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Finding diamonds on the fjord

Norwegians say there’s no such thing as bad weather, only wrong attire. In Oslo, you can apply that philosophy to every aspect of life!

brunch Updated: Aug 04, 2018 22:39 IST
Priya Bala
Priya Bala
Hindustan Times
Oslo,Jo Nesbø,Norwegian crime writer
The Vigeland Park has an open-space gallery for the display of Gustav Vigeland’s sculptures (Shutterstock)

We were at No. 5, Sophies Gate, in downtown Oslo, an address familiar to Jo Nesbø’s readers. One of the nameplates at the entrance to the building says ‘Harry Hole’. The moment when fans of the fictional detective are introduced to this quirky nugget is a highlight of Oslo’s Harry Hole walk, a two-hour guided amble through streets and past buildings traversed by the now-famous detective created by Nesbø, the Norwegian crime writer who’s garnered international fame.

The al fresco cafés lining Karl Johans Gate froth with people drinking beer and wine while sunning themselves

The make-believe nameplate made me smile. The seemingly impassive Norwegians are fanciful like that. In fact, at the starting point for the walk, the Best Western Hotel on Karl Johans Gate, our guide, a feisty lady of sixty-plus, told us, with no apparent intention of causing alarm, that the hotel, established in 1899, was haunted and that its original owners were given to walking the corridors at night to check if everything was as it should be.

Watching the detective

The Harry Hole walk on a mellow spring evening, one bathed in golden light, ended at Restaurant Schrøder on Waldemar Thranes Gate, the detective’s preferred hangout, despite him taking the occasional dig at the meatballs on the menu, which also includes traditional Norwegian fare like reindeer burgers and steamed cod. I didn’t dine here, preferring to check out one of the hip, new places. Grådi, which means greedy in Norwegian, is one such restaurant, serving delicious takes on Scandinavian favourites like pate on rye, with beetroot jam, crispy fried oyster mushrooms and bacon.

The Viking Ship Museumis part of the Museumof Cultural History of the University of Oslo (Visitoslo.com)

Grådi is in Tøyen in the Gamle – or old – Oslo borough which is better known for the Munch Museet. I had to go and see The Scream – not just because it has been described as a ‘Mona Lisa of our time’ for its depiction of an age wracked by anxiety and uncertainty, but because it was at the centre of one of the most dramatic museum heists of recent times. Stolen in 2004, Munch’s masterpiece was recovered in 2006 by the Oslo police and is again on display, captivating and disturbing in equal measure.

The walking tour through the backstreets of downtown Oslo, including past the Cemetery of Our Savior where Henrik Ibsen and Munch are buried, and near which the opening scene of Nesbø’s The Devil’s Star is set, was off the beaten track. I did, however, get talking with a young Czechoslovakian student in the group who’d read all the Nesbø titles in Czech and had come to Oslo just to go on the Harry Hole walk.

Cheers to a good cheer

Oslo’s more conspicuous attractions are strung around the fetching fjord at the head of which this achingly beautiful city sits. There is the medieval-style Akershus Fortress and Castle, built in the 14th century and besieged several times by the Swedes. If you, like me, aren’t too keen on photo-ops with the royal guards, it’s wonderful to sit at one of the bars across the water and admire this splendid edifice from afar and watch the sailboats skimming the water. Despite the travel brochure panorama, I couldn’t help telling myself the small pint of beer was costing me what a decent bottle of wine would back home. But that is Oslo for you, one of the most expensive cities in the world. Even the locals complain and think nothing of flying out to Berlin, where the beer is cheaper than water, for a weekend of heavy drinking.

Which brings me to the cover of a book I spotted in the airport bookstore:That sums it up.

Trace the adventures of Thor Heyerdahl at Kon-Tiki Museum (Visitoslo.com)

The Norwegians you encounter here don’t give much away. They are immensely polite and well-mannered. Motorists wait for pedestrians to cross, bus drivers step out and unfold a ramp for wheelchair-bound passengers to board. Even if you happen to get into conversation with a stranger at a café, no one asks ‘Are you married?’ or ‘Any issues?’ An Oslo pub or bar, then, is a place to see usually restrained Norwegians abandon their inhibitions. On a bright day, the al fresco cafés lining elegant Karl Johans Gate – described as the Champs-Elysées of the North – froth with people drinking beer and wine while sunning themselves. It quickly became one of my favourite spots in the city, too, and I spent hours people-watching. It’s a fashion parade of stylish Oslo folk striding past purposefully in their snazzy boots and spiffy jackets. Then there are the clusters of tourists from China and now also Korea, easily identified by selfie-stick and package tour cap. Lonely Planet’s recommendation that Oslo is one of the top 10 cities to see in 2018 hasn’t been taken lightly.

