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  • Writer's pictureHiker Tom

Europe: Part 1

Further North Than I Have Ever Been Before


I sit writing this blog in a cafe that is approximately 550 miles further north than the city in which I have spent the last three-and-a-half years of my life, Exeter. By far and away it is the most northern place I have ever visited. Outside, the temperature is a bracing -5°C and there is a light patter of snow in the air, meanwhile the cafe itself is bustling with the sound of conversation in a language that I could not even hope to decipher. I am in Norway’s capital city: Oslo.


Oslo’s Royal Palace


I departed from the UK four days ago as I set out to explore a side of Europe that I had never witnessed before. This trip, however, was a novelty to me because for the first time in my life (excusing a 12 hour period in a Chilean hotel a few years ago), I was to be entirely alone in a foreign country. It came as no surprise to me, then, that as I sat in the departure lounge of Gatwick’s South Terminal a tumult of questions were racing through my mind. Some were merely practical: Would I arrive at my destinations okay? Would the clothing I had packed be warm enough? Would I have enough money? Others were more emotional: Would I experience the enriching sense of solitude that I have been chasing, or would I instead feel an immense loneliness in the absence of friends, loved ones, and family? The answers to these questions, of course, can not have been discovered in my brief time away thus far, and only the coming months will truly reveal them to me... nevertheless I can say with certainty that it has been a very good start! As my plane touched down on the airport runway there was quite a scene to be observed out of the window: the sun was setting in the distance, filling the sky with gorgeous orange tones, below which a forest of snowcapped trees stretching vastly to the horizon had been painted with a magenta-like hue. Immediately I knew that this country would be a place I would appreciate. Arriving easily at my hostel in the city centre - largely thanks to the extremely helpful locals working at the airport and train station - I was greeted in my room by a Turk, a German and Portuguese man who all put me to shame with their impeccable English. Within half an hour I had agreed to visit the Cultural History Museum with the Turkish student the next day. I dumped my backpack on my bed and set out to get my first proper look at the city.


A View From An Opera


By that point it was dark outside and the temperature (factoring in wind-chill) had reached an icy -11°C, Luckily I was comfortably warm in the clothes that I was wearing, and so I spent the next three hours meandering the streets of Oslo. Because of cloud-cover I am yet to see the sun again since touching down at the airport, so during my stay here nighttime has been when the city is at its most beautiful. The first thing that I found in my exploration was the famous opera house. It’s architecturally designed so that its roof rises steadily out of the sea, enabling pedestrians to ascend it on foot. Following suit I trudged through the snow to the top of and was rewarded with a pleasant view across the bay to Oslo’s illuminated city centre. I could feel the anxious thoughts from earlier in the day slowly dissolve and I congratulated myself on taking the first step. Directly across the bay from me was a row of waterfront buildings that looked so majestic lit-up that I was convinced that they must have been of some great socio-political significance, only to find out later that they were an ordinary block of offices (this kind of misunderstanding happened to me a lot during my stay, I think this says a lot about modern Norwegian architecture). Throughout the rest of the night I explored some of the centre’s aesthetic highlights. The Royal palace stands proudly at the head of Karl Johans Gate (Oslo’s main street) and always seems to be within eyeshot. This street is also the home of a number of other important and impressive looking buildings: The University Library drawing architectural inspiration from Classical Greece, Oslo Cathedral and, the one that really made me stop and stare without really knowing why I was doing so, the Parliament building.


Another building that really struck me, though not for its looks, was the City Hall. Bizarrely, it was playing “The Girl From Ipanema” on its tower bells (this is a song of Brazilian origin but was famously covered by Frank Sinatra). As a child me and my siblings were brought up listening to Frank Sinatra on every single family holiday, at least once on the drive there and at least once on the drive back, and one of us even claims to know every lyric to the “Best Of” album (I wont name names for the sake of his integrity). Given those circumstances I recognised the tune immediately but, unable to pinpoint where it was coming from I physically had to stop and turn a couple of times before eventually realising its source. It caught me totally by surprise and put a smile on my face! European cities often share many similar characteristics, but I can safely say that this was something I had never encountered in any other city before.


The Parliament Building


My night ended in a bar where I paid an extortionate amount of money for a beer and some food (Oslo’s biggest downside being that it is ranked the 9th most expensive city in the world, according to Business Insider), however the Grilled Norwegian Salmon Salad that I had - one of the cheaper options from the menu - was indeed exquisite. I soon learnt my lesson from that night and proceeded to cook my own meals for the next two nights, and eat a heavy lunch out when everything was considerably cheaper.

Day two saw me up early and on a bus out to the Viking Ship Museum at Bygdøy, where I was excited to find much more than anticipated! I learnt that during the Viking period ships which had spent many years out at sea were often used as burial sites for influential members of society. The chieftains - or in some cases, queens - would be placed in the ship’s hull accompanied by some of their most prized possessions, and in turn the entire ship itself would be buried in a giant hole in the ground. Some of these vessels have survived to the modern day and have since been excavated from the Oslofjord region; the results are fascinating...



