Finse. At 4,009 feet above sea level, this precarious little settlement with an end-of-the-world name is the highest station on Norway's remarkable Bergensbanen, among the most spectacular railway lines in the world. Completed in 1909 and electrified in 1964, this 300-mile route begins innocuously enough, leaving Oslo amid rolling hills, deep forests and comfortable farmlands. But now it had hoisted me into some somber, breathtakingly otherworldly landscapes in its twisting climb across the "roof of Norway" en route back to the sea at Bergen.
My train, a red-liveried Oslo-Bergen express of comfortable if unremarkable modern coaches with broad, clean windows, was just over four hours on its way when it rolled into the Finse depot at 11:39 a.m. All around was desolation. It was clear that people lived here, but -- with winter in mind -- unclear just how. Since passing timberline about 20 minutes earlier at Ustaoset, we'd been running through a world of grays and gray-greens: clouds, scrub vegetation struggling against the prevalence of rock, old snow in pockets, slaty lakes lying in the palms of mountain hands, faded snow fences angular against the pocked, boulder-strewn, undulating landscape.
With my family, I was on the first leg of a week-long, 1,640-mile circle tour that would sample three of the principal routes -- all remarkably and beautifully mountainous -- of Norges Statsbaner (the Norwegian State Railways, or NSB): Oslo-Bergen, Bodo-Trondheim and Trondheim-Oslo, with a detour down the short, steep, spectacularly engineered Flam line, which branches off the Oslo-Bergen line at Myrdal. To complete the loop, we would sail Bergen-Bodo on the Hurtigruten -- the coastal express boats that daily ply from Bergen up around the North Cape to Kirkenes, on the Norway-Russia border.
This was a trip that twice would take us above timberline and back again to sea level, in the process showing us an endless succession of vignettes and vistas of Norwegian life and landscapes. We'd see hay drying in postage-stamp fields, brilliantly verdant, tucked between mountain and stream; villages almost picture-postcard pretty but generally saved from that fate by their architectural response to the harsh realities of winter; and a survey of mountains' multiple personalities, from towering gray and barren to rolling low and lush. Water would be everywhere: frozen in glaciers and snowbanks, tumbling in waterfalls, rushing in streams, torrential in rivers, luminous in lakes and fiords.
Finse is headquarters for the Bergen line's extensive winter snow-fighting operations, as well as its warm-season right-of-way restoration to repair the damages wrought by that brutal season. Often visible at the feet of the many snow sheds -- frail structures that offered the tracks what shelter was possible from blizzard and avalanche -- were the splintered remains of sheds that had fallen to the power of the snow. Though it was August, everyone on the depot platform at Finse was bundled in ski sweaters and parkas.
Departure chimes sounded, and our train began to move. Resplendent in standard NSB attire -- a prepossessing dark blue uniform with gold-and-red-banded white captain's cap -- the stationmaster oversaw our departure with significant formality. As we arced around a mirror-smooth lake, a scattering of fragile-seeming frame houses was near at hand. In the southern distance loomed the unmistakable blue of glacier -- the Hardangerjokulen. On the Oslo-Bergen railway there are 184 tunnels, about 300 bridges and 18 miles of snow sheds. Much of this sophisticated engineering occurs on the stretch of railroad just west of Finse. The vistas here are breathtaking but brief. Pictures of rugged beauty frame themselves in the window, only to be snatched away by snow sheds or tunnels, leaving frustrated shutterbugs laughing -- or cursing -- hysterically. "What a rip-off this is," blurted one American in my car.
Molelike, almost entirely in snow sheds, we traversed miles of the most starkly beautiful scenery in Scandinavia. This was annoying, but trains could never travel this wild, inhospitable terrain at all without sheds and tunnels. Better to have glimpses of grandeur than nothing.
I had enjoyed an ample breakfast aboard earlier that morning -- a typical Norwegian smorgasbord. I chose from cereal, rolls, bread, flatbread, butter, jam, cheeses, three varieties of pickled herring, a chicken-liver mousse, summer sausage, hot hard-boiled eggs, milk, orange juice and coffee -- all for 45 Norwegian krone (about $6.75).
Meal service on NSB is catered by outside concerns: Hallingskarvet Restaurant is the banner flown aboard the diners on the Oslo-Bergen run. Presumably for this reason, the ambiance at breakfast, while attractive, was not that of the traditional dining car. Rather, the feeling was more that of a pleasant, modest restaurant: knob-topped wooden straightback chairs, pastel curtains, blue tablecloths ornamented with silk flower arrangements.
