August 15th, 2020

Impressions of Norway

I recently completed a vacation tour of what are arguably Norway's most important cities. When I came back from Norway, I initially had the feeling that I didn't have much to say about it, but I decided that I should probably write out what little I have to say about it anyway, so here we go. This wasn't the first time I had been in Norway, but previously, I had only been in the capital city of Oslo. This time, I visited, in order: Bergen, Stavanger, Kristiansand, and Oslo.

I began by flying to Bergen, Norway's second-largest city and arguably the most geographically western major city on the Scandinavian Peninsula. The first thing that I noticed upon disembarking from the plane was that the floor in the airside part of Bergen Flesland Airport is made of wood, which makes it feel very Nordic and is something you are not likely to see in any major airport in Central Europe. Oddly, although Norway is in the Schengen Area, all passengers were required to go through passport control upon exiting the plane, which as far as I know is a violation of the Schengen Agreement, although perhaps this had been done only temporarily due to the ongoing coronavirus situation. (It may have something to do with the fact that Norway is in the Schengen Area but not in the European Union, although technically that shouldn't make any difference.)

After clearing passport control and stepping into the main airside area of the airport, I noticed, upon looking out the window, that there was a large rock, nearly big enough to constitute a mountain in its own right, across the street from the airport with the text "BERGEN?" mounted on it. It was not at all clear why the question mark was there; was the mountain challenging us to assert that we were really in Bergen, as opposed to somewhere else in the world? How could we prove to this doubtful mountain that we were actually in the city which the airline said they would fly us to, and that the airline had not secretly conspired to fly us to an entirely different city? We could have been in Skarsvåg for all we knew; we didn't have any way of proving anything.

As probably the first thing which most air travelers to Bergen will see outside of the airport itself, the "BERGEN?" sign is arguably one of the most famous and visible tourist sights of the city. It regularly shows up on Instagram, Flickr, Twitter, Reddit, and other Internet sites as curious and confused travelers ask why the question mark is there. The answer is, predictably, that the text is an art installation. The piece is called "This Must Be The Place" and it is the idea of Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson. The project is described thus: "The artwork encourages a sense of curiosity and open-mindedness towards the surroundings, and it places a question mark over what we think we know. Bergen? embraces humour, excitement and wonder, expectations and dreams. The artist does not seek to provide textbook answers, instead pointing to the universal human experience of being new to a place. Bergen is the place – but the place for what? The question mark contains an infinitude of possibilities". This might sound like a lot of pretentious artist-speak, so let me heap more pretentiousness on top of this by suggesting that Bergen may be the most philosophical city in Norway, and as such, it is appropriate that the first thing the city does to its visitors is ask them to question their place in reality.

The second thing Bergen does to its visitors is make them fall in love with it. Upon exiting the airport, I weighed my three apparent options for travelling from the airport to the city: Taxi, bus, or light rail. A taxi would likely have been insanely expensive, so I thought a bus might be the way to go, but the airport's bus stands were barren, and a hastily-erected sheet of paper pasted to one of the screens there informed me that bus service had been terminated due to the coronavirus situation, and it was unknown when bus service would resume. That left the light rail, which at first seemed like a generically pleasant and clean little suburban train which connects the airport to the city center. On the trip from the airport to the city, however, I saw such wondrous constructions of stone that I was amazed; Bergen is a city built into the stone of a mountain range, and even its scraggly suburbs of otherwise-unremarkable houses and shopping malls are breathtaking because of how they are situated among endless rolling hills and awe-inspiring banks of stone that erupt from the ground constantly. Riding the light rail from Bergen's airport is a more thrilling and beautiful adventure than taking a tour of the center of most European cities. I tried to keep my expectations in check, because this was only the suburbs I was seeing and I had yet to see the city as such, but I can say that if you like rocks, Bergen won't disappoint you.

