[Previously: Bristol, Camden, Newcastle, Birmingham, Shoreditch, Aberdeen, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stockholm, Leeds, Shepherd's Bush, Nottingham, Sheffield, Dog Tap, Tate Modern†, Clapham Junction, Roppongi, Liverpool, Dundee, Bologna, Florence, Brighton, DED Angel†, Brussels, Soho, Cardiff, Barcelona, Clerkenwell, DogHouse Glasgow, Rome, Castlegate, Leicester]
Ah, the Nordic regions. Famous for many things: the icy cold of their winters, the extended daylight of their summers, and their eye-wateringly expensive booze. If there ever was a part of the world that was crying out for us to do a pub crawl in it, it was this one.
As previously discussed here (and, by implication, here), last month The Belated Birthday Girl and I went on a five-city Nordic Expedition, one which allowed us to tick off five previously unvisited BrewDog bars from our list. (To head off a query that the more observant of you may have: in between our making the bookings and going on the holiday, the buggers opened a sixth bar in an awkwardly-located bit of Sweden. We're saving that one for another time.) So, among other things - lots of other things, as you'll see - we got to experience the weirdnesses of Nordic alcohol retail regulations first hand.
Most people are aware that off-sales of booze are strictly regulated in Norway, Finland and Sweden - if you want to take home anything above a certain ABV level, you need to go to a government shop and buy it there. Norway, however, takes it one stage further. Their regulations are so restrictive that BrewDog Oslo, pictured to the left of this text, doesn't technically exist at all.
It's an odd experience - the look of the place is very much in the tradition of the early bars, all distressed wood and exposed brickwork, with the usual slogans in neon up on the walls. But the actual name of BrewDog has been almost entirely eliminated from the bar, although it's still curiously the name of the wifi network. Most surprising of all, the name barely features on the beer list: on our first visit Punk IPA is the only one of their beers on tap, joined a couple of days later by Dead Pony Club. The vast majority of the beers available are, surprisingly, Italian, the result of a recent tap takeover - but there are quite a few local brews too, and the helpful-as-ever staff guide us through a series of recommendations including Kinn's Svartekari English Porter, 7 Fjell's Tjommi IPA and Møllaren, and Haandbryggeriet's Funky Black. And in a Norwegian tradition that takes a little getting used to, this is the first BrewDog bar we've encountered that has a free water dispenser at the end of the bar, for those times when Nanny State isn't quite weak enough.
It's a decently sized bar, with a large room at the front, a smaller back area and a basement. Possibly a little too decently sized? Admittedly, we're visiting at an awkward time of the year: Euro 2016 is in full swing, and BrewDog bars - with their lack of TVs and such - may be suffering against bars that are showing the football. On the Saturday night when we make our first visit, it's reasonably busy upstairs with a deserted basement: oddly, at around 10.20pm there's a sudden exodus and the place is virtually deserted. That's nothing compared with our Monday night follow-up visit, where apart from us there are a grand total of five punters huddled together in the back bar. Ironically, they're watching the football on a laptop. The BBG, who tends to look at the bars these days through the eyes of a shareholder, is a little worried at how low the numbers are: myself, I'm prepared to assume that it's just an accident of timing, and that they're getting enough trade through to keep them ticking over. I hope so, anyway.
But let's go back on ourselves a little here. Given the beery inspiration behind this expedition, it seems appropriate that the initial leg of the journey - an SAS flight out to Oslo - is enlivened by the airline's own in-flight beer The Cloud Hopper, brewed by Danish nutcases Mikkeller. Thankfully, they haven't gone too nuts with the recipe, just cranked up the hops a bit so you can actually taste them at 30,000 feet, and it seems to work just fine.
Once we've landed, it's our second overpriced airport train of the day (Oslo's Flytoget not quite reaching Heathrow Express's reputation as the most expensive train ride in Europe, but getting close), and a short walk from Central Station out to our first hotel, the First Hotel Grims Grenka. It's a perfectly fine city centre hotel in most aspects: the main feature worth noting is the shower, a stream of water diffused over an angled saucer to give you the single most Nordic shower experience you've ever had. Where the hotel falls down catastrophically is in its massively hyped rooftop bar. On the Saturday night, we went there and found it was closed for a private party: on the Sunday, we went and found it had been closed since 10.30pm. This is a hotel bar: the whole point of it is that it's open when you've exhausted all other possibilities outside. A rooftop location is all well and good, but if you're too lazy to keep it open while it's still daylight, then you should stop pretending you have a bar at all. (Luckily, other late night bars are available. Here's one we visited. Here are some others that were on our shortlist, which The BBG picked up from her mates on the BrewDog shareholder forum.)
