Category Archives: Norway

Flåm Valley

Oslo to Bergen
The train from Oslo to Bergen is famed for being one of the most picturesque journeys in the world. The train stops often on its way up into the mountains, picking up passengers from the outlying regions of Oslo, and then settles in for the long and beautiful haul along the granite spine to the coast. I have done the trip a number of times, and wanted to show it to Bronwyn, as it seemed like a great way to celebrate our wedding anniversary. However, this is the electronic age, and half the passengers in our carriage closed their window shades to concentrate on their laptops instead of looking out of the window. The two guys closest to us carefully occluded half of our view by closing their blind, and then packed up their computers and went to the buffet car, possibly to drink beer and watch the scenery go by, leaving the rest of us in the dark. It took some judicious seat-hopping, and a certain amount of hanging out of the door windows, to appreciate our journey.

On the lower slopes, hay fields scattered with occasional wooden cabins were punctuated by tiny villages and towns clustered along rivers, each community widely separated from the others but always painted bright colours, usually red or yellow.

Stunning views from the Oslo-Bergen train

Stunning views from the Oslo-Bergen train

After several hours of climbing, we attained the snow-line. Here again there were scattered cabins, but between and among them was nothing but scattered and shattered rocks, with only the occasional bowl of summer snow. Presumably these places are unusable outside of the winter months. The few towns are given over to skiing, but in November they were not yet open for business, although the pistes were being mown in preparation.

Shattered landscape above the snow line

Shattered landscape above the snow line

Impressive melt-water waterfalls sprang from the dark granite as the train plunged through tunnel after tunnel, some bored through solid rock and others constructed from sturdy timber as a defence against avalanches. Melt-water lakes, some already re-frozen, sat amid a lunar landscape. Very beautiful.

Finally we arrived at our destination, Myrdal, at the top of the world, where the famous Flåmsbana train waited to take us down to sea level. Privately run, this is the steepest non-cog train in the world, dropping 864 metres in 20 kilometres of beautiful switchbacks.

Myrdal

Myrdal

All aboard the Flåmsbana!

All aboard the Flåmsbana!

The genial conductor pointed out some of the finer views, and suggested that if we moved to the disabled compartment, there was a window that could be opened for a better view without exposing the other passengers to the 6 degrees outside. As we dropped into the first incline, we caught a glimpse of the Rallarvega, the mountain trail from Myrdal to Flåm which we intended to walk later in the week. About half way down the valley, the train stopped for a few minutes so that we could get out and admire the thundering Kjosfossen waterfall.

Rallarvega

Rallarvega

Kjosfossen

Kjosfossen

As the track flattened out into the valley above the fjord, we descended into cloud, and when we emerged from the bottom it was dusk. The tiny but beautifully formed town of Flåm spread out before us, and we stepped out of the train onto the quayside.

The building in the middle is the Marina Apartments, where we stayed.

The building in the middle is the Marina Apartments, where we stayed.

Eating in Flåm
We moved into a lovely little apartment overlooking the fjord. We’d felt lucky to get the apartment at all because both of Flåm’s hotels had said that they were full, only their most expensive suites were available, but in the event it turned out that they were actually empty and running on skeleton staff for the off-season. It was the same story with the restaurants. The receptionist at the Fretheim needed to see our reservation, so we tried the other restaurant in town. There was nobody there until we tried the kitchen where we found a surprised waiter chatting to his girlfriend, but we dined very pleasantly on catfish in black butter sauce. On another evening we made a reservation at the Fretheim, to find of course that we were the only diners, although the salmon tartare and venison in red wine were delicious. Both restaurants were operating on a two-dish menu which would not change for the off-season, so we were doubly glad that we had a fully equipped kitchen in the apartment.

Pink champagne on our balcony. It was cold, OK?

Pink champagne on our balcony. It was cold, OK?

We never tired of the ever-changing view from our apartment

We never tired of the ever-changing view from our apartment

Flåm and Old Flåm, looking back after climbing up to Bekefoss

Flåm and Old Flåm, looking back after climbing up to Bekefoss

A cruise down Naeroyfjord
One morning, we took the local bus to Gudvangen, involving a 5km tunnel to the top of the pass and then an 11km tunnel back down to sea level, in order to catch the ferry back to Flåm. The point of this was to see the Naeroyfjord, designated a World Heritage Site because of the unspoiled beauty of its fjord terrain. We were very lucky that the sun had boiled off the cloud layer and although it was very cold, we sailed under a clear blue sky. The scenery was breathtaking, not least because of the crystal clear reflections of the mountains in the water, disturbed into surreal shapes by the waves of our passage.

