As I began to develop ideas for trips that could be made using just public transport, and be more enjoyable because of it, I was faced with the question of where in the world this was doable in practical terms. Traveling within a city or getting from city to city was one thing, but accessing beautiful country settings could be hard, especially where the automobile had a monopoly. For instance should I wish to do a trip into all of Rocky Mountain, Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Parks, public transport would be a hard way to get there; possible, but hard. My inclination was that Europe was going to provide many more such opportunities than America, and I soon came to find that in Norway such a trip was not only possible, it was encouraged with ready-made trip infrastructure. So Norway it was.
My sister and I had mulled over a trip somewhere in Scandinavia before, and as I researched different options I came across something online called “Norway in a Nutshell.” I couldn’t tell exactly what it was other than that it went from Oslo to Bergen, both of which we wanted to see, and traveled through mountains and fjords. But was it an actual tour or what? Were participants put into a group and hearded by a tour guide from one spot to another? Online it was something of a mystery.
But eventually I figured out that it was nothing more than a booking service that took advantage of public transport already available and simply put all the reservations together for you, customized as you wished. In fact you could just get all those tickets and make any needed reservations on your own. The advantage of the NIN booking was that they did this for you, printed out all your tickets and charged a small fee for that convenience.
So, where does it go? And how? And what can you do to make it your own trip and get away from everyone else doing the same thing?
Lets back up. What we wanted to do was see Oslo, take the Bergen Railway across the mountains from there to the west coast of Norway and see Bergen. We also wanted to spend some time on the fjords, exploring by ferries hopefully. What NIN does is put that together in a way that should you be crazy enough to try and do all of that in a single day, you could. Indeed we saw people at the end of that trip fast asleep on a train because they had done just that. Marched through in one day. Please don’t do that.
So if instead we wanted to do that trip, with some side trips, over the course of a week, how would that work? First, I opted to use the booking service of NIN. The modest extra fee they charge is probably worth it. Navigating the Norwegian transport system online, with all the various connections and modes of transport can be intimidating.
On your own you have to figure out trains, busses and ferries, sometimes with relatively poor English translated webpages to work with. Some of these cannot be booked too far in advance, like the national trains. Some of the ferries are run by different outfits with different somewhat cranky websites. Just cataloging where ferries go and don’t go is hard. The water transport websites make distinctions between ferries and boats, which do I need? Who knows what bus to get on? So having NIN pull altogether the train, ferry and bus schedules and tickets was a good way to get our feet wet. (Having now done it, I feel I could go back and do it again, with different variations, on my own, but that isn’t needed for the first time. And even so I might still use them for the simple convenience of it, should I do a similar trip again.)
And we could customize our trip online for how long we would take, how long we would stop wherever, and if we wanted, even have them make the hotel arrangements. All done online. I did not opt for them making room reservations and I am glad I did not. I think it is a good idea to choose your own accommodations so you are getting something you want rather than what others might think is needed. And we added some ferry trips on the fjords on our own, to get away from the NIN crowds, see some things independently and just generally make it our trip and not just someone’s idea of what a trip should be.
Here is what we did. It adds up to a ride on a train, a cog railway, 5 ferries, 2 busses and finally another train, not to mention the trams, busses and funicular we used in the cities. We never once had a stressful connection. Everything went smoothly.
We left Oslo S (S for Sentralstasjon or central station) on a morning train towards Bergen. Oslo S is served by trams coming from all over the city so it is easy to get there. We had stayed the night before at the excellent and modest Coch Pensjonat. (Reserved in this case through the Hostelworld app.) Basic and clean, no frills, but great location and just a few steps from a tram stop and a market. I wish we had set aside more time for Oslo. This trip was a rushed affair and that’s a shame.
You should get to Oslo S early enough to stop at the desk where the NIN tickets will be printed out for you. Go to where they very precisely instruct you to go, “between doors X and Y”, there isn’t a sign. But have faith and present your Passport or reservation number and they will quickly start printing the tickets out. Oslo S is a very full service station so you can get some breakfast, snacks or lunch to go there. (Also, there is a very helpful tourist office tucked away in a side hall down an escalator where they will give city maps, speak English and recommend different nice-to-visit areas that can be accessed by tram or bus.)
Board your Bergen Railway train in the assigned car and seat and you’re off.
Over the next couple of hours you will climb up eventually to well above timberline. This is the highest continuous standard gauge rail line in Europe, reaching over 4,000 feet after starting at sea level. Even in August you will be passing snow fields. I had wished we had more time and if so I would have planned a stop at Geilo or Finse or both, for at least a couple of nights.
These are in the high country and abut National Parks. Worth a day or two or more to experience alpine conditions this farth north, with hiking and biking available. In fact all along the train route in the National Park were bike paths.
Shortly after those stations you will come to Myrdal where we disembarked at a station in the middle of nowhere. Well over half the train will be getting off with you, so don’t worry about missing it. But that is your first clue as to how much the NIN package is being used. There is a cafe inside the station but no village or anything but mountains.
And there is another rail track. Here you pick up the Flåmbana, the Flåm cog railway. It will arrive and absolutely everyone on the platform other than staff will board. There is nowhere else for them to go.
In just one hour you will go from 4,000 feet to the sea at Flåm. The views are great. Cheesy waterfall stop along the way. (They know tourists are coming.) There is a trail down as well if you want to hike or ride a bike.
When you get to Flåm you will notice it isn't big. And what is there appears driven by the NIN crowd or the cruise ships that call it a port. Still the end-of-a-fjord setting is great, and it is clean and well organized to handle tourist needs.
We stopped in Flåm for a night. First, there is a fantastic hostel there, clean private rooms available, nice people, great kitchen. There is a little market store in town to get fixings for dinner. And it is just a very short walk from the port area. Second, we were leaving the NIN route here for a few days to take a ferry across the fjord to Balestrand.
There was only one boat a day going to Balestrand. And it left at 6am. Hence the overnight stay at Flåm. This is part of the trip where you have to do your own research and the online sources are a bit opaque. But we worked it out and all was good. Highly recommend a ferry ride into the fjords at that hour anyway, glass smooth water and magnificent scenery.
The crossing of the Sognefjorden, Norway’s longest fjord system, takes awhile, but the water is protected and flat and experiencing the fjords from the water on a small, local ferryboat is like no other way.
The approach to Balestrand will leave you speechless if the weather is as we had it.
From this point on I will cover our Norwegian trip in a second post, so as not to make any of them too long. But in short, we stayed in the small and uncrowded village of Balestrand at their excellent hostel in a private room with a balcony overlooking the fjord. And we took other excursions as we felt and arranged as we went. If outdoors minded, you could easily spend a week here. But it is worth at least two nights.
©️ 2019 D Abbott