The north and the south of Norway are as strikingly different as their Canadian counterparts. While winter lingers at the higher latitudes, spring hits with a vengeance in May in more southerly locales, with wildflowers blooming on the hillsides and the sun warming the fjords.
Arriving from the northern leg of my Norwegian sojourn, next on my itinerary were the country’s three largest cities, Oslo, the capital, Bergen in the west and Trondheim a bit further north. They form a golden triangle of history and culture, each with a somewhat different flavor.
The first goal of my southern Norwegian hat-trick was Oslo. The largest city in Norway and its capital, this town of 500,000 people is the usual residence of the Norwegian royal family.
I had been invited to the launch of a new coastal cruiser, the Fram, the highlight of which was a champagne baptism by the comely Crown Princess, Mette-Marit. Starting life as a commoner, her marriage to Crown Prince Haakon was a bit controversial. Norwegian common sense prevailed however and the couple’s love match seems to have been proof against scandals such as those which have plagued neighboring Great Britain’s royals.
The launch was carried out in the shadow of Oslo’s medieval Akershus Fortress after which invited guests boarded the Fram for a tour of Oslo’s fjord and a tasty lunch. I didn’t get a chance to meet the Crown Princess but did have a nice chat with a Norwegian Member of Parliament over champagne.
Afterwards I had time to explore. There’s lots to see in Oslo and most of it is within easy walking distance of the town’s center. Since Norway has the honor of hosting the Nobel Peace Prize, the waterside Center for Peace and Human Rights is a must-see for visitors. Its displays feature the ninety-four individuals and nineteen organizations that have received the prize since 1901. I was proud to see among them Canada’s Lester B. Pearson. Visitors can also visit the City Hall and admire the huge murals which grace the walls of the hall where the Peace Prize is awarded.
If the paintings of Edvard Munch and landscapes of Johan Dahl are your cup of tea, the National Gallery is a short walk away. Munch’s striking The Scream depicts an agony-stricken man clutching his head. The right side of the painting is wavy and blurred like a migraine aura and perhaps the painting should be retitled The Migraine.
Vigeland Park features the life work of Norwegian sculptor Emanuel Vigeland. His talent was recognized early and the practical Norwegians put him on salary with the condition that he fill the park with his creations. His ambition was no less than to depict human life at all its ages and stages, which he has remarkably accomplished. Just take a look at his statue of an enraged toddler if you don’t believe me. The park is a mecca not just for tourists but for locals enjoying activities such as a picnic, a stroll or a bike ride.
A bit further out, but still within the city limits, is the Bygdoy Peninsula — a rustic enclave which features museums where you can see complete, real Viking ships as well as Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon Tiki raft, which the late explorer used to cross the Pacific. The Frammuseet houses the original Fram, the vessel used by Roald Amundsen on his successful quest to be the first to reach the South Pole in 1911.
Visitors can explore the ship above and below. I enjoyed a tasty lunch on deck, the second meal on board a vessel named Fram in as many days. Also in Bygdoy is the Norsk Folkemuseum with its amazing collection of buildings going back up to one thousand years, including one of the unique early stave churches, with designs based on Viking ships.
The next city on my agenda was Trondheim. A city of about one hundred and fifty thousand, this is Norway’s answer to Silicon Valley with a vibrant high tech industry. Medical researchers here have also pioneered treatments for infertility.
The city dominated by Nidaros Cathedral, the world’s most northerly medieval cathedral. A Gothic marvel, with its rose window and its carvings, entry to its nave is a ticket to centuries past. The Norwegian crown jewels are also housed here. Though the cathedral is stone, most of the Trondheim’s historical buildings, including the Baroque Stiftsgarden Palace, are made of wood. This has made the city especially prone to fires over the centuries.
Our final stop in Trondheim was at Kristiansten Fort, with panoramic views of the entire city. Just as we arrived a vivid rainbow appeared over the city, framing Nidaros in a multi-hued arch. I took this as a good omen for the next and final leg of my journey, to Norway’s second city, Bergen.
