Craving a hiking weekend but don’t fancy the Alps? Daisy Cropper heads to Ålesund, to combine the city’s cultural delights with breathtaking yomps around the nearby fjords
Ålesund is a city built on ashes. Although you’d never know that from its dainty streets, fairytale buildings and chirpy residents. In 1904, a fire swept across the town, burning down some 850 rickety wooden houses and leaving 10,000 people homeless. The fire raged for more than 16 hours; miraculously, only one person died, but it left a permanent scar on the coastal community.
Over a century later, the destructive blaze turned out to be a good thing for the cityscape. Today, Ålesund is renowned for its Art Nouveau architecture: this romantic and decorative style flourished here during a rapid three-year restoration of the town’s smoking ruins, transforming it into a place of spellbinding turrets and towers. Ålesund didn’t feel quite so magical when I arrived, though. I’d spent the past few days huffing and puffing up, down and around the surrounding (and spectacular) mountains, hills and fjords – all I could concentrate on was my aching thighs, rather than this city, sitting sweetly by the sea.
Up until the last hour I was climbing the final ‘mountain’ of the trip – Ålesund’s own Mount Aksla. At a mere 140m above sea level, it’s hardly an epic summit, but the friendly greetings of “Hei! Hei!” delivered by Norwegian walkers as they overtook me (at speed) were met with my grumbles. In all honesty, after three days of hiking Norway’s steep slopes, I was beginning to wane.
Once I’d staggered to the top, however, I was able to form firmer opinions of Ålesund, and quickly appreciated why it is known as the country’s most beautiful city. Sprawling out from the ocean, dotted with towers, multi-coloured houses and seemingly afloat, Ålesund looked faultless in the fading summer-sun, and was well worth the sore feet.
In fact, as a first-time trekker that’s what hiking in Norway felt like: the trails zapped all traces of energy but the ancient, mountainous landscapes unfolding in all directions around me more than made up for the temporary aches and pains my legs.
This area in particular – the traditional alpine Sunnmøre district – offers an endless array of treks and activities. Travellers looking for a relaxed, alternative city break can sink into picturesque Ålesund, savouring its freshly-caught seafood, while absorbing its architecture and interesting past. In contrast, those seeking heart-pumping hills can head 85km south-west out to Geirangerfjord. This UNESCO-listed World Heritage site is criss-crossed by some of the country’s best trails, from two-hour strolls to day-long hikes, making it just as much a haven for novice hill-walkers and hikers as it is for the more hardened trekkers. Simply make sure you’re equipped with sturdy boots, good amounts of water and food, and keep to the marked trails.
Oh, and make sure your thighs and feet are up to the job!
Full of tempting food, fascinating architecture and dramatic history, Ålesund’s main sites can be seen in one full day. For an insight into the city’s past, opt for a two-hour walking tour (100NOK [£11]; www.visitalesund.com, under ‘sightseeing and day cruises’) – guided by those in the know, you’ll learn the city’s full story and take in the delicate-looking Art Nouveau buildings.
If you’re not all walked out, head for Mount Aksla: 418 steps lead up to the summit in the town park – hardly a monster peak, but the top gives panoramic views of the city, coast and Sunnmøre Alps.
Looking for a harder or more challenging hike? There are many marked trails in the area, suitable for walking year-round.
If you still have plenty of energy, hire a kayak from Actin to explore the numerous islands and inlets surrounding the city; guides can help you plan a route that’s safe and suitable for your fitness level.
For something calmer, head to the Jugendstilsenteret, the city’s Art Nouveau museum. Located in one of Ålesund’s most charming buildings, it’s full of period features and furniture – you’ll feel you’ve stepped back in time. Seek out the Centre’s ‘Time Machine’ for an insight into the city’s speedy three-year restoration.
Ålesund accounts for three-quarters of the world’s klipfish (or bacaloa) exports and it’s a local delicacy. Stop at the XL Diner – a far cry from the greasy spooner you’d expect.
Hire a car and head for the hills. A 90-minute drive from Ålesund, the village of Geiranger is a base for picturesque hikes of all levels around the UNESCO-listed Geirangerfjord. Just getting there – via striking mountains, melting glaciers, waterfalls and fjords – is a dramatic journey.
Westerås, 4km from Geiranger, is the perfect starting point for many of the area’s trails. Bolster your energy levels at Westerås Mountain Farm – try the freshly caught salmon with white wine vinaigrette and cream sauce – then lace up your boots.
From Westerås you can take a 30-minute stroll to Vesteråsfjellet – an easy walk with foraging opportunities (wild blueberries are best), ending with remarkable views over Geirangerfjord.
A modest one-hour hike along steeper trails leads from Westerås to Storseterfossen, where you can venture behind a 30m-high waterfall. For a tougher challenge, head for Storseterfossen and then trek higher to Laushornet. From here, there’s a steep ascent along a path above the treeline, looking over the entire Geirangerfjord. The return hike takes five to six hours.
Sleeping options in Geiranger include Hotel Union; doubles with views of the fjord cost from £180.
Catch a ferry from Geiranger to see the fjord from sea level. Boats leave from the village harbour for 90-minute tours of the waterways (www.geirangerfjord.no; 190NOK [£22]). An onboard commentary talks of the area’s history, including the precipitous fjord farms – lucky sight-seers may spot porpoises in the waters too. Beady eyes might see the derelict Knivsflå farm, perched 250m up on a ledge next to the towering Seven Sisters waterfall.
Ask to disembark at Skahehola before the boat returns to Geiranger, to walk to Skageflå, the area’s best-known abandoned fjord farm. The walk is short but the trail is steep, uneven and not for vertigo-sufferers; it takes around 45 minutes one-way. Literally fit for royals (the King and Queen of Norway celebrated their silver wedding anniversary here), Skageflå offers rewarding views over the deep-blue waters. The abandoned farm buildings are shut but still laid-out as they would’ve been – peek through the windows for an insight into former fjord-life.
If you’re worn out, head back down to sea level in time for the next ferry back to Geiranger (you’ll have two hours to get up and down). Or trek back to Geiranger over the hills, following the well-marked trails from Skageflå; this takes around three hours, depending on your speed. Pack a picnic lunch and snacks (Norwegian Kvikk Lunsj bars resemble Kit Kats).
If you want to explore the area without walking boots, bikes and kayaks can be hired in Geiranger.
When to go: Summer (Jun-Sept) for hiking trips; year-round for Ålesund city breaks.
Getting there: Norwegian flies direct to Ålesund from Gatwick twice weekly. Flight time is 2 hours 20 minutes; return fares from £72.
Getting around: Ålesund’s airport is a 20-minute drive from the city centre. Once there, the main sights and activities are within walking distance. For trips further afield hire
a car (www.avis.no).
Where to stay: The stylish Scandic Hotel Ålesund is located a stone’s throw from the main sites and has serene views of the coast; doubles from £95.
Where to eat: Don’t miss the XL Diner on the city’s seafront for local speciality bacalao – dried salted cod. They also serve meaty reindeer steaks, salads and more.
Further info: Visit www.visitnorway.co.uk and www.visitalesund.com for city info and www.fjordnorway.com for hiking advice. The Rough Guide to Norway is a good read to hone up on Ålesund and surrounds.
For a tougher challenge, head to Loen to scale 1,848m Mt Skåla – deemed the Norwegian hike with the greatest difference in height from start to summit.
If your hotel offers a buffet dinner, don’t miss it. Norwegians stock their buffets full-to-bursting with different fish, meats and vegetables. Just leave room for the delightful deserts...