06 August 2008

Norway

The day after my visit to the Palace, I packed my bags and set off for my summer holidays in Scandinavia and Russia. The plan was to spend a little time seeing Norway and Sweden before meeting up with Steve and Fiona in Helsinki. From there we’d take the train to St Petersburg and commence our nine-day tour of Russia.

I departed Southfields in a rain shower, walking down to the Underground station in the balmy drizzle. After a quick change at Earl’s Court, I was at Heathrow in less than an hour, examining the new Terminal 5 that had experienced such gratuitously bad press when it was opened for business and distributed its passengers’ bags to the four winds. But it has sorted its act out now, and the BA-only terminal now works well and benefits from the spacious and modern design so the travelling experience is most un-Heathrowish, in that it proceeds smoothly and without irritation.

With this major airport-not-sucking surprise out of the way, the 100-minute flight to Oslo proceeded without incident over the North Sea, up the Skagerrak and along the winding Oslofjord. Soon I was on the ground in friendly Norway, negotiating the immigration process with my traditional left ear decompression deafness leading me to rely on the usual mix of smiling and nodding in the hope that I was agreeing with positive statements rather than accusations of smuggling.

The airport is quite a way outside of Oslo, but they’ve thoughtfully built a train station underneath it. These Norwegians think of everything. It’s kitted out for the winter cold too: the escalators down to the platforms are encased in glass and you exit through air-sealed double revolving doors that keep the heat in. Going through them felt a bit like visiting a space station, as opposed to travelling on British Rail, which is more akin to a visit to a freezing works, only slightly less offally.

The tidy streets of downtown Oslo were sparsely populated when I arrived in the late evening, and after a bit of elementary orienteering and a ten minute walk with my trusty pack I arrived at the Anker Hostel, my home for the next three nights. After an initial hiccup in which I was assigned a dorm room plentifully populated with Poles but with no spare beds, I ended up in a nice spot with a bed next to the window. There was still plenty of light at 11pm when I turned in – Oslo is 60 degrees North, after all: the equivalent latitude in the Southern Hemisphere lies somewhere between Cape Horn and the Antarctic Peninsula.

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Breakfast wasn’t included in the hostel price, and what was offered seemed jolly expensive, so I started the day the same way I did in Iceland last year: a quick trip to the supermarket. As it happens, the most common supermarket chain that I saw in Norway was called ‘Kiwi’. Norway is famed for the costliness of its food, and as for alcohol, you might as well forget it. Even the Kiwi supermarket was quite punishing on the wallet, but it beat the alternative, so I loaded up on breakfast and lunch there.

It was a bright and sunny day in Oslo, and I patrolled the city to get my bearings. I was soon wandering along the waterfront in the sunshine, admiring the harbour and watching the fishermen pull in small catches here and there. At the wharf in front of the Radhus (town hall) I took a small ferry on a short trip across Oslofjord to the nearby Bygdøy peninsula, which holds a brace of interesting museums.

First stop was the Norsk Folkemuseum, a large park-like collection of traditional Norwegian farm buildings and exhibits on Norwegian home life. The impressive courtyard soon gave way to winding dirt tracks through pines and shrubs, giving a real village feel to the place. One of the first buildings I came to was a small sod-and-grass roofed hut that turned out to be a 19th-century schoolhouse. The noise of a primary school lesson being conducted in Norwegian emanated from within, so I went in for a look. To my surprise, rather than a recording of a lesson, there was an actual lesson taking place, with a stern-voiced schoolmistress in proper garb teaching about a dozen children aged about eight to ten, all of whom were also in period costume. As it was a weekday, the first thought that occurred to me was, ‘hang on, this lot should be in school… oh wait, they are…’

Further up the path, at the head of a sward of lush grass lay the museum’s most famous building: a traditional Norse stave church, originally built in Gol in the 12th century. Inside, the dark wood was carved with devotional scenes, and you could imagine the dark and narrow chapel in the depths of a medieval winter, filled with fur-wrapped worshippers stamping their feet to keep warm.



Other buildings on display included a wide range of farm dwellings from recent centuries, with a strong emphasis on the traditional log-frame construction that befits a nation with plenty of trees to spare.

In more recent times Norway was subject to German occupation from 1940 to 1945, and in one exhibit the museum illustrates one of the smaller challenges faced by the Norwegian people. Alcohol sales, traditionally heavily regulated by the state, were heavily rationed during the war and the Germans also outlawed queuing outside the state monopoly stores before opening time. In response to this, the Norwegians adapted by loitering in the street in the general vicinity until just before the shops opened, and when the doors were opened there was a stampede of hundreds trying to get inside to get their prized grog rations.



There was also an museum of national costume, with an entertaining diorama of the traditional Norwegian hat-kicking dance. Designed to show a suitor’s physical prowess, apparently the girl holding the hat on the end of a broomstick would vary the height of the hat depending on how much she liked the chap. If she didn’t like him, he might pull a ligament before he managed to kick the blasted hat!





