The Sunday New York Times, May 19, 2002
One Rail Trip, Many Sides of Norway
By BRUCE BAWER
I'm a sucker for trains. So after I moved to Oslo three years ago, it was only a matter of time before I took the trip my Norwegian friends kept telling me I had to take — the roughly seven-hour railway journey across Norway's mountainous midriff to Bergen, on the North Sea coast.
Since I wanted to do this in style, I booked seats in the first-class "salong." When my partner, Tor André, and I boarded the train on a gray, drizzly Friday morning last May, we found the accommodations very comfortable, with ample chairs, basketball-center legroom, large spotless windows and free coffee, tea and Norwegian newspapers. Since I planned to use my laptop, I was happy to find a conveniently placed electrical socket and, in a classic example of Scandinavian ingenuity in matters of practical design, a portable tabletop that attached easily to my chair.
There was just one problem: of the nine seats in the compartment, ours were among the three pairs that faced backward. (The three single seats, across the aisle, faced forward.) When we spoke to the conductor, he suggested that backward was better because the train goes so fast that if you're facing the direction you're going in, everything rushes at you and you can't really see it properly. But what about those like me, who get dizzy riding backward? He apologized amiably.
I resolved to make the best of it. And the weather was kind: by the time we reached the Oslo suburb Asker, the rain had stopped and the sun had burst through. For the first hour or so, to be sure, there wasn't much to see: Asker looked like a typical bedroom community; Drammen, which I'd been through many times, was a riverside industrial burg.
I took a walk. The train was crowded with chipper travelers, maps on their laps, conversing in half a dozen languages. Everything was clean, bright and functional. Though these first- and second-class areas weren't as roomy as the salong, I rather envied the passengers the convivial, lively company. One car even contained a children's play area — a rope ladder, a big pipelike contraption to crawl through, a gym mat to jump onto. When I passed through, two elated toddlers were making use of them.
But soon I was back at my window. And fortunately so, for about two hours out of Oslo, after rolling through a hilly landscape of pine forest and farmland, we plunged into a tunnel and burst out of it at a point high above the lordly Hallingdal River. It was spectacular. The message was clear: the prosaic scenery was behind us; the show had begun.
Soon we entered another tunnel, emerging from it at the river's edge — close enough to dive in.
TOP There's no shortage of waterfalls along Bergen Line.
BOTTOM At Myrdal, signs for popular tourist routes.
And then the heroic landscape turned improbably picturesque: on what looked almost like some old MGM sound stage, I actually saw a child riding a horse cart past a field of baby lambs. I sure felt a long way from cosmopolitan Oslo.
The train ride was smooth throughout, but riding backward did eventually get to me. I repaired for a while to the immaculate club car, where I ate my complimentary meal — a pasta dish. Fortunately, soon after I returned to the salong, a couple got off, freeing a forward-facing seat. I grabbed it, and the queasiness disappeared.
The train climbed higher and higher. Gradually, the brilliant greens outside the window yielded to browner shades. At Al, three and a half hours out of Oslo, I started noticing patches of snow among the trees; soon after pulling out of Geilo, 20 minutes later, we were in a blindingly white snowscape. (Thankfully, there were translucent window shades to cut down the glare.) Ustaoset, 12 minutes farther along, looked otherworldly, with an austere scattering of feeble shrubs and fox-red huts on barren snowy mounds.
At Finse, Norway's highest railroad station (4,009 feet), we found ourselves in a world of snow. As at some Wild West whistlestop, a row of low wooden hotel buildings faced the track, only steps away. Before them were strewn a dozen-odd sleds; beyond them, under a white sky, puffy coats on skis lumbered across a pure white earth. And then we plunged into another tunnel, leaving that tableau behind, too.
Soon, we were back in the green world, winding through a narrow gorge alongside a rocky stream with a stone-wall backdrop. Every so often, the gorge widened briefly into a picturesque valley with a small village and lush foliage. One of those villages, Dale (pronounced DOLL-uh), seemed the ultimate fairy-tale setting, with quaint storybook houses, gamboling lambs, fields of red and yellow flowers — and, in every direction, steep green mountains.
To see villages surrounded by such forbiddingly high mountain walls was to understand why this country of only 4.5 million has such a staggering diversity of dialects; the wonder, I realized, is not that people separated by such intimidating natural barriers should speak so differently, but that they share a language at all. I also came to a better understanding of something I'd noticed about Norwegians: their nearly religious awe for their land.
