In many ways, Norway is defined by its relationship with the sea. The fjords that lacerate the coast are the abiding image that most have of the country, while the harsh mountainous interior leads to most of the population clinging to the coast for habitable land. The diet is fish-heavy, ferries are often the best way of going from town to town up the coast and it’s only recently that low cost airlines have taken over from sea ports.
The Norwegian capital, Oslo, predictably sits on the coast as well. The ‘Oslofjord’ isn’t technically a fjord (it wasn’t formed by glaciers, then flooded by rising sea levels), but it sure looks darned purdy when the sun is out and the sky is blue.
Admittedly, the pleasure of heading out on a mini-cruise is somewhat diminished in winter, when sitting on deck becomes a battle of attrition that only those with thick fleeces, windbreaking jackets and supergloves can survive without diving inside for hot drinks and soup. But as long as you’re wrapped up warm, then the story from the water is still engaging. The boat heads off to the south-east, past the Akershus. This is Oslo’s castle, and it originally dates back to 1299, although it was almost entirely rebuilt in the 17th century. Landlubbers may prefer to go for a walk around the walls – the views of the city and the Oslofjord are great from up top.
The Opera House
From there, the cruise visits Oslo’s new pride and joy – the Opera House. It opened in April 2008 and is the poster child for the Fjord City project which is attempting to redevelop the waterfront and give it back to the people rather than the traffic that currently snarls around large chunks of it.
Approaching the Opera House, there is a bizarre ice crystal sculpture outside, but most people seem more interested in clambering over the building’s roof. The Opera House has been designed to look like a glacier – indeed, the roof slopes down to the water like a sheet of ice. It’s also a typically Norwegian piece of egalitarian design – where else in the world would the public be able to trample all over a landmark building without having to undergo reams of security checks first?
The cruise allows people to get off at the Opera House if they want, before continuing around a few of the Oslofjord islands. These, admittedly, have more appeal in summer. When the weather is warm and the nights are long, the locals tend to head out to the islands to laze on the beaches or cook up a feast on barbecues bought in the supermarket beforehand.
On a cold but clear November day, the islands look a little sparse and bleak. Moss grows on the rocks, but the leaves have long been stripped from the trees. The brightly-painted summerhouses – which are often passed down through the generations – look thoroughly out of place.
Around the back of the islands lies the Bygdoy Peninsula which, despite its proximity to the city, has managed to retain an air of rural charm. It is also home to a number of Oslo’s most fascinating museums – and three of them continue the seafaring theme. Entrance to the museums on the Bygdoy peninsula is covered in the Visit Oslo Pass.
Of these, the Norwegian Maritime Museum is the least interesting unless you’ve got a special attachment to the subject. It’s has a large collection of boats, and explores the fishing, shipbuilding and whaling industries.
The triangular-shaped building next to it has far less inside, but what it does contain is a monster. The building was specially constructed to house Fram, a ship that has seen more adventures than most. No vessel has been as far north and as far south. Its special egg-shaped hull allows it to rise above the ice rather than smash onto it, and some of the world’s greatest explorers have utilised these capabilities. The first was Fridtjof Nansen, who used the Fram for his pioneering Arctic exploration. The geological surveys conducted led to big oil and gas finds – part of what makes Norway so rich today.
More famously, the vessel was also the one that took a hardy band of adventurers where no man had been before. It’s the ship that took Roald Amundsen to the Antarctic and away to safety again after his team had been the first to reach the South Pole.
On the other side of the road lies a museum devoted to another famous craft – one that, it’s fair to say, would probably not deal too well with large chunks of floating ice.
The Kon-Tiki was made out of balsa wood and bamboo by Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl and his colleagues. Cut from trees in the South American rainforests, this basic raft set out on an amazing voyage in 1947. The Kon-Tiki sailed, over a period of 101 days, from Peru to Polynesia. Heyerdahl and his crew covered 8,000km of the Pacific Ocean in a bid to prove a point. Heyerdahl had the theory that Polynesia could have been settled from South America (rather than Asia as traditionally believed). Conventional wisdom says that the South Americans didn’t have the navigation skills and quality of vessels for this to be possible, so Heyerdahl set out to prove it was possible to get to Polynesia on a basic raft, using favourable currents and winds.
His success was largely in vain – the South American settlement idea is now largely discredited – but the story of the expedition is incredible. So, for that matter, are the tales of Heyerdahl’s other absurd adventures that the museum covers.
And, reluctantly, you have to admit that the likes of Nansen, Amundsen and Heyerdahl have taken Norway’s marriage with the sea far beyond a cruise on a fjord…
Editor’s Note: David was a guest at Thon Panorama. Oslo’s accommodation scene is dominated by largely charmless and business-oriented chain hotels. The Thon Panorama offers something a little different though, with apartment-style superior rooms – many of which have balconies. He was also a guest of Visit Oslo.