A Travellerspoint blog

Norway

Adventure is just bad planning

Or, how not to see the Northern Lights

snow -2 °C

Norway might only have a population of about 5 million people, but it is a long and thin country. My flight from Oslo to Tromso covers a distance of well over 1,000km and the landscape becomes increasingly bleak and snowy as we drone on north. As I disembark from the plane, this marks the first time that I have ever set foot within the Arctic Circle. Unlike many other parts of the world at these latitudes, such as Alaska, it's relatively warm courtesy of the effects of the Gulf Stream but we're at the tail end of winter and there is still snow and ice everywhere.

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Even the main streets and pavements of Tromso are still partially frozen over, and away from the well-trodden routes the place is a skating rink. I have a flaky sense of balance at the best of times and I'm soon creeping around like an old man in order to minimise my chances of taking a tumble. Of course the locals are striding around in all kinds of footwear with no issues at all. When I do raise my head from staring at the ground, I can see that the town is in a beautiful setting, clustered beside the serene fjord and with snow-covered mountains along the horizon.

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It takes me a couple of days before I overcome my pride and dig out the overgrips that I bought in the UK precisely for these conditions, and I almost weep with the joy of finally being surefooted.

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Tromso is a tourist destination predominantly because of the Northern Lights. Its location within the aurora zone, its mild climate (by Arctic Circle standards), and its easy access by plane have combined to produce an aurora industry unmatched by anywhere else in the world. And that's why I'm here. With 2012 supposedly marking one of the 11-year peaks in the solar activity that creates the Northern Lights, and with March being one of the supposedly best months for viewing the aurora, I've come at a time that appears to maximise my chances of seeing something magical in the sky.

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The town is next most famous for its nightlife, which is surprising in that the enjoyment of its bars isn't really compatible with seeing the Northern Lights, as they both tend to be best at the same times of the day. I'm getting too old to be hitting bars on my own now but I'm on holiday, and the couple of occasions I do decide I fancy blowing £8 on a small beer, I find some good music and a clientele roughly half my age.

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It's not just the alcohol that's expensive in Norway. Eating out at even a modest establishment, such as a pizza chain, will set you back twice what you'd pay in the UK, more so when you factor in the drinks. My lunch generally consists of a heated-up panini from a corner store, which is still well over a fiver. Looking at vegetable prices in a supermarket, I see carrots at about £5.60 per kg (i.e. about 8 times the cost in the UK). However the hotels that I stay in both here and in Oslo are competitively priced compared with London, and the standard is higher.

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Tromso is by far the largest Norwegian town within the Arctic Circle, despite a population of only 70,000. It somehow became known as "The Paris of the North" during the 19th century, though the only vaguely credible explanation I can find for that is that travellers from further south bestowed the nickname when they found to their surprise that its inhabitants weren't all savages. A more representative comparison can perhaps be seen in the fact that Tromso is twinned with Grimsby.

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Its daytime charms are fairly discreet and it doesn't take me long to experience its main tourist attractions. Of most interest to me are the Amundsen connections. Though he is most renowned for his South Pole exploits, he led the first successful expedition to navigate the Northwest Passage (in the Gjoa), ditto for the Northeast Passage (in the Maud), and he was on the first overflight of the North Pole (in the airship Norge), so he was actually more active in the Arctic Circle than at the other end of the world. Tromso also marks the place where he was last seen alive - he left in a seaplane as part of an attempted rescue mission for an Italian explorer but is assumed to have crashed en route. Most of the wreckage, and all of the bodies, have never been found.

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The Polar Museum contains some informative displays about Amundsen and his compatriot and mentor Nansen, as well as a history of attempts to reach the North Pole by air. However most of the exhibits relate to trapping in northern Norway and Greenland. Whales, seals, reindeer, foxes, walruses, and musk ox have all had the misfortune to be hunted at one time or another, for reasons ranging from economic gain to simple sport. In these anti-fur days, it's strange to see how polar bear trappers such as Henry Rudi - who killed more than 700 of the beasts in the first half of the 20th century - were treated like celebrities. Animal rights aside, it's not like he was wrestling them - he was shooting them with a gun, so hardly a fair fight.

