We came to Norway for one reason.
Well, two, I suppose.
1) Because Nick’s family has some viking heritage. I mean, look at the guy. He’s just a “skinny” viking at 240 pounds.
2) Primary reason: because Nick wanted to explore the fjords of his ancestral homeland, to take trains up steep mountain passes, get off at train stations so high you are surrounded by clouds, to mountain bike down from said stations, to look over high peaks from the highest points, soar through the air, and explore vast vistas, deep valleys, and cobblestoned streets where the sun literally never sets.
The question was – could we actually DO all of that in just 2 full days?
Our original travel plan for the start of our trip was Iceland – Norway – Paris – Prague – onwards! However, as the planning commenced in earnest, we found out that Norway doesn’t really “open” for the summer adventure season until June 1st. Which was, oh, about 6 weeks later than we had originally planned. What to do?
A key parameter for our trip was a quote by a very wise legal scholar who had this to say about traveling:
“Do what we WANT, not what we SHOULD.” – Elizabeth Rudolph
When Nick was fretting about how to fit Norway into the trip, since we were supposed to be going from Iceland to Norway before Paris and we *should* not make a zig-zag from Iceland to Paris to Norway JUST so Nick could go fjord exploring, biking, and hiking.
Ah, but we (read: I) WANTED to.
So we did! That was a fundamental change in how we approached this entire trip. We would research locations, gratefully accept everyone’s tips and suggestions of where to go and what to do — but we would NOT do something because we SHOULD. We would do it if we really, really wanted to.
After loving and leaving Paris, we flew into Oslo super late and made our way to Bergen early the next morning. There were multiple steps or parts to what I wanted to see, do, or experience in Norway. Below are those “Parts.”
PART 1: Try Local Delicacies
We found a fish and meat market as we were wandering around Bergen on our first half day in Bergen. It was fun to browse all the kinds of fish – tiger fish, live prawns, massive lobsters, angler fish, and more. Nick had some sashimi made with fresh, arctic salmon that was oh-so-tasty.
Back home in the U.S., caviar is notttt cheap. Here, it was amazing how many types there were and how inexpensive it was. Obviously, it must be tried. So we bought a 4 pack to try (variety is the spice of life, right?) and a big pack of crackers and that constituted half of Nick’s dinner on the train back to Oslo! The below video is a perfect reflection of Nick’s thoughts on the matter.
In the meat section we found our kin. That is to say, Reindeer meat! Even better…. Reindeer hotdogs! If you read the Icelandic Hotdogs post (ICELANDIC PERFECTIOn) you will know – hot dogs are one of my food-guilty-pleasures. Now Nick get to try reindeer in hotdog form? Yes please!
Meaty, juicy, and oh so yummy.
Reindeer meat (and other new foods): Check
PART 2: Get More Tattoos around the world
We had the evening to spare on our first day in Bergen and as we were meandering about, we chatted about Nicks next set of tattoos. Nick had already gotten two small pieces added while we were in Paris and there were some well reviewed tattooists in Bergen.
This gave us a “point” to our meandering, so we set off to find a good tattoo parlor. After a false start or two, we got a recommendation for Valhall Tattoo and they had time for a walk-in later that evening. I added four small pieces to my right sleeve.
Maryland is well known for their crabs and they are the state food! Maryland is also where Nick was born. Crab, for birth and youth.
Pennsylvania is known as the “keystone state.” It is one of the states Nick grew up in, the place my family lives (which is always important to me), and where we now live. The keystone for family.
The motto of Virginia, where I met Elizabeth and where lived for the first chunk our relationship is “Virginia is for Lovers.” A heart, for Virginia, for love.
Flowers are my oldest love affair, one that continues to today. Sunflower for flowers and oldest love.
Tattoos around the world: Check
Part 3: Train through Norway’s Tunnels
We had heard from various sources that the train ride from Oslo to Bergen (and back) was beautiful – described as one of the most scenic train rides in Europe…and it certainly did not disappoint.
It’s by no means a short ride – almost 7 hours each way – but of all the countries to train through to really be impressed by the beauty, Norway was top notch.
