The Old Border Stones

I recently moved from downtown Oslo out to Nydalen, which involved a lot of driving back-and-forth along Geitmyrsveien in the St. Hanshaugen area. After several long red lights the intersection of Geitmyrsveien and Ring 2, I noticed a small stone wedged at the bottom of a light pole, with something carved on the face. Finally I stopped and walked over to take a look at the thing.


The front side of the stone The back side


It turns out that this is an old border stone demarcating the 1878 boundary between Christiania and Aker herred (read more about herreds here). Aker herred was basically the area surrounding Christiania, and its boundaries correspond with the modern borders of Oslo, stretching from the Lysaker River in the west to Groruddalen in the east, and from the northern reaches of Nordmarka down to the southern edge of Nordstrand. Aker herred was traditionally the farmland for the city, providing food and supplies for the urban residents and, most importantly, the garrison at Akershus Fortress. The massive expansion of the city in the 1800s meant more land had been taken away from the herred for Christiania, and over the 19th century more and more of the farms and løkke, or pastures, became developed urban areas (which is why so many areas of the city have “løkke” in their name).

To get a sense of the city’s expansion, take a look at two maps: First, this map depicts the city’s limited size in 1830, while this 1860 map (split into two images on the city archive’s website) shows the massive growth that had occurred over just 30 years, especially to the north. As this tide of outward expansion continued, it was decided in 1878 to set up a series of markers clearly indicating where the city stopped and the herred began. 81 stones were placed on the border, with a “K” on one side for Christiania (which was sometimes spelled “Kristiania”) and an “A” on the other for Aker herred. The stones were numbered as well – the one I came across, as you can see, is #70.

Some of these stones can still be seen today, often in their original location. There are a few good guides for finding them, though they are all in Norwegian. First check out lokalhistoriewiki.no for their entry on the stones (this Norwegian-language website is an amazing resource in general for information about Oslo and Norwegian history, and in terms of public wiki sites it often surpasses the information available on the Norwegian Wikipedia). Second, go to this page for a detailed list of each of the 81 stones and their current status today.

In 1948 Aker herred was completely absorbed into Oslo, giving the city its present size and shape. The inconspicuous stones are now all firmly within the city, and are often slightly hidden, like the #70 stone above, in small corners where they’re easily overlooked. A walk along the old border, looking for the stones along the way, would make for a great day hike around the city, and I hope it’s something I can find time to do before the snow sets in…

The sun’s setting earlier every day…
With that in mind, be sure to enjoy the fall foliage and crisp days while they last, and have a good høstferie!

Out at Bogstad Farm

After a long summer of visiting friends and family abroad I’ve returned to Oslo just in time to enjoy some of the city’s remaining sunny summer days. This last Sunday I headed out to the northwest edge of Oslo, up to Bogstad Farm (in Norwegian, Bogstad gård).

Bogstad farm stretches across a large area on the north side of Bogstad lake (Bogstadvannet). The property boasts an impressive 18th-century country manor house, large barns and workshops, beautiful baroque and English-romantic gardens, and a pleasant shoreline where you can relax, fish, or feed the many ducks and geese.

Bogstad Lake

You gonna feed me?
The Bogstad area was originally under church control in the Middle Ages before being confiscated by the crown during the Reformation. It was sold in the 1600s to Morten Lauritzen, who was mayor of Christiania (Oslo) at the time, and has remained in private hands from then until Oslo kommune acquired the property in 1955.
The manor house and gardens we see today are primarily the work of Peder Anker. He was member of the influential Anker family who were the premier business and political clan of their day. Peder Anker served as the first Prime Minister of Norway following the constitutional assembly in May 1814 (which was coincidentally held at the home of Peder’s cousin, Carsten Anker). Much of their money was made in the timber industry, which was booming at the time, and Peder Anker put a fair amount of his earnings into creating a beautiful, stately retreat just outside Christiania.
The manor house at Bogstad Farm, built by Peder Anker in the late 18th century

The interior courtyard


A small display to the side of the courtyard shows some of the old wagons that were used at Bogstad
Bogstad is well-known for its gardens on the shore of the lake. The gardens were planned out it two phases. The earlier part is a classic baroque garden dating from the 17th century, while the other incorporates an English landscape style that was popular in the late 1700s and early 1800s. The gardens at Bogstad served as an inspiration for many parks throughout Norway. Extensive restoration over the past decade have returned the gardens to their original styles, and they remain a pleasant place to stroll and relax on a nice day.
Part of the gardens at Bogstad
It was an open farm day when I was there, which meant there were a number of kid-friendly activities going on. Bogstad is kept up as a working farm, and the kids were having fun exploring the various flowers and vegetables growing in the garden, as well as trying to feed the farm animals in their pens.

Both kids and adults had fun trying out the stilts, and a nearby carpentry craft table allowed everyone a chance to try their hand at building a birdhouse or toolbox
Cows relaxing (or just being bored?) in their pen.

