This is an account, illustrated with iPhone photographs, of about a week my wife and I spent in in Norway — Sept. 5-11, 2017. We live in Santa Monica, California, and this blog is usually about Santa Monica politics, but what the hell, I’ll expand my scope. At least this piece is about a couple of healthy cities—Oslo and Bergen.
We flew Sept. 4 to Norway from Boston because we sandwiched our Norway trip into a trip to New England to visit our son and friends. Our flight arrived in Oslo the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 5. (Norwegian Air runs an inexpensive and convenient non-stop service between Boston and Oslo twice a week.) We took the airport train into town, and walked from the Sentrum train station to our hotel on the Karl Johans Gate (“Gate” in Norwegian means street—nothing to do with a gate). Karl Johans Gate is the main, limited to pedestrians, axis running through the center of the city. (The hotel, the Comfort Hotel at 12 Karl Johans Gate, was a comfortable modern hotel situated in back of a pleasant courtyard off the street, with an excellent (and typically sumptuous) breakfast buffet.)
The immediate reason for our trip to Norway was that my wife, Janet, would be giving a paper at a conference at the University of Oslo. Since she’d be tied up at the conference for two days, the day we arrived would be her only day for tourism in Oslo. We figured that if one could only see one sight there, it had to be Munch’s “The Scream.” After having a bite to eat at a bar, we headed to the National Gallery.
Which was fun. It’s not a huge collection, but in any case we only had time and energy (because we were crashing from our overnight flight) to go to the second floor for the 19th and early 20th century works. The works by the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, and by Picasso and Braque, et al., were good and representative, but what impressed me the most were the works by Norwegian artists I’d never heard of, particularly Christian Krohg. Krohg painted straightforward pictures with a lot of social meaning: of, for instance, a girl dying of tuberculosis, or a girl from the countryside lined up in a police station to be checked for VD so that she could work as a prostitute.
I took some pictures of the visitors in the Munch room.
As I said, we were crashing, and we returned to the hotel to nap. We had made a dinner reservation on the recommendation of a friend at a fancy restaurant and we didn’t want to fall asleep during the meal. We awoke from our naps around five or so, and took a cab to the Aker Brygge area along the harbor. I wanted to see this waterside development because it’s been redeveloped from a shipyard that closed. Recycling industrial sites is a big thing in Los Angeles, including in Santa Monica, and in Santa Monica we’re always interested in the future of our waterfront, too.
Aker Brygge is slick. My overall impression was to wonder why (and how) the Scandinavians, or at least the Norwegians, do such a better job with modern architecture and urban planning than we do in the U.S. The scale seemed perfect.
In Santa Monica there are many battles about height (often as a stalking horse against any development), particularly along Ocean Avenue. Aker Brygge shows that good new development need not be very tall (although good development can be tall, too). My photograph of the harbor promenade shows buildings of only six stories, with excellent details and high quality materials. From a planning perspective, the designers did good work with ground floor connections to the public realm, and the public realm itself. (I suspect that developments like these, even at five stories, would face opposition in Santa Monica from the same people opposed to taller buildings, but that’s another story.)
From Aker Brygge we took a cab to the restaurant, which is called Ekebergrestauranten, presumably because it’s the restaurant located in Ekeberg Park. The park is now an outdoor museum for modern sculpture, but we only had time to see the sculpture from the taxi. The restaurant is in a terrific 1929 modern building (outside and in; see pictures) that is worth, with the accompanying views, at least a bit of a journey itself. We had a wonderful meal—of fish and game (venison in this case), which became the culinary themes of our Norwegian visit.
Next day, Wednesday, Sept. 6, I was on my own as Janet went off to her conference at the university.
What I most wanted to see in Oslo was their Resistance Museum, which tells the story of what happened in Norway after the Germans conquered the country in April 1940. I’m a Baby Boomer child of parents who came of age during WWII (my father was in the army from 1942-45), and the War has always fascinated me. Not only that, but I can’t resist stories of courage and resistance to tyranny, which is what I knew I would find at the museum.
Fortunately, getting to the museum from our hotel on Karl Johans Gate was the perfect opportunity (notwithstanding the constant Norwegian drizzle-bordering-on-rain) for a walk that took me past some of the major monuments of the city. These included the Parliament building (opposite of which I was pleased to find a statue of my new favorite artist, Christian Krohg), and the City Hall (which as a local politics guy I was pleased to see looked bigger than the parliament).
Between the Parliament and City Hall I stopped at a park where it appeared that a French company was running a demonstration project for a self-cleaning public toilet; they had three units there, in the French tricolor, named Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité.