Naeroyfjord reflections

Naeroyfjord reflections

Distorted Naeroyfjord reflections

Distorted Naeroyfjord reflections

Disturbed by our wake

Disturbed by our wake

A passage in Naeroyfjord

A passage in Naeroyfjord

Undredal

Undredal

Aurland

Aurland

Before the mast

Before the mast

Hiking from Myrdal to Flåm
One morning we took the Flåmsbana back up to Myrdal, so that we could walk back down again. There is a trail, the Rallarvega, which was originally built by the navvies who were building the railway, but which is now mainly used as a precipitous mountain-bike trail. Years ago, while back-packing in this area, I had hiked down this trail and still remembered the experience with fondness and awe, so I was keen to introduce Bronwyn to the experience.

The main line to Bergen goes right, the Flamsbana goes left (and down...)

The main line to Bergen goes right, the Flåmsbana goes left (and down…)

Myrdal, at the top of the Rallarvega

Myrdal, at the top of the Rallarvega

The Rallarvega starts its downward plunge

The Rallarvega starts its downward plunge

Reinhard and waterfall

Reinhard and waterfall

Bronwyn and waterfall

Bronwyn and waterfall

The views are fantastic, and the sheer scale of the vertical cliff faces that tower above is enough to make you feel utterly insignificant and so very privileged to be there, crawling like an ant down the face of the glacial valley.

Photos just can't do justice to this wonderful place

Photos just can’t do justice to this wonderful place

At the bottom of the gravel track, the Rallarvega becomes a formed road and winds along the valley floor. Occasional farms dot the landscape, but at all times the heart-breakingly sheer mountains tower above, punctuated by endless waterfalls. By each fall, some early settler has evidently built a house to take advantage not only of the water, but also of the view.

Emerging from a tunnel

Emerging from a tunnel, somewhere on the Rallarvega trail

Like a John Martin painting but without the damnation.

Like a John Martin painting but without the damnation.

Commuting from this Flåmbana station would not be such a hardship.

Commuting from this Flåmbana station would not be such a hardship.

After almost 20 kilometres, we came abreast of Old Flåm, where we paused to admire the neat little church and its gravestones with their tale of a few families with familiar names (Flåm, Fretheim) spread over hundreds of years. Like the landscape, the social scene changes only slowly.

Arrival at old Flam

Arrival at old Flåm

Aegir Brewery
There is a brew pub in Flåm, but for most of our stay it had remained firmly closed. Over our stay I had managed to drink several of their products at different restaurants and hotels, particularly their stunning Imperial Stout. Norwegian alcohol prices are notoriously savage due to heavy taxation, but at NOK 185 (about GBP 18) for a bottle, I reckoned that this was probably the most expensive beer that I had ever drunk.

And then one day, the brewery doors were open, to reveal a bar modelled on a Viking longhouse, with carved wood and reindeer pelts and a large fire.

Bronwyn at the Aegir Brewery

Bronwyn at the Aegir Brewery

After a few pints of the excellent stout, I got chatting to the brewer, Evan. It turned out that he had taken a batch of the stout that I was drinking, and then matured it in oak whisky barrels to make what he called ‘Lynchburg’. This was so good that, in an attempt to prevent it from being all drunk at once, he had almost doubled the price to NOK 340, or GBP 34 a bottle. This did not prevent a visiting American from buying the entire stock. Luckily for me, Evan had kept a case back for himself, and I was able to buy one, now definitely and without doubt the most expensive beer that I have ever drunk. It was worth every Krøne.

Happiness is a bottle of Lynchburg

Happiness is a bottle of Lynchburg

Evan and Lynchburg Natt

Evan and Lynchburg Natt

Oslo

Travelling light as usual, we arrived at Oslo airport with only cabin baggage, booked an express train from an automated ticket machine, and after a clean and fast trip emerged blinking into the Autumn sunlight. The friendly Hotel Thon was easy to find, and we were given a room on the second floor with a balcony fully fifty feet long and twenty feet wide.

