What makes a great
railway journey? A train with comfortable spaces, big, clean windows,
attentive crew, and an identity of its own. Amenities like a dining car with picture
windows, cut flowers, and a chef with a stove instead of an attendant with a microwave.
Spectacular, ever-changing scenery incorporating challenging railroad engineering.
Departing with anticipation from one interesting place.
Arriving exhilarated and refreshed
============ BERGEN — OSLO,
NE of those few train rides to earn the adjective
"great" is that between
Bergen and Oslo,
NORWAY on the Norwegian
State Railway. Begin
with the route: sea level to sea level via Europe's largest mountain
plateau, cresting at 4,000 feet. The climb out of Bergen ascends along and through
torturous granite cliffs that line spectacular fjords almost 60 miles inland. In all the
300-mile-long line requires 178 tunnels ranging in length up to 3.3 miles long. Its
crossing of the 4,000 square miles of remote, virtually unpopulated plateau of the
Hardangervidda National Park involves 60 miles of track at altitudes above tree
Norwegian snow country. To keep the line open at all times of year, miles of wooden and
concrete snow sheds and galleries have been built. The southeastern descent from the
plateau to the Oslo Fjord follows cascading mountain streams through great stands of
towering pines, at times like a toboggan ride in the North Woods.
Cross country skiers at FINSE,
HIGHEST station on the
Bergen and Oslo.
Photo © HOME AT FIRST
| Ultimately, the
ends in darkness, as
the final approach into Oslo Central Station is underneath the city in a
long subway tunnel.
NIGHT SKATING ON THE SQUARE,
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Both terminal cities — Bergen and
Oslo — are
rich destinations. OSLO is Norways capital,
of course. Protected at
the head of the great bay called the Oslo Fjord, the city easily qualifies as the most important
habitation in Norway: governmental headquarters, home of the royal family, the
countrys most important shipping center, seat of advanced education, and national
commercial headquarters. Although more than 900 years old, Its broad, tree-lined
avenues, grand architecture in neo-classical and rococo revival
styles, and prosperous
harbor give Oslo the
a young, thoroughly modern city.
Properly, as a Scandinavian capital, Oslo looks south toward Denmark and
Sweden. It is tied as easily with its sister capitals, Stockholm and
Copenhagen, as with any other Norwegian city of size, and with greater
ease to Denmark and Norway than to the distant Norwegian interior and
the far north above the Arctic Circle.
ERGEN. BERGEN appears the
antithesis of Oslo.
Its core, built on steep hills rising from several
fingers of its
expansive, westward looking
harbor, looks like old San Francisco or Wellington, New
Zealand. The buildings are of wooden clapboard construction, often painted in surprising,
bright pastels, and rarely exceeding four stories. The skyline is dominated by wooded
hillsides, church steeples, warehouses, focsles, funnels, flagpoles, and
masts. Harborside you might expect to see the crew of the Pequod setting in for
supplies on a whaling cruise, or
Roald Amundsens expedition returning from a pole.
Bergen looks west, away from
harbor, a UNESCO
designated World Heritage Site.
© HOME AT FIRST
the harsh Norwegian interior
that isolates from the
|rest of Scandinavia. Bergen has one importance — seaport on the
North Sea. Forest products go out. Fish come in. Coastal steamers by the
dozens take on and discharge here. It’s likely the Vikings knew Bergen
harbor well. Certainly the associated medieval traders called the
Hanseatic League did. Scotland seems as close as Scandinavia at
dockside. Indeed, the Bergen train station is the closest railhead to
Scotland’s Shetland Islands. And Bergen has great trains.
PARADISE, NORWEGIAN STYLE:
photographed from the train.
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There are four or five departures for Oslo
daily from Bergen. One is a night train, offering
the 8-hour overnight run to the
capital — ideal for businessmen, but absent of some of
Scandinavias best mountain scenery. During the long days of summer, all of the
daytime trains traverse the route in daylight. In high winter, none of the trains makes
the crossing without experiencing some portion of the line in darkness.
