Afjordable Norway? Oslo

Norway is considered the third most expensive country in the world, after Switzerland and Iceland. After spending 2 weeks here, I wholeheartedly agree. Fortunately, by the time I reached Oslo, following a few days in Bergen and and a week long Hurtigruten cruise, I had figured out some ways to make my time in Oslo financially bearable.

Walk rather than use transit:

Oslo, a city of 650,000, is great for walking. A few years ago, the city rid itself of all parking spots in the center and replaced them with bike lanes and pedestrian only streets, relegating most vehicles to the outskirts. Citizens and tourists alike embraced the car free, environmentally friendly, initiative and today, walking around Oslo is a pleasure. It is made even more so by plenty of zebra crossings, at least one at every intersection, and pedestrians always have priority, except for blue trams which get the right of way over everyone and everything. The Pedestrians First rule is strictly enforced with the result that vehicles always stop for walkers. It never failed to amaze me every time I stepped into the street, I was absolutely certain cars would stop. And they always did.

There are exceptions to the walk everywhere rule. The distance from the airport to the city centre is 45 kilometers, making walking impossible. The round trip train ticket cost 320 Norwegian Kroner’s (NOK) or about $50 Cdn.

I foolishly used a city bus to return to my hotel from the Viking Ship museum, at a cost 56 NOK or $8.00. It was an expensive bus ride, but an hour bike rental from the bike shares would have cost close to it at 49NOK and Oslo has a few too many steep hills for my liking to cycle. I am scared to think what a cab cost. After this experience, I walked everywhere, no matter the distance.

Eating cheaply:

Every Norwegian hotel I stayed at had huge breakfast buffets with a large variety of eggs, cold cut meats, fish, fruits, vegetables and bread, so I loaded up at brunch. No one seemed bothered when I took an orange or a pear for later. All the hotel lobbies came equipped with free snacks – apples, cookies – and in Oslo, tasty liquorice candies in which I also indulged.

Dinner was a different, and expensive proposition. One evening, I walked to the highly touted Mathallen Food Hall, expecting a wide variety of Norwegian foods but inside, Asian and Spanish tapas stalls outnumbered local food offerings and, no surprise, most of the diners were Asian tourists. I ate BBQ chicken with a French potato salad for the relatively inexpensive price of 130 NOK or $25.00.

A cheaper option are the fast food restaurants. A basic Burger King burger went for 33 NOK, but I am not a fan of American fast food chains. Instead I ate a Norwegian staple, a hotdog, for only $8.00.

Don’t tip:

The unwritten minimum wage in Norway is the equivalent of 17 Euros, or $25.00 Cdn per hour. Waiters are paid well enough without tips and tipping is not expected, which doesn’t explain why every restaurant Point of Sale terminals in Norway have a tip option.

Avoid Alcohol:

The state has a monopoly on liquor and its prices reflect this. Wine starts at 120 NOK a glass, beer 85 NOK and Prosecco 95 NOK. Paying $15 for a glass of alcohol was enough to induce me to limit my alcohol consumption. Besides, the water here is free, drinkable from the taps and public fountains and some of the best in the world. I survived on mostly water.

See free art: Frogner Park

Frogner Park contains one of the largest outdoor sculpture parks in the world, featuring 212 bronze and granite sculptures by Gustav Vigeland, every single one of them nude and mostly anatomically correct. Vigeland is a much loved Norwegian sculptor who also designed the Nobel Peace prize medal.


I began on the park’s bridge, lined on both sides by human sculptures – men, women, children, men with women, men with children, men with men, etc. before walking to the fountain, where more nude statues undertook different activities. Finally, the Monolith beckoned, with its intertwined – not a surprise- nude statues doing all sorts of things. It is all rather intriguing and gives new meaning to a romp in the park.

Try and see The Scream:

The Scream is Norwegian’s Edvard Munch’s masterpiece, an iconic expressionist painting said to symbolize the anxiety of man against nature. Less philosophically, its main figure is also considered to be the prototype for ET. The figure is on a bridge on a fjord overlooking Oslo, shrieking (the proper translation from German and Norwegian is shriek, not scream) at or in reaction to nature.

Photo of photo of The Scream

According to Wikipedia, there are 4 versions of the painting, 2 of which are in Oslo. I went to the first place, the National Gallery, only to learn that the museum was undergoing renovations and closed until 2020. Free yes, but objective unfulfilled, I walked to the second location – the Edvard Munch Museum – said to house 20,000 of his works, including the pastel version of The Scream.

