Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles Hi, I'm Rick Steves back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're traveling in Northern Europe, where the mountains meet the sea - it's the best of Western Norway. Thanks for joining us. Rugged is putting it mildly when it comes to 80 percent of Norway. Historically, it was a challenging place in which to live. That's why Vikings ventured south and that's why so many people here chose to leave and settle in America. But today, when you explore the west of Norway - with its majestic mountains and fjords - you'll find plenty of reason not to leave...but to visit. We start in what's called Giant's Country - Jotunheimen. High in the mountains, we'll hike on Europe's biggest glacier, then descend into fjord beauty. We'll take scenic cruises, see how medieval peasants lived...and where they worshipped, before enjoying Norway's historic capital with its Hanseatic heritage, a little high Norwegian culture, and its rugged love of life. Norway is long and skinny. It stretches nearly the length of America's west coast. We'll zero in on the scenic west - along the biggest of the fjords, Sognefjord, with stops in Jotunheimem, the Jostedal Glacier, Solvorn, Flam, Balestrand, and Bergen. This is Jotunheim or home of the giants - a high plateau that feels like the top of the world. These are northern Europe's highest peaks and they're steeped in Norse legends and folk lore. This is the land of Thor and Odin whose spirits still inhabit the misty peaks. For centuries villagers trekked across this pass to reach the coast. It was an arduous journey. But, today crossing it's a pleasure. At 4,600 feet, the Sognefjell road is Norway's highest pass. At this latitude, even these modest altitudes take us high above the tree line with snow through the summer. Norway's lunar-like mountain-scapes and deep fjords were shaped by glaciers that covered most of the Continent 10,000 years ago. Europe's largest surviving glacier, Jostedal is still hard at work. It covers 180 square miles and - though shrinking - is still mighty. Of the many tongues of the glacier, this one - called Nigardsbreen - offers the best visit. The valley comes with a quintessential glacier view. The approach includes a cruise across the glacial lake. The scale is enormous and blue cliffs of ancient ice dwarf awestruck visitors. Park guides lash on crampons and rope up adventurous travelers in preparation for an icy hike. While there are more demanding Nigardsbreen routes, I'm joining a family hike - just an hour, but offering a unforgettable experience and bringing you face to face with the power and majesty of nature. While tentative at first, hikers soon gain confidence in their crampons as they climb high onto the glacier. 75 years ago, this glacier filled most of this valley. Guides teach a respect for nature and any visit heightens one's awareness of the impact of climate change. Rivers of ice like this carved huge valleys creating the defining feature of Norway's landscape - the fjords. Those glaciers - as much as a mile thick - spent eons carving up western Norway as they worked their way to the sea. Slowly, they gouged u-shaped valleys that later filled with water. The distance from seabed to mountaintop around here is as much as 9000 feet - nearly two vertical miles. Dramatic waterfalls continue to cut into the mountains. This viewpoint makes sure car hikers get out and appreciate the view. Sognefjord is Norway's biggest and that's the one we're exploring. Of its many arms, the most scenic is called Nærøyfjord. Rain or shine, traditional ferries offer a relaxing yet thrilling fjord experience. These ferries, while popular with tourists, are the lifeline of many fjord-side communities. Some remote farms are connected to the outside world only by ferry. Mail is dropped and visitors come and go by request. And the visual highlight of this ride, Nærøyfjord is ten miles long and breathtakingly narrow - as little as 800 feet wide. Guide: So we ready to go? Rick: Let's go! For an exhilarating alternative, we're suiting up for a much speedier tour with the Fjord Safari company. Survival suits keep everyone cozy and comfortable at thrillingly high speeds. Our guide, Rune, knows all the interesting stops. Man: Long way down. Rick: Long way down! Guide: So this is what \makes this fjords in Norway so special, cause it's steep, steep walls down in the fjord everywhere. And this glacier's a very big glacier. And this is only a little part of the glacier so it continues 100 meters down, it's very deep there. This western region is important to the people of Norway. After four centuries of Danish rule, the soul of the country was nearly lost. Then with independence and a constitution in the early 1800s, there was a national resurgence and people from the cities celebrated their Norwegian-ness by coming here to fjord country. Along with those first tourists came artists. Romantic painters and writers were inspired by the mountains plunging into the fjords and by the dramatic light. Paintings romanticized both the nature and the traditional folk life it fostered. For a present day taste of this romanticism, I like the mellow town of Solvorn with its dramatic fjord-side setting. This sleepy village, with colorful boathouses lining its waterfront, seems contentedly trapped in the past. Solvorn's charming Walaker Hotel harkens back to the early days of tourism. A former inn and coach station, it's been in the family since 1690. And nine generations later, Ole Henrik keeps the tradition alive. A charming ambiance pervades the place. Relaxing before dinner, guests feel right at home in the salon. Dinner, served in this genteel elegance, caps a beautiful day. The menu is modern Norwegian. It's based on local