Norway on Top of the World

A version of this article was published in Travel + Leisure


In mid-summer, night never quite comes to Oslo. The sun sets late, twilight begins, and a long, lingering last light appears in the sky beyond the darkening clouds; then, suddenly, as if changing its mind, the light grows into dawn and the sky is bright once more.  The nearly endless daylight is disorienting at first, then exhilarating, like the oxygen said to be pumped into casinos to keep gamblers from tiring.  And sleep, when it comes, feels like an indulgent afternoon nap no matter the hour.

Walking along Pipervika, Oslo’s main harbor, the early morning sun already looks like high noon and I can feel the remoteness of this place in the crisp Arctic clarity of the warm summer air.  The city of Oslo lies low and brooding around the Oslofjorden, a sheltered estuary seven degrees below the Arctic circle that runs out to the North Sea and then on to Denmark.  It is a suitably cozy setting for a society with a strong humanitarian streak coddled by one of the world’s most generous welfare systems, the kind of place, I am told, where very little can go wrong, at least in a material sense.  Yet I find that I am always looking south, over the water, towards the rest of the world.  It fills me with a kind of longing but Norwegians treasure this isolation: Oslo has a population of just over half a million but it feels much smaller than I’d expected and is smaller still in the minds of its residents, who like to think of their town as a little refuge from the uncertainty of a tumultuous world.

“It is a city like a hot cup of cocoa,” says Nosizwe Lise Baqwa of her native Oslo, where her parents moved from South Africa before she was born.  “I like that it is so safe and I don’t have to look over my shoulder the whole time.  It’s the simple life, kind of.  And I like that it is innocent, still, in a world that is so globalized.  Norwegians are free,” she says, then reconsiders.  “Unafraid of authority, not free.  They’re unafraid.  They know their rights.  They’re very democratic and fair.”

The Royal Palace is a short walk from the harbor but it has no gate to keep out visitors.  The handsome cream-colored neoclassical building stands unprotected on a small rise in Slottsparken, a forested area open to the public just west of Karl Johans Gate, Oslo’s main street.  A guard paces the ground in front of the palace but the extravagant black plumage in his bowler hat dangles in front of his face like a furry cat’s tail, suggesting his presence is more for pomp than security.

I am astonished by the trust required to leave the primary residence of the king and queen so exposed, but this is part of the insistent small-town innocence of Oslo; the wonder is that I don’t run into King Harald himself out for a stroll in the woods.  “The core value of Norwegians is that we don’t think we are better than anyone else,” says Bjorn Moholdt, a journalist and magazine editor with a charmingly colloquial way of expressing himself.  “And that applies to everyone.  We don’t look up to the king; to be honest, he is just a symbol of the state.  You can meet him on the street and you don’t feel like you need to go down on your knees for this guy.  It’s the same for the politicians.  One time, I was walking with a colleague from Brazil and we saw this blonde guy who looked like he was 20, and I told my friend that this was the minister of the environment.  He had these worn pants, a rucksack, and no bodyguards whatsoever.  Just a regular guy.  And my friend couldn’t believe it, because in Brazil they would have cordoned off the whole area.”

Sometimes this openness can seem touchingly naïve.  When the most famous painting in Norwegian history – Edvard Munch’s The Scream – was stolen from the National Gallery in Oslo in 1994 the surprise, for me, was that it had been practically unguarded; ten years later, another version of the same painting was stolen from the Munch Museum and I began to wonder why Norwegians couldn’t see the pattern.  But when I mention this to Arvid Grundekjoen, who is on the board of the Norwegian-owned cruise line Royal Caribbean, he laughs and tells me that this is nothing: up to the 1980s, a government agency hung original Munch lithography in student hostels until “somebody found out that you could get extremely rich by just taking a trip in your car and bringing with you all the Munch art because it wasn’t guarded in any way.”  Both copies of The Scream were subsequently recovered and as I stare at the version hanging once more in the National Gallery – a swirl of colors where, in my memory, it was so haunting as to be all grays and blacks – I steal glances at the low-tech video camera panning the room and the guard who lazily checks in every once in awhile.  I have to smile: despite everything, they still refuse to encase The Scream in bullet-proof glass like the Mona Lisa, trusting in the better instincts of mankind.

