In a country crammed with breathtaking fjords, sky scraping mountains and sensuous seascapes, giving one road the nickname the “Golden Route” is fairly significant.
But the Geiranger-Trollstigen Route offers 106km of raw Norwegian nature, with an awe-inspiring collection of hairpin bends, glaciated valleys and emerald green fjords running north to south. It is also one of 18 National Tourist Routes that aim to draw visitors to all corners of Norway, by pairing beautiful drives with world-class architectural viewing points that effortlessly blend nature with modernity. Six of the routes are completed and the remaining 12 routes will be finished by 2020.
“The challenge is to interpret the mood of a place,” said Per Ritzler, head of international relations at Norway’s National Tourist Routes. “Some [viewing points] are in sharp contrast with the surroundings, others are in harmony with the landscape – but never indifferent.”
Start your Golden Route drive in Alesund, the principal town of the Sunnmøre district, in Norway’s southwest. As you drive 11km south to the top of the Trollstigen, which is Norse for Troll Ladder, you will climb 852m from sea level to glacial plateau.
After 11 hairpin bends, the Trollstigen Visitor Centre – one of the new vantage points that opened in June 2012 – offers the chance to peer over the edge of the thundering Stigfossen waterfall. It took eight years for Oslo architect Reiulf Ramstad to complete the angular concrete and glass structure, which mimics the area’s rocky granite outcrops and reflects the glacial melt of the deep River Istra.
Several hundred metres east, another platform appears to be suspended in thin air, with only rusted designer steel and glass plates separating you from a 200m drop to the Trollstigen valley below. Walkways criss-cross the glacial terrain; their simplicity and compactness acting as a counterpoint to the enormity of the natural surroundings.
“Our main focus is always to have a humble approach to the environment and through our architecture get the visitors to gain a greater sense of nature and the interaction between the two,” Ramstad said.
Another 16km south, past grandly named mountains including the Dronningen (the Queen), the Kongen (the King), and Bispen (the Bishop), is another design gem, located at the bottom of the Valldal valley. The aptly named Juvet Landscape Hotel received Norway’s top architecture prize, the AC Houens Fund’s certificate, in 2012.
Seven guest houses balance on thin metal poles above granite boulders, designed to fit into nature without damaging it. Their smoked-glass sides offer a floor-to-ceiling panoramic of snow-capped peaks and the gurgling Valldøla River below. The dark brown monochromatic interiors focus everything towards the view.
These minimalist boxes of striped pinewood are open for their third season and took five years to construct. “It was an experiment,” said hotel owner Knut Slinning. “They’re not taken from a catalogue. They are handmade. “Other people can replicate the rooms, but they can’t replicate the rock and the river.”
Only a kilometre away from the hotel, the sinuous metal banisters of the Gudbrandsjuvet viewing platform were designed by the same architect as the hotel, Jensen and Skodvin. The snaking metal network of bridges and walkways holds you safely as you peer into the gurgling whirlpools that skirt through the narrow and deep ravine below, while the adjacent cafe offers uninterrupted views of the mountains.
Next stop is the Linge Ferry Quay, 15km southwest, on the edge of the town of Storfjord. The quay’s passenger waiting room, full of steel veneer and soft wood interior, has the mark of Oslo architect Knut Hjeltnes.
Hop on the ferry, which takes cars across the Storfjord, and drive 30km south to reach the viewing platform at Ørnesvingen, designed by architects 3RW. The steel and wire walkway is a perfect landmark from which to admire the Unesco World Heritage-listed Geiranger fjord, 600m below, and the famed Seven Sisters cascade.
To finish this architecture-cum-nature tour, the Golden Route takes you to Flydalsjuvet gorge at the southeastern end of the town of Geiranger. Sit in the single, brushed steel and wood seat unveiled by the Queen of Norway in 2006, which offers awe-inspiring views of the cruise ships that appear like small matchstick boats on the crystal clear Gieranger fjord below.
Parts of the Golden Route, particularly the high roads, close when the first snow falls, usually in October or November, reopening in May or June depending on weather condition.