19 November 2014 by David Warne
Wexas Travel's David Warne acquaints himself with the three f's - fish, fjords and fires - that have shaped Norway.
While it may not be the most obvious contender for a road trip, Norway offers some of Europe's most spectacular scenery, no less than eight UNESCO World Heritage sites and a quality of life that is the envy of virtually every other country on earth.
And while Norway has been enjoying something of a boom in coastal cruising and winter travel - the latter largely driven by the desire to see the Northern lights - land based and self-drive trips are yet to become a mainstream summer travel option.
A common concern is that Norway is an expensive destination to visit. Certainly prices for alcohol, which are effectively government controlled, are higher than we are used to in the UK. However, anyone used to London prices won't be too shocked by other day-to-day expenses, particularly when taking into account the quality of what's on offer. And with recent improvements to the exchange rate Norway is looking significantly more affordable than it has been for several years.
Equally, the cost of getting there has tumbled in recent years, as new airline Norwegian has injected a healthy dose of competition on routes to and from the country. And with destinations such as Bergen, Oslo and Ålesund all less than two hours away from London and served with regular direct flights, Norway is bound to become a more popular summer destination.
Norway's Fjords - the first of the three f's - are an obvious target for a summer visit. The Fjord Norway region covers the South Western part of the country, roughly starting from Kristiansund in the North to Stavanger in the South. On closer inspection on a map, this region looks like it has been dropped from a height, shattering on landing to form the fjords, inlets and islands that characterise the region's spectacular landscapes.
Bergen, Norway's second city, is an obvious place to begin and is a pleasant city to while away a day or two. It offers a range of hotels to suit most budgets, with the top choice being the Clarion Havenkontoret. The former harbor office - a historic building in its own right - has been converted into a boutique style hotel, retaining many original features. Naturally it is ideally located in the harbor, close to many of Bergen's main attractions.
During my visit to Bergen I was introduced to the other two of Norway's three f's - fish and fire. The former probably comes as no surprise, the latter refers to the fact that Norway's history has often been shaped by great fires. Bergen's first great fire was in 1170 and the city has suffered a significant blaze every 30 years or so right up to 1955. The frequency is largely a result of wood being the predominant building material until relatively recent times.
All the more surprising then, that the Unesco world heritage-listed Bryggen - the old quay area - has survived more or less unchanged, albeit with some careful restoration, since the 14th century. A few hours spent at this fascinating clutch of wooden warehouses and wharves, formerly a Hanseatic trading centre, is a must on any visit to Bergen.
Similarly a trip to the peak at Mount Fløyen, using Bergen's funicular railway, is an absolute essential, and offers the chance to enjoy spectacular views of the city and harbour below.
Fish lovers are naturally well catered for all over Norway and Bergen's fish market is one of the finest. During the weekend of my visit, temporary stalls serving all manner of fishy treats from local caviar and seafood salads to salmon, calamari and fish and chips, sprang up around the harbour area.
Leaving from Bergen by hire car is straightforward enough, but the enjoyable train journey to Myrdal from where the famous Flåm railway shuttles back and forth to Flåm itself is well worth considering. Passing through a spectacular landscape of waterfalls, lakes and fjords this hour-long train journey has been dubbed the most beautiful in the world. Whilst there would no doubt be other claimants to this title it must rank as one of the most varied and beautiful short train journeys anywhere.
The village of Flåm is nestled in the corner of Aurlandsfjord, a tributary of Sognefjord, one of the most famous, and indeed longest fjords in the region. Aside from the railway and fjord cruises the town offers an interesting Viking style micro-brewery, part of the adjacent Flamsbrygga hotel.
Departing by road from Flåm there are just two options, either westbound towards Bergen or eastbound into the heart of the fjord region. Heading east, I arrived at Laerdal, an ideal overnight stop after a visit to Flåm. The historic Lindstrom hotel is the obvious place to stay here. Parts of the hotel date back to 1845, the charming older buildings being complemented by a more functional newer wing, which houses the restaurant and bar. Popular with touring groups, the hotel can be busy at meal times and although it has feel of staging point between more notable destinations the town itself has a small but interesting historic quarter and can be a good base for mountain activities.
An hour and a half north of Laerdal - via the first of many spectacular fjord-side roads - is the small town of Solvorn. Here, the Walaker hotel, the oldest in Norway, has been operating on this site since 1640 and has been owned and operated by generations of the same family since 1690. This wonderfully atmospheric hotel offers stunning views of Songefjord and is a popular base for walking and cycling and fjord trips or, if you prefer, simply doing nothing. It is a short ferry ride from the hotel to Urnes stave church, another of Norway's UNESCO World Heritage sites. A morning visit after leaving the hotel fits neatly into a scenic drive over the mountains to Lom.
Dating from 1130 the wooden Urnes church is built to a traditional Scandinavian design with pillars - or staves - providing the support for the roof and upper structure. Although it underwent some modification during the Protestant era - and more recently some of the more valuable artefacts we're removed for safe keeping - the essential structure of the church is original, as are many of the wood carvings within. Quite how a wooden structure has survived in this condition for almost 900 years is remarkable. And quite apart from the church itself the setting is majestic and worth a visit in its own right.