The light rail line from the airport normally goes all the way to "Byparken" station, which is Norwegian for "City Park", but the last few stops of the line were out of service due to construction work, so the train left me at the Nygård stop instead, from which a series of helpful signs showed me the way to the city center and how much farther I had to walk to get there. The walk from Nygård to the city center is fairly unremarkable (it feels much like any other Nordic city), but once you get to Lille Lungegårdsvannet, one thought becomes clear in your mind: This is a great place. Lille Lungegårdsvannet (also known as Smålungeren, because that name is Smålunger compared to the other name which is very Lunge) is a lake next to the aforementioned Byparken, but it's not just any lake; it is absolutely glorious to behold. There's a fountain in the middle of it, and the whole surroundings of the park are so picturesque that you have to see it to believe it. Once you're there, the logical thing to do is to walk west toward Ole Bulls plass, which gives you a chance to pass through Julemarked Byparken, the central city park, known for its statue of Edvard Grieg, Norway's greatest composer.

I should pause for a moment to mention how ubiquitous Grieg's presence is in Bergen. Grieg was born in Bergen, died in Bergen, and lived most of his life in Bergen, although he did travel fairly extensively throughout Europe. Grieg has always been one of my favorite composers, and after being a bit disappointed that he was not more prominent in Oslo, I was happy to see Grieg getting the love he deserves in his hometown. Most people know Grieg for "In the Hall of the Mountain King", and his other widely-recognized piece is "Morning Mood", both of which were actually originally written for Peer Gynt, a play by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, but Grieg's brilliance goes well beyond these two "greatest hit" works; one of my favorites has always been Grieg's Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16, noted for its sudden, thrilling, ecstatic piano introduction. (Fans of Quest for Glory IV, who probably make up a significant portion of my readership, are likely to also know Grieg as the composer of "Anitra's Dance" (which is also from Peer Gynt), which was adapted as the background music which plays in the game's Hotel Mordavia.) For most of my time in Bergen, one of these three works was playing in my head at any given time, because again, you can't really get away from Grieg's influence there. The local concert hall, a prominent fixture of the city, is called the "Grieghallen" (Grieg Hall), with a suitably dignified statue of the man in front of it which is similar to but different from the one in Julemarked Byparken.

Once you get to Bergen's city center, you understand why Grieg wrote the music he did. Although the city's main central square, called Torgallmenningen, is today spoiled by the usual overpriced restaurants that pollute most such places, all you have to do is turn your gaze northward to see the most stunning mountain landscape that one could imagine a city center being blessed with. Northeast of Bergen's central square, only about one kilometre distant, arises a mountain of such stunning steepness and beauty that you cannot help but be inspired by the most lofty thoughts when you behold it; it towers over and dwarfs the city center, but rather than feeling threatening or intrusive or making you feel small, it seems to invite the beholder to join it and partake of its greatness. One sees the mountain over Bergen and wishes to become united with it, to become lofty, beautiful, pure, powerful, and timeless like that mountain. You cannot stand there in Bergen and look upon that mountain without becoming a better person for having done so.

As is the case with many cities, the center of Bergen is built on a small bay, which on a map seems to divide the city roughly in half, with a smaller northern part and a longer peninsula on the south side of the bay. My plan was to see the north side first since it is smaller, then head back to the center and explore that southern peninsula. On the way to the city's north end, I happened, by chance, to pass by the main local branches of Norway's two main bookstore chains, Norli and ARK, as these are directly between Torgallmenningen and the end of the bay which you need to walk around to get to the city's north side. I thought it a bit odd that the two bookstore chains, which are in competition with each other, would be right across the street from each other, but this was a pattern I saw in other Norwegian cities as well: For whatever reason, these two bookstore chains are generally to be found in close proximity to each other throughout Norway. I paused to step into these bookstores and was astonished to find that in addition to the usual silly murder-mystery novels which are common in Nordic bookstores, both bookshops also had surprisingly prominent and well-developed Philosophy sections. The books there were mostly in English because the Norwegian book market is not large enough to warrant Norwegian translations of most books, but still, I was impressed to see Philosophy featured so prominently in both bookstores. I will say now that this is something I did not see again in any other Norwegian city, which again suggests to me that Bergen may be the most philosophical city in Norway. It must have something to do with those mountains; when the human beholds the lofty mountains soaring above, it cannot help but have its thoughts ascend to higher things than the poison which evil, bad people pollute their minds with like food, television, and rap music.

