05 April 2010


On March 18th I arrived in Norway and, more specifically, the capital city of Oslo. My stay would only last two days, much longer and I think I may have gone broke in this expensive city.

Due to the intertwined histories of Norway, Iceland, and Denmark and my previous few posts, you should already be slightly familiar with the background of Norway, but here's some additional information. Like Iceland, Norway didn't separate from Denmark until the 20th century when it gained independence in 1905. Since then the country has developed an advanced economy and one of the world's highest standards of living. Norway has abstained from joining the European Union, and as in Denmark and Iceland I was missing the euro. The country's population stands below five million, and Oslo itself claims around half a million residents.

After checking into my hostel on Thursday I moved quickly to take advantage of my limited time in the city. I roamed around the city hall, not always sure if the rooms were meant for public access or not, and viewed the spacious hall where the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony annually takes place. From the city hall I moved to the rest of the city center. A large regal building from the top of a hill and at the end of an avenue beckoned me.

The building turned out to be the Royal Palace, the residence of the Norwegian royalty. When Norway gained its independence the nation chose to keep its constitutional monarchy, though today the royal head of state has become more ceremonial. At the palace, pictured again below, I caught the changing of the guard ceremony.

From its setting upon the hill the palace commanded a nice view over the city.

I finished the night with a visit to the National Gallery. Works from various Norwegian artists were on display. Several presented colorful depictions of the country's natural landscape and of traditional Norse mythology, including giant trolls stumbling through forests and over mountains. The highlight though was a collection of paintings from Edvard Munch, including his well-known, The Scream.

I started the next day with a visit to the Viking Ship Museum. When three Viking ships were unearthed in ceremonial burial mounds, two of them excellently preserved, a museum was built to house them and the accompanying relics. After seeing the ships, immense considering their origin from ten centuries ago, I could better understand how the sight of these vessels approaching on the waves would frighten a Medieval coastal village. As a point of size reference, be sure to notice the man walking to the right of the ship in the following photo.

From the Viking Ship Museum I headed to the Fram Museum. The Fram was a ship from the early 2oth century used for three explorations in the Arctic and Antarctic regions. Perhaps most famously, it was used by Roald Amundsen on his historic expedition to the South Pole. The ship's unique design prevented the hull from the breaking when the water froze; instead, the ship would simply be pushed up. The museum was built around the Fram, and visitors can walk through the ship's various decks.

From the Fram I went to see The Scream's siblings at the Munch Museum. In this museum dedicated to Norway's most famous painter were several works that provided some looks into the disturbed life that the artist led, such as Self-Portrait in Hell.

The last major stop of the day was the Vigeland Sculpture Park within Frogner Park, home to numerous sculptures and engravings presenting men and women of all ages in some bizarre poses.

That evening two Americans and a young Irish man from my hostel invited me to come along with them to a karaoke bar. Though I came with no intention of singing, after the others had already gone and the Irish man, Steven, added my name with his for the next song I felt inclined to give it one try. Steven and I soon found ourselves singing Blink 182's "All the Small Things" in front of a bunch of uninterested Norwegians.

The next morning I boarded a flight to Bodo, in northern Norway. I was in route to the Lofoten Islands, a quiet archipelago in Arctic Norway, and wanted to reach them as soon as possible. I arrived in Bodo too late to catch a connecting flight to the islands, but a ferry was to leave in a couple of hours. I had planned to first go to the town of Svolvaer, the largest in the Lofoten, but the information office in Bodo informed me that the world championship cod fishing tournament was currently taking place there and accommodation without a reservation would be difficult to obtain. I decided to be spontaneous by still catching the ferry but disembarking at the port of call prior to Svolvaer.

The ferry I traveled with was one of the Hurtigruten steamers. This line of ferries has been plying the coastal waters of Norway for more than a century, acting as the lifeline for many small villages and towns along the way. Along its north-south route the Hurtigruten travels through many of Norway's famous fjords in order to reach different ports. Because of this beautiful scenery the ferries have changed somewhat over time to also act as cruise ships for tourists merely wanting to enjoy the ride. As my case shows, though, the Hurtigruten still follow their original purpose of simply providing transport for individuals from point A to point B.

I arrived in the fishing village of Stamsund in the Lofoten around seven o'clock in the evening. The sun had set about a half-hour before and I had no idea of where to go. The village itself, or what there was of a village, seemed to stretch along only a couple of roads. I was starting doubt my decision to leave the ferry before Svolvaer. Coming across the only establishment that seemed open I entered and asked if there was any hostel, guesthouse, or hotel in the village. Not only did they tell me that a hostel was up the road a kilometer or so, but they also called to make sure that it was open. Assured that it was, I followed their directions over the snowy road.

