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Monday, 15 April 2013 03:20

Norway's City and Coastal Splendor

Written by  Monique Burns
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Norway's City and Coastal Splendor

norway460Tour boats wend their way through clear blue waters framed by sheer granite peaks, their velvety green slopes etched by cascading waterfalls, and covered with wooden farmhouses and churches, and grazing cows and horses. Norway’s western Fjord Country - a UNESCO World Heritage Site - is Scandinavia’s number-one visitor attraction. But it’s not Norway’s only attraction. In Oslo, Scandinavia’s sunniest capital and one of Europe’s prettiest, stylish restaurants, boutiques and architectural landmarks like Renzo Piano’s six-month-old Astrup Fearnley Museum grace an ever-expanding waterfront. In Bergen, Norway’s second-largest city and gateway to the fjords, first-rate cultural offerings coexist with vestiges of the Vikings and 14th-century Hanseatic League cod traders.

Though the Gulf Stream keeps Norway’s ports ice-free year round, come in spring, summer or early fall. On a week-long visit, spend three days exploring Oslo, two days in Bergen and a day on Fjord Tours’ famous “Norway in a Nutshell” tour, a rollicking adventure climaxing in a dramatic fjord cruise. Or take Fjord Tours’ two-day “Hurtigruten & Norway in a Nutshell” excursion, including a one-day coastal cruise aboard Hurtigruten, the storied Norwegian line that celebrated its 120th anniversary in 2012. If you’re planning a two-week visit to Norway, add Hurtigruten’s six-day classic coastal fjord cruise, from Bergen to Kirkenes near the Russian border. 

Capital Charms of Oslo

For the 7 ½-hour flight to Oslo, SAS, the Scandinavian national carrier, departs regularly from Newark’s Liberty International Airport. From Oslo’s international airport, it’s a 19-minute ride on the sleek, silver Flytoget airline express train to Central Station, on the city’s east side. A short walk away, check into the Thon Hotel Oslo Panorama, steps from the waterside Opera House, a 2008 landmark whose modernistic roof visitors climb, like a glacier, for fabulous views of the harbor and the Oslofjord. Part of Norway’s largest hotel chain, the Thon Hotel Oslo Panorama has contemporary rooms, a pretty brick-walled courtyard, and a bright white breakfast room whose offerings include Norwegian favorites like herring and smoked salmon. Spring for an apartment-like suite with a spacious living room, a fully stocked kitchenette, a separate bedroom and a bath, and a balcony overlooking the Oslofjord. Doubles, with breakfast, start at 1,350 Norwegian Krone (about $240). 

At the head of the Oslofjord, mere miles from the North Sea, Oslo has always had close links to the waterfront. But recent development projects are turning the waterfront trendy. Near the Thon Hotel Oslo Panorama, the new Bar Code neighborhood, or Opera District, debuts in 2015 with restaurants and boutiques as well as office towers. For now, the waterfront buzz is west in harborside Tjuvholmen.

On a leisurely 15-minute stroll west from your hotel along Rådhusgata, you’ll pass 13th-century stone Akershus Fortress, and soon arrive at the harbor where classic wooden sailing ships bob in the Oslofjord’s sparkling blue waters. Peek at the murals inside City Hall, a Functionalist-style brick building that hosts the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony every December 10. Next door, purchase a 24, 48 or 72-hour Oslo Pass, offering free city transportation, and admission to more than 30 museums and attractions. 

A few steps away, in the high-tech Nobel Peace Center, enter an electronic “forest” of Nobel Laureates with their photos and words of wisdom, and use an interactive wall to learn about past honorees, including U.S. Presidents Teddy Roosevelt, who won in 1906 for negotiations ending the Russo-Japanese War, and Barack Obama, whose work in international diplomacy earned him the prize in 2009.

Watch out for bicycles and the city’s blue-and-white trams as you follow the waterfront’s curve west to Aker Brygge, a harborside complex of 40 restaurants and 70 shops. Just beyond, in the new Tjuvholmen district, contemporary steel bridges span romantic canals. The Astrup Fearnley Museum, Norway’s most important collection of contemporary art, opened this past September in a stunning glass, steel and wood building by star architect Renzo Piano. Featuring a unique double glass roof, the building is divided in two by the Oslofjord’s waters. Outside there’s a beach and a sculpture garden. 

