Growing up, I had a friend who employed an annoyingly simple strategy when playing Monopoly. Instead of buying every property he landed on, he saved his money to buy the railroads. So while I was off investing in more potentially lucrative sites such as Park Place and Marvin Gardens, he very quietly – and unopposed – would soon have all four railroads under his control; thereby beginning the process of eroding my wealth while I would without fail land on those four spaces or pick up the most dreaded of all Chance cards: Take a ride on the Reading.
It may be a bit of a stretch, but that memory made an appearance when I took a ride on a very different type of railroad – the scenic Flåmsbana – a winding iron trail through some of the most breathtaking views in all of Norway. This was one railroad I was more than happy I had landed on. It didn’t even cost $200.
The Flåmsbana starts (or ends, depending on your direction) in the town of its namesake, Flåm – a tiny hamlet at the tip of the lovely Aurlandsfjord in western Norway. From Oslo, it is a solid six hour drive; more if you stop to take pictures (and you will take pictures!) If you’re coming from Bergen, figure on a ride of two or two and a half hours. Many visitors skip the roads entirely, arriving via the numerous cruise ships that pull into this ridiculously gorgeous port nearly a hundred miles from the ocean.
What to do in Flåm
As a cruise port, Flåm’s “business” district centers around a cluster of capacious souvenir stores brimming with troll figurines, viking paraphernalia, and just about any item that you can think of with the word “Norway” stamped across it. Once you’ve got your souvenir shopping done, you can grab a bite in one of a handful of eateries, or sign up for a fjord tour, provided you didn’t get enough of that on your way in. If you’re staying in the area, I heartily recommend taking the ferry one-way to the miniscule village of Gudvangen via the UNESCO World Heritage Naeroyfjord and taking a transfer bus back. I know it’s not a railway, but the scenery is more than worth the deviation.
If you’d rather stay local, starting behind the large Fretheim Hotel at the edge of the fjord, there are a few walking paths that will take you to some strategic lookout points above the town. Like nearly everything else in the Vertical Republic of Norway, there’s a relatively steep incline, but I can assure you that the views will take your breath away even if the climb didn’t.
Riding the Flåmsbana
The most popular area attraction is the aforementioned Flåmsbana. You can either purchase tickets through a tour operator or directly at the station ticket counter (approximately $55 US r/t). If there’s a cruise ship in port you’d better get your tickets early, lest you have to wait an extended period of time. Though only spanning a length of about 20 kilometers, the route rises some 886 meters, taking nearly an hour just to do so. In that time period, you will be tempted to hop from side to side (space permitting) to snap off pictures of incomprehensibly quaint alpine villages lining crystal-clear rivers, all nestled at the base of towering mountainsides that are literally gushing with waterfalls. Speaking of waterfalls, riders will have a five-minute break at the colossal Kjosfossen Falls to get out, stretch their legs, and in the summertime, listen to the haunting strains of Norwegian folk music blasting while a local blonde in traditional attire dances out in the distance; a tribute to the legendary Hulda – a siren-like woman who would lure men to death in the mountains. Glad I never got that card in Community Chest. I’m sure those guys did not pass Go or collect $200 either.
What to do in Myrdal
The tiny hamlet of Myrdal – a collection of hardy-looking homes perpetually surrounded by snow, even in summer – has little in the way of attractions. I suppose that if you brought your bike along and were a moderate sadist, this would make a good jumping off point for a thrilling yet punishing ride down. But for the majority, Myrdal is a convenient link to the Bergen-Oslo rail line, allowing passengers the chance to ride the Flåmsbana down for a view of the fjords before continuing onward for their Norway in a Nutshell tour. For me, it was a chance to switch seats and prepare myself for a replay of the amazing panoramas on the way back down to sea level.
Western Norway is a natural wonderland, and a stop in Flåm is more than just an average diversion. Plan on spending at least one night here if traveling by land. If you’re arriving by boat, make sure the Flåmsbana is on your itinerary. It is a rewarding portal to the ruggedly beautiful and inaccessible Norwegian interior, and a lot more memorable than the Reading, Pennsylvania, B & O and Short Line combined. Monopoly or not, the Flåmsbana is a railroad you’ll want to land on, and a destination far beyond anything you’ll find in Community Chest.
Have you taken the Flåmsbana? Share your experience by commenting below.