How could I have known, when I left the most beautiful fjord in Norway, that the scenery would only get better?
The spectacular beauty of the Geirangerfjord was everything I’d hoped for. And I expected it to be. After all, I saw plenty of pictures as we charted our preferred itinerary through Norway, and besides, doesn’t Norway = fjords and fjords = Norway?
So I thought.
Advance warning for this travel-blog cliché: There’s a lot more to this country than fjords. Yes, yes, you say. Now she’ll run through Norway attractions that supplement – but never quite compare to – a trip to the fjords.
No. Instead I will say this: While the beauty of the fjords was breathtaking, the drama of its interiors – especially when combined with the world-class architectural installations of the Geiranger-Trollstigen National Tourist Route – was transcendent.
However, you won’t have to forego seeing the fjords on this route, because it passes two of them during its trajectory in an area known as Fjord Norway:
The 106-kilometer motorway starts south of Geiranger at the Langevatnet lake and continues north past the UNESCO World Heritage listed Geirangerfjord, includes a ferry crossing of the Storfjord, continues up to and along the famous Trollstigen Mountain Road – the “troll’s ladder” – before ending at the Sogge bridge in Romsdalen valley, near the town of Åndalsnes.
These are the highlights, from south to north:
This is not part of the official route, but it’s a view you don’t want to miss. Turn off at the Nibbevegen toll road to arrive at this lookout 1500 meters above sea level:
We featured this spectacular natural lookout – a jutting rock suspended over meters and meters of nothing – in our post on Geiranger, but didn’t include the architectural installations (landscape architect Arne Smedsvig):
Translated as “the Eagle Road,” this stretch rises 620 meters up from Geiranger and includes 11 hairpin bends. The installation pays homage to the fjord’s many waterfalls, and its position induces dizziness as your head swings left, right, and left again. To the left is the abrupt end of the fjord, where the little town of Geiranger is backed by fairytale mountains whose contours appear to churn and whirl. To the right, an eternal view down the fjord to the next bend, each succeeding cliffside and mountaintop a different shade of blue-gray or blue-green (depending on the time of year and the weather), with foamy waterfalls plunging into startlingly vibrant water. (Architects: 3 RW – Sixten Rahlff)
The swirling Valldøla River crashes through a rocky bit of earth causing a deep, narrow waterfall and gorge, and a wiry pathway winds slowly over and around it. Like its Trollstigen neighbor up the road, these walkways are purposely designed not to lead you quickly from Point A to Point B. Instead, the walk inspires contemplative reflection upon the surroundings. If you should also wish to ponder the miracles of nature and our place in the cosmos, well, by all means…
(Architects: Jensen and Skodvin)
Juvet Landscape Hotel
Just steps from the Gudbrandsjuvet, this one-of-a-kind hotel is part of the tourist route project but only open to guests. Minimalist, dark interiors combined with floor-to-ceiling glass ensure that the landscape takes center stage. There is much more to say here, but since we’ll be reviewing Norway’s landscape hotel in the weeks to come, let’s switch to the visual:
(Architects: Jensen & Skodvin (JSA))
The Trollstigen plateau
The only thing I’ve seen that comes close to this landscape is the Himalayas. As you ascend the foothills, boulders take gargantuan proportions and peaks appear freshly chiseled, as if a sculptor had struck the first blow and then simply walked away. What water can do in the form of glacial shifts is astounding.
Here you are, here are the rocks, here is the wind. A line of matchsticks – actually 4-meter poles that define the road during the heavy snows of winter – is the only sign of civilization. In my lifetime, we probably won’t see the interplanetary travel I dreamt about as a child. This – the Trollstigen Plateau – is as close as I’ll get.
And then suddenly, it is over. The plateau ends abruptly, like Niagara Falls without the water (actually, there is a waterfall here, but why ruin a good simile?). It’s the perfect opportunity for another lookout, and here rests one of the most spectacular architectural projects in Norway, built with materials that can withstand the brutal winters. At the edge of the cantilevered lookout, there is nothing but a clear balcony wall. As if that weren’t enough, the floor is actually a grate, providing a glimpse of the vertical space between you and the valley straight below.
(Architect: Reiulf Ramstad)
About the National Tourist Route project
In total, 18 tourist routes combine Norway’s most scenic drives through varied and magnificent scenery with works by both young and renowned Norwegian architects, turning ordinary stretches of highway into major attractions.
It was devised both as a tourism development project – providing a complete travel destination (picnic areas, cafes, restrooms, shops) to lure more visitors to the country’s interior and entice a brand of tourists interested in culture and art – and a public works project – providing beautiful spaces and outlooks for both locals and tourists, plus economic development for Norway’s small towns.
Its success with both is a model for other communities around the world.
As a contributor to tourism, I’m deeply cognizant of the fact that laissez-faire tourism policies – implying minimal government oversight – have had devastating consequences to local communities and ecosystems around the world. Balancing the benefits and detriments of tourism is an extremely difficult but imminently critical endeavor of any tourism-associated economy.
This particular project impressed me not just with the finished product, but with the concept. There is so much here that exemplifies the people of this special nation:
- Love of nature – these are consummate outdoorsmen and women who prioritze environmental conservation and cherish the beauty of their lands
- Egalitarianism – as we’ll explore in a later post, there exists a deep underlying belief that nature should be open to all
- Culturally sophisticated – the country brims with Scandinavian design, cultural fairs, and culinary exploration
- National pride – Flags are prevalent throughout the countryside, and foreign brands and chain stores have problems piercing the national market
- Long-range thinking – With its new oil wealth, the country has invested in its citizens, to the tune of over $100,000 per capita. According to Reuters, in 2009 Norway’s sovereign wealth fund owned 1% of global stocks.
Imagine being the first person you know that has visited the Grand Canyon. Upon returning home, you do your best to convince your friends that this place is really, truly worth seeing. Photos are nice, but there’s a magnificence that doesn’t translate and an energy that needs to be experienced. That has been my plight in this post, and I hope I’ve succeeded.
If I were asked to recommend just one off the beaten path destination (I use that phrase so regularly on this site. Should we just shorten it to OTBP?), this is it. Of all the things to do and places to visit in Norway, this to me marks the culmination of Norwegian travel. Next time you’re fortunate enough to visit this very, very special corner of the planet, make sure to explore at least one of these shrines to nature and to responsible stewardship.
For Norway travel information about this tour of Norway and others, with gorgeous photos, maps, itinerary planning and detailed route information, head to the official website
**Special thanks to the invaluable guidance of the Geiranger Tourist Office