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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
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
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
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
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 thereWe 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.
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