I prefer taking my train travel among the world’s more vast and glorious landscapes, undisturbed by roads or motor traffic and stop signs.
Indeed, the whole point of a railway is to take you where cars can’t go — to move across a place so effortlessly that the whole travel experience becomes cinematic: the immense scenery of nature is unmoving and only you the viewer, are flashing past the world, frame by frame, the rails on metal wheels like old gelatin film flickering through a projector.
Yes, when the world outside your window is as magnificent as the fjords of Norway, then sometimes it’s better to let someone else take the wheel.
Which is precisely what I did in Flåm.
Flowing from the snowy mountains and down into the crystalline waters of Sognefjord, the Flåm (pronounced “flōm“) Valley is home to one of the steepest railroads in the world, climbing from 2 meters to 867 meters above sea level at a 5% gradient. Traveling from Flåm to the mountain hamlet of Myrdal the train goes a distance of 20 km (13.75 miles), passing through twenty tunnels and curving through some of Norway’s most dramatic springtime scenery.
Riding up the mountain first thing in the morning, I was overwhelmed by the rush of waterfalls on either side of the train, some of them gushing white, shooting water off the edge of chiseled grey cliffs. I was equally amazed by the swift change in landscape, from the emerald slopes of the lower mountains that seemed to melt right into the fjords to the white, round, ice-coated peaks high above me.
Tunnel after tunnel, I took in a new perspective on the geology and awesome water ecology of Norway’s fjords. Climbing higher by train was like going back in time geologically, to the ice age that created Norway’s mighty topography.This is one of the reasons why the Flåm Railway is listed as one of National Geographic Traveler’s Top 10 European Train Trips, and why I made it a priority to ride the train before venturing deeper into the fjords.
And yet for all the marvels of the train journey up, I was eager to return in a different fashion than the one in which I’d arrived. Round trips are fine for most, but a good traveler always avoids backtracking if s/he can — thus I traded the strong steel wheels of the Flåm Railway for two rubber tires on an eight-speed bike and pedaled my way back down the mountain.
Gliding downhill for a dozen miles is great fun but also added a fresh twist to my rail journey. (Others may choose to bike up and train back, but I prefer working with gravity.) In Flåm, anyone can rent a bike and take it up on the train (staff will store it in the box car), then return along the winding mountain road that follows the Flåm River in all of its whitewater fury.
The slower return ride brings out all the little things you might have missed on the way up: the remote red farms, the sheep and goats in the fields, the tiny wooden churches and the flowering fruit trees.
The bike path took me through a more intimate side of Norway and I was glad for the slower descent, following the water on its journey back into the fjord below and the sea beyond.