Friday, June 22, 2012

Norwegian Fjord and Glacier Tour - Travel Day and Balestrand

This is the 4th post in a series on the Norwegian Fjord and Glacier self-guided tour we took offered by Authentic Scandinavia.  If you missed the other 3, just click on the travel tab.  As we booked extra days in Oslo, this was actually Day 5 and 6 for us.

Day 02: Bergen- & Flåm Railway- Fjord cruise to Balestrand -

Day 5 for us.
  • Breakfast at the hotel.
  • Bergen Railway from Oslo to Myrdal.
  • Flåm Railway from Myrdal to Flåm.
  • 1 hour at leisure in Flåm.
  • Fjord cruise to Balestrand.
  • Accommodation in Balestrand.

Day 03: Balestrand / Optional Fjærland & Glacier Excursion - 

Day 6 for us.
  • Breakfast at the hotel.
  • Day at leisure in Balestrand.
  • Recommended activities:
    • Relax by the fjord.
    • Rent a boat or bike.
    • Go for a mountain hike.
    • Go for a walk in Balestrand.
  • Recommended excursions:
    • Fjord & Glacier Excursion – full day
    • Fjord & Glacier Excursion – half day
  • Accommodation in Balestrand.
It was hard to leave Oslo is some ways, but the right time in others.  We had hit most of the major museums on our must see list with the exception of 2 that were closed because of striking security guards, but there was so much more.  In particular, we missed all the amazing art galleries.  Another few days in Oslo may have to be booked in the future.  But after 3 days of exploring non-stop, our minds just needed a break.

Typical Public Ferry we road
One thing Norway has is an excellent transit system. The Thon Opera Hotel is just across the road from the NSR (Norwegian State Railways) Central Train Station so we just had to quickly eat breakfast and then jump on the train.  One joy of booking the upgrade in hotels is that you not only get to stay in some amazing hotels, but also get to ride in the comfort class car.  The standard cars seats are fine, and there are actually a few with extra space, but most are a bit like a comfortable airline seat with pull down tray on the back of the seat in front of you.  Comfort Class has a couple kinds of seats and one is better than the other.  Some are 2's alone and some are sets of 2 facing each other which means you can't stretch out your legs as much.  We were fortunate to always have 2 alone, but they faced backwards. A little disconcerting if you get motion sickness and a little harder to watch the scenery.  This cabin also has a complimentary coffee/tea/hot chocolate station which gives you a chance to get up and move around. I loved being in this cabin as the other reminded me too much of a long airplane ride.

One of many waterfalls we saw.
Path along the train at Myrdal
It was great to see how the country changed as we moved across.  At first it was like looking at the Pacific Northwest only with the hills a bit more rolling.  Then we were up above the tree line in a desolate area that still had snow.  Here were saw an astounding array of sometimes very isolated cabins, many with no road access.  Our best guess that seemed to hold up in talking with Norwegians is that they like their cabins in winter and cross-country ski to them from the closest train station carrying everything they need.  This is changing according to those we spoke with.  Norway's high standard of living is also bringing about cabins that are more like homes with access by auto.  The train then went down hill through a series of long tunnels to Myrdal.

At Myrdal Station (altitude 880 meters above sea level) we changed to a classic older train - the Flam Railway - and slowly wound down a steep track to arrive at Flam (sea level) which was a stop for ferries to many locations.  Along the way the train had a photo stop at an amazingly powerful waterfall.  Most interesting here was that we could see a path alongside the train station at Myrdal with people walking.  The was a bike rental shop as well.  Glen was fascinated as he is an avid bike rider.  Turns out there is a path to bike or walk from the Myrdal Station down to Flam.  If you want to try this you might want to book a night in Flam as I don't think you could do it in time to make the ferry connection.

