The Kingdom of Norway was established in 872, as a merger of many petty kingdoms and has existed continuously for over 1,150years. From 1537 to 1814, Norway was a part of the Kingdom of Denmark and Norway, and, from 1814 to 1905, it was united with the Kingdom of Sweden. The country was neutral during the First World War and remained so, until April 1940, when the country was invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany, until the end of World War II.
Norway has a very low crime rate.
Norway has one of the highest GDPs per capita in the world. It ranked first on the World Happiness Report for 2017 and currently ranks first on the OECD Better Life Index, the Index of Public Integrity, the Freedom Index and the Democracy Index.
Norway is not a member state of the European Union (EU). However, it is part of the European Economic Area (EEA).
Oslo is my last European capital to visit. It's not exactly charming, like Bergen, but it's a small and sweet. A pleasant and easy place. It's spacious, with plenty of green areas. And the city is shown to good effect under cloudless skies.
Norway’s ancient capital wasn’t always called Oslo. Founded in 1040, its name was originally spelt Ânslo or Áslo. In 1624, a great fire destroyed large parts of the city, and it was decided to rebuild it closer to the Akershus Fortress. At the same time its name was changed to Christiania, in honour of the ruling monarch, King Christian IV. Between 1814 and 1905, Norway and Sweden were united in one kingdom and Oslo was the co-official capital, with Stockholm. In 1925, the city was renamed Oslo.
I've been wandering for about ten miles. Partly because the weather is good, partly because I get to see a lot more, and partly because I can't work out how to buy a tram ticket without downloading an app or opening a credit account. You can't pay on board. And also because I didn't pick the most logical route. I'm blaming Google.
Oslo Cathedral isn't the grandest building I've ever seen, but it's the building used to host all the main ceremonies required of the Church of Norway, like royal weddings. It dates from the late1600s, but was partially rebuilt in the nineteenth century.
South of the cathedral is Eidsvollsplass, running into Wesellsplass, a magnificent square and park lined with grand buildings, theatres and hotels. The park was preserved not so much for aesthetic reasons; it was more a case of NIMBY. The owners of the stately mansions didn't want tall buildings opposite them. To the north is the parliament building, the Stortinget, with its half rotunda. The parliament has only one voting house - a system known as unicameralism.
In the centre of the grassed area, statues and monuments and an outdoor skating rink, only open at the weekend. To the south, the National Theatre (Ibsen is often performed here) and the Royal Palace (Slottet) and Park. The Slottet is reached by steep steps and you're greeted by a statue of King Karl Johan in Palace Square. The palace was built for him (and he gave his name to the long street I've just walked along), but he died before it was finished in the 1840s. It's a smaller version of Buckingham Palace, though you can get much closer here. You're allowed to tour at weekends.
Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel (1833 - 1896), the inventor of dynamite, bequeathed the funds to found the Nobel Prizes. He stipulated that the annual presentation of the peace prize should take place in Oslo. (The other four- now five- prizes are given in Stockholm.) No-one is quite sure why he made this choice, but the kingdoms of Norway and Sweden were united, during his lifetime. The Peace Centre, a converted railway station, mounts exhibitions, offers tours and hosts peace related debates. It is right on the harbour, on the Aker Brygge, looking over the Oslo Fjord, along with a scattering of fish restaurants.
The Nobel Peace Prizes are actually presented annually, in December, in the imposing Oslo City Hall (Radhuset), just over the road. It is striking rather than attractive, built of large medieval style red bricks and has two colossal towers. The eastern tower has a carillon set of 49 bells.
It's a peaceful walk along the quayside, past moored schooners and brigs and some colourful warehouses. further round, the Akershus Fortress and old town, around which the new Christiana was constructed. The old town was always known as Oslo, though most of the sights, mainly churches, are now in ruins. The original medieval castle was built in the thirteenth century, but since then it has been transformed first into a fortress and then into a renaissance palace and residence of the royal family. It's open to the public, but only at weekends at the moment.
The National Opera and Ballet building dominates the next section of dockside. It's-cunningly designed to mirror the plates of ice on the finger of fjord on which it stands. Steep paths and walkways lead up to viewing platforms, on the top decks.
Next to the Opera House is the Munch Museum, Oslo's very recent version of Tate Modern. There was a competition for the design and the project was put on hold at least once, due to budget wrangling. There is a great of plate glass and long escalators, leading you to the various exhibitions and views across the harbour and the city. Not everyone loves the winning design. According to Wikipedia, it has been branded the unofficial world's largest collection of guard rails.
