FLAM, Norway – The train came to a halt far above the valley, at a raging cataract called Kjosfossen Waterfall. Everybody got out to look and take pictures.
Cascading from high above, part of it free-falling more than 300 feet, the waterfall would have been impressive at any time, but it was expanded on this day by the previous day’s rains.
Suddenly, music competed with the thunder of the falls. And a woman dressed in a red-orange dress popped up, high on a cliff in the mists, and began dancing. In less than a minute, she was gone – and then “reappeared” suddenly on another part of the cliff.
The woman (women, really, of course), represented the huldra, mythological Norwegian forest spirits. You won’t see that at Niagara Falls or on Amtrak.
The musical interlude is one of the delights of the Flam Railway, a steep, 12.6-mile climb from the shores of Aurlandsfjord in Flam to the little settlement at Myrdal, 2,831 feet above sea level, where the line meets the trains linking Oslo and Bergen.
With multiple tunnels and hardened sheds to protect against rock falls and avalanches, bad weather is not an obstacle or an excuse on Flamsbana (the Norwegian name for the railway).
“We run 365 days a year,” the conductor insisted.
The railway traverses one corner of nearly 300 miles of breathtaking landscape on the road between Oslo and Bergen: the now-sunny, now-moody fjords; vivid green pastures; countless waterfalls tumbling from sheer granite cliffs; snow-capped peaks; quaint, brightly colored architecture; narrow valleys; huge lakes; ancient churches; dense pine forests; the world’s longest road tunnel; and even 6,000-year-old rock carvings.
Many visitors to Norway opt for the Oslo-Bergen train, but for those who like driving and the freedom to stop anywhere for views and history, the road is the way to go.
A few cautions: The drive is relatively long – plan for a minimum of 10 hours each way. Speed limits are low; in most areas 45-50 mph is the max and sensible, given the curving, two-lane roads. Norway also enforces its speed limits with cameras deployed everywhere, although local drivers seem to know where they are and where they can zip around us gawkers.
Oh, and you had better like tunnels. Lots of them.
From Oslo, we chose routes 34 and 33 north along Randsfjorden, then linked up with E16 the rest of the way west to Bergen. Eastbound, we stayed on E16 all of the way back to Oslo.
The countryside around Randsfjorden looks like southern New England. Farms dot the rolling hills above the blue water. The towns are little more than crossroads. Churches seem to have been sited for maximum effect – on hills visible for miles.
At a bend on route 33 along the Etna River at Mollerstufossen, we saw a sign for ancient petroglyphs and pulled off.
Ancient rock carvings are fairly common in Norway and, amazingly, people do not mess with them. At our stop, Stone Age hunters living along the river more than 6,000 years ago carved moose and other animals into the rock faces near a shallow river crossing that also makes for a compact swimming hole. Moose still frequent the area. Indeed, for much of the Oslo-to-Bergen drive, road signs warn of moose and/or deer crossings. We saw many deer but the bigger beasts eluded us.
On E16, the terrain becomes more and more mountainous and waterfalls drape the rock faces. The falls are so high that it often is difficult at a distance to gauge how massive they are. We wished we had brought binoculars.
But other falls don’t require any visual aids: They take long, tumbling routes right down to the edge of the road. Norway is wild and rugged up here, but there are campgrounds and even the occasional golf course.
In the town of Fagernes on Strondafjorden, we discovered a cafe with delicious Thai food, served outside in the fresh, cool air.
Only a drive through fjord country offers close-up looks at one of this country’s unique treasures: stave churches. The structures, varying in size and design, are built of wood and date roughly from 1150 to 1350. Centuries ago, Norway was dotted with more than 1,000 such churches, but because of fire, the Reformation, the Plague, neglect and a host of other factors (sadly including arson in the modern era), only 28 still stand.
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