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Norway in a nutshell, from fjords to mountaintops

By Lisa Lubin Chicago Tribune

A recorded voice instructed me (in several languages, including Norwegian, Japanese and Italian) to get off the train and admire the massive waterfall, Kjosfossen, to my left.

The roaring cascade was so large and close that the spray gave all of us a slight soak. Despite the powerful waterworks display in front of me, I was distracted by something else. Haunting music wafted from the mountainside. Suddenly, I saw her – some kind of bohemian witchy woman, swaying to the music, disappearing and reappearing in the mist.

Her name is Huldra, the main character of a Scandinavian legend about a “wood nymph” who tries to lure men into the forest for a good time. I’ll admit, she captivated me for a bit. But mostly I just wondered how bad of an acting gig it must be to get drenched every day while gyrating like a banshee.

The somewhat surreal experience unfolded in the middle of Norway, where I was riding on the Flamsbana or Flam Railway, often ranked as one of Europe’s most beautiful train journeys. Opened in 1940, the rail line starts in Flam, a small village at the edge of the Sognefjord, the second longest fjord in the world. The ride begins at sea level and chugs up into the mountains, through 20 different tunnels blasted into the rock, until it reaches nearly 3,000 feet an hour later. It’s a spectacular excursion on one of the planet’s steepest railways.

The experience is even better with a bike in tow. You can easily rent a bicycle for the day and bring it on board, where bikes are corralled in a separate car. When you reach the top, you can hop on your bike and cycle all the way down on the Rallarvegen, a century-old construction route used during the building of the railroad. It weaves around the bucolic scenery, crisscrossing the tracks, past snow-covered peaks and dozens of waterfalls streaming down the mountainside.

The first part of the downhill ride was steep and on a bit of crushed rock, which freaked me out since I didn’t really want to skid to my death in Norway. But the path soon turned to pavement, and I was able to release my clawlike grip on the brakes and cruise downhill.

I only passed a handful of other riders, some going uphill – definitely the wrong way, in my opinion. Toward the bottom, I rode through the quaint village of old Flam with its clapboard houses and wooden stave church from the 1600s. The ride typically lasts two to three hours, depending on how many times you stop – something I recommend you do often, just to soak it all in.

The train ride was part of Fjord Tours’ popular Norway in a Nutshell tour, a journey by rail, boat and bus through the country’s stunning UNESCO-protected fjord and mountain scenery. My trip began in Bergen, the first Norwegian capital in the early Middle Ages, when the city was a popular trading port. It would end in Norway’s modern capital, Oslo, on the east coast of this panoramic and sparsely populated Scandinavian nation.

The highly customizable Norway in a Nutshell trip is designed with independent travelers in mind. It can be a day tour, or you can build in overnight stays and activities along the route. Do yourself a favor, and take your time; spend the night in some of the lovely fjord towns, where you can relax and enjoy the idyllic setting in peace after the tour boats head out.

I spent an extra night in the charming village of Ulvik, surrounded by mountains and situated at the end of the Ulvikafjord, an arm of the Hardangerfjord. The Brakanes Hotel, circa 1860, is like a slice of “Dirty Dancing,” complete with its whitewashed, old-timey resort feel and a gorgeous backyard right on the water’s edge.

Ulvik is a great jumping-off point for hikes, glacier treks, cycling and fjord adventures. It also boasts a cider route that takes you to the fields and tasting rooms of three fruit farms clinging to the hills above town. The small, family-run Syse Gard cider farm has been in operation for several generations. Buy homemade apple juice (the best I’ve ever tasted – like drinking an actual apple), jams, and cured and smoked meats out of their cute shop. Just down the road, Nils Lekve runs a slightly bigger operation at Hardanger Cider, making his own alcoholic cider and apple brandy. Both offer guided tours and tastings;

When I safely arrived back in Flam after my bike ride, I checked out the train’s history and learned how the tracks were carved into the mountainside at the free Flam Railway Museum. Besides the train, this year-round destination has tons of outdoor activities, including hiking, biking and kayaking.

“I love sea kayaking because it’s peaceful and you can see things from a perspective you don’t get while walking or driving,” said Noora, my kayaking guide for the afternoon. Njord Kayaks offers several different tours of the picturesque fjord area around Flam starting at about $80;

My last day, I took the train back up the mountain to Myrdal, but this time, I changed trains at the top and headed down the other side toward Oslo. Once again, there was Huldra, singing and swaying.

Even though I knew to expect her, I couldn’t take my eyes off of this mythical wood nymph. I was under her Norwegian spell.

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