Oslo, Bergen, and the Fjords
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves your globe-trotting guinea pig taking a little time off from writing guidebooks to show you my favorite corners of Europe. This time we're sailing the Oslofjord, here in the land of my ancestors... Norway.
In Oslo we'll ponder Viking ships, enjoy a little folk dancing, grab beach time in the Norwegian woods, and go local with a distant cousin. Then we'll ride Northern Europe's most scenic train over Norway's mountainous spine and cruise the stunning Sognefjord. We finish in Norway's historic capital, Bergen.
Norway in the far north of Europe stretches high into the Arctic and takes up the Western part of Scandinavian Peninsula. From its metropolis of Oslo, we catch the train over the mountains to Sognefjord in the Fjord country. We finish in Bergen...
Situated at the head of a 60-mile-long fjord, Oslo is a woodsy all-you-can-see smorgasbord of historic sights, art and Nordic fun. And a treat for me in Oslo is a chance to pal around with my Norwegian uncle, Thor Kristianson. Before tackling the big city sites, we're taking a quick side trip across the harbor to experience Norway's Viking spirit, past and present.
This boat shuttles locals and tourists from downtown Oslo to Bygdoy, a park-like peninsula filled with historic ships. A great place to explore Norway's dramatic early history is at the Viking Ship museum. Inside you'll see three ships that were excavated from the shores of the Oslofjord. Hard economic times, a knack for sea-faring, and the lure of prosperous and meek communities to the south drove 9th century Vikings on far-flung raids.
These marauders terrorized parts of Europe for generations. In fact, there was a time when frightened Europeans closed every prayer not with "Amen" but with "and deliver us from the Vikings, Amen."
Gazing up at the prow of one of these sleek time-stained vessels, you can almost hear the screams and smell the breath of those redheads on the rampage. In a boat like this, the notorious Viking, Eric the Red, once sailed from Norway to Iceland.
Thor: He had to leave Norway because of a murder he committed. Some years later he discovered Greenland.
As the story goes, he named the island Greenland an early marketing ploy to get other people to follow him there and settle. That 1000 year old ship was very seaworthy. A hundred years ago, an exact replica actually sailed across the Atlantic to America.
Thor: Think of that...64 men...two by each oar...sailing and rowing for weeks and months...away from their wives and kids.
The ships are surrounded by artifacts from the days of pillage and plunder. This intricately decorated sleigh was drawn by two horses. While most of the items seem intended for practical everyday use, the purpose of this finely carved animal head remains a mystery.
A thousand years later, in the 1890s, this great ship, The Fram, took modern-day Viking explorers Amundsen and Nansen deep into the Arctic and Antarctic. The Fram sailed farther north and south than any ship before.
It was well-equipped for scientific research, and the explorers brought back exciting new data from the polar frontiers. Specially designed to resist being crushed, the Fram once spent three years frozen in an arctic ice drift.
Across the street is an equally gutsy example of Norway's spirit of exploration — the Kon Tiki. In 1947, the Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl sailed his bamboo and balsawood raft four thousand miles from Peru to Polynesia. His purpose: to prove that early South Americans could have sailed to Polynesia in the south Pacific.
It took Heyerdahl and five companions 101 days to make the journey. The success of his homemade raft makes a strong case that ancient Incan culture could have spread to South Pacific islands.
Now for a little cruise of our own. The shuttle boat sails us back to Oslo in about 10 minutes. The city's harbor front is dominated by modern buildings and vibrates with activity. Oslo is a metropolis of half a million people, but with its clean air and natural surroundings, the city feels fresh and unspoiled. Along the wharf salty fishermen still sell their shrimp right off the boat.
Overlooking the harbor is Oslo's richly decorated city hall. It was finished in 1950 to celebrate the city's 900th birthday. Norway's leading artists all contributed to what was an avant-garde thrill in its day. The walls of the courtyard are lined with colorful wooden reliefs. They depict well-known stories from Norse Mythology. Here, Odin, the top god, is guided by ravens while riding his eight-legged horse.
The interior of the building reflects the Scandinavian reverence for country and good government Huge murals celebrate Norway's history and way life. This work is designed to show national unity, from the fishing nets of the west coast to the dense woodlands of the east.
Another wall tells the story of German occupation during WWII.
Thor: Here we see the Gestapo Nazi breaking into our homes and the freedom is destroyed.
Although Norway declared itself neutral, Germany invaded and occupied the country for five long years. Norwegian society was devastated. Here we see how the civilian resistance worked to keep the light of hope alive. Finally the day of liberation arrived and Norwegians could wave their flag once again.
Oslo is easy to manage. Nearly all its sights cluster either in Bygdøy, where we saw the historic boats, or around the main boulevard. This is Karl Johansgate.
The city's youthful pulse is best felt simply strolling this people-friendly boulevard. Anywhere in Europe pedestrian streets attract musicians from around the world performing for small change.
