Having arrived back in the UK from Australia with no long term travelling planned for the near future, it became apparent that I needed some form of side trip to occupy my mind, scratch those itchy feet and keep my backpack from becoming lost in the depths of my wardrobe.
How to hatch a plan
So it wasn’t long before I started working on a plan for my next adventure, which in essence, just boiled down to a few simple questions to ask myself and basic factors to consider:
Step 1: Figure out a destination
Where in the world do I want to go?
If you love travelling as much as me, then you probably won’t be able to come up with just one answer to begin with; so I started by making an achievable bucket list.
What are my main requirements for this trip?
Location – I wanted to go somewhere which would contrast heavily with recent trips; somewhere completely new, visually and culturally, yet somewhere which would also encompass all of the things I cherish the most; vast landscapes, mountains and breathtaking natural beauty.
Time – Work commitments meant that time was precious and limited to just 5 days, therefore it was important to me to go somewhere just a short distance away, minimising the amount of time spent in transit.
Budget – This was also something to be mindful of. I wanted to save money where I could, so planned on donning my backpack and scrimping on accommodation. I used Skyscanner to find cheap flights and Hostelworld to find cheaper accommodation options.
When do I want to go?
Work schedules would obviously impact on my decision somewhat. But I also took into consideration the time of year I wanted to go. Visiting out of peak season effects prices; from flights and accommodation to transport and tours.
With this in mind, I narrowed down my list of potential destinations and came to the happy conclusion that Norway would be my next port of call. It was a hop, skip and a jump away, looked visually stunning and being March at the time of my visit; was well out of peak season, so flights were ridiculously cheap, as well as a number of other excursions, which I’ll touch upon next.
Step 2: Put together a basic itinerary
What do I want to do when I get there?
I had just 5 days, an unshakable urge to experience a number of things within that time and the desire to achieve an ideal balance between budget and bucket list.
After reading about the Bergen Railway, which is considered to be one of the most scenic train journeys in the world, I was absolutely hooked with the romantic idea of trundling through the rugged Norwegian wilderness. I was also adamant that I wanted to see the fjords. These two factors alone, made planning my itinerary a great deal simpler:
The Bergen Railway runs between the cities of Oslo and Bergen, and Bergen is often described as the ‘Gateway to the Norwegian Fjords’, which are located along the country’s west coast. It was logistically perfect; I could simply fly to Oslo for a brief stint in the capital and get the train straight across the country to Bergen. The train journey would economically act as both a mode of transport and an exhilarating experience in its own right.
I figured that the most low-risk, simplistic and time-saving method in which to visit the fjords, in my situation, would be to go on some form of tour and after doing a little research, the Norway in a Nutshell tour seemed to tick the most boxes.
And so in March of this year, my best friend and I flew out to Oslo. Here’s what we got up to over the following 5 days:
Day 1 | Oslo
Having arrived the previous evening, we had one full day to explore the city. This mostly comprised of wandering around in the snow, taking regular coffee breaks and people watching.
Accommodation: Anker Hostel.
Day 2 | Oslo to Bergen via the Bergen Railway
After some delay, our train to Bergen left the hustle and bustle of Oslo behind and made its way across rural Norway. The journey took roughly 7 hours and as we climbed higher into the mountains, lakes began to freeze, the snow began to thicken and my ears began to pop with distaste.
Frozen waterfalls cascading down dominating mountainsides gave their final glints in the remaining sunlight before disappearing behind thick sheets of mist and soon we were surrounded by the purest white I had ever seen.
My eyes were forced into an uncomfortable squint as they adjusted to the unbelievable brightness of the snow. The landscape before me had lost all shape and scope and it wasn’t until I caught sight of a couple of distant figures zooming past on skis, that I could fathom my surroundings a touch more clearly.
Day 3 | Bergen
Bergen is renowned for it’s rain. So much so, that it has been aptly nicknamed the ‘City of Rain’. Coming from the ‘Rainy City’ of Manchester itself, I felt only even more fondness for the place; embracing every boot squelch with open arms and the justification to huddle, coffee clasped in chilly fingers, in an unreasonable number of the many hygge cafés conveniently dotted along the way.
Accommodation: Marken Gjestehus.
But come rain or shine, Bergen was simply beautiful. One of my favourite things about the city was that it didn’t actually feel like a city at all; and with just a few turns, you could find yourself amongst the grand old town houses lining the steep, cobbled streets.
I loved every last detail; the pointy roofs, the wooden slatted facades, the array of colours, the peeling paint, the crookedness. It felt old, and homely, and lived in.
Day 4 | Norway in a Nutshell
It is important to note that although Norway in a Nutshell is a tour, with schedules and transport readily organised for you, it is still essentially self-guided. There is no single tour guide leading the way and no food included. You just pick up your booklet of tickets, which cover all of your transport and activities and follow your chosen schedule.
Saying this, you could indeed attempt to book the entire itinerary without using the tour operator and potentially save some money doing so, but this would take a great deal of effort, coordination and research and quite frankly, I just didn’t have the time or patience on this particular trip.
