Thursday, February 13, 2020

Gunnar Sønsteby

Karl Johansgate is Oslo's main street. It connects the Norwegian Parliament to the Royal Palace. About halfway between is a statue of a modest looking man standing next to his bicycle. That's Gunnar Sønsteby, Norway's most decorated WWII resistance hero.

Shortly after the Germans invaded Norway on April 9, 1940, they marched down Karl Johansgate. Gunnar was there, with his bicycle, to witness the event. He later became the head of the resistance in Oslo and the most sought after man by the Gestapo in Norway.  Gunnar passed away in 2012, but the statue of him with his bike can be seen on Karl Johansgate very close to the actual  spot where he witnessed the Germans taking over Oslo, as shown in the photo below.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

World's Only Authentic Viking Helmet

Anyone who knows anything about the Vikings knows that they did not have horns on their helmets. That misconception came from a Wagner opera.

In fact, only one complete Viking helmet has been found - the 10th Century Gjermundbu Helmet which was discovered on a Norwegian farm in 1943. You can now see the helmet at the Historical Museum in Oslo this summer.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Norwegian Literature

Classic Norwegian Literature

Reading Norwegian literature before or during your trip can enhance your journey. Below are a few authors that I've labelled "classic" even though they are not that old. They are mainstays in Norwegian literature.  Further down are Contemporary writers

HENRIK IBSEN is Norway’s most well known writer and today is the second most performed playwright in the world after Shakespeare.  Many of Ibsen’s plays dealt with societal issues that were taboo subjects at the time. Foremost among these is A Doll’s House (1867), which criticized the role of women in society. Ghosts (1881) and An Enemy of the People (1882) dealt with the moral hypocrisy of his times.

Peer Gynt (1867) is probably the most celebrated play with Norwegians today. There’s an annual week long Peer Gynt Festival in the Gudbrandsdal Valley where the play is performed outdoors, not far from where the real life model for Peer lived.

The definitive biography on Ibsen is Michael Meyer’s Biography (1971). Robert Ferguson has written a shorter New Biography (2011).

KNUT HAMSUN is one of the great European novelists – Issac Bashevis Singer said that "the whole school of fiction in the 20th century stems from Hamsun". Hunger (1890) was his breakthrough book and is considered to be one of the first modernistic novels. This semi-autobiographical work about a starving writer pioneered the stream of consciousness technique. Pan (1894) and Mysteries (1892) are two of his stronger novels from his early period. Hamsun later wrote more conventional novels that gained a widespread ridership. The epic Growth of the Soil (1917) earned him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1920.

Unfortunately for Hamsun’s reputation he lived too long and as an old man he supported the German occupation of Norway during World War II. This was very hard for the people in Norway to understand and accept as he was the nation’s greatest writer. Two good biographies, Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun (1988) and Knut Hamsun: Dreamer and Dissenter (2009), attempt to explain how such an insightful writer could have supported the Nazi occupation.

SIGRID UNDSET won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1928 for the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, a historical novel taking place in medieval Norway. The book is noted for its historical accuracy and for telling this epic tale from a woman's perspective. The newer Penquin translation is easier to read than the original translation. At over 1000 pages, it will make for a fine companion during your trip to Norway.

NORWEGIAN FOLKTALES  were collected by Asbjørnsen & Moe in the mid 1800’s. Like the German brothers Grimm, they traveled around the rural countryside collecting folktales. Their published versions of these folktales have had a huge impact on Norwegian culture and their Troll stories  are read around the world, most notably, the Three Billy Goats Gruff. There have been many versions translated into English, this one includes some original illustrations by Thoedor Kittelsen who created the vision of Trolls we have today.

Contemporary Norwegian Writers

The popularity of Nordic Noir has given Scandinavia crime writers an international readership. The Swede Steig Larsson was the first to have worldwide fame. Norwegian Jo Nesbø is now the most prominent writer in the genre. He’s best known for his Harry Hole series, 11 of which have been translated into English. The series started with The Bat  and The Snowman was recently made into a film. Nesbø has also written some stand alone books: The Son and Headhunters are two good examples.

