When we were planning our trip to Norway a few months ago, we discussed how we would be able to see and do as much as possible with less than a week at our disposal. While tours by bus and cruise are available and plentiful, renting a car and driving seemed to allow for the most freedom and flexibility that we crave when we travel. Many times when travelling, we focus on the destination and don’t appreciate the route getting us there, but seeing as this country has no shortage of spectacular views from their roadways it makes sense that much of your time in Norway can be defined by “the commute”.
The drive from Oslo to Bergen in one day is grueling. It’s only around 300 miles by car from Oslo, slightly less than the drive from Milwaukee to Minneapolis, but there are a couple of “hazards” to be mindful of when driving cross-country in Norway. You will encounter sheep on the road, not once, not twice, but many times. You will drive through many dark and at times narrow tunnels varying in length from less than a kilometer to up to 25 kilometers. You will be impacted by the weather, especially when the one-lane road suddenly turns into a switchback and your car becomes shrouded in a thick mist. All this to say it’s going to take you longer to reach your destination than you think, so may as well slow down to avoid the large tour buses with their over-confident drivers, and enjoy the views.
There are actually a couple routes from Oslo to Bergen and our chosen route was north in the direction of Flåm and then south to our Airbnb just outside the city. We chose the slightly longer route via Flåm with the hope that we’d be able to break at a fjord overlook near the small town, but by the time we made it there, the rain and fog prevented any sort of visibility so we continued on to our rental with a view just outside Bergen.
Having earned a break from driving, that evening, I took over the wheel from Dan and drove us to Bergen for a delicious fresh fish dinner at Spisekroken. Happy to have tamed our hanger, we did not anticipate that there would still be one last giant hurdle to overcome before we would be able to rest comfortably back at the apartment. Things went downhill quickly when, at the direction of Waze, Kaitlan drove into a tunnel that was closed for overnight road construction. You might be wondering how one drives into a closed tunnel and furthermore, makes it out the other side to tell the story. Admittedly, there was a very small sign in Norwegian at the ramp entrance that, we realized all too late, was intended to alert drivers of the closure. Better broadcasting of this important detail would have been achieved through the commonly recognized construction barriers with blindingly bright lights that block the road ahead of a closure… but I’ll still (reluctantly) take the blame here. It didn’t take more than 15 seconds for me to realize the big mistake we had made but it was another five minutes before the nearest construction worker slowly approached the stopped car with the confused and nervous tourists. Thankfully, three separate sets of construction workers were willing to set aside their judgment and direct us to the right, to the right, and finally to the right where we were able to still exit through the side of the tunnel where the road had not yet been torn up. One worker did inform us that we weren’t the first car to make that mistake so I felt slightly vindicated during the rest of our hour-long commute back the apartment.
We awoke the next morning to a light rain and chilly temperatures, unseasonably cool weather even for coastal Norway. Looking forward to a day outside the confines of a car, we lounged around the Airbnb until the rain subsided. Mid-morning, we started a hike up Sandviksfjellet, recommended to us by the friendly Airbnb owner for its good view overlooking Bergen. Starting at the base of the stairs on Øyjordsveien, just down the road from the apartment, we ascended quickly into the forests lining the Seven Mountains that surround the city center of Bergen. Reaching the famous overlook on Sandviksfjellet after about an hour, we walked out onto the worn rock and looked out over the sprawling city with its numerous cruise ships parked in the harbor. We had the view to ourselves aside from the occasional heavy-breathing runner who, having tackled the alternative route up the steep stairs of the Stoltzekleiven trail, was hunched over and recovering at the top.
To complete our hike we followed the signs down the other side that directed us to Bergen. After about another hour and half on the wide and well-traveled trail, we reached, what turned out to be, the top of the smaller Mount Fløyen. The overlook attracts tourists for the same reason as the view at Sandviksfjellet, only you can summit and descend without breaking a sweat thanks to the Fløibanen funicular (aka tram). Hungry for a snack, we couldn’t resist the sweet smells of cinnamon wafting from the café so we enjoyed a pre-lunch treat before taking the uneventful and expensive tram down to city center. We enjoyed a delicious, and relatively speaking, cheap lunch at Pygmalion Økocafe.
