Even hardened travellers lapse into spellbound silence as ocean-going cruise liners, dwarfed by their surroundings to seem like model toys, glide into Sognefjord. The mountains rise almost vertically from the water’s edge – sheer walls of strong granitic rock some 3000ft (900m) high in places. The thin ribbons of water cascading down them are meltwater from the snow overhead. Pine trees cling to the less precipitous slopes, whenever their roots can find purchase in rock fissures and the banks of loose rubble that spill down.
In sudden, incongruous contrast, tiny farms can be seen nestling here and there on the narrow, fertile ledges bordering the fjord. Farm buildings with whitewashed clapboards walls and red or grey painted corrugated-iron roofs lie amid quilts of neatly ordered fields – their trimness underlining the outlandish splendour of their surroundings. With little time to speak of, Sognefhord has a lake-like tranquillity. Its curving route shelters it from the violence of the Atlantic, and sometimes only the tang of salt on the fresh, pure air signals that this is indeed a fjord – an arm of the sea.
Sognefjord is just one among some 200 major fjords that make the west coast of Norway look like the leading edge of a wind-torn flag. Just over 3 miles (5km) across at its widest point, the fjord is the longest and deepest in Norway, extending inland for 115 miles (184km). With water about 4000ft (1200m) deep, the valley, measured above and below water, is 7000ft (2100m) deep – nearly, 2000ft (600m) deeper than the USA’s Grand Canyon.
Glaciers shaped this fjord landscape. The granite mountains are perhaps 2000 million years old. Rivers flowing through their folds around 50 million years ago probably began to carve out valleys, and when the ice cap rolled in during a succession of Ice Ages, glaciers spilt down the same paths, grinding away the valley floors. As the glaciers withdrew when the last Ice age ended about 10,000 years ago, seawater moved in to drown the valleys.
Valleys ground out of glaciers tends to be U-shaped, with steep walls, and are usually deeper in the middle of their path than at the mouth. This is so in Sognefjord; the water drops from 560ft (170m) deep at the mouth to more than seven times deeper about 30 miles (50km) inland, near Vadheim.
The last remnant of the Norwegian ice cap is at the Jostedal Glacier, which straddles the mountains northeast of Sognefjord. Jostedal drains into Fjaerlandsfjord, which branches off Sognefjord, and also into Gaupnefjord off Lustrafjord. Mainland Europe’s Largest glacier is up to 1968ft (600m) thick and covers 188sq miles (487sq km).
Glacier water helps to keep the water temperature of Sognefjord bracing, even in summer. Norway is in the same latitudes as Alaska and eastern Siberia, and the fjord is only 500 miles (800km) south of the Arctic Circle. But the North Atlantic Drift extends to form the Gulf Stream bringing some warmth from the Caribbean to the shoreline, making the climate temperature enough for apples growing around Leikanger.
Small towns such as Sogndal and Laerdalsoyri have grown up on the few areas of flat land at the water’s edge created by the deltas of incoming rivers. Aurland has even become an industrial centre, the site of a large hydroelectric power station and an aluminium smelting plant. Yet this is not an easy landscape to live in.
On sunny days the steep valley walls cast long shadows for much of the day, and on cloudy days fog rolling in from the sea brings an enveloping chill. And sea mists and drizzle turn pastures into quagmires haunted by the ghostly silhouettes of disconsolate sheep, goats and cattle.
The rugged landscape has always made overland journeys across the region difficult at the best of times, and before modern roads were built in this century, boats were the main transport. The Viking spirit was forged in such conditions, and the people of these valleys still have a reputation for being independent of mind.