Nordic Sampler: Onward to Norway
By Julie Snyder
(In Part One of Nordic Sampler, which you can read here, Julie explored Iceland, Helsinki, Stockholm, and Copenhagen. Now the journey concludes in Norway.)
Fifth Stop: Oslo, Norway
Arriving by overnight ship from Copenhagen, we found Oslo rather enigmatic—a landslide of contemporary development melded with centuries‘-old tradition. Capital of Norway, it’s an economic and government center. Surrounded by water, it’s a maritime hub with a rich sea-faring history. Densely urban, it‘s cradled by nature. The largest city in one of the richest countries in the world, it was poised, with the rest of Norway, to ban beggars until international criticism caused an about-face. It’s home to the Nobel Peace Prize and has survived a lone wolf terrorist bombing. We quickly stopped analyzing and simply enjoyed this bright, fresh city.
Our Fave Five
The further our ship cruised into Oslo’s harbor, the more frequent were our “wows“ in response to the waterfront wonders coming into view. The Opera House, all swoops and curves is a showstopper. Piercing the fjord surface in its front yard is a glass-and-steel sculpture resembling a futuristic iceberg titled “She Lies.“ Once on terra firma with a visitor guide in hand, we identified some of the other intriguingly shaped structures we’d spotted from the ship. Like the new Munch Museum—which looked to me like it’s taking a bow—slated to open in Spring 2020. And the Barcode Project, a herd of high-rises of all shapes and sizes, positioned to optimize the harbor view. We spotted floating saunas and the SALT, a unique village devoted to art, music and of course, sauna.
We followed the orange towers marking the 5.5-mile Havnepromenaden—Harbor Promenade—past Astrup Fernley Museum of Modern Art and Akerhus Fortress, an imposing medieval castle. At the Nobel Peace Center, we had a coffee on the terrace and imagined what the expansive museum complex under construction cradling it would look like. Scheduled to open in 2021, the new National Museum will assemble collections of the National Gallery, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Norwegian Museum of Decorative Arts and Design under one roof.
Karl Johan’s Gate
We stepped out of the train station into a plaza where an enormous amount of sand had been deposited for a beach volleyball tournament. Welcome to Oslo! We wandered down a pedestrian plaza that stretched as far as we could see. Karl Johans Gate is Oslo’s main street leading from Central Station past the usual clutch of restaurants and shops until it opens up to gardens and fountains near the National Theatre and Historical Museum. We finally found the terminus, on the steps to the Royal Palace. Along the way we were seduced by the Northern Lights Xperium, imagining a dramatic light show in a domed auditorium and instead finding a cheesy little theater. But the visuals were still dramatic. We kicked back to watch the world go by—and a disturbing number of panhandlers—from the well-situated Cafe Cathedral.
Vigeland Sculpture Garden and Museum
A short bus ride from the city center, Vigeland Sculpture Garden in Frogner Park is the world’s largest sculpture park by a single artist. It also may boast the world’s largest sculptures! Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland is renowned for his robust renderings of the human form in granite, bronze and wrought iron. As we strolled the manicured grounds, dotted with flowering gardens, we were taken by both the emotional power and the whimsy in many of his works. The most notable piece in the park is the 56-foot-tall Monolith of intertwined bodies. Nearby is the Vigeland Museum, with a wealth of additional work by the prolific artist who donated all of his work to the City of Oslo.
To call the subject of this trio of museums “boats“ is an understatement. First up on our journey to the Bygdøy peninsula was the Viking Ship Museum, home to the Oseberg, the world’s best-preserved Viking longship. The craft was built in the early 8th century and discovered by a farmer on his land in the early 1900s. A pair of burial crafts, the Gokstad and Tune ships, are also on display along with artifacts from the era. A visual journey into the Viking Age, projected on a vaulted ceiling, featured a storm at sea so real that I swear it rocked the room and spritzed us with salt water.
Nearby is a seaworthy triple header: the Kon-Tiki , Fram and Norwegian Maritime museums. We split up, me to follow the adventures of my teenage crush Thor Heyerdahl and Joe to dive into polar exploration at the Fram. After inspecting the original Kon Tiki and the papyrus boat Ra II, what can I say—Thor’s the man! Done with museums but not we boats, we passed on the Maritime Museum and ferried back to the main waterfront.
