Over the Edge, Norway Unfolds
Sunday, November 2, 2008
Most tourists look at Norway's breathtaking fiords from cruise ships, glancing up at the cliffs on either side. For a really intimate experience, I chose to see a fiord from a cliff, staring straight down 2,000 feet into the azure water.
Standing atop Preikestolen, or Pulpit Rock, on the southwest coast of Norway on a sunny day is unforgettable.
Indeed, the rock looks like a pulpit overlooking the Lysefjord far below. Just don't expect anyone to listen to a sermon there: The congregants would be too busy oohing and ahhing at the view of what glaciers have wrought.
The pulpit is a natural plateau, about 80 feet by 80 feet, where hikers get a spectacular view of the 25-mile-long Lysefjord, the southernmost fiord in Norway that's connected to the North Sea.
Preikestolen isn't at the top of the cliff; there's a small peak behind it blocking the view to the west. But gazing up and down the fiord in other directions reveals well-worn mountains as far as the eye can see, the gray broken by dark patches of hardy trees and, on rare flat spots, by light-green meadows. It's too far south to see glaciers here.
Some visitors who aren't afraid of heights lie on their stomachs and look straight down to the saltwater below. (This is Norway; there are no safety railings.) I eventually got up the nerve, and I didn't even lose my glasses.
Only near the top of Preikestolen itself do hikers need to worry about falling into an abyss, so people who are afraid of heights could probably handle the hike itself and appreciate the view from a safe spot.
The two-hour hike up isn't overly difficult, but it does take stamina and sturdy footwear. You don't have to be a Norwegian or a mountain goat, but that would help, because some sections of the trail require climbing rock steps or picking your way through boulders.
Adventurous visitors have been climbing to the top (from inland, not straight up from the water) for about 100 years. Now it's one of the more popular hikes in southern Norway, drawing more than 90,000 people a year.
It's an easy day trip from Stavanger, an oil center on the west coast. I didn't know anything about the area when I visited my friend Joyce Conrow, who recently had taken a job there. Stavanger has lovely old white wooden houses, a harbor with a fish market and -- what else? -- an oil museum.
The trek to Preikestolen is a great way to get a good look at a fiord in the offseason, when I couldn't find any fiord cruises in the area. And it's a lot less crowded then.
I hiked on a Wednesday in late September and saw roughly 20 people on the pulpit. Joyce estimated there had been at least 100 at lunchtime when she visited on an August Sunday. At times, she said, she had to wait for people passing through narrow, rocky spots.