Norway 2006: Day Five (A Folk Museum and the oddness of Norwegian buses)

Posted on 2 October 2006 in Travel and Holidays (No comments)

Very early on in our holiday planning we'd hit one, important question. How would we do it?

There were three options. The first was go round in a big coach group, which was something I wasn't very keen on. Secondly there was the obvious option to go round by car, like we'd done in Iceland the year before.

There's obviously a lot of benefits to doing this - complete independence to just go anywhere you want, you can set your own time frames and so on.

There was however some drawbacks. The first is that Catherine never passed her driving test so all the driving has to be done by me. That wouldn't be a problem if it wasn't for another point. We don't have a car so I don't drive very often. The last time I drove a car was in Iceland last August, and the time before that was Christmas 2003! I am, to be frank, a little out of practise.

Whilst most of the time in Iceland I was fine, I was beginning to get a little fed up with it towards the end of the holiday. When you haven't driven for eighteen months and all of a sudden you're expected to drive for several hours a day, every day for ten days, it can take it out of you a little. Of course if I drove every day anyway, I wouldn't have had a problem.

Norway by public transport

I hadn't ruled out having a car for Norway, but when Catherine suggested the third option - get round on public transport - it seemed like a reasonable idea. After all it had to be possible. For starters, a tour company had to ensure you could get to your base camps, and there had to be transport options at the places you stayed so that you could do the tourist things and go out to places.

And so it came to pass that our travels in Norway would be carless. Our journeys between hotels and towns/cities had all been planned and paid for in advance. All we had to do when we got there was work out where we wanted to go, and how to get there. Sounds easy.

In retrospect there is one small problem - unless you do a lot of planning before arriving, you don't actually know where you can go until you get there. Which is why on our final day at Balestrand, we were back at the tourist information office peering at the bus timetable.

Folk Museums and Stave Churches? Yes please!

The day before I'd spotted that the timetable said the 10:05 bus went on to Kauppanger further on up the Sognefjord. According to our Lonely Planet guide, this was where we'd find the Sogn Folkemuseum, and an impressive stave church. It seemed like a good trip out.

We got on the bus and paid for our 178 NOK each for ticket to Kauppanger. This was where the confusion about Norwegian buses began. You see, the timetable says the bus goes to Kauppanger. The timetable lies. The bus actually terminates at Sogndal on the way. There you have to get another bus to Kauppanger. But that's all right because the ticket is a through ticket so no problems.

Sogndal Skysstasjon

Seventy five minutes later and the 'not going to Kauppanger' bus arrives at Sogndal skysstasjon, which despite the futuristic name, is a rather basic concrete building with five bus stops outside.

The driver helpfully points to a collection of buses sitting in a parking area and tells us that it will be one of those before zooming off into the nearby depot and getting a cup of tea. Probably.

After some hunting, we finally work out which of the five bus stands is the one we want, but no buses seem to be in sight. An express bus turns up going to Oslo or Bergen or something, but nothing going to Kauppanger. There's a bus in the parking area that proclaims it's going to Kauppanger, but it's empty and driver-less.

We go inside the bus station and look at timetables, whilst simultaneously keeping an eye out for rogue buses. For some reason I find it impossible to locate Kauppanger on any timetable. I later find out that this is because all the timetables list it as Kaupangsenteret for reasons which are still lost of me now.

Whilst I'm struggling with bus timetables, Catherine's in the information office in the queue. I say queue because actually there's only one person in there besides the bloke on duty. An old woman who is talking constantly to the bloke for something ridiculous like twenty minutes non-stop. And for once, this is not me exaggerating. She just doesn't stop. In the time Catherine spends in the queue, I have time to study almost every bus timetable twice, wander around outside about three times and explore the fast food outlet. And then wait impatiently.

After what feels like an eternity, we find out that there's a bus at 12:45. Quite what happened to the 11:30 one is another matter, but no, Balestrand tourist information office didn't make it up - it's clearly listed on the printed timetable for route 23-516.

Wasting time in Sogndal

Having wasted about half an hour trying to find out what was going on, we wandered into Sogndal to see if we could grab some food.

Sogndal is the main commercial centre of the Sognefjord area, but to the blunt, it's dull. Dull, dull, dull and indeed dull. Even the Lonely Planet guide to Norway can't come up with anything interesting to say about it. Obviously the most exciting thing you can do is waste time in the bus station.

We wandered round bland streets trying to find something vaguely like food, and indeed we did pass one cafe, but our need for a bus station didn't suggest sitting down for food. After wandering into the tourist information office (which appeared to share the same building as the library and a cinema, and was obviously the main attraction in the town given how many teenagers were hanging round), we found ourselves purchasing sliced cheese and bread rolls in a supermarket. For the ultimate in luxury lunches, we ate them whilst sat outside back at the skysstasjon...

Skip to the end...

