I was well inside Sognefjord before I saw anything. Heavy rain washed away views of small islands almost as soon as they appeared. As the boat drew nearer the shore, steep walls loomed out of low cloud. The atmosphere was almost claustrophobic. The cloud rose, and wet, mossy cliffs, hundreds of metres high, gleamed eerily above small communities and colourful wooden dwellings that dotted the shoreline. Then the sheltering effect of the mountains asserted itself. The sun began to shine, and the mountains, now clear of cloud, showed snowy patches in their upper reaches, which added the illusion of height. The fjord narrowed, and its crag-bound zig-zags limited the view, to give it the Alpine appearance of a mountain-locked lake rather than an inland branch of the North Sea.
Norway’s jagged coastline is the longest, and arguably the most dramatic in Europe. The great ice sheets of prehistory, some 300 metres thick, carved through hard, volcanic bedrock to leave deep scars. These were flooded by the sea to create an unbroken series of fjords, reaching like arthritic fingers into the land, from the southern tip to far beyond the Arctic Circle. But in these latitudes, the Ice Age lingers, and mountain snows cling on through the summers, replenishing mainland Europe’s most extensive glaciers and feeding uncountable rivers and waterfalls.
Sognefjord twists in from the coast for more than 200 kilometres. It is Norway’s longest fiord, and at 1300 metres, its deepest. Its walls rise to 900 metres above the sea, so that its total depth, from mountaintop to fjord floor exceeds that of Arizona’s Grand Canyon. To north and south, tributary fjords, cut by smaller glaciers, run into the main body: Fjaerlandfjord, Sogndalfjord, Lustrafjord and Aurlandsfjord. And these in turn, split into even narrower ravines, so that Naerøyfjord, a branch of Aurlandsfjord, is the narrowest in Norway, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
On an earlier trip through Naerøyfjord, the ferry had almost seemed in danger of being squeezed by the cliffs that rose impossibly out of black waters, no more than 250 metres apart. As the boat cut its engine, and slowed toward a jetty that was the only exit from a tiny cluster of houses perched on a hillside, the rushing sound of one of the many waterfalls was just audible between the calls of the seagulls that had accompanied us from Gudvangen.
The bays, or “viks” that shelter these small communities, Fresvik, Djupevik, Svoldvik and many others, gave their name to the seafarers who launched open boats into the Atlantic centuries before Columbus to colonise Iceland and Greenland, and even reach the shores of America.
I left the ferry at Leikanger and took a coach to Sogndal, then another along the northern shore of Lustrafjord, which looked across the sunlit water to the crashing cascade of Feigumfoss. I broke my journey at Skjolden, the inland limit of Sognefjord, and gateway to the Jotunheimen, “Home of the Giants”, Northern Europe’s tallest mountains.
I relaxed for the evening by the broad river, which carried meltwater and silt from the snows of Sognefjell, to stain the fjord a misty green. The sun dipped behind the mountains and the ripples stilled beneath the glow of dusk. Few vehicles moved along the road. This was the kind of ambience that can give rise to great thoughts. The Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein spent some years working in a small house a few hundred metres from where I sat. In 1936, he wrote to a friend, “I can’t imagine that I could have worked anywhere as I do here. It’s the quiet, and perhaps the wonderful scenery.” Little has changed since then.
Eastern end of Lustrafjord at Skjolden
When to go.
The warming effect of the Gulf Stream means that the fjords are navigable throughout the year. However, daylight hours are short in winter. The best time to go is from the end of May to early September.
Bergen, arguably Norway’s most beautiful (though unarguably its rainiest) city, is the starting point for fjord travel. Though it can be reached by air, the most pleasant way to get there is by overnight ferry from Newcastle upon Tyne, in the north of England. This arrives at Stavanger in early morning, then follows the spectacular coastal route to Bergen. The full journey takes a relaxing 24 hours.
The fjords can be reached by daily ferries from Bergen, or by combinations of coach, train and ferry. Public transport can be infrequent, but is extremely efficient and reliable. About an hour-and-a-half’s train journey inland from Bergen is the beautiful lakeside town of Voss, a ski centre in winter. It lies between Hardangerfjord and Sognefjord, which are easily reached by coach.
Other places to visit.
A train journey from Voss takes one to Finse from which the Hardangerjøkulen glacier can be reached on foot. Flights over the glacier in a light aircraft can be arranged from Voss.
From Skjolden, the Sognefjell road, the highest in Northern Europe, rises to 1430 metres, then continues through spectacular scenery on the edge of the Jotunheimen. South of Lustrafjord is Årdalsfjord, from which Norway’s deepest and most impressive valley system, Utladalen can be entered, by road to Vetti and on foot from there. Nearby is the 370-metre-tall Vettisfoss waterfall.
The small towns of Balestrand, Fjaerland, Vangsnes and Flåm are picturesque, but with limited accommodation. Sogndal is bigger, with more facilities, but is less attractive. Arms of the Jostedalsbreen glacier can be reached on day trips from Fjaerland and Sogndal.
The uniquely Scandinavian architecture of stave churches can be seen at Laerdal, Vik, Kaupanger and Aurland. The church at Urnes, on Lustrafjord is Norway’s oldest and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.