DOMBAS — “Look at the waterfall,” I called to my friends from my seat on the left-hand side of the Rauma Railway coach, one leg of our day-long journey northwest from Oslo into fiord country.
Patti laughed. “There are two over here,” she called back from her seat on the right. We were fast discovering that Norway has more than enough scenery — and waterfalls — for everyone. The journey aboard the Rauma Railway was a harbinger of sights to come.
We had come to see fiords, the narrow fingers of water left behind by retreating glaciers. But instead of a traditional cruise that would leave us shipbound, we decided to take day cruises from several small villages with interesting histories. That way we could drink in Norway’s natural beauty and still have time to meet the hardy people — descendants of Vikings, we were reminded more than once -—who inhabit this landscape that seems as much water as terra firma.
The train ride hadn’t been high on our radar, but it turned out to be a stunner. In about 90 minutes the red and silver coaches descend 969 feet through the mountains to sea level. The journey started out innocently as we spied sheep grazing in gentle Vermont-like pastures. But soon the rounded hills gave way to steep, rocky peaks as the train followed a fast-moving river before twisting through a series of hairpin turns carved into the mountainsides. Scenery to the right, scenery to the left: We hardly knew where to look.
“Come back in the winter when you can see moonlight on the snow,” the conductor told us as we said goodbye and toted our bags to the bus that would deliver us to the port of Alesund. The quirky town mixes a marine air (most of Norway’s salt cod exports pass through here) with a surprising Art Nouveau grace. Spread across three islands, it’s a perfect jumping-off point for cruising the fiords.
The full-day adventure from Alesund organized by 62° NORD was our hands-down favorite. We snapped photos to our hearts’ content as we traveled through two fiords. We even had time to linger in the tiny village where one of the fiords begins its journey to the sea.
As soon as we boarded the sleek excursion boat, we followed the lead of our fellow passengers and grabbed chairs on the sunny deck. But we didn’t sit long. Once we entered the Hjorundfiord, which cuts through a mountain range, we jumped up to prowl the ship for the best views of the peaks and valleys. Powerful families were said to have lived here during the Viking age, but tourists didn’t arrive until the first hotel was built in the 1880s. The fiord remains remote. Boat sheds stand at the water’s edge and small farms, many abandoned, claim the few flat spots. Our ship clipped along as the fiord drew us in and held us close.
Speed seemed to be the order of the day. When we arrived at the dock in Oye about 75 minutes later, a bus was waiting to take us overland to the car ferry that traverses the Geirangerfiord. Our speedy ship had arrived a few minutes late and the bus driver warned us that he would have to make haste along the winding road. He was visibly relieved as we reached our destination and scrambled onto the ferry as it was about to depart.
The Geirangerfiord is one of the two West Norwegian fiords named to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2005. The 10-mile-long, S-shaped fiord is one of the longest, deepest, and narrowest in the world. The trip on the Hjorundfiord had been an exhilarating rush, but this big and lumbering ferry set a more stately pace. Hypnotic folk music issued from loudspeakers as we waved to kayakers and scanned the steep mountainsides for farms. The story goes that one farmer had to reach his fields by ladder and tethered his children when they went out to play so that they wouldn’t tumble into the deep blue fiord.
Fortunately, we were standing at the prow of the ship when we passed the Seven Sisters on our left. This group of seven 820-foot-high waterfalls plunges straight into the fiord. Opposing them on the right was the lonely Suitor, a shorter but equally dramatic single waterfall that splits into two streams along a rocky outcrop.
The fiord peters out at the tiny settlement of Geiranger where the year-round population of about 250 can swell to 8,000 during the summer cruising season. The practical folks of Geiranger take their visitors in stride. We ate open-faced shrimp sandwiches in a restaurant located in the former Post Office and perused shops in former boat houses. To escape the cruise crowds we hiked to a small church above town where a couple from Oslo was tending to family graves. We had only to hike a little farther to reach — no surprise — a waterfall.
From the ferry, we had spotted the so-called “eagle’s road” that twists its way from Geiranger into the mountains. We experienced it first-hand on the bus ride back to Alesund. As the driver pulled the steering wheel hard at each tight turn we were alternately fascinated and horrified at our eagle’s-eye view of the steep drop-off into the water far, far below.
The town of Alesund proved the wisdom of our decision to base ourselves on land. Almost completely destroyed by fire in 1904, it was rebuilt in three years in the Art Nouveau style then in vogue. The architects gave the buildings a twist by incorporating distinctly Norwegian motifs into the design. The Art Nouveau Centre of Norway, housed in an old pharmacy building, tells the story. It’s equally illuminating to simply stroll the streets — one of the world’s largest concentrations of Art Nouveau buildings — to look for images of fish, owls, and Norse gods that peer down from doorways and chimneys.
The open-air Sunnmore Museum offers a look at pre-Art Nouveau Alesund. The 50-acre site has gathered old buildings and boats to chronicle the coastal lifestyle. Amid the sturdy wooden homes, schoolhouse, and boat sheds — most with sod roofs in flower — we discovered a few small “church houses,” where fiord dwellers would pause to eat and change their clothes after rowing into town.
On our final afternoon in Alesund, we made our way to the red-and-white striped Alnes Lighthouse, built of iron in 1936. At the cafe in the keeper’s house we drank tea and ate cake from the recipes of the former caretaker’s wife. Then we climbed to the top of the tower for a sweeping view of land and sea. We scanned the horizon in all directions — and there wasn’t a waterfall in sight.