I'm a bit obsessed with Vikings at the moment.
It's a time and a people that I've always been fascinated with, but my imagination has been rekindled recently by the television series Vikings starring Travis Fimmel - lots of bearded men, running around, killing each other, and violently raiding England. Great entertainment.
This week I was in Oslo, the capital of Norway, and it was a bit surreal to visit the Viking Ship Museum and stand within touching distance of actual Viking ships (dating from around 900AD) that had been excavated from the nearby fjords.
As well as three virtually intact ships from the Viking age, the museum's collection includes around 1.5 million artifacts that continue to inform research into this important period of history - helping us understand the lives of the Viking peoples, the farmers, the traders, and warriors.
The Nordic countries are justifiably proud of their Viking history - it was a period of time (c790AD-c1070AD) when the people from this part of the world explored, conquered, and governed key parts of the known world at that time.
The Viking age may have ended, but on my first visit to Norway I was still impressed by this country and its people.
Generally translated as 'field of the gods', Oslo is one of the oldest Nordic capitals. This is a city that seems to be very sure of its purpose, confident in its place in the world. Resource-rich, the Norwegian economy continues to grow strongly and, as well as investing in the infrastructure of the country, they are building iconic buildings in Oslo and buying assets around the world.
An important cultural barometer for any city is how seriously they take their coffee. It sounds trivial, but it tells you whether they have leisure time, whether they have moved beyond 'food is fuel', whether they value conversation, discussion and debate, as well as a bit of quiet reflection.
The coffee in Oslo is good - really good.
Stockfleth's is a local outfit that has a few outlets in Oslo. I liked the story in the centre of town on Lille Grensen - young baristas who know their stuff and are serving up quality coffee.
Out in the residential area of Grünerløkka you can find the store of Tim Wendelboe. Wendelboe won the world barista championships a few years ago and clearly sets the standard for coffee in Oslo. Wendelboe's small shop is mainly dedicated to the roasting of beans, but you can get take-away coffee or perch at one of the few seats on offer. I ordered a cortado - the coffee is made with a seriousness and precision that gives you great confidence that these people know what they're doing and are committed to serving up a quality product.
My favorite cafe in Oslo was Fuglen - just around the corner from the National Gallery (where you can check out an excellent exhibition of the work of Norwegian painter Edvard Munch). Fuglen has cool, friendly baristas, plenty of seating, excellent free wifi, and they are dishing up top-drawer, no-nonsense, coffee.
This is a city with its eye firmly on the future. This is a people confident that they know how to do things well.
I get the sense that the Norwegian Vikings wouldn't think twice about reconquering the world. With their penchant for beards and obsession with coffee, I for one would not be complaining.
Planning your trip:
- Visit Oslo
- Visit Norway
- The Oslo Pass gives you free public transport and access to most museums. Adult price: 24 hours: 270 NOK (£29), 48 hours: 395 NOK (£42), 72 hours: 495 NOK (£53).
- I flew from London Gatwick to Oslo on Norwegian airlines.
- I'm a bit in love with Norwegian airways - from their straightforward check-in system (perfect if you're only traveling with hand-luggage), efficient service, and (perhaps best of all) their free in-flight wifi.
- There's a really good express train from the airport into the centre of town. Cost is NOK170 (GBP£18; EUR€21; USD28) - has wifi and power outlets.
- I stayed at the Thon Panorama hotel - smart, modern, and in the centre of town. Double rooms from 964 NOK (£103)