Monthly Archives: November 2017

Oslo: the City on the Fjord

Flag

“We’re a little stricter about this type of thing in Norway”, says a polite but firm border guard at Torp Airport, with the air of a veteran school headmistress. Apparently I look suspicious arriving in the country with only a backpack to my name. It’s just convenience, I assure her. I’m only in Norway for four days and I can travel very light when I want to. Travelling with hand luggage alone is great, except that things that might ordinarily be in a larger suitcase for the hold have instead been stuffed unceremoniously into a backpack, increasing the chances of you having to expose your racing-green, fox-head embroidered boxer shorts, or the blue pair with bright yellow smiley faces, to full public view during an airport inspection. Pictures available on request, if you absolutely insist.

Sandefjord Airport, Torp, as it’s officially known, is referred to by Ryanair as “Oslo Torp”, in line with their policy of sometimes flying you to airports located far away from your intended destination while just about being in the same country. It sits just outside the town of Sandefjord, about 70 miles to the south of Oslo. As well as Ryanair, it’s served by budget carrier Wizz Air and local commuter airline Widerøe. It’s great being able to fly to Norway for £40 return, but the drawback is that when you land, you’re only about halfway through your journey. It’s a bit like getting off the train about five stops away from where you actually intend to go. I land at roughly 9:20pm, with a cramped bus ride ahead of me and an undercurrent of low-key angst about what might happen if I get to Oslo after the metro has stopped running. An online review I read before leaving said it’s best not to arrive alone in the middle of the night due to the “dodginess” of the area around my hostel. Gulp. How dodgy can anywhere in Norway really be, though?

The bus ride itself was pretty uneventful. In daylight hours, it might have been a nice opportunity to stare out of the window and watch Norway pass by – a first chance to set eyes on a new country. For some reason, I get a kick out of seeing road signs in foreign languages displaying directions to exotic-sounding locations – a reminder that you’ve arrived somewhere outside of your comfort zone. In Bratislava, Slovakia, I remember seeing signs directing traffic to Győr in Hungary and Wien (Vienna) in Austria and being fascinated by the idea that some people’s lives require them to regularly cross international borders as if they were driving into the next town, which they may very well be doing. Growing up on an island, you never see that. I guess the same is probably true if you grow up in the middle of a huge country like the US. I’m assuming you don’t see signs for Tijuana or Toronto in Missouri. Am I the only one who notices stuff like this?

22366616_1479680518793158_3336804108877304805_n
Oslo city centre

Anyway, in the dark, there was nothing to see but my own vaguely careworn reflection and the occasional set of headlights from traffic on the other side of the carriageway. Few of those on my flight seem to be using the bus to get to wherever they need to go next, leaving it pretty empty and very peaceful. For some reason, I spend the whole journey with my backpack on my lap, as if I half-expect the border guard from the airport to reappear and have one last rummage through my smalls. In front of me is an English family consisting of a mum and dad and an adult daughter, with accents implying Mancunian origins. Their dynamic seems to revolve around exchanging what, to be fair, is quite witty banter, but that dries up as they are lulled to sleep. Behind me, a Norwegian father and his daughter of about eleven or twelve share quiet conversation. She spends most of the journey crying and eating sweets. I don’t know if she’s left someone behind in Manchester and isn’t taking it very well, but when I see the same duo waiting to board the return flight four days later, it seems like that probably isn’t the case. Maybe she’s just a bit sad. Sometimes even Norwegians get sad.

I arrive in Oslo city centre (or do I call it downtown Oslo?) with just enough time to catch my metro train, but I instantly throw this happy development into jeopardy by walking out of the bus station at the wrong end. Sometimes in life, you follow the correct signposted directions, and yet somehow, something goes wrong. When I eventually find the metro station, I’m not done with my bumbling. It’s a pretty straightforward system involving a loop in the city centre, but I manage to board a train going in the wrong direction. By this point, all I want to do is get to my hostel, check in, find something convenient to nourish me and then go to sleep.

