Fjord Travels With Mom: Flåm, Gudvangen & the Sognefjord

BalestrandapplesOn the fjord-road from Kaupanger to Balestrand, there are apple orchards everywhere. Slender saplings—espaliered and robust with fruit—greet us along a winding road barely cut into the coast’s unyielding shore. My mom, still a little nervous in the passenger seat after letting me drive her across Norway, is the one to use the word “espalier,” pointing out the trellis-trained branches that form a flat, easy-picking version of the plant, and I learn a new word for the day.

We are almost to Balestrand, a village on the northern shore of the Sognefjord, the longest and deepest of the country’s many glacier-cut inlets. We’ll stay in Balestrand for a few nights, shaking off the travel fatigue before crossing a short stretch of water to Vik i Sogn, native home of Mom’s great-grandparents before they immigrated to the U.S. She and I are eager to walk in the fields and farmlands of our ancestors, and see what it feels like to our souls.

The sun is our bright companion in the sky, reigning down on a land green and lush and cool. Norway is a northern clime, and we can’t help but feel surprised by the mid-50’s daytime highs this late July. My mom, a transplant from Minnesota, has been a Florida girl for the past forty-four years, and I’ve lived in Seattle for eighteen. But even the Pacific Northwest knows how to hit the upper 70’s in summer.

Boat on sognefjordOur journey is taking us over land and water, across fjords and through the center of mountains. We’ll be traveling where Vikings themselves would not have dreamed to tread—including a trip through the longest road tunnel in the world. But for now, Balestrand and Vik, its sister-village across the water, are our destinations.

It took us a full day to get this far. After we rose early from an overnight stay on the outskirts of Oslo, we traveled birch-lined highways dotted with cheery yellow wildflowers. We picnicked off the E16 at a rest stop with a postcard view of mountains dissolving into shining waters. We took the scenic route on the way out, leaving the E16 for the E13 and the 50, and while we wouldn’t drive through the famously long Laerdal Tunnel until we returned to Oslo by a different path, we still had plenty of chances to play tunnel games: guessing the exact moment we were going to emerge from each session underground. (There were hints: distances are listed at every tunnel entrance.)

AurendelRoad tripping is always an excellent way to get a feel for a place, and that’s especially true in Norway. An otherworldly land where the summer sun never sets and the mountains rise up to make giants feel at home, the rugged country makes us feel as if we’ve driven into the setting of a Norse myth. It’s humbling even as we pass some of the more developed areas along the Sognefjord, where towns are wedged in between the rock and water, sprung up like seeds that root down where they can. Here the houses hug the bays, and cultivated tracts of land are crannied against the lofty, immovable wilderness.

The fjord towns are charming in spite of their unabashed tourism, which casts a long shadow here. Like the trellis-trained apple trees Mom and I observed, it’s clear the towns are optimizing their harvest. But we are tourists after all, even if our mission to walk the lands of our forebears deepens the journey for us. To get there, our trip takes us through Flåm, Gudvangen, Kaupanger, and Sogndal. Here’s the road so far:

Flåm village

A transportation hub for tourists chasing fjord tours and scenic railway connections, Flam strikes the tenuous balance between quaintness and cliché. At one moment, the picturesque village on the tiny spit of land along the Aurlandsfjorden looks precious; the next, when a big cruise ship is in port, less so.

Flam housescruise shipAfter perusing the menus of the few sit-down restaurants available and taking a quick pass through the line of food trucks, Mom and I settled on Ægir BrewPub, a restaurant designed somewhere between a traditional stave church and a Viking “mead-hall” that delighted us not only with its fun décor but also with its tasty, well-executed fare. And yes, I did have a beer (Mom declined, as it was close to bed time). After dinner, we skipped the souvenir shopping and pressed on to Gudvangen, a 15-minute drive further west.

Mist-enshrouded Gudvangen

Barely a town, Gudvangen lies on a slim arm of the Sognefjord called the Naeroyfjord (“narrow fjord”). The Naeroyfjord is a UNESCO World Heritage site and arguably the most beautiful fjord tour destination in all of Norway. It attracts close to a half-million tourists each year, though we noticed most people were embarking from Flam. Gudvangen is quiet by comparison, a sleepy settlement with limited accommodation, but also one that makes a dramatic first impression.

