Story and Photos by Libor Pospisil.
Traveling through Norway by train, I boarded the coach at Oslo’s Sentralstasjon (Central Station) and made myself comfortable in a cushy seat. But shortly after we departed, I realized that I would not be able to simply relax because I could not to stop looking out the window. The train began to pass by large lakes, then hills, meadows, lakes again, mountain plateaus, and, ultimately, glaciers. Every new panorama beat the previous one, establishing a pattern that kept the passengers in suspense. In fact, one fellow visitor told me after the journey that despite her severe jet-lag, she was afraid to fall asleep because she might miss some of the great views.
Even though the journey, which traverses Norway by train from the capital of Oslo to its second city of Bergen, ranks as one of the most scenic in the world, the railway’s significance goes beyond offering passengers typical Norwegian panoramas, however breathtaking they are. The Bergen Line, as it is often called, became a key character in Norwegian history, as well as a cultural reference that sometimes only Norwegians can truly appreciate. That is why I chose this train as the ideal guide for my first-ever trip to the country, which I undertook in the last few days of August.
You can cover the entire distance from Oslo to Bergen with a single, seven-hour-long ride. Or you can make stops along the way, as I did, and engage in various activities, ranging from light walks and museum visits to extreme biking and skiing—the train operates even in the depths of the Nordic winter. But, most importantly, I was hoping that the stops would help me understand how these tracks across the mountains had shaped the story of Norway.
Colored wood and flat tops: From Oslo, the train gradually ascended toward the center of Norway, passing small wooden houses on lake shores, barns in fields, and station buildings in deep valleys. What made the sights intrinsically Norwegian, however, were the colors of the structures—mostly red, but sometimes yellow and white. Even if those seem like stylish choices now, back in the days of pre-industrial paint, most farmers and freeholders picked red because that was the cheapest one to make. In fact, the houses covered in the alternative colors of yellow and white used to convey to passers-by that the owners were fairly prosperous.
Seeing the large resort of Geilo out the train window, surrounded by hills with ski slopes, reminded me that we were already high up in the mountains. Many towns in this remote area of the country were only able to become popular hot spots because of the construction of the Bergen Line.
When the train reached Ustaoset in the late evening, I picked up my luggage and got off, since I planned to stay in this small settlement overnight. Walking from the station to my guesthouse in a chilly drizzle, under a gloomy sky, made me briefly question my choice of a summer trip. While some houses—wooden, and in the typical colors, of course—had their lights on, there were no signs of life around there. No store open, not even a pub.
Yet the appeal of Ustaoset became obvious the next morning, when I took a walk along the shores of the adjacent lake of Ustevatnet and saw the stunning panorama of the water, the village, and the gigantic mountains in the background. The mountains are part of Hallingskarvet National Park and have a shape that is unique to Norway—no peaks, just large, flat, rocky tops. The young Norwegian gentleman who checked me out of my guesthouse said the park is getting more popular with people who want to enjoy hiking in the mountains without the seemingly never-ending strenuous ascents (“horizontal hiking”.)
Railway to independence: In the remaining part of the day, I had to make it to Bergen, with a few more stops along the way. I thus jumped on the next train in Ustaoset, which continued to ascend along lakes and rocky mountains. Nowadays, the modern trains of the Bergen Line run smoothly along the electrified tracks, carrying commuters, business travelers, outdoor enthusiasts, curious backpackers and freight. But that should not make us think that building the railway was straightforward and operating it has been simple. On the contrary, it posed not only an engineering challenge but a political one as well.
Back, at the end of the 19th century, when the Bergen Line was envisaged, Norway existed not as a country but only as a member of a political union with Sweden. Moreover, it had a reputation as the underdeveloped backwater of all Scandinavia. Building a railway across the harsh terrain to connect its two major cities became an opportunity for the nation to assert itself. But the engineers and construction crews first had to overcome numerous natural obstacles along the 500-kilometer (300-mile) long line. Their tasks included tunneling, dealing with winters more severe than anywhere else in Europe, and, crucially, laying tracks all the way up to Finse, the highest point of the railway, sitting at an elevation of 1,222 meters (4,009 feet). Shortly before the railway opened to the public in 1909, Norway voted in a referendum to become an independent country. Successful industrialization and the management of cutting-edge engineering projects, such as the Bergen Line, gave it the confidence to stand on its own legs, without having to lean on its bigger Swedish neighbor.
Antarctica in Europe: I made Finse, the summit of the Bergen Line, my next stop. The small settlement around the railway station has an air of true wilderness to it because you cannot get there by road, only by train. It has long been a popular stop for visitors, some of whom stay overnight in the old-time Hotel 1222 (a reference to Finse’s elevation), which stands next to the railway station.
Many passengers who got off the train with me went straight to the bike rental store at the station, to cycle along the famous long scenic trail called Rallarvegen (Navvies’ Road). Meanwhile, I headed for a small railway museum across the tracks.
Located fittingly in an old depot, the museum exhibits artifacts and information panels about the history of the Bergen Line. But the objects on display that will make you appreciate most how much effort it required to run the railway are the huge rotary snow plows. They used to clear the tracks of snow during the long, hard winters, when the scenic mountains became inhospitably white.
Snow and wind turned out to be even more resilient opponents of the railway than expected—the strong winds created drifts that buried the tracks under thick layers of snow, requiring almost non-stop clearing to keep the trains running and to keep bringing cross-country skiers up to Finse. The photographs displayed in the museum showed, however, that during some winters, snow was so deep and icy that it even damaged the plows. The railway then had to be rescued with the only remaining tool available: human hands.
