Tim Hughes is enchanted by the fairytale beauty and mystic atmosphere of Norway's fjords on a Great Rail Journey

It is no secret that the fjords of Norway are among the most spectacular natural sights on earth.

Deep slivers of water are hemmed in by sheer cliffs of rock, sheltering tiny villages against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains: intrepid travellers have been heading north to soak up the views for hundreds of years. But this Scandinavian dramatic landscape now has a new claim to fame – and one which may surprise you.

If the villages of brightly coloured wooden houses and tiny churches seem vaguely familiar it's because they formed the inspiration for the biggest-selling animated film of all time: Frozen.

You thought it was all made up? No way. The real home of Frozen's Anna and Elsa is very real, and is lapped by the waters of the mysterious Aurlandsfjord and Nærøyfjord – and most fairytale-like it is too.

That mystic atmosphere is fuelled by its rich Viking culture. Nærøyfjord takes its name not from its narrowness – though it is indeed slender – but from the Norse god ‘Njord’, the defender of the sea. The gods are never far away.

An arm of the Sognefjord, Norway's longest and deepest fjord, it is, of course, an inlet of the north sea – despite it carving its way thoroughly inland. The only way to see it is by boat – but the only way to get that boat, if you want to appreciate the true majesty and isolation of its setting, is by rail.

Norwegian railways are second to none – running in all weathers and in all seasons. Leaves on the line? Forget it! Wrong kind of snow? Don't make me laugh!

The lines are also among the most scenic on earth – winding up, and through, mountains, across plateaus and along the sparkling coast, linking the few cities with tiny hamlets and halts for jumping off into the wilderness.

The travel nuts at Great Rail Journeys have ridden each and every line and pulled together a seven-day itinerary which showcases the very best of Norway's cultured towns and countryside – and the cream of its blockbuster attraction, the fjords.

Jumping off point for the most dramatic stretch of coast is the charming old seaport of Bergen. On the same latitude as Shetland, Bergen feels northern. Even on a bright autumn day, there's a chill in the air and the sky, when I landed, was the same deep blue as the water.

A UNESCO World Heritage site, the city has a long and colourful history. It was founded in 1070 by King Olav Kyrre who sailed into its natural harbour and liked it so much he stayed.

That harbour has always been the heart of the city – indeed the streets are wrapped around the inlet on finger-like peninsulas which tickle the North Sea beyond. It became the capital of the northern Europe, Norway's biggest city and a cultural melting pot of travellers and traders – a richness which exists to this day. It's a pretty place full of quaint buildings, an unfeasible number of very good art galleries and posh shops. Arguably the prettiest city in Scandinavia, it is at its loveliest along the wharf known as Bryggen, where the Hanseatic traders built their wooden offices and trading posts – handsome wooden houses with steep gables in candy colours, narrow alleyways opening out into yards and intricately carved staircases. They once held valuable commodities – they still do, though fewer raw materials and more tourist-friendly woollen jumpers, handicrafts, art, jewellery and food – with wonderful restaurants serving up the best of new Scandinavian cooking.

There are more wooden houses in Bergen than practically any other city in Europe, lining steep cobbled streets, their bright red roofs appearing to clamber up the sides of the mountains which hem in the city.

Get the big picture by climbing Mount Ulriken. Or, more sensibly, take the lovely funicular railway to the peak – particularly for sunset, when the sinking sun's rays turn the water a deep orange. It is heart-meltingly beautiful – and a walk down is the perfect way to build up an appetite for the wonderful seafood on offer everywhere.

The Bergen railway cuts across the roof of Norway on northern Europe's highest altitude line on its way to the capital Oslo. And it grows gradually more dramatic with each passing mile, skimming the water, climbing through forests and emerging onto an icy wilderness of bare fell – with just the odd brightly-painted cabin to provide sign of human habitation.

At Myrdal we left the line, however, for something even grander – a ride on one of the wonders of the railway world: the Flåm Railway.

Over the length of its diminutive 20km route, the line plummets 863m to sea level on the shore of the Aurlandsfjord. It does this through some of the most inhospitable terrain known to man, via a multitude of twists, turns and 20 tunnels, passing stunning mountain panoramas and cascading waterfalls.

The splendour of the scenery is matched only by the ingenuity and grit of the men who built the line, or this is also one of the steepest railway lines in the world on normal tracks – almost all of the journey having a gradient of 5.5 per cent.

The journey takes an hour, and is so mindblowing that many people ride it multiple times – to soak up more of its views, or, perhaps, just to pinch themselves and check it's real.

The village of Flåm itself is a minor tourist hotspot, full of shops selling woolly jumpers, hats and reindeer skins. But its setting is jaw-dropping, penned in by mountains which drop steeply into the Aurlandsfjord.

This is where you'll find those typically Norse villages which provided the imaginary setting for that Disney film with that snowman. But it's far from 'Disney-fied'.

We took the good ship Vision of the Fjords (a gleaming new craft with ramps between decks) from the quay out across the water – and saw barely a soul for more than two hours. Here one feels truly alone – in the very best sense.

Boarding the Flåm Railway for an ear and eye-popping trip back up the mountain, you rejoin the Bergen Railway over the most stark and empty landscapes of the trip – across the Arctic-like expanse of Finse.

Again, there's a big ticket movie connection – and this one's even cooler, because the snowy wastes hereabouts doubled for the ice planet Hoth in Star Wars – The Empire Strikes Back. Squint into the distance and you might even see Luke Skywalker's rebel comrades still battling Imperial stormtroopers. You can certainly imagine it.

It's a dramatic descent to Oslo and a return to reality.

Despite being Norway's capital, Oslo still has an endearing small town quality – perhaps because of its location on Oslofjord, and the surrounding low hills which bring views of the wilderness right into the city centre. It's clearly a city on the go though. The waterfront boasts a gleaming new opera house which looks more like a crash-landed spaceship and could give Sydney a run for its money. It is part of a huge waterfront development which is replacing the old low-rise skyline with towers of glass and concrete.

Old Oslo is never far away though – whether in its quant central area around the National Theatre, the ramparts and cute roofed towers of its fortress – still protected by canon – or, even older, in the sleek hulls of its ninth century Viking ships, displayed in all their glory in their own museum, along with other Norse treasures.

Art lovers meanwhile can get up close to the extraordinarily expressive sculptures of Gustav Vigeland in the Vigeland Sculpture Park or even re-enact Munch's famous Scream at the very spot it was painted from, in the Ekebergparken overlooking the fjord.

Munch thought nature was screaming. It's not of course, but in Norway it is a barrage of the senses and utterly impossible to escape. Get on board the train and find out for yourself.


Great Rail Journeys offer a seven-day tour, Fjords Cruise & Historic Cities of Norway, from £1,395pp. The itinerary includes a sightseeing tour of Bergen, a journey on the Flåm Railway, and a cruise along the Aurlandsfjord. Price includes return flights, all rail and coach transport, 4* hotel accommodation, and selected excursions.


T: 01904 527 180.

For more on the destinations visited:

visitnorway.com, visitbergen.com, visitflam.com, visitoslo.com