Had I chosen to have luncheon, which was served from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., I could have selected from a variety of smorbrod (open-faced sandwiches), omelettes, a salad buffet and beef stroganoff. The dining cars of the afternoon expresses in each direction, traveling over the dinner hour, offered more substantial fare.
Chimes rang (as they did to introduce each announcement over the PA system), and a cultured, mellifluous, British-accented female voice came on. "The train is now passing the highest point on the Bergen line, 1,301 meters above sea level." That's about 4,268 feet. We were in a snow shed.
At 12:09 p.m. we popped out of yet another snow shed into gray daylight at Myrdal, a remarkably picturesque little compound of railroad buildings clustered around a sharp curve in the tracks, all nestled in a notch of treeless mountains. This was the junction with the Flamsbana -- a piece of railroad short in mileage (just 12.4) but long in interest.
In swerving down the mountainside from Myrdal station (elevation 2,845 feet) to Flam at sea level, on the Aurlandsfjord (an arm of the Sognefjorden, Norway's longest), this electrified line pierces 20 tunnels (with a total length of 3.7 miles) and features grades of up to 5.5 percent. Because of these extraordinary gradients, coaches used here are specially equipped with five different independent braking systems, any one of which could in theory halt the train. The most dramatic stretch of line zig-zags back and forth at five levels to drop 986 feet in just a little over half a mile.
As our Bergen-bound express stopped at Myrdal, passengers erupted in a mad scramble across the platform for seats in the short Flam-line train -- which to all appearances had already been filled by a crowd from the eastbound express for Oslo that had come and gone a few minutes earlier. We squeezed aboard.
Despite the packed seats and crowded aisles, the Flam line was memorable nonetheless, and the trip took just 45 minutes. Our little train paused briefly while we peered at a vista down the valley through a snow shed's "window," then longer a few minutes later when we detrained at the broad, raging Kjosfossen waterfall. This remarkable cataract, so close at hand, tugged all the senses with its spine-tingling roar; cool mist bathing our faces; earthy, moist smell; and dazzlingly white visions of froth zig-zagging down green-clad black cliffs. After a few minutes the conductor's shrill whistle called us back to the train.
Far down the valley, we caught sight of Flam: first the steeple of the old church poked into view, then the full panorama of the picturesque village, nestled beside a rushing stream.
When we arrived, we tried the Fretheim Hotel for lunch; its dining room had been fully booked in advance, we found, and its cafeteria was jammed three deep. But just five minutes down the road was the Heimly Mariner, where we sat on an uncrowded dock overlooking the still, dark Aurlandsfjord and lunched on fish pudding, sausages and smorbrod.
We returned to the Flam station to reboard the little four-car train that would hoist us back to Myrdal. From there, again aboard an express -- whose angularly jutting, beetle-browed electric locomotive had a space-age look, quite different from the Flam line's friendlier, round-faced, 1956-built locomotive -- we dropped back below timberline, where the scenery was more comfortable but almost equally entrancing: rushing streams, lush valleys, rangy fiords. We arrived in Bergen at 6:15 p.m. for a two-day visit.
Bergen is among the most spectacularly sited cities in the world, built in part on hill fingers reaching out into the Byfjord mountains rearing up directly behind. One of them, Mount Floyen, may be scaled by funicular for expansive, exhilarating views of the city.
On the north side of the inner harbor is the Bryggen, a multicolored row of peaked-roof, clapboard buildings. In one of them is the Hanseatic Museum, where the rigors of a medieval merchant's life are graphically developed. Nearby is an open-air market where fish, flowers, fruit and vegetables are sold. If you're lucky enough to catch a sunny day (we weren't), Bergen is an absolute feast of visual delights.
From Bergen, we sailed north for Bodo, three days and 555 miles distant, on Troms Fylkes Steamship Company's Nordstjernen, built in 1956 -- one of 11 ships of four lines that together sustain daily, year-round service up the full reach of Norway's coast from Bergen, making 35 port calls on 11-day round trips.
Nordstjernen, a no-nonsense motorship with nostalgically traditional lines, called at a dozen ports while we were aboard, meanwhile offering an endless succession of fine views of mountains and fiords -- and some fine meals in the bright, spacious dining room. One dinner brought heaping platters of fresh, steaming poached salmon, served with potatoes, cucumbers and sour cream.
At Bodo -- a small, modern-feeling city north of the Arctic Circle, very much of the sea from which it takes its livelihood -- we once more turned to NSB for transportation: first the all-day traverse of the north country to Trondheim, then an overnight hop on the Dovre line by sleeper to Oslo.