Nowadays, the snow problem is partly mitigated by snow barriers and snow sheds. Some of these snow sheds are even made in a typical Norwegian style, resembling wooden village chapels rather than utilitarian railway structures.
What makes Finse such a scenic place are the glaciers of the Hardanger Plateau, behind the lake of Finsevatnet. You can hike to the glaciers from the station during the summer season, but in winter, the conditions turn so harsh there that it attracted Roald Amundsen’s attention. So much so that Amundsen, the Norwegian polar explorer, used the Hardanger Plateau as a training ground for his expedition to Antarctica in 1911, on which he became the first human to reach the South Pole. With various events and outdoor activities commemorating the era of polar adventures, Finse continues to celebrate Amundsen’s accomplishment, which helped Norway raise its profile around the world, just as the country gained its independence.
The extreme and deserted nature of the landscape also caught the eye of Hollywood, which even gave Finse a role in one of the Star Wars movies (for the series’ aficionados, the glaciers near Finse represented planet Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back.)
Mountain pride: When I boarded the train in Finse to continue my journey, I recalled that Norwegians associate the Bergen Line with a different cinematic production than Star Wars. As I learned from an informative book on Scandinavia, The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia, written by Michael Booth. A Norwegian television station taped a show by simply mounting a camera on the front of the train’s engine letting it record the landscape between Bergen and Oslo, without interruption.
The railway had settled so firmly into Norwegian consciousness that this seven-hour broadcast, now available online, received sky-high ratings in the country, as the conductor on the train confirmed to me when I asked him about the claim in the book. What a great illustration of the Norwegians’ pride in the landscapes of their country. This pride, however, does not manifest itself only in the ratings of nature programs on television but also in its many national outdoor pastimes, from hiking to skiing. As Mr. Booth writes, any sneering at this sentiment – often by other Scandinavians – gets dismissed by Norwegians as “mountain envy.”
After speeding through the 10-kilometer (6-mile) long Finse tunnel, the train was approaching Myrdal. I was standing at the window at the very back of the train, trying to take pictures. The conductor took further time off from his duties to alert me as to when I should have my camera ready. His guidance turned out to be quite useful, as this section of the tracks was mostly covered by snow sheds—they protect 27 kilometers (17 miles) of the line—with only flashes of great scenery in between.
From high plateaus to deep fjords, in no time: I got off the train at Myrdal, to make a small detour from the Bergen Line. Despite the large crowds of tourists having the same idea, I boarded the historical Flåm train—another Norwegian engineering marvel. In 20 kilometers (12 miles), the train takes you down 867 meters (2,844 feet) in elevation, from the mountain plateau, where Myrdal lies, to the shore of the Aurlandsfjord, where the train terminates in the village of Flåm. Nowadays, this train serves only tourists and can therefore make a photographic stop at the roaring Kjosfossen waterfall, which is 93 meters (305 feet) high.
If you invest the time to go down to Flåm, you cannot afford to miss a boat ride on the Aurlandsfjord and the neighboring Nærøyfjord (which has its place on the UNESCO world heritage list.) These worthy representatives of Norwegian fjords, surrounded by steep cliffs – steeper and taller than many first-time visitors like me had imagined – occasional waterfalls, villages of wooden houses, and an atmosphere of splendid isolation, completed my first dive into Norwegian nature.
After this two-hour fjord experience, I stepped out of the boat at Gudvangen and took a bus to the town of Voss that lies back on the Bergen Line. Having time before the next train’s departure, I took a walk around this pleasant, lively town of old architecture and modern buildings, surrounded by a lake and mountains, of course. Its downtown has several restaurants, in one of which I stopped to enjoy a delicious fish dinner after the long day. But then I had to rush to the station to board the train for the last leg of my journey.
East versus West… in Norway: It was already dark when the train pulled into Bergen, concluding my trip across Norway by train. With its status as the principal city of western Norway (Travel Examiner wrote about Bergen in a recent article), Bergen preserves its own distinct identity, which contrasts with that of Oslo, located in eastern Norway.
While Bergen and the west proudly face the Atlantic Ocean, Oslo and the east feel closer to Europe. The west often prefers the Nynorsk version of the written Norwegian language while the east prefers Bokmål. The west voted against joining the European Union, while the east voted to become a member. To lift a phrase out of The Snowman, a crime novel by the famous Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø: “Bergensians don’t think of Oslo as a capital.” The steel of the tracks along the Bergen Line thus overcome not only mountains but also the subtle rivalry between the two sides of the country. Yet thinking about the history of the railway and its place in Norwegian culture should not distract you from watching the stunning panoramas that unfold on the train window over the course of this extraordinary journey.
IF YOU GO:
- The Bergen Line, from Oslo to Bergen, is 500 kilometers (300 miles) long. The train takes about seven hours to cover the distance if you choose to complete it without making any stops.
- The railway is operated by NSB (Norges Statsbaner), the Norwegian state railway company. Prices, tickets, and timetables can be found at the Bergen Rail website.
- A destination guide for places in Norway, commissioned by the Norwegian government is most helpful.
- To learn more about skiing in Geilo, you can visit Geilo resort website.
- To learn more about cycling along the scenic Rallarvegen, you can view information at the Visit Norway website.
- More information for Hotel 1222 in Finse can be found at their listing site.
- The Flåm train is operated by NSB as well. More information about the Flåm train, can be found at the Visit Norway website.
- Several companies operate boats on the Aurlandsfjord and the Nærøyfjord. One option for booking a ticket can be found at the Visit Flam website.