Review: Northern Norway by Train
Escorted Tour - Rail
Trondhiem and Bodo, Norway
Norway - land of the mid-day moon
84 people found this review helpful
Oslo is a nice city to visit and Bergen is packed full of historic charm but to get a real sense of Norway you just have to go further north and fortunately it’s one of the easiest places to cross the Arctic Circle. Norway is the Land of the Midnight Sun, technically it’s also the Land of the Midday Moon because in summer people in northern Norway experience 24 hours of sunshine as well as 24 hours of darkness during winter.
Norway is long, narrow, some 1,097 miles north to south but barely 60 miles east to west and it borders Finland, Sweden, and Russia. Its famous convoluted fjords and 50,000 islands increase its coastline to an incredible 13,232 miles.
Winter is the classic time to visit Norway but summer is also great because it’s their low season when it’s high season, price hike time, elsewhere in Europe. Like the UK the climate of Norway is moderated by the Gulf Stream so sea level coastal areas are surprisingly mild.
My flight from London to Oslo was just over two hours and a 50 minute connecting flight took me to Trondheim, a few hundred miles further north. This is Norway’s third largest city but with a meagre population of 180,000, it’s attractive and easy to stroll around. If you haven’t been on a bicycle for a few years Trondheim is the place to see if you’ve still got what it takes. Hire a public city bike for £5 a day, compared London’s £2 an hour ‘Boris bikes’ that’s good value. Cycling is easy along dedicated paths, bridges and in the Bakklandet district there’s an amazing mechanical cycle assistant that pushes cyclists up the city’s steepest hill.
Bakklandet is the picturesque old town of cobbled streets, colourful wooden houses, cafes, restaurants and small local shops. Across the Old Town Bridge is Nidaros cathedral, the most northerly Gothic cathedral and probably the only one flying the British ensign – strange but true. Also surprising is how English masons were involved in this 11th to 12th century construction and they left signatures, some the same as those found at Lincoln cathedral. And for those who like a bit of regal bling the adjacent Archbishop’s Palace guards the Norwegian crown jewels.
No matter what means of transport you prefer Norway is an easy country to get around. If you’re in a hurry there’s an Explore Norway ticket which is a flying travel pass that works like an InterRail Pass – explore the country by hopping on and off planes that go just about everywhere. For ground hogs there are excellent roads, seemingly deserted to anyone from the UK, and they cover the whole country including the far north.
Another unique way to explore coastal Norway is the Hurtigruten. These are coastal steam ships sailing daily from Bergen to Kirkenes – way beyond the Arctic Circle in the Bering Sea. They’re not traditional cruise ships with games and entertainment, they carry cargo, passengers and the daily post the length of Norway. Leap frogging up and down the coast they link 36 coastal towns and islands; two people with a cabin from Bodo to Tromso, making nine ports of call, would cost around £120 – a fraction of the price of an organised Norwegian cruise.
And then there are the trains. There are several rail lines through Norway, all of them picturesque but the Nordland rail line, which runs north from Trondheim across the Arctic Circle to Bodo, has to be the one to do.
Crossing the Arctic Circle
It was an early morning start but only a 5 minute walk to Trondheim station. Within minutes we’re out into the countryside, the train hugs the fjord where little boats are moored, mountains march away in the opposite direction and scattered houses and little fields of cereal crops are squeezed into any flat area. The first stop is the airport where we landed the day before. Turning inland we pass the town of Hell surrounded by steep hills and a surprising amount of good farmland for this far north.
The train is smart and clean, just like the entire country, and it’s very well organised. There’s a separate family carriage with a soft play area with children’s TV, a quiet carriage, a no pets carriage and a restaurant/buffet carriage. Announcements are in English and Norwegian and the train conductor regularly walks through the train to check that all is well.
The track veers inland to skirt the fjord indented coastline, occasionally passing through tunnels and across bridges. Conifer and silver birch forest stretch for miles, sometimes adorned with lakes, rivers and waterfalls. After a few hours there’s a glimpse of snow on some distant high peaks – a residue from last winter
The small towns and farms are so neat and tidy; no piles of discarded waste, rusting vehicles or dilapidated barns. In fact they look like the toy farm sets my children played with – red roofed barns, neatly parked tractors, arrow straight fences and every wooden chalet-styled house perfectly painted.
