Sunday 27th July 2008, Oslo
We have spent the entire day on our feet around the centre of Oslo and this evening we are feeling rather weary. It has been as hot as ever so our pace has been slow and our route dictated by the shade.
Initially Oslo was a disappointment for a capital city. It hardly ranks with Prague, Paris, Budapest or London. The streets were deserted and none of the shops or cafes open. However, it was Sunday morning and perhaps the Norwegians like to lie in at weekends – except for a few drunks and drug addicts around the main railway station who were staggering around, completely out of their minds. By late afternoon some of the cafes had opened up and there was at least one busker playing a flute on the main shopping street. We had trouble locating the transport office to purchase tickets to use the buses and in any case, where were the buses? A single ticket within the city costs £3. It's only £1 for senior citizens but we were told that was 67 in Norway and we were not eligible!
Oslo has a number of very attractive eclectic-style buildings dating from the end of the 19th century. Originally they may have been department stores but those we saw today are now mainly used as hotels and banks.
The cathedral was closed to visitors and entirely shrink-wrapped in the world's largest plastic condom. (Surely not an atheist plot to prevent the dissemination of Christianity!) Further along the street we found the Norwegian parliament building, the Storting from where pleasant gardens and an avenue of shady trees led up to the National Theatre. Outside were statues to the country's leading playwrights Ibsen, Bjørnson, and Holberg. Opposite were the University buildings while further on was the Royal Palace, home of King Harald V, the present king of Norway. In front stands an equestrian statue of King Karl XIV Johan, whose motto stated that the love of his people was sufficient reward. However, he also rewarded himself with a rather nice palace though unfortunately did not live to see its completion. In front an unfortunate guard was sweating it out marching up and down in the burning heat. Behind the castle we found a shady park with a pretty lake and colourful flowerbeds. We also discovered a statue of Queen Maud, wife of the first independent king of Norway, Haakon VII, and daughter of Edward VII of England. (Norway only gained its independence in 1905. At that time the capital was known as Christiania. It only changed back to Oslo in 1925.)
Oslo sits, rather prettily, on the banks of a fjord. As we made our way to the shore we stopped to visit the modern, brick-built Town Hall, completed in the 1950s. There are interesting bronze sculptures representing the different trades of the construction workers on one side, and rather peculiar, brightly painted wood carvings depicting Norse legends including the creation of the world on the other. These beliefs seem very bizarre and made what we had learned in the Peloponnese about the dysfunctional relationships of the Greek gods seem almost tame by comparison! Inside, the massive principal hall is decorated with huge murals reflecting various aspects of Norwegian achievement in the areas of exploration and intellectual development. It also records the work of Norwegian Resistance fighters in WW2.
On the banks of the fjord stands the Nobel Peace Centre. It has recently been set up to reflect that it is the only Nobel prize to be awarded by Norway, all others being granted by Sweden.
Had it been cooler the quayside would have been a very pleasant area. Here boats were moored, cafes were open and people, tougher and wealthier than us, were dining in the full glare of the sun. An average dish seemed to cost around £22, and that's before adding starters, deserts or drinks.
We dined al-fresco on a take-away Macdonald's cheeseburger sitting on a street bench, shaded by a high office block. Needs must and it was the cheapest meal in town. Later we bought a loaf of bread, a synch at £3.50! Tomorrow we will take our own sandwiches with us.
Not everything costs the earth though. True most museums charge between £4 and £8 to look round (reduced price when you reach 67). There are just too many museums though and we have to choose. So we opted for the free ones. This afternoon we tried to escape the heat in the National Art Gallery. It had no air conditioning and was stifling, but it cost nothing and had a fantastic collection of works by the very best Norwegian painters, including stunning landscapes by J.C. Dahl whose work we first discovered in Bergen in 2006. There was also a room full of works by the most celebrated of all the nation's painters, Edvard Munch. These included his famous Scream. He made several version of this so it may have been the one recovered in 2006 after it was stolen from this same gallery. The museum also has a representative collection of paintings and bronzes by internationally acclaimed artists including El Greco, Velasquez, Picasso, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Degas, Manet, Renoir, Van Dyke, Rubens and Franz Hals. We were there until the museum closed, when we found our bus stop to return to the campsite. Once here we discovered it is only a short distance from the banks of the Oslofjord. This is where all of Oslo had been spending Sunday afternoon. The grassy banks and the water were crammed with thousands of people! Unable to bear the heat any longer I handed Ian the contents of my pockets and went for a swim just as I was. It caused a few stares but it was sheer bliss! Ian tried to disown me as I squelched up the beach to join him for the walk back to the campsite.
