Going North for the Holidays: Norway December 2013

Instead of heading home for the holidays this year, I decided to go to Norway. A few of the friends I have made during my studies are from Norway, so I thought I would catch up with them and expose myself to a new culture, a new language and a new country.

Street in Charleroi

Street in Charleroi

En route to Oslo via Charleroi

I started my journey in Belgium by taking the train from Brussels to Charleroi where my flight to Oslo was departing. I took the train to Charleroi because I have seldom been to Wallonia – the southern, French-speaking part of the country. I had been told that Charleroi is different from Brussels and the Flemish part of the country. It definitely is. You instantly feel that the city is poorer than Brussels and Flemish cities. When you step out of the train, you enter a part of the city that is a bit bleak, littered with dog excrement (much like Brussels, mind you), with large empty lots (and many under construction) and people who are visibly less “well-off” than in the other cities. I took a walk around the city center, which was very auto-oriented and quiet: the main shopping street, just days before Christmas, was nearly empty. There were bright Christmas lights hanging above the street and music coming out of speakers, yet there were few people in the street.

Karl Johans gate

Karl Johans gate

I left Charleroi for the airport and arrived that evening in Oslo. My first impression was that the city is clean, quiet, elegant – and dark. By 4pm the sun had already set. While it is a beautiful city, it is also an expensive one. Brewed coffee goes for €4 and a cappuccino can easily cost €6-7. The same goes for beer, costing €5 at the grocery store and at least €10 at a bar. Coming from Brussels where beer is inexpensive, less than €2 at the supermarket and usually €3-4 in a bar, this was a shock. Mais, bon, it is Norway.

Street-lighting Oslo

Street-lighting Oslo

Norwegians are very into the outdoors and Oslo is just a hop, skip and a jump from nice places to run or hike – or ski in the winter. The streets were well-lit for the holidays, and there were small markets in many neighbourhoods. We walked a lot and visited the new Mathallen – a food hall with really nice food. Getting around in Oslo is easy, I mostly walked and the trams and trains go all over, and into the suburbs. As with everything in Oslo, the cost is steep: five euros per trip.

Norwegian desserts

Norwegian desserts

I spent a lot of time while in Oslo inside the homes of my friends. The winter is a dark time, when the sun comes up after 9am and sets before 4pm. Also, going out is expensive: coffee, drinks and food add up, so we often ate our meals at home. Everyone I visited had a nice home, equipped with comfy furniture, good coffee makers and nice lighting, making for a nice, comfortable nest from which to take refuge from the chilly (but not really cold) and dark winter.

There is a lot to do in Oslo, especially in the way of museums. Its two statue parks are very nice, the Vigeland Park and the Ekeberg Park. The latter is a collection of status scattered in a forested area, “very Norwegian”. I also visited the Folkemuseum, an outdoor museum which displays traditional architecture and culture in Norway, the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Contemporary Art and the Nobel Peace Center.

Train ride from Oslo to Bergen

Snowy train ride to Bergen

Snowy train ride to Bergen

I took the train to Bergen from Oslo. This 7-hour ride through the mountains was beautiful. I got to see snow after a period of withdrawal – there had been no snow in Brussels or in Oslo. After six hours we left the mountains and the weather changed from snow to rain as we arrived in Bergen, one of the wettest cities in Europe.

Gingerbread village

Gingerbread village

Bergen

While I do think Bergen would be better in the summer, on a sunny day, when I could hike in one of the nearby mountains, Bergen in the dark and under the rain was still charming. I first arrived and visited the Bryggen, a series of old, wooden buildings along the waterfront. Later, I visited the largest Gingerbread village in the world (apparently larger than the equivalent in New York City). On a cold and rainy day, it was a welcomed escape with inexpensive coffee (less than €3!). Some of the houses were really interesting: there were even mosques, temples, large apartment blocks and gingerbread cars. It is interesting to see how children build their city.

Bryggen

Bryggen

Public xylophone

Public xylophone

I also saw a lot of art in Bergen – visiting all four of the art museums and seeing work by Edvard Munch, Nikolai Astrup, and Hans Dahl. On the public square outside the museums there were musical instruments installed for the public to use, mostly xylophones. Bergen is small, with many neighbourhoods build in the mountain with small pedestrian paths connecting them. While there are both a Starbucks and a MacDonald’s in Bergen, they are housed in beautiful, old homes and there are many cozy bars that serve as warm nooks on a cold, wet day (that is, if you can afford a soup or a coffee to stay).

Small Bergen streets

Small Bergen streets

Bottom line

I was really lucky to have friends who took me in, showed me around and introduced me to the culture, the language and the history of Norway. I think it must be nice to live and work there as Norwegian salaries meet the high cost of living and access to nature is incredible. I am going to save a future trip to Norway for the summer months – when it is warm and the sun shines for more than six hours a day. While I want to return in the summer to enjoy the hiking, I think the cities are also best visited in the summer, as one can stay outside for over ten hours a day while in the winter there is more rain and it gets dark early. Nonetheless, it was nice to see the quiet winter sides of these two northern cities.

Other pictures of Oslo: 

Traditional Norwegian home - Folk Museum

Traditional Norwegian home – Folk Museum

New commercial buildings Oslo

New commercial buildings

Opera

Opera

Statue at the Ekeberg Park

Statue at the Ekeberg Park

City Hall Oslo

City Hall

Vigeland Park Oslo

Vigeland Park

Old sillos turned student residence in Oslo

Old silos turned student residence

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