I should have been suspicious when the lady in the ticket booth advised entrance was free. When I asked where I could see The Scream, I was told most of the museum was under renovation and The Scream was in storage for at least another week. Only a single room, containing a dozen paintings, was open and it was occupied by an Asian tourist group snapping selfies in front of the art. A plaque in the museum talking about the Scream indicated there were 8 versions of it, 4 more than attributed by Wikipedia, but no less illuminating as to their locations.

I had been to 2 art galleries, neither of which cost a dime, but both proved fruitless in my search of The Scream. I left feeling that, while Norway does a lot of things well (fjords, salmon, pedestrian priority), co-ordinating art gallery renovations is not one of them.

The Viking Ship Museum:

Situated in an area rich with museums (The Kon -Tiki and Holocaust museums were nearby), the Viking Ship Museum contains 3 Viking ships, the Oseberg, Gokstad and Tune built around the 9th and 10th centuries. Although each were constructed and used for sailing, they found a second life as burial graves, lying deep below mounds of dirt until 1903 when modern day archeologists dug up the ships, discovering intact ships, troves of treasures, skeletons and items buried with the deceased to accompany them on their journeys.


The Museum displays each of the ships and many of the treasures along with films about the Vikings and their exploits.

Although entry to the museum costs 100NOK, this also includes admission to The Historical Museum. I found this museum rather mundane, but it contains a single significant item: the only existing authentic Viking helmet. Notably, it contains no horns, which were a fanciful addition by the composer Wagner, whose costume designer added horns for his opera Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Authentic (hornless) Viking Helmet

Take a Free Walking Tour:

Free Walking Tours Oslo offers daily tours in English and Spanish. The English tour I attended was led by Tamil, a Catalan (“not Spaniard”, he said) living in Oslo. We met at the tiger statue in front of the central train station and walked around. Tamil gave us a history of the city, talked about the architecture, the food scene, why prices were so high and took us to look at some of the city’s gems: the boxy, modern opera house on the water, the classical national theatre, the royal palace, 3 city halls, etc.

For the first time in Norway, I saw some beggars, but Tamil explained they were from Romania, coming up in May and leaving in late September. The tour was informative and a good introduction to the city. The tours are never free; you tip what you think it was worth. I gave 100 NOK, an amount that seemed in line with what others were donating.

Don’t use a laundromat:

I needed clean clothes, so stupidly took a load of washing to a nearby DIY laundromat. Buying the detergent was a not unreasonable 20 NOK, but the washing machine cost 85 NOK and the dryer a ridiculous 120 NOK. Over $30 for a load of wash and the machines were not great. Next time I’ll handwash in the hotel sink.

Final Thoughts:

Oslo is a lovely city in a beautiful country. Once I found a few ways to lessen the pain caused by the ridiculous prices, I quite enjoyed it.

Next: To the Silk Road

Norway’s Fjords from the Hurtigruten

I have long expressed my disdain for cruises and cruise ships, monstrosities which dump thousands of photo seeking tourists in money hungry ports for a few hours, or usher them onto specially chartered buses to take them to swim with the dolphins or get their hair braided or race through the highlights of a city in only 3 hours, thus allowing the cruisers to claim they have had an authentic foreign experience.

My stance against cruises softened a bit during a week long stay in the Caribbean island of Curaco last year. After doing nothing but read, sunbathe and drink for a few days, I joined a Highlights of Curaco tour, where the guide tried her best to make Curaco interesting for 3 hours. This involved visiting a Curaco liqueur “factory” which was nothing more than a front for a store selling different types of Curaco, a drive to a viewpoint of a bay with turquoise blue waters and an extended stop at a beach requiring payment to use, except for the overpriced restaurants. At the end of the tour, I understood why people didn’t spend more than a few hours on Curaco. Unless you want to scuba dive or sunbathe or live there, the place is not worth more than a cruise ship stop.

Ditto for Dubrovnik, my latest love-to-hate destination and a star on the cruise ship circuit. After spending a night there, I was envious of those cruise ship passengers who could leave after a few hours, having seen the highlights and presumably not spent a minor fortune eating a crappy meal. A plate of fried octopus cost in excess of $30 and a mediocre pizza could not be found for under $20. Maybe those cruisers who went back to the ship for lunch and dinner had it right after all.

