June 2, 2015. Yay, my li’l sis Ruthie is here! She arrived at the end of May, and we immediately hit the pavement, making the rounds to my favorite tourist sites and trying out a few new spots. A first for me, we checked out Oslo’s Medieval Festival at Akershus fortress, where we experienced the most hardcore “faire” I’ve ever been to — these folks are serious about their authenticity. No slippage into other time periods, nary a bad costume in sight, and handicrafts any Middle Ages denizen would die for.
Then we took in a terrific performance of Norway’s first soul dance company, Tabanka, at the beautiful Opera House, followed by a visit to an awesome new bar / distillery / nightclub / barbershop (yep, it’s quite a combo!) by the name of Himkok (which basically means “moonshine” or “hootch”). Here we guzzled terrific drinks made on the spot or bottled in tiny flasks for folks to enjoy at their leisure. Fun concept, great atmosphere, and delicious cocktails.
But our real goal was to get out into nature, where we planned to hike some of those trails that are requisite for “a true Norwegian.” The first leg of our journey took us on the Norway in a Nutshell Tour, which I highly recommend to anyone planning a visit here. You won’t get a better opportunity to taste a little of all Norway has to offer — gorgeous fjords, snow-covered mountains, dense forests, and historic cities — all packaged in an excursion from Olso to Bergen that can last one day or three, depending upon your energy and time.
Matthew and I have done the trip in two days to avoid the one-day insanity of playing trains, planes, and automobiles (with boats added in), which can feel like a chore rather than a joy. But on this trip with my sister, we decided to break up the journey, taking just the first part of the tour to Flåm — a tiny town that perches on the edge of the Sognefjord, Norway’s longest, deepest, and arguably most picturesque fjord.
The journey to Flåm — ranked by National Geographic Traveler and Lonely Planet as one of the world’s most beautiful train rides — involves a two-stage trip. The initial portion is aboard the NSB line, which has nice, comfy recliners that sure came in handy for my poor sis, who was still suffering from jet lag and needed a good nap. As we traveled, rain streaked the windows, and the heat of the car (cranked to high to combat the frigid June temperatures) fogged the glass, but we were still able to get decent views of incredibly cute towns and tiny red farmhouses, all situated in spots that seemed far too remote for roads much less villages.
For a mental picture, think of the Olympic National Rainforest in Washington State, but with adorable, gingerbread log cabins tossed in for atmosphere. Thick stands of ferns, conifers, and birches dripping with moisture and moss crowded the tracks. Granite outcroppings bordered meandering mountain streams, their beds filled with bleached stones worn smooth by the runoff from glaciers.
Occasional snow fences and tunnels temporarily blocked our views and gave Matthew and I a chance to a chance to catch a few zzz’s, too, like Ruthie. Every now and then, he and I ventured into the train’s sweet little café car for more cups of coffee to help keep our eyelids open in hopes of catching as much scenery as possible. But after a few hours at top speed, the train began to slow noticeably as we climbed to the highest elevations.
Of course, Ruthie awoke just as the rain turned to snow, which quickly encased the train like a caterpillar in its cocoon. (My sister has lived in Atlanta, Georgia, for more than ten years, and the idea that it could snow in June was not only mind-blowing, but discouraging, as she’d hoped for warm weather.) Word traveled down through the car that two feet of snow had accumulated along the tracks the previous night, so we all crossed our fingers that we’d make it to Myrdal, our next stop.
Slowly we crawled ever upwards, far above the treeline and along Europe’s longest stretch of high-mountain railway. Finally, we reached the domed mountaintop stop of Finse, where it looked like we’d stumbled into the Arctic. Snowdrifts sculpted into sinuous ribbons lay along a landscape devoid of any vegetation whatsoever. No tundra to be had here. Just giant boulders and crumbled layers of clay and sheets of fractured shale, pockmarked by occasional glacier-carved potholes filled with puddles of milky water.
