After three nights stay in Oslo, we were heading next to the city of Bergen. This is a coastal city on the western edge of Norway, with a rich historic past and ample opportunities to explore the surrounding fjord country. The train ride to Bergen is often billed as being worth the price of admission in and of itself, passing through spectacular mountainous terrain and the endless lakes carved out by glaciers in the recent past. We were planning to spend about seven hours traveling along the rails to Bergen, then use the evening to explore the downtown part of the city before embarking on a boat tour of the fjords on the following day. We had no idea what we were about to get caught up in, as our journey to Bergen veered off in a direction that neither one of us could have expected.
We woke up fairly early to catch the 8:25 am departure time of our train. This was one of the larger vehicles designed for long trips, with more amenities on board including a full cafeteria in one of the cars. The route that we were taking quickly became scenic once we left the streets of Oslo behind. The tracks always seemed to be paralleling one lake or another, and hills reared up in all directions as the land seemingly refused to allow for any straight lines. Unlike the last week of pleasant weather, today the skies were cloudy and heavy with the promise of rain to come. Still, that was no problem while riding inside an enclosed train, and since we'd be traveling most of the day rather than walking around outside, this seemed like a good time to be faced with inclement weather. Or at least that was what we thought.
After about three hours of travel, our train came to an abrupt stop in the middle of nowhere. There was no town nearby and we couldn't see any particular reason for stopping. Travel delays are all too common, but as the waiting time stretched to 30 minutes, then an hour, we started to wonder what was going on. Eventually word started to filter through the cars: the rain had caused a rockslide up ahead, and the tracks were blocked. Our train wouldn't be able to continue forward as planned. While that was highly annoying, there was nothing we could do about it and we made the best of a bad situation by getting some lunch from the dining car. After about two and a half hours of waiting, the train backed up a short distance on the tracks to a place where passengers could disembark. We were then prompted to leave the train in favor of a fleet of buses:
Several hundred train passengers were now split up into half a dozen buses heading towards Bergen. This must have been a logistical nightmare for the train officials trying to get everyone to their destinations in a region where roads are few and far between. We were just happy to be off and moving again, making progress towards Bergen instead of sitting in place. Unfortunately, the long wait and the need to travel by bus meant that we were going to be significantly delayed on our arrival time. Instead of reaching Bergen around 4 pm, we were now looking at a time around 7-8 pm. That would leave less time for sightseeing, but hopefully we would still be able to get a nice dinner and check out the surroundings before it became too dark.
The bus was a standard touring coach, the type of vehicle that we had both used for travel on many previous occasions. When I was in the University of Maryland's marching band, we toured up and down the East Coast in these things for performances. It was crowded on the bus with every seat taken, and there was an unfortunate set of young parents across the aisle from us with a 3 year old child and a 1 year old child. Their kids were amazingly well-behaved on this long ride that we had all found ourselves unexpectedly taking. As for the countryside beyond the bus windows, we were initially passing through a series of small towns and farming communities. The sun came out for a little while and lifted everyone's spirits as we passed by a series of incredibly green fields. These little rural towns and individual farmsteads always seemed to be crouching in the shadow of giant hills, some of which could have passed as fair-sized mountains.
Then the road entered the actual mountains and the towns virtually disappeared outside of a few diehard settlements. We could see bare slabs of rock in many places, and patches of snow lying on the ground in the upper elevations. We were traveling through this region in late July, which means that the snow never melts in these locations year round. The water in the small lakes that we continued to pass by must have been bitterly cold, although it was likely also fresh and pure. The road was twisting and turning through a series of canyons carved out by running water between the mountains that reared up on all sides. This was a wild and beautiful countryside, and we were happy to have the chance to experience a small part of it.
The bus stopped for a food and bathroom break at this little rest stop known as Haabakken. I've been able to find it on Google Maps, located close to the small town of Lærdalsøyri near the head of the Sognefjord. The staff of this restaurant was overwhelmed by having several tour buses with hundreds of visitors descend on them out of the blue, and it was a bit chaotic processing all of the orders (along with an epic wait to use some of the bathrooms). It was all sorted out in time though, and everyone enjoyed the chance to stop and stretch their legs for a bit. The sun was shining overhead, and after the earlier delays we were making good time towards Bergen.
