A road trip through Norwegian fjords has been something we have wanted to do for a while, but it always got postponed. Living in neighboring Sweden we perceived the fjords as being very close and as something we can do anytime. Which is quite wrong as they are roughly 1000 kilometers away from Stockholm. Anyway, we finally took the plunge in June 2018. In this text I will go through our strongest impressions and the most prominent aspects of the trip. You can read it both as a travel report from our trip and as a guide to plan your own road trip in Norway.
Planning the trip
I knew immediately that planning the trip would be an exercise in discipline – Norway offers so much and we only had three full days there so we would have to skip a lot of what we wanted to see. Thankfully, the Norwegian public road association provides a good starting point for planing – they selected 18 routes based on the scenery and infrastructure and designated them as the national tourist routes. We managed to drive four of them in our trip: Jæren, Ryfylke, Hardanger and Hardangervidda. The trip started from and ended in the city of Stavanger.
Wow, wow, wow, wow and… WOW! The nature in Norway is magnificent. Even much more talented masters of the written word than me would have a hard time to do justice to Norwegian nature. I feel completely inept for this task. Even photos cannot paint the complete picture here – they only show a part of the beauty. You truly need to experience the nature there for yourself and see, smell and breathe the blue ocean and its sandy beaches, the mesmerizing fjords, the green lakes and forests, the glaciers watching above from tall mountains, the vast plateaus with their lush meadows and snow patches, the hypnotizing waterfalls (btw. if you are a waterfall enthusiast, you will be in heaven in Norway, as they come in all shapes and sizes)…
None of my previous road trips have been so jam-packed with such stunning nature as this one. I felt it was almost… too much.
So much nature
There is a flip side to the huge amount of spectacular scenery your brain is bombarded with in Norway. After a while it all starts to blend into one big mess of “I saw something awesome again and it is as awesome as the 1000 other awesome things I saw today and now I don’t remember any of them anymore”. I thought that going through my photos would help structure my memories, but even here photography falls short – I simply cannot connect all the photos with particular places, I only remember where some of them were taken.
In general, we enjoy cities as much as we enjoy nature, but during this trip nature had the front seat. We did visit Stavanger for a couple of hours and the impression we got was that it was a lively and cute city. We were surprised that it almost completely lacked high-rise housing. We wanted to visit Bergen and were quite close to it during the trip, but we felt that it deserves a proper visit which we left for the future.
Norway is not exactly famous for long stretches of sunny and warm weather. Which is exactly the weather we had during our trip and it felt great! We had prepared for rain and relatively cold temperatures and we probably would have enjoyed the nature even in those conditions, but we were very happy with 25 degrees Celsius and clear skies. The problem is that this will now set the standard for our future trips to Norway :-).
Driving in Norway
Driving in Norway is easy, the roads are safe and well kept, and the fellow drivers are mostly calm and polite. Just keep in mind that the distances you will cover per day are not big. The scenic routes have windy, slow and at times very narrow roads and you will want to stop to admire the nature all the time anyway. We averaged roughly 300 kilometers per day.
There are many road tolls that seem to appear in not always logical places. 5€ here (the currency in Norway is of course the Norwegian crown, but I typically list prices in euros in my blog posts), 10€ there, and it quickly adds up. You will probably also take the ferry quite a lot, which means more fees. But it is also a nice way to see the fjords from a different perspective and take a break from driving.
We drove through many tunnels, which disrupted the views and often also the radio reception. They were mostly under a kilometer long, but we also took several longer ones, with the longest one being 8 kilometers. Many are plain boring, but they do pack a nice surprise here and there. For instance, in two tunnels (Vallavik tunnel and Bu tunnel) we drove through a roundabout! Furthermore, it was cool (and frightening) to drive though Byfjord tunnel near Stavanger which is an underwater tunnel reaching a depth of 223 meters! Finally, we have the Storegjel tunnel which is a spiraling tunnel that crosses itself at a different altitude.
The fuel prices are among the highest in Europe, which we knew, but we did not know that they vary quite a lot depending on where you are – we have seen everything from 1.48€ to 1.76€ per liter of gasoline.
