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Floating around the Fjords

02/10/2014

The only way to explore Norway’s majestic coastline is by ship, of course. David Whitley takes a trip to a magical land that seems to be happily detached from the rest of the world

Norway's majestic fjords

Explore Norway's majestic fjords by ship

 

Norway’s Fjords are the gift of ice and time. Through the millennia, glaciers have steadily cut valleys for the Norwegian Sea to fill, so now the coastline alternates between high, snaking cliffs and splintered fjords that venture inland. In a landscape largely unconquered by man, bridges remain few and far between and often a ferry is the only way to avoid driving the long way round.

Lucky, then, that I’m on the graceful Oriana. And with my arms folded on the railing and my eyes fixed on bare mountains rising from the water, my heart is lost to the view. Chunks of the fjord gently disappear into the distance as the ship glides past, replaced by others, ever grander. The water’s edge is lined with pine trees, waterfalls and the occasional tiny hamlet that’s completely inaccessible by road. The small shacks and dairy farms hint at a simple life, happily detached from the world.

 

Picture-postcard beauty

Flaam lies off a branch of the Sognefjord, the end point of the Flamsbana Railway, a staggering piece of engineering. At just over 20km, by modern standards it’s a tiddler, but it’s almost entirely uphill. The dramatic 863.6m ascent passes through gentle countryside and precarious-looking tunnels before it becomes a lurching, twisting piece of mountaineering up to Myrdal. Here, the beauty of the fjord is replaced by a harsh, alpine emptiness, where winds wreak havoc and even the hardiest goat looks for shelter.

Larger ports along Norway’s west coast include Stavanger, the hub of Norway’s oil industry that looks nothing like the industrial beast you might expect with its delightful cathedral and colourful clapboard houses along the waterside. Bergen is even prettier: fishing vessels, the bustling Torget fish market and the Bryggen district’s reconstructed medieval wooden houses and stone merchants’ buildings. And if you head up to Mount Ulriken via cable car, or Mount Fløyen by funicular, the views are outstanding.

Norway's majestic fjords

 

Natural drama

As charming as the cities are, however, Norway’s main appeal lies in its natural wonders. The Trollstigheimen plateau is a magnificently brooding place, where clouds roll over the sodden, boggy tundra – the sort of place where trolls may hide. Across the plateau, the road dives off the edge of the cliff, making a series of hairpin turns that are a ruthless exam for bus drivers. Applause is the only appropriate response at the bottom and looking back up makes you feel very small indeed.

 

A duck’s eye view

On the ship, there’s a feeling that you’re standing your ground against the giant rock walls around you – but once off it, it’s a case of helpless surrender to the elements. Venturing out on a RIB (lightweight boat) allows you to bounce along the water beside the imposing cliff faces rising straight out of the water, but for the real duck’s eye view, a kayak captures the serenity best. Birds soar overhead and you really feel that you’re not only seeing one of the most captivating panoramas on the planet, you’re a tiny part of it, too.

 

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