At the hostel I encountered some very informal conditions. The owner of the place, who seemed to be an old fisherman who had possibly spent a few too many lonely nights out at sea, simply walked over from his house and opened the hostel door for me after I called him on a telephone outside the building. The check-in process consisted of the owner simply telling me that my bed was upstairs, pointing to the bathrooms and kitchen, and asking for the money. At least I had a place to sleep for the night.

Conditions improved though once I met the fellow travelers who were staying in my room. It was a group of five, three from Germany, one from Spain, and one from France. They were college students studying abroad in Norway and taking a short trip through the Lofoten. After I had settled in, they invited me to eat the dinner with them that they were about to prepare. Considering that whatever restaurants or stores there were in Stamsund were likely already closed and I had no food of my own, I couldn't refuse. They didn't want any money, but I made sure to compensate them by helping with the preparation of the meal and the following clean-up. In the next photo you can see the hostel building on the left in the light of the next day.

Already on the following morning I came across my next little problem. I wanted to travel by bus to Svolvaer, but on this day of the week, Sunday, no buses traveled out of Stamsund. Aware of my dilemma, the students offered me a ride to the next largest town where I could catch a bus. They had a rental car and were planning to drive through the town of Leknes anyway. Again, I couldn't say no. We left quickly after breakfast, but the six of us had a tight fit in the car.

They dropped me off in Leknes and I soon caught a bus to Svolvaer. The town is home to less than 5,000 people but is the largest community in the Lofoten. The fishing tournament had ended the previous day and the streets of Svolvaer did have a hallowed-out feel to them. Unfortunately, there was no hostel in town. The cheapest accommodation was a group of harborside guestrooms in a renovated fisherman's cabin. Below are some photos of the town, the second and third show why the Lofoten are often described as a place where the mountains meet the sea.

I have to say that my time in Svolvaer was actually a bit disappointing. While I didn't expect ideal weather conditions during my visit, it seems that a visit to the Lofoten in the summer would be far more worth the trip. Almost all attractions and activities in Svolvaer were closed for winter. I made due, however, by simply enjoying the beautiful scenery on walks around the town.

Two sights seemed plentiful no matter what the season. One was the traditional red fisherman cabins known as rorbu, as seen in the next picture. Every March schools of cod fish return to the Lofoten Islands and the local communities themselves begin to swarm with crowds of fishermen. This industry has taken place for centuries and remains the main economic activity of the Lofoten. A Norwegian king once ordered the construction of additional housing on the islands so that the seasonal workers could have a place to stay. This took the form of the rorbu, small cabins often standing directly next to or over the water. In recent times, the rorbu have been renovated and rented out to visitors in the summer or fully converted to guest accommodation.

A second sight typical in the Lofoten was the cod fish hung in the open-air to dry. Workers hang the fish on long wooden structures that resemble an Indian dwelling and that are the height of a two- or three-story building. The dried fish becomes stockfish, a popular food in Scandinavian cooking and also one exported to foreign markets. Up close, the fish don't smell as bad as one might expect.

After two nights in Svolvaer I began my long trip back to Germany. I boarded another Hurtigruten ferry in the late afternoon of my last day in the town. The ferry arrived in Bodo at two o'clock in the morning, but I woke up at about three with the sound of a cleaning lady tidying up the ship's empty bar. The ferry wouldn't cast off until four o'clock, and Bodo's airport wouldn't open until the same time either. I waited until a few minutes before four, and then walked off the ferry and to the airport. A couple hours later I boarded my flight to Oslo, connected to another flight for Munich, and finished the last portion of my return with a train ride home from the airport.

The sight that I had most wanted to see while in the Arctic, the Northern Lights, was a no-show. Crossing over from the Lofoten to Bodo I had my last opportunity to see the Lights, which I had looked for each previous night while in the Arctic, but I didn't have much luck. A photographer on the top deck of the ship pointed to some faint lines in the sky close to the northern horizon and said that these were the Lights, but, if he was right, they were too unspectacular to count as an actual sighting for me. As with any weather event, sometimes they occur and sometimes they don't.

Before I can be truly satisfied with Norway I'm afraid that I'll have to return someday. Though many of my travels have been out of the high season, I've never felt that I missed out or had any less of an experience because of this until my visit in this country. While I'm content with my stay in Oslo, there are still Norway's fjords and beautiful landscape that I feel I will need to see in some greener months of the year in order to better enjoy. Although as much of a drain as the country can be on one's wallet, if I ever go back, it won't be anytime soon.

With the tales from my Nordic travels concluded and a week of rest in Eichstätt behind me, I will soon set out on a short trip though central Germany. Look forward to that post in about a week's time.


Anonymous said...

Yes, I was sorry your pic of your karaoke experience did not come through...can you post it again? mc

Nick O. said...

MC: Actually, it's wasn't a picture of the karaoke, only another view of Oslo. I don't know why it's not showing up, but I'll see if I can fix it. Thanks for the notice, and for reading.