A kind of humble egalitarianism is woven into the fabric of the city, which is built largely at human scale in a succession of little neighborhoods speckled with parks where young couples push strollers and a hushed, unhurried rhythm prevails; remarkably, two-thirds of municipal land is given over to deep, expansive forests and it is possible to board bus #1 downtown and be hiking in the wilderness in under an hour.  Indeed, the fairly modest Royal Palace is one of the only buildings in Oslo with any grandeur, but it was built in the mid-19th century for a Swedish king, born French, who was drafted out of Napoleon’s army, which no doubt explains his un-Norwegian taste for declarative state architecture.   “Norway, together with Ireland, has always been the poorest country in Europe,” says Finn Bergesen, head of the Norwegian business association NHO, about the days before the discovery of oil in the late-1960s made it one of the richest in the world.  “We became an independent country in 1905; before that we were 100 years under Sweden and 400 years under Denmark.  So we did not have a capital of our own.  We did not have any monumental buildings in this country from historical times because all the monumental buildings were built in Copenhagen and Stockholm.”

In Scandinavia, as in the Middle East, oil riches came to the least populous, most undeveloped parts of the region, upending old hierarchies.  Norway today has a population of less than 5 million scattered across a vast, often inhospitable terrain and for many generations emigration – particularly to the US where, I was often reminded, there are more Americans of Norwegian descent than there are Norwegians – was the best of a difficult set of options.  A French friend who married into a Norwegian family warned me that the survival mentality has deep roots. “They all have freezers the size of coffins,” she said, with Parisian disbelief, “absolutely filled with food so they can live for months trapped in the snow and survive.  These days, of course, they can always drive to a nearby market like anyone else, but their quality of life has changed so quickly that no one has adjusted to it.  They still prepare for the worst, all the time.”

Even now, Oslo doesn’t feel like a rich city, certainly not in the way that Dubai and others have been transformed by new wealth.  When I ask most Norwegians about the effect that oil money has had on their society, they look momentarily embarrassed by the question and then remind me that the oil will not last forever and much of the money has been saved in a $300 billion petroleum fund, as if this prudence means they remain unchanged by it.  But Nosizwe’s answer is more nuanced, perhaps due to her unusual perspective as both insider and outsider.  “Their lifestyles have changed,” she says of her fellow Norwegians, “because they have so much more money so they travel more.  But the kind of traditional Norwegian thinking hasn’t changed.  I don’t think they want to bring back answers from New York.  I think, if anything, travel makes them even more happy that things are as simple as they are back home.”  She pauses, sounding conflicted.  “Oslo is stable: I’ve left and come back and it’s the same,” she says, laughing.  “And I really like that.  But I feel like Norwegians are in a time when they are trying to redefine themselves, trying to deal with the fact that they are so rich and that this country is becoming, on some level, connected to the world.  Sometimes I wake up and realize that there’s a much bigger world out there and I think, your arrogance in trying to maintain a world that doesn’t exist anymore is insane.”


No one knows why the ‘Angry Boy’ is so angry.  This sculpture of a petulant child stomping his feet is the most beloved of the hundreds of sculptures designed by Gustav Vigeland for the park that now bears his name.  The park was completed in 1950 and Vigeland’s sculptures have a special place in the hearts of Oslo’s residents because their installation was a rare pre-oil indulgence for the city, with public money spent for no sensible purpose save to bring pleasure to its citizens.  Today, the park is the setting for an almost Latinate hedonism that would have shocked the Lutheran sensibilities of the park’s founders: women sunbathe in skimpy bikinis, couples frolic on blankets, friends sit in circles drinking beer and preparing lunch on tiny grills that emit slender trails of smoke.  The sculptures, too, exhibit an unexpected eroticism: the oversized nudes Vigeland carved in stone feel exceptionally soft to the touch, almost soapy, and have a puffy muscularity that reminds me of the work of Fernando Botero.  But of the long row of bronze sculptures on the bridge leading to Vigeland’s great phallic central column, it is the Sinnataggen, the ‘Angry Boy,’ whose pedestal has been rubbed to a polish by visitors.  After talking to Nosizwe, I look at the boy’s tiny clenched fist and hunched shoulders and see not so much anger as stubborn defiance: a refusal to change or grow up.  It is, for me, a monument to the desperate, futile desire for things to stay just as they are.

