Norway: the land of Vikings, fjords, brown cheese (more on that later) and surely the world's fittest people. To live in Stockholm for a semester and not visit the country often touted as the world's most beautiful would have been a grossly negligible oversight on my part. So with a five day interval between my solitary first "cycle" exam and the commencement of second cycle, I ventured west to Norway for a brief visit. I opted to take the standard tourist itinerary, officially referred to as "Norway in a Nutshell", to sample the country's renowned scenery. The Nutshell trip is basically a loop from Oslo to Bergen by train, then Bergen to Oslo by bus, fjord cruise, the historic Flam Railway and the standard inter-city train again. Australian Anne, who has now achieved the coveted honour as a "recurring character" of Globo Trip, joined me for the Bergen to Oslo leg to see Norway in... half a Nutshell?
My trip to Norway commenced with a twelve hour journey by train from Stockholm to Bergen on the west coast. Almost immediately after crossing the Swedish-Norwegian border, the scenery changed markedly. The pleasant Swedish countryside of rolling hills and meadows transitioned to the dramatic mountains that characterise Norwegian landscapes. When I arrived in Oslo, I was required to change to a connecting service after a ninety minute wait. I used this time to explore the area surrounding the train station and visit the Oslo Opera House. Scandinavian capitals seem to have a thing for constructing post-modernist opera houses prominently situated beside their waterfronts, no doubt in (failed) efforts to match the Sydney Opera House. I quickly became rather satisfied that I had only allocated the final afternoon of my trip to Norway in the capital, as I thought the city was entirely underwhelming.
The train from Oslo to Bergen was undoubtedly the most spectacular rail journey I have ever taken. For the first three hours we travelled past fjords, rivers, lakes, mountains, valleys, quaint villages of red-and-white wooden buildings and vast forests of autumnal leaves. Even at this early stage of my trip, I recognised that the superlatives used habitually to describe the natural composition of Norway are entirely justified. The train travelled through tunnels regularly, which resulted in dramatic changes to the vistas afforded. On one such occasion, the train entered a tunnel from a forested, green landscape and exited into a white winter wonderland. The train traversed one of Europe’s highest plateaus for two hours, providing sublime views that I would never expect to enjoy from the comfort of a train. I was incredibly lucky that the plateau was blanketed in snow, because the first showers for the season came just three days prior. Additionally, the sun broke through the bleak greyness of the Norwegian sky to illuminate the snow coverage. The train passed frozen lakes, mountain peaks and tiny hamlets occupying the most isolated and inhospitable of locations. When the train stopped at the highest station on the Bergen Line, I was able to observe the rail tracks just poking above thick layers of snow; the ballast and sleepers were completely submerged. As darkness descended, I was left to ponder what marvellous views I was missing out on. The train eventually arrived in Bergen by the early evening.
Bergen occupies a peninsula on the west coast of Norway beside the North Sea. Countless islands dot the water surrounding Bergen’s peninsula. The urban area is fragmented into numerous clusters located on fjords and bays and separated by the mountainous terrain. The centre of Bergen is surrounded by the “Seven Mountains” (debated rages about which mountains specifically constitute the Seven), which are covered in thick forests. Bergen is also notoriously Europe’s rainiest city. Fortunately, the weather was sunny on my first morning in Bergen, allowing me to enjoy extraordinary panoramic views from the famed lookout, Mt. Fløyen.
I was surprised to find numerous Norwegians jogging further upwards from Mt. Fløyen into a national park. Intrigued, I quickly glanced at a map and decided to follow a trail for an hour or so and see where it would take me. After thirty minutes of hiking through thick pine forest, I reached a mountain with a sheer rock face. I decided to follow the Norwegians ascending the mountain, expecting that I would enjoy magnificent views at its summit. Indeed, the views were tremendous, but I was not properly at a summit. The Norwegians and the trail continued down a valley and then up to a much higher ridge, which is obscured from view in central Bergen. Although I had already hiked for an hour and lacked food, curiosity compelled me to press forth. Unfortunately my thoroughly worn-out (though still not replaced) runners were grossly insufficient for the muddy conditions, as both of my feet were routinely saturated. The landscape changed considerably at this altitude, with yellowish-green scrub punctuated by granite boulders and small, placid black lakes (impressively at over 500 metres in altitude). The scenery reminded me vividly of Cradle Mountain in Tasmania. Eventually, I reached the ridge and enjoyed remarkable 360 degrees views. However, I noticed cairns located intermittently along the ridge with Norwegians following them, so I was bound to continue hiking. Unfortunately I hadn’t noticed a map since the beginning, so I didn’t know where I was actually hiking to. I fielded this question to a trio of Norwegian ladies, but was horrified to discover that they didn’t speak English (any extreme rarity in Sweden). I vaguely suspected that the trail was perhaps a loop and would eventually descend back to the city, but I wasn’t convinced it was a one-day hike. I was also unaware how long I had been hiking for (since this was an entirely spontaneous escapade), though estimated four to five hours. So by 1:20pm, I determined that I had no choice but to turn back since it would be dark by 4:30pm. I charged down then up then down the trail back to Mt. Floyen and was deflated when I studied the map. I realised that I had completed at last 80% of a loop back to Bergen when I decided to turn back! I was also just hundreds of metres away from the highest point in the Bergen area at 643 metres (though I must have been quite high, since the peak was not patently obvious).