Horse and wagon rides were available as well
Bogstad is a bit out of the way, lying as it does on the very western edge of Oslo, but it’s still easy enough to get to by car, bike, or public transportation (bus 41 from Røa subway station). There are events happening all year, so check out the Bogstad website for more information.

Eidsvoll: Under Construction

I had heard that plans were underway at the Eidsvoll Manor house to completely refurbish the place in preparation for the 200th anniversary of the Norwegian constitution. If you’re not familiar with the name Eidsvoll, here’s a quick bit of background – the Eidsvoll Manor house, located about 20 minutes north of Gardermoen airport, is where an assembly of leading Norwegians meet in the early months of 1814 and drafted the Norwegian constitution as part of Norway’s push for independence during the Napoleonic Wars. The constitution was signed in this building on May 17, 1814, and is the same constitution still in use today (with some later amendments, such as changing the second paragraph which originally decreed that Jews couldn’t live in Norway – yes, it really said that). It is actually the second oldest constitution in the world after the American constitution. The date of the constitution’s ratification became Norway’s day of national celebration – May 17th.

Since I was going to the airport to pick up a friend, I decided to leave a little early to take a side-trip by this historic house and see how things were going. And right now the refurbishing is certainly in full swing…

 Eidsvoll Manor is now one massive construction zone

 This is what the building normally looks like:

And here is what one of the front wings looks like today:

It’s interesting to see the building in this state. With the paneling removed, you can see the actual timbers underneath, and gain a sense of the building’s construction and the construction styles of the period. For the time being the manor itself is completely closed. While I understand the desire to keep the public out, so that work can proceed quickly, there is a lost opportunity here. The reconstruction and refurbishment efforts would make an incredibly interesting exhibition in their own right, since this work gives us a rare opportunity to literally “see under the skin” of the historic building. But alas, all that can be done now is visit the small museum off to the side, with the usual exhibits on 1814.
 The backside of Eidsvoll Manor

Both the main house and the side buildings are being worked on

As I mentioned, this is all being done to prepare the building for a flurry of festivities (and a likely upswing in visitors) in 2014. One of the staff at the museum told me the focus now is on authenticity. Past refurbishments did not try to retain the specific appearance of the house from 1814, instead using general “period” furniture and wallpaper. As a result, the look of the 1814 interior has been somewhat lost. The hope is that once the current work is done, the inside of the manor will appear as near as possible to how it looked in those heady days of 1814, when the fate of the country was literally being decided within its walls.

If you live in Oslo but haven’t been to Eidsvoll Manor, you really should go – just not right now. While the museum is interesting, the real point of visiting Eidsvoll is to see the rooms where the historic events of 1814 actually occurred, which of course can’t be done at this moment. The house should (hopefully) be open again for visitors in early 2014, if not sooner, and once it is be sure to make a point to visit. In the meantime, check out the house/museum website at www.eidsvoll1814.no (English version here) to learn more about the events surrounding the creation of the constitution. It is actually a very gripping story, and I’m surprised that there is no English-language book focusing on 1814 in Norway (if there is one and I’ve missed it, please let me know). Read up and share some history with your friends this May 17th!

Stockholm vs. Oslo – a comparison of contrasts

Over the holidays I had a chance to go to Stockholm for a few days. Last-minute trips are the only way I travel, but sadly the Oslo-Stockholm train was always booked weeks in advanced whenever I checked or way too pricey to even consider. Turns out, though, that few people take the train during romjul (the week between Christmas and New Years – yes, the Norwegians actually have a specific word for the week between Christmas and New Years), so I bought some tickets 8 hours before the train left, and off we went.

Stockholm is a nice town – not my favorite capital city in Europe, but definitely an enjoyable place to spend a few days. I had been anxious to see what this town was about since on more than one occasion a Norwegian had apologized for me for Oslo not being Stockholm. The conversations usually went something along the lines of:

Norwegian – “How do you like Oslo?”
Me – “Oh, I like it. It’s a nice city, and really beautiful with the water and nature so close”
Norwegian – “Yes, it is nice. It’s not Stockholm, though, sorry, but it isn’t bad”

So what does Stockholm have that Oslo doesn’t? First and foremost is the size – Stockholm is a BIG city – basically if you took every neighborhood in Oslo, made each of them into the size of all Inner Oslo, then mashed them all together, you get Stockholm. I felt like the country boy arriving in the big city from his local village after coming to Stockholm from Oslo.

