There seems to be an unwritten law in Norway: Never go indoors unless you're forced to.
From the window of the train into Oslo the first evening of our visit in May (our discount plane ticket from the U.S. had dropped us at a remote regional airport), I could see half the population in their backyards, planting gardens, eating dinner or just taking in the sun. Mobs of blond children pedaled down small-town lanes, while out on the fiord, boats crisscrossed merrily--rowing shells and speedboats, wooden dinghies and racing yachts.
Norwegians, I knew from previous trips, have little love for urban life. Only 4.5 million share a country 1,500 miles long, most of them in towns dotting the rugged mountains and stormy coastline. So what kind of a metropolis is built by people who don't like cities?
Having visited friends in rural Norway several times, my husband, Kevin, and I finally put Oslo on our itinerary. We weren't surprised to find an urbane and prosperous city that values its natural landscape and outdoor life as deeply as country folk do.
Oslo is Scandinavia's oldest city, founded about 1050, but the kings of old Norway preferred Bergen, on the west coast, and Oslo languished for centuries as a backwater. Today it is Norway's proud capital--after centuries of domination by Denmark and an unhappy union with Sweden, the country won independence only in 1905--and it is continental in feel, with broad streets and 19th century buildings downtown, interspersed with high-rises.
Spring was at its peak, an explosion of blossoming fruit trees at every turn. We were staying in the Summerhotel Holtekilen, which had just undergone its annual transformation from boarding school dormitory to hostel, with European families replacing the vocational students. Below our window, children played noisy games of volleyball until dusk fell--around midnight.
Oslo lies as far north as Anchorage, with long, dark winters. Making the most of daylight is everyone's aim from April, when the days begin to lengthen, until October, when winter starts to creep back.
Downtown Oslo arcs around the end of the Oslo Fiord, a 60-mile-long arm of the sea, and we jumped on a tour boat to start exploring. At the dock in front of City Hall, fishermen were selling boiled shrimp from the backs of their vessels. As we waited for our boat to leave, we watched Osloites claim nearby benches and set out picnic lunches with the shrimp, accompanied by bread and mayonnaise from a nearby market. It looked wonderful, but, alas, the shrimp were sold out by the time we returned.
In dazzling northern sunlight, we sailed past the grim brown walls of Akershus Castle, a medieval fortress, and out through the bustling harbor. Viewed from the water, the city climbs the sides of low mountains and melts into the forest beyond. Sea gulls tagged along as the boat threaded its way among a dozen craggy islands encircled by beaches. Later in the summer, when the day is 20 hours long, the islands are thronged with swimmers, campers and Osloites out to party the "night" away.
Oslo's star cultural attraction is Bygdoey, a wooded peninsula just west of downtown, with five unusual museums scattered among its mansions. Fittingly, the commuter ferry docks outside the Fram Museum, a striking triangular building enshrining the little Norwegian ship that sailed the farthest north and farthest south of any ship of its time.
In my childhood, my father loved to entertain me with tall tales of brave polar explorers. The reality was equally absorbing, as we learned in the museum. In the 1890s Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian marine scientist, offered the novel theory that the Arctic was not solid land but a moving cap of ice. He planned to sail to the edge of the ice cap, let his ship freeze into the ice and drift his way to the North Pole. His ship, the Fram, did just that, ever so slowly. After 18 months in the ice, Nansen and a companion set off for the pole on skis. They got caught by the arctic winter and spent nine months in a hut, short of their goal but farther north than any explorer had gone.
In 1910 Nansen lent the Fram to his countryman, Roald Amundsen, for an attempt on the South Pole. That expedition turned into a bitter race against a British team. Amundsen won handily, becoming the first man to reach the pole, on Dec. 14, 1911. His British competitors froze to death.
The Fram (meaning "forward" in Norwegian) is hardly elegant. Viewed from the museum's ground floor today, it looked like an old-time bathtub minus the feet. But its odd design and massive construction rendered it uncrushable by moving ice.
(Across the road is a museum housing the Kon-Tiki, the raft that Thor Heyerdahl sailed across the Pacific in 1947.)
The most influential Norwegian seafarers were, of course, the Vikings, and their ships also are showcased in Bygdoey. The arched stone halls of the Viking Ship Museum contain three entire "burial ships" uncovered along the Oslo Fiord. The ritual involved sinking them in high tide with the dead aboard, a terrible sacrifice of art. These masterworks of the Viking shipbuilders are as sleek and graceful as sculpture, especially the 70-foot craft found at Oseberg.