Monday 28th July 2008, Oslo
It has been quite as hot again today and we are no nearer adapting to the high temperatures. Oslo however is growing on us as we begin to recognise our way around. It's a more lively place on a weekday with regular buses and we have even discovered now where we can buy fresh fruit and vegetables.
At midnight the campsite was really busy, with visitors chatting outside in the cool twilight. At 7am this morning though, there was hardly a soul around. So today we managed to get to the showers while there was still warm water, after which we felt better able to face the day. As we left the site to catch the bus into town the queues were six deep waiting for a vacant shower. It will be good to move on again but we need one more day in Oslo to see the sights on our hit list.
The bus dropped us at the quayside from where we crossed to the island of Bygdøy, a fifteen minute ferry ride out into the fjord. High on our list of "must sees" was the Viking Ships Museum which houses two almost complete ships discovered at various times around the end of the 19th century in burial mounds out on isolated farms. Where necessary they have been sympathetically restored but most of the oak timbers and beautiful Norse carvings are original.
One, the Oseberg Ship, was awesome in its curved beauty and had probably been used as a ceremonial vessel on the fjords rather than a vessel for raiding and exploration. It ended its days as a burial ship for a Viking queen, as was the custom for chiefs and nobles. The grave itself was found in the stern of the vessel, rather like a wooden tent. Also on board were all the requirements she might need on her journey into the next life. These included servants and horses as well as furniture, textiles and utensils, and several magnificently carved and decorated sledges.
The other longship, the Gokstad ship, was again exquisitely shaped and constructed but less decorated and sturdier. Shallow bottomed and very broad it was obviously intended as a sea going vessel. It even had its original mast, oars and steering board. With ships such as these, in the period 800-1050AD, the Vikings could travel all around the coasts of Northern Europe, down into the Mediterranean and across the North Atlantic to Iceland, Greenland and America.
There are several other museums on the island connected with the history of Norwegian shipping, exploration and discovery. It was impossible to visit them all - we lacked both the stamina on a hot day, and the cash, particularly as they strictly enforce the 67 age limit for pensioners discounts. However, we thought we'd glean as much as we could from the entrances and the gift shops.
First we called at the Kon-Tiki museum recording Thor Heyerdahl's scientific voyage on a tiny raft across the Pacific Ocean as he attempted to prove cultural links between the peoples of Polynesia and South America. Outside is displayed a genuine stone carved head, a gift from Easter Island.
On the nearby shore we found the Gyøa, the original ship in which the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen first navigated the North-West Passage in 1906. It was a taster for the main exhibition inside the museum recording early Norwegian navigators and the rush for the South Pole. Amundsen arrived there in December 1911, just one month before the British explorer Robert Scott. Amundsen used Husky dogs to carry his equipment whereas Scott relied on horses that proved unable to cope with Antarctic conditions. Furthermore, the Norwegians returned safely from the voyage whereas Scott and his team all perished on the return journey.
The museum houses the ship, the Fram, used by Amundsen for his South Polar expedition, as well as the artefacts and equipment needed on the journey – it included a piano! Peering through the windows we got an impression of the museum and it would have been fascinating, but we decided to make do with the free bits. The many captioned photos displayed were really informative and a great incentive to pick our way through the Norwegian text. It's surprising how many words are recognisably from the same derivation as English.
We took the ferry back to the centre of Oslo and caught the tram out to the Vigelandsparken to visit the renowned Sculpture Park. There are several hundred stunning sculptures laid out around the gardens, all the work of one man, Gustav Vigeland. Executed in granite or bronze they show people of all ages and both sexes in every possible mood. Despite the heat we lingered all afternoon wandering the long main avenue where the bronze statues lined the parapet of the bridge across the river.
