Saturday, 1 September 2012

Oslo: Defying the EU

We usually tend to conjure up images of moral dissolution and economic misfortune, when imagining European life outside the EU; weak currency, battered roads, fragile infrastructure, political unease and social disruption, perhaps.

Norway, however, is living proof that life outside the EU isn't all that bad. Quite the opposite in fact. Opinion polls show a surprisingly huge increase in a resounding 'No' against the EU since debates began, and the majority of Norwegian political parties park themselves well outside the EU fence.

I experience a pricey summer trip to the super-inflated capital, and try to understand exactly why Norway is so comfortable in its economic position.

A more common image associated with Norway, rather than its economy, is cold. This association is melted away as I step on the baked tarmac of Oslo Rygge Airport, although it certainly is windy.

I am quickly advised that the quickest and easiest way to get to Oslo city centre is via the Rygge-ekspressen airport bus, and hop on board for the one hour journey. The road darts in and out of immensely long tunnels; one of which I'm convinced is never actually going to end. Some of the road signage is notably similar to back in the UK, with the plethora of deep rock-boring tunnels and abundance of open forest serving as hints of my location.

Arriving in Oslo city centre, it rapidly becomes obvious that Oslo city centre is compact, and thus I expect, easily navigable. I see a characteristic sprinkling of buildings and structures recognisable from prior reading. Using the iconic 1950's Oslo Town Hall as a homing beacon, I head in that general direction from the train station towards my hotel, just off Karl Johan's Gate: Oslo's hub.

Having heard stories of outrageously priced food in Oslo, I am not surprised to see dozens of people sitting in the afternoon sun on the grass, eating melon slices and hot dogs. I guess this is a not too unpleasant alternative to paying inflated restaurant prices.

Now rather late, I make the decision to grab a burger from a well known fast food establishment, and devour my first piece of evidence of Oslo's high food prices. What would have cost about £10 at home, sets me back the equivalent of about £22.

The Doubletree by Hilton is an extremely convenient choice, virtually a few footsteps away from many significant places of interest. It also doubles as the historic Christiania Theatre dating from 1836, giving it a distinctly suave, boutique feel.

Through the ceiling window, it's curiously light; perhaps the equivalent of summer dusk in the UK. Southern Norway doesn’t experience the midnight summer sun as in the North, but still enjoys much lighter evenings. Despite the light I convince myself it's time to crash.

Like shifting economies, various national collective art can differ in insightful, and potentially culturally mood-driven ways. It can sum up a national identity without words or reality. My first visit this morning is the National Gallery of Norway. The building itself is industrial and imposing in appearance. I get a an eclectic sense of identity through depictions of vikings, fishing, snowy scenes, rolling hills and grass covered buildings, with the highlight being Munch's 'The Scream' - certainly a real scream to see it up close.

The art communicates a solid, timeless foundation for Norway - perhaps the routes of its deviation from the EU. I head out of the beautiful brickwork building to discover more clues.

From one red-brick building to another, this time I wander towards the Rådhus: Oslo's City Hall, completed in 1950. Host to the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, this is definitely a ‘love or hate’ building. From a distance, its boxy structure may disappoint, but up close each wall, corner and crevice tells an interesting story of Norwegian prowess. I love it.

As heavy rain pours, just in front of the City Hall is the waterfront. Dotted with statues, the large expanse is full of life. I check the ferry times, and head up the adjacent hillside towards Akershus Castle, increasingly impressed with the close proximity of everything.

Dating back to 1290, the castle has a rich history of Swedish battles, German occupation during World War II, and even use as a prison.

The trustworthy nature of Norwegians means that all manner of items are on display in the opulent interior, including priceless silverware. I step through each room, from the dark dungeon, to the awe of the huge dining room, and formal rooms upstairs, with equally awe-inspiring views of Oslo. One room features a light display emanating from inside wicker ball, projecting light around a grand hall, reminiscent of something from a Harry Potter movie set.

Soaked already, I decide to head back down to the waterfront and board the ferry to Bygdøy, where I expect to see several maritime themed museums. Although limited by the rain, the boat affords some spectacular views across Oslofjorden.

The wet walk to the Viking Ship Museum is a little longer than anticipated, though made interesting by the plethora of gigantic and grand Norwegian homes in this residential area. Almost bizarrely, every home seems to have the 'Securitas' logo displayed outside - business must be good for them in Norway.

The humble exterior of the museum doesn't quite do justice for what is inside. The viking ships seem strikingly 'alien'; they are seemingly just about ready to break from their supporting beams and sail out of the beautifully curvy interior of the building. Designed in the 1920s, the building was certainly dreamed up with the ancient viking boats in mind, perfectly complementing each other.