Since night had already befallen Bergen by the time I returned to the centre, I decided to "relax" (which usually corresponds to writing this damn blog) at the hostel and await Anne's midnight arrival. Mindful that we only had 8.5 hours of sunlight available to explore Bergen, we awoke relatively early in the morning while other guests confusingly slept in. We first visited the nearby fortress and were amused by a young soldier who was struggling to carry three poles, poor guy. We passed two medieval churches that are some of the only medieval structures surviving in the city despite its one thousand year history due to fires. We ambled through the historic German neighbourhood of Bryggen, which is the most attractive area of the city. Bergen’s strategic location as a key interchange between Northern Norway and Central Europe attracted the lucrative trade of the Hanseatic League. The League established their northernmost outpost in the city (Bryggen) and its beautiful wooden merchant houses survive by the waterfront. Between the houses are narrow, planked alleys and overlapping balconies, which give Bryggen the appearance of a pirate’s lair. For lunch, we ventured to the touristic fish market and were bitten nastily by Norwegian prices - $30 for fish and chips. Our evening meal at a bustling local tavern was considerably better value. We had fish and macaroni cake with butter sauce, boiled potatoes and a pile of grated carrot; rustic but quite delicious.
The next day, we commenced our journey back to Oslo by train, bus and ferry. The train to Voss was rather scenic, hugging the side of a fjord and travelling through mountainous landscape. The bus journey was somewhat more impressive as the mountains became considerably more dramatic. However, the highlight of the day was the ferry from Gudvangen to Flåm on the World Heritage-listed Nærøyfjord. The fjord is bordered by mountains with slopes that rise almost sheer from the water to heights of 1,300 metres above sea level. The slopes are draped in forest, with a sprinkling of extremely isolated farmhouses and grazing areas that cling precariously. Numerous waterfalls tumble down the slopes into the still waters of the fjord, which reaches a depth of 500 metres. Seals, porpoises and even whales are found in the fjord, though Anne and I were the only people on the ferry who failed to spot any marine mammals. We were too busy sampling brown cheese, which a friendly American couple offered us to sample. The cheese is made from a mixture of milk, cream and why that is boiled until the water evaporates. The milk sugar is caramelised by the heat, which gives the cheese its distinctive brown colour and decadent flavour.
While most other tourists on-board the ferry immediately transferred to a train bound for Oslo, we opted to stagger the long journey over two days and stay in the village of Flåm. Flåm is situated by Nærøyfjord and is surrounded by incredibly steep mountains. The village was formerly accessible only by boat, until the Flåm Railway was completed in 1941. Flåm has consequently become a key touristic interchange between Norway’s most famous fjord and the Oslo – Bergen Line. Since we travelled to Norway in low-season, we feared our hostel would be completely empty and the quietness in Flåm did not conjure much hope. As we approached our hostel located on a farm, scepticism about whether it was actually open grew. We pleasantly discovered that a dozen other tourists were staying at the hostel, which was composed of several large wooden houses. We shared a house with a Dutch guy, who was eager to watch the Rugby World Cup Final and was therefore very enthusiastic to be with two Aussies. He obviously had no awareness of the Barassi Line, as we proceeded to show far more interest in our dinner (an uneventful meal of spaghetti, tomato sauce and smoked salmon for those interested). Later in the evening, we watched the epic Norwegian mockumentary Troll Hunter; perfect for a cold, dark night in an isolated pocket of Norway!
The next morning, we caught the Flåm Railway to Myrdal, a junction on the Oslo – Bergen Line. Described by the local tourist board as “the most beautiful train journey in the world”, the Flåm Railway is internationally famous for the breathtaking views it provides while ascending 863 metres in just twenty kilometres. The Flåm Railway was an audacious feet of engineering when it was constructed and remains one of the steepest railways in the world. The train itself is decked out in old-world charm, with wooden panels and red material seats. The conductor for our journey was probably the happiest person I have ever encountered, laughing spontaneously at any sentence uttered his way. After approximately 45 minutes of stupefying views, the train arrived at Myrdal located on the plateau that the Oslo – Bergen Line traverses. We soon connected with a train to Oslo and enjoyed the scenery I had witnessed four days earlier. Remarkably, most of the snow had melted away in that short period in between, completely exposing the tracks and much of the landscape. We arrived in Oslo after five hours on the train.
In the fading light of our last Norwegian afternoon (for now), we quickly explored central Oslo. Unfortunately the relative newness of Oslo and Norway’s history as a subjugated country (to Denmark until the Napoleonic Wars; Sweden thereafter until independence in 1905) has condemned the city to a rather uninspiring appearance. Oslo lacks the monumental institutions and beautiful architecture prevalent in other European capitals. The city is instead composed of mundane nineteenth century neoclassical and twentieth century modernist edifices. The central area of Oslo is also notably sterile and lifeless for a capital, probably because of its relatively small population (650,000) and heinously expensive prices. The most appealing attribute of Oslo is the natural setting: the city borders an eponymous fjord and is surrounded by mountains, providing convenient access to hiking and skiing possibilities for locals. We witnessed a brilliant Scandinavian sunset over the Oslofjord and promenade from the city’s medieval fortress.
While I thoroughly enjoyed the Norway in a Nutshell itinerary, I certainly departed the country before I had a proper appreciation for what Norway has to offer. Of course, five days was never going to be enough time to explore this obscenely beautiful country. Although Norway is culturally very similar to Sweden, I was surprised by how totally different the country’s geography and landscapes are.
That's all for now,