For a long week end two weeks ago (Feb 6-8), three others and I had a delightful time visiting Norway. Overall impressions from our brief visit were extremely positive, despite being very cold compared to Rome. After returning from Perugia Friday night, we headed back out of Rome early Saturday morning on a 6:30 flight to Oslo.
Once we got into the city we checked into our hostel, just blocks from the bus and train stations in the city center. In search of lunch we walked down Karl Johans Gate, the “main street” of downtown Oslo running between the rail station on the east and the Royal Palace at the west end. A number of the blocks on the easter end have been turned into a pedestrian mall with a very trendy retail scene. Further west the street opens back up to traffic near the Stortinget (Parliament of Norway), the beginning of a park that runs the rest of the way to the Royal Palace grounds. The park includes a plaza in front o the Storinget, a large fountain turned skating rink in the winter, and the National Theatre building. This seems to be the real heart of Oslo. Several buildings on the south edge of the park, some modern, but most more traditional had electronic advertisements and signs atop, like it was Norway’s version of Times Square.
Just a block or so south of the park is Oslo Rådhus (City Hall), a monumental brick building facing the Oslo Fjord. Next to this area is Aker Brygge, an old shipyard that was redeveloped into offices and shopping starting in the 1980s. This small area had an incredible collection of new architecture with creative facades and use of different materials. It was almost overwhelming to take it all in with so many intriguing buildings. One area where a street opens up, two small sittable spaces are created by the pavement mounding up to create an artificial brick berm. A small child was playing on one. I can only imagine how popular these are when it is warmer.
We then headed over to the Oslo Opera House as the sun was beginning to set (around 3:30pm), with a quick stop at the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design that we spotted on the way. The Opera House was simply amazing. We walked up the sloped roof and had a delightful time trekking all around on top. The accessible roof connects the physically-isolated opera house with the rest of downtown by providing fantastic views of the city. The architecture is engaging and interactive for everyone, not just those going to a performance. It becomes much more than a cultural asset, but has social and urban virtues as well.
When we explored the lobby we decided to get tickets for that evening’s National Opera orchestra concert. Cheap seats were for 100 Kroner (around $17) so not bad at all. The concert started at 7:30, featuring music from Strauss and Beethoven. The performance was enjoyable and nice to hear some recognizable pieces, not to mention experiencing the event in a world-renowned venue. Inside the performance hall was clad in variations of horizontal and vertical wood lines that I particularly liked. (Anyone who’s been in studio with me knows I have a thing for parallel [wood] lines in architecture, so you can imagine what a grand time I was having in Norway.)
After the show we asked our usher, who seemed to be about our age, where a good place would be to go out nearby since we hadn’t eaten yet. Her friend suggested a place a few blocks north around Youngstorget Square. We found it and discovered it was only a bar and we still needed to eat. Being used to the late dinning custom in Italy (and not exactly familiar with that in Norway) we found ourselves almost out of luck besides perhaps McDonald’s. We stopped back at our hostel, not far to ask the clerk where we could find something to eat. He directed us to the Cathedral Cafe on Karl Johans Gate, serving local Norwegian food we were in search of. I got a Norwegian Ringnes beer and a dish of salmon with hallandale sauce and boiled potatoes (not sure what the dish name was). After eating it was nearing midnight so we all turned in for the evening with another early morning ahead of us.
In the morning we walked to the train station a few blocks away to catch our NSB Bergen Railway train, departing a little after 8:00. This was my first trip by train in Europe so was pretty excited for it. We boarded and found our seats; the train was quite empty to start. The cars were modern and comfortable. Despite being one of the more memorable parts of the trip, it is hard to describe in depth through words. The route weaved in and around snow covered mountain peaks, alongside fiords and small towns. Initially it was interesting to watch as we left Oslo and how the city transitioned into rural. Housing types were actually quite similar to the United States. The train ride was a little over seven hours, running a bit late toward the end. The scenery just kept getting better and better as we approached Bergen.
Once we arrived in Bergen we walked a few blocks to our hostel. This one was not quite as accommodating as the one in Oslo, but it was good enough for the night. Since we only had a short amount of daylight left we were swift to drop off our things and head out exploring. We walked a few blocks to Bryggen (see photo at top), a series of Hanseatic commercial buildings along the fjord. This is the oldest part of the city, dating back to 1070, but due to various fires the oldest buildings only date back to the 1700s.
Soon Jamin and I split from the other two and took the Fløibanen cable railway to the top of the hill. From there was a spectacular view of the entire city, clarifying to us how large Bergen actually was. From the small area near the train station and our hostel, we perceived the city much smaller than it is and didn’t get to many areas with taller, more contemporary buildings. The top was busy today not only with sightseers, but also skiiers with a cross country ski trail running right by. A restaurant and a gift shop were also at the top. We stopped in the gift shop for a while to warm up, waiting for the sun to set a little to get photos of the city below. I bought a Kvikk Lunsj (quick lunch) bar that was extremely similar to a Kit-Kat. But don’t tell them that! (according to Wikipedia)
We went back down and regrouped with the other two around 6:30. We walked around the city center a bit more and around the University of Bergen campus nearby. Then we had similar issues finding dinner as we did in Oslo, despite going much earlier this time. Many restaurants seemed to be closed or not serving food (because it was Sunday perhaps?). We went into an Irish pub that looked good just to find out the kitchen was closed because the chef was sick. Aaron and Chester settled on an Indian restaurant we had walked by, while Jamin and I opted for the less expensive choice across the street at a small gyro / pizza place.
This was the first place we encountered that didn’t speak any English – the guy working appeared to be an immigrant so he only knew some Norwegian. I was looking for a pizza with onions so we were able to ask what was on one particular kind, so he pointed to the ingredients, one that looked kind of like onions. As he was putting it together I noticed a different container over by the gyros that clearly was onion, and realized we had ordered a pepperoni, pineapple and paprika pizza. (Pineapple not my fave) The pizza was good anyway and came with cucumber sauce for dipping. It was also really inexpensive (by Norwegian standards) at only 149 NOK for the large pizza and two drinks. We headed back to the hostel for another early night to bed, followed by another early morning.
The morning (Monday) came very soon. We left the hostel by 5:45 to make it to the bus station to catch the 6:30 Flybuss to the airport. We had an 8:10 flight out of Bergen to Rygge Airport, another airport by Oslo. We took another bus back into the city center of Oslo, but only had about two and a half hours until we had to catch another bus back to Torp Airport to make our return flight again. The bus transport between airports and the city ended up taking longer than expect and due to the scheduling, we had a lot less time back in Oslo than originally expected.
On a mission to get some photos and a souvenir knit hat, I walked down Karl Johans Gate to near the Royal Palace before swinging down to the shop near the Rådhus. On the way Jamin and I stopped at a bakery along the Storinget park for coffee and a cinnamon roll. I went down the building’s lower level where a sporting goods store was to find a restroom. While browsing their hats a store clerk approached me and asked if I needed anything in Norwegian. As I responded in English he realized I wasn’t Norwegian, smiled and apologized with a friendly pat on the back. Not to overgeneralize an entire population, but everyone here was extremely friendly and helpful. This was only one example.
The visit to Norway was very enjoyable. It was great to see the beautiful countryside and experience the quaintness of Bergen and neat urbanism in Oslo. The contemporary architecture of Norway is handsome and sophisticated, but not overly conservative or boring. Oslo has a delightful combination of old and new, existing more or less harmoniously together. It was a very nice change of scenery from Rome where there are very few examples of really attractive contemporary architecture.
See all my Norway photos here.