Renting in Norway is not cheap, the best we could find with a reputable company was around 50€ per day for a small car (better deals could probably be found with smaller rental companies). We were pleasantly surprised that we got upgraded to a spacious Volkswagen Golf Variant with automatic transition, which made our 1200 kilometers all the more comfortable. And finally we got a great child seat for Emili, a Britax Römer Dualfix which was both brand new and very easy to mount thanks to the ISOFIX brackets. Typically when we rent, we get a low quality and worn-down child seat.
On the trip we met some nice people from California who rented a big camper. They were kind enough to let us take a peak inside the camper and it looked quite comfortable. This made us consider such an option for our next road trip. We are not really camping type of people, but this could turn out to be fun and economical, especially considering the high cost of accommodation in Norway.
Our first plan was to do a one-way rent (get the car in Stavanger and return it in Bergen) which would maximize our sightseeing time, but the one-way rental fees in Norway are hefty, around 200€. So we had to backtrack a bit. Typically we do not like to backtrack, as this means that we are loosing time that could have been invested into experiencing something new. But in Norway even backtracking is a nice experience. Since the scenery is breathtaking, we did not mind driving the same road twice.
English is widely spoken and you will have no problems, but I wanted to touch upon a different topic here. Feel free to jump over this section if languages do not interest you.
Norwegian and Swedish are mutually intelligible, but I as a non-native Swedish speaker have problems understanding Norwegian. This did not improve during the trip, so I exclusively used English. I am sad because of this, I feel that I missed out on part of the experience. But I think I would need a basic course in Norwegian and to listen to Norwegian radio for a couple of months before I could have a proper conversation with somebody speaking Norwegian.
Usually I use the difference between Swedish and Norwegian to explain the difference between Croatian and Serbian to my Swedish colleagues. But after spending time in Norway, I started wondering if Croatian and Serbian were actually less distinct than Swedish and Norwegian. I understand 99% of Serbian and maybe 70% of Norwegian. Or is it so that these language pairs are equally similar, but I have just been more exposed to Serbian than to Norwegian? I need to continue this research by interviewing my neighbor who is a native Swedish speaker and speaks fluent Serbian but has not been exposed much to Croatian. Anyway, languages are fascinating, but I digressed enough.
We had considered renting cabins, but we did not want to pack bed sheets, towels and shampoo. We also wanted to start each day with a good and varied breakfast. So we booked hotels as this was the most comfortable option, especially having in mind that we traveled with a three year old. We stayed at four different hotels and three of them were very expensive and very disappointing. We paid high hotel prices for a hostel like experience. Aneta got very annoyed when two hotels did not have a hair dryer. Not having a hair dryer in the room is fine, but not being able to borrow one at the reception is just wrong. One hotel even charged us extra when we asked for a pillow and towel for Emili, on top of the already hefty price. Let me say this again. We were charged extra for a towel and a pillow for a three year old who was listed in the booking. How classy is that? Thanks booking.com for quickly remedying this and refunding the extra charge (which was minuscule, but it was a matter of principle for me to get it back!). None of the hotels we booked had a fridge in the room. And forgive me for complaining about what is very much a first-world problem, but why did none of the four hotels provide a floor towel to step on when getting out of the shower? The breakfasts were also largely disappointing.
In addition to accommodation, food was another disappointment. The restaurants we ate at were expensive and the food was bad, despite the good reviews on Tripadvisor (I think I already mentioned in one of my older blog posts that the reviews on Tripadvisor are often misleading). Until we ate a tasty pizza in Gelio and very good Ethiopian food in Stavanger, which somewhat improved our impression of Norway’s food offering, the culinary high-point of the trip had been two day old breaded chicken that we brought with us from home! Other than saving money, bringing food from home will save a lot of time, especially if you have a kid that eats quite often during the day. Supermarkets are another way to try to keep the food costs down. But the ones we visited were also quite expensive and did not offer a lot of choice.
Despite the bad experiences with food and accommodation and in general very high prices, Norway deserves repeated visits and we are very much looking forward to our next one.