Oslo City Hall, by mr rex2012 – flickr.com
Our apartment in Oslo
“Is it what you expected?” asks Robin, our polite young Norwegian host. I look around the Oslo apartment we have rented from him via the private holiday lettings website Airbnb.com for our stay.
In truth, it’s exactly as it appeared online: the modern kitchen, almost as new; the clean, functional bathroom; the single light-filled room containing a double bed, narrow table, fitted wardrobe and a television. There is everything we could need here: it’s warm and light and comfortable and scrupulously clean.
The location is central but still demonstrably in a neighborhood rather than a soulless business district. But it is utterly, totally, completely tiny. I can almost feel it straining to contain Robin, my boyfriend, and me with our suitcases and bags.
I tell him it’s lovely, of course, but in fact it’s an eye-opening introduction to life in Oslo, a city named the most expensive in the world in a study by a Swiss bank last year.
High cost of living in Oslo
Naturally, we were forewarned about the high cost of living here: it’s impossible to plan a trip to Oslo without reading dire guide-book warnings about hotel room rates and panicked blog posts regarding the exorbitant price of a pint. Friends of ours even canceled a visit here earlier last year when they realized the cost was beyond their relatively modest budget.
And it’s true: Norway in general is not cheap and Oslo particularly not so. Accommodation is expensive and eating out is especially costly, even for someone coming from Perth — which, I think we can all agree, is saying something. And woe betide you and your wallet should you make the mistake of taking even a short taxi ride.
The recompense for all of this expense is the city itself: clean, interesting and vibrant, filled with sites of historical and cultural interest, blessed with a natural setting of truly outstanding beauty, and polite, helpful locals who speak excellent English. What’s more, some of its best attractions are free.
Frognerparken in Oslo
In the city’s leafy western suburbs, Frogner Park incorporates a sprawling open-air showcase of works by the Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland. It is apparently Norway’s most popular tourist attraction and certainly one of the capital’s most memorable: when I get home, virtually everyone I speak to who has been to Oslo will immediately ask me whether I visited the park and, hearing I had, recall its brilliance with a nostalgic sigh.
The park was laid out in the mid-1700s by the owner of the then new Frogner Manor, which had been built on the site of a Viking-era house (today it contains the free Oslo City Museum). The sculptures came much later, in the 1920s, when the city granted Vigeland a studio near the park in return for all of his subsequent works, including sculptures, drawings, engravings and plaster models. Today, about 200 of the sculptures are set in the parkland, most of them arranged along an 850m-long axis in a central section known as Vigeland Park.
When we arrive on a bright Sunday morning, the park is bustling. Tourists are taking photos of the sculptures, pausing to watch the buskers, while locals walk their dogs or push children in strollers.
Passing through the park’s ornate gates, we walk across a long bridge flanked by chubby, slightly otherworldly bronze sculptures depicting naked men, women and children of varying ages embracing, laughing, playing, thinking, dancing, wrestling, hitting. Human emotion in all its forms is celebrated here.
There is a rose garden and then a monumental fountain, originally designed to stand in front of the Parliament of Norway in the centre of the city. It shows men straining to hold up a massive vessel, surrounded by 20 curious bronze trees sheltering figures depicting each phase of human life from birth to death. Arranged in a circle, they illustrate the continuity of life.
Up the steps and through the wrought- iron gates and we come to the pinnacle of the park, the Monolith, a stark column of writhing human figures surrounded by individual sculptures of people, again in various states of emotion. The Monolith took Vigeland ten 10 months to design and a team of three craftsmen 14 years to carve from a single piece of stone. It is, like the works that lead to it, both strange and powerful.
A short walk from the park is Majorstuen, a pleasant neighbouhood where a farmers’ market is held every second weekend in a tree-lined square. It’s a chance for us to try a few Norwegian specialties on the cheap. We sample a memorable deer-and-cognac preserved sausage, a bear sausage — which has a faintly metallic taste — as well as geitost, a caramelised brown goats’ cheese which is at once strongly savoury, salty, sweet and a little grainy. There are also various kinds of smoked salmon, reindeer burgers and Norwegian biscuits and sweets.
