The sun had been steadily creeping up a blue dome of sky behind us since we left Oslo on the dawn train. It was still early September, but during a midday stop at the Finse Station...
FINSE, Norway The sun had been steadily creeping up a blue dome of sky behind us since we left Oslo on the dawn train.
It was still early September, but during a midday stop at the Finse Station, we noticed a dirty-bottomed cloud trying to claw its way over the glacier-studded rock mountain that hovers over the village. A wind funnel swirled about the train tracks, and the sun set its floating ice crystals a-glitter.
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Here at the mountainous top of Norway, snow in September would not be a complete surprise.
The steward assigned to our car noticed us frowning at the cloud.
“It should be fine in Bergen,” Lorentz Morten Christiansen-Olsen said with a smile. “We always say the weather in Haugastol, the station before this one, mirrors the weather in Bergen. It was sunny back there, so that cloud is nothing to worry about.”
The journey between Oslo, the nation’s capital on Norway’s southeastern edge, and Bergen, on its often rain-drenched southwestern coast, would take 30 minutes by air. But tourists and locals with a bit of time are encouraged to take the more leisurely rail excursion called Norway in a Nutshell.
That isn’t just a cute name for a tour. It fits.
As travelers switch from train to boat to bus an ever-changing outdoor panorama duplicates scenes from other parts of Norway.
The Nutshell can be done from either end. We began in Oslo, where museums offer a good preview of the trip and Norway as a whole.
The open-air Norwegian Folk Museum, for instance, has a medieval wooden stave church. We saw others from the train.
The Viking Ship Museum has great funerary ships, tombs for Viking nobility. As we cruised a fjord on the Nutshell tour, we saw huge rock piles on shore that archaeologists say was a more common way for Vikings to bury their dead.
The Polarship Fram Museum features artifacts from polar expeditions whose leaders trained at Finse in the early 1900s. And a stone monument to those polar heroes was right outside our train window at Finse Station.
We began seeing scenes that mirror other parts of Norway as soon as the train left the Oslo station.
The cityscape melted into a landscape of birch forests, picture-book farms and lace-curtain villages typical of Norway’s interior. A few miles later, the vista changed to alpine meadows and serene lakes like those in less populated areas to the north.
At Finse, the highest railway station in Norway, the view segues into treeless tundra and icy blue glaciers like those in the mountainous reaches above the Arctic Circle.
And just beyond Finse, travelers get their first glimpse of the deeply gorged fjords that fracture the coastline all the way to Nordkapp, a windswept plateau that is Europe’s northernmost point.
In summer, 300 to 400 people a day take the train, mostly Germans, Americans and Asians on holiday.
Plenty of room
We nearly had the train to ourselves. The only other passengers were locals a couple of women hikers and a sullen boy with dirty fingernails who slept through the scenery and left the train at Finse. From Finse, we descended into Myrdal, an isolated railway junction where we left the Oslo-Bergen line to join other travelers on a connecting train for a 12-mile dip into Flam, a hamlet on the banks of Aurlandsfjord.
The Flam Railway cars, with mahogany paneling and plush red seats, have changed little since the train was put into service in 1940. It travels some of Norway’s most dramatic country, easing 2,845 feet down a forested mountain before putting on the brakes with an ear-splitting squeal in fjord-side Flam.
The track wraps itself around the mountain, ducking into 20 tunnels along the route. All but two of the tunnels were dug by hand. At its steepest point the train drops one foot for every 18 feet traveled
At Kjosfossen waterfall, one of dozens along the route, the train was stopped to let us take photos. There, the icy water free-falls about 300 feet into a glacier-blue pool beside the tracks before spilling on down the mountain.
From there, the Flam Valley slipped in and out of view. Emerald fields were dotted with what looked from the heights like miniature marshmallows or very clean sheep. They turned out to be round hay bales shrink-wrapped in white plastic.
A double-decker tour boat, the Fjord-Lord, met us on the banks of Aurlands-
fjord, which laps up against Flam. Aurlandsfjord is a narrow arm of Sognefjord, Norway’s longest and deepest fjord 127 miles long and 4,265 feet deep.
Focused on scenery
We weren’t 15 minutes from the dock before the dirty-bottomed cloud that had threatened us at Finse caught up with us. The sliver of open sky between the steep walls of the fjord darkened and a cold fog settled in. We decided to try to forget the weather and concentrate on the scenery.
Anyone who’s cruised Alaska’s Inside Passage may be a little disappointed in Norway’s southern fjords. They’re spectacular, but they’re not as wildly remote as Alaska’s.
Ah, but the history we passed along the way.
The mountains plunge straight into the fjord, with only a narrow strip of green flatland here and there. People have scratched a living from those tiny patches of green for thousands of years.
The Viking graves we floated past date to 1000, about the time Leif Eriksson was putting his dinghy ashore in North America. The oldest church in Scandinavia was built in 1147 in Undredal, a fjord-side settlement of about 35 people who make a living these days raising goats.
We sailed past Aurland, the region’s administrative center. Forty percent of Oslo’s electricity comes from hydroelectric projects hidden in the nearby rocky mountains.
The tour boat turned into Naeroy-
fjord, a baby arm of Sognefjord only 500 feet wide at its narrowest and 22 feet deep. A bus met the Fjord-Lord dockside at Gudvangen. The driver soon made good on a promise of more thrills by taking us on a terrifying ride back up the mountain. The bus seemed to teeter on a knife-edge of roadway sickeningly high above Gudvangen. Every now and then the driver stopped to jockey the bus into position around a hairpin turn. At the end of every hairpin, we passengers sighed an “Oh, my” of relief in unison.
The bus driver doesn’t have to scare tourists to death, we learned later. If the road is snowy, he can take a tunnel route through the mountain.
It was twilight and spitting rain in Voss where we were just in time to catch the afternoon Oslo-Bergen train for our final Nutshell stretch.
Bergen has a reputation for more than just lousy weather. It also has charm. Its historic wharf is guarded by a soldierly row of narrow wooden houses, home and office to members of the Hanseatic League, a medieval association of German merchants who, for centuries, controlled trade all over Europe. In Bergen they swapped staples like grain and salt from Europe for dried cod, cod liver oil and animal hides from Norway’s far north.
An open-air market that still sells fish by the boatload and a museum that occupies one of the restored row houses give travelers an idea of the role fishing plays in Norway’s daily life.
By the time we pulled into the station at Bergen, it was raining hard.
“What’s going on?” we groused to our landlady at the B&B. “The train steward said Bergen’s weather is always like Haugastol’s and it was really sunny there.”
“They don’t tell you on the train,” she said, wagging a finger. “It’s always raining in Bergen.”
(Sally Macdonald is former reporter and feature writer for The Seattle Times. John Macdonald is the retired Seattle Times travel editor.)