A DIY tour of Norway’s fjords

The fjords of Norway: Sognefjord, Geirangerfjord, and more

Photo: C.H. / Visitnorway.com Sognefjord by Balestrand.

Photo: C.H. / Visitnorway.com
Sognefjord by Balestrand.

Donald V. Mehus
New York

The fjords of Norway stand high on lists of the great natural wonders of the world. Who has not dreamed of visiting the majestic Sognefjord, the country’s longest and mightiest? Or the spectacular Geirangerfjord with its magnificent view from Flydalsjuvet, with cruise ships ever plying its still waters?

The good news is that you can easily visit these magnificent places—and more—via public transportation at minimal cost. The route via train, boat, and bus is apparently little known in its entirety—certainly by visitors from abroad. Just following these tips and you’ll certainly have one of the most memorable experiences of a lifetime.

The tour begins by train in the morning from either Oslo (headed west) or Bergen (headed east) to the middle of Norway. As though you have not had a wealth of beautiful scenery at the very start, then the wonderfully scenic route winds by boat and bus up north through the center of the country to Sognefjord, then farther on to Geirangerfjord and Andalsnes and so by train back to Oslo.

You will have a great deal of flexibility as to how long you want to make the trip. With the suggested itinerary outlined below, you can stay as long as you want at various fjord and mountain locales along the route.

Hotels and Vandrerhjem
Hotels of various price ranges and hostels (“Vandrerhjem,” for not only young people but for those of all ages) at very modest cost line the route. Just be sure to make your lodging reservations in advance.

I have taken this particular fjord and mountain tour a number of times, and for the most part I did not need to make transportation reservations in advance. I just boarded train, boat, or bus with ticket in hand, and away we went. However, it’s always a good idea to check whether it is necessary to buy an advance ticket and to confirm departure and arrival times.

Connection times between the modes of travel are generally very good. When you step off a ferry, there is usually a bus waiting to take you to the next destination—along fjord or river, and up and over and around lofty mountains.

Morning Departure
This particular itinerary starts in the morning from either Oslo (around 7:00 a.m.) heading west to the center of Norway, or Bergen (c. 10 :00 a.m.) heading east. From either city you quickly enter wonderfully picturesque mountain and valley scenery. About noon, both trains arrive at the little town of Myrdal, high up in the mountains.

At Myrdal a waiting train, departing around 12:30 p.m., takes you on an hour ride via zig-zag tracks (it’s more like a funicular than a train) down steep mountainside and plunging waterfalls to the little town of Flam at the southern tip of Aurlandsfjord. You can stay in Flam awhile or just have lunch and take the afternoon ferry north through the fjord to the great Sognefjord. Here you turn west for an hour or so to reach the town of Balestrand (also known as Balholm).

Balestrand and the Grand Kvikne Hotel
At Balestrand you can disembark and stay the night or longer, as you wish. The town boasts the famous century-and-a-half-old Kvikne Hotel, a rambling wooden structure built in the grand old traditional style. The German Kaiser Wilhelm stayed there a century or so ago. You can stay at gracious Kvikne or, for the more budget-minded, at the nearby Vandrerjhem.

At the Kvikne you can revel in their phenomenal smorgasbord with all kinds of delectables, from hors d’ouvres to a range of main courses to all kinds of desserts and beverages. How they get such a vast and varied cornucopia of comestibles out there in the middle of the fjord, I’ll never know. Perhaps Viking raids up and down the coast.

The Fjord Ferry
After a refreshing sleep breathing in the pure fjord and mountain air, you can proceed further north on the morning ferry along Fjaerlandsfjord. As with all such fjord ferries, you can stroll on the open deck or sit inside in the cafe, refreshing yourself with coffee, pastry, and various Norse delicacies.

Out in the bracing Norwegian air, you can take in the ever fascinating scene of the steep-walled fjord, with some farms clinging improbably to the precipitous mountain sides. Sea gulls are always swooping around, eager for bits of food. Once I even saw a lad with an ice cream cone gazing around while a bold sea gull soared down and in mid-flight took a bite out of his ice cream!

Genial Stryn
Before noon you’ll arrive at Fjaerland, and luck permitting you can jump right on a bus waiting to take passengers further onward. Almost always a fjord or river accompanies the endlessly scenic roadway. Around 1:00 p.m. you’ll arrive at the town of Stryn, where we had time for a quick lunch before changing buses and then proceeding further north. I’ve been to Stryn several times, and there seems to be a special genial ambiance among the residents of that town.

As we proceeded northward that afternoon, I was again impressed by the wonderful variety as we rolled up and over and through mountains, sometimes way above the clouds. Seeing the fjords by a cruise ship is certainly very fine, but it can’t beat the variety of fjord and mountain, of town and farm, of forest and rocky slopes, of multi-colored buildings, of all that people and nature could provide. This is the real Norway!

