There’s an eerie quality to Easter Sunday spent in a country that doesn’t celebrate Easter that weekend. It’s a Sunday, alright, and the city is motionless and sluggish to wake, but I feel slightly out of synch, like a visitor who programmed the wrong century on the time machine. I google Orthodox churches, there’s a Greek one within comfortable walking distance. I google cafés that would be open early, less luck there, many of them are closed all Sunday, others will start service only after 10 AM. We walk through the empty city, onto Karl Johans gate, the pedestrian street sparsely populated by morning joggers and dog walkers absent mindedly studying shop windows. Their artful arrangements feel almost like museum exhibits since the shops won’t open for the day. You take note of a dress that might interest you only to forget all about it by the next day, a chance of instant gratification narrowly missed.
While Fuglen coffee shop should be open, it isn’t, there is a small crowd gathered by the door, perhaps some morning mishap we decide not to explore. Instead, we walk into what must be a very generic bakery and discover that the coffee is to be made in self service mode, navigating through options that range from size to origin and roast. I have a nagging suspicion that whatever I choose will taste, ultimately, the same, so I go for a large latte and choose from an international smorgasbord of pastries, Nordic cinnamon buns lined up alongside Bavarian pretzels, Balkan bureks and Greek bougatsas. People munch silently at their tables, plates and trays are politely carried back to the till. A wide eyed and just slightly disheveled looking young woman walks in, as far as my grasp of Norwegian allows me to understand, she asks for a cup of free coffee she would pay for later. The lone cashier on duty nods in consent, and the woman disappears into the morning with a paper cup of steaming coffee.
The feeling that Oslovians are not morning people on Sundays continues as we approach what Google tells me should be the Greek Orthodox church. It is, but there are no Byzantine frills here, just a sturdy, austere Scandinavian affair hosting icons of the decidedly demure sort, a Mary with the child surrounded by a few festive ribbons, with Christ has risen written in Greek over them. We have a fjord tour booked for the early afternoon, but there is still time to spare, and we head to the botanical garden, crossing the Akerselva, Oslo’s river spanning a whopping length of 8 kilometres. I am somewhat relieved to discover that Norwegians do occasionally make stupid mistakes, like when the city’s waterworks department accidently released 6000 litres of chlorine into the river in 2011, basically wiping out the ecosystem. They fixed it, though, and the Akerselva is home to frolicking salmon these days. It is also considered to be an, albeit quite approximative, division line between the western, predominantly well off neigbourhoods of the city and the more working class ones to the east. Social differences are also accompanied by linguistic ones- Norway itself has two official versions of the Norwegian language, Bokmål, based primarily on the Dano-Norwegian spoken during the union of the two countries, and Nynorsk, based on a collective of spoken Norwegian dialects, and this is replicated in the city as well. The two sides of the city don’t seem to agree on how to pronounce its name either: while most people nowadays tend to pronounce it as ‘ushlu’, a good many will go for ‘uslu’, which is slightly confusing, but also provides entertainment while listening to announcements on public transportation. (Yes, I am easily amused.)
I am further encouraged in my delusion of grasping Norwegian when a child bursts out of the botanical garden’s palm house with a war cry of ‘Det stinker!’, which is an accurate description of the tropical funk inside, but the garden itself is a pleasant, if not overly spectacular affair. Grander explorations lie ahead as we line up beside the Helena, the ship that will take us out into the fjord. I booked the trip from musement.com quite randomly, yet I can warmly recommend it, another one of those Norwegian endeavours that happen without a hitch. Our tour operator is Båtservice, which sounds exciting in a batmobile and bat signal sort of way, but båt just happens to be the Norwegian for boat.
