The year-round train from Olso to Bergen is advertised as one of the world’s best train rides, AND IT IS. But plan ahead.
We didn’t. In Sentralstasjon, Oslo’s cavernous train station, I took a number and we waited. Then we waited some more. Finally fifty-three flashed on the monitor.
“Two train tickets to Bergen, four days from now in the morning…takk.” (thank you is the only Norwegian word I mastered).
The clerk didn’t even have to look. “Sorry, all morning trains are sold out.”
“But, but,” I protested.
“That route is very popular,” she explained unnecessarily.
“What is available?” I asked, miffed that I could have had tickets on any train if I had booked in advance.
She diddled on her keyboard and looked, without much hope on her face, at a monitor I couldn’t see. She shook her head no continuously.
Then she smiled. Well, there is a very old, rather quaint train, which leaves at 3:20 pm,” said the rather quaint lady enjoying both her job and controlling my destiny.
“We’ll take it,” I said, doing the math and adding seven hours to 3:20. ETA at ten or thereabouts. Not ideal but not devastating either since our travel day would be the last one in June in a place where twilight lingers long after midnight.
Four days later, we were one hour early for the train. I was tingling with anticipation and Ruth was tingling from the hot coffee she spilled on her hand.
The train left on time in glorious sunshine, so glorious that the temperature inside the old and definitely quaint car had us on slo-bake. When the young attempted to open windows, stuffy oldsters protested. The car was full of both.
It took us about an hour to climb continuously through the suburbs of prosperous Oslo. I thought the train was a bit slow but attributed the pace to the diagonal track. I figured that at this rate, however, we’d cover the 282-mile journey in time for us to experience autumn in Bergen.
By the time we reached Honefoss, we all knew that something was amiss. Over the loudspeaker someone made an announcement in Norwegian, and everyone but us groaned and fidgeted. The message was repeated in English, “Sorry. We are having engine trouble and have requested a different engine.” The speaker returned to Norwegian, and three of four people on the car stood up, grabbed travel gear, and headed for exits. The noise muffled the English repeat, “An alternate tra….to….is leaving from track ….. in five minutes.” Not experienced Norwegians, we panicked and followed. Luckily we found a conductor on the platform. Smiling, he calmly assured us that we must remain aboard. “You will get to Bergen,” he assured.
Two hours later, the new engine arrived and the nearly empty car rolled forward into early evening light. Munching the cheese and bread we had bought in Oslo, we knew with relative certainty that we would not be arriving in Bergen in time for a late dinner as planned.
The Guslvik, Bromma, Nesbyen, and Gol stations flashed by, centered in pretty little towns in a lovely country of Scotch pine and silver birch, rushing rivers, placid lakes, and jagged mountains peaked in snow even in high summer.
But then we pulled into Geilo, Norway’s most popular winter resort. The people on the busy platform, mostly three-generation families, looked like they were all eager to climb the mountains all around. They headed for cars on the full parking lot. Headlights were, if not absolutely necessary, a wise precaution now. A few miles beyond at Haugastol the road that had been accompanying the train off and on since Oslo disappeared, and we didn’t see a car again until Voss.
From that point on, we were crossing the Hardengervidda Plateau, Europe’s highest. The earlier heat was gone. Now above the tree line, we reached for jackets and looked out upon huge expanses of snow on both sides of the train. What wasn’t snow covered was either a spectacular, luminously gray lake or a thundering waterfall, too many to count. The sparsely scattered buildings, humble summer cabins in a place without summer, looked uninhabited. I could see why they came here to film scenes for The Empire Strikes Back. I fully understood now why Fridtjof Nansen tested his equipment here before heading for the North Pole.
By the time we pulled into Finse, a dark station and a few buildings at the highest elevation this train would attain, the sun was quite unsuccessfully attempting to set, and the light made the landscape seem eerie. We left Finse and the train, clearly trying to return to schedule, speeded up.
Between Finse and Myrdal we went through a series of long, wooden tunnels, mere sheds constructed over the track. By now I was used to tunnels since there are 182 along the way, but I was impatient for the view of yet more glacial pools and violent water cascades. These long arcades are, I assume, necessary to keep the train running year round. When I caught a brief flash of the Norwegian massif, it looked abandoned by practical humans, 15,000 of whom lived up here to build this railroad that opened for business 104 years ago. Snow covered peaks marched by on the right, so close that they looked invitingly approachable, a short walk away, if one dare try to cross the cascades and climb barren, nearly vertical rocks to reach them.
In Myrdal, we saw a genuine rail yard, made necessary by the Bergen Railway’s intersection with the Flambanen that takes people down to Flam at sea level, a reportedly heart-stopping twelve-mile descent.
At Voss we returned to a real community. People were partying on patios in fading light. They turned from their drinks and dinners and waved. It was a shock to see them after passing through such a bleak landscape. The scene became orderly—quick shops, gas stations, mountainside traffic with headlights reflected on cliffs, farms, moonlit fjords, and distant bridges. All was calm, all was bright.
Two hours later we eased into Bergen Station. It was 12:30 am. I squinted at a map and counted six blocks to our hotel, up a San Francisco-like street. Half the way there, I was shocked to see a man on a high ladder painting his house. I began to think, “How odd….” But then I remembered where I was. This is a place of long winter darkness and fewer than one hundred days per year without rain.
I apologized to the hotel clerk for being so late.
“The Oslo Bergen train?” he inquired.
“How did you know?”
“It happens all the time.”
I hope it happens to me again.
photo above from visitnorway.com