October 4, 2016. Autumn has been surprisingly warm and sunny so far this year. (Thank you global warming!) The birches are just beginning to flaunt their golden crowns, so Matthew and I decided to make a Sunday trek to see them in their natural habitat. We’d gotten into a bit of a rut, always heading to the Nordmarka for our little hikes. But this time, we decided to try something new — the Østmarka.
Let me start with a brief explanation of the term marka, which not-so-surprisingly translates as “mark,” meaning “boundary lands.” It’s one of those old-English words (with Viking roots) that has fallen out of fashion in the modern world — unless you’re a Medieval historian, a frequenter of Renaissance Faires, or a fan of Tolkien. Basically, it’s an all-encompassing term for any vast expanse of public woodlands situated right outside the city. It “marks” where you leave civilization and head into wilderness.
One of the coolest things about Oslo’s markas is that they adhere to the Medieval tradition of Allemannsretten — which literally means “all men’s rights.” In short, the concept is that everyone is free to wander practically anywhere in the woods that isn’t fenced in. Fully defined and legislated in Norway, Allemannsretten gives you the following awesome opportunities in nature:
- Roam wherever you like, on foot or by ski
- Cross fields in winter (not during the growing season)
- Pick berries, mushrooms, and flowers
- Drive and park along private roads (unless otherwise prohibited via signage)
- Ride a bike or horse along roads and nature paths
- Take boats, canoes, kayaks, etc. on any waterways
- Go ashore while boating (as long as the land isn’t fenced)
- Camp (for two days; longer requires a landowner’s permission)
- Bathe in freshwater, waterfalls, and the sea
- Gather deadwood for fires (no cutting down trees)
- Light a fire in the wintertime (in a clearing, not in a forest)
- Fish in the sea for free (only those under 16 can fish for free in freshwater)
Sounds like a pretty sweet deal, right? So how do you find these last bastions of personal freedom? By taking any of Oslo’s metro train lines to their various endpoints. Most of the markas are prefaced by general place names, such as Baerum and Kjekstad, or by the cardinal directions: Nord (“North”), Sør (“South), Øst (“East”) and Vest (“West”).
Unfortunately, these names don’t appear on most regular tourist maps, so if you’re interested in exploring the markas, I’d recommend dropping by the downtown Oslo branch of the Norwegian Trekking Association (commonly known as DNT) and picking up a detailed hiking map. Too bad we didn’t heed our own advice, which is what got us into trouble when trying to orienteer our way to and through the Østmarka. But more about that momentarily….
We’d opted for a fairly short Sunday afternoon jaunt into the Østmarka, since work had been claiming a lot of our weekend mornings. As usual, we’d selected an eatery — the Mariholtet Sportsstue — as our trek’s end goal. (We’re completely smitten by the idea that no matter how remote a hike may feel, there’s always one of these cute little log-cabin-ish cafés tucked in amongst the trees somewhere.) According to the online map we’d printed out, Mariholtet should have been a straight shot from the Ellingsrudåsen train stop.
Umm … not exactly. We hopped off the T-bane (Metro) and found ourselves in a subdivision encircling a busy roundabout that lassoed several branching roads. Stopping bystanders, we first asked for directions to the Østmarka. Some folks looked at us like we were idiots and simply waved their arms in the air, as if to say, “it’s all around you; you’re here.” Others shooed us towards the subdivision, saying “it’s over there.” Still others said, “Just take one of the pathways between Ellingsrudskog and Lørenskog,” neither of which appeared on our sad excuse for a map. By now, we were really regretting that we hadn’t made a quick stop at DNT to pick up a better trail guide. (We did so later, hence the photo on the right.)
We ambled around the neighborhood for awhile, looking for a pathway, but no such luck. So Matthew came up with a new game plan: “Let’s wait until another trainload of people arrives, then we’ll follow anyone who looks as if he’s dressed for hiking.” The next train disgorged a passel of North Face-clad folks, whom we covertly tailed for a stretch until we hit a country lane where everyone split up and went in different directions — mostly towards their own houses. So much for Plan B.
