It was a lesson I learned long ago, that the best place to taste a wine is in the cave of its birth. There is a magic that makes the experience much more memorable than the same bottle sampled on a Friday night, say, at a neighbourhood eatery far from its roots.
So, I wondered, would music sound sweeter, more inspiring in the place of its birth; at the home of its composer?
The subject came up when my best friend and I made plans for a special cruise, one that would take us along Norway’s pristine coastline and into its precipitous fjords. Among the many land excursion options, we discovered that, in Bergen, the last port of call, at the summer residence of Norway’s most famous composer, Edvard Grieg, a piano recital was included in the tour of his home and museum. Grieg is one of my all-time favourite composers. We signed up immediately.
That was just one of the many highlights we experienced on our seven-night cruise (two days at sea) aboard the Queen Victoria, Cunard’s luxury liner which sailed out of Southampton, England.
The Queen Victoria was put into service in 2007 and is smaller and more intimate than her big sister, The Queen Mary II. She is a beautiful, elegant, with a decidedly British ambiance.
The Queen’s Room, where white-gloved waiters serve high tea each afternoon, duplicates the rich décor of Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s summer home on the Isle of Wight. Even the on-board activities are in step with the traditional style of the company, created by Samuel Cunard, a native of Nova Scotia who moved to Britain when he launched the steamship line in 1840.
Our Princess Grill stateroom was spacious and elegant, with its own private balcony. If it had not been for all the activities and attractions tempting us, we would have spent every daylight hour on the balcony, soaking up the magnificent fjord scenery. The mountainsides with their lush stands of trees were so close, we felt that we could reach out and touch them. We understood why National Geographic Traveller magazine named the Norwegian Fjords the best travel destination in the world – a photographer’s paradise.
We sailed by remote towns in the beautifully austere fjords, past landscapes dotted with towering, snow-capped mountains, cascading ribbon waterfalls and medieval villages.
The towns were equally beautiful. Minutes after docking in Stavenger, our first port of call, we were walking along narrow, cobbled streets, lined with Northern Europe’s best preserved collection of 16th and 17th century wooden houses.
Statue of Edvard Grieg in the garden of his home, in Trollhagen
“There’s only one sardine factory here now,” Gunnar, our guide, told us. “When we had 70 canneries, the whole town had a fishy smell.”
Today Stavenger thrives, thanks to the discovery of off-coast oil, on the liquid gold that has made Norway prosperous.
In Alesund, the architecture is Art Nouveau, with intricate detailed turrets and ornamented spires giving the town its distinctive, fairy-tale character. In 1904, the entire town centre burned to the ground, only to rise Phoenix-like from the ashes, redone in the popular architectural style of the day.
With the steep, craggy mountains and harsh northern climate, we marvelled at the wild flowers we discovered along the narrow trails between the fjords. Norwegians claim their cows are the happiest in the world and for good reason. The herds are small. They graze on juicy mountain grasses, flowers and herbs, producing more and better milk than anywhere else in Europe; along with the sweet butter and savoury cheeses for which Norway is now famous.
In Bergen, we discovered a cheerful little city wrapped around both sides of a pair of fjords, between a group of seven mountains. City life revolves around the port, open markets, souvenir shops and trolls.
The country home where Grieg and his wife, Nina, who also happened to be his cousin, spent their summers sits on the fjord shore, 10 km from the city centre. Edvard and Nina stood less than five feet tall. They called themselves ‘the trolls’ and their home, Troldhaugen.
The cozy 1885 house, now a living museum, looks much as it did when Grieg composed some of his best-known works. Even his Steinway piano remains.
As a young man, Grieg, who was born in 1843, decided that music would be his contribution to Norway’s nation-building effort.
“To paint in music the Norwegian landscape, Norwegian life, Norwegian history and Norwegian folk poetry was where I believed I could achieve something,” he wrote.
Sitting in the small recital hall adjacent to his country house, we looked down on the grand piano and out through a wall of windows to the tree-clad fjord and the small wooden cabin where Grieg would retreat to work in solitude. The rhododendrons were in full bloom.
Rune Alver, an accomplished Norwegian pianist, played a collection of familiar, lyrical pieces all of which evoked the character of the composer’s native land. Some were sprightly, some magnificent and some melancholic. All were enthralling.
Like tasting fine wine where it was made, Grieg’s music never sounded sweeter.