A Viking chieftain's wife was interred on the Oseberg ship, along with her slave girl and a trove of household goods, all remarkably preserved by 1,000 years' rest in an underground deposit of clay.
From 800 to 1050, Viking raiders terrorized coastal Europe, burning monasteries, plundering cities and taking slaves. They established trade colonies as far south as Sicily and grew immensely wealthy. Buried inside the ships, their owners took with them richly carved furniture, gold jewelry, even a pet peacock for ease in the afterlife.
At the other end of the cultural spectrum is the Norwegian Folk Museum, which in some of its 153 restored buildings depicts the rigors of country life. We walked past a wooden farmhouse with a massive wall of boulders to shelter it from the wind, and peered into a dark, smoky cottage with a rack of tin plates on the wall as its only decoration. Norwegians are obviously made of stern stuff.
Most impressive to me was the Gol stave church. Built about 1200 and moved to the museum site in the 1880s, it reminded me of an overturned ship. When it was built, the Vikings had only recently embraced Christianity, and this was surely the most pagan-looking church I'd ever seen. Serpents twine around the doorposts, monsters peer down from pillars, and the soaring dragon heads on the roof dwarf the church's few timid crosses.
"People didn't quite trust the Christian God yet," explained Lene Boerresen, a guide at the museum. "So they wanted the old symbols around to protect them."
In the light from the open door, Boerresen pointed out wall paintings of saints surrounded by wolves and snakes, and the Lord's Prayer carved in runes. In medieval times, the congregation would have been shrouded in shadow, the only light from altar candles and, weather permitting, small holes near the ceiling.
Back in town, my husband cajoled me into visiting one of Oslo's prime attractions, indeed a place of pilgrimage for art lovers worldwide: the Munch Museum.
Edvard Munch (1863-1944) is arguably Oslo's most famous son, best known for his angst-ridden painting "The Scream." All of his work struck me as angst-ridden. Also misogynistic. Besides "The Scream"--he left 50 versions of that image--Munch's museum displays dozens of tormented mermaids, scores of dying children and at least 20 menacing vampire women. When I could take no more, I went outside to wait for Kevin in the crystalline sunshine.
Oslo has two dozen other museums, but we were already getting into the spirit of things. When the sun is shining, why be indoors? So we caught a train up to Holmenkollen ski jump, a landmark visible all across the city.
Ski jumping was born here in 1892, and over the years the tower grew higher and higher, and it now looms 407 feet above the mountainside. The elevator ends halfway up, and after I'd trudged up all the metal stairs (I lost count) the view from the takeoff platform made my legs even shakier.
Way down there, the landing zone looked handkerchief-size.
Clearly, ski jumpers need the same lunatic courage as polar explorers, and it didn't surprise me to find them rubbing elbows amid the historical displays of the Ski Museum, at the tower's foot. The Norwegians invented skis, using the cross-country variety for winter transportation, and later developing downhill skiing as a sport.
The museum has a simulator to let you experience an 80 mph Olympic downhill run, but I abandoned my place in line after seeing the green faces of the tourists emerging from the show. "It was good sport," one man boasted. "It even hurt my knees!"
Olso's city limits encompass a vast greenbelt called Nordmarka, a wilderness laced with 600 miles of trails and dotted with lakes. It's a favorite escape for downtown dwellers, and we joined the crowd on a sunny Sunday afternoon for a 20-minute subway ride to Sognsvannet lake. Pines and birches framed a sheet of rippling blue water, a real taste of Scandinavia.
Despite the mob on the train, Nordmarka felt serene and uncrowded. As we hiked the 21/2-mile circuit around Sognsvannet, mountain bikers disappeared onto steep trails, dog-walkers ambled along the shore, and the smell of burning sausages rose from a hundred unseen charcoal grills.
I shuddered as I watched two junior Vikings happily playing in the frigid water; according to their mother, the ice had broken up only weeks before.
After a long day outdoors, Osloites love nothing better than ... a long night outdoors. In summer twilight stretching past midnight, people commandeer tables in outdoor cafes and spend hours sipping premium beer and watching the world go by. We stopped for a drink on Karl Johans gate, the downtown pedestrian area, where a one-man blues band competed loudly with an Andean ensemble.
