Oslo’s Islands

August 5, 2015.  Apparently someone finally made the right sacrifices to Odin, Thor, and Freya — at long last, we’ve had several sunny days in a row, and reasonably warm ones, to boot!  I’m not talking bathing-suit weather or anything; let’s not get carried away.  But I am saying that I felt a certain satisfaction at being able to don sunglasses and take off my jacket … briefly.  To celebrate the heat wave, Matthew and I decided to embark on a series of ferry trips to explore some of the small islands in Oslo’s harbor.

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Ferries are sized differently based on the distance they have to travel (farther = bigger + more onboard amenities.) The smaller commuter ferries line up at the end of the wharf seen on the left here, beneath the lighted signs advertising their various island destinations.

Taking a ferry is like hopping onto a train or bus.  In fact, the $75 Ruter card that we purchase each month allows us unlimited rides on the Trikk, T-bane, buses, and commuter ferries.  It’s a pretty sweet deal, and we typically buy a cheaper weekly pass for all our visitors, as it provides such great flexibility.  Plus, it’s kinda fun rubbing shoulders with people whose regular workday includes hopping on a bicycle, boarding a boat, then jumping onto the Trikk and transferring to the T-bane before arriving at the office.  Sounds exhausting to me, but a complex commute is the price folks pay for the luxury of living on lovely islands.

Looking back at Oslo from the deck of the ferry, City Hall is on the right and the many fancy apartments, shops, restaurants, and nightclubs of Aker Brygge (“Aker Pier”) can be seen behind the row of ferries.

The dock in front of City Hall at Aker Brygge — which is a tourist mecca because of its great shopping and dining — gives you many options for potential destinations.  The ferry system is pretty extensive, and you could spend hours island hopping, or traveling to other distant cities (you’d buy a separate ticket to venture outside the “commuter zone.”)  But if you’re visiting and want to get a feel for small Norwegian villages made up of hytte (summer cabins), I’d highly recommend just spending an hour aboard the B1/B2 commuter ferry, which ping pongs between several small but incredibly gorgeous islands right in Oslo’s harbor.  Sometimes we do this after work, just to detox a bit.

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Check out the crowds clamoring to get off on Hovedøya. But surprisingly, the tiny island is large enough that we never felt overrun with people.

It’s rather entertaining taking the one-hour tour on a summer weekend, as you’ll get to see all the “can’t-do-without-it” picnic gear that city dwellers like to tote with them for island excursions: giant inflatable rafts, enormous coolers of wine, bushels of Norwegian strawberries, soccer balls and badminton sets, huge bags of pølse (hotdogs) and an engang (one-time-use) grill for cooking them.  All of these items, plus the family dog, will be your traveling companions as you motor your way towards tiny beaches, surprisingly dense forests, and ruins of Medieval monasteries and military forts.

On our first ferry outing for the summer, we huddled in the heated and covered section of the lower deck, our hands cupped around steaming thermoses of coffee for warmth, but on our next two trips, we scampered up to the top deck to take some photos of the harbor.  With the wind in our faces and the ferry’s Norwegian flag whipping in the stiff breeze, we had a great view of Akershus Fortress, the Astrup Fearnley Museum, City Hall, cute little lighthouses, and enormous cruise ships that we passed along the way.

The trip from the dock at Aker Brygge to the first stop — Hovedøya (meaning “Main Island”) — takes only a few minutes.  On our initial foray, we piled off the boat and followed our fellow travelers to the bathrooms, located in a old military warehouse from 1847.  The building itself, called the Lavetthuset (“gun-carriage house”), looks like a huge Tudor-style barn and is ranked as the largest timber-framed structure in Norway.  Every summer it hosts art exhibitions, so we spent about an hour ambling across the creaking floors and perusing the works of Jannik Abel, a woman who’d done some really interesting collages and constructions using old photos that she’d inherited from her great-grandfather.

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Buffet-style, home-cooked food and a fireplace that’s lit on chilly days awaits you at Hovedøya’s café.

Next, we trod the well-worn path to a little café, the name of which I’ve forgotten now.  It’s only open during the summer, mostly on weekends, but it’s an adorable little place, with a homey atmosphere, great sammies and salads, delicious desserts, and of course, the requisite coffee and beer.  The fireplace inside also brings a little welcomed heat on those summer days when the sun isn’t quite enough to keep you from shivering in the chilly island breeze.

Matthew and I have twice now whiled away a wonderful couple of hours just sitting outside at the café tables, sipping our Ringnes on draft, watching the birds squabble over crumbs, listening to Norwegians chitchat … and wishing we could eavesdrop on conversations for entertainment like we do in the U.S. (not knowing the language has really diminished my ability to be a busybody.)  We’ve occasionally tried striking up a conversation with nearby diners, but most folks come to the island with family, and talking with two foreigners isn’t exactly how they’d planned to spend their time.  Sometimes it kinda sucks not being Norwegian.

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The remains of the church to the East Anglian King, “St. Edmund the Martyr” still stand on the site. (Much of northern and eastern England had become a Viking colony during the ninth century.)

