A journey to Norway is a step back in time.
I have studied history in books for years, listened to countless lectures, spent last summer in one of the most venerable archives in the U.S., visited a lot of “historic sites,” and worked at a few, too.
But in Norway, the past is experienced differently — as something still present.
Norwegians move at a slower pace than New Yorkers. There is a definite bustle in Oslo, and even the cobblestone streets don’t seem to slow anyone down, but the city felt quite relaxed. Also true in Copenhagen — both cities felt industrious but relaxed, not like New York’s hectic, hysterical tenseness. Perhaps it was this relaxed pace which began to make the past seem more alive in Norway.
Certainly, as far as European capitals go, Oslo isn’t that old. The country, until the mid-1800’s, and not again until the modern oil boom, was poor and “undeveloped.”
The Hanseatic League did their trading in Bergen, and Oslo was a backwater for centuries after southern Europe was full of sophisticated cities, or for millennia after the Middle East or Asia. In 1850, when there were over two million Londoners, Oslo was still a town of 30,000 — and every third Norwegian was leaving for America. And like London, the city had its “Great Fire” in the 1600’s to clear out the medieval things.
So the city you visit now, is mainly from the late Victorian age. The main drag, Karl Johans Gate, runs directly from the central train station, past the little cathedral, past the national theater and the parliament, to the royal palace. All the handsome buildings you pass seem to be neo-classical or Second Empire style, like promenading through a small-scale Paris.
The Storting (government) building is kind of an exception, being some sort of awful yellow-brick mishmash of Italian Renaissance, beaux arts, 2nd Empire, and Victorian public lavatory. Not sure what they were trying for. My guess: an architect with catholic tastes and a fondness for aquavit. Although the parliament’s half-moon meeting chamber, which we just glimpsed through the window, when it was lit up at night, is wood-paneled, handsome, and impressive. The area around it is full of nice old buildings, restaurants, hotels, and a charming park.
Oslo, of course, has grown tremendously — bigger than Boston, Denver, or Washington, D.C. High-rises are going up near the harbor, near their modern, stunningly-beautiful opera house.
So, Oslo is building, and in any case, most of the neighborhoods are no older than our cities in the Midwestern United States — the Norwegians moving to Milwaukee and Minneapolis wouldn’t have felt entirely out of place. Despite the historical places we visited in Oslo, like Akershus Castle or the huge Norsk Folkemuseum’s historical village, I never once felt that Oslo was old. Even when I was staring at actual Viking longships, ancient, famous, and beautiful, over a thousand years old, the most well-preserved in history — I recognized them as incredible and old, but that didn’t make me feel the age of the country I was in, one that had been the land of the Vikings. So, why then do I say that Norway is a land lost in time?
It was only after leaving Oslo that I felt like I had been transported to another world. Despite traveling by a modern, fast-moving train to Fredrikstad, as Oslo got farther and farther away, I felt like I was going back in time, past fields of hay and potatoes, and then gorgeous coastal scenery and mountains passed by. The landscape was reminiscent of simpler times (though it still didn’t seem old, as I kept seeing Norway’s seemingly endless stream of Tesla’s roaring down their pristine highways).
But upon arrival in Fredrikstad, I felt like we had been shot back to the ancient days. Initially, it felt English. The town was larger than I had expected, and the shops, restaurants, and movie theaters reminded me of those in Hull. But soon, we seemed to drift out of this current era. We took a slow-moving ferry to one of the many outlying islands that comprise this city, and arrived at the old walled city.
Since the late 1500s, this island-city has been fortified — its walls lined with iron cannons, a deep moat, drawbridge, and redoubts on raised hillocks to keep out landing parties. In its day it must have seemed an impenetrable fortress. It immediately struck me as existing in an antique time. This town, with its stone streets, shops, wharves, and armories was busily humming when “modern” America was still just a small malarial outpost on the James River, and a few dozen freezing Pilgrims in Massachusetts.
Having worked and lived in Williamsburg, Virginia, I figured this place would be like all the other “historic” villages I’d been to. I was wrong.
