Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Track the Nordic Spirit of Norway's Fjords

Last spring came late to Scandinavia, but when it came, it was worth the wait.

The sky seemed to me frighteningly clear when I arrived in Oslo on May 1, the light sharp enough to cut myself on. The city's life was palpable and dragged me outside, and Norway drew me north.

On that May afternoon, I found myself determined to like Norway. For the past week, I had tried to dislike Sweden, and had failed miserably. Happily, I succeeded in my new aim without any effort. For Oslo is a Scandinavian capital in every sense: small, clean, polite, modern, casual, expensive and easy. The city is open but cozy, and it almost feels as if the inhabitants have tried to make it as little like a city as possible. Norwegians are known as adventurous people who love the outdoors, as the country's recent third place in the Winter Olympics medals table emphasizes, and their capital is made in their image.

From its understated royal palace, surrounded by an open park, to its unintimidating main street, wide and often pedestrianized, to the twin-towered red brick City Hall that backs onto the harbor, the city puts no pressure on you.

The harbor is very much a focal point of Oslo, with the main shopping center on one side and the medieval Akershus Fortress, which houses the Resistance Museum among other sights, on the other. Regular ferry services link the city with the Bygdoy peninsula, which features a couple of nice beaches and a series of museums that epitomize the Nordic spirit. As at the Resistance Museum, Norway's pride and self-belief shine through at the Kon Tiki Ra Museum, dedicated to the Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl, at the Polarship Flam and the Viking Ship Museum.

There are many large parks, from well-kept gardens near the city center -- the most intriguing of which is Vigeland Park, filled with life-size studies of human life by the sculptor Gustav Vigeland -- to wild tracts of land dedicated to outdoor pursuits around the edge of the city.

Oslo is a beautiful reflection of Norway, but a hazy one. Where some cities become countries within themselves, Oslo tries to retain as much of the spirit of the country as possible. But it was not enough for me, so I sought out my Norway in the fjords, which, of course, feature in everyone's image of Norway. I headed for Bergen.

The train is the best way to travel from Oslo to Bergen, a seven-hour rail journey that ranks among the most beautiful in Europe. With spring late to arrive, the May Day holiday provided many of Oslo's inhabitants a last chance to don their skies and revel in Norway's vast outdoors, and consequently the train was full of people of all ages carrying backpacks and skis, giving the journey a pleasant buzz of freedom from the city.

The train does not stop often and the pine forest fairly whizzes by, snow weighing heavy on the proud, dark boughs. Through the lower stages of the climb, the tracks cling to the walls of a valley, overlooking a succession of long thin lakes that lie peacefully in the shelter of the cliffs, their surfaces flat as millponds reflecting the stark surroundings off a steely looking-glass.

At the top of the climb, the train stops at Finse and the skiers pile off onto the platform -- a thin ribbon of concrete amid a seemingly infinite blanket of snow. In my mind's eye, I can see them skiing off into the wilderness to return to the train three days hence flushed with the healthy glow of the outdoors and ready for their return to the city they are tied to for most of the year.

After its brief pause in this white bowl on top of the world, the train trundles into a tunnel and down through a darkness only occasionally punctuated by flashes of light.

Out of the darkness the train emerges to stop at a small station wedged into a cleft between two mountain ridges, the surrounding peaks so close we could feel them pushing down on us. The village comprised about six houses so dep in snow it was hard to believe there was a way in, and there was barely enough space between the two tunnels for the platform. The stop is the transfer point for the tourist line down to the town of Flam. But I didn't plan to visit Flam until the next day, and continued on the main line into Bergen.

Bergen is perched on the edge of the North Sea, squashed between the sea and the mountains, its houses riding up them for lack of flat ground. Down at the harbor, the buildings seem to be clinging to the land as if the houses on the cliffs will slide down a bit and push the ones closest to the water off the quay.

Bergen would be as infrequently visited as its cousin Stavanger to the south if not for the fjords that lure tourists in the thousands to marvel at the majesty of the glacier-carved mountains rising straight from the water's cold dark surface to dizzying heights.

The easiest way to see a fjord from Bergen is to take the train to Myrdal and then change onto the branch line that runs down to Flam. Tourists are the only reason the track is still in use, and even in early May the three carriages were full.

The sensation at the bottom was awesome, standing on the lush green valley floor with the snow-topped cliffs surrounding the village -- even where the river widened into Aurlansfjord.

The most surprising feature for me, throughout the fjords, was how visible the touch of man was. The human presence in the fjords, however, is tenuous, fleeting at best, and rarely cheapens the natural beauty. These rocky monuments to an ice age that lasted thousands of years more often than not beat back the human invaders, and many of the farmsteads that hug the valley walls at irregular intervals are now empty, abandoned for more accommodating climes and easier lives.

