Norway Beyond “The Nutshell”

Run-of-the-mill scene from rural Norway

Run-of-the-mill scene from rural Norway

“Norway in a nutshell” is tourist-speak for a classic itinerary that includes traveling between the cities of Oslo and Bergen with a stop among the world-famous fjords in between. This is a great option if you have limited time and mobility, and, as the name would suggest, allow you to see the essence of this majestic Nordic country. But if you have a week at your disposition, there are compelling reasons to go beyond the nutshell, break out of the shell or any other ‘nut’-related analogy you’d like to use. I will now list some of the most persuasive arguments to do so.

Land of Superlatives and Cliches

Stave church on the road to Flam

Stave church on the road to Flam

A journey through the heart of central and southern Norway is a journey through every cliche you can think of. In fact, I’m pretty sure the guy who came up with “Life’s a journey, not a destination” was probably driving between Bergen and Geiranger. No other country this side of New Zealand can boast such consistently jaw-dropping scenery that will have you burning through your vocabulary list in a search for superlatives. Sure, “the Nutshell” tour will give you a taste of all this. But I can personally attest to the joy and satisfaction of being able to pull over to the side of the road to snap off a few shots of some obscure valley that will ‘stir your soul’, ‘make your spirit soar’ or insert-your-own-cliche´ here.

Caution: Cruise Ships Crossing

Get a sense of scale courtesy of the cruise ships

Get a sense of scale courtesy of the cruise ships

When speaking of the fjords, most are impressed by the sheer-sided mountains, the innumerable waterfalls trickling (or gushing depending on the season) through the greenery and the model railroad-looking villages nestled in the valleys. What often goes overlooked are the cruise ships wending along these channels that are in many cases over a hundred miles from the nearest ocean (Sognefjord for example is 127 miles at its furthest point).  To put that into perspective, imagine a ship pulling up into Boston Harbor, then gliding on all the way to Hartford, Connecticut. Besides bringing tourist dollars to these remote and tiny locales, they offer passersby the opportunity to grasp a sense of scale in the scenery before them. Only when presented with an object of previously-conceived dimensions can one truly appreciate the size and grandeur of the setting around it. And when aboard one of the many vessels that run the fjords, watching the natural panorama unfold around every bend is reason enough to go beyond the nutshell.

Geiranger: The Journey And the Destination

Feeling reflective on the way to Geiranger

Feeling reflective on the way to Geiranger

The greatest disadvantage in my opinion of just staying on the “nutshell” itinerary is that it does not include a stop in the breathtakingly beautiful valley of Geiranger, which lies a good six hour or so drive to the northeast of Bergen. The drive from Bergen is arguably the most scenic in the whole country; a nonstop parade of mountain passes, crystal clear rivers, raging waterfalls and tranquil lakes that are so still that it’s hard to distinguish the reflections from what is real. And that’s before you even get there.

Traveling by car or bus, an approach to Geiranger will likely require traversing a mountain pass where steep and winding just don’t accurately convey what the drive is like. Neither does spectacular. Seeing the little hamlet nestled deep in the valley below is a thrill indeed, as is a visit to the Dalsnibba lookout, which really makes everything appear as a model train set. I hope to write more shortly about this incredible spot, but for now suffice to say, Geiranger alone is worth the extra time and expense not only to get there, but spend a day or two enjoying a setting that is exceedingly rare to chance upon.

What you Ought to Know

The amazing setting of Geiranger

The amazing setting of Geiranger

While breaking out of the nutshell is a worthy cause, there are some caveats you should be aware of. First, with the exception of the areas immediately surrounding cities like Bergen and Oslo, most roads – even if they are highlighted in bold as national highways – are no more than one lane in each direction. Coupled with the meandering nature of the routes, this translates to longer driving times than one would expect from just looking at a map. Factor in road construction, slower drivers, camera controlled speed-traps and an overwhelming urge to pull over and take pictures of the panorama before you, and you can easily spend a full day driving between destinations. For further information about the differences between the journey and destinations, please refer to paragraph 2 of this article.

While on the subject of roads, be aware that due to the mountainous terrain that characterizes the country, you will be passing through a lot of tunnels, ranging from a few meters to a few miles (the longest being  the Laerdal Tunnel which runs for just over 15 miles and even has colored lighting just to break up the monotony). So if you have a fear of such things, stick to the boats, because you will be spending quite a bit of time underground.

Cost is another factor to consider, especially for travelers from the U.S. While lodging and gas are proportionately more expensive than back home, the biggest surprise is the cost of food. A simple hamburger platter can (and will) run you nearly twenty bucks, with other dishes of simple fare in the same general neighborhood. If you’re on a budget, you might want to stick to the ubiquitous hot dogs wrapped in bacon that are available at nearly every gas station or roadside mart. It’s not gourmet, but it’s a lot easier on the wallet.

One last point: If you’re a fan of sunsets, night photography or stargazing, DO NOT come in late June/early July. The high latitude means very little darkness, which is great for touring, but bad for any of the aforementioned activities. You can also forget about seeing the Aurora Borealis – there’s way too much light. If these things are an issue for you plan on coming during a different Solstice.

The Final Word

Norway is one of the most naturally beautiful places on earth, ranking among my top destinations of Thailand and New Zealand (still have to give N.Z. the edge, though). It’s expensive, time consuming, and in summer “well-lit” but the payoff in natural splendor blows away any inconvenience. Not only is it worth seeing, but it is worth seeing beyond just “the nutshell”. Cliche´ or not, this is one destination that is just as appealing as the journey.


Have you been to Norway? Share your thoughts by commenting below

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