Thus, I found myself booking a 7 day, 6 night cruise on the Trollfjord, a ship in the Hurtigruten line that traverses the fjords of Norway. In defence of my hypocrisy, the Trollfjord is a working ferry, transporting cars, freight, the mail and about 300 passengers, both tourists and locals, along the Norwegian coast, a lifeline for the numerous towns and villages there. A different Hurtigruten ferry leaves Bergen every day for the north, ensuring transport for goods and people living in Norway’s north. It is also, without doubt, the only way to truly appreciate the beauty of the fjords.

The Trollfjord

As a working ferry, the Trollfjord doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of a gigantic cruise ship – no swimming pool (there is a jacuzzi), no evening shows featuring Broadway caliber dancers or Cirque de Soleil acrobats but rather expedition leaders talking about the lifestyle of the Sami natives, a film about Russian trade with its northern neighbor and no late evening chocolate buffet – but the rooms are decent, there is a walking deck, a few bars where a glass of wine cost $20 and the food local, meaning lots of salmon, Arctic char and lingonberries.

The Trollfjord

We departed from Bergen in the evening, toasting (after paying another $20 for a glass of champagne) a good trip and marvelling at the lovely vista that is Bergen at night.

I looked around at the other passengers. A few people with babies, a pair of well behaved teenagers and lots of elderly people being pushed in wheelchairs. My guess is there were more wheelchairs than people under 30. The average age seemed to be over 75, lots of people used walkers or canes and I felt young. Numerous languages were spoken and all announcements were in English, Norwegian and German. I met one other couple from Canada, along with a few Norwegians and Swedes.

An expedition team was aboard, offering on-boat talks and off-boat excursions at many of the stops, sometimes with the tour bus catching up to the ship at the next stop. The excursions were expensive- $200 each for a group walking tour of a city and going much higher for the likes of Mountain Hike in the Hjorundfjord or Farm Visit in Lofoten or Meet the Vikings. Exploring the cities by myself was free so I passed on the excursions. Besides, in many ports, the tourist office was conveniently located at the dock.

Stops along the coast:

Each ferry schedule differs, depending on where people or freight needs to be dropped off/picked up and, of course, the weather. Our first stop was at a tiny hamlet called Floro where we tendered to the land and walked along the only road a few hundred metres to the single store in town. The selection wasn’t great but no one was here for the shopping. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of small communities line the coast, protected from the sea by the fjords and mountains, where fishermen have made a living since time immemorial.


Today, the region has diversified with oil services and tourism is big business. But Trondheim, a city of 190,000, and the 4th largest in Norway was an old city. The former capital under the Vikings, its Nidaros Cathedral dates from 1070 and is one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in Scandinavia.


Another stop, Alesund is known for its turrets. In 1904, its mostly wooden buildings were destroyed by fire. In order to rebuild, the city imported architects from Germany who favoured neoclassical styles heavy with turrets. Their preference is visible in the cityscape today, along with ornate decorations.

On our 3rd day, we passed the 66.33 degree parallel, the start of the Arctic Circle.  A few hours later we stopped at our first Arctic town, Bodø. Years ago, when I first stepped onto the Antarctic peninsula, we were greeted by snow, penguins and seals, so I was expecting something similar – not the penguins – but maybe a reindeer or two and a glacier. No such luck. The Bodø pier looked like any working pier, with roads leading to it and warehouses all around. No animals or snow greeted us, just a harsh wind and a threatening grey sky.

Bodo pier

The lousy weather followed us up the coast, into the Lofoten Islands famous for its codfish. Not even the dark clouds masked the beauty of the fjords, deep, blue water with mountains lush with trees and houses, in the ubiquitous barnyard red and golden yellows, sitting on yards of light green grass neatly mowed. A boat or two were always moored nearby.


Tromsø is the jumping off point for Arctic adventurers and thrill seekers, its main streets lined with stores selling outdoor apparel and tour companies offering adventure experiences. Our stop was 4 hours long here, so I walked over a concrete arch bridge to the Arctic Cathedral, took a few photos and walked back. I preferred the wooden Tromso Domkirke with its carefully tended surrounding garden, but other than the churches, the town was rather bland.

The ferry continued to sail to the Northern Cape, to Honningsvåg, at 71 degrees north and only 34 kilometers to the Russian border. Many of my fellow passengers took excursions to the Russian border, but as I had been to Russia previously, felt no desire to repeat. I could only speculate that any Russian town near the border might lack the reliable electricity, good wifi, free public toilets, paved roads and general prosperity that Honningsvåg displayed. Plus, it probably didn’t have trolls.


