In my job, I have a fair amount of vacation time that must be used up before the end of the year. It’s a use-it-or-lose-it policy. Fortunately, the opportunity arose for a lil’ five day mini-vacation in the middle of August. I wanted to go somewhere with a relatively short travel time, and I don’t know why, but Scandinavia beckoned. Having been to Sweden, Denmark, and Finland, I was left with Norway and Iceland as two relatively nearby vacation spots. I checked Kayak.com and saw that flights to Oslo, on Norwegian Air Shuttle, were super-affordable, so using my Barclay Card air miles, I snagged two round trip tickets. Time flies, as it tends to do, and before I knew it, we were in the Carmel car on the way to JFK.
A word now about Norwegian Airlines. Yes, the airfare was surprisingly affordable. It almost made me wonder if there was some catch somewhere. There is. You pay for your ticket, and then practically everything else is a la carte. After you purchase your ticket, you don’t get a seat assignment. You get your seats when you check in at the airport, unless you want to select your seat ahead of time online. The cost? 33 euros! That adds about $40 per seat, or $80 onto the ticket price. And that’s one way. Add another $80 for the flight back, and now you’ve added $160 to the total cost of your ticket. Checked baggage? It’ll cost you. Unlike most airlines, your first checked bag is not free. It’s 42 euro! Food? Forget it. They don’t even give you water on the plane unless you’ve pre-paid online or you order while on the plane. Meals cost a fortune. The person sitting next to me ordered dinner. It was a tiny little spoonful of rice, some chicken, and a few veggies. Not worth it. The air temperature in the cabin was very low. They had the place chilled like a meat locker. Fortunately, I brought a sweatshirt, because if you wanted a blanket, guess what? Yep. $5. Every seat has a screen on the back, so you do have choices of movies and TV shows, but it’s a crappy selection. No headphones? That’ll be $3. So, if you don’t mind risking getting a mediocre seat (our seats were fine, it turned out), taking all carry-on luggage, and bringing your own food (which I did), packing a sweater (which I did), and having your own headphones (check) and your own favorite movies and shows loaded on your iPad/laptop/iPhone (check), the flight is a bargain. The bottom line: flying Norwegian Airlines? Plan ahead!
After going through passport control and customs (the Norwegians do things very well, but not passport control), I headed to the Flytoget terminal and bought two tickets for the airport train to Oslo. Cost was about $21 per person. Arrived at Oslo's central train station (Oslo Sentralstasjon, or "Oslo S" for short) in 25 minutes. Here's Mark getting off the high-speed train.
The inside of the train station was beautiful. Very clean and modern. There are internet cafes, ATMs, a supermarket, a department store (Byporten), and currency exchange stations.
The main entrance of the station is still marked Østbanehallen, or "East Train Station", from when Oslo had two stations.
You emerge from the train station onto a little plaza, where you'll see the tiger statue. The tiger commemorates the 1000th birthday of Oslo's founding, which was celebrated in the year 2000. Oslo is sometimes nicknamed Tigerstaden ("Tiger Town"), hence the statue.
A few steps away was the glass Trafikanten tower that houses the public transit office. This is where I bought my Oslo Pass. It's similar to the museum pass that all tourists buy in Paris. There's a 24, 48, and 72 hour pass. They give free admission to nearly every museum in the city, free transportation on all trams, buses, ferries, and the subway, and discounts at some restaurants. If you plan on going to many museums (and we were), it's a deal.
With the six hour time difference, we had been up for about 24 hours when we arrived in Oslo at 12:30 p.m. This usually happens when we travel to Europe. I find it best to just stay up until the evening, and then go to bed at night in the new city, rather than take a nap upon arrival. So, we hit the street around 1:00 p.m. Leaving from the train station, we headed up Karl Johans gate. (Gate means "street" in Norwegian.)
Karl Johans gate is the main drag. It runs east to west, starting at the train station and ending at the Royal Palace. The street is named for the French general Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, who was given a Swedish name. He established the current Swedish dynasty and ruled as a popular king from 1818 to 1844, the period after Sweden took Norway from Denmark.
A few blocks down Karl Johans gate and to the right, you come upon the Domkirke, or the Oslo Cathedral. It's a Lutheran church from 1697, and is the main church in Norway. From the outside, it looks a little plain, but the inside makes up for it.
To the right of the entrance of the church is a cornerstone, a thousand year-old carving from Oslo's first and long-gone cathedral. It shows how the forces of good and evil tug at us. Pretty cool.
The door to the church had some pretty intricate scenes depicted. Inside, the flashy baroque pulpit was impressive, as was the blue, red, and gold ceiling.
The beautiful stained glass windows were created by Emanuel Vigeland, the lesser-known brother of Gustav Vigeland, whose delightful sculptures fill Frogner Park, as you'll hear about in the next blog post.
