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Sunday, July 27, anchored in the harbor of Kvitsøy, Norway

Hi everyone. We just arrived in Kvitsøy, and last week we were still in Bergen.

Sunday’s street entertainment was the best of the week. Most of the action we saw was on the plaza across from the overpriced tourist-only fish market and the broad shopping avenue perpendicular to the harbor. First we watched a Russian brass quartet, and then they folded up their music stands to move a block away to a new audience of passersby. Immediately, another act began, billing themselves as a circus, and indeed they were. They’d set up a structure like a very tall swing set, and from the top crossbar dangled a dozen ropes nearly to the ground. This structure was supported on one side by a street lamp’s post, and on the other by a car on one side and a truck on the other.

The performance began with one of the five performers playing an odd instrument without actually touching it. There was something like a tuning fork on one end, and a box on the other end. He’d move his hand around above the box and an eerie harmonic would come out like the background sound of The Twilight Zone.

He finished and the one woman in the group performed on those ropes as if she were in Cirque de Soleil. She’d wrap a few strands around each ankle and work her way up. She’d hang from her feet swathed in these lines. Then she���d unwrap her feet and do the same with her hands. Then she’d let go with her hands and do some more moves. You couldn’t forget, though, that she wasn’t actually harnessed to anything, and that the lines simply surrounded her like so many ribbons.

Three men came out and did gymnastics, even though we were constantly reminded of the cost of falling on the slate pavement. The woman joined in after allowing herself a two-minute rest after her Cirque routine. Then the tuning fork player did a climbing act not very different from hers, but on one of the supporting poles. There were some gasps when he let himself drop upside down from the top to near the bottom. Last, one of the performers did a tightrope act on a wire that they had strung from the supports on the truck to the supports on the lamp post. Bear in mind here that this wasn’t a street festival underwritten by the municipality. It was a bunch of kids with a high-tech swing set and an upturned hat for tips.

We’re always amazed that retail in northern Europe is so still on Sundays. Here we were in the downtown area of a large city, and there were thousands just like us, walking around and enjoying the day off. Not a single shop was open, not even a supermarket. Some of the restaurants were closed. In Europe, workers prefer to have their free time than the money they could make if they just worked a little longer.

It was time to leave Bergen, and we motored out into our first still, windless day since we began to head south weeks earlier. We’d left the land of cod racks and were returning to the land of oil platforms. Our destination was Leirvik, a town that is the administrative center of the municipality of Stord and about 10,000 people.

Apparently, Leirvik just squeaked by the requirements when it applied for “town” status; somehow the name Stord was selected for Leirvik and surrounding areas. So most people still refer to Leirvik as Leirvik and the whole area, which contains little else, as Stord. But that isn’t enough names for this town, because the locals call it Vikjo. Leirvik means ���clay bay”, which would be a good place to anchor, if there was an anchorage around. There wasn’t, though, so we were at the mercy of town docks. We arrived and made circles around the harbor until we were very sure that there was no space for us anywhere, and we left. Art is never happy when that happens.

We moved on and anchored in a spot called Mosterhavn, or Mosterhamn. What is with these towns having a number of names larger than the size of the population? This town was the home of Olav Trygvassen, King Olav I. He’s said to have built the first church in Norway, founding Norway’s first Christian congregation, and following in the footsteps of his good uncle Håkon, whom we met in Eivindvik. The original church was built of wood, and replaced in the 12th century by one of stone, which is apparently still standing.

We didn’t see that church, even though we took the dinghy ashore and walked around. It wasn’t anywhere near the harbor, and there was a large stone cross on a hill above us. The cross, erected in 1924, commemorated the 1000th anniversary of a meeting that established that new laws were to be based on the Christian faith.

There wasn’t much to the rest of town. A large café overlooking the harbor looked as though it was only used for local functions, and hadn’t been in use all season. There was a small area along the coast where someone, probably the town itself, set up a lake for children, with its own beach, a little turf area for putting out blankets, two trampolines, and beach volleyball. A few families were making use of it.

On the move again the next day, we were able to sail nearly the entire trip to Haugesund. Once we got there, again the long town docks were not available. Art was getting despondent when we called the harbormaster. He advised us to dock on the other side of the channel “at the white house.” We began to motor there, and saw that every building on the other side was white. Before we got the chance to call the harbormaster again, a large work boat tied to the town dock motioned for us to raft to them. At the moment, they were feeding bread morsels to several large swans on their outboard side. We happily complied, sending the swans scurrying as fast as they could paddle aside.

During the afternoon, a large space became available and we grabbed it. While we were still docking, a sailboat rafted to us. This was our hint that maybe we shouldn’t leave this dock until the holiday season is over.

Haugesund has a rich history that goes back to the Vikings. The name Norway is the translation of Nordvegen (or “north way”), which is the name of the strait that is adjacent to the town. Harald Hårfagre (or Harald the Fairhair) united Norway into a kingdom there after a decisive battle in 872 before he died of plague in 933. He was the son of Halvdan the Black. Somehow it all ends up sounding like a Monty Python sketch.

It seems that Harald was courting a woman who’d refused his advances because of the tiny size of his…kingdom. Why, it wasn’t even as large as Denmark! So he extended his rule by participating victoriously in tribal wars among the Vikings, reaching as far north as Trondheim. Whether the woman eventually became one of the ten wives he had is apparently unknown. But one of his sons was Håkon the Good, whom we had encountered in Eivindvik, and another was Eirik Blood-Axe. Eirik had eliminated all of his brothers and step-brothers (other than the good Håkon, who was in foster care in England) and became the king. The “Blood-Axe” part of Eirik’s name might have derived from his attraction to fratricide. As king, he squandered the territory his father had built, and Eirik was chased from the throne into exile when his good brother returned from England to sort out the mess.

