Norway's West: Fjords, Mountains and Bergen

For Scandinavia's most thrilling sightseeing, we sail under towering fjord cliffs, hike on powerful glaciers, and find surviving traditions in remote farm hamlets. Then we delve into the Hanseatic heritage and enjoy the salty hospitality of Norway's historic capital, Bergen.

Travel Details

Nigard Glacier (Nigardsbreen)
The Nigard Glacier is the most accessible branch of mainland Europe's largest glacier (the Jostedalsbreen). Visiting a glacier is a quintessential Norwegian experience, bringing you face-to-face with the majesty of nature. The Breheimsenteret Glacier Information Center stands at the entrance to the Nigard Glacier valley and offers family-friendly walks on the ice (WCs, gift shop, cafeteria, museum, tel. 57 68 32 50, www.jostedal.com).

FjordSafari to Nærøyfjord
FjordSafari takes little groups out onto the fjord in small, open Zodiac-type boats with an English-speaking guide. Participants wear full-body weather suits, furry hats, and spacey goggles. The shorter Flåm–Gudvangen–Flåm tour focuses on the Nærøyfjord, and gets you all the fjord magnificence you can imagine. A longer version includes a stop in sleepy Undredal (tel. 99 09 08 60, www.fjordsafari.no).

Walaker Hotel in Solvorn
Walaker Hotel is set right on the Lustrafjord (with a garden perfect for relaxing and, if necessary, even convalescing). The 22 rooms are divided into two types: nicely appointed standard rooms in the modern annex, or recently renovated "historic" rooms with all the modern conveniences in two different old buildings: rooms with Old World elegance in the main house, and brightly painted rooms with countryside charm in the Tingstova house next door (tel. 57 68 20 80, fax 57 68 20 81, www.walaker.com, hotel@walaker.com).

Norway in a Nutshell
The most exciting single-day trip you could make from Oslo or Bergen is this circular train/boat/bus/train jaunt through fjord country. The basic idea is this: Take a train halfway across the mountainous spine of Norway, make your way down to the Sognefjord for a boat cruise, then climb back up out of the fjord and get back on the main train line. Fjord Tours sells the Nutshell package and other package trips at all Norwegian State Railways stations, including Oslo and Bergen, or through their customer-service line in Norway (tel. 81 56 82 22, www.fjordtours.no).

Borgund Stave Church
About 16 miles east of Lærdal, in the village of Borgund, is Norway's most-visited and one of its best-preserved stave churches. The church comes with one of Norway's best stave-church history museums, which beautifully explains these medieval icons (buy tickets in museum across street, museum has a shop and cafeteria, tel. 57 66 81 09).

Kviknes Hotel in Balestrand
Kviknes Hotel is a picturesque wooden hotel that has welcomed tourists to Balestrand since the late 19th century. The hotel has two parts: a new wing, and the historic wooden section, with 17 older, classic rooms, and no elevator. All rooms come with balconies. The elegant Old World public spaces in the old section make you want to just sit there and sip tea all afternoon (tel. 57 69 42 00, fax 57 69 42 01, www.kviknes.no, booking@kviknes.no).

Håkon's Hall in Bergen
Håkon's Hall, dating from the 13th century, is the largest secular medieval building in Norway. It's essentially a giant, grand reception hall (used today for banquets) under a ceiling that feels like an upturned Viking boat. While recently rebuilt, the ceiling's design is modeled after grand wooden roofs of that era (tel. 55 31 60 67).

Bergen's Hanseatic Museum
The Hanseatic Museum offers a time-tunnel experience back to Bryggen's glory days. It's located in an atmospheric old merchant house furnished with dried fish, antique ropes, an old oxtail (used for wringing spilled cod-liver oil back into the bucket), sagging steps, and cupboard beds from the early 1700s (tel. 55 54 46 96, www.museumvest.no).

Edvard Grieg's Home, Troldhaugen
Norway's greatest composer spent his last 22 summers here near Bergen, soaking up inspirational fjord beauty and composing many of his greatest works. The house and adjacent museum are full of memories, including his Steinway. The walls are festooned with photos of the musical and literary superstars of his generation (tel. 55 92 29 92, www.troldhaugen.com).              