Right next to the café is perhaps my favorite spot on the island — the ruins of a Cistercian monastery.  Abbot Philippus from Lincolnshire, England, built Hovedøya Abbey in 1147 around the ruins of an English church, which he refurbished.  According to legend, the monks here became quite wealthy and lived a pretty sweet life until everything came to a screeching halt right before the Reformation.  In 1532, Catholic Captain Gyldenstjerne (meaning “Goldstar”) got a gold star for sacking and burning down the monastery, whose abbot had unwisely supported the Protestant King Christian II in his attempts to take the Norwegian and Danish crowns.

Today, what’s left is a portion of the bell tower and several stone walls — just enough to give you a feel for the scope of the place.  Climbing the tower’s narrow spiral stairs and peering out its slit windows not only provides you with a beautiful aerial view over the chapel and grounds, but also helps you picture what life might have been like for the monks.  It’s a hauntingly peaceful place, and plopping yourself down in the soft grass to absorb its tranquility is certainly another recommended way to spend the day.

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Cannons from the Napoleonic Wars still sit on a low bluff overlooking Olso.

While Hovedøya might have had saintly beginnings, most of the other buildings that pepper the island tell the story of its military importance as the last island in Oslo’s line of harbor defense.  During our walks along the many paths that lace the landscape, we passed cannons from the Napoleonic Wars, a commander’s house from the 1850s, and several smaller structures used for barracks and naval administration.  Most of these are actually quite picturesque, tucked as they are into woody clearings or perched atop grassy bluffs, so you never feel like you’re in the middle of a military compound.

Matthew and I have now hiked most every footpath on several of the islands, and we’ve decided we like Hovedøya’s trails best, not only because they take you on a trip through time, but also because you travel over vastly different terrain.  You can stroll along wide sandy beaches where brave sunbathers congregate, roam shady forests filled with blueberry and raspberry bushes, picnic in meadows smelling of fresh hay and wildflowers, and scramble over rocky shorelines where fishermen convene to cast their lines and argue over the best lures to use.

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Yep, the water is really, really cold.

Once we stopped in a sheltered cove and sat on a grassy beach to birdwatch and read for a bit.  A group of twenty-somethings bravely attempted a little cliff-diving off the rocks nearby, so I toddled over to check out the water’s temperature for myself.  Truly glacial.  I can’t imagine how Scandinavians don’t have massive heart attacks swimming in such frigid water, but when I asked the ladies if they were cold, they replied “it’s so refreshing!”  Yeah, like being shot with a taser.

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Lots of Norwegians have gorgeous antique wooden boats that they’ve lovingly restored. Supposedly, making a luxury purchase like this nets you a tax break.

In the interest of continuing to live another day, we refrained from swimming and sat in the sun to watch the parade of sailboats, speedboats, and big cruise ships as they passed the island.  Maybe it’s their Viking seafaring heritage, or perhaps it’s because Norway possesses the longest coastline in Europe and is perforated with glacial lakes, but I get the impression that owning a boat is a right of passage; if you don’t have one, you’re not really Norwegian.

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Most of the islands are blanketed in cute red, yellow, white, and blue hyttes (summer cabins), each of which comes with its own boat slip in the associated pier. Not a cheap date, plus you have to pay for dry-docking the boat in winter.

For poor slobs like me, or for others who don’t want the hassle (or the bragging rights) of the costs associated with harboring a boat, you can always hire one for a few hours, rent a kayak, or take a cruise on the big liners that travel several times daily between Oslo, Copenhagen, and Stockholm.  I’m told encouragingly by aficionados that “in just eight hours — only two of which are usually nauseating because you’re on the rough open sea — you can be in another Scandinavian country.”  Wow, that’s quite a sales job, but I think I’ll stick to planes, thanks.

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Smaller cruise ships like this one headed to Copenhagen are pretty popular “party boats.” Look at the size of it, compared to the 20-foot sailboat in front of it.  (Click on the image for a bigger view.)

Some of these ocean liners are truly colossal, and it’s a bit unnerving to be sitting on the beach when, suddenly, a boat bigger than the entire island blocks out the sun.  The flashing lights of the giant telescreen as it broadcasts a rock concert from the top deck, the thump-thump-thump of the music, and the thousands of screaming and waving passengers looming over you from just a few feet away is surreal to say the least.

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A cute little hytte had all the gear ready for a summer picnic, but the place appeared totally abandoned, like the Apocalypse had occurred.

On another ferry trip, we decided to get off at Gressholmen to see if we could rustle up an even more remote experience, one less fraught with frenzied cruisers.  We got what we wished for, as I think we saw only two other people on the island, both of whom were working on decrepit sailboats in a tiny shipyard.  It was a little eerie, actually, because all the darling summer houses had curtains on the windows, gardens and planters filled with flowers, decorated picnic tables, and floaties and surfboards at the ready — but no people.  I guess most summer-dwellers had deemed the day too chilly to visit their hyttes.

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Several little gorgeous tidal flats like this one offered great opportunities to see seabirds foraging for their supper.

Even though I am a first-class snoop and voyeur when it comes to learning how other people live their lives, after a while the creep factor overwhelmed us, so we we trekked across the land bridge that connects the island to its smaller bretheren and ventured into the area known for birdwatching.  Luckily we hit low tide, which revealed a mudflat apparently offering some good eats to the bird population, because we managed to spy curlews, plovers, and a host of other shore and water birds picking through the muck for some tasty bits.

A few more hours of wandering over the moody little island, and we came to the decision that we needed to meet an owner of a hytte and finagle an overnight invitation so we could really relax in peace.  Maybe by next summer….

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