Best for rail adventures: Oslo to Bergen Railway
As the train pulls out of Oslo Central Station and begins its journey west, the landscape softens into farmland, broad and green in the mid-morning light. Soon the window glass becomes cool to touch as the train climbs more than 1000m into a bare, otherworldly landscape of boulders and snowdrifts.
The Oslo to Bergen railway is one of the world’s most scenic journeys, stretching 308 miles through some of Norway’s most spectacular landscapes. The railway was lauded as an engineering marvel when it opened in 1909 and it remains a striking homage to the chutzpah of its creators. At Finse station, the highest mainline rail station in Europe at 1222m, passengers climb down to the platform with packs and sturdy boots, their breath visible in the cold mountain air. The village is little more than a series of railway buildings in a bowl created by the Hardangervidda mountains.
From Finse, the train descends into the valleys of western Norway, with rich green farmland and flowing rivers, masked and revealed by thick stands of pine trees. It follows the gentle curves of the glassy Osterfjord. At length, the train begins to pass clusters of houses, building up gradually into the centre of Bergen, where it comes to rest. The passengers who’ve spent the journey pressed to the windows have a dazed look of scenic overload. Others stir and stretch into wakefulness, bleary-eyed and seemingly unaware of the sights that have just passed them by.
Best for history: Bergen
Late afternoon sunlight slants across the face of Bryggen, Bergen’s ancient trading wharf, giving a golden glow to the steeple-roofed warehouses painted in bright shades of orange and dusky pink. Once, the wooden buildings were crammed with barrels of unsalted codfish. Today, art galleries, craft shops and restaurants have taken up residence.
This quaint cluster of aged timber stretches along the northern side of Bergen’s harbour, a world apart from the shiny modern office buildings across the water. ‘It has always been that way, the separation between this wharf and the rest of the town,’ Torleif Skage says as he expertly negotiates Bryggen’s warren of walkways. A teacher, youth worker and occasional guide, Torleif has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the city.
At the rear of the complex, signs of reconstruction are evident and wooden foundations exposed. The marshy ground has led to several buildings sinking, causing structural destabilisation, along with a picturesque leaning. Original building methods and hand tools are being utilised, and craftsmen from all over the world are coming to learn how to restore wooden buildings, continuing the proud Bryggen tradition of training apprentices.
Back at the wharf’s colourful façade, Torleif gestures upward. ‘These buildings have been the entrance to Bergen for the last 600 years, so it’s a big part of our city’s identity,’ he says.
Best for islandhopping: Solund Archipelago
The faraway hum of an engine can be heard on the breeze and Anne Marie Gåsvær emerges from her cottage, wandering down to a small wooden jetty to wait. The island she calls home is Gåsvær, named after her husband’s family, who have lived for hundreds of years on this small grassy rock.
The source of the engine noise – the jaunty blue-and-white MS Stjernsund – approaches, weaving deftly between the islets and into the pale aquamarine waters of the harbour. This vessel doubles as a postal boat and passenger service, and it’s a lifeline for the tiny communities spread out among Solund’s 1700 islands, as well as the Askvoll archipelago farther north.
Anne Marie welcomes the boat and ushers its half-dozen passengers into a nearby fisherman’s shed for afternoon tea. The boat’s journey begins from the island of Sula at the mouth of the Sognefjord, north of Bergen. Departing from the pretty harbour at Hardbakke, it plots a course through narrow channels and around sharp headlands.
Roar Moe, the only resident of Little Færøy island, greets the boat’s crew with a familiar shout. Roar is the island’s only resident and has been living here alone for more than a decade, restoring classic boats and running wilderness skills workshops for schools. ‘It’s the lifestyle I choose,’ he says. ‘I want my life to be as slow and lonely as possible. It’s so beautiful here – it’s a privilege.’
Best for fjord views: Aurlandsfjord
‘It’s impossible to improve on this pristine environment, so we tried to add something to the experience, not the landscape,’ says architect Todd Saunders. He nods at his creation, the smooth wooden shelf of the Stegastein viewpoint, stretching out from a high mountainside. The broad sweep of the Aurlandsfjord lies below, a southerly offshoot of the mighty Sognefjord, with steep, snow-dusted mountain walls rising straight up and curving into the distance.
The scene took millions of years to perfect, as gargantuan fingers of glacial ice tore inexorably through the landscape, leaving a chasm of steep rock, part-filled with an expanse of seawater. Today, the water is so calm that, as a boat passes through the fjord, its wake fans out for hundreds of metres behind it like a bridal train of clear blue.
The timber walkway juts out 30m from the mountain wall before plunging suddenly downward in an elegant curve, leaving viewers suspended over a 650m drop, with only a pane of glass in place to prevent a tumble.
The viewpoint was created by Todd and fellow architect Tommie Wilhelmsen in 2006, one of a series of architectural projects built in scenic areas across Norway, from the rugged Trollstigen plateau to the windswept Lofoten islands. Todd says, ‘We wanted to make it so that when you walk out on the platform, you feel fragile and tiny.'
Best for mountain life: Hardangerfjord
Morning breaks over vast Hardangerfjord, sending shafts of soft light across hillsides ribbed with the orderly lines of orchards. Above, perched on a cliff that rises 600 metres straight up are the traditional mountain farms of Kjeåsen.
Alvhilda Kjeaasen, a tall, elderly woman, gets ready for a day of overseeing her old farm, preparing the waffles and hot coffee she’ll serve to visitors who might come by. Some stop to chat, but most simply bypass the farmhouse and head to the edge of the property to take in the glorious views. ‘I often have to call them back if they go the wrong way,’ Alvhilda says, keeping one eye out for errant walkers. ‘There are some nasty places to fall down around here.’
While the property has not been actively cultivated since the early ’60s, the traditions of Alvhilda’s family stretch back 400 years. The farm’s scenic and isolated location came at a high price. With no roads to the clifftop built until 1974, all supplies had to be carried on the family’s backs, from food and tools to livestock, 530m up a steep cliffside path.
Alvhilda settles herself comfortably in her favourite spot on the steps leading to the farmhouse door. ‘I often sit here in the afternoons and look across to the mountains,’ she says. ‘I think about my grandmother and I wonder, what did she think about living here? Did she sit and look for faces in the rocks like I do? Life was very hard for them, but I think she must have had moments of peace like this.’