Hewn by the handiwork of ice ages past, Norway’s longest fjord is a stunner. Anthony Ham helps you explore its heights, depths and hidden crannies
I fell irretrievably in love with Sognefjord the first time I laid eyes on her. It’s not that I was unprepared – I’d been travelling in Norway for weeks and had seen my fair share of fjords. But Sognefjord was something different altogether – a true landscape of the gods, and one of those rare places where the reality surpasses even the most hopeful imagination.
That first glimpse – the sheer drama of the rock faces, epic in scale; the high green meadows inhabited by remote outposts of human settlement; the snow on the high peaks, even in summer – has never left me. And yet, with a clamour of voices rising around me and cruise ships lined up along the waterway, my first experience of Sognefjord was of a wilderness in every way but one: it seemed in danger of being loved to death.
I was in a hurry, en route from one fjord to another, and took the tourist boat from Flåm to Gudvangen, all the while planning a more tranquil return. On my next visit, I forsook the well-trodden paths and travelled by quiet back roads. If my first glimpse had begun the love affair, it was in the solitude of my return that the grandeur of Sognefjord truly became an experience of child-like wonder.
High above the fjords, and with cow bells from the meadows providing the only soundtrack – that was the moment when Sognefjord became a lifelong passion.
Look at any map of Norway’s deeply fissured coastline and it appears as if the earth has shattered under the force of some great impact –which is not that far from the truth.
Hundreds of thousands of years ago, western Norway was home to a range of mountains as high as the Himalaya, crowned with an ice sheet more than 2,000m thick. As the climate warmed following the last Ice Age, the astonishing weight of retreating ice gouged the fjords into impossibly deep valleys.
With such a vast quantity of melting ice from the disappearing glaciers, water levels rose and the ocean flooded into the newly created valleys. This is why the fjords – ocean inlets rather than lakes – are characterised not only by vertiginous above-ground rock faces more than 1km high, but also by extraordinary below-water depths: the bed of Sognefjord is 1,308m below the water’s surface.
From the eighth to the 11th centuries the seemingly impenetrable fjords provided the perfect base for the Vikings: no enemy dared pursue them into their fortress-like heartland. With the Vikings long gone, the first tourists to the fjords arrived in the region aboard a Thomas Cook cruise ship in the 1870s.
It’s green and it’s handy – use trains, kayaks and Shanks’ pony to get out and explore.
If time is tight, the one- to three-day Sognefjord in a Nutshell round-trip from Bergen is the most popular option, with a stunning train descent to the fjord and a tourist cruise through some of the fjord’s most spectacular sections (www.fjord-tours.com; 1,115Nkr/£106 for the one-day option).
You can also adapt the itinerary: make it a longer round-trip from Oslo or as an excursion en route between Oslo and Bergen. Either way, it’s all a bit rushed and you’ll share the journey with hundreds of others, although it’s a convenient way to get a taste, and its use of public transport is environmentally friendly.
With more time, Sognefjord is best explored under your own steam. The tourist offices throughout the Sognefjord region are fantastic resources. Often staffed in summer by young Norwegians who are themselves keen travellers, they can, of course, sell you tickets for the most popular tourist boats, and put you in contact with private companies offering everything from bicycle rental to small-group activities-based excursions.
But they’re just as adept at providing maps and pointing you in the direction of little-known hiking trails that snake up to the upper slopes above the fjords. Among the most convenient tourist offices are those at Flåm and Aurland.
One way to leave behind the gathering hordes is to join a sea-kayaking excursion on Sognefjord offered by the Bergen-based Njord. Possibilities from mid-June to August (off-season trips available on request) range from two-hour paddles to three-day expeditions.
If you’re considering hiking and you’re willing to be self-sufficient, keep in mind the 1,000-year-old Norwegian law known as allemannsretten, which translates as ‘every man’s right’. Under the law, anyone may, among other things, hike across uncultivated wilderness areas and camp anywhere for up to two days, as long as they’re more than 150m from somebody’s home; fires must not be lit between mid-April and mid-September. What this means in practice is that there are very few places along Sognefjord’s shores that aren’t yours to explore and then camp for the night.
Flåm has its charms, but use it as your gateway rather than a place to linger. Hiking trails lead along the fjord’s shoreline to Aurland, a leisurely, beautiful walk; you can also rent canoes to make the same journey by water.
Aurland is quieter than Flåm and the views are arguably better. It’s also the trailhead for numerous treks that can only go up, among them one that climbs 8km up the Snøvegen (Snow Road) to a state-of-the-art observation deck that offers some of the best views in Norway’s fjord country.
