JOIN US IN AN INTERVIEW WITH MAL DICKSON FROM AURLAND, NORWAY !
Mal is a photographer, guide and a viking re-enactor. He has lived in west Norway for over 5 years and set up Aurland Photography in 2016. In 2017 and 2018 Mal worked as a full time viking in Njardarheimr viking village in Gudvangen, where in addition to sharing the real story of the vikings, he could also teach you how to throw axes or shoot arrows. In true viking style, Mal also loves to travel to other places as often as possible, though he promises not to burn your home or steal your stuff.
Aurland is a small municipality about 150 kilometres north and east of Norway’s second city of Bergen. Aurland lies at the end of Aurlandsfjord – an arm of Sognefjord, Norway’s longest fjord. Traditional farming dominated the economy historically, but now hydroelectric power and tourism are important activities.
The village of Flåm is connected to the main Oslo – Bergen railway line by the famous Flåmsbana – a 19 kilometre (12 mile) railway that takes you from over 900 metres at Myrdal down to sea level and is considered to be one of the world’s most spectacular rail journeys. Aurland’s fjord landscape, and in particular its Nærøyfjord, was included in UNESCO’s world heritage site list in 2005.
Aurland is mostly composed of fjords and mountains. How many days are enough to see the kommune?
Although Aurland is most famous for its World Heritage fjords, actually most of it is high mountain (90% of the area is over 900 metres (3000 feet)). You could easily spend a week in Aurland and not see everything. Most people, of course come for the fjords and perhaps a day trip or an overnight stay would give you a good flavour of the fjord landscape, but if you are interested in getting up above the fjord, or away from the fjord, then a longer stay is definitely what you need. There are some amazing hiking routes in the area, both shorter and longer – so if that is your thing, then perhaps even a week is not long enough.
What is the best time to visit Aurland and why?
Aurland as a destination is dominated by the deep water port at Flåm, allowing even the largest of cruise ships to visit. There is currently an important debate on going about the effects of cruise ship tourism in the fragile fjord environment. It has many impacts and if you are visiting Aurland you must also be aware that it may impact your own visit.
During the peak season from mid May to mid September, it can be extremely busy. Sometimes 2, or even 3 ships can be visiting Flåm. Add to that the fact that the main E16 road route between Oslo and Bergen runs through too, and it all adds up to Flåm, in particular, being a very crowded place. If you are planning to come in summer, I suggest a visit to Port of Flåm website where there is a list of the ship arrivals for 2020. This can be useful for planning a visit outside of days where cruise ships are docked.
Outside of the peak season the spring months of April and May and autumn from mid September to the end of October can be very rewarding. However, it is important to bear in mind that in early spring it is not the best hiking time as the snow coverage in the mountains is still very high – autumn is best before the new snow arrives. Autumn has another spectacular reason for visiting and that is the colour – it can be breathtaking to see the fjord landscape in autumn colours.
Winter tourism is now being actively encouraged and many tourism related businesses continue to operate in winter – this is definitely a change over 5 years ago when basically everything shuts down. Winter can be spectacular, but bear in mind the weather is unpredictable.
It is often claimed that embarking on the Flam railway is the most scenic way to reach Aurland. What according to you are the best ways to reach Aurland from Oslo?
There is no doubt that the Flåmsbana railway – which runs from the high mountain station of Myrdal on the Oslo – Bergen line all the way down to Flåm at sea level – is one of the most incredible short rail journeys of the world. But it is not the only way to see Flåmsdalen, the valley through which the railway runs. You can cycle it too. The Rallervegen route is a very popular alternative to the train in summer, if you are feeling fit enough for the 19 km (12 mile) journey!
You could also choose to take the train up and cycle back down! My personal recommendation for getting to Aurland from Oslo would be to take a short one flight to Bergen and then take the hurtigbåt (fast boat) from the centre of the city all the way to Flåm. It is a 5 hour journey that takes you the entire length of Norway’s longest and deepest fjord, Sognefjord. The boat stops at many of the small towns of the fjord along the way and it is a truly amazing experience to come into the steeper sides of Aurlandsfjord at the end of this incredible trip.
Which are the best villages to visit in Aurland ?
Aurland’s population is only 1800 people. There are 5 main villages – Aurlandsvangen, Flåm, Gudvangen, Undredal and Vassbygdi. Until the last 30 years many parts of Aurland were only reachable from outside the area by boat. The fjord was the main artery of travel. This makes the way these communities have grown up very unique and their strong local cultures remain as a result.
All of the villages have their charms – Aurlandsvangen and its stone church. Flåm in the spectacular surroundings of Flåmsdalen, Gudvangen with its wall like mountains, Vassbygdi as the entrance to Aurlandsdalen.