Every country has a National Gallery showing off the works of its own Rembrandts and Renoirs. In a small country like Norway they maybe less famous — but they're definitely worth meeting. Nobody appreciates Norway's scenic wonders like the Norwegians do. These landscapes, by the great Norwegian romantic, Johan Christian Dahl, help me get close.
Thor: And see this girl here, she's tending the goats. And it's typical romantic that she would wear the national costume, but of course she wouldn't wear that.
Dahl's painting reflects a sentimental and nostalgic view of the world than a realistic one.
Edvard Munch is Norway's one giant of art world. At the turn of the century, Munch led Europe into the raving new world of Expressionism. In his best-known work, the Scream, the artist distorts reality to create an intensely personal vision of anguish and fear.
Munch, perhaps finding a temporary escape from his anxious world was a regular here at the Grand Cafe. Once the haunt of Oslo's artistic elite, the cafe is a welcome break for today's weary sightseers.
And there's nothing like having relatives or friends to make sure you get the best cafe experience.
Thor's sister-in-law, Kari-Ann, is taking the afternoon off work to join us. Many of us have some contacts in Europe — even distant ones. Be sure to look them up. Even if you just know a friend of a friend, you'll find yourself much closer to the culture you're visiting.
Most young and educated Norwegians speak English expertly. While the town center is lively Vigeland park is my favorite place to mix and mingle with Norwegians. The 75-acre park contains a lifetime of work by Norway's greatest sculptor, Gustav Vigeland. From 1906 through 1942, Vigeland sculpted about 200 bronze and granite statues.
Kari-Ann: Gustav made a deal with the mayor of Oslo in the sense that if he could get a real spacious studio to make the models for all these sculptures, he would donate all the sculptures he had done so far and all the sculptures he would in future to Oslo to make this gorgeous park.
Vigeland is my vote for the greatest sculptor in Europe since Rodin. Vigeland himself designed the sculpture garden, grouping the works to illustrate human development.The statues, each nude and unique, surround Vigeland's tangled tower of bodies called "the monolith of life."
Kari-Ann: It has been seen as the symbol of struggle for spiritual values. I think that is one of many interpretations. As for Vigeland he said people could pick and choose the interpretation they would like.
The T-ban, Oslo's venerable trolley, gives nature lovers several easy escapes — like the famous Holmenkollen Ski Jump. One of Oslo's most popular attractions, it soars nearly 200 feet above ground level. You'll be glad you're not packing skis as you climb the long set of stairs to the thrilling top of the jump.
From there, you get the best possible view of Oslo and a chance to look down the long ramp that has sent so many soaring to the thrill of victory...or tumbling to the agony of defeat.
Just below the ski jump, is a museum dedicated entirely to the history of skiing. With Norway's rugged landscape, skis historically have been important for maintaining contact between isolated communities.
Soldiers on skis played a critical role in the nation's defense over the centuries. From prehistoric carvings to modern Olympic competitions, skiers have been celebrated in Norway.
Oslo is surrounded by a vast forest dotted with little lakes, idyllic huts, joggers, bikers, and sun-worshippers. Thrill-seekers can put their rented bike on the T-ban, ride it high into the forest and coast back into Oslo. And mountain bike riding possibilities are endless.
For plenty of trees and none of the exercise, ride the T-ban to Sognsvann with a beach towel and join in the lake-side scene. Many Norwegians are monotheists...and their god is the sun.
A visit to Scandinavia gets many Americans pondering the benefits of big government. Norway's social programs are particularly woman- and family-friendly. Family values are taken seriously here.
Kari Ann: A woman has twelve months maternity leave with 80% of her regular pay. The only condition is that the husband is required to stay home for at least one month with the child.
Of all European women, Norwegians are the most likely to work outside the home. And to accommodate women at work, the state provides excellent family services — such as good day care opportunities and national health insurance and lots of time off. In return for, of course, a stiff tax bite.
After a lazy afternoon at the lake, a folk evening at the Oslo Concert Hall caps the day nicely. While there are many touristy hotel-sponsored folk shows filled with trolls and pewter buckles, I recommend an evening of quality folk entertainment at the Norwegian Folklore Show.
These amateur musicians and dancers give a sweet, caring and lively one-hour show.
I find many folk dances most entertaining when I think of them as medieval flirting set to music, and its fun to try to imagine the complexities of social life back then.
If you go to Oslo and don't get out to countryside, you should have your passport revoked. Norway's greatest claim to scenic fame is her deep and lush fjords. And that's where we're heading. Today we're taking a popular route called "Norway in a Nutshell."
This series of well-organized train, ferry, and bus connections lays Norway's most beautiful countryside on a scenic platter.
