Flåm – Vikings, Trolls, Waterfalls, and Fjords!

As mentioned previously in “Five Tips for Planning A Successful Trip to Norway (Or Anywhere!)”, I received a tip about a site called Norway in a Nutshell (NIN) that allows you to easily customize your Norway experience, offering coordinated transportation via train, bus and small cruise ship as well as add-on activities as you travel the circuit from Oslo to Bergen to Flåm, or any leg of that trip in either direction! I was also advised that a ride on the Flåm railway, which can be part of a NIN itinerary, was a must do, and that is how I happened to spend almost 24 incredible hours in Flåm, a Lilliputian hamlet at the foot of towering mountains at one end of Aurlandsfjord. The town serves as the end of the line for the Flåm railway, as well as the starting point for Fjord cruises along the Sognefjorden and Naræøyfjord.

I set out from Bergen in the morning with just my daypack, carrying a change of clothes and Herman, my troll-companion. I had left my large backpack chained and locked for the night in the closet of my rented room in Bergenhus (see my previous post, “Bergen Part 1: Hotels and Restaurants”). I had the room for a week at a very good price, so I didn’t see the sense of lugging all of my belongings by train, bus and fjord cruiser for what was basically an extended day trip. Travelling that minimally was so freeing! I boarded the Bergen train to Myrdal, then the Flåmsbana (train) to Flåm. The Flåmsbana descends along very steep cliff walls overlooking green valleys sheltering tiny villages. There are a few stops for photos along the way. Perhaps the most exciting of these stops is at the Kjossfossen waterfall where the Huldra (half woman-half troll) of Scandinavian legend makes an appearance, singing her alluring siren song while dancing dangerously close to the powerful falls.

In Flåm, I stayed at Heimly Pensjonat. The Heimly is located at the far end of the road that follows the edge of the marina away from the town center. It’s a short walk, less than a mile, which ends up giving Heimly guests a perfect view across the harbor of the marina, most of the town, and an unobstructed view of the fjord. Upon check in I was informed that I had a choice of 2 seating times for the dinner that was included in the cost of the room. I admit I was mildly annoyed to have to return to the pension at a specific time, when I had only one night in Flåm, but I agreed to the later seating time, since I didn’t want to waste the already included meal. My room was clean and comfortable, with a monastic spareness that I found very relaxing. One night, including the dinner was about $230US, steep by U. S. standards, but by that point in the trip I was becoming accustomed to the higher cost of things in Norway. By comparison to other places where I stayed on this trip, it wasn’t the least expensive, but considering the remote location of the town and its popularity with tourists, I didn’t find it unreasonable.

View from my window at Heimly Pensjonat

Once I was settled in my room, I headed out for an “add-on activity” on my NIN itinerary: a four hour kayak trip (at an easy pace, covering 1.5 miles one way). Our guide was very knowledgeable and had plenty of fascinating stories to tell us about the area. After paddling a little over an hour, we pulled the kayaks onto the shore at Fronneset, an archaeological site where several Viking burial mounds have been left intact.

Viking Age Burial Mounds near Fronneset with a view of the farm at Otternes

Directly across from these gravesites is the ancient farm called Otternes, first mentioned in 12th Century literature, but where archaeologists believe people have lived since 200AD. Viking tradition was that the dead would be buried facing their home, which would link the two sites on an archaeological timeline. I greatly regret that I did not allow enough time in Flåm to make the easy hike along a path to the see the 26 remaining buildings of the ancient settlement that have been standing since the 1600s.

Winter Farm at Otternes, with buildings standing since the 1600s

Our guide told us that this settlement was the winter farm, and that in the spring the women and girls would take the cows up the mountainside to the spring farm, then still further up to the summer farm as the mountain snow receded. This was done to keep the boys and girls separated so they would focus on their work. The girls sang as they worked and their voices carried down the mountain to where the boys were. After a long day of working on the lower farm, the boys would sneak away and spend their nights climbing up the mountainside to see their girlfriends, returning in the morning too tired to work! During this time was when the legend of the Huldra, a singing half-troll temptress, gained notoriety, perhaps as a deterrent to this kind of behavior. The Huldra of legend is gifted with a beautiful singing voice, like the farm girls, luring boys into the woods never to be seen again. The boys were told that once the skirt of the Huldra was removed, revealing her troll body, they would be lost forever, but that if they carried her over the threshold of a church BEFORE removing her skirt, the spell would be broken and she would turn into a fully human woman. Therefore, it would be safest if all girls were taken to church to be married before removing any clothes, just in case she may be hiding her true identity!