Photo: C.H. / Visitnorway.com This is a view of Geirangerfjord that you certainly will not get aboard a cruise ship!

Photo: C.H. / Visitnorway.com
This is a view of Geirangerfjord that you certainly will not get aboard a cruise ship!

Around 5:00 p.m., arriving at the western end of the glorious Geirangerfjord, we went right up to the dock and boarded the ferry for the 70-minute trip eastward the length of the fjord. Here you had the true international mélange of travelers from every corner of the world. I guess the word about Geirangerfjord has gotten around.

Everyone was on deck taking in the view and taking pictures and videos. What a beautiful fjord that is, with its steep walls and rushing, tumbling waterfalls. All too soon we arrived at the town of Geiranger, but all was not lost, at least not for me. I simply stayed on the ferry, paid another fare, and took the tour all over again going west the length of the fjord. It was just as great both ways!

Hellesylt and Ibsen’s Brand
In the town of Hellesylt I had made arrangements to stay that night at the hostel a mile up a mountain road from town, where I had a wonderful view right from my window. I had good visits with the hostel manager, who told me many interesting things about the area. Particularly fascinating was his recounting of a visit by the great Norwegian dramatist, Henrik Ibsen, the “father of modern drama.” The area has many sheer steep-walled mountain slopes, and one such site, the hostel manager informed me, was Ibsen’s inspiration to place the dramatic landslide in his drama of the stern all-or-nothing pastor, Brand. This towering poetic drama, though not so well known as Ibsen’s later works, is considered by many to be his greatest opus!

The View from Flydalsjuvet
The next day I took the ferry back again the length of Geirangerfjord from Hellesylt to the town of Geiranger. I tell you, that ferry trip the length of the fjord three times in less than 24 hours was not at all hard to take.

Up the mountainside about four kilometers from Geiranger is one of the great views of the world: the view from Flydalsjuvet. Here at this lookout point one will marvel at the fjord below surrounded by steep-walled mountains. Often there are one or more ocean-going cruise ships at rest or plying the waters below. You’ll want to stay there a long time trying to absorb that glorious view, so that it will be part of your being forever.

In pictures, you also often see some rash (fool-hardy? idiotic?) soul standing on a rock ledge jutting far out from the mountainside, with the fjord hundreds of feet below. Just looking at the pictures makes the knees of some people go weak. I understand that the place is so treacherous that locals will not even tell outsiders where that ledge is for fear they might try something stupid.

Eagle’s Way
Back in town about 6:00 p.m. another bus is ready to take the tourist still further north via more stupendous scenery. First, from the town of Geriranger you ascend a very steep mountainside via Orneveien (Eagle’s Way) with a number of chilling hairpin turns somehow carved out of the mountainside. Halfway up, where the road widens out a bit, the bus stops so that we can all clamber out, ostensibly for those who so desire to take pictures. My feeling, though, is that more probably it is so the faint of heart can abandon ship, not continue that death-defying ascent, and return to town.

Be that as it may, we continued on above the tree line and then down to another fjord, which the passengers cross to be met by another bus. I was struck by seeing some wild mink scampering around. Now that is class, I thought, to be so well off that they can afford to have wild mink running around loose.

The Devil’s Own Highway
As dusk was approaching we came to the last leg of our fabulous fjord and mountain journey: it was another frightening zig-zag mountain road starting well up on the mountainside and dropping precipitously to the valley floor. Talk about your amusement park joy rides! They are nothing compared to what Norway can offer at the drop of a hat.

This particular terrifying stretch of road is charmingly called “Troll Stigen,” which translates to “Troll Stairway.” More accurately, I think, would be “The Devil’s Own Highway.” Before the descent starts, get a good grip on your armrests and brace your feet firmly on the footrests.

The driver, for whom this perilous descent seemed old hat (at least I hope it was), swung expertly around the sharp, steep curves. I don’t quite know what the other passengers were thinking, but when we at last reached the valley floor, the whole bus burst out into applause, just as when an airplane alights after a long, bumpy flight.

Entering the town of Andalsnes, the driver stopped at the local Vandrerhjem, where a number of us spent the night. The bus continued on to the railroad station for those who wanted to continue on by night train to Oslo. You could do that, but it was much, much better to stay the night in Andalsnes after that harrowing bus trip. Then during the day you have another wonderful trip through beautiful Norwegian countryside.

Romsdal and Gudbrandsdal
First, of course, is the striking Romsdal scenery from Andalsnes to Dombas and then south through broad Gudbrandandsdal, Peer Gynt and Sigrid Undset country—with rolling farmlands and the long Lake Mjosa.
The tourist could hardly do better than this spectacular trip through the fjords and mountains of Western Norway. Whatever time, effort, and money it takes once you are in Norway (and it need not take much of any), few excursions can rival this in scenic splendor. It is sure to be a highlight of anyone’s visit to the Land of the Midnight Sun.

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 15, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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