The Scenery:

Interesting as the towns were, the star of the cruise was the scenery and it did not disappoint. Norway’s coast, as the crow flies, is 2,650 kilometers long, but add the fjords and the real coastline is closer to 100,000 kilometers. The fjords are beautiful – think deep blue waters, green mountains, pale blue skies (except for two rainy days) with little settlements providing bursts of red or yellow. It was mid-September, but the trees had already started to turn amber and yellow in places. Further north, trees were absent, replaced by lichen then barren browny grey mountain peaks. It was mostly too early for snow, but the temperature barely reached 0 after Tromsø.


On some cruises, depending on the time of year, whales are seen. September was not a good time for animal sightings, but on the last night of the cruise, an announcement came over the loudspeaker that the northern lights were visible. I raced outside and was lucky to briefly glimpse the effervescent green lights dancing across the sky. It was not the spectacular, light-up-the-sky display with green flashes seen in Instagram photos, but given how early we were in the season (prime viewing is November to February) and my disappointment in failing to see them in Iceland, I was thrilled.

Final Thoughts:

The Norwegian fjords are captivating and the Hurtigruten ferry offers plenty of spectacular viewing options in comfortable surroundings. Seven days aboard it didn’t convert me into a cruise fan, but it is definitely the best way to see the fjords. I’m glad I splurged for the experience.


Afjording Norway: Oslo






On the train in Norway

For better or worse, my first impressions of a country are often lasting ones, which is why taxi drivers who pick up passengers at airports or international train terminals should quit trying to rip tourists off; do they not understand how awful a first impression they make? Which leads me to Norway. I was heading to Bergen, but since I was feeling slightly guilty about what a bad environmental footprint my business class flight to Denmark had left, I forewent the quick, 2 hour flight and opted instead for the much more environmentally friendly, politically correct, 2 days on a train.

First Impressions: Oslo:

My train ride to Oslo began in Copenhagen, going through a tunnel under the Oresund Strait to Sweden, arriving late in Gothenburg; too late to grab a bite to eat at the station, before catching another train to Oslo. Once on it, the immigration officers barely glanced at my passport before grilling the younger Spaniard beside me about why she was going to Norway and the equally young Swedish fellow about his means of support. I’d like to think their disinterest in me was due to my Canadian passport but I suspect it had everything to do with my few grey hairs and wrinkles.

The train arrived in Oslo 45 minutes late to a pounding rain storm, at 10:30PM, with many apologies by the train staff (for being late, not the rain). Google Maps said the hotel was a 7 minute walk from the station and as I had no Norwegian cash to pay a cab driver (little did I know that everybody and everything takes credit cards here), I put on my raincoat and started walking in what I hoped would be the correct direction. Luckily it was, and equally lucky, Oslo and the whole of Norway, is extremely safe. Despite my vulnerable state, dragging a suitcase whilst staring intently at a phone trying to follow directions, I felt no fear walking around central Oslo at the late hour. I arrived at my hotel 15 minutes later – I have no idea how Google Maps figures out its walking time, but I am always about twice as long as what it says it will take – and checked in.

No restaurants were open in the vicinity and I hadn’t eaten since lunch, so I asked the hotel clerk if, by chance, there were some biscuits or cookies I could have. She told me to wait while she checked in the kitchen. She came back a few minutes later with a plate filled with a piece of cake, a cut-up orange and some mini-croissants. How to make a great first impression!

To Bergen and The Flåm:

A bit of a confession here. The real reason I was taking the train to Bergen has nothing to do with my environmental sensitivities (or lack thereof), but my desire to take a ride on what is often described as one of the most scenic train rides in the world, The Flåm. I could have done it from Bergen, but that would have involved a flight and an expensive day trip and I was in no real hurry and always anxious to save a few dollars. So I booked a 4 hour train ride to Myrdal station where I would ride the Flåm Train to Flåm and back again before catching another train for the 2 hour trip to Bergen.

The train to Myrdal was comfortable. The buffet car had extra large windows, where I spent time admiring the scenery – all trees and mountains and lakes. To my chagrin, snow was visible atop a mountain, but it turned out to be a glacier so snow even as early as September 8 was not unexpected.

A preview of the scenery to come

The Flåm railway starts at the Myrdal station and runs for 20 kilometers, descending from 867 meters above sea level at a 5% gradient, whatever that means. It is steep. There are 20 tunnels, 10 cute little yellow stations and a viewing platform at the largest waterfall. More waterfalls, a glacier and beautiful Norwegian woods are passed during the hour long journey down; speed not being of much importance.

