The 496-kilometer Oslo-Bergen railway, with 39 stations, connecting Norway’s stylish capital with its most picturesque city, is one of the most beautiful journeys in the world.
On a cool November morning in Oslo, I boarded a train bound for Bergen.
I’ve been exploring Norway for over a decade, returning at least a dozen times since my first, wide-eyed trip. I’ve been to the northernmost point of mainland Norway (Knivskjelodden) and its southernmost point (Lindesnes Fyr), where my sunglasses flew off my head and ended up in the sea during a storm). I saw whales and walruses. I walked on glaciers in Svalbard and stood under the country’s only palm tree in Kristiansand. And I watched the northern lights in winter and walked under the midnight sun in summer.
But for some inexplicable reason, I had never traveled before by the Oslo-Bergen railway . The more I thought about it, the weirder it seemed. After all, this place regularly ranks among the most beautiful drives in the world.
I did my research. I knew, for example, that on a short November day only one of the five daily departures, 08:25, would allow me to complete the entire six and a half hour, 496 km journey in daylight. I also knew enough to book a window seat on the left of the train (right if coming from Bergen) to get the best views.
And when the train left the platform, I suddenly felt that, without realizing it until now, I had been waiting for this moment for a very long time.
The Oslo-Bergen line passes through some of Norway’s most enchanting landscapes (Image copyright M.Omair/Getty Images)
At first, there was no indication of the drama that lay ahead. As the train sped away from the city center, they saw: the Oslo Fjord pleasure boat; elegant wooden houses rising up the hillsides; signs to Byugdoya , where museums told epic stories of Viking exploration and past. Picking up speed past Asker and Sandvik, the train crossed the fjord and hurried past the growing city of Drammen, whose hills were colonized by the most beautiful cities.
Not far west of Drammen, the track turned north. This track was designed so skillfully that the change of direction was barely noticeable. One day we were heading west, the next we were heading north, and it was up to the landscape itself to announce the change: suddenly the hills became higher and the pristine alpine meadows and pine-covered foothills spread out into deep valleys.
Changes came gradually. The deceleration of the train hinted at a barely perceptible increase in altitude. We entered a valley near the shore of a beautiful fjord. When we left it was over a pass high above the valley floor; Looking back to where we started, everything looked so awful far below.
The route passes through the inhospitable Hardangervidda Plateau, which rises more than 1 km above sea level (Image copyright Stockstudiox/Getty Images)
And then, without much warning, we emerged from the tunnel and into the high snows of Hardangervidda, a vast mountain plateau.
I love watching people’s faces when they drive this route for the first time
“I like to see people’s faces when they travel this route for the first time,” Jørgen Johansen told me. Johansen worked on the line for the Norwegian railway authorities for more than three decades. “I never get tired of the view, but what I like most is the wonder on people’s faces.”
As the train is now on top of Europe’s largest highland – Hardangervidda covers almost 6,500 square kilometers with an average altitude of over 1 km above sea level – the journey has become something completely different. For the first time, it became true that it is both the highest trunk railway in Northern Europe and an engineering marvel.
One of the oldest geological formations in the north of the continent, Hardangervidda and its valleys and contours were formed over thousands of years by glaciers descending from the icy wastes towards the sea. And yet, what took thousands of years under the weight of ice and the inexorable passage of time, Norway’s railway and road builders accomplished in decades.
The 6.5-hour, 496-km journey is known as an engineering marvel (Image copyright MariusLtu/Getty Images)
When the Bergensbanen (“Bergen Line”), as it is now sometimes called, was first explored in 1872, Norway was a poor outpost of a more prosperous Europe; almost a century remained before the discovery of oil, which changed the country. At the time, there was a lot of debate about where the money would come from, and there were a lot of false starts; at the time, sardine and herring exports kept Norway’s national budget afloat, and there wasn’t much left over for infrastructure projects of this scale.
Despite this, work on the line began in 1875. It was completed by 1909, its 39 stations (some of which are for local trains only – the intercity service stops at 9 p.m.) meandering through some of the most challenging landscapes you can imagine. The Hardangervidda is notoriously inhospitable, its fickle weather just one of the many challenges the line’s builders faced. To keep the railway running, to find the most direct route possible, they built 180 tunnels – one tunnel for every 2.75 km of track.
“The Oslo-Bergen railway tells a very Norwegian story,” Lisbeth Nielsen, a Norwegian transport historian, told me later in Bergen. “When it comes to Norway, something always gets in the way. If we let mountains or fjords stop us, we’ll never get anywhere. So they built tunnels, roads and rail lines that seemed impossible to everyone else. It’s part of what makes us Norwegian.”
Finse is the highest station along the line, at 1,222m above sea level (Image copyright Issaurinko/Getty Images)
By the time we reached the ski town of Geilo, at 794m and halfway through the journey, the world we were traveling through was nothing like the one before it. Deep snow blanketed the landscape, and skiers exited the train and drove off the platform into the hills. High above Ustaoset (990 m) and its ice-bound lake surrounded by rural houses, the silhouette of reindeer antlers was visible against the background of piercing blue sky; Norway’s largest herd of wild reindeer, numbering 10,000, still roams Hardangervidda freely. At Fins, the highest station along the line, at 1,222 meters above sea level, a group of tourists in heavy winter gear boarded the train, ice still clinging to their beards and boots.
This is my favorite part of the trip. It’s all drama, and here at Hardangervidda, the cars are always silent
“This is my favorite part of the trip,” Johansen said. “It’s all drama, and here at Hardangervidda the carriages are always silent.”
He was right: no one spoke, and when the announcer broke the silence to announce our imminent arrival at Myrdal, I wasn’t the only one who flinched at the sudden sound of a human voice.
A trip to Bergen is “a fitting end to a wonderful trip” (Image credit: Ryhor Bruyeu/Getty Images)
At the Myrdal station (867 m), the train was waiting on a branch, which is one of the steepest railway lines on Earth. From Myrdal to Fløm, down on the shores of Aurlandsfjord, the inner arm of Sognefjord, the course twists and dives down through 20 tunnels, losing 866m in elevation in just 20km, dropping at a gradient of 1:18. There seemed to be no Norwegian train anywhere.
If the ascent to Hardangervidda seemed gradual, the descent to the town of Voss happened too quickly. The snow has thinned. The earth became green. And rivers, and lakes, and then fjords were clean and blue. Here was another Norway, where the track covered one fjord after another. As had been the case since we left Oslo hours earlier, the course simultaneously overcame and obeyed the challenging terrain. In the whole journey there was not a more pleasant hour than this last meander by the fjord.
And then Bergen. The train looped between the seven hills and seven fjords of this elegant city. Whitewashed wooden houses rose up the hillsides above the city center, and the autumn leaves gave the city a golden hue, right up to the majestic, frescoed train station. It was a fitting end to an amazing trip and in the excitement of the arrival I felt as if I had just seen Norway for the first time.