On our first ride from Oslo to Bergen, we went from stunning, green and blue water for miles to – only a few hours later – cold, snowy tundras that went as far as the eye could see. For 7 hours we passed ancient fjords, crept along the side of cliffs where there were still hundreds of meters of mountain above us still and hundreds of meters below us to the valley floor. This train ride goes through more tunnels than any other train in Europe. We saw snow covered peaks on one end of a tunnel and when we came out the other side we were in bright green cow pastures and open lakes to fish in.
Train Ride through Norwegian Countryside: Check
Part 4: Mountain Bike
On our first FULL day in Bergen we had pretty defined plans and it was a jam packed day – take a train to the train stop in Myrdal (elevation 866.8 meters or 2,844 feet) which was about 2 hours from Bergen.
Pick up bikes we could rent from a tiny little cafe at the Myrdal Train Station and bike the 15 miles down the mountain to Flam (at 23 meters or 75 feet). This was, by far, our favorite activity in Norway.
After an early morning start out of our Airbnb, a trek through Bergen, and getting on the early AM train from Bergen Station, we arrived at Myrdal around 10am. We had a boat reservation in Flam to see the fjords at 1:30. Time was ticking!
The weather was… well. It left something to be desired. It was a steady, cold rain from the time we stepped off the train.
We both dressed as best we could for the weather – which was a pair of pants, sweatshirt, and thin rain jacket for Nick, while Elizabeth tried to stay warm with two layers of pants, two layers of socks, gloves, hat, two jackets, and long sleeve shirt. For a girl who hates the cold, she was “all in” on my adventures.
Off the train, into the stinging cold rain and *surprise, surprise* – no one else was brave / stupid enough to rent bikes from the top of a mountain in that weather.
To help with the cold steady rain, mother nature also imparted a thick layer of fog all around us. From where we started, we couldn’t even see the bike trail at first, let alone the valley we were going to mountain bike into.
The (very nice) fella who was preparing the bikes for rental (once the weather got nice!) gave us a few pointers before sending us on our way.
- 10% of the trail is “gnarly switchbacks” with “lots of loose rocks, pebbles” that were “really slick, very slippery”.
- 80% is just slightly downhill, with a little bit uphill.
- The last 10% is semi-paved as we were getting close to the town of Flam.
Besides having to use zip ties to make the helmet strap big enough for my head, he pointed us down the railroad tracks and said “good luck!”
After finding the bike path through the fog and crossing the railroad tracks (note: super safe?) we were on our way.
Remember how the tour guide said that the trail was 10% “gnarly switchbacks” and to be careful? Well, those hairpin switchbacks started almost immediately, so there was no time to settle into the bikes or get used to the fog-cold rain combination.
What he did *not* mention is that majority of these switchbacks had no guide rail or safety wire. Just a straight shot straight down into gulches overflowing with all that wonderful rain and whitewater rafting level rapids. Basically – miss a switchback and go straight? Straight to death.
Nick took it carefully, knowing that my mass makes it harder to slow down and wanting to be careful. Elizabeth really enjoys the “puzzle solving” aspect of hiking and mountain biking; looking ahead at the path and figuring out where you to step, climb, or place your wheel so as to make it up or down the mountain. Add to that puzzle solving fun the force of gravity applying to mass and momentum, and Elizabeth got really into it.
Little miss I-hate-the-cold-and-prefer-tanning-on-the-beach was a speed racer! Steep downhill grades in the freezing rain, through thick fog cover, around hairpin gnarly switchbacks? Apparently, Elizabeth missed her calling as a pro mountain biker, because she slayed it. I (Nick) had a hard time keeping up. Although, in Nicks defense, he was also stopping constantly to take pics. (Elizabeth’s add in: what else is going fast used for? GETTING WARM FASTER.
Whether it’s for warming up your body or for racing like a speed demon to the nearest place above 35 degrees…rapid biking helps with both!)
With ALL of that happening – the wet terrain, the pounding rain, the surrounding fog, this part of the ride was the most spectacular. Switchbacks are installed in roads and trails so as to make the ascent / descent up a VERY steep mountain side more manageable. Everything from deer to humans use them in nature to traverse steep grades.