I'm sure you'll agree that it's these little details that make this blog so worth reading. I mean, so far I have written nearly twenty paragraphs, most of which are taken up with a rant about old women, missing buses and the dullness of a city centre. I mean, at this rate, you could be reading this for the next fortnight, and I still won't have told you that we had cauliflower soup for tea...

So needless to say the 12:45 bus left the Skystasjon at 12:30. We weren't on it, but that was alright because the route actually started at the mysterious sounding Sogndal Shell, before returning the bus station. It was obviously a worthwhile visit as the bus returned with precisely zero passengers, at which point we boarded and were whisked off to the folk museum.

Sogn folkemuseum

At the Sogn Folkmuseum

At the entrance to the museum

Sogn folkmuseum has a collection of 40 odd buildings outdoors. For a couple of krone you can hire an MP3 which will give you an informative audio commentary giving detailed context and information about the buildings. As a nice touch, if you take your own MP3 player, they'll let you upload the MP3s for free instead.

At the suggestion of the member of staff, we got one MP3 player between us. This (of course) turned out to be a bit of a mistake as whilst the audio commentary was very interesting, you have to wait for the other person to have finished with it before you find anything out. This was a bit of a shame, and meant we didn't really get the full benefit out of it.

At the Sogn Folkmuseum

Some of the buildings at the museum

The open air museum itself is actually rather interesting - helped of course by the good weather. Indeed I was surprised how good it was - such places can often be a bit dry and dull - and we spent much time wandering around, time increased by Catherine talking to one of the museum staff (dressed in period costume - the staff member, not Catherine!) about natural dyeing of wool using various plants and things.

A word on lefse

It was a warm day, and after a while we were in need of refreshment so we went into the museum cafe for some tea. Spying some cakes, we decided to have something to eat as well. The lady at the till recommended a regional speciality called lefse (probably the 'tykklefse' mentioned on the Wikipedia article), made with a perturbing looking, but tasty, brown Norwegian cheese. It was surprisingly tasty and sweet - well worth a try if you're in the area.

Stave Church?

After completing the outside of the church, we asked it it was possible to get to the Stave Church from there, so we could complete our original plan for the day. The answer was yes, but it wasn't exactly nearby. Kauppanger itself was about a 4km walk away, and there was unlikely to be any buses going that way - we'd have to walk.

This wouldn't have been a huge problem other than that we had to catch the bus back to Balestrand at 15:50. If we didn't, we'd have to wait two hours and we'd miss dinner back at the hotel.

It was already getting on for three o'clock, so reluctantly we gave Kauppanger's stave church a miss. If only we'd have been able to get the bus at 11:30, and we would have had time. Or for that matter, if we'd had a car! Still, you can't have everything.

Instead we filled our time wandering around the indoor exhibitions at the museum, which concentrated on Norwegian customs and traditions. Again they were rather interesting, thus reducing the sadness at missing the church.

Back to buses again!

Having had trouble in the morning, we were a bit cautious about the bus back - we'd even double checked the times with the museum staff, although this confused things even further as she showed us a completely different bus timetable which showed a bus coming at the same time, but stopping at Sogndal.

This left us a bit bemused - would two buses turn up at exactly the same time? Would it be going to Balestrand? Who knows?

Well actually I know. For I have just been doing my research and have found a little discovery. Going through the timetimes listed on the Fjord1 Sognbillag website, I have found a whopping nine different bus routes which all are due to leave Kauppanger at 15:50.

This, and evidence gained later on in our trip, allows me to explain. Yes, it appears that a single Norwegian bus route is often literally just a collection of several different shorter routes, all put together in one big, interconnecting lump. It's an interesting concept and one which clearly wouldn't work in Britain as British bus operators seem to be incapable of making any buses on one route work together, yet alone make ten of the confounded things interconnect.

The fact that one Norwegian bus route can have nine different route numbers probably explains why the buses don't actually have numbers on the front of them. There would be no space for the destination!

Of course we didn't realise this at the time and were therefore doubly confused when a Fjord1 bus appeared in front of us, with a driver who gave us a ticket marked "HSD Buses", and who couldn't sell us a through ticket to Balestrand. In a state of fluxed-ness, we paid 25 NOK each to get to Sogndal where we could apparently get our connection.

Thankfully this time the bus was there to great us, and for our privilege, we paid another 83 NOK each to get back to Balestrand - a total of 216 NOK between us, and (confusingly) 38 NOK more than the same journey going in the opposite direction! Given the return journey the day before had similarly been more expensive than going out, one can't help but wonder what bizarre fare structure they have in Norway. And people think London's bus tickets are confusing...

Let them not eat cake

After spending about two hours in a state of confusion over Norway's bus system, we got back to Balestrand and proceeded to walk back into the Kaffi Galleri which advertised "World's Best Cake".

Unfortunately they'd sold out so we had to make do with an ice cream from Spar instead. And as we sat on the quayside, admiring the ferry M/F Fjærlandsfjord, which was moored up in the harbour.

Well, it was better than looking at buses...

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