Rain Reigns in Norway
Europe, June - July 2008

Part II - Oslo and Tromsø, Norway


My first experience of Oslo was of gray skies, mud, and suspicious-looking characters. As the train pulled into the station, the promise of clearing skies proved misleading as it again started to pour. As I walked out of the station into the pouring rain, I was met by muddy paths leading through a labyrinth of construction cranes, bulldozers, and chain-link fencing. The outside of the station was under major construction. I navigated through the construction zone past a large group of drunken riff-raff. Maneuvering through the construction zone messed up my sense of direction and I initially trudged in the wrong direction, dragging my bag through the mud behind me.

After turning around and again running the riff-raff gauntlet through more mud, I finally arrived at my hotel only to find that the $120 a night room I booked was not en suite as I had assumed, but had grungy shared bathroom facilities. Then, I also found that I didn’t have internet service in my room, and the TV barely worked, with only three static-y channels. Did I mention it was pouring rain? So here I was stuck in this hovel (for two nights), no tv, no internet, trying to survive in this third-world slum of a hotel. 

The next day I visited the Nobel Peace Center, where there was an exhibit on life in third-world slums throughout the world: families living in tin sheds in Mumbai, men living under bridges in Jakarta, etc. Thanks a lot, Nobel Peace Center, for making me feel like a spoiled jerk whining about the comparatively luxurious living conditions in my hotel!

But before the peace center, things got even worse. It was still raining off and on in the morning. Because of the rain, I decided to hit some museums first. I headed to the Munch Museum, a 15-minute train ride, only to discover it was closed for the day. So there was 30 minutes of my single day in Oslo wasted. Then I decided to try the historic church back in the middle of the city. Turns out it was closed for the year and completely enwrapped by scaffolding for renovation. 0 for 2 in Oslo so far. 

By now though, things appeared to be clearing up a bit. So I decide to head to Vigeland Park. I was told I must go to the park to see all the unique sculptures. After another 15-minute train ride, I walked to the park and as I approached the myriad sculptures, the skies opened – pouring rain, thunder and lightning. I scrambled under a tree to wait out the hardest of the rain, wondering if I’d ever get see anything in Oslo.

Fortunately, the rain was brief and I was soon able to get out from under the tree and check out the sculptures. They are really quite amazing. You’ve surely seen the style before, as have I, though I never knew they were done by this guy, Gustav Vigeland, who lived from 1869 to 1943 and is Norway’s most famous sculptor. They’re nude sculptures, most in rather unusual and often slightly suggestive poses – they reminded me of a cross between “Olympic spirit”, “Chrysler hood ornament”. 

Then it was on to the guilt-inspiring Nobel Peace Center. This is a museum honoring the peace prize winners. As I entered, I saw sea ice data displayed prominently right at the entrance to the main exhibit, where Al Gore and the IPCC scientists, this year’s winners, were honored. There were also some very artsy photos of Al Gore by some famous artsy photographer that almost made Al look hip. Finally, there were the obligatory rooms honoring Alfred Nobel’s life and all of the Nobel Peace Prize winners.

The story of how the Nobel prizes came to be is worth mentioning. Nobel, in case you didn’t know, is the guy who invented dynamite. Several years later, there was an inaccurate report of Nobel’s death that quickly spread through the late 1800s blogosphere. Someone wrote a rather nasty obituary about Nobel, saying that his only accomplishment in life was discovering a highly effective way of blowing people to smithereens. But, as they say, reports of Nobel’s death were greatly exaggerated. He was still quite alive – and reading that nasty obituary. Nobel realized that there was truth in it. He decided he would leave a better legacy when he died. He secretly changed his will to donate most of his money to the establishment of the prizes that bear his name, much to the chagrin of his surprised relatives after his death! 

Next, I went to the Oslo Radhus, or city hall. They seem rather proud of their city hall in Oslo, but to be honest, it is the ugliest city hall I’ve ever seen. It is a big red-brick block structure with two block towers rising above it, reminiscent of a drab communist building. It looks designed by a 3-year old out of Lego blocks. It is however nicer inside and the great hall is notable as the venue where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded each year.

After visity city hall, I took a ferry to Bygdoy Peninsula, where there are several more museums. First, I went to the Norwegian history museum, mainly to see a traditional stave church. These are ornate wooden structures with steep-gabled roofs that were the style of the early Christian churches in Norway. There were also several grass-roofed houses, which were very common in Norway and can still be found in rural areas. They’re very energy efficient and environmentally friendly, though I don’t think it would be much fun to mow the roof every week. I didn’t stay at history museum to see much else because…it started to rain again. 

I walked down the road to the Viking Ship Museum. I had been to a Viking Ship Museum in Denmark several years ago, but whereas the Denmark ships were basically in ruins, in Norway the ships are in much better shape with one nearly perfectly preserved. The ships were used for burials of notable Vikings. The dead Viking would be put in the ship, along with various artifacts and the ship would be scuttled in the harbor. I’m not sure what hard-working Viking shipbuilders thought of this practice.

A short walk took me to the Kon-Tiki museum. Kon-Tiki is the balsawood raft that Thor Heyerdahl and his crew sailed from South America to Polynesia in the 1950s. Before Thor’s journey, it was accepted wisdom that the Pacific Islands were populated via migration from Asia. Thor Heyerdahl believed that at least some people came from South America. This idea was scoffed at by fellow experts because they believed there was no way the technology existed at the time to build a boat that could sail such a long distance. To prove them wrong, Heyerdahl built and sailed the Kon-Tiki, using only materials and technology that would’ve been available to the ancient civilizations. And prove them wrong he did. He successfully sailed from South America to Polynesia. Alas, he only proved it was possible, that people might have come from South America, not that anyone actually did come from South America. I believe the balance of evidence still favors an Asia-only migration. 

