Category Archives: Norway

Swan Maidens at Oslo City Hall

I was just planning on a quick walk-through of the building, which honestly is not to my taste. But the courtyard has sixteen large wood reliefs, each about eight feet tall, by Dagfinn Werenskiold. They portray Norse myths from the 13th century. He had me at the Swan Maidens. Legend has it that three Valkyries appeared on a beach one day in the form of swans. They turned into beautiful women, married three brothers who happened along and couldn’t believe their good fortune, and stayed fourteen years. Then they flew away. I don’t know the end of the story, but the Valkyries are beings that fly over battlefields, deciding who will live and who will die. Did the brothers later fight in battle and get saved? Or had they maybe left the toilet seat up one time too many? The answers are lost in the mists of time.

The Oslo City Hall replaced a slum in the middle of the city, directly on the Oslo Fjord. The exterior style is listed as “Functionalism,” which sums it up. The architects were Arnstein Arbeberg and Magnus Poulsson. It was partially built by 1939, but then World War II intervened and it was finally completed in 1950. The spectacular interior more than makes up for the so-so exterior.

Inside, the grand rooms were decorated by the finest Norwegian artists, chosen by competition. The details above are from Henrik Sorenson’s huge mural “The Nation at Work and Play.”

It dominates the Main Hall, where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded every year.

The rear wall features a mural by Alf Rolfson.

I like the “smaller” rooms even better. The Festival Gallery has windows looking out over the fjord, and a beamed and painted ceiling. Of course there are Viking motifs, like this creature inset in the marble floor.

Axel Revold covered the end wall with a mural depicting the long, narrow country of Norway from north to south.

Aage Storstein, a young up-and-coming artist, painted the West Gallery with images of freedom and democracy. I don’t really understand the history or the politics, but a captive princess and a bear depict the centuries that Norway was in union with Denmark (not exactly willingly, it seems).

My favorite room is a smallish one, the East Gallery. Per Krogh considered it his masterpiece.

The beehive represents city life and the rosebush country life.

He painted an uprooted tree as a rose window.

So much for a quick walk-by of a boring city building. I wandered in the Oslo City Hall for a long time. Outside, I admired Dagfinn Werenskiold’s wooden carvings again. How about Odin on his eight-legged horse Sleipner?

Or ponder “Embla,” an elm tree turned into the first human woman in a Nordic creation story.

Her partner was Ask, a man created from an ash tree.

I was so inspired by Norse mythology that when I recently had an art-class assignment to do a painting that tells a story, I tried my own Swan Maidens. They’re creepily faceless right now while I work out how to do noses and eyes and chins and mouths. Meanwhile, I’ll enjoy my Nordic memories.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

Listening for the Siren on the Flam Railway

Nobody goes to the Sognefjord without riding the Flam Railway. It’s only 20 kilometers, but they’re all vertical kilometers. The average gradient is 1 to 18.

The math meant nothing to me until I got on the train and looked out the window.

The trick is to avoid crowds. Going off-season helps, but there are still cruise ships. In early June, we bought tickets only after asking the friendly agents for advice. They know exactly how many cruise passengers are getting off their boats and clamoring for seats at any given time.

Our reward was having plenty of room on the train to spread out and rush from side to side of the compartment to take in the ooh! and aah! views.

The 50-minute trip snakes through 20 tunnels, each one a feat of Norwegian engineering. But it’s pretty much impossible to get a good picture of a tunnel. The train is privately run now, but it’s not just a tourist train. When it was opened in 1941, it made tiny mountain settlements accessible and provided much-needed connections to main railway lines.

The ride passes countless waterfalls, but the highlight is the Kjosfossen. The train stops for a few minutes and passengers step out onto a platform for a photo op with 93 meters of watery spectacularness. OK, I made up that word, but it fits.

Who knows how many gallons of water roar past the platform, especially in spring when snow is still melting at higher altitudes? We took pictures.

Then, Twilight Zone music started blaring from loudspeakers and a lady in red emerged in the waterfall mist above us, dancing and beckoning. She must have had her own dancing platform, halfway up the waterfall. An amplified voice proclaimed a legend about a water sprite who tries to lure men to join her in the Kjosfossen–a Norwegian siren.

The sirens of Greek mythology were beautiful women who tried to lure sailors with enchanting music, crazing them into crashing their ships on rocks.

I hoped the siren’s platform was dry and she didn’t slip. And I wondered if the job paid well. It looked like fun. And she probably didn’t have to hear the blaring music above the roar of the falls.

At the top of the train ride, at Myrdal, some people got out to connect with the Bergen-Oslo train. My son realized that he could rent a bike and ride the switchback road back down the mountain to Flam. I handed him my gloves and hat and sent him on his way. Later, he reported that the bike ride was actually pretty gentle if he took it slow. He said it was the bike ride of a lifetime. If I went back when the roads were clear, I’d do it.

