Norwegian adventure with Great Rail Journeys
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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
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.
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
Great Rail Journeys (01904
527181) can tailor-make holidays for those inspired to visit Norway on an
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