Norway in a Nutshell off-season
An insider’s guide to winter adventure
Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American
When I mentioned to many of my friends at home in Seattle that I was planning to travel to Norway in the end of November, most of them reacted with a blank look on their face and uttered a single word:
Yet I would argue that winter is one of the most beautiful and interesting times to visit Norway. The crowds are gone, rooms are available, prices are low(er), and you see the landscape and culture from a different perspective.
It is really not that cold, and with some good planning, including a warm coat, hat, mittens, a scarf, and boots, you will be all set.
And even if you do forget something, there’s no better place than Norway to pick up stylish and practical winter gear, or you could check out some clothing from one of our friends like Mall of Norway!
My recent journey took me to Bergen and the surrounding environs, and for my last weekend there, I decided to relive the Norway in a Nutshell trip, which I had taken last September. The landscape had made a deep impression on me, and I wanted to see how it would look with a winter backdrop. I also wanted to visit the historic Fretheim Hotel and the Mall of Norway in Flåm. VisitFlåm was kind enough to assist with the arrangements, and I set off from the Bergen train station.
An authentic Viking village
After changing from train to bus in Voss, the first stop on the journey is in Gudvangen, the “place of the gods.” By this time the morning darkness has lifted, and I was lucky to see clear skies with themountains surrounding the fjord. I was met by my guide from VisitFlåm, Anne Hirth Maellund, a friendly and knowledgeable young woman who grew up in the nearby area.
We proceeded across a footbridge to the Viking Village Njardarheimr. I have to admit that I was skeptical. At home, Viking reenactments tend to be a bit hokey, but once inside, I was pleasantly surprised. Years of research had gone into planning and building the structures, which, with the expectation of some plumbing and electricity required by modern codes, took us back to medieval times.
I learned that the purpose of the project was to teach people how Vikings actually lived in Norway, and every effort had been taken to make the experience authentic.
In addition to tourists, Norwegian schoolchildren visit Njardarheimr to learn about their history. It is even possible to stay at the village and learn the trades and handicrafts of Viking times. Re-enactors wear clothing fashioned from fibers that would have been available to Vikings, and meals are prepared with the foods they would have had.
Even the souvenir shop is tastefully stocked with a selection of jewelry and other items as well as T-shirts with Viking patterns—perhaps not authentic to the Vikings, but popular with tourists.
The Future of the Fjords
Our next stop would be Flåm, and to get there, we boarded the new state-of-the-art electric-powered vessel, the Future of the Fjords—and once you are on board, you realize the future is already here. Everything about the vessel seems perfect, from a technical design that creates virtually no pollution to a practical and beautiful architectural design.
The lines of the boat sweep up in angles, giving the sense of the sweeping heights of the surrounding mountains, and most importantly, large windows allow a full view of the fjord, whether you are standing or sitting. The end result is that you have the feeling of being outdoors, even if it is too cold to go out on deck. And you sit very comfortably on warmed leather seats. The interior of the boat is almost entirely fashioned in wood, which blends in beautifully with the outside nature. I also enjoyed the café on board, as well as the information on the history of the area provided on the monitors placed throughout.
Seeing the fjords in wintertime is not disappointing. While many of the waterfalls are frozen, there is the new beauty of surrounding snow-capped mountains. And for those looking for an even more special winter experience, this year the Future of the Fjords will offer a special New Year’s Eve cruise, complete with a champagne buffet and live entertainment.
Welcome home to Norway
Once in Flåm, if there is one place you must see, it’s the Fretheim Hotel. Built at the turn of the 19th century, the hotel is in the registry of historic hotels. Over the years, it has undergone a number of remodels, restorations, and additions, which all blend together to create a totally comfortable experience.
The lobby, with its large pine beams, wooden floor, and warming fireplace welcome you, along with Norwegian artwork and handicrafts. You are greeted by two elaborate bunader from the area, as well as artwork inspired by their details. You can sit in the atrium lounge with its sweeping glass windows and enjoy a drink or coffee from the bar as you look out on the fjord.
