WINDING UP ON NORWAY’S WEST COAST
Norway may not be the cheapest country for a drive, but the upside is you will mostly have its majestic beauty and prize-winning roads to yourself.
Hairpin bends, glacial fjords, sky-reaching cliffs and ingeniously built roads pave the way north along Norway’s western coastline
Norway means ‘narrow way through the straits’, rather apt, given the mighty glacial fjords that lacerate its western coast. Admittedly there’s not much that’s spellbinding as I roll north out of Bergen. The majesty comes later; for now I’m passing the engineering workshops and other small factories serving the oil and gas industry that has made the city rich – again. The charming buildings that surround the harbour are a reminder that Bergen was a successful business centre for many centuries, going back to its days as a Hanseatic port. I’m riding out in the wonderful, slightly watery, sunshine typical of Norway. As I follow the fjord first east and then north before turning inland again to Voss, the rugged, often vertical countryside begins to work on me, raising thoughts of Vikings and moody gods. Norway’s roads, bridges and tunnels are sparkling examples of their builders’ skill and tenacity, but they shrink to scratches on the mile-high cliffs if you look up a little. Whoops! Not enough attention on the road and a long frost break is trying to turn my front wheel into oncoming traffic. Norway’s main roads are excellent, but not all back roads survive the brutal winters unscathed. I turn north at Voss and then take Stalheimskleiva, the loop of road which runs between two waterfalls and offers 13 hairpins on its mile-long 20-degree climb to the eponymous hotel. It took seven years to build the whole six miles (10km) of road, finishing in 1849. The view towards Gudvangen from the hotel is spectacular, with near-vertical cliffs boxing in the narrow green valley bottom. Not far past Flam, I face a decision. Carry on straight ahead through the world’s longest road tunnel, a 16-mile (28km) marvel, or take the old road across the top? I’ve ridden through the tunnel before, so the choice is easy. I don’t regret it. There are deep snow banks alongside the 30-mile (48km) stretch of narrow, steep and twisting road but its surface is clear and tempts my inner boy racer. Back at sea level I am speeding along one of the tentacles of
Sognefjord. I cross it on a ferry and turn west along its shore before another ferry takes me across to Dragsvik and on to the E39 main road. It’s an intoxicating run north and east from here, always either alongside a fjord or crossing a rocky range by hairpins, smooth, long curves and regular blinks of tunnels. At Grotli I turn west again, and after following the waterside for a while, climb back up to the high, icy country that interrupts the fjords. The drop back down to sea level at Geiranger is a superb stretch of road, which deservedly won a prize at the 1924 World Expo in Paris. Climbing back up from Geiranger is just as impressive. This is Ørnesvingen, the Eagle’s Road, and it has a wonderful lookout like a long tongue of concrete at the top. The high valley before Trollstigen is renowned for its strawberries, and the fields stretch as far as I can see. A quick visit to Jordbaestova, a cafe advertising the best strawberry cakes in Norway, and then I reach the top of the Troll’s Ladder. I pull in at the car park and walk to the viewing platform. Piles of stones, balanced on one another, dot the rocks. ‘The tourists think the trolls like them,’ says a local. ‘They don’t. Anyway, there are no such things as trolls.’ I’m not sure about that. There’s one outside the futuristic information centre, with its odd looks combining humour and veiled threat. The brochure about Trollstigen claims only 11 hairpins for the descent. That may be true in the strictest sense, but it feels like a lot more, as my bike takes me over bridges spanning the white water
tumbling the 762 metres to the valley floor, and along short straits with steep drops on one side and more sheer rock on the other. Then it’s a short run along Romsdalsfjord and up the peninsula that has Ålesund at its tip. This is a lovely town, best seen from the hill behind its sprawl around the waterways that define it. There is one more marvel to tackle – the Atlantic Road to the north, on the way to Kristiansund. It’s only five miles (8km) long, but it squeezes eight bridges into that distance, including the twisting Storseisundet Bridge, which you’ve probably seen in a car commercial on TV. It’s an exhilarating ride, especially when the sea is up, and when I finally reach the long tunnel that will take me to Kristiansund, I’m ready for a beer.