Then disaster struck. While we were traveling through another mountainous region, our bus came to a halt in the midst of stopped up traffic. Once again we sat and waited for a long period of time, first for an hour, then two. It had begun to rain outside and the steady downpour did nothing to improve everyone's mood. We learned pretty quickly what the culprit was: ANOTHER rockslide had blocked the only road leading forward to Bergen. Good grief, two in one day! I'm not sure what we had done to deserve that much bad karma, but we must have offended somebody. Traffic was stuck for the time being as road crews worked to try and clear away the obstructing rocks to open up safe passage for vehicles. We waited for about three hours in total, with the Shell gas station next to where our bus was parked being the most exciting sight in the area. Finally, as it was starting to get dark outside, we heard that a decision had been made: the authorities weren't going to be able to get the road cleared, not until the next day. We were going to have to take the long way around to get to Bergen.
That was terrible news. When they told us that we had to take the long way, they meant the LONG way around. I'll try to demonstrate using Google maps to illustrate the two respective routes. This was the direct path from where we had been stalled outside the tiny hamlet of Gudvangen:
And this was the detoured path that we were forced to take once the road was blocked:
Instead of being 2 hours away from Bergen, we were therefore at least 6 hours away, and more than that after considering the time that would be needed to make stops. Our bus had to backtrack all the way to Hagafoss and circle around Eidfjord instead of taking the direct path forward through the mountains. Since we had already been waiting for several hours at this gas station in the middle of nowhere, this was going to delay our arrival in Bergen until a ridiculously late time. The train was initially going to take us to the city around 4 pm, and then the first rockslide had delayed that until 8 pm. Now it was already nearing 8 pm and we still had a journey of more than six hours ahead of us. As if an arrival in the early hours of the morning wasn't bad enough, we had spent a hefty sum of money booking tickets on our fjord cruise for the next morning, and we had to be on that boat by 7 am when it departed. If there were any further delays we were going to miss our boat trip as well, something that we wouldn't have even considered possible at the start of the day. This was not what we planned for!
The following seven hours were not among the most pleasant that I've ever spent. We were all growing increasingly exhausted from so much time spent traveling and cooped up on a bus together. This was made worse by the stops that the bus driver kept taking every few hours. He insisted that we stop and wait for 30 minutes at each stop even though it was obvious that everyone on board only needed 5-10 minutes to stretch and all wanted to get to Bergen as quickly as possible. Our arrival was delayed by a good hour due to these extended stops that served no purpose. Once the sun set it started to get downright cold, as the temperature gauge (in Celsius) captured in some of these pictures will attest. Everyone was dressed for summer weather, not a night in the mountains with single degree temperatures. Liz had been feeling increasingly nauseous from going around so many twists and turns, and after we stopped at a little hotel that sold snacks, we were able to move up to the front seats on the bus when an older couple generously agreed to switch with us. That's where these pictures were taken showing the road ahead out of the front of the bus.
The coldest environs on this extended trip were found when we were passing through Hallingskarvet National Park, the area with the barren rocky terrain captured above. There was almost as much terrain covered by snow up here as terrain not covered by snow. We saw relatively few cars and drove mostly on empty roads. As we finally approached Bergen several hours later, we started passing through a series of very long tunnels that stretched for miles. These are apparently some of the longest sections of road tunnels in the world, and they included intersections and traffic roundabouts in some sections. We were in the tunnels for almost a half hour in total over the last 50 or so miles leading up to the city. It was very late by now and we were desperate to reach our destination. We finally made it to Bergen just after 3 am, roughly 11 hours later than we were supposed to arrive. Everything was dark and we had no idea where our hotel was located in relation to where we were dropped off, so Liz fortunately managed to flag down a taxi that took us there. Then we had to get into the hotel, which had an electronic entry system and no one awake to help us figure it out, which was its own ordeal unto itself. Finally we were able to collapse into bed around 3:30 am... and then get less than three hours of sleep before needing to wake up for the fjord tour. This was not much fun.
We were finally able to get our first real glimpses of Bergen early the next morning. Bergen is a coastal city with a long history of maritime commerce, one of the ports of the Hanseatic League in the medieval period and a cultural center that has been home to a series of poets and composers. The streets were empty as we staggered towards the harbor at 6:30 am, passing by houses and shops that we would have enjoyed exploring under different conditions. It didn't help that the weather this morning was a steady rain that showed no promise of letting up anytime soon. The harbor itself was a beautiful gem, a narrow inlet tucked in between a series of hills. Bergen has a funicular that climbs up to the top of one of those hills; it can just be seen in the back of the third picture above. We had been planning on taking that up to the top on the previous night before everything was derailed by the twin rockslides. There's a seafood market located at the head of the harbor, and workers were just beginning to set up shop for the day as we arrived. Fish of all kinds are the specialty of Bergen's cuisine, and we resolved to come back and try some later in the day.
