Norwegian Road Trip, Part 3: Oslo, July 12-14, 2010

John Kelman By

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July 14: Tourist for a Day

With a full schedule in Oslo, meeting with labels, musician and organizations committed to music in Norway, it was hard to find time to actually absorb the city itself. And so, the best way to do it was to take the "Grand Tour of Oslo"—a 7.5 hour, combined bus and boat expedition that spent two hours out on the fjord and the rest of the time going to a number of museums and parks.

Sculpture Just Off-Shore of Oslo Opera House

The trip began on a small boat capable of handling approximately 60 people; and while the early morning was cloudy with even a bit of drizzling rain, when the boat left the dock near City Hall at 10:30 in the morning, the clouds suddenly began to clear, and the sun came out. It was perfect weather to be out on the water, as Magnus Fjeldstad narrated and answered questions throughout the two-hour boat trip.

The first half of the trip followed the coastline, passing a number of Oslo landmarks, including the headquarters of Snøhetta, the architect group that designed Tubaloon in Kongsberg. The boat also passed the large ferry—looking more like a cruise ship—that crossed the waters daily to Denmark, where many Norwegians apparently go to buy liquor at cheaper prices. Most impressive was a look at the Olso Opera House that Snøhetta also designed, with an remarkable glass and metal structure in the waters just off its coast. Close up, it was even larger than it appeared when the bus from Kongsberg passed it, on its way into Oslo just a couple of days earlier.

Oslo—Copenhagen Ferry

Fieldstad, a young student who will be returning to business studies in Bergen in the fall, was a fountain of stories and details. Passing a 12th century monastery, he recounted how the Catholic monks were mandated, by the Pope, to wake up at sunrise and go to bed at sunset. Clearly a dictum not written with Oslo in mind, where at the summer equinox there is, at most, five hours of night and, at the winter equinox, only five hours of daylight. After considerable time and considerable exhaustion, the monks were able to get special edict from the pope that allowed them to get eight hours sleep a night.

The tour also passed a number of swimming huts—small wooden structures with a hole into the floor. There was a time when it was not acceptable for Norwegians to be seen naked, and so the swimming huts allowed them to undress and get into water privately; many of the huts have fallen into disrepair, but some are now actually owned and used by people with summer homes.

Traditional Norwegian Swimming Huts

Traveling around the islands in the large fjord where Oslo is surrounded by three hills, two facts became clear. First, there were a lot of boats; one in four Norwegians own a boat, in fact. Second, there were a surprising number of summer homes on the islands, ranging from modest to large and opulent. Surprising, then, that when the boat passed the summer home of one of Norway's princesses, it was actually quite plain and simple. A reflection, Fieldstad said, of a royal family that wants to live amongst regular people and, in many ways, be regular people. Norway's royalty is also unique in its origin. When the country seceded from Sweden and was suddenly in need of a king, there was no royal family. And so, the country approached a Danish prince, and asked if he would like to be King of Norway. He replied 'yes,' of course, but only on the condition that the Norwegian people agreed. And so, Norway is one of the only countries in the world where its monarchy was elected by popular vote.

With a population of 580,000, Oslo is Norway's largest city; it also houses some of the country's most affluent people. One island in the fjord—at 150 kilometers long, one of the country's largest—is, in fact, privately owned (the only one in Norway, in fact), and has the country's largest summer home. Norway has tried to buy back the island, but the owners refuse; no surprise, Fieldstad said, given how beautiful it is. On another island—a public one—more affluence was on display in a large summer home built in Italy, and then broken down into parts, transported to Norway and reassembled on the island.

A Typical Marina Off the Coast of Oslo

Bygdøy Island, one of the closest to Oslo, is notable as the most expensive place to live in Norway, and that's saying something for a country that has 25% sales tax, and where the average income tax rate is 32% (though it is a proportional system with breaks for lower income earners). Still, with salaries commensurate with the high taxes, and some of the best social services in the world—health care, education, cultural support—Norway is an incredibly appealing destination; not just to visit, but to live.

Fully Functioning Lighthouse on Island in Oslo Fjord Often Rented Out For Weddings

Leaving the boat after two hours, Solveig Geist—a Franco-Norwegian who lived in Avignon but is in Norway to continue her studies—picked up the tour as it first visited three museums all grouped together. The Norsk Skøfartsmuseum , or Norwegian Maritime Museum, combines an exhibition of boats dating back to the very first boat every discovered—a dug-out log, used as a boat 2,200 years ago—to exhibitions of materials used over the centuries to construct sea-worthy vessels. A "Supervideograph," 23-minute a film that used five square screens to create a wrap-around effect, celebrated Norway's relationship with the sea, showing fishing towns that still exist and are functional today, as well as still images that demonstrate salting, smoking and other preservation techniques dating back to the 18th Century.

