Continuing my tradition of stopping off in a different European city each time I make my annual familial pilgrimage back to the UK, this year I chose Oslo. Why Oslo? Well, why not? I’ve been to Copenhagen and Stockholm and loved both, and I’ve also had an enjoyable, if fleeting, wander around Helsinki, so Oslo seemed a natural segue.
As with my Frankfurt trip last year (https://thisquirkylife.com/2016/02/09/princely-gardens-barmen-and-baggage/), I spurned Airbnb accommodation in favour of a hotel, keen to be pampered, have my bed made and breakfast served. Trawling through Booking.com after a long day at work, the Grims Grenka Hotel – described as sleek, upscale and unabashedly modern with a patina of cool – looked just the ticket. What you don’t really spot from the online pictures (particularly if you focus on the wide-angled shots of the sun-drenched rooftop bar) is that the interior décor is so Scandy cool that the place is enveloped in a permanent crepuscular gloom. I found myself squinting to adjust to the daylight every time I went out onto the street. And this in a city that only has six hours of daylight in the winter months!
Although the beds were super comfy and the rainforest showers good (even if the compact design meant the bathroom floor got drenched each time I showered), the all-too-trendy monochrome palette of greys, browns and blacks got to me. My room had a black ceiling and a small slit window overlooking an internal courtyard housing the hotel’s atrium. It felt more like a prison cell – what with the forensic police tape stuck over the door of the room opposite (murder, mayhem or merely someone shuffling off this mortal coil?) – than somewhere I might read and relax in between sightseeing. The breakfast place was also dingy and the spread, although good, could have been much improved with more seasonal fruits (who wants boring old apples and oranges when the markets are full of summer berries?), cooked food that was hot rather than lukewarm and congealed, and boiling water for tea instead of jugs of not-very-hot water.
A bit of grimness, however, was a fitting preparation for a trip to the Munch Museum, where I saw one of the versions of ‘The Scream’ (Munch painted four between 1893 and 1910, and the 1895 pastel on cardboard version sold at Sothebys for $119.9 Million in New York in 2012 marking a new world record for any work of art at auction). I started by watching an hour-long feature film about Munch and his life and works. He was a prolific painter and continued into his 80s, examining recurring themes of illness, loss and melancholy, sex and death. The exhibition I saw looked at the connection between Munch’s work and that of American artist Jasper Johns. All fascinating stuff, and the museum café was one of the few places in Oslo where I got a decent cup of tea, made with boiling water and served in a pot. Yee-haa!
I enjoyed much of what I saw in Oslo but the place didn’t get under my skin and I didn’t fantasise about living there as I often do when let loose in European cities. It wasn’t just the lack of cosiness in the hotel, it also had something to do with the weather breaking on day two, the locals not being particularly friendly, the cacophony of endless construction works and the many cranes cluttering the skyline. Apparently, North Sea oil money is behind the ongoing urban renovation, particularly around the fjord and harbour area, and is due to continue until 2020. Having said that, the new Opera House, which opened in 2008, and sits at the head of the Oslofjord is stunning, and I’d love to go back one day to see a production – there was nothing on when I was there. The roof of the building is made of sparkling white granite and marble and slopes down to ground level enabling visitors to climb up and enjoy panoramic views of Oslo – cranes and all…
The first afternoon I arrived the sun was out and I went straight up to the Vigeland Park, the world’s largest sculpture park by a single artist. And what a place! The 200 sculptures in bronze, granite and cast iron represent the life work of Gustav Vigeland (1869-1943) and are set out along an 850-metre axis as you walk through the main gate up to the Monolith and the Wheel of Life at the top. Fabulously expressive of the human condition in all its varying emotions and ages, the sculptures are both powerful and beautiful.
The next day at the Viking Ship Museum where three Viking burial ships excavated between 1854 and 1904 are on display, the pattern on some carved animal heads brought Vigeland’s monolith to mind. Who knows if there is a connection.
Although grave robbers carried off many of the ships’ treasures, the remaining finds (gifts to accompany the dead into the next life) are extraordinary: intricately carved oak ceremonial wagons; the only perfectly intact beach wood saddle dating from the Viking period; a studded dog collar and iron leashes; lockable chests;, soft leather boots; remnant pieces of woven silk and woollen cloth, some with gold thread; and, my favourite, a wooden bucket made of yew wood with brass fittings and handle rings of iron adorned with a figure head. Who knew that the Vikings were such skilled artisans?
Ever the fossicker myself, I spent an afternoon exploring the Grunerlokka neighbourhood, a hipster area complete with street art, converted warehouses and vintage shops. I didn’t turn up any treasures but I did get a great jacket in Fretex, Norway’s chain of Salvation Army shops. And I enjoyed my second and only other decent cup of tea in a retro café with comfy sofas and art deco lights.
On my last morning the sun was once again shining, bookending my trip in light (hurray, grimness over) and, before the crowds arrived, I wandered around the 13th century Akershus Fortress. With fun sculptures dotted around and fabulous views over the fjord to the stunning Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern art, I couldn’t help but smile. It’s always good to end on a high.