Taking the T-bane four stops from Majorstuen, near Vigeland park in the prosperous and mostly blonde west, to Gronland in the east is to get on in Scandinavia and get off in New York – or maybe Mogadishu or Lahore.  For those who believe in a multicultural Oslo, Gronland is cool without yet being hip: few of the trendy boutiques and restaurants that set up in nearby Grunerlokka, capitalizing on its edginess and thereby diluting it, have come to Gronland yet.  They will come eventually; everyone is waiting for it.  But for now, Gronland has Sheikh Enterprises and Khalid Jewellers and call centers posting rates to Afghanistan and Morocco.  Men hang out in groups, passing the time; there are fewer women and they walk by purposefully, out to shop or run errands.  I find I spend a lot of time in Gronland, drawn to it whenever the rest of Oslo starts to feel too much like a small town and I need a dose of the energy and vibrancy that I associate with urban life.   Saris, veils, skullcaps, shalwar kameez, 99-bead rosaries, tattoos, nose rings, embroidered tunics, or camouflage pants: in Gronland, everyone has their style.


Leaving Oslo is as much a part of a resident’s life as living there and in summer the exodus begins at 3pm on Fridays.  The highways out of town fill with SUVs headed off into the mountains; the city streets left behind grow quiet with the loss. “If you look at who are the big Norwegian heroes, they are our athletes, adventurers, people who physically overcome nature,” explains Finn Bergesen, the business director.  “Norwegians love outdoor life, having a place where you can get away from the pollution and cars and people.”  But even this ritualized return to nature is being changed by the new wealth.  Traditionally, the hytte – a hut or country cabin – was a spartan, humble retreat that “didn’t use to have any facilities,” Bergesen says.  “And people loved it.  But what you see now is that people are putting in electricity, water, sewage.  And what you also see – and this is quite new – is that people are building hytter right next to each other, like living in the city!  It didn’t used to be like that.  You should be able to walk around your hytte naked without offending anyone.”   In a nation that doesn’t go in for showing off, the lavish hytte has become a socially acceptable way of subtly displaying new money and the tabloids are full of breathless stories about the ‘luksus-hytter’ belonging to the rich and famous.

Without a hytte of my own in which to walk around naked, I decide to explore the countryside in more modest fashion by going to the fjords along the western coast.  Based in the charming Art Nouveau town of Alesund, I set sail for Geirangerfjord on the Hurtigruten, the famous coastal steamer that has been plying the coast from Bergen to the Arctic border with Russia since the late-19th century, though the vessels are now massive cruise ships so steady that the slight listing can only be seen in the water level in the roof deck Jacuzzi.  But the ships themselves are still dwarfed by the vast scale of the landscape: jagged, high-cliffed, densely forested mountains rise up from waters so still and dark they appear thick, almost gelatinous; above it all, blinding white glaciers perch uncertainly on the mountain tops, as if their 10,000-year retreat – a force so powerful that during the Ice Age it etched the fjords into the mountains, flooding them with water as the earth warmed – is an event I am catching in mid-motion.

Three short blasts from the ship’s horn ricochet around the sheltered cove like one long, extended note from a church organ.  Then the fjord begins to narrow and the mountains press in, run-off from the melting snowcaps spidering down the rocks in occasional falls.  I lean back to stare up at the nearly vertical slopes and experience a kind of upward vertigo: the mountains appear to be straight overhead and for a moment I think the rock face might sheer off, taking out the ship.  It is an imperiling tranquility, yet there, nestled in the endless wall of green forest, is a solitary farmstead bravely staking its claim on the lonely, steep, unfarmable mountainsides.  I understand, then, why it is nature that captures the Norwegian imagination and makes heroes of its mortals; the modest charms and petty aspirations of a place like Oslo seemed small and inconsequential by comparison.