Next door, a new six-star boutique hotel is filled with contemporary Norwegian art and design. All 120 rooms have French balconies, but the best room in the house is the Oslo Suite with a rooftop terrace overlooking the fjord. Opened in January, the new hotel is called The Thief, a reference to the days when this waterside quarter was a haven for thieves and other reprobates. Rates start at $370. If you’re in the area for dinner, head to the upscale seafood restaurant Tjuvholmen Sjømagasin, with its contemporary gray and white dining room, to savor Norwegian appetizers like minke whale with parsnips and entrees like cod-like saithe, or pollock, in beet-root sauce. 

EXPLORe and discover

There’s plenty to explore out on the wide blue breast of the Oslofjord. But first amble north of the waterfront to the heart of Oslo. Strolling west along Karl Johansgatan, Oslo’s busy main shopping street, you’ll pass 17th-century Oslo Cathedral. Across from the yellow-brick Parliament, with its semi-circular façade, have coffee, tea or open-faced shrimp sandwiches in the venerable Grand Hotel, where President Obama stays when visiting Oslo, and where a small marble-topped table with a hat and gloves recalls another famous regular, the great Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. 

Farther west, Ibsen is remembered with a statue outside the National Theater, a block from the elegant Hotel Continental whose cozy bar is adorned with sketches by Norway’s most famous artist, Edvard Munch, whose 150th birthday is being celebrated throughout 2013. At the grand yellow-and-white Royal Palace, head south to the Ibsen Museum, the apartment where the dramatist spent the last 11 years of his life. Or head north to the light-filled National Gallery. Don’t miss the dramatic 19th-century landscapes and fjordscapes of J.C. Dahl, or the realistic portraits and seascapes of Christian Krohg. The museum’s highlight: an entire room devoted to more than a dozen works by Edvard Munch, including “The Scream,” and the sensuous “Madonna” with a red halo. 

The Oslofjord lends much to Oslo’s beauty, but so do the surrounding woodlands and mountains. For a taste of Oslo’s sylvan splendor, take a tram west to Vigeland Sculpture Park. There you can stroll through 80 acres of tree-shaded lawns dotted with fountains, bridges, and Gustav Vigeland’s stunning bronze Functionalist sculptures of men, women and children, including the humorous “Little Angry Boy.” 

Back at Oslo’s waterfront, board one of the authentic wood sailing vessels of Båtservice, whose “hop on-hop off” mini-cruises leave from wharves near City Hall, or from near the Opera House, where longer cruises also depart for Denmark’s Copenhagen and Frederikshavn. On Bygdøy Island, there are six museums, including the Holocaust Center in the former villa of Nazi collaborator Vidkun Quisling. Other museums celebrate Norway’s seafaring tradition. The Viking Ship Museum houses amazingly well-preserved Norse longboats along with sleds, jewelry and other artifacts. Nearly bursting through the Fram Museum’s roof is the massive red-and-black polar ship Fram, which Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, first to reach the South Pole in 1911, used on several expeditions. The Kon-Tiki Museum displays Thor Heyerdahl’s 1940s raft, which sailed 5,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean, and his Ra II raft, which was made of bulrushes from Bolivia’s Lake Titicaca, and sailed across the Atlantic from Morocco to Barbados.

 Bergen: Gateway to the Fjords

Sailing through the Oslofjord will certainly whet your appetite for a longer cruise. From May through September, Fjord Tours, which celebrated its 30th anniversary last year, offers the day-long “Norway in a Nutshell” train excursion and fjord cruise. Though you can begin the tour in Oslo, start in Bergen, spending a day or two exploring this UNESCO World Heritage City on the western fjords. From Oslo, it’s an easy 50-minute SAS flight to Bergen, then a short ride downtown on the Flybussen airport bus. 

Of nearly 30 hotels in Bergen, the most elegant is the Clarion Collection’s Hotel Havnekontoret. Built in 1916 as office headquarters for shipping magnate Thorvald Halvorsen, the grand old building has elegant public rooms, including a domed hall adorned with frescoes of web-footed Pegasuses and other mythological beasts, and tastefully furnished guest rooms, including the Veidung Suite, Halvorsen’s former office graced with the ornate marble fireplace he brought from Milan. In the downstairs dining room, guests help themselves to breakfast and light-supper buffets, and make afternoon tea and crepe-like Norwegian pancakes with preserves, including lingonberry jam, a Scandinavian favorite. 

