This is part 7 in a series about my summer 2017 trip, which took me to Norway, the Netherlands, and Malta. You can read an overview of the trip here.
It’s hard to think about going to Norway without seeing the fjords and the beautiful landscape of the country outside the major cities. I had decided that as a solo traveler it wasn’t worth heading to the far north. In retrospect, it probably would have been worth it to just scrap the Netherlands portion of my trip and spend the time exploring more of Norway. But for those short on time, like myself, there is an option: Norway in a Nutshell.
There are actually several different Norway in a Nutshell tours, put together by Fjord Tours, but I went with the “original” Norway in a Nutshell, which you can start and end in either Oslo or Bergen. Basically, it’s a series of well-timed means of conveyances that allows you to get to see the fjords via public transit in a day – via multiple trains, boat, and bus.
I knew I wanted to go to Bergen anyway, so I decided it would be a good way of killing two birds with one stone. I had thought about spending a night somewhere along the way, so I could do some outdoor activities, as it doesn’t impact your ticket price, but I didn’t see anything that looked super appealing to me, so decided to just do it all in one day. It’s a long day- the direct train from Oslo to Bergen is 7.5 hours itself without any diversions; adding in the fjord adventure makes it nearly 13 hours.
There were two NIN departures for a daytrip ending in Bergen – one involving the “premium” fjord boat cruise, and one on the standard one. The premium trip is 2190 NOK (~281 USD) vs 1890 NOK (~243 USD) for the classic boat. I had booked before my change in job, so went with the more expensive one– for the main reason that it was a shorter day, leaving a bit earlier and getting to Bergen at 7pm instead of 9pm. The boat portion of the trip was also a little shorter since the newer boat is faster. After my experiences on the fjords of Doubtful Sound and my Alaskan whale-watching cruise, I knew that I didn’t need hours on a boat when traveling solo.
You can put together the package yourself and save some money (in my case about $30). That requires tickets from several different websites, and for some parts you can’t buy tickets in advance. Since it was peak season, and to avoid the stress, I liked the idea of having all my reservations done and on one ticket. Having done the trip and realizing how the connections work, though, I would feel comfortable buying the tickets individually.
I left my hotel at 5:30am and took the commuter rail one stop to Central Station. I was at the station at 5:50am, and surprisingly the coffee shops and restaurants in the station weren’t open yet. There was a Coop Mini Supermarket, though, so I picked up some breakfast and snacks, and grabbed a coffee at a convenience store, before boarding the train for a 6:25am departure.
The first leg of the trip is a five-hour train ride from Oslo to Myrdal on the Bergen Railway. That railway goes all the way to Bergen, but the Norway in a Nutshell trip does a little diversion like an upside-down U for the middle part. All of the Norway-in-a-Nutshell (NIN) passengers were seated together, which made for a bit louder travel than I wanted due to a loud Australian group in front of me who would not stop talking. I had been assigned a seat reservation without any input, but it was a window seat thankfully. The seats were fairly comfortable, with decent cushioning, padded folding armrests, footrests, and tray tables. The seats reclined in a way that had very minimal impact on the person behind you, mostly sliding forward. The seat next to me stayed empty the whole leg.
The train had a café car and a family car including a play area. There was a bathroom at the end of each car, and plenty of luggage storage. There was free wifi, and power outlets at the base of every seat. The café car had a lot of prepared foods they could heat up, hot cross buns, and a coffee machine – fairly similar to Amtrak.
My Norwegian friends told me to just sleep for this part of the trip since it was “ugly.” Of course, it’s all relative, because passing through the towns and harbors outside Oslo in the eastern part of Norway, and then into the countryside, is pretty pretty! I wanted to sleep, but couldn’t anyway, because the Australian family had spread themselves across a few rows and were using outside voices to talk to each other, and also watching videos on their phones without headphones. The sun was also pretty bright, so bring an eye mask if you plan to sleep. (There’s a window shade but its shared for two rows.) They had their bare feet up on the seats across. Everyone else on the train was quiet — reading or sleeping. I ended up getting about 20 minutes sleep in a lull of Australian silence.
There were a few towns where we stopped for 5-10 minutes, but the coolest stops were as we climbed into the mountains through towns like Geilo and Ustaoset, and Finse – over 1000m above sea level. There was snow and ice, and the temperature outside was in the 40s and lower. People were getting on in ski wear, and in these snowy towns, lots were hopping on for one or two stops. It was an interesting part of the ride.
We pulled into Myrdal at 11:35am, and had a 40-minute wait til the next train on the Flam Railway. Don’t think about doing anything in Myrdal on that layover- Myrdal is nothing but a train station and a few buildings right next to it. Pretty, though. The station has a small restaurant and a gift shop (and a bathroom). There was a long line for food, and I succumbed to peer pressure and got a chicken wrap, not knowing what the food situation would be the rest of the time.