As you would expect, most of the paintings on display were executed by Edvard Munch. He was extremely prolific; the museum owns 26.000 of his works. The Scream, his iconic piece, takes pride of place. Most of us can identify with the anguished subject. But fewer folk would know that there were actually four copies of the Scream made - two paintings and two pastels. The museum owns three of them and rotates these on the display. One copy of the Scream was famously stolen in 2004, but the police managed to get it back. The museum is busy, even though the streets are quiet and you have to crane your neck to get a view.
Other modern and impressionist painters also feature - Dali, Picasso, Magritte.
Back past the palace and park, through the city centre, down the lengthy Karl Johans Gate mainly pedestrianized street (1200 metres long), lined with small shops. and by the cathedral again, into the suburbs of Uranienborg. Large affluent wooden structures and peaceful streets. It's a two mile stroll to the Vigeland Sculpture Park, set within the largest green space in Oslo, the Frogner Park.
Norwegian sculptor, Gustav Vigeland has assembled 200 sculptures to represent the cycle of human life. It's the largest sculpture park by a single artist in the world and it's entertaining, rather than enchanting. Surrounding the park are various enormous sports halls, skating and swimming, and further south, on a little peninsula is The Viking Ship Museum. But it's closed. (very) long term for renovation.
The Hotel Bristol isn't quite Claridge's, but the wintergarden restaurant is posh and expensive. Mind you, everywhere in Oslo is expensive. It's the second most expensive city in the world (according to one list- they're all different). The country has the fourth-highest per-capita income in the world.
There are chandeliers, arches and panelled gilded ceilings. And plenty of well heeled ladies eating cakes from silver tiered stands. Afternoon tea is 490 krone (over 40 pounds) so I reckon it will have to serve for dinner as well. Teeny cakes, a macaron, finger sandwiches and freshly baked scones with clotted cream and lemon curd. I wonder if that would be allowed in Devon?
The place where I'm staying, a sister hotel to the Bristol, on the same block, isn't Claridge's either. But the rooms are Scandi and elegant, with a squeezing of lime. The staff are exceptionally friendly and helpful. And it boasts it has the best breakfast in Oslo. They may be right. It's a glorious buffet selection. Like most places in Oslo they all speak good English. (Most of the signage is in English too). I've also noticed in some restaurants, that the common language amongst the multi lingual staff is English.
A taxi from Gardermoen Airport to the city centre is 100 euros and it takes an hour. The airport train takes 20 minutes and is about 20 euros. It's a no brainer. Though Google not having its finest hour in Oslo and tells me that my hotel is 3. 5 kilometres from the station, so I take a taxi. That's another 20 euros. Even when I discover that its actually only half a mile and the streets are reasonably flat. Which is why I'm wheeling my trolley case through a dark and chilly Oslo at 5 in the morning to get the train and then the plane to Stockholm.
The train is super efficient. You can even scan your boarding pass and print out your bag tag. And you only have to be at the airport an hour before take off. I hope.
Read more tales from Norway here.
Well here I am, up in Svalbard. The signs say I’m at 78 degrees latitude north. That’s only 12 degrees and about 650 miles from the North Pole itself. I don’t know much more about Svalbard, except there are several islands in the archipelago. Svalbard means “cold coasts” and it was first mentioned in Icelandic texts in the 12th century.
This is the most northerly land in Europe, (unless Franz Josef Land in Russia is allowed to call itself Europe). It's halfway between Norway and the North Pole and is officially part of the Kingdom of Norway. But it has its own governor (so it is almost a separate country) and, in theory, you don't need a visa to come here, as the land is open to anyone who wants to do Arctic research. In practice you do need a visa or at least a passport as you can only get here via Norway. Unless you've got your own ice-breaker.
Seven national parks and 23 nature reserves protect two-thirds of the archipelago, home to reindeer, arctic foxes and polar bears. I only discovered that Svalbard existed I when I read Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights trilogy. Good books - I’m wondering if anyone else has enjoyed them? He wrote about warrior polar bears (panzerbjorn I think). Which would be scarier - meeting one of them or running into a real bear? Hopefully, I shall see one from a safe distance.
