Friday, December 24, 2010

Oslo in the summertime

Andrew and I went to Oslo for the August bank holiday weekend. It turned out to be my favorite place I have ever been. It was beautiful and clean and efficient. The people were friendly. The buildings and public spaces were filled with art. There is water everywhere. There are about a million museums. There are tiny islands. There are more trees than you can imagine, plus lakes and mountains. The public transportation system is extensive and even includes water buses between the islands. And, even though we were there at the very end of summer, it still stayed light until late at night. I’m sure I wouldn’t want to spend a whole winter there, but Oslo in the summertime is like some sort of Scandinavian paradise.

We caught an early morning flight with all our camping stuff in our trusty backpacks and had beautiful views of the North Sea and the Norwegian coastline as we flew in. The Oslo airport is as beautiful as every other aspect of the city, and we had a tasty hot dog (apparently the Norwegians can’t get enough hot dogs; they were everywhere) in a café there while we figured out our next steps. We had a little bit of a language barrier to deal with, but most people spoke a little bit of English. It was kind of fun not knowing the language because it was like a game, trying to figure out what the signs and advertisements said. We found a bus into town and wandered around a little bit while we got our bearings, then eventually figured out how to get to our campground, which was a little ways out of town but easy to get to on another bus. Downtown Oslo is not very big, and we saw a lot of the city in our early wanderings. On our bus ride, we got to see more of it, plus some of the more residential areas and a few brief peeks at the waterfront.

The campground was pretty nice, but it started to rain as we were in the middle of setting up our tent, and the wind picked up, too, so we were forced to take shelter under a tree. The rain was off and on during our trip, but that, thankfully, was the worst of it, and after we got all set up we walked into the village to find some provisions. We had a couple grocery stores to choose from: the one at the campground and a nicer one in the little village. We were shocked by both of them, though. We knew that Oslo was supposed to be very expensive, but we weren’t quite prepared for the prices we came across, especially for food. Luckily, we were just after a bit of bread and cheese, so we got by, but the prices for regular food were shockingly high. The restaurants were really expensive, too. We saw a chain pizza restaurant and did the math. One medium cheese pizza worked out to about 30 dollars! But the loveliest aspects of our trip were free, especially walking. We dropped off our supplies and walked up to a nearby lake, where we breathed the pristine air, dipped our toes in the frigid water, and watched the sun starting to set. It was so peaceful.

The next morning we hopped back on the bus and went down to one of the marinas, then walked over to a peninsula where a lot of museums are clustered together. We walked past a royal farm (they have a royal family still) with fancy uniformed guards and through a gorgeous neighborhood of houses that we guessed were mostly built in the early twentieth century. Other than a few buildings downtown, most of Oslo seems to be very new. I don’t know if the houses just don’t last long in the extreme weather, or if Norway has been rebuilding due to its recent increase in wealth, but most of the houses we saw were only a few decades old, at the most. This meant that there were some traditional styles repeated often but also that there was a great deal of diversity in the architecture. It was all very tasteful, though; there were no McMansions or Italian stucco houses or anything else that seemed out of place. It was all very simple and clean and beautiful.

Our initial destination that morning was a museum dedicated to three enormous Viking ships that had been discovered by archaeologists. It was kind of expensive, so we didn’t tour the museum, but we did get a peek at one of the ships. From there, we walked down to the waterfront, where we caught a water bus downtown. It wasn’t a special tourist boat or anything, just the regular public service, but they could have charged a lot more for the ride; it was one of my favorite things. We got off the boat near the City Hall, where they award the Nobel Prizes, then walked up to the National Gallery, which was all Norwegian art, including Munch’s famous Scream and some really pretty, dark, atmospheric nineteenth-century paintings of snow-covered meadows and cozy fireside scenes. Then we found some lunch at a little sidewalk café. We felt cold, considering it was August, but we were warm enough with our jackets on to sit outside. I had some shrimp salad with lovely, dark Norwegian bread. We knew we couldn’t afford many restaurant meals, so we tried to eat local foods when we had the chance and make the most of the experience.

After lunch we walked to the Opera House, which is right on – and actually in – the water. It was just opened a couple years ago, so it is still pristine and perfect. I think it is the coolest building I have ever seen. The roof slopes up at several different angles in such a way that you can walk up the sides of the buildings and all over the roof, then down the walls again into the water. There were hundreds of people milling about, enjoying the sunshine and the beautiful space. There were even some Japanese teenagers having an impromptu dance party in one spot. We took a bunch of pictures, then continued along the waterfront to another water bus terminal, where we hopped on a ferry out to some of the little islands. We jumped off on one island to walk around and see what we could see. It turned out to be full of teeny-tiny summer cottages that had been built in the 1920s. There were hundreds of them, all painted in the same shades of red, yellow, green, and blue, all with white trim. There were lace curtains and picnic tables and bright red geraniums planted everywhere. It was an ideal summer setup. There was hardly anyone around, so we just walked around for an hour or so, gazing at the water and trying to figure out how we could summer here in the future. It was quiet except for the low hum of the hundreds of boats out in the water, and it was even more peaceful than the lake the evening before. I was sad to leave on the next ferry, but I loved being on the boat with the wind in my face watching all the islands pass by. We walked back into town along the water, past a hillside fort and past all the cruise ships. We were getting pretty cold by that point, so we found a place where we could have a cup of coffee and watch the beautiful people walk by, then we walked to the National Theatre, where all of Ibsen’s plays were performed, then caught a subway back out to the village and walked to our campsite for another picnic dinner.

The next morning we woke up and decided to explore the mountain in whose shadow we had been sleeping. There were roads and footpaths winding up the side of the mountain, and after an hour of walking past beautiful houses, some with traditional grass roofs, we were at the top of the peak, but we weren’t yet where we wanted to be, which was the world-famous ski jump. We got lost a few times, but eventually we found it, and it was spectacular to see. They were in the middle of building the latest version of the ski jump; I think it was the fifth or sixth version built on the same spot since the early twentieth century. It was absolutely massive, and I would love to see someone jump from it. One of the things that I loved about Norway was that everyone seemed so fit and sporty; no couch potatoes in that culture. I could imagine the whole society gathered out in the snow just as easily as the sunshine. Very impressive. Once we reached our destination, we had to figure out how to get back to the campsite, which was much more difficult than we expected, but we made it back and packed up our gear, then headed back into town to explore a bit more before we had to leave to catch our flight that evening.

First we went to the main shopping area along the water and had a lovely lunch of seafood soup and Norwegian salmon with potatoes and dill sauce while we watched the cruise ships come into the harbor. Then we made our way over to a sculpture garden in the middle of an enormous city park (did I mention there were parks and gardens absolutely everywhere?). It was filled with thousands of human figures sculpted by a Norwegian artist, Gustav Vigeland, in the 1930s. The figures are in poses representing every possible human emotion, and many of them were sad, some even disturbing. Others, though, were so tender they almost brought me to tears. At the very center of the garden is an enormous column made up of hundreds of figures, and lining a bridge over a little lake are dozens of funny bronze statues. It was an amazing place unlike anything else I have ever seen. But then, Oslo was unlike any other place I have ever been. After our drizzly walk through the sculpture garden, we found a coffee shop where we could warm up, then we bought some Norwegian candy for Andrew’s work mates and sadly made our way back to the bus station to go back to the airport for our trip home. Even the flight was lovely, with nice flight attendants and good snacks, and we felt nurtured and reinvigorated after our fantastic trip. I absolutely cannot wait to go back to Norway.

Photos are here:

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