Take the train on a super ride
Rob Mills marvels at the stunning scenery and engineering ingenuity that went into carving out one of Norway’s greatest attractions
IT’S rapidly becoming a perfect late summer day as we set off to explore Norway’s most memorable scenery.
To the west is Oslo, to our east the ancient North Sea port of Bergen.
We’re on the ridiculously lush banks of Aurlandsfjord, in the village of Flam. The drizzle has stopped, the clouds have all but lifted and the sun is beginning to shine.
Giant granite mountains surround us as we savour this patch of Nordic perfection.
Over millions of years, glaciers have carved out valleys and waterfalls, leaving behind little parcels of fertile land to be worked by the strapping descendants of Vikings.
We’ve been travelling for more than a week. Our hosts, Tauck Tours, have shown us the best of two wonderful countries – Sweden and Denmark – but this place takes the beauty of Scandinavia to a new level.
We’re deep in fjord country in a nation commonly rated the world’s richest and happiest. Natural resources abound and the gazillions of krona generated since the late 1960s by North Sea oil are being spent wisely.
It’s difficult to find flaws in a country so beautiful and kind hearted. Perhaps the high cost of living in paradise is a downside, particularly for tourists. A bottle of wine costs a small fortune, if you’re lucky enough to find a bottle shop that’s open, and a Big Mac will set you back more than $7, making Norway about the most expensive place there is for fastfood lovers.
But hang on. Who needs a Big Mac in a land of plentiful salmon, shellfish and caviar? And the potatoes in these parts are far too good to be turned into fries.
Here in the village of Flam, we’re about to begin a train journey that defies belief. For the next hour our gleaming green train will carve its way through granite mountains as we climb to the town of Myrdal, 836m above us.
When it comes to holiday photography, this 20km trip will test our stamina as the train passes one spectacular sight after another. As we click on one seemingly perfect image on our left, another even more perfect image flies past, uncaptured, on our right.
After 10 or 15 minutes the whiplash is hard to bear. It’s now time to relax and enjoy the spectacle. Our 836m climb might not seem like much, but the reality is we’re witnessing an engineering marvel.
As we zigzag our way through solid rock, we pause to consider some impressive numbers. In terms of standard gauge trains, we’re entering gravity-defying territory – the Flamsbana’s steepest gradient is 5.5 per cent or a rise of 1m for every 18m travelled. No train should have to work this hard.
Our El 17 electric locomotives – one at each end of this push-pull train – perform herculean feats worthy of Thomas the Tank Engine. The train can reach 40km/h as it winds through the tunnels.
These days the Flamsbana is one of Norway’s great tourist attractions, with more than 500,000 passengers a year, but it’s worth casting back a century to when there was no train in these pristine parts.
Norway was pretty pleased with itself back in 1909 when the railway line opened between Oslo and the ancient North Sea port of Bergen.
Its two main cities were now connected, opening up all sorts of economic possibilities. This conquest of rugged terrain was quite an achievement but Norwegian train buffs pined for the fjords – what they craved was a branch line to the Sognefjord.
Work began in 1923 on a project that would take 20 years to complete. The navvies who built this were the toughest of workers. In appalling conditions, 220 Norwegians toiled for years as they tunnelled through 6km of granite – with just picks and shovels, chisels and hammers.
Machines were used on just two of the 20 tunnels, each hand-dug metre representing a month of hard slog.
Before boarding the train for Myrdal, check out their faces at an impressive railway museum near the station.
Nothing tells the Flamsbana story better than this display of haunting black and white photographs.
When the line finally opened in 1944 and the first trains arrived, the hardy people of the Flamsdalen were propelled into the 20th century.
Some mod cons soon arrived, along with tourists, but this part of Norway has managed to remain unspoilt.
The village would never dream of competing with its majestic surrounds.
Before setting off for Myrdal, we visit the Aegir brewery and pub where Evan Jones, a young American with big ideas, is rapidly creating an industry in Flam to compete with, if not rival, the famous railway.
In a country better known for modest habits than its beer drinking, the Aegir offers tourists and locals a dozen or so different brews to sample. The mission here is to find the right brew to accompany your meal.
We dine on venison burger, amandine potatoes and lingonberry cream sauce. There’s excellent smoked salmon salad if you’re not into reindeer. The food hits the spot and so does the beer, a malty drop called Rallar amber ale.
What better way to fortify yourself for the climb to Myrdal? The writer was a guest of Travel the World.