22310197_1479714762123067_3811838856777299185_n
A view from the Anker Apartments roof terrace

Oslo’s east side is supposedly the grittier district. Norway, of course, is among the world’s wealthiest nations, with some of the most impressive indices for social and economic equality. Nevertheless, Oslo, as the capital and by far the biggest city, does have some social problems, the most pressing of which are in the east. As I emerge from the subterranean world of the metro system into Carl Berner’s Plass at about 1am, however, any concerns for my safety triggered by the offending hostel review are immediately laid to rest. If anything, there’s a gentle buzz about the area. You can see the diversity that has become a hallmark of modern Oslo almost immediately in the faces of the locals. The area is mainly made up of apartment buildings, but unlike in many British cities, they aren’t ugly. Nondescript, yes, but not ugly.

The main problem I’m confronted with by this point is that my hostel appears to be in a bit of a ghost town. At least during the night. There are no late-night shops, no takeaway food establishments, and the hostel doesn’t serve as much as a sandwich. The Irish pub across the road is in complete darkness. If I’d had dinner before my flight, I’d have just gone to bed, but there’s no way I can sleep on a stomach this empty. Essentially, I’m in one of those make-or-break moments where you’re faced with two diverging choices. In this case, the easy one would be to concede defeat and get some sleep, but the more challenging and infinitely more exciting option is to wander the streets of this alien district of a city I’ve just arrived in, in the hope of finding some grub. Listening, as always, to the wants and needs of my ample midriff, I take the latter option.

By this point, the streets are largely deserted. There’s an early autumn chill in the air that keeps my walking pace brisk. It turns out that, contrary to my original impression, I’m actually based in Grünerløkka, one of the east end’s trendiest districts. A former bastion of Oslo’s working class, gentrification has bestowed Grünerløkka with all manner of bars and eateries, as well as appealing public spaces and attractive buildings. Most of the restaurants are closed as I show up, but I soon find a 7/11 convenience store where I can splash out 100kr (about £10) on a sandwich and a can of Coke. No, Norway isn’t a budget destination.

22406376_1479685975459279_6274094692329882744_n
Grünerløkka

Gentrification can be a touchy subject. In Berlin, I learned about the strength of opposition there often is to it, and even saw a counter-cultural demonstration in which protestors stand against many things, including the gentrification of numerous districts of the German capital. Some will tell you that it sanitises whole city districts, while driving up prices, forcing out local residents and changing the whole social identity. Whether Grünerløkka is better or worse off for this process, all I know is that I like the place. I love how the quaint, slightly worse-for-wear, trams rattle along the streets, scooping up passengers who presumably never stop to think about how they’ve basically just boarded a small train in the middle of the street and how cool that is. The shops and bars make the area feel like somewhere people go specifically to enjoy themselves and relax. I found the colours and styles of the facades to be quite charming. Grünerløkka is the kind of city district I always imagine myself feeling at home living in, but it’s never quite happened as of yet.

It’s 7am the following morning. I’ve been asleep for about four hours, but all that is about to change. A jolting, terrifying screech launches me out of my dream-state, sending me from comatose to upright in a matter of seconds. I race around the room like I’ve misplaced a winning lottery ticket, in a frantic search for the source of the unbearable din. Still stuck in a strange hinterland between sleep and wakefulness, I’m convinced it’s emanating from somewhere in my room and that I’ll be able to turn it off if I can just find it. In this bizarre mental state, I feel like somehow I’m going to be to blame for waking the whole hostel. My heart is pounding out of my chest as if I’m in the middle of a raging panic attack. Then it hits me. It’s the fire alarm, and I’ll presumably be toast if I don’t pull myself together. It’s a fortunate intervention, as it happens. Not because there’s a fire. There was no fire. Just lots of bleary-eyed hostel guests standing in the cold early morning air waiting to go back to bed. No, it’s worked out well for me because I have a walking tour to go on in two hours and I’d forgotten to set my own, slightly less intense, alarm. Drama over, I’m left to ponder over the strange behaviour being woken from a deep sleep induces.

