Viking Cruises and the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch – currently the subject of a major summer exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery in London – are shipmates of sorts. The Norwegian-owned cruise line owns the digital rights to Munch’s entire oeuvre, displays the largest private collection of his artworks outside Oslo on its ocean vessels – and on the seven-night Viking Shores & Fjords cruise I took from Amsterdam to Bergen offers guests privileged access to the new Munch Museum in the Norwegian capital.
The opening of this stunning new harbour-front building, with its 1,100 paintings and 7,000 drawings by the great man, was one of the major events in European culture in 2021. Visiting it (see “The magic of Munch”, below) was the outstanding experience of the cruise for me, but depressive Expressionist painters (besides The Scream, his paintings include Melancholy and Despair) do not float everyone’s boat.
One English couple I spoke to on the Viking Jupiter (passengers were largely British or American, the latter outnumbering the former) said Munch “did not even feature on their radar”. Pat and John Booth, from Leicestershire, said they relished being in a part of the world they had never visited before but it was the whole Viking experience they had signed up for, this being their fifth cruise with the company since last August.
“We’ve been held up for two years with the pandemic and we just wanted to crack on and get travelling again,” said Pat when we talked over a drink in the Explorer’s Lounge on the final evening. Pat and John are typical in being repeat guests. The Viking brand, typified by sleek Scandi design with lots of pale wood and light-filled spaces, inspires a loyalty that is based on familiarity, the ocean ships being more or less identical.
The lack of formality (no “blingy” dressing up, though “smart casual” is expected in the fine-dining restaurants) is a big selling point, as are the exceptional food and service. “And wherever you go on the ship, it never seems full,” said Pat.
In fact Jupiter was three-quarters full on this cruise. Viking’s ocean ships carry a maximum of 930 guests, with a private balcony for every cabin, making them small enough to dock close to the action on shore visits.
After our morning arrival in the oil town of Stavanger, I opened my curtains to a view of the roofs of the white clapboard houses in the Old Town and five minutes later was wandering its cobbled streets.
Our first port of call had been the Danish fishing port of Skagen, balanced on the sandy snout of the Jutland peninsula with the Baltic over one shoulder and the North Sea over the other. It may sound lazily stereotypical to describe Skagen as a Legoland – but besides being Danish, its uniformly yellow houses with red roofs really did look toy-like.
All that sea and sky make for a light of hallucinatory brightness, a quality that attracted a cluster of Scandinavian painters to Skagen in the late 19th century. Their legacy is Skagens Museum, its walls hung with canvases that capture the blue light of lingering dusks, while the delightful bohemian jumbles of the artists’ former homes are now museums in their own right.
I walked them all in a morning of obliging sunshine and in the afternoon took a leisurely bike excursion from pretty streets out to gentle dunes. “Do people have to paint their houses yellow?” I asked our local guide, Rita.
“No, but we love it,” she replied. “It’s like living in a fairy tale.” Fairy tales, of course, can be dark as well as light. Was it unduly miserablist of me to picture, behind at least some of Skagen’s immaculate front doors, figures clutching their heads and silently screaming?
Next up was Oslo, where I strolled across the walkable roof of the opera house, as floaty as the adjacent Munch Museum is brooding, as a prelude to the museum tour. Norway’s capital does not exactly buzz, especially on a Sunday, but has a seductively civilised vibe with laid-back Osloites zipping around silently on electric scooters and lounging in the communal harbourside saunas.
This Nordic nirvana of highly evolved urban living shaded into dullness at our next port of call, Kristiansand, a smart resort near the southern tip of Norway. Our guide for the scheduled tour looked a bit sheepish as she informed us variously that “This is the second largest fountain in Norway”, “The crime rate is very, very low” and “The cathedral received a new organ in 2012.”
Guests I spoke to agreed they would have traded Kristiansand for an extra day’s sailing and the chance to settle into Jupiter’s various comfy corners. It was on our only full day at sea that Tom Macan, a retired British diplomat, gave an entertaining lecture on the Vikings and their all-consuming business of “raiding, trading and settling” to a packed Star Theatre. It was a puzzle that there was no lecture on Munch, though I’m assured there will be on future sailings (and he at least featured in the daily “Munch Moments” in the atrium, when a string duo played Grieg as images of Munch’s works were projected on to a large screen).
Routine, they say, is vital to the tight running of a ship – which is why, at 6.30 on the dot every evening, I found myself in the Explorer’s Lounge with a French chardonnay to hand, watching the sky turn tangerine and the ocean darken to indigo as the resident guitarist gently burbled on about me having a friend… which brings us to dinner (yes, please do).
Besides the default venue of the World Café with its infinitely graze-able buffet, my favourite of the three fine-dining choices was the Italian Manfredi’s (the others were Chef’s Table, with its five-course tasting menu paired with wines, and the more formal option, the Restaurant). On the final evening, the specials at Manfredi’s happened to include a couple of dishes that would make it on to my Death Row shortlist: lobster ravioli and seafood platter.
That morning Jupiter had docked at the head of Aurlandsfjord, in the heart of sublime mountain scenery, where I opted for a kayak excursion that took our group of 20 three miles up neighbouring Naeroyfjord and three miles back, the return against a strong headwind.
When I sat down to dinner, my shoulders were aching and my appetite was off the scale. What followed was a feast fit for a Viking, accompanied not by mead but by a lively Sicilian white.
The seven-night Viking Shores & Fjords cruise (0800 319 6660; viking.com) costs from £3,290pp for sailings in May 2023 including flights from selected UK airports, all on-board meals (with wine and beer) in alternative restaurants, five guided shore excursions, access to the Nordic spa, evening entertainments (think Abba and Beatles tributes), lectures, Wi-Fi and gratuities
For the latest Covid-19 requirements see viking.com/health-and-safety