Today’s tour was a little bit different style than what we normally book. We like to do small group tours with independent operators, but someone on our roll call on Cruise Critic had posted that they had found a great deal for a tour in Oslo on Expedia. For a little over $50 we would have a 7-hour tour that included a 2-hour fjord cruise. What a deal! Scandinavia is infamously expensive and so I felt positive that we could not find a less expensive tour that would be as comprehensive.
The weather in Oslo was abysmal; it was raining when we left the ship in the morning. We were docked right in the central harbor next to Akershus Fortress and Castle. It was a short walk to City Hall which was our meeting point for the tour. City Hall is huge (it takes up an entire city block); we were not sure exactly where we were supposed to meet. We were quite early so knew that the bus would not be waiting just yet, so walked around the building. The entrance is actually in the back of the building. There were some beautiful wood-carved panels there. There was also a guard posted outside; the building was closed because the parliament was in session. I showed him our tour voucher and asked him if he knew where we would be meeting. He said that there was a park next to the building; the meeting point would be there. We walked back around the building and located a dry area to wait. We met two other couples that would be on the tour with us and also found a bus stop for HMK Tours so knew we were all in the right place.
About an hour before the tour was to start the bus showed up. We were given a blue “Grand Tour” sticker and a set of headphones. There was a live guide for the tour but it is also given in 8 other languages. There are also several other (shorter) tour options though they all started and ended at the same place. We were happy to have arrived so early; those that got there 1/2 hour early had a difficult time finding seats on the bus. Several couples had to sit separately. By 10:15 there were no seats left. There were several people that had to wait for another bus to pick them up.
We were on our way to our tour around central Oslo. Unfortunately it was raining so hard that it was difficult to see anything! I tried to take a few pictures but the camera kept wanting to focus on the raindrops on the window rather than whatever the site was. I would focus on the object but when I tried to lock in the focus, the camera would get “confused”. I know I could use manual focus but when you are taking pictures on a moving bus it is difficult to take any pictures at all!
Oslo was originally called Christiania. The city was located a little ways away from its current location but burned down four times. Christian IV, the king at the time, decided that the city needed to be relocated and all buildings had to be built out of stone. The streets had to be at least 15 meters wide as well so that fire could not spread as easily. The town was to be 3 blocks in the east-west direction and 7 in the north-south, so a 21 block square. Factories were to the east so factory workers lived in that area (smellier and smokier than the west side where the richer folk lived). Those that lived outside the city walls were allowed to have houses built of wood.
We drove past Akershus Fortress which was first built in 1299; it has been rebuilt several times. We passed by what looked like large triangular structures. This turned out to be a piece of artwork that was built to resemble the drying racks traditionally used to dry salted fish (lutefisk). The Opera House was very interesting looking (but impossible to get a photo of due to the rain); it was designed to resemble an iceberg. Near the Opera House was a set of buildings that were designed to resemble bar codes.
The National Gallery here contains works of Münch. His work, “The Scream” was stolen from there in 1994; the thief left a thank you note to express his appreciation that the security at the gallery was so weak, making it easy for him to take the painting. Security has been improved since!
In 1920, the city’s name was changed to Oslo. The word for street in Norwegian is gate; we were now driving down Karl Johans Gate (a former king) which leads to the Royal Palace. For 500 years Norway was not an independent country. It was occupied by the Danes for many years and was eventually given to Sweden. In 1905, after 500 years of occupation, Norway broke away from Sweden. May 17th is celebrated as Norwegian Independence Day.
We drove past the Nobel Institute. Nobel was actually Swedish and all of the prize ceremonies except for the Peace Prize take place there. He never explained why he set up the Peace Prize, nor did he explain why it has to be presented in Norway.
Eighty percent of those in Oslo own their own homes. People buy early; they want to own rather than rent. Norway is a social welfare state. For full-time workers the tax rate ranges from 27% to 50% (for the highest earners). Part-time workers tax rates start at 15%. According to our guide, everyone gives as much as possible for the greater good. Medical is a benefit for all, but not dental. There is a small copay for a doctor visit (15€), and medicine is not covered, but out of pocket expenses are capped at 300€ per year. Once you have spent 300€, everything is free. There are private practice doctors as well; if you choose to visit one, all expenses are out of pocket. There also child-friendly policies in place. Both mother and father are given at least 2 weeks holiday for the birth of a child. The father receives 10 weeks of paid leave; the mother or father receives either 10 months of paid leave at 100% pay or 12 months at 80%.
Wages here are high but so is the cost of living. Due to its close proximity many Norwegians drive to Sweden on the weekend to buy staples because things are cheaper there. Likewise, Swedes drive to Denmark; Danes drive to Germany and Germans drive to Poland!
