Europe is a wonderful continent. Culturally & geographically diverse and incredibly easy to navigate from the Arctic to the Mediterranean or even the Atlantic to the Pacific.
The best way to explore the region is by train with a vast network of train tracks criss-crossing the continent, connecting amazing cities and countries. Arm yourself with the European rail timetable and salivate over the possibilities!
I have now undertaken over 200 train journeys outside of the UK since 1987 and over the coming weeks I will share some of my favourite train tours……
#3 Bergen to Myrdal & Flåm to Oslo to Trondheim to Narvik
This is possibly one of the most picturesque train tours you will ever do, taking in the delightful harbourside city of Bergen on Norway’s West Coast, the incredible feat of engineering that is the Myrdal to Flåm railway line, the country’s capital situated at the mouth of a huge fjord and northwards deep inside the Arctic Circle, via a lively university city with another brooding fjord setting.
I did this tour way back in 1992 whilst short in the affluence stakes and forced to survive on meagre rations due to Norway’s unfriendly prices. It was my second ever inter-rail European tour, which back then gave you a month’s unlimited travel in 26 countries.
Nowadays you can buy a Norway specific inter-rail pass for travel on 3 days in a month for £132, 4 days for £150 and up to 8 days for £226 (cheaper if you are lucky enough to be under 25).
Start your trip off with a Norwegian Airline bargain to Bergen from London Gatwick.
The harbour area in the Western fjord city is well known for its beautiful multi-coloured buildings. Perfect for strolling and eating hot lobster bisque al fresco.
Other highlights include the Grieghallen, the concert venue named in honour of Bergen’s most famous son, Edvard Grieg. I have vowed to return one day to hear a recital of Peer Gynt, his most famous work and my all-time favourite classical piece.
You can also to take the funicular that climbs one of Bergen’s hills. The view from the top is spectacular. If you are feeling energetic, walking one way up or down is a fun thing to do via the snaking path.
If you get the chance, take a ride out to the surrounding area – the panorama is just wonderful.
Let the train literally take the strain thereafter. On the main Bergen to Oslo line, you come to a nondescript little station at Myrdal. The fact that half the train will disembark there on most days, tells you that it must be masking a nearby gem. You would not be wrong if you concluded that.
The short train ride from Myrdal down to Flåm, situated on a tributary of the Songefjord known as the Aurlandsfjord, is often bracketed with the world’s greatest rail journeys and with good reason.
In another amazing feat of engineering, the tracks descend a 1 in 5 gradient, corkscrewing down the mountain. The whole carriage gets animated in a photographic frenzy, apart that is from a few non-plussed locals who have made the trip hundreds of times!
As you twist this way and that, passengers will move from side to side, straining to get the best view and shots.
You all disembark half-way down by an impressive waterfall. From there you can see different sections of the train track wrapping around the precipitous mountainside. Awesome!
Click here to see a youtube clip of the ride.
You soon continue down to Flåm. Whereas Myrdal is a nondescript railway junction, Flåm is well geared up for tourists with souvenir shops selling trolls of all sizes and restaurants selling over-priced fare.
There may even be a cruise ship docked, which will eventually swallow up most of your fellow train passengers.
After your logic defying train ride down and back up the mountain, it is back on the next one to Oslo. Take your seat for the real glacier express (sorry Switzerland but you are trumped in my opinion) as you zoom past a surreal icy landscape, often shrouded in mist for good effect.
Oslo is great fun for wandering. We went in September and it already felt pretty wintry with an icy wind blowing off the fjord straight into the city’s face. Wrap up warm and even in summer take some fleecy clothing as the north Wind is liable to blow in any season, often accompanied by driving rain.
Oslo is a city that I feel I need to revisit as having read the accounts of others in recent months, I know that there is plenty I have yet to discover.
From Oslo we followed the same route as I had first travelled in ’89, Trondheim – Fauske – Narvik.
Trondheim is a nice enough place, but really has just been a short stop off venue for me both times I have been there. It is also the perfect place from which to go to Hell!
There is a town called Hell, around half an hour away by train. You guessed it, we went to Hell and back, just for the hell of it!
You have two options to get from Trondheim up into the arctic circle – an overnight or daytime journey. Both times I have travelled at night – my third will definitely be day time.
