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Crossing Norway, remembered and revived

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / July 6, 2008

OSLO - For some reason, the fact that we were heading to Norway for a vacation seemed to baffle many of our friends. Did we have family there, they asked.

We don't, though I had to confess a family connection to the land of the midnight sun. In 1980, my father, a university professor, spent his sabbatical at the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute. I loved fifth grade in Oslo. The kids were friendly, we could play soccer in natural light until 11 at night in summer, and nobody made fun of my bowl cut. (I would be mocked for that hair a few days after my return to the States.)

I have been back to Oslo once since then, a brief Eurail visit in 1992. But this vacation would be different. With my parents on sabbatical again, we would see them and then Carlene and I, without our 5-year-old, would take one of the great 36-hour excursions in Scandinavia.

It is a trip that goes from Oslo to the west coast city of Bergen. But the point is not just getting there. It is what you see along the way, from the gorgeous stretch of fiords (narrow sea inlets with steep mountain sides) to the desolate, rolling snowscapes.

I took this trip with the family back in 1980 when we patched together train, boat, and bus tickets. These days, there's a Norway in a Nutshell package. It runs just under $400 a ticket (not including lodging).

We started on a Sunday morning in May from Oslo. The nearly five-hour first leg is by train and, like everything in Norway, clean, organized, and always on time. With the exchange rate so dreadful - a cup of coffee can run $6 - we tried to be sparing with our krone. Still, as the train climbed, it was hard to resist cocoa and lefse, a Norwegian snack made of folded, buttered bread made from potatoes, and cinnamon sugar. Two hours in, we could see snowy mountains in the distance.

Not long after that we arrived in Finse, the highest point of the route at 4,000 feet. This is a dramatic place, with houses reachable only by skis, and we spotted plenty of cross-country skiers roaming the beautiful countryside. Finse trivia: This is where George Lucas shot the ice planet scenes for his 1980 film "The Empire Strikes Back."

A short stretch later, the train rolled into Myrdal, and we all got off to cross the platform. Leg two was waiting in the form of the Flåm Railway. This slow-moving train covers about 12 1/2 miles of reel-worthy scenery in an hour. You probably should sit on the left side of the train (facing front), though the views are stunning from either side. The train also goes slow enough that you can stand.

In the early afternoon we were deposited in Flåm, a small town at the base of the Sognefjord, and told we had roughly an hour before the boat would take off down the fiord.

From 1980, I remember the sleepiness of the town, and a mad scramble for bread, cheese, and salami we could turn into dinner. These days, the place is stuffed with tourists. There are sweater stores and overpriced restaurants. We did luck out in finding a reasonably priced, cafeteria-style spot near the water where we enjoyed open-faced sandwiches (one shrimp, another cheese) without breaking the bank.

Maybe it was my post-lunch haze. But in Flåm, I made my first and only mistake of the trip, and it was a doozy. I wanted to know which of four landings the Nutshell tour boat would leave from. So I headed to the information booth and showed the guy my ticket.

Please note: Nutshell participants are meant to go from Flåm up to Gudvangen on the boat. From there, a bus hauls you up the hairpin bends of Stalheimskleiva. Then you hop a train for a short stretch that lands you in Bergen a little after 8. The man behind the counter sort of ignored all this. He skipped to the last line on my ticket where it simply listed the end destination of Bergen and told me to go to landing 4.

To be fair, I should have read my ticket more closely. The boat for Gudvangen had the town's lettering displayed clearly. Still, I wasn't alarmed as it left the harbor a few minutes after 3. It wasn't until 3:20, as we boarded the smaller Bergen Express, that I discovered my error.

So we missed the bus.

Carlene made the best of it, telling me over and over it was OK. She said we would see far more of the fiord this way. And she was right. The Bergen Express would keep us on the fiord for 5 1/4 hours. This seemed like a bad thing early on, as the wind picked up and brief rain storm blew in. But when the sun came out, we were richly rewarded.

The towering walls of the Sognefjord open into a series of lovely towns. Eventually, we left the fiord to thread through a stretch of coastal islands. We got to Bergen at about 8:30.

It is a beautiful town with a settlement history dating 1,000 years. Rolling into the harbor, we saw the ancient, wooden row houses on the left, the clapboard houses climbing the hills above, and the sun, even this early in the summer.

We knew we would be exploring those neighborhoods the next day, sampling the city's famous fish soup, and doing all we could to avoid the tourist groups swimming around. I still wish we had taken the bus, but if we had stayed on the Nutshell, we would have pulled into town on the train, into a covered terminal. As our boat came into the harbor, I didn't feel so bad to have missed that part of the connection.

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.

If You Go

What to do

It's hard to miss Mount Floyen, which hangs over Bergen's downtown. You can take the Fløibanen funicular (floiba nen.com) or walk up the 1,050-foot mountain slowly yourself. Adults $14, children $7. Norway in a Nutshell norwaynutshell.com 800-5-452-204 $390 per person.

Where to stay

Fretheim Hotel Pb 63, 5743 Flåm 011-47-57-63-63-00 fretheim-hotel.no At the foot of the fiord, this 121-room hotel has a restaurant, bar, and coffee shop. $185-$320.

Hotel Park Pension AS Harald Harfagresgate 35 N-5035 Bergen 011-47-55-54-44-00 parkhotel.no A 10-minute walk from the harbor, with a hearty breakfast that includes cheeses, fresh bread, and plenty of herring. $200.

Where to eat

Holberg Stuen Torgallmenningen 6 011-47-55-55-20-55 holbergstuen.no Stop in for the Bergen fish stew. $22.

Bergen Fish Market Smack in the center of the wharf, this is the place to buy a bag of shrimp or sample whale meat. Prices vary.

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