Finally, it was on to the Fram Museum. The “Fram” is perhaps not well known to many Americans, but it is the most impressive ship ever built, at least to one who studies the polar regions. The Fram is housed in an A-frame building and you can climb all around and through the ship and get a little sense of what it must’ve been like to have lived through two cold and dark Arctic winters. The ship still has the look and smell of a fully functioning ship.

The story of the Fram began in the 1890s, before anyone had yet reached the North Pole. The only way to get there seemed to be a long hike across treacherous sea ice. However, Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian scientist, had another idea. He built the Fram to sail into the sea ice, and drift to the North Pole. This was an incredibly stupid idea – or so thought everyone not named Fridtjof Nansen. First, the ship, like many before, would be crushed by the relentless ice and second, it seemed preposterous that ice would drift all the way from one side of the Arctic across the pole to the other side. But Nansen was a smart guy. He understood a thing or two about ocean currents and ship design. He built the boat with a strong hull in the shape of an egg. When the ice closed in, instead of crushing the hull, it merely pushed the boat up on top of the ice (see my Quicktime video of an example here). When the ice melted, the boat would drop back into the water, ready to sail away. His plan worked to perfection. The ship weathered the ice and drifted across the Arctic over a three-year period from 1893 to 1895. Alas, the ice drift didn’t take the ship directly across the pole. But it took the crew farther north than anyone had ever been to that point and during the course of the journey, Nansen and his assistant, Sverdrup, took the first oceanographic measurements in the Arctic, pioneering techniques that are still in use today. Nansen and Sverdrup are considered by most experts to be the two greatest oceanographers ever. 

The cruise was hardly the end of Nansen’s story though. After his return, he helped Norway gain independence from Sweden. Then he turned to humanitarian efforts around the world that won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922. And the Arctic cruise was hardly the end of the Fram’s story. Roald Amundsen, the other great Norwegian polar explorer, used the Fram on his Antarctic expedition of 1911-1912 that led to his group being the first to reach the South Pole.

And that isn’t all there is to Amundsen’s story either. Before his conquest of the South Pole, Amundsen became the first to successfully navigate the Northwest Passage across the Arctic between the Atlantic and Pacific. After unsuccessful attempts, many with tragic ends, for over 400 years, Amundsen finally succeeded in 1903-1905, not in the Fram, but in a smaller ship, the Gjoa, which is also on display just outside the Fram Museum. So you can see that the Fram is the Kevin Bacon of polar exploration

That completed my day in Oslo, but I still had the following morning in Oslo, so there was time to get back to the Munch Museum. The museum houses one of the famous Scream paintings by Edvard Munch. Well, from time to time it houses The Scream painting. In 2004, two men walked into the Munch Museum in the middle of the day and walked out with The Scream and another famous piece, The Madonna. There are even photos of the thieves walking out with the paintings and loading their car! . Back in 1994, another version of The Scream was stolen from the Oslo National Gallery. Needless to say, Norwegian security at art museums has left something to be desired. The paintings from both robberies were eventually recovered, though the 2004 robbery resulted in significant damage to them. After an extensive repair, the painting had actually just gone back on display at the Munch Museum a couple of weeks before my visit. During my visit, it was clear that they seem to have beefed up security, with several layers of bulletproof glass doors that you have to navigate to enter and exit the museum. So no more “Steal Your Own Munch” days at the museum.


I visited Tromsø a month later on a separate trip. But since it is also in Norway and the timing was so close, I decided to include a brief mention of that trip here. Tromsø is at a latitude of nearly 70 N, the farthest north I’ve been on the ground and north of the Arctic Circle. Thus, it gets 24-hour daylight during the summer. By the time I visited in late August, the sun had started setting, but there was still over 20 hours of daylight. This caused problems for me when sea gulls started squawking outside the window of my harborfront hotel room waking me from my jet-lagged slumber at 4 am. 

Tromsø is surprisingly cosmopolitan for a town so remote. It has a sizeable university, several research institutes, an opera house, and a brewery. Still, its nickname, “Paris of the North” is a bit of a stretch. Tromsø is on the coast at the far northern end of the Gulf Stream. So its climate is moderate for its location. Winters are colder than in Bergen or Oslo and they do get a fair bit of snow. But temperatures are not near as cold as say, Minneapolis, which is not near as far north. The ocean around Tromsø stays ice-free year-round.

Because of its location, Tromsø was a popular jumping-off point for Arctic expeditions. There are several monuments to Amundsen around town. There are also a number of stuffed polar bears. The stuffed version is the only kind of polar bear you have to worry about seeing since no living polar bears are found anywhere near Tromsø (though I found out that there were reports of them in the area several hundred years ago). There were so many stuffed polar bears and Amundsen sculptures that decided to take a photo of each of them, which nearly filled my camera’s memory card. 

I didn’t have a lot of time in Tromsø, but did get out to the Polaria, a kind of polar museum/aquarium, whose big attraction was three bearded seals. But the Polaria is not the town’s official polar museum. That was in a different building that contains artifacts from early life in and around Tromsø and the famous Amundsen and Nansen expeditions. As expected there were a lot of Amundsen pictures/sculptures and stuffed polar bears in the museum.

As I mentioned earlier, the tunnels in Norway are quite impressive. But in Tromsø, they even took it a step farther: intersecting tunnels with traffic circles!

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