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Oslo in Winter is Quite an Art

by Sarah Shuckburgh

Norway’s capital may not be the most obvious destination at this time of year, but Sarah
Shuckburgh finds the atmosphere magical, with plenty in the museums, galleries and streets
to enchant the visitor.

As we speed into Oslo on the smooth airport express, the midday sun hangs low in a pale grey sky. Mist hangs in dark pine forests. In winter, the sun rises at 9.15 and dawn lasts all morning. Inching along a rosy horizon, the sun slowly heaves itself to an altitude of 7 degrees, barely above the trees, as the clouds gradually brighten to a cool, luminous grey.

My daughter Hannah and I have come to Oslo for a wintry weekend. We alight at the National Theatre station, check into the conveniently positioned Hotel Continental, and set off in the gloaming to explore. The city exudes an air of calm – the streets are almost empty. An occasional bus or tram glides up, opens its doors and disgorges a few well-muffled passengers. There are few cars, and, in this chilly weather, no bicycles. Pedestrians are sensibly shod in fur-lined boots or rubber galoshes, but nobody is in a hurry. Welcoming candles flicker from shop thresholds. Carillons chime from the town hall every quarter hour, and gulls squawk from the darkening sky. We climb to the fortress overlooking Oslo Fjord and happen upon a sombre Resistance Museum with deeply moving mementoes of occupation, resistance and liberation, and crackly recordings of Churchill and King Håkon VII. That evening, we dine on reindeer steaks at the fashionable Café Christiania, amid an eclectic jumble of period bric-a-brac.

In the morning, after a breakfast of herring, mackerel, black bread and rubbery goat’s cheese, we seek out Edvard Munch, expressionist innovator, and Oslo’s most famous son. We start at the National Gallery and make for a room of melancholy Munchs, including his bare-chested Madonna and a small, roughly-drawn Scream. In the Kiss, two lovers embrace by a window, through which we glimpse a street, cool and grey like Oslo. I am mesmerised by Munch’s painting of his dying auburn-headed sister and grieving mother, and by his sorrowful Spring, in which an invalid is warmed by watery sunshine.

Deciding against a candle-lit table on the pavement, where customers huddle beneath rugs and fur pelts, we stop for elevenses at United Bakeries on Karl Johans gate. Baskets of fresh rolls, pastries and loaves trundle slowly overhead on a creaking pulley contraption which links the shop with the underground kitchen. Chandeliers, marble tables and an antique range give the tearoom a nostalgic feel - but our coffee is served in paper cups.

Revived, we take the T-bane to the Munch Museum. Two major works were stolen by armed robbers in 2004, and now the security is extreme, with airport-style screening, electric doors sealing each gallery, and sliding bullet-proof screens in front of the paintings. Munch paints depression, despair, disease and death. Landscapes are wintry and bleak; domestic scenes are melancholy; his characters are full of angst and torment; his self-portraits have down-turned mouths. Hannah and I love them all.

We return to the waterfront and have lunch at Lotofens, a chic fish restaurant. Bravely, we order rakfisk – chunks of strong-tasting trout, rotted for six months, and served with beetroot, onion, sour cream and unleavened bread. Outside, beyond the wooden boardwalk, Oslo fjord shimmers grey and silver, and distant forests form a steely horizon. The sun starts its inexorable descent into an apricot sunset, and finally disappears soon after 3pm.

Hannah is indefatigable, and insists on visiting two more galleries – the Samtidskunst, which houses challenging and disturbing works by post-war Norwegians in a stately art nouveau building, and, nearby, the Astrup Fearnley museum, where a private collection of recent works by Norwegian and international artists is displayed in a striking new building with curved concrete walls.

Back at our hotel, we collapse in the bar, and admire its Munch lithographs – unfamiliar versions of Melancholy and the Kiss, and a sombre self-portrait. Then we retire to our room for baths of alarmingly brown water which we disguise with bubbles. ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’ is on television - in Norwegian - and we manage to grasp one question: where is London’s National Gallery? Is it Piccadilly, Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square or the Mall? The contestant guesses wrongly, but we can hardly blame her. Hannah and I can’t remember the address of Oslo’s National Gallery, even though we were there this morning – was it Universitetsgata, Stortingsgata, Rådhusgata or Karl Johans gate?