That disappointment aside, there are things worth seeing and doing all over the city. I've been to Oslo twice before, both times for work: I didn't get to see much of the city on either occasion, but it at least gave me a foot in the door regarding its infrastructure. I knew up front that the integration between the city's multiple transport options made a Ruter card a necessity: the big question was, what size travelcard would we need? Our initial planning suggested that there'd be at least one day where we'd be relying on a ferry system not covered by the card, so in the end a pair of 24 hour cards suited us best.
If you're the sort of person that enjoys the ride as much as reaching the destination, then Ruter cards give you quite a few options on that score. The B1-B4 ferry services, starting out from the main harbour, allow you to hop around between fjords at your leisure - Hovedøya island, if we're honest, is the only one worth getting off the boat for, but you can use it as a hub for a whole afternoon's worth of messing about on the water. Meanwhile, on the Metro system, you can take the number 1 line out to Frognerseteren - this was me basically showing The BBG the daily commute that I was doing during my first work visit to Oslo, a ridiculously pretty crawl up a 500m high hill with some terrific views during its middle section.
Ruter cards also cover the city's trams (handy for getting to BD57) and buses (don't think we used any the whole time we were there). But to be honest, most of the main attractions of the city are within walking distance of each other. If you're looking to explore the city on foot, the trick is to watch out for the gigantic orange-numbered signs indicating the Oslo Harbour Promenade. It's a well-signposted 9km walk along the waterfront, with lots to see along the way, and each of those orange checkpoints gives you a bit of context as to where you are currently. On a gloriously hot Saturday afternoon, we took a stroll from the harbour itself all the way out to the Opera House, a staggering bit of architecture which has even better views of the city from its easily navigable rooftop.
The Vingen Bar, the café at the Astrup Fearnley Museum, had a couple of interesting tie-in 'Alex Israel LA brunch' dishes, and so we decided to give them a go. The Mr Crab Roll consisted of two well-stuffed crisp rolls full of tasty crab, while Spank’s green eggs and ham – ham and eggs with big dollops of pesto on top – was also very nice, he tells me, and similarly generous with the ham. Much as I do like where possible to eat more local food when travelling, the tie-in with the exhibition gave a good enough excuse to be less traditional, and the ingredients were all high quality, the dishes well prepared, and the location, with views out to sea, excellent, too. At NOK 400 for two lunches with green tea, it may not be exactly cheap, but little in Oslo is, and the generous portion sizes meant it didn’t feel bad value.
For more traditional food, Lorry is an excellent choice, with daily specials, traditional Norwegian fish and meat dishes, and even a late night menu. You can choose to either sit inside - in a lovely old building, all dark wood, old furniture and stuffed animals - or on the pleasant terrace, with lots of greenery and red and white checked tablecloths. We opted to dine on the terrace, as did most people the evening we were there, but even if you do, make sure you don’t miss seeing the interior. The food itself was excellent. I went for a grilled trout, which was perfectly cooked, served with shallots, some especially delicious carrots (I couldn’t quite pin down what they had done to them to make them so good), and mashed potatoes, while Spank had his first reindeer of the trip, in burger form, with sautéed potatoes and cranberries. We washed it down with a shared bottle of Oslo Mikrobryggeri Steamer, one of hundreds of beers from all over on the menu – another reason why this place appealed - which was a particularly nice example of the steam beer or California Common style. We followed up with a shared apple pie, which was very tasty, and huge, so we were glad we had decided to share, and a decent coffee. At NOK 800 for the lot, this was decent value for Oslo, too. For the atmosphere, the food and the beer, Lorry comes highly recommended.
Probably the best meal we had in Oslo, though, was at the Solsiden seafood restaurant, on Oslo harbour, right below Akershus Fortress. This restaurant serves fabulously fresh seafood, in a terrific setting, with wonderful views of the Oslo Fjord. I couldn’t resist the fried turbot, served with potato and horseradish puree, and a creamed lobster sauce. The fish was terrific, and perfectly done, while the accompanying potato had enough horseradish to give a nice tang to it. Spank went for the grilled salmon, which came with green asparagus, cannellini and chipotle hollandaise. I was concerned about the lack of proper carbs with his meal (and this was one of the few places we went where we didn’t get any bread, either), but he insists the cannelloni had enough starchiness, and the fish itself was very good. We decided a glass of Reisling each would be the thing to drink with our dishes, and it went particularly well with the slight spiciness of both Spank’s chipotle and my horseradish. It has to be said that at NOK 1000 for two for a single course with only a glass of wine and a coffee, Solsiden is a little pricey, but you do get, in terms both of the quality of the food and the location, what you are paying for.
