Travel Journal // Norway: Åndalsnes + Geiranger + Ålesund
I don’t have a list of places I want to travel, but if I did have a list—mental or concrete—Norway would not have been on it. Prior to booking a ticket on a whim in April, I knew nothing of Norway, no knowledge of the absolute MAGIC hidden within this Scandinavian country.
The trip was a serendipitous discovery of a cheap flight ($369 roundtrip—thank you, Norwegian Air) via Skyscanner. One Google search of Norway was more than enough to convince my roommate and me that Norway was the place of our travel DREAMS. And so two days after the discovery of that flight, we had two seats on a plane from Boston to Oslo, Norway.
Åndalsnes // Days 1 - 2
Our train journey from Oslo the afternoon of our arrival had two legs: Oslo to Dombås and Dombås to Åndalsnes on the Rauma Railway.
The first leg of our journey was beautiful—all rolling hills and evergreen forests and red farmhomes sitting aside wide lakes, but the second leg from Dombås to Åndalsnes was the crescendo of this scenic symphony.
The Rauma Railway took us from towering mountain peaks down into the Rauma Valley more than 2,000 feet below, over waterfalls and through a mountain tunnel that allows the train to make a 180-degree turn inside, exiting the tunnel facing the opposite direction. Chelsey and I sat transfixed at the mountain scene while several locals barely looked up from their newspaper to notice they live in NARNIA, YOU GUYS. I hope I never become so used to beauty that I don’t even notice it anymore.
Home for the first two nights was a quaint mocha-painted wooden farmhouse in Isfjorden, a village tucked away in a mountain valley dotted with wooden barns and sheep pastures and fresh mountain streams. Our Airbnb host, Silje, even offered to take us from the train station to pick up our car rental. Kind soul.
Silje had left us fresh chicken eggs in the fridge, a loaf of bread as a welcome gift, a vase of purple and white wildflowers adorning the white kitchen table. Our alarm each morning was the crow of roosters and the bleating of sheep. We drank coffee outside, the snowy Romsdalsaplane mountain range our view. Norwegian folklore claims that the mountains are trolls “turned to stone when caught by the light of the sun” (according to the Rauma Railway guidebook); it’s easy to see why medieval Norwegians might believe such fables—these mountain ranges are broody af with low-hanging grey clouds casting shadows over the dark boulders.
To put it in uncreative terms: it was perfect.
On our first morning, we took a walk down a winding country road, coffee mugs cupped tight, past sheep folds and clucking chickens and a pasture of horses and a rushing mountain brook and was I living a poem? By then, clouds had moved in and lone drops were threatening heavier ran, so we made our way back home to enjoy a breakfast of scrambled eggs while a steady rain began to fall.
Mid-afternoon the rain let up, though the skies remained dark; we ventured into Åndalsnes to explore the town, discovering that much of it is closed on a Sunday, that Shell is a popular destination for ice cream (the Norwegians LOVE soft serve), and that the entirety of the town can be traversed in under an hour.
The sun never actually sets.
Later that night, we returned to town to sit waterside and watch the sunset, eventually settling on a concrete outcrop on the opposite bank of the town, the sun washing the cliff faces in a muted orange as it set—“set” being used loosely as it turns out that it never actually gets dark during the summer, midnight simply being a perpetual dusk before the sun begins its ascent again in the wee hours of the morning.
Trollstigen // Day 3
On our second day, we said a temporary goodbye to our farmhome and began the drive of Trollstigen (“The Trolls’ Path”), a part of the larger Geiranger - Trollstigen National Tourist Route that is touted to be one of the most thrilling roads to drive. The route began in a green valley walled in by towering cliffs. We began our ascent, winding up the narrow road that barely fit two cars, going round and round tight turns, crossing a bridge over a thundering waterfall that dropped straight into the valley below until we reached the lookout at the top. We parked the car and joined the hundred others to gaze out at the mountains and valley, the road we had just traveled below us like a serpent sliding up the cliffs. Chelsey and I climbed further up the rocks, finding a relatively secluded place (save for the drone filming a girl and her trombone?) away from the crowds.
On the peaks surrounding us, if you looked closely enough, you could see skiers like tiny black pinpricks gliding down the white cliff face. Kudos to a commitment to skiing that doesn’t mind a three-hour hike to the top in twenty feet of snow first.
Continuing our journey onward, we crossed the mountain pass, entering a winter wonderland before descending once again to the valley below. We stopped briefly in the valley and it was here that I caught site of an avalanche tumbling down one of the surrounding peaks. Be still my flatland-raised heart because avalanches are my love language.
We then continued onward, descending further until we were back in valleys of green and mild temperatures, arriving an hour later to Stranda after crossing the fjord in a ferry. Our original plan had been to continue on to Stryn, but it was 5:30 pm and by then I was too tired for another three hours of driving.
