The King's Road, from southeastern Oslo to the western fjords, took European royalty to outdoor vacation and sport a few centuries ago, and it took pilgrims to a great cathedral in the Middle Ages. Now, it's a route for residents and tourists to summer cabins and spectacular natural attractions.
"Norway" _ literally, the way North _ in the old days meant traveling through the center of the land to the nation's first capital at Trondheim, founded in 997. Trondheim grew at the turn of a wide fjord north of a great maze of fjords from which Viking hordes launched their explorations and raids. Trondheim was also the clerical center of the country because it held the Nidaros Cathedral, Scandinavia's largest medieval building and a destination for pilgrims.
Today, one can follow the route that evolved from pilgrim way to King's Road and, within a week's journey from Oslo, take in the scenic beauty that marks Norway. An easy method is to take the train, the Dovrebanen route.
Two smooth hours from Oslo is Lillehammer, which gained renown in 1994 as the Winter Olympics site. Here, too, is the outdoor museum at Maihagen, begun in 1887 to save examples of traditional home building by restoring rural farms. It now maintains more than 150 historic buildings, covering periods from the Black Death in the 1300s, when villages became ghost towns, to the latter 1800s. As farmers became wealthier, second stories were added to their simple homes, along with soapstone fireplaces with chimneys _ to replace the typical hole-in-the-roof venting system.
There is a Norwegian stave church near the park entrance called the Garmo Church. These medieval churches are famous for their woodwork: The fit of the corner posts is tight enough to be waterproof. Historians believe they are the result of the trial-and-error put into the building of Viking ships.
There are also remnants of pre-Christian religion. Dragon heads, thrusting up like ship prows, grace roof peaks of some stave churches. Carvings to Thor and Odin remain on walls. Ships themselves, built as models, hang over church aisles like nautical chandeliers.
The solid character of the Norwegian people can be seen in the craftwork of the dwelling places. The struggle for survival in short growing seasons comes through in the shape of the different buildings: this one for people, this for animals, this raised shed for crops, this loft for the privacy adolescents needed in summer, this shed for the dairymaid.
There was the proper place for bench, cupboard, bed and clock, and these rarely changed. Beds had raised edges that held dates for the births and deaths taking place within their borders.
After Lillehammer, the train climbs to higher elevations along Norway's longest valley, Gudbrandsdalen, named for the king's son Brand, who was sacrificed to a pagan god (gud). "Dalen" is the origin for the English phrase "hill and dale."
To the west is Peer Gynt's hunting ground, a rural character upon whom Henrik Ibsen based a play. There is a marked Peer Gynt Trail with inns a day's hike apart, but I chose white-water rafting on the Sjoa River. Norwegian Wildlife & Rafting offers several trips and a sport school at Randsverk, 25 miles from Otta's train station.
In the clear, angled sunlight of a North Hemisphere September day, four novice rafters pushed off into the cold waters of the Sjoa. Lena Sveen, our guide, steered the raft through rapids gentle and wild with throaty commands of "Ssstop!" or "Left!" The raft's deck held puddles of freezing Sjoa water, and the trip took us down a narrow canyon, a giant's causeway of granite walls and over a slide into a whirlpool eddy before we rolled into a wide pebbled stretch of the river that turned calm.
I detoured by bus from Lom off the King's Road to see one of the most famous fjords, Geiranger (GUY-rang-ur). Only 250 people live year-round in the village but they host, during peak season, half a million tourists.
From here, I set off on a "hike to abandoned farms" trek. A fjord ferry dropped five of us off at a flat rock that served as dock. We walked up a path that changed from switchbacks to cliffhanger. Where ladders were once used, steps had been cut and a protective rail set up.
The farm marked on the map as Skagefla was on a sloping plateau overlooking fjord, waterfall and other abandoned farms. Surrounding peaks rose to 4,000 feet.
The farm at Skagefla had last been used in 1916, but the plateau held a lush meadow that ended with a precipitous, breathless view. The farm buildings have been kept up by a local group, and camping is allowed. One long barn had a cooking fireplace and those distinctive beds with raised wooden sides covered in century-old script. Campers could sleep in antique furniture and watch sunsets from a vantage like no other.