After a pleasant morning at the Folkemuseum, I walked a few hundred metres to the specially-built Viking Ship Museum, which houses the remains of three ships, which had all been buried as part of chiefly funeral rites. The Oseburg ship is probably from the 8th century, the Gokstad ship is probably 9th century, and the more fragmentary remains of the Tune ship are probably from around 900 AD. Together they represent a tremendous historical resource and are a vibrant glimpse into the soul of the Viking mind, for the Norse were defined by their sea-going prowess. I took the photos that everyone else takes: the beautiful raked bowsprits of the longboat, topped by whorled crosier-like peaks and with intricately-carved keels depicting Norse dragons and sea-monsters. There was also a collection of the other grave goods buried with the ships to sustain the chiefly afterlife, including some ornately carved wooden sleds.




Not to be content with a mere two museums, I went on to the nearby Maritime Museum, which boasted a five-screen panoramic film of the dramatic Norwegian coastline. Aside from the usual nauticalia amongst the museum’s exhibits, chief of which was the twisted, gnarled remains of a 2200 year-old dugout canoe, I also enjoyed the slightly mad exhibit of a fully-rigged sailing ship made entirely from cloves. The museum was a fairly casual place - upstairs in the art gallery section there was no-one around so I shut a door opening onto the sea breeze, which was causing a batch of 19th century ship paintings to flap and clatter around like they were trying to take off.

I took the bus back to the hostel to dump my stuff and shelter from the Scandinavian sunshine for a short while, and met one of my dorm-mates, a young chap from Korea who was cooking his dinner. He asked me ‘do you like life?’ I took this to mean either:

A) I am a born-again evangelist type, watch out;

B) I am quite depressed and enjoy telling strangers about my psychological problems; or

C) I am a hostel-dwelling psychopath, so if you like life I wouldn’t get too attached to it, if I were you.

Turned out it was just a translation issue. He meant ‘rice’, not ‘life’. As it happens, I like both, but I’d probably pick the latter over the former, if push came to shove.

As the afternoon heat waned I visited the splendid Oslo opera house on the waterfront, with its daring angles and high-tech aluminium panelling giving it a futuristic air. In winter-time cityfolk carry their skis up to the top and ski back down its roof, which has snow-traps and jumps to enhance the experience.

After a walk along the shopping precinct and main street of Karl Johann’s Gata, I dined on a kebab (one of the few halfway affordable meals available anywhere) and contemplated my successful first day in Norway.

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The next morning I set out for Oslo’s castle, the Akershus Festning, which was constructed from the 1290s onwards, and still guards the city from its promontory overlooking the fjord. Army guardsmen patrolled the grounds and ceremonial cannons watched the Oslofjord, serving to protect the capital from the massive cruise liner docked nearby which almost threatened to overshadow the castle.



Then it was time to break my record: I saw four museums in one day. First up was the national art gallery, with its collection of Edvard Munch (not my cup of tea) and some splendid patriotic landscapes and maritime pictures. I enjoyed the small encounter with the Scandinavian mindset in the locker room where you deposit your bags: each locker requires a 1-kroner coin (10p) to close its lock, but rather than expect gallery visitors to pay, there was a bowl full of 1-kroner coins for the use of visitors. Nice to be trusted!

After a quick lunch I moved next door to the history museum, which was a real highlight. Its medieval woodcarvings and Viking exhibits were excellent, particularly carved scenes from a stave church portal from 1200 AD, and the amazing decoration on a medieval church roof, transplanted whole to the museum.





Next I paid a quick visit to the modern art museum, which occupies one side of a pleasant leafy square in the old town, with a bubbling fountain at its centre. The art collections were… rather pretentious, I thought. Case in point: an installation of a bicycle fitted with vacuum cleaner engines that switched on and off in seemingly random patterns. (Probably said something deep about cycling or vacuuming, either or). But just when I was snickering at a large collection of wall-hangings crocheted by two female artists using only discarded pantyhose, I read in a caption that these were the same artists that had decorated the opera house, so I pulled my head in a bit and tried not to be too judgemental. It was quite hard though.


As it was a super-sunny afternoon I coughed up about six quid for a public transport daycard and took a tram out to the suburbs to visit Oslo’s famous Vigelandsparken. Dedicated to the memory of sculptor Gustav Vigeland, these expansive gardens draw large crowds who admire the naturalistic and optimistic statues that Vigeland made throughout his life, which are displayed along a broad avenue and on a bridge. The avenue then leads to the park’s centrepiece, the impressive and surreal human tower, which comprises a mass of intertwined human forms rising into the sky. I also paid a quick visit to the Oslo Museum in the park's grounds, which told the history of the city but didn't really grab me as my feet were pretty sore by that stage!



Back in town on my evening promenade I heard a Norwegian girl busking Don’t Dream It’s Over by Crowded House, and then by the ferry wharfs I listened to an older chap playing twangy Shadows tunes through a battery-powered amp. A nice relaxing end to my second and last day in Oslo.

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The next morning I arose at 7am, which is virtually the day before in backpacker-time, and after securing some supermarket food I departed Oslo on the 0811 train towards Bergen, bound for my next destination, the small lakeside town of Voss. The 5 ½ hour trip went quickly, with pretty Norwegian scenery to admire out the window. About halfway we were above 1000 metres and the train passed between alpine lakes fringed by holiday huts (with Norwegian pennants flying from flagpoles if the hut had occupants), and the rugged hills were flecked with snow despite it being the middle of summer. The train also passed a giant glacier, swelling in the distance behind the hills like a white volcano.