On schedule, an hour later, we arrived at the town of Flåm, a Mecca for outdoor enthusiasts with hiking trails, cycle paths and fishing among the attractions. None interested me, so I stayed on the train and went back up again.


Located on a fjord inland from the Norwegian Sea and surrounded by mountains, Bergen is a spectacular city. The Gulf Stream keeps it warmer than its altitude would suggest, but with that warmth comes rain, a lot of it. Bergen is known as the rainiest city in Europe, with over 200 days of rain every year.

By some miracle, I managed to be in Bergen for 3 days without any rain, so I was quick to take advantage of the sun. First up, a 6 minute ride on the Floibanen funicular to the top of Mount Floyen to enjoy the views. I was fortunate to buy my ticket on-line, allowing me to skip the already long purchase line and save $.50 on the $14.00 fare. The funicular was full, but the views made the ride worthwhile.

Bergen from above

Going down, I managed to snag a front row seat with a pair of Calgarians, who had just finished their cruise. Bergen is a popular stop on Baltic cruises and 2 ships were always in port when I was there, along with their crowds and guides holding a stick with a number at the top. By the time I got to the bottom of the funicular, the line-up snaked for a block and probably 1,000 people were waiting.

Next stop was the intriguingly named Leprosy Museum, but it was closed as of September 1, whether for the season or renovations I never discovered. Thus thwarted, I walked to the port area, known as the Bryggen, where food stalls were set up offering all manner of Norwegian food, including reindeer and whale burgers. The prices were frighteningly high: a salmon, potatoes and vegetable plate cost upwards of $40, while the more expensive shrimp and crab dishes started at $75 and went up, all for essentially a fast food experience. Norwegian prices were bringing out the cheapskate in me. I ate a hearty (and included with the hotel room) breakfast, took a few oranges for lunch and managed with a hot dog for dinner costing about $9.00. Back at the Bryggen, a public toilet cost $2.00, credit cards only.

Sample plates for sale at the Bryggen

I can chintz on food, but don’t mind spending money on museums and guides, so I happily parted with $25 at the Hanseatic Museum to wander the museum and take a guided tour.

Now for the inevitable history lesson as told by the guide. Bergen has been populated since the Ice Ages, but its claim to historical fame is as one of the main centres of the Hanseatic League, north German merchants who set up trading routes throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. Bergen’s attraction to them was stockfish, dried cod from the northern Lofoten islands, which could be stored for up to 30 years, useful as far away as Portugal when their crops failed or their catch was bad. In return, the Lofoten fishermen needed grain, since none grows that far north. It was a perfect match.

The Hanseatic merchants set up their own communities and followed very strict guidelines. By the 14th century, they had set up in Bergen, living communally in wooden houses on the dock. The area was fenced, only men were allowed in. Wives and children remained in Germany. Marrying a Norwegian woman was forbidden, not for morality reasons (the brothels were located on the other side of the fence) but to ensure potential heirs were German. Apprentice merchants learned to read and write and lived in dormitories. None of the houses had living rooms or kitchens, instead meetings were held in assembly halls, where the Hanseatics socialized, prayed and ate together.

Today, the houses, passageways and assembly halls standing date to 1704, rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1702 and are an UNESCO world heritage site.

The Hanseatic Houses in Bergen

Final Thoughts:

Although it has been only 3 days, I am loving Norway, except for the prices. Beautiful scenery, clean, and modern, everyone speaks fluent English. More importantly, everyone seems kind and patient and happy. If you don’t have a train ticket, no problem, the conductor will sell you one. Looking lost? Someone will ask if you need directions. Hungry? They’ll find food for you. My hotel has free laundry – just ask at the front desk for detergent. No one seems to be in a hurry; someone asked me to cut in front of him at a hot dog stand.

I suspect it is because this is a very wealthy country (it has the world’s largest sovereign fund from its oil and gas revenues) with a generous social net. It is also mostly middle class, with very few poor or obscenely wealthy people. Trains have only second class cars and there aren’t many homeless people or beggars. I’m sure there are studies done by someone that shows Norwegians are very depressed or have the highest divorce rate or something awful, but this is the first country I’ve been to in a long time that I have felt I could live in. But only for 3 months of the year because it is bloody cold and wintery for the rest of the time.


Next: The Hurtigruten