So we settled on going to the town center, thinking we would find a warm drink and settle ourselves by the water. We passed a restaurant that advertised itself as a “Bistro. Steakhouse. Pub” and thought a cider was in order. But once inside we realized the bar was closed and our cute waiter spoke little English (a first, given everyone else we met spoke fluent English). We ordered ice cream, though neither of us wanted it that much, and were brought a plate of three scoops of vanilla ice cream covered—COVERED—in whipped cream and chocolate syrup, wondering how the evening had come to this as we stuffed spoonfuls into our mouths. After our unintentional ice cream mishap, we wandered over to the white wooden church across the street, walking through the century-old graveyard and noting that most Norwegians live until at least 85 years old. Probably because this place is HEAVEN.
We ended the night watching the apocalyptic and hilariously absurd movie 2012 at our Airbnb and stuffing ourselves with marshmallows and chocolate. Is sugar poisoning a thing? Because I think I came dangerously close to it.
Geirangerfjord // Day 4
The next day, we left our home in Stranda at 8 am, our destination that morning Geirangerfjord, said to be Norway’s most beautiful fjord. Yes, please. We ferried through the fjords and drove through mountain tunnels until we began a winding descent once again down a road that would take us to Geiranger, a tiny town tucked at the base of mountains and fjord. I haven’t seen all of Norway’s fjords to substantiate the claim of most beautiful, but I’d be willing to bet there’s a fjord in heaven that looks just a li’l bit like this one.
We started our morning with coffee at Geiranger Bakeri, sipping mochas and watching the throngs of cruise ship tourists wandering through the small square, buying postcards and troll trinkets like the good tourists they are.
Then, it was off to kayak. Important fact: I have an irrational fear of drowning based on zero personal experience (like, can’t claim that I almost drowned when I was a child or anything like that).
So I was a bit nervous about our kayaking adventure, but I was in Norway, and when else was I going to get to kayak in a fjord? (Probs never.)
Our instructor was a man closely resembling a Scandinavian Eminem. When I told him I was nervous, he assured me that I would not flip and get trapped in the kayak and drown, and so I did my best to believe his assurances as he slid my kayak off the dock and into the water.
The water was still, a mirror reflecting the cliff faces that reached up and up into the grey cloud cover. We paddled along the mountain bases, passing abandoned wooden farmhomes nestled on cliff outcrops and snowmelt waterfalls streaming down the cliffs, the mist mingling with the light rain. The fjord was deceivingly narrow until we actually went to cross it, waves from a passing ferry lifting my kayak much higher than I preferred while I panic-yelled at Chelsey to not leave me. I’m a ~fun girl~ when I panic. When we returned to the dock after my boat-dodging, anxiety-inducing and sweat-producing paddle across the fjord, Scandinavian Eminem slid my boat onto the dock proclaiming, “She’s smiling!” Yes! And I didn’t drown either!
If you ever find yourself in Geirangerfjord, kayaking is absolutely worth it, despite whatever irrational drowning fears you may have. I’d recommend the company we rented from, Active Geiranger.
After living off granola bars and noodles all week (yo’ girls are on a budget), we decided to treat our bodies to a real, nutritional meal at a restaurant, Brasserie Posten, located across from the bakery. And we remembered why we were living off granola bars and noodles when the bill came and each meal cost close to $40 USD. They say Norway is one of the most expensive countries to visit, and they’re not wrong, at least when it comes to food. But I will say that the grilled chicken salad and gluten free bread was delicious.
It was after 4 pm by the time we finished lunch, but hey, the sun never sets, so we still had a solid 8 hours of day ahead of us. We continued our road trip on the Geiranger - Trollstigen National Tourist Route, ascending cliffs once again, stopping at a couple lookouts on the way up.
And like our train trip and roadtrip from the days before, the view reached its crescendo on Dalsnibba: a looming peak, the road to the top edged by snowdrifts that towered high above our car. At the top, the wind was fierce, but I found relative respite against a boulder that sheltered me from all but the strongest of gusts.
The view from that peak was surreal—we were surrounding by snow-covered peaks; the fjord we had just paddled across now was only a tiny sliver of blue far below. After a while, the wind drove us back to the warmth of our car, so we continued our road trip; the road took us past two enormous frozen lakes, then down from the mountain heights and through several long mountain tunnels and winding valley roads until we reached Stryn, a rather perfectly adequate but unremarkable town aside yet another fjord.
By now, it was 9 pm, so we stopped for a coffee and hot chocolate at Stryn Kaffebar & Vertshus before hitting the road once again, stopping briefly to take photos of aesthetically-pleasing farmhouses (soz to any inhabitants who happened to peek outside their kitchen window and notice two girls taking photos of their home), finally arriving back to Stranda at midnight: a 16-hour day made possible by the never-setting summer sun.
Ålesund // Day 5
We left for Ålesund the next morning, a city of a little more than 40,000 residents—thousands more than the villages we had visited—rebuilt in art nouveau style after it burned down in the early 1900s. The town featured canals running through brightly-colored buildings. Our first stop was for coffee, of course, at a hip cafe, Invit; we found seats on its outdoor dock, the sun shining and seagulls flying about. With a telling plop, I heard the death plunge of an American woman’s iPhone into the canal beside us. They attempted to retrieve it to no avail, but nonetheless it was a valiant team effort. RIP her phone with all her vacay pics.
