welcome to A night ina series about staying in the most unparalleled places available to rest your head.
Last spring, my friend Kevin and I were brainstorming some ideas of where we could take a summer trip. “How about hiking in New Hampshire?” I suggest. Easy driving, little or no planning, low cost.
“Or we could go to Norway,” he said, clearly thinking in a different vein.
It turns out that a new budget airline, northern atlantic, offered attractive and inexpensive promotional summer rates. I hadn’t left the country since before the pandemic and was looking forward to going. We have two other friends on board. Who cares about the price of Norway when you save so much money on airfare? we justified ourselves and each other with every purchase and reservation we made. Right?!
Kevin had just earned an M.Arch from Yale and, eager to binge on Scandinavian design, learned that Snøhetta – a Norwegian company he admired – had recently restored a hiking lodge complex called Tungestølen at the edge of an arm of the Jostedalsbreen, the largest glacier in continental Europe. (After a 2011 cyclone destroyed the original Tungestølen cabin, the local community raised funds for a reconstruction which resulted in an international design competition Snohetta won in 2015.)
Tungestølen, one of many cabins in a national network maintained by the Norwegian National Trekking Association, was more or less along our road trip route, Kevin said. Do we have to stay one night?
And how could we not.
8:45 p.m.: One of the benefits of traveling to a high-latitude Scandinavian destination in July, other than the possibility of breaking a lot of stale Midsommar jokes – is that you can squeeze a lot more during daylight hours. My friends and I have been ambitious with our schedule for this road trip, so we are not due to arrive in Tungestølen until late in the evening.
At the town of Hafslo our path leaves a main “highway”, the road narrowing to a lane barely wide enough for a single car to pass. Skirting the shore of a fjord, we drive through the dark maws of several rock-cut tunnels, where the threat of another oncoming car leads us to grab our armrests. But we pass a small structure with a tiny credit card reader (an honor system for the $2 toll) and the remote village of Veitastrond. A few more miles north along the now unpaved gravel road, and we spot it: the complex of pentagonal wooden cabins sits on a rocky hillside, seemingly in conversation with the mountains and glaciers that surround it. The vertical panels of grey-brown pine recall a dense alpine forest; the doors are painted a lighter, softer green than the vibrant grasses of the valley.
We go up the road, pass a few unaffiliated campsites and small cabins, not really knowing what awaits us. Supposedly tonight’s dinner and tomorrow’s breakfast and lunch are included in our stay, but the translation on the booking site had been poor – the lunch description just read, confusingly, “four slices” – and because our foreign sim cards only include data, we hadn’t been able to call reception to let them know we would be arriving late. Over the past few days I’ve developed an unhealthy attachment to Nugatti, Norway’s (admittedly inferior) answer to Nutella. I imagine digging into it by the spoonful for dinner when we are inevitably told the kitchen is closed.
9:00 p.m.: Turns out our worries were for naught. The chef and manager of Tungestølen are there to greet us in the main cabin, where we leave our shoes by the door and step out into the common area. The Norwegian Trekking Association’s 550 cabins range from full-service (manager or ranger, chef, rental linens) to rudimentary (simple lean-to structures). I imagine Tungestølen is one of the prettiest, but clearly many other guests still use it functionally, as a hiking stop.
The main room is long and open, the floor, walls and ceiling are all cohesive light wood, with exposed beams and generous windows, one of which overlooks the edge of the glacier at the bottom of the sprawling valley. Upholstered built-in benches run along two walls. The cabin is typically Norwegian: clean and simple, but undeniably comfortable.
These cabins are clearly designed to have a porous border with nature; although angular, they lack any strong features or colors that distract from the surrounding valley.
The other more occasional guests have already dined and lie down in the living room to read and play board games, but a table is quickly set up for us. Fresh wildflowers arranged on the roughly hewn banquet table evoke the atmosphere of a farm-to-table restaurant more than that of a rustic, secluded ice cream shack. We are not complaining.