Oslo City Hall is a major monument—to government itself and to modernity. Every year on December 10 the Nobel Peace Prize is announced there. The design comes from the 30s, and it’s hard not to see affinities with the Italian architecture of the era, which goes to show that there’s not much political content in architecture, or that architecture can be used for any political purpose. But the Oslo City Hall represents democracy, and from the “back” (the side not facing the harbor) it presents “open arms” to the public from the semi-circular plaza surrounding it.
The interior of City Hall was closed for preparations for parliamentary elections that were scheduled for the next week, which was unfortunate for me since I couldn’t see the “socialist” murals inside. After reading about them, I’d hoped to compare them in my mind with the Diego Rivera murals I’d been fortunate enough to see in Mexico City in 2016. I missed the murals, but the courtyard of City Hall is decorated with carved wooden bas-reliefs depicting Norse myths, and I liked them. I like them in particular because just before leaving the States for Norway I’d uploaded a book of the myths to my Kindle, and I’d been reading about what I was seeing. Don’t know why I didn’t take any pictures of the bas-reliefs, however.
I walked around to the other side of City Hall, the side that faces the harbor. Oslo in general and this area in particular has many outdoor sculptures. Most of the males were statesmen or artists, or workers in specific trades, while most of the women were naked and either motherly or allegorical (or both).
Looking out into the harbor from City Hall to the right is Aker Brygge, where I’d been the night before, and to the left is the Akershus Fortress, a working military base and the home of Norway’s Defense Ministry, but which was opened some years ago to the public as a park. The Resistance Museum is located in the fortress, and so I walked up into it, past a statue of Franklin Roosevelt. During the War the U.S. gave sanctuary to the Norwegian queen and her children (the king stayed in London, “on the job” so to speak, rallying the Norwegian resistance), and in gratitude Norway dedicated the statue of Roosevelt. The king’s decision to fight is the subject of a 2016 Norwegian movie, The King’s Choice, that is being released this fall in the U.S.)
I spent more than two hours in the Resistance Museum. I believe I read all of the considerable number of words in English there. I was moved. The museum was established around 1970, 25 years after the War ended, when the men and women of the Resistance could take stock of what had happened and what they had done. The museum, as the creation of both people who were involved in the events interpreted in there and of “objective” curators, is a curious, but inspiring, combination of “another roadside attraction” type exhibits, such as models of particular events and saved artifacts, that reflect the subjective perspectives and collections of those involved in the history, and more typical museum displays about the history.
The Museum doesn’t explain why Hitler invaded Norway and it doesn’t continue after the War to detail what happened to the quislings (including Quisling himself). There’s no larger history told other than that of the Resistance. Norway began resisting the Germans the night of the surprise attack of April 9, 1940, when an alert shore battery 30 kilometers west of Oslo, manned by aged pensioners and new recruits, sunk the German cruiser Blucher, which was full of soldiers and gestapo agents with a mission to seize the royal family and government officials. This was a major defeat for the German navy, and allowed the king and government to escape being captured at the start of the invasion, and to organize resistance.
After the Wehrmacht consolidated its control of the country, the Resistance took many forms. The one constant was the inability of Quisling’s Norwegian version of Nazism to convince many Norwegians that because of their ethnic heritage they should side with Hitler. I loved reading that the sports organizations just shut down rather than cooperate with the Germans, teachers wouldn’t cooperate as well, and that most of the police hightailed it to Sweden, where they trained as a military force to come back and fight when the Allied Command would call on them to do so. (Which the Command didn’t do, because the Allies didn’t want to have to divert their own troops to Norway—instead they wanted the Norwegians to keep the (up to) 400,000 Wehrmacht troops that were in Norway busy there, instead of leaving to defend Germany.)
I only took one photo in the museum—it’s of the sculpture that greets you when you enter, which is a swastika made of confiscated Mauser rifles.
In college a book that influenced me a lot was Mancur Olsen’s The Logic of Collective Action, which mostly deals with organizations like labor unions. The story of the Norwegian Resistance to the Germans is one of collective action writ large. It’s a great lesson for all time.
It wasn’t until after two o’clock that I exited the Resistance Museum, and I walked around the fortress. I popped into the Norwegian Military Museum, but mostly to get a sandwich at the coffee shop. I didn’t spend much time looking at the exhibits, but the Norwegian military is quite proud of the work they do these days in U.N. peacekeeping missions around the world, as well as with NATO.
