In late April, we boarded the Cruise and Maritime Voyages cruise liner Marco Polo at Tilbury for the Majestic Fjord cruise.
Shortly after boarding we were given a badge showing that it was fifty years since this vessel had first begun a long life on the high seas starting as a top notch Soviet North Atlantic liner. The Marco Polo was fully booked and many of our fellow passengers were, like us, returning after already having had happy voyages on her.
Tilbury is a practical down to earth port and we stood on the deck looking across the grey Thames to the old town of Gravesend. In the nineteenth century, immigrant ships anchored at Gravesend, before departing for the colonies. When a ship sailed, a bell was rung ashore and that was the last time that many passengers saw ‘old England.’ Over a century later the immigrant’s descendants in Australia and New Zealand have returned to see where their families had left the Old Country. In recent decades, the tide has turned with other immigrants coming in and nowadays a white Indian temple can be seen on the skyline.
Leaving Tilbury was routine, the tug Svitzer London hauled the stern of Marco Polo out and off we sailed down the Thames and across the North Sea. Next morning we were in the centre of Amsterdam and some Dutch passengers left while another group joined us. Marco Polo had churned up the silt as she came into the Passenger Terminal in Amsterdam. This is the meeting place of two worlds, the sea going ships coming in from the North Sea and the inland waterways vessels arriving from as far away as Switzerland and even Hungary.
When coming back aboard at Amsterdam, the authorities carefully made a full search for weapons and explosives. This meant having to queue and there was a short delay before we got back aboard. Some British passengers started to object to this, saying that the checking had been done at Tilbury. Personally, although bored by this routine, I am very glad of these precautions. Being on holiday doesn’t guarantee your safety; in fact it could make you more likely to become a victim.
In the evening, the wind was very fresh and the first attempt to get Marco Polo away from the quay, astern of the Costa Pacifica, was abandoned because the Port of Amsterdam tug was not powerful enough. Three quarters of an hour later, the tug Friesland arrived and had no problems pulling the stern away from the quay. As we went down the Amstel River, there was a great exchange of sirens hooting and the crews shouting across the water to the Cruise and Maritime Voyage’s recent acquisition Magellan that was undergoing a major refit. We then slipped away down the North Sea Canal and out through the Ijmuiden lock in the dusk. On the 548 nautical miles passage north, the wind picked up to about force 5-6 N.W. but the wind front soon blew over and by sunset the sea was calmer.
We had left behind the flat green farmland of South Holland, to wake up, two mornings later, to the sight of barren mountains high above us covered in snow. As we came into the 75 mile long Hardanger Fjord there was little sign of life except for occasional groups of wooden houses dotted along the shoreline and a few fish farms. As we steamed inland, the mountains rose high on either side and we turned up a smaller fjord to arrive at Ulvik. There were wooden warehouses on a small quay and one fi shing boat, but little other sign of life. In 1940 the German Navy had shelled Ulvik, but when we arrived it looked incredibly picturesque and peaceful.
Norway was an extremely relaxed place to visit, there were no custom formalities, and I was a bit disappointed that we didn’t get our passports stamped. Good English was widely spoken here as they regarded it as being an offshoot of the Norwegian language.
From Ulvik we steamed 10 miles around to the village of Eidfjord, at the head of Hardanger Fjord. This village of about 420 people is largely dependant on tourism, which had increased since a new road had been constructed with a smart bridge over the fjord leading towards Bergen. Although only small, Eidfjord had an impressive art gallery showing the work of the nineteenth century painter Nils Bergslien, who produced popular paintings of trolls and the country people, in Norwegian national costume. Some of his maritime paintings included farings, the west coast rowing workboats that looked very like small Viking ships.
There were boat sheds along the waters edge, but no sign of local boats. About twenty five years ago my son and myself ‘rescued’ the Hardanger faring Nautilus from being filled with earth, in a front garden with flowers in England. The Nautilus had been given to Dr Patterson by a village in Norway for the help he had given them during World War II. He had kept the Nautilus for angling, on a lake in Northern Ireland, but would never tell his family why he had been given the boat. His family believed the Nautilus came from the Hardanger Fjord, but we have not been able to corroborate this story.
In the evening, while we steamed back down Hardanger Fjord, Captain Michail Margaritis beckoned us up on to the bridge wing to take photographs while we passed through ‘The Narrows’ with sheer cliffs rising both sides, and 400m of water below us. That night we went back down Hardanger, out into the North Sea and around into Norway’s largest fjord, the 110 mile long Sogne Fjord that has about fourteen small fjords branching off it. In the morning, we turned off into the 10 mile long narrow Aurland Fjord, where mountains rose steeply up on either side, before anchoring off the village of Fram. Ahead, the new P&O Britannia was already berthed on the wharf, but the mountains dwarfed even this great ship.