Script

[1] Hi, I'm Rick Steves back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're sailing the fjords into some stunning scenery — venturing to the far west of Norway. Thanks for joining us. [or if we use the Bergen safety version: This time we're traveling in northern Europe where the mountains meet the sea — it's the best of Western Norway. Thanks for joining us.]

[2 open]

[3] Rugged is putting it mildly when it comes to 80 percent of Norway. Historically, it was a challenge to live here. That's why Vikings ventured south and that's why so many people chose to leave and settle in America. But today, if you explore the west of Norway — with its majestic mountains and fjords — you'll find plenty of reason not to leave...but to visit.

[4] We start in what's called Giant's Country — Jotunheimen. High in the mountains, we'll hike on Europe's biggest glacier, then descend into fjord beauty. We'll take scenic cruises, see how medieval peasants lived...and where they worshipped, before enjoying Norway's historic capital Bergen, Hanseatic heritage, a little high Norwegian culture, and rugged love of life.

[5 map] Norway is long and skinny. Oslo is as far from Rome as it is from Norway's northern tip. We'll zero in on the scenic west — along the biggest of the fjords, Sognefjord, with stops in Jotunheimem, the Jostedal Glacier, Solvorn, Balestrand, Flam, and Bergen. 

[6] This is Jotunheim or home of the giants — a high plateau that feels like the top of the world. These are northern Europe's highest mountains. They're steeped in Norse legends and folk lore.

[7] This is the land of Thor and Odin whose spirits still inhabit the misty peaks.

[8] For centuries villagers trekked across this pass to reach the coast. It was an arduous journey. But, today crossing it's a pleasure. At 4,600 feet, the Sognefjell road is Norway's highest pass. At this latitude, even these modest altitudes take us high above the tree line with snow through the summer.

[9] Norway's lunar-like mountain-scapes and deep fjords were shaped by glaciers that covered most of the Continent 10,000 years ago. Europe's biggest surviving glacier, Jostedal is still hard at work. It covers 180 square miles and — though shrinking — is still mighty.

[10] Of the many tongues of the glacier, this one — called Nigardsbreen — offers the best visit. The valley comes with a quintessential glacier view. The approach includes a cruise across the glacial lake. The scale is enormous and blue cliffs of ancient ice dwarf awestruck visitors. Park guides lash on crampons and rope up adventurous travelers in preparation for an icy hike.

[11] While there are more demanding Nigardsbreen routes, I'm joining a family hike — just an hour, but offering a unforgettable experience and bringing you face to face with the power and majesty of nature.

[12] While tentative at first, hikers soon gain confidence in their crampons as they climb high onto the glacier. 

[13] 75 years ago, this glacier stretched all the way to the parking lot. Guides teach a respect for nature and any visit heightens one's awareness of the impact of climate change.

[14]

[15] Rivers of ice like this carved huge valleys creating the defining feature of Norway's landscape — fjords.

[16] Those glaciers — as much as a mile thick — spent eons carving up western Norway as they worked their way to the sea. Slowly, they gouged u-shaped valleys that later filled with water. The distance from seabed to mountaintop around here is as much as 9000 feet — nearly two vertical miles. Dramatic waterfalls continue to cut into the mountains.

[17] This viewpoint makes sure car hikers get out and appreciate the view. Sognefjord is Norway's biggest and that's the one we're exploring. Of its many arms, the the most scenic is called Nærøyfjord.

[18] Rain or shine, traditional ferries offer a relaxing yet thrilling fjord experience. These ferries, while popular with tourists, are the lifeline of many fjord-side communities. Some remote farms are connected to the outside world only by ferry. Mail is dropped and visitors come and go by request.

[19] And the visual highlight of this ride, Nærøyfjord is ten miles long and breath-takingly narrow — as little as 800 feet wide. [go back to towering black wall]

[20] For an exhilarating alternative, we're suiting up for a much speedier tour with the Fjord Safari company.

[21] Survival suits keep everyone cozy and comfortable at thrillingly high speeds. Our guide, Rune, knows all the interesting stops. 

