Where else but Norway have roads become cultural destinations?
What other country would embark on a thirty-year plan to build scenic roads to amplify natural wonders in remote areas? Hold nationwide competitions for the engineering of these new roads, for the architecture of accompanying pavilions, observation decks and restaurants (even “extremely fancy toilets”) and for the installations of noteworthy artists?
Take, for example, the wildest and most visited of Norway’s Scenic Routes, Trollstigen (“Troll’s Staircase”), an engineering marvel in the famous Romsdal Alps, a road featured in every Norwegian guidebook we consulted, named in endless ‘”Top 10 road trips” from National Geographic to The Guardian.
Brutal twists completely visible top to bottom—we knew what to expect! Built by hand over eight years—to be fair eight summers, as winter construction here is impossible. Surpentining 12.2 kilometres, buttressed by rockwalls of the Trolltindene mountain range. A natural stone bridge to carry you past the Stigfossen waterfall. Eleven hairpins, a separate team for each bearing the name of its project foreman. A 10% grade (12% in one spot). Only 3.3 metres wide, albeit there are passing pockets. Although some hairpins have been widened, long buses still make three-point turns on a few of the curves. Vehicles must be no longer than 12.4 metres so our rented motorhome Hjulrundt (“wheel around”) qualified.
Coming from Åndalsnes on Norwegian National Road 63, we drove the Troll’s Road up the mountain instead of down, which I believe is easier and more rewarding. The best part is the visitor centre known as Stigrøra at the top (after a 858 metre climb), steel walkways and overhanging platforms designed by Oslo’s Reiulf Ramstad Architects, embracing you with stunning organic design and dramatic eagle’s eye views of Trollstigen and the valley below. Wow Factor: 10/10.
Our timing was perfect. About 3,200 drivers per day (May/June to October/November when it’s not snow-blocked) navigate the Troll’s Staircase. We were there in off-season, September 2, a Monday, mid-afternoon, so it wasn’t too busy and best of all, sunshine lit up the dizzying staircase of twists and turns. Quite often, a veil of milky mist from the adjacent waterfalls clouds the gorgeous views—and the road.
My jubilado status is not to blame—the Trollstigen’s abrupt turns make it impossible to crank your neck and look behind you for another breathtaking view of the road, or Stigfossen cascading down, or the surrounding mountains. Magellan had hoped to fly his drone as this is a landscape-protected area not a national park. But two things stopped him: few pullouts with enough space for him to set it up, and vehicles within the regulated distance of 150 metres. We couldn’t really even stop for photos.
The project to create Norway’s Scenic Routes was Initiated by the Norwegian Public Roads Administration and began in 1998 when the country’s parliament called for national nominations—Trollstigen was one of the 18 roads nominated and selected.
In the desire to lure more tourists to remote areas, it was recognized early on that using outstanding art, architecture, and landscape design would be an effective draw. The built works would facilitate the experiences with nature while being attractions in their own right. At the same time, the works were to reinforce the character of the route, its specific landscape, while capturing each site’s uniqueness and mood.
Construction began in 2004. Roads now weave along 1,850 km of the country’s rugged backcountry, enriched by more than 150 shelters, scenic lookouts, hiking trails, rest areas and bird-watching pavilions—a total of 249 projected by 2023. Trollstigen opened on June 16, 2012.
Although, you might say Trollstigen got its initial start in 1891. That’s when farmers on both sides of the mountain constructed a connecting pack road through this dangerous pass. By 1913, the road was upgraded for horses and riders, except for the steepest section that remained a pack road until 1936 when the impressive link of switchbacks was asphalted and opened to wheeled vehicles.
According to Norwegian folk legend, trolls roam the mountains of Trollstigen every night, changing to a mass of stone when sunlight hits them in the morning. It is said that during construction, the ringing of church bells in the village of Valldal kept the trolls from causing avalanches and other such fiendish actions. The only troll we saw on this roadway, twirling and twisting on our rear-view mirror, was our beloved Rugnhild, a talismanic Christmas present I gave Magellan last year.
Norway’s Scenic Routes have been a steep turning point for the tourism industry. The iconic attractions have inspired travellers from all over the world “to visit our country, stay longer and come back again to experience more,” according to Kristian B. Jorgensen of Fjord Norway.
What will Norway do next? How about a national competition to curate playlists to accompany driving each scenic road? What songs would you nominate for Trollstigen?
Cohane, Ondine. “In Norway, the Journey Is the Destination.” New York Times. October 16, 2017.
Miller, Wiliam C. “Fusion of art and nature along Norway’s scenic routes.” Nordics Info, Aarhus University. May 22, 2019.
A few photos from their website to show you Norway’s “Road Culture.”