(Twenty-fifth in a series chronicling my travel year 1985)
In retrospect, it was an insanely hectic itinerary.
• Monday 22 July: Depart Copenhagen (evening); overnight train to Oslo
• Tuesday 23 July: Arrive in Oslo, morning; a whole day in the city
• Wednesday 24 July: Early morning train (6.5 hours) from Oslo to Bergen; evening in Bergen
• Thursday 25 July: Bergen to Oslo (afternoon/evening train), then an overnight train to Stockholm
• Friday 26 July: Arrive in Stockholm, morning; check into a hostel that doesn’t open until 16.00; wander the streets in delirium
The budget was tightening, my time was dwindling, and pricey Scandinavia always was destined to be whirlwind, by design – just the opposite of my foundational budget travel ethos of avoiding the “it’s now Tuesday – must be Sweden” approach.
Youthful reserves of adrenaline were a boon, though only to an extent. It was exhausting, and yet more than a few indelible memories were produced amid the daily servitude to train schedules.
Norway has proven to be a one-off experience for me. Of the 13 countries where my passport was stamped in 1985, only three have not been the subject of return visits: Greece, Turkey … and Norway.
There isn’t any particular reason for the omission. Norway’s spic-and-span urban areas and spectacular mountains, fjords and forests were highly refreshing in spite of the high prices and the absence of Viking blood running through my veins. The return trip has just been delayed 30 years, that’s all.
My first Norwegian epiphany was fast in coming. Immediately after exiting the train in Oslo and changing money, hunger pangs erupted. There was a restaurant in the station, and a placard advising an all-you-can eat breakfast buffet for the equivalent of $8 – a bit of a splurge, although rendered far more practical by my handy plastic freezer bag, ready to be surreptitiously filled with meats and cheeses to last the whole day through.
While industriously filling my plate (and bag) for the second or maybe third time, I saw the ceramic pots. Innocently imagining they were filled with jams or jellies, I scooped out a spoonful of … rectangular silvery-gray pungent vinegary fish parts.
Inadvertently, I had been introduced to pickled herring, a delicacy that somehow had eluded me in Copenhagen. Now it was time to put up or shut up, because what possible use would be served by traveling all the way from Hoosierland to Norway and refusing to taste the difference?
Already during my travels there had been several graphic examples of the sort of American I was bound and determined never to be, like the sad-eyed Texan in Salzburg who refused to drink the amazing beer at the Augustiner beer garden because it wasn’t Miller Lite (just let that sink in), and the young couple bitterly complaining about the high price of Big Macs at the downtown Copenhagen McDonald’s.
In vain, I tried to tell them about the huge, tasty and affordable portions at the Vista Self-Service Restaurant, but they simply wouldn’t listen. Their terror was as obvious as my confusion: Why travel at all, people?
So, with every corn-fed Indiana olfactory receptor sounding a red alert – “BEWARE, Midwesterner: Ocean products not fully processed into paste to make Filet O’Fish sandwiches do not compute … WARNING!” – I duly piled the pickled herring onto flat, dense and nutty rye bread.
And ... that’s right. Hooked at first bite.
The delicious piquant flavor remained ingrained in my tongue for two whole years, until my belated arrival in Amsterdam and an encounter with raw herring filets and chopped onion, followed by smoked mussels in Yugoslavia, then pickled herring in a variety of sauces back in Copenhagen … and so very much more.
The helpful attendant at the train station tourist desk said that Oslo’s hostels were filled, and the room I booked at a pension cost a staggering $17, but at least there was plenty of salami stowed in the freezer bag, so an active tourist’s day began with a harbor walkabout, followed by a visit to the Kon-Tiki museum.
Norwegians refer to Oslo being situated at the north end of a fjord, although in geological terms, the water doesn't match the term, because a fjord is a long, narrow inlet with steep sides or cliffs, created by glacial erosion. Oslo is has none of these, and we might call it a very elongated bay, without the adjacent sheer precipices, though possessing rolling hills and a promontory or three. Either way, it;s a scenic place for a capital city.
Thirty years of North Sea oil wealth undoubtedly has altered Oslo’s skyline for the newer, taller and glassier. My dated recollection is of unusually quiet streets on yet another gorgeous sunny summer's day, and overall, a laid back but efficient ambiance.
Appropriately, legendary Norwegian ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl (1914-2002) was the son of a master brewer. He became famous in 1947 for sailing a raft (the Kon-Tiki) from Peru to Polynesia, testing his hypothesis that ancient peoples could travel long distances across the ocean using the materials and technology they had at hand.
From Heyerdahl’s museum, I strolled to the area around the National Theater, where an electric railway with quaint wooden cars (at least at the time) trundled through the suburbs to the north, eventually entering the woods and depositing me perhaps five miles outside Oslo at the Tryvannstårnet, or Tryvanns Tower.