Detailed hiking maps are available from Aurland’s tourist office. Consider also renting a boat in Aurland to take you across the water to Undredal, one of the loveliest and quietest villages in the area, and hike up into the surrounding meadows.
If the fjords are Norway’s most recognisable natural feature, its wooden stave churches – medieval flights of fancy – are their human-inspired counterpoint. Of Norway’s 28 remaining stave churches, four are to be found around the Sognefjord region. Lærdal makes a good starting point. Before setting out, stop by the impressive Wild Salmon Centre, and consider renting a boat or bicycle in town to explore this little-visited corner of Sognefjord.
Thirty kilometres south-east of Lærdal, the 12th-century Borgund Stave Church is a stunning introduction to this architectural form. Across the fjord, Kaupanger church has exceptional mural decorations, while Urnes church has wooden carvings that seem to spring from the most tortured imagination.
The stave churches at Kaupanger and Urnes have lovely fjord-side locations, as does Hopperstad church near Vik, Norway’s second-oldest stave church (around 1130), away to the south-west. Although you could, with unlimited time, reach these four stave churches by public transport, your best bet is to rent a car.
The dramatic effect of Sognefjord owes as much to the stirring heights of the surrounding high country as it does to the depth of the fjords; this one-day driving excursion allows you to experience the best of both worlds.
From Sogndal, the Rv55 snakes along the shore of Lustrafjord, one of Sognefjord’s most beautiful arms, before climbing to Turtagrø and into the Jotunheimen National Park, which has over 60 glaciers and 275 snow-clad summits above 2,000m. The Rv55 better known as the Sognefjellet Road, is northern Europe’s highest, built in 1939 by the hard labour of Norway’s unemployed youth. It’s a gateway to some of Norway’s most popular hiking trails.
The road continues down to Lom, with its stunning stave church. Returning to Turtagrø, take the signs to Årdal for the narrow ribbon of tarmac known as Tindevegen, the ‘Route of the Peaks’, which climbs to over 1,300m before dropping dramatically to the water’s edge at Årdalsvatnet. The Rv53 then leads to Fodnes, where a ferry takes you across to Sognefjord’s far shore for the drive back to Sogndal.
Jostedalsbreen, the largest icecap in mainland Europe, provides the perfect complement to the ice-blue waters and snow-capped peaks of Sognefjord. Up to 600m thick and covering an area of 487 sq km, Jostedalsbreen is also
a poignant reminder of the threats faced by the world’s glaciers – until 2006 it was defying the trend and actually growing, but it has since begun what appears to be an irreversible retreat.
From Sognefjord, Fjærland, at the northern tip of the picturesque Fjærlandsfjorden (an arm of Sognefjord), offers the most easily accessible glimpse of Jostedalsbreen in the form of two stunning glacial tongues. The downside? It’s so easily accessible that it draws more than 300,000 visitors a year.
Visit Fjærland, but do so in conjunction with a detour to the beautiful Jostedalen, north of Gaupne (the latter sits on the Sognefjord arm of Lustrafjord). Just north of Gjerde, 34km north of Gaupne along the Rv604, the Breheimsenteret visitor centre is the place to organise glacier walks, pony treks, kayaking and canyoning, all of which enable you to get up close and personal with the glaciers.
Harald Vatne, retired teacher and part-time Sognefjord guide
Are the changes that have taken place in Sognefjord during the past 50 years a good thing?
The decrease in population, the abandonment of many farms and the introduction of new means of mass communication such as TV and, above all, broadband has been of great importance.
The tourists now help to keep the local shops, boat and bus companies going, and many people hope that tourism will help some of the rural areas to survive. It has been exciting to witness a revival of the activity on the fjord. This reminds us of the old days when steamers from Bergen travelled the fjord several times
What’s the best thing about living in Sognefjord?
We live close in small villages and everything is within walking distance. This makes social contact easy. Where I live it takes only half an hour to drive from the fjord up to more than 1,000m above sea level. In May I can go skiing in the mountains and enjoy fruit blossoming by the fjord on the same day.
How do you escape the crowds in Sognefjord?
I get away from the main road and, even better, I go where the car cannot.
What is Sognefjord’s best-kept secret?
In our area I would say have to say Mørkridsdalen. It doesn’t have the highest peaks like Jotunheimen, but it has wonderful scenery with glaciers, rivers and spectacular waterfalls.