The last bit of Norway, on the border with Sweden, is brimming with history both ancient and more recent; therefore, our final day here is a busy one.
The volatile border with the Swedes has been, over the years, heavily fortified. Fredrikstad – now a thriving port town – was born as one of those fortresses, and is now one of the best preserved fortress towns in Europe. The only thing missing are the actual fortifications, but the town layout itself, and the quaint little timber houses along the cobbled streets remain. If you enjoyed the Open Air Museum in Oslo, you’ll love Fredrikstad. The coffee shops and restaurant ooze “old timey” charm, and even the shops retain old signs like “Colonial Ware” or “Tobacco and Fruit”.
If the antiquities on the Western side of Oslofjord are nothing to write home about, the ones in the East can be a bit overwhelming. The entire stretch of the road from Fredrikstad to Sarpsborg is marked as a historical site, the “Oldtisvei” (Old Times Road) and rightly so. There are about 12 important Bronze and Iron Age locations along it, and more smaller ones; rock carvings of the famous Scandinavian “ship scene” style, burial cairns, barrow mound fields, stone circles (nine on only one forest glade!) aplenty. It’s good enough for a whole day of visiting, if that kind of thing interests you.
There is a viewing tower in the middle of it all, a massive pillar of concrete, empty inside save for a staircase; not far off, in Halden, rises another, even bigger. Why are they here, I couldn’t tell. It does seem to me Norway is beginning to suffer from the same problem as Japan in the 1980s: lots of free cash, lots of concrete, not much to do with it once all the roads, tunnels and bridges are built. Japan ended up building a concrete viewing tower in every town and city, and it looks like Norway is doing the same.
We finish our Norway adventure, fittingly, in the massive border fortress of Fredriksten. Apart from Holmenkollen, this may be the first really impressive man-made construction in Norway, its bastions and ramparts sprawling all over the castle hill; it’s large enough to accommodate a campsite within its walls.
There is a curious Polish connection to Fredriksten: the fortress, defending the only good land passage between the two countries, had been fiercely defended (and equally fiercely attacked) during the Second (or First) Northern War – known in Poland as the Deluge, when the Mad King Carl X Gustav decided the best thing for Sweden to do was to attack all of Sweden’s neighbours at the same time. (and if he hadn’t died in the middle of the war, he might’ve even succeeded in this doubtful endeavour!). The successive lines of defence are today marked with stone monuments, and the story of the brave defenders is important in the national-romantic historiography of the country.
The long, steep, tree-lined Iddefjord marks Norway’s southern border. It is a huge country – it took us more than 700 miles to get only from Bergen to Halden, the same as it took us to traverse Denmark a few times from one side to the other – and it was still only a tiny bit of the entire coastline.
The Norsemen are kinder and more polite people than Danes – it’s hard not to! – though a bit aloof and prone to panic when faced with foreigners who turn out not to be Germans or Swedes. Although now among the richest countries in the world, it’s easy to see how small and poor Norway once was: the older, pre-oil parts of all the towns and the few “cities” are very cosy, tight-packed, and built mostly out of timber. This is a land of water – roaring in waterfalls, calmly majestic in the fjords, frozen on the mountaintops – and it’s easy to see why Norwegian have always been the unbeaten masters of the sea; even their oldest art shows almost exclusively great fleets of ships!
There is a terrific lot of Norway yet to explore; the deep North, Trondheim, Lofoten, and the polar bear-infested Svalbard, are all waiting to be discovered for us… but for now, it’s south we go, to the crazy Sweden!