I think my personal favourite is Undredal !
With the smallest stave church in Norway dating back to the 12th century and its idyllic position next to the fjord, Undredal (literally means ‘wonder valley’) is about a perfect place to be as any in Aurland. Add to that its fame for goat farming and the production of traditional brunost (a brown, almost caramel like cheese), then it is a special place indeed.
What are the best daytrips to take for nature, culture and history from Aurland ?
While most will marvel at the fjord landscape Aurland has to offer, for a contrasting view of this place why not drive over Aurlandsfjellet on the so-called ‘snow road’. The road is open to drive during the summer months after it has been cleared of snow. In June in particular, it is spectacular with snow piled up 4 metres high either side of the road in places and takes you into an amazing mountain landscape 1300 metres (4300 feet) above the level of the fjord. For the pure enjoyment of nature very little can beat the experience of taking a slow drive up on the mountain and stopping along the way to sample the silence and wildness of nature at this height.
2 years ago I would not hesitate with answering this question by saying that you must visit the historic farm of Otternes, just a short distance from Flåm. It is the perfect place to understand a little more of how the way of life of farming in the fjords dominated until very recently.
Otternes is a site of importance, not just locally, but in my opinion, nationally too. It is one of the few remaining examples of a traditional klyngetun (cluster farm) – a form of organising many different farm houses together in close proximity. While it is still possible to visit and walk around the farm, it is currently not being run as it was previously as a semi working farm, with hospitality and food offer.
There is little progress over its long-term future and preservation and it is a source of sadness for many in the local community that greater progress is still, it seems, some distance away. For the real story of history and culture in Aurland, though, there still remains no better place to visit. Perhaps you can add your voice to those who would like to see this historic place preserved for future generations?
Aurland also has a rich viking age heritage. The area has several sites of viking age settlement, burials where important archaeological artefacts have been recovered. The viking story is very complex and far more interesting that the popular image of the often violent viking warrior coming to plunder your lands. The viking story, here in west Norway, also includes the development of an early model of representative democracy, considerable social and property rights for women and the development of links to a trading network stretching from Asia to north America.
I have been an active member of the local Njardar Vikinglag for viking re-enactors and so I would definitely recommend a visit to Njardarheimr viking village in Gudvangen It is the perfect way to learn more about the real viking story and also to have some fun – yes, you can get to throw some axes if you want!
If you are here for just a day I would recommend booking a ferry trip from Flåm to Gudvangen (if you can take the electric boat, see VisitFlam). This takes you through the stunning world heritage Nærøyfjord. If you can stand the crowd on the boat, this is an unmissable trip, almost in all weathers.
What adventure activities can one indulge in when in Aurland?
I have already mentioned the cycling route of Rallarvegen, but perhaps the other biggest draw for the adventure traveller is being out on the fjord. There are two contrasting ways to do this. If fast and exciting is your thing, then perhaps a trip in one of Fjord Safari’s RIB boats operating out of Flåm is best for you.
If you are looking for a slower pace, and also the opportunity to learn more about how to respect and protect our nature for the future then a kayak trip might be good to choose. I recommend Njord Sea Kayaking based in Flåm. These guys do so much good work in also teaching those of us living and working here in west Norway how to provide a more sustainable future for visitors enjoying our incredible nature.
Kayak demo at the Viking village at Gudvangen by TFBergen.
Aurland is also popular destination for speedflyers (from the popular spot above Stegastein viewpoint) and base jumpers. The extreme sports week based in nearby Voss every June brings base jumpers from all over the world to Nærøydalen (close to Gudvangen) and Aurlandsdalen. The sky divers at Voss also regularly take drop ins from higher altitudes into Gudvangen.
What does a traditional meal include in Aurland? Do you also have vegetarian options in your home menu?
The traditional way of life in west Norway is one of farming and fishing. Due to the mountainous nature of the terrain in Aurland the emphasis is on sheep and goats. Also due to the difficulty of keeping animals through the winter months, historically there is a great importance on food preservation. So cured meats and sausages from sheep and goats have been important and still form the basis of traditional meals today and you will find these as part of most traditional menus throughout the year. The traditional Christmas food is pinnekjøtt (literally ‘stick meat’) which is a classic example of the use of curing, drying (and sometimes smoking) a rib of lamb or mutton.
Vegetables play an important role in traditional menus too. In west Norway, root vegetables dominate – so potatoes, beets, carrots, swedes are all common accompaniments to main dishes. The fjord climate is also good for fruit growing, and apples, plums, raspberries are all grown locally.