The avenue led to a square lake with a large fountain. A giant bowl was supported by muscular granite figures while around the edge a series of bronze sculptures showed men, women and children playing or clambering through the twisted branches of neatly shaped trees. Beyond, a series of steps leads up to a granite column crowded with men, women and children, tumbling and clambering over each other as they strive to reach the top. On the steps there are granite plinths of smoothly carved figures in groups or couples, many with small children.
Even the gates at the entrance to the park had been made by the artist. Really it was almost too much! We felt quite overwhelmed. It's the sort of place you need to return to time and time again and on each visit there would be a new discovery - a face or form that had previously been lost in the crowd of perfect bodies.
Hot, sticky and weary we took the tram back to the centre where we discovered a small supermarket. Laden with shopping we returned to the bus stop just in time for the bus back to the campsite. Many of our neighbours have moved on since this morning and new ones have arrived. We are squashed in between some smoking Swedes on one side and French on the other. Around us there are Germans, Dutch, Poles, Lithuanians, Finns and Italians. English is the common language of communication though we are the only English we've seen here.
Tuesday 29th July 2008, Oslo
With more than thirty museums in Oslo there is no way we can claim we are done with the city after a mere three days. Oslo however has quite done for us. We are exhausted! It's not the fault of the city but of the weather which has been glaring and burning all day. With our burgeoning Scandinavian reading skills we worked out the newspaper headlines today. They claimed temperatures in Norway are the highest for more than seven years. We took shelter in one of the museums where it registered 29 degrees inside! Of course there is so little hot weather here that none of the buildings are air conditioned and all the buses are stifling too.
Before it became too hot we arrived in town and spent a couple of pleasant hours exploring the original old town of Kristiania, down beside the port area. The oldest building is in brick and dates from 1626. Nearby there is the castle with its battlements and the present military barracks. Pausing to rest on a shady bench we watched as one of the city's down-and-outs raided the rubbish bins for empty bottles and tins – anything with a barcode as items are individually charged with a refundable deposit. With the refund on a bagful of empties there may be enough for a small can of larger. Norway looks after its own so there is no need to have tramps on the streets, unless they are immigrants who also raid bins, but that seems to be in order to survive. This handicapped scavenger was riding a smart electric wheelchair and was clean enough if a bit scruffy. He also spoke English! Everyone, at whatever social level is fluent in at least two languages. He stopped to chat, telling us we were sitting in the pick-up zone for prostitutes and warned us against the risk of AIDs!?? He then wished us a nice day and rolled silently off to delve into a few more bins before heading for the nearest supermarket with his haul of empties.
Having explored the castle, its fortifications and an exhibition on the history of Norway – too complicated for this blog – we headed for the University where the Great Hall allegedly has some outstanding murals painted by Edvard Munch. Having struggled back across town we found the doors barred and a sign saying the room was closed for restoration! Hot and weary we were also in need of restoration so we explored the gardens behind the University where we picnicked on a shady bench. During the afternoon we visited the History Museum, concentrating on the Viking and Mediaeval galleries. Braving the heat we then walked to the Museum of Applied Art and Design. This was excellent with examples of all that is best in modern Scandinavian design from the 1950s to date. There were also galleries on the history of innovative design covering furniture and furnishings, ceramics, glass, silverware, textiles and fashion. We were there until the museum closed. Unfortunately the gallery where the dresses of Norway's well-loved Queen Maud were displayed was also closed for restoration. Dating from around 1900 these are supposed to be quite stunning. Closed too was the textile gallery displaying ceremonial bed quilts, a typically Norwegian custom. So generally the afternoon held a few disappointments, but it means we can move on tomorrow knowing we have seen the best that Oslo has to offer. We've seen many things today that are obviously not on most tourists itineraries. Had it not been for us the museum staff would have been guarding empty rooms all afternoon.
Oslo has been a pleasant experience, though not one of Europe's more vibrant cities. As we move on from Norway our impression is that the west of the country is the most interesting and scenically beautiful, with its rugged mountains, green forests, clear lakes and deep fjords. The North we have never visited but travelling as we have, from West to East, leaves us with a slight sense of anti-climax.