Eidsfjord has to rethink itself. It is at the very end of the fjord after which it is named which is, in turn, at the end of the Hardanger Fjord, which is one of the longest in Norway. It has traditionally thought of itself as isolated and poor. It still thinks of itself as isolated although that is a relative term.
Eidsfjord has, for a thousand years, been a way station on St. Olav’s way, a pilgrimage route from Oslo to Trondheim, the holy place of St. Olav. All Norwegian Kings are crowned in its cathedral and St. Olav is purported to be buried somewhere in the Trondheim area. The old church in Eidsfjord is a stopping place on St. Olav’s way. But until very recently most major roads and highways have bypassed Eidsfjord for less direct but easier to build routes between Oslo, Bergen and Trondheim.
But in this century Norway got a lot of oil money and Eidsfjord is now on the major highway between Oslo and Bergen, Norway’s two largest cities. To do that Norway had to build the country’s longest suspension bridge on one side of town, crossing Hardanger Fjord, and a tunnel that spirals upward inside a mountain on the other. This road makes the perpetually proposed road to Juneau look easy. These bits of infrastructure have opened up much land in the commune, one of the largest in land area in Norway. It had been used for mountain pastures for sheep and for reindeer husbandry. Sheep are still part of the economy but reindeer herding has stopped so now Eidsfjord has a large herd of “wild” reindeer and a hunting season. (Although a deer wasting disease is spreading southward and is threatening the herd.) The economy is also based on summer tourism with a lot of people from Oslo and Bergen having summer mountain cabins. So Eidsfjord has more traffic and less isolation than it used to. It’s about 200 miles from Oslo and 100 from Bergen.
Eidsfjord is now also very rich, more than Norway, in general, is very rich. A lot of water flows from the Hardanger Plateau above the city and although the State power authority maintains the dam, built the series of pipes and penstocks that control the flow of water, runs the powerhouse that generates the electricity, and controls the powerlines that radiate from Eidsfjord, the commune owns the water rights and gets paid well for them. The main monument in town is a turbine wheel from the power plant.
In effect the city has more money than it knows it knows what to do with. It’s building a new senior citizen’s home with a dementia wing and assisted living apartments. It has a new school and it is trying to attract new residents who will live there year around, the town has only 900 year around residents in its huge area. It’s offering free land and a 200,000 kroner ($22,000) bonus to people who build homes to settle in Eidsfjord and low interest loans of up to 250,000 Kroner toward the mortgage. Recipient who don’t live in Eidsfjord for 15 years they have to pay it back.
This is all according to Erik, our tour guide, telling stories as we took a bus up to a scenic waterfall, Vøringsfossen, over which the city has built a cantilevered platform to attract visitors. We also visited the largest dam that holds water melting form a glacier to make sure that there is a constant supply of water. It is on the Hardanger Plateau and reflects a mountain range topped by a glacier that is the supply of all this water. The dam Is just at the tree line and the area is dotted with twisted and distorted birch just hanging on. It is not yet far enough into the spring for them to begin to leaf. Finally, we stopped at a mountain inn, on s still frozen lake, well above the tree line for waffles and coffee. A group of classic Ford Mustang owners was having a rally at the inn. Eric says he’s typical of Eidsfjord in that he has lots of jobs. He owns a sheep farm but, in the summer, he is a tour guide and, in the winter, he drives a snow plow. He’s also a fireman. The reality TV show “Ice Road Rescue” has some episodes set in Eidsfjord. Erik’s an engaging storyteller shifting from sheep to mountain rescues to his own injury, a fall, that earned him the local nickname “The flying Dutchman.” Fortunately, the piece of iron he was trying to mount fell next to him and not on him. Erik is an immigrant from Holland who has lived in Eidsfjord for 20 years.
This is one of only three tours Holland America tours we’re taking on this 28-day cruise. Normally we like to poke around on our own, but I wanted to see some of the high country surrounding the fjords and this seemed like the best way to do it since I don’t comfortably fit into the tiny little Renault self-drive electric cars that we could rent in town. This tour this one was well run. There were several busses but they timed it so that only one bus was at one stop at the same time. Every time the driver wanted to start the bus he had to blow into a breathalyzer. If there is any alcohol in the breath the bus will not start. In Norway it’s the law.