Anyone contemplating a Nordic escapade will no doubt have Norway on the brain, and for good reason. The very word Nordic means North, and as you know, Norway is…well, way North. Hence the name. (Sorry, I know that was a pretty deep explanation. I’ll try to ease up on the factual details). But, that’s not the only reason! The country basically makes up the entire Western and Northern coasts of the Scandinavian peninsula. The landscape is completely riddled with fjords along with their majestic breathtaking views. What is a fjord, you say? Well, they come in all shapes and sizes. There’s the Fjord Fiesta, the Fjord Focus, or for those that need a little pep in their step, the Fjord Mustang. Personally, I prefer German to American manufacturers, but that’s for another post. Supposedly, the Norwegians have added an extra meaning to “Fjord”. They say every long, narrow, and deep sea inlet should be considered a fjord as well. Although, I can’t help but think it’s just another deceptive ploy to lure unsuspecting American tourists to their country.
If you remember from past posts, I labeled certain places as “comfort countries”. This was based on if they widely spoke English, how edible their cuisine was, and how easy it is to get around. I’d give Norway an 8.5 on the comfort scale. The only reason why I haven’t given it a 10 is because of the cost. While Norwegians are known for their impeccable English skills, mouth-watering seafood, and convenient public transportation, Norway is in no way an “a-fjord-able” place to visit. Not only that, but the prices are somewhat confusing, if not absurd. Say you would like a beer. Now, in Belgium that would run you about €1.30 per bottle, and you can count on it being a brilliant brew. What about nonsensical Norway? One bottle, sorry one can rather (you can already tell what the quality is going to be), of not so great tasting beer will cost you almost €10! After the initial sticker shock you somehow decide you’re ok with parting with that much dough (your travel conscience probably used the timeless “When will we ever be in Norway again?” rhetoric which seems to cost us travelers way too much money). You head right on over to the nearby supermarket. Think again. If you want anything containing alcohol, you’ll have to visit what’s called a vinmonopolet (try saying that after you’ve had a beer), and there’s typically only one or two per city. By law, they close at 6pm on weekdays and 3pm on Saturday (closed on Sunday, of course). To make it even more strict, if you’re in the shop at say 2:50pm on Saturday, for example, you take your time selecting a bubbly beverage and then you excitedly waltz up to the cash registers with your new-found drinkable acquaintances. (I prefer the Viennese Waltz, myself) That is, until you realize it’s 3:01pm. You’re only one minute too late! Even though you’re in the shop, beer in hand, and employing the best puppy dog eyes you can manage, you must return the beer to its shelf and promptly leave the premises. No questions asked.
So, we’ve established that Norway is an expensive place, and that it’s a bit strict when it comes to alcohol, but why did I say the prices were confusing? I’ll give you an example. If you choose not to rent a car and plan to see Norway by public transit (train, bus, ferry, etc.), you’d probably expect to pay an arm and a leg, another leg, your cat, and all of its legs, and your first-born child just to afford one ticket. Let’s set the stakes even higher, how about a night train from Oslo all the way to Bergen (literally crossing the entire width of the country from East to West)? Oh, that’ll only be €30, and they throw in a blanket, a pillow, ear plugs, an eye mask, a cat, and a first-born child for no extra cost. What is that you say? You would like a beer on this train journey as well? While they do serve beer on the train, you might as well forget it. After paying for it, you wouldn’t have a limb to drink it with.
On a serious note (as if I had one), I wholeheartedly recommend taking full advantage of public transportation instead of a rental car, especially because of the scenic routes only accessible by train. You’ll not only be rewarded with jaw-dropping views, but more importantly you won’t have the stress of driving through those jaw-dropping views. It’s not you that I’m worried about, it’s the person sitting next to you in the front seat. It’s exceedingly difficult to remain calm and collected as your co-pilot rocks back and forth with tears streaming down their face. It was scary enough to ride the bus down the mountain passes. At one point those in the back of the bus were sitting almost 7 feet (2.1m) higher than the passengers in the front. Trust me, it’s not easy to wipe away the tears when you’re rocking all over the place. (Of course I’m talking about the other passengers. I would never cry. Ok, ok, except if I spilled my beer, which cost my life savings.)
As far as cities go, I’d recommend seeing Bergen (pronounced Barr-i-ghin with a trilled ‘r’) instead of Oslo. While Oslo does have its charm in some respects, it’s just not my kind of town. If you’re into art sculptures (usually inappropriate sculptures, I might add), modern architecture, and exorbitantly high-priced restaurants (no surprise there), then Oslo is your city. Bergen, however, is home to a UNESCO world heritage site known as Bryggen which is an old fishing wharf dating back to the 13th century. Only 63 of the original buildings remain in Bergen, but as you walk down the pier passing by the fresh seafood booths and authentic woolen sweater shops, you’ll get the true feel of Norway. From Bergen the fjords are easily accessible. My recommendation, check out the Norway in a Nutshell fare package if you’re short on time. In one day I was able to take trains, buses, and ferries all throughout Norway’s dramatic landscape. Seeing stunning out-of-the-way villages such as Mrydal, Flåm, and Voss (where Voss water comes from, you know, the water that comes in the capped flower vases that’s always on sale next to the seashell soaps and yogurt covered raisins at TJ Max) along the way.