You'll have noticed that one of The BBG's recommended spots there is a gallery cafe: specifically, the restaurant attached to the Astrup Fearnley Museum, Oslo's premier repository of modern art. Spread across two adjacent buildings in the harbourside area, it's a breathtaking, airy space that shows off their collections in (literally) the best possible light. One building is dedicated to a permanent collection of 20th century highlights, and gives you the chance to see, for example, a couple of Damien Hirst's monumental taxidermies up close. The other building is used for temporary exhibitions, and is currently home to #AlexIsrael until September 11th. Israel is the archetypal LA pop artist - all shiny surfaces and dayglo colours, only interested in beaches, movies and celebrity. There's a deadpan wit in there too, thankfully, and it comes across most in the room dedicated to his web interview series As It LAys. Watching celebrities react with confusion to his disinterested, disconnected questions reminds me of nothing so much as Richard Herring's approach to interviewing in RHLSTP. Israel's best question to Christina Ricci - "given the chance, is there anything you would change about the ten commandments?" - could easily be a Herring Emergency Question. (To be fair, her answer's pretty good too.)
It's possible that pickled cattle and reconstructed indoor piers are the sort of art that brings you out in hives. If you find the experimentation of the early 20th century more acceptable, then you can take advantage of Oslo's pride in one of its favourite sons, Edvard Munch. The dedicated Munch Museum would seem like the most obvious place to go, but be warned it's in a state of flux at present - it was closed for rehanging during the weekend we were in town, and the whole place is preparing for a move into a new city centre location in 2018. If you're in a hurry, the thing to do is to visit Oslo's rather fine National Gallery, whose Munch Room has the two paintings everyone wants to see - The Scream and Madonna, the pair that were in the Munch Museum until they were nicked in 2004 and found again in 2006. Inevitably, you won't be the only tourist making a beeline for these, and once you've fought your way through to the front of the school parties you'll find that both pictures are solidly locked away behind protective glass to prevent any further mishaps. But you can't really visit Oslo without seeing them (and taking an utterly useless photo of them, of course).
Time and again, though, we kept finding ourselves out by the harbour, either enjoying it as a location in its own right or using it as a hub to go elsewhere. For free entertainment, it's hard to beat a wander round the nearby Akershus Festning, the complex containing Oslo's medieval castle and fortress - though when we visited, sections of the grounds were locked off for big public screenings of the Euro 2016 matches. It's difficult to appreciate the carefully preserved ruins when people are noisily cheering goal attempts every few minutes, but somehow you learn to adjust. Unlike all the indoor museums, they keep the gates of the fortress open till 9pm in the summer months, so it's a fine place to go to help work up a thirst for a later bar visit. (Don't try it the other way round: there are some very steep drops to be found as you wander about, and being drunk could possibly be a disadvantage there.)
Also at the harbour, you can go to the booth labelled Båtservice and pick up a return ticket for the ferry to the Bygdøy Peninsula (your Ruter card won't work on this one). The peninsula is home to a collection of museums, mostly nautical by nature. There's the Viking Ship Museum, containing three longboats in spectacular degrees of preservation: the Fram Museum, a history of Norwegian polar exploration which allows you full access to the gigantic ship it's named after: the Maritime Museum, which we didn't actually get to visit but took full advantage of its cafe for lunch: and the Kon-Tiki Museum, which will tell you everything you'd want to know about Thor Heyerdahl's various voyages. The ferry drops you off close to the Viking Ship Museum: from there it's a 15 minute or so walk to the other ones, and the ferry will pick you up from there and take you back to central Oslo. Plan it right, and there's an entire day of seafaring fun to be had in that lot.
We had a great time in Oslo: all of my previous visits were work-related, so I never had time to really explore the city, never mind any of the delights a short boat ride away from it. With a weekend's worth of perfect weather, it's hard to see how we could have done any better. No time to hang around, though - we've got another four cities to get to...