As a serial visitor of small capital cities, particularly Scandinavian ones, I can say hand-on-heart that Oslo is the stand-out destination. It is a trusting, unself-conscious city, comfortable in its skin, and I can’t keep away.
That I have always felt a close affinity with Norway, is possibly down to the fact that as a child, my first experience of royalty was King Olaf V of Norway visiting Inverness, or perhaps I’d just watched too many episodes of Noggin the Nog.
Ever since the Viking age, people have regarded the city as a safe haven for trade and cultural enrichment. The oldest of the Nordic capitals, Oslo stands at the head of the island-strewn Oslofjord and is surrounded by steep forested ridges.
The close proximity to the countryside along with the changing seasons have an impact on the rhythms and lifestyle of a city where it is possible to go ski-ing, kayaking and island hopping by public transport. An inside/outside city with multiple personalities, Oslo is ideal for those with a low boredom threshold; when it’s dry and light, you want to be outdoors.
As I’m arriving in Oslo a few days after the recent tragedy, I wonder how it will be this time around. Walking past the National Theatre in Johanne Dybwads plass in the early evening sunshine, I find the city as self-possessed and welcoming as ever, the peacock fountain standing proud, the trams passing busy pavement cafes, bells ringing out.
With over 600,000 inhabitants, Oslo combines a small town ease with the metro buzz you would expect from Norway’s financial political and cultural centre. In fact August is the city’s festival month with the Oya Rock Festival (10-13 August www.oyaf-estivalen.com), Chamber Music Festival (12-20 August www.oslokammer-musikkfestival.no) and Norwegian Fashion week.
Like Glasgow, the city’s jazz festival (www.oslojazz.no) is celebrating its 25th anniversary, with a week of 80 events around the city. That’s why I’m spending longer than my usual three days, and staying in a more affordable downtown studio apartment (www.osloapartments.no) although there are reasonably priced hotels.
Service is relaxed and friendly as everyone seems to welcome the opportunity of putting their excellent English into practice. Let people know you are Scottish. During my previous stay, it resulted in an instant upgrade to my hotel room. Maybe it’s because Norwegians appreciate malt whisky, or perhaps they don’t see too many of us because of the alcohol prices.
Your only primal scream moment might be when you pay 67 Norwegian Krone for a glass of wine. Off -licenses are few and far between and strictly regulated by the government, so regard your stay as a sort of Norwegian detox.
I’d pay any money to hang out in The Bare Jazz Café (www.barejazz.no), my all-time favourite café bar which is housed in an ancient brick-lined building where you can sit at a table overlooking the courtyard, listening to great music and chatting to the staff who regard Scots as ‘the same people’.
On my first evening, heading for the nearest SevenEleven, I end up joining an evening service in Oslo Cathedral which is close Karl Johans Gate the city’s main thoroughfare. As it’s on my route home, I will pass the cathedral several times a day during the course of my visit.
Outside the cathedral, candles, lanterns and flowers are carefully fenced off in particular areas where people silently pay their respects. While Norwegians are ‘keeping a cool head’, there is an underlying heartbreak but with it comes a determination not to be defined by and to learn from what has happened.
In the centre of the cathedral, a table is covered with flickering candles, like so many stars in the sky, merging to create a bright light in the darkness. A minister with the pony tail shakes my hand, the young soldier at the door says good evening, then I’m back on Karl Johan’s Gate where it is Friday night as usual.
As the city centre is never far from anywhere on foot, it’s hard to get lost in Oslo, although the subway takes a bit of figuring out. Norwegian public transport does seem to assume prior knowledge, so don’t hesitate to ask a passer-by.
There’s talk of a Harry Hole trail of Oslo, as Jo Nesbo’s internationally acclaimed detective novels provide such an accurate portrayal of the city. Like many famous Norwegians, Nesbo is something of a Renaissance man and is also an accomplished sportsman, economist and rock musician.
The first day starts with a coffee in Stockfleth’s (no Starbucks here but lots of excellent indie cafes) where they cut stars into your loyalty card instead of a stamp; Norwegians love their coffee but trendy tea is also gaining ground.
Oslo may be the sunniest Scandinavian city, but it’s raining today, so I walk down Dronningens gate to The Norwegian Film Institute, which as well as a cinema, houses a museum which offers a comprehensive history of film.