The train was just quarter full but the conductor said early September was a quiet period and in winter the train is usually packed. Groups of ladies were returning home from a shopping trip, giggling couples obsessed with their smart phones and a young man on his way to a business meeting in Mo i Rana. The unaccompanied businessman was unusual in that he was paraplegic in a high tech wheelchair (with of course a dedicated carriage area) and was assisted off the train where he sped off into town.
A few miles north of Mo i Rana, our train climbed to a desolate high plateau in the Saltfjellet mountains and for the first time all the forests disappeared. Our train slows to brief a halt to mark our arrival at the Arctic Circle (latitude 66°33’ N) – beyond this point the sun is above the horizon for 24 continuous hours at least once per year (midnight sun) and below the horizon for 24 continuous hours at least once per year (midday moon, at least no sun at noon).
Straddling the line of latitude is the Polarsirkelsenteret (The Arctic Circle Centre), which could have been designed with more sympathy with the landscape, but it’s the sudden vast, rolling bleakness of the landscape that is most startling.
I thought this was the end of the forests but as the train dropped down into sheltered valleys and nearer the coast, forests, farms and small towns reappeared as we rolled into Bodo – 10 hours, 729km and 27 stops from Trondheim.
The latitude is 67°17’ N, here the Midnight Sun runs from 2 June – 10 July and the Polar Night from 15 December – 29 December. The big question is what were the northern lights like? Sadly we didn’t see them, September is the wrong time of year, although the right time to enjoy the countryside and the coastal islands, it’s still warm, there are few visitors and because it’s off-season it’s relatively cheap.
Perched on the edge of the sea, Bodo is a Hurtigruten port of call and the sky-bar at the Scandic Havet is the perfect place to watch the coming and going of boats and planes. Being a small city you can walk to the airport in 15 minutes (5 minutes by taxi) or you can walk out of town to Mount Keiservarden for fresh air, lakes, forests and spectacular views of Norway’s inner islands and the outer Lofoten islands.
For those that enjoy the adrenaline rush of theme park rides a boat trip to nearby Saltstraumen is a must. Every 6 hours a maelstrom is created by the world’s strongest tidal current, creating epic whirlpools as 400 million cubic metres of water rushes at speeds of up to 40 kilometres per hour through a narrow gap. I don’t like theme park rides, in fact I detest them. As someone who has been seasick on the Dover ferry, while it was still moored in the harbour – I wasn’t looking forward to this.
Ten of us slid out of the harbour in a high speed RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boat) dressed in bright yellow insulated float suits, life jackets, with goggles, gloves and hat for when we got cold. The first stretch was glorious, speeding between islands, passed ancient twisted rocks and then stopping to watch majestic white tailed sea eagles.
Reaching Saltstraumen as the tide was turning, the water appeared to be boiling, whirlpools were everywhere and when captain Knut (really) stopped the engine the boat was whirled around and pushed by the surging water. An amazing experience of the power of nature but I was glad when we set off back to Bodo.
I’m not a great one for museums but I had to visit Bodo’s aviation museum to see a very rare U2 spy plane. Surprisingly Bodo was a front-line NATO base during the Cold War with Russia and it was where Gary Powers was heading for in 1960 when he was shot down whilst spying over Russia. Having captured the plane and pilot Khrushchev humiliated America on the world stage by proving they were lying about their spying activities and the Cold War got decidedly chillier and more dangerous.
What a great surprise Norway turned out to be; a real alternative to some of the crowded and sometimes tacky Mediterranean resorts. So spacious, quiet and peaceful, fabulous countryside, lovely people and excellent food. My only regret is that I didn’t get to explore more of the coastline and islands – next time I’ll definitely hop on board one of the Hurtigruten ships and travel even further north.
My trip was with Great Rail Journeys (www.greatrail.com/) who offer a more extensive 11 day escorted group holiday – The Northern Lights & Lapland from £2,195pp, tel: 01904 527180. It’s twice as long as my trip and includes more train trips, a Hurtigruten trip and other Artic Circle experiences.
However, if you prefer making your own way, GRJ can also arrange individual itineraries at www.greatrail.com/grj-independent/ tel: 01904 527181
84 people found this review helpful
This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.