Discovering Oslo

There's a challenge to visiting a place whose populace has made a career of leaving home.

Stockholm's a cultural center. Copenhagen's a party town. But Oslo? It's the capital of a nation best known for what its people have done someplace else. Edvard Munch painted "The Scream" in Berlin. Thor Heyerdahl sailed Kon-Tiki through the South Pacific. Sonia Henie skated to gold-medal victories in Switzerland, New York and Germany before becoming an actress in Hollywood. The Vikings went Everywhere Else.

No wonder Oslo's tricky to anticipate.

This city of half a million -- they're the ones who stayed home long enough to be counted -- is a year-round port situated at the end of a wide fiord . . . overseen by a 197-foot-high ski jump. Its biggest art museum is outdoors in an 80-acre sculpture park . . . while its most famous ships are displayed indoors on dry land. The king lives in a palace cradled by flower-strewn woods in the middle of town. There's a big stone fortress that displays instruments of torture in one building and holds church services in another. And part of the main strolling boulevard is barred to cars . . . so pedestrians need only avoid teenagers pushing aluminum scooters.

For a city that stays up all night in summer, Oslo is clean and quiet. Even the dockside rock concert and fireworks show on Midsummer Night are tame. And there's enough variety of restaurants that you don't have to eat fish three meals a day unless you want to.

ALMOST LIKE HOME

This could very well be the most American of European cities. Where else are you going to find a Big Horn Steak House right across the street from a Mamma Leone's, both of which are near a store advertising Wrangler jeans ("Texas" and "Ohio") for $55. Then again, those places are only a block from Domkirke, or Oslo Cathedral, whose pulpit, altar and organ have been there since 1697.

If you're smart or on a budget, you'll take the high-speed train from the airport and hit town two blocks from Domkirke at Oslo Sentral Stasjon, which is how they spell central train station in Norway. If you're rich or retired, you'll arrive by one of the many cruise ships that dock most often right beneath the imposing stone walls of Akershus, a fort-and-castle even older than Domkirke.

Akershus is the sturdy kind of fort you dreamed of as a child: big, broad ramparts that contain a castle, a church and other structures that today house several museums. You could easily spend an entire day prowling its chambers and courtyards.

In fact, Norway's Resistance Museum stands on the fortress grounds, in tribute to those Norwegians who suffered in Nazi prison camps. With exhibits such as leg screws, flails, prison-camp uniforms and even a set of dentures used as a radio receiver, it presents a sobering chronicle of World War II.

But that war is recent history compared to what this castle has witnessed in its 700 years. Why, just one of its rooms, Margrethe Hall (named in 1363 for the Danish queen of King Hakon VI), has served as ladies' apartments, a granary, a reception room and an armory -- when it wasn't engulfed in the kind of fires that beset many buildings in the old days. The walls of this room are so thick that the window sills are fitted with sky-blue seat cushions, and from that vantage point you can see the harbors (Oslo has more than one) and a good part of town.

Directly across the harbor from Akershus is Aker Brygge, an up-and-coming shopping and dining district along the lines of Chicago's Navy Pier. That somber, red-brick hulk facing the waterfront is the Radhuset, or City Hall, where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded. Facing City Hall are the piers where fishermen sell the day's catch, and you can take the 10-minute ferry to the Bygdoy Peninsula and the boat museums.

TO THE SEA IN SHIPS

Norwegians have had the sea in their blood for more than 2,000 years. According to the Viking Ship Museum, Norse ship building can be traced to the 4th Century B.C.; and the museum displays a tapestry that shows ship builders helping William the Conqueror prepare to invade England in 1066. The Viking Age lasted 800-1050 A.D., when those famous Norwegians left home in vessels like the three in the Viking Ship Museum.

These boats, graceful as swans, were all excavated from blue-clay burial mounds in the Oslofjord area. No one knows when they were plundered of most of their gold and silver, but what the grave-robbers left behind was treasure enough.

The 72-foot-long Oseberg ship, the most elegant and best-preserved of the three, was built as a pleasure boat, probably between 815 and 820 A.D. It was a Viking custom to bury their dead in ships, once the ships had outlasted their usefulness. When the Oseberg ship was excavated in 1904, it was determined that it had held the remains of a woman of high rank, possibly even royalty, and another woman who perhaps was her attendant.

