A Visit to Espedalen, in the Kingdom of Peer Gynt
Thin sticks mark the spots where locals have bored holes in the metre thick ice for their lines and hooks. I get the feeling that despite the cold and the waiting involved, Mr Bjerknesli, the proprietor of the Espedalen Fjell Hotel, would like to be outside fishing for this evening’s supper.
A Quiet Valley
Welcome to Espedalen, a quiet valley, situated in the Kingdom of Peer Gynt, around an hour’s drive north of Lillehammer. Espedalen runs northwest between Vestre Gausdal and Vinstradalen, through the counties of Gausdal, Sør-Fron and Nord-Fron. Two lakes, the 12km long Espedalsvatnet, and the shorter Breidsjoen flood the valley.
It’s a place where history, myth and tradition continue to intertwine in the day-to-day lives of the valley’s 100 or so inhabitants. Peder Olsen Hage, on whom Ibsen based his famous character, lived not too far away near Vinstra.
A Mountainous Kingdom
As I know from my aching leg muscles, the Kingdom of Peer Gynt is a mountainous one. Espedalen is protected from the elements by high mountains. Each morning, I ski up through forests of green fir trees, often in shadow, before emerging breathless on the higher sunlit slopes above.
But it’s worth the effort. The high peaks of Leppekampen and Megrundskampen in the west; Ruten, 1517 metres in the north east; and the southern Graho, 1446 metres, are all within reach. To the north west, the higher mountains of the Jotunheimen beckon. Not for nothing is Espedalen called the gateway to the home of the giants.
A Network of Ski Tracks and Trails
When snow is on the ground, (especially between November and early April) the only way to get around is on skis, making use of the areas’ extensive network of ski tracks and trails. But once the snow has melted away these become a delightful and comprehensive system of footpaths.
But this week being the end of March, there is still plenty of snow. Above the dark of the forest, I pass through a band of birch trees. The sky and the views open up before me. To the northeast, there are spectacular views into Rondane, the site of Norway’s first national park.
Soon the melting snow reveals more and more of the moss on which the reindeer and elk survive. I slalom my way around these patches of variegated colour, which contrast so starkly with the crystalline white snow.
Meeting the Mayor
Later, in the warmth of the hotel bar, I meet Aksel Eng, the mayor of Sør-Fron. According to Mr Eng, up to 25 per cent of the local people are engaged in tourism. From Gala, visitors can even participate in elk safaris, says Mr Eng. But it was not always so.
As late as 1953 there was no road beyond Strand at the southern end of the Espedalsvanet, and travellers relied on boats to take them further up the valley. But how things have changed. The hotel at Dalseter at the northern end of Breidsjoen is now one of the largest in the area.
An Isolated and Harsher Existence
However, for many centuries, the inhabitants of Espedalen lived a more isolated and a harsher existence. And on the tiny island of Gravholmen (grave island) beyond a narrow spit of land running across the lake, there are unmistakable signs.
Here over a little wooden bridge, are buried many of those who mined for nickel in the valley during the late 1800s. Many are young. The graveyard, which is attached to the little wooden church of Espedalen Fjellkirke, completed in 1974, is still in use today.
Ancient History of Mining
But the history of mining in Espedalen predates even the 19th century. In 1666, Ulrik Frederik Gyldenlove, illegitimate child of the king of Denmark discovered copper in the valley. The remnants of one of these mines, Vesle Gruva, (the little mine) can still be seen near Vassenden at the extreme Southwest end of the Espedalsvatnet.
Elk and Reindeer
Evidence of elk ditches is still visible. Follow the river Agna along the old hunter’s path to the west of the hotel, and at sign number 7 you can still see several. Altogether there are around 100 ditches in the forest.
Even today, elk and reindeer continue to use their traditional routes through the valley. Visit in the spring and autumn, and you may see them passing through.
A Ceremonial Dinner Honoring the Lutefisk
But of course, here in Espedalen, elk and reindeer are not the only respecters of tradition. If you are lucky enough, as I was, you may be invited to a ceremonial dinner in honour of that great Norwegian delicacy, the lutefisk.
The fish is soaked in lye, simmered and served with boiled potatoes, peas, mustard, pepper, and butter, or alternatively with béchamel sauce. Don’t turn down the opportunity. Everyone dresses up in their finery, and speeches and poems are read out in its honour. Then the fish is hungrily devoured.
Other culinary favourites according to Mr Eng, include raw fish with onions, as well as mutton and lamb. Then to drink, there’s Hjemmebrygget øl (usually non-alcoholic) and Akevitt, a sort of Norwegian schnapps, served ice cold.
Back at the hotel’s reception, Mr Bjerknesli tells me proudly of the 4kg fish he once caught. And on the dinner table that evening is one of his catches from the lake. It’s a fine 1 kg ørret (trout). Delicious.
Maybe it’s time to stock up by doing a little fishing. Outside on the lake, Mr Bjerknelsi’s favourite spot awaits his arrival.