Norway by Train: Across Glaciers and Through Time
How the train journey from Oslo to Bergen takes you along all types of Norwegian landscapes… and gives you an unexpected feel for the country’s history.
A journey through Norway by train inevitably begins at Sentralstasjon in Oslo — the city’s main railway station. I boarded a train toward Bergen and made myself comfortable in a cushy seat. But shortly after we departed, the idea of quiet reading and meditation was gone because this is the kind of train where you cannot to stop looking out the window. We began to pass by large lakes, then continued up and reached hills, meadows, large lakes again, mountain plateaus, and, ultimately, glaciers. Every new panorama beat the previous one, establishing a pattern that would keep you in suspense. Indeed, one fellow traveler told me that despite her severe jet-lag, she was afraid to fall asleep on the train for fear of missing out.
Even though the Bergen Line, as this train is called, ranks high among scenic journey, it is significant not just for its Norwegian panoramas. The line became a key milestone in the country’s history, as well as a cultural reference that only Norwegians can comprehend. Taking this train, therefore, proved to be an ideal way to begin my trip when I traveled to Norway for the first time in August 2018.
You can cover the distance from Oslo to Bergen with a single, seven-hour-long ride. Or you can make stops along the way, as I did, to feel the Norwegian air and explore the country. Irrespective of whether you prefer light walks and museum visits or extreme biking and cross-country skiing, the train stops at the right places — and yes, it operates even in the depths of the Nordic winter.
Colored wood and flat tops
From Oslo, the train gradually ascended toward the center of Norway, passing small wooden houses on lake shores, spacious barns among fields, and meticulously well-kept station buildings in deep valleys. What made the sights intrinsically Norwegian, however, were the colors of the structures — mostly red, but sometimes yellow and white. Even if those seem like stylish choices now, back in the days of pre-industrial paint, most farmers and freeholders picked red because that was the cheapest one to make. The houses painted yellow and white actually used to signal to anyone who walked by that the property belonged to a prosperous homesteader.
After a few hours, the train made it to a high enough elevation that ski slopes began to appear on both slides of the tracks. That was a sign we arrived at the large ski resort of Geilo. In fact, many towns in this remote part of the country could become popular holiday spots, for both winter and summer seasons, only thanks to the construction of the Bergen Line.
When the train reached Ustaoset in the late evening, I picked up my luggage and got off, since I planned to stay in this village overnight. The walk from the station to my guesthouse in a chilly drizzle, under a gloomy sky, made me briefly question my choice of a summer trip. There were no signs of life around, only some houses — wooden, and in the typical colors, of course — had their lights on. But no store was open, not even a pub.
Ustaoset turned out to be a worthy stop only the next day, when I took an early morning walk along the lake of Ustevatnet and got to see the panorama of the water, the village, and the gigantic mountains in the background. The mountains are a part of Hallingskarvet National Park and have a shape that is unique to Norway — no peaks, just large, flat, rocky tops. The Norwegian gentleman who checked me out of my guesthouse said the park is getting more popular with people who want to enjoy hiking in the mountains without the seemingly never-ending strenuous ascents, an activity that is apparently called “horizontal hiking”.
Railway to independence
In the remaining part of the day, I had to make it to Bergen, with a few more stops along the way. I therefore jumped on a train in Ustaoset, ready for the most scenic part of the journey. The tracks continued to lead to a higher elevation, meandering among lakes and rocky mountains. Of course, the modern, electrified trains run smoothly on the steep Bergen Line these days. But that should not make us think that building the railway was straightforward and its operation simple. On the contrary, it posed challenges that were not only of an engineering nature, but of a political one too.
Back, at the end of the 19th century, when the Bergen Line was envisioned, Norway did not exist as an independent country but merely as a little brother to Sweden, within their united kingdom. Moreover, it had a reputation as the underdeveloped backwater of Scandinavia. Building a railway connecting its two major cities, while crossing the harshest of terrains, was therefore an opportunity for the nation to assert itself.