We explored the town and seated ourselves next to a little red lighthouse on an outcrop beside the wide harbor, the open sea visible just beyond the archipelago. We then heaved ourselves up the 418 steps to the Aksla viewpoint, offering us a sweeping view of the city and surrounding fjord and Sunnmøre Alps. On the way, we were stopped by a man with shoulder-length hair who claimed he knew us. “You were kayaking yesterday, weren’t you?” he asked. “Yeah, in Geirangerfjord?” I responded. “Yes, I own the company!” Oh, hey!
Dinner at Søstrene Fryd
Dinner that night was an accidental discovery of Søstrene Fryd , a cafe featuring exposed brick, fresh roses on every table, a shelf above a window lined with books, and a Nashville-approved playlist. The best part for my Celiac self: everything on the menu was gluten-free. And it was delicious. If life ever finds you in Ålesund (which hopefully it will): go, go, go to this cafe!
It was 9:30 pm by the time we wrapped up dinner, but of course the sky was still blue, so back to our spot beside the lighthouse we went to watch the “sunset” which really was just the sun scooting ever the slightest above the horizon for over an hour before we retired to our expertly-decorated Airbnb for the night.
Åndalsnes // Day 6
The next day, we returned to Søstrene Fryd for another pleasant morning of coffee and journaling on blue couches in the corner. We discovered a nail in our tire, which apparently we had been driving on for days through winding mountain roads (lol soz Mom and Dad, I'm safe, it's fine). We patched it up at a local repair shop before making the hour drive back to Åndalsnes and our sweet mocha-painted farmhome.
Hike to Rampestreken Viewpoint
That afternoon, we hiked to the Rampestreken viewpoint on Nesaksla mountain; our nearly 2,000 foot ascent up the mountain was blanketed with tree roots, rocks, and boulders. But the view from the lookout was perhaps one of the most breathtaking I’ve experienced, the town just a tiny collection of houses below us, mountains and the fjord sparkling in the afternoon sun. While Chelsey continued on to the top of Nesaksla, I settled myself against a boulder, wishing I could bottle up that simple feeling of peace, a reminder of the humbling smallness of existing in a world so much larger than yourself—something that is easily forgettable when we are accustomed to viewing the world through a small screen, a screen we can manage, a screen we can control.
We spent our last night in the mountains sitting ‘round the fire in our iron hearth and making s’mores well into the lighted night.
On our final morning in the mountain valley, I made friends with a furry brown cat (who proceed to hiss at Chelsey), prayed, thought, sat, looked and listened to the life within the valley—knowing that this valley would be a place I would return to, both in my mind and in reality. Our neighbor emerged from her home with a backpack and climbing equipment, her border collie trailing faithfully behind. She gave us a wave from the car as she drove off for a casual Friday hike. Can you imagine such a life? Before we left, I took one final walk down the country road lined with formhomes and fields of wildflowers, sheep, chickens, and horses. Magic, magic, magic.
Coffee at Sødahl-Huset
Our last stop in Åndalsnes was coffee (hello, we love coffee) at the CUTEST café, Sødahl-Huset, where I enjoyed a frappé before boarding our outbound train to depart from one of the prettiest places to exist.
Oslo // Day 7
We arrived back in Oslo close to 8 pm, the rain falling heavily in Norway’s capital. We finished the evening continuing our apocalyptic film theme with the even MORE hilariously absurd movie The Happening (Zoey Deschanel, what were you THINKING?) before turning into bed to the sound of a steady, cool rain.
We coffeed at Hendrix Ibsen, another super hip coffee shop that would be right at home in Nashville (the Norwegians kill it at the coffee shop game), then ventured down a nearby cobblestone street, Damstredet, to admire wooden homes from the 1700s and 1800s. To end our time in Oslo, we sat on a nearby bench eating our modest snack rations of cheese and lunch meat as we watched the way-too-trendy Europeans pass by. European gals, can you teach me how to dress as cool as you?
Then we almost got stranded in Oslo (but not really).
All was well at the airport until we proceeded to our gate and encountered mass chaos in the line leading to passport control. We waited anxiously in line watching as the board flashed “gate closed” on our flight, thinking for a moment we’d be stranded in Norway until the next Boston flight days later (but really, would that be a bad thing?). But enough of our fellow passengers were in the same chaotic mass (airport staff even passed out waters, that’s how ridiculous of a situation this was), so they held the flight for us, and we made it back to the United States after all.
But I would recommend that you give yourself plenty of time to get through passport control if flying internationally from Oslo Airport—the passport control is past security, right before the gates.
When I rang in the new year with a champagne toast at a Demonbreun bar (low-brow, I know), I didn’t expect that written in my 2017 story would be a week's adventure in Norway.
So now as the self-appointed Norway hypewoman, allow me to leave you with this somewhat-aggressive but well-meaning sentiment:
GO TO NORWAY. DO IT. BOOK YOUR TICKET RIGHT NOW.
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