The Independence of the Seas left Skjolden at midnight, and cruised back down the Sognefjord until we reached the Aurlandsfjord, a tributary of the Sognefjord. Nestled at the end of the Aurlandsfjord, and surrounded by steep mountainsides and deep valleys, is the little village of Flam, (pronounced Flom), which means ‘little place between steep mountains’. Since the late 1800’s Flam has been a popular tourist destination. English and German visitors first came by steam ship, and then travelled through the steep rugged mountains in two-wheeled buggies. The Bergensbanen Railway had reached Myrdal in 1909, joining eastern and western Norway, but only a rough, narrow road, with 21 steep hairpin bends joined Myrdal to Flam, and the fjord below. So in 1923 work began on the 20km long Flam Railway. It employed 400-500 workers, and when it opened in 1940, it was considered to be a masterpiece of Norwegian engineering. It is Europe’s steepest normal gauge railway, climbing over 850 metres from the fjord to the mountaintop, and the gradient is 1:18 for almost 80% of the track. There are 10 stations, 20 tunnels (18 built by hand, using a combination of drilling and dynamite blasting), and 1 bridge. The biggest challenge was of course the tunnels. The Nali tunnel is the longest at 1341 metres, and the 880 metre Vatnahalsen tunnel actually makes a 180 degree turn inside the mountain! In 1999 a new cruise terminal was opened, able to receive the largest of cruise ships, making Flam one of the most popular and successful tourist attractions in Norway. The Flam Railway – Flamsbana, is one of the world’s most spectacular railways, and in 2013 had over 700,000 passengers.
We arrived at the Flam cruise terminal at 7am, but we were in no rush. We had a train trip booked for lunch time, and I was really looking forward to it. I had a leisurely wander around the tourist shops, and met up with the others at the station in plenty of time for our train ride. It was every bit as good as I had expected. The scenery was incredibly wild and beautiful. The train twists and turns through steep and rugged mountainsides, in and out of tunnels, cliffs above, sheer drops below. Most of the 20km is single track, but at one point there are two tracks, where we waited for the ‘down’ train to pass.
At Kjosfossen Station the train stopped, and from the platform we were able to see the magnificent waterfall, with a free-fall of 93 metres, as it plunged down the mountainside; and feel the spray in the air. As the thunderous cascade hit the rock-face, the foam was pure white.
At Hylla (or ‘mountain shelf’) there is an opening in the tunnel wall. During construction the tunnel wall became so thin and so close to the edge of the mountainside, it was considered safer to create a ‘window’. So between some uprights, there are narrow, but panoramic views of the landscape. You can see the river winding way down in the valley, and in places you can also see the railway track cut into a ledge in the steep mountainside.
Before arriving at Myrdal, you can look down into the valley and see the old road, with its tight hairpin bends, winding up the Myrdalsberget mountain. At Myrdal station there were pockets of snow still lying by the edges of the platform, and as it is high up in the mountains, and spring comes later, the trees were just coming into leaf.
It is an amazing train journey, and one not to be missed. The Flam Railway, or Flamsbana, travels through stunningly wild and beautiful scenery, with snow-capped mountain peaks and deep ravines, valleys with lush pastures and precariously placed hillside farms, snowy slopes and sheer cliffs, rivulets and waterfalls. And all this is crammed into a train journey lasting barely an hour! And then to have it all repeated on the way back down again!
Also worth a visit, is Flam museum, showing the history of the railway. And there is a nice, and not too strenuous walk to a view-point, overlooking the fjord and village.