Sognefjellsvegen (it’s more fun if I don’t tell you how that’s pronounced) is a preposterously-beautiful stretch of highway along County Road 55 in Norway, between Gaupne and Lom. It is the highest mountain pass in Northern Europe and a heavyweight contender for the most breathtaking drive of my life.
I was back in England for a few months in 2014, and my friend Anais and I decided to capitalise on the fact Scandinavia is a stone’s throw across the North Sea (and that neither of us had been there yet). A budget-airline flight and Europcar rental booking later and we were in Bergen, with our sights set on a 467 mile drive to Oslo.
Arriving in Bergen
Bergen itself is a picturesque harbour city set between sprawling mountains cut into meandering inlets. Walk around town and you’ll find it hard not to get swept up in the fairytale architecture, the laidback university-town atmosphere and the marketplaces humming with the smell of whale meat, caramelised cheese and tomato mackerel.
After a leisurely couple of days there, we were on the road to Solvorn. Anais felt uncomfortable driving on the right side of the road, so I assumed full driving responsibilities whilst she made sandwiches in the passenger seat. It took me a while to realise the headlights couldn’t be switched off – they were set to stay on because of the region’s extensive network of tunnels.
On this first leg we caught our first stomach-dropping visuals of the infamous brobdingnagian Norwegian fjords. The steep lands rising like a wall of God out of the water make you feel about as significant as a rummaging dust mite.
We also drove through Lærdal Tunnel,the longest road tunnel in the world at a whopping 15.23 miles long. The architects were forced to take special measures to ensure motorists passing through it didn’t go insane or lose concentration. One of these measures was to mine huge open areas out at intermittent junctions deep inside the mountains. These are effectively giant halls with ragged, stoney walls, lit up by violet-blue lights that give the impression of a Disney cartoon diamond mine. If those aren’t enough to keep you awake, the 850ft differential in elevation (and the subsequent gear-shifting) will.
We spent our night in Solvorn drinking £13 pints of beer (paying more than £10 for a pint of beer is a popular pastime in Norway) and admiring, from the bottom of the valley, the tranquil village cut into the hillside. The settlement is surrounded by mountains on three sides and freshwater on the fourth. Calling it “tucked away” would be an understatement.
A drive into another world
After a sleepless night we set off on the road again, this time for Lillehammer via the aforementioned Sognefjellsvegen (hint: you don’t pronounce the ‘g’). The route we wrote in Anais’ living room a month earlier didn’t include this historic tourist road, but a man at an apple farm in Solvorn chastised us for even considering not taking it.
My iPod was loaded with Scandinavian singers and bands, which – if you know any Scandinavian singers or bands, you’ll understand – served only to emphasise the ethereal quality of the world slowly panning past our rental car.
There were gaping open spaces juxtaposed with claustrophobic tunnels and narrow passes. We crossed whitewater rapids and skirted crystal-clear lakes. You can’t help but marvel at the ingenuity of mankind in this environment – that we managed to not only traverse the twists and turns of the landscape in the first place but to create ways to do so at 70+mph.
We drove beneath more Lovecraftian rock formations which, despite their awe-inspiring magnitude, can become pedestrian when you’re fixated on safely navigating hairpin turns. The road wrapped itself around nimble banks next to the disturbingly-perfect water below. There were no barriers to act as contingents for misjudged corners. I noticed myself gripping the steering wheel pretty tight on certain bends. I tried not to let Anais notice. After an hour or so, the road started to elevate into the Sognefjell mountain area, and I was forced to drop down to fourth, then to third, and finally to second gear as the engine whined in protest.
The landscape began to resemble foothills of the sort one might generally consider unfit for vehicles. We were overtaken by locals wearing frustrated, hostile glares – locals whom had, no doubt, been driving these pinball passes all their lives.
After reaching what seemed like a peak we pulled over to give our panting car a rest. The place we pulled over was in clear sight of Galdhøpiggen – the tallest mountain in Northern Europe. The jagged skyline and asymmetrical summit was crowned in the distance on rows of lesser mountain heights. The air was thin and brisk and I suddenly felt the altitude. I ate a crusty sandwich and shivered in my flip-flops, t-shirt and shorts.
The road ahead meandered between 10ft globs of snow and ponds of aquamarine water. The deep greens and blues that so animated the fjords we’d driven through to get here were now replaced with bleak greys and browns, which made, to their credit, the bright, azure pools seem all the more vivid.
As we ploughed on along the mountain pass, sleet swept across the road. The cold crept into the car through the windows, despite the heaters blaring. The wind somehow managed to whistle through the tightly-sealed windows.
We dropped into a plummet back towards the real world, ears popping. We battled a mounting coat of rain at this new depth and eventually entered thick forests, that, given the context, made us half-anticipate having to swerve to dodge a wandering troll.
I can officially endorse this drive as one of the most stunning and varied in the world. It combined all the best things I’d come to love about mountain ranges: the wildness, the colours, the magnitude, and, crucially, the feeling that the stress of civilisation has become a distant memory. Sognefjellsvegen (OK, it’s son-ya-feh-jels-eh-ve-jen) placates all those things with an other-wordly Iceland-like volcanic barrenness that makes you feel like you’re driving through a Sigur Ros song. It felt like a celestially-scripted ‘best-of’ sample of what Earth can look like.
Upon arrival in Lillehammer, a city suffering from a 20-year Winter Olympics hangover, we felt like we were in a world decimated by some kind of 28-Days-Later pandemic. Granted, we were visiting in summer, but it was hauntingly deserted. Our hostel was built into the train station, and the only attraction the clerk at the desk could suggest, with a shrug, was the ski jump.
After that we drove to Oslo, just in time for the Brazilian FIFA World Cup Finals between Germany and Argentina. We spent in excess of £200 on nowhere near the quantity of drinks that money should have produced. Oslo is not really a city to spend time in without money. I was asked for pocket change by a man in a white tuxedo.
The trip ahead would take us through Sweden and Denmark where we eventually Easyjet’d home from Copenhagen, but Norway ended here.
The whole trip was scheduled on a whim. It’s easy to forget that there’s an ass-load of culture and landscape waiting for us just a few hours of sky away from Gatwick Airport. I live in Australia now, and I make a firm point to exploit how close Mainland Europe is to England whenever I’m home. I urge you to do the same, and Norway, separated from us only by the North Sea, and about as different topographically from England as you can imagine, is as good a place as any to start.
Christopher Tunstall is a self-professed writer, musician and traveller. He graduated from the University of Winchester with a Bachelors Degree in Creative Writing then worked as a web copywriter for two years before beginning his world travels. He now writes for writing advice website Penleak and has short fiction, music, etc. available on his website. Tweet him @cdtunstall