Pierre-Brice Lebrun - 2009-06-15
The Hotel Union in Geiranger offers trips behind the wheel of a vintage car around Norway’s most beautiful fjord, classed as a UNESCO World heritage site in 2005. Taking the Nibbe Road in a Buick or a Studebaker, driving up to the peak of Mount Dalsnibba in a convertible Cadillac, or having yourself driven into the village by a well-trained chauffeur are all options open to you.
Here at the wooden pier in the port of Geiranger, a picturesque and touristy little village is where Geirangerfjord comes to an end. A fjord is a deep inlet of sea where the rock has been hewn away during the glacial period; it is an arm of striking blue salt-water that has forcefully slipped in between the steep sides of mountains that are permanently snow-crested. The fjords are of such depths that seeing a whale is not unusual. However the famous Hürtigrüten Coastal Express navigates these fjords daily without the slightest trepidation!
The Geirangerfjord is a fifteen kilometres branch of the Storfjord, which meets the sea at Aalesund. Travellers generally agree that it is the world's most beautiful fjord, even if the Sognefjord, next to Bergen, is Europe’s longest and Norway’s widest.
The beauty of a fjord, the intensity of its scenery and the emotions it creates are difficult to comprehend or imagine if you have not had the good fortune to gaze on one. Discovering the sheer mountain cliffs, wondering at the brutal combat that the water must have waged in order to win the right to be in this place, where nature had probably only counted on rocks and a symphony of colour. All this leaves you speechless.
The ocean liners, seen from the quayside, look like gigantic sea monsters but seen from above are no more impressive than plastic ducks in a bath!
The ascent to Mount Dalsnibba (1945 metres) overhangs the fjord and offers an unobstructed view of it which has to be earned - the road has no barriers and there are 70 twisting turns, 29 of which are at180 degrees!Opened in 1939 and conceived back in 1880, it was presented as a scale model at the 1889 Paris Trade Fair where it won a gold medal for Civil Engineering. It is a struggle for the Buicks and Cadillacs to get to the end of this road but they are happy to see the sparkling and permanently frozen Lake Dalsnibba (1030 metres) which tells them the summit is near!
Karl Mjelva, Geiranger’s pioneer in Tourism
In 1869 the first cruise ship docked at Geiranger. In 1906, 120 liners brought 11000 tourists eager to enjoy Norway’s beautiful scenery, midnight sun and pure air.
Karl Mjelva (the grandfather) was the first to recognise that one day the economy of the entire region would turn towards tourism, that carriage rides were a thing of the past and that tourists are keen on their comfort. So in 1907 he bought the Hotel Union and, making use of the turbulent waters of the torrent coming down from the summits, he built the nation’s first electric power station. It was therefore the only hotel in the region that had electricity! Just one small detail was missing - there was no heating. So Karl Mjeva got to work making electric radiators.
In 1910, Karl Mjeva had the idea of abandoning his horses and take the tourists out in motorcars instead. From 1912, he himself produced around ten powerful cars seating seven to nine people, using the chassis of an Opel equipped with a sturdy German engine. Following this, he created the first of the Kingdom’s taxi companies, the Geiranger Skysslag. The GS initials still adorn the doors on the cars in his museum. The war then got the better of the collaboration with Opel. So Karl Mjelva left for the United States and then became an importer of American cars. The local farmers bought these just as readily as his improved Opels.
So whenever a ship dropped anchor in the middle of the fjord and its dinghies brought travellers ashore, there would always be a group of around a hundred drivers hurrying to the quay. Unfortunately today these drivers have been replaced by air conditioned coaches.
A Garage full of Vintage Cars
In the basement of the Hotel Union, perched high above Geiranger, sleepy chromed Cinderellas wait for their garage door to open. Inside are: a 1932 Studebaker President (there is only one left in the world,) a Buick of the same year, imported from the United States in 1934 (there are no more than four examples of this model left), a Nash (1931) recently brought back from Pennsylvania, a 1919 Cadillac, another Studebaker (1925), a Hudson (1922) and a Buick Touring (1931.) All these cars are looked after by a club of enthusiasts who lavish care on them, maintain and restore them.
All the parts are original, and, as the story goes, Karl Mjelva Junior, the father of the present owner and the founder’s son, once set off to the USA to hunt for an ashtray that was missing from his Buick! Each car has its own designated, liveried chauffeur who knows his vehicle by heart. He takes it out for drives around the roads that run alongside the fjord or that escape off into the mountains, to the delight of tourists seated in the leather seats watching a great show as if they were in the luxury box of a theatre dress circle. A single second or a turn of the wheel is enough for the whole panorama to change and for the happy passengers to marvel at the views.
Norway’s National Tourist Office
5 Lower Regent Street
Destination Geirangerfjord Trollstigen
Hotel Union ****
Tel: +47 70 26 83 00
Rates from 680 to 820 NOK* per person for a double room and half board. The hotel has two restaurants, Julie (à la carte), and Fjorden (buffet or set lunch menus.)
For a ‘normal’car, prices range from 1000 and 4000 NOK for a day (7 hours on the road); you can make a reservation at Geiranger Fjordservice or the taxi company (www.geirangertaxi.no).
Rides in vintage cars have to be reserved and negotiated according to requirements directly with the Hotel Union.
Geiranger has 250 inhabitants, 5 hotels and 10 campsites. During the four months of summer, that makes up the tourist season, 160 ships stop over, and several hundred thousand people are disembarked there.
* NOK = Norway Kroner. 1 NOK = 0.097 GBP