Prize City

Perhaps best known for the Nobel award, Norway's capital of Oslo is full of surprises for its visitors -- from ethnic markets and Edvard Munch's 'Scream' to grand ceremonial halls and ski slopes for thrill-seekers

December 10, 2006|By Beverly Beyette | Beverly Beyette,LOS ANGELES TIMES

OSLO, NORWAY -- All in all, these are good times in this Scandinavian capital. The Scream, Norway's best-known painting -- stolen in 2004 -- is back home in the Munch Museum. Today, the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony will take place at City Hall. And thanks to oil, which was discovered in the North Sea in the 1970s, Norway projects a state budget surplus of $59 billion for next year.

On a recent visit to Oslo, I found a vibrant city of interesting contradictions and surprises. For instance, it's a mistake to think of it as a homogenous city of blond, blue-eyed Nordics. Immigrants make up almost a quarter of its 540,000 people. The once-seedy area of Grunerlokka is being revitalized with ethnic markets and cafes. When I was there, about 100 Afghan refugees seeking asylum had pitched tents outside Oslo Cathedral, staging a hunger strike to protest deportation. It's the capital of a socially progressive constitutional monarchy, and its people are devoted to its royal family, which is pretty progressive itself. In 2001, Crown Prince Haakon, heir to the throne, married Mette-Marit Tjessem Hoiby, a single mother with a son born out of wedlock.

As oil spews kroner into the Norwegian economy, most Oslo residents enjoy an enviable quality of life in one of the world's most expensive cities.

Sticker shock may hit first on the $95-or-more cab ride from Gardermoen Airport to the city center. Still, I found ways to save. The Flytoget express train whisks passengers between the airport and the central station in 20 minutes for $25 each way. The widely available Oslo Pass, which saves money on museums and sightseeing tours, is useful because the city has plenty of art and history to mine.

Families flock to Vigeland Sculpture Park, an 80-acre, in-city oasis with an outdoor museum of 192 granite and bronze sculptures by countryman Gustav Vigeland. The artist, who died in 1943, bequeathed his works to the city. The statues, with more than 600 life-sized nude figures of men, women and children, portray a range of emotions and stages of life. The most appealing is The Little Hothead, a small boy throwing a tantrum.

I also made a point of visiting the Munch Museum, which had just reopened with added security after the heist of its star attraction two years ago. There, I picked up some pretty interesting information about Edvard Munch (pronounced Monk), a troubled soul who battled alcoholism, suffered a nervous breakdown and was shot in his left, palette-holding hand during a lovers' quarrel.

To me, the surprise of the museum was the diversity of the artist's works, the hauntingly dark nude Madonna and the charming and cheerful Girls on the Bridge.

I also saw a pastel version of The Scream -- one of four created by the artist. The stolen Scream, an 1893 oil that had been ripped from the museum wall in a brazen armed robbery, was recovered in August, after my June visit.

Munch's study in human angst can also be found on mugs, T-shirts and inflatable dolls. And if that is not enough Munch for you, don't miss City Hall.

Halls of ceremony

With its dark brick facade and square twin towers, City Hall's exterior isn't as pretty as its interior. Upstairs is the tapestry-adorned Festival Gallery and the Munch Room, which houses Life, an oil of his confiscated by the Germans during World War II, later bought at auction by a collector and ultimately acquired by Oslo.

The ceremonial hall holds huge murals depicting facets of modern Norwegian life. The building, which was under construction when the Germans occupied the capital in 1940, wasn't completed until 1950. Several of the muralists, interned during the war, returned at its end to finish their paintings. One, Alf Rolfsen, who'd lost a son in the war, scrapped his plan to paint a landscape and instead created a dramatic frieze depicting occupation, resistance and liberation.

The 16,000-square-foot ceremonial hall will be the setting for the Peace Prize ceremony today. Wanting to learn more about the award, I booked the Peace City Tour, and found I had guide Carola all to myself.

We began at the Nobel Peace Center, which opened last year. Here, visitors can watch televised speeches of all Peace Prize winners since 1960.

There's a room devoted to the prize's founder, Alfred Nobel, who invented dynamite and stipulated in his will -- which relatives contested vigorously -- that his fortune fund five prizes to reward those who had "conferred the greatest benefit on mankind" through chemistry, medicine, physics, literature or by promoting peace. The economics prize, funded by the Bank of Sweden, was established in 1968 in Nobel's honor.

Although born in Stockholm, Nobel directed that a Norwegian committee select the Peace Prize laureate and that the ceremony be held in Oslo. No one is sure why he chose Oslo. One theory is he wished to keep it immune from the politics that might have come into play in more powerful, more political Sweden.

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