By the very nature of the necessity of these switchbacks and the thick low hanging fog, we were constantly treated to waterfalls that seemed to spring out of nowhere. The fog acted like a viewpoint in an Japanese garden – it focused your view and attention to specific areas. The lack of distant visibility allowed us to really *see* these little vignettes around us.
Once we had gotten down off the mountain side, the next major portion of the ride was through countryside that elicited “oh my god, how is this real” reactions from us both every few minutes. There were bright red barns beside rushing streams in valleys.
There were waterfalls that seemingly exploded from a cliff hundreds of meters above us. There was a tunnel carved through the side of a rock face that was lined with flickering candles and was still so long and so dark that we couldn’t see anything except for the few inches around each candle’s glow.
There were suspension bridges over swollen whitewater rivers and points where the river disappeared into a 20 or 30 foot diameter hole in the rock just to reappear on the other side, the thousand year process of water grinding rock in full affect.
It was just….truly spectacular. The pictures we took, the stories we’ll tell, the words we write…they are like our night in Iceland looking at the northern lights and star gazing in the hotspring – you can never really capture it. Not when it is literally that much bigger than you, that much older, that settled into its surroundings and ignorant of the passing of time and man.
By the time we were 3/4 of the ways to Flam, the weather finally changed. Now instead of cold belting rain, it was cold winds blowing that cold rain against us. It made the road messier and filled out shoes, gloves, and sometimes our mouths with rain and grit from the road.
Tired? You betcha!
Clothes soaked through? Yes!
Grateful we got to have the bike trail (and all to ourselves) to see what we had seen, together? Hell. Yes.
That was definitely the highlight of our time in Norway.
Mountain Bike: Check
PART 5: Fjord Excursion
What to do after we just had such an amazing time mountain biking in the rain? Take a fjord exploration cruise in the rain, of course!
We had researched other things to do in Flam to fill our downtime before the fjord cruise started. I found a pub that was built in the local style of a viking “meeting hall” – not the longhouse style, but the smaller local version that was circular, built around a large open sided fireplace. Elizabeth was quite happy to have a glass of wine and a fireplace to curl up next to for a while before we headed out on the fjord.
The fjord cruise was a two hour trip on the water from Flam to Gudvangen. The fog was higher now, so we could see into the distance ahead of us, but was still hanging on the mountain tops adding to the atmosphere of the trip.
We started on Aurlandsfjord at Flam and ended in Naeroyfjord in Gudvangen. Aurlandsfjord is 29 kilometers long (18 miles) and is a branch of Norway’s longest fjord, Sognefjorden. At its is approximately 962 meters (3,156 feet) deep. The fjord is surrounded by steep mountains that rise as high as 1,800 meters (5,900 feet).
Fjord excursion: Check
In order to make all of this happen in just one day we did a lot of “just got there in time” transportation. On this day, it was an 8am train from Bergen Station to Myrdal. A 15 mile mountain bike ride to Flam. A fjord cruise to Gudvangen. A bus back to Bergen that was leaving exactly when our fjord cruise was supposed to end. Close timing transportation? Elizabeth The Trip Planner figured it out and we got to and fro in comfort.
Step 6: Steep Cable Car
There are two “steep incline” rides in Bergen – a funicular and a cable car. Both looked appealing, but only the cable car was a triple threat. It was a steep incline ride, the opportunity to zipline over the valley, and to hike to the highest point in the Bergen region.
Obviously, the cable car it was.
It turned into another “multi-modes of transportation” kind of day, as it was also our last day in Bergen before heading back to Oslo. We had to get our bags from our Airbnb to the train station, to pick up the shuttle bus to the cable car, take the cable car up Mt. Ulriken, hike to the ACTUAL top of Mt. Ulriken, hike back to the cable car to go zip line flying, then cable car back down, back on the shuttle bus, then walk to the train station — all before 3:45 pm.
Off we went!
The cable car was STEEP. While Elizabeth was higher in the air during her cable car ride in Barcelona, we were going up the steep side of Mt. Ulriken. There was just a little rain on the way up, but every passing turn of the cable car wheel revealed more and more of the area around us. It was perhaps 15 or so minutes up, in a mostly empty car.