Where to hug a tree

At one end of Karl Johans Gate is the parliament and it’s not unusual to see a minister cycling by. Cut to the sirens and stop-all-traffic routine our netas command. At the other end, sitting atop a slope is the royal palace, an impressive structure in the Neoclassical style. It is from its balcony that the Norwegian family watches the parade on Norway’s

The Scream was at the centre of one of the most dramatic museum heists of recent times

National Day, May 17. I was there during the celebrations, when otherwise modish Oslo folk come out wearing Bunad, the traditional-rural attire. It makes the promenade seem like a huge stage with everyone in period costume. For all its modernity, this is still a place of myth and legend, folklore and fable, trolls, ghosts and Norse gods.

Sprawling all around the palace is a verdant park. ‘Walk on the grass’, ‘Hug the trees’, say the signs at Slottsparken. This is a country that has traffic signs for children playing (speed limit 30) and for elk crossings. After lunch at nearby Den Glade Gris (The Happy Pig), a cured pork specialist, I spent an afternoon in the park, reading Nesbø under a tree bursting with spring blooms, marvelling at people who preserve their green spaces with such care. Littering is a no-no and citizens diligently clean up after their dogs and empty it into bins assigned for the purpose.

In Oslo, you can never be far from a park where nature’s splendour is complemented by thoughtful, aesthetic design that makes it easy to access and enjoy. The Vigeland Park is both a green space and a massive open-air gallery for the display of Gustav Vigeland’s massive sculptures of men, women and children, all naked. Be startled, shocked, surprised or simply take in the heady scents rising from the rose gardens. The museum fiend has more places to see – and spend kroners in. There’s the Viking Museum, one dedicated to the cultural history of the country, and the Kon-Tiki Museum, which I enjoyed, tracing the adventures of Thor Heyerdahl.

Seasons by the sea

The Ho-Ho bus does the round of these, and another kind of hopping on and off is possible when you take a boat trip to the islands scattered in green heaps across Oslo Fjord. There are few travel experiences to equal being on the deck of a boat on the fjord – the spring sunshine on your face, the air fresh and pure, and everything bathed in the clean, sparkling light of these Northern reaches.

The seasons set the mood in this part of the Northern hemisphere. But Norwegians say there is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong attire. Properly equipped, they enjoy every season and the outdoor opportunities that it affords, hiking and cycling in summer and hitting the ski slopes in winter. I had arrived in early spring, but the descent to Gardermoen airport was into a Christmas card scene. The snow was deep and the trees were bare. Within days of reaching, I watched spring arrive – tentative at first, in the whispered unfurling of leaf buds and shoots, then an exuberant, exultant surge of green, followed by the blooming of wildflowers, yellow buttercups and purple heads of lupin dotting every grassy slope.

This arcadian landscape may seem far removed from the chic, urban charms of Oslo – its edgy design stores, its modernist Opera House and 118-year-old National Theatre, the shabby-turned-hipster Grünerløkka from where you can walk along the Akerselva river to Mathallen, a food hall stocked with salami, seafood, oils and salts to thrill every gourmet, and its night clubs where the city unmasks its wild side.

Still, for me the greatest pleasure Oslo yields is the opportunity to escape into the deep pine forests, which surround the city. Here, the only sounds you hear are the rustle of leaves and the call of birds. You stop to see an elk’s hoof mark as you walk along wooded paths, under cirrus-flecked skies that are an impossible shade of blue. To bring back home, I bought some smoked salmon and blueberry compote. Also, in that imagined backpack in which travellers tote their memories, there was the indescribably beautiful light of Scandinavia and the sight of it dancing like diamonds on the fjord.

(The author is a Bengaluru-based senior writer who specialises in food, travel and lifestyle writing. She has edited several major mainstream publications and recently released her book Secret Sauce.)

From HT Brunch, August 5, 2018

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First Published: Aug 04, 2018 21:33 IST