Norway’s landscapes are majestic. Tall mountains tipping the sky flank deep coastal fjords on a scale so vast the sheer force of nature is astounding.
But along some of the country's roads, its natural wonders are enhanced by pioneering architecture and design. On the award-winning National Tourist Routes, the journey is as memorable as the destination.
A total of 18 National Tourist Routes covering 1650km lead to Norway’s biggest attraction: the fjords. Over the past decade, the Public Roads Administration (vegvesen.no/en) has invested €250 million to create avant-garde stops along these routes that will encourage visitors to get out of their cars. Peppered with innumerable tunnels which cut through rock-solid massifs, and bridges which coast over large bodies of water seemingly effortlessly, Norway’s tourist routes are a stunning exercise in staging nature. And with highlights created by local and international architects, the Ryfylke Tourist Route stands out among them.
Inaugurated in 2011, the Ryfylke route in southwestern Norway stretches from Oanes at the mouth of Lysefjord to Håra in Røldal, through 183km of richly contrasting scenery, from towering mountains and boulder fields to lush isles and rolling hills. Above all, it promises an adventure at the edge of vertiginous fjords.
Framing the natural experience
The effort with which observation points have been created with the purpose of enhancing the landscape is truly impressive. Architectural sensations in true Norwegian style, simple yet striking, further intensify travellers' experiences on the route.
Høsebrua pedestrian bridge is one such example. Designed by Rintala Eggertsson Architects, it’s an unassuming steel structure, outstanding in its minimalism, and offers an unmatched view of Sandsfossen falls. With metal grid floors and see-through walls, the viewing experience is heightened at night when the bridge is brilliantly lit.
While grandiose sites like Preikestolen, also known as Pulpit Rock, don’t need an extra boost through architecture, other lesser-known places do, believes architect Simon Ewing of Oslo’s world-renowned Snøhetta firm. ‘By making an architectural gesture that focuses the viewer on the natural phenomenon, we’re distilling the experience,’ he says. Inspired by the fact that the distance between towns in Norway can be very long, the concept on this route was to add points of focus, creating the illusion of shorter journeys.
At Svandalsfossen, further along the Ryfylke route, you’ll find proof that some of Norway’s most spectacular assets are its waterfalls. The greater the rainfall, the mightier a spectacle you’re in for – a mist of spray will greet you on the road. Take in the raging waterfall up close from beneath the adjacent road bridge, or climb the 540 zigzagging steps – a brilliant architectural juxtaposition from which you'll have unobstructed views – and look up in awe at the highest stage of the falls. The closer you get, the more intimidating the fury of the cascading water feels.
Norwegian functionalism at its very best
Perhaps the most talked-about attraction along the route is the collection of dark shanties on stilts erected at the Allmannajuvet zinc mines. Commissioned by the Norwegian Public Roads Administration to welcome visitors as part of a tribute to Sauda’s mining operations between 1881 and 1899, Pritzker Prize–winning architect Peter Zumthor designed a thought-provoking centre portraying the workers’ life of hardship.
The simple complex consists of a museum and a cafe building, along with a nature trail and parking facilities. The official opening took place in September 2016, following a €14 million investment, and the site is due to open to the public in the 2017 season, when visitors will be able to explore on guided tours.
A long drive through remote, otherworldly vistas leads to the small village of Nesflaten, on the northern shore of Suldalsvatnet, home to Hydro’s hydroelectric plant. Designed in the 1960s by the legendary architect Geir Grung, the circular, concrete power station is an iconic symbol of the hydropower development in Suldal. But what most captures the eye here, and attracts design aficionados from further afield, is the building up the hill.
While down in the village two settlements emerged, for workers and middle-management, senior managers had their own hotel up top. This was seen as 'a scandal in the flat Norwegian social structure' says entrepreneur Olav Lindseth, who took over the building from the power company. He now runs it as Energiehotellet, a curious sight in a village where tents, camper vans and grass-roofed hytter dominate. 'We strongly believe in architecture tourism, one of the fastest growing niches in the world,' he says.
Inside the rooms, the design is minimalist. No art, no cozy rugs, no frills whatsoever. Rather, the focus shifts towards the landscape seen through the floor-to-ceiling windows, creating the illusion of a postcard. With its simple lines and use of utilitarian materials such as concrete and wood, the hotel and accompanying structures are some of the finest and best-preserved examples of Norwegian functionalism. And yet, in the reception area, the late Geir Grung took a stance against the minimal with a giant gold-plated steel panel, the chimney centrepiece. The original black-leather-cushioned chairs also remain.
By stripping away the visual noise and clutter, the hotel plays its part well in intensifying the drama of the surrounding scenery. Connecting with nature is the essence of Norwegian society and, by glorifying the surroundings, Energiehotellet and the other architectural spotlights on the Ryfylke route offer a way to do exactly that.
Make it happen
Connect by plane to Stavanger Airport, the nearest to the Ryfylke route, from which the best way to explore is by rental car. Come prepared with warm layers, an umbrella, waterproof jacket and sturdy shoes. For more information on attractions along the Ryfyke National Route, go to Visit Norway (visitnorway.com/places-to-go/fjord-norway/ryfylke).
Monica Suma travelled to Norway with support from Visit Norway (visitnorway.com). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.