Fjord Ahead in Norway
The beauty of a Norwegian fjord beneath a bright blue sky on a crisp sunny day is almost unreal. Waterfalls cascade hundreds of feet down the steep sides of mountains created when glaciers carved out the valleys thousands of years ago. But in order to have my breath taken away by these natural wonders, I also had to take two planes, a few boats, several buses, and many, many trains. We did a tour called the Geiranger & Norway in a Nutshell, booked through Fjord Tours. The tour is an expedient and relatively affordable way to see much of Norway in a limited amount of time, but it does require a bit of stamina and a willingness to schlep your luggage around the country. The tour included:
- Train – Oslo-Dombås
- The Raumabanen Railway – Dombås-Åndalsnes
- Bus – Åndalsnes-Ålesund
- Fjord cruise on the Geirangerfjord on board the Hurtigruten
- Hurtigruten from Ålesund to Bergen (inside cabin & breakfast is incl.)
- Train – Bergen-Voss
- Bus – Voss-Gudvangen
- Fjord cruise – Gudvangen-Flåm
- The Flåm Railway – Flåm-Myrdal
- Train – Myrdal-Oslo
(I booked our hotels separately, because I really love looking for hotels, but if you don’t want to deal with that, I think you can book them with the tour.)
We flew directly into the capital city of Oslo, and took the comfortable Flytoget Airport Express train straight to a station near our first hotel, the Hotel Bristol Oslo. If you don’t stay near one of the Flytoget’s station stops, Oslo has multiple forms of convenient public transportation, including buses, trolleys, and their subway, called the T-Bane. Like the rest of Norway, Oslo is pricey, but it’s also clean, safe, and friendly. We spent a couple of nights in Oslo to see the capital and shake off the jetlag before setting off to see the rest of the country.
Oslo is the capital and the most populous city in Norway, which makes for a nice transition into the country. The first day, after dropping our bags at our hotel, we took a walk to explore. The weather was beautiful and we struck out down Karl Johans gate, the main street in Oslo.
Since I had booked our complete tour in advance, we just needed to retrieve a booklet of tickets and passes covering our entire trip from the NSB (Norwegian State Railways) office in Oslo S, the Oslo Central Station.
We continued walking, passing by the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet. Something was going on; I think a children’s choir was singing or something. Tons of people were hanging around watching.
We then continued to walk toward Aker Brygge, a waterfront shopping and dining area. It was a nice area to walk around and enjoy the beauty of the day. I particularly liked this little sculpture out in the water, called “Utferdstrang” (Wanderlust) by Marit Wiklund:
I’m pretty sure that the first day in Oslo we grabbed a calzone from the Deli di Luca on the way back to our hotel, then went to sleep early to get ourselves back on a normal sleep pattern. The next day, we took the Bygdøyfergene, the ferry to the Bygdøy peninsula, to go to the Vikingskipshuset (Viking Ship Museum) and the Norsk Folkemuseum (Folk Museum). The ferry departs from a dock near City Hall every half hour or so.
The Folk Museum has a large Open-Air section including over 150 relocated historic buildings. My favorite exhibit was the Stave Church built around 1200 in Gol:
The Viking Ship Museum has, well, Viking Ships. And they are BIG. They’re actually really cool. This one is called The Oseberg Ship, thought to be built between 815 -820 A.D.
We ferried back for the evening in Oslo. I honestly didn’t note where we ate that night, but we did have drinks at a great dicey bar near our hotel, Per På Hjørnet, and then we went next door and listened to some good music at Herr Nilsen. I think if you go to Oslo, you just have to keep in mind that it is an expensive city. Hotels can be expensive. Food can be expensive. Cover charges can be expensive. Drinks WILL be expensive. If you know that, plan for it and roll with it, you’ll be happier.
We had to be up the following day for an 8 AM train to Dombas from the Oslo S. Station.
The train had some mechanical issues, and we had to transfer to a bus for a short time then transfer back to the train for the remainder of the trip. Of course, this left us quite late and like many tourists, we were concerned that our connections would be missed. The conductor seemed amused by our concern, and assured us there was nothing to worry about. They apparently run these trips like clockwork, so any slight difficulties are known and handled with ease. I admit, I was impressed. I can’t take Amtrak from New York to DC without incident, and these people manage to get many, many tourists through multiple connections a day with a surprising lack of chaos.
We transferred next to the Rauma Railway, which operates between Dombas, which is approximately 2,167 feet above sea level, and Andalsnes, which lies at the foot of the Romsdal Alps about 13 feet above sea level.
The train was excellent, with large windows to enjoy the stunning views and vending machines for a snack. We met a jovial British couple and a Taiwanese family that we would repeatedly share rides with throughout the week.
Next, a transfer to a bus to Alesund in the rain. The rain lasted almost exactly as long as it took us to walk from the train to the bus then promptly stopped the moment we were seated. The bus ride was fairly standard, a little over two hours, and I would recommend this as the leg for a quick nap if needed. I would also recommend packing or purchasing some snacks, because we were starving by this point in the day. We thought that the bus was to stop at a terminal in Alesund, but our driver basically let us off on the side of the road, and we weren’t exactly sure where. He did point in the general direction of our hotel, the Radisson Blu, and we were able to find it without incident because it was right on the water and next to the Hurtigruten dock.
