Sounds spectacular

Flip Byrnes is torn between Bergen's dramatic landscape and its pumping jazz.

Majestic cliffs roll by as the boat chugs through Sognefjord, the longest and deepest of Norway's world-famous fjords. We've travelled from Bergen by train to Voss, by boat to Gudvangen and ahead lies one of the most spectacular railways in the world, the Flam, which will bring me back toBergen.

This UNESCO-listed area, boasting jaw-dropping cascading waterfalls and dramatic cliffs all washed with a colour that could only be described as "hyper green", should be holding my undivided attention. But trumpets, saxophones, drums, bass beats and a band called Elephant9 got in my way.

The Nattjazz is arguably one of the best annual jazz festivals in Europe. Established in 1973, it involves 100 concerts and has featured Van Morrison and James Brown. But Nattjazz (night jazz) is not just about the supernova stars; organisers say it's about "who we don't know and who we should know".

The result is unusual combinations of musicians and new collaborations. It brings connoisseurs and the uninitiated alike to a renovated sardine canning factory, USF Verftet on Bergen harbour, where the joint jumps as tunes pump for 11 days and sleepless nights.

A word of warning, though: if you come to enjoy the night-time jazz, it might seriously affect your day excursion on the fjords.

Unlike almost everyone in Europe, I was unaware of Nattjazz but I had heard of the region's 65-year-old Flam railway, a 20-kilometre journey through spiralling mountains and alongside precipitous drops, a mountaineering feat that makes the Swiss versions look like they were playing with Lego.

I'd also heard about Bergen, a World Heritage city considered one of the most beautiful in Scandinavia. This former fishing town has a population of 250,000 and is a city of rain, receiving about 230 days of it a year. It's also a city of fire, having been burnt by more than 20 major blazes since being founded in 1027. The fact that it never seems to have been raining when the fires have raged could only be described as very, very unlucky.

Yet the "Bergenser" consider themselves the luckiest people in the world. After each fire, the city's wooden houses have been rebuilt almost exactly as they were; the building method used is about 900 years old.

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The result? One of the oldest preserved wooden cities in the world. Clusters of wooden houses scramble up winding roads, separated by cobblestone streets and staircases.

Below is the beating heart of Bergen, a lively wharf and fish market area called Bryggen, where crooked Hansel And Gretel-style storehouses are listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

As early as June each year, the sun pirouettes endlessly in the sky at night, glasses clink beside yachts like in a scene from The Great Gatsby, laughter rings across the bay and already my feet are tapping.

USF Verftet may have once been an old factory but it is now a perfect festival venue. On the waterfront, jazz players and crowds in velvet jackets and smart silk scarves, or jeans and T-shirts, sip wine from Kafe Kipplers and watch the midnight sun over Askoy. It is as far from the Big Day Out as one can get.

Even though I enjoyed partying through the night with the jazz set, it's the nearby fjords that are truly unmissable, as this area of Norway is like nature on steroids.

Dropping down to Gudvangen is like descending into an impossibly beautiful fairy tale. Cliffs rise thousands of feet, a channel of water stretches ahead and a small ferry port with whitewashed buildings is caressed by wildflowers.

The fjords aren't just a tourist attraction but a waterway filled with life. Villages dot the banks, accessible only by water. You can't help but imagine yourself living there, catching and drying fish, watching birds swoop and waving to passing travellers.

Yet just when you get relaxed it's time to step onto the Flam to take the ride of your life, soaring once again up cliffs and by waterfalls, the view outside the train as captivating as the mechanics inside.

You'll be relieved to know you'll return to Bergen at 6pm, just as Nattjazz gears up again. You won't want to miss a moment, so my only advice is: sleep before you visit.

TRIP NOTES
- GETTING THERE Etihad flies to Oslo, via Abu Dhabi and Brussels, from $2112. There are domestic flights daily to Bergen from Oslo.

- STAYING THERE First Hotel Marin, in downtown Bergen, has rooms from $368 a night. See firsthotels.com.

- TOURING THERE For the Flam Railway, see flaamsbana.no and visitflam.com (and click on the English version icon). The Bergen Card offers free or discounted entry to museums, attractions, sightseeing and cultural events. See www.visitBergen.com.

- FESTIVAL The Nattjazz Festival is from May 20-30. See nattjazz.no.

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