Returning to the capital, I find the city diminished in my eyes.  So on a gray, blustery morning I go down to the dreary harbor of Bjorvika to see the new Opera House, Oslo’s most extravagant (and, for that reason, controversial) building.  My first thought is that it looks like a white cruise ship run aground: the long angling prow-like roof slopes towards the water, broken by a windowed ‘deck’ that looks out to sea.  The impressive $420 million project was designed by Snohetta, the Norwegian architectural firm that did the Alexandria Library in Egypt, which the new Opera House resembles.  It is a monumental building, though I did not meet anyone in Oslo who expressed a great love of opera or felt that the previous home of the opera on the ground floor of the Labor Party headquarters – facing what Bjorn Moholdt called ‘the most radical square in Norway,’ a striking juxtaposition – was somehow inadequate.  But this is a building with ambitions that go beyond high culture: it is intended to reclaim a derelict waterfront near Oslo S, the main train station, that is now frequented primarily by junkies and prostitutes.  As I walk around the building, I can’t help thinking that the Opera House looks like a good old-fashioned vanity project, the kind of grandiose gesture that politicians make when they have money to spend and can’t resist trying to leave their mark on their city.  It is a showy, un-Norwegian building and I love it for that.

In Oslo, there is no escaping the fact that Norwegian austerity, admirable though it may be, is a bit of a drag.  Sometimes, it seems as if Oslo’s residents are not demonstrably committed to urban living: the weekdays spent in the city are an obligation only relieved at the weekend by a return to the countryside, to nature, to a rustic, grounded existence that affirms them.  Public funds are lavished on bridges connecting a remote village to an even more remote and smaller hamlet, while the capital feels a little like a spinster aunt who always wears sensible shoes and never spends any money on herself.  Vanity, as it turns out, can be good for a city.  What is the Eiffel Tower, really, except a boast written in iron about late-19th century French engineering prowess?  Norway, too, has its great engineers but they are off building practical things like tunnels and bridges and oil platforms, while the Eiffel Tower is loved precisely because it is that rare thing: an essentially useless piece of engineering, a form, a declaration, and nothing more.  Architecture is the language in which cities communicate who they are, or how they hope to be seen; in Oslo, often, the architecture has nothing to say and the city, too, seems quiet and unsure of itself.


The restaurant Bagatelle announces itself as something different for Oslo immediately upon entering, where Andreas Gursky’s photograph “Mayday IV” (2000) – an image of a crowd of revelers that is nearly 17 feet long and 7 feet high, by an artist whose work recently sold for a record $3.3 million at auction – dominates the dining room.   Bagatelle opened in 1982 but it is still the most talked about restaurant in Oslo, the only one with two Michelin stars, and as I take my seat I realize it has something else, too, that is rare in Norway: the sound of boisterous conversation, tableware clinking, and people pleasuring themselves with food.

I understand, at once, that there will be nothing quiet or unsure about chef Eyvind Hellstrom’s cooking.  There is a risk, of course, to making bold claims for oneself: it raises expectations, and with it the possibility of failure.  As Bjorn Moholdt says of Norwegians, “We don’t like to brag, don’t like to boast.  We don’t like to put our effort into something because we don’t think we will make it a success.  This humbleness…it also constrains us.”  And as I sit down to a twelve-course ‘creation’ menu, I find that I am hoping – desperately – that the chef will not fail and that Oslo will see his audacity rewarded.  But I am skeptical, I must admit.  Perhaps, I think, the Gursky is really too much; maybe a smaller photograph by a lesser artist would have been a safer choice.

Then the first course arrives: a single oyster from Normandy presented in its deep, sculpted shell on a bed of herbed coarse salt, the liquor accented with a dash of ponzu and ginger and a small pearl of olive oil that so perfectly balances the surging brininess of the fleshy oyster that I look around quickly at the other diners to see if I have moaned out loud.  It is a simple dish, masterfully conceived.  There are eleven more courses to come but I won’t describe the rest.  You’ll just have to go and try it for yourself.


Click here to see all of Sean’s blog posts about architecture, politics or Europe.


Click images below to view the tear sheets or here to go to the original article on the Travel + Leisure website.

To see Sean’s photographs of Norway, click here.