[22 use guide's sound bites or, if necessary, Rick can write VO to some or all: Farm house with tractor, Visit to water fall, Ladder farm, finish with high rock wall – milk this...so powerful]  

[23] This western region is important to the people of Norway. After four centuries of Danish rule, the soul of the country was nearly lost. With independence and a constitution in the early 1800s, there was a national resurgence and people in the cities celebrated their Norwegian-ness by coming here to fjord country.

[24] Along with those first tourists came artists. Romantic painters and writers were inspired by the mountains plunging into the fjords and the dramatic light. Paintings romanticized both the nature and the traditional folk life it fostered.

[25] For a present day taste of this romanticism, I like the mellow town of Solvorn with its dramatic fjord-side setting. This sleepy village, with colorful boathouses lining its waterfront, seems contentedly trapped in the past.

[26] Solvorn's charming Walaker Hotel harkens back to the early days of tourism. Actually a former inn and coach station, it's been in the family since 1690. And nine generations later, Ole Henrik keeps the tradition alive. A charming ambiance pervades the place. Relaxing before dinner, guests feel right at home in the salon.

[27] Dinner, served in this genteel elegance, caps a beautiful day. The menu is modern Norwegian. It's based on local ingredients — many of them pulled right out of the fjord. We're starting with scallops from just off shore. On a summer evening the twilight lingers causing people to do the same. Our main course is arctic char from the north of Norway. To enjoy the full effect of this fjord-side setting, I take my coffee and dessert out to the porch. The berries, picked right out of their garden, go perfectly with the view. [fade to black]

[28] The most scenic train ride in all of northern Europe connects visitors from Oslo and Bergen to all the wonder by climbing over the mountainous spine of Norway.  

[29] This line, an engineering marvel when completed in 1909, was important because it laced together the nation. Today tourists follow that same route with a series of efficient connections enjoying a quick and easy dose of Norway's best scenery.

[30] Along with a scenic boat ride up Narrow fjord, a highlight is this little train that takes travelers from the main line in the mountains steeply down to the fjords. This popular day trip is nicknamed "Norway in a Nutshell."

[31] Tourists savor every scenic moment. Scenes glide by like a movie. The train stops at a misty waterfall. The appearance of mythic Nordic water maidens adds to the scene. Descending into the fertile valley, farms appear. Finally, the train hits the fjord, where passengers catch a ferry for the next leg of Norway in a Nutshell.   

[32] Travelers with their own wheels can dig deeper into fjord country — just like those glaciers did in the last Ice Age. For me, driving in Norway can be treacherous — not because of the speed or traffic — but because of the scenery...it's simply hard to keep your eyes on the road. In this rugged terrain, tunnels and fjord crossings provide valuable shortcuts. Little car ferries make strategic crossings, allowing even the driver to fully enjoy the views.

[33] And tunnels — this one's the world's longest for cars, at 15 miles — save lots of time. To help drivers stay awake, there are rest chambers with colored lights mid-tunnel. Norwegians are making massive infrastructure investments to lace their country together.

[34] While breath-taking scenery is everywhere you look, the history is harder to see. For most of its past, Norway was extremely humble. While wealthier parts of Europe were building grand churches and castles of stone, most of Norway's architecture was made of wood. Fires were almost routine, and little survives from centuries past.

[35] This is the wet and wild homeland of the Vikings — whose culture lasted about three centuries from roughly 800 to 1100. Setting sail from here, in their tough boats, they settled Iceland, Greenland, even made it to America. And Viking raiders terrorized much of Europe for generations.

[36] This mound marks the grave of one of those Viking rulers. Like the Egyptians, the Vikings believed in a life after death. And they believed you could take it with you. That's why when graves are excavated, archeologists find everything from jewelry and weapons to cooking pots and even boats.

[37] The end of the Viking age with its pagan Norse gods is marked by the coming of Christianity to Norway in the 12th century. Those medieval Norwegians, now tamed, took their boat-buildings skills and rather then sleek ships to raid in, they built fine wooden churches to pray in.

[38] These traditional Norwegian churches are called stave churches. While there were over a thousand such churches in Norway in the 1300s, today, only a couple dozen survive. The Borgund Stave Church is one of the best.

