Sailing the Sognefjord in Norway
It is Norway’s longest fjord, ranked as one of the world’s most beautiful fjord landscapes and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site – the Sognefjord comes with a whole lot of superlatives and even more expectations, but it certainly didn’t disappoint. We’d already had a sneak preview of the fjord’s stunning scenery from the shore in a walk around Flåm, but it was time to get out on the water and explore it properly. Our two-hour boat trip from Flåm to Gudvangen took us along two different branches of the Sognefjord – starting from the end of the Aurlandsfjord and going through to the end of the Nærøyfjord.
The landscapes here are just immense, the scale of the mountains and the width of the fjords dwarfs everything. Boats were just specks in the distance and even a cruise ship coming in to dock looked like a toy boat. You’re surrounded by so many shades of green, but amongst it there are flashes of red from wooden buildings along the waterfront and white from the cascading waterfalls. You might even spot a harbour seal in the water if you can drag your eyes downwards for long enough. The shoreline is dotted with farms, mainly producing goats’ cheese using the traditional farming methods used here for centuries. One of the most famous villages for cheese is Undredal, which has 100 residents and four times as many goats.
Many of the farms are located on the water’s edge, in little hamlets often only reachable by boat. You can’t help thinking what it must be like to live here – to be in the middle of such a popular and well-visited area, but still so remote. The most inaccessible of them all is the farm at Stigen. This is built way up on the mountainside, 300 metres above sea level. The only way up is via a narrow, winding path cut into the cliffside – though that’s an improvement on a few hundred years ago when there was just a ladder. The farm gets its name from the Norwegian word for ladder, and the story goes that if the farmer got any unwelcome visitors, like the sheriff coming to collect his taxes, then he’d just pull the ladder up.
As we sailed on, an almost vertical rocky mountain at Britelen marked the point where the two branches of the Sognefjord split, where we left the Aurlandsfjord and moved on into the Nærøyfjord. One of the villages along this stretch of water is called Styvi. It originally sprung up on the shore here as another farming village, but in the 1600s it got another important role as the terminus of Norway’s Royal Post Road, the Kongevegen. Back then if you were transporting post through the fjords you could travel as far as Styvi by road, but then you had to get into a boat and row the next 48 kilometres as far as Lærdal. Styvi’s still got its own post office today – the smallest one still in operation in Norway.
At this point the walls of the Nærøyfjord start to get closer and closer, and it reaches its narrowest point around the hamlet of Bakka. Here the gap is only 250 metres wide and water is as little as 12 metres deep. The steep sides tower up above you and it’s hard to imagine huge cruise ships fitting through this stretch of water without almost touching the sides. Bakka itself is one of the oldest settlements along the fjord and has a pretty white traditional Norwegian wooden stave church. The church was built in 1859 and can seat up to 200 people, though with only 100 people living in the parish today it can’t get filled up very often.
As we approached the far end of the Nærøyfjord, the boat docked at its final destination – Gudvangen. Back in the Viking era Gudvangen was an big trading post and there’s a Viking centre nearby where you can find out how people used to live then. Today it’s home to a few hotels and shops but was practically empty on the late spring afternoon when we visited. Browsing the gift shop I came across a book that explained the meaning of the name. Gudvangen translates as ‘God’s field by the water’ – a pretty apt description I think, not just for the town but for the whole of the Sognefjord.
Our two-hour boat trip through the fjords cost 365 NOK/£36.50 per person, travelling from Flåm to Gudvangen by boat and then back to Flåm by bus (a quick 20-minute drive though a tunnel), booked via Visit Flåm. There are several departures a day and you can do the trip in either direction. There are also packages available combining the fjord trip with the White Caves or Stalheim viewpoint (in summer only), or you can combine a fjord cruise with the Flåm Railway as part of the popular Norway in a Nutshell tour.