At that point I was making a decision about what to do that night. My choices were to go with Janet out to dinner with her colleagues from the conference, or to go to see a performance that I’d seen advertised of The Magic Flute at Oslo’s opera house. I was torn. I like Janet’s colleagues (she’s a professor of philosophy), but I figured the first night of the conference they’d all be talking shop, and I love the Magic Flute. Once I realized that the opera house was only a ten-minute (or so) walk from the fortress, I wanted to see the opera house anyway, as it is new (2008), dramatic building designed by the Snøhetta firm.
I decided to let the opera house make the decision: I’d go there and if the box office had a ticket available, I’d buy it.
Which they did and which I did. Which proved to be fortunate, as the production was unique. What the Oslo opera had done was get a well-known Norwegian comedian to play Papageno. According to the couple sitting next to me, the comedian had spent a year training to sing the role, and the production, which had premiered two years ago, had become a hit. Basically, amid all the great music and terrific singing, the comedian played Papageno as a social commentator. Most of his lines (but not all; some he must have adlibbed, based on the audience’s laughter) were translated into English in the titles that ran Metropolitan Opera-style on the backs of seat. His commentary acted as something of a counter-narrative to the weird Masonic and misogynistic text of the opera, without over-contemporizing it. (Agreed that Papageno already has this role in the libretto itself.)
One of the best bits of going to the opera was that I struck up a conversation with the couple sitting next to me, Henrik and Elin. It turned out that they knew well the area that Janet and I would be driving to later in the week, and Henrik promised to send me a route to follow, which he did the next day. More on that later.
Next day, Thursday, Sept. 7, was one of those travel days when little things go wrong, but the results are good. To begin with, I needed to do laundry. I did a Google search and found that there was a coin laundry about a 15-minute walk from our hotel. I figured any 15-minute walk from the center of a city you don’t know has to be good, and set out for the laundry around nine o’clock. I expected to be finished by 11:00, and that I’d still be able to get over to the Bygdøy area by noon or so, to see the (several) museums there.
I won’t go into what a ridiculous travel laundry experience this turned out to be (other than to say that laundry, even coin laundry, like everything else in Norway is very expensive—$20 to wash and dry a small load of clothes!), but the serendipitous part was that not only was the laundry in a charming neighborhood with a good book shop (where I found a good map of southern Norway), but it was across the street from what is functionally Norway’s national cemetery.
Which I learned at the entrance to the cemetery where I found a graffiti’d map on a sign showing where the most famous dead are buried—including Ibsen, Munch, and my new favorite painter, Krohg.
Along with the artists and literary lights buried there, I found a monument to two of the heroes of the WWII Resistance, Rolf Wickstrom and Viggo Hansteen, labor leaders the Germans executed.
After wandering around the cemetery I went looking for a coffee shop. On the way I passed a relic to a not-too-distant but it-feels-like-ancient past—a Kodak film sign. It too seemed like a monument to a deceased hero, namely, film. It’s outside what’s now a health food store, which, alas, does not sell film. I hope the sign stays there for a century or so, as an artifact.
While I drank my coffee I took a closer look at the guidebook. (The guidebook we took to Norway was Rick Steves’. I recommend it, and I’ve borrowed a lot from it for this essay, but I should note that it only covers southern Norway.) I learned that the neighborhood I was in, Grünerløkka, was a 19th century area laid out and constructed during Oslo’s industrialization, and that industrialization had largely occurred along the banks of the nearby Akers River. The river’s successive rapids and waterfalls had been harnessed for the power to run the mills and factories that fueled rapid population growth: Oslo’s population increased from 10,000 to 250,000 between 1850 and 1900. Steves recommended a walk up the river. After picking up my laundry, that’s what I did, instead of going to Bygdøy.
Along the way I passed Oslo’s oldest church, in fact the oldest building in Oslo, from the 11th century, the Gamle Aker Church.
The walk took me through 19th century neighborhoods that reminded me of elements of Barcelona’s and Berlin’s neighborhoods from the same time period. The river itself was lined with old rehabbed and re-purposed industrial buildings, including a large grain elevator that is now student housing.
You could see where the millraces had been.There’s a statue of four women workers (clothed), looking with some bitterness across the river at an old mill.
Also along the river, new developments, once again with excellent contemporary architecture and planning, had been built as infill. I ate lunch (moule frites) at a food hall, Mathallen Oslo, in one of the new buildings.
To return to the hotel on Karl Johans Gate I followed the river towards the Grønland neighborhood and the harbor. The river flattened out and became the centerpiece of an urban park. The last photo I took in Oslo was of pedestrians on Karl Johans Gate, behind the national cathedral.
