By Corey Sandler
Our last calls in Norway are two small settlements in a spectacular fjord, in many ways an encapsulation of the history and legends of the country.
We began with an early morning visit to Vik, on the southern shore of the Sognefjorden. Like much of Norway, it is a tiny settlement in an outsized setting. The municipality spreads across 833 square kilometers or 322 square miles, with about 2,700 residents.
A thousand years ago or so, this fjord was a thoroughfare for the Vikings.
These days, cruise ships pass by pretty regularly in the summer. Most are headed directly for Flåm, but from time to time, one of them stops for a while in Vik.
I went with guests on a day-long trip from Vik, up into the mountains and then across the top by railroad and then down the hill to Flåm. Our first visit was to the very impressive Hopperstad Church, first erected about the year 1130. It is probably the oldest stave church in the world, and a living bridge between Viking mythology and Christian belief.
Here is some of what we saw there:
About lunchtime, our ship sailed around the corner to the even smaller settlement of Flåm, famous for its scenery and its railroad that ascends from the sea toward the sky.
The village of Flåm is at the end of the Aurlandsfjord, a small arm of the spectacular Sognefjord from the Norwegian Sea.
Flåm has been a tourist attraction since the late 19th century.
Truth be told, though: the port is basically a train station, a ferry slip, a cruise dock, and a few gift shops.
About 500,000 visitors come each year by ship or train; about 175 cruise ships come each summer.
The 20-kilometer (12-mile) Flåmsbana railway rises from the town at sea level to the high village of Myrdal on the steepest standard gauge railway in Europe. The maximum rise or gradient is about 5.6 percent; up 863 meters or 2,831 feet_(1:18) through 20 tunnels and across one bridge.
The trip takes about an hour each way, churning up the mountain at 40 kilometers or 25 miles per hour. Going down, they apply the brakes to keep the speed to 30 kilometers or 19 miles per hour.
There’s a spectacular waterfall about halfway down the mountain, which is high praise for a place like Norway. And, just for us, a huldra, a temptress of the forest emerged. I–and the other men in our group–barely escaped.
The idea for the train arose in the 1890s, when trade and tourism was beginning to grow in this part of Norway. But the technology was not yet ready, and construction only began in 1936.
After Germany occupied Norway in 1940, the line was completed. Germany wanted the railway to support their military aims as well as export of raw materials.
After the war, steam engines were replaced by electric locomotives. And the industrial and agricultural products were replaced by tourists.
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