Long story short, I found myself in Oslo, Norway, with a Eurail pass and a week to spare before my flight back to the U.S. It was midsummer (June 27-July 3, 2015) and my only plan was to get all the goodie I could from my train pass. I found all that on the Bergen and Flåm Rail lines.
According to family lore, there is not a bit of Norwegian blood in me. Being half Swedish, there’s apparently no room for other Scandinavian strains. But my name and Minnesota upbringing make me appear at home there, and Norway seems fairly familiar to me, even on this first visit. I quickly found myself doing double takes, recognizing the faces of avuncular men and responding to the lilt in women's dialect.
The scenery, though, apart from some lush river valley farmlands, is distinctive and huge: long views, steep mountains, deep fjords, and seascapes…nothing like home. I’d hoped to travel up the coast of Norway into the Arctic Circle, but my week’s time dictated the itinerary. I’d take the train west across the country from Oslo to Bergen and back. This stretch of scenic railway, 370 kilometers long (230 miles), is included in the Eurail Global Pass. With two days of travel, I'd still have two days in Bergen to poke around and see the western coast.
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This is a busy time of year for travel in Norway (think long days, not Northern Lights), so I checked at the train station for advance purchase. Many visitors purchase a tour package called Norway in a Nutshell, seeking the special Flåm train tour which is not included in Eurail's pass. The Flåm Railway sidetracks from the main Bergen route for a steep train trip down to the Aurlandsfjord and Nærøyfjord fjords. From the train ride and a boat connection through the fjords, passengers are collected by bus to return to the main railway at Voss. I learned I could just buy the Flåm/fjord ticket on my own, no problem, as an add-on to my rail pass.
The Global Eurail Pass is good in some 28 countries. But not all train systems are created equal. In Norway, trains are (not surprisingly) clean and comfortable, with upholstered seats and in many cases no distinction between first and coach class cars. On the Oslo-Bergen route, which takes about seven hours, first class cars don’t offer food service at your seat, but coaches have a self-service coffee and tea station. The Bergen Railway is known as one of the world's great scenic rail segments, but it's used for practical reasons by business people, families, and locals, as well as tourists.
With my custom built ticket, I got off in Myrdal to catch the Flåm Railway. A couple train cars were reserved for those who’d booked the Norway-in-a-Nutshell package. After some confusion and checking with the platform staff, I found the car with open seating and grabbed a place with an older couple. My lucky seat!
It turns out I was sitting with Harald and his wife, who were locals. They’d walked to the train station from their cabin on a nearby lake, and were going down to the grocery store in Flåm. About a quarter mile out of the station, Harald pointed out the house he was born in. That’s about as local as it gets. His wife smiled patiently as he talked about hauling supplies across the lake or ice, winters at the cabin, and being buried by snow. They don't attempt to live there through the winters any more.
So I got to hear the specifics from someone who knew every twist and turn in the track. The Flåm railway includes 20 tunnels, totaling 6 kilometers, in its 20 kilometer run. One tunnel drops so much it is formed into a figure eight. Harald could tell me how many seconds I’d have at the next opening to shoot a photograph. “Out the other side, you'll have 14 seconds, in about a minute.” As we descended to the town and ran along the river valley, we talked about last year’s floods–the highest water in Harald’s lifetime. Three houses washed away; Harald’s elementary school in Flåm was closed for a while, and bridges were wiped out. These eight months later, the course of the river and roads was just being reestablished.
Spring comes late to Norway. In Oslo’s botanic garden before I set out by train, I was surprised to see what we call May flowers (peonies, rhododendrons, lilacs) just blooming in late June. The floods, remarkably, were in late October when the last snow melt combined with rain to set the episode in motion.
From Oslo sea level to Bergen sea level, the train route climbs to 1222 meters (over 4,000 feet) at Finse. The alpine tundra changes quickly and dramatically along the rail line, and it’s hard to stop taking pictures. Long views of mountain snow and peaks sliced by narrow waterfalls are off in every direction, so that many of us roamed the train car for alternating views, north and south of the tracks.
Once down on the fjord (Western Norway fjords are designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site), the focus is the water, the deep blue green path through walls of rock and pine, the sky, the light, and the little isolated towns between the cliffs and coast. My travel day was rainy and not conducive to photos nor deck chairs. An American family disembarked at Aurland for a family visit. Fishermen and port workers waved to us at Undredal. We saw a few kayakers on the last leg. I really didn’t want this part of the journey to end, but boarded the bus to be driven to Voss, where we caught another train bound for Bergen.
Eurail provided Travel Past 50 with this Global Rail Pass without any expectations of our coverage, nor with any knowledge of our itinerary. (That figures; we had no idea either. Tom flew home from Madrid.) The Bergen Railway trip across Norway was spectacular on its own (akin to the famous Swiss scenic rail lines), but I’m particularly glad it gave me the chance to visit Bergen, too. (Here's my post on the Oslo and Bergen portions of the week.)