For the vegetarian, Norwegian traditional cooking can be challenging. Due to the difficult way of life that farming and fishing has presented historically, traditional food has always had meat and fish at its heart. However, there is an abundance of ingredients, vegetables, fruits, berries, herbs and other plants (including mushrooms, and indeed some edible parts of the trees) that form an equally important part of the diet here historically. In most places, you will find vegetarian options, and if you are lucky, a creative take on these local ingredients.
Any suggestion on where to stay in Aurland ? Although Aurlandsvangen is the largest village in Aurland, which village would you recommend to stay for best nature experience?
There is a good mix of accommodation in Aurland from the higher end, historic Fretheim Hotel in Flåm to a mix of camp sites and self catering cabins. In between, are some smaller accommodations offering great opportunities to be right by the fjord. In Flåm there is the excellent Flåm Marina and in Aurland, Vangsgaarden Gjestgiveri.
What is the best time to see Aurora Borealis in Aurland and from where?
The truth is that Aurland is a little far south for good Aurora viewing. Norway is a lot bigger than people realise, and although Aurland is on the same latitude as the southern tip of Greenland and south Alaska, the Aurora is very often more visible in the northern part of Norway. That said, March and September often prove to give the visitor 1 or 2 nights potential Aurora spotting.
My advice is to get away from artificial light sources and don’t even bother if the KP Index of the sun’s activity is less than 4.5 (you can install an aurora forecast app on your phone for this). If it’s 5 or 6, then there’s a good chance you will see something in the sky to the north west, if, of course, the sky is clear! In summer, you have no chance. There are no dark skies, though mid summer brings its own rewards.
Any photography tours you would like to suggest ?
Norway is a photographer’s paradise (that’s why I set up my own photography business here) and more and more people are interested in learning how to take better photographs. In 2020 I will be offering 4 day photo tours in west Norway both in the fjords and on the coast. Keep an eye on my photo tour page Aurland Photography for more details as they become available.
Would you recommend any local apps for food, transport, hidden gems or northern lights which locals use?
While Norway is pretty advanced in digital terms, I would recommend trying to be offline as much as possible here. There is nothing better than feeling the freedom of not being reachable on any device if you are up in the mountains for example. It clears the mind and feeds the soul.
Try the traditional methods for discovering good food and hidden gems – ask someone, face to face. Norwegians’ command of English is excellent, and although they are quiet and rather private, if you approach someone politely and nicely, you will often be rewarded with just the insight you are looking for – there is no app for that!
But still there are two digital essentials for anyone who wants to be out and about in Norway at any time of the year – good weather information and a good map. Weather is a major factor in planning your activities and you musty be prepared for it – use the Yr weather app which allows detailed forecasting for just about any location in Norway (not just the ones on Google Maps!).
Also install a proper map – Norgeskart is the most detailed (and free) map available. Google Maps is simply not up to the job of providing accurate local place names, roads or terrain. In addition, if you are going hiking you must get hold of both a paper map and a compass and know how to use it. I would add also regular checks to the traffic information provided by if you are driving.
Would you give any suggestion to tourists visiting Aurland?
As with all travelling, I would suggest that anyone travelling to Aurland and Norway in general should do some research and planning first. Think carefully about what you want to do, where you want to go, where you want to stay, what you will need to wear and how you are going to get around. Add to this – please be very careful about making proper estimates of the time you need to do all of the things you want to do. For example you can safely double the times that google maps tells you it takes to drive between places in west Norway, especially in peak season. It is the one major thing that people get badly wrong here.
If you are planning to road trip – you must realise that driving 150 kilometres here in west Norway may be a more serious undertaking than you might realise. Unfortunately more and more tourists are coming to Norway with a lack of preparation and understanding for the activities they plan to do.
The other key suggestion I have for anyone visiting Norway is please, please, please respect everything regarding the environment, the nature and importantly people going about their daily lives here. Your visit can impact all of these and you must be aware of that and plan to minimise your effects. Please leave no trace. If you want to learn more about how to do this then please visit here.
Otherwise, please relax, take time, don’t rush and enjoy some of the best nature and landscape anywhere on our precious planet.
THINGS TO KNOW :
Visa : European Union citizens do not need passports, but they do need proper travel documents. American, British, Australian, and Canadian citizens need passports. Passports must be valid for three months beyond your length of stay and should have been issued within the last 10 years. Any nationals not referred to in this list should know that a Schengen Visa is valid for entering Norway. General required documents for Norway Visa application can be found here.
Transit Visa : Norway requires a special airport transit visa for citizens of certain countries if they stop in Norway on their way to other countries. Such visas only allow travelers to stay in the airport’s transit zone; they are not allowed to enter Norway.
Tap water : In Norway tap water is among the highest quality in the world and is completely safe to drink unless mentioned otherwise. Carry a reusable bottle.
Drones : Flying drones is legal in Norway. Here are the requirements you need to fulfil.