ingredients - many of them pulled right out of the fjord. We're starting with scallops from just off shore. On a summer evening the twilight lingers causing people to do the same. Our main course is arctic char from the north of Norway. To enjoy the full effect of this fjord-side setting, I take my coffee and dessert out to the porch. The berries, picked right out of their garden, go perfectly with the view. The most scenic train ride in all of northern Europe connects visitors from Oslo and Bergen to all this wonder by climbing over the mountainous spine of Norway. The Trans-Norway line, an engineering marvel when completed in 1909, was important because it laced together the nation. Today tourists follow the same route with a series of efficient connections enjoying a quick and easy dose of Norway's best scenery. Along with a scenic boat ride up Nærøyfjord, a highlight is this little train that takes travelers from the main line in the mountains steeply down to the fjords. This popular day trip is nicknamed "Norway in a Nutshell." Passengers savor every scenic moment. Scenes glide by like a movie. The train stops at a misty waterfall. The surprise appearance of mythic Nordic water maidens titillates tourists. As we descend into the fertile valley, farms appear. Finally, the train hits the fjord, where passengers catch a ferry for the next leg of Norway in a Nutshell. Travelers with their own wheels can dig deeper into fjord country - just like those glaciers did in the last Ice Age. For me, driving in Norway can be treacherous - not because of the speed or traffic - but because of the scenery...it's simply hard to keep your eyes on the road. In this rugged terrain, tunnels and fjord crossings provide valuable shortcuts. Little car ferries make strategic crossings, allowing even the driver to fully enjoy the views. And tunnels - this one's the world's longest for cars, at 15 miles - save lots of time. To help drivers stay awake, there are rest chambers with colored lights mid-tunnel. Norwegians are making massive infrastructure investments to link their people and industries.. While breath-taking scenery is everywhere you look, the history is harder to see. For most of its past, Norway was extremely humble. While wealthier parts of Europe were building grand churches and castles of stone, most of Norway's architecture was made of wood. Fires were almost routine, and little survives from centuries past. This is the wet and wild homeland of the Vikings - whose culture lasted about three centuries from roughly 800 to 1100. Setting sail from here, in their tough boats, they settled Iceland, Greenland, and even made it to America. And Viking raiders terrorized much of Europe for generations. This mound marks the grave of one of those Viking rulers. Like the Egyptians, the Vikings believed in a life after death. And they believed you could take it with you. That's why when graves are excavated, archeologists find everything from jewelry and weapons to cooking pots and even boats. The end of the Viking age with its pagan Norse gods is marked by the coming of Christianity to Norway in the 12th century. Those medieval Norwegians, now tamed, took their boat-building skills and rather than sleek ships to raid in, they built fine wooden churches to pray in. These traditional Norwegian churches are called stave churches. While there were over a thousand such churches in Norway back in the 1300s, today, only a couple dozen survive. The Borgund Stave Church is one of the best. Stave churches were supported by stout pine poles - or "staves" - and slathered with a protective coat of black tar. Wood was plentiful and cheap. While the basic design reflects the simple technology of the age, more elaborate examples like this one stand as proud testaments to the culture. Remarkable carvings survive - evoking the pagan roots of these early Norwegian Christians. Stylized dragons - reminiscent of those that once adorned Viking ships - probably functioned like gargoyles - to keep evil spirits at bay. This building has changed little since it was built in 1180. Interiors were stark and dark with tiny windows and simple X-shaped crosses of St. Andrew. The architecture guides your gaze upwards, towards heaven. The people who filled these churches often walked hours to worship. Many hiked from tiny hamlets formed by several farms joining together. Otternes is one such farm village perched high above a fjord. Today, Otternes welcomes visitors with a rare look at Norway of old. It's an evocative huddle of a couple dozen weathered farm buildings - many of which date from the 1700s. The farmstead's population dwindled a century ago, when - like so many Norwegians - its residents emigrated to America in hopes of a better life. Still, a handful of farmers remained, eking out a living here until just a generation ago. Laila Kvellestad works hard to make the story of Otternes a living history. Rick: So I'm curious about how this community was organized. Laila: Yeah and this was four farms, four families, who lived here. Rick: So why not one family here and one family there? Why four families together: Laila: You know to live in this area it was very hard life. So they learned to work together and learned to share the reserves so they could survive. Rick: So this was an active farm actually until the last generation. Laila: Yes and Eilert he lived here till 1980. Rick: So there was a man named Eilert? Laila: Yeah. He was the last one. Rick: Now this looks like he left it yesterday. Laila: Yes. And his last wish was we should try to take care of this house almost like it was when he died. Rick: And you're doing exactly that. Laila: We try to do it yes. Today the action's down at sea level. Ferries are a lifeline of the economy - helping both