07/07/2017 - 07/09/2017
We had dawdled so long at the playground and the noodle shop in Oslo that I was worried we weren't going to make it to our first inland destination before it closed. The Gaustabanen cable railway was constructed in the 1950's by blasting a tunnel straight through the heart of 6200 foot Mt. Gausta, in order to simplify access to a NATO radio tower that had been erected at the summit. The radio tower was rendered obsolete by the end of the Cold War, but the railway has been renovated for the purpose of tourism. The views from the summit were reportedly spectacular. Gaustabanen's closing time was listed as 6 PM, but I was worried that we would arrive after five only to be told the last funicular of the day had already departed. I kept a watchful eye on the clock as we zipped westward from Oslo, first on the E134 highway and then on the smaller and twistier 37. Our route took us through some beautiful landscape of rolling hills blanketed with low-lying vegetation.
We arrived just before five, but I needn't have worried. The Gaustabanen runs on an as-needed basis right up until six. We were the only ones there when we arrived, so after buying our tickets we were guided directly to the blue train that runs horizontally into the heart of the mountain where the funicular awaits. Fortunately, I didn't let myself be fooled by the mild temperatures at the base of the mountain and we all got layered up into the the warmest clothes we had brought with us. Once we arrived at the top, the wind gusts made us thankful for every fiber of material that came between our skin and the elements. Unfortunately, there was absolutely no visibility at the summit. The mist was so thick I was afraid to let go of the kids thinking that if they took more than two steps away they would disappear completely. Despite the lack of a view, I was glad we'd made it to Gaustabanen in time to have our adventure.
From Gaustabanen it was just a short, scenic drive to our cabin in Rauland. It was a very comfortable place with a wood-burning stove, which I was grateful not to have to utilize in the relatively balmy July weather.
We found an appetizing restaurant nearby on TripAdvisor, but despite arriving just after seven we found it already closed. The few other restaurants listed nearby didn't seem to exist, and we soon found ourselves contemplating eating service station sausages for dinner. We finally found someone who clued us into a summer resort that had a dinner buffet, which proved to be awful with the highlight being cold and greasy pizza. The kids didn't mind it however, which was the most important thing. There were plenty of games for them as well. We had a good sleep in the cabin and had a little walk around the campsite in the morning. The cabins had sod roofs which were thick with grass and small plants. We could see farmhouses and barns scattered around the scruffy little lake nearby. When we checked out, I was surprised to see a fairly elaborate skate park behind the main lodge.
The westward drive proceeded slowly, partly because of the winding one-lane road and partly because we couldn't seem to stay in the car. It seemed like every time we rounded a curve, there was a new spectacular view that we had to get out and take pictures of. We were excited to see snow on the ground, which as Floridians we're not very familiar with. Eventually we found some patches that were big enough for the kids to get out and play in. It was Ian's first time ever touching snow, and Cleo's second after Andorra the previous year. It was hard to get them back in the car. Later on, we began to see some flocks of sheep on the hillsides and some in the middle of the road as well.
In the late afternoon we passed through Odda, a small town at the very tip of the Sørfjorden branch of the famous Hardangerfjord. We had finally reached the fjords of the west coast, although we were still an hour and a half from our final stop of the day. Odda is best known for the Låtefossen waterfall where two separate falls join together just as the water courses under the bridge we drove in on. Odda is also the jumping off point for hikes to Trolltunga, one of the best known rock formations in Norway that for many reasons was not even remotely close to being on our list of things to see.
We decided to take a quick look around the town of Odda and were lucky to find a small road that ascended to the top of a hill that was the home of the Vikinghaug apartments. The views over the valley and fjord beneath us were breathtaking.
Our final leg of the drive was almost entirely alongside Sørfjorden. We took a couple more stops to admire some orchards and pick cherries at a campsite. Finally, after a long day of driving and communing with nature, we arrived in Vossvangen.
Vossvangen was a small town as well but it was big enough to have a small downtown and some decent restaurants for the tourists who pass through the area. We had a good seafood dinner at Malin Restaurant & Sushibar and then scoped out the train station where we would begin our Norway in a Nutshell tour in the morning. This would be the only part of our trip that we had prearranged. These tours are generally considered to be the best way for DIY travelers to see the fjords and scenery of Norway's west coast. We had signed up for the original tour, which would take us into the Aurlandsfjorden and Nærøyfjorden branches of Sognefjorden, the largest fjord in Norway.
One of the good things about the Norway in a Nutshell tours is that they're very flexible. You can begin the tour in several different cities on the route, and begin the round trip in either direction. We started with the two train trips, first to Myrdal via the Bergen railway and then to Flåm via the Flåm railway. The Flåm railway was the more interesting of the two, with distinctive throwback cars and beautiful scenery visible from either side along the route. At one point the train stopped at a viewing platform for one of the larger waterfalls in the area.
In Flåm we had a two hour layover before catching the fjord cruise. We didn't really see much in the way of a town there at all, but rather a cluster of restaurants and boutiques around the cruise ship dock. The setting was quite beautiful with green mountains and cliffs surrounding the serene fjord. Even the huge cruise ship looked sleek and colorful, if somewhat incongruous in the bucolic surroundings.
We had a very good lunch of traditional Norwegian food at Bakkastova Cafe . We let the kids stretch their legs in a rather quirky little playground near the water and then headed to the dock area. There we found a miniature village of food vendors and craft sellers. The seafood stew was so enticing we couldn't resist it, even though we'd just had lunch and the prices were hair-raising.
The cruise itself was fairly sedate, with the expected views of charming coastal villages and imposing cliffsides that rose right from the shoreline. People on the deck were hand-feeding seagulls which hovered against the splendid backdrop.
The last leg of the tour was a bus ride from Gudvangen back to Voss, which was most notable for the bloodcurdling ride down a steep mountain road filled with hairpin turns and views of waterfalls on either side. I was lucky enough to get the shotgun seat which felt somewhat like being on a roller coaster at an amusement park.
Finally we found ourselves back at our car in Voss with all our bags still safely inside. The kids were able to relax in their familiar car seats while I began the hour and a half drive to Bergen.