Postcard 1 from Norway – Oslo

The original plan was to fly into Bergen, wander the streets and take a cable car up the mountain but I was beaten to the peak by the Pilgrim a couple of days ago. It looked very bleak with heavy cloud, much snow and high winds. She’s up country now on a boat heading towards Trondheim and I’ve reversed my plans to let the storm clouds pass in Bergen and enjoy the sunshine in Oslo.

I planned to exercise my Interrail Pass west-to-east travelling to Voss to overnight on the mountain and then making my way to Flåm and the scenic railway; however, feedback from Cecilia and a group of Interrailers that have arrived in the hotel this evening from Voss has begun to make me reassess and look favourably on travelling south to Gothenburg where spring is further on and the two or three weeks of neither winter nor spring that the west is currently undergoing can be avoided. In the meantime, I really like Oslo so another deal is required for tomorrow night and surprisingly, the Radisson seems to be front runner at 70 euros.

In the meantime, I’ve hired a bike!

Negotiating the city is relatively easy and the vehicle drivers seem tolerant but avoiding the slot where the tramlines sit in the road is an imperative to life itself. In fact, a local Norwegian official named Albert (I kid you not) gave me strict instructions to cross them at right angles even if it meant dismounting first. He also suggested the real danger was not the cars and vans but to look out for the bendy-busses which can be particularly hazardous to bikes. I took both of these bits of advice on board and had a great day.

The weather thus far has been a little hazy and warm but this evening the sun pulled out all the stops and I’m happily sitting on the harbourside of the fjord eating a very pleasant vegan-burger with a kimchi Korean side (I’m not vegan but I have lactose issues so if I’m not familiar with the food then going vegan is a very safe option). I’m staring across the lake when something catches my eye. There are some wooden buildings on floating pontoons just to my left with either smoke or steam or perhaps both coming out of narrow chimneys.

The thing that catches my eye is what I initially think is a naked person then it becomes clear that there are several people but they aren’t completely naked, they have swimming costumes on and the exposed part of their skin is glowing from the intense heat in the shed.

So, the penny drops, the garden sheds on floats are saunas and the scantily clad people are punters running out onto a veranda and jumping in the very chilly water of the fjord. As I gaze around the harbour whilst chomping my way through the very tasty food I spot more of these sheds and some of them have their exits on the roof from where more people are jumping or diving into the water. “Bugger that”, says a voice at my side and I turn to find two of the interrailers that I’d spoken to earlier and clearly enjoying the sun but also just as clearly, not enough to jump in the fjord. I smile and say, “I like the idea of the sauna but the thermal shock of jumping in the fjord is a bit of an issue”. I get nods of approval combined with even bigger smiles and good company watching the sun go down. All this is combined with great conversation about places visited, the best routes, beautiful views, exceptional hotels and hostels together with prices and contact numbers. We part as the sun disappears and the wind becomes a little too keen for our outside position overlooking the water. It’s strange – we may meet again – you never know!

I unlock another city bike to make the return journey to the hotel and pass by the Central Railway Station where there are huge waves of laughter from the vicinity of a wonderful life-size bronze sculpture of a tiger and there’s a bunch of teenage girls laughing helplessly at two of their friends who are sitting on its tail. It’s only when they stagger away, drunk on laughter, not alcohol, and I pass it that I discover what had caused the mirth. Apparently, just touching certain parts of its anatomy brings you good luck. Methinks they’re in for a lottery win? – see the snaps.

Things hot up tomorrow when I utilise my local pass for the city transport including busses, trams and ferries. I’ll let you know.

Postcard 2 – Still in Oslo – The Lilac brings back memories

Today is a wall-to-wall sunshine, bike hire (again) and ferries sort of day. I leave the SmartHotel as they’ve quadrupled their prices and the town is flooded with reporters and men with big armpits. The NATO ministers are in town for a bit of a beano and there are areas where you can’t go. The police here are very relaxed about it all and very friendly to us. I do like their style. They’ll answer the usual inane questions like the directions to somewhere or the name of that park or even “What’s the time” if you’re daft enough to ask.

They’re also politeness itself when they ask you to do something. It’s delivered in a conversational voice. They are armed of course, most of the continental forces are, and I might add that they look fit and authoritative should the need arise but their politeness shines through – until some prat sets their lip up at them then the politeness ends and the police person is triggered. The gentle but firm request changes to an order and the tone of voice is the one that your mother used when you’d strewn your clothes around the bedroom and she’d had enough. It was at this point that you knew you’d taken things as far as they were going to go and grabbed whatever was in reach to show that you were responding and doing it NOW.

