The special town of Voss
Modern culture infused with nature and tradition make Voss a destination for tourism and a great place to live
By John Erik Stacy 27 Nov 2009
What’s so special about Voss? Why would a small town in Western Norway be such an attraction for travelers and a source of deep pride for locals? Perhaps the combination of living culture, tradition and location can begin to explain the phenomenon that is Voss. From the people of Voss springs true enthusiasm for activities ranging from extreme-sport to experimental music. These cultural pursuits are an extension of traditions that have long characterized the spirit of a region where challenges are embraced and written into song. Culture and tradition are in turn anchored in a landscape that is simultaneously daunting, awesome and empowering.
Rustic but Cosmopolitan
Voss sits in a nexus of valleys that connect passages from fjords with the mountains to the east. Voss might be thought of as the “country cousin” of Bergen. Voss is intimately connected to Bergen through its proximity, generations of inter-marriage, similar dialectic inflection and thirst for cultural expansion that is surely rooted in the cosmopolitan aspirations of Bergen’s Hanseatic past. In many ways Voss is a meeting point between the most rustic aspects of Norway’s rural population and its deepest connections to European culture. From a western-Norwegian’s perspective, Voss can also be thought of as a point of connection to the east. In the days when Norway was still many small kingdoms, the aspiring Sverre imposed his will through an invasion via the perilous pass (Sverresgong) of Raundal valley. The engineers of the current train line between Oslo and Bergen have followed parts of King Sverre’s route.
Base-jumping and Count Basie
Today the train travels safely between Oslo and Bergen several times a day. The station in Voss is just outside the venerable Fleischer Hotel with its classic slate-shingled gables (slate is one of the natural resources and the quarries of Voss have covered most of the roofs in the region). In April each year the hotel is booked to capacity (as is the Park Hotel and virtually all other accommodations in town) as Vossjazz blossoms onto the town. Musicians and music lovers converge on Voss from Bergen, Oslo and the world beyond to take part in nearly week long expression of rhythmic and melodic forms that range from traditional to completely far-out (including genres like swing and Dixie-land in between). Again at the end of June, hotels and camp-grounds are packed as “Extreme Sport Week” (Ekstremsportveko) and its adrenalin-junkies descend onto Voss. This event is headlined by people like Kari Traa (free-style skiing champion and now purveyor of designer clothing). The sporting-spirit of the town has produced more than its fair share of champions, including an unusually high concentration of Winter Olympic Medalists and, of course, American football legend Knut Rockne.
In addition to Vossajazz and Exteme-Sport Week, Voss offers many experiences for participation of young and old alike. Just outside the Fleischer hotel is the gondola that levitates travelers to the alpine ski center (a truly amazing place to ski). This can also be a start point back-country skiing or a walk to the summit of Lønehorgi, the brooding gray mass of stone that is one of the most prominent peaks in Voss.
For those with family in Voss, there is almost certainly a connection to a farm and all the cultural content that this entails. The yearly rhythm of sheep farming includes the birth of lambs in the spring, setting the flock out to range free on the mountain, bringing salt-licks in the summer, herding together in the fall, shearing and slaughter. Each of these phases in the “dance of life” that marks the passage of time for a vossing can be a special experience for relatives and guests of more urbane habit. The wonder of these experiences is obvious to those of entrepreneurial bent, and an industry in gardsturisme (agro-turism) has begun to surface. Entrance into a Voss farm is like opening a box of unexpected heirlooms. These include folk music, dance and art. Surprisingly many farmers are proficient musicians and cultivate their interests in clubs and gatherings. Similarly, the useful and decorative arts are practiced throughout the population. The food of western Norway, in particular its milk products and smoked-meat (dravle, spekekjøtt, smalehove) are also an integral part of the experience.
Getting there is part of the experience
The intertwined strands of culture, tradition and location can set the agenda for travel to Voss. The “Norway in a nutshell” tour helps to shows how Voss is a cross-road between inland and fjord locations and how lines of communication by boat and overland could be accomplished in the challenging terrain that is Western Norway. The “nutshell” tour is a detour from the main Bergen-Oslo train line. Points on the route include the mountain out-post of Myrdal, the fjord towns of Flåm and Gudvangen, the iconic mountain view from Stalheim and on to Voss. The Bergen-Oslo train line also offers the interesting possibility of bicycle (not to mention back-country skiing in the appropriate season) from the high-point of Finse (1222 meters = 4000 ft) along the gravel road that was used to construct the train line (known as the Rallarvegen) to Myrdal and eventually Mjøllfjell station and the head of Raundal valley. The river runs through Raundal and eventually opens into Vangsvattenet-lake on which the town of Voss is located. There are “youth-hostel” style accommodations at both Mjøllfjell and on the shore of Vangsvattenet (Norwegians now call these vandreheim which is a more befitting term since “wanderers” of all ages – and in particular traveling groups and families with children – often book bunk-bed rooms sleeping four or more). The Mjøllfjell and Voss vandreheim are often occupied by kayak and rafting enthusiasts that make use of the Raundal river in their pursuit of watery thrills.
Heading west to Voss by car opens additional dramatic travel options, including a crossing on Highway 7 parallel to the train line through Hallingdal that then deviates south of the Hardangerjøkulen glacier with a stop at the dizzying Vørringsfossen waterfall in Måbødalen. The way continues on toward the ferry crossing between Brimnes and Bruravik on the Eidfjord arm of Hardangerfjord and so through tunnel and over switch-back ascent along Skjervefossen (the stretch of road that was the scene of the long-board event in the last Extreme-Sport Week held in Voss). Other routes between Oslo and Voss include the southern route on Highway 11 through Telemark and its many possibilities (canal boat travel, skiing at Haukalifjell and more) or the Northern route on E16 through Valdres and on to the fjord-town of Lærdal and then through an impressive tunnel connecting to Aurland, Flåm, Gudvangen, Stalheim and Voss (segments of the “Norway in a nutshell” route).
The process of getting to Voss is in itself an important aspect the experience and one that creates a bond between visitors and locals as well as between modern Norwegian and ancient ancestors. So, in planning a trip to Norway, consider the many possibilities that Voss offers the first time visitor and initiate alike!
This article was also published in the Norwegian American Weekly. For more information about the Norwegian American Weekly or to subscribe, call us toll free (800) 305-0217 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.