The scenery on the trip down was the same, with no stop at the Kjosfossen.

While we waited for our biker in Flam, we amused ourselves in various ways.

Flam has a lot of shops, cafes, and an excellent historic railway museum.

Is the Flam Railway really worth all the Norway in a Nutshell hype? Well, this part of the Nutshell only takes a couple of hours if done independently, and I would do it again. I’d like to see it in the deep snows of winter, and I’d like to do the bike ride down in good weather. But I would not like the train ride in lockstep with a big group, which is what you get if you book a Norway in a Nutshell tour. I can’t stand the feeling of being herded from one place to another. Still, I know the tour would be an efficient and exciting way to get out into fjord country.

Really, though, I was happier when we were wandering on our own around the Sognefjord. There’s stunning scenery and hundreds of waterfalls everywhere.

And I like to spend time with the locals, including the sheep.

I’m Dreaming of a White Sognefjord

When I had a chance to see the fabled fjords of Norway last spring, I naturally chose the longest and deepest one: the Sognefjord, which stretches for 127 miles and is 4,291 feet deep. (That’s the better part of a mile).

We settled in a beautiful branch of the King of Fjords, the Nærøyfjord. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site. We chose to stay in Aurland, a peaceful small town a short drive away from the cruise-ship commotion of Flam.

Instead of taking the famous “Norway in a Nutshell” tour and being herded from boat to bus to train on a hectic schedule, we were lucky enough to rent our own wheels. There were six of us, and the rental company proudly announced they had upgraded us to a nine-person van. Well, OK, but did the van have to announce to all the world that it was a rental?

And did it need to have about a hundred dings and dents which we had to document before we set off?

Once we were under way, the van worked out fine. All our luggage slid right in, and everybody had a personal window to watch the scenery from. My trusty Garmin GPS cheerily followed (and led) us up and down highways and tiny dirt roads with no names. (My son finally understood why I plunk a big extra screen on the dashboard instead of just checking Waze on my phone. There’s no phone service out in the wilds, but the satellite reaches everywhere).

The best choice we made was to stay at the Vangsgaarden, a venerable historic hotel in Aurland. We rented two of the six new little waterside cottages. The cost was reasonable, considering how expensive Norway is in general.

The almost-midnight sunsets in early June were spectacular.

The older buildings date from the 1700s, when wealthy people began venturing into the fjords for vacations.

The place reminded me of old-fashioned Minnesota lake resorts, the ones where I spent long summer days with sand between my toes.

I like old stuff, even old technology stuff.

I felt as though I’d arrived at the cozy home of a kind elderly aunt, one with time to spend reminiscing about the old days.

There was even an attention-seeking cat named Lotus, spiffy in his springtime lion cut. He liked to push all the brochures off the table and watch a human put them all back. We obliged.

Norway felt like home. And in fact, my brother once tried to track down family connections from the Norway fjords. Sadly, it seemed no relatives were left.

I thought the hotels, boats, buses and trains would be closed all through the long dark winter, but I just read an article by a woman who did the Norway in a Nutshell tour in January and lived to tell how spectacular it was. Now I’m plotting a return, maybe to the opposite shore of the Nærøyfjord. I’d like to see Balestrand, and I think it sounds livelier than Aurland. In winter, I think there would be more going on and it would be equally beautiful.

I’m envisioning recitals and Christmas services in little churches, like this one in Flam.

But I don’t envision driving on icy mountain hairpin curves. They were challenging enough with dry roads in June. That’s a typical one above, just below and to the left of the waterfall.

After the rest of the family left, my husband and I took the scenic 8-hour train ride from Bergen to Oslo. (He was glad to be done white-knuckle driving that van). In June, there was still plenty of snow in the wild country high above the fjords.

I would like to see Bergen and the fjords in winter. Maybe there will be a tempting airfare and I’ll do it.

I wonder if I can get the grandchildren out of school. Surely this would be an educational trip?

Meanwhile, it’s a nice winter dream. And it’s on my travel wish list.

Viking Artistry in Oslo

Talk about spectacular resting places! The Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway displays boats and artifacts from four different boat burials along the Oslo Fjord. Three of the boats are well preserved, and the fourth was reduced to iron nails and other bits and pieces. They date from about 820 A.D. to about 900 A.D. All the boats were used at sea for some years, then drydocked and fitted with burial rooms before being dug into the ground. They were found and excavated between 1852 and 1904.

The most beautiful of the three, the Oseberg, was used to bury two women. How important must they have been? A pair of the legendary shield-maidens, perhaps? Maybe a couple of princesses? How did two powerful women die at the same time? There’s a story here, but it’s lost in the mists of Scandinavian history. Modern dating techniques place this burial at 834 A.D.