Coming out of the bookshops and proceeding through Bergen's "Fish Market" to the city's north end, I was again surprised to find myself in Germany. Most of Bergen's north side is a district called Bryggen which actually consists of old buildings that belonged to the Hanseatic League. Although Bergen itself was never an official Hansestadt (Hanseatic city), Bryggen was a Kontor, which was a word for a Hanseatic station in a non-Hanseatic city. Bryggen happens to be one of Bergen's most prominent and popular tourist attractions, but the tourists there are, perhaps not surprisingly, mostly German. Besides the fact that the buildings there mirror the style seen in German Hansestädte like Hamburg, Bremen, and Lübeck, and the souvenirs are more German-style than Norwegian-style souvenirs, I also heard many people who were obviously tourists walking around in Bryggen speaking German to each other, which is something I did not see (or rather, hear) in any other location in Norway, including the rest of Bergen. So there you have it: Germans built the north end of Bergen and still run one of the city's most popular tourist attractions there, at the base of a gorgeous, soaring mountain. When I understood this, it all made sense: I understood why the Germans had settled there (Germans love mountains and dramatic things and commerce and taking over other people's settlements), and while I cannot prove that the strong German presence in Bergen is the reason why Bergen's bookstores have Philosophy sections when no other Norwegian city has such things in its bookstores, I can see no other plausible explanation for this outcome.

After the wonderful experience that was Bergen's north end, I was hoping for more of the same when I walked back through the city center (stopping to see the lovely Bergen Domkirke on the way, a majestic church that's a bit off the beaten path to the east of the city center) and started walking along the seemingly-meandering but generally linear roads that follow the peninsula to the south of the city center. Here, unfortunately, I ended up a bit disappointed: Although Bergen's south end is quiet and lovely, it doesn't really stand out in any way. Put it this way: It isn't worth travelling to Bergen to see it. I walked all the way to the end of the peninsula, where the Bergen Aquarium is located, and I heard the barking of sea lions from within, but other than that cute but minor detail, it struck me that I could have been anywhere in any suburb in Scandinavia. After finding myself in a bracingly majestic and inspiring place just a few hours ago, I'd now wandered into a place where there was really nothing remarkable, nothing to see but the sea and the harbor, which again is something you can see in any city by the sea. I walked back using a different route but my impressions were the same: It all made for a pleasant little walk, but it would never have been worth the time and expense of travelling to Bergen if this were all the city had to offer.

One thing which Bergen does offer pretty much anywhere in the city is excellent weather. On an average year, it rains more than 200 days of the year in Bergen. This is because of the mountain combined with the fact that the city is on the sea: As the moist sea air moves inland, it is forced to move up very quickly by the steep mountain face, which causes the moisture in the air to condense and fall down as rain. As the world grows hotter and the sun's tendency to burn humanity rises, Bergen is an oasis of wonderfully cloudy, foggy, cool weather on an increasingly scorched Earth. Even Bergen, however, is not immune to the plague of heat which has the world in its grip: In 2018, a new heat record of 32.6° Celsius (90.7° Fahrenheit) was set, and the following year, in 2019, another new record of 33.4° Celsius (92.1° Fahrenheit) was set. Our world is dying. There is no escape, not even in Bergen.

I did find it reasonably easy to leave Bergen, in any case. I booked a bus trip to Stavanger, Norway's third-largest city and, like all of Norway's major cities, another city similarly positioned on the ocean coast. The bus trip started off fairly normally as we drove out of the bus station and then out of the city, but it didn't take long for me to realize just how incredibly isolated this place was: Once you leave Bergen and start driving over the hills of Norway's western coast, you have the feeling of being in a place untouched by human settlement, a place so wild and uneven that it's simultaneously disturbing and thrilling. The bus passed by endless hills and curving roads precariously built next to the ocean, winding through tiny settlements which made me repeatedly ask myself: What do people do here? How do they afford to live here? They don't use their land, and there is nowhere to buy anything. The place is populated by houses which look neat and pleasant but which often don't have any usable land because they're surrounded by steep hills, and even the places which have patches of flat land don't seem to use that land at all; I didn't see anything resembling planted fields, and while I did occasionally see small groups of farm animals, their numbers were far too few to constitute the main sustenance of these properties. A farmstead out here couldn't make a living from less than 20 cows or goats, and I never saw greater numbers of farm animals than this on any one farm, so I was left scratching my head and wondering how people in the isolated, seaside hills of Norway make a living. I still don't understand it.