Out of the two available itineraries at the time, which at a glance, varied only slightly in timings and sequence of events, I chose the option which gave us more time in the little town of Flåm. This additional time allowed us the freedom to hop on a bus and head up to Stegastein viewpoint; but more on that later.
Bergen to Myrdal | By train | Approx. 1.5 hrs
The journey began with an hour and a half trip back up the scenic Bergen Railway to a remote stop called Myrdal. The scenery along the way was so magical that I was happy to be retracing my steps along the train line.
Myrdal to Flåm, via Flåmsbana | By train | Approx. 1 hr
At Myrdal station we jumped off our train and switched onto the Flåm Railway. A light snow was falling and I spent as much time as possible crunching up and down the white platform before boarding the Flåmsbana.
The train journey between Myrdal and Flåm is described as one of the most spectacular tourist attractions in Norway and several hundred thousand people flock from all over the world to experience it. Being late winter, we were over the moon to find ourselves amongst only a handful of other visitors and got an entire carriage to ourselves.
The train gently meandered down along deep ravines sliced by frozen rivers, through rickety tunnels cut into sheer mountain and past remote farms poking through the snow and clutching tightly to steep hillsides.
We creaked to a stop at Kjosfossen waterfall, which had been reduced to a magnificent ice sculpture in the cold temperatures and hopped onto the platform for a better look.
Flåm is a quaint little place. It is located on the innermost Aurlandsfjord, which is a branch of the world’s longest fjord, Sognefjord. It is surrounded by steep, looming mountains and as we jumped off the train at the eerily quiet station, we were greeted by the chilly air and a ribbon of low lying cloud.
Flåm to Stegastein Viewpoint (optional) | By shuttle bus | Approx. 1.5 hrs roundtrip
With an extra few hours to spare before our next leg of the journey, we bobbed straight into the visitor centre and purchased a ticket to Stegastein viewpoint. In low season, there was plenty of space on the bus, however, if you plan to visit in peak season, booking ahead of time would be very wise.
Our shuttle bus zoomed through the mountains to the peaceful village of Aurland, which has churches dating back to the 1200’s. From there it zig-zagged up a ladder of hairpin bends, sending my head spinning, until we were in the clouds. My heart sank a little as the view became more and more obscured by white.
But as we pulled up and climbed out of the bus, nothing could have prepared me for what I saw next and I crunched towards the viewpoint in a trance-like state; eyes wide, lips parted.
The platform, which alone, is celebrated as some of Norway’s finest architecture, stands at 650 metres high and juts 30 metres over the edge of the mountain. The view was panoramic, and above the cloud line, the mighty peaks of the Aurlandsfjord hung silently.
And it really was silent. The air was deadly still, there was no hum of wildlife and nobody spoke a word. The only sounds came from the busy clicks of cameras and the squeaks of shoes on the slippery, compact snow beneath our feet.
Then, as if by magic, the clouds parted for the briefest of moments and revealed to us the fjord below; and my eyes widened, and my lips parted further.
Flåm to Gudvagen | By fjord cruise | Approx. 2 hrs
The fjord cruise took us along the Aurlandsfjord and on the narrow Nærøyfjord. We excitedly began the journey by commandeering a couple of deck chairs and diving into the remains of our packed lunches. As the boat chugged along between the towering snowcapped mountains and peaks, we passed valleys, waterfalls, small, secluded villages and even caught sight of a lone seal, gliding silently alongside the boat.
But it was bitterly cold out on the water and my fingers and toes eventually began to ache in protest, so I retreated to the snugness of the indoors, where the views were still something to behold, through the dirty windows.
Gudvagen to Voss | By bus | Approx. 1.5 hrs
After thawing out and disembarking the boat, we scuttled up to the bus stop and had an uncomfortable wait in the cold, until our coach driver finally showed up. The excitement of the day was starting to tire me out and I spent a good amount of time nodding in and out of consciousness during the trip to Voss station.
Voss to Bergen | By train | Approx. 1 hr
From boat, to bus, to train. This was the final stint back to Bergen. Daylight disappeared and so did the views from my window.
The tour in total took nearly 12 hours and quite characteristically, it consisted mostly of transport, with activities slotted in between. For me, what made the amount of transport during this tour more agreeable, were the views and scenery along the way. I was forever gazing excitedly out of windows, fearful I’d miss a frozen waterfall or lake, or quaint hamlet buried waist deep in snow, or low-lying wisp of cloud. I wanted to see it all.
Visiting in March was a fantastic decision. There were no crowds, prices were cheaper and it meant that I got to see Norway as an enchanting, winter wonderland. I suppose the only downside was that the weather was a touch unpredictable, which made our final day in Bergen another soggy one.
Day 5 | Bergen | Evening flight home to Manchester
We spent a couple of days either side of our Norway in a Nutshell tour, ambling and eating our way around Bergen. On our last day, we hesitantly took the funicular up Mount Fløyen, but as suspected, the weather was too severe to hike and the view over the city was obscured by thick, fast moving blankets of cloud.
But this is just another reason to go back in the future, and I can safely say that Norway stole my heart.