The paradoxical flip side to Norwegians' humility before the land, however, is their matter-of-fact sense of supremacy over the sea. And that, more than anything else, is the reality that defines Bergen, which we pulled into after a half hour or so of hugging the edge of the Sorfjord (a sight, incidentally, that by itself made the trip worthwhile).
As we stepped out of Bergen's handsome, old-fashioned railway station into the heart of the city of 225,000 — and into a light rain — I felt almost as if I'd crossed into another world. And in a sense I had. For compared with central Oslo, which is dominated by staid 19th-century neo-Classical buildings that give it an air of solid respectability, downtown Bergen, dotted with wooden structures a century or so older, felt like a leap back to a more colorful, adventurous time. Walking from the railroad station to our hotel, I was reminded of the old Dutch port of Utrecht — which isn't surprising, since Bergen, during most of its thousand-year history, has had far stronger cultural and economic ties to non-Scandinavian Europe than anyplace else in Norway, Oslo included.
Our hotel was the Bryggen Orion. Its location near the far end of the Bryggen, the ancient street facing the waterfront, proved to be ideal: It felt at once off the tourist track and amazingly convenient. The room was pleasant and spotlessly clean, with a partial view of the harbor, a bath with a shower and comfortable beds.
We spent much of our weekend on the Bryggen, seeking out glimpses of the city's history. Our starting point was Bryggens Museum, a sleek, low-lying modern structure built around the city's earliest known foundations, which date back to the 12th century and were uncovered by an archeological dig that began in 1955. Among the museum's many objects of interest was a set of wooden sticks, each about a foot long, marked with meaningless-looking scratches; the scratches were runes, and the sticks were business notes and correspondence dating from around the year 1300.
Directly across from our hotel was the Bergenhus, a fortress commanding the entrance to Bergen's harbor and containing two interesting buildings. Hakonshallen, which was seriously damaged in a World War II explosion and subsequently reconstructed, was first built between 1247 and 1261 by King Hakon Hakonsson as a setting for official ceremonies. (Bergen was then Norway's capital and chief city.)
Balancing out the scale and grandeur of this ceremonial hall were the cramped, utilitarian spaces of the rough-hewn 16th-century Rosenkrantz Tower beside it. We spent about 90 minutes exploring the tower, from its creepy basement dungeon to the turrets on the roof; along the way, we ran into several families with small children, who seemed to be having the time of their lives clambering up and down the tower's steep, narrow, winding stone steps.
No trip to Bergen would be complete without a stroll among Bryggen's 18th-century wooden waterfront buildings, which once served triple duty as merchants' homes, offices and warehouses, but which today house pubs, restaurants, crafts shops, and at least one aromatherapist.
Old lofts on Bergen's waterfront are now shops and restaurants.
In one waterfront building, we found the Hanseatic Museum, memorializing the period, from 1360 through 1754, when the North German merchants of the Hanseatic League dominated Bergen's commerce, trading flour, grain, malt and other staples for Norwegian dried fish and fish oil. The museum's ramshackle rooms, outfitted with beds, desks, barrels and sundry period items, conveyed the monastic flavor of life among the Hanseatic merchants, who were required by the league to be unmarried.
I was glad I could read Norwegian, for much of the information accompanying the displays at Bergen's historical sites and museums was only in that language. To my surprise, this even proved to be the case at the otherwise world-class Bergen Art Museum, which houses a collection that includes some splendid Picassos and Klees, among other modern masters, and an impressive cross-section of major Norwegian artists.
Like Seattle, Bergen is famous for its rain: there are even umbrella machines on the downtown sidewalks. But our weekend was, with the exception of the drizzle that greeted us on Friday, gloriously sunny and mild. Taking advantage of this unusually fine weather, we walked as much as possible.
We were particularly charmed by the waterside residential neighborhood just south of the Klosteret square, with its narrow cobbled lanes, tiny wooden houses and ubiquitous window boxes. We spent a pleasant hour sitting on a bench near the Bryggens Museum, feeding pigeons and sea gulls under a statue of the medieval chronicler Snorre Sturlason, and another enjoyable hour sipping a beer at the Baltazar restaurant's outdoor cafe, which faces the bustling waterfront Fish Market.
Nor, as it turned out, were we quite done with awesome views. A funicular called the Floibanen took us from the heart of downtown to the top of one of the seven mountains that ring Bergen. The small passenger car climbs at an unbelievable angle, and the sight from the top was nothing less than flabbergasting. At 1,050 feet above sea level, we took in a seemingly endless vista of water, islands and mountains that rivaled even the most spectacular views from the Oslo-Bergen train.
