Saturday, July 02, 2005

Fjord me Seymour!

Excitedly left Oslo for the fjords. We took Rick Steves' advice and went west instead of trying to get up north to the artic circle and all the fjords up and down there.

The train ride between Oslo and Bergen is supposed to be one of the most beautiful (or at least dramatically scenic) in northern Europe. The whole railway is 300 miles long, goes under 18 miles of snow sheds, travels over 300 bridges, and passes through 200 tunnels in just under 7 hours. We rode about 60% of the way.

The countryside just outside of Oslo is very pretty with woods and trees and farms. After about three hours the track starts rising up over Norway's mountainous spine. At this point you see the barren, rocky, windswept heaths and snowmelt lakes existing into rushing rivers and streams. The track reaches the highest train station in Norway at Finse, 1,222 meters above sea level. This place looked COLD, with the snow covering a lot of the town and the lake only partially melted. An amazing thing was then seeing how many houses were out in the wilderness along the way. Especially the ones with outdoor outhouses!

We got off at Myrdal, a high-altitude (2,800 feet) train junction with a platform, little station house and bed and breakfast. That's it. (there aren't any roads to get to it). There we changed onto the train to Flam. This is probably one of the most famous railways in Norway. It goes down from 2800 feet to sea level in 55 minutes, stopping at scenic viewpoints and providing many oohs and ahs. The train represents an amazing engineering feet. It's evidently the steepest train line to use normal guage tracks (not cog wheels, etc) in the world and requires 5 brake systems. It also goes through 20 tunnels (more than 3 miles worth) and at one point does a 360 in a tunnel through a mountain so that the view through windows in the tunnel wall is first on one side of the train and then on the other. You can read more about the flam railway and see more pictures at:

One of the sights on the way down is the Kjosfossen waterfall (with over 300 feet of free fall), where legend says a siren lives behind the falls and tries to lure men to the rocks with her singing. We had gotten out of the train with the rest of the passengers and were trying to take pics in the swirling spray without us or the cameras getting too wet when all of a sudden a lovely haunting tune came out from the rocks. Then suddenly a woman with long black hair in a long red dress appeared at the window of a ruined house. She beckoned seductively then disappeared and then another woman appeared almost in the falls and completely covered in spray beckoning alluringly. They traded back and forth for a while (creating the illusion of a magic creature who could move through rock and water. Fairly touristy, but still, a pretty cool effect. We found out later that they had wet suits on under the dresses and were tethered by safety lines and in between trains would go warm up in a lodge. Good thing looked like a pretty extreme job.

At the bottom we had about 30 minutes in Flam before boarding an express boat to Balestrand. Most of our fellow tourists got on another ferry to make a U around through this fjord and another one and then to head back up to the railway. This trip is called Norway in Nutshell and is one of the most famous trips in Norway. We highly recommend it for anybody who only has a day or two from Oslo and wants to experience some of the best of the fjords and maybe get out to Bergen. We would have done that too but we really wanted more time to experience the fjords and to get away from most of the tourists.

So instead of boarding the nutshell boat, we got on our express boat, left flam and the cruise ships behind, and headed farther into the Sognefjord on our way to Balestrand. The Sognefjord is Norway's longest (120 miles) and deepest (1 mile) and provided us with our first glimpses of fjords scenery and scenery and scenery. And btw, for anyone who takes on of these boats: 1) they are actually catamarans, so they are FAST, and 2) that means if you are outside it is WINDY. But they can cover the trip to Balestrand in about 1.5 - 2 hours (depending on which version of the boat you take) instead of probably 5 hours or so on a ferry.

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