Sjalabais, and a warm welcome to Viking country

With the rise of low budget airlines, Norway has emerged as a destination accessible to the poor student market. Lizzi Holman visited Oslo, to discover what this historic city has on offer for the more modest traveller

Under a blanket of snow, the city seems to be sleeping. People move slowly down icy streets, closing out the cold, and each other. Peering into frosty windows reveals a community awakening to coffee and hushed conversation. Through the dark morning, the dim winter sun begins to glow, highlighting the imposing buildings in muted tones of blue and grey. In the dark January days the city never bustles, but merely perseveres. The fishermen quietly display their early morning catch, never hassling the customer as they casually peruse the baskets of trout and char. The tourist can wander at will, and it was with this freedom that I came to know Oslo.

The city feels like a capital, however small, and this is mainly due to the Parliament building and the impressive Karl Johans Gate. This is the hub of the city, with ice-skating in the winter, and market stalls in summer time. Just off from Karl Johans is the Radhus, the massively imposing provincial government building. Opinion is divided in Oslo as to whether this building is a bold statement of modernism, or just an ugly red-bricked lump reminiscent of a power station. The view from the top of the towers is immense, and the interior decoration is breathtaking. Guided tours run daily to take you around the operational building.

Oslo has many museums, which remain largely deserted in the limited winter opening hours. Among the best museums to visit are the Fram-Museet, the museum that houses the Fram, the ship that has been furthest North and furthest South. With the museum’s limited heating, it is easy to appreciate the strains of being in the Arctic. This museum is a shrine to Roald Amundsen; the intrepid explorer who was first to the South Pole, walking around the interior of the sturdy vessel gives an intriguing insight into his life and times.

On the same bus route is the Vikingshiphuset, which as the name suggests is a Viking Ship museum, housing two very impressive vessels, that were originally found in a burial mound and have been lovingly restored. You cannot fail to be impressed by the distances the Vikings sailed in these open and uncomfortable ships, as detailed on the maps on display in the museum.

In the deepest winter the city has few hours of sunshine, and can feel subdued and inhospitable. This atmosphere is encapsulated in the works of Edmund Munch, displayed in great number at the Munchmuseet. Famous for the Scream, which has been seen as the embodiment of depression, Munch’s vast body of work reveals more about the dank corners of the mind of a genius on the edge. The Vampire is incredibly dark, and the charged atmosphere of the Sick Child paintings is palpable. Surprisingly his landscape paintings are uplifting, a testament to the varied scenery Norway has to offer and it’s regenerative power.

The dark mood lifts as the T-bane spirals out of the city to the ski area in the north. It climbs through neat residential suburbs, to the recreational hive of the ski area. Both downhill and cross-country skis can be hired for a very reasonable fee, the trails are marked according to difficulty but the Norwegian directions can be a little confusing, so check with the hire shop first. Cross-country skis are a viable option for getting around this city surrounded by open countryside. Commuters hop on and off the trains with skis in one hand, briefcase in the other.

The tourist may feel like an intruder in Oslo in the wintertime. Food is discouragingly expensive due to high retail taxes, with alcohol suffering the same fate. But the city is not without its attractions. The congenial atmosphere of the Kafeterias in the morning is enough to wake the heaviest sleeper. These are the best value eateries, with coffee refills and cold platters served until early afternoon. The Kaffistova at the Bondeheimen Hotel on Rosenkrantz Gate is famous for its good value, a theme continued in the rest of the hotel. Internet deals can be found for this and other hotels, and with Ryanair flying to Torp, the delights of this Scandinavian city should no longer be the reserve of a privileged few.

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