Rick Steves Travel Blog: Blog Gone Europe
I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick
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While Oslo and Bergen are the big draws for tourists, Norway is first and foremost a place of unforgettable natural beauty. There’s a certain mystique about the “land of the midnight sun,” but you’ll enjoy the most scenic travel thrills per mile, minute, and dollar by going west from Oslo rather than north. And the handiest way to do that on a quick visit is the “Norway in a Nutshell” package.
A series of well-organized and spectacular bus, train, and ferry connections — appropriately nicknamed “Norway in a Nutshell” — lays Norway’s beautiful fjord country before you on a scenic platter. You’ll ride the train from Oslo to a high-mountain station (Myrdal), where you’ll take a super-scenic tourist train down to the fjord hamlet of Flåm, where you’ll catch a ferry up and down two breathtaking fjords to the village of Gudvangen, where a bus is waiting to zip you scenically into the mountains, where you’ll board your train to Bergen (or back to Oslo). Whew!
Here’s the general game plan for your five Nutshell segments, from Oslo to Bergen (it also works in the opposite direction — just read these steps backwards):
1) National train from Oslo to Myrdal (5 hours, departs each morning at 6:43 — recommended, and again at 8:05 — for sleepyheads; reserve either train in advance).
2) Private train from Myrdal down to fjordside Flåm (one hour, hourly departures, generally timed for arrival of Oslo train, no reservation necessary).
3) Boat through the fjords (from Flåm to Gudvangen, 2 hours, about hourly departures, two companies, same route and cost, no reservation needed).
4) Bus from Gudvangen to Voss (40 kilometers, one hour, departures generally timed with arrival of boats, no reservation needed).
5) Train from Voss to Bergen (one hour, hourly departures, no reservation needed).
On a sunny day, the ride is one of those fine times — like when you’re high on the tip of an Alp — when a warm camaraderie spontaneously combusts between the strangers who’ve come together for the experience.
Here are photos of some of these steps, snapped during my latest trip:
The journey from Oslo into the mountains is simply the most spectacular train ride in northern Europe. The scenery crescendos as you climb over Norway’s mountainous spine. After a mild three hours of deep woods and lakes, you’re into the barren, windswept heaths and glaciers. These tracks were begun in 1894 to link Stockholm and Bergen, but Norway won its independence from Sweden in 1905, so the line served to link the two main cities in the new country: Oslo and Bergen. The entire railway, an amazing engineering feat completed in 1909, is 300 miles long; peaks at 4,266 feet, which, at this Alaskan latitude, is far above the tree line; goes under 18 miles of snow sheds; trundles over 300 bridges; and passes through 200 tunnels in just under seven hours.
All along the way, I noticed mountain bikers (many of them entire families pedaling together) enjoying what looked like wonderful rides high above the tree line, along lakes and skirting patches of snow still there late in the summer. At several towns, the conductor may announce for how many minutes the train will be there. This gives you a few fun moments to get out, stretch, take a photograph, and look around.
Sailing Norway’s fjords can be breathtaking in any weather. My favorite trip is sailing from Flåm up the Aurlandsfjord (pictured here), and then down the Nærøyfjord. Camera-clicking tourists scurry around struggling to get a photo that will catch the magic. Waterfalls turn the black cliffs into bridal veils, and you can nearly reach out and touch the cliffs.
Norway’s greatest claims to scenic fame are her deep, lush fjords. Three million years ago, an ice age made this land as inhabitable as the center of Greenland. As the glaciers advanced and cut their way to the sea, they gouged out long grooves — today’s fjords. The entire west coast is slashed by stunning fjords, and the Sognefjord — Norway’s longest (120 miles) and deepest (1 mile) — is tops. The seductive Sognefjord has tiny but tough ferries, towering canyons, and isolated farms and villages marinated in the mist of countless waterfalls.
Enjoying the fjord views from my “Norway in a Nutshell” ferry, the last thing on my mind was the five Nutshell segments and how to connect them. But as you’re planning this amazing day, it’s likely the first thing on your mind. Study the steps I’ve outlined, and confirm specific times for your trip at www.ruteinfo.net. But most of all: Relax. Everyone’s going where you’re going, and the connections are well-coordinated. Just go with the flow and enjoy the scenery.
The vast breakfast smorgasbord that comes with most hotel rooms is a great way to stock up on calories for a busy day of sightseeing. There are plenty of local treats that show up on the breakfast table: various herring dishes, a variety of hearty breads and crackers, and the rich, sweet goat cheese called geitost (the kind that looks like ear wax).
Back in my student days, when I was slumming around Europe on a couple of bucks a day, my Norwegian relatives were an oasis of warmth, love, and lots of food. My “Europe Through the Gutter” days are long gone, but I still love dropping by. My Uncle Thor has welcomed me into his home for over 40 years. On this trip, I got to meet granddaughter Lisa’s new boyfriend. If you have relatives anywhere in Europe, by all means look them up. Making distant relatives in Europe a little less distant is a bright spot in any trip.
