Nov 18, 2010 9:08:53 AM
Europe’s best train journey?
We’re somewhere on the Hardervigga plateau on one of the world’s highest stretches of railway tracks and we appear to have stopped. I say that with no great certainty because we’re in the middle of a white-out. Having just left Norway’s most elevated train station the Oslo to Bergen train may or may not be continuing its astonishing progress across a desperately inhospitable landscape. By the time we get here I am simply in awe that this railway is here at all.
Norwegians, as visitors quickly learn, don’t mess about when it comes to getting around. Mountains made of seemingly impenetrable gneiss rock are simply one more thing to go straight through. Anywhere else, the Bergensbanen or Bergen Line would be heralded as a wonder of the world. Here, it’s a matter of fact way of linking the country’s two most important cities.
But a wonder it surely is. And unlike some things in Norway it can be done on a relatively small budget.
I had wanted to ride the Bergensbanen ever since taking the train from London to Oslo several years ago. This journey involved one night on a bench in Brussels Midi station which gave me plenty of time to ponder alternatives to the long train trip, which at the time included the now-defunct Newcastle to Bergen sea route. Had I done that, I would have taken the Bergensbanen to Oslo after a long sea crossing. I might have missed my chance to do that but I wasn’t going to miss taking the train over the mountains the next chance I got.
The Bergensbanen runs for 308 miles, taking six and a half hours to cross some of Europe’s most inhospitable terrain. It was built between 1875 and 1909 and, as you might expect for a line that climbs to 1200m, building the line was not easy. 182 tunnels had to be carved out of the gneiss, winter storms had to be negotiated and putting funding in place for what appears an impossible task was difficult. But the engineers and navvies working on the project found a way, and we should be grateful to them.
This is the second year running I’ve been in Oslo in November and it is a glorious time to be in the Norwegian capital. Autumn colours are everywhere and the cool air means everyone rugs up in woollies, except for angelic-looking children in snow suits. The sun shines crisp and clear and the city’s best attractions, from the stupendous new opera house to the museums of Bygdøy look fantastic. It’s just the sort of weather for a train ride.
The common gripe about Oslo is the cost. It is an expensive city especially if you have designs on eating and drinking out – budget for £30 a head for a decent meal. Or you might do what I did and eat a lot of sausages which cook on hot rollers in 7-11 stores across the city.
For roughly the same amount as a pizza and a glass of beer (NOK299) you can buy a minipris one-way ticket on the morning train to Bergen. I was on it one Thursday morning as it left Oslo at 8.11am and headed through the capital’s commuter belt to Drammen, the first major stop. From here the line begins to head into wilder land. The train follows the course of valleys and rivers, seemingly growing ever wider and faster-flowing. Mountains started to pop up on the horizon, and as I turned to look at them I realised I was always missing a better view on the other side. If you’re lucky the train will be quiet enough to swap sides to take advantage of the best views.
We’d left Oslo in bright sunshine but Alpine conditions soon prevailed. As we climbed – the train displays and station signs proudly showing just how high the train was going – the snow on the ground got heavier. The train guard stopped for a cigarette at each stop, and a group of teenage boys in our carriage worked out that this meant five minutes for a snowball fight at each stop. At Finse, the highest station on the line we are at 1222m, we are 244m above the highest point in England. The line climbs to 1237m, a mere 107 metres below the height of Ben Nevis. Not that it doesn’t feel like we’re high up: the views of the snowy plateau stretch for miles and between Finse and Myrdal the train bashes effortlessly through a white-out.
Once over the top and heading downhill the climate changes astonishingly. Myrdal is clearly on the maritime coast of Norway, milder and damper than what’s come before. The only branch line on the route, the Flåmsbana to, er, Flåm leaves from here. It is one of several stations on the line that there are no roads to. Anyone (sadly not me) on the Norway in a Nutshell tour gets off here for another train, then a combination of boat and bus to get to Bergen while I was staying on the train. For me, there were a few hours of tumbling waterfalls, green forests and edging along enough dramatic fjords to make me sad I wasn’t going further.
This journey finished up in Bergen, which was wet and cold and a good place to find a bar and settle in for the night. Being Norway you don’t settle in for too long anywhere that costs money but I did my best. The Bergen Line is a journey that will live long in my memory. If you haven’t done it you can’t say for sure that it’s not the world’s most beautiful train ride. Then again, looking at the map, rails go a lot further north in Norway. One journey leads to another.
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