While the city of Bergen is a significant draw with its rich history, beautiful architecture and delicious seafood the real reason people head to the region is the fjords. The western coast of Norway is an incredible mix of breathtaking valleys, lush forests, awe inspiring waterfalls and astounding fjords which have rightly earned their reputation as some of the most spectacular countryside in the world.
From Bergen the most popular destination is the Flam Railway which is an old narrow track railway which cuts its way through a series of tunnels and winds through a stunning valley while inching past awe inspiring waterfalls before connecting with a ferry and the Aurlandsfjorde. From there travelers have the option of a long cruise through the fjords back to Bergen or a shorter but far more impressive ferry ride to the Nærøyfjord (UNESCO World Heritage Site) where they transfer to a bus. The bus ride offers an incredibly scenic view of the fjord, which strongly resembles the world famous views of Yosemite, before connecting with a train back to Bergen.
If you research the Flam railway and surrounding fjords you will inevitably be directed back to one of the Norway in a Nutshell tours. Though I was initially fairly resistant to the tour, I eventually realized that it’s almost impossible to avoid utilizing it and that it’s less “tour” and more “ticket package”. There are no guides or set time lines. Rather, it gives you a ticket bundle and suggested route which unifies the mixture of trains, ferries and buses necessary to properly explore the region. While somewhat pricey, the ticket is truly worth it. For those of you traveling with a Eurail pass, keep in mind that the Flam Railway is a private rail line and thus not covered. Your pass does, however, provide a significant discount on your Norway in a Nutshell ticket – so make sure to use it!
My introduction to the northern fjords began on a slightly intimidating note. The sky was overcast and threatened periodic mists and light rain showers. I opened the door, looked out and shrugged. My window of opportunity was limited and cloudy weather in the morning is common place in coastal regions. There was nothing to be done about it.
The day before I’d befriended one of my hostel mates – Anna – a Russian-Israeli-American who was traveling along a similar route. We met up, looked over our maps of Bergen and then set off. After a bit of playful teasing and a wrong turn or two we eventually found the central train station. Before long we’d picked up our Nutshell tickets, a scone for the road, and boarded our train. The directions informed us that we’d catch the train for some 2-2.5 hours to the rail transfer station at Myrdal. A tiny city which is more waystation than anything and summons visions of the Lord of the Rings.
From Myrdal we transferred to the Flåmsbana Railway. A privately owned railway which is world renowned for its scenery and steep incline. Though relatively short at 20km the single track line took a long time to build. Started in 1923 it wasn’t opened until 1947. The line has 11 stations and offers a series of incredible views. One of the most significant stops is a 5 minute break at the Kjosfoss waterfall where ethereal music plays over the roar of the falls and a lone dancer can be seen among the mists overlooking the falls. The railway drops some 664 meters or 2,178 feet from the Myrdal transfer station down to the city of Flam.
The trip down to Flåm was gorgeous. As we dodged in and out of small tunnels we were greeted with views of a variety of stunning waterfalls, amazing valleys, and picturesque rivers with crystal clear emerald green water winding through small hamlets and lush green fields.
The city of Flam is a small way-station, largely designed to service tourists and the support staff that live in the nearby valley. Home to the rail/port station, a small market, several cafes, a traditional pub and mini-theater the 45 minutes we had was about perfect to explore, pick up a snack for the ferry, grab a coffee and hide out from the light rain. As our 45 minutes in Flam came to an end, the weather decided to cooperate. The rain stopped and the clouds began to break all the while letting a ray or two of brilliant sunlight illuminate the fjord’s brilliant green water.
Surrounded by incredible mountains, each sporting a waterfall and with most vanishing up into the mists we shoved off and left Flam port in our wake. Anna and I quickly found a fairly empty area of the ferry on the lower deck near the ship’s stern. The ship sheltered us from the chill northern air while offering a picturesque view of the fjord and ship’s wake.
As you wind through the fjords you can’t help but feel small. The scale and scope of them is incredible. Massive, rugged and wild they seem to be locked in a perpetual war with the sky – a battle so fierce, so intense that it exists outside our plane of understanding. The only indicator: the heavy mists which serve as a purgatory caught between earth, water and air. As the two battle in a churning, twisting, boiling mess one cannot help but feel like the waterfalls streaming down the cliffs are silver trails of blood seeping from wounded Titans locked in conflict.
As we wound through the fjord we paused briefly at a number of small villages. From what I could gather these mostly service local power stations and infrastructure, much of which utilizes hydro electric power.
The first half of our ferry ride wound through the massive Aurlandsfjorden which threats its way gradually towards the sea. For an insight into the sheer size of the fjord, note the small cruise ship in the middle of the photo above.
Though Anna and I spent the majority of our time watching the awe inspiring natural scenery drift by, we also made sure to pause and enjoy some of the more entertaining moments occurring around us. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that there are few groups as odd and peculiarly entertaining as tourists. A huge cultural mish-mash we’re always good for a quick laugh, funny photo, or interesting pose.
As the afternoon continued, the sun slowly began to break the cloud’s hold over us. Before long a group of friendly seagulls set out from one of the local towns and decided to keep us company. Their aerial acrobatics, set against the fjord, small village, and snow capped peaks was a delight to watch.
