On Norway’s national day, in May, Oslo shuts down and is transformed into a sea of waving flags, national costumes and fluffy ice cream, making it the ideal time to experience Norwegian culture
An expectant, excited mood had settled over Oslo. I was standing by the palace, looking down the Karl Johan Street, which was lined with adults in national costumes and spring finery. All was calm, waiting. The rhythmic beat of drums could be heard approaching in the distance, patches of marching tunes interrupted by the noise of whistles and cheers of ‘hip, hip, hurrah!’ Then a wave of jubilant flags and banners slowly rolled over the hill by the parliament as thousands of children came marching towards us, waving hand-held flags at their adoring parents on the curb.
This is May 17th, Norway’s national day, and a day like no other. Unlike other national days, there is not a soldier or firework display in sight; rather it is a day for children and for the child within. The day celebrates the constitution, adopted in 1814, and represents a great deal of national pride to Norwegians. The festivities may seem to proceed in intense self-congratulatory fashion at times, but it is also an inclusive event, which welcomes flags of every nationality into the many parades, and is the ideal way for visitors to experience Norwegian culture.
The children’s parade’s journey up Karl Johan is an iconic image for Norwegians. A unique feature of Norwegian parades is their seamless merging of spectator and participant, and so I watched proceedings from the sidelines for a while, before deciding to join in for a stretch. The parade passed directly under the palace balcony where the royal family was waving to the masses below. School marching bands, often maintained purely for the purpose of this parade, kept up a lively beat, whilst some 100 schools and kindergartens each stopped to greet the king. Having received my royal wave, I headed off to Bygdøy to catch my breath before the next parade.
For a capital, Oslo has a cosy, quaint feel to it. There are a few concessions to imperial architecture, mainly around Karl Johan, but for the most part it is leafy and down-to-earth, the sort of place where people work to live, before they head off to the sea or the excellent skiing areas on its doorstep.
The Bygdøy peninsula is one such recreational area, famous for its beaches, expensive addresses and historical museums, amongst them the Viking ships. The excavated longboats are housed in a simple, white building with a passing resemblance to a church. Certainly, there was a solemn, reverent feeling to the three large ships, which emphasized both their simple beauty and the unlikely fact that these flimsy constructions succeeded in bringing marauding Vikings as far as Newfoundland – and back again.
I satisfied myself with a much shorter boat ride, crossing the fjord back to Aker Brygge on the fjord taxi, where I rejoined the crowds for an early lunch at Cafe Albertine. Aker is easily Oslo’s best place for watching the world go by over a coffee or two, with rows of outdoor restaurants facing the quay. Those who were not involved in sack races at the various schools had come here for a cold beer in the sunshine instead. Angelic-looking children in starched shirts and traditional costumes were running around with hot dogs and fluffy ice cream, making the most of Oslo’s green spaces in the brilliant sunshine.
The best of these is Vigelandsparken, Europe’s largest sculpture park, which was created to honour the sculptor Gustav Vigeland. It is sort of a living art gallery, where art students draw the sculptures whilst people walk their dogs and couples have romantic picnics. On the bridge into the park I found Sinnataggen, perhaps Norway’s most-loved sculpture. The image of the angry boy is both much admired and much abused; he has endured a sawn-off foot, theft, being painted pink and various other vandalisms over the years, and was, understandably, as angry about it as ever, despite the celebratory mood around him.
At the National Gallery, a stone’s throw from Karl Johan, another icon of Norwegian art is on display. Munch’s 'Scream' is the main draw for both visitors and thieves alike and I went there to see the iconic painting of a man in inner turmoil. The Munch Museum has a more extensive collection, but after one intense meeting with his unique take on angst and agony, I felt like rejoining the celebrations instead.
Back on Karl Johan, I found the inhabitants of the Grand Hotel
out on their balconies in preparation for the citizen’s parade, which consists mainly of an astonishing variety of clubs and organisations. This is also the parade of the ‘russ
’, high school graduates with a penchant for loudspeakers, moonshine and witty slogans.
Idols to young children and a nuisance to adults, the russ are easily spotted in their bright caps and colour-coded uniforms, and should be treated with respect; pranks and general silliness is their game, and they had parked one of their customised buses opposite the Grand’s venerable doors, music blaring from enormous loudspeakers.
After a busy day, I made my way from the Grand, Ibsen’s regular haunt, to Theatercafeen in Hotel Continental. This is the other celebrity favourite, but for those who haven’t kept up on Norwegian showbiz, the buzzing cafe is also a brilliant place to watch Oslo’s smart set at play. The Vienna-style cafe has been Oslo’s favourite meeting place for over 100 years and is now listed as one of the world’s top 10 famous cafes by the New York Times.
I was lucky enough to have a table for the evening, and so was able to reflect on the day’s events in style. Tomorrow, Oslo would return to daily life, the shops would reopen and people would no longer be waving flags at each other whilst saying ‘congratulations with the day’ in reverent tones. The city had won me over with its charm, however, and the day had demonstrated just how much fun flags and parades can be. Who’d have thought!
Food and drink:
• Aker brygge:
• Cafe Albertine:
Tel: 0047 21 02 36 30
Tel: 0047 22 82 40 50
NB! Advance booking essential on May 17th.
Things to see:
• May 17th:
The children’s parade and the citizen’s parade are the main events, with similar timings every year (10am and 3pm). A full programme can be found at www.visitoslo.com/
• Viking ships:
Tel: 0047 22 13 52 80
• National gallery:
Tel: 0047 21 98 20 00
(NB! Closed Mondays)
Tel: 0047 23 49 37 00