It turns out I’ve hit the jackpot with the weather. The morning’s pretty chilly, but there isn’t a cloud in the sky and the day only gets warmer until, by mid-afternoon, it’s pushing 20c. Not at all bad for Oslo in October. You can tell it’s a major bonus to those who live here. Everybody not in a suit or uniform of some kind has firmly grasped this unexpected chance to revisit their summer wardrobe. The Oslo waterfront is brimming with people out for a stroll in the autumn sunshine. The city just feels as if it is in a good mood. Walking tours are a brilliant way to get acquainted with a new city. There’s often a free one, although I think you’ve got to be pretty miserly not to chip a little something in. My first impression of the Norwegian capital is that it feels as if it’s been designed with humans and their wellbeing in mind. The metro is reliable, modern, easy to use and very comfortable. The trams are regular, if perhaps a little cramped. The roads are not choked with traffic, and the cars you do see are more likely to be powered by electricity than any other city in the world. There’s plenty of cycle lanes, but you never get the feeling you do in Amsterdam that crossing the road is a death sport involving you, a neverending stream of cyclists and rampaging trams. The great thing about the public transport system is that it is all integrated. A 24-hour ticket gets you unlimited rides within that period on the metro, the trams, the buses and even the ferries that shuttle between the city and the islands out in Oslofjord. The ferries are literally just another part of the public transport system.

Oslo isn’t blessed with an array of jawdroppingly beautiful buildings. Much of what makes it special is its laidback, welcoming and friendly atmosphere. A walking tour tends to cover the main sights you’d want to see, and the city centre is small enough to get around on foot. At the northwestern end of Karl Johannes Gate – the main street that runs through the centre of the city – is the Royal Palace, a suitably impressive building that sits within a large park. This is the residence of Norway’s ruling monarch and, while quite imposing, certainly feels less ostentatious than Buckingham Palace. Facing the palace is a large open square that, as you’d expect, throngs with tourists. The street runs from this point through the centre of the city, terminating at the central train station, which is a big help with orientation. During my stay, this area overflows with inebriated but good-natured Northern Ireland football fans, in town for a crucial World Cup qualification fixture with Norway. Some of them are very drunk, which must have cost them a fortune…

22281834_1479685072126036_3691286812399769862_n
Royal Palace

Further along Karl Johannes Gate, you pass the Nationaltheatret – perhaps Norway’s most significant venue for the dramatic arts and, in my opinion, probably the most beautiful building in the city. A little further still is the Storting building, home to Norway’s national parliament, placed firmly in the very heart of the city. It’s an understated but elegant affair, and I would argue that you may not even realise its significance were you not to know beforehand what it stood for. Each time I pass by, the small square to the front has been colonised by more Northern Ireland football fans.

22310183_1479681152126428_644443689147813688_n
National Theatre

One of the best things about Oslo is the easy access to some truly breathtaking scenery that lies on its doorstep. Norway is a spectacularly beautiful country. It stretches from the temperate waters of the North Sea, where Oslo and the far south are within easy sailing distance of Britain, Denmark and the Low Countries, to the barren Arctic north, where it even has a short border with Russia. The coast is heavily indented by magnificent fjords, giving Norway one of the world’s longest coastlines. In summer, huge ships ply the cruise trade in and out of the fjords. Coastal Norway is kept relatively mild in winter by the influence of the Gulf Stream, meaning the city of Bergen on the Atlantic coast can often be as much as ten degrees celsius warmer than Oslo in January. The north of the country is where the harshest weather is to be found. Summers are short and cool, with almost 24 hours of daylight. Winters, on the other hand, are long, dark and cold. The capital, meanwhile, is situated at the top of a long fjord and surrounded by mountains in the southeast of the country, and has colder winters than areas of the south and southwest. But even here, it tends to stay warmer than many other places at the same latitude around the world. The mountains on the city’s doorstep make for superb hiking opportunities in the summer and world-class winter sports during the colder months. The ski-ramp at Oslo Winter Park – the country’s busiest ski resort – is visible from many vantage points around the city.

