Norway 2006: Day Eight (Norway in a Nutshell)
It’s 08:55 and for the second day running, we’re at the bus stop waiting for the HSD bus to whisk us away from Ulvik.
Unlike the slight mayhem of the day before, today is all planned. We’ve pre-payed for everything bar food. We have our tickets. Today is Norway in a Nutshell day.
There’s many ways to do Norway in a Nutshell. We’d considered doing it from Balestrand but on consultation, it turned out to be easier done from Ulvik. You just buy all the tickets and stuff in advance, leap on the 08:55 bus to Voss and join the main tour there.
Which is why, at 08:55, we handed over a flimsy voucher to supposedly cover our return fair to Voss, and we were on our way.
At Voss, we joined a merry throng of other tourists, all fresh off the train and trying to board the single “Norway in a Nutshell” coach. As it happened a second (HSD branded) coach arrived just behind it and after some driver consultation, the second coach driver decided he’d come along with us as well so we got on his hus.
As far as we knew, the coach was just to take us to Gudvangen where we’d go on a coach tour, but it became apparent that there was something in between. Not long after Vinje (where we’d changed buses two days before) the coaches turned off the main road and start driving along the steep and narrow Royal Mail Road.
The Royal Mail Road is the former main road between Copenhagen, Christiania (now Oslo) and Bergen, and has since been superseded by a series of tunnels. However it’s still used to gain access to the Stalheim Hotel, and it was here that our first stop was actually to be.
The reason for the stop here can be found on the hotel terrace, which is open to non-residents every day until 6pm. From the terrace you get a quite frankly stunning view of the Næærøydalen valley, looking down for miles around from high up above. It’s a beautiful sight and one which you get to enjoy properly – the bus giving you a generous 20 minutes to stay there. And no doubt enjoy the hotel’s sizable gift shop as well.
The view from the hotel is not the only stunning piece of scenery. Back on the bus, the driver began to slowly wind his way down the rest of the old Royal Mail Road – a multitude of very tight turns on a road which zig-zags down the hill.
To add to those impressive views, the road also goes past two lovely waterfalls – Stalheimfossen and Sivliefossen – which the driver did his best to introduce whilst showing his driving skills to the max. Shall we just say large coach, very tight corner, one hand on wheel, one hand on microphone, speaking into microphone? I think we might… Still the passengers can’t have helped – half of whom were like me and running from one side to the other taking photographs.
One nugget we were left to consider as two coaches drove slowly down the single track road – this narrow, steep and windy route was still the main road until around 1990. Only then did the tunnels replace it. The traffic jams must have been appalling…
Næærøyfjorden and Aurlandsfjorden
After an almost scary drive down the mountain we were soon back on the main road to Gudvangen where we met the M/S Skagastø – a Fjord 1 passenger boat that would take us on the next stage of Norway in a Nutshell. A two hour fjord cruise up the Næærøyfjorden and Aurlandsfjorden to Flåm.
Like the cruise we’d done whilst in Balestrand, we saw some stunning views as we passed by a multitude of isolated villages and farms, including one called Stigen which dates back to 1603. To get to it, you have to go along a path from the fjord that is so steep that you needed a stige, or ladder in order to get to it!
In between admiring the views and wondering who on earth willingly lives in such places, we scoffed ferry made waffles with jam and swigged tea. A good combination and no mistake! Yum!
As we slowly but surely began to approach our destination, we were passed by one of Fjord 1’s express boats which had left Bergen at 8am that morning. Clearly the boats were well co-ordinated. The express boat would dock about fifteen minutes before us, meaning that passengers on that boat would get an earlier train from Flåm than us.
What’s that? A train you say? Ah yes, cos that’s the next stage of Norway in a Nutshell!
Flåm (pronounced pretty much like Flom, with a very short o) is famous for one thing and one thing alone – it’s railway. A 20km line which is one of the steepest railways in the world and has some quite frankly stunning views.
We had a while before the train, so we wandered round the fascinating Flåm Railway Museum – a free museum which tells you about the hisory of the line. The fact that build started in 1923 and was almost entirely unmechanised. That it opened in 1940. That it has 20 tunnels. That it zig zags up and up the mountain. And of course, giving you some history behind the line. Surprisingly few people seemed to bother visiting it, but the museum is well worth a look and is interestingly presented.