The engineers and construction crews had to overcome numerous natural obstacles along the 500-kilometer (300-mile) long line. The tasks included tunneling, dealing with winters more severe than anywhere else in Europe, and, crucially, laying tracks all the way up to Finse, the highest point on the route, with an elevation of 1,222 meters (4,009 feet). Shortly before the railway opened to the public in 1909, Norway voted in a referendum to become an independent country. Successful industrialization and the management of cutting-edge engineering projects, such as the Bergen Line, gave it the confidence to separate from the bigger brother and stand on its own legs.
Antarctica in Europe
As soon as we arrived in Finse, I disembarked the train again. The small settlement around the railway station has an air of true wilderness to it, not least because you cannot get there by car, only by train. It has long been a popular stop for visitors, some of whom stay overnight in the old-time Hotel 1222, whose name refers to Finse’s elevation.
Many fellow passengers who stepped out of the train with me went straight to the bike rental store at the station, to cycle along Rallarvegen (Navvies’ Road) — a gravel, service road, used during the construction of the railway, which was turned into a popular cycling route.
What makes Finse such a scenic place is the lake of Finsevatnet, right at the train station, and the glaciers of the Hardanger Plateau in the background. You can actually hike to the glaciers from the station during the summer season, but in winter, the conditions turn so severe that it attracted the attention of Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian polar explorer. So much so that Amundsen used the Hardanger Plateau as a training ground for his expedition to Antarctica. Eventually, he made it to the southernmost continent and, in 1911, became the first human to reach the South Pole. Amundsen marked the spot by planting the Norwegian flag there — the flag of a country that had been independent for less than a decade. As the news of his accomplishment went around the world, Amundsen became the first internationally recognized hero of the new country. In Finse, the era of polar adventures is recalled to this day, with regular events that include dog sledding from a replica of Amundsen’s hut into the snowy emptiness.
The extreme and deserted landscape of Hardanger also caught the eye of Hollywood, which gave the glaciers a role in one of the Star Wars movies — what you see from the Finse train station thus ended up representing planet Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back.
My time was somewhat limited, so instead of climbing glaciers, I headed for a small railway museum across the tracks. Located in an old depot, the museum displays artifacts and information panels about the history of the Bergen Line. But you have to step outside the building to see the objects that will make you understand what it takes to keep the trains running. There stand huge rotary snow plows that used to be deployed to clear the tracks during the winters when the otherwise scenic mountains become inhospitably white. The snow problem is coupled by winds, which create such strong drifts in the mountains that the plows had to work almost non-stop. The photographs displayed in the museum show, however, that during some winters, even the technology could not keep up — the snow became deep and icy so quickly that it damaged the plows. The railway then had to be rescued with the one remaining tool available: human hands.
Nowadays, the snow onslaught is partly mitigated by free-standing barriers and snow sheds placed to protect the tracks. Some of these sheds are even made in a typical Norwegian style, resembling wooden village chapels rather than utilitarian railway structures.
When I boarded the train in Finse to continue my journey, I recalled that Norwegians associate the mountains surrounding the Bergen Line with a different cinematic production than Star Wars. As Michael Booth wrote in his book The Almost Nearly Perfect People, a Norwegian television station taped a show by simply mounting a camera on the front of the train’s engine and letting it record the landscape between Bergen and Oslo, without interruption. The railway had apparently settled into Norwegian consciousness so firmly that this seven-hour broadcast, now available online, received sky-high ratings — a fact confirmed by the conductor on the train when I asked him about the sensationalist claim in the book.
The popularity of the train journey movie played right into the stereotype that Norwegians feel a supernatural connection to their nature. This mountain pride can be found everywhere — from the music of Edvard Grieg, a classical composer from Bergen, to the list of national outdoor pastimes, which includes rock climbing and skiing. As Mr. Booth wrote, Norwegians dismiss any sneering at their passion for nature, often made by fellow Scandinavians, as simply “a mountain envy.”
After speeding through the 10-kilometer (6-mile) long Finse tunnel, the train was approaching Myrdal. I stood at the back window of the last car, trying to take pictures of the tundra we were passing, which turned out to be harder than it sounds. That section of the tracks was covered by numerous snow sheds — they protect 27 kilometers (17 miles) of the line — with only intermittent flashes of the great scenery in between. The conductor saw my effort and, with what looked like a routine experience for him, kept me company to provide guidance as to when to have the camera ready.
