NORWAY really is a special place.
Straggling along the edge of Scandinavia, heavily indented with the famous fjords, it should be a poor country, but it isn’t. It has one of the strongest currencies in the world and is doing so well that it has no intention of ever joining the EU or having the Euro. A good model for Scotland to follow?
The rugged country is well worth a visit. It is easy to get there, with daily flights between Aberdeen and Stavanger and Bergen, and Bergen is a good place to start from. Flying in, you cross innumerable small islands, usually with a few houses and a jetty for the boats that act as bus services. Bergen is sheltered by islands so does not suffer the wildness of the North Sea, which is why it developed as such an important port for oil, fishing and general cargo.
The harbour is the heart of the town, and it is not so security, health and safety neurotic that it is fenced off. At the head is a lively fish market, and there are many quaint, colourful wooden shops and cafes. Some are lop-sided and sinking, and some urgent repair work is going on. Bergen also has an excellent tram network that is expanding outwards to link the fringe areas along the mountainous coastline. And it has a clean, efficient (Swiss made, of course) funicular to whisk you up to the tallest hill for panoramic views over the island studded seascape. There is a great restaurant and many walks around the hill as well.
The Norwegians are noted as having over 75% of its population speaking English, so that is another plus for us. The only minus is that everything costs at least double the price that it is here. It is a good idea to buy a Bergen Card (www.visitbergen.com). A 48-hour adult card costs 260 Norwegian Krona (about £28) and gives you free transport, and loads of offers and discounts.
Bergen is a UNESCO world heritage city, with many cultural events throughout the year, and supermarkets that are a harmonious part of a street. Wooden buildings look traditional, as opposed to the functional monstrosities that mar the towns and cities of the UK.
You will find loads of things to do in and around Bergen, especially outdoor activities, including an excursion to the nearby home of Edvard Greig. Concerts of his music are everywhere.
Bergen is the terminus of a railway line from Oslo, the capital. The line describes itself as one of Europe’s most spectacular train journeys, and that is no not exaggeration. From Bergen the line follows a fjord as far as Voss (itself worth a visit) then steeply climbs up to the vast plateau which it has to cross to reach Oslo on the other side of the country. Then you burst out of a tunnel (one of the 182 on the 471km line) to a junction at Myrdal. There is little sign of houses, just a railway junction, where the Flåm railway waits for you.
The train has a powerful electric locomotive at each end of six carriages, and you can soon see why. Myrdal is 866 metres above sea level; the line descends to Flåm, just 20 kms away, but at sea level, so you twist and turn down a narrow valley, almost a ravine, in the most spectacular way. The line is immensely popular, especially with tour groups, and you are well advised to book in advance.
The train emerges from a tunnel and grinds to a halt. The front engine is already in the next tunnel before the rear engine has not emerged from the last one. The passengers all descend onto a platform over a raging torrent, to be drenched by the spray from a mighty waterfall that thunders down right in front of you. To one side are the four walls of a ruined farmhouse, and suddenly music can be heard and a lady dancer performs a dance in the wet mist.
Then the train crew usher you aboard and you continue the precipitous twists, loops and 20 tunnels trip to suddenly level out at Flåm. This small town (population around 400 people) lives on tourism and goats (www.visitflam.com). You are at the very head of the Aurlandsfjorden. It is just breathtakingly beautiful, apart from the bizarre sight of a massive cruise ship tied up at the end of the pier. Most of the train passengers crossed to their ship, scouring the few shops for souvenirs on the way.
Facing down the fjord is the wonderful Fretheim Hotel (www.fretheim-hotel.no). This is a 100-year-old, low, white wooden hotel that has very high quality standards, and meets them. They even do their best to give you a decent cup of tea (a rarity in Norway). In the evening the garish cruise ship slid away, gliding backwards down the fjord until it could turn, and disappeared. A regular boat service runs to and from Bergen as well, a spectacular journey which I am determined to go back and do one day soon.
Peace descended. The sun had gone behind the high mountains bordering the fjord. In the morning I decided to get up very early and photograph the beauty of the fjord in the early morning light. When I did, I found that another massive ship had arrived in the night and the early morning sound of dew dripping off the leaves (no other sound at all) was suddenly torn by “Bing bang bong – good morning….” From the ship’s message system – another busy day for the small shops and the train. To be so far inland and yet having such huge ships there shows how deep and long the fjords are, and how difficult it is to get about Norway, which is why they use boats and planes like we use buses and trains.
I would have very much liked to stay longer in Flåm, but had a schedule, so took the train back up the spectacular line to Myrdal and the connecting train to Bergen, and the bus link to the airport. My plane would connect at Stavanger for Aberdeen, but it was late coming down from the north of Norway. As we flew the short hop to Stavanger, the stewardess announced that for Aberdeen passengers (all oil men, apart from me) please go left at the arrival gate, up the first staircase, through security screening and on to the Aberdeen plane. We had just 15 minutes so I did not expect it – but it worked. In just 15 minutes I was off one plane and onto the next, and so was my suitcase.
That is Norwegian efficiency for you. There are many places where you go, and enjoy it, but wouldn’t go back – Bergen, and especially Flåm, will make you want to go back for sure.