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The Polaria building has a unique design, representing ice floes pressed up against land. Polaria itself is devoted to exhibits related to the Arctic environment including the region's flora and fauna. I watch an excellent short film about Svalbard, a group of islands about half-way between the Norwegian mainland and the North Pole, which shows some amazing but bleak scenery. The Polaria aquarium contains some underwater tunnels, through which you can wander as bearded seals swim effortlessly around you.

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Possessing a similarly singular architecture is the Arctic Ocean Cathedral, built to resemble the mountains surrounding Tromso. Its enormous stained-glass window apparently lets in the midnight sun during the summer period when there is no night. Reaching the cathedral requires crossing a bridge that is exposed to a bitterly cold gale blowing along the fjord.

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With Tromso being such a magnet for aurora hunters, I'm actually surprised at how untouristy the place is. I see only a few souvenir stores, though I do wonder who on earth would want a troll figure as a memento of their visit. On Saturday night I eat at a cafe that I've seen praised on several travel forums but it's almost empty. And on Sunday evening it's virtually impossible to find an open restaurant. The fire evacuation instructions on the back of my hotel room's door are in enough languages to imply that guests come from all over Europe, though the flag used to represent the English version is some strange hybrid of those of Australia and New Zealand.

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But however untouristy Tromso might seem, there are still at least half a dozen companies going out every single night in search of the aurora. Because of coastal cloud and light pollution, you're best off getting out of Tromso in order to have a chance of good sightings. It's possible to hire a vehicle but, for a solo traveller unused to driving on such wintry roads, the cost isn't much different to going on a tour and the convenience factor of a tour is much higher. Though the most famous guides (e.g. Kjetil "Joanna Lumley" Skogli) are booked up weeks in advance, there are enough available seats overall that you should be able to get on a tour by booking on the morning of the day you want to go out.

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I'm not a fan of organised tours, and I've seen enough good photos of the aurora taken from inside Tromso that I decide to allocate 2 of my 5 nights to tours, with the remaining 3 nights left to my own devices. The day I arrive has the best aurora forecast for 5 years and I've even been texted by friends from the UK asking if I'm aware of this fact, so it's not a tough decision to sign up for a tour in such auspicious circumstances. Having lugged my DSLR and tripod from the UK, I spend a couple of hours in the afternoon acquainting myself with the delights of mirror lock-up and long exposure noise reduction.

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It's cloudy and cold as the 16 tourists in my group huddle and stamp their feet at the pick-up point. The minibus arrives, we all pile in, and the guide heads out of town. She says that the cloud is expected to break up in a couple of hours but she takes us to several places on the off-chance that we may get some clear skies earlier. There's a strong, gusting, keen wind that makes standing around outside quite unpleasant. And, unlike in most of the tour reviews I'd read, the engine is switched off whenever we stop so there is nowhere warm to retreat to if staring at unbroken cloud loses its appeal.

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Time passes but the cloud does not. It's exciting to think that this grey sky could somehow clear and erupt into the wavy green motions that I've seen in videos of the Northern Lights, but at the same time it also seems rather incredible that such a transformation could take place. Eventually the clouds start to tatter and we have sightings of stars and a resplendent nearly-full moon. But there's not even a sniff of the aurora.

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Several hours later, it's time to head back to Tromso. We've seen absolutely nothing and I haven't even taken my camera out of its bag, let alone set it up and used it. I'm also very cold and regretting not wearing my thermal leggings. Obviously, with nature there are no guarantees, but there's still a palpable sense of disappointment in the group, generated by a combination of the promising aurora forecast and the entitlement accrued from spending £80 per person. I get back to my hotel just after 2AM, irrationally disheartened. But the next day I speak to several people who had been on different tours the previous night, and I'm selfishly happy to hear that they too didn't see anything.

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I go my own way the second night, and decide to walk up to the cemetery behind Tromso in the hope of catching a display above the buildings and the fjord - a view I've seen in some of the best Northern Lights photos from the town. It's a steepish uphill walk, enlivened by the icy surface that constantly threatens to send me sliding back down. I'm wearing the maximal number of layers that I have brought from England - 6 on top, 2 on my legs - and the effort soon has me sweating. I would be less worried about falling if I wasn't also carrying some fairly expensive camera equipment.