The scenery crescendos as this super-scenic railroad roars over Norway's mountainous spine. Deep forests and countless lakes and rugged wilderness engage nature lovers on and off the train.
The railroad is an amazing engineering feat. Completed in 1909, it's 300 miles long and peaks at over 4,000 feet. We're catching a tiny spur line at Myrdal. In less than an hour, the train drops nearly 3000 breath-taking feet to fjord-level. This 12-mile line is so steep that the train has five separate braking systems. The sightseeing is captivating and the engineer even stops for photos at the most scenic waterfall.
The train deposits us at Flåm, a touristy junction at the head of Sognefjord. Most tourists stampede right into the next leg of the " Norway in a Nutshell" journey — the scenic boat ride — but we're sampling a bit of small town Norway right here on the fjord.
Nestled in this almost impossibly beautiful landscape are a sprinkling of remote towns and villages. Undredal, a community of 52 families, was accessible only by boat until 1985, when the road from Flåm was opened. Now visitors can make the drive from Flåm in about 15 minutes — most of the trip through one of the region's modern tunnels.
But little else feels modern in this peaceful rural setting. Undredal has Norway's smallest still-used church. This dates from the twelfth century.
Friendly domesticated goats roam the town's lone road. This cordial group seemed delighted to encounter some new faces. Undredal is famous for its particularly sweet goat cheese. And, while it may not look appetizing, geitost actually tastes delicious.
Norway is expensive. But even here, picnics are cheap. And like anywhere in Europe, simple local food can be a cultural high. With the help of a fine fjord setting, we're disproving rumors that Norwegian food is bland..
Rick: And for dessert, potato bread with butter and sugar. That's lefse.
After a nourishing small-town picnic, we're ready for some big-time Nordic scenery. The entire west coast of Norway is slashed by stunning fjords, but the Sognefjord, 120 miles long and over a mile deep, is tops.
Sightseeing boats take visitors deep into the heart of the fjord. The scenery keeps everyone on deck, cameras cocked. Our boat kisses a waterfall as the captain gets us right into the scenic thick of things.
Today, the region enjoys pleasant weather for its latitude thanks to the warm Gulf Stream. But the ice age once made this land as inhabitable as the inside of your freezer. As Ice Age glaciers cut their way to the sea, they gouged out long deep grooves today's fjords. Because the ice was thicker inland and only a relatively thin lip at the coast, the gouging got more shallow as the ice neared the ocean. The average fjord is mostly 4,000 feet deep but only around 600 feet deep where it hits the sea.
From the ferry dock, a bus winds travelers high above the fjord. And after a few last photos from this view terrace, it's on to Bergen, and you've seen "Norway in a Nutshell."
Bergen has a rugged cobbled charm, permanently salted with a rich sea-trading heritage. It was a medieval boomtown and Norway's capital in the thirteenth century. This famous, bustling market offers lots of smelly photo fun. Local entrepreneurs peddle their fresh seafood, reindeer pelts, and local handicrafts. Nearly everything of touristic interest is within walking distance
Our hotel is just a short walk from both the harbor and the train station.
Throughout Scandinavia, local tourist offices keep track of all the fancy hotels offering great rooms on the half price push list.
Hotels are generally pricey here. But the lull in business travel during the summer means a room in a luxury hotel can cost little more than one in a simple pension.
Bergen was the biggest city in Scandinavia until 1700. It earned wealth and importance through the heavyweight trading club of cities called the Hanseatic League. As German merchants expanded their influence throughout Europe, they organized towns for ease of commerce. Bergen still wears her rich Hanseatic heritage proudly. This well preserved row of houses along the wharf was home to over 1000 workaholic German tradesmen.
The Hanseatic Museum offers a peak into a medieval merchant dwelling. It's creaky and reeks history. The house served as both a business office and personal residence. Company ledgers were kept here. Hanseatic society in Bergen was completely male, and often harsh. Young apprentices, 14 and 15 years old, ate at this table, while the stern journeyman looked on.
The narrow cupboard beds held two apprentices each. The beds could be closed from the outside, and were difficult to open from inside. This one features a pin-up — perhaps Miss July 1731. The museum gives visitors a hardy sampling of medieval daily life.
With these dried cod, you'd have an almost indestructible meal that would last for 15 or 20 years. To soften it, they'd soak it in lye and get lutefisk. This old ox-tail was used for wringing spilled cod liver oil back into the bucket.
A short walk from the museum, you can catch the funicular that scales Mount Floien. This lift serves both local residents and tourists as it climbs 1,000 feet up the steep hillside.
Stunning views lead all the way to the Atlantic. In the last century, Bergen was a launching point for countless emigrants headed to the new world. Descendents who return to their Viking roots will discover the prosperous, peaceful nation...todays Norway.
Thanks for joining us. I hope you've enjoyed our Norwegian journey. I'm Rick Steves wishing you happy travels.
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.