Oslo’s streets are full of sculptures, and much of the city’s art costs nothing to enjoy. Not so the food and drink. Our guide book suggests bargaining for leftovers at closing time – and now we know why. Prices are astronomic. But we are determined to sample Norwegian specialities whatever the cost, so at 8 o’clock, we join the elderly but well-heeled clientele at the 19th century Engebret Café, opposite the Samtidskunst. A waitress with blond plaits and a frilly apron translates the daunting menu: ‘many animals and fishes, sheep-heads, pig-ribs, fish-eggs, ox, elk, and the house speciality, lutefiskaften’. We choose the latter (sharing a single helping, as the price translates as £35) and are presented with a mountain of white fish, bowls of potatoes and puréed peas and a vat of hot dripping dotted with cubes of bacon. The fish is so salty that we gasp for water, but, copying our neighbours, we order tankards of beer, and tiny glasses of spicy golden akevitt, which tastes of nail varnish remover. We watch in astonishment as other diners empty their bowls of fat over the fish and gobble everything up. Stranger still, we notice that after the main course, each table is laid again and all the dishes reappear – fish, potatoes, pea purée and bacon swimming in fat. We beckon the waitress, who explains that lutefiskaften includes unlimited servings. All diners tackle two or three rounds; some eat six - including six pints of fat. Hannah and I feel so full after half a lutefiskaften that we can’t even attempt a pudding of cloudberries and cream.

On Sunday, Oslo is even quieter than usual. Shops are closed, and streets are deserted. After strolling through the undulating gardens of the royal palace, past sentries yawning beneath feathered helmets, we take the number 30 bus through genteel suburbs to the Bygdøy peninsular. Our first stop is the Kon-Tiki museum, which gives a vivid and evocative account of the exploits of Thor Heyerdahl, the brilliant, handsome latterday Viking explorer. His craft, Ra II and Kon-Tiki, look remarkably flimsy. In the gift shop, Hannah finds the weekend’s only bargain – a Kon-Tiki tee-shirt for £4.

We stride up the road, breathing fragrant pine, and glimpsing the fjord between brick-red clapboard houses. Soon we reach the impressive Viking Ship Museum – a white church-like building containing three ancient oak ships, their sculptural, sweeping lines simple but elegant, their ornate prows preserved in the clay of chieftains’ graves. Various artefacts have also survived - shoes, carved bed-heads and sleighs, and remarkable fragments of patterned cloth.

Another stroll brings us to the Folk Museum, with colourful costumes, bridal crowns, and handmade painted furniture. We peep into turf-roofed farmhouses and granaries and yearn to simplify our own lives, with log fires and box beds. Cool sunshine casts long shadows on wooden floors. On a hill stands a 12th century stave church – one of only 29 in Norway – a pagoda-like tower held together with stakes hammered into the ground. The wooden doors and finials are intricately carved. A traditional village has been reassembled, with sandy lanes linking grocery, chemist, post office, dairy farm and cottages. In summer, every building is open and you would want to stay all day, but even in winter there is plenty to see. In one shop, a pregnant assistant in traditional costume is knitting by the fire while she waits for customers. In the bakery, another villager is preparing dough with a dimpled rolling pin, and serving delicious flat cakes – hardangerlefse – hot from the open fire.

We catch another bus to Vigeland Park. I had never heard of him, but in Oslo Vigeland is a household name, and his former home is a museum. Massive sculptures of entwined naked bodies fill every room - stone babies, youths, adults, wrinkled oldies and skeletons pose in weird knobbly trees; naked mothers stoop to comfort naked sons. I love the sculpture, but Hannah hates it. Our disagreement continues in the park, which is dominated by a 60-foot granite obelisk of writhing bodies (‘phallic and grotesque’, says Hannah), surrounded by statues of laughing children, crouching crones, embracing couples and moody old men – all stocky, sturdy, sinewy, smooth. The park is an intriguing mix of living families, warmly wrapped against the winter weather, and equally large crowds of unclothed figures, running, jumping, smiling, frowning – but frozen in granite or weathered bronze. I think the statues look wonderfully dramatic against the pink sunset, but Hannah says they’re kitsch.

That evening, we dine at Havsmak, a seafood restaurant overlooking the king’s floodlit palace. We guzzle an expensive feast of scallops, crayfish and catfish. Walking home through the crisp night air, we pass a long-legged statue of Håkon VII, King of Norway from the country’s independence in 1905 until his death in 1957. Despite the bitter chill, groups of scantily clad smokers, banned from bars and restaurants, stand on street corners. Buskers don’t seem to notice the cold either, and are still playing melancholy folksongs on tambourines and accordions. We have spent a small fortune on food and drink, but we find ourselves enchanted by this quiet city, surrounded by wintry fjords and forests, and benighted – in the best sense - for 18 of every 24 hours.

First published by the Telegraph

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