At the confluence of several fjords and surrounded by seven mountains, Bergen is strikingly beautiful. But its mountainous coastal setting, with moisture from the Gulf Stream, ensures that it’s almost always rainy. Even on sunny days, carry an umbrella, and, in early spring and fall, a hat and scarf. Before setting out, be sure to pick up the 24 or 48-hour Bergen Card for free or discounted admission to museums, restaurants, sightseeing tours and transportation. It’s available online at the city’s website, or in the Tourist Information Office at Strandkaien 3 near the Fish Market. 

Outside the Hotel Havnekontoret, make a right, and you’re steps from 13th-century stone Håkon’s Hall, built by King Håkon Håkonsson. Visit the Great Hall with its tall arched windows, vaulted wooden ceiling and royal high table. Turn left instead, walk past the 263-room Radisson Blu Royal Hotel next door, and you’re in Bryggen, the wharf-side enclave where 14th-century Hanseatic League merchants prepared cod for trade. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Bryggen is lined with narrow yellow, red and white gable-roofed clapboard houses where Norwegian sweaters, handmade Christmas ornaments and other souvenirs are now sold. 

Between Bryggen’s reconstructed houses are narrow alleys with shops like Blonder & Stas, where you’ll find handmade embroidery, and restaurants like Enhjørningen, a cozy upstairs dining room where diners feast on all manner of seafood, including starters like smoked whale carpaccio and mussel soup, and entrees like herb-fried angler fish, cod au gratin, and fresh crab served “as much as you like.” A couple of blocks away, at the Hanseatic Museum, see exhibits on the life of a
typical merchant. 

From there, it’s only a few blocks to the Fløibanen funicular, where Scandinavia’s only cable railway whisks you to the top of Mt. Fløyen in seven minutes. In addition to stunning views of Bergen’s fjords and mountains, there’s a restaurant, café, gift shop and playground. From mid-June to mid-August, there’s also free canoeing on the summit’s Skomakerdiket Lake.

East of the Fløibanen, the area around Bergen’s wharves are filled with stalls selling fresh fish, caviar and other delicacies. In the covered, open-air Fish Market, some fishmongers’ stalls offer fish chowder, fish cakes and other fare. Have an inexpensive lunch here, or backtrack to Bryggen for Bergen’s signature dish, creamy fish chowder crammed with fish and shellfish, in mural-adorned Bryggeloftet & Stuene.

East of the Fish Market, Bergen’s art museums are ranged around pretty Lille Lungegårdsvann Lake: the Permananten with decorative arts, the Bergen Kunsthall for contemporary art, and the Bergen Art Museum, with works by Munch and Norwegian artists like Nikolai Alstrup, known for his colorful Fauvist-like landscapes. Nearby is Grieg Hall, home of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. If you’re a music buff, take the Turistbuss Bergen or the Bergen Light Rail to lakeside Troldhaugen, the sprawling 1880s wood-frame house where Edvard Grieg, Norway’s most famous composer, worked every summer and where he’s now entombed. 

After a day or two in Bergen, it’s time to embark on your “Norway in a Nutshell” tour. First, take the morning Bergen Line train on a two-hour journey east to Myrdal, whose mountains shelter herds of wild reindeer. There you’ll switch to the Flåm Railway, Northern Europe’s highest railway, for a 12-mile journey over gorges and ravines, and through countless tunnels, while hurtling downward to Flåm. Once there, you’ll board a tour boat, with an open top deck and a restaurant, for a two-hour cruise through the Aurlandsfjord and the Nærøyfjord, narrow arms of the Sognefjord, Norway’s longest and deepest fjord. But the adventure isn’t over yet! From Gudvagen, a bus takes travelers along the Stalheimskleiva Road through a series of 13 steep mountain switchbacks offering views of the rushing Stalheimsfossen and Sivlefossen waterfalls. Finally, arriving in Voss, you’ll take the Bergen Line east to Oslo, a 5 1/2 -hour journey that brings you back to the city in the late evening. 

After an entire day in the Norwegian countryside, you might expect Oslo to feel noisy and cramped. But this is Norway, where even a capital city, with its great cultural and historic resources, and its many restaurants, hotels and boutiques, is built to human scale, and the beauty of fjord, mountain and open sky blends seamlessly with brick, stone and mortar. That’s one reason, however long or short your stay in Norway, you’ll return home refreshed, revitalized and totally at peace with the world. 

For flights to Oslo, Norway’s capital, contact SAS (www.flysas.com), the Scandinavian national carrier. For visitor information, log on to www.visitnorway.com  www.visitoslo.com and www.visitBergen.com  

Read 2733 times Last modified on Tuesday, 16 April 2013 21:37
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