Norway – Oslo screams culture

There’s not many city break destinations that offer everything from existential insecurity to snow ball fights.
But the Norwegian city of Oslo hosts attractions ranging from high art and culture to busy shopping malls, wintry weather to Viking history.
As I stare at a screaming man struggling to cope with the struggles of modern life, it is easy to see why Edvard Munch’s art is so admired.
A cynic such as this one is quickly dragged into pessimistic thoughts when viewing Munch’s Scream.
The painting is a representation of man’s struggles against the world and is as relevant today as when Munch first put it to canvas in 1893.

The Monument, Oslo

I am staring at it from the necessarily warm insides of Oslo’s National Gallery, part of the city’s university. Outside the world is covered in a deep blanket of snow; despite which the people of Norway are continuing their normal, daily lives as if it were no more than an April shower.
Munch painted the Scream after one particular walk with friends at sunset in Oslo’s Ekeberg Hills and it represents man’s desperation and anxiety as a new and frightening century approaches and he is abandoned by God – who Nietzsche had declared dead in 1872.
Not that Oslo makes you want to scream. Just minutes before I was acquainted with Munch’s masterpiece, I had been dodging through the streets of this white city in the midst of a fearsome snowball fight.
Oslo is beautiful in the snow. Freezing conditions, a blanket of white snow, slippery steps and the need to huddle together for warmth are some of the joys of Oslo.
One of the city’s most famous attractions is the picturesque Vigelandsparken or Vigeland Park.
The life’s work of sculptor Gustav Vigeland (1869-1943) this bizarre site attracts more than one million visitors a year.
It consists of more than 200 sculptures – figures vary between 198 and 212 – of naked men and women in various poses. Its centrepiece is the Monolith, a phallic tower some 25 to 30 foot tall, consisting of 121 entwined (and, of course, naked) human figures reaching up into the sky.
Standing in the park I had no idea what this could signify, but its monstrous height coupled with an amazing backdrop of the rest of the Vigelandsparken and behind it the busy city made for an impressive sight.
A later explanation tells me the Monolith represents man’s desire to become closer with the spiritual and divine. It portrays a feeling of togetherness as the human figures embrace one another on their way toward salvation.
Oslo is certainly a city that takes the mind on to many different plains. The Viking Ship Museum, based a ten minute bus journey away at Bygdoy (note to British bus operators, the service runs every 15 minutes and is always on time), is no exception.
The museum contains the remarkable remains of three Viking ships, the Gokstad, the Oseberg and the Tune.
The latter is little more than a wooden carcass, but the first two ships give viewers a real insight into what life must have been like for the Viking people.
These vessels – not much more than fishing boats to us – made it across fearsome seas to the British Isles and even America; a testament to the seamanship and hardiness of the Viking race.
The ships provided no cover for their 30 or so oarsmen, rations consisted of nothing more than dry food and sea water had to be bailed out as fast and often as the rowers propelled themselves through the ocean.
All three ships were eventually used as burial mounds – the Gokstad for a Viking Queen and the Oseberg for a warrior chieftain – and the museum also includes artifacts and tools buried with the dead to help them to the afterlife.
For the real scholar the city offers the Oslo pass, which provides free entry to many of its 33 museums – which also include the Munch Museum, Ibsen Museum, Jewish Museum and Norwegian Maritime Museum – and free public transport.
Busy shopping malls and a host of enticing – if expensive – restaurants complete the attraction of Oslo.
One final word of warning if travelling there by plane, those ‘truth economists’ at RyanAir use Torp airport rather than Oslo’s main one at Gardermoen.
This is, in fact, a London Luton-esque distance from where it purports to be. It takes an hour and a half train journey to reach Oslo at a budget busting 418 Norwegian Krone for two (around £40).
It’s enough to make you existentially insecure.

> This review was originally written in February 2009


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