We took a walk around town, taking in the beautiful waterfront and architecture. Most of the town was destroyed in a fire in 1904, and rebuilt between 1904 and 1907 in the Art Nouveau style. (There’s a center called Jugendstilsenteret with exhibits on the fire and Art Nouveau that we didn’t visit due to timing, but given more time in the town I would have checked it out.) Before heading back to our hotel for dinner and a good night’s sleep, we strolled through the downtown area, laughed at an extremely rowdy group of celebrating football fans, and saw this sculpture of some feet:
We were up early to get the Hurtigruten ferry into the Geiranger Fjord, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage List along with the Nærøyfjord which we would see later in our trip. We stowed our luggage in a locker and found seats on deck, ending up next to the British couple we had met on the Rauma Railway. We were thankfully dressed appropriately, because it was quite cold and windy at the beginning of the trip. It began to rain right away, and we sought shelter under an overhang. Eventually, the rain passed and although still chilly, we had brilliant sunny skies above and greenish blue water below, with steep mountains and waterfalls on either side.
The views were magnificent. In fact, I have rarely found an opportunity as appropriate to use the word stunning. The ride was smooth and pleasant, with both indoor and outdoor seating and a cafe with unusually tasty hot chocolate. It was a day well spent.
The ferry dropped us back in Alesund at around 6pm, and we went back to the Radisson to stow our bags and use the wifi for a few minutes. The staff were gracious and welcoming, and seemed quite used to people leaving on the midnight Hurtigruten, which makes sense considering the hotel’s location. We needed to eat something, and tried to stop at the XL Diner, right on the waterfront, which looked nice but wasn’t open for dinner for some reason. We walked around a bit and since we just wanted something quick and easy, we decided to try a chain pizza/pasta place called Peppe’s. I’ll just say it was what you would expect, and it was adequate for nourishment. After dinner we walked around Alesund a bit more. We were there in May, and due to the time of year and the geographic placement of Alesund, the sun rose at about 4 AM and didn’t begin to set until about 11 PM. We had been in St. Petersburg for White Nights a few years back, and this was similar.
We stopped off at Dirty Nelly Pub for a pint of Hansa (Norwegian pilsner, prevalent in Norway but not that great IMHO) before collecting our bags and boarding a different Hurtigruten coastal express boat around 12:30am. It was beginning to get dark as we boarded, so our long evening in Alesund had been enjoyable. We had a cabin where I promptly went to bed and slept soundly. A morning announcement stated that everyone was to vacate their cabins at 10:00 AM, but I can attest that the time was not strictly enforced, because no one had told us of the timing, and I wasn’t leaving that cabin without taking a shower. The boat was quite comfortable, with lounge areas, a café and a restaurant along with decks for outdoor viewing. The lunch buffet was not particularly good, but we were hungry and didn’t see another option so we ate it. It’s also interesting to note that the waitresses at the buffet were the least friendly servers we encountered in all of Norway. (As a side note, having worked in restaurants and bars in the past, I have a high tolerance for busy or inexperienced servers, and a low tolerance for rudeness.) After lunch, we relaxed in one of the lounge areas until we arrived into the Hurtigruten dock at Bergen at about 2:30pm.
I had printed a map of Bergen so that we could get to our hotel, but unfortunately my map was from the wrong ferry terminal. I can’t explain why, and I wish I still had the map to try to help others in the future because it seemed very straightforward on the Hurtigruten website, but then somehow we weren’t let off where I thought we should have been. We did get quite lost, allowing us the unexpected and unwanted opportunity to see much of the city on foot while hauling our luggage (AKA the worst part of the entire trip, hands down). When we eventually arrived at the hotel, my mood immediately changed. We found the Augustin Hotel very welcoming, even offering free coffee and waffles for the weary travelers! We walked around Bergen a bit more, exploring the Bryggen area, stopping for drinks at Sjøboden Pub, then later food and more drinks at Dampen, wishing we had more time to enjoy this lovely city. I read that one of Bergen’s “Sister Cities” is Seattle, which made perfect sense to me because it felt similar, with the culture of a city but the atmosphere of a smaller town. Despite a little rain, Bergen was cozy, casual, and friendly – exactly what I wanted. We had chosen to spend only one night in Bergen so that we could also spend a night in the small village of Flam (and don’t get me wrong, Flam absolutely should not be missed), but I still wish we had scheduled one extra day in Bergen. I’ll go back one day.
The next morning, we had to be up early yet again. The hotel had told us that a taxi to the train station would only take minutes, but it was late so they offered us a free shuttle service. The driver was funny, laughing and asking us about politics in the US. We caught the local train to Voss, which was uneventful except for a woman bringing a group of children on the bus and insisting that everyone had to move from the car because they had reserved it for their group. Mind you, there is no reserved seating on local trains in Norway. As we were changing cars, I overheard her (in English) telling her co-worker that she “made” everyone move, and they had a big laugh. I hate people who lie to get their way, so I wished I had stayed in my seat, but I didn’t particularly want to be seated next to this rude woman or her group, even to make a point.