The scale of building was much more impressive, too. This of course has to do with the very different history of the two places – Oslo was a sleepy provincial capital for much of it’s history, and even when they were building impressive structures, the Storting was consistently penny-pinching. The Royal Palace here in Oslo, for example, was originally going to be bigger with more ornamentation, but the Storting forced the architect, Hans Linstow, to scale down the designs. They even stopped funding the project for 10 years because of budget concerns, and the palace foundations just lay there for a decade. (considering some recent concerns over the cost to repair the National Theater, perhaps little has changed). None of this money-grubbing was going on in Stockholm – this was the capital of a imperial power in the 1600s and 1700s, and the government wanted everyone in town to know it. Many of the main buildings here – the palace, the riskdag (parliament), the national gallery – are massive in scale and dwarf their Oslo counterparts.   

And they had butter. Real butter. On store shelves. I wanted to take a photo, but that would have been a dead giveaway I was coming from Norway. 

I’m not pointing all this out to say one is better or worse. If anything, these differences simply highlight the two country’s contrasting histories and national characteristics (though, to Sweden’s credit, I do miss butter). My hometown in the U.S. of Portland, Oregon is actually in a similar situation with our larger neighbor – Seattle, up in Washington state. Seattle is the big city of the American northwest, while Portland, while is a decent-sized city in its own right, doesn’t reach the same hustling, bustling, “metropolis” level of Seattle. But that’s actually the reason why I like Portland a bit more than Seattle – that comfy, cozy feeling. Both Stockholm and Seattle are big, fun, and busy, but Portland and Oslo have that small-town feel which makes them both so easy to live in and enjoy.

Portland + Oslo = Small-town feel even in a (relatively) big city

So in that regard, going to Stockholm actually made me appreciate Oslo a bit more.

That was the positive. Now for the….well, not-so-positive. I found one major area where I will join the ranks of those saying “sorry, Oslo’s not Stockholm”. That area is historical preservation – Stockholm has done an excellent job of preserving the historical look and feel of it’s main areas. Oslo, on the other hand, is a mish-mash of architectural styles, and few areas have been preserved with any true historical feeling. 

For example, take our old town area – old Christiania (or Kvadraturen). Considering the size of the area, not a lot of the original buildings have been preserved (or restored in the original style), and those that do remain are not well kept-up. Instead of keeping the old-town look feel, both of the original 1600s town and the 1800s developments, the Kvadraturen is instead the place with empty streets, quiet offices, buildings with run-down paint jobs, and a place you don’t want to be at night unless you’re looking to pick up a “friend” for the evening. This is a shame, as the old town would be an ideal place for tourists and locals to gather. Just look at Christiania Torv, where the older look and feel is (somewhat) maintained – that is very popular in the summer. Go just a few blocks east, though, to the modern offices wedged between unkempt older buildings around areas like Bankplassen, and the Kvadraturen is often devoid of life.

 He’s often the only one around Bankplassen in the evenings

Now look at Gamlastan – Stockholm’s old town. The cobblestone-style streets have been preserved, the buildings are maintained in the traditional style, and there’s an attractive historical consistency to the area.

Note the lack of modern buildings in Gamlastan, part of what gives the area its appeal
In Oslo, on the other hand, we have our oldest standing building in old town surrounded by flat-looking office buildings.

Mid-17th century doesn’t fit in with late-20th century

Another example of excellent preservation is Gustav Adolfs Square on the Stockholm waterfront. Everywhere you look you can see the grandeur of imperial Stockholm. Most of the buildings are from the 1700s. The one newer addition, the Riksdag building dating from 1905, was built in the neo-baroque style to fit in with the other buildings.

 Gustav Adolfs Square, with its impressive (and still intact!) baroque buildings

Sadly this isn’t common in Oslo. There’s usually little effort for new buildings to “fit in” with the surrounding older structures (just think of Oslo S and the west hall vs. the east hall, as well as the design for the new station)

They don’t really go together, do they?
Even on a more “historical” square, like Stortorvet, there’s still a disconnect in the styles, with a blocky, unattractive grey building from 1971 on the west side. The buildings on that site before were of a similar style as the ones remaining on the south side towards Karl Johan street. This new building completely disrupts the general architectural atmosphere of the square. Why they old buildings were torn down instead of reused, I don’t know.

The 1971 building west side of Stortorvet – fortunately most people spend their time looking at the cathedral and have their backs turned to it

Stockholm does a much better job of preserving its older buildings and regulating the newer, larger constructions to their own area. Now, this isn’t a rallying cry against development – no city is stagnant. Development, however, should be carried out in partnership with preservation. In Oslo development and preservation seem to be constantly clashing foes, especially in the mid-20th century. There are some notable recent exceptions, such as the converted factories and mills around the Aker river, and hopefully this trend will continue.

So, to sum up – Stockholm trip, good fun. Stockholm is definitely the bigger city, but Oslo’s small character has its own special charm which I actually prefer to Stockholm’s busy streets. Oslo, however, doesn’t preserve its historical spaces as well. Hopefully in this one regard the Oslo city planners will take a lesson from Stockholm, because Oslo has a lot of interesting history – more so than most people who live here give it credit for – and it’s worth saving.