Some of the hottest music venues, such as jazz-electronic Club Blaa (Brenneriveien 9), have terraces where their bands can be heard outside.
The scene was infectious, but we were deterred by fashion: Club-goers were dressed in the latest young international styles, the better to impress the doormen. We travel in jeans and wash 'n' wear.
Instead we took a tram to Akers-hus Castle and followed a parade of beer-toting young people up the ramparts. At the top, we joined dozens of people sitting on the old walls, listening to jazz from a nearby cafe and enjoying the panoramic view of the fiord.
Karl Johans gate is also a venue for the sport of shopping. The Basarhallene, old market stalls encircling the cathedral, houses a jumble of boutiques and greengrocers. At GlasMagasinet (Stortorvet 9) we browsed through hand-blown blue and green Hadeland glassware from the 200-year-old factory north of Oslo. Carrying a crystal bowl in a suitcase seemed a poor idea, but the sales staff assured us they can pack anything. Even so, we decided to look at knitwear.
The classic Norwegian souvenir is a handmade wool sweater, and we found some real masterpieces at Husfliden, a center for traditional crafts (Moellergata 4). The hand-knit sweaters in striking regional patterns ran as high as $300, but even the machine-made variety ($100 to $150) use authentic designs. For knitters, the stock of wool in 100 jewel-like shades is irresistible, and I staggered out with 30 balls of yarn--and books of traditional patterns.
During our visit, Oslo was gearing up to celebrate Constitution Day, the national holiday. The festivities involve an hours-long parade of schoolchildren before the royal family, accompanied by parents in traditional dress, waving seas of Norwegian flags.
In our travels around the city, we ran into marching bands drilling and school choirs rehearsing noisy choruses of the national anthem, whose title translates as "Yes, We Love This Country." As we left, I wanted to sing back, "So do we!"
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Guidebook: Out and About in Oslo
* Getting there: From Los Angeles to Oslo, connecting service (with a change of plane) is available on Air France, British Airways, KLM, Lufthansa and Swissair. Restricted round-trip fares start at $1,180, dropping to $956 in September.
* Where to stay: Boarding schools accommodate much of Norway's vocational and junior college population, and in summer--May through August--many operate as family hostels. We had a comfortable room, with a generous Norwegian breakfast included in the $47 rate, at Sommerhotel Holtekilen , Michelets vei 55, Stabekk; telephone 011-47-67-51-80-40, fax 011-47-67-59-12-30, e-mail email@example.com . A nationwide list of hostels is at http://www.vandrerhjem.no/english.
Best Western Hotel Bondeheimen, in the city center, is modern but feels cozily old-fashioned. (Its name means "farmers' home.") Rates for doubles: about $110 to $200. Rosenkrantz gate 8, tel. 011-47-23-21-41-00, fax 011-47-23-21-41-01, http://www.bondeheimen.com.
Holmenkollen Park Hotel Rica, a Victorian landmark, overlooks the city from a mountainside. Rates: $120 to $300. Kongeveien 26, tel. 011-47-22-92-20-00, fax 011-47-22-14-61-92, http://www.holmenkollenparkhotel.no.
* Where to eat: Kaffistova, in the Hotel Bondeheimen (see above), dishes up home-style cooking such as sour cream porridge ($5.50) and meat cakes ($9). Local tel. 23-21-41-00.
No doubt in reaction to the Norwegians' generally bland cuisine, ethnic food is the dining-out choice in Oslo: Punjab Tandoori, Groenlandsleiret 24, in the multiethnic Groenland neighborhood, has excellent curry dinners for less than $5.
Kafe Sult, Thorvald Mayers gate 26, has an ever-changing parade of imaginative fish dishes on its chalkboard menu. Entrees are about $15. Tel. 22-87-04-67.
* Cutting costs: Norway can be expensive, but the Oslo Card helps keep costs down. Sold at tourist information offices, hotels and some newsstands, it allows free admission to most tourist attractions and unlimited free travel on public transport for one to three days. Prices are $20 to $39, with discounts for families.
* For more information: The Norwegian Tourist Board, P.O. Box 4649, Grand Central Station, New York, NY 10163-4649; tel. (212) 885-9700, http://www.visitnorway.com.
In Oslo, visit the Tourist Information Center, Brynulf Bulls Plass 1, local tel. 23-11-78-80, http://www.visitoslo.com.