Time for an entry away from the comfort of Wallonia and to a week spent in Oslo. As C was here for work, I decided to take advantage of the swanky hotel and other perks and join her. My previous visit to Scandinavia was to Copenhagen a couple of years ago. I left distinctly unimpressed. Clean, safe, efficient...dull. I came away wondering what you're actually supposed to do in Copenhagen.
A lot of this certainly applies to Oslo too, except I enjoyed myself here far more. The main boulevard in the centre of the city, Karl Johans Gate, is very grand indeed, lined with expensive looking restaurants, and ornate cafés. Although there is also a Hard Rock Café and a TGI Friday so it's not that posh.
Oslo is the second smallest Scandinavian capital city, after Reykjavik, although trying to actually find the definitive answer to what actually constitutes Scandinavia is not altogether that simple. I've read that it includes: Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland. Others seem to include Iceland, and even Greenland. Our travel companion guide book, Rick Steve, even mentions Estonia, which is bizarre considering it was part of the Soviet Union. Who knows.
One thing I never knew, simply because I've never really paid much attention to Scandinavia when I'm staring at maps of the world, is that Norway actually borders Russia, as well as Sweden. The country hugs itself around Sweden and the further north you get, the more it bends to the right, until it dips down again and touches Russia. Apparently and unsurprisingly, the border crossing isn't the easiest to negotiate. You can imagine being met by some very stern and angry looking Russians as you get within touching distance.
My initial impression of Oslo was that it's not a particularly pretty city. There are some very salubrious areas and lots of small or larger parks (the park attached to the palace was my favourite. Very atmospheric when lit up at night) which adds greenery to the place. But, the main shopping district and the area around the docks are actually quite ugly. You get a good perspective of the city when you walk to the top of the newly renovated Opera House (which I really liked. Extremely white and extremely bright. Must be blinding in the snow). It's one of those funky designs that allows you to walk on the actual building by means of huge ramps that soar up from the ground. From a distance, it looks a bit like an iceberg.
The view out to sea would have been even more spectacular had it not been overcast. There are several little islands within view. You can actually travel by ferry all the way to Germany from Oslo, which I found impressive. And on the metro map there is a route which takes you all the way to Stockholm. I guess all these things just have added resonance when you're from a little island, cut off from mainland Europe.
During the day I had time alone to wander and get a good feel for the place. I think it's only when I was out and about with C that actually started to like Oslo. But, I managed to see the Resistance Museum which I really enjoyed and which chronicles Norway and most of its peoples' refusal to surrender and side with the Nazis, even though the country itself was occupied for most of the war. Throughout this time, its King and many members of his government fled to Britain where they operated as a government-in-exile. In fact, Britain had a significant influence over military tactics employed by Norway throughout this period, with the good ol' BBC using its reach to communicate with resistance groups.
Back in Norway, in the absence of the king, a man by the name of Vidkun Quisling had set up his own governing party, Norway's very own Nazi party, and hoped to rally the country round the invading army, but to little avail, both to his and the Nazi's immense frustrations. In fact, 'The Resistance' is also testament to the Norwegians' refusal to be dictated to by the Quisling government. The museum itself was small and compact and managed to fit in plenty of information. There were also displays to look at where they have intricately recreated some of the main battle scenes using toy soliders and other props. I particularly liked the way they showed billowing smoke coming from bombed buildings: lots of blackened and dirty bits of cotton wool spreadout everywhere. Overall, a really inspiring little place to visit.
On the Tuesday, the only day of really good weather, I spent the morning in the Vigeland Sculpture Park. An enormous place adorned with over 200 bronze and granite sculptures. The work of the Norwegian Sculptor, Gustav Vigeland. Almost all (in fact, it might be all) of the them are of people in various poses: man lifting up woman, man comforting crying woman, man holding up children. You get the picture. Not bad, not bad. The deep blue sky made for some cracking photos.