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I reach a fork in the road and am confused by which direction I need to go in. But then I look skyward and, scattered among the few ragged clouds, I see faint movements. It's not blinding, it's not a deep translucent colour, and it isn't forming any of the otherworldly shapes I've seen in other people's photos, but it is most definitely green and it is most definitely the aurora. I enjoy it for a couple of minutes, breathing heavily through an open-mouthed smile, then hasten in search of the cemetery to set up my camera.

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Unfortunately the cloud is already moving in as I wend my way between the gravestones and by the time I've found a suitable spot and set up my tripod, the aurora has gone, barely 10 minutes after I first saw it. I know that patience is a virtue when it comes to the Northern Lights, so I remain in the cemetery until after midnight. There are a few further breaks in the cloud but nothing behind them, and the evening shows me little else but an overcast sky and the occasional snow flurry. I'm glad of my multiple layers of clothing, though the wind through the cemetery is blessedly minimal. On the way back to the hotel, I drop £9 on a cheeseburger from a kebab stall run by a Moroccan guy.

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The next night I decide to go back to the same place but a little earlier, however a steady snowfall sets in from mid-afternoon and it's soon clear that there'll be no chance of seeing the aurora from within Tromso. I take this opportunity to try a selection of beers from the local Mack brewery.

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The following day is even worse, with the snow starting around lunchtime. I ask the hotel reception guy about the forecast for the evening and he looks at some weather app on his phone with pursed lips. After a few minutes, he shakes his head then looks up and suggests that tomorrow would probably be better. This means that I will be pinning all my hopes of a mind-blowing display on my last night in Tromso.

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My last night will be my second tour, and the forecast for both the Northern Lights and the weather isn't good. However it had been even worse the previous night yet people had seen good displays, so I'm still hopeful, as is the guide. Though the same price, this is a much better-run tour than the first one. We get chocolate cake rather than carrot cake, the guide shows an informative slideshow about the aurora, and the minibus engine is left running constantly when we are parked, meaning that there is always somewhere to go to warm up.

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I speak to several of the other customers and am somewhat dismayed to find that they all saw the Northern Lights on one or more of the nights when I didn't go out on a tour. It's at this moment that I start to get a nasty suspicion that I've really screwed up my aurora-hunting. I should have gone on a tour every single night until such time as I saw the aurora. It was stupid to come all this way to Tromso and then not maximise my chances of seeing good displays. Sure, it is possible to see the aurora within Tromso but it's seen more often away from the town. And even though in my research I came across hardly any instances of people going on more than 2 tours in order to have success, it's careless for me to be on my last night in Norway still nervously crossing my fingers for some Northern Lights luck.

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This point is rammed home when we see little on this tour either, though I do capture the only aurora shots that I am to get on this trip. With the naked eye, I would never have even thought of pointing my camera in the direction that the guide is indicating as it looks simply like faint cloud. But I dutifully do as he says and, with a 30 second exposure, I finally see bright green. That's it, though, as this particular tour has a deadline of midnight to be back in Tromso, and of course we get this sighting sufficiently late on that we only get 10 minutes to observe it before we have to pack up and head for home.

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The one big positive about this experience is that my anticipation of seeing a good showing of the aurora has now been heightened significantly, and I'm already thinking about where and when to make another attempt. But I didn't really accomplish what I came here to do, and it's more than just the usual post-holiday blues that I'm feeling when I step onto the plane for the journey back to London.

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[I have a lot of logistical information about visiting Oslo (and Tromso) that is too dull to put in here, but if you want to read that then please visit my other blog.]

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[I also took a lot more photos than just those shown here - you can see them at my Flickr account.]

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Posted by mohn 13:23 Archived in Norway Tagged europe norway tromso Comments (0)

The cold has a voice - it talks to me

In search of Amundsen, aurora borealis, and a-ha

snow 4 °C

Since returning to England from the last leg of my RTW trip in 2009, it would be fair to say that my income has been on the low side, certainly compared to the halcyon days when I earned a crust as an incompetent IT project manager. So my travels since then have remained at the budget end of the spectrum - a few days with a friend in Andorra, a visit to my sister in Sardinia, a 40th birthday treat to Venice in the low season via a £22 return flight on Ryanair. But the coincidence of two events leads me to Norway for this year's jaunt, the same Norway that is a regular contender for the title of the most expensive country in Europe. Sometimes you have to look beyond the money and consider the experience.