Oslo City Hall
We were misinformed about Oslo City Hall’s closing time so weren‘t able to view first-hand the massive murals that vibrantly illustrate Norwegian history in the early 20th century. In the Great Hall, they offer a stunning backdrop for the annual Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. Fortunately, Portland friends in Oslo at the same time had better luck gaining entry and shared their photos. Also, fortunately, we were able to take in the 16 massive wooden friezes with motifs from Norse mythology that rim the courtyard. The building’s architecture may be functional—a contrast to the city’s abundant Scandinavian and contemporary designs—but its art is fanciful.
Sixth Stop: Flåm, Norway
After an early train journey from Oslo, then a rambunctious rail ride from mountaintop Myrdal to fjord-side Flåm, we were ready for the some R&R. The Fretheim Hotel, a rambling white whale on the shore of spectacular Sognefjord, was the perfect prescription. Though we stayed just one night before ferrying on to Bergen, we made the most of it. The town’s permanent population of some 400 swells dramatically when cruise ships and ferries dock but after the sun drops behind the mountains, the town is blissfully quiet.
Though Flåm didn’t offer the breadth of adventure found in the cities we sampled, we did manage a respectable number of pleasurable experiences in our 24-hour stopover, to wit:
- Savoring wine and cheese (including Brunost, a weirdly wonderful Norwegian brown cheese) with a harbor view.
- Soaking in a clawfoot tub.
- Napping under downy duvets.
- Walking through the village and down the valley to the 1670 Flåm church.
- Savoring the sunset over the mountains and fjord.
Seventh Stop: Bergen, Norway
Bergen was the perfect last stop—compact, charming and cheerful. Surrounded by seven mountains where a collection of cottages climb up the hillsides, it was the most welcoming of our destinations. Even the only daytime downpour of our journey couldn’t dampen our affection for this Norwegian west coast gem where maritime tradition looms large. Bergen is tucked between the beautiful Hardangerfjord to the South and Sognefjord, the country‘s longest fjord, to the north. (To get a taste of fjord cruising, we ferried the length of Sognefjord from Flåm to Bergen, a journey with scenery more dreamy than dramatic.) Had we been gifted with sunshine, we would have ridden the Fløibanen funicular to the top of Fløyen mountain for city-and-fjord-and island panoramas and a woodland walk. But we found plenty of rainy day diversions at sea level.
Our Fave Five
A collection of colorful wooden houses line the north side of Bryggen wharf, re-built on 11th century foundations after the great fire of 1702. Narrow alleys wend their way through the shops, restaurants and galleries that now inhabit the historic homes in this World Heritage Site. It was the perfect spot for shopping (Heim was a favorite for unusual gifts, like fig jam for our London hosts) without getting drenched. After investing our kroner in gifts, we took refuge in SchØtstuene (an extension of the Hanseatic Museum, currently under restoration) for a glimpse of maritime trader life in the 18th and 19th centuries. By the time we wandered through Torget, the outdoor fish market at the head of the harbor, the rain had taken a break.
Torgallmenningen City Square
Regardless of our destination, the route often led through this sprawling, three-block long pedestrian plaza. Anchored by Galleriet, a village of 70 shops and restaurants, the promenade offered up merchandise from Nordic caviar and handmade sweaters to Viking souvenirs and the ubiquitious trolls. We preferred to linger in Norli bookstore, with an extensive English selection, and people-watch from Espresso House, my go-to throughout our trip for decaf Americanos. A towering seaman’s monument honoring sailors from Viking times to the 20th century frequently hosted street musicians.
When the drizzle turned to downpour, we headed for Kode, one of the largest museums for art, craft, design and music in the Nordic countries. The massive Kode includes a quartet of museums paralleling Lille Lungegård lake in the heart of Bergen, plus the homes of composers Ole Bull, Harald Sæverud and Edvard Grieg. Before our art trek, we warmed up over museum cafe coffee and watched young climate change warriors march lakeside. I was ready to join them, but Edvard Monch called. Well, actually he whispered. Just a handful of his works were on view—we were a week shy of the opening of an exhibition of the four largest Monch collections in the world. I could have screamed.