With only four days in Norway, I don’t have time to explore much beyond the confines of Oslo, but you can still get a taste of the country’s natural beauty without technically leaving the city. I’m lucky in that the weather is still on my side to the extent that I face the genuine prospect of going home from Norway in October with a bit of a suntan. To the southeast of the city is Ekebergsparken, a large area of parkland offering views out over the city and across the fjord below. On a warm, sunny autumn day, I can no longer think of anywhere I’d rather be. It’s awkwardly located to access on foot, despite not being far from the city centre. Fortunately, there is a tram stop right outside the park, which means you can board your tram in the heart of the city and enjoy the ride up the hill. (By “fortunately”, I mean “conveniently” – I don’t think the tram stop appeared there by accident). My favourite area of the park looks south, down the fjord – a beautiful sparkling blue beneath clear autumn skies – across the islands, flanked on either side by rocky peninsulas. The paths are also lined with strange and interesting sculptures. In fact, this isn’t the only sculpture park in Oslo. It’s also a good spot to gaze out over the city, from the industry of the port at the foot of the hill to the skyscrapers of Oslo’s booming business district, and the ski resort on the mountains in the distance.

22405542_1479686532125890_6318828975200898141_n
Oslofjord from Ekebergparken

Away from the dizzy heights of Ekebergsparken, I drop down into one of the most vibrant parts of Oslo. The waterfront has undergone enormous regeneration in order to become the kind of place people would want to hang out, and it’s a really lovely place to pass some time. At the far eastern end, you’ve got the brand new opera house, a modern, whitewash building now serving as one of Oslo’s premier cultural venues. The bright white of the exterior can be quite dazzling on a sunny day, but it’s an impressive piece of modern architecture. The design incorporates two long slopes either side of the main construction, allowing visitors to access the roof and take in views over the fjord.

22366386_1479715425456334_1478125891534291729_n
The Opera House

Moving west, you arrive at Akerhus Fortress, a medieval castle and grounds built on the edge of the fjord that once served to protect the city from marauding invaders. This part of Oslo can be quite noisy, but step away from the busy street and behind the castle walls, and you enter an altogether more peaceful setting amidst the medieval fortifications and cobblestoned walkways. A little further along still is the Rådhus – Oslo City Hall – where the local government sits. The scale of the building is undeniably impressive, but its brutalist style is also quite challenging and certainly not to everybody’s taste. Even the tour guide says it tends to divide people. It’s worth a look inside, though, as this is where the real beauty of the building lies.

Keep moving west and you pass the Nobel Peace Centre, a pretty building housing a museum dedicated to the Nobel Peace Prize. At this point, the harbour opens out into a large square, criss-crossed by tram lines and teeming with locals and tourists enjoying the incredibly laidback atmosphere. Ferries shuttle between the docks and the islands in the fjord, while, to the western side, a modern development consisting of desirable apartment buildings with ocean views and numerous high-end restaurants stretches out. I take a walk down along the water, noting how the air becomes quieter and quieter the further into the distance you advance, until all you’re left with is the fjord and your thoughts. It’s a beautiful place just to sit and watch the ferries and gaze out toward the islands, especially in weather like this.

22310326_1479684378792772_4391313922410347890_n
The harbour, with the Rådhaus to the left and Akerhus Fortress to the far right

In the summer months, it’s possible to island-hop using just your regular public transport ticket, as ferries dart between each island and eventually return you to the mainland. However, in October, services are winding down, so I explore only Hovedøya, the largest of Oslofjord’s islands. The ferry ride lasts about 15 minutes, but at the other side, it’s like being in a different world. Hovedøya is awash with the colours of mid-autumn, bathed in warm sunshine and lapped by the calm waters of the North Sea. I walk a ring around the island, at one point straying from the path just enough to get lost. I’m forced to climb a steep cliff face, aware by this point that others have assumed I know where I’m going. Funnily enough, by the time we get to the top, they’ve decided to stop following me. Still, I’m sure the exercise did us all some good, even if my leisurely stroll has turned into a grimace-inducing rock climbing event. If I lived in Oslo, this is where I’d come to get away from it all. Do the locals know how incredibly lucky there are to have this on their doorstep? I’d love to see it in winter, coated in a thick layer of Nordic snow.