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The main attraction for me in Norway in 2012 is the Northern Lights. The solar activity that generates the Northern Lights runs on a roughly 11 year cycle, and this year is a peak in that cycle. I could wait another 11 years until I have (perhaps) more money, but I could also be dead by 2023, so it's easy to convince myself that there's no time like the present. With Tromso being one of the most popular bases in the world from which to see the Northern Lights, when I find some reasonably priced flights and hotel rooms I immediately book them.

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The second attraction revolves around my fascination with Antarctica, a subject that occupies more of my bookshelves than any other except general travel. 2012 marks the centenary of Scott reaching the South Pole, an achievement most famous because he and his party failed to make it back alive. Of course he wasn't the first man there - Amundsen and his team had already been and gone, and in fact were barely a week away from the safety of their main base at Framheim. The centenary of Amundsen's achievement was celebrated in December 2011, but by visiting Norway in 2012 I would be able to see exhibitions devoted to the "race to the pole" in both Norway and England.

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Further rationales include the rumoured high percentage of blondes, the hope of bumping into one or more of the members of a-ha, and a fair amount of curiosity at being a first-time traveller to Scandinavia.

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The flights work out in such a way that it's going to be most convenient to see Oslo first for a few days before flying north to Tromso. I peer out of the window as the plane descends to Rygge airport, noting only isolated patches of snow even though many of the smaller bodies of water seem to be frozen solid. It's brisk in Oslo but by no means unpleasantly cold. The guy next to me on the bus into the city centre is Ethiopian, as is the receptionist in my hotel. In fact, Oslo turns out to be considerably more cosmopolitan than I was expecting.

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My hotel is in the centre but, with Oslo only having a population of about 600,000, I don't get the sense of being at the heart of a bustling metropolis. The architecture is neat and tidy and there seems to be a liking for sculptures. Trams add a throwback feel but there's an overall lack of exoticism that almost seems familiar, to the point where I consistently forget that the traffic is on the "wrong" side of the road. But I know I'm not in England because the subway runs essentially on an honour system, and I can walk right up to the Royal Palace in a way that would get me shot at Buck House. It also appears that jaywalking is illegal.

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As a tourist, it's nice to be able to blend in (though I wouldn't have expected any hassle here anyway), and until I open my mouth people tend to assume that I'm Norwegian and hence can speak Norwegian (which I can't). English is so widely spoken that the only communication issues I have are with the occasional person who has immigrated from outside of Europe. No doubt part of the reason why Norwegians speak such good English is that English-language films are subtitled rather than dubbed, though I see some scope for confusion when the "Helen Zass" joke from "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle" is rendered as "Helen Zarsk", which Google Translate tells me doesn't mean anything in Norwegian. Given the price of beer here, I'm interested when I see a sign outside a shop advertising "lager sale" but it turns out that that's the Norwegian for "stock sale" and the shop actually sells clothes.

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Oslo has dozens of museums, and I spend most of my time in the capital inside one or another. My choices are driven predominantly by connections to Antarctica. The Fram Museum is the obvious place to start, as it contains the ship Fram (meaning "forward") used by Amundsen on his South Pole expedition. You can go onto the Fram, and the lowness of the ceilings is further evidence - along with the people I've seen and the scalp-scraping frame of my bathroom's shower cubicle - that Norwegians aren't quite the tall race I'd imagined. The Fram was originally designed for Nansen's (unsuccessful) attempt to navigate the Northwest Passage, an endeavour that Amundsen was later to accomplish although in the Gjoa (also at the Fram Museum). There are exhibits relating to all of Nansen's and Amundsen's exploring, which emphasise the skills that they learned from the indigenous peoples of the Arctic such as the Inuit. The combination of those skills (such as dog-sledding) with cross-country skiing (which the Inuit did not know) resulted in an optimal method of polar travel that is reflected in the number of Norwegian "firsts" in that field.

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Situated close to the Fram Museum is a memorial to the 5 men who comprised Amundsen's polar party. The memorial was unveiled on the centenary date by King Harald.