Eventually we came upon a farmer plucking apples from his small orchard, where his trees drooped exhaustedly from the weight of their bounty. The man pointed us up the roadway and told us to look between the houses for a tiny dirt path that would take us into the forest. Sure enough, we eventually unearthed the trail (buried knee deep in dead leaves) snaking alongside lovely little homes stacked at the foot of a hill. Even though we understood the concept of Allemannsretten, we still felt a bit odd trespassing through people’s back yards to reach the forest. (I’m used to Kentucky, where coming within shotgun range of a stranger’s property means limping home with a buttload of buckshot.)
Thankfully, no one appeared on their back porch to hurry us on our way with an overhead rifle blast. And as we trekked, we left the houses behind and the stillness of the forest crept up on us. Sunlight filtering through the trees worked its magic on our shoulders and melted away the tensions of way-finding. Yellow leaves lay piled like gold coins around the trunks of birches, turning them into the proverbial “money trees.” The acrid smell of decaying leaves and the incense-like scent of birch fires from nearby chimneys reminded us that the pleasures of autumn are brief in these parts.
Sooner than expected, we came upon a gorgeous wooden structure that we assumed was our destination. But it seemed far larger than we’d anticipated, with lots of outbuildings scattered around the property. And where were all the hikers, bikers, and dog-walkers that usually camp out on the lawn at these cafés? The place seemed deserted. And in fact, it was … because it was closed.
Many of you know by now that Matthew has a long-standing joke about his uncanny ability to shut down restaurants. He can’t tell you how many times he’s confirmed a reservation mere hours before eating, only to show up and discover that the place has just had a kitchen fire, or the health department has suddenly shut it down, or a family emergency has unexpectedly befallen the owner. Poor Matthew seems to be a harbinger of doom for dining spots.
But in this case, as we peered in the darkened windows of the place and spotted the welcome sign, we realized it wasn’t Mariholtet, but Østmarkseteren — an old farmstead that has been converted into a restaurant open only for special events. Yet again, we’d somehow wandered off our seemingly straightforward path. Luckily, a passing dog-walker pointed us in the right direction towards Mariholtet, and we headed off through the trees.
Our meanderings took us past a small lake where families had pulled out their picnic gear and gathered ’round campfires to roast pølser (hotdogs). Continuing along the path brought us past lots of interesting historic sites, including an old wagon bridge, the ruins of an ancient log cabin, an earthen dyke bordering gorgeous wetlands, and a memorial to Milorg, the Norwegian Resistance Group that once operated out of these woods during WWII. As we learned from trailside signage, this popular little section of the Østmarka, called Sarabråten, is one of the oldest recreational sites in Oslo. (Click through the photo gallery below for more details.)
A short distance later, we found ourselves at Mariholtet Sportsstue, where we took time for a beer, a bowl of stew, a delicious sticky bun, and a bit of birdwatching before hitting the trail homeward. It turns out that the café is situated along the edges of North Elvåga, a spot mentioned in Norse mythology as the home of a giant named Hymer. The legendary lake has now been split into two sections: one serves as a reservoir and the other is a recreational waterway. Skirting the fun-n-games portion of the shoreline, we discovered the longest diving platform I’ve ever seen. I tottered out onto it and was rewarded with the roller-coaster sensation of my stomach dropping, suspended as I was over all of that deep blue. Matthew, of course, considered attempting a swan dive. But since the sun was setting, we opted for high-tailing it back towards the train station.
On our return trip, we again passed the farmer’s house. He’d finished de-frocking his orchard and had propped up big bags full of apples outside his fence, along with a sign that read “gratis.” I guess he had more than he could use, so we helped ourselves to a sack and carted it home. The little green orbs proved to be tiny Granny Smith apples, perfect for the apple pie and the batch of apple butter that I made later that week. By the way, I actually have a Granny Smith, although my recipe for apple butter comes from my Granny Singleton. (P.S., in the southern U.S., it’s perfectly respectful to call your grandmother “granny.”)
Anyway, some day I have to go back and thank that man for sharing his harvest and directional advice with us….