The warmer months around Gibraltar are great. It’s hot, there’s lots to do, and you can easily drive into Spain or Portugal to explore cities and beaches slightly further afield. You can even nip to Morocco for a change of scene. Everyone’s happy and everything is lovely. Suddenly, the clocks change, and the cold, black evenings of winter creep over us to dampen our spirits. We do our best to embrace it, with the festive lights of Christmas and New Year’s brightening the dark evenings and transforming the otherwise disheartening rainy days into a sight to behold. But a few weeks into January and we’re all fed up again: back to work, back to school, and it’s still cold and dark. With this in mind, January is the perfect to time take a holiday, and instead of running from the cold, why not embrace it entirely in the form of a Scandinavian mini break?
As it happens, a winter in the Norwegian city of Bergen may not be as cold as you think. The Gulf Stream keeps the picturesque, seaside setting relatively warm, and the surrounding mountains offer some protection from those fierce, icy winds. This combination means you can find yourself scores of degrees Celsius warmer than the inhabitants of the capital, Oslo (despite being roughly the same latitude). That’s Bergen one, Oslo nil. What else? Well, it might just be the most charming little city in the world. The colourful, traditional buildings which flank the harbour make for a beautiful centre-point, with snow-capped mountains or the stretching North Sea serving as a backdrop. Lovely. Another point for Bergen. There is, however, a saying in Norway: ‘In Bergen it only rain twice a year. July through to January and February to June.’
Let’s get all of the bad stuff out of the way and be done with it. Yes, it rains. A lot. You’ll fall over if you don’t have the proper footwear, you’ll freeze if you don’t have the right clothes, and most importantly, a beer can set you back ten of your finest British pounds. But Bergen remains an extremely popular destination with Foreigners and Norwegians alike. Apart from the city itself, there’s one other main reason people flock here: Fjords.
Norway has over 29,000 kilometres of coastline, but when you discount that which is made up of fjords, the number drops dramatically to around 2,500 kilometres. Without getting too scientific, there are a few differences between the English and Scandinavian languages understand of the word ‘fjord’. We have a specific scientific definition, which equates to something like ‘massive glacier pummels its way through the earth leaving a U-shaped valley in its wake’ (I may have abridged this). The Norwegians throw around the term a little more liberally. Any small inlet from the sea or long channel of water could qualify. Perhaps even a large enough puddle. I’m not well versed enough to know all the technicalities, so if you’re Norwegian, or a geologist, I’m sorry. Nevertheless, there are plenty of all types of fjord to be found here and Bergen acts as the hub to some of Norway’s best, with an international airport and direct flights from Malaga.
Preikestolen (or Pulpit Rock) has been named one of the world’s most spectacular viewing sights by Lonely Planet, and it’s easy to see why. This chunk of Norway towers 600 metres above the Lysefjord, with views of the hills interspersed with lakes below. Hiking up to the top will take 4 hours out of your day, where you’ll find yourself on a large, flat rock, sticking out like a massive plank with sheer drops on three of its sides. Walk as close to the edge as your dare; the Norwegian government has opted not to put up any fences so as not to distract from the area’s natural beauty. Keep in mind that Norwegians tend to have more respect for nature and the dangers it possesses than a lot of other nations, so most would agree with the government’s decision. From a higher vantage point or from below the rock, its flat vertical faces on each side look like they have been precisely cut with a samurai sword (though it’s probably more likely to do with ice expansion or erosion. Or melting). Preikestolen is far enough away from Bergen to warrant an overnight stay, with the fastest route from Bergen taking around 7 hours. Your best bet is to get the fast ferry to Stavanger, which is only a couple of hours from the hiking spot and serves as a decent place to put your head down.
Another overnight trip is required to see what is perhaps the most famous fjord in Norway; the Geirangerfjord. Wild waterfalls plunge straight into the narrow fjord from the vertical mountains rising straight out of the water, which can be viewed from a ferry, kayak, or raft as you make your way into this natural wonderland. The Seven Sisters are seven waterfalls (the clue is in the title) cascading down the rock face, and said to be dancing playfully while The Suitor (directly opposite) attempts to solicit them from the other side. The Bridal Veil is name so because as it’s backlit by the sun, the water falling delicately over the rock face forms the appearance of a thin veil. Expect rainbows.
The Wave, before visiting this UNESCO site.
The town of Geiranger will provide a bed for the night, local food created to match the scenic view from your window, and the fear of a tsunami. Yes. The area is under constant threat from the Akerneset mountain, which is about to collapse into the fjord creating a wave that could destroy the downtown area. Don’t watch the 2015 movie based on this scenario,
A final notable mention is Trolltunga, which is only about a 3 hour drive from Bergen with similar ice age related glacier breakage to thank for the angular formation we see today. The hike is demanding and not for the faint hearted. Proper consideration, along with equipment, should be taken before embarking on this trip, which will take at least 10 hours. The rock formation at the top juts out into the air 700 metres above Lake Ringedalsvatnet, arguably providing the most scenic view Norway has to offer, with an extreme version of the cliff/valley/lake combination. The Norwegian government is very keen to stress that this path should not be attempted during winter. Snow and Ice are to be expected in the trail most of the year round, covering the boulders and settling around the creeks and streams along the way. This time ten years ago, less than 500 tourists per year attempted the hike, this year it’ll be close to 100,000. Of course, the usual Norwegian belief of ‘no barriers or fences’ exists here.
If you’re more pressed for time there are day tour options right from Bergen harbour lasting 3 or 4 hours and costing around £50, which can sate your desire for fjord viewing without a long journey or hike. The cruise sails out of the harbour providing an elevated view of Bryggen, the old city of Bergen, before reaching the Osterfjord. You’ll find yourself surrounding by steep mountains as the fjord narrows, allowing a better view of the waterfalls, from which you may well be offered a refreshing drink. You can expect to find wildlife such as seals and eagles along the way too.