Anne Holte is another popular Nordic Noir writer in Norway. Her Hanne Wilhelmsen series, started by Blind Goddess , took Norway by storm and led to her being named Minister of Justice a few years later. Karen Fossum and Gunnar Staalesen are two other Nordic Noir Writers who are widely read in Norway.

More Highbrow readers might like Karl Ove Knausgaard and Jon Fosse. Knausegaard is best known for his six volume autobiographical My Struggle. This  series has gotten rave reviews internationally for its brutally candid details of his family and friends. 

Jon Fosse is currently one of the most performed living playwrights in the world. In appreciation for his contribution to Norwegian culture, the government has given him an honorary residence next to the Royal Palace for the rest of his life.

Other contemporary Norwegian writers who have been translated include: Linn Ullmann, daughter of Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman, novelist Jan Kjærstad and journalist Åsne Seierstad .

Monday, November 26, 2018

Travel Guide Books

There are plenty of guidebooks for travel to Norway and Scandinavia. Here’s an overview of some of the better ones that will be useful to either give you ideas before your trip or to assist you during your journey. 

Lonely planet  and Rough Guides are the two big names. Both are fairly comprehensive and are worth browsing through before your trip to give you ideas of where you might like to visit. Rough Guides tend to be stronger on culture while Lonely Planet has better maps and practical information. I would give the edge to traveling with Lonely Planet unless it’s an older edition.

Moon travel guides are not as popular or as glossy as the above two, but they have excellent straight forward information and are fairly comprehensive.  They make some unorthodox sightseeing recommendations, which is refreshing as most travel guidebooks tend cover the same sights.

Rick Steves guide books have a more focused approach than the others. Rick limits his coverage to those places he feels are central and he likes. He has a wide following of independent travelers in the mid price range. His walking tours are very well done. The maps and practical information are not as strong as Lonely Planet’s but this is a good choice if you are in sync with Rick’s travel philosophy.

Insight Guides have great pictures and inspiring text but are not good on practical information. So I would read these before your trip and not bring them with you.

DK Eyewitness travel guides have the best visual illustrations I’ve seen. They are great for dense urban areas packed with sights or navigating through a large museum. As much as I like them, I think they are better suited for a visit to London or Paris than travelling around Norway

If you can’t decide between two guidebooks, buy the one that is the most recent. Also be aware that there’s often a year between when books are researched and when they are published, so some information can be outdated.

You’re usually best off buying a Scandinavia guidebook if you’re combining your trip to Norway with a visit to Denmark and or Sweden. The Norway section in those books will be close to what you’ll find in a Norway only guidebook.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

The Little Mermaid and Fearless Girl in Oslo

Oslo has two well known sculpture parks, the Vigeland Park and the Ekeberg Park . Less known are two famous statues that can be found in Oslo: The Little Mermaid and the Fearless Girl.

The Fearless Girl gained international attention in 2017 when it was placed in juxtaposition to Wall Street's Charging Bull in NYC. Initially, it was only to be displayed for one week as part of an advertising campaign for an investment company, but for many it quickly became a symbol of the resiliency of women. The removal of that statute became a political issue and the current mayor of NYC wants it to stay. 

A replica of the Fearless Girl can now be seen in front of the Grand Hotel in downtown Oslo. She stands there mostly unnoticed.

The Little Mermaid has become the symbol of Copenhagen. But you can see exactly the same sculpture by the Folketeateret in Oslo (both are copies of the original). Granted the Copenhagen setting, placed on a rock in the harbor, is more dramatic, but you can touch the one in Oslo and there aren't hordes of tourists blocking your view.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Oslo 2020

Oslo has been going from strength to strength in recent years. In 2008, the  Oslo Opera House quickly became an icon for the city with it's sloping, marble clad roof that visitors can walk up. In 2012, the Renzo Piano designed Astrup Fearnley Museum  of contemporary art opened in Tjuvholmen, an old dockyard in Oslo's central harbor. And in 2013, an eclectic collection of statutes dispersed through a forest was given to the city to establish the  Ekeberg Sculpture Park .

