Europe: A driving holiday in Norway

Europe: A driving holiday in Norway
Photo Credit: Lucas Vallecillos
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Take a long and winding road through Western Norway, and drink in its scenic--if perilously distracting sights-- from the Geirangerfjord, a Unesco World Heritage Site to the small hiking town of Flåm.

Nitin Chaudhary
December 07 , 2015
15 Min Read

“To understand a city,
learn its streets. To decrypt
a nation, read its roads.”
So I was once advised.

Somewhere between Flåm and Geiranger, in western Norway, I chased a furtive road. It bent at improbable angles to hide behind the mountains, and reappeared in a truncated form, half eaten by the clouds that had descended unannounced, regaining form again only to slope down and dissolve into a patiently waiting fjord. A ferry would connect me to the asphalt hanging loose at the other end, from where the pursuit began all over again. The pattern had repeated itself many times over the 2,000km or so that I had spanned in Norway so far.

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I stepped out for a breather. The valley was quiet except for the slow thump of the marine engine. The sun was hidden behind the mountains, its absence rendering a touch of gloominess to the ambience. Noticing me standing alone on the top deck in quiet reflection, Reidar approached me. He spoke English haltingly, but with enough clarity to facilitate a conversation. I had noticed him earlier driving a Tesla Model S behind me, and had waved out.

“So why am I noticing Teslas all over Norway?” I asked as we sipped coffee to palliate the chill of the wind. “Well, Tesla’s second-largest market in the entire world is this tiny country,” Reidar explained with a certain seriousness. “We value cars that are environmentfriendly, and if you buy an electric car, the annual registration fee is waived, as are tolls, and you get access to less-congested traffic lanes.”

All of those little extras are funded by the country’s sovereign wealth fund, an $860 billion rainy-day cash-pile largely made up of oil money. Along with a stunning landscape, Norway also possesses a rich economy, but that’s skewed towards a single track given its dependence on petrodollars. However, the garishness of oil production is confined to the North Sea and does not spill into the interiors. From the calm waters of the fjords, mankind seems in agreement with nature. Elsewhere, it’s a different story.

The meeting with Reidar turned out to be a fortuitous one. He owned a lodge that he rents out near Geiranger, and I of unplanned adventures had no place to while the night away. So I followed him to the lodge atop one of the ski slopes that is laid bare at this time of the year.

Geiranger is a small tourist village in western Norway, situated alongside the eponymous Geirangerfjord, a Unesco World Heritage Site. Later that night, in Reidar’s well-equipped wooden lodge, with a cup of tea in hand, I looked out to the fjord that glittered in the fading light. This was the last night of my journey, and I reflected on the past three days.

I was in Norway to track some classical mountain roads. I had started my journey in Malmö, a fractured, violence-prone industrial town in the south of Sweden, which has become an entry point for refugees into the country. The landscape from Malmö to Oslo, the capital of Norway, is flawless, unwaveringly flat, and boring, except for a few glimpses of the North Sea, which has a tendency to pop out once in a while. Peer a bit harder, and on a clear day, you might catch the outline of Denmark across the water.

It’s only beyond Oslo that the roads gain a bit of gradient. As the road slants upward, temperate, mixed forests of pine, yew and oak line up alongside. Higher up, more typical boreal forests take over. The fjords would make an appearance later, farther out in the west. But once these waterbodies spring up, they remain a constant for the rest of the journey.

My first stopover was at Flåm, which is a small hiking town of 350 residents, but which receives almost half a million visitors a year. There are a few things that make Flåm interesting: it is ideally located to start hikes to the fjords of Aurland and Søgne; it nestles in one of the steepest railway tracks in the world; and it leads onto one of the best roads to drive on, the ‘Snow Road’.

The Snow Road is tucked away from the main E16 highway. The tourist office in Flåm guided me to the secret passage that leads up to it. No one uses it for conventional travel anymore. The local motorists prefer the Lærdal Tunnel, a straight tunnel passing through three mountain halls; at 24.5km, it is the world’s longest road tunnel. The Snow Road connects Aurland to Lærdal and has its highest point at 1,306m, which is not significantly high, but the snow line in these parts starts early, given the interplay of altitude and latitude.

