Norway in early spring - with its gray skies, snow-covered countryside, icy streets, and misty rains - is perhaps not everyone's idea of paradise, but it has its upside. You have the place more or less to yourself, or at least you don't have to share it with the raging hordes of selfie-snapping backpackers who descend on Scandinavia in the summer.
As for my husband and me, we started in Oslo, the laid-back, friendly capital nestled among hills at the end of the Oslofjord on the country's rugged southeast coast. From there, we took the train west to Bergen, built around a harbor on the semicircular sliver of land inside a bowl of mountains. Our itinerary was defined by the two talks my husband, a university professor, was giving in each city. The time surrounding the talks was ours to use as we wished.
Oslo is marvelously pretty, with a capacious, lively waterfront; a necklace of surrounding, heavily wooded hills (some of them skiable); and blocks and blocks of neoclassical buildings painted in soft pastels - an astonishingly lovely palette that probably owed something to the gloomy, glowing early spring sunlight. So it comes as a bit of a surprise to learn that for most of its long history (Oslo was founded in the 11th century), the place was a backwater, a poor relation to Stockholm and Copenhagen. It was not until the 1950s, a mere eyeblink after its occupation by Nazi Germany, that the city remade itself as an expansive, cosmopolitan, world-class capital.
What struck me first was not the city's beauty or even its distinctly Scandinavian charm, but how quiet the place was. Horns do not blare, radios do not scream, and pedestrians, when they talk, keep their voices at conversational level. There are no blinking billboards or road-rage face-offs (at least none that I saw). Rather, civility reigns, so much so that I kept thinking I'd been swept back in time to a decade or so before my own midcentury birth.
With my husband occupied, I started by wandering around on my own, street map in hand, beginning with the neighborhood surrounding our excellent, reasonably priced hotel, the Savoy. As it is only two blocks from Oslo's main drag, Karl Johans gate, which stretches from Oslo's main train station on its eastern end to the impressively low-key royal palace in its public parkland on its western end, I was in no danger of getting lost and in high danger of getting an attack of real estate envy.
I turned right into the royal parkland, crossed it under milky-gray skies, and kept going, taking in the quiet, tree-lined streets of elegant 19th-century apartment houses, breathing in the aromas coming from Oslo's omnipresent coffee-pastry shops, and finally stumbling into Embla Keramikk, a ceramics studio where I debated with myself for a good half-hour before deciding it would not be wise to schlep ceramics from Oslo to Bergen to London and finally home to New Jersey. Not that I didn't want to buy, at the very least, a fanciful dog figure or, even better, a bowl with a zebra's head peeking out of it.
From there, I skirted the National Theater, with its twin statues of Henrik Ibsen and the lesser-known Bjornstjerne Bjornson (winner of the 1903 Nobel Prize in literature). I continued past the vaguely Soviet-looking, brown-brick Radhus (City Hall), with its two imposing square towers, to the Akershus Fortress, dating to the Middle Ages, with its battlements, towers, ramparts, marching grounds, stables, prison grounds, cannon, and towers - plus Norway's Resistance Museum, commemorating the country's World War II history. Although it was late afternoon, and many buildings were about to close, I was able to walk the entire circular Fortress Trail, taking in the general sweep of the place and admiring the harbor. On the opposite side, I could see the sleek, chic shopping district of Aker Brygge, with the stunning Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, its roofs looking like two sails fully unfurled.
As our time was short and the ferries weren't running, my husband and I had to forgo a visit to Oslo's Viking Ship Museum on the Bygdoy peninsula. We chose instead to walk through neighborhoods of big, old, solid houses to Oslo's famous Frogner Park, home of the outdoor-sculpture wonderland created by Gustav Vigeland.
All I can say is that you have to see it to believe it: more than 200 massive, playful, nude, and very real (if not realistic) sculptures portraying human life in all its variety, cast in bronze, granite, and iron. You stand there staring, jaw dropped, tears flowing. The astonishing vision, which more often than not is crawling with schoolchildren, is topped by a 20-meter-high obelisk of yearning, intertwined figures.
After Vigeland, the atmosphere, and art, of the National Gallery, a huge, 19th-century monolith of a building, seemed somewhat tame, despite the many masterpieces on the walls, including some by Norway's most famous artist, Edvard Munch. More on Munch later. If you can't make it to Oslo's Munch Museum or Bergen's KODE collection, you'll have to see the Munch offerings here, which include one of four versions of The Scream.
Next stop: Bergen. Throughout seven hours, the Bergen Railway took us west over one of Europe's highest mountain plateaus, where it climbed through thick forests of fir trees, small villages, and, finally, above the tree line, glaciers, and rivers of ice, before descending again to what must be one of the world's most charming urban idylls.
Bergen - which, by the way, is one of Europe's wettest cities - was dry and, like Oslo, almost entirely tourist-free. On my first morning there, I had the old wharf, a former center of the league of Hanseatic merchants - a German trading company that operated in northern climes from about 1360 to 1760 - almost entirely to myself. Now a reconstructed World Heritage Site, Bryggen, as the area is called, is the city's oldest part, a string of pumpkin- and tomato-color wooden, gabled warehouses, occupied almost entirely by knickknack shops. I visited the Bryggens Museum, which was built over the remains of the city's earliest medieval settlement and which tells the story of the city's many fires and rebirths. Here, too, I visited the Hanseatic Museum, housed in two 18th-century wooden (and unheated) buildings where fish and cod-liver oil were once pressed and stored. Workers and apprentices lived there, too, running the Norwegian branch of the Hanseatic League.
Speaking of fish, I loved the Bergen Aquarium, at the end of the Nordnes peninsula, with its playful sea lions, shark tunnel, sparkling Norwegian piranhas, salmon and cod, and small, jewel-like tropical beauties. If fish don't get you going, meander through the aquarium's neighborhoods. Seemingly storybook-small wooden houses line cobblestone alleys, painted an array of pretty pale colors, and so peaceful that it's hard to imagine ordinary human beings eat, sleep, argue, raise children, and watch TV here.
It was hard to decide on one last cultural excursion, but we finally chose the KODE Art Museums of Bergen, four buildings in the heart of the city (as well as the homes of Edvard Grieg and two other composers). Unlike many of Bergen's smaller tourist sites, the main KODE museums remain open all year, so we were able to take in one of the world's largest and most important Munch collections, housed in KODE 3. Munch's works, unlike those of other world-class artists, remain almost entirely in Norway and, hence, are not often seen in person, in all their vibrant, richly colored, and often muscularly optimistic power. The Scream, Munch's oeuvre, is so much bigger and more interesting than that one iconic image beloved by undergraduates, that I wanted to let out a scream. But I controlled myself and continued on to admire the other pieces in KODE 3's collection from Norway's late-19th-century "golden age," as well as period furnishings and decorative objects.