locals go about their lives and visitors efficiently explore these fjords. Just across Sognefjord lies Balestrand. Little Balestrand is dwarfed by the mountainous scenery. With its functional harbor front and inviting marina, it serves as a springboard for local adventures. It flourished in the 19th century, as a resort when Romantic "Grand Tour" visitors came from far and wide to enjoy its dramatic setting. As a matter of fact, these simple steps were built for the German Emperor. Back before WWI brought the Romantic age to a halt, Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm spent five summers communing with nature right here. Those glory days of early tourism still echo in the venerable Kviknes Hotel, which remains the grande dame of Balestrand. In its fine old dining room, the Kviknes offers a classic Norwegian smorgasbord. For locals, this all-you-can-eat extravaganza is traditionally a feast enjoyed on holidays. But for travelers it's an any-day-of-the-week opportunity to over-indulge in Norwegian cuisine. Pace yourself with small plates through many courses. Begin with an enticing variety of seafood - mackerel, eel, smoked salmon, pickled herring and more. And the selection ranges from rutabagas to reindeer. It all culminates with a rich spread of local cheeses and berries. Guests enjoy their coffee in the same rustic elegance that kept those first aristocratic visitors coming back. While the beauty of these fjords has changed little in the last century, today getting around is a different story. From the heart of fjord country, the fast boat has us in the biggest city in the West of Norway in just a couple hours. Bergen is Norway's second city after Oslo. Situated just one sheltering island from the open sea, it's long provided ships a safe port of call. It's a busy working port. It's popular with cruise ships and an essential refuge when heavy winds drive in the boats that serve the North Sea oil rigs. Much of Norway's current affluence is fueled by the oil it drills just off shore. Visitors enjoy charming cobbled streets which surround the harbor and climb the encircling hills. Bergen's popular funicular rises high above the city offering commanding views. Surveying the surrounding islands and fjords, it's clear why this city is known as the Gateway to Fjord Country. Back down at the harbor, the bustling fish market has become a food circus of eateries selling fishy treats to tourists. Eager merchants provide tasty samples and they'll happily assemble a plate to order. This fine harbor has a long history. Seven hundred years ago, local kings established Bergen as Norway's first capital. The 13th-century Håkon's Hall was part of the royal residence. In a city built of wood, stone buildings represented power. As in many Norwegian sights, the included tour here brings meaning to an otherwise hard to appreciate attraction. Guide: Welcome to the Håkon's Hall which is today one of the more important secular buildings we actually have here in Norway from the Middle Ages. You're now standing up as you can see in the main hall. I think this is also the best location where you're able to appreciate actually how large this building is. And today it is by far the largest secular stone building in Norway from the Middle Ages. The adjacent tower dates back to the same period. It's simple design favored security over comfort. It was basically four stout rooms stacked atop each other. This was the chapel. From the roof we enjoy a royal view. Guide: For centuries this actually happened to be the tallest building in Bergen. What I think the building is trying to represent today is the attempt the Norwegian kings made in the 1200s to make this a political center. Colorful wooden warehouses mark Bergen's touristy historic quarter. Since the 1300s, this was its old German trading center - called Bryggen, or "The Wharf." Along with being home of Norway's king, Bergen was a member of the mighty Hanseatic League and therefore a trading power. The Hanseatic League was an alliance of cities stretching across Northern Europe from London to Russia. They worked together for freer, safer, and more profitable trade in an age before modern states could provide a reliable environment for business. German merchants basically ran Bergen's trade for 400 years. In the 1500s, Bergen was essentially a Germanic community of 2,000 workaholic merchants surrounded and supported by 5,000 Norwegians. The Hanseatic Museum stands on the edge of the wharf. With creaky wooden interiors and maritime hardware, it helps you envision the economy that made Bergen. It was all about this fish. Cod - a form of protein that could be dried, preserved, and shipped anywhere. Bergen is the place where cod from the north met traders from the rest of Europe. The Norwegians were the good fishermen. The Germans were the good merchants. They needed each other and Bergen is where they met. Rooms upstairs - with hundred year old cod hanging from the ceilings - take you back to the 1700s. It was an all-male society with strict rules and a focus on business. Because of the ever-present danger of fire, it was generally cold and dark. People slept cozy-as-they-could in cramped cupboard beds. While there was hardly room for company, this bunk came with a pinup girl. Bryggen's wooden core is made of long rows of planky warehouses leaning haphazardly across narrow alleys. It's burned down and been rebuilt several times and it's now touristy and full of shops and galleries. Still, strolling here, you can appreciate the heritage. For a modern contrast to all this history, head for the urban heart of Bergen - which has a thriving personality all its own. The main square, originally created as a fire break in this fire-plagued city, is lined by big department stores.