This was the boat where we would be spending the next few hours. Our fjord tour would be heading through the maze of islands along the rugged coast to the north of Bergen, then entering the huge Sognefjord and following it until reaching the little town of Flåm. At that point we would disembark and take the historic Flåm railway to Myrdal, and then board another train to take us back to Bergen itself. The entire journey would last about nine hours and take up most of the day. This would have been much more amazing and exciting if we both hadn't been about to drop from exhaustion and lack of sleep. The boat itself was decently-sized, with two floors to offer different viewing perspectives, access to the exterior of the boat in several places, and a cafeteria with food and drinks. It was very similar to the boat that I had taken to tour Kenai Fjords in Alaska the previous year, and used for a similar purpose.
When the boat began to leave the habor, I went to the stern of the vessel and was able to get some great pictures looking back at Bergen. As seen from the water, Bergen's buildings looked like miniature dollhouses that a giant had picked up and arranged on the towering hills. Even here in the center of the city, there were trees carpeting the slopes of the hills and bare rock formations visible in the distance. This was not your typical metropolis. The rough terrain along Norway's coast made even the largest settlements a fragile thing, with human habitation forced to bend to the dictates of the land instead of the other way around.
Bergen doesn't have the traditional grid of a planned city, with the roads laid out in an intersecting series of straight lines. Instead the city sprawls out along the coastline, giving its metropolitan area a distinct and unusual snake-like shape on the maps. Houses perched on the sides of rocky hills, often with bright colors to offset the sometimes gloomy conditions like we were confronted with on this day. Some of these houses were very nice properties indeed, with beautiful views of the water and their own private docks. I think this is where some of the wealthier residents of Bergen choose to make their homes, a little bit outside the hustle and bustle of the downtown. We also passed underneath a series of bridges, and when looking at a map it was clear that this area was packed full of them to connect the various islands and peninsulas and isthmuses together by road. The geography in this area was nothing less than crazy, mountainous islands with tiny little villages tucked in between them along the coast. The Norwegian coastline is a part of the world where traveling by land is far inferior to traveling by water, and connecting these places together has required some herculean engineering feats.
As we continued steaming to the north, the houses slowly began to dissipate and the towns grew fewer and farther apart. We were in the islands of the Norwegian archipelago now and this was a sparsely populated region. Our boat never entered the Atlantic Ocean proper, even though it was only a short distance away off to the west. We always remained in more sheltered waters and that was probably for the best. My last experience with the open ocean in the Gulf of Alaska had been a miserable one, and adding sleep deprivation on top of seasickness would not have been a winning combination. Even without much in the way of man-made structures to look at, it was pleasant to stand outside on the railing and watch the scenery drift past. This was an area of great beauty, carved out by wind and water over millenia. The few buildings in the region stood out against all that natural wonderland, like the bright red Skjerjehamn hotel above. That looked like a really cool place to stay, on its own tiny island jutting out into the surrounding waters. Assuming that you didn't mind being in the absolute middle of nowhere, of course.
After about two to three hours, our ship left the islands of the archipelago behind and entered the Sognefjord. It would have been easy to forget that we were passing through a sheltered body of water. The Sognefjord was enormous, a good five miles wide and stretching inland from the coast for close to a hundred miles. Unlike the low-lying terrain along the coast, the Sognefjord was a place where genuine mountains reared up on each side. The highest ones were nothing but bare rock and patches of snow, with the elevation too high for anything to grow. Here and there we saw a tiny house clinging to the side of one of these slopes. Were these summer vacation houses for the ultra wealthy? A poor farmer's house that time had left behind? I couldn't imagine how someone could live full time in a place this impossibly remote.
Then there were the little towns scattered around the edges of the Sognefjord. Our boat zigzagged from one to the next making a series of stops, thereby serving as both a tour boat as well as a passenger ferry service for the local communities. These were adorable little villages that seemed practically designed to cater to tourist photographs. I doubt that these places were set up in such picturesque fashion deliberately, but they made for some amazing snapshots. The tiny red and yellow houses perched at the foot of towering snowcapped mountains, with waterfalls falling in torrents off the glaciers at the top, these were images that were hard to screw up even for amateur photographers.
I don't have anything else to add here, I just wanted to post more pictures of the amazing scenery.