With ferry to Bygdoy, Oslo
Another day, we head in the opposite direction, catching a quaint little wooden ferry to Bygdoy, a peninsula not far from the city centre where many of the main museums are located, including the Norwegian Maritime Museums and the Fram Museum, dedicated to the history of Norwegian polar exploration. It’s also a fairly upmarket suburban area — apparently the Norwegian royal family has a summer home here, as do many of the city’s wealthier residents — and our walk from the ferry takes us past gracious homes, mostly built from wood in the traditional style.
Our first stop is the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History, or — as it’s appealingly called in the local tongue — the Norsk Folkemuseum. A large open-air museum, it brings together various homes and traditional buildings from around the country to show how the Norwegian people have lived from 1500 to the present day.
A significant part of the museum’s sizeable grounds is given over to groups of gloomy farm buildings that look like something out of Beowulf, all of which are accompanied by signs explaining the time period and specific part of Norway from which they have come. There’s also a mock-up of a Norwegian farmhouse from the 1950s, complete with staff members dressed in period clothes and a barn housing a sweet little calf, some goats and an enormous, slightly terrifying pig.
There is a high risk of kitsch with endeavours such as these, but it’s all very well done and evocative. Indeed, as we wander past grassed-roofed barns and traditional farmhouses with their thick-paned windows, it’s quite easy to imagine we’re in the middle of some timeless area of the Norwegian countryside — an impression that is only heightened by a passing staff member, dressed in traditional garb, who is driving an old-fashioned pony trap.
Another portion of the museum is dedicated to urban life in Oslo throughout its history and is, if anything, even better. A range of social strata is represented, with everything from tiny cottages housing multiple families — our little rented apartment looks palatial in comparison — to a well-kept 1700s merchant’s house and buildings housing a historical bank and an old-fashioned sweet shop. There’s even an early 20th-century vVinmonopolet, one of the government-owned shops which have held the monopoly on selling drinks with an alcohol content greater than 4.75 per cent since the 1920s — a particular curiosity for many foreigners and still in existence today.
A highlight is Wessels gate 15, a three-storey apartment building dating from 1865 which has been transplanted from downtown Oslo to the museum. Each apartment has been decorated to reflect how residents would have lived at different times, from an 1865 interior based on the stage descriptions in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House to the Art Nouveau style of 1905 and a cleaning lady’s home from 1950. There’s also the sleekly Functionalist set-up of a liberated single woman from 1935, a 60s family home and the apartment of a family of Pakistani immigrants from the early-2000s. Two of the exhibits — the office/home of a pair of architects from 1979 and a student bed-sit from the 80s — are meticulous reproductions of the homes of people who actually lived in the building before it was moved to the museum.
Viking Ship Museum, Oslo
We press on to the Viking Ship Museum, a short walk away. Where the Museum of Cultural History is comprehensive to the point of being exhaustive, the Viking Ship Museum is relatively simple: three of Norway’s best-preserved Viking ships displayed with a collection of the artefacts that were found alongside them. Each of the ships is housed in its own wing of the cross-shaped building, the stark architecture enhancing the eerie presence of the towering, dark ships.
In keeping with the Viking tradition of the ship burial, the vessels were all buried between 800 and 900AD to carry their wealthy owners to the afterlife and were equipped with things the deceased would need for the “journey” — kitchen utensils, beds, sledges, wagons, chain mail, small boats and even animals. Two in particular — the so-called Oseberg and Gokstad ships — are so well-preserved that they appear ready to sail out into the fjord at a moment’s notice.
Like the Museum of Cultural History, the strength of the Viking Museum is the insight it provides into the lives of the Norwegian people at various points in the nation’s history. Both charge an admission fee but — like the city of Oslo itself — they’re well worth the expense.
Source: Gemma Nisbet, au.news.yahoo.com
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