Cable car ride: Check
Step 7: Hike a tall mountain
The cable car got us up onto the mountain, but we were still quite a bit from the top. Highest point in the Bergen area? Here we come!
As seems typical in Norway when it comes to hiking there are two ways to look at trails. There are either a LOT of them, pretty much everywhere. Or there seem to be none whatsoever.
What I mean by this is when we were looking from the cable car up to the top of Mt. Ulriken, there were zig-zags of what looked like trails everywhere! That turned out to be animal paths, “trails” created by streams, “trails” created by water run off, “trails” that were tricks of the eye.
There were, however, literally no defined trails or signs. So you never really knew if you were going the right direction or, if you knew which way you were going you didn’t know if you were going the most efficient direction.
Off we went! Bundled as best we could against the wind, it was remarkably clear up on the mountain. Since the ACTUAL top of Mt. Ulriken is…well, the top, we had at least a point of reference of which direction to head.
As I mentioned earlier, Elizabeth really enjoys the “puzzle solving” aspect of hiking and biking. So we channeled our inner billy goat and made our way up the mountain.
The views were outstanding and the wind had picked up considerably. So after a few minutes to take it all in, we headed back down.
Hike a tall mountain: Check
STEP 8: Zipline
Getting strapped to a cable and flying above the valley floor hundreds of feet below you? Heck yes, sign me up!
And I was signed up!
I am also 240 pounds / 108.8 kilos.
Which is exactly 8.8 kilos over their “strict weight limit” of 100 kilos.
Elizabeth meanwhile…well, she had no problem with the weight limit.
So instead of us both going, Elizabeth got strapped in and went air sailing! I think she will have more to say since she actually got to go, but here is a video of her looking happy as all get out:
Would I have liked to go? Of course! But it was also really fun to watch Elizabeth and hear what it was like for her.
You guys, this zipline was FAST. When I was a kid, we had a zipline in our backyard so I thought it would be like that – a leisurely coast down a hill where I could look around and see some cool stuff.
When we first got there, the guy running the show got me all strapped into the harness and then handed me the handlebar I was supposed to carry myself over to the zipline cable. I looked at him like I wasn’t speaking the same language because there’s no way he meant for me to just wander over myself and just get going. But oh yes, you just walk over.
He followed – got me all hooked on and then said “ok, see that six inch grate-turned-plank leading onto that rock over there? Just walk to the end of that, step onto the rock, and go!” I was more than a little nervous because…I’m essentially just walking off the edge of a rock, at the top of a mountain and onto the zipline…and hoping for the best! But no problem, right? I held on tight, went for it and off I zipped – and then the speed part came.
The zipline is over 300 meters long which as you can see from Nick’s awesome pics and videos is NOT a short distance…but it went sooooooo quickly. It was so fast that I could hear the zipline screeeeaming above me – yup, that tiny handle I had to carry over myself.
I barely had time to look around me – in part because of the speed and in part because it was so exhilarating, I didn’t want to turn my head!! Before I knew it, my zipline hit the “brake” (startling!) and I was sloooowly dragged back and unhooked. It was so high off the ground, so fast and in such a beautiful setting that I would totally recommend it!!
You *might* be more focused on the screaming, speedy zipline you’re on than the scenery around you but still totally worth it for the thrill!!
Zipline: Check (for Elizabeth).
A couple random observations about Norway
It’s probably the most expensive country we’ve been to so far. You know it’s expensive when the top rated “cheap eats” place in Bergen still averages $15 for a big bowl of (admittedly incredible) soup. Nothing was cheap here. Probably for the best that we only stayed 4 days 🙂
It is so far north that it doesn’t really get dark much…the sunset when we were there was around 10:50pm and the sunrise came at 4:45am. And like back home, just because we’ve hit sunset time, that doesn’t mean that it’s dark then – often it would be 11:30pm and we wouldn’t realize it had gotten so late because there was still light in the sky.
We had an *amazing* time in Norway and packed an INCREDIBLE amount of activities into a VERY limited time. With just one FULL day and two half days to bookend (in Bergen), we went “balls to the wall” and got the most out of it that we could, doing the things we WANTED to do.
Have a great time in Norway: CHECK.