Our fjord exploration on the recent Scandinavian trip was facilitated by the popular itinerary called Norway in a Nutshell.
If you are traveling in Norway independently of any tour operators and cannot set aside a couple of days of self-driving to and staying around the most scenic fjords, this itinerary may be your only option to include fjord-seeing in your overall plans. Nonetheless, I cannot be any more emphatic: This is NOT the way to see fjords. It gives you no more than a fleeting impression, significantly diluted by waiting for and then traveling on crowded modes of transportation.
It should be mentioned right from the beginning that the weather gods decided that the day of our journey was the perfect time to offer us rain as opposed to sunshine. I will allow that in good weather I may have been more satisfied with the experience.
There are variations of the same itinerary in terms of point of origin and direction of travel, as well as similar pricier options sold by other companies (they may throw in something marginally more exciting for the extra cost). In our case, we made a loop of Bergen – Myrdal – Flåm – Gudvangen – Voss – Bergen. You basically get sequence of tickets for all legs of the trip and can listen to occasional commentary via public address systems, but are on your own otherwise.
The first and last legs are made by local train which runs on the same Bergen Railway track we already saw on the way from Oslo. It’s 2 hours from Bergen to Myrdal and over an hour and a half from Voss to Bergen (if there are no delays). The scenery is pretty but hard to fully appreciate from a moving train. And in our case, we ended up riding the same stretch of this track 3 times, which felt like a waste given many places that we did not get to see.
The leg between Myrdal and Flåm is more exciting. It takes place on the historic Flåm Railway, which is one of the steepest rail tracks in the world, descending at 5.5% gradient for majority of the distance. The ride is certainly picturesque and includes a photographic stop at a waterfall near the top (which for me was somewhat underwhelming). But again, you see all of the scenery from the windows of moving train. There are tunnels and various obstructions for parts of the way, but even when the view is clear and even at a fairly slow speed, you get possibly 30 minutes of the scenery, tops.
Of the photographs that I made on that descent, none blew me away in the post-processing and a couple only made the cut after I applied some tilt-shift to them.
Upon arrival in Flåm, a free, small, but full of information Railway Museum is an excellent choice for any visitor. If you want to learn how people lived in these parts before the advent of the railroad, how that road was built, and what changes it brought along, this is a fascinating narrative with tons of artifacts. The collection includes several old engines, such as this one.
Among the limited customization of the itinerary available to us was selecting how long we would stick around in Flåm. The default option is about an hour and twenty minutes, which should be sufficient for seeing the museum and possibly getting a quick bite to eat at one of the fish stands or cafes. There is not much more to do on Flåm waterfront – it is perfectly a tourist trap. Some other diversions require significant time outlay and can only be undertaken with any practicality if you are staying in the area overnight.
Here is a shot of Flåm waterfront. The buildings on the right are eateries and shops. The white building in the background on the left is a hotel which could be a great base for a stay in the area.
We opted for staying in Flåm for over 3 hours on the slightly misguided expectation that it would offer more entertainment in itself. In truth, that should have allowed us to have a leisurely lunch at one of the better restaurants, but we made do with the aforementioned fish stalls. Instead, we simply lingered in the mountainside park above the waterfront, traversing a number of walking paths and stopping by strategically placed benches. From one of those lookout points, I took this picture of Aurlandsfjord that is definitely among the top shots of that day.
The next leg of the trip, from Flåm to Gudvangen, was a ferry ride along two fjords.
This was the most important part of the itinerary and it was in many senses the most disappointing. The boat ride takes 2 hours, but it is a scheduled passenger ferry, built in a way that limits unobstructed vantage points to observe the scenery. There are a few hundred tourists on the ride along with you, all fighting for the same limited space to take pictures. I commandeered myself a choice spot on the upper deck and would not budge from it for the entire duration of the trip. I got plenty of queer looks and plenty of semi-accidental bumps from people who tried to slither into that same space. The experience for me was significantly diminished by having to endure all of that activity. Tranquil journey it was not (and I allow that for some poor soul who never got to take a good picture I may have been the chief source of irritation).
Some groups of visitors talked loudly enough amongst themselves that the public address announcements could not be heard above their voices. Not that there was any coherent narration. It sounded as if the information was broadcast in at least a dozen languages, but little of what I managed to catch carried significant interest.
And it was raining. Not hard, but persistently, making all surroundings gray and bleak.
I kept pressing the shutter as much as I could but I hardly have 50 good pictures to show for it. Some of the best are of the settlements, some larger, others tiny, that sit on the shores of Aurlandsfjord.
It was not all bad. I always imagined the feeling of seeing a fjord “opening up” in front of the ship, with mountains on both sides moving apart to reveal the plane of water beyond the bend, and I got to see it with my own eyes on a couple of occasions. The next two shots are part of one such progression, taken several seconds apart.
And another perspective that hints at the next bend.
Small waterfalls were a recurring feature on both sides.
And a wider-angle perspective at a more open part of the fjord.
At the mid-point of this ferry ride, we left Aurlandsfjord and entered another fjord, which was the prime target of the entire trip as it added to my collection of UNESCO World Heritage sites. But I will leave celebration of that to a separate blog entry.
Later on, we disembarked in Gudvangen and had to make a beeline for the buses waiting for everyone on the same Nutshell itinerary as us. This was both efficient in that the buses were there and ready as well as further irritating in that they apparently could not accommodate a handful of people who left the boat last. So we sat on the bus for about 20 minutes while the drivers sorted out the shortage of seats.
The bus then drove through more rainy but pleasant scenery for the next 50 minutes to get us to Voss. Along the way it made a directionally-useless detour in order to descend down a historic narrow steep and winding road, providing another mild highlight of the itinerary. I drew the line at not taking any pictures through rain-splashed bus windows.
In Voss, we had about 45 minutes to wait for our train back to Bergen. We were hoping to take a quick stroll to town center from the station, but the rain was now falling much harder, and we spent those 45 minutes at the station gift shop checking out every single souvenir that it had to offer.
Overall, the journey lasted 13 hours, of which I count at least half as being spent waiting for public transportation or being transported alongside large quantities of public getting glimpses of scenery beyond the windows. And the equation would be even worse if we did not linger in Flåm those two extra hours. In my mind, definitely NOT the way to experience the magnificence of Western Norway.
The positive is that the glimpses we caught make us want to come back one day and see it right.
These and a few more pictures have been added to my Flickr Western Norway album.