The chef looks aghast as he shares the menu: the beef bourguignon, he tells us grimly, doesn’t live up to his expectations. When he arrives, it’s delicious, and we trip over to tell him. But that only seems to upset him further: it’s clear that our palaces are not to be trusted.
9:30 p.m.: As we butcher dinner, which includes a salad (beetroot, goat cheese) and dessert (baked pear with ice cream), the chef and manager come and go, sharing with us the knowledge of the hut and the neighboring village. We learn that Veitastrond regularly held dances with the nearby town to allow for extensive mixing and mingling, much more so than other isolated communities. This is why the local population is “in very good genetic health”, says the chief, raising his eyebrows.
10:15 p.m.: Most of the other guests are hikers; they’ve already got into their Solomons at the door and dragged their feet to bed. But we road-traveling lazy people order a few Pilsners at the bar instead and stretch out on the benches in front of the window and the fireplace. Displayed on one wall are old regional maps and artifacts from the original cabin, including an ice ax that looks like it could make an appearance in a real-life version of Index. All the books on the shelves are in Norwegian, except for Inventory of Norwegian glaciers, of which there are, inexplicably, three copies in English. I read the book to my friends: “Due to the Gulf Stream and the prevailing westerly winds, the Norwegian coast remains ice-free in winter and generally the climate is warmer than the latitude would otherwise imply.”
“Isn’t that interesting? I sincerely ask. They don’t answer.
11:30 p.m.: There is still light in the sky, but like every night of this trip, we will fall asleep before it gets completely dark. A stone’s throw from the sleeping cabin there is a sanitary building with shared showers and sinks. Walking out after brushing my teeth, I stand in the late night air in my T-shirt. It should be colder than it looks.
Yellow light streams from the cabin windows, pinpricks against the soft blue hue cast across the valley. I look past the property’s fence, where a mother sheep and her twins are ruminating and eyeing me warily. They use one of the cabins as their own shelter, leaning against its beak-like outer edge. I watch the parking lot, where a group of cows have gathered for some kind of convention, snuggle up to the side mirrors and scratch against the bumpers of parked guest cars.
These huts are clearly designed to have a porous border with nature; although angular, they lack any strong features or colors that distract from the surrounding valley. This congruence with the environment is exactly what makes them so captivating. The structures were even claimed, in a sense, by the other faunas of the valley.
11:30 p.m.: The two private cabins were already booked when we planned our trip, but I have never been so pleased to sleep in a dorm. The bunk room is made up of three levels separated by small olive green ladders and narrow stairs which should make everything cumbersome but don’t. Each landing houses two twin mattresses fitted with reading lights and a socket, and small slit windows above. The mattresses are plush and the low ceiling makes me feel like I’m sinking into a birdhouse. I want to stay awake for a while to read and enjoy the space, but I fall asleep almost immediately.
7:30 a.m.: When I wake up, it’s raining outside. I can hear other hikers moving around the bunk room with practiced synchronicity; their rustling pants and quiet breaths as they pull on heavy boots are reminiscent of the sounds of a ski lodge.
8:30 a.m.: I’ve gorged on the breakfast buffet and already had four cups of coffee, but I’m starting to get sleepy again. “I don’t take naps,” I’ve repeatedly asserted through loud, obnoxious yawns on this trip, but I’ve run out of fumes. I curl up on the bench facing the large master cabin window and doze off. When I wake up, some of the fog has cleared and the Jostedal Glacier is peaking out of the lazy, low cloud puffs.
10:30 a.m.: We don’t have time to do the full hike to the glacier, but we can do some walking. We meander along a path near the main cabin, wet moss bouncing under our feet. The rain turned the tall grasses a vibrant green. Every once in a while a clanging bell spoils the spot of a ewe and her lambs grazing in the brush. The fog slides over the tops of the conifers; our shoes sink into the damp ground, the mud infiltrates them. About ten meters below us, clear and glacial waters cut a deep riverbed.
I check the time; we have to turn around. We say goodbye to the valley, to the glacier, then turn back and pile into the car. We say goodbye to Tungestølen, the chief who happily tells us to come back, then take the gravel road and set off towards the fjords.