This was my journal entry from my 1992 experience:
“We slept fitfully in our upright seats. A sleeping berth would have eaten a weeks worth of spending money – out of the question on our very modest budget.
Jerked awake for the fifth or sixth time, we saw that the darkness had lifted and the murky early hours were breaking through.
We rubbed our eyes and made out the majesty of our surroundings as we cut a swathe through the rocky mountain terrain.
The powerful engine pulled us up the mountainside as we traversed tunnels cut into the rockface. Stunning feats of engineering performed in treacherous surroundings. As we progressed, the rain came down in torrents, slapping against our picture windows like we were in a huge carwash.
Impromptu waterfalls borne of the heavy precipitation crashed over our carriage and down the other side, aspen & conifers bent in the wind and the black glacial rock glistened in the wet.
The scene from our cosy warm pew was jaw droppingly beautiful. The moody conditions a perfect accompaniment to the wild landscape.
We celebrated by sharing a coffee from the buffet car and cracking open the Rich Tea biscuits we had purchased in Trondheim.
As the sun rose ingloriously, the view got brighter and the rain eased. We were surrounded by evergreens & jagged rock and were still climbing up towards the snowy peaks.
We did not want the train journey to stop but sadly of course it did. We had arrived at Fauske, the end of the line for us. We could have continued on to Bodø on the Norwegian Sea, but we were headed for Narvik, deep inside the Circle.
It was noticeably colder here, despite the fact that it had hardly been less than bracing down ‘South’. It was a bus for us to take us onto Narvik, a road journey that still ranks as my best ever.
We clambered aboard the busy coach having deposited our rucksacks in the hold and made for the only free seats at the back. Lucky once more, as usual we had not made a costly reservation.
With a cassette of Peer Gynt primed on my Walkman (remember them?) I sat back to enjoy the ride. What a ride!
The landscape was simply sublimely beautiful. Gigantic mountains, verdant pine forests, raging rivers, crashing waterfalls, wooden cabins with smoke emanating from their chimneys. As I listened to Grieg’s enthralling music, it was not difficult to imagine trolls, sprites, goblins and fairy queens. Just magic.
At one point we boarded a ferry and braved the freezing conditions on deck to see transparent jellyfish billowing in the icy white waters.
Narvik was another mystical place to us, ever since we had learned about the place during our geography O-level course. The town had thrived due to it’s North Sea port remaining ice-free thanks to the Jet Stream that naturally warms its waters. This made it a vital port so far North for exporting timber, fish and iron ore.
Neighbouring Sweden was not so lucky as their coast was on the Baltic Sea that froze in Winter. This saw the building of what was then the world’s most Northerly railway, the 43 KM Ofoten Line, which was completed in 1902.
This allowed Sweden to continue exporting iron ore and other minerals mined in the region.
The Ofoten Line ran to the Swedish border where the line continued as the Ore Line to Kiruna, Gallivare and Lulea.
After a couple of days staying in the beautiful (but even more expensive) town, the line was to be our route out of Norway and down through Sweden and eventually on to roasting Nice on the French Riviera – some contrast indeed!
We had stayed in Narvik’s wooden youth hostel, which handily had a kitchen so we could cook fishfingers and baked beans bought from the supermarket. Six fishfingers and a can of baked beans was around £6 – never have I chewed and savoured so purposefully!
The train journey to the Swedish border pretty much followed a fabulous fjord, whose bright blue waters sparkled in the Autumn sunshine that shone over the mountainous terrain. I am truly in love with this country!”
Click here to see a short part of the scenic journey….
From Narvik you can either take the train eastwards to Sweden & Finland as we did, fly with Norwegian from Harstad/Narvik to Gatwick via Oslo or if time is really on your side, the boat down Norway’s West coast back down to Bergen. You would have to continue north to Tromso by bus and then join the Hurtigruten ship for a four day cruise.
The scenery of Norway is simply breathtaking and despite Scotland running it close, has not been beaten in my eyes. I am yet to visit the likes of Canada, Alaska or Patagonia though, so I may well have my mind changed one day.
* There are three trips within Europe where the train actually drives onto the ferry, Puttgarten to Rodby (Germany to Denmark), Malmo to North Germany (and onto Berlin) and Messina in Sicily to the Italian mainland. I am happy to say I have done all three.
Coming next Eastern Europe