From Bergen, it’s a hop, skip and jump over the mountains to the western fjords. The most popular initial target is the Hardangerfjord, a delightful and comparatively gentle introduction to the wilder terrain that lies beyond, but similarly popular is Voss, inland perhaps, but still an outdoor sports centre of some renown. Voss is also a halfway house on the way to the Sognefjord by train, bus or car. By train, it’s a short journey from Voss east to Myrdal, at the start of a spectacularly dramatic train ride down the Flåmsdal valley to Flåm, sitting pretty against the severe shores of the Aurlandsfjord, one of the Sognefjord’s many subsidiaries; by road, you can head north direct to Flåm along the E16 or stick to Highway 13 as it careers over the mountains bound for Vik and Vangsnes. Both of these little towns are on the Sognefjord and it’s this fjord, perhaps above all others, that captivates visitors, its stirring beauty amplified by its sheer size, stretching inland from the coast for some 200km, and including several magnificent arms, most memorably the Lustrafjord and the Fjærlandsfjord. Beyond, and running parallel, lies the Nordfjord, smaller at 120km long and less intrinsically enticing, though its surroundings are more varied with hunks and chunks of the Jostedalsbreen glacier visible and visitable nearby. From here, it’s another short journey to the splendid Geirangerfjord – narrow, sheer and rugged – as well as the forbidding Norangsdal valley, with the wild and beautiful Hjørundfjord beyond. Skip over a mountain range or two, via the dramatic Trollstigen, and you’ll soon reach the town of Åndalsnes, which boasts an exquisite setting with rearing peaks behind and the tentacular Romsdalsfjord in front. From here, it’s another shortish journey west to the region’s prettiest town, Ålesund, whose centre is liberally sprinkled with charming Art Nouveau buildings, partly paid for by Kaiser Wilhelm II.
A suggested western fjord itinerary is given in the Itineraries section, which includes several specific targets: Ulvik and Lofthus are the most appealing bases in the Hardangerfjord; Sognefjord has Flåm and Balestrand; the Fjærlandsfjord has Mundal; and further north the cream of the crop are Loen and Ålesund. Perhaps above all, this is not a landscape to be hurried – there’s little point in dashing from fjord to fjord. Stay put for a while, go for at least one hike or cycle ride, and it’s then that you’ll really appreciate the western fjords in all their grandeur. The sheer size is breathtaking – but then the geological movements that shaped the fjords were on a grand scale. During the Ice Age, around three million years ago, the whole of Scandinavia was covered in ice, the weight of which pushed the existing river valleys deeper and deeper to depths well below that of the ocean floor – the Sognefjord, for example, descends to 1250m, ten times deeper than most of the Norwegian Sea. Later, as the ice retreated, it left huge coastal basins that filled with sea water to become the fjords, which the warm Gulf Stream keeps ice-free.