Fløibanen, then and now

View from the top

Photo: Øyvind Heen / VisitNorway.com
One of the best views of Bergen is from the top of Mount Fløyen. Taking the funicular up the mountain is a must for visiting tourists, but with its many recreational offerings, the park is also a very popular destination for locals as well.

Mukilteo, Wash.

Mount Fløyen, the third highest of Bergen’s seven mountains, is one of the most popular destinations in all of western Norway. From the top at 1,050 feet above sea level, the city of Bergen is laid out at your feet, with Vågen Harbor directly below, then westward out across Puddefjorden to Askøy. You can take in the panorama from Store Lungegårdsvannet Bay to the southwest to the fountain in Smålunger Lake to the south, around to Tyskebryggen to the west. It is the perfect spot to see most of the city and plan your days in seeing Bergen, a must for any visitor.

But it wasn’t always so easy to get there. To see this marvelous view of Bergen in the 1800s, you had to hike up Mount Fløyen, which might take you several hours and lots of sweat. Consequently, not many tourists were interested in attempting the climb. That all changed in 1918 with construction of a funicular, called Fløibanen. Today, you are whisked to the top of the mountain in only four to eight minutes, to take in the view and participate in a number of activities.

Photo: fløyen.no
The two cable cars, named Rødhette (Red Riding Hood) and Blåmann (Blue Man, a pet name for a goat) pass each other halfway up the mountain. The cable attached to each car runs on pulleys down the center of the track, and the two cars counterbalance each other.

First, what is a funicular? A funicular is a railway cable car system designed to transport people up a steep incline. Two passenger cars are attached to opposite ends of a cable, which runs through a drive wheel at the top station of the incline. The cars counterbalance each other, and move in concert—the car moving upward from the lower station is pulled upward by the other car descending from the upper station.

If you see a picture of a car ascending Mount Fløyen, you’ll notice that there’s only one set of rails climbing the mountain. What happens when the descending car meets the ascending car? Thanks to the method invented by Swiss engineer Carl Abt, Fløibanen has a branching track in the middle, like a bubble, where the two cars can pass each other side-by-side on adjacent tracks, before returning to the main track.

The passenger cars themselves are unusual. Originally designed like a funicular in Germany and Switzerland, where funiculars were first developed, the cars are tilted upward 15 degrees at the bottom station, which reaches 26 degrees from the horizontal at the top station. If this were a normal streetcar, passengers would soon slide to the rear or ride uncomfortably in seats virtually on their backs. Funicular cars, however, are built with seats tilted forward about 20 degrees, such that you remain almost level as the car ascends. It’s all designed to whisk you safely and comfortably to the top of Mount Fløyen in less than 10 minutes.

Photo: Bergen Reiselivslag / Christer Rønnestad / visitBergen.com
Clouds may cover the city of Bergen below from the upper station on Mount Fløyen, but the view is beautiful nonetheless.

Aside from the oohs and aahs, you want to break out in song as you ascend as well. Italian Peppino Turco composed “Funiculì, Funiculà” to capture the excitement of riding the first funicular built on Mount Vesuvius in 1880. Yes, the active volcano! Needless to say, the funicular had to be abandoned (although it was rebuilt twice after volcanic eruptions), but the song has lasted. Check out Luciano Pavarotti’s performance on YouTube. It’s enough to get anyone in an operatic mood for a trip up Mount Fløyen.

And, of course, Fløyen has its own song to sing, “Utsikt fra Fløyen” (The View from Fløyen), composed by Thorvald Nielsen in 1880 with lyrics by Henrik Jansen. Over time, it’s become one of Bergen’s most beloved songs, celebrating both its history and beauty. Probably no one has sung it any better than Bergen’s own superstar songbird Sissel Kyrkjebø, also worth checking out on YouTube.

You can sing all the way up or down without interruption, with only the slight noise of the railway. That’s because the electric motor powering the system is located at the top station.  There’s plenty of room in the cars for baby strollers and handicap access. In fact, Fløibanen AS (the company) has won an award for its efforts to ensure handicap access.

The view from Mount Fløyen is the most well-known aspect of the mountain. But there’s much, much more that appeals to tourists and Bergensers alike. Fløyen is the departure point for hikes into the mountains and for leisurely strolls (with shelters and benches for resting) down the mountain on several trails. There’s a playground for kids, mountain bike rentals for the trails, canoe paddling in Skomakerdiket Lake, and say “hello” to a herd of friendly goats known as Fløyguttene. There’s an excellent restaurant, Fløien Folkerestaurant, a café, and a gift shop at the top, too.

Photo: fløyen.no
In the summertime, you can share the view with several cashmere goats. The Fløyguttene, or Fløyen Boys, as they graze on the grass below the viewing terrace. How do they get up and down the mountain? They ride the funicular, of course!

The huge popularity of Fløibanen came to a sudden halt in March 2020 when the coronavirus prompted closure of the funicular until the end of May. Even though Fløibanen reopened with new precautions in place (each cable car is now limited to half of its maximum capacity of passengers), Fløibanen only expects a tenth of the visitors they saw last year. Mount Fløyen is a popular “add in” for people in town for a conference, for business, a concert, or sporting events—most of those have been canceled for the foreseeable future.

Photo: fløyen.no / visitBergen.com
The entrance to the lower station, designed by Einar Oscar Schau in 1918, shows that the funicular company is called Fløibanen, while the mountain is called Mount Fløyen.

CEO Anita Nybø has even had to lay off staff and reduce working hours. She notes that closing Fløibanen throughout the summer might have been wiser financially but that the company has a social responsibility toward the city and those who live along the route. Fløibanen has three intermediate stops between the lower and upper stations where many commuters board.  They rely on Fløibanen to get to work down in the city.

What is clear is that keeping Fløibanen requires creating new ways to attract visitors up the mountain, especially Bergensers. They have started offering activities and charging a small fee for them. This has included outdoor yoga, baseball, short-story writing, and spinning classes. They’re running a “Clean the Mountain” day for picking up litter on the trails while wearing masks and gloves, with an opportunity to sort out the recyclables at an “environmental station” and winning prizes for what you collect. There’s a children’s “run” (no timekeeping, everyone gets a medal), concerts, horseback riding, and other opportunities for both children and adults.

This writer is hoping they’ll offer a paid online seminar, concert, or start an “adopt-a-goat” fund, so Fløibanen can be supported from afar. Along with all our other cherished institutions, organizations, and merchants (including The Norwegian American), we are charged with finding creative ways to support them, so they don’t have to shut down permanently. No one, Bergensers and visitors alike, would want to see Fløibanen suffer that fate after 103 years of operation.

Fløyen or Fløien?

By now, you are probably wondering what’s up with the spelling. Is it “Fløyen” or “Fløien?” Well, the answer is that both are right in their own way.

Initially, the spelling was “Fløien,” and with the funicular being over 100 years old, the name “Fløibanen” was established. But then the Spelling Reform of 1938 came along, and the diphthong “øi” was changed to “øy.” The name of a public place or geographic location, like the mountain, needed to follow the new rules, but the name of a privately held company, Fløibanen SA, stayed the same. The applies to an old song published before the spelling reform.

Fløibanen CEO Anita Nybø explains: “For us, it is very simple and neat: The destination is called Fløyen with “y,” while the limited company and business are written with “i.”

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 23, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Eric Stavney

Eric Stavney is a graduate of the University of Washington Department of Scandinavian Studies and hosts the interviews and music podcast “Nordic on Tap” at NordicOnTap.podbean.com.