22310334_1479688655459011_1896118742918558649_n
Autumn on Hovedøya

It’s my last night in Oslo. The sun has gone down, the stars are out, and it’s gone cold. I’m surrounded by people in thick coats, red and white scarves and woolly hats. And then  there’s the Northern Ireland fans. Some of them are also well wrapped up, but others look like they’re preparing for a foam party in Magaluf. Undeterred by Norwegian beer prices, it looks to me like they’ve drunk Oslo dry. I’m outside Ullevaal Stadion, the home of the Norwegian national football team. Tonight, Norway are hosting Northern Ireland. It’s a meaningless game for the hosts, who can’t qualify for next summer’s World Cup in Russia even with a win. For Northern Ireland, a win would see them seeded in the draw for the play-offs, theoretically resulting in an easier opponent in November. It’s more than thirty years since Northern Ireland went to a World Cup, and the fans have descended on the Norwegian capital in good numbers, hoping for yet another good night. It’s been a remarkable few years for Northern Ireland.

22366710_1479687502125793_2459364119448731973_n
Ullevaal Stadion

I don’t think much of Ullevaal Stadion. It’s a modern, shiny, unbroken ring, lined on the outside by shops, including a Domino’s pizza restaurant. There’s little in the way of character. If anything, it looks a bit like a spaceship from a 1980s sci-fi movie. But it’s an interesting experience for a football fan like myself to attend a World Cup qualifier in another country. My seat is behind the goal, in with the Norway fans. There’s plenty of empty seats, as you’d expect for a match on which little rides for the home side. The pre-match atmosphere is fairly subdued, with most of the noise coming from the opposite end of the ground where the exuberant Northern Ireland fans are making themselves heard. Things ratchet up a notch towards kick-off when everyone around me launches into song, accompanied over the PA by a mid-tempo rock number that everybody here seems to know. Spine-tingling stuff. I think about how my souvenir red and white scarf with “Norge” on one side and “Ja vi elsker” on the other cost the equivalent of £20, and how I didn’t even consider not buying it. I vow from now on to see it as the best scarf in the world. What else can you do?

22228539_1477937358967474_3571759195430606696_n
Looking from my seat toward the Northern Ireland fans

The match itself was rubbish. Norway won 1-0. The quality of the football was terrible. I loved every minute of it.

I learned something interesting at the football. In keeping with a theme in many countries around the world, there’s some resentment in parts of Norway outside the capital towards Oslo. At the match, it came out as frustration on the part of a fan I spoke to from Bergen who explained how he wishes the team would sometimes play in other parts of Norway. To him, the national football team seems as if it exists mainly just for people in Oslo. I guess that’s the problem with having a dedicated national stadium – it has to be used. Norway is a deceptively large country. It is also around eighty percent mountainous, which makes creating nationwide transport links challenging. Even cities like Bergen, Trondheim or Stavanger can seem a long way from Oslo, separated by  forbidding geography. The prosperity of the Oslo region, combined with its economic dominance, can make people from areas outside the capital feel marginalised. Consider cities like Tromsø in the north, accessed from Oslo mainly by plane. Or the remote city of Kirkenes in the far northeast, much closer to the Russian port city of Murmansk than to Oslo. A theoretical road trip from Kirkenes to the capital would take you through vast swathes of Finnish and Swedish territory, before re-entering Norway only right at the end. Norway is an affluent country, fuelled by large oil reserves and social policies designed to minimise inequality. As such, most Norwegians live fairly comfortable lives, in Oslo or well outside of it. Nevertheless, I can understand how many Norwegians get frustrated at Oslo’s centrality and prominence, just as residents of, say, Inverness or Carlisle or Truro feel remote from the machinations of Westminster back home. It’s an interesting brief insight to get at the football!

And then it was time to fly home. (Not literally – I went to bed first and then had breakfast the next morning). By this point, I have a cold. Not a sniffle. Not even the manflu. Okay, maybe manflu, if you still find that whole thing funny. But I’ve got a proper full-on cold. If you’re wondering why this matters, don’t worry, I’ll get there. Oh god, how it matters.