A lion was waiting at Oslo station

A lion was waiting at Oslo station

Enormous balcony at the Hotel Thon

Enormous balcony at the Hotel Thon

Close to the station is the Aker Brugge, an area packed with restaurants, all with busy outside areas, everybody chatting and drinking and eating. Many of the seats were draped with sheep fleeces, and at other restaurants the waiters handed out blankets as you arrived, so that despite the ten degree chill, short sleeves and mini-skirts were not uncommon.

Outside dining, Oslo style

Outside dining, Oslo style

We chose to eat inside a cosy Italian restaurant, where the drinks were the typical Scandinavian triple the English price, but the service was friendly and the food was excellent. Eventually we ambled out into the last hours of light, intending to get a quick nap at the hotel before going out on the town.

The Radhuis
On the way back, we passed an enormous brick building that looked like a power station but which turned out to be the Radhuis or town hall. We stopped to admire some friezes along the outside walls, carved wooden scenes from Viking mythology, and then suddenly realised that the building was still open to visitors.

Oslo Radhuis

Oslo Radhuis

We went inside and found ourselves in an enormous space, not dissimilar to the turbine hall at the Tate Modern in London, but painted throughout with allegorical wall friezes not only there, but also in a chain of spectacular rooms that led around the second storey.

Wooden carvings outside Oslo Radhuis

Wooden carvings outside Oslo Radhuis

The inside of one of the Radhuis rooms

The inside of one of the Radhuis rooms

The main hall of Oslo Radhuis

The main hall of Oslo Radhuis

The paintings were in the style of 50s communism, all square jaws and bold colours, with heavy emphasis on agriculture and industry. However, each frieze told a story, and that story was often a complex mixture of mythology and the recent German occupation, mythical figures juxtaposed with prisoners in concentration camps. The bear of Norway baring its teeth at uniformed trolls as they tear the clothes from the newly released princess. Very stark and very effective.

A rather jingoistic frieze in the main hall

A rather jingoistic frieze in the main hall

It was evening when we finally tore ourselves away, and continued to our hotel for that nap. Our alarm went off later that night, but we were happy to ignore it and sleep through for the next twelve hours. After all, we were on holiday.


Frogner Park (Vigeland Park)

The following morning, after a breakfast of coffee and herrings, we headed out to the glorious Frogner Park, which has long been one of my favourite places in Europe. This entire green space is given over to the works of Gustav Vigeland, who designed and built the whole thing over a ten year period. The weather had been a bit glooomy, but the sun came out and glowed from the carpet of yellow maple leaves underfoot, as we joined the hundreds of tourists enjoying several hundred works of art spread over almost a kilometre.

The view back across the bridge from the central plaza.

The view back across the bridge from the central plaza.

I love these guys! Cocky son.

I love these guys! Cocky son.

Another beautiful study

Another beautiful study

Once you leave the bridge of bronze sculptures, you climb up to the centrepiece of granite pieces.

Once you leave the bridge of bronze sculptures, you climb up to the centrepiece of granite pieces.

Eventually you realise that he's trying to save his falling children.

Eventually you realise that he’s not kicking them, he’s trying to save his falling children.

The astounding centrepiece, showing the ages of man, the dead at the bottom supporting the youngest on top.

The ages of man, the dead at the bottom supporting the youngest on top.

The Oslo Museum is situated in Frogner park. We watched a very clever and entertaining film called “1000 years of Oslo”, which was put together in an amusing way from shots of museum exhibits and paintings. It covered exciting periods of boom and bust, wealth and poverty, and then skipped suddenly from the 1920s to the present day, missing the occupation and holocaust. The actual museum did much the same thing, with a display for every period of settlement since the Vikings except for the World Wars. The Norwegians had an ugly war.

On our final evening, we headed up to the Grünerløkke district, which is famous for its local bars and cafes. We were not disappointed, there were establishments of every style and ethnicity. We stopped at a few for glasses of wine and snacks, and were pleased to find that – presumably because of the vastly over-taxed prices – each small glass of wine was checked and re-checked and treated with a great deal of respect.

At one bar the owner suggested that we try a soup made from lamb, cabbage and potatoes. It was very good, and we were told that in traditional bars it is made available as a cheap dish for the benefit of heavy drinkers. I did have trouble getting my head around the idea that anybody who can afford to be a heavy drinker in Scandinavia might need cheap food, but the concept is still admirable. At another bar I scored a beautiful lightly poached whole trout with leeks and a cauliflower sauce. They certainly know how to keep their patrons happy in Oslo.