We have begun our journey in the capital of Svalbard. It’s called Longyearbyen, and it’s tiny. The boat is named Expedition and its scarlet paint looks very pretty against all the ice covered pointy mountains. (That’s why this island is called Spitsbergen). I can’t get to sleep. It’s still really bright at midnight; exactly the same as when I arrived, this morning. It stays that way - all night. This is the Land of Midnight Sun (from April 15th to August 26th). In Svalbard, the Polar Night lasts from October 26th to February 14th and you can see the Northern Lights in the middle of the day, in the dark period. If you're lucky.
Today, a lot of briefings about polar bear safety. We are not to go anywhere on shore on Svalbard on our own and all the crew have rifles with them. Scary. We’ve also been told not to go near any bears - if we see one. Or the rifles. Even scarier.
We cruise north. These fjords did not freeze up completely this winter, which they say is very unusual. Global warming. So we’re going to look for the pack ice nearer the Pole. That’s where the bears hang out, hunting for seals.
We stop in a beautiful fjord, all sapphire reflections as the sun comes out. The glaciers are still calving little ice bergs that bob around us and the zodiac boats take us past a group of forty walruses, sunbathing on a shingle spit. The big bulls zoom out to greet us snorting foam and pretending to turn our boats over with their huge ivory tusks. Great photos, but I’m glad they are only playing. They are, aren’t they? One of those tusks could do a lot of damage to a rubber inflatable. I don’t fancy swimming in water that’s only one degree Celsius. I’m singing the Beatles song – goog oog ga choo.
Well I got two hours sleep and then was woken up at midnight, as we had reached the ice. The boat pushed on through it and gigantic ice floes splintered, jostling each other as we edged forward. White as far as the eye could see. You could walk to the North Pole, from here. If you didn’t mind the cold. It was snowing gently and I had all my ski gear and thermals on. I stood on the bridge and watched the Russian captain navigate through the cracking ice sheet to well past 80 degrees north. Two little harp seals flipped off a trapezoid berg and out of our way, I finally went back to bed at half past three and it was still broad daylight.
I thought I would have a lie-in to compensate but we get another alarm call at half past six. Polar bears in the water. A solitary male is whisking a large frond of kelp about, revelling in the huge splash he is causing. Then he clambers on to shore and lumbers away. We can’t get closer than half a mile, as the sea is too shallow. No rifles necessary.
We are still steaming up the coast of Spitsbergen. Just have time to eat breakfast and then another alert. A female bear with a small, very grubby cub, just above the shoreline. The cub is falling behind and mum has to keep stopping to fetch him. He is trying to avoid all the patches of snow and every time he gets to one he lays down and won’t budge until mum finds another way round. She gives him a big wet kiss when they get to the top.
North again and round the tip of Spitsbergen into the Hinlopenstredet. Ironically, although there is less ice this year, our finger of sea is still frozen further south. The captain isn’t sure if we will be able to get through. Two minke whales surge past, blowing several fountains as they go. More walruses, all sunning themselves, as it’s a warm day - two degrees. They loll around and scratch with their huge flippers. When they do move it’s very awkwardly and they edge forward at snail pace, before flopping into the water.
They call this the polar desert. It rarely rains and it’s arid and bare. There are orange lichen and a few minute flowers hidden in the rock. Purple saxifrage, spider plants and the tiniest poppy you could imagine. There isn’t much wildlife because there’s nothing to eat. And the plants that do grow have to be able to adapt from polar night to midnight sun. Reindeer droppings, but no reindeer.
South now, into an enormous branching fjord and more zodiac trips, looking for birds. I am lucky to snap a king eider male. They are rare round here and have amazing technicolour beaks.
More glaciers and a huge blue ice berg shaped like the sphinx from one end and the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao from the side.
Sailing past towering chimney cliffs. Ledges crammed with jostling guillemots. They are a little too plump to fly gracefully and they hover awkwardly over their tiny landing strips and then plunge into the sea in search of fish. Meanwhile, the shiny glaucous gulls manoeuvre into positions near the guillemots’ nests so they can snaffle the pear shaped eggs or the fluffy bundles that are the new-born chicks. Some arctic foxes hiding nearby are also planning a lightning raid.
There was too much ice, so we had to turn back. We won’t be able to circumnavigate Spitsbergen. And we’re heading north again. It’s foggy and the bay is full of small ice bergs. On one floe there is a female walrus with a pup. That’s one way to travel.
