Story and photos by Bo Zaunders
Map courtesy of Roxie Munro
NORWAY IN A NUTSHELL
A Brief Odyssey
As a travel writer, I have to say that one of the most effective marketing ideas I’ve encountered in a long time is “Norway in a Nutshell.” The suggestion that, in just a couple of days, one should be able to experience the full flavor of an entire country – much less a country with as much variety and natural beauty as Norway – may strike one as somewhat preposterous. This is pretty much the promise of “Norway in a Nutshell,” and, amazingly, the promise is kept.
The format is simple. You set out from either Oslo or Bergen, the two major cities in Norway that most visitors are likely to go to in the first place, and that happen to be connected by one of Europe’s most scenic railways. Then, depending on which direction you’re traveling, you get off the train in Myrdal or Voss, some 50 miles east of Bergen, for a foray into some of Norway’s most breathtaking fjord country. Appropriately, this venture is all “green,” a roundtrip by public transportation – train, boat and bus - with no need for rental cars.
When Roxie, my wife, and I made the trip last summer, we boarded the train in Bergen, heading east toward Oslo, and alighted after a little over an hour in the small town of Voss. Minutes later, we found ourselves in a bus, heading for Gudvangen. What a ride! As we approached Gudvangen and the Naeroyfjord Valley, the landscape turned absolutely stunning: towering mountains, with waterfalls cascading down from heights of what must have been nearly 500 feet. The bus, meanwhile, began a breathtaking descent down Stalheimskleiva, a narrow mile-long stretch of road, famous for its 13 sharp hairpin turns. It was a thrill. My only regret was that the driver didn’t stop for photo ops at each and every bend.
Of course, Norway is the home of the Vikings, and were we ever reminded of it on our arrival in Gudvangen! First there was our room at the Gudvangen Fjordtell, which, in addition to a skylight for stargazing, featured a bed with a bearskin and wooden dragonheads, and walls covered with such Viking paraphernalia as shields and axes. Then, as we went outside, we glimpsed across a footbridge what appeared to be a Viking settlement. A closer look revealed an extraordinary attempt to recreate history.
So this was how people dressed and carried on over a thousand years ago!
Rows of tents, and tent-like wooden structures with tar-covered walls, lined the site; iron kettles hung over smoldering campfires. Some men practiced swordsmanship or archery, others drank mead out of drinking horns, a young boy experimented with a quill pen, and small children were given rides in a diminutive wooden cart. Some people played flutes, one women weaved, others plucked harps. In one of the tents a sage-like woman read fortunes in runes, and many of the participants just sat around the fires, nibbling on Viking vittles. I was reminded of Lejre, an Iron Age village in Denmark I once visited, and to which families came for their vacation, simulating the lifestyle of an era in an even more distant past.
As luck would have it, I met with the man behind this project, George Olaf Reydarsson Hansen, better known as “George, the Viking King.” Like everyone else, he was in Viking attire. His garb, however, was extra colorful and his beard was particularly voluptuous. Enthusiastically - before he was pulled away for an interview by a representative of a Norwegian TV station - he told me of his plans for the future. Gudvangen, of course, was uniquely situated, perfect for his purposes. But now he wanted to create a town, houses built with authentic recreated tools and materials based on archeological evidence, and encircled by earth banks and wooden palisades, so that nowhere would you see modern infrastructure, just mountains and the fjord. Only then, according to George, could the dream of traveling back in time and living in the 10th century could come true.
On my return to the hotel, I passed by the harbor. There were several tour boats, but also what looked like a pretty authentic Viking ship. A light supper, and we would be ready for bed (bearskin and all), and tomorrow morning we would board a cruise boat for a trip up the Naerøyfjord.
About 10 miles long, the Naerøyfjord is an arm of the Sognefjord, Norway’s longest and deepest fjord. It is one of the narrowest in Europe – in some places only 800 feet wide – surrounded by towering mountains, reaching heights of over 5,000 feet. There were few signs of human habitation, and here and there we saw waterfalls. It doesn’t get much more picturesque than this. No wonder the National Geographic Society rated this fjord the world’s number one natural heritage site along with the Geirangerfjord.
A sharp turn to the right, and we found ourselves in Aurlandfjord, another branch of the Sognefjord. Our destination: Flåm, and there was still an hour to go. Small farms began dotting the mountainsides, and I recall passing a cheese-producing village named Undredal, famous for having more goats than people.
For a community of 200 inhabitants, Flåm proved excessively crowded, due primarily to the recent arrival early in the day of a Carnival cruise ship, from which poured hundreds if not thousands of passengers. Lining the Flåmsbrygga, next to the harbor, were cafes, restaurants, a hotel, and a microbrewery named after Aegir, one of the giants in Norse mythology. After sampling one of their ales as well as local crabs, we were ready for yet another sightseeing tour: a bus excursion to Stegastienen.
Stegasteinen is a newly constructed lookout that juts right out of the mountain from a little over 2,000 feet above the Aurlandfjord. In the bus, now back to hairpin turns, I had the benefit of sitting next to the driver, a local man who spoke proudly and lovingly of the area, pointing out the house where he and his family had lived for the past 50 years. As expected, the view proved gorgeous - even as we zigzagged our way back down to Flåm.
What a commotion! The platform for the Flåm Railway train was jam-packed with waiting passengers. To bring order to chaos, a couple of tourist guides, or railway employees, divided the milling, jostling crowd into two groups: those with and those without suitcases. Though befuddling to an outsider, the arrangement seemed to have a calming, positive effect on the multitude. Finally, a green-painted, old-fashioned train pulled into the station, and, miraculously, considering the small number of cars, there was room for everyone.
The Flåm Railway is hailed as one of Norway’s major and most spectacular tourist attractions. Running from Flåm to Myrdal, with a direct connection to the Bergen Railway, it is one of the world’s steepest railway lines. Covering a distance of only 12.5 miles, it spirals in and out of 20 tunnels, 18 of which were built by hand. Built over a period of 20 years, it was started in 1940 and is considered the most daring and skilled engineering feat in Norwegian railway history.
Twisting rivers and deep ravines flashed by, waterfalls cascaded down steep snow-covered mountainsides, and little farms clung precariously to sheer slopes. Intermittently we rumbled through dark tunnels, only to emerge to even more spectacular scenery. As we closed in on Myrdal there was a brief stop at the Kjosfossen waterfall. If there was ever a photo op, this was it. And everyone had a camera, snapping pictures of family and friends against a backdrop of 740 feet of plummeting water.
Myrdal; once again we found ourselves onboard the Bergen-Oslo train. Departure was at 5:53pm, with arrival in the Norwegian capital at 10:32pm.
A few years ago, this route was voted one of the best railway experiences in the world, and we were about to see why. As we progressed, comfortable seated next to a window, the terrain outside began to shift, turning wilder and wilder.
We had entered Harvangervidda, the largest mountain plateau in northern Europe, sometimes referred to as “the roof of Norway.” Rolling fields gave way to wide stretches of rocky surfaces, strewn with pools and small rivers, reminiscent of the treeless landscape of Iceland and of the Scottish Highlands.
Nearing Finse, the highest station at an altitude of 4,000 feet, the scene became increasingly surreal, taking on the quality of a moonscape. Later we learned that this very spot had been used for the filming of “The Empire Strikes Back.” That was nearly 30 years ago, and I understand that lots of people are expected to come back for the anniversary.
This being Scandinavia in July, it was not yet dark when we stepped off the train in Oslo. Our brief odyssey was over. All in all, it had been most satisfying, the confirmation of a very cool idea – Norway in a Nutshell.
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