Several highlights of Norway’s activities, dining and iconic nature can be experienced in a single, three-day trip, through the cooperation of top hotels and restaurants.
Text: Mikael Lunde
More than 100 years ago, before the time of modern construction equipment, the Bergen Line opened. That is, the railway that crosses the Norwegian mountains to connect the country’s two largest cities, Oslo and Bergen.
At its highest point, 1,222 metres above sea level, is Finse Station. Step off here in time for dinner at the Finse 1222 mountain hotel, and you’ll find that this is also a fantastic starting point for an adventure.
“You’ll wake up to an incredible landscape. You’re at the highest point of the Bergen Line. To the south, the Hardangerjøkulen glacier is twinkling in the sun, across lake Finsevatnet,” says Trygve Norman, chairman of the hotel.
You’ll see an endless expanse of wild nature. And it’s calling for you to head out.
You might have seen this place before. Finse is where they filmed the famous set piece, the “Battle of Hoth”, for the 1980 Star Wars sequel – The Empire Strikes Back. Yet in summer, the area is completely transformed. It is covered not in snow, but in the warm shades of green from moss and heather. There are no trees this high.
This is also a starting point of Rallarvegen (“The Navvy Road”), built between 1902 and 1904 as an access road for the construction of the railway, and is crammed with history.
Today this is a hugely popular bicycle route, going through a string of stunning vistas all the way downhill to the fjord at Flåm, 50 kilometres to the northwest
As one of several “round trips” offered by De historiske – the membership organization for some of Norway’s top hotels and restaurants – you can experience this as part of an all inclusive, three-day holiday. You wake up at Finse, pack a traditional Norwegian lunch, then grab your rented bike – and arrive at the historic Fretheim hotel in Flåm in time for a gourmet dinner.
“In any one of these round trips, you get a taste of Norway – in more than one sense,” says Nils Henrik Geitle, CEO of De historiske. The organization includes 53 hotels and 19 restaurants around the country – and even a ship.
Their common denominator is that they have deep roots in history. Membership is a mark of quality, as all who apply face rigorous quality tests. Only a few ever pass.
The round trips are a way to combine several of the top hotels, restaurants and activities into a single experience. “They are very popular, especially the trips to Trolltunga and Preikestolen,” says Geitle. He refers, of course, to the natural rock formations that are two of Norway’s – indeed, the world’s – most famous natural viewpoints. Trolltunga and Preikestolen are both found deep within the untouched Norwegian nature, so they require a little bit of effort to reach (dress code: mountain boots, not high heels). Then again, the one-of-a-kind views at the end are all the more rewarding. As are the multi course dinners when you return (now the heels are appropriate).
“Dining is an important part of the trip. No two places have the same menu, and so each will offer a different taste experience,” says Geitle – noting that six of their members are named in the top Nordic restaurant guide, the White Guide.
Photo: Till Hanten/Destination Hardanger Fjord
Back at Finse, the day starts with a good breakfast. The bread is freshly baked, and the produce, meats and fish are all local. If you had lamb or reindeer the night before, then on the way down to Flåm later in the day you’ll pass the farm that delivered it – Haugen Gardsmat. Also, on the way, you should take a good, long stop to enjoy your “matpakke” – the traditional Norwegian packed lunch. “We don’t serve lunch at all at Finse. It is in the Norwegian spirit that you should get out and enjoy your food in the open. On a bike, you’ll get well beyond the watershed
before you need to stop for lunch,” says Trygve Norman. Whereas the modern Bergen Line enters a tunnel after Finse, Rallarvegen follows the old route up to a height of 1343 meters before heading down toward the fjords. Don’t worry, though – the trail is manageable for anyone in moderate shape. A natural lunch spot is Grønndalen (“the green valley”) by Hallingskeid, the Bergen Line’s next station.
You’ll soon pass the spectacular Kleiva Bridge, as you enter the road’s most picturesque stretch. Then, below Myrdal, you meet the Flåm Line. This 20-kilometre line connects the Bergen Line in the mountains to the fjord below, and is commonly considered one of the most stunning railroads in the world. (The Flåm Line also has its own “round trip” through De historiske – no bicycling required). The railway ends in Flåm itself, at sea level. While remaining far inland amid tall mountains, this small town also has one of Norway’s busiest cruise ship ports, connected to the sea through the Sognefjord. While the town can admittedly be rather busy on a summer’s day, the surrounding areas are largely untouched. Any pictures you might have seen from the Norwegian fjord landscape are likely taken right here. “By bike, you’ll go down the valley through some 23 hairpin turns. You then enter a wonderful cultural landscape. The first thing you’ll pass is a goat farm selling cheese, and then you’ll be surrounded by waterfalls in every direction,” says Norman. “Luckily, the valley is spared from being exploited for tourism – it is remarkably authentic. We recommend our guests to go straight to Fretheim, keep to their relaxed garden and enjoy a well deserved ‘Rallar beer’”.
Photo: Sverre Hjørnevik/visitnorway.com
The beer comes from Ægir – the microbrewery in Flåm, one of Norway’s very best. “Many of our guests go there for beer tasting,” says Connie Konglevoll, chief of sales at Fretheim hotel. While Ægir itself opened just in 2007, “local food” is really nothing new in the area. You’ll get cheese and cured meats from livestock that roam age-old mountain pastures. Fruits and wild berries make for juices, cider and jams. The recipes are probably as old as the hotel, or older. “The origins of the hotel go back to the 19th century, when it was a farm,” says Konglevoll. “The farmer, Christen Fretheim, then started housing English lords who came as tourists to fish in the Flåm river and hunt in the mountains”. It became a popular destination, and was soon transformed to a hotel.
“It is beautifully located at the inner end of the Aurlandsfjord, a side arm of the Sognefjord – framed by tall mountains. The nature is stunning,” she says. Nearby is the incredibly narrow Nærøyfjord, which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. “Another place we recommend to visit is Otternes – a wonderful old mountain hamlet where you can relax with food and coffee and just take in the view of the fjord,” says Konglevoll. There are several days worth of nature and activities to explore around Flåm. But thanks to the ferries and railways it is also a hub to get around easily to other parts of the country – and possibly another tree or four day round trip.