Janet’s conference concluded Thursday (everyone, including me, went to dinner at an Asian fusion restaurant in Aker Brygge that night) and on Friday, Sept. 8, we picked up a rental car and started our two-day drive across southern Norway to Bergen. We had made a reservation for that night at a historic hotel in a little town called Solvorn. Solvorn sits on a fjord called the Lustrafjord that is a tributary fjord to the largest fjord of all, the Sognefjord. Fortunately these plans came up when I was talking to the couple I’d met at the opera Wednesday night, and Henrik had advised me to take a certain route that would take us over a pass with a glacier. The next day he emailed me a Google Maps link showing the route. The route added an hour or so to what would have been a six-hour drive, and so we probably would not have taken it, and we would have missed one of the best drives ever.
For the route, you travel north from Oslo towards Lillehammer on the E6, which is a major, divided highway when it leaves Oslo, but turns into a two-lane route a couple of hours out of Oslo. At a town called Otta you bend to the west and then later south, and ultimately you head down Route 55, through the Jotunheimen mountains. If you’re familiar with the Norse myths (which I was reading while I was in Norway), you will recall that the giants, with whom the gods were always fighting when they weren’t socializing with them, lived in the Jotunheimen, which is high up off the fjords, above the tree line, barren and cold, with glaciers that remain from the Ice Age.
As is unfortunately typical for me, I didn’t read about this drive in the guidebook until after we’d completed it, so we missed stopping to see a few things. It turns out that Route 55 is a famous road. It’s known not only for the terrain it traverses, but also for how it does so, with many hairpin turns to bring the road down from the Jotunheimen to the Lustrafjord.
Our destination in Solvorn was the Walaker Hotell, which we’d read about in the guidebook. The hotel dates back to 1690 and is now in the hands of the ninth generation of Walakers.
The current proprietor met with guests to answer questions and tell stories after dinner. (Nice guy!) Speaking of dinner, while we’d been driving earlier in the day the hotel called on my mobile phone. They wanted to know if we wanted to reserve a table at the four-course dinner they serve each night. The meal, like all restaurant meals in Norway, would be expensive (about $90 for each of us, not including wine), but we said sure. After all, you only live once (and maybe go to Norway only once) and for that matter, we didn’t know if there was any other place to eat at in Solvorn. The meal was terrific, and served beautifully.
The hotel is located near where the Lustrafjord joins the Sognefjord. These are views from more or less its front yard.
Saturday, Sept. 9. One reason to stay in Solvorn is that it’s a short ferry ride across the Lustrafjord to Urnes, which is the location of the oldest stave church in Norway. Stave church is not a term I’d known about before planning our trip to Norway, but stave churches are Norway’s special contribution to architecture. They were built in medieval times, after Norway converted to Christianity (around 1,000). There used to be about 1,000 of them, but only 28 remain. The Urnes stave church dates from 1129.
What I found most interesting about the stave churches (stave, by the way, refers to the large upright posts in the corners of the structures) was that as unusual as they look, they do not reflect the isolation of Norwegian culture in the Middle Ages, but rather the opposite. They were an attempt in the newly Christianized north to build churches using the Romanesque architecture that was the “International Style” of the time. Norway had a lot of wood and a long tradition of building boats out of wood, and the wood and the skills were used to build the stave churches. The Romanesque style is particularly evident in the round arches that are used throughout.
The reason, by the way, that the churches have their evocative black color is that the wood is preserved by applying pine tar every five years or so. The churches, at least the two that we visited, are still in use. (I learned these facts from the tour guide who showed everyone around the church.)
The Urnes stave church is high up on a ridge above the ferry crossing and overlooking the junction of the Lustrafjord and Sognefjord. The views are tremendous, as were the views from the little ferry that we took back to Solvern to get back on our way to Bergen.
To get to Bergen from Solvorn, it’s possible, if you want to do so and if you time things right, to take a three-hour ferry from a nearby town (Kaupanger) to Gudvangen on the other side of the Sognefjord. This would save a lot of driving and give one the equivalent of a fjord cruise. We considered doing that, but instead opted to drive along the north shore of the Sognefjord and later take a shorter ferry across the fjord before driving onto Bergen. There are three places to take such a ferry, and we chose the first one, from Hella to Vangnes. This was kind of a last minute decision, as we had planned to drive along the north shore of the Sognefjord all the way to Lavik, but we were worried about time. In any case crossing over to Vangness had the benefit of putting us on a road to Bergen that passed through the town of Vik, which has another stave church.
