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Published on: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 in 07:38 PM.
In the following categories: Travel notes, Journeys.
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The capital of Norway, Oslo, doesn’t rank among the splendid cities in Europe. Even more–my Norwegian friend, Dag Oyvind, thinks that this is the drowsiest and most boring European capital. Although his statement is exaggerated, in the month of December Oslo really suggests the idea of winter sleep. But it’s Christmas, isn’t it? Yes, it is. And there are actually Christmas decorations and Christmas sales in the shops; the main street “Karl Johan” is comparatively busy, and festive mood fills up the air–but everything is somehow muted and slow moving. How could it be otherwise, though, when at this latitude the day breaks at 10 am in December, at three in the afternoon it is already dark, and the temperatures are constantly two-digit numbers with a minus sign?


Regardless of the inhospitable climate and the short day, it is worth seeing Oslo in winter–at least because of the introverted, semi-mystical atmosphere created by the muted, strangely slanted northern light in combination with the strict Scandinavian architecture.
This city numbering five hundred thousand inhabitants is situated at the bottom of a deep fiord, and as could be expected for such a costal position it is more often cloudy and rainy here than sunny. This is why, especially in winter, the visual contrasts are limited by a dominating soft cozy greyness whose monotony is rarely broken by a dramatic accent. Like the Vigeland Park, for example, where we start our hasty get-to-know tour of the snow covered capital before we get back to the home of our friends Ranghild and Dag Oyvind to spend Christmas Eve together.
In spite of being scattered over a big area and comprising, like every modern metropolis, a great number of residential suburbs, the central old part of Oslo is modest in size and the walking tour only takes a short time. The green areas are the pride of the city and the above-mentioned park is the most attractive one. It is remarkable with its over two hundred monolithic works by the most famous Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland (1869-1943) exhibited in open air. The exceptionally expressive granite sculptures depicting human figures in different, mostly shattering emotional states stand in strong contrast to the general calmness and trouble-free mood of the surrounding urban environment.
And there is a lot to see in it. Walking to the east and chased by the freezing weather, we quickly arrive at the low hill where the king’s palace is erected. Norway is a constitutional monarchy, and at the moment the throne is occupied by King Harald V and his wife Queen Sonja. The building, far from the splendour of Versailles and Buckingham Palace, is similar to our former king’s palace in Sofia. One could say that as countries in the periphery of Europe, Bulgaria and Norway bear a resemblance in the thriftiness of their architectural styles and the means of expression in the planning of their emblematic buildings.
Also interesting is the fact that Bulgaria and Norway share a similar history at least until World War Two. After a strong Early Middle Ages featuring territorial expansion and cultural efflorescence, the Norwegian kingdom loses its independence in 1387 and for more than five centuries is dominated at times by Denmark, at times by Sweden. The 19th century marks the beginning of a national cultural revival that reached its apogee in the works of the playwright Henrik Ibsen, the composer Edvard Grieg and the painter Edvard Munch. In 1905 Norway officially achieved its independence stepping out of the union with Sweden.
Since that date, Oslo has been the capital of the newly established free kingdom. The city was first founded by King Hardrada (Harald, “The Hard Ruler”) in 1048. The name Oslo means a Meadow of the Gods in Old Norse. The city prospered in the following three centuries, and at the beginning of the 14th century King Haakon V built the Akershus Fortress hoping to stop the Swedish invaders. This mediaeval fortress is still preserved at the Oslo harbour reminding one of the long years Norwegians struggled for independence.


From the small harbour full of replicas of old sailing boats and modern ferryboats we head for the heart of the city. In the past Oslo was often befallen by devastating disasters. In the middle of the 14th century the bubonic plague raging in Europe reached Norway and took the life of half of the population of the kingdom, which soon after came under Danish domination. In this period the city declined, and in 1624 a big fire destroyed it almost completely. The Danish King Christian IV restored it and named it after himself—Christiania. The Norway capital kept this name until 1925.
We pass by the building of the Committee that awards the Nobel Peace Prize, and under the two symmetrical towers of the City Hall we approach the Oslo National Theater. This building in rococo style was finished at the end of the 19th century and was constructed to stage Ibsen’s plays in particular. While we are looking at the pretty façade we can’t but compare it with our National Theater in Sofia, as both buildings were designed at approximately the same time and were built in a similar style. Opposite the theater and the small park with bronze figures of different theater characters rises the Oslo University. The building in Sofia sponsored by the two brothers, Evlogi and Christo Georgievi, is much bigger than this one in Oslo. This is why only the faculties of Law and Medicine are housed here, while the other departments are accommodated in buildings outside the city center.
From here eastwards begins Karl Johan Gate, the promenade of Oslo. Like Sofia’s Rusky Boulevard it also leads to the parliament. The Parliament of Norway, the Storting, is a bizarre oval-shaped yellow-brick building enclosed by a colonnade. The more we proceed on Karl Johan, the richer the Christmas decoration becomes. The historic Grand Hotel finished in 1877 is festively lit which accentuates its northern impressiveness. Further on follow posh boutiques and other stores exactly like on our Vitoshka Boulevard. The bustle grows, but the crowds are far from what one can see in Sofia just before Christmas. Obviously the citizens of Oslo don’t leave their Christmas shopping for the last day.
In the pedestrian section of Karl Johan a pops orchestra gives a concert on a specially built temporary stage. Being in a hurry, only few passers-by pay any attention to them and the musicians themselves play apathetically as if there were no audience. In summer it is full of all kinds of street performers here, but now there is no sign of them—the winter frost has chased away even the beggars.


Soon it chases us away as well. We go to a nearby café to warm up. The restaurants and cafes in Oslo are elegant and very tastefully decorated. Smokers are not allowed inside. On the pavement there is an improvised enclosed area heated by vertical gas-heaters where the tobacco-fans shiver with cold. The cafes attract a lot more visitors that the restaurants. As our friends explain to us, the tradition of eating out or just hanging about in pubs is poorly developed in Norway compared to other European countries.
This is why the Norwegian cuisine offers an exceptional variety of homemade dishes, especially fish dishes. We are all set for fish–however, only God knows why, the Christmas menu comprises an abundance of meat dishes, and there is not the slightest trace of sea creatures. They explain to us that fish is too ordinary as it is the everyday food in these parts of the world. This is why the only prestigious festive substitute on Christmas Eve is the traditional baked pork breasts. But yet, because of us, they offer rakfisk as a starter. This is the absolute delicacy of the Arctic and represents the dish version of overripe Gorgonzola. If you have a weak stomach and poor culinary imagination, you’ll have difficulty coping with the half-rotten, terribly stinking flesh. Otherwise it is very stimulating and not only for the appetite.
As for alcoholic beverages, the Norwegians have peculiar preferences. The compulsory combination of hard liquor and bear produces a quickly intoxicating “Scandinavian” effect. We have no choice. Since we have come to celebrate in Oslo, we must accept not only the winter darkness, but also the customs of the hosts. We indulge in the moment and forget that there is tomorrow…

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