Eventually our boat began to approach its terminal point at the village of Flåm. We had passed through this tiny settlement on the bus the previous day - twice - initially when heading on the direct route to Bergen, and then again when backing up and taking the extremely long rockslide detour. The fjord leading into Flåm was packed with a series of huge cruise liners, in particular that monstrous blue French one that had eight or nine decks and carried several hundred passengers. Flåm is a popular location for cruise ships to drop off passengers so that they can take the Flåm railway before returning back to Bergen. It creates a strange juxtaposition between the towering cruise ships and the miniature size of Flåm itself. There are maybe 100 people who live year-round in the little village, less than a single deck of passengers on one of those big ships.
Flåm seemed wholly designed to cater to the visiting tourist crowds. It consisted of a series of small shops and souvenir stores hawking everything imaginable related to Norway, trolls, or Vikings. We had an hour to spend in Flåm before the train to Myrdal was set to depart, and we used it to explore the small town and eat a late lunch. The highlight of Flåm was probably the little railroad museum in the yellow building next to the train tracks, which chronicled the building of the historic railroad. Then there were some of the food options that are only available in Scandinavia; this one food vendor was selling reindeer, moose, and whale meat. I was going to take him up on the offer to taste the whale meat, but Liz was understandably repulsed and neither of us ended up trying the free sample.
This the Flåm Railway itself, with the railroad cars looking like something from the early 20th century. The railroad connects Flåm to Myrdal across a distance of 13 miles / 20 kilometers. There's a major gain in elevation over the course of that short distance, since Flåm sits at sea level while Myrdal has an elevation of 867 meters (almost 3000 feet). The track was built during the 1920s and 1930s, and today serves almost exclusively as a tourist attraction due to the slow speed of the train cars. The gradient is extremely steep for a train and the passage through the mountains serves up lots of outstanding views for the passengers. There was a recorded presentation on the train about the railway's history as we traveled, which told the story in six different languages. We were slightly frustrated by the interior design of the train cars, which made it very difficult to see out of the opposite side of the train. We were only able to see out one side and had to settle for those views, which fortunately were still very good indeed.
Waterfalls and mountains were the themes of the Flåm Railway. We started the passage uphill by crossing the little Flåmselvi river that wound through the village, then proceeded to cross it repeatedly as the tracks twisted and turned upwards. While there were a few individual houses here and there, mostly this was an untamed wilderness of green trees and rocky hills. I lost count of the number of waterfalls that we saw after the fifth or sixth one passed us by. It had started raining again and water seemed to be everywhere, coming from the skies and falling from the hills. We could have been lost in some kind of misty dream, as the landscape outside didn't seem completely real.
The star attraction of the Flåm Railway is Kjosfossen, a towering waterfall that dwarfs the others along the route. Our train had parked in a tunnel near the waterfall to let everyone out to take pictures, and at this point it was pouring down rain at a frantic pace, which heightened the feeling of being deluded with water from all angles. Kjosfossen is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Norway, with a vertical fall of roughly 90 meters / 300 feet. It creates a roaring sound in person from so much water pouring over the rocks, and we likely would have been soaked anyway from all the spray kicked up even if it hadn't been raining. There is a legend that the falls are haunted by a creature called a Huldra, a siren-like monster that lures visitors to their doom on the rocks. During the summer the Flåm Railway hires actresses to portray the Huldra and dance next to the falls, something that the trip heavily plays up on the ride uphill for the kids on board. This effect was mostly spoiled by the drenching rain outside, as it was difficult even to see the poor woman with all that rain falling. We felt bad for her, forced to keep dancing outside in this terrible weather. This experience would have been more fun in clear weather.
The terminal point for the railway was located at Myrdal, a little hamlet even smaller than Flåm. This was where we left the historic railroad car and boarded a more normal one that would take us back to Bergen. The transfer was handled in extraordinarily poor fashion, however, with no signs or explanation about where to go or which train to board. The Flåm Railway apparently just washes their hands of tourists once they reach the ending point and leave them to figure things out from there. We were struggling with the language barrier and the pouring rain to figure out where to go, and we had all of five minutes to pull this off before the train to Bergen was about to depart. We did get on the right train but this was needlessly confusing and stressful for no reason. Very poorly handled by all involved. The train from Myrdal to Bergen was back to being a standard train again, and this was the route that we would have taken the previous day if our original train hadn't been derailed. The scenery outside continued to be dramatic, a mixture of small towns and lakes and snow-capped mountaintops, with the rain giving everything a depressing feel. This is one of the downsides to living near the Atlantic coast: lots and lots of rain falling.