If you only have a couple of days to spare and you’re on a budget, the best option would be to fly into Oslo Rygge Airport and take the night train to Bergen. By using this approach you’ll be able to spend the afternoon and evening in the city and then hop on the train to combine hotel and travel expenses. As you arrive early the next morning at Bergen Station, right where Norway in a Nutshell launches several of its tours. Generally you’ll set off at about 8:00am and return by 6:00pm, giving you plenty of time to sightsee and grab a bite to eat. The fact that Bergen stays light until 11:00pm in the summer is an added bonus. If this truly is a blitz trip, then head back to the train station from which you arrived and board the night train back to Oslo. You’ve just spent the entire weekend in Norway without booking one hotel room! Depending on when you’re flight out is, you should have plenty of time to grab a coffee and a slice of cake. (Word to the wise, if they offer to cover your coffee cake in “cream” or “sauce”, confirm by nodding your head up and down vigorously, which is Norwegian for “yes”. Your taste buds will thank you.)
On a side note, if you ever find yourself in a city, either passing through or taking your time, you might decide to head to a grocery store for lunch instead of blowing your money at a restaurant. While that is a brilliant idea, it’s best to first survey the prices to see if you’re actually getting a deal and if it’s really worth all the hassle. No matter how tempting it may be, avoid going to the grocery store in the train station if at all possible. Though convenient, it’ll cost you in more ways than one. Allow me to share my experience. I had time to kill while I was waiting for my train to Bergen. I, of course, was hungry. What else is new? I made my rounds through the station looking for some decent consumables when I was struck with a lightbulb moment (interestingly because Norway is such an eco-friendly country, it was one of those spirally fluorescent lightbulbs). “Why don’t I just buy some stuff to make sandwiches from the little shop here at the station? It’d be cheaper than a restaurant, and I’ll have the ingredients to make more if I get hungry on the train.” (Sorry, guess I should have said when I get hungry on the train.) I waltzed (this time more of a cross-step than a Viennese) through the automatic sliding doors and began perusing my options. I first selected a cheese which was supposedly made locally and looked amazing. More importantly I chose a cheese that was pre-sliced since I didn’t have a knife with me. I found some bread rolls on sale, some nice salami, and (without any other option) an entire jug of mayonnaise. Total cost: $25.00, not exactly a steal. I could have had a crouton and a glass a water at a fancy restaurant for that kind of money.
Under most circumstances, I do my utmost to blend in to my surroundings so that I don’t stand out as a tourist. But not this time. I parked myself on the only available space on a bench on the train platform. Anxiously, I tore into my bag of goodies and prepared to build myself a breaded beauty. I began to open up a roll, only to realize it was on sale for a reason. It was more of an archeological artifact than a baked good. At the same time the wind started to pick up forcing all of my fellow benchmates to cover their faces to avoid the onslaught of flying breadcrumbs hurdling toward them. To make matters worse, this attracted the entire country of Norway’s pigeon population. Circling the bench with menacing grimaces, I felt as if they viewed me as a giant piece of wonder bread. I figured, I’ve gotten this far, I might as well finish the thing. As I go for the cheese, I realize that some genius decided to put decorative lines along the edges just to make it look pre-sliced. So with the skill and precision of a blind fingerless Neanderthal, I proceeded to rip the cheese into chunks and place them in my ancient bread roll. Speaking of cutting the cheese, I attempted to squirt a bit of mayonnaise into my hoagie of horror. Not only did it deploy 5 metric tons of mayo all over my lap (a bit got on the sandwich), the bottle let out an absolutely ghastly sound. Thinking that I had messed myself, everyone within a 100ft radius evacuated the premises. So the moral of the story is this: unless you want to be all by yourself, covered in mayonnaise, surrounded by pigeons, with cheese under your fingernails, do not, I repeat do NOT venture into a train station grocery store.
While it may sound like most of my travels are consumed with mishap and unpleasantries, I do actually enjoy myself from time to time, but as I’ve said before, who wants to hear about the time I ate at a restaurant without getting lost or caught the train on time and got bumped to first class. No, when people come up and ask: “Hey, how was Norway?! Did you see the Fjords? Wasn’t it breathtaking?”, I usually say: “Eh, it was alright, but did I tell you about the time that I got mayonnaise on my pants?! Let me tell ya…”
Editor’s Note: If anyone finds themself in Bergen and they haven’t eaten, I forgot some cheese, salami, and a heap of mayonnaise at the Scandic Hotel. Email me if you want the address.