As Helena pulled slowly out from Aker Brygge, her passengers could begin to see the shape of Oslo, wrapping itself around the head of the Oslofjord like a woollen hat. Cranes and building sites seemed to occupy every last piece of available land along the waterfront before the city climbed away in three directions. Oslo, multi-lingual and multi-talented, is a city seeking to occupy the space between man and nature.
In a former life, Helena was a fishing vessel. In the early 20th century she would make her way down the 100km fjord and to the North Sea beyond. She sought out cod and shrimp and herring, often at night when they would come to the surface to feed, navigating through the dozens of islands, islets and hidden rocks of the fjord using the light of the moon, the occasional lighthouse and the memory of its captain.
Though her fishing days are now behind her, Helena’s masts remain tall and the scent of the sea is so infused into the soul of the ship one can never truly see her as the tourist carrying vessel she had become in her retirement. The only seafood on her newly restored deck is that of the cooked variety and her sails are now bound permanently at the foot of the mast, whilst a petrol motor now pushes her through the waters of the fjord.
Norwegians will tell you that the Oslofjord is not a proper fjord; our image of the fjord that is of dramatic cliff-faces and a sheer drop into clear blue waters below. Norway is synonymous with these geological marvels, carved through rock by the glaciers of the last ice age. Geologically speaking, the Oslofjord is therefore not a fjord, it was not carved out of the rock by ice, and indeed its sides are much more gentle and habitable than its cousins in western and northern Norway. Though the westerly cousins are Norway’s window-dressing, it is the Oslofjord which is the heart of the country; of Norway’s five million inhabitants, more than 40% live within 45 minutes of its gentle slopes.
Helena heads due east and from the port-side her passengers can look upon a high, rocky peninsular protecting the bay and central Oslo behind it. Where the natural rock ceases, manmade bricks take over, forming the Akershus Fortress, which has been defending this gateway to Norway since it was first built in the 13th century. Not that it has excelled in this role however. Since its foundation in the year 1000, Oslo has only ruled itself for a few hundred years, with Danes, Germans and Swedes accounting for the rest in different spells. Oslo may be an old city and Norway an old country, but it is a new state. Norway has been independent since 1905 but even then suffered from Nazi occupation from 1940 to 1945.
Akershus still operates as a military barracks and is also a headquarters of the Ministry of Defence. Despite this, the site is open to the public until 21:00 every evening complete with two museums, a number of cafes, not to mention some of the best views of the city from behind its walls. The Royal Mausoleum is also on the grounds, showcasing Norway’s egalitarian society, with no one – not even royalty and the military – separated from anyone else.
Helena chugs slowly past the fortress of the history it evokes; she witnessed the German invasion and was not impressed by it. As the invading fleet moved up the Oslofjord in April 1940 it encountered heroic resistance from the Oscarberg Fortress, which sunk the battleship Blucher and allowed the Royal Family and much of the government to escape Oslo.
Pulling around the headland of Akershus, the National Opera House comes into view. It slips from the icy water as if it were created in the fjord and then given to the city as a gift. Its straight lines, abrupt corners and white exterior are reminiscent of ice and snow, a land-bound iceberg housing the city’s love of opera. Inside the Opera House, the cold and jarring exterior is forgotten and instead it is warm and spacious, with copious amounts of wood lined staircases reminding all that they are in Scandinavia.
Oslo is an architect’s dream; it is daring and new buildings rarely seem to play it safe. Behind the Opera House, the corporate offices line up along in what in most cities would be a boring parade, but in Oslo each one is a unique use of space and materials not always to everyone’s tastes, but rarely boring.
The shoreline stretches south and she trundles along smoothly. There is much more to see besides the shoreline however. On a map the islands and islets of the Oslofjord look as if they have been blasted from the mainland; splinters of rock and stone strewn randomly across the water. On a map they look primitive, violent almost, but in real life they are quite the opposite.