It was however lunchtime, so after the museum we popped in to eat at a tourist trap cafe called Furukroa where Catherine had a cheese open sandwich (the Norwegians like their open sandwiches) whilst I had the frankly odd “minced beef open sandwich” – basically a cold beef burger on a piece of brown bread with chutney on the top. Surprisingly it wasn’t actually that bad! After that we tucked into some Lefse – sadly pre-packaged and nowhere near the quality of the Sogn Folkmuseum’s version.
With yet more time to kill, we toured the inevitable tourist shops, including one which proclaimed it’s size as much as possible. One should note however that “large” doth not necessarily mean “good” as the store featured a huge range in tacky souvenirs, fur clothes and viking statues. Oh and trolls. Lots of them. For some reason I decided that admiring the train was a more interesting idea.
The Flåm Railway
Besides which it was almost time for our train so we boarded enthusiastically. After finding our carriage was getting busier and busier (and featuring kids) we opted to move to another which was surprisingly quiet. This turned out to be a wise move as it meant I could leap from side to side of the train to gawp and take photographs.
And there was no shortage of great views to be had on the 20km ride as we ascended up into the mountain. As we went up, so others went down as cyclists passed us by going the other way on what looked like a fantastic ride.
The train stops briefly at a number of stations on the route – tiny little places that are so small that only the rear carriages can be used for alighting. The line is mostly single tracked, but there’s a passing loop at Berekvam where the signal man has to come out and manually set the points, and insert the signal flags into a wooden box. Wonderfully antique, despite the fact that the trains are electric.
After the passing loop came a special stop – the Kjosfossen waterfall. This mighty waterfall has its own special station just for tourists to get off and admire it (the station is inaccessible any other way than train).
We’d been told by the train guard that we’d be stopped for five minutes so everyone rushed out to take pictures of this wonderful waterfall as fast as they could. As everyone rushed to their cameras, suddenly some loud music began to play and some started dancing near the ruins of an old house. In a flash she disappeared behind the walls of a ruined house, only to re-appear nearer the waters edge.
Of course there were two of them. Most people were rather stunned at this just appearing (ourselves included) but it’s a regular feature at the waterfall in the summer. Apparently they’re supposed to be Huldra – seductive forest creatures – which are popular characters in Scandinavian folk lore.
Almost abruptly as it had started, so it ended, and the train staff set out quickly herding everyone back onto the train for the final stage of the railway journey – zig-zagging up the mountain, mostly through tunnels – some of which were sort of caged around the edge. Quite what that was for I never found our as the explanatory announcement couldn’t be heard due to the noise of the train in the tunnel!
Myrdal to Voss
After what felt like a too short a journey, we were deposited at Myrdal station where we[d catch a mainline train to Voss.
Despite having a population of a single person in 1995, Mydal station (866m above sea level) is very well equipped, and features a train depot and a large tunnel. A local train parked up on a siding had several carriages marked “Season ticket only” – presumably a way of ensuring the locals have somewhere to sit when the train is crowded full of tourists.
The train to Voss had come from Oslo and was going to Bergen, and was busy – not helped by the fact that passengers had spread their stuff everywhere – but we only had a forty minute journey through yet more stunning scenery. Forests and fjords everywhere we looked. Railway passengers in Norway are lucky people.
Voss to Ulvik
With our arrival in Voss, our Nutshell day excursion was almost over bar getting back to the hotel, but as we had a wait for our bus, we admired a church and I popped into a chemist for some hayfever pills, having forgotten to bring some with me. This obviously led to an attempt at explaining hayfever without using the term. That said, even bus drivers in Norway have strong grasps of English so it wasn’t that hard.
After sitting in the sun by the lake, it was time for our bus journey back. Now throughout our travels we’d had a number of pre-paid bus journeys – vouchers supplied by the tour company, vouchers from the tourist information office or just humble return tickets.
Funnily enough none of them had a standard look and feel which would inevitably lead to the driver taking them, peering at them for ages before finally exclaiming a non-committal “Yep”.
And so I hoped it would be as I showed by ticket from the bus in the morning. When I’d given my voucher, I’d asked for a return. Not reading Norwegian I had no idea if it was a return, and having handed it over and getting a pause followed by a “No” it clearly wasn’t. Some fumbling in my camera case however produced a carbon copy of the voucher, which this time lead to a definite “yes”! Good job I hadn’t thrown it away…
It was Friday evening and the bus seemed to be full of students, presumably going home, which lead to a unique experience for us in Norway – a bus where people stood.
Friday night also seemed to be good food night in the hotel. Trout with boiled potatoes with a lemon and dill sauce. It appeared Paul was now better again and doing his stuff. Either that or someone had been to Tesco…