Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Norway-In-A-Nutsack


Like previous blog posts, I tend to pay to go on tours and then decide that, if I could do it a different way, I would. Back in March, I traveled to Norway to take advantage of a $400 Delta voucher and do some teaching research. I had a few research interests in mind: Edvard Munch, Norway and Sweden’s reactions to the Holocaust, healthcare in Scandinavia (how it works for everyday folk), Viking travel eastward through Russia and silk road, and the Hanseatic League. Part of the trip I planned involved getting from Oslo to Bergen via train and fjord cruise, otherwise referred to as Norway in a Nutshell.

Norway In A Nutshell is, essentially, the quick way to see the fjords. Rick Steves and all the travel books will tell you this. Considering they teach what a fjord is in 7th grade Geography class in Florida, I figured it was important to see this geographical wonder of Scandinavia. The Vikings sailed through them and they include a fjord scene on the Norway ride at EPCOT. Really though, fjords are just part of Norway. I’m not sure what else you’d do if you didn’t see them while there. It’s a small country with little to do in March.

I mean, really, our days consisted of eating Thai and Indian food in Norway and Sweden, quite good food too, and going to museums. That is what I had to do. But when the day came to get from Oslo to Bergen, we switched modes from doing-it-on-our-own to having-it-done-for-you. Not really our thing, but time constraints required such.

The journey begins on a train, from Oslo to Myrdal, just a pretty and scenic ride up into the mountains of Norway. I was enrolled in a graduate course in philosophy that semester, so much of my early morning consisted of coffee and writing answers for a midterm exam until the scenery became photo-worthy. Gradually we ascended into hills with residual snow and frozen lakes, for much of Oslo’s snow had melted by this point in March. The scenery builds in beauty. 


The Nutshell train starts taking you into the mountains...

Nice morning views...

Then you hit high elevation towns...



We arrived in Myrdal around 1 pm and then boarded a smaller, historic train to Flam.
It cranks along up much steeper tracks to high elevation towns like Finse at 4000+ ft before screeching downhill (really screeching with an old timey sort of hand brake) to the Fjord shores of Flam. You then have to carry your luggage over to the ship and drop it off and grab a bite to eat in the short, forty-five-minute window of time you have. I had the meatballs. Flam would be a nice place to stay the night and continue the journey the next afternoon. Maybe two afternoons later.


Fjord towns...




Once onboard the ship our views consisted of snowy cliffs and calm waters reflecting a dim sun and late winter clouds. In summer, waterfalls are the draw, but I liked the glum, snowy scenery much more than what most crowds go to see. Being that we went in March, there was barely a crowd on the tour—four ladies with Long Island accents, some developmentally arrested, thirty-something, Goth couple, a few dozen Asian tourists, and us. The cruise goes for a little more than two hours, and there are long enough stretches of time getting from one point of interest to the next that you doze off. 




When the cruise ends in Gudvangen, you board a bus to Voss and then take a train to Bergen. The day begins early and ends late, and we still had to find an Air BnB in Bergen that was close to everything but had an address that left our cabby confused and leaving us on a “corner just down the street from it, but the car can’t go further” and annoyed, eventually finding our way with the help of a local and his smartphone. 

I’m not going to say that Norway In A Nutshell isn’t worth the money. It is, if you can extend your time and not do it “in a nutshell.” Doing it in one day sucks, even if you have much of the boat, train and bus to yourself. 



I have no complaints about the services on the tour or the employees. The whole production is very professional. What bothers me is that some of the sights on this tour are truly extraordinary and deserve much more time. If I were to do a fjord tour again, and I hope to, I’d definitely stay in towns like Flam, Finse or any of the tiny little towns we briefly stopped at while on the boat. There are stave churches in the hillsides one could wander to and small inns with restaurants worth a visit—for the people-watching if not the cuisine. 


In the tourist season, one can rent mountain bikes or take kayak tours or hike up to a glacier, and this is why we opted out of extending it into a two-day jaunt—the web gave us little to no indication of whether or not we could rent bikes, a kayak, hike on any open trails. 

So, in short, a one-day fjord tour that requires you to endure a sixteen or seventeen-hour day was a stupid thing to do that I’m glad I did but wouldn’t do the same way again. How ‘bout that? Coming from Florida, hundreds of thousands of people do this very thing at Disney World, Sea World, Universal Studios every day of the year. It’s a very typical, touristy thing to do—spend lots of money to get a couple of “oohs” and “ahhs” in an otherwise exhausting day. It’s something you do when circumstances leave you tight on time with no other choice. 


By the end of the day everyone is tired. 

Some of them missed this view. 




If you are just a regular tourist who is going to travel all the way to Norway for God’s sake, give the natural beauty more than just a day. I wish we had. Aside from museums, nature and outdoor activities are what Norway has to offer. Either use the Norway in a Nutshell website to extend your time on the fjord and in the towns, or rent a car and drive to fjords on your own and have an adventure. If it’s in season, you’ll be able to just show up and pick the daytime activities you would like to do when you get there. If you are worried about cost, well, it’s going to cost money to be in Norway either way. If you are in a city like Oslo, you’ll be spending money on food and lodging and the sights no differently than in the country side. In the countryside at least, you get to see the land that Vikings launched their ships from, that many Norwegians emigrated from. I mean, once out there, I wondered what life must have been like for folks raised in those little towns: making goat cheese, fishing, splitting firewood. Spending a few days in the area makes as much sense as leaving it if you grew up there.