Rainwear designer and Bergen resident T-Michael recommended this cozy spot for pizza and oysters in a New York Times article. “Why not?“ we thought. It was our last night in Bergen and Hoggorm was just down the street from our flat. Jam-packed even at 5:30 pm, we waited for a table while sipping wine recommended by the bartender to complement our pizza choice. As we consumed a thin-crusted, spicy sausage pie, we calculated that we were probably 30 years older than the rest of the customers. No one seemed to care. I ate the leftovers for breakfast.
The Grieg Hall
Our third-floor Airbnb was across the street from this magnificent monument to the famed Norwegian composer, Edvard Grieg. Since it opened in 1978, the Grieg Hall has beat as the heart of the Bergen cultural community, hosting concerts, opera, ballet and conferences. Its rooftop is home to beehives and several hundred thousand bees. Griegbees honey is available for purchase at the ticket office. We never actually entered the hall but marveled at the dazzle of its steel-and-glass facade by day and the inspired lighting by night.
Planes and Trains and Boats and $$$
We flew Icelandair Air nonstop from Portland, Oregon to Reykjavik, and again a few days later to Helsinki. For some unclear reason, we were upgraded to Business Class on the flight to Helsinki and it was lovely. The trans-Atlantic flights were reasonably comfortable with the purchase of extra legroom. We stocked up on food and drink at the airport for the no-frills, pay-for-your-peanuts flights.
The inter-city train from Stockholm to Copenhagen in Business Class included breakfast and was exceedingly comfortable as we savored the swaths of verdant fields and forests streaming by. The trip from Oslo to Flam served up mountain, lake and glacier-studded views instead of breakfast. We changed trains in Myrdal for the final hour-long stretch on the Flåm Railway that drops more than half-a-mile to fjord level in 12 miles. Most of our fellow passengers were cruise customers taking the roundtrip as a shore excursion.
Our ships from Helsinki to Stockholm (Viking Line’s Mariella; 2,500 passengers) and Copenhagen to Oslo (DFDS Crown Seaways; 1,790 passengers) featured smooth sailing in cozy cabins. We didn’t have time for the obligatory Nordic sauna in Helsinki so we took advantage of the spa on a cruise to Stockholm. After basking in the dry air, we cooled down in the tepid jacuzzi. Our companions were a pair of jovial Russians who spoke enough English for us to have a lively political discourse.
The cruise to Oslo featured one of the best meals of our trip, tender lamb chops for Joe and perfectly rare tuna steak for me. The Nordic breakfast spread was sumptuous. (I ate an embarrassing amount of smoked salmon on this trip.)
A Norled Express ferry carried us through Sognefjord to Bergen in 5.5 hours. Though the late afternoon departure meant arriving after nightfall, Bergen’s waterfront was bustling with taxis at the ready.
I used to be a snob about Hop On, Hop Off buses—those ubiquitous, often red, double-deckers that swarm the streets of big cities. Yet when time is short and you’re traveling with someone who’s an ambler rather than a strider, they’re an efficient way get the lay of the land and move easily between points of interest.
Five countries, each with its own currency? Other than sticker shock, not a problem—credit cards were accepted everywhere. Language wasn’t a problem either. English is taught in Nordic schools at an early age.
Getting around cities was easy as well. We stayed in Airbnbs and hotels easily accessible to each city’s central train station. When we weren’t walking, we used online apps to plan trips and buy tickets on local transportation. All very civilized.
Buy the Book
As we traveled from country to country, I read The Almost Nearly Perfect People: A Scandinavian Utopia by Michael Booth. I found it to be an illuminating and often light-hearted counterpoint to the shiny image projected by tourist bureaus. It’s a fascinating read even if a Nordic adventure isn’t in your travel plans.
Julie Snyder lives in Portland, Oregon. As a writer, editor and publisher, she’s contributed to a variety of lifestyle, in-flight and travel publications, and produced award-winning catalogs for Backroads travel company. Among her passions are animal welfare, walking, travel and the Green Bay Packers.