We wander round an abandoned Svalbard scientific research station. There’s writing on the blackboard dated 1966. The huts are in immaculate condition. Things decay slowly up here. Another polar bear alert. I’m getting very frustrated trying to follow little white pin pricks around. I want to see one properly. Without binoculars. These two are hunting a seal on the ice across the bay. So I’m told. They run away when they see us all marauding around.
Back on the boat we are summoned from lunch, as we have encountered another whale. This time a solitary humpback. He’s busy gorging on krill, but he obliges with a few rolls and a final flick of his fluke.
I haven’t been sleeping well in Svalbard, because of the constant daylight. It’s really bright at four a.m. and there have been quite a few night time interruptions to see wildlife. My eyes are sore and bloodshot. I’ve also been cold on the boat so I bought a fleece from the ship’s shop. They only had one colour in my size - red. One kind person said it suited me, as it matched my eyes.
A six a.m. call. O good. We were supposed to be twitching (bird watching) on an island, but another bear’s been spotted. He’s on a small isle, devouring a seal. He has left his favourite bit till last - the skin and blubber. He’s dragging this around after him. The boat edges in a little closer but we can’t get too close in case we run aground. They woke up the captain to take it in this far. After brandishing his seal for several minutes the bear pops into the sea for a dip and does a few circuits of his island.
So, belatedly, we take ourselves off to see some little auks. They’re also called dovekies, as they are so small. They are not very pleased to see us, crawling over the rocks towards them. They have a plaintive mewing cry. Not surprising really, as their eggs are all in burrows in the rocks beneath us.
We are sailing south again, to the most northerly settlement in the world with the most northerly pub and hotel in the world. It’s called Ny Ålesund. There are about thirty brightly painted buildings. Roald Amundsen had his base here, so there are statues of him. (I wonder if anyone will ever work out what happened to this famous explorer?) There are a few reindeer meandering around the fields as there’s more lichen and moss. Father Christmas must have let them off their duties for the summer. They are being dive-bombed by the arctic terns that have their nests on the ground close by. The reindeer are impervious. They have their velvety antlers to protect them. We aren’t so lucky and have to scurry away, as they come screaming at us, playing out a scene from a Hitchcock film.
In the evening we climb up a glacier to marvel at the huge humbug striped valleys. Puffins are peeping out of their burrows and waving their bright bills as they anxiously exchange chit chat with the guillemots below.
Tomorrow we return to Longyearbyen and then mainland Norway. I’ve been very lucky. The sea has been mill pond smooth all week and I haven’t had to take one sea sick pill. It’s also been quite sunny, so I’ve had some stunning mountain views. But it’s foggy now and the wind is whipping up. It’s bitterly cold and I really feel as if I'm at the North Pole. It’s a good time to come home. And I have seen six bears!
Read more tales from Norway here.
A Hurtiguten ferry cruise up the spectacular coast of Norway, from Bergen to Kirkenes, on the border with Russia, via Ålesund, Trondheim, Bodø, Tromsø, Honningsvåg, the Lofoten Islands and the North Cape. I'm hoping to see the Northern Lights. There's a guarantee of a free cruise next year if they don't materialise. But it won't be the same. as always, the fjords are lovely. Though many of the inlets are frozen at this time of year. The low light is atmospheric, and the snow tranquil, but you definitely can't see as much, in the gloom.
Bergen is the tourist hub of Norway, the heart of fjord land, right on Sognefjord, the country’s longest and deepest. It’s the second most populated city in Norway, but significantly quieter than Oslo. It has more of a tranquil small town vibe. Perhaps it’s the effect of the seven mountains that hug the city.
Bergen is still an important port. But it was once, at the time of the Hanseatic league (an early trading version of the EU), the centre of all Norway’s shipping (from the fourteenth century up to the 1830s). The most famous tourist haunt in Bergen is Bryggen, with its brightly colourful timber houses on the old wharf, the centre of the old trading empire. Today, museums, boutiques and cafes proliferate, instead.
If you get bored with town, shops and the lively fish market, there’s Edvard Grieg’s old home to visit. Or, making the most of nature, the Fløibanen Funicular, teetering up Fløyen Mountain for panoramic views and hiking trails.
Alesund is a fairytale town with charming art nouveau and its reflections in the water, at the entrance to the Geirangerfjord ( a UNESCO heritage site). It's built on seven islands. Most of the place was rebuilt after a fire in 1904. As with much of Norway, at that time, the destroyed houses were nearly all built of inflammable timber. So, it was decided to replace them with stone. It's fun spotting all the art nouveau curlicues, flowers and fruit, hidden away in arches and staircases. There's also plenty of modern, Scandi art to admire, inside the shops and museums.
