As soon as the train crossed the border into Norway I started to see graffiti daubed on man-made surfaces along the entire route to Oslo. And arriving at Oslo Sentralstasjon (central station) at around noon we had no trouble spotting individuals who seemed homeless or addicted to harmful substances. Quite in contrast to the clean, healthy image I had in mind when thinking of Norway.
The welcome was not improved by the automatic transport ticket machine in the tourist information bureau next to the train station, which made a real meal of purchasing 24-hour travel tickets and offered almost zero information in English about using the tickets. But the RFID pass seemed to work fine on the bus from the bus terminal and the driver confirmed that the bus went to the Kveldsroveien stop where we had to alight to reach our hostel. The bus had a video screen which showed the next five stops, so it was easy enough to work out when to get off.
Unfortunately, once you get off the bus at the Kveldsroveien stop, all you see is a Shell petrol station and a foot bridge over a busy motorway. No sign of a hostel anywhere. Like sheep we followed other people who were wearing backpacks, and after crossing the motorway on the foot bridge, then taking an unmarked path down a slope, then walking some more, we did find our accommodation: the HI Oslo Holtekilen Hostel. With linen hire the cost of a twin room was 345kr (£38.38) per person per night, which includes a buffet breakfast in the hostel's canteen. The room had en-suite bathroom, but little else.
Travelling back into town (some sort of problem with the card reader on the bus) we wandered up to Det kongelige slott (the Royal Palace) which reminds me of Buckingham Palace but without any fences or barriers. We stood with a crowd right beside Hans Majestet Kongens Garde (His Majesty The King's Guard) during the changing of the guard, then wandered through the small but pleasant Slottsparken (the Palace Park). A ten minute walk south-west along Karl Johans Gate brings you to Stortingsbygningen (the Parliament of Norway Building), a distinctive building with a surprisingly relaxed atmosphere for a place which houses a country's government.
Using the 24-hour travel pass we took a five minute boat ride to the tiny island of Hovedøya. As soon as the boat landed at Hovedøya it unleashed two-dozen people onto the island, but they all seemed to know where they were going, while the pair of us just wandered along the sign-posted path until we found the remains of the Cistercian monastery Hovedøya Abbey, and further beyond that a line of military cannons pointing out into the water. My friend took a paddle in the water gently lapping at the stony shore of the island, and then tried to work out how to dry his legs in the chill wind without a towel.
Back in the heart of Oslo is Frognerparken which is home to Vigelandsanlegget (Vigeland Sculpture Park). Entering via large, wrought-iron gates, the first sculpture you see is of Gustav Vigeland, the man who designed the more-than-two-hundred sculptures which fill the park. Laid out in sections along the park's 850m length, the park draws visitors along a bridge lined with sculptures; around a bronze fountain surrounded by trees of life and death; up steps to Monolitten (the Monolith), a writhing mass of humans carved from a single granite block; and finally on to the Wheel of Life, representing the journey from cradle to grave. Vigelandsanlegget is free to enter and easy to wander and enjoy, despite the huge number of other tourists leading and following you.
Another short boat ride away is Bygdøy where you'll find Vikingskipshuset (the Viking Ship Museum). For an entrance fee of 60kr (£6.67) per adult you can see the remains of three Viking ships, two of which are intact, preserved by the geology of the ground in which they were buried. The treasures found on the ships are also on display at the back of the museum, including Viking sledges, horse carts, treasure chests, textiles and jewellery.
Food and drink are expensive in Norway. My standard fare of margherita pizza plus Coke/Pepsi cost 137kr (£15.24) at Luna Park on Badstugata, and would have cost 167kr (£18.58) at Olivia on Hegdehaugsveien if I hadn't skipped the drink and opted for just the 125kr (£13.90) pizza on its own. The cheapest cola I found in bars was 28kr (£3.11) for 350ml of Coca-Cola at Bar Robinet on Mariboes gate; the worst-value cola I found was at 3 Brødre on Øvre Slottsgate where I paid 38kr (£4.23) for 200ml of Pepsi in a glass that could not be more full of ice. My companion was regularly paying around 69kr (£7.68) for 400ml of beer. You drink slow and eat only as necessary, and it still costs a fortune.
On our return to the hostel on the last night we found out what was wrong with the 24-hour travel pass. Two stops before Kveldsroveien the driver started yelling up the bus. Eventually we realised he was trying to tell us that Lysaker Stasjon was the limit of the 24-hour pass and that we had to either get off or pay a full fare to go any further. So, seeing as the remaining distance was all motorway which did not seem well served by footpaths, we had to pay 30kr (£3.34) each to finish the last two minutes of the bus journey. The public transport ticket machines in Oslo really need to be made clearer. A map showing the limits of the 24-hour pass would be a start.
Oslo has some nice things to see, but I didn't find myself becoming endeared to the city. It didn't help that the central station is besieged by down-and-outs, the public transport system was a mystery, the youth hostel we chose was bland and falls outside the bounds of the travel pass, and you have to call a financial adviser before choosing to eat or drink. On the plus side, the city is rich with museums and art, and you can spend some time exploring the serene local islands.
[Prices from May 2011.]