Winter odyssey offers 'Norway in a Nutshell'

Europe editor Kenneth Kiesnoski traveled across Norway from Oslo to Bergen just before Christmas via rail, bus and fjord cruise. His report follows:

hat on earth are you doing here now? That was the incredulous question on the lips of many Norwegians when they discovered I was an American on an off-season tour of their country.

Despite locals' amazement that anyone would travel 3,600 miles to tour chilly, dark Norway anytime between September and May, I found winter ideal for both urban and rural explorations of the country.

I started my sojourn in Oslo, a relatively quiet city at any time of the year, but more so in winter. All the better for sightseeing, I found.

I had the towering slope of the Holmenkollen Ski Jump, the statues of Vigeland Park and the halls of the National Gallery and Munch Museum largely to myself.

Of course, opening hours are reduced in the off-season, and some attractions, such as the 19th century Royal Palace, were closed during my visit.

I particularly enjoyed the Viking Ship Museum, where the only other visitors were a handful of schoolchildren who seemed to find my English-language conversation with my guide as interesting as the intricately carved Norse ships, sleds and artifacts on display.

Entrance was free with my Oslo Card; renamed the Oslo Pass this year, the visitor card still offers free entrance or discounts at some 45 attractions, restaurants and shops.

Not so empty were Oslo's restaurants and shops, packed with Yuletide celebrants and holiday shoppers. The apparent anomaly of my visit was a real icebreaker with barkeeps, clerks and patrons alike.

Another good spot to mix with locals was the ice rink, set up annually in the Spikersuppa park across from my hotel, the Norlandia Karl Johan (see Room Key below).

Eager to see Norway's famed fjords, I soon embarked on the venerable cross-country Norway in a Nutshell rail-cruise-bus tour from Oslo.

After a six-hour ride on the Bergen Railway through winter-wonderland landscapes, I arrived at snowy, mountaintop Myrdal Station, where I switched to the privately run Flamsbana, or Flam Railway.

The railway is the world's steepest to run on regular train tracks and descends via 18 tunnels to the tiny port of Flam on the Aurlandsfjord, a half-mile below.

As I began my descent, the sun broke through gray skies, illuminating huge, frozen waterfalls clinging stubbornly to the passing mountainsides.

Within an hour, we had reached the Flamsbana's terminus on the fjord.

Soon, I and four other brave souls boarded the Fjord Lord, the smallish ferry that makes the two-hour Flam-to-Gudvangen fjord run in less popular off-season months.

Although an early sunset meant the last half of our sailing took place in darkness, the first hour or so -- past towering cliffs, tiny fishing villages and Viking farmsteads -- was breathtaking.

The cold, I felt, lent a welcome authenticity, and I spent much of the trip on the prow.

Leaning into a biting wind, I did my best Leif Eriksson impression until finally driven below deck for hot cocoa by a particularly bitter arctic gust.

The final two legs of Norway in a Nutshell are wasted on the westbound winter traveler heading to Bergen in one day.

Though the trip can be broken up with stays in Flam, Voss or other towns to maximize daylight sightseeing, I undertook both the supposedly hair-raising Stalheimskleiva mountain bus ride to Voss and the connecting train trip on to Bergen under cover of night.

On the "bright" side, I was able to nap en route and arrived in Bergen refreshed and ready for a night on the town.

Though not a fan of Renaissance fairs and the like, I enjoyed dinner at the medieval-themed Olde Hansa restaurant in Bergen's historic Brygge district, built by German merchants during the Middle Ages.

The next day, I awoke to sunshine and set out to tour relatively balmy Bergen, which -- in contrast to snowbound Oslo -- had been spared anything worse than a few recent flurries.

I wended my way up and down through the city's forest of painted wooden houses to top sights such as Fisktorget, or the fish market; Hakon's Hall; St. Mary's Church; and the Hanseatic Museum.

As in Oslo, entrance was free with a Bergen Card, the city's visitor discount pass.

Norlandia Karl Johan Hotel
Karl Johans Gate 33, Oslo, Norway
Phone: (011) 47-23 16-1700
Fax: (011) 47-23 42-0519
Reservations: (011) 47-23 16-1700
E-mail:[email protected]
Manager: Bjorn Hulaas
Rates: Rack from $200, single ($107 on weekends), to $230, double (weekend, $143). Also, special summer rates.
Commission: 8%
Built: Late 1800's; renovated 2001.
Rooms: 111 rooms, 10 suites.
Location: On Oslo's main, city-center shopping street
Facilities: Restaurant, bar, meetings rooms
Noteworthy: Top-notch location, great breakfast buffet
Not worthy: Oddly spartan feel to rather large suites

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