Nordicaa: Travels in the Nordic Lands – Flåm

Sun high in the sky, yet it fails to reach us. The whole head of the fjord is encased in shadow, drawn purple by the sheer face above us. Warmth cannot penetrate the bone this close to the water, even though the sun has burned off every hint of moisture in the atmosphere. Let’s have a coffee instead.

A set of picture postcard cottages (Fjordhytter – literally ‘Fjord Huts’) sit just above the waterline, red, each with a small boat tethered to its foundations: our home for the next few days. The surface of the fjord is as still as a mirror, perfectly reflecting the mountain above it. The only motion the water has seen today was that of a wake, caused by a small craft making its way gently out of the marina. And that was hours ago.

Welcome to Flåm (I pronounce it as “Flom”), at the head of Aurlandsfjorden; a place where every sight is worthy of a thousand Instagrams, and where the serenity soaks deep in to your bones.

Yet, beneath the skin of this magnificent pastoral idyll lies the beating heart of a machine; with it a smouldering core of resentment and acrimony. Flåm is a place with two faces, and the face you see depends very much on when you choose to go. I would suggest going out of season, but only just.

There is no such place as Flåm, not really. The area which we think of as Flåm should probably be more accurately referred to as Fretheim. Fretheim is one of a flurry of hamlets strung along the Dale of Flåm (Flåmsdala), each more utilitarian than the last. You don’t come all this way for hamlets.

Look at a map and both Fretheim and Håreina are marked, equally emphatically, as Flåm. Håreina is home to Flåm Church; its grounds the final resting place of countless folk named Flåm and Fretheim. A short walk away is the village of Lunden, home to many of tourist Flåm’s workers.

The “town” described as Flåm is really only a collection of businesses gathered around a train station, and that has only one service. Businesses focus on passing tourists, either feeding them (to varying degrees of quality), or by selling them Chinese-made moose emblazoned with Norwegian flags.

Flåm, in my view, is primarily a handy placeholder of a name for this area: the Flåm river (Flåmselvi) runs along the Dale of Flåm, which pours out in to the fjord, past the last stop on the Flåm railway (Flåmsbana). Why the last stop on the world famous rail line was not named Fretheim was probably covered in the railway’s museum, but I had a boat to catch, so I never got the chance to find out.

Tranquillity is almost a palpable object in this place. We are under the shadow of the mountain, the fjord lapping gently behind us. The giddy laughter of a child, playing in a park with her parents.

The peace is shattered by the influx. What was, moments ago, a sleepy little hamlet, home to a few jellyfish and a pottering holidaymaker, is now a bustling hub of tourists ‘doing the fjord’. They have been deposited here either by boat or by train, and they will be taken away again by the other.

It is a conveyor belt, worn smooth by millions of shuffling feet. They are only allowed to touch down for a moment, lest the schedules be interrupted. They swarm, they devour, they feast on overpriced tourist paraphernalia offered by each and every open door. Their queues snake through the streets of this tourist “town”; the ground is only metalled for their comfort. The zombies run the show here.

They do not have the chance to take in the series of hamlets; they only have time to pass by. To my mind they are missing out. The greatest strength of Flåm is its utter stillness, serenity in the face of such staggering beauty. It is a place where just sitting with a cup of coffee, watching the view as it changes through the day, is an endeavour beyond worth. The tourist trail misses this point entirely.

A pair of otter surface and then dive down; a tasty morsel has been spotted in the cool, clear waters. They come and go from view, up and down the fjord, sometimes together; sometimes apart. We’ve never been this close to an otter in the wild before, let alone sat watching them at play. It is a truly magical experience, marred only by the repeated cries for another episode of Charlie and Lola.

We sit in silence, watching the view. I have never sat at the base of a sheer face of rock before, and I cannot but be awestruck by it. Every crag, every corner, every hanging root is worthy of undivided attention. The view is so entrancing that even the fjord is compelled to remain as flat as possible in order to create its own impression. It need not have bothered; it is a sight to behold in itself.

The fjord teems with life: jellyfish, otter, duck. Forests of seaweed, bubbled and braided, bob and billow beneath the crystal surface. Tiny fish dart to and fro, silvery ghosts flashing by, almost unseen, glimpsed and gone. All human incursion is bound to the quay far beyond; here nature is free to play unfettered, no hand of man to tame its frolic. Then the night falls, and the bats swoop across the evening sky, hunting for their quarry. Only the silhouette gives them away; their silence is perfect.

We sit in the boat as our landlord hands me control. What had begun as a gentle row in to perfectly still waters rapidly became a lesson in the use of an outboard motor. I am far from being a practical man, it would seem: while I am perfectly comfortable being rowed in the boat I can only look at its method of propulsion from a theoretical standpoint. I can’t even drive. I understand how it works, but I doubt I’d manage it unaided. We scream across the water at a speed I was unprepared for. It feels wrong in the fjord to be moving quite so fast, as if it were a crime against the stillness of this place; it feels doubly wrong to not make use of the boat, and get out to play on to the fjord.

The fjord cruise, the express boat, is a fully different experience. At once heart-breaking, because it marks our departure; simultaneously exciting, because it offers the chance to see the fjord from the water once more. The boat properly shifts it along the water, almost throwing itself violently at each of the towns and villages at which we stop. Aurlandsfjorden is a most breath-taking sight to behold, its picture-perfect towns each a new item on my ever-expanding bucket list; its air a cool and crisp refreshment after the stale atmosphere within the boat. Just don’t try to wear a hat at that speed.

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