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The Snow Road is a difficult drive. Most of the ascent happens on a single lane, which at times also accommodates tourist buses. But once the steep climb has been negotiated, the road widens onto a barren plateau covered in a layer of leftover snow from the previous winter. Pond-sized puddles of melted snow and sprigs of grass punctuate the landscape. It’s the desolation that renders this plateau impressive.

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Driving through these mountains can be a lonely pursuit. The routine is broken only while filling gas at a petrol station or while buying coffee at a local supermarket. At one such pause, I met Tor, who had noticed the Swedish number plate on my car. “It’s interesting how the world works. I am heading to Sweden to my summer house, and the Swedes are coming to Norway for their summer holiday,” he commented with a smile. “Something’s got to move all the time!”

I offered some excuse for leaving the relative warmth of southern Sweden to come to the snow-covered mountains in Norway. Tor is a journalist with the biggest newspaper in Norway, with a circulation of 250,000. After some years of living in Scandinavia, I’ve learnt not to get scandalised by such relatively modest figures counting as high readership. Tor helped me plan the journey from there on. GPS does not allow the luxury of chalking routes in ink, a preference that both Tor and I shared. So we bought road maps that covered some of the National Tourist Routes in Norway. It was through Tor that I understood the origins of some of these very famous, drivable roads in Norway

“It’s a big project for the folks at the Public Roads Administration,” Tor explained. “The objective is to develop the infrastructure behind the National Tourist Routes, and keep on identifying new ones, so as to attract tourists.” “So these roads are not just naturally beautiful; they’ve been designed beautifully,” I said, distilling what I’d just heard.

Today, there are 18 different National Tourist Routes in Norway. I had covered one, and with a blue ballpoint, Tor marked the other two that I planned to cover next.

Tor got ready to drive away in the other direction, charting the same route that I had so far covered. “And don’t forget to sit on one of Hølmebakk’s viewing points. Take out time to soak it all in!” was his parting advice. Carl-Viggo Hølmebakk is a prize-winning Norwegian architect who has designed several viewing points on these roads.

The Atlantic Road is a prime example of how the Norwegian Public Roads Administration has elevated the relatively straightforward task of laying tarmac into a form of high art. This 8km stretch on Route 64 joins the coastal communities of Kristiansund and Molde. It took me two ferry rides from Stranda to reach the starting point of this maritime road.

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The most prominent sight of the road is the cantilevered bridge that juts out of the ocean like a curved bow pointing towards the sky. A swift dive from the curved bridge leads to a rest area on a small island where tourists can park their cars and take a walk around the island on a metal pathway. The pathway rests on a mesh mounted on poles and channels the human traffic on a predefined route, protecting the marshy terrain below from any unwanted human intervention.

I sat down on the meshed footpath and looked out into the pale blue Norwegian Sea spread out in the front. This was the furthest out in the west that I had been in Norway. Norway is shaped like a baseball bat, and the Atlantic Road is well-suited to start the journey north along the narrowing handle. However, time was a diminishing asset and more roads waited to be covered. Trollstigen, one of the highest paved roads in Europe, makes up a major part of the 150km or so that connect the Atlantic Road to Geiranger. The road’s name roughly translates into ‘troll’s steps’; the Norwegians have assigned a mythical name to this road to signal its serpentine nature and the altitudinal variations that mark it.

The gradient at some places is as much as 9 percent, and such a steep climb together with hairpin bends makes this road both scenic and challenging to drive on. At one such bend, the right-hand side tires of my car scraped against the thin cemented boundary along the edge, and for a few seconds I lived in mortal fear of plunging 400m into the gurgling Stigfossen waterfall below.

Driving on these far-off mountain slopes can at the same time be an immensely liberating and nerve-wracking experience. The feeling of being one with the elements can fast turn into helplessness. Chastened by the experience, I pulled over at a resting place at the top of the mountain to calm down. At 700m, this resting place had a car park, a restaurant, and several souvenir shops. Further inside, the built-up area opened into a rocky landscape with wooden pathways and several viewing balconies that overlooked the bends in the road below and the Stigfossen waterfall. I walked up to one of these viewing balconies and, realised that unwittingly—while scouting around—I had ended up at one of the famed Hølmebakk creations.

