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Norway

December 17, 1989|STEVE SCHNEIDER | Schneider is a free-lance writer living in New York City.

BERGEN, Norway — We were approaching the end of our lengthy rail journey, well past the time when sightseer's fatigue begins to kick in.

During the trip, the train windows had framed scenes of soaring mountains, valleys, glaciers of blue-white ice, and strings of slender waterfalls sparkling like beaded curtains along an immense, verdant mountainside.

Still, I caught a glimpse of a new and inspiring sight: a snow-dusted mountain so perfectly mirrored in a huge lake that it was impossible to distinguish between the lush terrain and its reflection.

These are scenes that can be viewed from the coaches of the Oslo-Bergen railway--a parade of passing pictures that no visitor to Norway should miss.

One of the finer train journeys of Europe, the Oslo-Bergen line is more than a run through stunning scenery. It also is an ideal way to sample the best of Norway.

Completed in 1909, the railway was the first overland route to link Norway's two principal cities--Oslo, its compact capital, and Bergen, the west coast port.

The line was constructed under difficult conditions. Mountains were blasted at elevations as high as 4,300 feet--well beyond the timber line.

More than 200 bridges were built and 300 tunnels opened. The result is a 306-mile course that, for today's travelers, takes in the Norwegian countryside and provides easy access to skiing, hiking and fiord-cruising.

Express trains make the journey in about 6 1/2 hours. Coaches are roomy and comfortable, with three or four departures a day, from both Oslo and Bergen, with a one-way fare of about $100 U.S. per person first-class, $70 second-class.

For most visitors the starting point is Oslo. Departing from the main terminal, the train at first encounters some relatively uneventful stretches. But at Honefoss and Gol the landscape begins to open into long folds of green. Farms and forests lie under a brilliant sun as the train moves across the top of a wooded valley.

Continuing past Geilo, one of Norway's popular ski towns, the terrain becomes a composite of valleys, lakes and mountains punctuated by a waterfall that, surprisingly, widens and contracts, forming a glittering diamond as it descends.

These areas are sparsely populated, and the isolated wood-plank homes, absorbing Norway's radiant sunlight, can seem like details from an Edward Hopper painting.

Soon the railroad begins a dramatic ascent past surging stone cliffs. After passing through Finse, where there is skiing even in summer, the frozen vistas appear almost moon-like: deep seas of snow and ice flow over boulder-strewn plains as the train moves across wooden bridges and silent glaciers.

Later the railway descends and browns and greens take over. Continuing west, the landscape presents dizzying abysses between groups of mountains and hillside hamlets.

About an hour past Voss, a ski resort whose slopes are nicknamed the "Norwegian Alps," the train reaches Bergen, that snug, lively city with its handsome hillside houses.

As passengers step from the train, a nagging desire surfaces--a desire to go again. Far from wearying the passenger, the Oslo-Bergen railway only whets one's appetite for more.

For those interested in seeing more of the Norwegian countryside, the Oslo-Bergen railway line offers a spectacular side trip.

Leave the train at the town of Myrdal on alofty plateau ringed by mountains, then transfer to another train bound for Flam. The train snakes down a steep mountain, dropping more than 2,800 feet in just 12 miles. It's also possible to hike down--through abundant forests and past churning waterfalls. Hiking takes several hours, however.

In Flam, catch a ferry for Gudvangen. It's a two-hour trip around a crook in the Sognefiord. Finally, catch a bus in Gudvangen for the trip to Voss, connecting with the train to Bergen.

In all, the detour will add about seven hours to the trip and costs less than $20.

For more information on travel to Norway, contact the Scandinavian Tourist Board, 8929 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills 90211, or call (213) 657-4808.

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