Wild, untamed nature can at times be overwhelming and overpowering.
This is exactly what you may experience if you travel to the Sognefjord, Norway’s longest fjord.
For over 200km, from the sea near Bergen all the way to the ice sheet of the Jostedalbreen glacier, the largest in continental Europe, the Sognefjord is like a nonstop beauty pageant, with a succession of dramatic mountain landscapes framing the calm, clean, cold waters of the fjords.
But this area has also its fair share of man-made attractions, both ancient and contemporary…
Located on a peninsula on the north shore of the fjord, this is the county's capital and was to be our base during this trip.
Getting to the Sogndal
We flew into Bergen airport and took a rental car there to drive all the way to Sogndal, all along the road that follows the South side of the fjord.
This is a rather nice 3h drive throughout the Norwegian countryside (it passes through the area where the famous Voss luxury mineral water is sourced).
The shortest route involves a ferry crossing at Laerdal (the alternative would involve a rather long detour through mountain roads)
There is also a small airport at Sogndal, with direct flights to Oslo operated by Norwegian regional airline Wideroe.
A striking feature of the road between Bergen and Laerdal is the amount of tunnels and the length of these. Some of them are tens of miles long and they have conveniently fitted with some colourful vaults that help drivers keep focused on the road. I would not exxagerate if I said that considerable stretches of this route are primarily underground.
Sogndal is a rather small town of some 7,000 inhabitants, that in this part of the World can feel like a metropolis. Although pleasant, there is little of interest in the town itself other than it being a services hub for the whole region.
But, very close to Sogndal, the town of Kaupanger has a truly unique gem: a 12th C. stave church.
Stave churches are medieval wooden churches that were once built all over Scandinavia. Although back in their time, they were built in the thousands, today only about 28 of them remain in Norway and a handful more in other locations in Scandinavia and Northern Europe.
Where to stay in Sogndal and the Sognefjord
Fjørevegen 37, 6856 Sogndal
An independent family-run hotel that has been in business since 1912.
It is located right on the shore of the fjord, and it even has its very own pier from where it is possible to plunge into its very cold waters (yes, I tried it myself!).
Traditional style, nice and cozy.
Visiting the Nigardsbreen Glacier
An absolute must from Sogndal is a visit to the Nigardsbreen glacier, that it is, in fact, one of the arms of the much larger Jostedalsbreen Glacier.
This amazing wonder of nature is located some 20km up the valley from Sogndal. The foot of the glacier is easily accessible.
There is a visitor’s center a couple of miles from the ice sheet and we could actually get a bit closer than that with the car through a road in good condition.
At the time when we visited there was barely anyone else around (we saw barely half a dozen other people in the immensity of the valley).
Even if you do not get on top of the ice (we did not have special equipment, so stayed just on its edge), the scenery is breathtaking. The solitude of the place adds a lot to the experience (although I don’t know whether this is the case in high season, probably not), just ice, water and rock around.
For more info on how to visit the Nigardsbreen, I recommend checking out this website.
Jostedal Hydropower Station
As if the wonders above ground were not enough in this part of Norway, there is also a real marvel of engineering underground.
Although an oil-exporting nation, Norway gets most of its domestic energy needs from hydropower. The Jostedal hydro power plant (Jostedal Kraftverk), located on the same valley that leads to the Nigardsbreen glacier and owned by the national electricity company Statkraft, is one of the many that dot the country’s geography, making use of its abundance of water and steep mountains.
I am not sure whether the Jostedal hydropower plant is normally open to the general public, we were able to visit it upon request, as part of the broader work trip that took us to Sogndal, but, as we could see, there are occasional educational tours.
The Jostedal hydro power station has some technical features that make it quite impressive. Rather than being based on a river dam, the turbines are driven by the high pressure water of Lake Styggevatnet.
An underground tunnel channels this water from an elevation of over 1,200m. The pressure is so high when the water reaches the turbines that we were told the concentrated water jet is able to cut through steel.
After having driven the turbines, the water exits the water through another tunnel that takes it to the fjord.
For those interested in learning more about Norwegian hydro power, there is the Norwegian Museum of Hydropower, located in a former hydropower plant in Tyssedal, just South-East of Bergen. I have not visited it myself, but I heard good things about it.
Visiting Aurlandsfjord - Flåm
And now we move already to the South side of the Sognefjord. The two branches of the Sognefjord known as the Aurlandsfjord and the Nærøyfjord have UNESCO World Heritage Status and are some of the most visited spots in the region.
In this area, the tiny hamlet of Flåm stands out.
Flåm is located at the head of the Aurlandsfjord, one of the Southern branches of the Sognefjord. Two factors contribute to it being one of the most touristy spots on the Sognefjord: it is a docking spot for cruise ships and it is a stop on the Bergen to Oslo railway line.
Otherwise, and although certainly beautiful, I did not find the Aurlandsfjord to be particularly more attractive than other corners of the Sognefjord region.
Besides a walk through the village, I would recommend (if you have a car), to drive to the Stegastein (Bjørgavegen 83, 5745 Aurland) viewpoint, on the fjord’s Eastern flank.
Here’s a modernly designed viewing platform that protrudes from the side of the mountain.
Lærdal - Visiting the Norwegian Wild Salmon Center
If salmon is one of Norway’s top exports, the Sognefjord is (or at least, used to be!) a particularly rich breeding ground for the species.
Also on its Southern shore, the town of Laerdal is home to the Norwegian Wild Salmon Center.
Øyraplassen 14, 6887 Lærdal
This is a modern museum and interpretation center about the life cycle of salmon and its fisheries. The center has even some aquariums, fed by the running water of the village’s stream, where you can see live salmon in their habitat.
Besides that, the village of Laerdal has a small, but very neat center, with streets lined with colourful houses that make for a rather pleasant stroll.
There are quite a few more things to do and to see in Sognefjord, from tasting the famous Undredal brown cheese to a broad range of outdoors activities, but this was actually a rather short trip.
Wouldn’t like to close this story without a couple more pics of the top attraction of the Sognefjord, though, the amazing Norwegian landscape!