Norway: most immediately think of the land of vikings and trolls and fjords... or that country with the outrageous curling uniforms at the Winter Olympics (seriously... check them out), but the country is a quiet giant in the modern economic world and the people are now essentially polar opposites to their viking descendants (though they still love adventure and the sea). Norway boasts the third highest GDP per capita according to the IMF, thanks largely to a wealth of natural resources and intelligent management of them. Shockingly high prices of just about everything around the country reflect this economic prosperity, as well as Norway's successful socialist political system. Norway's capital is the charming city of Oslo, with its ~630,000 inhabitants tucked away along the southern coast of the long, thin nation. This is where I started my Norwegian journey, but don't worry, throughout my series of posts on Norway, I'll also be mentioning vikings and fjords and even trolls too.
Oslo is a relatively young city by European standards. According to Norse legend, Oslo was founded in 1049 CE, though there was likely a human settlement on the site earlier than that. Throughout its history, the city saw its share of devastating fires and ravaging plague, but Oslo (also known for a long time as Christiania) endured. The modern city is an interesting mixture of old and new. This building, which is the old city hall, was one of the older ones I saw. It dates back to 1641 and is looking remarkable for that age too. Like what I've seen in Stockholm and Helsinki, they tend to paint things with plenty of warm pastel colors or bright reds around Oslo too.
As I've found so often in the more affluent parts of Europe, Oslo has a very pleasant and charming feel about it. The Norwegians pay excellent attention to detail and most definitely appreciate quality in everything around them. Thanks to this, there are plenty of nice, charming touches everywhere you look.
One of the things that made me like the city and its people instantly was a huge book festival Oslo was hosting in its remarkably pedestrian friendly central part of town. This is looking down Karl Johans Gate, which is a great place to go out for some food, drinks, or shopping.
Being mid-September, it was still technically summer when I was there, and the Osloites were definitely getting in their fair share of sunshine and relatively warm weather while it lasted. Oslo has plenty of charming cafes with outdoor seating in lovely little courtyards, plazas, and patios. I had my first Norwegian food and beer at a cafe like this, sitting outside surrounded by happy groups of people on a Saturday afternoon. I had a fish soup, which was one of the most delicious soups I've ever eaten. The seafood was the definition of fresh and they didn't skimp on anything either (they better not have considering the price I paid for a small bowl). The broth was a briny garlic cream, and it was served up with some really good crusty bread. The beer was crisp and refreshing, obviously made with good barley. Like I said, Norwegians pay attention to detail and demand quality, and that trait extends to their food and drink!
My friend, who was randomly also in town for work, and I went out for an evening on the town. This turned out to be terribly painful on our wallets (thanks to US$12 pints of domestic beer) but wonderfully fun overall. Osloites are very friendly, and we ended up chatting with multiple groups of people about all sorts of things, from life in the city to sports (skiing and hockey dominated that topic) and even politics (some Norwegians are concerned about their national image after their most recent elections). We ended up closing the night at an English pub honoring Sir Winston Churchill (note the statue of the large bald man seen above is NOT depicting Winston Churchill, despite the resemblances and proximity to the pub) . Apparently, when locals go out in Oslo, they go out hard. To make up for the tremendous prices at the bars, youngsters supposedly pre-party at home with spirits before going out to a bar. We came across plenty of folks who were a few past three sheets to the wind so to say, and even witnessed the remarkably low tolerance levels of Norwegian bouncers: they would literally pluck people right out of their seats mid-conversation (not even passed out, belligerent, or vomiting!) and escort them off premises if they simply looked too intoxicated! Fortunately, that didn't happen to either my friend or I though...
