Spectacular views of Scandinavia's 'watery canyons'


September 05, 1993|By Jay Clarke | Jay Clarke,Knight-Ridder News Service

BERGEN, NORWAY — Bergen, Norway--Composer Edvard Grieg never missed an opportunity to visit Norway's extraordinary fiord country.

"I have never experienced anything like it," he wrote after one summer visit to the Hardanger fiord. "The surroundings seemed to come from a fairy tale world."

Indeed, Norway's fiordscapes are so spectacular that they seem to mesmerize visitors. Tourists stand transfixed on chilly ferry decks or atop icy mountains, simply gazing upon these happy meetings of land and water.

What they see are long, sinuous channels of water winding between rock walls so steep that not even grass will grow on their faces. Here and there, hemmed in by the implacable cliffs, a pretty little farmhouse or a tiny village huddles on a shelf of land.

Waterfalls spring out from every cliff. On even a short boat ride on a fiord, one will see dozens of them. Many cascades bounce down through clefts 1,000, 2,000 or 3,000 feet long, sometimes leaping several hundred feet in a single fall, sometimes separating into several spurting streams.

Cliff walls in the fiords rise sharply to 4,000 feet or more, and even in mid-June, huge layers of snow are visible on their crowns.

Always varying perspectives lend still another dimension to the fiords. Viewed from water level, the fiord walls close in to create breathtaking backdrops -- tiers of cliffs near and far reflected in the fiord's placid water and framed by a blue sky. From on high, one grasps the immensity of these winding watery canyons -- the longest of them, the Sogne fiord, runs 160 miles inland from the coast, and its waters plunge more than three-quarters of a mile in depth.

Today, with Norway celebrating the 150th anniversary of Grieg's birth and preparing to host the Winter Olympics in February, more visitors than ever are expected to journey to this scenic land.

Certainly most of them, like Grieg, won't want to miss the opportunity to visit western Norway, whose coast is serrated with fiords.

Grieg lived in the port city of Bergen, the second biggest city in Norway after Oslo and one of the prettiest. Bergen, which sits on a fiord itself, makes a wonderful base for trips into these majestic waterways, by boat, train, airplane, bus or automobile.

Taking the train

For those whose time is limited, a one-day tour called "Norway in a Nutshell" is an excellent way to see the fiords and Norway's high country. Participants take a train to Myrdal, in the bleak, snow-laden high country, then transfer to the Flambanen, a spectacular train that makes a precipitous 2,700-foot descent to the fiord-end town of Flam in just 12 1/2 miles of track. On the way, the train winds around a tight series of switchbacks, courses through tunnels and at one point pauses where the tracks pass over a foaming waterfall.

At Flam, participants board a ferry that takes them through two of the narrowest and most scenic fiords in Norway. At Gudvangen, they board a bus to Voss, from which a train takes them back to Bergen. The whole trip takes 12 hours and costs about $63 for adults, $31 for children. Hydrofoil trips into the fiords also are offered.

A drive in and around the fiords provides a more lingering look at this scenic land.

My wife and I made such a journey during a motoring loop from Oslo. We traveled first to Lillehammer, where the Winter Olympic Games will be held in February, then north through the rural Peer Gynt country (the locale on which Henrik Ibsen based his story of Peer Gynt, to which Grieg composed one of his most famous works, the "Peer Gynt Suite").

Then we headed west to Lom before rising into Norway's mountain and glacier country. Lom's great pride is a magnificent stave church, built 800 years ago using huge pine logs as pillars. It is one of only 31 such churches still in existence.

Because Norway lies so far north, the tree line (the elevation at which tree growth ends) is relatively low, usually no more than 3,000 feet. So as soon as we rose above that elevation, we entered a frozen, almost moon-like landscape. For almost two hours, we drove through this bleak stone-and-snow land where every landscape is gray and white and almost every outcrop is capped with a cairn of stones -- signposts of this barren region.

At times there were 30-foot drifts on both sides of the road. We saw several good-sized lakes frozen over, and it snowed on us -- in mid-June -- more than once.

Yet there is life here. At the highest pass and at a couple of other places we paused at hotels -- havens, we assumed, for Norway's legions of avid cross-country skiers. This is glacier country, too, and if you're of a mind, hardy Norwegians stand ready to take you hiking on the ice.

Though we were fascinated with the stark beauty of this high country, we were happy to see trees and green fields again on the west side of the mountains.

Sogne fiord

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