Take A Ride on the Flåmsbana. Do Not Pass Go. Do Not Collect $200

View from the Flåmsbana
View from the Flåmsbana

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.

Getting there

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

Walking the trails above Flåm
Walking the trails above 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

A Hulda at Kjosfossen Falls
A Hulda at Kjosfossen Falls

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.

Picture break on the Flåmsbana
Picture break on the Flåmsbana

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.

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Bryggen of Bergen – Character & Charm That is Way Off the Level

Bryggen of Bergen, Norway
Bryggen of Bergen, Norway

The Norwegian city of Bergen, tucked into the hilly archipelago of Norway’s west coast, is a lot of things. It is charming. It is historic. It is picturesque. And when speaking about its main attraction – Bryggen – it is all these things, except level.

This colorful wharf in heart of the Bergen’s inner harbor is a combination window-to-the-past and current tourist destination. Originally a functioning German commercial base established by the Hanseatic League in the late Middle Ages, these rows of leaning wooden buildings in a palette of bright colors are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They are also among the most recognizable buildings in Norway. Nowadays, they host more tourists than merchants, but when the cruise ships pull out and the locals emerge, it’s also a cool place to explore, shop and even grab a bite to eat.

The Back-story

Back alley of Bryggen
Back alley of Bryggen

For those not up on their Germanic history, the Hanseatic League was a collection of merchant guilds and their associated market ports in northern Europe. Bergen was one such port established in the mid-1300’s, and since then the iconic row of houses and buildings known as Bryggen has burnt down and been rebuilt several times. With all-wood construction, I suppose that’s the risk you take. In view of the tilted, off-kilter nature of these buildings (some over 300 years old), I’m assuming their builders didn’t have access to a working level. The result is a charming warren of shops and restaurants, with quaint alleys and even quainter views. Picture in your mind Popeye’s Sweethaven dubbed in Norwegian, and you’ll have the general idea.

How to Get There

Bergen is nestled along a bend in Norway’s highly-irregular coastline, which honestly looks as if it were drawn by a seismometer during an earthquake. Many arrive by sea on one of the many cruise lines that include Bergen as a port of call before delving into the fjords. You can arrive by car, which will afford you some stunning views both on your approach and your departure. Or you can join the masses in a Norway in a Nutshell tour, which will take you via train between Oslo and Bergen, usually with a stop in Myrdal (and nearby Flåm) for some scenery. However you get here, finding the Bryggen is easy. Find the waterfront, and when you see a bunch of crooked wooden buildings lined up in a wobbly row of eye-catching colors, you’re there.

What to See

Bryggen at dusk
Bryggen at dusk

Beyond the Bryggen and its photo opportunities, the stone fortress called Bergenhus is a well-preserved castle at the entrance to the harbor. Some areas are accessible by paid admission only, but there are sections you can explore for free. At the edge of the harbor just down the street from Bryggen is the Fish Market, which sells, um, fish. Lots of fish. More fish than a visiting tourist would ever need. If you’re not into collecting seafood, many vendors set up souvenir stalls during the day just across the square.

Details (on the level)

In summer, expect Bryggen and surrounding tourist attractions to be filled with visitors. If you can wait for later on when the cruise ships cast off, you can mill about with the locals, who in summertime are out in force well into the night. Lodging is rather expensive (as are most things in Norway) and parking can be a real issue. Most of the city is walkable, so unless you’re arriving by car or just renting one for the day, a vehicle is neither necessary nor recommended. English is widely spoken, so if you get lost, most people can help you out. Most of all, while the city is a great place to see, make sure you spend the bulk of your time visiting Norway’s natural attractions, which are, to put it mildly, mind-blowing.

Bryggen in daylight
Bryggen in daylight

Yes, I recommend Bergen’s Bryggen to anyone planning a visit to the city. I was originally going to skip Bergen on my own itinerary, but in hindsight am very glad that I didn’t. So far, no World Heritage Site I’ve visited has ever disappointed, and Bryggen was no exception. Make room for it if you can in your travels to western Norway. Count on character. Count on charm. Count on that subtle thrill of being surrounded by authentic history. The only thing you shouldn’t count on, is encountering right angles.


Have you visited Bergen? What did you enjoy most? Comment here and share your expertise!

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