The D&O Diary is on assignment in Europe this week, with a first stop in Oslo, Norway’s capital city, located at the northern end of Oslofjord (as shown in the accompanying picture). Oslo is a city in transformation; its urban area population has grown by over one-third since 2000, to over 1 million. At times during our visit, the city seems like a gigantic construction site. Its location at about 60 degrees northern latitude means that in late May, the sun rises just after 4 am, and the sun doesn’t set until nearly 10:30. The evening twilight lingered until well after midnight.
While Oslo is in many ways a city in transformation, its past as an industrial hub still characterizes many parts of the city. Several massive new residential building developments line the city’s harbors, but the remnants of the city’s industrial past persist. Oslo is Norway’s traditional capital, but during the many years it was joined with Sweden, the capital was in Stockholm, and during Norway’s prior union with Denmark, the capital was in Copenhagen. Because of the capital city somehow was always located elsewhere, Oslo acquired few distinctive historical features from those earlier times. The one notable exception in Oslo, and also perhaps the city’s most recognizable landmark, is Akershus Festning, the Norse fortress located on a headland within the harbor at the top of the fjord, as pictured below. The fortress building began in the 13th century, but it has been altered and expanded many times since then.
Though for many centuries, the monarch was located elsewhere, Oslo does have a royal palace, Det kongelige slott, built in the 19th century, and now serving as the home of Norway’s present King Harald V and Queen Sonja. The palace sits on a rise within the city center and looks eastward down Karl Johans gate, the central city’s main thoroughfare, toward the Storting, the Norwegian Parliament building (third picture below). During our late May visit, the palace grounds were covered with blooming lilacs. With good fortune, we timed our visit to be near the top of the palace hill during the changing of the guard, a modest ceremony involving a small troop of horse guards and a marching band. Crowds walked along Karl Johans gate’s tree-lined central median, or gathered in sidewalk cafes lining the street’s pedestrianized roadway.
Just to the Northwest of the palace grounds is another parkland, the Frogner park. The main attraction of the park is the Vigeland Sculpture Garden, which features the odd and unusual statuary of the late 19th and early 20th century Norwegian artist, Gustave Vigeland. All of the many statues and sculptures in the garden involved variations on the human form, including , for example, the famous Angry Boy statue. The centerpiece of the sculpture garden’s arrangement is a 45-foot tall monolith reflecting a configuration of 121 human figures arranged in a column. The overall effect of the various figures and in particular the monolith is more than slightly disturbing. The sculpture’s meaning and message is, at best, elusive.
A short ferry ride from the wharfs in the main harbor is the Bygdøy peninsula, located to the west of the city center, where a number of the city’s museums are located, including Norway’s largest Museum, the open air Norway Museum of Cultural History. The museum features representative houses and other structures transported to the site from various regions around the country. Among the structures are a number of traditional turf roof houses, some of which had flowers blooming on their grassy tops. The structures also included an ancient wooden-beamed church, the Gol Stave Church, which dates from the 13th century.
A short walk from the cultural history museum is the Vikingskipshuset, a compact gallery housing archeological remains of three Viking burial ships recently unearthed near Oslo. Visiting the Viking ship museum was an unexpectedly fascinating experience. The three ships were ocean-going vessels; it is only by seeing these ships close up that you realize how massive they were. You can easily imagine how frightening it could have been for an armada of these ships to appear on the horizon. The ships had been buried as part of the funeral rites for prominent or prestigious leaders. The various treasures buried along with the deceased person included ornaments, jewelry, and household goods that originated in locations from Ireland to Turkey, silently suggesting how far-flung the Vikings’ travels had been. I had never really thought about it before, but in order to permit such extensive travel, the Viking ship had to be remarkably strong and well-built.
Among the many new structures in Oslo is its distinctive Opera House, built on the city’s harbor in a shape intended to be reminiscent of an ice berg. The inclined surfaces allow pedestrians to climb up to the building’s rooftop, which affords interesting views back toward the harbor and the city. In the pictures of the building below, note the plethora of nearby construction cranes. As I noted above, there were times during our visit when it seemed like Oslo was just one big construction site.
One morning while in Oslo, we took the №12 tram to the distant suburb of Kjelsås, in order to be able to walk the length of the Akerselva, a river that runs for about five miles from Lake Maridalsvannet (first picture below), Oslo’s largest lake and its main source of drinking water, to the city center. In the 19th century, the river was the center of the city’s industrial activity, with mill buildings, textile factories, and mechanical workshops lining its banks. The structures, now mostly repurposed as galleries, offices, and schools, still stand, mostly congregated at the point where the river’s steep hillside descent forms rapids or waterfalls. The river pathway is now wooded and quiet, and in late spring the woods were full of flowering trees and birdsong.
The river walk ends in the Grønland neighborhood, from which we climbed on the Tunnelbane (metro) for a half-hour subway journey to Frognerseteren, which is terminus station in the western part of the Nordmarka recreational area. The final stretch of the line basically consists of a steep climb up the mountainside. On a clear day of the kind we enjoyed on the day we visited, the terminus station and surrounding areas, located at 1,568 feet, afford spectacular views back to the city and to the Oslofjord (as shown in the picture at the top of the post). Pathways from the top lead to Holmenkollen, the site of the 1952 winter Olympics.
Oslo may not have a distinctive architectural look and it lacks an iconic landmark that would identify the city, but the city still has charm, character and a beautiful natural setting that make it a great place to be visit. And besides, there is a lot to be said for sitting at a sidewalk café in the lingering late Spring twilight at midnight, enjoying the afterglow of a late Spring day in Scandinavia.
More Pictures of Oslo:
Note the blooming lilacs