Third largest of Norway's cities, Trondheim stands on a broad fiord at the mouth of the river Nidelva. Centrally located, it's right where the country's broad southern belly narrows to its northern neck. As might be expected for a city founded in 997 A.D. by a Viking king, Trondheim is rich in history. But since the Nordstjernen had made an all-morning stop there on our northbound passage, allowing us a leisurely stroll through downtown, we made direct train connections with no stopover.
The Bodo-Trondheim Nordland line, not completed until 1962, is among the few railroads in the world to cross the Arctic Circle. It's served daily by just two trains in each direction -- a day express and an overnight train composed mostly of sleeping cars. All the trains run on relatively leisurely schedules, making many stops and taking about 11 hours to cover the line.
For our daylight trip, we were comfortably ensconced in a first-class compartment. The negative was the food service -- a not insignificant complaint on a journey this long. Though a crossed knife and fork in the timetable had led me to hope for better, the train carried nothing but a cafeteria car -- mediocre in food quality and selection, as well as ambiance.
The positive, of course, was the scenery. We crossed the polarsirkel -- as we had the day before, coming north aboard the Nordstjernen -- marked at trackside by stone pyramids topped by skeletal metal globes. Much later, with sunset and Trondheim both imminent, we passed the trim, handsome station at Hell; the name, of considerable amusement to the English-speaking, derives innocently enough from an Old Norse word meaning "cave."
Between the sublime of the Arctic Circle and the ridiculousness of Hell came an uninterrupted tour de force of fiords, mountains, lakes and rivers carrying the exquisitely turquoise waters of glaciers through deep valleys.
Karl Zimmermann is a free-lance writer.
WAYS & MEANS
RAIL PASSES: The Eurailpass is the obvious option for travelers from the United States planning to tour Norway and other parts of Europe by rail. The pass costs $280 for 15 days, $350 for 21 days. It can be purchased from German Rail (747 Third Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017, 212-308-3100), which also will make your sleeper and seat reservations for Norway trains (if you possess a Eurailpass). (Seat reservations -- which cost about $2 -- are required on all express trains outbound from major centers, but not when boarding at intermediate stops. They can be purchased on board or at the station, but it's well worth booking in advance, at least in summer.)
Those whose train journeys will be primarily in Norway should consider a Norwegian Bargain Rail Pass, restricted to travel Monday through Thursday. Tickets, valid for seven days of unlimited one-way travel in second class, cost only about $40, but can be purchased only in Norway. Stopovers are permitted and -- unique to Norway -- double-compartment sleepers can be booked with only a second-class ticket, so this pass can be used.
But this option requires that seat or berth reservations be made directly with NSB in Norway (NSB Reisbyra, Stortingsgate 28, N-0161, Oslo 1, phone 2-429460), since German Rail will make reservations only in conjunction with tickets or passes it sells.
Another possibility is the Scandinavian Rail Pass, good for 21 days of unlimited train travel throughout Scandinavia. Cost is approximately $187 for second class and $280 for first. OTHER COSTS: We ended our Norwegian rail journey aboard the sovevogn -- or sleeping car -- from Trondheim to Oslo. Norwegian State Railways (NSB) sleepers are inexpensive, clean and comfortable -- "no frills" only in the absence of an attendant on call. The high-ceilinged cars have a roomy feeling. Corridors seem especially wide; the padded wooden seats fold down, and windowsills are wide enough to comfortably hold a cup of coffee. Thus the wood-paneled corridor becomes a kind of sitting room and social center.
While generally expensive in Europe, sleeping cars are reasonable throughout Scandinavia: in Norway, just $15 per person for a double compartment, $30 for a single, $9 for a three-berth. BOATS: Express steamer bookings for boats of all four companies participating in the coastal service are made by Bergen Line, 505 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017, (212) 986-2711. While it's possible to reserve cabins for partial voyages (as we did, Bergen-Bodo), the lines in summer prefer to book full Bergen-Kirkenes-Bergen round-trip coastal voyages at special package rates, including meals. For example, from now through October, an outside cabin with shower and toilet costs $1,465 per person round trip; during October, $831; from November to Feb. 29, $716.
INFORMATION: NSB does not have direct representation in the United States. However, "Tourist Timetables," an invaluable free compendium of schedules for not only trains but also planes, buses and all manner of ships and boats both within and to and from Norway, is available from the Norwegian Tourist Board, 655 Third Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017, (212) 949-2333.