Looking far out from these viewing platforms, a certain realisation began to seep in. I had come to these slopes to find the best roads in Norway to drive on. I had driven from one to another, always hoping for the next experience to better the previous one. As I stood on this balcony hanging in thin air, I was far away from the automotive action below. I watched the caravan of cars and buses course the anguine road in the hope of catching the same excitement that I had had. For me, there were no more roads to be pursued. My way forward was my way back to where I had started my journey. Somehow, I felt released and happy. So I sat down on one of the oddly placed wooden creations by Hølmebakk and followed Tor’s recommendation. I soaked in the moment.

The information

Getting there
Aeroflot, Swiss Air, Qatar and Austrian Airlines operate hopping flights from Delhi to Oslo for about â?¹50,000 (return). From within Europe, Norwegian Air (www.norwegian.com) offers cheap flights connecting various European cities to Oslo and other cities in Norway. Another option is to fly to Bergen on the west coast and hire a car. Bergen is also a popular trekking hub, so tourists have the option of spending a few days in and around Bergen before heading to other parts of Norway.

Visa
Visa applications can be made at www.vfsglobal.com/Norway/India; fees for short-stay Schengen visa is €60; under newly introduced procedures, applicants must appear personally and give biometric data. More details at VFS website.

Currency
1 Norwegian Krone (NOK) = â?¹7.6

Getting around
All major car rental companies, such as Avis, Europecar and Budget have offices in Oslo and Bergen. While renting a car, a good option would be to rent a mobile wi-fi device, and tether your Google Maps-enabled smartphone to it, instead of the conventional GPS. It is possible to rent a car in Norway on an Indian driving licence.

Approximate distances between the places that I covered on this trip are: Oslo–Flåm: 310km; Flåm–Stranda–the Atlantic Road: 680km; the Atlantic Road– Geiranger: 156km; Geiranger– Jotunheimen–Oslo: 420km.

There is no seamless driving experience in Norway, especially when you are driving in the west. The road will be interrupted many times due to fjords, and you will have to take ferries to cross over. The cost of the ferry (1 car + 1 driver + 2 passengers) is about 170 NOK.

Where to stay
The good thing about Norway is that almost everyone owns a summer house or a ski lodge in the mountains, many of which are rented out in the off season. These are well-kept, cozy offerings with the owners’ personal touch, minus the trappings of tourist hotels. The bad thing, however, is that Norway is an expensive country and so are all the accommodation options. I chose to stay at AirBnB (www.airbnb.com) apartments, which cost around 1,000-1,500 NOK a night.

If you are travelling alone, hiking hostels/tourist huts provide an affordable option. There are plenty of these in Norway and the prices vary from 100 NOK for a dorm bed to about 500 NOK for a room. The facilities are very basic, though. If you are travelling during the tourist season, it is best to book in advance.

Another option, which I prefer, is to carry your own tent and sleeping bag. It’s definitely more adventurous, and the sites provide enough ground for campers to pitch their tents. Otherwise, just walk a bit into the mountains and find a perfect pitching option next to the stream. Nothing beats waking up in the morning in the lap of nature.

Travel tips
At some places, a pizza may cost as much as 350 NOK! So plan your food options well. Vegetarians will find limited options at restaurants. Since I was staying in apartments that had kitchens, I was carrying my own food to prepare. It’s cheaper and provides more options.

There are no manned tolls in Norway. Automated tolls will take pictures of your car number plate and, once you are back in your home country, you will receive the toll amount on your credit card bill; your credit card details are sought while entering into Norway.

Norway gets virtually all of its electricity from hydropower, which is both cheap and clean. There are numerous waterfalls across the country, so do take out time to visit a few. Vøringsfossen (182m) in the west is perhaps the most famous waterfall in the country.

On the Snow Road, make sure to stop over at the award-winning Stegastein viewpoint. It’s made of wood and metal, and has a platform that spans over the rocks; at a height of 650m, it allows outstanding views of the fjord below.

Trollstigen and the Snow Road are closed during late autumn and winter. A normal operating season stretches from mid-May to October.

The Norwegian tourist department (www.visitnorway.com) is one of the best prepared and tourist-friendly offices. Have them help you plan your trip. Ask for the ongoing deals.

 


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