Best be prepared for some tough news now: the Oslo fjord is not really a fjord, at least not in the geological sense of the word, which would be a narrow inlet of water with steep cliffs, created by a glacier. The majority of Norway’s real fjords lie further west on its Atlantic coast, but in Norwegian fjord is used for a much wider range of waterways, and so the one south of Oslo also qualifies. The Oslo fjord has perhaps the mildest climate in the whole of Norway, so the islands dotting it are very popular summer escapes, their shores lined with colourful wooden cabins, often coming with their own bathing slot at the end of a flight of stairs. In the past, the bathing slot would be surrounded by wooden panels, so people could bathe in privacy, but also exchange some banter with those in the neighbouring bathing enclosures.
As the Helena sails away eastward from the town hall, we’re treated to the sights of the Fjord city project, the urban renewal of former docks and industrial areas. Today, this area hosts the iconic Opera House, the new building of the Munch Museum (opened in October 2021) and the so-called Barcode project, a group of multipurpose high rises, which have apparently stirred a lot of debate due to their shape and height. As someone who hasn’t seen Oslo before the redevelopment of this area, I find the buildings to be quite striking, but not at all displeasing, a good example of how modern architecture can slot into a historical city, yet perhaps locals would justly have differing opinions.
We plan to return to the Munch later in the day, but the fjord’s winds and currents have taken their toll and we are famished, so we plan a pit stop at the Amundsen restaurant, which, very Norwegian name notwithstanding, is in fact an honest and unfussy British pub, so I go for the bangers and mash and taste some of the Amundsen brewery’s beers, which promptly get my blessing. As for the Munch. Our visit turns into a strangely Munchian experience, a rendition, in performance art, of the feelings of urban malaise that tormented this great and perhaps somewhat misunderstood Norwegian. For a an excellent, if idiosyncratic foray into his art, do read Karl Ove Knausgaard’s So Much Longing in So Little Space. Returning to our travails, the Munch is an absolutely spectacular building, the exhibitions are well curated and immersive, but we are weak minded, right, and we need to see The Scream. Now, as we discover, Munch loved to resketch, redraw, repaint his favourite motifs, and there are in fact three Screams on show in a triangular sanctum, a sketch, a watercolour, and THE Scream. But you can only ever see one, they rotate, hour by hour. First hour, it’s the sketch. So be it, we roam on in the stupendous sunset light, from floor to floor, we return for the second hour, well, it’s the watercolour, we’re a bit despondent the restaurant is closed on Sundays, but surely, surely, the last visiting hour will reveal THE Scream. It’s the sketch, again, the order, as all in life, is random. The blog’s industrious co-photographer misses the photo opportunity of a despairing scream beneath the lesser Scream, an inception of despairs. Dazed by disappointment, we end up, as you do, in Carmel Grill, a kebab shop sheltered by the back walls of the Oslo Cathedral, very popular with a slightly tipsy crowd, partly because the kebabs are quite good, and partly because most other restaurants closed their kitchen at 9 PM.
An indelible image of my childhood is that of Fram, the polar bear, alone on a slab of ice, drifting into the great coldness of the north. I don’t remember much else from the plot, as it turns out, it has a somewhat happy ending, but that image has haunted me for years. Now, if you do not know who Fram is, no surprise there. He is the hero of a Romanian children’s book that, while very popular in Romania, has few translations in other languages. I’d wondered where Cezar Petrescu, the author, would have picked up such an odd name and a possible answer floated into sight as we passed the island of Bygdøy, which hosts several museums, among them a museum dedicated to the Fram, the schooner which took explorers Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen on epic journeys to the ends, well, poles of the world. And the name, fittingly, means forward in Norwegian.
Nansen and Amundsen feel ubiquitous around Oslo, and it makes a lot of sense. Many of their exploits date to the period, early in the 20th Century, when Norway left the union with Sweden, became an independent state and was trying to forge an identity and an image for itself. What should Norway be, was the question, and a land of fearless explorers who brave the elements and boldly go where no one has gone before seemed an excellent answer. Nansen and Amundsen were followed, later, by Thor Heyerdahl, who sailed warmer seas, for a change, but embodied similar ideals of bravery and curiosity. And while I knew their names, and now I knew the story of Fram, too, one of the first things I’d ever learned about Norway was the name telemark. Telemark is a historical region of Norway, and also the name given to a specific landing in ski jumping, when one foot is in front of the other and the knees are slightly bent. A telemark landing is awarded the best points. No telemark, no party, my young and impressionable mind thought, so on our fourth day in Oslo all roads led to Holmenkollen, the Oslo neighbourhood which is home to the city’s ski jumping hill.
