Most travelers to Norway spend only a few days in the country but want to experience as much of its natural beauty (and in particular the fjords outside the cities) as possible. To facilitate their travel, the Norwegian Tourist Board developed the concept of “Norway in a Nutshell,” a series of planned itineraries for visitors to follow independently, using public transportation, including trains, boats, and buses. The first and most popular of these is the Flåm Railway (Flåmbana).
Our journey starts early one morning at the Oslo train station where, coffee and skillingsbolle (cinnamon rolls) in hand, we board the train to Bergen, for the five-hour ride to Myrdal to connect to the Flåmbana.
The Oslo to Bergen line is considered to be one of the most spectacular train rides in northern Europe. The rail line initially was meant to link Stockholm with Bergen; however, when Norway won its independence from Sweden in 1905, the line (completed in 1909) was modified to connect the new country’s two major cities – Oslo and Bergen.
Thousands of workers chipped and chiseled, blasted and burrowed through the mountains, many using only hand tools and explosives, cutting through the rock to create 200 tunnels, 18 miles of snow sheds and over 300 bridges. Over 63 workers lost their lives during the years it took to complete the railroad.
Today, trains travel 300 miles over the spine-like mountains between the two cities, climbing through forests and lakes to a height of 4, 266 feet at Finse, the highest station on the line, far above the trees.
Here, racks and racks of bicycles line the edges of the platform, waiting for riders who will undertake the hair-raising, death-defying ride down from the mountains.
As you approach Myrdal, located in Norway’s largest national park (Hardangervidda), the scenery becomes more dramatic. Giant boulders line the green hillsides, while impossibly blue and green lakes add a dash of color. Apart from three or four houses, the Art Deco train station is the only structure in sight, dwarfed by the peaks rising all around it.
As we disembark from the train, we are directed to cross the platform to wait for the small train on a spur line that will ferry passengers down the valley to the fjord-side town of Flåm. Luggage is piled at the end of the platform, ready to be loaded into the baggage compartment.
The connection is usually seamless, with only a few minutes wait for the arrival of the Oslo train and the departure of the Flåmbana. There is a bit of a rush to get on and secure a coveted seat on the left side, believed to be slightly more scenic than the right. Important to note for photographers: Except for the windows at either end of the cars, none of the others can be opened.
With the shrill of the train whistle, the Flåmsbana train starts its vertiginous, hour-long descent from 2,800 feet to sea level. It is one of the steepest railway lines in the world, with five separate braking systems to ensure a safe descent over the 5 percent gradient.
Television monitors in each car provide a continuous narrative of the journey in several different languages.
The track follows the Flåmsdalen Valley, stretching 12 miles from Myrdal to Flåm. It passes through 20 tunnels, many of which have been hand-hewn out of the rock. You half expect to see a cudgel-brandishing mountain troll jump out of the darkness.
Instead, perhaps a Hygdda will appear near the Kjosfossen waterfall, where the train stops for five minutes to allow for photographs.
According to legend, the Hygdda is a troll disguised as a beautiful woman who will try to entice men to join her. She mimics the sound of the wind and falling water, making humans lose track of time and see visions of treasure. In reality, the Hygdda is a dancer from the Norwegian ballet school, dressed as the seductive siren who cavorts on the hillside to an eerie tune blasted through loudspeakers on the platform.
The 305-foot high Kjosfossen waterfall is on the right side of the tracks and is one of the most visited places in Norway. The spray from the falls can be intense so if you are planning to disembark to photograph, take a rain cover for your camera (and yourself).
As the journey continues down the seemingly bottomless valley, a magnificent panorama unfolds outside the windows of the train. Waterfalls (including the almost 1,000-foot high Rjoandefossen) plunge down the steep mountainsides, while small farms cling tenaciously to the sides, amidst the lush vegetation.
As the train reaches the valley floor, it passes through the old village of Flåm (on the left) with its picturesque old wooden church, built in 1667, before arriving at the end of Aurlandsfjord and the Flåm train station.
FERRY TO GUDVANGEN
Pick up your luggage from the platform and cross over to the pier to continue the “Norway in a Nutshell” itinerary, boarding a ferry for the hour-long ride along the Aurlandsfjord and the Nærøyfjord to the tiny village of Gudvangen.
Find a spot on deck to photograph the postcard-perfect scenery of the fjord and its shores. The Aurlandsfjord is one of the many arms of the Sognefjord, Norway’s best-known, largest and deepest fjord. It is more than 3,300 ft. deep in the center of the fjord. The cliffs surrounding it are almost sheer as they rise over 3,000 ft. into the azure sky.
The Nærøyfjord (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is one of the world’s narrowest, with towering cliffs, waterfalls, idyllic wooden villages, and even wildlife. Seals often sun themselves on the rocks. Occasionally, porpoises frolic around the boat.
GUDVANGEN TO VOSS
In Gudvangen a bus is waiting to take “Norway in a Nutshell” passengers 25-miles to Voss where it connects with a train to Bergen or Oslo depending on where you want to end your trip.
The first stop is the Stalheim Hotel, dating to 1885, built on the remains of an inn that stood here since 1700 when it was a postal relay station.
Leaving the hotel, the bus corkscrews its way down the half-mile long Stalheimskleiva, one of Norway’s steepest roads. Thirteen sharp hairpin bends, flanked by two dramatic cascading waterfalls and a sweeping view of the Nærødalen valley below, produce gasps from the passengers.
At the bottom, the bus rejoins the highway to Voss, following a surging river that eventually leads to the Twindenfossen Waterfall leaping down the cliff. Unfortunately, the bus does not stop for photographs.
VOSS TO BERGEN
The bus drops you at the depot next to the Voss Train station where you catch your connection to Bergen (or Oslo). Some connections are immediate while others can take an hour or so.
Voss is a big center for outdoor adventure, but there is little to do otherwise. At the bottom of the hill overlooking the lake behind the railroad station is Fleisher’s, a refined 19th-century hotel. It is a wonderful place to have a drink or a meal if you have to wait a long time for your train.
On its way to Bergen, the train passes a few scenic lakes, following the Veafjord until it reaches Bergen’s huge glass domed railway station.
If you opt to do Norway in a Nutshell in one day, it will take between ten and twelve hours to complete the trip, but it provides you with a glimpse of Norway’s many natural attractions. Of course, there is always the option of staying in Flåm for a few days, but that is another story.
IF YOU GO
For additional photographs see Allegria Photos.