I’ve mentioned before how birdwatching in Scandinavia is a completely different hobby to the grueling slog it is in Britain. Twice already we could watch birds without leaving the van here in Norway: lapwings, oyster catchers, murmurating starlings and knots in Molen, and a couple of shrikes in the nest later on in Halden.
After visiting a few ancient remains, which, frankly, though very prettily set (in a beech forest above Larvik, at the head of the fjord below it, and on a wooded castle hill in Tonsberg) hardly warranted the detour, we’ve finally arrived in Oslo.
From the guidebooks, wikis, etc. I couldn’t quite create an image of Oslo in my head. Unlike Stockholm or Copenhagen, this was one Nordic capital that seemed bland and generic. After wandering about it for three days, I still can’t say much about it, other than, unexpectedly, it turned out to be full of art.
Follow the coffee – that’s usually our plan for visiting a new city, and it usually works. It worked wonders in Oslo. Tim Wendelboe‘s coffee is not just good. If you believe Noma‘s chef Rene Redzepi, it’s the best in Scandinavia – and by extension, the world; the only coffee worth his world-best cuisine. As we searched for Wendelboe’s espresso Bar, we found Oslo’s hippiest, youngest, most vibrant district, centred – of course – around the Architecture and Design School on Telthusbaken. It’s got the usual mix of old worker housing, once-rough (or still rough, depending on who you ask) cul-de-sacs, a nice park, new designer buildings (student housing in the shape of a grain silo) and a super-cool old-factory-turned-food hall where we naturally decided to do all the food shopping while in Oslo.
Oslo’s centre is as small as everything else in Norway. It can be walked about in less than an hour, from the train station to the Royal Palace, and from there onto the harbour. The harbour is being rebuilt with new houses and shops; it’s all very sleek and ultra-modern, but is a bit soulless and lacking character: it could be any city waterfront in Europe; rather similar to the new Thames-side. Opposite it, across the fjord, rises an old fortress – looking mighty and impressive from a distance (and in comparison with everything else), but close up it’s barely a small castle.
At the end of the very end of the pier stands a modern art gallery – the first of Oslo’s art treasures; the collection is surprisingly comprehensive, containing most of the big names in modern art: Hurts, Koons, Emin, Gilbert&George, Murakami etc. Plus, the entry is free with Oslo Pass, which I highly recommend; most of the time, these city passes offer only minor deals, or require visiting everything in the city to make the purchase worthwhile. The Oslo Pass is a very good deal, especially considering how expensive everything in the city is, including transport (50 NOK for a single bus ticket!).
Oslo’s only building truly (and literally) breath-taking in its scale is the Holmenkollen Ski Jumping Tower. It’s massive curved pillar can be seen easily from any point in the city. It’s reachable with the underground train and a bit of a climb; its top, together with the tall hill it’s standing on, rises to 300m above Oslo, and the view below is well worth the journey. Up to that point, everything is included in your Oslo Pass, but if you feel particularly splashy with your money, you can experience the ride down “as Malysz flies” on a rope.
The entire second day of Oslo was spent on the museum island of Bygdoy. If you have the Oslo Pass, it’s all pretty much free fun for everyone. There’s one massive museum here – the Open Air Folk Museum – and several small ones; the small ones alone are worth the boat trip from the harbour. The Folk Museum is a typical copy of Stockholm’s Skansen, and these things are always fun, especially since it contains an original stave church (unlike the one we’ve seen in Bergen, which is a reconstruction of the original, burned by a death metal musician) with restored interior. Most of the stave churches still in place are high in the mountains of the interior, so this one’s a rare treat.
Most of the smaller museums in Bygdoy are to do with the sea and naval exploration, for which Norway is justly famous. They are not so much museums, even, as showcases for Norway’s most famous ships. The two ancient drakkars in the Viking Ship Museum are the best preserved examples anywhere in Scandinavia, and are simply enormous. The two polar explorer ships in the Fram museum (including Fram itself, the ship Amundsen used to reach the South Pole) can be freely roamed about, and the two original rafts of Thor Heyerdahl – Kon-Tiki and Ra 2 – are at arm’s reach in their own hall. Taken altogether, these three halls make for an exhilarating experience of being in the presence of the spirits of some of the greatest explorers the world has ever known – made even more exciting, on the day of our visit, by the fact that Thor Heyerdahl Junior himself was guiding a private tour of the Kon-Tiki!
I’ve mentioned art before, but only one gallery so far. The truth is, there was art oozing from the place everywhere we went: street sculptures, galleries, theatres… We didn’t go to the great Munch Museum, but I think we did one better: we went to the actual location where “Scream” is set! (which turned out to be right outside the campsite gate). Also near the campsite – on the other side of the hill – was a sculpture park, freely accessible, with sculptures by Dali, Rodin, Renoir and others.