But the testaments to man's tenacity hang sometimes hundreds of feet above the water and enhance the charm of the fjords. Take away the human element, the stories of folly and failure, of survival and success, and much of the region's spirit and the soul is gone. For all my expectations, horribly off the mark as they were, for all the tourists and their cameras, and for all the unseemly rush of the public transport connections, I was charmed. Completely.

Alesund is Bergen's equivalent to the north of the fjords, although it is smaller, somehow brighter, and less visited by tourists because the railroad does not extend there. A connecting bus service runs over the final 60 kilometers from the station at Andalnes.

Giving access to different fjords and with a peaceful charm, Alesund is worth the extra effort. It clings to the edge of the water even more so than Bergen, or perhaps the water encroaches onto the territory of the city even more. More than being on the edge of it, Alesund feels like a part of the sea, welcomed and welcoming in the morning mist that brings water to flight.

This day was to be my last in the fjords, and I had set my mind to seeing Geirangerfjord. Rumored to be the most beautiful of all the western fjords, it stretches 26 kilometers from Geiranger to Hellesylt. There are a couple of easily traversable loops either by private car or public transport that make the most of the regular ferry services in the region.

In early May, with the Trollstigen, or Troll's Path, highway impassable due to snow, there was almost no one else making the tour, aside from locals going about their everyday business. With the sensation that the splendor was now mine and mine alone, I became even more deeply enamored with it.

But Norway was again pulling me northward, away from all these people, away from the affects of Oslo and Europe and the ills of the 20th century, to my vision of its heart and soul. So we got back on the train and went north, through Hell, to Trondheim. (Yes, there is a place called Hell, and it was frozen over. Sadly, the train did not stop for a dream photo opportunity on a snowy platform.)

Trondheim. Somehow my mind reels with images of Viking raiders and Valhalla, the home of their fearsome gods. In fact it was just as civilized as the rest of the country, and there were no fur-clad warriors patrolling the streets. A magnificently eerie gothic cathedral, yes, a wonderful library entered through a hall where a walkway crossed the excavation of an old burial sight, yes, and a chilly wind whipping in off the North Sea, yes again. But as for raping and pillaging and spoils of war, no.

Still, this granite-gray city was not far enough for me. It may have held another piece of the Norwegian soul, but it was not the one I sought. So the train dragged me on, up, beyond. I was now heading for the Lofoten Islands, recommended to me by I-know-not-who in I-know-not-what European hostel. Sometime along the way we crossed the Arctic Circle, an insignificant line on a map for my Nordic companions, but a spiritual border in my mind that made it a huge step for me.

And so it was that the next day I found myself sitting on a dock in Bodo waiting for the Hurtigrute service, the coastal steamer that provides a vital daily link with the outside world for many of the communities along Norway's torturously fragmented coastline.

The company running the Hurtigrute has invested a lot of money to attract tourists to what is undoubtedly a beautiful journey along Norway's coast. Of the 11 ships ploughing up and down the coast, nine were commissioned in the last 10 years. The vessel that was to take me to Stamsund, however, was from the 1960s.

The cruel northern seas had evidently ravaged the aptly named Lofoten, but she had been well cared for and appeared very seaworthy. The interior was quite charming -- brass rails and polished wood contrasting with the practical nature of the ship -- and the small size made for a very cozy feeling. Positioned in the front observation lounge with the sun beating down through the weathered windows, I felt quite drowsy and was soon nodding off in my armchair. Ahead on the horizon loomed the Lofoten Wall, a 100-kilometer-long string of islands that present a continuous front from such a distance.

Sandwiched between a clear blue sky and steel-blue sea, the islands gleamed white with snow, rocky peaks rising from a calm sea, slowly but surely growing larger as we inched toward them. They occupied so much of the horizon, looked so cold and uninhabited, that I felt for all the world as if I was sailing toward Antarctica.

The ship sounded its horn as it approached the dock, a few of Stamsund's inhabitants gathered to collect deliveries and welcome friends. I shouldered my pack and began to walk to the youth hostel: follow the road and turn right at the gas station, my directions said. From that, the extent of Stamsund can be imagined. The road from the quay had a couple of turns and wound precariously along the shore past a couple of rocky coves and some massive wood fish-drying frames, with innumerable examples of the sea's equivalent of jerky or biltong hanging from them, until 10 minutes later I turned right at the gas station and down a gravel road to the hostel.

The hostel stood right on a wooden dock with a roaring boat tied up next to it and some smoke rising from its chimney. The early evening air was becoming cool, and it looked just perfect for a rest after a week of non-stop travel.

After meeting the owner -- a small, solid man named Roar who reminded me of tales about Norwegian trolls and whom I didn't doubt for a second when he said he rowed faster than a small outboard motor -- we were ushered into the kitchen of the hostel.