From mountains to the sea before you can say “fjord”
I got off the train at Myrdal, to make a small detour from the Bergen Line. Begrudgingly joining the large crowds of tourists who had the same itinerary, I boarded the historical Flåm train — another Norwegian engineering marvel. In 20 kilometers (12 miles), the train takes you down 867 meters (2,844 feet) in elevation, from the mountain plateau, where Myrdal lies, to the shore of the Aurlandsfjord, where the tracks end in the village of Flåm. Nowadays, the train serves only tourists, which has the upside that it makes a photographic stop at the roaring Kjosfossen waterfall that is 93 meters (305 feet) high.
If you invest the time to go down to Flåm, the natural next leg of the journey is a boat ride on the Aurlandsfjord and the neighboring Nærøyfjord that made it on the UNESCO world heritage list. Even though a fjord scenery is familiar through millions of pictures on which it has appeared, it feels different in person. The fjords are surrounded by steep and tall cliffs — steeper and taller than you might have imagined before your visit — occasional waterfalls, villages of wooden houses, and an atmosphere of splendid isolation. The view of the fjords creates an intoxicatingly upbeat mood in you — although, it might be also the change from hours of sitting on a train to a walk on a boat’s deck where you finally get to inhale the pristine air.
After the two-hour fjord ride, the boat did not return to Flåm, but dropped us at Gudvangen. From there, I took a bus to the town of Voss, which lies back on the Bergen Line. Having time before the next train’s departure, I took a walk around this pleasant, lively town of old architecture and modern buildings. While attempts at modernist structures deep in the nature fail more often than not, the ones in Voss tastefully fit into the surrounding landscape made up of, inevitably, a lake and mountains. The downtown has several restaurants, one of which I used to have a fish dinner after the long day. But then I had to rush to the station to board the train for the last section of the journey.
The West, the East, and Norway
It was already dark when the train pulled into Bergen, my destination in Norway (a Travel Examiner article about Bergen gives a great overview of what to see there). With its status as the principal city of western Norway, Bergen preserves its own distinct identity, which contrasts with that of Oslo, located in the east of the country.
Although Norway has only five million people, there is enough space for cultural diversity. Bergen and the west proudly face the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean, while Oslo and the east feel closer to Europe. The west often prefers the Nynorsk version of Norwegian script, while the east uses Bokmål that was derived from written Danish. The west voted against joining the European Union, chiefly to preserve their fishing rights, while the east voted to become a member. To lift a phrase out of The Snowman, a crime novel by the famous Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø: “Bergensians don’t think of Oslo as a capital.”
The steel tracks along the Bergen Line therefore had to be strong enough to not only overcome the mountains, but also to hold together the two sides of the country that feel somewhat different in their outlook. No wonder then that the railway morphed from a mere transportation route into a national icon. On the other hand, we should not spend too much time on meditations about Norwegian history and culture, otherwise we could miss the panoramas that unfold outside the window, on what is one of the most scenic railway journeys in the world.
A version of this article originally appeared in Travel Examiner.
IF YOU GO:
- The Bergen Line, from Oslo to Bergen, is 500 kilometers (300 miles) long. The train takes about seven hours to cover the distance if you choose to complete it without making any stops.
- The railway is operated by NSB (Norges Statsbaner), the Norwegian state railway company. Prices, tickets, and timetables can be found at the Bergen Rail website.
- A destination guide for places in Norway, commissioned by the Norwegian government is most helpful.
- To learn more about skiing in Geilo, you can visit Geilo resort website.
- To learn more about cycling along the scenic Rallarvegen, you can view information at the Visit Norway website.
- More information for Hotel 1222 in Finse can be found at their listing site.
- The Flåm train is operated by NSB as well. More information about the Flåm train, can be found at the Visit Norway website.
- Several companies operate boats on the Aurlandsfjord and the Nærøyfjord. One option for booking a ticket can be found at the Visit Flåm website.