March 24, 2015. Spring is cautiously poking its head up in sunlit spots around Oslo; crocuses and snowdrops have pushed through their white blankets to wave and flirt coquettishly with hopeful Norwegians passing by. The daylight hours are oh-so-gradually growing longer, and each additional second is cherished like drops of rain in the desert. While it’s still quite chilly, and light snowfalls occasionally surprise us, we’re feeling as if the finish line for this long winter is within sight.
To celebrate, we decided to go for a long walk — without our crampons!!! And we were rewarded with ice-free pathways for the first time in months. But of course, we discovered that slipping hazards still abound. The tons of granite chips tossed on the ice to provide traction during winter have now accumulated in a layer of treacherous gravel that makes your feet skid as if you’re surfing down the sidewalk. It’s the stuff we call “rotten rock” on the hiking trails in Arizona, and encountering it unawares often results in a painful bum dusting. Oh joy.
But beggars can’t be choosers, so we gingerly padded our way to the Trikk stop, where we encountered a common springtime phenomenon: Norwegian sunflowers. You’ll see them by the dozens on park benches, at bus stops, and anywhere that has a clear view of the sky. With faces upturned and eyes closed in blissful worship, sunlight-starved Norwegians swivel their heads in unison, tracking the progress of that dazzling foreign orb as it makes its way across the horizon. The first time I witnessed this age-old ritual, I had to laugh. Now I park my butt on the bench beside them and join in on the silent revelry.
For our sunny jaunt, we decided to head towards the Sagene district, where we’d been told that fabulous waterfalls in the middle of the city awaited us. We began our sunny stroll at the Sagene Church (1891), with its verdigris copper turrets and refined Gothic Revival details. Inside we caught an impressive practice session by the church’s organist, who, as the docent explained, was playing the last remaining Hollenbach organ in Norway. (I don’t know much about organs, but I gather that “them’s some braggin’ rights.”) As the last chord rebounded around the graceful, wood-ribbed ceiling, the guide told us that the entire roof had threatened to collapse and had only recently been rebuilt. Gotta say, a job well done and worth a look if you’re in town.
Back out in the sunlight, we began our stroll down the Akerselven (“Akers River”), which runs five miles from pristine Lake Maridal (the source of Oslo’s drinking water) down to Oslo’s harbor. The winding walk took us right along the gorgeous river, where ducks paddled on its shimmering surface and humans picnicked along its grassy banks. As promised, we encountered a series of shockingly large and powerful waterfalls along the way — the spray from one thundering cataract even produced a rainbow!
That’s one of my favorite things about Oslo. Nature is never very far away, even in the heart of the city. And the Akers River is a rather impressively preserved ribbon of parkland that is celebrated rather than ignored as it threads its way through town — unlike Chicago’s river, which was channeled and concreted into invisible obscurity until Mayor Daley decided that having the city turn its back on a potential tourist destination was a wasted opportunity. We Chicagoans have quite a bit of catching up to do, though, as Oslo’s Akers is dotted with cute cafes, beautiful bridges, and woodland flowers for most of its wandering way.
Today, the Akers has been christened “Oslo’s green lung,” but it wasn’t always so. The dynamic waterway once powered a series of flour, textile, lumber, iron-smelting, and paper mills strewn along its length. (The word sagene means “saw,” and the Sagene Church provided shelter and services to the thousands of sawmill and textile workers that flocked to Oslo during the Industrial Revolution.) Statues placed along the river’s banks pay tribute to the laborers of yesteryear, and many of the old factories still stand, although most have been repurposed as offices, restaurants, Oslo’s art school, and student dormitories.
Our travels along the riverwalk eventually brought us to Grünerløkka, Oslo’s equivalent of Chicago’s Bucktown/Wicker Park artsy district. The typical graffiti murals and proliferation of coffee shops, vintage clothing stores, and funky boutiques greeted us, along with throngs of pierced, bearded, and tattooed hipsters. Our first stop was the super fun Blå market — a great place to grab coffee from the back of a Mini Cooper outfitted with an espresso machine, pick up some sage to clear your chakra, or purchase handmade jewelry, knitwear, and other cool trinkets (see top photo.)
Further wandering brought us to the Birkelunden bric-a-brac market, where you can nab awesome Mid-century Modern furniture, used clothing, and Norwegian antiques of all eras and styles. I have to admit, we’ve gotten pretty addicted to shopping these outdoor loppemarkeds (“flea markets”). In spring, all the elementary schools have one, encouraging parents to haul out their junk and sell it to raise funds for the band, the choir, etc. Our favorite is the Vestkanttorvet brick-a-brac market. We shop there most every Saturday and have amassed quite a collection of Norwegian art and jewelry.
Perhaps my favorite thing about these markets is the used clothing. It seems like the women of Oslo rent a space and then sell the entire contents of their closet in order to make room for the season’s new fashions. Much of the stuff is really high-end, often with the tags still on it, as if the owner got it home and decided it just didn’t suit her. I’ve picked up sweaters by Acne, Mailene Birger, and Isabel Marant’s Etoile line for around $20 each, as opposed to the $300+ they might cost in a store.
The key is to find a woman who’s shares your size, which can be tricky if you’re short. Matthew and I did manage to find one couple who both share our size and run two exclusive clothing boutiques. They come to the Vestkanttorvet market once a month, and we meet up with them to purchase their castoffs and backstock. Pretty sweet deal. And while we’re at it, we stop for a waffle-n-brunost or a polse. Not a bad way to spend a weekend morning….