The 79-foot-long Gokstad ship, the largest and most seaworthy of the three, was built about 890 A.D. It had room for 32 oarsmen; and when it was unearthed in 1880, its railings were fitted with the remains of 64 shields. They say it would have hoisted a woolen sail that spread 1,180 square feet. But in due time it also saw service as a burial ship, apparently for a Viking chieftain, whose wooden burial chamber is displayed in another wing of the museum.

There's not so much left of the Tune ship, built about 900 A.D. and excavated in 1867. Only its skeletal-looking bottom is left. But several small boats, found with the Gokstad ship and broken to pieces probably as part of a funeral ceremony, keep it company.

A separate wing of this small museum houses the wondrous grave gifts found in the boats: combs, leather shoes, textiles, wooden buckets, elaborately carved sleds, an iron caldron riveted together in strips, peacock feathers and even bridles and harnesses, because horses (and dogs, too, for that matter) also were buried as grave gifts.

Also on the Bygdoy Peninsula are the Kon-Tiki Museum, which houses the wooden raft that Thor Heyerdahl sailed from Peru to the Polynesian island of Raroia in 1947 to argue his theory of westward migration. The Fram Museum holds the Fram, the ship built in 1892 and used on polar expeditions, most famously by explorer Roald Amundsen.

The Norwegian Folk Museum is also on the Bygdoy Peninsula. It's a mostly open-air museum that has collected more than 150 historic buildings from throughout Norway, from grass-roofed cottages to a stave church, that show how Norwegians have lived since the Middle Ages. The indoor portion of the museum displays the range of Norwegian decorative arts.

The ferry that brought you to the peninsula will return you to the piers in front of City Hall, which is not a bad place to launch an exploration of the rest of town.

CITY OF (SURPRISE!) ART

A foray into Vigeland Sculpture Park is like entering a three-dimensional "Where's Waldo?" You never know what you'll notice next. You're looking for the Obelisk, a 57-foot-tall, pagan-feeling monolith of 121 granite bodies -- men's, women's and children's -- swirling skyward. You'll come to it eventually, the design of the surrounding park makes that inevitable. But there are ponds, fountains, rose gardens and many intriguing statues (more than 150, in fact) along the way.

This "permanent" population of Oslo was created by sculptor Gustav Vigeland over a 30-year period. Among its most famous residents are "The Little Hot-Head," a bronze baby boy caught in mid-tantrum that Oslo has adopted as city mascot. Another popular bronze has a male figure juggling four infants. But the park's centerpiece is the Obelisk and the group of granite people that grapple, in plump Clydesdale proportions, around its base.

Adjacent to Vigeland Park is the indoor Vigeland Museum, where you can see how the sculptor developed his ideas for the figures in the park, some of them -- "Hot-Head," for example -- from rough sketch to finished piece. The museum was once Vigeland's home and studio, a gift to him from the City of Oslo, the better to do his work.

No wonder the painter Edvard Munch was outraged, or so the gossips would have it. Munch's response, say the wags, was to donate all of his own works in his possession to the City of Oslo. That was in 1940. The city didn't build him a museum until 1963 (World War II had a way of putting a kink in these kinds of projects).

Two versions of "The Scream" (Munch painted more than one) are displayed at the Munch Museum, along with canvases that depict ordinary human experiences -- farmers and lumberjacks at work, for instance -- and a series of life-size full-figure portraits, hung so that their faces are eye level with the viewer. The Munch Museum also exhibits some of the artist's letters and personal effects. Another version of "The Scream" and several other Munch paintings hang in the National Gallery.

JUST STROLLING

Like other European cities, Oslo is best discovered on foot; and the most enduring memories are made of unexpected discoveries and chance encounters: the Roman-style "triumphal arch" that leads to nothing at all, found on a lane north of Karl Johans Gate; a group of men in shirtsleeves playing a form of lawn bowling in a park just east of Akershus; workers leaning against a wall on Grensen Street, waiting for the No. 46 bus; waiters and street cleaners from Sweden working here, they say, because the pay is better than at home.

Not too many Americans come to Oslo -- only about 250,000 a year, not counting the cruise-ship crowd. That's too bad, and not just because English is practically a second language in this city. It's also because there's not another place on Earth where you can see a real Viking ship in the morning, see "The Scream" more than once in the afternoon and have your choice of ribeye steak or lasagna for dinner. Even wandering Norwegians ought to come home for that.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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