In almost any other country, the forested dales and uplands that fill out much of central Norway between Oslo and the western fjords would be prime attractions in their own right, but here in Norway they are overshadowed by the mountains and deep black-blue fjords of the north and west. One result is that the towns and villages hereabouts lack the concentration of tourist facilities found in the more popular areas, though the Norwegians themselves come here in their droves to savour the summer and explore the countryside from their mountain huts and second homes. Setting aside the E6 (see Eidsvoll-bygningen), there are three main highways between Oslo and the western fjords – the E16, Highway 7 and the E134: whichever one you choose, you’ll encounter spectacular scenery, from wide sweeping valleys and plunging waterfalls to bare and bleak mountain passes, but if it’s mainly speed you’re after plump for the E16.
The third and most southerly route to the western fjords, the E134, covers the 417km from Drammen near Oslo to Haugesund, passing near Odda on the Sørfjord after 310km. Again, it’s a slower route, but it has the advantage of passing through the attractive town of Kongsberg before threading its way across Telemark, a county that covers a great forested chunk of southern Norway. In a country where the fjords are the apple of the tourist industry’s eye, Telemark is often neglected, but it can be stunningly beautiful, its deep valleys, blue-black lochs and bulging forested hills intercepted by tiny villages in a manner that resembles the Swiss Alps. The key targets here are Heddal stave church and Dalen, the site of the region’s most enjoyable hotel. Beyond Telemark, the E134 nudges its way over the southern reaches of the Hardangervidda plateau to cross one of Norway’s highest mountain passes, the storm-blasted Haukelifjell.
Dalen is the terminus of the passenger ferry that wends its way southeast along the Telemarkskanal to Skien (From mid-May to mid-September, 2 – 7 days a week; 1050kr one-way; telemarkskanalen.no), a journey that takes around 10 hours. Extending 105km, the canal links a string of lakes and rivers by means of eighteen locks that negotiate a difference in water levels of 72m. Completed in 1892, the canal was once an important trade route into the interior, but today it’s mainly used by pleasure craft and vintage passenger ferries. It’s also possible to make shorter excursions out by boat and back by bus. The jetty is 750m beyond the Dalen Hotel.
The E16 is the fastest route from Oslo to the western fjords, a quick and handsome 350km gallop up from the capital to both the fjord ferry near Sogndal and the colossal 24.5km tunnel leading to Flåm. It also shoots past half a dozen stave churches, the most remarkable of them being Borgund.
Beyond Vang, it’s just 11km to Øye, where the E16 begins its long climb up and over the Filefjell mountain pass amid a bare and treeless landscape dotted with lakes and sprinkled with mountain cabins. On the far side of the mountains, the E16 rips along the Lærdal valley bound for Borgund stave church (see Stave churches: Norway’s pride and joy), which is about 50km from Øye. For almost all of its long history, the church stood beside the main road, but not any longer: in 2003, a new set of tunnels bypassed the church as well as one of the most beautiful portions of the old E16, the twisting, 10km-long route through the rocky ravine trimming the River Lærdal. This ravine loop, now signed as an “Historic Route” with Borgund stave church at the east end, is an enjoyable detour that should only take about half an hour. From Borgund stave church, it’s about 30km to the eastern end of the massive Lærdalstunnelen, which links the Lærdal valley with Aurland, Flåm and points west to Bergen. The tunnel is part of the E16, but you can instead branch off here for the short trip north along Highway 5 to Lærdalsøyri and the Fodnes–Mannheller car ferry (for Sogndal).
The majority of Norway’s 28 surviving stave churches are inland in the south and centre of the country, but taken together they represent the nation’s most distinctive architectural legacy. The key feature of their design is that their timbers are placed vertically into the ground – in contrast to the log-bonding technique used by the Norwegians for everything else. Thus, a stave wall consists of vertical planks slotted into sills above and below, with the sills connected to upright posts – or staves, hence the name – at each corner. The general design seems to have been worked out in the twelfth century and common features include external wooden galleries, shingles and finials. There are, however, variations: in some churches, nave and chancel form a single rectangle, in others the chancel is narrower than, and tacked onto, the nave. The most fetching stave churches are those where the central section of the nave has been raised above the aisles to create – from the outside – a distinctive, almost pagoda-like effect. In virtually all the stave churches, the door frames (where they survive) are decorated from top to bottom with surging, intricate carvings that clearly hark back to Viking design, most memorably fantastical long-limbed dragons entwined in vine tendrils.
The origins of stave churches have attracted an inordinate amount of academic debate. Some scholars argue that they were originally pagan temples, converted to Christian use by the addition of a chancel, while others are convinced that they were inspired by Russian churches. Pagan or not, each part of the stave church acquired a symbolic Christian significance with, for example, the corner posts representing the four Gospels, the ground beams God’s apostles upon whom (literally in this case) the church was built.
In the nineteenth century, they also acquired symbolic importance as reminders of the time when Norway was independent. Many had fallen into a dreadful state of repair and were clumsily renovated – or even remodelled – by enthusiastic medievalists with a nationalist agenda. Undoing this repair work has been a major operation, and one that continues today. For most visitors, seeing one or two will suffice – and three of the finest are those at Heddal, Borgund and Urnes.