By David Cecil
Ethiopian Airlines recently announced that they are opening up a new flight path, direct from Addis to Oslo. An official press release in November stated that there will be as many as five flights per week from May. Since Ethiopian already flies direct to Sweden, this move shows that demand for direct access to the African continent from one of Europe’s most powerful economies is growing.
Norwegians are relatively wealthy and are very keen international travellers. The strength of the Norwegian krone makes travel to other countries attractive to them, as well as making them especially welcome guests. Since English is widely taught and spoken in Norway, there is not even a need for tourism industry professionals in East Africa to learn the language. But what about traffic the other way? What delights does Norway hold for Africans?
Many African travellers to Scandinavia will undoubtedly be going for work or a family reunion. But as affluence rises on the continent, Oslo may be seriously considered by well-off east Africans as an alternative to the well-trodden tourist destinations of London, Paris or Rome. Meanwhile, canny African businessmen would do well to look to the Norwegians as possible business partners. In the sectors of energy, IT and food, to name but a few, Norway has a long and healthy relationship with Africa. This writer is particularly interested in culture and travelled recently from Entebbe to Oslo to meet with some music industry professionals.
More direct flight paths would certainly be welcome as this was a long journey, clocking in at around 14 hours, including a stopover in Kenya. The first shock was the weather: it was just above zero degrees Celsius and I was told that this was a warm winter! The temperature dropped another few degrees in the night. However, as an Afghan taxi driver once told me: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.” So, tightly-wrapped in a jumper, jacket and fine leather shoes, I headed out from the airport.
Norway is a very smoothly-functioning country. The train station was immediately accessible from the cozily-heated airport and I had no trouble getting a ticket or finding the right platform, with friendly staff on hand to help. I boarded a commuter train to the delightful suburban town of Eidsvoll, where the Norwegian constitution was written in 1814. After a good sleep at my host’s house, we headed into Oslo itself. Over the next few days, we were treated to a series of delicious meals and trips to some of the celebrated sites and hangouts of this beautiful city.
The architecture of the city is a striking combination of old and new, with ornate eighteenth century grandeur sitting alongside ancient wooden houses and glassy minimalist modernism. Some of the most pleasant moments we had in Oslo were spent simply walking the streets and drinking in the history of the place, as revealed by its buildings. A praiseworthy feature of town-planning: the municipality have let street artists decorate the more functional and otherwise boring facades with colourful and creative murals, some expressing social messages and others simply expressive.
Bar life in Oslo is very active, with most venues boasting stunning interior design and staff trained in cocktail ‘mixology’. Norway has a strong brewing culture, with many bars having their own unique brands of beer. Watch out though – drinking in town can be ruinously expensive, with beers costing between $7-12 a bottle! At least this is one way to achieve moderation…
We went to see a famous Norwegian band, the Frank Znort Quartet, performing at their resident Club, called Blå (pronounced ‘Blawer’). The venue was packed with dancing merrymakers and the mood was very lively. The huge 17-piece band played a crowd-pleasing mix of calypso and rock & roll. The author noted with the pleasure the large number of African faces in the crowd, mixing happily with the native Norwegians. And it turned out that one of the singers from the band was a sixty-year-old Ugandan expat!
The food in Oslo restaurants is superb, if sometimes costly. Had I been paying the bills, I’d have certainly not eaten so well. Most notable was Bass Oslo, a small diner with big ideas. The menu offered a selection of what Kenyans call ‘bitings’ – small plates that each offered an exquisite and original experience. The chefs were expert at combining salt with sweet, fruit with meat, raw and cooked, all tasting perfect, as if these bizarre combinations were naturally intended to be. The most outstanding was a salt-preserved fish in a stingingly sour cold sauce of lemon and herbs, and special mention should go to the twists of crunchy fried pig skin. Oslo is a coastal capital, with fishing being one of its most important and lucrative industries. Fish is therefore in abundance and in some places very affordable, including sushi (raw fish), which is normally way out of this author’s price range. Another tactic I employed was to buy slabs of herby, cured salmon (called gravadlax) and take it into a neighbouring bar to munch with my beer. The fast food is not bad at all, with many vendors offering kebabs and pizza at pocket-friendly prices. And if anyone is missing East Africa, there are several good Ethiopian restaurants serving genuine njeera.
Finally, a word on the countryside. Many tourists visit Norway solely to see its incredible, wild landscapes. We took a long walk in a national park, through dense pine forest, with a clifftop which had some of the best views I have ever seen in Europe. My host told me that Norway has a law that entitles its citizens free and easy access to wilderness – expanses of untamed, unfarmed countryside – which is an enlightened piece of legislation if ever I heard one. We rested in the national park in a charming, open log cabin, which anyone could stay in and which was simply furnished with benches, a fireplace and basic kitchen utensils. These log cabins are apparently an important feature of this wilderness culture, allowing nature-lovers to come and sleep in the forest, without having to carry all their kitchen equipment with them.
All in all, this was one of the most pleasant trips I have ever had to a European country. The prices are steep and the winter weather is harsh, but with friendly hosts and a good jacket, this is a country that has much to offer in terms of food, drink, art, music and some of the most beautiful countryside I have ever seen. Well done to Ethiopian Airlines for making it easier for us to travel there!