Shafts of sunshine cut through the gloom under the dock, turning the jellyfish neon green. It’s just a trick of the light but it feels as though these translucent beings are illuminating the way for us as we paddle between the concrete pillars.
I’m out with Phil, a half-English Dutchman who’s been living here on the Norwegian fjords for the past few months, guiding visitors around Ålesund by kayak. It’s a town that lends itself to being viewed from the water, positioned as it is across two islands, Nørvøya and Aspøy, which together form a claw-shaped peninsula.
There’s been a port here since 1838, and though fishing remains the main industry, Ålesund styles itself as the ‘Adventure Capital of the Fjords’, thanks to its proximity to great hiking, climbing and kayaking. And you can have an adventure without even leaving town, which is ideal if, like me, you’ve arrived on a cruise and only have a few hours to spare.
Our paddle started on a small channel, which we followed towards the dock and then out onto the fjord. “You can see some of the art nouveau architecture here,” Phil says, gesturing to Apotekergata, one of the town’s most beautiful streets, whose grand buildings back on to the water. Ålesund is, perhaps surprisingly, awash with art nouveau edifices; brightly coloured and draped in gargoyles and floral stonework, topped with spires and turrets. Even the multistorey car park on Brunholmgata – obviously a later addition – is in keeping, painted yellow and teal, with curved windows.
Once we emerge from under the dock, Phil suggests we stop for a few minutes so I can take in the townscape. He explains that Ålesund’s current beauty is actually all down to a terrible fire that tore through it in 1904, destroying practically the whole town overnight. “Only one person died,” Phil tells me, “but 10,000 people lost their homes.”
As a result, the whole place was rebuilt in brick and stone, with the help of Norwegian architects who’d studied abroad in countries such as Germany, where art nouveau (or Jugendstil as it’s known there and in Norway) was very much in vogue. The Jugendstilsenteret (Art Nouveau Centre), within a listed former pharmacy, is one of Ålesund’s main tourist attractions, with a display of textiles, posters and other art nouveau artefacts, as well as beautifully preserved interiors.
Phil leads me over to Nedre Strandgate 39, a quaint but unremarkable waterfront building on the site of the old Ålesund Preserving Co factory. This is where the fire started, supposedly, when a cow kicked over a lantern.
We cut across the water, towards the far end of Aspøy. It’s been quite calm so far, but with a few bigger boats milling around, we find ourselves caught in their wake, so we sit in our kayaks to ride out the turbulence for a few minutes before carrying on.
We paddle past old storehouses and waterfront homes, following the coastline to a short pier flanked by beach huts. “This is where they have a huge bonfire for the midsummer festival,” says Phil. People gather on the water in their boats to drink and celebrate the season, and in 2016 the bonfire broke the record for the world’s tallest. I can’t say booze and fire sounds like a winning combination, but as long as there are no cows nearby, I’m sure it’s safe.