Oslo is not an obvious choice for a city break. Its image lacks the romance of Rome or Paris. It has no iconic buildings. You can’t rely on the weather and the prices are astronomical. All of the above objections are true – but allow them to deter you and you will have missed out on one of Europe’s great surprises.
It was an exhibition of paintings by Nikolai Astrup at Dulwich Picture Gallery that inspired us to go. We wanted to see the work of other Norwegian artists, not least those of the country’s most famous painter Edvard Munch. The canvas we discovered was far broader.
Picture the scene: it’s a balmy Friday evening on the fjord harbour front. The promenade is as thronged as a Spanish seafront at the hour of the paseo. We ignore the restaurants there in favour of the nearby Cafe Skansen, where locals meet to celebrate the arrival of another summer weekend. At an outside table under the trees we drink chilled Hansa beer from Bergen and order fish. My wife opts for halibut. I choose pan friend flounder with asparagus and mashed potato. The fish is fresh as can be. Both dishes are delicious. Neither of us has room for dessert. It is undeniably pricey. Two courses and a couple of 40cl beers each have set us back around £80 – but after a couple of days here we are learning not to make repeated comparisons with home. Besides, it has been a delightful conclusion to a day of extraordinary value.
The money saving trick is to buy the Oslo Pass. You can check out the prices online at visitoslo.com. How much you save will depend, of course, on what you plane to do. But we would have spent more than the cost of two 72 hours senior (over 67) passes on transport and admission to museums in a single day.
We had caught the ferry across a sunlit fjord to the Bygdoy peninsula and walked along leafy streets overlooked by the gleaming white homes of Oslo’s wealthy, to the Norwegian Folk Museum, predominantly a huge outdoor collection of buildings brought from all over the country. Its quiet paths make it a lovely place to dawdle. Exhibits include a reassembled farmstead with ‘living’ roofs of grass and plants, some which were still equipped with medieval open hearths as late as the 19th century. There’s a partly original stave church whose interior wooden structure dates from the 13th century and there are gardens, among them one filled with medicinal herbs such as those planted, until the Reformation, by monks – and later by apothecaries.
On then to the astonishing and unmissable Viking Ship Museum, where vessels used for burials and preserved for a millennium or so in blue clay take you back to the time when Norsemen raided Britain, traded as far afield Baghdad and were still on the cusp of abandoning their old gods for Christianity. The surviving artefacts leave you open mouthed in wonder: a pair of perfectly preserved shoes, a fabric fragment, though to be of Anatolian mohair – testimony to Vikings’ Mediterranean voyages, elaborately carved figureheads in the form of fierce beasts.
A quick lunch and it was time for memories of my boyhood. Most of us at school read Thor Heyerdahl’s account of his Kon-Tiki adventure. This was the first time I had seen the flimsy looking 30ft by 15ft balsa wood raft on which he and five crew members sailed from Peru to the Polynesian islands, proving that the Incas could have done the same. It was a tale of extraordinary resolve and and daring for while the radio set they took with them could be used to brief the world, it would scarcely have saved them from disaster. By the time we crossed the road to see the Amundsen’s polar ship Fram we were beginning to suffer from acute information overload. So it was back by bus to our hotel, the Radisson Blu Plaza which, being 37 floors tall, has the merit of providing a guiding landmark.
Oslo is not all about museums, of course. It’s also pleasant to amble along the traffic free Karl Johans gata, branching off to the cathedral with its stunning 17th century altarpiece relief depicting the Crucifixion and the Last Supper. Or head on down to the harbour and its guardian castle, dropping in en route to the lavishly furnished and decorated City Hall, where Nelson Mandela and former South African President F.W. de Klerk received their Nobel prizes.
None of which is to overlook the reason that took us to Oslo in the first instance. The Munch Museum turned out to be a bit of a disappointment, as much of the space that might have been occupied by his work was given over to a special exhibition illustrating his influence on the American artist Jasper Johns.
The National Gallery was anything but disappointing. Yes, there are works by great artists from elsewhere in Europe, including Picasso and Monet, but it’s the Norwegians themselves that grab the attention. Most tourists, among them those who disgorge from cruise ships, home in on Munch’s The Scream, but elsewhere there is more space in which to contemplate. In the days before Norway had its own arts academy many Norwegian artists travelled abroad to learn their skills, returning to portray the life and landscape on their doorsteps. They included Erik Werenskiold, who went to Munich, where Charles Daubigny convinced him that painting in the open air was superior to working in a studio. If I had to pick one canvas that held me enthralled it was his Peasant Burial, a work brimming with the quiet dignity of barely restrained tears. It was just one more reason why Oslo exceeded my expectations.
How to get there
We took advantage of a BA Holidays deal, paying a total of £474 for flights from Heathrow and three nights in the Radisson Blu Plaza – including a breakfast buffet with huge choice. The hotel is a short stroll from the central railways station where an excellent high speed train service runs from and to Gardermoen airport. Tow return fares cost around £32 at the time of writing.