The Fram: First Boat to Reach the South Pole

The Fram Museum housed the actual boat (The Fram) that Roald Amundsen used to reach the South Pole between 1910 and 1912. He also came near the North Pole in another boat which became trapped in the ice for one year, Asmundsen later picking up the trip on foot and living off polar bear and, ultimately, dog meat. He didn't reach the North Pole, but he did make it to the South Pole, beating out Englishman Robert F. Scott with a combination of better transport (dogs and sleds instead of horses), better clothing (fur instead of wool) and better food (polar bear meat and walrus fat, rather than dried meat and vegetables). It was possible to walk inside the huge vessel, and one of the most curious and unique aspects was that, in hot weather (as it was), the boat oozed a black, gummy material that was originally used to seal the boat. That it has been in the museum for decades and still continues to ooze was highly unusual.

Next was the KonTiki Museum, dedicated to the work of Thor Heyerdahl. The museum also housed the Ra II (the first Ra sank in the Caribbean, before it reached its intended destination, Barbados), made only of papyrus. The opportunity to feel the incredibly light material used to construct the Ra II made clear just how remarkable it was that Heyerdahl could actually make a trans-Atlantic trip in this boat. But there were some telling tales as well. When Heyerdahl sailed the Ra II, there were a great many sharks in the water; his grandson, Olav Heyerdahl, who is currently sailing a boat called the Plastiki—made of 12,500 plastic bottles—has seen very few. And it was his grandfather's Ra voyage that first identified oil in the ocean—up to that time, people felt the ocean was so large that pumping waste into it would be of no consequence—making him one of the first visible environmentalists, alongside people like Rachel Carson, author of the seminal book Silent Spring (Houghton Mifflin, 1962).

Thor Heyerdahl's Ra II

A visit to the Viking Museum was also an eye-opening experience, as a replica of a real Viking boat made clear just how remarkable it was that these Europeans crossed the Atlantic, in a boat with no seats, and so the Vikings would sit on the boxes they brought with their belongings.

The Viking Museum

Next up was a trip to the National Heritage Park, which houses structures from across the centuries. Most striking was the farm, where all the wooden buildings had grass roofs, which insulated the structures from the cold in winter, and helped keep them cool in the summer. A guest house, used by an affluent family of the time, had a huge long dinner table, a tremendous bowl typically used for beer (when hot, people would just dip their hats into the bowl), and a bed that, perhaps only a tad larger than a modern single bed, actually held three people. Geist explained that people at the time (18th century) were actually, on average, 20 centimeters shorter than the average height today. Still, it was hard to imagine three people sleeping together on the bed—especially since they slept in a fetal position because, as Geist described, to sleep straight out with their hands over their bodies (a much better fit on the bed) was considered too much like the position of dead people in coffins.

Grass-Roofed Farm, at the Norwegian Heritage Park

There was an old church, where there were no seats (benches would later be installed when it became a Catholic church), and its most notable feature was how dark it was; no stained glass windows (no windows at all); and a very austere pulpit. Still, as an all-wooden structure, it provided a real glimpse into an entirely different culture. A large open-air amphitheatre, still actually used for performances—was surrounded by the woods, and a walk that led to a courtyard with newer buildings, a café and a gift shop.

Old Church at Norwegian Heritage Park

Driving up to the top of one of Oslo's three hills (Hollmenkollen) for a panoramic view of the city and the fjord, the bus passed a tremendous ski jump that, still under construction, is being readied for 2011, when Norway will host the European Ski Competition. The bus also passed the summer of home of the King of Norway and, while more impressive than its Princess' summer home, was still remarkable for its relatives simplicity and accessibility—no visible security at all, in fact.

New Ski Jump Being Built for 2011 European Ski Competition

The final stop on the trip, before ending where it started at Oslo City Hall, was the Vigelan Sculpture Park, entirely designed by the famous Norwegian sculptor, Gustav Vigeland. The entire park—spanning 80 acres and featuring a life's work of 212 bronze and granite statues—is devoted to the cycle of life, including a tremendous monolith—surrounded by smaller pieces that went from birth to death—and an impressive fountain, wrapped by a variety of statues also reflecting the journey through life. Down the steps from the monolith there was a small circle that was designed so that clapping your hands there was the perfect echo. Step just an inch away from the center of the circle and the echo disappeared; an impressive feat of mathematics.

Fountain in Vigelan Sculpture Park

The cultivated grounds also included parkland, where a dog park provided a central place for Oslo dog owners to bring their pets to meet with other pet owners and to allow their dogs to play freely with others, off-leash. Stunning flower gardens, a bridge crossing a small river with more statues, and cast-iron gates with incredible, detailed designs made the park one of the highlights of the trip. That a city the size of Oslo has a park like this is further proof of the country's commitment to culture—and to providing its people with beautiful, relaxing places to relax and reflect.



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