With its fjords, mountains, icy alpine lakes, eclectic food and distinctive architecture, there’s a reason Norway has been labelled the world’s happiest country – even if it does have 240 days of rain a year.
Australia and Norway are diametrically opposed, both hemispherically and because one is flat, dry and overspends their resources revenue and the other is mountainous, wet and has a sovereign wealth fund of over $1 trillion.
Norway also has Vikings, Pagan folk music and great taste in architecture and food – the primary reasons Angie and I found ourselves there this year. Our guide, via the voyeurism of Instagram, was Gaahl – a Norwegian black metal singer who, as well as a history of being imprisoned for torture, has excellent taste in food and wine.
Airport arrival says a lot about a country. Oslo Airport is a considered, bespoke and beautiful introduction to Norwegian sensibilities and its timber industry. Our initial mission was to make it to Bergen via train, which is considered one of the most scenic rail trips in the world. It didn’t start out well – that Monday morning we realised we had booked for the day before! Cap in hand we approached the ticket desk of this great Brutalist monolith and came clean. “We have made a grave mistake,” we said. The response from behind the counter was a dry, “Monday morning is a terrible time for grave mistakes”. “We’re in need of a miracle,” I offered. “Well today is sunny in Oslo so there has already been one today,” was the response. This exchange continued with humour until our problem had been solved at no cost. His parting quip and oral application for employee of the month was: “Welcome to Norwegian State Railways.”
The train ride traverses through low, dense forest and riverine country before rising to take on 182 tunnels through solid gneiss rock on the way up to the Hardangervidda plateau, where the Norwegian summer shimmers snow white. In this remote, icy alpine lake country it’s hard to escape the thought of just how hard the 1895-1922 construction phase of this project would have been. From Finse, the highest stop on the line at 1222m, you start to descend through tight valleys, waterfalls and fjords until you hit the bustling harbours of Bergen.
Bergen is famous for cod, Norwegian Black Metal and rain – lots of rain. Where Perth has 260 days of sun per year, Bergen has 240 days of rain; hence the black metal. To experience the local music scene, drop into Garage , one of the most renowned rock clubs in Northern Europe, since its inception in 1990. Close-by is the Apollon , which supplies excellent Norwegian beers, sells records and has a 40-year history of epic gigs. The Grieghallen , named after the composer Edvard Grieg, is the stunning home of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. Designed by the Danish Architect Knud Munk in 1967, this off form concrete and oxidised steel landmark has an extensive program of concerts, ballet and opera performances and appears to dematerialise into the routinely overcast skies.
The Hanseatic League was a Germanic commercial and defensive confederacy of merchant guilds and market towns, whose 400-year stint in Bergen established the port’s fame in the lucrative fish oil and dried cod trade. Remnants of their time can be found in the jaunty timber buildings of Bryggen and the extensive seafood culture in Bergen today. Following a recommendation from Gaahl, we tracked down the Neo-Fjordic restaurant Lysverket , which is located in KODE 4, one of four excellent art museums close to Lake Lungegårdsvannet in the centre of town. Lysverket ’s chef Christopher Haatuft seeks to celebrate the traditions and produce of the local fjords by working with local divers, traditional cheesemakers and farmers who get creative on the three per cent of arable Norwegian land. Highlights from the menu were seaweed bread with smoked mackerel butter, fiskesuppe and the ancient and challenging gammelost – a grainy, brown cheese from Viking times.
Timber buildings are synonymous with the architecture of Bergen and despite numerous out of control fires over the centuries, it remains the prevailing building material. There are, however, some brilliant concrete structures also worth a look. The Slettebakken Kirke by Tore Sveram rises out of the forest with an immense parabolic sail of a roof, its moody off-form concrete interiors a lesson in atmosphere. The Bryggens Museum by Øivind Maurseth holds a collection of artefacts, including my favourite leather Viking shoes, and provides welcome respite from the tourist throng of neighbouring Bryggen.
Bergen is a gateway to many fjords and we were drawn to the area by one singular image. Google ‘Gudvangen’ and a powerful vision of a vertical sheet of rock rising above a verdant landscape and quaint fishing village will appear. It looks otherworldly and we just had to see it. Driving two and a half hours through fjord, waterfall and forest country brings you to a deep valley. We boarded a ferry to Flam, thinking at every turn this image that had brought us here would suddenly come into perspective. It didn’t. At the end of what had been a spectacular journey, some further digging found the image to be fake. Gudvangen and the real location of the image were in the Lofoten islands some 1500km north. A tricky ploy that got us planning our next trip perhaps, but also a happy one that led us up the ice-lined roads to Aurland Mountain where a serene, silent landscape enveloped us.
Returning to Oslo we stayed in Grünerlo.kka, 1km north of the CBD alongside the Akerselva canal. This hipster neighbourhood has a high ratio of independent retail, bars, barbers and beards. Alongside the canal, the Mathallen is a sprawling marketplace of smallgoods, seafood and restaurants, which connects to a series of adaptive re-use buildings housing makers’ workshops and nightclubs.
Oslo’s waterfront is undergoing significant redevelopment kick-started by Snøhetta’s Opera House and MVRDV’s Barcode precinct. The Oslo Opera House prioritises the gesture of the inclined public space over the form of the auditorium, resulting in a marble-clad ramp that people sunbake on, kids run up and down on and where tourists can misuse their selfie sticks. There are no handrails, no tactile indicators, you could snap an ankle at any time, but no one is dying. You couldn’t do this in Australia.
Barcode , as the name suggests, is a masterplan of many slender buildings sidled up against one another, the gaps between them maintaining sightlines to the water from the neighbourhoods behind and maximising oblique views from the buildings themselves. It is a surprisingly good device when you experience it, primarily because of the perpendicular lanes, which allow you to walk through the active ground floors of each building and access bars, restaurants and workplaces. The architecture of Barcode feels deliberately “other” to the older, urbane Oslo streets and has a series of quirks and idiosyncrasies that will make the public have a very divided opinion of it, which is good. In the coming years the new Oslo Bibliotek by Lund Hagem and the new Munch museum by estudio Herreros will solidify the precinct as a design and hospitality hub.
The TV series Vikings has endeared everyone to his unique Pagan culture – and I mean everyone. The Oslo Viking Ship Museum was absolutely rammed when we got there; selfie sticks flailing like axes. It was almost too much. But the contents of this museum, much like Norway itself, makes you stop and stare, bewildered by the finesse, power and form of a very special place.