The boats and other artifacts stir the imagination, and beg the contradiction: if the vikings were such an aggressive, raging people, how could they have crafted such beautiful objects.

Another very wet trek, and I arrive at the unmistakable triangular peak of the Fram Museum building. Inside, I am confronted with the mammoth 1891 Fram vessel. I brave its extremely claustrophobic and crowded musty interior to get a sense of what it must have been like to take to explore the Arctic seas, in times of the relatively unknown. A bizarre exhibition, involving a moving floor, ice walls, and ice mummies adds to my experience.

The Kon Tiki museum opposite showcases the raft of the same name. Constructed in 1947, the balsa wood raft's purpose was purely an attempt to demonstrate the theory that it would have been possible for ancient civilisations to sail from South America to the Polynesian islands, using early tools.

Having endured soaking wet socks and an irresponsible choice of non-waterproof shoes, I hop back on the boat to the waterfront, and enter a Norwegian shopping mall in a mission to find some new shoes. I pick a pair that will do the trick, and emerge recovering from the shock of the price tag.

Perhaps a downside to living in such a strong economy is that locals, particularly Norway's youth, seemingly don't have the 'luxury' of super-cheap shopping bargains. However, salaries here seem to be in support of fueling the extravagant prices.

Although not unique to Oslo, the Icebar is an interesting feat. I head towards it, sporting my new, and most importantly dry shoes. With a current theme of the 'Nautilus', the bar is temperature controlled to keep everything intact. I am given a coat and gloves to wear before going inside the icy room - with the added benefit of a cocktail of course.

Giant squid, octopus and sea creatures are skillfully sculpted into the ice and walls. While at first 45 minutes I am given seems stingy, I leave the freezing room feeling somewhat relieved to be warm again.

I finish up my day with a walk around the eerily trusting grounds of the Royal Palace; I get the sense that one could happily walk right up the front door - perhaps even cheekily ask for a peep inside.

Unheard of, and unlike the stone-cold, humanless stare of the guards at Buckingham Palace, I am given a welcoming smile by a guard as I walk on through the Norwegian Palace gates into the gardens. It seems this national sense of financial confidence also extends to a warming feeling of security and trust. Financial insecurity and safety insecurities seem to be directly linked in other less prosperous countries.

Transport in Norway, as I become increasingly aware of the following morning, is also something that Oslo can boast about. Trams, busses, metro, trains and ferries seem so frequent and reliable, the need for a car is negligible. The feeling of trust is further extended here, as I am never asked to present my ticket.

I board the metro in the city centre - tall buildings give way to houses, then to lakes and forest within minutes. The metro is transformed into a slaloming train, curving its way up the side of a huge hill. Views begin to open up spectacularly to vistas of the Oslo fjords, valleys and lakes.

Not much later, I arrive at Holmenkollen: home of the ski jump. The first glimpse of the dramatically rising ski tower is earned with a steep hike further up the hill. It's very difficult not to be wowed by the scale of it. Inactive during the summer, it still speaks of the spectacle of winter sports. Inside, the ski museum educates me about the evolution of the ski jump over time. I'm disappointed to discover the lift to the top is closed today, and promise myself I will return during a winter to see it in full action.

The very un-urban metro, or 'T-bane', takes me to the last stop on the line: Frognerseteren - where I have no idea what I will find. A brief walk along a trail from the station leads me to stumble upon Frognerseteren restaurant. Constructed in 1891, the wooden, slightly oriental style building is something special, situated high above Oslo. I take my time eating a much needed cake, and sip an equally needed coffee while taking in the views, and unique atmosphere of the building.

Returning to Oslo city centre in the brilliant sunshine, I witness hundreds of people descending on to Karl Johan's Gate to soak up the rays, and the ambience of the many bars and cafes now spilling out into the street.

I secure a good people watching spot before dinner, and observe the wealth, the prosperity and the confidence of Norway walk by.

The train journey back to the airport also laughs in the face of the railway infrastructure I am accustomed to, with reliability, comfort and panache far exceeding anything that UK trains have ever offered.

Oslo has given me a glimpse of a nation that preserves its national identity as well as its own financial interests in perfect unison. Norway has positioned itself ideally in its economic position, boosted by its geographic location, where it can comfortably sit within discerning arms reach of the EU. Such a position affords beneficial EEA trading that doesn't allow the EU to smother and envelope its financial integrity, or begin to chip at its global identity.

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