Walking past the Viking burial mounds, we followed the King’s Path, so named, we were told, because one winter a Viking king was lost and running out of supplies for his men when he came upon the path. They followed the path down the mountainside and spotted Otternes across the fjord. The villagers took them in and enjoyed the king’s gratitude and protection from that day forward. The King’s Path climbs up from the shore beside a waterfall that flows through a kettle, a natural basin of boulders that collects water.

Waterfall near Old King’s Path – So clean you can drink from it!

This water was pure enough to drink, and we were strongly encouraged by our guide to taste it and fill all of our water bottles with it. I was reminded of my how my Norwegian grandfather in Wisconsin always insisted we taste the tap water at his house, as he believed it was the best water anywhere. In fact, I thought of him often on this hike. I never felt closer to my Norwegian ancestors as I did that day, following the very footsteps of ancient Vikings through that moss and fern covered primeval forest, drinking from the same waterfall, and following the gazes of their ghosts across the fjord to their farms.

Antler Rub marks in the forest near Fronneset

After the kayak excursion, I had a small amount of time before I had to head back to the Heimly for dinner, so I visited the Mall of Norway. This is a huge gift store at the visitor’s center in Flåm. There are several brands of Norwegian wool sweaters, and many colors and sizes of the ubiquitous summer-weight down jackets and vests. These are lightweight and colorful, very suited to cooler summer days and evenings in Norway. Most of them come with a small matching pouch that the jacket can be rolled and compressed into and carried clipped to a belt loop or in a purse. In the same store, you can find jewelry at all price points, and all kinds of Norwegian souvenir kitsch as well as postcards and stamps.

I dragged myself away from shopping in order to be on time to dinner. Any irritation I had felt at having to plan around a dinner seating disappeared when the food began to arrive. The meal was served in 3 courses:

1st course – hot-smoked salmon, peppered and served with egg salad and mixed greens. There was at least 2 oz of thick cut salmon, pretty substantial for a single serving appetizer

2nd course – 2 large meatballs (only slightly smaller than a baseball!) with brown gravy, mashed potatoes, and pea puree garnished with Lingonberries

3rd course – raspberry, rhubarb and cloud berry syrup served over whipped sour cream with white chocolate.

The flavors were out of this world. The food was simple but perfectly done. This was one of my favorite meals in Norway, maybe top 2 after the bacalao in Sakrisoy, Lofotens. I would probably stay at the Heimly again, mostly because of this meal.

I had to leave Flåm the next morning to board the fjord cruiser to see the Nærøyfjord and travel from Flåm to Gudvangen. I took the upgrade to the newer premium boat, which is designed to resemble a mountain trail zigzagging up both sides of the vessel.

Premium Fjord Cruiser

The day was very sunny and I stayed out on deck for most of the 3+ hours. The time flew by and I was inspired to take numerous pictures as we travelled along the fjord. The interior was plush and clean. At one point I went inside to have coffee and warm up, and struck up a fun conversation with a friendly Norwegian student working as a bartender over the summer.

The boat docked at Gudvangen, where I did some souvenir shopping at a gift shop at the station, then boarded a bus to Voss. The bus took a detour onto the one-way Stalheimskleiva scenic road that winds down from the Stalheim Hotel, around 13 hairpin turns and by a pair of massive waterfalls (Stalheim and Sivle).

After about an hour, the bus arrived in Myrdal and all passengers walked several blocks to the Myrdal train station. There I found more souvenirs, and could have done some sightseeing in town, but I was tired and anxious to get back to Bergen. The NIN package tickets are for a specific time, and this is not flexible as I found out when I boarded an earlier train for Bergen than I should have and the conductor noticed the discrepancy on my ticket. I was very gently and politely scolded for not following my ticketed itinerary, but was not thrown off the train.

If you plan a trip to Norway, you should allow at LEAST 2 days and nights in Flåm, if not more, to relax and thoroughly explore the area on foot and by kayak at a more leisurely pace than I was able to. I would also recommend that you try the Heimly Pensjonat and enjoy the 3 course meal that is included with the room rate.

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