June 6, 2015. Today we picked up where we left off with the typical “Norway in a Nutshell” tour by taking a boat, then a bus, then a train to Bergen. We began by high-tailing it early in the morning over to Kaupanger, where we caught the car ferry to Gudvangen. Normally on the Nutshell tour, travelers spend an hour sailing from Flåm to Gudvangen — basically from the Aurlandfjord to the Naerøyfjord, which are branches of the spectacular Sognefjord. But we decided to take a special three-hour ferry that would carry us down a particularly fabulous stretch of the Sogne and into the Naerøy to Gudvangen.
I know that’s a lot of Norwegian names to throw at you all at once, and I don’t mean it to be a geography lesson. But for those of you who are planning a visit here soon, I wanted to give you an understanding of all your options. If you want to break up your Nutshell trip and squeeze in some hiking between the Oslo and Bergen legs of your journey, renting a car in Flåm and driving around western Norway will give you plenty of trekking opportunities. Plus, you’ll get a chance to take lots of ferries, which is a major way of life here in this waterlogged country.
My sister had never been on a car ferry of this size before, and it can be a bizarre experience for first-timers. Basically the front end of the ship hinges upward, exposing a parking lot. Dozens of cars, semi-trucks, and giant tour buses all pile on head-first, directed by a guy who tries to balance the weight by steering vehicles to one of the 2 – 4 lanes available on the boat. After the hatch closes, everyone is free to exit their chariot and grab something to eat before heading to the deck or lounge for sightseeing. An announcement warns folks when to get back in their vehicles so they can be herded off the boat in an orderly fashion without causing it to list to one side.
Immediately after we got the “go light” to abandon our car, my sister jumped into action to claim a table at the front of the lounge, ahead of the hordes of folks fleeing the burgeoning tour bus. It was touch-n-go there for a minute, with a bit of brangling over chairs, but she successfully scored us a great spot for viewing the fjord high and dry. Yep. As usual, poor weather plagued us; it was raining heavily. But on the bright side, low-hanging clouds haloed the mountains and made the fjord look incredibly mystical — I actually preferred seeing it this way as opposed to a perfectly sunny day.
The ride through the Sogne fjord — considered one of Norway’s most picturesque — was just as promised. Craggy black mountaintops punched at the sky as if irritated to still be wearing their shawl of snow, while a blanket of green at their feet worked its way up to warm their flanks. Every now and then, their thickly forested slopes relented to small clearings hosting tiny farmsteads and flocks of contentedly grazing sheep and goats, unconcerned about heights. As near as we could tell, such improbable aeries were accessed by boat and a series of ladder rungs drilled into the cliff face that only a Norwegian would attempt.
As the boat navigated around shaggy, wooded bends, we encountered stupendous waterfalls, each spilling their glacial streams in an endless variety of patterns down the mountainsides. There are hundreds along the way, and it’s impossible to pick the most lovely. A friend of mine who took the Nutshell trip last year said that she encountered an annoying tourist who complained, “It’s just nothing but waterfalls; you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.” If ever I feel like this, it’ll be time for me to retire from traveling and give someone else a spot on the deck.
Speaking of waterfalls and fjords, these are all remnants of an Ice Age cold snap that occurred about 3,000 years ago (technically, we’re still in the last Ice Age.) Huge glaciers thousands of feet thick slid downhill into the sea, carving U-shaped valleys. When the climate warmed up a bit, the glaciers began to melt, causing sea level to rise. But as the weight of these mighty glaciers lightened atop the earth, mountain-building forces took over and the land also rose up out of the sea — to a point. The valley floor of the Sognefjord is still a mile deep under saltwater. The remaining remnants of glaciers continue to melt, creating mountaintop lakes that spill down into ocean fjords all along Norway’s western side.
Okay, science lesson done. I can’t help it — it’s my years of writing museum websites and exhibition labels. Anyway, as Matthew, Ruthie, and I clambered to photograph every unfolding vista, we ran into a retired ferry captain enjoying the scenery. He gave us a brief history of the boat we traveled on — the Skånevik, a registered historic craft that dates back to the 1960s — and told us tales about the route from Kaupanger to Gudvangen, which was established in the 1930s.
Last year due to improved roads, the Fjord1 ferry company discontinued the route we were now traveling, to the dismay of many. The people of Kaupanger decided to take matters into their own hands, and with help from their Chamber of Commerce, they bought the Skånevik, hired a captain, and volunteered for the other positions aboard the vessel. These enterprising folks now maintain the boat and run the old route under the name Fjord2 (which they’re now getting sued for.) I do applaud their chutzpah, and if you want to spend a little more time enjoying the coastline aboard a really cool ferry, I’d highly recommend the trip.
Soon we headed into the Naerøyfjord, the narrowest in Norway (hence the name) at about only 820 feet wide at its tip. As we traveled along, the retired captain told us stories about the buildings we passed. Pointing to a little white church near the shoreline, he said, “Awhile back, a wedding party decided to take a boat ride from the church to their reception site. Sadly, the side of the mountain broke loose just as they passed by, and an avalanche of rock tumbled down into the fjord and overtook the boat, killing everyone aboard.”
Yep, if you haven’t figured this out yet, Norwegians love telling titillating stories of death by natural disasters in their country. Someone really needs to write a book similar to “Death in Yellowstone” or to make another film like “100 Ways to Die in the West,” but using Norway for the source material. Maybe that’ll be my next project, because at this point, I’ve got quite a lot of fodder collected.
Despite the scary stories, we arrived unscathed at the Gudvangen dock and headed to the Stalheim Hotel for an absolutely amazing buffet — and probably one of the most fabulous valley views we’d had yet (check out the photo below.) After lunch, we returned the rental car to Flåm, and since we were too early in the season to catch the usual Nutshell bus, we took a taxi to Voss (home of Knute Rockne, Notre Dame’s winningest football coach, circa 1918-1930.)
An hour-long train ride from Voss through more stunning scenery brought us to Bergen, which was enduring one of its typically 300 rainy days per year. ‘Tis a true statistic, not a literary exaggeration. While rainy, Bergen is so incredibly cute that you could put it in your pocket and take it home with you. Its lush gardens, winding streets, UNESCO-branded harbor, and Medieval buildings are made for photo buffs. That being said, poor Ruthie had had just about enough of water, so we curtailed our sightseeing a bit, simply taking the funicular for a view out over the harbor and later strolling the historic bryggen (“the pier”) and nearby castle fortress.
Rather than going into all the details about why these places are so cool, I’d recommend just clicking through my photo gallery below and reading Rick Steves’ chapter on Bergen (I swear I don’t get kickbacks — he’s just my favorite travel-guide writer.) Suffice it to say that if you plan a visit to Norway, you simply cannot miss Bergen — and I’m so glad that my sis got a chance to see it even briefly before she had to head back to the States the next day. Miss you, Ruthie!