Oslo will take another big leap forward in 2020, when three new landmark buildings will open. Located a block from the City Hall, the new National Museum will be a new major sight in downtown Oslo. The over 6,000 works of art in the permanent collection will present Norwegian and European art from antiquity to the present, with Edvard Munch paintings being the biggest draw for tourists.

While the new National Museum will have one room dedicated to Edvard Munch, the new Munch Museum will need 12 stories to show some of the 28,000 art works that Munch donated to the city when he passed away. Located behind the new Opera House, the Munch Museum will be another major sight in Bjørvika, Oslo's new harbor side area. The video below shows an excellent preview of the new museum - click to full screen to see all the details.

The last of the new landmark buildings is the new Oslo Public Library, located directly across from the Opera House. It will make for an impressive start of the new Bjørvika area for those coming from the central railway station.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Top 10 Oslo Sights

This list is based on feedback I've gotten from visitors to Oslo over the past 30 years.  All of the top 10 sights are easy to get to by public transportation. Three of them are free, the rest are included in the Oslo Pass, which also includes public transportation.
[Update: The National Gallery has closed after this was written and will be moving to a much large museum in late 2020]

10: The Kon-Tiki Museum
The Kon-Tiki Museum is devoted to the exploits of Thor Heyerdahl, an explorer who risked his life to prove some of his controversial theories.  In 1947, to prove that pre-columbian South Americans could have traveled to Polynesia, Thor crossed the Pacific Ocean in  a primitive balsa wood raft.  You can see the original raft and filmed footage of the voyage that won an Academy Award (the Oscar is there as well). The rest of the museum covers two similar voyages across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans as well as Heyerdahl's groundbreaking excavations on Easter Island.

A visit here is a high priority for those who read about the Kon-Tiki  as a kid. Kids today will also enjoy the museum because of the eye-popping visuals - real rafts that were sailed across the ocean, giant plaster copies of the monumental Moais and a whale shark by the entrance to a walk-through cave.

9: The National Gallery
Located in the center of town, the National Gallery has an international art collection that spans from antiquity to the 1950's. Although a fair share of international masters are represented, it's the Norwegian artists that are the draw, with Edvard Munch foremost. Here's a list of the top ten paintings that I like to show when I guide there. [UPDATE: The National Museum has now closed and will be moved to a new building opening in 2020]

8: The Norwegian Folk Museum
The big draw of this museum is the open air portion that has 160 buildings from different regions in Norway, including a stave church from Gol. Outside many of the buildings are Norwegians dressed in Bunads (folk costumes) who are available to answer questions. There are also extensive indoor exhibits about Norwegian folk culture.  This museum is great to visit if Oslo is your only destination in Norway as it will give you some insight into the rest of the country.

7: Holmenkollen Ski Jump and Ski Museum
To understand Norway, you need to appreciate the special role that skiing has played in Norwegian life. A visit to Holmenkollen is a good place to start. Ski jumping has been done here since 1892 and the jump has been expanded 18 times, including a major improvement for the 1952 Olympics. The current jump was built in 2011 and you can take a funicular up to the top for a panoramic view of Oslo. An entrance to the ski jump tower also includes admission to the Ski Museum, which chronicles 4000 years of skiing in Norway.

To get there, you can take the Metro to the Holmenkollen Station and walk about 15 minutes uphill. Many bus tours include an outside visit that gives a view of the ski jump and a bird's eye view of Oslo.

6: City Hall
City halls are not usually tourist destinations, but the Oslo City Hall is an exception. Don't be fooled by the staid brick exterior. Once you enter, you'll see a grand hall richly decorated with giant murals depicting the history of Oslo and Norway. This hall is where the Nobel Peace Prize is handed out each year on December 10. After taking in all of the first floor, make sure you go up the stairs and make a circuit around all the rooms. They all have paintings with different themes. My favorite is the Per Krogh room . It took Per 10 years to paint all the walls and ceiling with a mural depicting the four seasons in Oslo and rural Norway.