The drive over the mountains to Lom on the scenic Sognefjellet Mountain Road is a designated National Tourist Route, which, after initially hugging the edge of Sognefjord itself heads up into the mountains. This route affords seemingly endless photo opportunities of the mirror-like surface of the water reflecting the hills above, before passing through green valleys, glaciers and snow capped mountains, all within the space of a couple of hours along a route that's been dubbed the Roof of Norway.
The pretty town of Lom - a good base for walking and skiing depending on the season - is also home to a popular bakery offering great coffee and a selection of freshly baked breads and pastries - a great stopping point even if you're driving onwards towards Geiranger.
From Lom, another great option for a scenic drive is to head west for a visit to UNESCO World Heritage-listed Geirangerfjord, the 'jewel in the crown' of Norway's fjords.
An essential stop on this route is the magnificent Dalsnibba viewpoint. At 1,500 metres this is the highest fjord viewpoint in Europe and still often snow-topped as late in the season as June. During my visit in early September the views over Geirangerford were predictably jaw-dropping, with a moody early evening light casting long shadows over the rugged slopes.
The town of Geiranger, with a population of just 250 people, is justifiably popular and hosts upwards of 700,000 visitors a year. During the Victorian era, wealthy visitors came here not only for sightseeing but also to enjoy the health benefits derived from the region's clean air.
Quite how Geiranger absorbs such vast numbers of visitors today is something of a mystery but on my visit it wasn't crowded in the least, albeit my visit didn't coincide with the arrival of a cruise ship. It is a genuinely beautiful spot, a sweet little place with just enough tourist infrastructure for anyone wanting to stay a night or two.
The town has two main hotels, the rather functional-looking Hotel Geiranger down in the harbour or the more upmarket Hotel Union Geiranger up on the hill. The Union is now connected to the harbour by the lovely new Waterfall Walk, a walkway which follows the path of the falls from virtually the front door of the hotel to the harbour below. This lovely 15-20 minutes walk is even enjoyable on the way back up the hill, as there are plenty of places to stop and admire the view of the fjord.
From Geiranger to the pretty town of Ålesund is a two and a half hour drive, via the famous Eagle Road. This switchback road of 11 hairpin bends offers yet more amazing view of the fjord below.
En route between the two towns is one of Norway's most luxurious hotels - the Storfjort hotel - around 30 minutes from Ålesund. If any single location embodies the high-end Norwegian travel experience this is it. The traditional wooden design blends beautifully with a cozy, homely feel and the setting is wonderful, offering beautiful views over the fjord. For the well-heeled this makes a great place not only to escape and unwind, but also as an excellent base for visiting the wider region.
Ålesund itself is a pretty town made by famous by yet another fire. In 1904 the entire centre of the town burned to the ground when, as legend has it, a local cow took exception to a torch, kicking it over and starting the blaze. Amazingly only one person died but over 10,000 inhabitants were left without shelter.
Once reconstruction started, partly under the patronage of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, builders and designers flocked to the city during what was otherwise a period of depressed economic activity. Within just three years the town rose Phoenix-like from the ashes. This time, traditional wooden construction was eschewed in favour of brick and stone. The predominant style of the time was Art Nouveau; each builder put their own personal stamp on the buildings constructed in this style, with elements of Norse mythology and culture worked into the details of the design.
Today's town retains most of the buildings from this period, having been largely spared the bombings of the Second World War. Each building is individual and yet unmistakably Art Nouveau, giving the town centre a remarkable harmony, surely a contender for UNESCO World Heritage status in the future.
The town's layout is best appreciated from the viewpoint at Mount Aksla. From here you can also appreciate the beauty of the setting, as the town juts out on a peninsula, surrounded by fjords, islands and the peaks of the Sunnmøre Alps.
Ålesund has become something of an adventure capital, and depending on the season the town is a base for scuba diving, kayaking, sailing, scuba diving, skiing, hiking and island wildlife trips by fast RIB (rigid inflatable boats).
For the less adventurous the town offers enough for an enjoyable day or two admiring the aforementioned art nouveau architecture and visiting the town's aquarium and lighthouse. There are also a couple of good hotels, including the quirky Brosundet, a former fishing warehouse turned boutique hotel, which retains many original features.
Perhaps this variety of attraction explains why a town of just 45,000 can sustain direct flights to the UK, in the form of Norwegian's twice-weekly non-stop flight.
Indeed Norwegian's ever-growing network means that flying into one city and out of another makes more extensive travels within Norway perfectly feasible without doubling back to your arrival point. Combining car hire, trains and the popular Hurtigruten coastal steamer allows for a surprisingly diverse range of attractions to be combined into a single trip during a summer visit.
Driving in Norway is an absolute pleasure; roads are superbly maintained, generally quiet, and drivers are some of the most courteous you'll find anywhere. And then there's that seemingly endless backdrop of beautiful vistas. Car hire costs can vary widely depending on the car hire company, route and location - and the logistics of travelling in the fjordland region are somewhat complex - so it really pays to speak to an expert when planning your itinerary.