Oslo is a multicultural city, unlike much of the rest of the nation, which is dominantly Scandinavian. Norway's policy on immigration has changed a lot in recent years thanks to its being a part of the European Economic Area, which allows EU citizens residency without permits. Norway also has a special allowance for refugees from war-torn regions. Immigration is a hot political topic in the country, and despite the overwhelming majority of Norwegians being immensely tolerant people, there are still many unfair stereotypes and some distrust of immigrants (as in most...all?... other European countries). Given its great wealth and socialist policies, Norway can be a very inviting place for immigrants. However, one major hurdle is the necessity to speak Norwegian in order to be naturalized. Most Norwegians speak fluent English, which they speak with most people who don't speak Norwegian. This makes it very difficult for first generation immigrants to become citizens, but their children have little difficulty after growing up speaking Norwegian at school and hearing it on TV and the radio.
It is incredible how green the Oslo area is. The fact that there are densely forested hills and islands visible from the center of the city is testament to the Norwegian love of nature and the great outdoors. Norwegians are a very active bunch, with hiking, hunting, biking, climbing, and various winter sports all being very popular. The Oslo metro even connects the city center to ski slopes north of the city!
Standing over the city and commanding fine views of the surrounding area is Akershus Fortress. The medieval stronghold was founded in the eleventh century and has since served as one of the city's principal focal points. The castle has survived remarkably well over time, especially considering that it has been under siege multiple times throughout its long history. More recently, it was used by the Nazi's during Norway's occupation in World War II. The castle is now a museum and park.
Even if you don't go on the tour inside, it is still a nice experience to wander around the grounds and outside of the fortress. It really does feel like you're back in the Middle Ages at times.
Guard duty outside of the Akershus Fortress... I always wonder what the hell those guys think of just standing there for hours and hours.
Norway, like several other European countries, still honors a royal family. This is a picture of the Norwegian Royal Palace from the road. I'm always quite shocked by countries that still support a royal family. I picked my words carefully on that, since I have no problem with a country respecting its history. Yes, those "royals" are indeed descendants of people who once ruled the nation. However, they don't rule anymore, in fact, they most often have no official duty in government. So, the thing that bothers me is that they are still supported by tax payer money! And I'm talking a lot of money here too... Queen Elizabeth supposedly costs the Brits close to 50 million euro per year! King Harald, Norway's current monarch, supposedly sets his taxpayers back ~28 million euro per year. Must be easy to stay rich when you have an entire nation funneling money your way every year, let alone the fact that these "royals" also get government grants to refurbish and maintain their properties, which are treated as historical sites even though they are privately owned and closed to the public. Honestly, it makes me sick.... these people are the true winners of the birth lottery. They're born into a family with a tremendous amount of wealth, and I see no reason why any democracy should pay them even more money just for existing every year.
Oslo's opera house... want to walk up the roof? Go for it! The design is definitely unique, and the views from up there are great. Now, if only I enjoyed opera...
Unlike the opera house, Oslo's current city hall is nothing spectacular architecturally. It is quite unique, and definitely bold, but in kind of a drab, Soviet-bloc sort of style. All I'm saying is that I wouldn't go and give the architect an award or anything anytime this millennium. It is worth a walk around it though, since there is an astronomical clock on the north side of the building and if you get the chance to go inside, then do so. Despite what the outside might look like, it is beautiful on the inside... don't judge a building by its facade I guess.
Just a little further down from City Hall, sitting by the docks, is the Nobel Peace Center. Every year on the 10th of December, which is the anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel (invented dynamite), the most famous prizes in the world are awarded at a special ceremony in the Oslo City Hall. The Peace Center focusses on the Nobel Peace Prize laureates and their work. It is an interesting place to explore, especially if you are comfortable debating some of the laureates and their work and have someone to do that with.
Oslo sits at the northern end of an enormous fjord, the Oslofjord. This proximity to the sea resonates with Norwegian's general love of the water and boating. It's no surprise then that Oslo's harbor is full of ships, everything from small dinghies to full-blown cruise ships. There are plenty of ferries too, which can take you to a variety of destinations around the Oslofjord.
A ferry is how my friend and I got over to Bygdøy to explore a different part of the city. Bygdøy is a large peninsula to the southwest of the city center. It is a very quiet and relaxed residential neighborhood that boasts a high concentration of Oslo's museums.