Before boarding the city bus back to our Airbnb, we passed through an outdoor market at the docks that was strategically placed to attract the cruise-ship faring and souvenir-seeking tourists to the stalls. It’s hard to resist taking a closer look when the displays showcase live crustaceans destined for dinner plates and assorted sausages made from elk, reindeer, and whale that you can sample before purchasing.
Back at the Airbnb, we performed a quick switch of transport and hopped into our rental car to make the considerably shorter hour drive to the coastal towns of Telavåg and Glesvær, which our host had also recommended. Our first stop was Telavåg to visit the North Sea Traffic Museum that houses an exhibit on Norway’s maritime involvement during WWII and details the impact on the town upon the Germans’ discovery of the illegal boat traffic between Telavåg and Great Britain. Sounded interesting to us, but it was already closed when we pulled up so we proceeded to Glesvær. Where the one-lane road ended at the water, we parked the car and grabbed coffees to enjoy while seated at the edge of a small marina. Warm and dry, we watched as a group of jubilant wetsuit wearing teens swam and windsurfed in the cold water. Glesvær was tiny and charming with brightly colored houses along the docks, which made for a relaxing early evening. From reading posted signs, I gathered that it is also a popular starting point for sea-kayakers enjoying the surrounding islands.
We opted to head back to Bergen for dinner at Dr. Wiesener where Dan sampled a very Scandinavian open-face bay shrimp sandwich. As promised by the waiter, the shrimp were indeed more succulent and flavorful than your typical shrimp sandwich. This night, we made it back to the Airbnb without issue, aside from missing our opportunity to sample local beer and cider from the comfort of our private patio. Turns out Norwegian grocery stores stop selling beer after 8pm on weekdays and 6pm on Saturdays.
More charming buildings of Glesvær
After tackling a very hilly run the next morning, we embarked on our drive to Stavanger, about five or six hours south of Bergen (depending on the route and ferry schedule). The scenery along the archipelago was again stunning and this time we enjoyed clearer skies as we cruised along the coasts of islands, embarked on multiple car ferries, and even stopped for a delicious burger and milkshake at Seilas.
We arrived in Mosterøy, just north of Stavanger, in the late afternoon and were greeted warmly by our host. Our Airbnb was situated perfectly along the Mastrafjorden with a sheltered beach and private swim area. Wanting to take advantage of the opportunity for open water swimming, I was tempted to muster the courage to jump in, but the water was still cold and rain clouds loomed in the distance so sadly we were restricted to enjoying the view from ashore.
Our friendly host recommended a short but rewarding hike to Mastravarden, the highest point on the island, as a good evening activity. Instructing us on the location of the trail, she pointedly mentioned the cattle that share a pasture with the trail while looking at us questioningly to gauge our comfort with the “wild animals” of Stavanger. We nonchalantly replied that we were very comfortable with cattle, hailing form the Dairy State after all, and hopped in the car to locate the trailhead. As we weren’t able to find a trail marker near the road, it took us awhile to come to an agreement that in fact a random but well-worn path leading through the pasture of grazing cows was likely the start of this trail.
Norwegian law stipulates the right to roam, also called the right of access (“allemannsretten”), which allows for (mostly) unrestricted access of the land in a respectful manner. This traditional right from ancient times ensures that everybody has the opportunity to experience nature, even on larger privately owned land (subject to some restrictions of course). Pretty great idea for a place as beautiful and uninhabited as Norway! With this in mind, we walked up to the gate at the entrance to the pasture, assured that we had just as much as right to access the trail as the cattle. The only problem was that they were very large and now all of their eyes were on us, challenging us to enter their turf. They stopped grazing and just stared while we second-guessed our decision. Fortunately, a sign posted in both Norwegian and English told us that in fact these were friendly cows accustomed to humans (unless you were with dog or obnoxious child). Over the fence we went thanks to an intentionally placed ladder (see pic below), hoping that with a little gentle prodding, the very large animals would clear the path so we could avoid their mess and be on our way. We had no such luck and stared at the cattle uncomfortably while they stared back confidently. Not wanting to be kicked or defecated on, I admitted defeat and told Dan that we should find another way around them. So what do two Wisconsinites do- back away slowly, climb over a stone and barbed wire fence, and walk up a path perpendicular to our trail that puts a wall between us and the unyielding cows.