As you’ll know if you were paying attention at the start of this essay, Torp airport is nowhere near Oslo. To get there, I’ve decided to enjoy one last little adventure by taking a suburban train. The line runs from the central station to the small town of Skien, stopping at a dedicated station for Torp Airport, where a shuttle bus picks you up and takes you to the terminal building. Spoilt as I was by the punctuality and reliability of public transport, I assumed this would be a painless experience.

22310300_1479680485459828_8980137951861417505_n
A friendly welcome awaits at the train station

Nope. Even Norwegian trains go awry sometimes. Half the tracks in Oslo are out of use due to an electrical fault. It’s peak time in the afternoon, the station is heaving with sweaty, anxious commuters, and I’m standing there, wondering if I’ll make my flight. To their credit, the local rail company offers constant updates, and there are members of staff dressed in smart red uniforms who seem furnished with remarkably niche information about individual journeys. In the hullaboo, I could just as easily be at Manchester Piccadilly or – shudder – London Euston, but I don’t think you’d get this level of information and assistance back home. I’m impressed with that at least.

My train does eventually depart, absolutely jam-packed with commuters stopping off at the various satellite towns along the rail line that runs southwest away from Oslo. As time passes, the crowd thins out, but by this point, I’m dripping with snot, coated in sweat, I smell like a dustbin and there’s still the anxiety about whether my flight is going without me or not. I wanted an authentic experience, though…

By the time I’m sat on the plane, a sense of relief pervading my entire being, I’m under the impression the drama is over. For the next hour and half, it is. But then things take a sinister turn. I make no apologies for being over-dramatic at this point. Have you ever flown with a cold? It’s usually okay on take off and during level flight, but the descent is a descent into hell. When the Eustachian tubes in your ears are blocked, your head can no longer adjust for the increasing air pressure on the outside as you begin to descend. This, to put it bluntly, is a nightmare. In severe cases, this can lead your eardrums to perforate and blood to dribble from your ears, nose, or even your eyes.

Even if this doesn’t happen, some temporary hearing loss is likely, and the pain is excruciating. For the entire fifteen minutes of our descent, I sat there in a world of misery, lightning bolts of pain flashing across my sinuses and through my ear canals, desperately hoping – praying even – that my eardrums would hold up. At one point, a flight attendant brought me two plastic cups with warm damp toilet paper in the bottom (dear God, I hope the warmth and the damp came from a tap…), to place over my ears. This made me look like a complete lunatic, but apparently it lessens the impact of the pressure change and allows the ears to slowly adjust. I’ll be honest, I think that intervention was the difference between my eardrums perforating or not. My advice? Don’t fly with a severe cold. You’ll regret it. Think I’m overdoing it? Okay, go for it. Let me know how it goes.

By the time I get off the plane, I’m left with about five percent normal hearing. I’m almost entirely deaf. The terminal building at Manchester seems as if it has been covered in that egg box stuff they use in recording studios. My ears feel as if they’ve been packed with gauze. Every now and then, I get another little jab of pain from my sinuses. It takes a week for my hearing to return to normal. I’m left to wonder if I’m the first person to go to Oslo for a city break in October and come home with a suntan and hearing loss. Maybe. I don’t care. I had a great time.

One day I’d like to live in Grünerløkka, the trendy, up-and-coming city district where I lodged. It’s the kind of place I can really imagine myself feeling at home. Aside from that, I really hope I get to see more of Norway beyond the capital. I mean, I always think it’s a real shame when people visit Britain and don’t leave London. How could you come here and not want to see, for example, Cornwall or Snowdonia or Edinburgh or the Lake District? But I also want to go back to Oslo, to sit in the sun in Ekebergsparken or watch the ferries on the fjord. I don’t think I’m done with Norway quite yet.

22365180_1479685242126019_6794578222250166238_n 22281963_1479686088792601_689296243729631941_n 22366525_1479686872125856_3220616756849972667_n
22281901_1479688442125699_5314710735577350152_n 22406253_1479716158789594_6006154926000137862_n 22281943_1479715672122976_6281005683976509221_n