Over Easter weekend, I decided to make a trip out to Oslo, once again avoiding staying in my city of residence over a holiday. I wanted to see mountains and fjords, but both the weather and timing were uncooperative. It then became a race to find the cheapest way to see the city while staying indoors at key points (i.e. when it was raining), which was a challenge all its own.
Norway is a curious country. Its physical connection to the European continent is a 195 km border with Russia, which is neither part of the EU nor the Schengen area; yet Norway itself is Schengen even though it is also not part of the EU (trade agreements aside). The country is hugely environmentally conscious, splitting “garbage” into maybe a dozen categories for sorting — beating even Germany — and offering tax breaks on Teslas to make them among the best-selling cars in Norway, yet arguably a significant part of its current wealth arose due to petroleum production. Geographically, it is the only Scandinavian country with a large mountainous region: Sweden has a dozen peaks over 2000 m, for instance; Norway has nearly 300. In an odd twist of social irony, most Norwegians in Oslo also chose to spend the weekend away, evidently sharing the same wanderlust as I do, leaving the city feeling rather deserted. Museums and stores are expected to shut down over certain holidays, but even many restaurants were closed for up to three days on either side of the holiday.
This added some complexity to structuring what to see when. Taking advantage of non-rainy weather on the first day, we walked around the Akershus Fortress in the morning and decided on a harbor cruise for the afternoon in place of seeing fjords. This was pleasant in that there was hardly any rain but unpleasant as the wind was relentless for the two hours on the water. A difference from living in Germany: the abundance of Norwegian flags and their variants. Streamers like the ones here are used to keep a flagpole from flying empty (e.g. when the actual flag is not being flown), but this level of national pride isn’t common to much of central Europe.
With rain forecasted the following day, we set off to the Viking Museum. It’s an inspiring showcase — ships and other objects from 800-900 AD were on display; it’s impressive that over one millennium ago sailors were already plying the waters of Scandinavia. One of the three main ships on display there, the Gokstad, has several replicas built to showcase at fairs or other maritime museums around the world, with one even making a modern-day Atlantic crossing of its own.
The preservation of the ship isn’t the only striking aspect, however. The craftsmanship of the boat was elegant, and other adornments found at the bow or as objects used on voyages were also on prominent display.
The largest ship in the gallery is the Oseberg. It dominates the main entrance hall and is one of the best-preserved Viking ships ever discovered. The ship is elegant but thought to have been rather unsuited for ocean travel; something about its handling in unsteady seas sunk two similar boats hundreds of years ago. I had only been on a boat in Charleston a few times, but even from those experiences I can imagine how difficult it would be today to construct a stable ship for the waters of the Atlantic — let alone 1000 years ago!
The next stop was the Fram Museum, dedicated to the polar exploration ship, Fram. Though it looks completely unlike its Viking predecessors, this ship is significant in that it is thought to have sailed farther north and south than any other wooden ship. Its hull was shaped so that ice freezing around it would push the ship up rather than crush the sides in, and the original Arctic expedition plan was to be so carried by the ice via ocean currents for up to five years. The original intention was to use the Fram for Arctic exploration, but her most famous voyage was the trip to the South Pole in 1911.
When the North Pole was believed to have been reached in 1909, Roald Amundsen decided to attempt the South Pole instead, sailing south with the Fram and then continuing the journey on ski. The almost uncanny ability of Norwegians to have an innate ability to ski fascinates me to this day.
The rain that was predicted had mostly passed while we were inside the two ship museums, so we ventured outside to the roof of the Oslo Opera House. The building is made from Italian marble, with over 30,000 individually-numbered pieces forming the roof (also a walking surface for visitors).
The cost of the construction was an eye-watering 600 million Euros, funded largely by government, and to this day the opera house’s operating budget is still supported in majority by taxes. The vision of the opera house, however, sheds light into what would seem like a waste of money and resources: to “make life greater.” To this end, the theater seats around 1400 and offers student groups a rate as low as 10 NOK (around 1.25 €) per seat. Normal ticket prices are higher.
The opera house offers a tour similar to that at the Kennedy Center, but rather than focus on the art and decoration of the opera house, this no-photography allowed tour showed the expansive set rooms where 30 m high sets are built, the costume shop, and other behind-the-scenes looks at the massive building. The auditorium here also features a dominating chandelier; over 1000 pieces of hand-shaped crystal form its circular orb.
That afternoon, with the rain continuing to hold off, we headed to the Vigeland Installation (Vigelandsparken). Named after the sculptor of its works, Gustav Vigeland, the park showcases over 200 pieces of his work and is a rather blunt look at the essence and development of mankind. It was an appropriate (if slightly eyebrow-raising) setting to discuss the current political situation in the U.S.; there’s something about Norway and its lifestyle that seems to appeal to the common good but without overt implication that the society is somehow socialistic. We agreed that even though we saw plenty of Oslo that the missing population removed part of the essence of city, rendering it difficult if not impossible to get an accurate pulse of the people’s mindset.
Like Barcelona, Oslo grew on me after I arrived. It’s not that the first impression was bad — far from it, as the train to get into the city couldn’t be more convenient — but rather that the city was so empty for the weekend that it took time to get a sense the city could be alive. But alive it can be. When I flew back to Germany, the train station and airport were more crowded with people coming back to Oslo than leaving it; the contrast was startling. The cold weather and odes to traditions past added to the greyness, but through exploring the very quiet city the inner qualities began to shine through. I had hoped to return to Norway to explore its great outdoors, a landscape arguably unrivaled in most of Europe in ruggedness, but instead found for the first time a city that has a distinct culture so intertwined with its population that without it, the city felt surprisingly barren.
When I arrived at the airport, another surprise greeted me: I’d be flying aboard D-AIUQ again! This was still the only A320neo in the Lufthansa fleet after engine issues delayed subsequent frames from joining, so the chance of being on this exact plane was once again almost negligible until she pulled up to the gate. Given my choice of planes recently, it was almost ironic to be flying for the second time on a new plane I hadn’t chosen to fly on, so I took the next couple hours to muse over the trip and upcoming travel. Europe is like a labyrinth within a labyrinth; each level begs for more time and discovery. The history is so rich and the cultures so diverse that I can’t fathom being able to even glimpse each one. After four days in Oslo, all I learned is that I want to learn more. I don’t know when I’ll have the chance to go back, but for sure it won’t be over Easter again!