I was fortunate to spend the night at the Fretheim. I found my room offered the same plush comfort as the lounge with the same traditionally inspired decor. Each room looks out on the fjord and boasts a balcony. There are special rooms and suites available in the Amerika section, with sitting rooms, antique furniture, and claw-foot bathtubs. I later learned that this part of the hotel was built for immigrants from the area who returned home expecting a new level of comfort. Many of them had done very well in the New World and were able to pay for this new luxury, as the tourism industry grew up in Flåm.
I took advantage of the evening storytelling hour, and met Anja Sverdrup, a native of Flåm. It was a blustery evening, so we decided to stay in the cozy parlors of the Amerika section, with antique treasures, historical oil paintings, and period-style furniture. Traditional Christmas decorations were found everywhere, and we talked about how the holidays are celebrated in Norway. Above all, Christmas is a time when family comes together. In the village, everyone goes to church to hear the church bells ring in Christmas Eve before returning home to enjoy the traditional feast, dancing around the tree, and of course presents.
For the first time, this year, the Fretheim will be open for the holidays so visitors from abroad can come experience a genuine Norwegian Christmas. At first I thought this strange, but I learned that a majority of people working in the service industry in Flåm come from other countries. At the hotel alone at least a dozen languages are represented.
An important part of any stay at the Fretheim is its outstanding cuisine. There is an emphasis on organic local ingredients, and traditional dishes are offered with a gourmet twist. I was happy to try the reindeer, served with fresh lingonberries and roasted root vegetables. I also enjoyed bread from the local bakery and a beer from Flåm’s Aegir Brewery. Perhaps best of all was the dessert, which included my favorite cookie, the krumkake, with cloudberry cream. I was in seventh heaven and could only wait for breakfast the next day. That was not a disappointment either, with a plethora of cheeses, fish, cold cuts, baked goods, and fruits, and most importantly, delicious Norwegian coffee. I could only imagine what the Christmas table and New Year buffet would be like.
Flåm is a small village but full of surprises even in the wintertime. While many hiking, cycling, and boating opportunities are not available, there is still plenty to do.
Inside the Railway Museum, you have the opportunity to learn about an important chapter in Norwegian history with the building of the Flåmsbana, the Flåm Railway, which was completed in 1940. This was a major engineering feat in its day, providing an important connection with the outside world. Ironically, the same men who designed and built the Flåmsbana would be the ones who would strategically sabotage it to stop Hitler’s troops and the flow of goods during World War II.
There are great opportunities for shopping in Flåm, with a small gift shop with local handicrafts, and then at the enormous Mall of Norway (see www.norwegianamerican.com/heritage/a-visit-inside-the-mall-of-norway). And if you need a cup of coffee and a snack during the afternoon, head over to Flåm Bakeri. Here you can choose from a variety of baked goods, all made from scratch with organic ingredients. Weather permitting, you can even grab a blanket and sit outside to enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the fjord.
Over the mountains
A day goes by quickly in Flåm, and soon it is time to board the Flåm Railway to Myrdal. My only advice is to get your camera ready. You will be amazed by the majesty of the landscape, be it the mountaintops frosted by snow, half-frozen waterfalls, or the mysterious light of the blue hour.
The singing huldra at the Kjosfossen waterfall stop is gone for the winter, but the frozen pools there are somehow just as dramatic. It seems like the journey is over in an instant, because each moment your attention is directed from one wonder to the next.
Once at Myrdal, you will have a few minutes before boarding the next train, and once on board, dusk will set in. It’s a great time to pick up a book or doze off into your dreams, reflecting on your journey with Norway in Nutshell. You will arrive back in Bergen just in time to enjoy dinner before your next Norwegian winter adventure.
For more information on Norway in a Nutshell, visit www.norwaynutshell.com. You can learn more about the Fretheim Hotel at www.fretheimhotel.no and explore tourist opportunities in Flåm at www.visitflam.com.
See also “Wintertime magic exploring the fjords” by Cynthia Elyce Rubin, The Norwegian American, Dec. 14, 2018.
This article originally appeared in the December 28, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.