This room was to be the focal point of our stay, dominated by a vast expanse of table surrounded by benches and with a wood-burning stove almost continuously heating a kettle of water. There were only five other people staying in the hostel -- an Italian couple on their honeymoon, a young Israeli couple and a German who visits most years -- and they were all in the kitchen. Soon we were sharing dinner with them: fried fish that Roar caught fresh that day, rice and beans.

Over the four days we were there, I slept less and felt more rested than I'd have imagined possible. I can't remember doing very much with my time, but I was never at a loss for something to do. When time came to return to the dock and get on the Hurtigrute again -- this time the brand-new Polaris was our transport -- Roar took us aside with a sly grin on his face and showed us the biggest secret on the island. As he let us marvel at his wonderfully appointed television room that he said he only reveals when absolutely necessary, I realized that I had not thought about television, or radio, or even the world across the water, for my entire stay.

As many as 10 people occupied the hostel at any one time, all with different stories but all finding the same thing -- exactly what they were looking for.

I found my vision of Norway's soul, which I had seen reflected in everything else I'd witnessed during my 10-day stay. Catching cod at midnight on unbaited hooks from a rowboat and knowing that tomorrow's dinner menu is decided; hiking across fields knee-deep in snow in mid-May in the shadow of mountains and sight of the sea; picking up fresh bread for breakfast from the village bakery while a local collects the cake for her daughter's wedding; sitting on the dock with a cup of tea cradled in my hands and feeling the peace of the sea lapping at the rocks beneath me. I finally understood why the whole town of Oslo practically moved to the mountains for that first weekend in May, and I hope one day to share the secret with them again.

Where to Stay

For budget accommodation in Oslo, the best bet is Use It, a great youth information service located at 3 Moellergarter (Tel. +47 22 41 51 32) that offers rooms in private houses for 125 Norwegian kroner ($16.50), and produces a good English-language guide to Oslo called Streetwise. Another option is the Norwegian affiliate of Hosteling International (Tel. +47 23 13 93 00), which operates 90 hostels throughout the country.

A good midrange hotel in the center of Oslo is the Hotel Cecil at 8 Storingsgaten (Tel. +47 22 42 70 00), with modern singles starting at 525 kroner and doubles from 710 kroner, including an excellent buffet breakfast.

Further upmarket is the Hotel Bristol, a charming and well-appointed place with a lobby full of antiques and cable television in every room, situated at 7 Kristian IV's Gate (Tel. +47 22 82 60 10). Prices start at 695 kroner for a single on the weekend and reach as much as 3,500 kroner for a suite.

In Bergen, there is the HI-affiliated Montana Hostel at 30 Johan Blytts Vei, about five kilometers from the city center, and a slew of good accommodations near the waterfront. You could do worse than the Hotel Rosenkrantz (Tel. +47 55 31 50 00) at 7 Rozenkrantzgaten in the heart of the wharf area near the fish market. Its 129 rooms start at 525 kroner and a double room on a weekday will cost 1,080 kroner.

Most hotels in Norway offer reduced rates during the summer and on weekends, so look out for bargains.

While in Stamsund, in the Lofoten Islands, I stayed at Justad Hostel/Jorbuer (Tel. +47 76 08 93 34). Manager Roar Justad will always be happy to chat, and charges just 75 kroner per night in the dormitories. There are also two- and four-bed rooms for 190 and 320 kroner, and four- and six-bed cabins from 400 kroner. For a small deposit, you can borrow bicycles or a rowboat and fishing line.

Where to Eat

Almost all Norwegian hotels and hostels provide a full buffet breakfast that includes cereal, milk and yogurt, as well as cold meats, cheese and herring, often marinated or curried.

Often, Norwegian restaurants will offer special lunchtime menus or deals, but eating out in the evenings can be an expensive proposition.

There are several major supermarket chains throughout the country. The sale of alcohol is severely restricted by the government, and liquor is not sold outside of special government-run shops and licensed premises.

Getting There

IRO Travel (Tel. 234-6555) has Aeroflot flights direct to Oslo for $320 plus airport tax, while STAR (Tel. 913-5952) offers SAS via Copenhagen for $400 plus tax. STAR, which focuses on youth travel, also has SAS flights to Bergen for $423 plus tax, again changing in Copenhagen.

In Norway, the train from Oslo to Bergen runs four times a day, taking between six and eight hours and costing approximately 600 Norwegian kroner. The "Norway in a Nutshell" day trip from Oslo that includes a loop down to Flam from Myrdal and along Aurlandsfjord costs just more than 1,000 Norwegian kroner.

The Hurtigrute coastal steamer costs 132 kroner off-peak and 230 kroner during the summer. The company also offers package tours, including an 11-day trip from Bergen around the North Cape to Kirkenes and back to Bergen from $1,750 per person in a two-berth cabin.