Flam-boyant Norway beckons rail enthusiasts
One of the world’s most scenic train journeys takes only a leisurely 60 minutes one way but is worth travelling to the other side of the globe for.
Norway’s Flam Railway can be experienced in a day trip from Bergen – the cruising capital on the west coast.
When we were unable to fit the much-talked-about Nordic wonder into our itinerary on a recent Holland America Line Scandinavian cruise, we made the effort to fly back to Bergen from our Amsterdam base for a few days to complete the rail journey as a last hurrah.
To maximise our day, we rolled slowly out of Bergen Train Station on a rainy Saturday (the city takes the title of rainiest in Europe, being situated between seven mountains) at 6.50am – the first train headed for Myrdal, 106km away, to make the connection with the Flam Railway.
Bergen is known as “the gateway to the Norwegian fjords”, located in the middle of the Sognefjord in the north and the Hardangerfjord in the south.
So the Bergen Railway is its own surprise packet of panoramas. Even on this eerily misty morning, the mirror-image reflections of mountains, trees, collections of homes and boathouses on the fjord are impressive.
A blur of Scandinavian life can be seen through the train windows.
At Bolstadoyri, we stop briefly to pick up passengers at the mustard-coloured station house and from there, the views intensify.
Hamlets of red and blue houses with stark white window frames, against a backdrop of green hills and sitting just above the water level look straight out of a model rail enthusiasts’ magazine.
Wisps of clouds caress the hillsides.
Bridges and the occasional rapids appear.
Waterfalls big and small carve a path down the side of mountains to the fjord.
We peer into backyards. And as villagers begin their Saturday morning chores or head off in their vehicles to work, we wonder if their lives are as idyllic as the settings suggest.
After many more passengers get on at Voss, we finally arrive at Myrdal: the upper terminal of the Flam Line.
Excitement builds and there’s a flurry of feet moving towards the top and rear of the platform, anticipating the Flam train’s arrival and the best vantage points for the free-seating tickets.
It may be July and well into summer in Norway but the passengers are rugged up and snow is still found in crevices and dips in the mountains touching the sky over the station, which lies at 866.8m above sea level.
The cloud cover creeps lower here, almost embracing us as we wait.
The Flam Railway, or Flamsbana, was built over the course of 20 years at a cost then of about NOK 20 million (about AUD$3,210,000).
It runs from the valley floor of the Sognefjord – the longest fjord in Norway and second-longest in the world after the Scoresby Sund in Greenland – to the mountaintop junction at Myrdal, and is the steepest standard-gauge railway in Northern Europe.
The 20.2km journey, with 80 per cent of the journey running on a gradient of 5.5 per cent, takes an hour one way at a maximum speed of 45km/h.
Along the way are seven stops, 20 tunnels (including the longest: the 1320m Nåli tunnel), one bridge and four water tunnels.
At the longest stop, most of the train travellers take the opportunity to stretch their legs and marvel at one of the most-visited tourist attractions in Norway: Kjosfossen waterfall, with a vertical fall of 93m. A small power station on the waterfall is used to power the Flam Line railway.
But a surprise awaits guests.
In local folklore, the Huldra is an underground spirit who captivates travellers with her enchanting operatic-like voice and endeavours to lure men into the mountains.
The waterfall “nymph” appears here, there and everywhere around the right-hand side of the waterfall, seducing us with a charming dance … until it’s time to be back on board.
A short delay also is in store at Berekvam at 343m above sea level – the only station with a passing loop, where we wait for the train from the opposite direction.
The Flam Rail line hugs the typical Norwegian scenes, bringing the outdoors inside. We feel like we can almost touch flowing streams running through gorges and valleys.
But the exclamation point is the first glimpse of Flamsdalen Valley and Flam village, with a population of about 400 people in Aurland municipality.
We have been advised to try to get a left-hand seat both ways on the train and it pays off here as we snap away from above at the tiny dark-brown-coloured church with red roof and white steeple, waterfalls and the Flamselvi: the main river running through the valley.
To get back to Bergen by 8pm, we booked to return on the Flam-Myrdal 4.05pm train, allowing us plenty of sightseeing time and still getting us home in the northern summer twilight at 8pm.
There’s plenty to fill in the hours in Flam including the Flamsbana Museum with free entry, shopping at the Mall of Norway as well as hotel restaurants, cafes and other eateries.
First port of call for us, though, was a stroll to the water’s edge to gaze out over the majestic Aurlandsfjord: a branch of Sognefjord.
Being on the first train in, we had the sun-drenched vista of the mountains and stillness of the fjord – reflecting boats, holiday houses and pine trees along its banks – virtually all to ourselves.
For another perspective on the village and fjord, we took the easy Bakkastien walk up 150m, then decided to see how the houseproud Flam villagers lived with the flat 50-minute, 3.4km walk along the main road to the Flam Kirke (church) we’d seen out of the train windows.
Along the way, we took the opportunity to take photos of the Flamsbana trains as they headed back to Myrdal and the quaint homes of Lunden, and stopped for a snack by the turquoise waters of Flamselvi.
A little further on at Steinsholen, a series of foot bridges gives a nod to the area’s fishing heritage.
The Flam River brought the first tourists to Flam – mostly English lords and their families who came 150 years ago for salmon fishing.
The stretch of the river is now part of the Fretheim Farm, which holds fishing rights.
The original bridges, giving fisherman easy access to the river, were built in 1910-20 but were restored in 2017 after a flood destroyed the originals in 2014.
Along the way you’ll also pass Flam Skule (school) before arriving at the little stave church, built in 1670.
The small rustic church with a garden and a small cemetery is a peaceful place for silent reflection on this beautiful part of the world.
On the way back, we stopped for a closer look at the Brekkefossen waterfall on the left-hand side (if we had walked another 3km further on than the church, we could have had a better look at Rjoandefossen waterfall, which tumbles 140m down the mountainside).
Before the return train journey, a few ales in the Viking-style Aegir BrewPub in the heart of Flam Village were a must.
The craft brewery, which opened in 2007, is a funky mix of beautifully carved and polished timber seats and semicircular bar seemingly held up and guarded by Norsemen figures and a feature fireplace “in the round” with barrel tables and solid timber high chairs.
We’ve taken many long and short rail trips over the years but as a window to Norwegian life and its majestic scenery in one day, Flam Railway deserves all its accolades.
THE FLAM RAILWAY
The Flam Railway opened for freight and goods transport on August 1, 1940, and to passengers on 1941.
It became an important transport artery for the Sogn district, linking villages along the Sognefjord to Bergen and Oslo via the connecting Bergen Railway.
Until the Flam Railway was completed, access to villages in the area could only be via the fjord or on foot and horseback over the mountains.
Try to get a seat on the left when heading from Myrdal to Flam, and from Flam to Myrdal if doing the full trip.
Head to https://www.vy.no/en for rail tickets.
Various tour companies such as Norway in a Nutshell include the Flam Railway as part of their package deal.
Visit www.visitflam.com for more information on Flam and the Flam Railway.
WHERE TO STAY
Thon Hotel Orion
Bradbenken 3, Bergenhus, Bergen.