The City Hall is downtown and free, but is sometimes closed to the public because of various functions.

5: The Norwegian Resistance Museum
Perched on the ramparts of the Akershus Fortress, Norway's Resistance Museum documents the resistance to the German occupation during WW II. There's no need for a guided tour, all the exhibits have amble text in English.

4: Fram Museum
Internationally, the Fram Ship is best known as the vessel that Roald Amundsen sailed to Antarctica when he became the first man to the South Pole. Norwegians know that the ship was custom-built for Fridtjof Nansen's 1893 voyage in which he sailed the Fram into the polar ice cap in order to let the ship drift close to the North Pole. Nansen left the ship and tried to ski to the North Pole. He didn't make it all the way, but made it further north than all previous attempts. The ship drifted 3 years in the polar ice cap before coming out on the western end. You can board the Fram and see all the cabins with original artifacts.

The museum also houses Amundsen's ship, the Gjoa, which he sailed as the first to navigate the Northwest Passage. There's a good film and lots of exhibits about the daring exploits of Nansen and Amundsen.

3: Vigeland  Park
The Vigeland Park was created by Norway's greatest sculptor, Gustav Vigeland, and is the world's largest sculpture park made by a single artist. In 1929, Vigeland entered into a contract with the city of Oslo whereby the city provided him with a workshop and the funds to create whatever he wanted in the park. In return, the city got all the sculptures.

The centerpiece of the park, is a giant 50 foot monolith with 121 figures surrounded by 36 large granite sculptures. All in all, there are over 200 sculptures plus many iron wrought gates with intricate designs. The park is free, open 24/7 and is easy to get to by public transportation. To avoid crowds during the summer, try to go in the late afternoon or evening.

2: The Viking Ship Museum
There are only two places in the world where you can see original Viking ships - Roskilde in Denmark and the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo with it's two intact ships.  The first is the Oseberg from ca. 800 and was owned by a Queen. The Gokstad ship, from around 890, was owned by a king who died in battle. An exact replica of this ship sailed across the Atlantic to Chicago in 1893.

Both of the ships were found in large burial mounds along with a treasure trove of artifacts that can be viewed in the museum. These include intricately craved sleds and carriages, plus many items used in daily life.

1: Oslo Opera House
Built in 2008, walking up the roof of the Oslo Opera House has become a must do activity while in Oslo. Clad in white Carrara marble, the Opera House evokes a glacier sliding into the fjord. A walk on the roof gives you a great view of the harbor, the bar code buildings and the emerging downtown Bjorvika area. It's free to walk on the roof and check out the lobby, but inside tours should be booked in advance.

Special Interest Sights

Some would have the Munch Museum in the top ten. My view is that National Gallery has enough top shelf Munch paintings to satisfy most visitors. But, if you're a Munch fan, you'll want to take the Metro to the Tøyen station to see more paintings.

The Ekeberg Sculpture Park  is a new sight and a personal favorite. But because it's eclectic collection is dispersed through a large forested area, a visit here takes more time than most visitors can allot.

Downtown, the Nobel Peace Center has information about all the winners of the Nobel Peace Prize plus rotating exhibits about promoting peace. Lots of hands on exhibits makes this a good place to take kids.

After Shakespeare, Henrik Ibsen is the most produced playwright in the world. His last residence houses the Ibsen Museum.

The Royal Palace reigns above Oslo's main street, Karl Johan. You can walk around the outside for free at any time. Inside visits for the public are only during the summer and need to be booked in advance.

The main draw of the  Astrup Fearnley Museum of Contemporary Art is the building itself. Designed by Renzo Piano, this landmark building with a sloping roof marks the entrance to Oslo's central harbor. A small outdoor sculpture park with a great view of the Oslo Fjord can be viewed for free at anytime. Inside, the museum has a permanent collection of big name contemporary artists, like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst as well as rotating exhibits.