Skagefla was one of the farms, the believable story goes, where small children had to be tethered at play to prevent their falling off and where older youths were roped and lowered to rescue lambs on cliffsides.
The walk down was easier except on the soft tissue behind my right knee. It throbbed out my age in rhythm by the time the ferry swung in to our seaweedy dock. A fresh crop of tourists on deck gazed down, and flashbulbs lit feebly as we jumped aboard.
There would be one more nature break before Trondheim. Route 9 swings back from the fjords at Soggebru between snowcapped ridges under which nestled the prettiest working farms I saw in Norway. The greenest of pastures, anchored by solid red barns, jutted up against the mountains that enclose Romsdal.
We returned to the train line along the pilgrim way, now E6, and stopped at an inn called Kongsvold that once serviced stagecoaches. It was named for a king from the 12th century, Kong Oystein Magnussen, who decided a shelter would be useful here for those crossing the Dovre Mountains. Kongsvold's grouping of farms, barns and stables now comfortably house guests within Dovrefjell National Park. The park is famous in Norway for its mountain plants and lichens, its wild reindeer herd and its musk oxen. I signed on for the next day's musk ox viewing.
Musk oxen, dating to the Ice Age that so shaped this land, are usually peaceful but are fearless when threatened. They are not particularly bright: Three had been run over in the recent past while standing their ground against local trains. We were told to keep a minimum of 200 yards between us and the herd and, if they gathered in a circle and started pawing ground, to run away.
The hike to the musk ox herd was led by Bjorn Rangul, with his dappled English Setter. We walked through a birch forest and then onto a high plateau where the ground was spongy. Small blue and pink wildflowers grew between clumps of mountain moss. The dog quivered with anticipation when Bjorn stopped and removed its leash, then it was off like a shot, flushing ptarmigan from hill to horizon.
We kept hiking until Bjorn spotted the musk ox herd through binoculars. He called back the dog and leashed it so as not to warn the musk ox. We had sandwiches and tea, and Bjorn left us to return to his full-time work. We were alone with the herd in a vast saucer of snowy peaks. I crawled on hands and knees to get pictures, but, though the adults grazed and rested, my imagination saw a rolling thunder of angry hooves. I got pictures of the terrain with the primitive musk ox so small they could be cows in a Swiss pasture.
Trondheim was the end of the line on this journey. It is an attractive town with a river that acted like a moat, the great Nidaros Cathedral and small pubs such as Bor Borsoson, where I met polite skinheads and young women with hair the color of purple saxifrage on the slopes of the Dovre Mountains.
Peter Aiken is a freelance writer living in Nantucket, Mass.
IF YOU GO
STAYING THERE: Norway maintains a series of hotels called the Historical Hotels, several of which are on, or near, The King's Road:
Kongsvold Inn, Dovrefjell, phone 47 724 20911. Near a Biological Station and Museum, botanical gardens and with access to musk ox and reindeer herds in Dovrefjell National Park.
Hotel Union Oye, Norangstjorden, ph 47 700 62100. A guest list for 1891 includes Queen Willemina of the Netherlands, Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany and King Oscar II of Sweden.
Fossheim Hotell, Lom, ph 47 612 11205. Has a timber-walled house from the 17th century and Chef Arne Brimi, one of the best of Norway's traditional chefs.
TOURS: Organized tours help to lower costs, and one American company that specializes in seeing Scandinavia in an outdoor and culturally interesting way is Borton Overseas, (800) 843-0602. It has tours such as farm holidays and dog sledding. A Norway tour includes the Historical Hotels and another is hotel-to-hotel hiking on Peer Gynt Trail. The cost, through this company, for a two-night stay at Hotel Union Oye, including breakfast and dinner, is $238 per person based on double occupancy. Four days at Kongsvold, including breakfasts, dinners and the hike to musk oxen, is $290 per person, double occupancy. A Peer Gynt Trail hike for six days with all meals and hotels is $625.
BACKGROUND READING: The Bridal Wreath, from the trilogy Kristin Lavransdotter, which won the Nobel Prize for Literature for Norway's Sigrud Undset.