An elevator ride to the top of this tower enabled a truly stupendous view of Oslo and environs. In 2015, the population of metropolitan Oslo nears one million, and it’s reasonable to assume it was 15% less than that total in 1985, but still, the entire populated area appeared to be completely swallowed up by green forest and blue water when viewed from the top of the Tryvannstårnet. The wilderness appeared to begin just past the last street sign.
By now it was late afternoon, and so after the trip back into the center, I scraped together a few Kroner for two bottles of standard Ringnes lager at a state-owned retail shop, packing them to Frogner Park for an al fresco dinner of breakfast leftovers amid Gustav Vigeland’s vast “sculpture arrangement.”
More than 200 statues in bronze and granite seek to illustrate the vicissitudes of the human condition, its agonies and triumphs. The key piece is the 46-ft tall Monolith, depicting more than a hundred writhing, striving and climbing humans figures evidently grasping for salvation.
Vigeland was a controversial figure. He unashamedly leaned fascist, and died in 1943 during Germany’s wartime occupation of Norway, years that have given us the word “quisling” as a synonym for a traitorous collaborator, but also a time when the national resistance was determined and bloody.
In retrospect, the sculptures surely do have an early 20th-century totalitarian stylistic bent, although it’s awfully hard to find fault with the one, my favorite, where a man appears to be kicking babies out of his way like so many errant soccer balls.
Wednesday began quite early. My Eurailpass landed a seat on the train from Oslo to Bergen for a rail trip that was the primary reason for my decision to visit Norway – and I’m no choo choo buff.
The 308-mile Oslo-Bergen rail line’s construction began in 1875 and took 34 years to complete. It remains an engineering marvel, and one of the world’s most beautiful train rides.
Imagine the construction difficulties inherent to mountainous terrain, then add the length and severity of the Norwegian winter. There are 182 tunnels of varying length, and countless snow fences and sheds. At its highest point, the train is 4,000 feet above fjord level – and at places, the water can be seen, dizzyingly straight down, just outside the window.
The terminus is Bergen, a centuries-old port city squeezed into flat ground between mountains by a fjord – in short, stereotypically Norwegian. The train station is less than a mile from the Bryggen, Bergen’s old harbor quarter and a UNESCO world heritage site, where fish markets punctuate the air and cruise ships depart for epic coastline jaunts.
The room booked for me by the tourist office proved to be conveniently located between station and harbor, right on my path to an early dinner -- and I had to hurry. The highly recommended midday seafood buffet at the Enhjørningen (“Unicorn Restaurant”) ended at 16.00, and this meal was so important that I planned on using my rarely deployed debit card to pay the staggering $16 it would set me back.
I made it on time, and the spread was truly unforgettable, like nothing I’d ever seen: Cod, halibut, salmon, shrimp, crab and herring – fried, baked, broiled, pickled and probably raw – accompanied with exotic sauces, potatoes, berry-laden salads and strange northern vegetables prepared in a myriad of ways, probably 25 dishes in all.
If I’m exaggerating, it isn’t by much. It was an epochal feast.
Afterwards, barely able to move, I walked to the university area in search of a piano recital touted at the tourist office. It was about to begin, although I’d been misled, and it wasn’t free of charge. However, the door and windows were open, and there was a bench nearby.
I breathed easier.
Seafood buffets notwithstanding, it still was possible to listen on a budget.
(to be continued at Bergen's Hansa brewery)
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 24 … An aspiring “beer hunter” amid Carlsberg’s considerable charms.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 23 … A fleeting first glimpse of Copenhagen.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 22 … It's how the tulips were relegated.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 21 … A long day in Normandy, though not "The Longest Day."
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 20 … War stories, from neutral Ireland to Omaha Beach.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 18 … Irish history with a musical chaser.
The PC: Euro '85, Part 17 ... A first glimpse of Ireland.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 16 … Lizard King in the City of Light.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 15 … The traveler at 55, and a strange interlude.
The PC: We pause Euro '85 to remember the Mathäser Bierstadt in Munich.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 14 … Beers and breakfast in Munich.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 13 … Tears of overdue joy at Salzburg's Augustiner.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 12 … Stefan Zweig and his world of yesterday.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 11: My Franz Ferdinand obsession takes root.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 10: Habsburgs, history and sausages in Vienna.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 9 … Milan, Venice and a farewell to Northern Italy.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 8 … Pecetto idyll, with a Parisian chaser.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 7 … An eventful detour to Pecetto.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 6 … When in Rome, critical mass.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 5 … From Istanbul to Rome, with Greece in between.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 4 … With Hassan in Pithion.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 3 … Growing up in Greece.
The PC: Euro '85, Part 2 ... Hitting the ground crawling in Luxembourg.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 1 … Where it all began.