But Harald the Fairhair apparently wasn’t as cutthroat as his heirs. Most of the mythology surrounding his life is concentrated on, actually, his hair. His original name was Shockhead, or Touslehead or even Tanglehair. Part of his commitment to unify Norway was that he wouldn’t cut or even comb his hair until he was king of Norway. This, I surmise, was what this lady was really waiting for. Unifying Norway took ten years, and then he cut his hair and got the epithet that went down in history.

Haugesund has been a herring center, a shipbuilding center, and now a participant in Norway’s huge oil business. A local mine provided the copper for the Statue of Liberty. A resident of Haugesund, Edward Mortenson, married a divorcee in California named Gladys Baker. Even so, the daughter born to his estranged wife was Norma Jeane Mortenson and later baptized as Norma Jean Baker. Sound familiar? Though Haugesund is delighted to claim Marilyn Monroe as a native, and there are monuments and a cheesy statue of the skirts flying about her in a downtown café, Marilyn herself always claimed not to know who her father was. By all accounts, Mortenson disappeared within months after the wedding and long before Marilyn’s birth. Maybe she was just that good at lying about her age.

The first thing you notice when you try to walk to town from the harbor is how far away it is. Actually, the main downtown area is next to the harbor, but it’s about seventy-five steps upstairs. It’s as if somebody put a town up against a fjord.

The town itself is approachable, just small enough not to be a city and just large enough that the cruising guides say “shops” rather than itemizing exactly what they are. The tourist information center was accessible and helpful. Seeing a dozen hair salons within blocks of each other, and in deference to King Harald, inspired me to get some much-needed mowing on my head on our first day in town. We gorged ourselves on electrical power, water, and good Internet access. The weather blossomed into a sunny day worthy of lunch outdoors. It became apparent that Haugesund was as good a place as any to draw down some of the balance of the Norwegian holiday season’s anxieties about finding good dock space. We were in great dock space and were determined to hang onto it as long as we could.

There was to be a festival in the next few days, to honor Saint Olav in the town of Avaldsnes on the nearby island of Karmøy. The title, Saint Olav Days, didn’t hold a candle to a contemporaneous festival (that we missed) called Safe as Milk, or another festival called The World’s Longest Herring Table, or HerringJazz, with its splashy icon of a trumpet whose valves have been replaced by little fish.

Avaldsnes is across the tiny strait from Haugesund, and it is the narrowness of the strait itself that gave the region enormous strategic power for a matter of millennia. The king who reigned there, beginning with King Augvald countless years ago, was able to extract tolls from ships trying to avoid a uncomfortable and dangerous outside passage.

There’s a lot of legend and probably some facts in the many stories of the area, beginning with the Norse god Odin and the tree of life. Discoveries have included Bronze Age burial mounds, and the grave of a Roman Era king. A ship burial (yes, a king buried inside the boat that was to take him to the underworld – and back), was dated to the Merovingian dynasty, seventh or eighth centuries AD.

We took a bus there on what we believed was a festival day. The area was hilly and densely green, and reminded me of Denmark, which isn’t all that far away from the south of Norway.

St. Olav’s festival celebrates the king who founded Norway’s first church, which we’d missed in Mosterhavn. We’d imagined that this festival would have festivities like the Renaissance day festivals in the US. I’m always baffled by these; the renaissance was the end of the dark, intolerant, dogmatic, regressive nightmare of the Middle Ages, yet everyone’s always in chainmail, and nobody’s celebrating DaVinci, or Gutenberg. In any event, I was game.

We were quite wrong about the festival in any case. It was listed as beginning that day, because maybe there was an event that night. There wouldn’t be anything going on during the day, just a few concerts during the weekend. Even the museum receptionist said “Avaldsnes doesn’t really do anything special for St. Olav’s Day.”

St. Olav, Olav Trygvassen, was King Olav I, a descendent of Håkon the Good, and a more successful evangelist of Catholicism. He began his life in exile from his family, and had been captured as a slave by Estonian pirates and eventually traded for a cloak. He’d been baptized upon the prediction of a seer. His approach to proselytizing was not to take no for an answer; his detractors in Denmark who refused to be converted were tortured or killed. Rocks in the harbor of Avaldsnes tell the story of “a warlock and some sorcerers” who’d tried to stand in the way of Norway’s conversion to Christianity. Olav had them chained to these rocks at low tide, and they were thus punished at high tide when the rocks were submerged. Of course, according to Salem wisdom, their death by drowning would have proven that those visitors weren’t witches at all. But that scientific progress hadn’t been made yet in the tenth century.

Instead of seeing a festival, we visited three of the tourist sites in the town. One was the Norway History Center, which chronicles the times from the earliest kings through the reign of King Olav, and limited to the period when Nordvegen was a power center. The other was St. Olav’s Church, the present stone version of which was built by King Håkon Håkonsson in 1250 AD. Next to the church is the Virgin Mary Needle, a stone monolith. Legend has it that when the stone touches the church (and it’s only inches away now), Judgment Day will come. Over the years, the priests have shaved away the rock to assure that Judgment Day doesn’t arrive on their watch.

The third site we visited was a replica of a Viking farming village. It was similar to the Lofotr Viking Museum we’d seen in the Lofoten Islands, but smaller and slightly more fabricated. Both the village and the museum had this quality. I felt a little as though I was at the Norway pavilion in Epcot. But they both did a good job of describing what life must have been like at this location a thousand years ago.

I’ll save today’s update for next week’s note.

Love, Karen (and Art)