Just around the edge of the church is the Basarhallene, a circular structure whose brick cloisters once housed the city's food market. Now it holds shops and cafes. A woman saw me taking photos and told me that tomorrow and for several days after, there would be a big crafts market filling this courtyard. I did end up attending it two days later.
Getting back to the main road, I couldn't help noticing a branch of my favorite store, G-Star Raw, here in Oslo. For a very expensive city, I was surprised to find the prices in Oslo's store to be more affordable than New York's stores (also the selection was a little crappier.)
Right nearby is Stortorvet, a lively flower and produce market. Overlooking the little square is a statue of Christian IV, the Danish king who ruled Norway around the year 1600. He named the city Christiania (what an ego). He actually was a pretty good king. During his 60 year reign, he visited the city 30 times, which was more than all other royal visits combined during 300 years of Danish rule. He was a hard-working, diligent ruler and he remained popular through his entire reign.
Note the big department store, GlasMagasinet. It's landmark on this square.
The walk up Karl Johans gate was really nice. It's a happening street. The weather was wonderful, and everyone was out, window shopping, sipping wine in street-side cafes, and enjoying the street musicians.
The next building of note was Stortinget, Norway's Parliament building. This is where Norway's Parliament meets, along with peaceful protesters of all stripes. (We caught some kind of protest on our next-to-last day here.) It was built in 1866. Guided tours are offered for those interested in Norwegian government. By this time, we were awake for 27 hours. I feared a talk about Norwegian government would put us right to sleep. We passed.
After that came the Grand Hotel. This is Oslo's celebrity hotel, where Nobel Peace Prize winners spend the night.
Beneath the Grand Hotel is the cleverly named Grand Cafe, a historic cafe that was, for man years, the meeting place of Oslo's intellectual and creative elite. Henrik Ibsen was a regular here. I read that the inside was fairly opulent and that the guy at the entrance will let you peek around if you ask, so we asked, and he did.
Food looked pretty yummy, too.
Walking further down Karl Johans gate, you pass, on your left, a cute park, Eidsvoll plass. Lots of statues (Oslo is brimming with public art, including a ton of sculptures everywhere) and fountains.
At the very western end of Eidsvoll plass is the neoclassical Nationaltheateret (National Theater). It was built in 1899 and has a prominent statue of Henrik Ibsen in front. The Ibsen statue went up during the great man's lifetime, which pleased him to no end.
Opposite the National Theater, at the western end of Karl Johans gate, stand three buildings of the University Aula. These are grand 19th-century structures whose classical columns, pilasters, and imperial pediments are an impressive sight. This building below is the middle one of the three. I wanted to go inside to see the hall that is famously decorated with murals by Edvard Munch, but sadly, the hall was only open for public viewing in June and July. One of the murals is supposed to be spectacular. I was bummed.
Rather than continue down Karl Johans gate all the way to the Royal Palace, we turned south and headed toward the harbor, to see the Rådhuset, or City Hall.
City Hall was built mostly in the 1930's. It is full of great art, as you'll see in a future post. The mayor has his office here, and every December 10th, this building is where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded. There are great woodcuts in the courtyard arcade, and on the opposite side, facing the harbor, are dramatic statues depicting six laborers, celebrating the nobility of the working class. Again, you'll see all that in a future post.
A stone's throw from City Hall is a yellow building that used to house the old West Train Station. The building now houses the Nobel Peace Center, which celebrates the work of Nobel Peace Prize winners.
Now you're at the harbor. A decade ago, you would have had to dodge several lanes of crazy traffic to get to Oslo's harborfront. Today, most cars cross underneath the city in tunnels, which was very wise city planning. The city has made the town center relatively quiet and pedestrian friendly by charging a traffic-discouraging 27 krone toll (about $3.50) for every car entering town.
Along the edge of the pier is a section called Aker Brygge. This is Oslo's thriving restaurant/shopping/nightclub zone. It was very lively.
In fact, this is where we got our first meal. We picked a spot that was good for people-watching. Our first Norwegian meal ended up being lasagna. No herring or reindeer today! For dessert, gourmet ice-cream at Movenpick. I got creme brulé and pistachio.
The harbor area was really pretty slick. They're building lots of condos in the area. There are many marinas for small private boats, lots of public spaces, and a multitude of bars and restaurants. We found ourselves coming here again and again.
The public outdoor spaces were populated mainly by locals enjoying the beautiful weather.
One area at the harbor was an "outdoor bath", filled with young Oslo residents sunning themselves on a little pier.
At the pier, I saw the CUTEST dog.
For dinner, we went to a hip buffet restaurant called Kaffistova a few blocks from our hotel.
By this point, we had been up for over 30 hours and it was time to crash.