What was even more remarkable were the not one, but two ocean journeys which our bus made on its way to Stavanger. Norway's western coastline is so jagged and broken up by fjords that rather than even attempting to make a coherent road from Bergen to Stavanger, they just gave up and made two sections on that roadway where all traffic has to drive onto a ferry and get ferried across considerable expanses of water.

Looking out the windows of the ship I was on, it occurred to me that many people would consider what I was seeing to be quite possibly the most depressing possible view in the world: There was literally nothing to see except gray, just gray fog stretching as far as the eye could see (which wasn't far because the fog was quite thick) and occasionally a glimpse of some bare, tiny island. I found that it suited me, however; it seemed like a nice place to get away from it all if you didn't care about having anything to eat or any kind of shelter from the elements. Of course inside the ship, there were snacks for sale and I wasn't getting rained on, but a tiny island off the barren coast of Norway looks like a nice place to die if you want to die by slowly starving to death in a place where people are not likely to find you for a while.

The second ferry trip unloaded our bus at a location close to Stavanger, and from there it wasn't too much longer before our bus journey finished in front of Stavanger's central bus station, which is right next to its central rail station. First impressions of Stavanger were good: It has a central lake with a fountain in it, just like Bergen's Lille Lungegårdsvannet, but both the lake and the fountain are smaller than Bergen's, so it feels kind of like a lesser imitation. Still, the surroundings were nice, but you don't have to walk far from there before those first impressions wear off and Stavanger starts looking less appealing.

Stavanger's main city center is a densely-built clump of urbanization, and it's very hilly, so hilly that walking around it is a bit draining if you do so for an extended period of time. Unlike Bergen, where a soaring mountain exists in such proximity to the city that you never lose sight of it while walking around the center, Stavanger doesn't have any impressive mountains within view of its central core, and the buildings themselves are tall and dense enough that they would have obscured any such mountain had it been present. While being in Bergen is like being in a city where you never lose sight of the beauty of the nature which is right next to it, being in Stavanger is more like being in any regular claustrophobic city where the buildings are so dense that they seem to press in on you, and the street layout is meandering and uneven enough that it's easy to get lost even though Stavanger's city center is actually very small, much less than a kilometre across--I think it's even less than half a kilometre across. Being in Stavanger's center is a physically and emotionally draining experience, because it is poorly designed, poorly built, and there is not much to see there besides some trashy little shops. I found, once again, that the local Norli and ARK bookstores were just down the street from each other, but they didn't have much in the way of good books; instead, they were simply stocked with the endless stupid crime fiction novels which are so beloved in the Nordic countries.

Outside of Stavanger's center, the city looks better but fairly generic. In the northwestern corner stands the huge and majestic Stavanger Konserthus (yes, that does mean "concert house"), and it's a nice building to behold, made up to look like a cruise ship on the inside. Just north of there is the Bjergstedparken, a lovely park to walk around in for a while. Other than that area, however, Stavanger is at best another boring Nordic city, and at worst a city which thinks it's more than that, tragically unaware that it isn't. It feels, to me, a lot like Gothenburg in Sweden: A jumbled, ex-industrial city that now wants to be a tourist attraction but feels like a rusting skeleton of a settlement rather than a vibrant community. I had been astonished by the beauty of Bergen, but the other big surprise for me in Norway was how ugly and unpleasant Stavanger is.

Unpleasantness is something one can usually get over, but there was another unpleasant surprise for me when I returned to my hotel after I finished exploring Stavanger and attempted to book tickets to my next destination of Kristiansand. As it turned out, all of the bus tickets from Stavanger to Kristiansand were sold out, not only for tomorrow, but also for the day after tomorrow, and even for the day after that. I'd been foolish enough to not book the tickets in advance because I wasn't sure how much time I'd need in each city; it can always happen that you get delayed, and then the future bookings which you made become useless since you can't be at the departure point you're scheduled to be in, and so to avoid a bunch of cancellations caused by a long chain of reservations which are dependent on each other, I'd intended to book my bus on the evening before my departure. This had worked in Bergen, but oddly enough, although Bergen is a more geographically isolated city than Stavanger, Stavanger appears to be more isolated in terms of travel connections: There are less buses and trains running from Stavanger to other parts of Norway, perhaps because Stavanger is a smaller and less significant city.

