National endeavor to showcase 18 cultural byways pays off in tourism.
I was driving up a remote road in central Norway. To be more accurate, it was actually more like I was playing an advanced-level video game. Eleven switchbacks were cut into the sheer mountainside, and my little white rental car shuddered up the narrow passes.
Once part of the trade route that crisscrossed the country, this passageway, called Trollstigen, or the troll’s path, remains a spectacular example of the power of engineering in a remote region that is basically impassable from early November to May, when the snow falls.
Even while I tried to focus purely on the sharp bends ahead of me late last fall, the beauty of my surroundings was still breathtaking: trees with brilliant gold, russet-red and pumpkin-orange leaves; dramatic sculptural mountain peaks stretching up into a lonely, foreboding sky; a silvery waterfall that cascades from the top of one of the adjacent cliffs; and a dramatic sunset that deepens and changes hues every second, with puffy clouds reflecting the last pink and fire-red rays.
I had come to Norway to escape an unraveling marriage and seek distraction from the accompanying pain. But, ostensibly, my plan was a solitary road trip to see the Norwegian Scenic Routes after hearing about the unusual undertaking from a friend in New York who is passionate about architecture, especially in Nordic countries. In recent decades, Norway has become a hot bed for young and midcareer architects, and it’s no wonder, given Norway’s incredible support of architecture and architects in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.
A hit with visitors
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“The Norwegian Scenic Routes have been a game-changer for the tourism industry in Norway and the Fjord Norway region,” said Kristian B. Jorgensen, chief executive of Fjord Norway, the official tourism board of the fjords. He added that the new iconic attractions have inspired travelers from all over the world “to visit our country, stay longer and come back again to experience more.”
After the project was greenlighted in the late 1990s, and following a nationwide competition (both in terms of the roads chosen and the new structures proposed), Norway had envisioned the endeavor as a 30-plus-year undertaking to transform 18 of Norway’s highways into cultural destinations.
Each stop would have a new pavilion, observation deck, bridge, restaurant, hotel or other structure, conceived by young emerging architects, and predominantly Norwegian ones, alongside installations by artists of note (like French-American artist Louise Bourgeois’ evocative memorial for women and men burned as witches in the 1600s). So far 144 projects have been built, with 46 more on the horizon (completion is expected in 2023).
The goal is also to develop the tourist economy and traffic in the more remote, and geographically diverse, areas of Norway. It seemed implausible to me that something so vast and inventive had not received more international attention, and I wanted to see if what was promised on paper was actually being realized.
Parking my car at the viewing point of Trollstigen toward the top of the peak allowed me to take in the scenery even more fully. The spot, described as a rest stop, seems more an architectural wonder than a viewing-station-meets-parking area. A suspended pathway crosses a tranquil pool that seems almost Zen Buddhist in inspiration, and, from there, a staircase cuts through the steep mountainside to a rust-colored steel viewing platform.
The area hangs over the valley and road that I had just maneuvered, an installation all its own, and a new destination that seemed only to amplify the aesthetic pleasure of one of Norway’s most famous mountain ranges, the Romsdal Alps, and one of its most photographed roads.
In fact, the combination here — of new architecture to augment already spectacular natural surroundings, alongside a beloved country roadway — is only one example of the many such projects I had the pleasure of discovering.
The wind-whipped seaside landscape where I started this journey could not have looked more different from this primordial mountain range. Close to Kristiansund airport in Kvernberget on the west coast, near the Norwegian Sea, I had driven toward the Atlantic where a trippy highway, known as the Atlanterhavsvegen (Atlantic Road), an amazing engineering feat, twisted and turned over the islands, more like the tracks of a roller coaster looping high over bridges between the small islands that sit close to the mainland, only to descend again to hug the coastline alongside the brooding, steel-gray, furious waves of the ocean.
Here a duo of young architects from Oslo (Ghilardi & Hellsten Architects) had also constructed their installation, called Eldhusøya, a project that includes an elevated walkway that leads around one of the picturesque islands, a route that provides a 360-degree view of the adjacent bridge, the seascape and neighboring islets to organically bring them into one frame of vision.
“Richard Serra was one of our inspirations,” architect Franco Ghilardi said. “Nature, landscape design, architecture become very site specific. And we concentrated on local materials like the stainless steel they use on Norwegian oil rigs because we knew they would wear well over time even in extreme weather.”
Because the walkway is both elevated and prefabricated, the impact on the natural setting is minimal, one of the other missions of all the installations.
“We were actually encouraged to be more daring and courageous when we submitted our design,” Ghilardi said. “Usually the client tries to cut the budget and tone down the scope of our projects so this was quite a radical thing for us.”
Hotel was movie set
Above Trollstigen, another project conceived along these routes is the Juvet Landscape Hotel, designed by architects Jensen & Skodvin, and the creepy, if incredibly appropriate aesthetically, setting for the 2015 film “Ex Machina.”
From the exterior, the compound, in a nature reserve called Reinheimen, looks almost like a hippie campsite with its low-slung, wood-encased cabins on stilts. But as I was shown into my room, the rustic vision was completely turned on its head — the natural wood or in some instances stone that covers the rear of the structures hides glass walls and raw cement cubes facing front — with views onto the gentle valley, and onto the surrounding peaks and meandering river that cut through the landscape behind.
The perspective created the effect that I was both inside and outside the hotel, part of the natural surroundings, both the voyeur and the inhabitant.
After a dip in the outdoor hot tub, I joined other travelers and guests around a candlelit communal dining room, an intimate warm environment where locally hunted venison was served alongside foraged mountain vegetables that were like strange fairy-tale versions of carrots and beets with curly tendrils and odd shapes. A roaring fire and candles were our only light.
Around the dinner table, we traded stories about what brought us up the mountain and where we came from. The Chinese-American college student recounted his adventures while taking a gap year. The Norwegian honeymooners were in need of a wilderness break from Oslo, the capital. The glossy-magazine-reading hikers from Britain wanted a sleek hotel after rugged trails. I shared my journey in broad strokes, the U.S. expatriate in Tuscany, Italy, my road trip and my love of nature, leaving out the impending change in my marriage and my sense of loss.
When I look back now, my Norwegian road trip seems like one of the most surreal and meaningful of any I have ever taken, even after many years of absorbing trips. The memory turns in my head like a film trailer, so cinematic and surprising that I still almost can’t believe it was real. The pristine beauty, the sense of drama. Perhaps it was the network of beautiful art and architecture that made me feel daring and courageous by journey’s end. And for that, I am grateful.
If you go
Many of Norway’s Scenic Routes stay open year-round, but the ideal period to hit many is from April to October. I went in late fall when foliage was at its peak and the roads were uncrowded, but when weather can be inclement.
For the Atlantic and Trollstigen routes I drove, I flew an hour from Oslo to Kristiansund airport and rented a car from there.
Reserve well in advance for a night at the Juvet Landscape Hotel, close to the Trollstigen installation and an architectural showcase in its own right. Double rooms from about $316 U.S.; juvet.com.
Get details on all 18 Scenic Routes at nasjonaleturistveger.no/en