Our trip on the world famous Flam Railway reminds us that life is what you make it.
The drab grey rain and cloud shrouded mountains of Norway were going to tax our spirits if we were to make the most of our trip on the Flam Railway.
As we stand with a steady drizzle soaking our summer clothing we can’t help feel that we’ve been lured by hype rather than reputation, as it’s unlikely we’ll see anything on what’s purported to be one of the most beautiful train journeys in the World.
The railway itself is a branch line of the Bergen/Oslo line where it meets at Myrdal and descends over 863 meters (2,831 ft) through dramatic scenery to the town of Flam, nestling in the embrace of the steep sided Fjord cliff-sides.
The village of Flåm has been a tourist destination since the late 19th century and currently hosts almost 450,000 visitors a year- most of whom will ride the 20 Km (12 ml) Flåm Line.
Its one of the steepest railway tracks in the world (at 1 in 18 – not counting rack railways) and its construction was a feat of endeavour if ever there was one, with all but two of its twenty tunnels being built by hand.
As the train arrives at the station, the engine and rolling stock outwardly appear to be quite modern but this impression is dispelled as we board what is more akin to a ‘toy train’ with its traditional bench seats that face one another and a generally quaint and pleasant character to the carriage.
There are no reserved seats in the carriage so there’s a bit of a rush to sit next to windows, without anyone having a real idea of which side is best to sit (although the ticket seller had suggested, when we’d asked, that the better side was the left side, going down).
With mist swirling around the carriages the train sets off with barely a jolt into the cloud and rain. The first thing to realise is that this is fundamentally a tourist route and if you consider asking someone if you can lean out of ‘their’ window, or offer to share your position with someone else, it’s not actually going to inconvenience a commuter or serious business meeting – we’re all here to enjoy ourselves!
It’s surprising how immediately possessive people become of such transient territory but with a little coaxing good humour prevails and the carriage starts to become more of the party atmosphere that it should be.
Each side of the carriage provides us with glimpses of cascading rivers, steep mountain sides and patches of snow clad forest and soon we feel that we are in fact travelling through a mystical land of Trolls and Huldra.
In old Norse legend, Trolls are beings described as dwelling in isolated rocks, mountains or caves, living together in small family units and rarely helpful to human beings – perhaps some had already briefly visited our carriage!
Huldra, on the other hand (as an on-board commentary described) is a seductive forest creature found in Scandinavian folklore. She is a beautiful female, said to have long blond hair and always wearing a crown made of flowers – the only thing separating her from humans being that she has the tail of a cow, which scares most men away.
Known to seduce young unmarried men and take them into the mountains, Huldra would not release them unless they would marry her.
If a man succumbed to her whiles, tales tell that she would turn into an ugly woman and gain the strength of ten men and lose her tail. I resisted drawing any analogy with marriage as it would be a long walk home.
Much to our amusement and delight the train stops shortly after at the dramatic Kjosfossen waterfall. Its total fall is around 225 metres (738 ft) which generates vast clouds of mist and spray that if we weren’t already damp would have soaked us where we stood on the observation platform.
No sooner have we stopped than we notice a barmy woman cavorting in the spray on the mountain side. It’s a while before we twig that she is in fact a ‘Huldra’ amidst the mist on the rocks high above us, dancing and swaying to an ethereal music that now surrounds us. We have to admire this girl’s dedication as she must be soaked and frozen right through on her precarious perch as she amuses and intrigues the tourists.
The girl’s antics (Huldra actresses are all students from the Norwegian ballet school) seemed to melt any remaining ice in our carriage as well, as everyone shakes off their wet clothes and chat about the spectacle.
The remaining descent to Flam passes through many more tunnels and around corners that reveal a new view at every turn. We may not have the sun’s company today but this lush landscape is nevertheless both breath-taking and constantly varied.
It’s almost with regret that we realise the train is pulling into Flam station.
Passengers disembark in a jovial mood – much more so than we would have expected when we set out on this drab day. Our Flam Railway experience provides us with an interesting insight into human nature, nature itself and Norwegian myth – all in all a really worthwhile journey that’s to be highly recommended – perhaps just take a light raincoat!
Our rail ticket includes entrance to the rail museum, which whilst unspectacular does chart the immense feat of building this railway.
Flam itself is a pretty town at the head of the fjord that serves mainly as host to visiting cruise ships and has both suffered and benefitted from the great volume of people transiting through to the railway station. The surrounding fjord sides again offer views of waterfalls, small vineyards clinging to precarious slopes and multicoloured rock formations.
On dry days there are numerous walks that can be enjoyed along the Flam Valley – and indeed from the small rail stations on the route up and down the mountain, through what must be wonderful scenery.
From May through September, there are nine or ten departures in each direction per day on the Flam railway. In the rest of the year, there are four.
Fares do not follow the normal fares for NSB railways and are considerably higher than on other train routes.
Here’s the link for the official Flam website