From the colourful port of Bergen in the west to the chic capital city of Oslo in the east, Norway offers some of Europe’s wildest and most dramatic scenery. So it’s a shame that many visitors only scratch the surface by taking a coastal or fjord cruise.
I travelled instead on an escorted tour with Great Rail Journeys that combined two historic – and very different – cities with outstanding mountain scenery and of course, the chance to both see and sail the fjords.
You don’t need to be a fan of engines and rolling stock to enjoy watching the scenery roll seamlessly past the window, and this itinerary includes two particularly scenic routes. The Bergensbanen – or Oslo-to-Bergen mainline – cuts across the rugged roof of southern Norway, whilst the 12.5-mile Flam railway is one of the world’s steepest lines, rising from fjord level at Flam to join the Bergensbanen at Myrdal.
Our fun began with a two-night stay in Bergen, one of my favourite towns in northern Europe. Gateway to the fjords, Norway’s second city was the largest community in Scandinavia until the mid-17th century, thanks to its trade in dried cod. Today, the colourful wooden buildings along the UNESCO-listed Bryggen – the old trading wharf – have been beautifully restored with vibrant facades, the alleys between the houses overhung with gables and winches.
Eleven are from 1704 – and suitably wonky – with a further six modern ones completing the line-up. Don’t miss the wonderful Hanseatic Museum in an authentic property. Bilingual information panels on the ground floor chart the development of the port whilst upstairs, offices, parlours and bedrooms recreate Bergen’s golden age. Close by, you might like to take dinner in the Tracteurshed, former town Assembly room behind the Bryggen and the oldest restaurant in Bergen.
You’ll still see dried cod in the fish market that covers the quayside in summer and at the new indoor market opposite Bryggen, but today you are more likely to sit down to a plate of hot smoked salmon, fresh crab and other seafood at the city’s many restaurants. Don’t be put off the chance to try smoked whale either – the whales in question are the plentiful Minke, all sustainably fished and a Bergen speciality.
We stayed at the delightful Hotel Clarion Admiral strategically positioned opposite the Bryggen and within easy walking distance of all the main sites. The cosy bar and restaurant on the ground floor is a great place to relax over a hot drink or something stronger after a day in the fresh air. Bergen is blessed with a cluster of museums grouped together along Art Gallery Street overlooking a city centre lake and with major collections by Munch, Picasso and Miro.
For a high level view over the town to the fjords and mountains beyond, take a 5-minute ride on the Floibanen Funicular to the viewing terrace. Marked walking trails lead up through the woods behind the restaurant to tranquil lakes and other loftier viewpoints.
From Bergen station, it’s a glorious two-hour journey to Myrdal, the bright red carriages stopping at tiny stations in spectacular locations along the way. Then at Myrdal, a simple change of platform links with the Flam branch line which opened 75 years ago – a welcome advance for villagers who previously had to use horse-drawn transport up the steep mountain side.
The journey takes around an hour, including a stop beside the spectacular Kjosfossen waterfall, and passes through 20 tunnels before coming to a halt in Flam. In a matter of moments, you can walk to the quay beside Aurlandsfjord, a 10.5-mile branch of Sofgnefjord, Norway’s longest. Try handcrafted beers in the Viking-style Aegir BrewPub; visit the Flam Railway Museum for the story of the line; and follow the hillside trail for high-level views. Included for GRJ clients is a tranquil fjord cruise on a sleek excursion vessel.
We stayed in the atmospheric Freitheim hotel, originally a farm which opened its doors to aristocratic English tourists who came here for salmon fishing and reindeer hunting in the mid-19th century. Today, this stylish hotel has 122 rooms, including many with fjord view, and you can discover its fascinating story on a free daily tour.
From Flam, our itinerary took us over Hardangervidda, Northern Europe’s largest mountain plateau at altitudes rising to nearly 4,000 feet, before starting the descent into the Norwegian capital, Oslo. Here, the Thon Hotel Opera divides the main station from the waterfront with a front row view on the iconic new opera house known as The Glacier. No trip to Oslo would be complete without walking up its gentle white slopes for sweeping harbour views, though do watch your footing – the architects have included a few shallow steps or ‘crevasses’ for authenticity!
Maybe get your bearings on a guided city tour that takes in the Royal Palace, National Theatre and Akershus Fort, or strike out independently and enjoy take a flat stroll around the headlands and harbour dotted with 14 marked information points. I loved the cartoon spies depicted against each 21st century view, showing how it looked in the 1940s.
Munch fans will love the gallery dedicated to his work, but if boats are more your thing, head to the peninsula to visit the Kon Tiki Museum and the Fram Museum of Polar exploration. Only time for one? I’d recommend the Viking Ship Museum, quaintly old-fashioned in style (a new one is in the planning stages) but unforgettable for its four extraordinary boats and the elaborate artefacts found on board during excavations over a century ago.
But my overriding memory of Oslo will be the Vigeland Sculpture Park, the world’s largest sculpture park made by a single artist and one of Norway’s most popular tourist attractions. Here 600 naked human bodies by Gustav Vigeland (1869-1943) are assembled in some 200 groups. No clothes means that the figures belong to no time period, an eternal memorial to the human form and spirit. You’ll find angry babies and doting parents, family groups, young lovers and elderly couples, some cast in iron, others so beautifully carved in granite that you can feel every muscle and sinew. All set in a huge landscaped park, free to view, and intensely moving.
By the time I boarded the final train for the short journey from Oslo to the airport, I really felt I’d got under the skin of one of Europe’s wealthiest but least populated countries. Just 5 million Norwegian residents get to share all this nature, history and culture, but happily for us, they are more than willing to share.
Great Rail Journeys offer a 7-day tour, Fjords Cruise & Historic Cities of Norway, from £1,395pp. The itinerary includes a sightseeing tour of Bergen, a journey on the Flam Railway, and a cruise along the Aurlandsfjord. Price includes return flights, all rail and coach transport, 4-star hotel accommodation, and selected excursions. Departures available from June-Sept 2017.
Great Rail Journeys (01904 527181) can tailor-make holidays for those inspired to visit Norway on an individual basis.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Great Rail Journeys.