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Oslo Inside Out

In the short Scandinavian summer, city dwellers use their 20 hours of daily sunlight to enjoy the great urban outdoors.

July 15, 2001|KRISTIN JOHANNSEN | Kristin Johannsen is a freelance writer based in Berea, Ky

OSLO — There seems to be an unwritten law in Norway: Never go indoors unless you're forced to.

From the window of the train into Oslo the first evening of our visit in May (our discount plane ticket from the U.S. had dropped us at a remote regional airport), I could see half the population in their backyards, planting gardens, eating dinner or just taking in the sun. Mobs of blond children pedaled down small-town lanes, while out on the fiord, boats crisscrossed merrily--rowing shells and speedboats, wooden dinghies and racing yachts.

Norwegians, I knew from previous trips, have little love for urban life. Only 4.5 million share a country 1,500 miles long, most of them in towns dotting the rugged mountains and stormy coastline. So what kind of a metropolis is built by people who don't like cities?

Having visited friends in rural Norway several times, my husband, Kevin, and I finally put Oslo on our itinerary. We weren't surprised to find an urbane and prosperous city that values its natural landscape and outdoor life as deeply as country folk do.

Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 25, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 19 words Type of Material: Correction
Oslo: In the Travel section of July 15, a photograph of the Viking Ships Museum in Oslo was incorrectly identified as the Fram Museum.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 29, 2001 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 1 inches; 17 words Type of Material: Correction
Oslo: A photograph of the Viking Ships Museum was incorrectly identified as the Fram Museum in "Oslo Inside Out" (July 15)

Oslo is Scandinavia's oldest city, founded about 1050, but the kings of old Norway preferred Bergen, on the west coast, and Oslo languished for centuries as a backwater. Today it is Norway's proud capital--after centuries of domination by Denmark and an unhappy union with Sweden, the country won independence only in 1905--and it is continental in feel, with broad streets and 19th century buildings downtown, interspersed with high-rises.

Spring was at its peak, an explosion of blossoming fruit trees at every turn. We were staying in the Summerhotel Holtekilen, which had just undergone its annual transformation from boarding school dormitory to hostel, with European families replacing the vocational students. Below our window, children played noisy games of volleyball until dusk fell--around midnight.

Oslo lies as far north as Anchorage, with long, dark winters. Making the most of daylight is everyone's aim from April, when the days begin to lengthen, until October, when winter starts to creep back.

Downtown Oslo arcs around the end of the Oslo Fiord, a 60-mile-long arm of the sea, and we jumped on a tour boat to start exploring. At the dock in front of City Hall, fishermen were selling boiled shrimp from the backs of their vessels. As we waited for our boat to leave, we watched Osloites claim nearby benches and set out picnic lunches with the shrimp, accompanied by bread and mayonnaise from a nearby market. It looked wonderful, but, alas, the shrimp were sold out by the time we returned.

In dazzling northern sunlight, we sailed past the grim brown walls of Akershus Castle, a medieval fortress, and out through the bustling harbor. Viewed from the water, the city climbs the sides of low mountains and melts into the forest beyond. Sea gulls tagged along as the boat threaded its way among a dozen craggy islands encircled by beaches. Later in the summer, when the day is 20 hours long, the islands are thronged with swimmers, campers and Osloites out to party the "night" away.

Oslo's star cultural attraction is Bygdoey, a wooded peninsula just west of downtown, with five unusual museums scattered among its mansions. Fittingly, the commuter ferry docks outside the Fram Museum, a striking triangular building enshrining the little Norwegian ship that sailed the farthest north and farthest south of any ship of its time.

In my childhood, my father loved to entertain me with tall tales of brave polar explorers. The reality was equally absorbing, as we learned in the museum. In the 1890s Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian marine scientist, offered the novel theory that the Arctic was not solid land but a moving cap of ice. He planned to sail to the edge of the ice cap, let his ship freeze into the ice and drift his way to the North Pole. His ship, the Fram, did just that, ever so slowly. After 18 months in the ice, Nansen and a companion set off for the pole on skis. They got caught by the arctic winter and spent nine months in a hut, short of their goal but farther north than any explorer had gone.

In 1910 Nansen lent the Fram to his countryman, Roald Amundsen, for an attempt on the South Pole. That expedition turned into a bitter race against a British team. Amundsen won handily, becoming the first man to reach the pole, on Dec. 14, 1911. His British competitors froze to death.

The Fram (meaning "forward" in Norwegian) is hardly elegant. Viewed from the museum's ground floor today, it looked like an old-time bathtub minus the feet. But its odd design and massive construction rendered it uncrushable by moving ice.

(Across the road is a museum housing the Kon-Tiki, the raft that Thor Heyerdahl sailed across the Pacific in 1947.)

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