Arriving in Norway reminded me of the movie ‘Withnail and I’, where Richard E. Grant chases the farmer’s tractor shouting, “Help us, we’ve come on holiday by mistake!” I know how he felt. Through a mixture of accident and poor planning I found myself standing in Oslo’s central railway station with no place to stay and no idea of how to fill the next three days. It was dark and very cold, the outside temperature a misty minus 15 degrees.
Although Norway is one of the safest countries in the world, my obvious ‘lost tourist’ status had attracted unwanted attention. Shady-looking characters (the ones who seem to inhabit every train station around the world) circled, waiting for the right moment to move in. Whatever their motives – they we’re either going to sell me drugs or mug me – I thought it best to get going.
It’s easy to spot a fellow tourist in Oslo. They’re the ones clinging to lampposts and flipping back somersaults in the street. Of course, it’s not for entertainment, but a consequence of the thick layer of ice that covers the pavements. Whilst the locals stride across the permafrost like polar bears on a hunting trip I, and a dozen other tourists, tottered and teetered along clinging to anything (railings, bus stops, small children) that stopped me from emulating Olga Korbut in the ’76 Olympics. Eventually, I made it to the tourist office. It was closed.
Norway’s prime tourist season runs through the summer, from mid-June to mid-August. Outside these months tourism goes into hibernation. Opening hours recede with each day’s sunlight until attractions either close down completely or open for reduced hours. A friend of mine once travelled in the north of the country during winter. Arriving in a new town in the middle of the day he tramped to the nearby tourist office, only to find it closed. “What time does it open?” he asked a passerby. The man stopped and regarded my friend with a blank expression. “Summer,” he replied.
The first three hotels I found were shut. Their doors decorated with thick padlocks and handwritten signs that said ‘Closed for Winter’. My nostrils were beginning to freeze solid as I carried on along the empty streets, trying desperately not to slip into the path of a speeding tram. Eventually I stumbled upon the Fønix Hotel, an oasis of red neon that turned the snow-covered streets a lurid pink. From within the warmth of one of its rooms I slowly defrosted and read a free tourist brochure, desperate to find anything to fill the next three days.
The one benefit of coming to Oslo in the winter is that you have the entire city to yourself. Tourists, unlike the ice, are thin on the ground. Over the next couple of days I visited several galleries and museums, all of which were completely empty. In most cases bored looking security guards outnumbered visitors by two to one. The spectacular Oslo Domkirke, the City Cathedral, was deserted, as was the Museet for Samtidskunst, the Museum of Contemporary Art. Walking through the Akershus Fortress, home of the Armed Forces Museum, I bumped into a sentry who was so surprised to see me he almost dropped his gun. Best of all was The Nasjonalgalleriet, Norway’s National Gallery, where I stood and stared at Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’, with not another soul in sight.
Narvisen Ice Rink
There are many theories about ‘The Scream’. Some say that it communicates man’s inner turmoil, the representation of Munch’s own personal hell after the death of his father. Alternatively, you could subscribe to the popular tourist theory, that it portrays an accurate reaction to the price of Norwegian alcohol. Like most things in Norway, it’s very expensive. If the local bars surrounding my hotel were anything to go by (they were always empty) the locals thought so too. My tight budget allowed me two pints of beer a day and a daily diet of 7-11 hotdogs (a bargain at £1 each). There was no denying, I was living large in Oslo.
Despite the cost, I liked Oslo. I quickly grew accustomed to the short winter days – the sun rising at 10am and setting at 3pm – and the fresh breeze that blew across the harbour off the Oslofjord. I liked the rattling trams that thundered through the snow-covered streets and the open air Narvisen ice rink, where small children zipped around in circles while their proud parents watched on. After a while, I even mastered walking, striding across the pavement like a local.
Vigeland Park sculpture
On my final night I took the tram to Vigeland Park, an open-air exhibition dedicated to the work of Norwegian artist Gustav Vigeland. Throughout the park are 200 of his sculptures, bequeathed to the city after his death in 1943. In any other European capital it would be stupid to walk through a park at night, but here it was the norm. Locals walked their dogs as I strolled along the tree-lined boulevard and across the ornate stone bridge. Life-sized human sculptures stared vacantly into space, each covered with a thick layer of blue frost. It was like walking through Narnia, amongst soldiers frozen by the evil White Witch.
The following morning I checked out of the Fønix and headed for home, catching the shuttle bus to the airport. My trip to Oslo had been one of unexpected surprises, with my first day fears amounting to nothing. As the plane taxied to the runway I looked out at the snowy landscape and made a mental note to return. My daydream was abruptly broken as the plane shunted to a halt in a siding. Through the window I watched a mobile water cannon busy itself around the fuselage, blasting bright red liquid into every nook and cranny. It took me a while to realise that it wasn’t cleaning the aircraft, it was de-icing it.
Once again, Norway surprised me.