At Voss, we caught my favorite bus ride of the trip. It was a steep and winding route down into a valley to Gudvangen.
The driver was animated and stopped often for photos along the way. Gudvangen was beautiful and we had about a half hour before our next connection to the boat to Flam. The dock area offered a nice view of a waterfall and the Nærøyfjord that we would be sailing down.
The weather could not have been better, and the two-hour boat ride to Flåm was definitely a highlight of the tour.
The sun kept us warm on deck and it was the most relaxing leg of the journey. The boat went up the UNESCO World Heritage listed Nærøyfjord and then turned into Aurlandsfjord. Both are branches of Norway’s largest (and the world’s second longest) fjord, Sognefjord, These offered more incredible views, enhanced by the glistening of the sun off the water. I was utterly enchanted.
At about 1:30pm, we arrived in Flåm, a small village best known as the terminus of the Flåm Railway.
Some of my favorite memories of Norway are of being in and around Flåm. Flåm was just so PRETTY – nature at its finest, most saturated (no photoshop required). We stayed at the Flåmsbrygga Hotell. While in Flåm, we took a Fjord Safari rib boat excursion with an excellent local guide, who explained the region in more detail, stopped at the village of Undredal for a tasting of jams, juices and local cheeses (highlight: their traditionally-made brown goat cheese), and brought us up close and personal with wildlife and waterfalls.
As our guide took us to explore the Nærøyfjord further, he told us to “get ready for the real “Lord of the Rings” stuff” and he was not kidding.
We originally wanted to go kayaking, but unfortunately we visited in May and the kayaking tours don’t begin until June. We ate at the hotel’s dinner buffet that night, which was OK but not great, and tried their brew pub, which had a nice fire pit. We took a quick day hike (~3 km/1.8 mi) the next morning to the old Flåm church, built in 1667, which gave us an opportunity to see the area on foot.
Our next part of the journey was a ride on the Flåm Railway.
The Flåm Railway is considered one of Norway’s major tourist attractions and regarded as a triumph of Norwegian engineering. It is one of the world’s steepest adhesion railways (as opposed to a funicular or cog railway). The trip is just over an hour, beginning at sea level in Flam and ending in Myrdal, which has an elevation of over 2800 feet. Along the way, there are multiple tunnels, twists and turns to gain altitude. The train stops to allow passengers to admire and photograph the amazing Kjosfossen waterfall, which has a free fall of 305 feet. When we stopped, there was also music playing and a woman appeared to be dancing in the waterfall. That was a bit odd. The small red dot on the upper right of my photo is the dancing lady. I looked it up and apparently she’s supposed to be a “Huldra”, or “seductive forest creature found in Scandinavian folklore”. Still odd.
All I saw of Myrdal was the train station, but from what I could tell, there are activities such as hiking, snow shoeing and ice fishing, if you’re into that sort of thing. We just changed trains and took the Bergen line back to Oslo. This leg of the trip was particularly interesting in the beginning because of the ice and snow covered areas we passed, which were different from anything else we had seen.
Eventually, the terrain became more familiar (the standard gorgeous scenery we had grown accustomed to), and many on our train settled in for a nap. We were on the home stretch of our transportation-filled journey, and I considered it well worth every transfer to see the sights I’d seen. We arrived back in Oslo, looking forward to the entire next day without trains, planes or automobiles. We stayed in a different hotel in Oslo, the Clarion Collection Hotel Folketeateret which had recently opened at that time. We settled in that night and looked forward to one more full day in Oslo.
On our last day, we started by visiting Oslo domkirke (Oslo Cathedral), which was built in 1697, and which had just reopened after a four-year period of renovation from 2006 – 2010. It’s fairly small, but has a beautiful ceiling mural and organ.
From the cathedral it was an easy walk over to the Akershus Fortress & Castle, our next destination. We passed through a lovely park on the way, called Grev Wedels plass.
Akershus Fortress & Castle is considered something of a national symbol, primarily because of the important historical events that have taken place there. Construction began in approximately the late 1290s, from what I have read. Although we just walked through, if you are not as tired as we were on our last day in Norway, you would probably learn much more about the history of the fortress by taking the available guided tour. We took photos and looked everything up online after the fact.
After seeing the castle, we took some time by the waterfront to relax and enjoy Oslo. Soon enough we would be back onto the Flytoget to the airport, to catch our flight back to the States.
As I read back over this, it may sound as if ALL we did was trek from one mode of transportation to another, but that in no way reflects my memories of Norway. If you aren’t physically able to move yourself and your baggage from train to bus to boat easily, perhaps the “Norway in a Nutshell” (and its variations) are not for you. But if you can travel light, and if you believe that happiness really is found in both the journey and the destination, a trip around Norway is unforgettable. Do I remember lifting my carry-on into overheads and giving up legroom to my backpack a dozen times? Yes. Does it compare to my memories of the majesty of nature that exists in Norway? Not at all.