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Beyond Oslo - Norway's other Historic Towns: A Nutter in Norway on the Looney Front - Part 6

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I never thought we'd even get to Oslo. We're already in the huge snaking queue at JFK waiting to check in when Rivka suddenly gasps 'Oh my God, I left my passport in the taxi!' Talk about life on the wild side. This is holiday Armageddon.

Well, to give a shaggy dog a short back and sides, she recovers it after numerous phone calls just in time to make the flight. Once in Oslo we make straight for the National Gallery, Room 19, to admire Munch's Scream, that portrait of the ovaloid face, mouth agape, hands clapped on both ears, in the most agonised representation of terror and panic imaginable - the true MRI of my soul at JFK.

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MRI of my soul at JFK

Japanese tourists are swarming it for selfies and poses, and we leave for a quick hop-on hop-off bus tour of the 1,000-year-old city - Royal Palace, National Theatre, parliament, and the new Opera House which is meant to represent a floating glacier - well, to each his vision.

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Royal palace

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New opera house

Then there are the Vigeland scultpures, mid-20th century dumpy bronze nudes by Gustav Vigeland lording it in a park in all sorts of poses and exercises, including a maiden frozen in absolute frenzy (or ecstasy), tearing at her bronze tresses.

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The mediaeval harbourside Akershus Castle was first fortified in the late 13th century while the sturdy brick-towered green-steepled cathedral dates from the 1690s.

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But I know Oslo so we move on to greener pastures.

Bergen

Nearly 300 miles across the mountains on the deeply indented coast, Norway's second largest city nestles amid seven hills and seven fjords.

National capital before Oslo, Bergen was a major member of the Hanseatic League that joined it in trade with German cities, as evidenced by the Bryggen (wharf) quarter of restored gabled wooden buildings that for 400 years housed German traders - now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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If you approach from the sea, the green spires of ancient churches poke evocatively above the red roofs of the delightful cobble-stoned old town.

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In the very heart of the old town the small 12th century cathedral with its squat tower and triple-tiered green spire barely lords it over the winding lanes.

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Slightly further afield the twin towers of St. Mary's Church, Bergen's oldest building dating from the 1130s, raises its gaunt twin-towered facade on a hill, more imposing, yet less picturesque.

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The harbour entrance is guarded by Bergenhus fortress, one of Norway's oldest, with the keep and Haakon's Hall dating from the mid-13th century, though the roof of the latter was blown off in a munitions ship explosion in 1944. The Rosenkrantz Tower was built in the mid-16th century by the eponymous then governor.

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You can top all this by taking the Fløibanen funicular on its 26-degree-gradient, 1,000-foot ascent to the top of Mt. Fløyen for a superb panoramic overview.

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Trondheim

Older than either Oslo or Bergen, Trondheim has a magnificent gothic-romanesque cathedral, the world's northernmost, and Scandinavia's largest mediaeval building, dating from the mid-12th century.

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Its tall green spire dominates the old town and its huge facade swarms with multiple statues of Biblical figures, Christian saints, and Norwegian kings and bishops, though these are early 20th century additions, copies of mediaeval originals, following the cathedral's repeated gutting by fire through the centuries.

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Within, the altar reposes over the original tomb of St. Olaf - King Olaf II who deposed Thor, Odin and their pantheon of Nordic gods by introducing Christianity in the early 11th century and became Norway's patron saint. He was killed at the battle of Stiklestad on July 29, 1030.

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Olaf's body disappeared from its eternal resting place sometime in the 16th century and nobody knows where it now is. But a few years ago St. Olaf's Catholic Church in Oslo reported that a relic leg bone in its possession was that of the dearly departed saint. Apart from appropriate carbon dating, the limb is unusually large and the king's nickname was Olaf Digerbein - Olaf Huge Legs.

Norway's third largest city and its first capital, 250 miles north of Oslo, the town sits at the confluence of the Nid River and Trondheim fjord, hence its earlier name of Nidaros, Mouth of the Nid River, the cathedral's name too.

There's also a large music museum founded in the last century at Ringve Farm by a rich industrialist's widow who had no children, so she mothered musical instruments instead. The pastoral views therefrom are splendid.

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Stavanger

On its own network of fjords 120 miles south of Bergen, Norway's fourth largest city once thrived on herring fishing, until the herrings ran out. Now it's the country's oil capital thanks to the oleaginous North Sea, providing servicing for off-shore rigs.

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Its green steepled cathedral tops a hillock, with the harbour on one side and a pretty park with a swan-filled lake on the other. Dating from 1125, the approximate date of Stavanger's founding, it's said to be the oldest mediaeval cathedral in Norway still in its original form.

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On the harbour's western side, the picturesque old town rises on a slope with late 18th century white wooden houses lining its narrow cobble-stoned lanes.

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The harbour itself, with wall-to-wall terraced bars and restaurants, is a pleasant rest stop.

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Except, that is, when it's virtually blotted out by huge multi-storeyed cruise ships.

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Kristiansand

At the country's southern tip, Norway's fifth largest city prides itself as 'Norway's No. 1 Holiday Resort' with accommodation prices to match.

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This sends me running to the Budget Hotel of which Lonely Planet declaims: 'We wouldn't normally recommend a place nestled in a car park between an overpass and the train station, and even less one that from the outside resembles a bunch of cargo containers on top of one another, but Kristiansand's pricey accommodation scene makes this good budget value...'

Now I know cargo containers, cargo containers are friends of mine and these are no cargo containers. They're more like windowed garden sheds piled two high. After handing over $123 for two nights, I'm handed sheets, pillow case and towel and told to go upstairs and make my own bed. But I'm informed that I don't have to unmake the bed on departure. The room does have a shower and loo.

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The town is pleasant, with an early 19th century quarter of white wooden houses that survived a massive fire in 1892, fine for a peaceful, evocative walk-about.

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There's also a late 19th century cathedral with a tall green spire, and a round little fort built in the mid-17th century for protection against pirates and other naughty Scandinavians.

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The people here, as everywhere in Norway, are of all colours thanks to the country's up-to-now commendably noble attitude towards refugees and migrants. Hail a taxi in the larger towns and you might think you're back in New York - Indian drivers dominate here too.

There are also many Asian restaurants. Even as we speak, I'm enjoying a Burmese meal.

[Upcoming blog next Sunday: Of ships and tombs and Denmark's Viking heritage]

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By the same author: Bussing The Amazon: On The Road With The Accidental Journalist, available with free excerpts on Kindle and in print version on Amazon.

Swimming With Fidel: The Toils Of An Accidental Journalist, available on Kindle, with free excerpts here, and in print version on Amazon in the U.S here.