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I also see the excellent "Arctic Experts" exhibit at the Historical Museum, which further details the lives of the region's indigenous peoples and again emphasises just how much Amundsen learned from them.

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I look for my final piece of Antarcticana at the Ski Museum at Holmenkollen, which supposedly contains Scott's skis from his ill-fated expedition, however I can't find them. I then activate my fear of heights by visiting the top of the famous Holmenkollen ski jump, which unnerves me not so much because I can see the ground, more because I know the jump has been built using a cantilever design so there's nothing but air beneath the floor.

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Having now seen exhibitions in both England and Norway regarding Scott's and Amundsen's expeditions, and framing them in the context of what I already know about each of the journeys, there are some stark contrasts to be drawn. Amundsen's team was better prepared, in that his men were all expert skiers and navigators and - in particular - they employed the techniques of Arctic peoples (e.g. with regard to dog-sledding and clothing) to great effect. Scott on the other hand did not prioritise dogs above Siberian ponies, motorised sledges, and man-hauling, and it was this failing that largely contributed to his party's demise.

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Scott's planning was also somewhat quirky. He was still raising funds for the expedition even when he had already set sail, so it was quite a surprise to see that some of the money had been spent on items of dubious criticality. There were different sets of crockery and cutlery for the different ranks in his crew (whereas the crockery and cutlery on board the Fram were basic by comparison). The stores included 10 cases of Courvoisier and 450kg of golden syrup, which seems excessive (though I was pleased to see that 300 tins of sprouts had been taken, not to mention 45kg of the dried variety). And how any expedition carrying 300 tins of beetroot could be expected to succeed, I don't know.

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However it should be noted that Amundsen made up his route to the pole as he went along, since he was travelling through terra incognita, and hence he needed a slice of luck that a viable route existed. His expedition also produced little in the way of scientific knowledge, whereas Scott's significantly advanced the state of knowledge of geology, glaciology, meteorology, biology, and various other -ologies, data that is still being used today. It's a sign of just how engrained science was in Scott's mentality that about 15kg of rocks were found with his dead party, 15kg that could have easily been jettisoned to lighten the loads of men who were fighting for their lives. You could alternatively look at this as being simply foolish, but it can't be denied that Scott's focus in Antarctica was much more wide-ranging than Amundsen's. As such, the "race to the pole" is perhaps something of a misnomer, as the "race" aspect seems to have been predominantly on Amundsen's side.

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It's fashionable nowadays to view Amundsen as the meticulous planner, assimilating everything he could possibly need to know in order to reach the pole first, and Scott as the bumbling fool, a personification of the British Empire's hubristic assumption that it always knew best. But to draw that distinction is to iron out a number of subtleties that are in fact essential to the understanding of both men and their motivations. It's unfortunate that their differing experiences at the South Pole have cast such a shadow over their other achievements - Scott's death shrouding the broader scientific advances of his expeditions, Amundsen's triumph making his other "firsts" (e.g. navigating the Northwest Passage and overflying the North Pole) mere footnotes.

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Norway has of course produced famous explorers not exclusively associated with the polar regions, and the Kon-Tiki Museum gives me some insights into one of them - Thor Heyerdahl. I remember reading Heyerdahl's account of the Kon-Tiki expedition when I was a child, but at that stage in my life it merely seemed like a great adventure - I had no idea where Easter Island was, nor the significance of reaching it by sailing vessel from South America. Having now visited Easter Island and gained significantly more knowledge about how humans spread around the globe, it's fascinating to reacquaint myself with the particulars of Heyerdahl's expedition. It's by no means a disappointment that the prevailing scientific wisdom is against Heyerdahl's theory, even if he was able to demonstrate its practicability. The museum is home to both the Kon-Tiki and the Ra 2, the latter being the reed-built craft that Heyerdahl sailed across the Atlantic from Morocco to Barbados.

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Continuing the sailing theme, I also visit the Viking Ship Museum, containing two of the best-preserved Viking longboats that have been found. I'm surprised by the intricacy of their woodwork, as well as the complexity of the carvings on some of the artefacts that they were found with. In the UK, the Vikings are associated with raping and pillaging and I had never stopped to think that their warlike tendencies masked much of a culture. I make a mental note to visit the Jorvik Centre in York, an exhibit devoted to the Vikings that is mere metres from my apartment but which I have somehow neglected to pop in to.

