A Norwegian Coast & Mountain Adventure
Updated: Jul 5
Arriving at Oslo Airport the locals returning to Norway on my flight were clearly on a mission, frantically emptying the Duty Free shop between airside and Arrivals, filling their baskets with alcohol with an intensity of purpose. A bit of a cultural curio, I thought, and passed through Arrivals into the Oslo evening, keen to get to my hotel, none other than the Grand Hotel on Karl Johansgate, the city’s main drag.
I had many hotel visits the next day, though none more interesting than my host hotel. It is as grand as its name suggests, dating from the 1870s and the kind of place where you can imagine sitting with a coffee at the table next to Henrik Ibsen or a new Nobel Prize laureate or a foreign dignitary. And speaking of the Nobel Prizes, I was shown the Nobel Suite itself, where the prizewinners stay, and stood on the balcony overlooking the parliament building and Karl Johansgate below. It’s from this balcony that the winners receive their ovations. For a few moments my mind slipped into dreamland and the hotel’s Sales Manager’s patter faded into the distance. There I was picking up the Nobel Price for Hotel Contracting, waving to my adoring followers in the street below. As I cleared my throat to make my speech reality returned. “A-hem!” The Sales Manager cleared his throat too and dragged me back inside, back into the reality of a day looking around identikit rooms at identikit corporate hotels.
I did manage a break to walk out to the Vigeland Sculpture Park, where 200 bronze, granite and cast iron sculptures created by Gustav Vigeland are installed within Frogner Park. Did I mention that the statues are naked? It’s an expression of the human form and some of the sculptures are pretty surreal, not least on a crisp Scandinavian winter’s day. I did consider lending ‘Angry Boy’ my coat. No wonder he was cross, being made to stand in the altogether in the freezing cold. Poor lad.
The next day promised an epic journey. I joined the Dovrebanen Railway at Oslo Sentral station after breakfast. NSB, the Norwegian State Railway (just rebranded ‘Vy’) provides comfortable accommodation on its long-distance trains, many of which cut through incredible scenery to match the great Swiss journeys. Standard Class is perfectly fine and, although there is a small First Class section, the difference was a leather seat, a coffee and a newspaper in a language I don’t understand, so I was happy where I was in Standard.
Leaving Oslo the train glides along the sleepy waters of the Mjøser lake, bound for Hamar, which some of you may be interested to know is the home of the Norwegian Railway Museum. Next stop conjures up winter adventure – Lillehammer – before we head through the wilderness of Norwegian national parks to Otta and beyond to Dombås in the shadow of the Dovre National Park, arriving some four hours later. The Dovrebanen would then continue to Trondheim, the terminus of its Herculean seven hour journey, but I jumped off in Dombås to check out a very scenic branch line instead, the Raumabanen Railway.
The modern commuter-style trains of the Raumabanen ply the route from Dombås to Åndalsnes, just shy of 1 ½ hours of remote and rocky landscapes. It’s 71 miles of contrasts, with jagged mountains reflected in the calm and clear waters of the Rauma River, wild national parks stretching into the distance, and well worth the detour.
It wasn’t strictly a detour for me though on this sunny late winter’s day. From Åndalsnes, my research told me, there would be a service bus that would shuttle me to my next destination, Ålesund. Or so I hoped. There wasn’t much in Åndalsnes and, with a packed day ahead tomorrow in Ålesund I could really do with this bus existing. After initial doubt it arrived and whisked me away along Romsdalsfjorden to a jewel of a town I was looking forward to visiting.
There had been snowfall, so with darkness falling as my bus approached Ålesund, the city sat resplendent in its winter coat. We passed the football stadium and the floodlights were burning bright. “Great! Maybe there’s a game on that I can see this evening!” I thought, before the realisation hit that the Norwegian leagues are played in the summer months for obvious reasons. Duh.
I wandered out to get something to eat. Pizza, just a Margherita at that, for £25. Gulp. That’s dough with some cheese, tomatoes and herbs. £25. Imagine how this Yorkshireman’s jaw dropped when he saw that! The next day brought a thaw and resultantly a very wet trudge around hotels, one of which had a pretty special annexe, the room in the lighthouse at the end of the quay! I did manage a squelchy wet climb up the 418 steps to Aksla Viewpoint, from where you can get a great perspective of the town, its archipelago and the surrounding Sunnmøre Alps. The main attraction of Ålesund itself is an attractive array of Art Nouveau buildings, huddled around a pretty backdrop of maritime life in a climate ranging from harsh to sublime.
The next adventure began late at night. I had booked a night on the Hurtigruten coastal ship, which was scheduled to arrive at Ålesund at half past midnight. If you don’t know Hurtigruten, it’s a great way to see Norway’s coast and fjords. It’s actually a fleet with a number of vessels of varying sizes, providing a dual service. Its raison d’être is to provide a lifeline for coastal communities, delivering the goods (dough, cheese, tomatoes, herbs?) that keep them in existence, whilst simultaneously offering travellers an amazing coastal adventure from Norway’s second city, Bergen, right up to North Cape and Kirkenes in a land far beyond the Arctic Circle, stopping at many points in between.
