The perfect trip: Norway
Traverse Norway's dramatic landscape in this ideal excursion, taking in one of the world's great rail journeys from capital Oslo to the historic port of Bergen. Venture on to sail the unspoilt islands of Solund, before gazing in wonder at the awesome views of the mighty Aurlandsfjord and Hardangerfjord.
Oslo to Bergen Railway: Best for rail adventures
The train pulls out of Oslo Central Station and begins its journey west. With the passing miles, the city’s stern-looking apartments and office buildings dwindle, and the landscape softens into farmland, broad and green in the mid-morning light, punctuated with clapboard farmhouses painted red and mustard-yellow.
The Oslo to Bergen railway is one of the world’s most scenic journeys, stretching 308 miles through some of Norway’s most spectacular landscapes. Passengers press to the windows, cameras in hand. But this is also a route for commuters, and dozens pay no heed to the surrounds, tapping at laptops or nodding off. One, in a seeming insult to the increasingly glorious views streaming by, dons a sleeping mask.
Soon the window glass becomes cool to touch as the train climbs more than 1,000 metres into a bare, otherworldly landscape of boulders and snowdrifts, navigating beautiful but treacherous mountain country through high passes and tunnels hewn from solid rock. The railway was lauded as an engineering marvel when it opened in 1909 and it remains a striking homage to the chutzpah of its creators.
At Finse station, passengers climb down to the platform with packs and sturdy boots, their breath visible in the cold mountain air. The village is little more than a series of railway buildings in a bowl created by the Hardangervidda mountains; along one side, the smooth white lip of the Hardangerjøkulen glacier seems to flow across the rocky expanse like cream.
Finse is the highest mainline rail station in Europe, at 1,222 metres, and was founded as a camp for ‘rallars’ (navvies). Thousands of these workers burrowed through the mountains with hand tools and explosives, cleared land and laid tracks, often working in appalling conditions. So dirty and desperate did the men become that they attempted to remove the omnipresent lice by smearing warm dynamite on their skin – particularly hazardous when working by candlelight.
It’s perhaps not surprising that 63 workers were killed during the 34 years of the railway’s construction. According to Nicolay Lange-Nielsen, an actor and director from Oslo, the hardy, flint-faced rallars are national heroes and should be celebrated. ‘Great explorers like Amundsen reached the Poles and all the stories are told about these feats,’ he says, ‘but these rallars were in similarly extreme conditions – and they weren’t just planting a flag. It’s maddening that this is an untold story.’
Nicolay is attempting to redress this in an unexpected way – by staging an opera about the rallars told through Norwegian language arias. He bustles about the ‘theatre’ – the cold, dark shed near Finse station, housing the Rallarmuseet (Navvies’ Museum). ‘It's an impossible task,’ he says, grinning, ‘but we can’t give up. This is Norway's Great Wall of China – people should know how it came into being.’
From Finse, the train descends into the valleys of western Norway, with rich green farmland and flowing rivers, masked and revealed by thick stands of pine trees that blur as the train hurtles by. It follows the gentle curves of the glassy Osterfjord, so still as to reflect perfectly the scudding clouds above. At length, the train begins to pass clusters of houses, building up gradually into the centre of Bergen, where it comes to rest under the vast cylindrical glass roof of the main railway station.
The passengers who’ve spent the journey pressed to the windows have a dazed look of scenic overload. Others stir and stretch into wakefulness, bleary-eyed and seemingly unaware of the sights that have just passed them by.