caverns with funky, purple lighting provide rest stops for the truly desperate and turnarounds for the claustrophobic.
The trickiest thing about navigating through the tunnel is that, more than once, we almost met with disaster as an oncoming car veered into our lane — either because the driver was hypnotized by the tunnel’s flashing white lights or because he was attempting to pass a slower car. I have to say, nothing wakes you up more than the sheer terror of an imminent collision. Multiple SOS stations equipped with phones, fire extinguishers, and air fans (the tunnel boasts a carbon-filtered air purifier) don’t exactly increase one’s comfort level, either.
But eventually we made it unscathed through the mole warren and were grateful to be once again on Earth’s surface, where sunlight, fresh air, and a view of dewy ferns and sparkling waterfalls greeted us on our way to the Borgund Stave Church. Let me explain a bit about the history of these churches and why I’m so fixated on them. Beyond their fantastical Viking / Tolkien-esque appearance, they’re unique to Norway and are the country’s biggest Medieval claim to fame, architecturally speaking. The structures once numbered in the thousands but fell into ruin when the Black Death reduced the nation’s population by two thirds. Today, only 29 still survive.
Although these churches were built between 1150 and 1350 A.D. (after the Viking era had officially ended in 1066), their wooden post-and-lintel construction reflects their Viking ship-building heritage. Their name also hints to this legacy, with stafr being old Norse (the Viking language) for “staff” or “post” (stav in modern Norwegian). Dragons dot their rooflines, and inside, the ceiling resembles the hull of an overturned Viking boat. A few churches also contain wooden panels sporting intricate, interlocked animal motifs commonly found on Viking boats. These carvings are believed to be carryovers from earlier pagan designs used by Norwegian Vikings before King Olav forced them to adopt Christianity in 995.
One of the oldest stave churches (circa 1180), Borgund is considered the most intact and authentic. It possesses the traditional tiered and shingled roof, raised central nave, scissor-rafted ceiling, and ambulatory in the form of a covered porch that runs around the entire exterior. The church is nestled in the quiet Laerdal Valley and is surrounded by a centuries-old graveyard meant for contemplating the nature of life and death. Nearby sits a Medieval bell tower and a 19th-century church that hosts services today. (The original Medieval church acts as a museum and is used only on special occasions.)
Ruthie, Matthew, and I spent about an hour photographing every architectural detail from every conceivable vantage point (see the gallery below) before sitting down along the church’s benched walls to soak in the ambience. The smell of the tarred wood, the creaks and groans of the ancient structure as it objected to the wind, and the dust motes dancing in the dim light filtering through portholes above made it easy to imagine ourselves in Medieval Borgund.
Not long after our contemplative moment began, hordes of Chinese tourists descended on the place, bringing us back to modern day and making us realize how much the entire structure resembled a pagoda. Convergent cultural evolution strikes again. By the way, the term means that unrelated cultures living far apart, but in places with similar environments and resources, often come up with the same design solutions for common problems — in this case, how to build a religious space that makes the eye and the mind sweep upwards to the heavens and soar beyond the limitations of an earthly existence. And that’s your anthropological lesson for the day. Stay tuned for stories about our glacier hike ….