[39] Stave churches were supported by pine poles — or "staves" — and slathered with a protective coat of black tar. Wood was plentiful and cheap. While the basic design reflects the simple technology of the age, more elaborate examples like this one stand as proud testaments to the culture.

[40] Remarkable carvings survive — evoking the pagan roots of these early Norwegian Christians. Stylized dragons — reminiscent of those that once adorned Viking ships — probably functioned like gargoyles — to keep evil spirits at bay.

[41] This building has changed little since it was built in 1180. Interiors were stark and dark with tiny windows and simple X-shaped crosses of St. Andrew. The architecture guides your gaze upwards, toward heaven. The people who filled these churches often walked hours to worship.

[42] Many hiked from tiny hamlets formed by several farms joining together. Otternes is one such farm village perched high above a fjord.

[43] Today, Otternes welcomes visitors with a rare look at Norway of old. It's an evocative huddle of 27 weathered farm buildings — many of which date to the 1700s. The farmstead's population dwindled a century ago, when — like so many Norwegians — its residents emigrated to America in hopes of a better life. Still, a handful of farmers remained, eking out a living here until just a generation ago.

[44] Laila xxx works hard to make the story of Otternes a living history.  

[45 bites from Laila responding to questions from Rick: Info on immigration, goats, etc. What was population at its peak? Fifty people. This was the main road from Flam to Aurland. There was no road along the fjord until 1916. So, explain the organization. It was a community of four family farms. The environment was tough for survival. They worked together to harvest the land from the fjord to the mountain. This key was the woman's power. Food was money. Grass and butter were gold. If you wanted to buy something in town...bring butter. So this was an active farm until the last generation. Yes. A man named Edglart lived here until 1981. His dying wish: that his home should remain the same. And it has. And this stick was to stir the porridge. Let's eat.]

[46] To appropriately cap our visit, Laila has prepared us a traditional fjord country meal. A hearty porridge called Romegrot, local dried meat, and crispy flat bread. [sound up as we eat?]

[47] Today's action is at sea level. Ferries are a lifeline of the local economy — helping both locals go about their lives and visitors efficiently explore these fjords. Just across Sognefjord lies Balestrand.

[48] Little Balestrand is dwarfed by the mountainous scenery. With its functional harbor front and inviting marina, it serves as a springboard for local adventures. It flourished in the 19th century, as a resort when Romantic "Grand Tour" visitors came to enjoy its dramatic setting.

[49] As a matter of fact, these simple steps were built for the German Emperor. Back before WWI brought the Romantic age to a halt, Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm spent five summers communing with nature right here.

[50] Those glory days of early tourism still echo in the venerable Kvikne's Hotel, which remains the grande dame of Balestrand.

[51] In its fine old dining room, the Kvikne's offers a classic Norwegian smorgasbord.

[52] For locals, this all-you-can-eat extravaganza is traditionally a feast enjoyed on holidays. But for travelers it's an any-day-of-the-week opportunity to over-indulge in Norwegian cuisine. Pace yourself with small plates through many courses. Begin with an enticing variety of seafood — mackerel, eel, smoked salmon, pickled herring and more. And the selection ranges from rutabagas to reindeer. It all culminates with a rich spread of local cheeses and berries.

[53] Guests enjoy their coffee in the same rustic elegance that kept those first aristocratic visitors coming back. Paintings by artists inspired by this very fjord add to the old world ambiance.

[54 Fast catamaran rocketing into fjord horizon] While the beauty of these fjords has changed little in the last century, today getting around is a different story. From the heart of fjord country, the fast boat has us in the biggest city in the West of Norway in just a few hours.

[55] Bergen is Norway's second city after Oslo. Situated just one sheltering island from the open sea, it's long provided ships a safe port of call. It's a busy working port. It's popular with cruise ships and an essential refuge when heavy winds drive in the boats that serve the North Sea oil rigs. Much of Norway's current affluence is fueled by the oil it drills just off shore.

[56] Visitors enjoy charming cobbled streets which surround the harbor and climb the encircling hills. Bergen's popular funicular rises high above the city offering commanding views. Surveying the surrounding islands and fjords, it's clear why this city is known as the Gateway to Fjord Country.

