July 12th — July 20th
On Tuesday July 12th, we flew out of Edinburgh to Oslo. We were hoping for some slightly warmer weather. The cold and the rain in Scotland and Iceland had been rough. But we knew this was wishful thinking.
Our flight with Ryanair left an hour late and our luggage took forever to come out such that it was already late when we arrived to Oslo. We travelled by bus. Until that point, we had mostly taken taxis to and from airports but I read that a taxi to the Oslo was a whopping $150. This is in part because the airports are so far away from the city (45 minutes at least).
We stayed in the (quite stylishly furnished) apartment in a decidedly hipsterish area of downtown Oslo. It's the perfect mix of bars, restaurants, grocery stores, public squares and parks. Despite the rain, the air was much warmer. Some wore shorts and t shirts. Things were looking up!
We spent the next two days walking all around Oslo, visiting museums, strolling in parks and I must say Norway’s capital left a strong impression. The capital keeps a good balance between its historical monuments, newer renovated areas, with plenty of parks and greenery. A small river runs through town with a stylish, modern wharf and a peninsula. The streets are clean, traffic is mild and the general atmosphere is rather laid back, yet lively. You get people of all kinds: it's more diverse than I had expected Norway to be. People dress much more elegantly than I've seen in most places (except New York and Tokyo), and Oslo has an interesting hipster pedigree: long blonde hair, tattoos galore, piercings, etc. I’m going to go on a limb and say it’s probably influenced by the Viking aesthetic.
Of course, Oslo is expensive, as is most of Norway. But there's a bit of a difference in that unlike so many other economies driven by tourism, where price tags are artificially inflated with relatively poor quality of in food, hotels and even general infrastructure, most of what we experienced in Oslo top notch quality. So you pay a steep price, but you get good value for it.
I read up some basic stats for Norway upon arriving and it's quite impressive. It's at the top of most key indicators: GDP per capita, Gini coefficient, human development index, and the list goes on. I must say that this kind of checks out with the general experience of Norway: every feels extremely functional and well organized. We've driven quite a bit and while we didn’t seek out rough neighborhoods per se, I think we would have at least seen what low income areas look like, and we just haven't spotted anything that looks blatantly underprivileged as we have in almost every other country. The high cost of life are also the result of a substantial minimum wage. We hardly spotted any homeless (the few we did seemed to be Eastern European immigrants).
I want to dwell on the minimum wage for a moment, because it took for someone in Norway to talk to me about Norway’s minimum wage to put two and two together and finally understand that this is why their prices are so extravagant. While traveling to Norway, I quickly understood that the consumption habits I had enjoyed in California, and during most of our travels, was utterly unsustainable in Norway. Namely, eating out every meal was not feasible. While I realize that eating out at every meal seems ludicrous to anyone who doesn’t live in a metropolis with high inflation — and it certainly would have seemed grotesque to the student version of myself a few years back — it’s become a habit that’s surprisingly easy to sustain. But why exactly is it so easy to sustain? Simply because we have people working in kitchens and was wait staff who make ridiculously low salaries. While I’ve known that the way things work in SF is symptomatic of wealth inequality in the US, it was slow to realize that the thick silver lining of Norway’s steep prices was a fairer society, where people can make respectable wages working a full time job. Of course that means people don’t enjoy the convenience of eating out day in and day out, but doing that in SF made me feel so out of touch with reality that I was happy to finally have a rationale to help me regress to the mean.
Naturally, Norway is helped by its oil industry. Somehow, I've always associated oil based economies with corrupt, repressive governments, based in the Middle East, Africa, or South America. I always thought of oil as a foreign resource, not something we have close to home in Europe. Yet here is Norway, highly impacted by oil extraction, yet a seemingly well functioning democracy.
The history of this area of the world is seldom taught in French or American schools but coming here was a good opportunity to take note of how prevalent Vikings were between the 8th and 11th century. We learnt most of this by visiting the museum of Viking ships where several vessels, which were found as part of burial mounds, were unearthed and restored. They made some gigantic boats suited for up to thirty rowers. With what was probably the most advanced fleet of their age, the Vikings explored as far as the eastern mediterranean, Iceland, Greenland and even Newfoundland. It’s easy to forget how dominant they once were.
On Friday July 15th, we picked up a rental car and made our way across Norway’s countryside towards its western coastline. We crossed a vast area of high plateaus, strewn with pristine mountain lakes and descended on the the fjords, bathed in the light of the late evening. After traveling for so long and seeing so many places, we've oddly stopped building up huge expectations about the countries we visit. Because of this, Norway’s natural beauty truly caught us off guard. After what was just a short drive through a small part of the country, I have to say it's some of the most unique and breathtaking scenery we've seen on our trip.
I'm writing this on Saturday July 16th, after a day spent in Bergen, the second largest municipality of Norway, located on the western coast. It's a fishing city with a large port and a wharf comprised of a network of old, crooked, wooden, interlinked buildings which are part of the UNESCO world heritage list. Bergen is surrounded by seven hills and alternates between older, narrow and crooked alleys and newer, more modern thoroughfares and buildings dating from the burg’s renovation at the turn of the 20th century. More so than in Oslo, the cobblestone streets and older wooden buildings have been very well preserved and give Bergen a distinct flavor.
The next leg of our trip had us directed towards Loen in the north. It was a ton of driving, including a ferry trip through Sognefjorden, which I believe is Norway’s longest fjord. Taking a car into a ferry boat was impressive: they had long numbered lanes, asked us to pay a fee, then let us into the boat. This not only saved us time, but allowed for beautiful views of the fjords which were otherwise inaccessible.
We stayed the night in a small countryside cabin with no running water and left early for Hellesylt, the port for another boat that ferried us through Geirangerfjord. This was the most scenic of the fjords, lined with waterfalls and incredibly isolated homes reachable via boat only.
After the ferry landed in Geiranger, the road zigzagged up the fjord cliff to reveal vast plateaus covered in deep blue and turquoise lakes. This lasted for about a 100km until we reached Garmo. The landscapes we saw that day were some of the most breathtaking of our trip and rivaled the immensity of the western United States. Cruising across fjords is akin to floating on a flooded version of Yosemite.
It was unfortunate that we were rushed and didn't stop more than a night in any given place. So although we appreciated what we saw, we couldn't really take it in.
Our host recommended we use route 51 the next day, a beautiful mountain road with less traffic and fewer cameras. It did not disappoint! We made it to Oslo mid afternoon and spent most of the evening playing music and video games with our host, Bendik, a professional musician and semi pro gamer.
All in all, we had some of the best moments in Norway: both Oslo and Bergen are vibrant cities with sights galore, quality restaurants, history and culture. It's just a shame that it's so prohibitively expensive, making it difficult to spend as much time there as we would have liked.