Or did it? Maybe I'll have to make the trip again before I decide.
There are four trains daily both ways between Oslo and Bergen, including an overnight run. They take from six and half to seven and a half hours each way.
First-class seats in the salong, a car with only nine seats, which recline and have extra leg room, are $117 each way, at 8.7 kroner to the dollar. The price includes tea, coffee and a meal. An ordinary first-class seat, in a 36-seat car, costs $88, and second-class costs $68.
NSB, Norway's national railway, can be reached at (47) 8150-0888 (extension 4 for English). Information is available at www.nsb.no/en, including a list of agents. One in the United States is Rail Europe, (800) 438-7245 and www.raileurope.com.
Where to Stay
At the modern, 229-room Hotel Bryggen Orion, Bradbenken 3, (47-55) 308-700, fax (47-55) 329-414, www.rainbow-hotels.no, the regular double rate is $143, but with a $10 "scan plus" discount card, it is $98 in summer. The rates included a buffet breakfast with both Norwegian and American foods.
Where to Eat
A popular spot for lunch is Pa Folkemunne, Ole Bulls Plass 9/11, (47-55) 307-137. A new lunch menu includes Caesar salad, a pastrami sandwich and tapas. Lunch for two with a soft drink is about $30. Though the service was slow, the sidewalk table was great for people-watching.
At India Tandoori Restaurant, Vetrlidsalmenningen 15, (47-55) 962-250, widely considered Bergen's best Indian place, a dinner of two appetizers, mixed tandoori grill, chicken tandoori, garlic nan and a bottle of house wine came to $76. This second-floor restaurant is above Margarita's, featuring Spanish cooking, and the mezzanine-level Tapas Tapas Bar, and one can order from any of the three menus.
At Da Vinci, Neumannsgate 25, (47-55) 234-004, a delicious dinner for two — bruschetta, tagliatelle with salmon, pasta carbonara and a half-liter glass of beer apiece — is $45.
Alcoholic drinks in Norway are expensive, especially in the Bryggen area. For example, at a sidewalk table at Baltazar, Kjottbasaren, Vetrlidsalmenningen 2, (47-55) 552-210, a 12-ounce beer costs $5.75.
Among the few pleasant, relatively cheap watering holes are Torget Music Pub, Torget 7, (47-55) 312-645, which is on the harbor, only steps from Bryggen, and Garage, Christiesgate 14, (47-55) 321-980, near the Bergen Museum, where a half-liter of beer runs about $3.50 to $4.
What to See
The Bergen International Festival brings classical music, ballet, opera, jazz and theater to various venues from May 22 to June 2. Information: (212) 885-9700; www.fib.no.
Bryggens Museum, Dreggsalmenningen 3, (47-55) 588-010, admission $3.45. Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. May through August; and from Sept. through April, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays, noon to 3 p.m. Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. Sunday.
The funicular Floibanen, Vetrlidsalmenningen 21, (47-55) 336-800, costs $5.75 round trip, $2.90 ages 4 to 16. It leaves every 30 minutes from 7:30 a.m. (8 on Saturday, 9 on Sunday) to 11 p.m. from September through April. More frequent departures in busy times.
Hakonshallen, (47-55) 316-067, and Rosenkrantz Tower, (47-55) 314-380, both at Bergenhus, each charge $2.30 admission. Open May 15 through August, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily except Thursday, when the hours are 3 to 6 p.m. The rest of the year, Hakonshallen is open daily noon to 3 p.m and Thursday 3 to 6 p.m. and the tower on Sunday only. Hourly guided tours.
The $4.60 admission to the Hanseatic Museum, Finnegardsgaten 1A, Bryggen, (47-55) 314-189, www.hanseatisk.museum.no, includes a visit to the nearby Schotstuene, a Hanseatic assembly hall. (The hall has virtually no signage, so you won't have a clue what you're looking at unless you've visited the museum.)
The Bergen Museum of Art consists of three collections, of which the Stenersen Collection, at Rasmus Meyers Alle 3, is the only one now open. The Rasmus Meyer Collection, at Rasmus Meyers Alle 7, and the Bergen Picture Gallery, at Lars Hilles Gate 10, are being renovated and are to open in mid-June. Admission to all three is $4. Open daily except closed Monday from Sept. 15 to May 14. Information: (47-55) 568-000 and www.bergenartmuseum.no.
The Fish Market on the Torget, at the head of the harbor, is open every day except Sunday, with a wide selection of fresh flowers and produce as well as fish.
BRUCE BAWER writes often about Scandinavian literature, politics and culture.