Trondheim has a long history. It was founded in the tenth century and served as the capital of Norway during the Viking era. It's an icy and therefore slippery trudge round the streets. The most memorable landmark is the Gothic Nidaros Cathedral. It dates back to the eleventh century, and has an exceptionally ornate façade.
Bodo is a cruise port (fortunately its's quiet season), to be found on the Bodø Peninsula between the Vestfjorden and the Saltfjorden. It's not the prettiest of towns; there's a cathedral with a very modern bell tower and not a huge amount else. But it's framed by stunning mountains. Once past the town, we encounter polar night - a never to be forgotten ethereal blue silence. The chance of seeing the Northern Lights increases. And Neptune greets us, as we cross into the Arctic Circle.
The log cabin shaped Cathedral of the Arctic towers. above the houses at Tromsø. Here,the city centre contains more old wooden buildings than anywhere else in Northern Norway. This is located on the island of Tromsøya, but the urban area has spread onto the nearby mainland and part of the island Kvaløya. It's at 70°N (midnight sun and polar night), but the climate is relatively mild, as it's washed by the North Atlantic Drift, a branch of the Gulf Stream.
The Nordkapp (North Cape) is so cold and windy I thought I might not make it back. It's impossible to get a photo by the famous globe, atop the very steep cliff. It's supposed to mark the most northerly point on the European mainland. Well this is what they tell the tourists, but it's not true. The North Cape is to be found at 71°N , about 1,306.3 miles from the North Pole. And it's the most northerly point accessible by road.
The neighbouring Knivskjellodden Cape actually extends almost a mile further north. And both of these points are situated on an island, Magerøya, connected by road to the mainland. The northernmost point of mainland Europe is located 43 miles further east at Cape Nordkinn (about 3.5 miles further south) and about 70 km (43 mi) to the east. If you want to be totally accurate (or pedantic), the northernmost point of Europe, including islands ,is much further north, either in Russia's Franz Josef Land or Norway's Svalbard archipelago, depending on whether Franz Josef Land is considered to be in Europe or in Asia.
And yes, the Northern Lights put on their magic show twice - we were summoned from our beds by the ship's tannoy to see them in the early hours of the morning (you can turn the speaker off if you want.) It's difficult to do justice to them in words, and images don't really capture the essence; it's one of those events you have to experience. I've seen it called the Holy Grail of Sky-watching. To be honest, it's not even easy to take a photograph. Automatic settings on the camera don't work in the darkness. And you need a tripod for the required long exposures. Better just to watch. I think.
The Northern Lights, or the aurora borealis, are iridescent dancing waves of light caused by energized particles of light entering the earth's atmosphere. This super fast onslaught is slowed by the earth's magnetic field and directed to the poles, where they put on their performance, if you are lucky. The sun only emits these particles sometimes; you can look for Northern Light predictions online.
And finally, the small port of Kirkenes, where the ship turns round, is only nine miles from the Russian border. Most people are surprised to learn that Norway has a border with Russia It’s 120 miles long, further east than Finland (the same longitude as Cairo in fact) and the one road that passes through it is the most northerly border crossing in Europe. Much of the border is defined by a river and runs through dense forest. It’s marked by yellow posts on the Norwegian side and red-green striped posts on the Russian side. It doesn’t do to stray!
Unsurprisingly, Kirkenes has very Russian feel. There are bilingual street signs and the shops cater primarily for Russian visitors in search of quality goods. The Norwegians, when they can, nip over the border the other way, to buy cheaper fuel.
There’s a church, a museum and a World War II bunker to visit. .Or outdoor activities, like snow mobiling and dog sledding. And a snow hotel to stay in. But I’m already cold enough already. It’s literally freezing here - the sea water has coated the ship’s hull.
Hurtigruten have been running their coastal express services since 1893. They were set up, by government contract, to improve communications in a land where travel by road isn’t always easy. There are hundreds of fjords and it takes a long time to drive round them, even if the road is clear of snow.
The boat was comfortable (there's even an on deck jacuzzi) and the food good and plentiful. It’s locally sourced and the seafood buffets are divine.
We were rewarded with a fascinating cinematic view of the everyday commerce, the deliveries, the comings and goings of the people of Norway moving from one port to the next.
Read more tales from Norway here.
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