The trip to Holmenkollen can be made by metro line 1, which we took from the Central Station stop but which, after Majorstuen, morphs into a scenic ride in the forested residential area of Nordmarka, a little like The Shire but with public transportation. Given that this is the shire, many stops will not have a ticket wending machine nearby, so the easiest way to go about the matter is downloading the Ruter app, which allows you to buy tickets whenever and wherever you need them. Finding the ski jumping hill from Holmenkollen station is easy, you walk into the general direction of the giant structure ahead. The first iteration of the hill was opened in 1892, and it has hosted several World Championship and World Cups since, plus the ski jumping event of the 1952 Winter Olympics. The latest hill dates back to the 2011 World Championships. It is a hill with a construction point of 120 metres and the current record is held by (obviously Norwegian) Robert Johanssen (check out that ‘tache), with 144 metres. To put things into perspective, the first ever competition on this hill was held in January 1892. The city was still called Christiania, as named by King Christian who reconstructed it after the great fire of 1624 and would become Oslo only in 1925. The first record was held by a certain Arne Ustvedt. It measured 21.5 metres.
At the foot of the hill, you can visit a ‘Norwegians win and conquer things’ themed museum– absolutely spot on, since for a country of five million Norway has an absolutely ridiculous winter sports record, they lead the all time Winter Olympics medal table with a total of 405 medals, of which 148 are gold medals. For comparison, their closes competitors are the United States, with 330 medals (113 gold), and a population of 332 million. At the top of the hill, you can be further mind blown. The simple idea that someone would come up here and say, yes, I am going to take off and fly off this thing with two blades of whatever material strapped to my feet is frightening beyond reason.
From the top of the ski jumping hill you can also see the Holmenkollen chapel, which is related to a considerably darker side of Norwegian history. The original chapel, built in 1902, was destroyed by fire in 1992. After the first inquest concluded that the fire was accidental, it later emerged that it was set by musicians from the death metal bands Emperor, Burzum and Mayhem, who had committed several other church arsons, in the name of a rather muddled but decidedly far-right leaning set of beliefs drawing inspiration from what they though may have been the pagan religion of their Viking ancestors. The chapel was rebuilt in 1996, in keeping with the designs of the original building.
Since the restaurant closest to Holmenkollen is closed on Mondays, we decide to ride to the last stop of metro line 1, Frognerseteren, and pay a visit to the restaurant there, which is, in fact, two restaurants in one: a self-service café and a more high end affair where we are the sole customers of the afternoon, having luckily arrived between the lunch and dinner rushes. They have a table full of aquavits and some lovely trout. I mean, I don’t like fish, as a rule. Except in Norway, where I can envisage eating fish all day. With broccoli if need be.
Travels invariably begin with a feeling that they will last forever, that the time stretching ahead is long and boundless, and invariably the end comes so much faster than expected. Tomorrow morning, we will need to wake up early and catch our flight back home, but, before that, we need to find a cocktail bar suspiciously named Himkok, our English programmed brains again in overdrive. Himkok, though, is home cooked alcohol, possibly a much more fitting, if less poetic, name than moonshine. As such, the bar is hidden behind a firmly closed door and a hardly visible sign, another couple hesitating whether to ring the doorbell or not. We decide for it, the correct choice it turns out. Himkok comes with a fully functioning distillery, the aquavit, gin and vodka used for most of their cocktails being dripped into glass containers straight from the source. And let me tell you this. Negronis are also excellent in Norway. In the words of a wise Austrian robot, vi kommer tilbake.