In his 1892 Handbook for Norway, Thomas Bennet documented his picturesque journey from Oslo to Bergen. He took a steamboat to Gudvangen, a beautiful town at the mouth of the Nærøyfjord, and wrote of how “the scenery is most enchanting by its imposing grandeur. The mountains rise 5000 feet nearly perpendicularly on both banks of the Fjord, and waterfalls of most picturesque beauty shoot and leap down the mountain sides.”
Bennet wasn’t the first to take this beautiful, if arduous, route, from the Norwegian capital of Oslo to Bergen. The route had been travelled thousands of times before - though by postal workers and Oslo's mail, rather than by tourists.
In the mid-1600s, King Christian IV of Denmark and Norway faced a problem. He had founded various new cities, from Kristianopel in Sweden to Glückstadt, now in modern day Germany, to Christianshavn, in modern day Copenhagen, to Christiania - the old city of Oslo, which he moved and renamed after a devastating fire in 1624. But ruling over such a large stretch of land, and so many remote locations, how was he to get word of his orders out to the kingdom?
“The initiative for the establishment of postal service in Norway was taken by the Danish viceroy in the country, Hannibal Sehested,” writes William Dawson, in The Scandinavian Year Book. “He deputed the organisation of the new institution to an immigrant Dutchman, Henrik Morian.”
With a royal decree from King Christian IV, on 17th January, 1647, “the postal service was transferred to Henrik Morian as a Royal privilege to him and the successors for 20 years,” writes Dawson.
Morian established postal routes from Oslo to Copenhagen, Trondheim (from where mail was carried on up to Finnmark, far north of the Arctic Circle) and to Bergen, now Norway’s second biggest city. The only issue with establishing such a postal route from Oslo to Bergen was the topography between the two.
Bergen is the gateway to the fjords in the west of the country, and the fjords may be beautiful, with their enormous crystalline rock walls and narrow inlets of water, but the terrain is not easy to navigate quickly.
Morian “had to organise and conduct the postal service at his own expense,” Dawson writes, but he also had the right to all income he made from the service. So the incentive was there. It was decided that the postal service would be executed not by full-time professionals. Instead, it would be passed on by a series of “postal farmers” along the routes - who “were not paid for conveying the post but were exempted from certain civil duties, among other things military service.”
Mike Bent writes that prior to this 1647 postal network, “correspondence usually travelled by private courier or by brevbarer (letter-carrier) - an obligation which was an unrewarded burden shouldered by the fishing and farming communities.” The new networks relied heavily on the development of main roads, but in the fjord systems, this community help was still required.
Today, the Nærøyfjord is known as the “pearl of the fjords” in western Norway. UNESCO praise the “numerous waterfalls and free-flowing rivers, deciduous and coniferous woodlands and forests, glacial lakes, glaciers, rugged mountains.”
The narrow nature of the Nærøyfjord accentuates these huge walls, but back in 1647, the width of the Nærøyfjord - and the fact that it led out to Gudvangen, which could then be easily connected to Voss and the road network to Bergen - meant that it was ideal for the King's Postal Route.
Farming communities would trek between postal stops, often over mountain passes, and the mail would be loaded onto boats to be taken to Gudvangen.
A. Heaten Cooper described the scene in winter as "a highway for sledge traffic to and from the steamer."
The fjords are sheltered from much of the wind that hits the Norwegian coast thanks to their high walls, but deep snow often sits on much of the network, and so the specific postal route taken was weather dependent.
The Nærøyfjord World Heritage Park write that “if the ice settled on the fjord, the route would change and go along the road from Gudvangen to Bakka, over the ice from Bakka to Bleiklindi, and from there along the postal route to Styvi.”
Styvi is one of the four small hamlets on the Nærøyfjord, and it became Norway’s smallest stop on the new postal route. Today, Styvi remains the smallest area in Norway with its own postal code. By proxy, the farmers that worked in Styvi became “postal farmers'', who “had to deliver the post that horseriders brought them to Lærdalsøyri by going through the Nærøyfjord, the Aurlandsfjord, the inner Sognefjord and the Læderaldfjord,” writes Bernhard Pollman.
When the ferry crossing wasn’t possible due to ice, a unique vehicle would be used to cross the fjord - a mixture of a boat and a sledge. You can still see an example of such vehicle at the Styvi farm museum. A. Heaten Cooper described the scene in winter as "a highway for sledge traffic to and from the steamer."
The new postal service allowed “handwritten newsheets to flourish,” writes Hans Fredrik Dahl in A History of the Norwegian Press. Newspapers grew in importance, and connected remote areas to the politics of the rest of the country.
“The dissemination of news by the postal service brought with it an increasing demand for accountability,” writes Dahl.
The completion of the 11.4km Gudvangen tunnel in 1992 between the Nærøyfjord and the Aurlandsfjord revolutionised the way that people move through this beautiful region, but today, the walking route once used by the postal workers back in the 17th century serves as a remarkable hiking trail through the area.
Starting from Styvi, which despite challenging terrain has been inhabited since the Vikings, walkers can follow the old postal route for 6km to Bleiklindi.
From Gudvangen to the church in Bakka, you walk on a trail almost built into the fjord. You’ll pass hazel bushes, and lime forest, while every opening along the way grants you immense views of the mighty Nærøyfjord walls.
This is still a farming region, and you’ll pass the Odnes alluvial fan, which for thousands of years helped farmers in the region make hay, for cattle. The huge wall of Breiskrednosi sits beyond. Rising to 1,189m from sea level, you can hike to the summit from further round the inlet - though it takes a night of camping, and 10 hours of walking up the mountain, often in deep snow, to reach the summit.
Looking down on waterfalls from the high fjords you get a humbling sense of our minuscule place in the world. As you walk for leisure, and enjoy the beauty, it’s worth remembering the miraculous, tough lives of all those who made a living farming - and passing on the post - in such an environment. While approaching Skarsvotni lake, or looking out on the glimmering water, spare a thought for those who did so without Gore-Tex hiking boots - and with a bag of mail.
Inspired? Hike, kayak and wild camp the Nærøyfjord on Norway's west coast now, and see the King's Postal Route for yourself!