It was still raining cats and dogs when we made it back to Bergen, and that deterred us from doing much more in the way of sightseeing. This was not a good time to try and explore the city, and a lot of outdoor attractions were closed anyway because of the weather. We contented ourselves with getting dinner at Brasserie Lido, a restaurant overlooking the harbor that was virtually deserted on this evening. This place was worth the price of admission for its views alone, with the restaurant staff kindly letting us have a prime table despite our tourist attire. We had a fine meal and then headed back to our hotel to get a badly needed night of sleep. We had been operating on something like three hours of sleep all day and our bodies needed rest.
We had the morning of the next day to try and see some of downtown Bergen (finally!) before an early afternoon flight departing for Iceland. The rain had cleared up and even if it was still cloudy, this was infinitely better weather than we had suffered through on the last two days. This was the first time that we had walked through Bergen when it wasn't the middle of the night, the early morning, or an evening with torrential rain, and the difference was remarkable. There were other people outside walking around! The stores were open for business! This was what we had been hoping to see when we initially traveled to the city. The historic fish market was particularly crowded and they were offering seafood at excellent prices. Liz purchased a smoked salmon sandwich for breakfast and said it was among the best she'd ever had. The fish had probably been caught the day before or even on the same morning - it's tough to beat food that's that fresh.
We were hoping to take the funicular (Fløibanen) this morning up to the top of the hill only to find that the line had a wait of about an hour, which was more than we could spare if we wanted to make sure that we would reach the airport on time. The right time would have been our first night in Bergen, and this was another casualty of the rockslides that delayed our arrival. Instead, we used the minimal time that we had available to explore the harbor in more detail. One of the nearby buildings of interest was St. Mary's Church (Mariakirken), the oldest structure in the entire city. St. Mary's Church was built in the second half of the 12th century and has survived numerous fires and attacks on the city over that span. It was the parish church of the wealth Hanseatic merchants who lived in this quarter of Bergen. The architectural style is Romanseque and the heavy stone walls indicated that this building was constructed for durability, not aesthestic beauty. I was able to go inside the church but not take pictures of the interior, so here's one from Google to provide a view of what it looked like. This was clearly a very old structure that lacked too much in the way of decorations.
Near St. Mary's Church was the historic area known as Bryggen, a series of medieval houses lining the waterfront built by the Hanseatic League. For the non-historians reading this, the Hanseatic League was a medieval commercial organization that joined together a group of merchant's guilds in cities along the North Sea and the Baltic. The group dominated trade in northern Europe from roughly 1100 to 1400 before the opening up of trans-Atlatic trade saw its influence wither away in the following centuries. The buildings in this part of Bergen were used as residences and commercial warehouses for Hanseatic traders, and today they are still used for commercial purposes, converted into shops and restaurants catering to tourists. Many of these are located in the extremely narrow alleys that run between the buildings, a medieval warren of cramped streets that would cause a modern urban planner to tear their hair out. It's a fun place to visit though, and we picked up a few small souvenirs and a Christmas ornament here. We would have stayed longer to keep exploring if we didn't have to be on a bus to the airport by 11 am.
I'll close with two pictures of us. One of them was taken on board the fjord cruise at the back of the boat; look at how exhausted we both appear! Those are the faces of two people who have barely gotten any sleep in the last 24 hours. The other picture was taken while we were eating breakfast on our last morning in Bergen. I had been eating a lot of bread for meals, in part because it's one of my favorite foods and in part because it's cheap, and Liz told me to make a sad face and took this picture. It looks like a scene out of Oliver Twist: "Please, sir, can I have some more?" We've been joking about this one ever since, with Liz eating her breakfast of fresh-caught salmon while I had a hunk of bread. That was by choice, I swear it!
Bergen was the one place on our shared trip where we suffered through legitimately bad weather and poor travel luck. We were limited in what we were able to see as a result, and arriving in the city 11 hours later didn't make for a particularly fun situation. Nevertheless, we were still able to experience most of what we had planned to do in Bergen, and we ended up with an incredibly memorable travel story in the process. It's a great tale to spin at a cocktail party or a gathering with friends, the story of how we were barred from reaching Bergen by not one but two rockslides on the same day. As someone who lived through it, however, I can clearly state that I never want to go through that again. Iceland was up next as our final destination, and fortunately it would have no such travel mishaps. The Grand Tour was almost finished now, with this one last stop before the trip home.