The Scream, by Edvard Munch, seems to be everyone’s favorite Norwegian painting. The spot (in Oslo’s Ekeberg Sculpture Park) where Munch actually painted it now has a framed replica, so anyone can do their own scream. If you ever just feel like screaming, this is a great spot.
The buzz in Oslo is its new modern sculpture park, just opened in 2013, with stimulating art sprinkled through a forest with grand city views.
The 63-acre park is a 10-minute tram ride southeast of the center. The project was a gift to the city from the Ringnes family (the Norwegian brewery tycoon, who — like Coors in Denver and Carlsberg in Copenhagen — has lots of money for grand city projects).
The park has a long history, from evidence of the Stone Age people who chose to live here 7,000 years ago, to the memory of this being a Nazi military cemetery in WWII.
Today, its unique feature is the many modern art installations you’ll come upon as you hike — like this work, by Tony Oursler.
This shot (in Sweden’s Uppsala) shows weather I’ve experienced almost every afternoon for the last month. Throughout northern Europe, it’s been extremely hot and muggy. With all that moisture sucked up into the atmosphere, around 4 p.m. every afternoon, dark clouds descend, birds rush for cover, you smell that metallic dusty fragrance sidewalks give off just before a deluge, and the sky unloads — sending everyone scrambling.
By the way, do you know what I mean about that delightful scent a dry sidewalk gives off before a big rain? What is that, anyway?
Norwegians try to be open to immigration. But like any small, homogeneous society that does not have a melting pot heritage, assimilating lots of immigrants is a challenge here. I was almost shocked by signs on the trams reading “Going Home with a Future: For information about voluntary return, contact…”
When I asked my Norwegian friends about this delicate issue, they explained that they see two kinds of immigrants: those who want to become Norwegians, and those who just want to work hard for a while, earn some serious money, and go home and be set up. But many immigrants from that second category kind of get stuck here, never intending to really settle in, unhappy, and a drag on Norwegian society. This program is hoping to nudge those who wish to return to their homeland…with a little help from the Norwegian government.
One of the most enjoyable activities in Oslo is to ride the subway to the top of its Akers River Valley and stroll downhill through a long riverside park — once the city’s churning industrial zone, with factories belching and waterwheels spinning.
The Akers River, though only about five miles long, powered Oslo’s early industry: flour mills in the 1300s, sawmills in the 1500s, and Norway’s Industrial Revolution in the 1800s.
Along the way, I was chatting with my Norwegian guide, Aksel (who’d never heard of a “pledge drive”), about how different countries pay for their public broadcasting. I was astounded by how much Norwegians are taxed just to own a TV, but those I talked to all seemed to understand the value of quality news (that doesn’t need to be dressed up as entertainment in order to sell ads and be viable), high culture accessible to the masses, children’s programming that isn’t a tool of corporations marketing things to kids, and World Cup coverage with no commercial breaks.
I spend a lot of time traveling around the USA during pledge drive season to explain to Americans why they should kick in $100 or so a year for public broadcasting. This Norwegian and his countrymen value public broadcasting at the rate of $500 a year per family, and willingly pay that tax just to own a TV. I should bring this Norwegian with me to my next pledge drive.
In Oslo, there’s a concerted effort to make the harborfront a people’s domain. This ambitious urban renewal project, called Fjord City (Fjordbyen) — which kicked off years ago with the Aker Brygge development (now Oslo’s well-established harborside promenade and restaurant row), and proceeded with the construction of the dramatic new Opera House (its white-marble roof famously sloping into the fjord, creating a public plaza that lets you walk on top of the theater) — is making remarkable progress in turning the formerly industrial waterfront into a thriving people zone. This clip gives you a glimpse at a city truly reinventing itself.
Oslo is a classic old Norwegian city. But in recent visits, I’m amazed at some of the dramatic changes going on here. The new Oslo is both architecturally fascinating and extremely livable. These photos illustrate some of the ways that Oslo just keeps chugging into the future.
Oslo’s Aker Brygge development has made its harbor a people-friendly promenade. Each night it’s a Nordic paseo. Just a few years ago, this stretch of harbor was an industrial wasteland. Today it’s part of a huge project pushing out the industry to make room for the people of Oslo. And since my last visit, the development has doubled in size with the construction of a brand-new housing development called Tjuvholmen — a futuristic mix of condos, shops, offices, galleries, and a little beach facing the open fjord.
I enjoyed a delightful, quiet moment watching seagulls and ferries come and go as the setting sun shone on the old fortress in Oslo’s harbor. Oslo’s fancy yacht club-style stretch of harborfront is a trendy restaurant row. But I didn’t feel like a fancy dinner — just a simple picnic picked up from a grocery store a block inland. Fortunately, the harborfront also comes with lots of picnic tables, comfy wooden lounges for two, and places where its citizens who can’t afford pricey waterfront restaurants can enjoy these same delightful views.
All over Europe, little Manhattans are springing up. You can read in the newspapers about slow economies, but when you actually travel around, it seems that northern Europe is on a building binge. This new strip of towering office complexes — nicknamed “the Bar Code District” — finally gives Oslo the modern skyline it never had.