The intricate carved wood detail is beautiful.

Oar openings are still present–fifteen of them on this boat. Still-intact shields were hung from some of the oar holes.

Some elements, like the serpent above, were reconstructed from fragments. Mostly, though, preservation was excellent, because the ships were buried in moist ground with high clay content, and covered with turf for centuries.

More beautiful carving…

The solemn fellows shown above worked on the excavation in 1903. The photo clearly shows the intact wood carvings. The graves had already been looted long ago of precious materials, but plenty of grave goods survived.

Who is the bearded fellow above?


He’s part of a fantastically carved wooden cart found with the Oseberg ship. Vikings were known to use utilitarian carts, but this elaborate one was most likely used in ceremonies and religious processions.

The cart is made of oak. Every surface is covered with carved people and animals, possibly showing Norse legends or historical events.

Did Vikings have cats? I think so! The Norwegian Forest Cat is said to have sailed on ships. Who doesn’t need a good mouser?

The cart is not only beautiful, but quite a feat of engineering.

The cart was most likely pulled by two horses. A bridle, decorated with metal studs, is on display in a case nearby.

There’s also a sleigh, proof that the Vikings knew their way around snow and ice.

The sleigh carvings are as elaborate and beautiful as the ones on the cart.


Solid wood sleigh shafts are intricate carved and studded.


Burials included cooking pots and a good supply of food for the journey to Valhalla.


Rattles were most likely used in religious ceremonies. This one would make quite a racket. Maybe it scared away evil spirits?


Leather shoes? Sure.


There are even a few surviving textiles. Most likely some were woven at home, and some came from trading–or raiding.


This is by far the most complete Viking exhibit I’ve seen anywhere. I wouldn’t care to see fearsome Viking raiders on my horizon, but from the safe distance of many centuries, their faces are fascinating.

My Scandinavian Fathers

Actually my Scandinavian father and father-in-law are no longer with us, and I only knew grandfathers back one generation. But they were all descendants of families from Sweden, Norway and Finland who made the perilous journey to America in the 19th century. (The one exception was my British grandfather, who made a perilous journey of his own). The sculpture above is from Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland’s fantastic outdoor collection in Oslo, where the city gave him an entire huge park and studio for his lifetime. It’s a carefree image of fatherhood.

My forefathers did not have carefree lives in the Old Country. I never heard any of my relatives speak longingly of returning, although my grandmother used to croon Finnish lullabies to us in the rocking chair. My people were no doubt poor potato farmers trying to scrounge a living from rocky little plots of land. They were very happy to arrive on American shores and begin new lives in the rich soil of Minnesota. I was not particularly motivated to visit Scandinavian or Nordic regions–I guess I vaguely thought of these lands as poor backwaters, maybe lacking paved roads and indoor plumbing.

Over the past few months, I finally got around to visiting, over four different trips: first Sweden, then Denmark, then Finland, then Norway.  Now they’re my new favorite destinations.

Looking at Scandinavian art, I was struck by images of children parting from parents they would never see again.

This painting, by Adolph Tidemand, is “The Youngest Son’s Farewell.” It was painted in 1867, when the great wave of migration was well under way. It’s in the Kode Gallery in Bergen, Norway.

In the National Gallery of Norway in Oslo, there’s a similar poignant scene painted by Harriet Backer in 1878, “The Farewell.”

What’s going on here? It’s either a scene of emigration, or possibly of going off to war.  One of the reasons for leaving the Old Country was to escape compulsory military service. A servant hauls the young man’s duffel bag.

Whatever the reason, the parents are devastated to part with their son. There was no email, no Skyping, no jet planes for quick visits home.  Leaving very often meant leaving forever.

Life in Scandinavia was full of peril as well as poverty. In this 1858 painting by Carl Bloch, a Danish family looks anxiously out to sea was a storm approaches.  Will Father return, or will they all be left to fend for themselves? “Fisherman’s Families Await Their Return in an Approaching Storm” is in the Hirschsprung Gallery in Copenhagen.

In Vaxjo, Sweden, I stopped by the House of Emigrants, full of fascinating displays about the great wave of migration that brought my people to America starting around the 1850s and continuing well into the 20th century.

 

The museum contains a replica of the writing hut of the Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg, who meticulously documented the immigrant experience is the four historic novels “The Emigrants.”

Moberg spent a lot of time in the very Minnesota counties where my ancestors put down roots, just north of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

I had already watched the fine Max Van Sydow/Liv Ullman movies “The Emigrants” and “The New Land.”

While still traveling, I downloaded the four novels and devoured them.  Suddenly, I wanted to know all about my Scandinavian fathers.  Travel constantly opens up new doors!

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe, the British Isles, and now the Nordic and Scandinavian countries!