By now we had reached our first stop, the Olympic ski jump. This ski jump was originally built in 1892 but has been rebuilt 18 times, most recently in 2011. There is a zipline there as well as a ski jump simulator, and of course, a souvenir shop! The Olympic biathlon course is also located on the site. Apparently, the ski jump tower can be rented through airbnb. Watching the ski jump on tv is nothing like seeing the actual jump; it is absolutely enormous! I took pictures from several perspectives; it is impossible to get the whole ski jump in a single shot (maybe from the top this would be possible). I have a whole new respect for those that risk their lives participating in this crazy sport. Do you remember the “agony of defeat” guy?
We had about 1/2 hour to wander around the grounds, use the toilets and shop. There was also a café, I believe. One thing to note about this tour – there is no time built in for lunch. Either bring your own or grab a hot dog along the way; there are not many options for food.
Back on the bus to hear more information about Norway. Are you familiar with the traditional Norwegian costumes? We passed by a shop selling them. Our guide told us that the starting cost for one is 4000€!
Oslo has a large immigrant population, at 31% (about double the rate of the rest of Norway). The main church is Lutheran but many of the immigrants are Catholic, so Catholicism is growing.
Before the days of refrigeration, Norway used to be the #1 exporter of ice. The lakes here freeze over in the winter so blocks of ice would be carved out and sold to ships. The clearer the ice, the greater the price. Currently, salmon is the top export.
On a nicer day our next stop, Vigelandsparken, would have been a highlight. Vigeland was an artist that had a really high opinion of his own abilities. He proposed to the city to build a park completely designed by him at no charge. They accepted his proposal. He was provided with an apartment and some assistants to help with the work. The work was started in 1922 and completed in 1944, one year after his death. During the Nazi occupation of Norway, Hitler visited several times to view the progress that was being made. The theme for the park is, “The Circle of Life”.
The monolith was the first statue we stopped at. The theme for this particular piece of art is relationships. Vigeland was apparently quite difficult to get along with and had many failed relationships; he was twice divorced and did not get along with his own father and grandfather. Surrounding the main monolith are many pairs of people in a variety of poses.
The next statue was literally a representation of the circle of life. The statues surrounding the fountain represented birth, childhood, puberty, first love, first argument, marriage, childbirth, childrearing, old age, death, and rebirth (starting the cycle all over again).
Leaving the park, we briefly stopped to view its most famous sculpture, the angry child. By now everyone was soaked to the skin; not only was it pouring down rain but it was also windy. We were happy to get back on the bus to get out of the crummy weather.
To the west of town is a peninsula where many of the cool museums are located. There is a Viking Ship Museum, an open-air Museum of Cultural History, the Kon-Tiki Museum and the Fram Museum. We stopped first at the Fram Museum. The Fram is a ship that is famous because it is the ship that has come closest to the North Pole. It was used for 8 expeditions. In 1888, a Norwegian named Nansen took an expedition to traverse the passage between Greenland and Canada. This had not been successfully completed by anyone until then. Nansen decided to travel in the opposite direction from what others had tried and was successful. He ended up spending a year there among the indigenous people.
The Fram was built for his next expedition; to reach the North Pole. The Fram is a pretty large ship, but only eleven undertook the trip. He and his fellow explorer, Johansen, were not able to get close the pole. The trip was much more difficult than anticipated. So, they left the ship on skis and skied there instead! The ship went on without them. For the return trip, they skied back towards where they had been dropped off until the ice ended. They essentially hitched a ride with another ship to get back to Oslo, arriving within a week of the Fram.
Following Nansen’s expedition, Roald Amundson borrowed the ship to try to reach the north pole. The British were also undertaking a polar expedition, so Amundson changed his mind and headed to the south pole instead (the Brits were headed there as well). Amundson used sled dogs to reach the South Pole. Any dogs that couldn’t keep us were used to feed the remaining dogs. Because of this, he successfully reached the pole and returned safely. The British reached the pole but didn’t make it back.
The Fram museum is located right next to the Kon-Tiki museum. This is a museum dedicated to the raft that was built to take Thor Hyerdahl on a 101-day journey from Peru to the Galapagos Islands. He and his wife had spent time in the Galapagos islands and he had noticed that there were cultural similarities between there and South America. He undertook the journey to prove that it could have been a travel route historically.
It was still raining but not as hard now. We were driven to the open-air cultural history museum. This was a fascinating glimpse into the ways that Norwegians have lived throughout the centuries. I could have spent hours here.
Our first stop was the Stave Church, constructed in 1220 AD. This church was constructed from pine; no nails were used. Only 28 of these churches remain in Norway. In the days before the Reformation, the church owned 80% of the property. A farmer would have to split their crops 4 ways; they kept 1/4, 1/4 was given to the king, 1/4 to the poor and 1/4 to the church. In 1537 with the Reformation, the Catholic church lost its power. This particular church was given as a gift to the king. It needed much work to restore it, so the king built a museum around it.
There were no seats in the church, people had to stand. Those with higher status stood towards the front. Women had to stand to the north because everything evil came from the north. The paintings that are visible were added in 1660 (after the Reformation).