[57] Back down at the harbor, the bustling fish market has become a food circus of eateries selling fishy treats to tourists. Eager merchants provide tasty samples and will happily assemble a plate to order.

[58] This fine harbor has a long history. Seven hundred years ago, local kings established Bergen as Norway's first capital. The 13th-century Håkon's Hall was part of the royal residence. In a city built of wood, stone buildings represented power. As in many Norwegian sights, the included tour here brings meaning to an otherwise hard to appreciate attraction.

[59 bite from guide in the big hall — the biggest secular stone building in Scandinavia, roof is modern but built the same way the original would have been]

[60] The adjacent tower dates back to the same period. Its simple design favored security over comfort. It was basically four stout rooms stacked atop each other. This was the chapel.

[61] From the roof we enjoy a royal view. [soundbite: This was for centuries the tallest building in Bergen. The king was attempting to assert royal power, creating a centralized power and in a sense giving birth to the nation and notion of Norway.]

[62] Colorful wooden warehouses mark Bergen's touristy historic quarter. Since the 1300s, this was its old German trading center — called Bryggen, or "The Wharf." Along with being home of Norway's king, Bergen was a member of the mighty Hanseatic League and therefore a trading power.

[63] The Hanseatic League was an alliance of cities in Northern Europe that stretched from London to Russia. They worked together for freer, safer, and more profitable trade in an age before modern states could provide a reliable environment for business. German merchants basically ran Bergen's trade for 400 years. In the 1500s, Bergen was essentially a Germanic city — a community of 2,000 workaholic merchants — surrounded, and supported by about 5,000 Norwegians.

[64] The Hanseatic Museum stands on the edge of the wharf. With creaky wooden interiors and maritime hardware, it helps you envision the economy that made Bergen.

[65] It was all about this fish. Cod — a form of protein that could be dried, preserved, and shipped anywhere. Bergen was the point where cod from the north met traders from the rest of Europe. The Norwegians were the good fishermen. The Germans were the good merchants. They needed each other and Bergen is where they met.

[66] Rooms upstairs — with hundred year old cod hanging from the ceilings — take you back to the 1700s. It was an all male society with strict rules and a focus on business. Because of the ever-present danger of fire, it was generally dark and cold. People slept cozy-as-they-could in cramped cupboard beds. While there was hardly room for company, this bunk came with a pinup girl.

[67] Bryggen's wooden core is made of long rows of planky warehouses leaning haphazardly across narrow alleys. It's burned down and been rebuilt several times and it's now touristy and filled with shops and galleries. Still, strolling here, you can appreciate the heritage.

[68] For a modern contrast to all this history, head for the urban heart of Bergen — which has a thriving personality all its own. The main square, originally created as a fire break in this fire-plagued city, is lined by big department stores. And locals come to life when the sun peaks through, here in Norway's rainiest city.

[69] A park-like esplanade leads to the national theater. Fountains celebrating cultural icons provide popular meeting places. In the late 19th century, Norway's greatest artists and musicians called Bergen home. This fountain is dedicated to the beloved violinist, Olle Bull.

[70] And just outside of town, is Troldhaugen, the home of Norway's greatest composer, Edvard Grieg.  

[71] Touring his home takes you back to the Romantic age when Grieg was a major player among European composers. Guides explain how Greig and his wife entertained cultural big shots who traveled from all corners to visit this Norwegian musical genius.

[72] And when the composer wanted to work, he had his escape — a peaceful cabin complete with fjord-side inspiration. Composing at the turn of the 20th century, Grieg fused simple Norwegian folk tunes with the flamboyance of Europe's Romantic style.

[73] Today, in the adjacent concert hall, visitors gather to enjoy performances by local musicians. With a setting like this, Grieg fans become tuned into nature and nature lovers become tuned in to Grieg.

[74 piano performance]

[75] And Grieg's music captures that rich and poignant mix of nature and culture that is so uniquely Norwegian. [beauty sequence]

[76] I hope you've enjoyed our journey through western Norway. In this rugged corner of Europe, the challenges presented by nature have met the tough and creative spirit of the Norwegian people. The result: a fascinating land well worth exploring. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time...keep on travelin'. 

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