Norway in a nutshell by car


See a slideshow from this trip here : Bergen slide show.

This is a trip report from our version of 'Norway in a nutshell', a classic but widely-interpreted whistle-stop tour of all the best that Norway has to offer. We were there the first week in June, which was the optimal time for wild flowers and waterfalls, and we were also blessed with weather so good that it was literally headline news every day we were there. But don't expect to have 25°C and cloudless skies like we did - Bergen is famous for averaging 260 rainy days a year, and last year 80 of them were consecutive.

Most people do their nutshell tour by public transport, but we went for the luxury of hiring a big old station wagon from Rent-a-Wreck at Bergen airport, which did a great job at a fraction of the price of the big hire companies. When we returned the car, the boss even offered to drive us to our hostel through rush hour traffic, despite (hopefully not because of) repeated calls from his wife wondering where he'd gotten to. This was just one example of the pervasive helpfulness and friendliness that we found amongst the Norwegians.

Our first hour driving from the airport was spent being lost, and we somehow managed to drive past the city without noticing it. Eventually we got on to route 7 at Samnanger and settled into enjoying the scenery. The fjords were steeper than I remembered, and I was surprised that even deciduous trees were clinging to the sides. Traffic was light, but what there was was surprisingly fast and aggressive. We had booked a cabin at Oddland Camping near Norheimsund, which consisted of half a dozen cabins with a great view over the Hardanger fjord, and was run by a happy, helpful hostess. Despite being right on the road, it was quiet enough to get a good night's sleep.

The next morning we drove north along the fjord and stopped at Voss for lunch. Most of the town is a bit shabby due to hurried rebuilding after bomb raids during the war, but it has a very nice park by the lake, and an amazingly well-preserved church from 1277 with beautiful decorative ceiling painting. North from Voss we had to take the E16 motorway, but by southern standards this was almost a back road, and not at all unpleasant to be on. Along the way we saw at least 20 waterfalls for which it would have been worth stopping if we hadn't known that there was going to be another equally impressive around the next bend. We almost stopped for the night at Gudvangen, which is set in an amazing valley just teeming with high, free-falling waterfalls, some of which picked up the sun to produce dazzling rainbows. But the cabins there were close to the big road, and I thought we were close enough to our ultimate destination to push on, so we struggled on through some long tunnels, and arrived without reservations at Flåm just before 8 o'clock. Being early in the season we thought that we could take chances like that, but it turned out it was so early that one camp site hadn't even opened yet. There is a site in town, but it's surrounded by roads, and was full of caravans, and looked a bit sad to be our base in such spectacular surroundings. Tourist information was closed, but an extremely helpful guy at the train ticket office called around for us, and suggested that we drive up to old Flåm and try Gjørven Hytter. This we did, and were rewarded with the perfect cabin - large, well-equipped and comfortable, and with such a spectacular view that we later found it used in postcards. It was also isolated, and quite silent except for the pounding of the waterfalls, and the bleating of the baby lambs that surrounded us.

Although the sun always sets at this latitude, in June and July it never really gets dark, so after dinner I hiked up to the first of the big waterfalls above us. Hiking till midnight solved the unusual problem in Norway of it being too hot to hike comfortably during the afternoons, and also gave softer light for kitchy photographs of the waterfalls. After a leisurely breakfast on our balcony the next morning, we set off down to Flåm harbour and took a 4-hour boat tour along the fjord, which gave us another look at Gudvangen. The trip was very relaxing, and of course very beautiful.

The following day was to be the hightlight of our trip, taking the Flåmsbana railway up to Myrdal and hiking down again. We could have picked up the train at the station by our cabin, but in order to be sure of good window seats we actually took the returning train one stop down to Flåm, and then reboarded for the trip up. Flåm was teeming with fellow tourists who had arrived on one of the many enormous cruise ships that regularly come in and dominate the town for a few hours, and many were going to join us on the train. We had heard that the views are equally stunning on both sides of train, so the only criterion for a good seat was one by an opening window, which we managed to get, but as it turned out everyone ran around looking out of all the windows, so our tactics weren't as important as they might be later in the season with a more crowded train. The train winds its way up through a deep gorge, passing so many beautiful waterfalls that I actually pulled a muscle in my neck trying to take them all in.