GudvangenAs my mother and I entered a narrow gorge covered in mist, we saw tiny waterfalls high above us, spilling water from the sky and trickling down the forested mountains. At the edge of town, the Naeroyfjord stretched out before us, making the gorge appear like a formal gateway, a threshold we’d pass through the next morning to start the water leg of our journey.

viking villageWe learned that Gudvangen has its own Viking Village (Njardarheimr Viking Valley) bringing to life the culture of the people that lived here so many years ago. Mom and I did not seem like the target audience, but had we a couple 10-year-olds in tow, I’m sure they’d be jumping to hang out with Viking warriors for the day.

Ferry ride to Kaupanger

There are scenic cruises on the Naeroyfjord, but the views are just as great from the top of the car ferry that runs northeast from Gudvangen to Kaupanger. The upper passenger viewing area was covered in droplets when my mother and I reached the top the stairs, but I scavenged two dry chairs from under cover and set them up by the railing for a front row seat to nature’s grand drama.

mom ferryJust as our water journey began, we spotted a few brightly colored tents near the water’s edge a short hike from town. Gudvangen has a formal campground, but these far-flung tents looked more like the “wild camping” I’d heard was popular in Norway.

Sanctioned freedom to embrace the great outdoors, wild camping allows anyone to camp without permission in wild or uncultivated areas for two days so long as one’s tent is not “pitched so close to an inhabited house (cabin) that it disturbs the occupants, and in any case no closer than 150 metres.” Longer stays are possible with permission, and camping in the mountains or areas far from habitation requires no permission at all.[1]

Upon seeing the tents, I started fantasizing about quitting my job to backpack across Norway for six weeks. But after looking around, I realized I was already on a pretty amazing dream trip. Observing my 78-year-old mother sitting in the chair beside me, bundled against the wind in her blue rain coat, I wondered aloud what she thought about hauling a backpack around and sleeping on the damp cold earth. “Not me” is all I got from her, in a voice that suggested someone may not be in their right mind.

two fjordsAs the morning mist began to give way, bright patches of green broke through the muted palette of grey sky and slate waters. Green trees and grasses formed beards on the cliffs’ rocky faces, and overhead, white gulls on the wing rode the updrafts. Our airy entourage saw us the whole ferry ride to Kaupanger.

At one point, our boat passed a watery crossroads where two narrow fjords joined together. A rising sentinel of rock, cistern-round, divided the way, making the dozens of ferry passengers appear minuscule by comparison, and far-off boats tinier still. It was easy to envision boatmen from a distant past being struck by a similar sense of scale, quietly paddling their wooden boats so not to wake the sleeping stone giants.

Kaupanger to Sogndal

We docked at Kaupanger a couple hours later and began our drive around the northern shore of the Sognefjord. We took a moment to stop by Kaupanger’s stave church (the largest one in the county) but couldn’t look inside because I had no cash to pay the visitor’s fee. A rookie mistake in a foreign country, it wouldn’t be the last time I’d regret not having cash, though I did get surprisingly far with just plastic in my wallet.

stave Kaupanger

We hit the road again, and in just 20 minutes arrived in Sogndal, eager to stop for lunch and decompress. We soon discovered that the parking downtown was metered and would not take my credit card. (Did I mention I was out of cash?) It took a bit of time to locate a bank to withdraw money, find a grocery store to make change, and pay for our illegally parked car. But eventually we found ourselves at a cute cafe.


And here we are, back on the road again, with a short drive and shorter ferry ride left to get to Balestrand. The fjord-road is winding, and Mom is clutching the car door handle and bracing herself at every turn. (I’m trying not to take it personally, and I’m trying to drive slower than the speed limit.) Both of us are feeling thankful that there are fewer cars on the north side of the fjord, for the road narrows at times to a single lane, requiring the use of pull-outs.

KaupangerI decide it’s best for both of us to have a distraction, and we focus on the quaint rows of apple trees and the colorful Nordic houses perched on hillsides and tucked into bays. I start naming their colors as I see them: farmhouse red, cream white, deep honey.

I’m not sure the effect on Mom, but I’m starting to relax, thinking about how the houses’ natural earth tones amplify the colors of the countryside. Spotting a house painted all in shiny black, I recall seeing similar ones along the mountain passes the day before. We had reasoned they were painted black to better retain the sun’s warmth during the cold winters, and it reminds me that for all the cozy stops along our route, this land can still be a formidable place. It feels good to be seeing it together, my mother and me, on this grand shared adventure.

Next stop, Balestrand.

Read Part 2 – Fjord Travels With Mom: Balestrand’s Beautiful Artistry

[1]For more on wild camping, see Outdoor Recreation Act of 28 June 1957 No.16 Relating to Outdoor Recreation (English translation). For a brief overview of Norwegian’s views on nature and recreation, visit Camping in Norway.


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