Oslo, how you've changed, all for the better

KRT TRAVEL STORY SLUGGED: WLT-CRU-BALTIC KRT PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT CROSS/CHICAGO TRIBUNE (April 11) Vigeland Sculpture Park in Oslo, Norway, contains hundreds of detailed figures carved by Gustav Vigeland. They depict the entire human life cycle. (cdm) 2004
KRT TRAVEL STORY SLUGGED: WLT-CRU-BALTIC KRT PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT CROSS/CHICAGO TRIBUNE (April 11) Vigeland Sculpture Park in Oslo, Norway, contains hundreds of detailed figures carved by Gustav Vigeland. They depict the entire human life cycle. (cdm) 2004 KRT

As a newly minted travel writer, one of the first trips I took was to Norway, a Land of the Midnight Sun, whose magnificent scenery leaves even the most jaded traveler awestruck.

I was far from jaded, and the mountain peaks, tranquil fjords and meadows carpeted with wildflowers made a lasting impression.

While this beautiful country resonated with me, I felt something of a disconnect to its capital, Oslo. Granted, it was ideally situated on its namesake fjord and suitably historic (founded in 1048 by King Harald Hardrada, it is the oldest of Scandinavia's capitals).

It had a walkable central core, whose dignified architecture was mostly late 19th and early 20th century, and a bevy of attractions — from authentic Viking ships to a renowned sculpture park to the building where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded annually.

Yet, compared to the other Scandinavian capitals, it seemed colorless. Where was the grandeur of Stockholm, the joie de vivre of Copenhagen?

Fast forward two decades to my second visit. What a difference 20 years and a burst of creative energy has made.

This time, Oslo overwhelmed me. True, some of it had to do with sticker shock — it's the most expensive city in Europe, and you easily can pay $25 for a sandwich or several hundred dollars for a dinner (more if you want wine).

But most of it had to do with the buzz surrounding Oslo's hippest neighborhood, Tjuvholmen. During the 18th century, the area, whose name is translated as "islet of thieves," was a gathering place for robbers, prostitutes and other unsavory characters.

Today, as a result of thoughtful development, Tjuvholmen — with once-derelict buildings transformed into million- dollar lofts, high-end boutiques, gourmet restaurants and jazz clubs — is the city's show place. Laced by a mosaic of canals, it somehow manages to be bustling and serene.

At one end of the reconfigured waterfront is the city's iconic opera house, with its sloping white marble roof; at the other, the glass and wood Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, designed by acclaimed Italian architect Renzo Piano and home to the world's largest private collection of modern American art.

Just steps from the museum is the hipper-than-hip boutique hotel The Thief, which in the summer offers guests a curated art and architecture boat tour along the fjord and free access to the Astrup Fearnley year-round.

Beyond Tjuvholmen

As tempting as it is to stick around Tjuvholmen, Oslo has much more to offer.

The Vigeland Park, in Frogner Park is the world's largest sculpture park that showcasing the work of a single artist, Gustav Vigeland. Although it has 212 sculptures in bronze, granite and iron, the park's centerpiece is the 60-foot-tall monolith featuring, on one colossal piece of stone, 121 intertwined human figures engaged in various activities from making love to waging war.

The sculpture, depicting the cycle of life, took Vigeland 14 years to complete, and, as a result of the subject matter, was controversial when it was unveiled.

Vigeland might be Oslo's most famous sculpture park, but as of September, it isn't the only one. Ekeburgparken, the city's newest attraction, is high in the hills overlooking Oslo Fjord, with the trail wending through a magnificent spruce forest.

The park's pieces range from Salvador Dali's Venus de Milo to Louise Bourgeois' The Couple, but the area is best known for an artist who worked in oils rather than stone. It was here, on an overlook above the fjord, that Edvard Munch had the inspiration for his most famous painting, The Scream.

One interpretation has it that on his nightly strolls Munch looked out over the asylum where his bipolar sister was a patient and imagined the forlorn wails of those inside, but he told a different tale.

In an 1895 diary entry, Munch wrote that he was walking along the path, the city on one side, the forest on the other and the fjord below. The sun was setting, and clouds were turning blood red. He wrote that he sensed a primal scream passing through nature, so that's what he painted, with the clouds as actual blood and the color shrieking.

The asylum is long gone, but remaining is the tumultuous weather that causes the sky to flare with red and orange tongues of fire before unleashing silver sheets of rain that lash the blue-black fjord.

I had occasion to witness its wrath during a dinner at the Art Deco Ekeberg Restaurant, nestled among the hills at the edge of the forest. I'd barely taken my seat before the heavens opened. The floor-to-ceiling glass windows made for great viewing of nature's temper tantrum.

Be warned: This is the place to go for great food but not for a bargain. My three-course dinner with two glasses of wine came to about $100.

Boats afloat, on display

For those who love watercraft of all kinds, a boat trip to Bygdøy Peninsula is in order. Not only will you get the best view of Oslo from the water, but the peninsula has two museums chronicling the lure of the sea from Viking days to the mid-20th century.

At the Viking Ship Museum, part of the University of Oslo's Museum of Cultural History, visitors may admire the graceful contours of two 9th-century Viking ships, and see a re-creation of a Viking burial chamber.

Not far from the Viking Museum is the Kon-Tiki Museum, housing the legendary (and may I say, too fragile-looking for my comfort) raft that, in 1947, took Norwegian adventurer and ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl on a 100-day, 5,000-mile voyage from the western coast of South America to the Tuamoto Islands in Polynesia.

If you're more into skiing than sailing, take a jaunt just outside town to see the world's most modern ski jump — at least in its current incarnation. Re-opened on its present site in 2010, Holmenkollen Ski Jump, Norway's most-visited attraction, looms 200 feet above the landscape like a shimmering silver snake, courtesy of 100 tons of steel.

Although the current ski jump is the epitome of 21st-century technology, skiing at Holmenkollen dates back 121 years, with the first ski jumping competition taking place in 1892. Inside the base of the jump is the informative Ski Museum, offering a look at the sport's history and Norway's hosting of two Winter Olympics — in Oslo in 1952 and Lillehammer in 1994.

On my last night in Oslo, I sat in the bar at The Thief, nursing a Star of Manhattan, the mixologist's signature bourbon cocktail (they're very big on bourbon here). The bourbon was smooth; the crowd was chic, and the vibe was of a city that had reinvented itself.


Oslo, Norway

Where to stay: The Thief. This member of Design Hotels has 118 rooms with features including floor-to-ceiling windows, private balconies, rainforest showers, 42-inch plasma TVs and specially designed blankets, robes and slippers. There is an emphasis on public art and unique architecture.

Tip: The Oslo Pass provides free entry to 30 museums and attractions, free travel on public transport, and discounts at selected restaurants and shops. Passes are available for one, two or three days.

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