NORWAY is universally known for two things – stunning wild beauty which leaves most visitors in awe and ferociously expensive prices which put most people off.
For those willing to pay the price to catch the midnight sun, polar nights, northern lights, arctic tundras, grand mountain tops and colourful grass-roofed houses, it’s undeniably worth it.
This is a land of contrasts, from the soft and gentle to the harsh and untamed. Tiny fertile villages spring out like luminous green pearls along the fjordline where indomitable fishing communities cling to rocky outcrops and the beat of a roaring ocean.
For those heading west, the landscape takes on a lavish, hypnotic splendour of majestic proportions. Deep blue black fjords slash into rugged, snow-capped mountains like giant clefts in the landscape running all the way up the coast from Stavanger to the Russian border. Rugged yet serene, these huge, wedge-shaped inlets compete with pounding waterfalls and iridescent glaciers to dazzle the senses between rounded lush mountains and secluded valleys hidden at the end of winding roads.
Between the world’s longest fjord and the world’s most beautiful – Sognefjord and the Hardangerfjord – lies the city of Bergen, making it an idyllic springboard to explore the fjord kingdom.
Founded in 1070 by Olav Kyrre as a commercial centre, this enchanting harbour city has long played a vital role in the Norwegian economy. Before the discovery of North Sea oil and Bergen’s subsequent role in the development of Norway’s oil industry, the city was a major centre of fishing and shipping and until the 14th century, the seat of the medieval kingdom of Norway.
The Hanseatic merchants established a major trading post here and the surviving wooden buildings painted in earthy reds, mustards and greens on Bryggen (the wharf) are UNESCO monuments in themselves. Much of the city was destroyed in a fire in 1702, but Bergen has risen from the ashes and is now a small, dynamic city of around 265,000 inhabitants.
The fjords are undeniably beautiful all year round, especially in early May, after the brief Norwegian spring has brought colour to the landscape, but winter has its own unique charm too; the blue-black waters contrasting with the blinding white of the snow that blankets the hills, valleys and mountains. In summer, the wilds are filled with hikers and the waters patrolled by a steady flotilla of bright-white ferries, but don’t let that put you off. The tourists are rarely in such numbers as to be intrusive, and even in the most popular districts, a brief walk off the beaten track will bring solitude in abundance.
The Norway in a Nutshell tour takes you through some of Norway’s best fjord scenery, beginning with the gentle charm of the Bergen Railway and the breathtaking Flåmsdal valley, where the inspiring Flåmsbana mountain railway trundles down to the Aurlandsfjord, a small arm of the mighty Sognefjord.
Dotted with pretty village resorts, the Sognefjord is the longest and deepest of the country’s fjords and is perhaps the most beguiling, rather more so than the Nordfjord, lying parallel to the north.
Between the Sognefjord and Nordfjord lies the growling and groaning Jostedalsbreen glacier, mainland Europe’s largest ice-sheet, while east of the Nordfjord is the narrow, S-shaped Geirangerfjord. Further north still, the scenery becomes even more extreme, reaching pinnacles of isolation in the stunning Trollstigen mountain highway.
It’s well worth considering the other Fjord tours too. There’s a three-day tour to spectacular Pulpit Rock and a four-day Hurtigruten & Norway in a Nutshell tour, heading by rail from Oslo to the beautiful, medieval university town of Trondheim and taking in the legendary Hurtigruten coastal express ferry.
The round-trip tours can be started in Oslo, Bergen, Voss or Flam all year round and you can customise your tour by adding hotels and activities of your choice.
For an unbeatable view of the city, ride the 26-degree Fløibanen funicular to the top of Mount Fløyen (320m), with departures every 15 minutes. From the top, well-marked hiking tracks lead into the forest; the possibilities are mapped out on the free Walking Map of Mount Fløyen, which are available from the Bergen tourist office. Track two makes a 1.6km loop near Skomakerdiket lake while track one offers a 5km loop over hills, through forests and past several lakes. For a delightful 40-minute walk back to the city from Fløyen, follow track four clockwise and connect with track six, which switches back down to the harbour. For keen hikers, you can also access Mount Ulriken, the highest of the seven mountains surrounding Bergen by covering the 13km Vidden trail.