While second in population, the city of Bergen is unsurpassed in charm and beauty. The medieval quarter in the Bryggen area has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and for good reason, with its colorful and well maintained timber buildings.
Once housing the businesses of Hanseatic League merchants, the structures now feature shops vending colorful Norwegian wool garments, and bakeries where you can sample tasty cinnamon and sugar sprinkled Schilling buns.
The Torget fish market is worth a stop, if only to see the flamboyant displays of fresh sea food on ice offered for sale. Nearby is the station for the Floibanen funicular which takes you to the top of 320 meter high Mt. Floyen for dazzling views of the city, the harbor and the islands beyond.
Also in Bryggen is the Sixteenth Century Rosenkrantz Tower. Here I was greeted by two medieval costumed Norwegian lads (I’m guessing one was named Guildenstern) who took me on a guided tour of the tower. This ranged from airy bedchambers to an odious dungeon, which held prisoners awaiting execution in a chamber that filled twice daily with seawater. Nearby Hakonshalle is a 13th Century building that King Hakon Hakonsson gave to his son as a wedding gift.
Health professionals may find Burgen’s gloomy Lepramuseet, or Leprosy Museum, a rewarding spot to spend an hour or two. Leprosy is also called Hansen’s disease, after Bergen native, Dr. Armauer Hansen, who, in 1873, isolated the causative agent, Mycobacterium leprae.
My tour group included an Indian physician who had actually treated leprosy, and the great-great granddaughter of a prior inmate in the facility. The attached church has a sealed room where disfigured advanced leprosy victims could hear services without being seen. Over the altar hangs a large painting of, what else, Jesus healing the lepers.
A little ways outside of Bergen is Troldhaugen, the former residence of Norway’s brightest musical light, Edvard Grieg. The strains of his Piano Concerto in A minor and his Peer Gynt Suite are familiar to most people, even if the names of the pieces are not.
A modern interpretive center gives visitors his background after which you can walk through a bucolic woodland to see on one side his period home and workshop, and on the other his grave, which was tunnelled into the side of a cliff. As one visitor put it, Grieg composed on side and decomposed on the other.
My final full day in the Bergen area was spent enjoying the “Norway in a Nutshell” tour. The morning started with a train ride to the scenic little town of Voss, birth place of football hero Knute Rockne, followed by a bus trip to Gudvangen to catch a ferry through spectacular fjords to Flam. Next was a spectacular and sometimes hair-raising train ride through mountains, sheer cliffs and past gushing cataracts. We changed trains in the tiny town of Myrdal, high in the mountains and still snow-covered in places.
Here I missed the train in a futile search for a missing senior in our party, who it turned out was already on board. Making the best of the situation I caught the “milk run” train, had engaging conversations with several Norwegians and was back in Bergen in time for supper.
The next day it was time to pack up and head home to Nova Scotia. Departing Bergen’s airport, I was soon on board an Icelandair jet again, bound for Halifax via Keflavik. An Icelandair flight attendant with spectacular ice-blue eyes told me that transferring through Iceland, I could have had a free stop-over for up to seven days. Now they tell me! Oh well. I guess I’ll save that trip for the fall.
IF YOU GO…
Norwegian Coastal Voyages/ Hurtigruten 1-800-323-7436
“Norway’ crown princess, Mett-Marit, launches the new coastal ferry, ‘The Fram'” © George Burden
“Kjosfossen Falls in the mountains of southern Norway. Note the diminutive female figure in Valkyrie dress on the lower right to get an idea of the size of the falls.” © George Burden
“Norwegian children in hand-knit sweaters, a Norwegian specialty.” © George Burden
“Colorful medieval buildings along the waterfront in Bergen.”© George Burden
“Central Bergen with its colorful and ancient buildings.” © George Burden