It got worse from there. Stavanger has a functioning train station, and so I figured that if all the buses were booked, I'd just book a train ticket instead, but my shock to discover that all the buses were booked up only deepened when I found that even all the trains from Stavanger were sold out, once again not only for tomorrow, but for the next two days after that. When I saw that there were no train tickets available on the Internet websites of both Vy and SJ (Norway's two main train operators), a creeping sense of dread came over me as I began to face the prospect of actually being stranded here, unable to travel further for a period of potentially several days. Besides ruining the rest of my vacation, this would also mean I'd miss my flight back home from Oslo. I began to wonder what alternatives were open to me: Could I hitchhike from Stavanger to Kristiansand? Maybe there were ferries which still had tickets available? Would a taxi take me that far? None of these seemed like promising ideas.

I left my hotel and walked to Stavanger's train station to see if I could talk to someone there about the situation. Unfortunately, it was already the evening and the station's ticket office had closed. There was a ticket machine there, however, and to my great relief, I was able to buy a ticket from Stavanger to Kristiansand from the machine: There was a train which left at 4:30 in the morning, which was by no means an ideal time, but certainly better than no train at all. The reason I hadn't seen this train online was because it wasn't operated by Norway's main train companies Vy and SJ, but rather by a smaller, regional operator called Go-Ahead. (The Wikipedia article for this company suggests that Go-Ahead won a contract to operate the "Oslo South" route, beating out competition from Vy and SJ, so if you intend to take a train in that region in the future, it looks like Go-Ahead is your go-to train operator.) I bought the ticket and other than having to wake up at 3:00 in the morning to catch the train, I had no further problems taking the train from Stavanger to Kristiansand.

I guess my lesson from this experience is: If you're travelling in a geographically isolated place, make sure that you have all your travel tickets booked in advance or you could end up finding yourself stranded for an extended period of time. I would have thought that if all the buses and trains were booked, the transport companies would recognize that there was high demand on those routes and simply schedule another bus or train to accommodate additional passengers who might want to travel that route on that day, but this does not seem to happen in Norway, where transport companies are willing to allow important routes to remain fully booked for days at a time. I have no doubt that the coronavirus crisis contributed to this problem: The bus which I'd taken from Bergen to Stavanger had half of its seats marked off as unusable to promote "social distancing" to prevent the spread of the virus, as did the light rail train which I rode from Bergen's airport to its city center, and so there would certainly have been more seats available on buses and trains if it hadn't been for the ongoing pandemic situation, but even this being the case, once again, you'd think that transport operators would increase traffic on their routes so that people who need or want to travel can do so, but this was clearly not happening.

Indeed, I had wondered how many people would be on my train--who takes a train that leaves at 4:30 in the morning?--but even that very early train was packed with people, and since many of the seats were marked as unusable for social-distancing reasons, it wasn't hard to imagine that the later trains had no available seats as well. Grateful that I had a ticket and a seat reservation, I sat down and experienced a few hours of the most amazing scenery I have ever seen in my life. I've travelled through the Alps several times and I thought they were impressive, and I've been through most of the rest of Europe by now, but I have never in my life seen anything that comes close to the absolute, stunning beauty of the Norwegian mountains between Stavanger and Kristiansand. I felt like trying to take a video of them, but I realized immediately that any video which could be made of this setting would pale in comparison to the experience of actually being there; it would be like the difference between watching a video of people having sex and actually having sex. The 19th-century French writer Marie-Henri Beyle, better known by his pen name Stendhal, is known (besides his literature) for something which has come to be called "Stendhal syndrome", an experience described by Stendhal upon seeing Florence, Italy for the first time, whereupon Stendhal found himself so overwhelmed by the beauty of the city that he claimed to have experienced heart palpitations and found himself having trouble staying on his feet. I experienced something similar in the mountains of Norway: It was such a constant inundation of the most astonishing scenes of mountain beauty, beyond even what the imagination can conceive, that I found myself dizzy and stuporous from the experience... or maybe that was just the results of having to wake up so early to catch the train. Either way, the other high point of my trip to Norway besides the city of Bergen was the mountains. It's clear that in Norway, cities are insignificant and people are unimportant; the mountains are, and always have been, the star of the show.