Modern, sturdy, high-tech equipment makes the run seem easy. The electric engines resemble
some of the diesels that operate on the isolated White Pass & Yukon in Canada
and Alaska, and no doubt the common geographic conditions of the two
lines results in the similarity. Though well-equipped, the red trains of
the Bergen line were not luxury land cruisers like the Orient Express.
Most of the consist is second class coaches, with one or two first class
coaches, a café-diner (with kitchen!), and a special first class/lounge
combine on the rear. All first class passengers
receive complimentary coffee/tea and
Extra-fare first class passengers ride in the
lounge with 2-and-1 seating, some swivel
captain’s chairs, glass picture
windows, complimentary fruit, lap-top work tables and power, plus a free
meal (without beverage) in the diner.
Norwegian Rail celebrated
its 100th anniversary in 2009 by producing and showing the complete
Bergen-Oslo journey as a 7˝-hour video documentary watched — at least in
part — by almost 25% of all Norwegians. Norwegian TV and the railway
have enthusiastically made highlights of the digital film available to
the public through its website,
What follows is 9˝ minutes of the documentary shot at the highest
section of the line in winter, with tunnels and snowsheds occasionally blacking out the image.
STATE RAILWAYS' HIGH-SPEED, TILT-
COMPENSATING TRAIN SET LIKE THIS ONE CARRIED
FROM BERGEN TO OSLO. SADLY, THEIR
TECHNOLOGY WAS NOT AN ADVANTAGE
ON THE SNOWY,
WINDING BERGEN LINE, AND
THESE SLEEK TRAINS HAVE
|BY HEAVIER, CONVENTIONAL TRAINS.
MAP OF THE
On a recent trip, we
opted for the extra-fare opulence of the first-class lounge, and had the half-car all to
ourselves. The crossing was made all the more spectacular because we had the freedom to
dash from window to window to soak in the scenery. Along the way we watched as skiers
boarded and departed the train at tiny outposts on the treeless, snow covered plateau. In
this land of no roads and few habitations, the train is for many the only way in or out.
The few stations
along this highest
|rail line in
Scandinavia serve as trading posts and communications centers for the
hardy souls who come to this paradise for cross country skiing in winter
and for hiking in summer. Despite the desolate beauty of the region,
there was rarely a moment when someone’s family hideaway — usually not
more than a tin-roofed shack set among the boulders — was not in sight.
This country captures the imagination of the Norwegian folk, probably
the most dedicated outdoors adventurers to be found in the
West. Life — rudimentary and rugged — in such surroundings is for many
Norwegians an idealized state, combining freedom and athleticism in ways
that are both innocent and isolationist. A two-hour hike in snowshoes
from the nearest rail station might bring you to your family cabin.
Fours hours later you might have it dug out of the drift you found it
in. Two more four-hour round-trips on snowshoes will bring in enough
supplies to support life subsistently in this wild place. No electricity. No hot water. No
automatic heat. But then, no bosses, no traffic, no pollution,
no TV. Paradise!
Using the punch card security keys we were issued, we locked our belongings in the lounge
and walked forward three cars to the diner for lunch on the eastern slope of the
Hardangervidda. We plummeted through the forest while dining on beef stroganoff and pork
and red cabbage. The endless blur of snow-heavy Norwegian firs was as entertaining as the
Aussie Shiraz we drank with lunch. After a very jovial 90 minutes in the diner, we
retired to a very civilized naptime in the lounge.
The glint of the setting
sun off a mirror lake blinded me awake. Houses. Factories. Roads. A school. Oslos
coming. Then, in a half-hour or so, a
DINNER IN THE DINER,
WORLD GO BY. WHAT COULD BE FINER?
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darkness for the last ten minutes.
underground at Oslo Central. Escalators,
crowds, noise, stairs, smells,
luggage, traffic. The Anti-paradise!