Before Catholicism, Norwegians believed in the old gods, Odin and Thor. There are carvings visible in the altar area that are from those times. There is a carving of an 8-legged horse (Odin’s horse). There are also eternity symbols visible. Runes are visible on the sides of the paintings. If you look to up towards the back of the church you can see two wood carvings of guys wearing crowns and grinding their teeth. These represent the fact that if you are not well-behaved now, you will suffer in the afterlife! Notice also the painting on the pillars – they are painted to resemble marble. But, only the pillars in the front where the rich would stand; the pillars in the back are plain.
We stopped at a little red school house. Red is a common color for older houses; it was the cheapest pigment. In 1860’s the government decreed that all Norwegians should have the opportunity to attend school. But, it was difficult to traverse due to the weather and rough terrain. So, very small schools were built. The teacher had a small room to sleep in at the back of the building. Teachers would often rotate from school to school on two-week schedules (not enough teachers to go around!). During their two-week stay, local families would feed the teacher.
Going forward in time we passed by what looked like two teepees. These were representative of the housing that the indigenous people (Sami) lived in. These Laplanders have a 6,000 year history; they lived in areas spanning four countries. The structure made of sticks was a permanent resident; the covered one was temporary, kind of like a tent. The coastal Laplanders fished, those that lived inland lived off of their use of Reindeer. Their history parallels that of many Native Americans in the US. They were living successfully, but the governments of the countries where they lived wanted to tax them. Their children were forced into attending Norwegian schools, though they did not speak that language. They were beaten up if they did not speak Norwegian. Their families were prevented from buying land; laws were passed that unless you could speak Norwegian, you were not allowed to be a land owner. Over the years, their culture was lost. Now, most remaining Sami live in Oslo.
Just past the Sami structures was a small village. The houses here were very rough. There was an open fire in the middle of the living area with a hole in the roof above to let the smoke out. With no windows, the only light came through that hole. The people would live on the right-hand side of the structure; animals on the left. There was a high threshold at the entry to keep stray animals from wandering in; the doorway was also quite short for the same reason.
The next village represented life in the 1750’s. There were now windows in the houses. The cost of three windows was more than the cost of the entire house! The windows dramatically improved the quality of life; not only allowed in light but having windows also allowed for having a chimney. No more smoky rooms!
We had now reached the city (Christiania). All of the buildings here are original. There is a Dutch influence in some of the buildings due to trade that took place between the countries.
Our last stop was at a small house that was representative of the home of a factory worker in the suburbs of Oslo. There was no electricity or running water. The beds are shorter than you might expect; people would sleep in a curled up position for warmth so there was no need for full-length beds. These homes existed as late as the 1960’s when they were demolished. The white building is a former post office.
As we headed back to City Hall to drop off some passengers, our guide told us about life above the Arctic Circle. Oslo is much south of there, but often people are curious. There are 77 days/year when it is always light and 66 when it is always dark. There is a 15-day transitional period before and after these extremes. Oslo does not experience these extremes; it is more like the rest of Europe.
The last part of our tour was a 2-hour fjord cruise. It sounded like a great idea but once again, the rain prevented us from seeing much other than raindrops on the windows. I was able to get a few pictures of the Opera House so it wasn’t a total loss! We ended up sitting next to a couple from Spokane, Katie and Mark. Small world! They live about 5 hours from us, and she grew up really near the town that I taught in for 35 years. They were on their honeymoon.
We were given a commentary for the entire trip but since it was so hard to see, I didn’t take many pictures. One thing of interest was the tiny houses along the waterfront. These originally were built as swimming houses and would be painted to match the main house on the hill. People would drop their clothes off in the house and skinny dip in the frigid fjord. They were also used to smuggle alcohol in the 1920’s (Prohibition existed in Norway, too; not just the US!). Now, the cost of one of these little houses is the same as the cost of an apartment in Oslo!
We passed a marina where artificial currents are used to keep the water from freezing in winter. There is an 8-10 years waiting list for a slip here!
An inventive local tried to dig a hole in the rock so they wouldn’t have to climb stairs to reach the water. The government found out and shut down the project. Now they have a really expensive hole in the rock that is used for storage.
Most of the islands we passed require owning a boat to reach the island. Fortunately, 50% of people in Oslo own their own boat!
We were really happy to get back to the dock. This had been a very long day; seven hours is a lot of touring. Because the itinerary was so packed we didn’t really get to enjoy any of the stops; we felt rushed all day long. We also were quite hungry because there was not enough time anywhere to grab lunch. And, due to the lousy weather, it was difficult to see and appreciate many of the places we either drove by or stopped at. It definitely reinforced the fact that we don’t like bus tours; in the future, we will make sure to continue our practice of booking tours in smaller groups. It was definitely an economical choice but for us, it wasn’t the right choice.