When I got off the Bergen Railway, there was a train employee shouting to leave luggage at one end of the track and that we could pick up our luggage in Flam, for free. (The Bergen Railway had had plenty of storage room for big suitcases, but the Flam Railway did not.) It’s weird just leaving your suitcase in a pile with no check or anything, but when in Norway…
Seats on the Flam Railway are not reserved, but you really want a window seat on the left side of the car. So, I positioned myself on the platform early. When the train arrived, a bunch of pushy Americans pushed themselves in front of me, though, and when I got on the train, I saw that 1/4 of the seats in that car were marked with white paper signs as reserved for tour groups. And then the conductor said no one else could sit in the car, so I had to make my way into other cars, that had all filled up, finally finding a rear-facing seat across from an amorous couple.
Unlike the Bergen line, the Flam Railway is a 100% tourist experience. The whole line is only 45 minutes, and it has “old-timey” cars. It’s supposedly one of the world’s prettiest railways (and steepest) as it runs through the Flam Valley, but it made me think I rather be out exploring the valley on foot or bike. Towards the beginning of the journey there’s a 6-minute stop at a waterfall, and music starts playing and a woman comes out doing some ancient dance. (Featured in the video below.) It’s tacky, but pretty. I also at that point realized my train was 90% Asian tour groups.
Arriving in Flam was very different than what I expected. I was thinking a cute authentic Norwegian village, but the train lets out on a pier that is a tourist hell. There’s a huge “outlet,” the Mall of Norway, and a series of food trucks. There was a big cruise ship in the harbor, and then dozens of different excursions for sale. A lot of people spend the night in Flam, or just diverge from the NIN route there. I had looked into spending a night there so I could do some more activities, but it was expensive and I was told boring.
The pier for the “premium” fjord cruise was right across from the train, but I had 50 minutes. I went to the bathroom, got an expensive chicken satay skewer, and otherwise just stood around before boarding of the boat. The boat was very nice and new. The main level was almost like a hotel lobby or coffee shop, with arm chairs and power outlets and little conversation groups, as well as a snack bar (and luggage storage). The level above had the bathrooms and more traditional ferry-type seating, which was filled up in a mad dash by a Chinese tour group. Then the rest of the levels were outdoors. I spent most of my time on the top of the boat, though it was chilly (I had a light jacket, a hoodie, and a ballcap), so I took periodic breaks.
The 90-minute cruise along Nærøyfjord and Aurlandsfjord, branches of Sognefjorden, was pretty, though unfortunately it was a cloudy day. Just look at the pictures and the video.
The boat docks in Gudvangen (it was around 3:30pm) and a bunch of public buses are just waiting to take you to Voss, where you reconnect with the main train line. There’s no real wait to get going. The buses are marked Norway in a Nutshell/ Voss, but plenty of people on the bus were not on the Norway in a Nutshell tour, and some didn’t even realize they were following that route. As we got closer to Voss, the bus driver picked up a local passenger. The bus driver was oddly the only person on the entire day who really provided any historical or contextual information – not a lot. But the bus ride was actually one of the coolest parts of the trip.
It’s about 75 minutes on the bus, and the bus (in the summer only) takes a road called Stalheimskleiva. It’s a one-way, 1.5 kilometer road that is supposedly the “steepest in Northern Europe,” but also has some insane hairpin turns. It’s also breathtakingly beautiful, passing several waterfalls and with great views looking back at the fjord. Just wear your seatbelt! The road was actually built back in the mid-19th century which makes it quite a marvel, and has a hotel you can stay at overnight. There’s a newer road that most non-scenic traffic takes.
Around 4:55pm, we were in Voss, dropped off at the bus station which is across the street from the small train station. Voss is a town, so conceivably there was stuff to do wandering around during the 45-minute layover, but I was tired, I had my suitcase, and it was very grey. So, I did a 5-minute walk around the train station, before just sitting on the platform until the train arrived. The train from Oslo arrived right on time, and I was right outside my marked car (reserved seating). A large tour group of senior citizens was getting off in Voss. People wouldn’t wait and started forming a circle around the door, blocking them from getting out, and then going through one of the other cars just so they could push ahead. Seriously, people are the worst.
The train was much dirtier at this end of the journey, and was packed, but otherwise was the same as the train from Oslo to Myrdal, with my seat on the opposite side of the train and with a seatmate. The ride went from grey to sun to rain, though there were still some beautiful vistas on the last leg (if you have a choice, ride on the right). Around 7pm, we pulled into the Bergen station – a loooong day.
I think the weather was unfortunate, and probably kept me from enjoying as much as I otherwise may have. The crowds of pushy tourists also put a damper on it. I wish I’d had more time to actually explore parts of Norway beyond the vehicles I spent the day in. As a solo traveler, it didn’t make sense to venture off the path and arrange any outdoorsy excursions. Next time.