There’s even a section on censorship where some of the Norwegian Board of Film Censorship’s most disputed cases are presented, although mid-morning felt just tad early for on-screen fellatio.
As the rain has stopped, I use my Oslo Pass (www.visitoslo.com) voted best city pass in Europe, to take the hop-on-hop-off Batservice mini cruise from the City Hall that takes us past the new landmark Opera house on Oslo’s waterfront which is becoming more joined up with every visit.
The area around the opera house, is known as fjord city, with ongoing development which includes a new Munch museum, along with apartments and offices. It was clearly a canny move by the Norwegians to keep control of their oil.
As 2013 is the 150th anniversary of birth of Edvard Munch, a programme of events is planned to highlight Norway’s most renowned visual artist (www. munch2013.no). In the meantime, visit the Nasjonalgalleriet in Universitetsgata, or the present Munch Museum to view works such as The Dance of Life (Livets Dans).
This waterfront development started with the dockside district of Aker Brygge, a former shipyard area which has been developed with some style and imagination by the city fathers with a mix of penthouse buildings, street cafes, fountains, skate board areas and sculptures.
The Nobel Peace Centre is located on the edge of Aker Brygge, and not only does the museum deal with world issues, it tells the story of Albert Nobel (who invented dynamite), the Peace Laureates and their work, through installations and art forms. Peace Prize winners are presented on digital display screens as ‘flowers’ in a virtual garden made of 1000 fibre-optic lights.
I also strongly recommend Norway’s Resistance Museum which is housed in a 17th century building in the grounds of Akershus Fortress. Documenting Norway’s domestic World War II history, the museum is testament to the tenacity of the Norwegian people under extreme adversity.
For such a compact city, there is no shortage of galleries, museums and green spaces, mostly within walking distance, but it’s well worth taking the bus (or ferry in the summertime) to the Bygdoy peninsula where you can museum hop between the Norsk Folkemuseum, Vikingskipshuset with its magical excavated Viking long boats, and Thor Heyerdahl’s raft the Kon-Tiki.
As for green spaces, take the subway to Frognerparken & Vigeland Park which provides the backdrop for over 200 granite and bronze works by Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland (1869-1943),taking in the full cycle of life.
It’s a highly charged visual feast of entwined lovers, families and elderly couples, culminating in a monolithic granite pillar, portraying a mass of writhing human forms, crowning the park’s highest hill. Vigeland bequeathed the sculptures to the city with the proviso that they should be accessible to the public 24/7 365 days of year.
Until now, the park is about as far as I have ventured, preferring to focus on the city centre, but I have Oslo based musician Bugge Wesseltoft to thank for shifting my perspective on the city. For someone whose music is complex and multi-layered, Bugge is straightforward about his home city.
“The city centre is only a small part of Oslo,” points out Bugge, “and the first thing that I always do when visitors come to stay is take them up to Holmenkollen Ski Jump as this is where you see the real Olso with its greenery and fjord islands.
“From here, you can view what the city is all about and see it in its proper context with the hills and forests. It’s that connection with nature that I think makes it a unique capital city, so when friends come, I tend to take them out of Oslo.”
Bugge enjoys the best of both worlds as he has just moved to an apartment close to the city centre which means he won’t have far to go when he appears at next week’s jazz festival. It speaks volumes about the spirit of the city that all these events are going ahead as planned.
“It’s always good to be involved with the festival,” Bugge says, “but even more so at this moment because music is the absolute opposite of terrorism and violence, and in that sense it’s important to keep playing music, as it brings people together in a positive situation.”
These words come back to me later at the cathedral where I join in the singing of a psalm, and because it is being sung to a universally familiar tune, I suddenly find myself singing in halting Norwegian.
Fly Ryanair www.ryanair.com from Edinburgh Airport to Torp, where you hop on the express bus (200 NK) for the one and a half-hour journey to the capital.
www.visitoslo.com is the go-to site while staying in the city. You will also find what’s on guides at the city’s tourist offices which are open all-year round,
An Oslo Pass is good value if you are doing a circuit of even a few sites as it covers museum admissions and transport on all city buses, ferries, trams and trains. Also valid for a mini-cruise (May to August) along with other tourist friendly savings.
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