Having checked out of my hotel around 14 hours earlier, filling the day visiting other hotels, the last few hours of kicking around in anticipation of the next leg had dragged. Standing on an eerie quayside in the cold at gone midnight, wondering whether this now late ship would arrive, anticipation turned to anxiety. But the Hurtigruten ship did eventually roll in, I boarded my night boat and checked into my cabin, which was a comfortable if not plush outside cabin with two lower berths and a window. If you are expecting cruise ship style accommodation, then this isn’t for you. There’s no faded celebrity crooning in a distant bar, no attempt at the mass market, just a good standard of accommodation, meals and lounges, and the genuine experience of extraordinary coastline outside your window.
I wouldn’t rush to eat whale meat again. Apologies to the vegetarians reading this. Whilst not vegetarian, I don’t eat much meat myself, but it was there and I was intrigued, much as I had been with reindeer as the staple food further north. Please don’t tell my kids I ate Rudolph, by the way! Anyway, back to whale….this delicacy had the texture of rubber. Well, while the whale digested I whiled away a morning watching the Norwegian coast gently pass by, arriving in Bergen in mid-afternoon.
Late afternoon I witnessed the setting sun across the quays from the top of Mount Fløyen, reached by funicular railway from a base station in the heart of Bergen’s UNESCO World Heritage waterside Bryggen district. It was one of those beautiful moments, but with something missing. I was alone and couldn’t share the experience with my loved ones. Nothing unusual there, I suppose. Get used to it, boy!
I just skipped past a railway. Apologies to the rail aficionados reading this. The Fløibanen is a lovely tourist funicular connecting the heart of Bergen’s Fish Market wharf with the mountain station of Mount Fløyen. In less than 1km the two cars climb to 320 metres above sea level. The views from the top are well worth the price of the ticket and those with more energy than I had at that point in the day, plus some more daylight to play with, can use this as the start point of an invigorating mountain walk.
Bergen, Norway’s second city, is a lovely place, particularly along the Bryggen waterfront, where the wharf is flanked on one side by a stunning collection of Hanseatic merchant buildings so remarkable that they form a UNESCO protected World Heritage site. Bobbing around both sides of the quay visiting hotels, I paused for a good lunch opportunity. At the quayside was a van selling locally caught fish and chips in newspaper, a relatively cheap meal by Norwegian standards at £15, although this was admittedly nearly ten years ago. Fish. Chips. Newspaper. Fifteen chuffing quid! Gulp.
My favourite hotel was not the most plush, but had character and history. The Grand Hotel Terminus, as the name suggests, is planted across the road from Bergen’s train station. Yes, I know I’m biased and, yes, I do love railway hotels. This one is a national protected building, built in 1928. On the wall of the wood panelled whisky bar is a photograph of the hotel’s most celebrated guest, Roald Amundsen, who planned his last expedition from that very spot. Plotting my next expedition from the bar at Amundsen’s former nerve centre, I hoped it wouldn’t be my last!
The Bergen Railway is Norway’s great long-distance train journey. Described as a journey “across the roof of Norway”, northern Europe’s highest altitude train line departs Bergen around midday, climbing through rugged mountains via a series of tunnels blasted through the rocks, the longest of which is the Trollkona Tunnel at over five miles in length. Despite being the end of winter and beginning of spring, deep snow (and I mean several feet of deep snow!) surrounded the track as we ascended into a wilderness high above the tree line. The lonely station building at Myrdal is notable as the mountain terminus of the Flåm Railway, that other great Norwegian railway experience. Soon afterwards we reach the highest station on the line at Finse, some 4,267 feet (1,303 metres) above sea level, before the line descends over 3,000 feet within the next 60 miles, crossing through the beautiful Hallingdal Valley and the ski resort of Geilo, before reaching lush, fertile pastures so contrasting to the line’s earlier barren beauty. Truly one of the great railway journeys.
Norwegian trains, long-distance ones anyway, are smart. Whilst the standard of NSB’s trains may not compare favourably with the unmatchable Swiss rail experience, the scenery is arguably just as good. Seating in standard class is comfortable and service is good too. As I mentioned earlier, whilst there is an opportunity to upgrade to a small first class carriage, I’d suggest that the supplement isn’t really worth it for a leather seat, a cup of coffee and a Norwegian language newspaper.
Journey’s end was Oslo some seven hours later. Tired from my journey and settling into my room in a hotel thankfully just 50 metres from Oslo Sentralstation, I put on my jimjams, found an English language film and did a rare thing for me. I opened the minibar, fancying a glass of wine to wind down at the end of my trip. £15 for a small bottle. Gulp. “Tapwater it is then!” I muttered to myself. Actually, I probably said, “tapwatter” in my best South Yorkshire accent, followed by, “how much?!” It dawned on me why those locals at the start of this chapter were emptying Duty Free as if there were no tomorrow. Now I know why Norwegian artist Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” painting was screaming; he had seen the price of a beer! Whilst it had been a sober trip, I’d thoroughly recommend Norway for its lovely cities, connected by long-distance journeys through a natural beauty almost indescribable, plus a real coastal adventure without the razzmatazz. We’d better get saving those pennies then, folks!