When we first arrived in Oslo it was raining. It was dark, it was forbidding, and we were scared. The walk between the bus station and the hotel was a cold, wet march; the streets we walked through were intimidating, dark and steeped in menace. As we passed the train station, our pace quickened. We checked in to the hotel, poured a drink, and settled in for the night, wary of the holiday to come.
The next day was different. The next day was sunny. The next day showed us a city in bloom; a city with a smiling face; a city we would rush to come back to. This was the Oslo we were expecting.
Fast forward several years and nothing has changed: the city still has a smiling, welcoming face, only now it’s had some work done. The Oslo I find myself in today is very much under construction, and work is going on everywhere. A whole new section of the city has been built by the waterfront: a set of buildings each more architecturally impossible than the last; before them the opera house.
The late evening light turns a milky blue as it casts across the gleaming white marble of the opera house. Designed to look like an iceberg, floating in the Oslofjord, the building is an attraction in itself: Tourists, families and groups of giggling teenagers come to promenade on its sloping roof.
However, is the city a victim of its own success? Oslo’s streets are picture postcard perfect at every turn, except that a significant proportion of them are still under construction. The air fills with the grit of freshly cut stone. Dust bites at the skin and forces you to duck for cover behind your coat.
Oslo is a very young city for a city full of centuries-old buildings. Its current status is new: Less than a century ago the city was known as Christiania, named for a dead Danish king. A century before that it was effectively a provincial town in the United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway. A century before that Norway declared its independence from the Kingdom of Denmark. Their relationship had lasted four hundred years, during which time Oslo had only been used as a regional administration centre.
It makes Oslo’s current pace of growth feel precarious, but the country has established its financial base prudently. Since North Sea oil was discovered, the wealth of Norway has easily eclipsed that of its neighbours, and former masters. Norway is now the second richest nation on the planet, with no debt and a booming sovereign wealth fund. It is strange to think, therefore, that many Norwegians still regard their country to be a poor, farming economy, rather than the world leader it truly is.
Some areas of Oslo are nicer to walk through than others. Some areas of any city are nicer to walk through than others. The area around the bus station feels threatening and dirty. Its low rents have made it a magnet for the new immigrant communities, but they are not the reason the area feels so out of sync with the rest of the city – low rents help immigrants, immigrants do not cause low rents.
Oppressive architecture, poor build quality and decaying infrastructure have led to the feeling of an area of crime. Unemployed men, hanging around in the streets, piles of rags and crying children, only add to the image of a no go area, but this is all very temporary. In the interval between my two visits the number of people on the streets has reduced rapidly; poor buildings have started to come down. Just because an area looks threatening to you does not mean that it is: your perception is not reality.
When I told people I was heading off on a trek across Norway, the words I heard most were “Cold” and “Expensive”. They were half right: whenever I am in Norway I burn. Usually it’s my scalp; it has burned to a crisp on each of my visits. A cheap tourist baseball cap to block out the sun cost me £20. One out of two isn’t bad. A few drinks to ease the pain would be similar to our mortgage payments.
Water, on the other hand is abundant. I don’t know of a single restaurant we ate in where we did not have access to fresh, clean, free water throughout our meal. It is often stated that tap water in the Nordic lands is of higher quality than any bottled water. The taps in our various apartments didn’t come with infinitely long hoses, so we bought bottles to take out and about, refilling them every morning. I could gush for hours and hours about the water in Norway, or Iceland, but I won’t.
We chose to stay in Frogner; a lovely neighbourhood of streets lined with knobbly trees, impressive buildings, bakeries selling indulgence, both sweet and savoury. From one of the windows I could see the royal palace. The city centre, sentrum, was only a short walk away. Closer still was the tram stop.
I could ride on trams all day long. There have actually been times when I have. I don’t know what it is about a great tram network that just works for me. It’s so much more satisfying than bus or light rail. Many of the trams in Oslo are as old as time, but they are regular and they cover the whole city and beyond. Far newer, the app for buying tickets is very friendly, and makes the whole experience a joy. Travelling with a small child, forever sick of walking, easy to use public transport is a god-send.
The tram to the harbour was off. We didn’t expect that. It was the only tram journey we had taken the first time we were here, before we cottoned on to how useful they could be, and I was eager to recreate it. We wandered down from the National Theatre, and found ourselves in an odd area. The fountains were empty, and the road was closed. We sat in a dry fountain and watched children play.
From the harbour we made our way to Vulkan: to Mathallen. I have a thing for food halls, and this was one of the best I have been to. I had thought that it was a distance out of the sentrum, but it was two stops on the bus from Jernbanetorget (34 or 54; Biskop Gunnerus’ gate stop. The stops covered by the name Jernbanetorget cover half of the city), taking us along the banks of the Akerselva.
A hall built in 1908 for Vulkan Iron, and located in achingly hip Grünerløkka, Mathallen feels like the epicentre of a regeneration of this formerly industrial area. Regeneration can only take hold if food is involved; people will travel for food, and people cement change. This area stands a decent chance. Every type of cuisine was there. We bought enough sushi to feed a far bigger family than ours, and took it to a bench on the bridge outside; water rushing beneath us, graffiti dripping gaily from the walls.