That’s probably enough use of the word fjord for one article. Back in Bergen itself, having been on the cruise you may wish to explore the old town further. Bergen was founded sometime before 1070, but a number of fires have meant that the remaining buildings are mainly from the 1700’s. The colourful shopfronts along the harbour provide you with some of your best holiday snaps, and the wooden houses just behind make for a pleasant stroll in the rain. To escape the rain but maintain your cultural streak, nip into the Bryggen Museum to find out more of the area you’ve been meandering around. If you’re planning on seeing a lot of sights on your trip, consider the ‘Bergen Card’ for free and discounted admission to various attractions throughout the city. For bonus culture, spot some Munch at the art museum.
Speaking of munch, head across the harbour to Fjellskål Fisketorget for some of the best fish soup the country has to offer to warm you up on a cold day, or visit the pier on a Saturday morning for the local street market where you’ll find a wide range of delicious and ethically questionable foodstuffs. After filling your face and an afternoon nap, you may want to sample some of the libations on offer. There are lots of quirky bars dotted around Bergen, which if stumbled upon in East London, would be branded ‘hipster’. No Stress bar does exactly what you’d expect at a fairly reasonable (for Norway) price, with the added touch of an in-house Nintendo 64 to have a quick Mario Kart battle while you sample the local lager.
Apparently the playwright born in Bergen, Ludvig Holberg, was inspired by Rome’s nickname ‘The City of Seven Hills’, and decided that his own city must be blessed with such a grand title. Today Bergen is often called ‘The City of Seven Mountains’, although exactly which seven is disputed by locals. With this nickname, it makes sense to get to the top of at least one of them. The funicular Fløibanen will take you right to the top of Mount Fløyen where you can look over the Bergen peninsula with islands and fjords littering the backdrop. The views from up here are the best of the city and will add to your envy-inducing Facebook album in the making. There are endless hiking option up here, and in the winter months the paths are floodlit and occasionally covered in snow (weather permitting), which makes for a very pleasant wintry setting. On the way down, you’ll be overtaken by locals who’ve hiked up with their sleds and skis; a great idea if you can get your hands on some.
Travellers who have flown into Oslo with a view to visiting Bergen or vice versa are in for a treat. The Bergen railway is six and a half hours of snowy mountains, foaming waterfalls, lakes, rivers, fjords, and glaciers. Every time you peer out of the window you’re met with a fresh view of a landscape that never gets old. It is no wonder this is often suggested to be the most beautiful train ride in the world. Take the earlier train to avoid the view disappearing into darkness towards the end, and most certainly don’t opt for an overnight cabin unless you hate nature. As the line climbs over 1,200 metres, the snow on the ground becomes more abundant, as does your sense of gratitude that you weren’t one of the workers tasked with building a train track over this terrain. If you haven’t chosen to fly into Oslo but like the sound of this experience, or if you’re just short on time in general, fear not. There is a solution for you too.
The ‘Norway in a Nutshell’ tour attempts to encompass everything you’ve come to the country for. Designed to be specifically breathtaking in the winter, you’ll take various trains and a bus through the stunning Norwegian countryside (including part of the Bergen railway). The trip is offered as a day tour, but there is the option for an overnight stay in various locations along the way, each offering their own list of additional activities to make the tour even better.
Voss is the place to get your fix of extreme sport. The usual suspects of skydiving and paragliding are on offer due the appealing panoramics, and the rivers provide plenty of white water for you to brave the temperatures and indulge in river sports such as rafting or kayaking. If you feel like being confined to the safety of a boat with paddles is too mundane for you, there’s always river boarding – where you just fling yourself down the rapids on a bodyboard and hope for the best. Kite surfers aren’t the only thing in the air above Lake Vangsvatnet; Parabungy has the same premise of regular bungy jumping with a twist. Suspended at 180 metres from a flying parasail, you can now bungy jump with the additional sensation of flying. Nope, nope, nope. Voss also has all the regular winter sports you’d expect from a Norwegian mountain town as well as various hiking options to see fjords, waterfalls and more.
For a more relaxing stopover, try Flåm, where fishing on the river and admiring the view is a more popular activity. From here you can also hike to Nærøyfjord, which has the narrowest fjord in the world, shrinking to just 250 metres wide at one point. Quite the view with towering mountains on either side. This is also the spot to follow the Rallarvegen cycle route through the mountains and over rivers. Sometimes you get tired of the same methods of travel; Trains, buses, bikes… it’s all so normal. Further down the itinerary on the Norway in a Nutshell tour is the Geilo, where you can get from A to B by dog. The base camp for this husky sledding trip is based a few kilometres away from the town in a little place called Skurdalen. Here it’s just you, the dogs, and the view. Dog sledding is both the most fun you can have and the most cold you can possibly be. The weather here in the winter is extremely chilly and although they provide warm overalls if needed (they will be), be sure to bring your own three or four pairs of gloves if you still want your fingers by the end of it.
As always when you go away, there’s enough to do and see here to fill a month-long holiday, not just a long weekend. Your entire time could be well spent in Bergen, relaxing in the cafes and wandering the cobbled streets. If you have three or four days, it’s definitely worth opting for the fjord cruise and the Norway in a Nutshell tour to effectively flashpack the area and keep your camera loaded with gems. This wintry wonderland getaway is sure to put a smile on your face to last until the summer sun returns to Gibraltar, at which point, we can all start to think about new travel destinations to avoid the heat…