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Norway has also contributed heavily to my taste in music but I find little in Oslo to indicate that the locals have taken my favourite Norwegian composers to heart in the way that I have. I was an enormous fan of a-ha in the '80s, and that liking has extended to the present day, though their later albums were a series of diminishing returns. 3 of their songs were in the select few that accompanied me on my 4 years travelling around the world. The only Norwegian that I had met prior to coming to Norway had dismissed them as "cheesy", and the only song of theirs I hear on my entire visit to their home country is "Lifelines" - by no means one of their most famous tracks - in a corner store. I also visit Stolper + Friends, an art gallery near Akke Brygge that is part-owned by Mags from the group, but my faint hope that he might put in an appearance is destined to go unmet.

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Grieg is the other Norwegian composer I have a liking for, though I rarely listen to classical music. In his case, the Peer Gynt suite provided the theme for a drama production I was involved in at school when I was about 8. I remember prancing about the school hall to the martial pomp of "In the Hall of the Mountain King", and moving slowly to the swelling beauty of "Morning Mood". It's a perfect example of music that now evokes a particular time and place. It's hard to know whether I like the music because the drama was so much fun, or vice versa. Grieg also cropped up in my teens, with "In the Hall of the Mountain King" being one of the themes in the computer game "Manic Miner", and of course his "Piano concerto in A minor" features in perhaps Morecambe and Wise's best ever sketch. However I don't see or hear much of Grieg in Oslo. My other musical wandering in the capital takes me around and on top of the Opera House, a triumph of modernist architecture.

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Peer Gynt also appears on the Anchor Bridge (Ankerbrua), a crossing that separates downtown Oslo from the Bohemian neighbourhood of Grunerlokka. The bridge bears four bronze sculptures of characters from various fairytales, with the representation of Peer Gynt being a man on a stag - it reminds me that the story behind Peer Gynt, actually the play by another Norwegian, Ibsen, is not one that I'm familiar with.

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Norway has also been active in other spheres of culture, with Edvard Munch's "The Scream" being an iconic image of Expressionist angst (and providing the inspiration for the killer's mask in the "Scream" series of movies). I'm ashamed of my ignorance when I discover that Munch is actually pronounced more like "monk" would be in Northern England, whereas I'd always thought he sounded like "munch" as in "chew". It's interesting that several of his other famous works such as "Anxiety" and "Despair" make use of a similar background sky to "The Scream". However a unifying theme in all his paintings seems to be that of despair or expectations of future disappointment.

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After two solid days of museums, I devote my last day to simply wandering around, with the only entry on my itinerary being the Vigeland Sculpture Park. Of course Mother Nature chooses this day to lower the temperature and unleash a constant snowfall. Though York has a considerable Viking heritage, I note how differently people react to this change in conditions - in York, they would still go out in a T-shirt or miniskirt, whereas in Oslo people are covering up. With all this clothing, it's really difficult to tell just how many attractive blondes there are per square metre.

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The Vigeland Sculpture Park is truly an amazing sight, even in bitter cold with my fingers numb and my glasses attracting a layer of snow. It contains a couple of hundred sculptures by Gustav Vigeland, all depicting mankind in various (naked) emotional states. I don't manage to see all of them but what I do see is food for thought, creating a curiosity as to what passed through Vigeland's mind when he was sculpting them.

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It's still snowing lightly the next morning as I wait at a nearby hotel for the airport bus. The staff at Gardermoen airport whiz about on scooters, reminding me of their equivalents at Stockholm airport. I also find a bizarre apparatus resembling an inverted satellite dish on a pole, that chirps pleasantly if you walk near it. I don't know if it's supposed to lull you into imagining you're in the countryside rather than at an international airport, but it takes some of the sting off having to pay £5.20 for a couple of sandwiches.

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Shortly after, I'm on a flight to Tromso.

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[I have a lot of logistical information about visiting Oslo (and Tromso) that is too dull to put in here, but if you want to read that then please visit my other blog.]

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[I also took a lot more photos than just those shown here - you can see them at my Flickr account.]

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Posted by mohn 13:25 Archived in Norway Tagged oslo europe norway Comments (0)

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