Aside from their commercial interests, Bergen merchants had a nose for culture. The city has one of the world’s oldest symphony orchestras, the country’s first national theatre, a host of international
festivals and a whole range of museums and institutions, which owe their existence to the
generosity of merchants.
There are many weird and wonderful museums to choose from and most of them are close enough to each other to visit on foot. These include the Cultural and Natural History Museum, filled with whale skeletons, the Leprosy Museum, the Maritime Museum and the Norwegian Knitting Industry Museum (Norsk Trikotasjemuseum). There’s also an aquarium, a science centre and Bergen’s International Festival of music which has been running since the 1940s. The main venue is the Grieghallen, a bold 1,500-seat modernist concrete building, with a foyer hung with hundreds of light bulbs on long black flexes. During the season other venues are commandeered, including Grieg’s house, Ole Bull’s island home, Bergen Cathedral and even Bergen County Jail. The BIF takes place from late May through June every year.
Split across four buildings overlooking the central park and the lake of Lille Lungegardsvann, Bergen’s art museums, Kode each focus on different styles from contemporary to classic.
Most head straight for Kode 3, which houses the largest collection of haunting expressionist paintings by Edvard Munch outside Oslo, including a sketch of The Scream. Other Norwegian artists on display include Christian Krogh and Nikolai Astrup (open 11am-5pm weekends, others vary; entry NOK100, (£11). There is also the National Venue of Theatre, founded by the ubiquitous composer Ole Bull and where Ibsen spent six years as writer and director.
Wander through Torgallmenningen and its shops down to the harbour and its 300-year-old fish market, Fisketorget, for a seafood snack with more than a dozen stalls competing for business, offering everything from king crab baguettes to lobster salads with Norwegian caviar. This is the cheapest place to find good food on the go with sandwiches from NOK40.
For the finer side of seafood, Cornelius Restaurant serves its famous Meteorological Menu of exquisite offerings prepared using innovative culinary techniques and with a genuine passion for seafood. We highly recommend owner and local legend, Alf Roald’s famous shellfish talk, which is a fun and educational start to any dining experience. The talk lasts for 40 minutes and describes how Cornelius started with a charismatic back story spiced with escapades with women, financial ups and downs, innovative use of raw materials and a good deal of Western Norwegian never-say-die spirit.
Three-course Meteorological Menu: NOK 845 per person including boat trip.
Five-course Meteorological Menu: NOK 1,045 per person including boat trip.
Shellfish talk with a chance to sample shellfish and the restaurant’s own smoked salmon: NOK 200 per person.
Alcohol is extortionately expensive with the average pint hitting the £10 mark, so you may as well have a cocktail. No Stress has a unique laid-back feel that livens up with DJs later and the cocktail guys are well versed in the classics along with their own innovative creations.
If you’re craving warmth or romance, Altona Vinbar is a cosy wine lover’s warren of vaulted underground rooms that date from the 16th century with an extensive and carefully selected list of over 1,400 wines. For craft beer and vinyl, Norway’s oldest independent record store, Apollon Platebar has expanded to a cafe, bar and pub which is a magnet for music lovers all day and night.
If you can afford to party hard, head to Hulen, the oldest rock club in Northern Europe based in an old bomb shelter below Nygårdshøyden in the city centre of Bergen with three rooms (two bars and a live scene) in the tunnel carved into the mountainside.
The new Scandic Ørnen is located in an attractive area in the centre of Bergen close to Grieg Hall, Bergen’s Art Museums and Bergen train station. It offers comfortable, spacious and modern rooms, a varied breakfast buffet and the only skybar in Bergen, located on the 13th floor with a fantastic view of the city and surrounding mountains. Double rooms start at £85 per night.