Despite the time of year – it was early July – many of the mountain peaks still had a thin layer of snow. Though we were thousands of feet below, the crisp air served as a perpetual reminder that we were in a part of the world which almost never truly experiences summer.
As we neared the 2/3rds mark, we split off from the main fjord and began to trace our way into the UNESCO World Heritage Nærøyfjord. As the walls narrowed I could not help but notice how much more spectacular the fjord’s size, rich greens, and beautiful grays looked in closer quarters.
I’ve always been a sucker for water. Rivers, waterfalls, even the ocean. They hold a special place in my heart. I suppose it comes as no surprise then, that waterfalls captivate me. It is also probably why I find myself drawn to places with majestic falls. Scotland with its highland falls forever sits as one of my favorite places on earth. Similarly the falls of the Plitvice Lakes in Croatia stand out as one of my favorite places in Central Europe. After winding my way through the fjords, I’m thrilled to add Norway to that list. I can only hope I have the opportunity in the near future to seek out new Norwegian fjords, valleys and canyons each home to their own plethora of falls – both mighty and miniature.
The fjords offer an interesting contrast. On the one hand they look and feel wild and rugged. On the other it is obvious that centuries of human habitation have shaped them.
Small farms, fields and even churches can be found sandwiched between the water and the cliffs along small sloping deltas. Many of which look to have been carved out initially by waterfalls, and later silted in as the water transported newly harvested gravel down towards the water’s edge.
In other places the falls seem to emerge from the cliffs, fall majestically for hundreds of feet, and then return once more into the cliffs only to re-emerge once again hundreds of feet below.
Eventually we reached the harbor at the end of the Nærøyfjord. There we were greeted by a parking lot and lodge with food, restrooms and gifts. As Anna and I checked our itinerary we were greeted by two options. A nearly immediate bus, or an hour and a half gap until the next bus. The decision was simple.
As we pulled into the harbor, we’d spotted two small red dots (people) at the base of one of the nearby waterfalls. Eager to get close to one of the falls, we opted for the later bus and set out back down the fjord.
Before long we’d identified a tiny path that looked largely abandoned. As we strolled along it towards the falls, I spotted wild strawberries a little ways off the path. Always one to try wild berries in foreign countries, we quickly paused, picked one and tried it. They were absolutely delicious. Hungry from our ferry ride, we relaxed for a few minutes and dined on wild strawberries, enjoying their crisp fresh flavor and relishing the sheer majesty of the setting.
With red stained palms we continued along our way and eventually reached the waterfall. It was stunning. The roar of the water rumbled below our feet, the humid scent of fresh water beat into a mist filled our nostrils and a gentle breeze blew down the fjord.
I’ve mentioned the size and scope of the fjords repeatedly. But note the image above. If you look closely, you’ll see me standing at the foot of the falls. The experience was humbling and made that much more powerful by the lack of any improvements. The falls were wild, natural and completely exposed.
As we sat enjoying the falls, the light broke through just long enough to catch the falling sheets of water. The dark color of the rocks, combined with the rich greens of the moss and fern covered cliff face only added to the beauty of the falls.
Eventually, the wind blew a light drizzle our way. Heads ducked under our hoods we made our way back along the path towards the visitors center and our waiting bus. I couldn’t let out a sigh, thinking the adventure was largely over. Little did I know, two more wonders still waited.
We boarded our bus, stripped off our drenched outer layers and settled in for the ride back to the train station. Only, to our surprise we passed the main tunnel (one of the longest in the world) and began to wind up the valley. The sound of the bus in low gear, groaning as it climbed and climbed piqued my interest as I lazily sat gazing out the bus window, enjoying being warm for the first time in hours. Then we turned a corner and I saw it. A spectacular view back down the valley from thousands of feet above the valley floor. It was mesmerizing.
…and then after the briefest of pauses and a brief level stretch the front of the bus tipped forward. The bus jumped slightly as the driver changed gears, and then we began to wind downward. Only, it wasn’t a slow gradual descent. Instead it was one of the famous zig-zag switchbacks Norway is famous for. With an insanely steep grade, we wound down the switchbacks with baited breath.
Barely more than two bus lengths a leg, the switchbacks left us all with an adrenaline rush. Some stood and looked out over the side, others made small whimpering noises and lowered their eyes in an effort to avoid the apparent insanity of it all. Then, in that heightened state we paused briefly in the middle of one of the middle switchbacks. There, to our left was one of the most spectacular waterfalls I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t the largest, or the most powerful – but framed as it was by lush green vegetation and viewed as it was from a bus window in the midst of one of the most harrowing switchbacks I’ve ever experienced, it was absolutely astounding.
It was with that final image in my mind that our trip through the fjords wound to a close. We made our way through one of the worlds longest tunnels, transferred back onto the train to Bergen, and eventually made it back to Bergen in time for a late dinner as the sun moved towards twilight.
If you ever have the opportunity to do it, the Norway in a Nutshell fjord tour is an absolute must. It truly is the experience of a lifetime.