Living in Spain is wonderful but, as a born and bred northern European, sometimes you need to get away from the walltowall sunshine and endless red wine. We are lucky to have our family living in Norway so we can go there for a “fix” of normality a couple of times a year.
Thus on 19 December we set off for Oslo with suitcases stuffed with boots, thermals, furry ear-muffs and Christmas presents – and wearing a huge fox-fur coat that looked somewhat incongruous at Barcelona airport, but came in very handy later on. We went the weekend before Christmas because we wanted to go to the Christmas market in central Oslo, which has grown steadily year on year, now occupying two sites in the city and has a lovely atmosphere.
Oslo is a beautiful city – perched between the mountains and the fjord. In the evening the impressive sweep of the Holmenkollen ski jump is lit up and clearly visible from most parts of the city, and the waterfront is a hub of cafes and fine dining. Christmas lights are elegant and understated. Norwegians abhor ostentation – to the extent that they will actually snitch on a neighbour if they feel their lifestyle outstrips their expected income bracket, so it is rare for anything to be over the top and naff. Unfortunately this trait can be interpreted, with some justification, as thinking themselves superior and displaying a self-satisfied smugness. Norwegians have grown used to being rich and have always believed they live in God’s own country – this is not a particularly appealing mix for non-Norwegians.
But back to Christmas: the main part of the Christmas market occupies Eidsvoll Plass, the small central park known locally as Spikersuppa (The Nail Soup) because it was originally funded by a local nail factory. There is a pretty little lake with a fountain at the centre of Spikersuppa which in winter becomes an ice-rink popular with children during the day and young couples in the evening when music plays and there is a lovely romantic atmosphere which easily rivals the ice-rink in New York’s Central Park.
Nestling between the impressive buildings of central Oslo – the Royal Palace at one end and the Stortinget (Parliament) the other, the National Theatre, University and the Grand Hotel where the Nobel Prize-winners stay, along the side – Spikersuppa attracts locals and tourists alike. The wonderful thing about the Christmas markets is the variety of smells – hot chocolate, freshly cooked waffles, gløgg (the Norwegian version of glühwein), hot-dogs, barbecued pork ribs, elk burgers, reindeer steaks. All delicious, it is so hard to choose!
The newer “overflow” market is in Youngstorget – another impressive square presided over by the old Police Headquarters which was notorious during the war years when it was occupied by the Nazi SS who used the cellars to interrogate Norwegian resistance suspects. Despite the amount of time that has elapsed this square still has a strange atmosphere – but the Christmas market helps to banish the ghosts. This part is more traditional with large Sami lavvu (tents) housing stalls selling Sami products, most made from various parts of the reindeer which still form the basis of the Sami economy. Again there are some wonderful smells and many delicacies to try – as well as the chance to pick up traditional Norwegian knitwear, reindeer skin rugs and a lot of things made from reindeer horn you didn’t know you wanted.
Despite what everyone believes there is no guarantee of a white Christmas in Oslo. Ironically more often than not the snow usually falls between Christmas and new year. This year we had a mild and sunny Christmas Day, a light fall of snow on Boxing Day which disappeared quite quickly and then about three inches of snow fell over the new year weekend which then stayed delightfully light and fluffy as the mercury plummeted to minus fifteen centigrade – at which point I really appreciated the fur coat.
The only disadvantage to spending Christmas in Oslo is that Norwegians make the most of any religious holiday that allows them to stop work, shut the shops and restaurants, and spend time with their families, preferably in a small cottage in the mountains. Thus the place is like a ghost-town from lunchtime on Christmas Eve until the 27th or, as happened this year with Christmas Eve falling on a Thursday, the 28th. Christmas Eve is the big day in Norway with the main Christmas meal eaten late afternoon followed by a visit from Julenissen (Santa Claus) – usually a member of the family or a neighbour dressed in the usual red costume to hand round the presents. My father-in-law used to be Julenissen for about 10 houses in their road – however the custom is for each house to give Santa a glass of Aquavit (schnapps) and a ginger biscuit, so he used to return somewhat the worse for wear!
So, in all honesty it is probably better to visit Oslo either a week or two before Christmas or afterwards. In mid-December you can enjoy the Christmas Markets and maybe treat yourself to one of the excellent Christmas Tables (Julebord) – a fabulous buffet-style meal with the most fantastic selection of cold and hot dishes, deserts and cheeses, they really have to be seen to be believed. Most of the better hotels offer a good Julebord throughout December, but it is essential to book as they are extremely popular.
Holmenkollen Hotel and Voksenkollen Hotel are both out of Oslo city centre, near the iconic ski-jump and the ski slopes of Tryvann, yet they can be reached by T-bane, the local Oslo underground/overground train system, and if there is any snow around it will be up there. Alternatively if you really want to push the boat out and experience Norway at its elegant best, take the train from Oslo to the ski resort of Geilo (about three and a half hours), stay at Dr Holms Hotel (www.drholms.no) and enjoy the very best Christmas table money can buy.
New Year can be fun in Oslo. It is one of the few occasions when the normally ultra conservative Norwegians literally set fire to their money. There are great public firework displays around the waterfront but also most households will set off a small fortune in fabulous rockets – there can be fierce local competition as to who has the best fireworks, not least because they are ferociously expensive and this is one of the few acceptable ways of displaying your wealth. If it is a cold, clear night you will see a fantastic display – and if you are really lucky you may even see God’s fireworks, the Aurora Borealis.
A real bonus of being in Oslo around new year is the start of the sales. As everyone knows, Norway is expensive. But they have the best sales I have ever experienced. Whereas in London you may get 10% off – or if you are really lucky and it is something no-one else wants, 20% – in Oslo it is 50% and sometimes 70%. You can pick up some real bargains – I always buy my shoes in the Norwegian sales.
I adore the cold of Norway in the winter – it is crisp and dry and if the sun shines it makes you feel it is good to be alive. What I like less at this time of year is the dark – it is not light until after 9 in the morning, and dark again soon after 3pm. If it is a dull day it feels as if it doesn’t get properly light at all. But for a visit it is novel and atmospheric – just make sure you have good footwear, a warm coat and a hat so you can get out and enjoy the many delights Oslo has to offer.
We left Oslo in -17 degrees and arrived back in Barcelona to +19 – once again the fur coat was surplus to requirements. The cold was refreshing but the sun warms your soul. Good to be home.