Aside from some farm animals, we had the trail to ourselves and reached the highest point of the island in no time with the reward being a spectacular 360-degree view from clouds to sea. It was already almost 8pm when we arrived but with the sun not setting until 11pm, the sky was still well lit by rays of light peaking through the clouds. While on our walk up, we were aware that the cows were also ascending the hill behind us so we were prepared for another run-in on our way back down. Again, we succumbed to their unblinking big brown eyes and large steadfast hindquarters and moved off the trail, choosing to walk through the mud and weeds rather than start an altercation.
While we had been lucky the night before, the forecast the next morning was similar to the predictably atypical July weather we had been experiencing, so we postponed our hike up Priekestolen to the afternoon. Hoping the rain would in fact clear-up in the afternoon, we spent the morning in Stavanger walking through the old town and popping in to a cozy coffee shop to take shelter from the cold rain. I wouldn’t say that Gamle Stavanger is the most interesting of old towns that we’ve visited. However, knowing that the small area comprised mainly of whitewashed wooden cottages was almost demolished by the city after WWII to make way for new construction allows for a greater appreciation of the preservation efforts that cities undertake to encourage locals’ and visitors’ understanding of their history and culture.
After an outdoor lunch under an awning and heat lamps, we made the 1.5 hour drive from Stavanger to Preikestolen, known as Pulpit Rock, for what would be the best view of a majestic Norwegian fjord on our trip. Fortunately, the rain had stopped earlier and the fog was slowly disintegrating as we arrived at the spacious parking lot, accommodating of cars and tour buses alike, for a hefty 200 NOK fee (~20 EUR) of course. Starting the 7.6km hike around 4pm was ideal as the morning rain and afternoon ascent resulted in less crowds on what is normally a very popular hike. The stone trail is well groomed but easily accumulates plenty of puddles and streams requiring some sidestepping or water-proof hiking boots.
The climb up to the Pulpit Rock plateau rising 604 meters above the Lysefjord is steep in some spots, but manageable for all levels and we noted visitors of all skill levels from walkers in sandals to fit runners carrying on conversations without pause as they climbed. We took our time on the way up in order to enjoy the scenery and knew that as we ascended the fog was also clearing so if we timed it right, we would arrive at the plateau with clear skies and an unobstructed view.
Even having done this hike six years ago, I was still as much in awe upon the last turn in the trail at which point you see the massive rock jutting out in front of you. What also never ceases to amaze me are the crazy people who feel way too comfortable at the edge of a sheer drop-off into the fjord below (see pic below). That being said, the surface of Pulpit Rock is wide enough to accommodate plenty of visitors, but it’s just more pleasant when you aren’t dodging others’ pictures or worried about someone bumping you off the ledge. It’s truly an incredible view of the fjord that stretches out in front of you for what seems like endless miles of blue water and steep rock faces.
As we didn’t finish the hike until almost 8pm, we opted for dinner at the Preikestolen Mountain Lodge just off the parking lot instead of fighting to control our hanger on the drive back. Fun fact: My family actually stayed at the hostel, also on site, a few years back and I can confirm it is still welcoming visitors to its bunk beds with the promise of convenient early morning mountain access.
We spent our final day in Norway in the car driving around the southern-most part of the country in order to make it to Oslo for our evening flight back to Brussels. Although it was another long seven hours in the car, we were distracted by gorgeous views, access to a newly opened, more-direct highway, and a roadside lunch stop at one of Norway’s fully-equipped rest stops with a view. Even with a three-hour delayed flight from Oslo, we still left on a good note. A friendly fellow passenger informed us that in instances where there is a delay of more than three hours due to reasons within the airline’s control, travelers are eligible for compensation in accordance with EU Regulations. The onus is on the passenger to make the claim to the airline, but there is ample information on this regulation available online so MAKE NOTE OF THIS PEOPLE TRAVELLING IN THE EU!
My reflections from our “commute” across Norway are this:
– Find a good audiobook (and driver for that matter) to get you through the long drives
– Don’t get discouraged by a little rain as it will likely deter the intense crowds commuting via cruise ship and tour bus
– Accept that the act of travelling long hours to your destination allows you to fully appreciate the beauty of this picturesque country