Home to a large number of tortured geniuses and almost uniformly good-looking locals, Oslo is also one of Europe's prettiest capitals
If you want to demolish some international stereotypes, then Oslo is the place to head for. Norwegians often instil an inferiority complex in visiting British tourists: they’ve nourished their revenues from North Sea oil more wisely than us; they are almost uniformly good looking, they have style, and they boast a public transport system that we can only dream of.
To cap it all, Oslo has a good case to be labelled one of Europe’s prettiest capitals, with a grace and charm that belies its origins as a tempestuous Viking capital. It has a delightful setting, tumbling over a number of arms of the Oslo fjord and climbing up into the surrounding hills, with beautiful parks; this is one of Europe’s most charming and vibrant capital cities. In winter it is an ice queen draped in snow, but in the long bright summer nights, it is just as enchanting.
But conventional? After a few days in Oslo, I gradually realised that Norwegians look through life’s lens in a more oblique way than we give them credit for. It was while enjoying a slice of carrot cake and a coffee at the Grand Café on Karl Johans gate (which, incidentally, set me back an disquieting £8), that I first got a glimpse of this. Across the aisle from my table was a table with a lit candle, reserved for the late playwright Henrik Ibsen, who would take his daily constitutional here and for whom a table, rather like the shirt of a legendary football player, is reserved in perpetuity. Ibsen may have been a great talent, but a visit to his house, a short stroll away, revealed more colourful insights. An obsessive gambler, he had a gloriously dysfunctional relationship with his wife, whom he called, in less playful moments, “the eagle”.
Oslo has a satisfying number of tortured geniuses, whose legacies can make for a pleasant way to knit together an intinerary around the city. In the north-west of the city is the Vigelandspark, home to a striking collection of 212 sculptures of the human form by Gustav Vigeland. The sculptures, often outlandish or comical, culminate in a jaw-dropping 14-metre monolith depicting the ages of man from birth to death. Enter the park through the cast-iron gates on Kirkeveien and then simply wander among the fantastical artwork - most of it is on the main axis of the park. The Vigelandmuseet, on the edge of the park at 32 Nobels gate, offers more of the sculptor’s creations.
Then there’s Edvard Munch. A visit to the eponymous museum on Toyengate is unmissable; since the theft of some his masterpieces, the entrance hall resembles an airport security checkpoint but the collection is quite superb and includes The Scream
, the troubled artist’s best known work. Munch liked it so much he painted 50 versions of it. The Scream
, all lurid contours, is unsettling, but perhaps the most moving exhibits are the lithographs and woodcuts, which reveal Munch’s eye for human emotion. Munch, as it happens, is a favourite of art thieves: the collection of Munch originals at the Continental Hotel
were once targeted – luckily they stole the imitations.
In between this cultural overload, the bars and restaurants of Oslo’s harbour await. Finding the prices unsettlingly high, I elected for an ice cream on the quayside while I waited for a ferry to the Bygdoy peninisula, which is home to a further clutch of excellent museums. The pick of these is the Kon-Tiki Museum and Institute for Pacific Archaeology and Cultural History, founded by the late Thor Heyerdahl, one of Norway’s greatest explorers, in 1950. Pride of place goes to the alarmingly flimsy looking Kon-Tiki raft that Heyerdhal navigated across the Pacific. Heyerdahl’s central theory - that the Polynesians of Easter Island hailed from South America - has been all but dismissed by anthropologists and DNA studies. And yet the museum refuses to bend to the wind, arguing instead that modern science merely adds to the intrigue. It employs three full-time scientists to study the historical migrations across the Pacific and the exhibits suggest why Heyerdahl came to his conclusions.
The museum also focuses on Heyerdahl’s attempts to solve the riddle of how the giant moai statues on Easter Island were moved. He remains well-regarded there as one of the few foreigners who listened to the islanders’ historical accounts. Heyerdahl always insisted he was more than an adventurer. “All the things I have done are like pearls on a string,” he once said. “They are part of one single pattern.” In many ways, the museum epitomises Oslo – independent, unconventional and not afraid to swim against the tide of opinion.