The Vik stave church is somewhat bigger than the older Urnes church, and features decorative dragons on the roof. They come across as a charming throwback to pagan times (although I suppose Christians also believed in dragons). The Vik church was built by a family, the Hopperstads, and is named after them today (the “Hopperstad Stavkyrkje”). You still see the name Hopperstad on relatively gravestones in the graveyard. The Vik church shows, even more so than the Urnes church, the Romanesque influence. It’s worth remembering that the churches, other than their stone foundations, are entirely wood.
Another interesting feature of the Hopperstad church in Vik is that there is medieval graffiti carved into a wall, which the guide will show you if you ask. It looks like some of the graffiti are “sketches” for the dragons that would be carved for the roof.
After Vik, we drove up and over another ridge, above the tree line, before descending with more hairpin turns down to the coastal plain that leads to Bergen.
In Bergen, we checked into our hotel, the Oleana, another well-run modernized hotel in an old building (like the hotel in Oslo). (For those driving into Bergen, note that the Oleana, located centrally on Ole Bulls Plass, does not have parking, but there’s a public parking structure about two blocks away. There is no need to have a car in Bergen, and we didn’t use ours while we were there. To return the car to the rental car company on a weekend, however, would have meant returning the car to the airport and then getting back into town, and that didn’t seem worth it. Also—be advised that there was a large drop-off fee charged for renting a car in Oslo and leaving it in Bergen.)
That night we’d made reservations at a restaurant we’d read about in the New York Times, the Lysverket. It was a “creative chef” type restaurant that featured local ingredients and paid tribute to traditional cooking, yet above all wanted to be a destination for foodies. We liked it well enough, but the food wasn’t particularly special, in our opinions, and the only menu choice one could make was to take either their four- or seven- course dinner. Not sure we’ll go back on our next trip to Bergen.
Sunday, Sept. 10. Bergen is a terrific town. I have a friend, an architect and planner at UCLA, who has always identified Barcelona as the city that got better every century, but from what I can tell, Bergen has the same history. Bergen was one of the five major cities in the Hanseatic League, the German consortium that dominated commerce (and not only commerce) in northern Europe for four hundred years starting in the 13th century. Bergen was where the German traders traded grain and other products for the dried cod (known as “stockfish”) that Norse fishermen caught and produced (primarily from January through March!) in the far north. Stockfish was a major source of protein for Europeans from medieval times up to the 20th century. A byproduct, cod liver oil, was used for lighting until kerosene came along in the mid-19th century. Codfish were to northern Europe much as olive trees were to the Mediterranean.
After heavy grazing at the Oleana breakfast buffet (one thing about Norway is that restaurant meals, along with everything else, are expensive, but if you stay a hotel with a breakfast buffet, you can save one meal, because you won’t need lunch!), Janet and I walked down into the old harbor area of Bergen, known as Bryggen, which is where the Hanseatic traders worked and lived.
There were many laws and customs against the German traders fraternizing with the locals. The traders mostly came to Bergen as young men to work for a few years, make money, and then return home. Our first stop was at the Hanseatic Museum.
The Hanseatic Museum is contained in a trading building (known as a “tenement”) from the 18th century (a fire in 1702 destroyed the old(er) city), which preserves how the traders lived. These pictures show sleeping cabinets, with sliding doors for privacy and darkness, for an apprentice and for a manager. The latter is a bit nicer and includes what is either a portrait of the wife back home or an 18th century pinup. You can learn a lot about the stockfish trade in the museum—as someone who loves dishes made from dried cod (bacalao in Spanish) I found it all fascinating.
A ticket to the Hanseatic Museum also gives one admission to another old building, the “assembly room,” where the apprentices took classes and where all the traders could eat hot meals (open fires were prohibited in the trading buildings), and to a fisheries museum. We took the shuttle bus the museum provides to the two other museums.
At the fisheries museum we boarded a little boat that took us further out in the harbor to an outdoor museum that celebrates the architectural history of Bergen. The “Gamle Bergen Museum” (Old Bergen Museum) is a collection of traditional buildings that were moved to a park when they otherwise would have been destroyed. In the summer, apparently it’s quite a scene. Actors in period costumes circulate, playing roles associated with the different buildings. There’s even a room, the “60s room,” with modern Scandinavian furniture. I wonder if they have actors for that. The museum closes at the end of August, but the day we were there it was reopened for a national culture day that Norway celebrates with many events for children.
On the boat to the Gamle Museum we chatted with a man who was out for the day with his kids. He worked for a fish company, and he told us the names of his favorite fish restaurants in Bergen. That night we went to the one that was open on Sunday, Bryggeloftet & Stuene Restaurant, in the Bryggen, and we ate well.
Next day, we flew back to Boston from Bergen’s small and efficient airport, via Iceland.
We hope to return.