Voss, Norway, has nothing to do with those fancy bottles. But its pristine lake and other wonders make it destination-worthy
Once again, there I was in Voss, Norway, staring point-blank at a sheep’s unblinking eye, pondering the nature of animal existence and the prospects of a delectable ceremonial dinner in the Hardanger region of the western part of the country. Of course, the sheep was already at a disadvantage, as half its head was on my plate, boiled to a state of tasty tenderness.
Welcome to the regional tradition of the “smalahove,” a sheep’s head dinner in which intrepid eaters dine on the animal’s cheeks, eyeballs and everything else but the brain, and hope to find the prized “brekebein” — the wishbone-like structure that accounts for a sheep’s “baa” sound. Liquid courage comes in the form of the potent Scandinavian liquor known as Aquavit, with hints of caraway and anise in the woozy swirl.
This being my 10th time at a smalahove dinner in Voss, while there to cover the Vossa Jazz Festival, it was my duty to try to convince wary newcomers about the nobility of this practice, informing people about the “moral imperative” of respecting animal life by eating all parts of an animal if one insists on being a carnivore. And I insist. Still, many Voss visitors have passed on the opportunity, especially when it came to eyeball consumption. Then again, for those of us Santa Barbarans who have enjoyed ojo tacos at Lilly’s, what’s the big deal?
But we digress. The smalahove experience somehow also touches on aspects of Norway’s particular background as a nation, people and place. Norway, which saw a massive migration to America (and especially the Midwest) in the 19th century, was largely rural and poor until oil drilling technology in the 1960s gave access to arctic oil reserves and made the country one of the world’s most affluent nations. As a reformed remnant of its legacy, the sheep’s head dinner was once a way for resident farmers to make full use of slaughtered animals.
Today, the smalahove is a more elegant, special occasion for all, and a lure/challenge to tourists. Similarly, the distinctive echoes of its rustic folklore and its exotic folk music tradition give Norway a special cultural flavor and source of pride, up there in its own northwest corner of the world.
Western Norway, in particular, is one of those tourist-thronged wonders of the world, most often flocked to by visitors in summer, seeking the rugged natural luster of life in and around the fjords. Partly because Voss is not officially on a fjord, it remains one of those still discoverable charming spots, a small town perched between an idyllic small lake and a steeply rising mountain that leads to a premium ski area. Outside of the snow season, the mountainous section is ripe for hiking and visiting the old-school Voss lifestyle of the hilltop Folkemuseum.
There are four generalities one should know about Voss (five, if you count the smalahove tradition, which tends to be an acquired taste): This is the site of a world-renowned extreme sports festival, “Ekstremsportveko”?(Extreme Sports Week), happening June 23-30 this year; it is the location of the prized, now 46-year-old Vossa Jazz Festival in the spring, just as winter is sauntering away; its most celebrated citizen, to Americans, is native Knute Rockne; and no, Voss, the drinking water known and loved in America does not hail from here, but from farther south. (The company’s latching on to the Voss mystique is akin to Abercrombie & Fitch’s shallow connection to the “idea” of Hollister, Calif.)
But Voss, the place, is a magical lakeside destination worth at least stopping in while in the fjordland. Architecturally, the downtown area is fairly unremarkable and of relatively modern vintage, as one of many western cities subjected to a vicious Nazi bombing campaign in 1940. Miraculously, the town’s historic 13th-century church, Vangen Kyrkje, was spared the blitz and stands like a tall, spired landmark. Can you say divine intervention? Taking in a church service or just basking in the space in its “off hours” (or during festival time, a concert) is a necessary and enriching part of the Voss ethos, on multiple levels.
Nearby is the 1023-vintage Olavkrossen, commemorating Saint/King Olav’s conversion of Norway to Christianity.
Zooming forward in time and cultural archaeology, jazz-wise, Vossa Jazz gains distinction from its intelligent program and being first in an annual season of several renowned Norwegian jazz festivals. This is a country with an uncommonly passionate and supportive love of jazz, and a strong harvest of uniquely Norwegian jazz artists.
Many of the best-known current Nordic jazz heroes were at the Voss festival in April, including trumpeter Mathias Eick, saxophonist Trygve Seim and versatile accordionist Frode Haltli, whose Avant Folk Ensemble had a commissioned piece premiered in concert here. From another Norwegian musical niche, the heavy metal jazz heroine guitarist Hedvig Mollestad was a star of the program, granted the high-profile commissioned work centerpiece spot. (Just after that annual commissioned premiere, the “Tingingsverk,” musicians, VIPs and stray dog journalists head over to an annual smalahove celebration dinner. Just saying).
From beyond the Norwegian jazz scene, festival highlights included the Malian legend Salif Keita as a festival-opener, on his final tour (and bowing tearfully before festival director Trude Storheim as she handed him a bouquet), and madcapping Finnish saxist Mikko Innanen’s kitschy, jazzy outfit called Gourmet.
Meanwhile, in Voss, the place, despite the scourge of the Nazi-rebooted city, there are some dazzling encounters with Norwegian history and present-day pleasures to be found. Stop for drinks, eats and a happy hang ambience at the cozily hip and central Tre Br?r (“Three Brothers”) cafÄ, or take a book (or grab a book, if your Norwegian is up to snuff) at the relatively new Voss public library, with tall, wonderfully distracting picture windows right on the lake.
For history trekking, walk up to the 1295-vintage “Finnesloftet” and take in the experience of being in one of the oldest nonreligious Medieval halls in Western Europe, a remnant of the notorious Viking era.
Better yet, venture up the steep residential streets to the lofty spread of the fascinating Voss Folkemuseum, one of many outdoor Scandinavian “museums” celebrating the architecture and lifestyle of bygone eras. With houses and workers’ quarters, cowsheds and buildings for sheep (no escaping those sheep and their ghosts) from the early 20th century all the way back to the 1500s, the grounds are a transformative place to visit and unplug modernity and screens — except for your camera phone, which you’ll want to put to good documentary use.
Hanging around this property, one can get a sense of deep antiquity, continuity and inescapable beauty. Snow-covered mountains, those lingering vestiges of winter, are visible in the distance, and the blue, blue city-centering lake far below makes Voss a dream your ancestors might have had, passing it forward to our conflicted age.
And did I mention the sheep’s head dinner, washed down with custom “smalahove” Aquavit?