Tiny coloured cabins can be seen on both the mainland and the islands, they can be glimpsed between towering pines or backing on to a rock face or clustered together to form a mini-hamlet.
At the water’s edge, bathhouses with steps down to the lapping waves are placed between mooring points for boats. In a more puritanical age, the owners of the colourful cabins would change in the bathhouses and paddle in their own private part of the fjord, separated from the neighbours by a wooden screen. The screens are gone now, but the bathhouses remain. It is a place where man is comfortable with nature, where he has seen the benefits of building with what is already there and the result is delightfully satisfying to look at.
On some of the islands, cabins of only a certain size and colour can be built. On another, people are banned for months every year as it is a popular breeding spot for birds. Oslo’s first airport is on another, or rather beside it, a seaplane port used in the 1920’s. Every island has its one story, whether its population is a hundred, a thousand or merely a flock of amorous birds.
Helena is used to this, and follows her route with minimum fuss. In the distance, Oslo watches its offspring with an almost paternalistic care. All these communities rely on the city to survive in one way or another; for jobs, for utilities or maybe just for social interaction, but they are standing alone none the less.
After an Irish coffee and a mulled wine, Helena heads for home, but first it pulls by Bydgøy, home to Oslo’s world famous collection of museums. The peninsula boasts magnificent houses and is popular in the summer for its beaches and barbequing spots. For all twelve months of the year however, it is famous for its museums, detailing the country’s seafaring personality and past through a menagerie of lenses.
Before Oslo even existed, the Vikings, originating from the narrow valleys of southern and western Norway emerged from the fjords in the 8th and 9th centuries to wreck havoc across the North Sea and beyond. The Viking Ship Museum on Bydgøy houses the Gokstad ship, the best preserved Viking ship ever found. The museum itself is not much to look at and the local government has spoken for years about moving the ship to a new, more worthy home. However, the absence of such trappings means that there is little else to look at but the boat itself (and its sister ships, the Osberg and the Tune). Getting up close to the boats, seeing the notches in the wood and the nails hammered between planks helps to remove the myths around the Vikings and remind us that they were real people who had a long lasting impact across Europe.
Norway’s seafaring history did not stop with the Vikings however. Bydgøy also hosts the Fram Museum, which celebrates Norway’s long history of polar exploration. Norwegian adventurers were amongst the first to reach both Poles and men such as Amundsen and Nansen are local heroes in the same way that Scott and Shackleton are to the British. The Fram was Nansen’s ship he used in an expedition to reach the North Pole, it was designed so that as sea ice compacted around it, the ship would rise rather than be crushed by it. A replica of the ship occupies the central space in the museum.
Opposite this most traditional of adventuring is the Kon-Tiki Museum, which regales the fantastically crazy exploits of one Thor Heyerdahl. Heyerdahl was a Norwegian ethnographer who was convinced that the Polynesian islands of the South Pacific could have been reached from South America before the advent of European technology. In order to prove his theory he constructed a craft, the Kon Tiki, made only of materials available to South American peoples in pre-Columbian times, and sailed the 6,900 kilometres across the Pacific with a crew of fellow Norwegians (and one Swede).
Helena is tired now, she pulls back towards Aker Brygge, behind which the City Hall stands proud in the fading light. It is here that the Nobel Prize Winners are announced every year and celebrated in the nearby Nobel Peace Centre. Behind the City Hall, Karl Johans gate runs across the centre of Oslo, home to bars and restaurants, shops and tram stations, and also the Royal Palace and Parliament building. Norway holds little regard for the trappings of power, and politicians and royalty are not set above and away from their people.
Helena docks, and the passengers step off. Night time comes quickly in October, the days are getting shorter until they barely happen at all. A hundred metres away, the restaurants of the new development on Akker Brygge are already full, waitresses speaking Swedish and Polish intermingled with customers speaking English and German. There is a realisation that Oslo’s bay is only one story, and that the city holds many more stories besides.
All photographs by Gosia Loj. Many thanks.
Copyright © 2016 Pete Ford