I arrived in Kristiansand without further incident a few hours later, and found that like Stavanger, Kristiansand keeps its train station and bus station right next to each other for travel convenience, something I appreciate after having seen many cities where transit centers are haphazardly scattered throughout the city, necessitating a harrowing journey just to get through the city to the necessary transit station before you can even start the journey you wanted to take. In large cities, this is sometimes unavoidable for logistical reasons, because trains run in several different directions, and it is not practical to have one central train station in the middle of a large city, so trains which run, for example, to the west leave from stations on the western edge of the city, and so on. Kristiansand, however, is a quite small city, and so it does not have any problems having one centralized transit point.

A further convenience is that city maps of Kristiansand are available at the train station for free. I availed myself of one of these on the way out, and set about exploring the city. A sign near the passage from the stations to the rest of the city explains the city's name: The city's original spelling was "Christianssand", because it was built by King Christian on the sand, get it? What a creative moniker. It would take a Nordic culture to come up with that one. This same king, Christian IV of Denmark, was also the same guy who renamed Oslo to "Christiania" in 1624, a name which it retained until it was named back to Oslo in 1924. Oh yeah, and he also named other cities Christianopel, Christianstad, and Christianshavn. At this point it's kind of like he was parodying himself.

And indeed, Kristiansand was built on a sandy beach by the sea, which means that in stark contrast to Bergen and Stavanger, Kristiansand is almost perfectly flat. Its city center also has a perfectly orthogonal street grid, in contrast to the meandering streets which the mountain geographies of Bergen and Stavanger necessitate. Navigating Kristiansand is easy, and I had the fortune to have discovered it on a sunny day, so walking around it was not only easy, but also pleasant.

Unfortunately, Kristiansand's status as a smaller and less important city does also mean that there is less to see there, so although my day in Kristiansand was by no means a negative experience, it was also a mostly unremarkable experience. The main part of the city--the orthogonal grid I mentioned--is small enough that you can explore its every street in a matter of hours, and the northeastern half of that grid is just a residential area, making the area for tourists even smaller. The actual tourist center itself is almost laughably small, and once again, the local branches of Norli and ARK are right across the street from each other, and once again, they're both absolute trash, not even worth visiting. The most remarkable thing which I saw in Kristiansand was the rock-climbing park in Nybyen Park, at the city grid's northern edge. This park is more famous for its skate park, but I did not see anyone skateboarding there (indeed, I did not see anyone in the park at all). What I did see was a huge rock-climbing wall, of the sort with those precarious little screwed-on holds which experienced rock-climbers are able to take advantage of but which are so perilous to beginners. I've never actually tried rock climbing and so I thought about giving it a go. The ground in that particular part of the park is not paved, but rather made of that rubber which one sometimes sees in children's playgrounds to help prevent children from hurting themselves if they fall. It was quite obvious, however, that a serious fall from the rock-climbing wall onto that rubber was not going to save me from injury. Despite the risk, I might have gone up a short distance were it not for the fact that the wall is not straight: It actually curves backwards, toward the climber, so climbers are not even facing a sheer vertical wall, they actually have to take on the even more difficult task of climbing a wall that angles toward you, which is very difficult for even experienced climbers, and not something I was in any way willing to attempt with the absolute zero amount of safety gear and past experience available to me at that moment. I found myself wondering why they would put a rock-climbing wall like that in a public park and then not provide easier options for beginners. I guess in Norway, people are so outdoorsy that children learn to climb rocks from an early age, and so what would be an advanced-level rock-climbing surface in any other part of the world is something that children climb during their lunch breaks without adult supervision.

Kristiansand has a nice park in the middle of the city with a nice church to look at, but otherwise I didn't see anything worth mentioning. Finishing my inspection of the city center, I ended my trip through Kristiansand at the beach, and it is a nice enough beach, although it is mostly indistinguishable from any other beach I have seen in my life. The only thing which makes Kristiansand's beach particularly Nordic is that its public toilet stalls are only accessible by credit card, a nod to the Nordic countries' general eradication of cash in commerce. Other than that, walking by the water, I had a sense that I'd been in countless places like this before: It could have been one of any number of identical little seaside towns with a nautical atmosphere and a forgettable city center which is overshadowed by a large shoreside park. Once again, it was certainly a pleasant place to spend a day, but not something memorable for any particular reason.