The terminus at Myrdal is a lonely little station that is also on the main Oslo-Bergen line, and is just at the snow line in June. Many people stayed on the train to get back to their cruise ship, but others got off to hike or bicycle down. The trail drops 800m over 20km, so it's not very steep, except for a number of switchbacks very early on, and it's mostly paved, so anyone who can hike 20 km can manage the terrain. The switchback section is flanked by spectacular waterfalls, and stopping to admire and photograph them meant that we had barely started the hike an hour after the train left us. I was a little disappointed that this was the only day of our holiday that was cloudy, and so some potential masterpieces of photography went unrealised because of the flat light. We met a few brave souls hiking or even biking up the trail, and below the switchback section we also met cars, some containing other tourists, but there was also local traffic driven with the same reckless abandon as on the main roads, but this time more dangerous because hikers and bikers couldn't hear them coming over the noise of the river. The hike to Old Flåm took about 4 hours, with a lot of stops.

Now it was time to start heading back to Bergen, and our first stop was at our favorite lunch spot at Voss. As I watched the paragliders circling over the town, I realised that there could never be a better combination of season, weather, and surroundings to try this sport, and so signed up for a tandem flight with Nordic Ventures. My pilot Jan was very professional, and apparently used to be a test pilot for the company that made the equipment we were going to be using. We were launched by a boat that dragged us out over the lake until we had reached an altitude of about 1000m, when we were released for free flight. We rode thermals up to about 1500m and had the most incredible view. Back on the ground there had been a heavy heat haze, so I was expecting poor visibility on the flight, but for some reason vision straight down was unaffected, and the spring colours were brilliant. The lake was turquoise with wonderful gradations of colour around the edges where the depth changed. Looking across, we could see at least 70km over snow-capped mountains. I knew the flight would be fun, but it was far better than I expected.

From Voss we took E16 back towards Bergen instead of route 7, and even though there was more traffic and a lot of tunnels, the views were still amazing. The walls of the fjords were even steeper and often treeless, plunging hundreds of meters into the water. At Samnanger we took a detour back on to route 7 the way we had gone a few days earlier because there were cabins marked on our map. But these turned out to be sad little wooden awnings attached to even sadder caravans, and were admininstered by a teenage girl to whom I couldn't make myself understood, so we took a chance and pushed on down route 48. We soon found ourselves at Gaupholm camping like our first one - tiny, right by the road, with a stunning view down the fjord, and run by a lovely, helpful lady. After dinner I took my customary midnight walk and as usual crazy Norwegian drivers tried to kill me. Frustrated by their failure, they then proceeded to keep me awake all night by screaming past the cabin at regular intervals. So I don't remember much about the next day, except that it started with a refreshing swim in the fjord, and somehow we found our way back to the airport, returned our car, and got driven to our hostel by the latest in our stream of new best friends. Jacobs Apartments are very central and well-appointed, with great staff, and the only real drawback is that they are potentially very noisy. We were lucky to get a room at the back and reasonable neighbours, but the walls are thin and there is a big road outside. Having lived on non-perishable food for a week, we decided to treat ourselves to a fancy restaurant this night, so we took the funicular up to the top of Fløyen with the hope of eating in the restaurant there with its view out over the city. But they were fully booked on this beautiful night, and so we walked back down the hill and desperately hungry we arrived at Enhörningen in Bryggen at 10 o'clock. The food there was excellent and beautifully presented, and the 300 year-old building was charming. A large glass of wine took the edge off receiving the bill.

Bergen is a lovely city, with brightly-coloured wooden houses dotted around amongst the trees on the hillsides, and we were very lucky to see it in sunshine. Mostly I cruised the streets, but the maritime, fishing, and leper museums were all worth a visit. Then we ate at "A taste of Indian", which had good and reasonably priced food in a very Indian environment, an experience spoiled only by discovering that my bottle of mediocre beer had cost me $20.

Our trip was almost over. All that was left was the train journey to Oslo, which sounded long at 7 hours, but in fact flashed by because of the incredible variation of scenery. After revisting many of our driving locations we headed up on to the Hardangervidda with a view of the glacier, and people still skiing even off the glacier. We had lashed out on "Comfort class" tickets, which were well worth the $10 surcharge for the quieter and more comfortable carriage, with free coffee and newspapers.

There are many variations on the "Norway in a nutshell' tour, but this variation suited us well, with the great advantage of having the car and being able to stop wherever and whenever we liked. We drove around 500km over the week. Travelling off-season allowed us to be flexible with our itinery, and to check out accomodation before commiting to it, as well as simply avoiding the crowds.

All in all a very sucessful trip, and one I would recommend to others.

© Mark Harris 2007

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