Eventually I arrived in Voss, and lugged my pack along the lakefront on the road out of town for about a kilometre to the local hostel, which in Norway is named vandrarheim, ‘wander-home’. I quite like that. Voss isn’t known for much and it’s a quiet sort of place, but I liked the feel of it. There are a few sights: the old Finnesloftet on the hill above the hostel is a medieval meeting house, there’s a stone church in the middle of town, and on the lakefront there’s a statue in honour of the town’s only famous son. Knute Rockne left here when he was small, but later became the biggest name in American football for Notre Dame in the 1920s. They later made a film about him, Knute Rockne All American (1940) starring Ronald Reagan as George ‘The Gipper’ Gipp – which is where the expression ‘win one for the Gipper’ comes from.

After a walk around town and its nearby nature trails I settled in on the pretty hostel verandah and watched the sun slowly set behind the snow-clad mountains on the other side of the lake, and enjoyed the traditional backpacker’s meal of a baguette and brie (Danish, apparently).

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The next morning I revelled in the joys of staying in an official youth hostel (Anker was an indie) – breakfast was included, so I could indulge my fondness for muesli with yoghurt. The day was set aside for the well-known Norway In A Nutshell tour, which provided the opportunity to take in the beautiful Norwegian fjords and the famous Flåm railway.

The first leg of the journey was by coach to the head of a tributary of the massive Sognefjord, which is the largest and longest fjord in Norway. On board the coach a jumpy Japanese dad constantly shifted his wife and son between seats, trying to work out the best side for viewing the splendours on display. They moved seats at least five times. His son rolled his eyes and attempted to dispel his pre-teen ennui by taking photos with a loud synthesised noise emitted by his camera approximately every seven seconds of the journey.

Soon the coach was edging gingerly down the hair-raising Stalheimskleiva switchbacks, descending hundreds of metres to the valley below. At the end of the valley the coach dropped us at tiny Gudvangen, where we boarded the ferry Skagastøl for a two-hour trip on the fjord. As we pushed out into the still waters of Nærøyfjord the local gulls raced to shadow the ferry in the hope of a thrown morsel.





Several tiny villages perched precariously on the shore of the fjord, hemmed in by hulking sheer rock walls climbing hundreds of metres behind them. As the ferry emerged into the main arm of Sognefjord and turned to enter another tributary, the Aurlandsfjord, I got a Nikon-wielding Japanese gent to snap my picture (with my camera, that is) before a stiff rain-shower set in and doused the deck with spray.



After a pleasant journey the ferry docked at the tourist town of Flåm, which has a tiny population but sees umpteen thousands of visitors per year as it’s the head of a famous scenic railway. Its gift shops are filled with the usual tourist tat, generally featuring Vikings or trolls.

In the two hours I had before the train departed I went for a walk up the valley along peaceful country roads and through farmland. A ginger farm cat watched carefully as I made my way to the grand-looking Brekkefossen: a cascading waterfall dropping from the heights above the valley floor. It was a bit of a challenging incline but once I was level with the impressive waterfall it proved to be a splendid view back towards the wharf.



The track from Flåm to Myrdal was opened in 1940, takes an hour to travel a mere 20 kilometres, and is famous for the feat of engineering it took to hew its many tunnels and switchbacks from the solid granite. The views are tremendous. Near the top the train stops for a brief spell at another powerful waterfall, and we tourists are treated to a special performance. Raewyn had warned me to expect a mysterious happenstance that was very, very funny, but refused to tell me what it was to avoid spoiling the surprise. (Skip this bit if you're going to do the tour yourself!)

As the waterfall boomed and crashed we were visited by Norwegian water nymphs, who popped up from the rocks above and did a mystical little dance accompanied by some suitably ethereal music. Here’s hoping the poor sods had wetsuits on underneath their robes and wigs, else they’d have been soaked to the skin!



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The next morning at breakfast I witnessed the Scandinavian tradition of eating muesli with raspberry jam instead of yoghurt or milk. You’d definitely need to brush your teeth after that! I also took this nice little video to give you an idea of how peaceful the lake looked.



Soon it was time for my train to Bergen, an hour westwards on the coast. The rain had set in by the time I arrived, so it was a fairly minimal exploration: I walked in the wet with my backpack on for an hour or so to see the old Hanseatic houses on the waterfront, took a few pictures, and then it was time to catch the airport bus for my flight out to Stockholm via Oslo.

As it happened, the check-in staff didn’t log me as a transfer passenger, so by the time I’d retrieved my pack from the hold luggage in Oslo the check-in desk for the connecting flight to Stockholm was closed! I had to lug my backpack into the cabin and squeeze it into an overhead locker. A bit stressful, but I got there in the end.

So I flew on to Sweden… It had been a super five days in Norway, and despite the expense I would love to return to see more of the country. But only if I can get some more of that lovely Oslo sunshine, rather than that sodden Bergen rain!

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