In contrast to how I nearly got stranded in Stavanger, I found it very easy to leave Kristiansand, as there are plentiful buses going from there to Oslo. That stretch of road is already "Eastern Norway", the less mountainous part of Norway which can be agriculturally productive because its terrain is flatter. Indeed, the bus trip was unremarkable and uneventful, just hours of endless forest and farmers' fields going by. At the end of this journey, I found myself in Oslo, a city I had already explored at length a few years ago and which I didn't feel the need to explore again since I was already somewhat familiar with it.

One thing which I should say about Norway's capital is that Oslo is a very heterogenous city. Its various neighborhoods don't really tie together into a cohesive whole; even though I'd explored much of the city a few years ago, Oslo really felt like a different city than the one I'd seen previously, because depending on where you go, you get an entirely different sense of the city. Oslo's center is so fragmented that it doesn't really have its own character, just a lot of little pockets of development separated by neglect. That said, despite this mixed nature, Oslo still doesn't really distinguish itself as a city in any meaningful way.

Oslo does contain Norway's best bookstore, "Tanum Karl Johan", but like the other good bookstores in Norway, it tends to contain books mostly in English, and also to serve the local academic community (students attending the University of Oslo) rather than the general public. (Side note: Tanum is technically a chain of bookstores with a few other locations, but their location on Karl Johans gate has always been their flagship location, in many ways synonymous with the Tanum brand, so it's perhaps not surprising that in February of 2020, Tanum's owning company announced that they would sell all Tanum branches except for the Karl Johan location to Norli and ARK.) This mirrors the situation in Sweden, where bookstores are mostly lousy except in the capital city of Stockholm, where probably the city's best bookstore is called "Akademibokhandeln" (academic or university bookstore), and again, most of the books are in English.

I can't really recommend a visit to Oslo for any particular reason. It has some nice places, but it's so expensive and geographically distant from everywhere that there really isn't anything you can do or see in Oslo that you couldn't do or see better somewhere else at a better price. It's really just a place to go if you're particularly desperate to fill up your checklist of capital cities that you've been to.

One thing I did like about travelling in Norway is that it tends to have a lot of supermarkets, and to my great surprise, these were mostly not that expensive--at least, not more expensive than what you'd see in other Nordic countries. This is because the supermarkets tend to emphasize practicality over luxury. In particular, one supermarket chain which is fairly ubiquitous in Norway is called REMA 1000, which emphasizes a no-frills approach to shopping: Rather than putting on nice displays, food is simply put out in stacks. Also unusual about this chain was that pre-bagged candy does not seem to exist; the stores have a large selection of different types of candy, but it's all bulk, meaning you have to take an empty paper bag and fill it with your choice of candy rather than just taking a factory-sealed bag off the shelf. It's a little different from what I'm used to, but it wasn't at all bad, especially when I found out that the prices for everything were quite reasonable.

So that was my trip to Norway. For me personally, Bergen was definitely worth the trip even though it's kind of geographically isolated, but the other cities were, frankly, a series of coastal towns which felt like they could have been anywhere else. Despite being by far the world's number-one country on the Human Development Index (HDI), Norway doesn't really feel very culturally distinct. If it didn't have the oil deposits it financially benefits from so strongly, it would really be just another Scandinavian country, hardly distinguishable from Sweden. This is the cultural perspective: Norway doesn't have a strong, individual culture. What really makes Norway special is not its culture, but its geography: If you like mountains and places with colder climates, Norway is a dream, because there is absolutely nothing like its mountain ranges anywhere else in Europe, and quite possibly the world. As a place for hiking and camping, Norway is, without a doubt, one of the top destinations in the world. As a place for culture, it's mediocre at best. If you love hiking in the mountains, you must go hiking in Norway at least once in your life. If you're more interested in cultural trips, considering how isolated and expensive it is, you could be justified in giving Norway a miss.