I saw this when a man of indeterminate nationality (I think Norwegian) was throwing a small ball past the barriers that had been set up the night before and the little boy was going to get it and kick it back to the barrier. No big deal you might think. However, the barriers are protecting a square where the VIPs are delivered to a building that is a peach of a target for terrorism and there is a group of about 40 armed officers in the corner undergoing a briefing together with a police person strategically posted every ten metres around the big square. All are fully armed and strategically placed with their backs to the VIPs and eyes firmly on the people behind the barriers.

As the little boy had run after the second or third ball thrown by his dad the police lady stepped out of the ranks tousled the little boy’s hair and smiled at him then approached the father at the barrier and gave him such a bollocking without shouting but with immense authority. She then went back to the little boy still playing with the ball and smiled again at him then gently lifted him to the other side of the barrier to be back with his dad then, with a final tousling of hair and another reassuring smile she turned and delivered a ‘final warning’ look at dad then went back to her post. No drama and no shouting or disturbance, and the nicest thing of all was the boy was left with the view that the nice police lady had smiled at him and lifted him back to his dad.

I like these people.

I decide on a ride through the parks and along the wonderful avenues lined with mature trees and softened with bushes in the gardens of the suburban houses many of them in full blossom.

The sight and intense fragrance of lilac makes me think of my work in Czechoslovakia when there was such a place. We had the privilege of taking a network of, what was then, state-of-the-art computers to conduct lectures for the Professors at Ostrava University. I had been given the temporary title of Hostující Profesor (Visiting Professor) and was feeling very pleased with myself. It was only after my first half dozen lectures that I appreciated my position as just a conduit to learning and the real professors sitting in front of me were the stars of the show. I’d been a lecturer in Computer Science for twenty years and was well on top of my subject. However, these lovely people were technology-deprived because of the embargoes on communist states. We even had to gain permission from America to install the network and it was only granted because communism had all but failed and the USSR was falling apart. I was to deliver lectures on the Engineering Applications of Computers and they hoovered in everything that I knew and then some. It was one of the most intensely stressful starts that culminated in one of the most fulfilling, enjoyable and educational (for me as well as them) periods of my life.

The first job was at an exhibition at Prague Uni and that’s where the foundations were laid. However, in Ostrava we were housed in comfortable accommodation in the countryside and the walk to work at the University was through tracks in the woods where lilac was abundant and the smell lodged indelibly in my brain ready for that beautiful, intense fragrance to trigger the memories as it does today. I decide to take a seat in the sunshine and reminisce.

There are benches at many of the street corners and most of them are facing each other so if you sit and someone else sits, they’re facing you and it encourages talk. Maybe this is why they seem to be so content and sociable.

I’m only here a few minutes when a young couple sit on the bench opposite me so I give them a Yorkshire nod with a smile and within a minute or so we’re talking.

In the World Happiness Report (no I didn’t either) they came seventh behind the other Scandinavian countries with the inclusion of Iceland, Switzerland and The Netherlands. The UK is at 17th having slipped considerably over the last decade!

I wish them well and they advise me of the most scenic route to the harbour and it includes a royal park with ceremonial guards at the gate. Now here’s the twist, they’re not there to look pretty or do things like ‘the changing of the guard’ in London. They’re there to help and advise. The two to whom I speak know four different languages and I hear them using three of them as other tourists pass through the gate.

The park is beautifully kept and well worth the detour so when I rack the bike at the harbour I’m entirely de-stressed and mellow ready for my trip to the island.

I find my way to the ferries without too much fuss, I’ve chosen the Hovedøya ferry for the views, walks and a bit of solitude away from the frenetic NATO business in the city.

The views from the water give another angle on the city and with a cruise liner the size of a large town busy docking we watch the manoeuvring with interest.

The ferry is double ended so it doesn’t need to turn which means that we at the back are disappointed to realise we don’t get to watch our own docking procedure although I do find later that it’s as simple as nudging against some old car tyres and looping a rope around a capstan; job done!

On the island there’s a small boat repair yard and a lot of beautiful woods that hide the ruins of a Cistercian Monastery established by an English monk from Lincolnshire in the 12th C It was burnt to the ground 400 years later when the abbot supported Protestant King Christian II and he lost. Fickle buggers them abbots.

I spend nearly four hours on the island then return for an evening meal at Salt where you buy your food through your phone and it magically appears a few minutes later. My seat is by the waterside overlooking the Oslo Opera House. It has magnificent curling ramps that the designers didn’t recognise as the fastest skateboard tracks in Norway…

…but the Skateboarders did ?

Early night tonight but not before a beautiful, if uphill, longish ride to my hotel. These bikes are a great idea.

Enjoy the snaps. G x

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