Following this I returned to the city to see the Cultural History Museum. I think I learnt more there than I have done from most other museums I have visited before (having read Ancient History at Uni there have been quite a few). There were some artefacts on display from the medieval period of Norway which is the sort of stuff I had expected I would see there (remains of cooking utensils, religious statues, gold coins etc...). In addition, however, there were some exhibitions on both Polynesian and Native American culture too, with some vibrant and colorful exhibits especially of Native American clothing. The most fascinating aspect of this museum, however, and the part that I would urge any visitor to take the time to see, is the exhibit concerning the Sámi people. These people, I learned, are indigenous inhabitants of Northern Scandinavia and Siberia who live in some of the remotest locations on Earth. They herd reindeers for a living and speak their own language. It was even more interesting to learn that there is still a large active Sámi population in Norway today, living relatively independently from the modern world. They even have their own elected government! Furthermore, I was shocked to find that in some regions of Norway there is ongoing conflict between the Sámi and the modern Norwegians. In my ignorance, I had been totally oblivious to these people’s existence prior to my trip, and thus to have learnt so much about them at the Cultural History Museum is something that I hope to remember for a long time!


Different Perspectives A Map of Scandinavia According to the Sámi People.


My final trip of day two was a visit to Akershus Fortress. Historically the structure has been the city’s primary defensive point, but it now serves as home to the Norwegian Ministry of Defence and the Norwegian Defence University College and entry to explore the fortress is free to the public. Within the grounds I was able to get up close to imposing walls fortified with canons, made all the more intimidating by an encounter with a fully armed guard patrolling the grounds. The fortress was a great vantage point from which to look out to the fjords, and provided a great round off to a day that had deeply satisfied my historical appetite.


The Walls of Akershus Fortress Overlooking The Sea.


On my final full day in Oslo I turned my attention to nature. Nature is the real reason that I have come to Norway, and so I was itching to see some of it up close! Yesterday morning I travelled out to Songnsvaan Lake - a fairly small, but still impressively large, (700m by 200m) body of water surrounded by pine covered hills in every direction. At this time of year it has completely frozen over to the extent that it is safe to walk, ski, and skate on it. This was my best experience in Oslo. It amazed me that travelling a mere 3.7 miles out of the city centre (not much further than my old daily commute to high school) would find me experiencing firsthand this showcase of nature’s power. I spent 3 hours walking round the lake though regrettably I only ventured occasionally onto the ice when I saw others do the same and perhaps I should have been braver, but even so I was enjoying the tranquility and, albeit terribly cliched, the freshness of the air in my lungs was invigorating. The lake also brought with it some amusement: I couldn’t help but chuckle when I saw a man "walking" his dog whilst simultaneously cross country skiing, or when another lady started yelling at her two Dalmatians which were frantically trying to dig a hole through the ice fifty metres away.


Trying my best to fit in at Songnsvann


Finally, I returned to the city and walked to Ekebergparken, a large sculpture park a atop a steep hill a mile to the east. I didn’t have any particular agenda here and was just walking to see what I found. Then I stumbled across a piece of modern art inspired by Edvard Munch’s iconic painting "The Scream": it was an open clearing on the hillside with a fantastic view across to the city. Within the clearing was rectangular frame standing vertically at eye-level. To the side was an information panel from which I learned that this was the location where Munch conceived the idea for his painting. The panel also instructed visitors to stand in front of the frame, take a few deep breaths, and let out a scream over the city. Having never been the greatest fan of modern art I was skeptical, but, reminding myself that this trip was supposed to push me out of my comfort zone, and realising that there was nobody else around to see me (at least not that I could see), I gave it a go. "AAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHH." I definitely felt silly, but it did feel good too. It’s one of those things that you always see people doing on television and secretly want to do, though you never have a place to do it, so thanks for giving me the opportunity, Edvard. Unfortunately, both the National Gallery and the Munch Museum are closed at the moment for redevelopment, therefore I never got to actually see "The Scream" in real life, or any of Munch’s other work, but this was a pretty immersive alternative.


My time in Oslo has been a great start to my trip, and hopefully a sign of things to come! The city is hyper-active and full of warm, friendly people; the architecture is impressive, and the closeness to nature is a real gem. I’m not going to pretend that it is the best city I have ever visited, but I have definitely had a brilliant experience here. Tonight, I am heading north on an eight hour train journey to Trondheim, and tomorrow night I have a ten hour journey even further. In fact, the next time that I sleep in a proper bed again, in two days time, I will be 500 miles further north than my current location. I will be inside the Arctic Circle, where the weather is extreme and so too is the landscape…

 

📚Read: Europe - Part 2 📚

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