Our first stop was the Viking Ship Museum. I mean seriously... how could I pass that one by? Like most other boys, I was fascinated by viking legends growing up. The concept of a race of warriors venturing across the sea in primitive warships to raid and conquer foreign lands appeals to the imagination of most young, adventurous boys. So, I seized the opportunity to actually see some of those primitive warships in person.
Oslo's Viking Ship Museum definitely lived up to my high expectations. The cathedral-like building houses the remains of several of the iconic ships, two of which are in remarkably good condition. The one seen above is the only one that was likely used for actual long-distance voyages. It was a thing of beauty, with almost organic curves and obviously masterful craftsmanship. The fact that vikings traveled across hundreds of miles of open and stormy North Atlantic waters in these ships is simply incredible. They had to be very brave to risk ones life and go to sea in such ships.
The museum also had plenty of viking artwork and decorated tools, weapons, and crafts on display. This was one of the bow decorations. Viking decorative art is detailed and intricate, with plenty of interwoven designs and scaled textures. Serpents and horses are also common features. The museum also housed the remains of several vikings, one of which had supposedly been killed in battle, based on the clear sword wounds to his tall skeleton.
The other ships in the museum were apparently for royal/aristocratic pleasure cruises around the Oslofjord or ceremonial purposes (they were found in burial mounds). These of course were more intricately decorated and poorly equipped for open ocean travel, with larger, lower oarlock holes and smaller height-to-breadth ratios of the hulls.
Another of Norway's self-appointed symbols is the stave church. These large, medieval churches are constructed almost completely from wood and were once found throughout most of Northern Europe. Most remaining examples are found in Norway now though. The scaled features and intricate decorative designs found on the woodwork of viking ships can also be clearly seen on Norway's stave churches. This stave church was just a short walk from the museum; unfortunately, the grounds were closed when we got there, so I had to make do with the views through the trees from the road.
Our last stop on the Bygdøy Peninsula was the Fram Museum, which is housed in a huge A-frame building along the water.
As its name implies, the museum is devoted to one thing: the Fram. The Fram is a ship that was used for polar expeditions by Norwegians in the late 1800s to early 1900s. The really unique thing about the museum is that the building was built around the actual ship itself, as you can see in the above picture. It is pretty surreal to see the various exhibits and stories of adventurous exploits around the museum and have the enormous, omnipresent ship, which made all those adventures possible, looming just beside or behind you.
Fram was designed specifically for its first mission, which was to purposefully get the ship stuck in sea ice and drift with it through the Arctic Ocean during a winter season. On that first expedition, Fridtjof Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen left the relative safety of the ice-locked Fram and took off over the sea ice on skies to try and reach the geographic North Pole. They made it all the way up to over 86 deg latitude before having to turn back. The ships second major expedition took it on a journey of exploration to the Canadian Arctic islands. The Fram's most famous journey, however, is undoubtedly that to Antarctica led by Roald Amundsen (statue pictured above) in his bid to be the first human to reach the geographic South Pole.
Norway is definitely proud of its history, and in my honest and respectful opinion, it should be. The Fram Museum showcases some of this pride. Through cold and brutally realistic calculation and execution, Amundsen's team was the first to reach the South Pole and the first to return alive. A competing expedition by the English, led by Robert Falcon Scott, arrived to the pole after Amundsen (finding mocking evidence of the Norwegians' success) and all perished on the return journey across the continent of ice. The Norwegians have always been strong explorers; vikings were the first Europeans to voyage to North America, long before Columbus. During WWII, Norwegians fought with the Allies against the Nazis and served up fierce resistance to Nazi occupation. This rich history has led Norwegians to where they are today, one of the wealthiest nations in the world and very friendly, honest, strong, and intelligent people. Oslo is a great place to introduce yourself to Norway's history and its people before venturing off to explore other regions of that hauntingly beautiful country.