Norway! Exploring Flåm: Borgund Stave Church and Stegastein Outlook

When we booked our Norway in a Nutshell tour, we modified it slightly so that we could spend a day exploring Flåm and the surrounding area.

After a good night’s sleep and a great breakfast at the Freitheim Hotel, we looked outside from the upstairs hotel sunroom to see that a cruise ship had arrived early that morning (note the trains on the left below the yellow building and the ship at the right).

We left our hotel and decided to wander around Flåm a bit before meeting our driver that we had arranged the night before.

Flåm is quite small and cute. There is a place to rent bikes and kayaks, the dock to hop a ferry or take a fjord safari, a couple restaurants, and a gift shop:

Getting around the area is non-trivial. People typically arrive by train or ship (ferry or cruise ship), and there are few options for getting out and about. There is a bus, but the schedule did not work for the times and places we wanted to visit. We called a taxi company from Aurland, the next town up the fjord, and hired a car for the day. Aurland Taxi has three cars. Three.

Our driver was awesome!  He was very knowledgable about everything and anything we asked, so we really lucked out.  This was one of his 3 jobs: driving taxis, driving cargo at 3AM across the Snow Road, and head cheese maker at a local goat cheese farm. He went to college to be a food technician and microbiologist.

Flåm is surrounded by steep fjords, and there are 3 ways in or out: by rail, by boat, or by car. The road traffic relies on a network of tunnels through the fjords. Norway has over 900 tunnels.

Almost as soon as we left Flåm, we entered our first tunnel. We’ll call it our starter tunnel. It was short: only 1.3km:



The Lærdal Tunnel

After a short drive past the first tunnel we arrived at the mother of all tunnels, the Lærdal Tunnel – the longest roadway tunnel in the world.  It is 24.5 km (15+ miles) long and took about 5 years and over $100 million to build with drilling machines starting at both ends.  It bypasses the Snow Road, which goes over the top of the mountain and can have several meters of snow piled up on either side during the winter.   The tunnel provides a reliable year-round route for traffic, supplies, and even internet.   The tunnel is monitored remotely from Oslo for speeding (they take a photo at the first kilometer and again at the end and measure the time it takes you to go between them), air quality, and other traffic related issues.  

At 5km, 12.5k, and ~18k, there are areas lit with blue light in which you can pull over. Signs mark the distance to go and the distance back:

After about 10 minutes, we had reached the halfway point designated by this 13 up / 12 back sign:


And the blue light:

One more blue light rest stop met us before we got out:

Another 10 minutes and we finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel:

The other side was bright and green.

We continued another 10 minutes onto our first stop, the Borgund Stave Church. We pulled into the visitor’s center across the street:

 

Borgund Church

The Borgund Church is one of 28 remaining stave churches.  The original building and lumber date back to 1180 AD.  

To weatherproof the building, the wood was covered with tar that was made from pine sap and ashes.  The church smells like a campfire when you walk in and around it.  The wood is dark brown to black.  Not surprising, this tarring technique was also used on Viking ships!

The church is really spectacular from any angle:

After passing through the ornate entrance, the interior is surprisingly simple.

 

Visting Borgund makes you feel like you are  in a scene for Lord of the Rings.  The building is so tiny and the timber is so black that you can easily imagine being here in 1200 AD with candles and fires lit.

After much oohing and ahhing at the church, we piled back into the van and headed to our second stop which is over the infamous Snow Road that is the route over the Lærdal Tunnel. The snow banks can be 30 feet tall on either side of the road, and often the road is impassible.

Snow Road

As we climbed up the foothills of the Snow Road, the landscape changed much like it had on the Bergen train as we gained elevation from leafy green plants to moss over a rocky moraine to patches of snow.


The weather became much colder and darker and a little wetter.  Sheep are the only ones brave enough to weather it up here.  Sheep and an occasional cyclist or hiker.

 

Up on top, snow still persists in the colder climate with lakes of small icebergs:



 

The weather got a little worse with some sleet / rain / snow as we peaked over the summit. The snow banks on either side of the road spoke to the persistence of cold up here, however, they were still much lower than the fabled 30 feet high snow banks in the winter:


We should mention again that one of the jobs of our taxi driver (besides driving a taxi and being a food chemist for a goat cheese farm) is driving cargo over the snow road.

The road hair-pinned as we lost elevation onto the other side:

The greenery and warmth returned, as did the houses and farms (and a few sheep).

And the snow capped peaks of the fjord walls came into view:

After winding our way down the hill, we arrived at Stegatein, an amazing outlook over the fjord:

 

Stegastein

We stopped at Stegastein Outlook/Lookout for a view over Aurland and the fjord.  This lookout was designed with modern elements, almost floating the viewers over the space on laminated beams, ending with a curved downward bend like a ski jump, and terminated with a clear glass.  Very cool!

And the views of the fjord below are spectacular.

With cruise ships and ferries dwarfed by the high cliffs:

Here are some more gratuitous photos of Stegastein including a shot from out to in:


We returned to our hotel and got a simple bite to eat: open face sandwich with lettuce, tomato, cucumbers, butter, and Jarlsberg cheese on homemade bread with some amber ale from the local brewery:

We spent the rest of the afternoon on a bike ride up the fjord from Flåm:



Back in Flåm, the afternoon views did not disappoint:

We popped into the gift shop for a visit with a local troll:

We ended the evening with a dinner of fresh local salmon at the train car restaurant:

We are headed to Bergen tomorrow morning via ferry and bus…

Happy RTW Travels!

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