Usually after first returning from a new destination, I share my initial thoughts and impressions; ideas that while fresh do convey my honest thoughts about the destination. I wanted to do something a little different as I think about my first travel experience in Norway. Looking through my Instagram account, I realized that the images I so carefully selected to share on that social media network were a great representation of my week in Norway. Sure, they captured what I saw and did but, more importantly, they also captured my thoughts and feelings in those very particular moments. The modern day equivalent to a Polaroid, they are indeed brief flashes but representative ones and important enough that I think it is useful to share them here.
1. Grand Café
I love the countryside, but I think I’m happiest when in a large city; a world capital full of noise and activity and that’s what I found in Oslo. I always thought I’d like it, and I did, but a few things surprised me about Norway’s capital city. It’s much smaller than I realized, with the core downtown area compact and easy to manage. Looking back through history, it’s only relatively recently that Oslo has blossomed into the urban area it is today, and the spirit of a much smaller city looms everywhere. In the 19th century a building boom took place, including the first proper world-class hotel and coffee shop – the Grand Hotel and Café respectively. In the great tradition of 19th century coffee shops around Europe, this was the place of artists, intellectuals and Bohemians. It’s where people came to talk, argue and learn from some of the greatest thinkers and creatives of the day. Little has changed inside the Café since that time, although everything outside has evolved around it. You can still grab a coffee and people watch or stop by for a traditional Norwegian lunch of open-faced sandwiches, meats and cheeses. Just like the photo, the entire café is a snapshot in time, a world with perhaps a little more class than the one we live in now.
2. Opera House
Everyone knows that Scandinavians have a great eye for style and design, and that’s certainly the case in Norway; even with their new monuments like the massive opera house. Before I arrived in town, a friend of mine told me she thought it rivaled, if not surpassed, Sydney’s more famous version and while I doubted her at the time, I know understand what she meant. Sitting on the waterfront, the Oslo Opera House is meant to remind us of a glacier and indeed, with its white granite and Carrara marble it shines bright and white in the Nordic sun. Guests can wander all around it, even on top where fissures were built into the building, completing the glacial effect. It’s a beautiful addition to Oslo and is part of a new area of town that will most likely come to define the city well into the 21st century.
3. Coffee Shops
Coffee is a big part of Scandinavian culture, and that absolutely holds true in Norway. Coffee shops seem to be all over Oslo and I was happy to see that coffee, and not necessarily soft drinks or alcohol, is the go-to beverage in town. As an ardent coffee drinker and lover I felt at home, but found myself mesmerized when I found this small coffee shop in one of Oslo’s food halls, the Mathallen Vulkan. I really enjoyed experiencing the food hall culture, it was an unexpected but fun culinary twist to my time in Oslo. This coffee shop in particular roasts hand selected beans from all over the world, which they then brew to order for customers. It was just more proof of how much Norwegians really do love their cups of Joe.
4. Dog sledding
Other than Oslo, the main focus of my trip was to experience the wilds of Northern Norway in the winter. While chilly, I always enjoy visiting traditional winter spots during the actual winter months, when they come alive and do all that they love to do so very much. In Alta, about 1,700 kilometers north from Oslo and well entrenched in the Arctic Circle, dog sledding isn’t just a hobby, for many it’s a business. The week I was there the start of one of the world’s most famous dogsled races, the Finnmarksløpet, was getting underway and the town was abuzz with huskies and their mushers from all over the world. My first day in town, I joined the folks over at Holmen Husky for my own husky experience, dog sledding through the woods. As the owner of two huskies, I love experiences like this one, which for me was as much about the dogs as it was the beautiful scenery I enjoyed.
Alta sits on the aptly named Altafjord, a 24-mile long finger of water that juts into the land. A UNESCO World Heritage area, nearby petroglyphs prove that man has called this area home for thousands of years. Alta though is a small town, home to a scant 19,000 souls and possessive of a true frontier-town mindset. One of the first views I saw though, and the one that impressed me perhaps more than any other, was of the fjord and the snow-capped peaks surrounding it. It was so peaceful, so pristine, so untouched that it took my breath away. It’s rare to be able to enjoy such places not just of beauty but of solitude and cleanliness, a natural purity, and I knew right away the experiences in and around Alta would be special indeed.
6. Northern Lights
Other than dogs, Alta is also famous for the Northern Lights. Sure, you can witness nature’s lightshow in many areas around the world, but it was in Alta when in 1899 a scientist named Kristian Birkeland chose this place to conduct what was very early modern research into the natural phenomenon. Living high on a mountain overlooking the fjord, he lived quietly and eventually contributed a lot of what we know about the lights today. Because of this, and the fact that Alta does see the Northern Lights more than most other places, it is called the Home of the Northern Lights, a moniker proven true during my stay there. I saw them on two nights, but it was the second when I was most impressed. Standing alone on a frozen river, surrounded by mountains and a chilly breeze, the lights started slowly but within half an hour I was surrounded by one of the most incredible sights I’ve ever seen. (This photo isn’t of THOSE lights) They swirled all around me mostly in greens, but also with some pink tinges. It was a special moment and one that I had all to myself, a secret extravaganza seemingly all for my benefit.
Much to my surprise, Alta in the end did make an impression on me. It’s not the most well polished place, it’s not a town constructed for tourists. It’s a frontier city full of people who live there because they are passionate about it. As a tourist, I was welcomed, if only briefly, into this club and allowed to glimpse what makes it so special for them. More than the Northern Lights or a dog sledding lesson, it was the overall ability to reconnect with a different side of myself that I appreciated the most. Shown here is a typical view of the woods in Northern Norway, a quiet area I snow-shoed through on the silent search for moose. We never found them, but I did find myself in love with the countryside, suddenly realizing that the chance to disconnect and throw myself into nature was something I hadn’t only missed, but which I needed. That’s the real reason why I think so many trek to Alta. Sure, the town is great and there are a lot of fun experiences to enjoy, but in the end it’s a selfish quest to find not something outside of us, but something very deep inside. It’s a personal journey and one I’m thankful to have undertaken.
I have a lot more to share about my time in Norway, but in the meantime please let me know if you have any questions.