Jul 7, 2008

Swiss cheese nation

The easiest way to make a straight road in Norway, is by tunneling through its ancient mountains. Easy, but not cheap. You see, with all the bedrock that makes up Norway, you have to blast through tons of it, anyway, and the advantage to tunnels is that they can shorten a trip and also give a reprieve from the weather.

Tunnels in Norway are fascinating. They are generally dark and you see the raw rock of the innards of the mountain you're driving through. Other places I've been where I've driven through tunnels (like Hamburg or Los Angeles), the tunnels have had their entire walls and ceiling covered in white tile. Only recently did someone come up with the idea of painting the insides of Norwegian tunnels white. What a difference it makes! The photograph, stolen from my local newspaper, shows the effect.

That photograph is from "my" tunnel, by the way, a relatively dinky two kilometers long, that gently slopes downhill from Fyllingsdalen to the Bergen side. The tunnel goes under a saddle between the mountains Damsgård and Løvstakken that used to be a summer dairy farm. When the tunnel is closed due to repairs or something, we drive up and over the former dairy area and down a switchback road in an older and charming part of town. It's a regular bus route and the narrowness reminds me mostly of my childhood bus trips on similar roads. (The fun multiplies if the road is icy.)

On his first trip to Fyllingsdalen, my uncle actually got a bit anxious in "our" tunnel. The two kilometers were quite long to an American who wasn't used to this type of spelunking-by-motor-vehicle. I remember the first time I drove through the 7.5 kilometer long tunnel between Granvin and Bruravik in Hardanger (the dramatic part) on my way to Ulvik. At the time, that was the longest tunnel I'd ever traveled through; those seven plus kilometers felt interminable, and I could feel the claustrophobia start. The second, third and fourth times through went without a hitch, I'm happy to say. You get used to them. With more and more and longer and longer tunnels, most Norwegians handle the phenomenon just fine. I do pity the few who have panic attacks and are constantly forced to drive around on the old narrow roads (if they are still open and maintained). They have a real challenge because all of Norway seems determined to lay every piece of new highway in a hole in the hillside, especially here in the western part where there is nothing but hillside. Hence the swiss cheese reference.

Why all this talk of tunnels? Because I'll be seeing a very special on on my vacation this year - the Lærdalstunnel. I'm actually excited about it. At 24.5 kilometers, it's the world's longest road tunnel, and the first one in Norway to have roundabouts inside so you can turn around. It also has special lighting effects at these roundabouts to break up the monotony and keep drivers awake. And it's a nice white otherwise, not a blackness that swallows the annoyingly dull yellow light Norwegian tunnels usually have. (I honestly feel better in pitch darkness with my brights catching cat's eyes if the tunnel doesn't have white sides.) In three weeks, I'll be travelling through this tunnel from the Sognefjord on my way up to the top of the watershed and on to Trondheim. I hope we stop so I can take pictures!

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