Path down hill from Myrdal to Flam
Flam was a picturesque small ferry port with a sea of people catching boats to several locations - for us the Sognefjord to Balestrand.  It was only about an hour before ours was ready to go.  This was the first in a series of rides on the public Express Ferry.  If the weather is beautiful, I can't think of a better way to travel.  They are mid-size catamarans with comfortable inside seating if the weather is bad and room to hang out on top and enjoy the scenery if the weather is good.  Fortunately the weather was always good for us.  Fresh wind in your face, sun shining down on you and a $4 cup of coffee (only about 4 ounces) in your hand - what a way to travel.  This is where that wind proof shell comes in handy as when the boat is moving, you can get cold if you don't have it.

Kvickne Hotel right on the waterfront!
We arrived at our final destination - Balestrand - and were ready to stretch our legs after a day of traveling.  First we checked in to the beautiful and historic Kvicknes Hotel and enjoyed a pint in our room. I can't say enough about how interesting the hotel was.  The room was a nice with the requisite 2 twins pushed together - I think this is the night I was determined to cuddle and ended up on the floor between the beads - but it was the common area downstairs that was right out of an old movie.  There were 3 large interconnected rooms full of overstuffed seating arrangements for guest to linger in when the weather was rainy as well as a lovey veranda (porch) to sit outside right on the fjord so you could enjoy the view. You just don't see this in North America.

View from our room!
Balestrand was the town Glen felt the most beautiful of all we visited.  The wild flowers were in bloom, the small birds we saw posed for pictures, the houses had been kept up so well that many looked new, a grassy lawn was the "campground" and there was a old stave church - St. Olav's - built in 1897 in perfect condition that you could walk in.  Some of the houses still had what I consider classic Viking features with lots of painted embellishment and even the occasional dragon detail on the roof.  One place we rue not visiting was the Ciderhuset - a restaurant with locally brewed cider as well a menu that received 5 stars from most who dined there.  We walked by it and thought it was just someone's house, but later research proved we missed something very special.
Stave Church with some inside photos of the ornate detailing.
For supper we stumbled into a little cafe with outdoor seating on the dock, but I can't seem to find the name in a web search.  We were going to order food to take back to the hotel, but it wasn't allowed.  That's okay as we ended up in a riotous conversation with 2 other couples traveling through Norway.  This cafe (can't find it online to share the name) had a small window water side that offered to rent you a fishing pole by the hour.  If you caught a fish, they'd cook it for free.  It was time to try something I had seen on a lot of menus - Norwegian meatballs.  They came in a gravy with mashed potatoes, a stalk of cooked broccoli, and a small scoop of cranberry sauce on the side. It was delicious. The owner was wonderful and our waitress was a local painter who was also running the art gallery next door where her artwork was displayed.  As she stood at our table and visited, she let us know she also made our mashed potatoes that day. 

"Campground" on left and "Public Beach" on right.
The next day we had signed up for a Fjaerland full-day glacier tour, but realized we wanted time in the morning to relax, enjoy the scenery and our buffet breakfast.  The hotel was gracious and called the tour operator to switch us to the half-day tour that started at noon.  For those who want to know the difference, you visit 2 glaciers instead of one on the full day trip and spend 2-1/2 hours in the small town of Mundal (where presidential candidate Robert Mondal's ancestors came from), which is known for having over 8 used book stores.  One glacier (you don't get close enough to touch them) and a visit to the Glacier Centre to soak up some knowledge was enough for me. I also felt about 40 minutes in Mundal would have been enough, but that was not an option, so we had no time to walk in even one bookstore.  


Ferry to Fjaerland - left is a small farm and right is the beautiful scenery
What was best about this excursion for me was that the weather was stunning.  Here we were riding up the Sognefjord on top of a boat enjoying the wonderful weather with beautiful scenery all around us.  It was just what we needed after 3-1/2 days of being busy tourists.  For those who chose to spend the day in Balestrand, there are bikes to rent and local trails to climb - remember here an easy climb is at least a medium back home.  OR you could just relax on the veranda with a great book and soak up the view.

Left is example of classic ornate decoration on a garage
Right is a house with the dragon decoration on the roof
A last walk around the town after supper closed our time in Balestrand and we were back on the express ferry early in the morning to cruise the Sognefiord all the way to the seaport city of Bergen.

Loved the flowers in Balestrand both wild and cultured.





  


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