Not only was it European, it seemed vastly different than Oslo’s historical village (which was fascinating in its own way). For starters, this place is “lived in.” The city of Oslo surrounds its folk-museum village, but it is a static museum-piece; the old log houses were taken from their hill-farms and forests to a city park, and fascinating as they are, they’re not an organic part of the land anymore. Fredrikstad felt way more alive, nothing artificial about it. The little hilltop villages in Italy, Spain, Italy, etc. are often abandoned, but none of the houses here are derelict. Norwegians want to live in Fredrikstad. In Colonial Williamsburg, actors live in the houses, but it feels fake, overrun by tourists and costumed people with cellphones. Here, the harbor and canal are full of boats, cars rumbled along five hundred year-old streets (there is a bridge in the modern day to get here) and the city’s military buildings now house restaurants and galleries, in vaulted bomb-proofs within the thick walls. Unlike other recreated villages, this one felt more alive and more ancient for one other reason: the water. On the edge of a modern, bustling city, with a busy little harbor, this town felt like, and was, still very much alive.
I’ve visited port cities on the Atlantic and Pacific that were older, but somehow the contrast of the old garrison town with the modern city facing it across the harbor, made this place feel far older than almost anywhere I’ve ever been. In Oslo, I stood inches from the thousand-year-old Gokstad and Osenburg Viking ships, but they’re now exhibits in a museum — this island-city felt more ancient. There was a storybook air to the place, like you’d walked into an old folk tale. I could picture a fleet of Swedish ships firing cannon balls at this island, with residents from the outskirts fleeing into the protective core of their fortress. It felt very alive and immediately possible.
It was this place that helped make an off-season visit to Norway one of the most incredible trips I’ve been on. I’ve seen plenty of historic villages, and enjoyed them, but none of them captured my imagination or the spirit of the time. Even the best one I’d visited, in Upper Canada, felt more artificial to me, though more believable than Colonial Williamsburg with its Ye Olde Tyme parking lots and gift shops. For the first time, I felt like I wasn’t even in Europe. Oslo, while less impressive in some regards than the likes of Cologne, Manchester, Hamburg, or certainly London, is still mainland European in its character. Fredrikstad’s fortress (despite being state-of-the-art Euro-design in its day), felt like a distinctly Nordic place.
Norway, even now, modern and affluent as it is, still strikes chords for outsiders as being a somehow medieval landscape of snow and ice. When we visited their national art gallery, it was crowded with locals admiring an exhibit of story-tale art, with mysterious footprints in the snow, bluish hills, dark woods. And this island-town, despite the sunshine and warm weather (warmer in March than England or even Maryland), seemed to belong to this alien world of wooden, mushroom-shaped homes, wooden… everything, tall blonde singsong-speaking people, and a land of trolls, of myths that feel alive and truths that feel mythical and the home of the Vikings. Here, I felt, for the first time on any of my travels, like I was somewhere truly different.
A final thought on this difference: Norway is the most English-speaking country in Europe (including England, since what they speak in Yorkshire may not be gibberish, but it is not English) and yet to an American, it remains the most alien. In the UK, while not ever feeling “at home,” I felt like it was similar enough to New York, just grayer and less pleasant. Spain was gorgeous and way relaxed and, while distinctly different from my world, it still was exactly how I’d imagined it. Germany and Copenhagen, while seeming “old” in some ways, still didn’t match the pervasive antique feel of Norway.
What I realized was this: In Hong Kong and Taiwan, I may have glimpsed the future, one of soaring glass and steel skyscrapers, crowds, humidity, and the constant sense of a centralized state overlaying “organized chaos.” But in Norway, I saw and felt the past. Norway, with its modern economy and lifestyles, is a land that cannot escape its past, and because of that, it feels different. Germany has history, but it feels like history, something entirely pushed into the past — you can feel the roots, but you know and are always aware that the nation is moving forward, and the old is being incorporated and dissolved into the new.
In Norway, the old is pervasive, on display in subtle but constant ways, and it is not going anywhere. It felt different there.
I think the reason is, that Norway has remained off the radar and apart. In Copenhagen, you walk into a six hundred-year-old building, and there is a McDonalds sign in the window. In Hong Kong, an alien world in many regards, there are constantly thousands of Americans roaming the streets. Norway, it seems, remains almost undiscovered, and perhaps because of this, far more mysterious, even if aspects of it seem familiar. The familiarity, but the slight differences, is what makes Norway so alien. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.