On the road: Norway’s fjords
Norway is more or less the size of California. Now, as a frequent traveler to California, I know it’s big. Like, BIG big. When people tell me they are driving to LA without a doubt I know that’s a bad idea. LA is far. FAR far.
However, California is covered in superhighways — you can zip down the 101 or the far less interesting 5 and still make decent time from A to B.
So when Sergio suggested that we drive from Oslo to Bergen (less than 300 road miles), I thought it would be a speedy drive with plenty of time for sightseeing.
Everything in Norway is far. FAR far. As in we left downtown Oslo at 9:20am and didn’t get to our stopover in fjord country until 4:45pm.
We wanted to stop many more times but we had a deadline to meet (more about that in a bit). There were many beautiful roadside pull-outs along the way that we zipped right by, and we also missed the world’s longest tunnel (the Lærdal Tunnel is more than 15 miles long — and, fun fact, all of the tunnels on our trip had names. And Norway has a lot of tunnels).
Travel tip: If you are taking a road trip in Norway, double the time you think you will need to make the trip, and that’ll be about right.
We set out from Oslo and within 30 minutes we were in complete wilderness! And before long we reached the fjords. I wasn’t exactly sure what constituted a fjord. It sounds so fancy, right? But it’s just an inlet that’s created by a glacier. While Norway’s are world-renown, we have some in Washington State too (you can find others in Alaska, Scotland, Chile, and New Zealand, to name a few others). However they were made, they are magnificent.
What we didn’t realize was that Norway’s roads, even the main highways, are generally just one lane in each direction, and they have very low speed limits — 80 kilometers an hour was the maximum we encountered (that’s not quite 50 miles-per-hour)! Suddenly this 300 mile journey was getting longer.
We made one sightseeing stop at the Borgund Stave Church in the town of the same name. While stave churches were common across Northern Europe in the Middle Ages, only those in Norway survived. You probably saw the photos of the stave church in the Norwegian Folk Museum in my Oslo post (if not, check it out!). Unlike that church, this church was preserved in its original condition because the townspeople were too poor to renovate it.
The construction of these churches is rather spectacular. The Norwegians were masters of wood, but it was designed in a way to withstand the weather. Most stave churches were built straight on the ground, but this one was set upon a stone foundation, helping it survive for more than 800 years.
This church was built as a Catholic church, then converted to a Lutheran church after the reformation. The inside was simple — just an alter piece and a few St. Andrew’s crosses (crosses shaped like Xs instead of the traditional shape). My favorite feature was a small window in the side of the church, left open so that people could pray when the church was closed.
We jumped back in the car and finished our drive to the small fjord-side town of Fjærland. Sergio picked this as our stopover point, and it was quite cute and quirky. The town was nestled alongside the lake, mainly houses with a few small businesses. We stayed at the Fjærland Fjordstove Hotel and Restaurant.
I emailed the owner in a semi-panic a few weeks before when I realized that this was the night that I had to dial into my coaching certification call. Yes, coaching certification stops for nothing and I’m not finding it very enjoyable. I’m still committed to it, so I took my trio call from this little desk with fantastic WiFi. I think the owner was offended that I asked about the WiFi — but if we were this far out of a major town in the US you’d be lucky if you had any cell phone reception, let alone enough WiFi to support video calls.
While I took my call, Sergio walked around town and then stopped by the local glacier. You can hike on glaciers in fjord country, but we didn’t budget enough time to do it.
We had a lovely three-course dinner in the restaurant and then set outside for a stroll. The sun didn’t set until after 11pm, and it was still light until past midnight (the folks up the hill from our hotel were mowing their hay at 11:15pm!), so even though our dinner finished at about 9pm it felt right to go outside. That’s when I learned that Fjærland is a self-proclaimed International Book Town.
Fjærland was connected to the outside world by boat until 1986, when a tunnel connected it by road to the world. This was commemerated by an exhibit near the “center” of town consisting of the original toll booth on the highway, complete with a poor mannequin who had seen better days (years?).
One way they have tried to distinguish themselves from other fjord towns are through all of these tiny bookshops — some are actual stores, and some are roadside shelves with honor boxes. Most of the books were in Norwegian, but Sergio found a sci-fi novel in English. Regardless, isn’t this the most charming idea?
We awoke to a simple but tasty Norwegian breakfast and then hit the road for the second day of slow and butt-numbing driving. On the agenda was backtracking the way that we came and stopping by one of Norway’s three — three! — craft cideries.
We navigated a mess of roads and tunnels and a ferry to finally arrive in Ballstrand, a slightly bigger (and less charming) little town that was home to the Ciderhuset, a cider producer/tasting room/restaurant/tourist stop. I thought we had shown up to simply taste, but no — we had signed up for the “tour,” a 60+ minute explanation about trees and cider. I’m a naturally curious person, but this wasn’t my first cidery, and when we get into re-run territory I stop paying attention.
Sergio was enthralled, but finally we got to taste. And when I say we, I mean Sergio, because they were horrified that we would have the equivalent of one drink and then drive (good, I suppose). So guess who didn’t do much tasting.
One thing I did find fascinating was the Norwegian vinmonopolet, or wine monopoly. In short, Norway has a plethora of government regulations on many things; in the words of our host at the hotel, this is to employ scores of inspectors who need to ensure that these regulations are being followed. As I mentioned in my Oslo post, alcohol is very highly taxed, but it’s also highly-regulated. For example, we could taste cider in the courtyard, but not on the porch (they would be ticketed because that is technically part of a shop and one cannot consume alcohol in a shop). Moreover, the hours that alcohol can be purchased are highly restricted (9am-8pm weekdays, 9am-6pm Saturday, and none on Sundays or holidays). It sounds like a throwback to post-Prohibition rules in the United States, but people seemed rather indifferent, or at least willing to let go of their personal needs for that of the common good.
And thus ended our time in the fjords. Reflecting back on the trip, we would have spent more time in the fjords and less time in Bergen (our next stop). I could imagine spending a week traveling from little town to little town, absorbing what each has to offer!
P.S. Next up — our stop in Bergen, a city on Norway’s west coast. If you missed the Oslo post, check it out here. And I’ll be back in a few days with the next post.