Also visited the Viking Museum, which has the world's best preserved Viking ships. As a friend rightly pointed out, the words 'raped and pillaged' are synonymous whenever anybody happens to mention the Vikings.
Oslo also has a fine array of free, yes that's right free, museums and galleries. These include the Design museum which showed various chairs, phones, computers etc. through the ages. The contemporary art gallery is well worth a visit. But, the real treat is the city's national gallery, home to Edvard Munch and his Scream. There is a whole room dedicated to some of his work and I, uniquely for me, loved each and every one of them. The Scream's not even his best. Not even in the top 5 of this one room. It's funny how some works of art have become so famous whilst others never do. I wonder how this happens. It's clearly not based on quality.
There were also other really wonderful paintings to admire by artists such as Picasso, Matisse, a typically brilliant Modigliani, and a whole other selection of Norwegian artists, one of my favourites being Christian Krohg. Knew absolutely zilch about Norwegian art until I came to Oslo and I left being extremely impressed.
And so to (one of) my favourite pastimes, whinging about the cost of everything. You've not experienced expensive until you've been to Oslo. First things first, Norway isn't in the EU and of course not in the Euro either. That aside, when it comes to ripping you off, this city does it in style. A small glass of wine or a beer £9-£10, a main course at a café (not even a restaurant) £20-£25, a single bus ticket for a 15 minute journey, £5. I could go on, you know I could, but you get the idea.
The place is so dear that not even the locals can afford to go out and have more than one glass of wine. Most people prefer to drink at home first and then go out and nurse a solitary drink for the whole evening. Something I struggled with was finding somewhere cheap(ish) to go for lunch. It seems that what most people do is just buy snacks from the numerous '7 Elevens' or similar type places. Everywhere are signs advertising calzones, wraps, noodles, for only £6 each!
The most common sign is a McDonald's (which are everywhere) one. Only 10 kroners for a cheeseburger, which is about £1.20. The city is in the grip of a cheeseburger obsession. Wherever you look, someone is eating one. Some were even eating two. Heck, why not just buy five and call it dinner? I was hoping to find somewhere offering lunctime deals or similar. In the end, I settled on chicken and noodles from a takeaway place (£8, bland, tasteless), a calzone (same), and even more noodles from a corner shop (£6, tiny portion). Unsurprisingly, there was a huge queue outside said shop where they were offering free samples of a new range of a thai chicken and rice dish they were selling. Of course the queue was enormous. Full of starving tourists like me, wondering where our next meal was going to come from. I went back 3 times for my samples, bowl in hand.
What I don't understand, in relation to their pubs (many have that same warm and cosy feel you find in traditional English boozers. They're certainly well set up for somewhere with their kind of climate) and bars, is how they manage to stay open. Yet, incredibly, I've read somewhere that there's still a problem with binge drinking, and even alcohol-related violence. How is that possible? To be honest, the cost of pratically everything in Oslo really does leave a sour taste in your mouth. One of the things I love to do wherever I am abroad is find a nice café, get a drink and people-watch for a couple of hours. Just didn't happen in Oslo. £4.50 was the cheapest I could find for a coffee. At least it was a decent cup.
Norwegians are also a ridiculously beautiful bunch. Too much so, if that's possible. Just a sea of blonde wherever you go. Not a hair out of place. Much more in the way of blonde as opposed to the fair types you see in Flanders and also Copenhagen. They're also dressed so elegantly and tastefully that you'll rarely much in the way of exposed flesh, although I guess the weather puts paid to that. Not that that's ever stopped our lasses in England. And I've been out in the Bigg Market on a Saturday night in Newcastle. In December. Not a coat or jumper in sight.
It's unlikely I'd ever return to Oslo, and were it not for my wife being desperate to see the Fjords in the north, as well as the elusive Northern Lights, that'd probably be it for Norway. Definitely a nicer place than Copenhagen, but if you don't find yourself at some point screaching "how much?," you're a far more tolerant person than I am.