Some folks love this landscape, and last year when Matthew and I took the trip, we saw tons of Norwegians dressed in traditional woolen socks and knickers jauntily taking their cross-country skis and snowshoes out for a spin over the desolate terrain. It wasn’t my favorite vista, because it reminded me of war-torn battlefronts, where not much is left after the bombs have gotten at it. The swirling snow didn’t help the atmosphere of barren lifelessness, so I was glad when we began our slight descent towards the Myrdal mountain station.
Greenery and trees twisted and stunted by the wind suddenly reappeared, although these, too, boasted their fair share of snow cover. Soon, we pulled into the lacy little depot and trekked across the platform to board the historic Flåmsbana. To say this train is cute, or that the view is spectacular, is a gross understatement. A traction train with five separate braking systems, the Flåmsbana rides one of the steepest rails in the world, traveling down the Flåmsdalen valley and past more than a dozen waterfalls to reach the striking Sognefjord.
The train stops several times along the way so that passengers can take a good gander at sights like lush meadows filled with sheep, isolated farms precariously clinging to cliffsides, and the rainbow-studded spray from spouting falls. My favorite stop is Kjosfossen, where the audio recording describes the legend of Huldra, a beautiful and seductive Norwegian forest spirit. (If you see her while you’re out hiking, her cow’s tail peeking out from beneath her skirt is the dead giveaway.)
After the narrative concludes, everybody spills out onto the platform and an Enya-like recording of a woman singing begins broadcasting out over the scenery. Soon, a blonde in a long red dress pops out from a ruined hut on a ledge by the waterfall and begins dancing. Suddenly, she disappears. But wait … what looks to be the same girl pops up far above the hut … and the little kiddies in the audience go wild.
The performance lasts for several minutes, with different dancers pretending to be Huldra popping up and down in different places, a bit like Whack-a-mole. Yes, it’s kinda cheesy, but I love it — and by the way, the whole scheme employs several students from the Norwegian National Ballet School, so that can’t be bad, right? In any case, my sister enjoyed it, and that’s all that counts, so a big raspberry to those of you who hate corny tourist traps.
Anyway, we arrived in Flåm after the hour-long ride and checked in to the historic Fretheim Hotel — a beautiful place with great views of the fjord, good food, and a lodge-y atmosphere. Then we headed down to the waterfront where we rented bikes in preparation for the short ride to the town. As we stood talking with the rental agent, we heard the sharp crack of stones cascading down one of the rocky mountain slopes.
Our guide said, “Yeah, that happens a lot. Last year, scientists put a slight bit of radioactive material in the mountain lake to track the water’s descent. Turns out, the whole eastern mountainside is riddled with fissures. It’s ready to give way any minute. One night last spring, we had a tremendous layer of fog, and I heard what sounded like an incredible crack of thunder. It went on forever before I realized it was an avalanche. Couldn’t decide whether I should run or not. But where would I go? Into the fjord, where I’d likely get swamped anyway? So just don’t hike on the eastern side — last year it took hours to get a guy out of one of those crevices.”
Yeah, that’s the kinda story you want to hear right before you take a walk into the wilderness. It didn’t help that nine houses in Flåm had been washed away that autumn by a flood that had rampaged down the mountainside. And of course, I’d also just seen previews for the Norwegian film Bølgen (“The Wave”), where the mountain pass above the Geiranger fjord gives way and creates a 300-foot-high violent tsunami, resulting in a damp conclusion to life for most of the townspeople.
These happy thoughts ran through my head as we biked along the road into a town that was still under renovations from the flood. Several Carpenter Gothic houses with wildflower-dotted gardens had managed to survive the washout, although our favorite little church had sustained so much damage that we couldn’t get inside to show my sister the beautiful rosemaling paintings covering its walls.
After taking lots of photos, we rode back towards the hotel accompanied by the sounds of bells hung ’round the necks of sheep grazing by the roadside. Our dinner destination — the Aegir Brewery, home of several award-winning craft beers and meals designed to mimic the diet of ancient Vikings. While this might not sound palatable, the food is fantastic, made even better by the fun atmosphere of the place, which is designed to look like a Viking Guild Hall. But more about Vikings later ….