I travelled to Mumbai and got lost. I landed in Lagos and got confused. I was in São Paolo and couldn't believe it. And one day, I went to Oslo, where the sun was shining, the air was cold but crisp, and most of the women were blond. After all those mammoth cities, I felt I had discovered something new.
Oslo isn't very far from the centre of Europe, but it remains off the beaten path. Everything is small and neat. People look relaxed and fresh, as if they have just stepped out of a sauna. Maybe the combination of the sea breeze and the polar sun gives them all a rosy tan and shiny cheeks. Or maybe it's because everybody seems to be cycling, sailing or skiing in their spare time.
Oslo is a large city, spread over 450 square kilometres and embedded in endless woodlands at the edge of a fjord. Yet, because it only counts 600,000 people within its city limits, it's never crowded, traffic is moderate, and the attitude is refreshingly laid-back.
Nor is it in the news very often. Most people, even Europeans, don't know too much about it. Of course, as the capital of one of the world's richest countries, the living standard is amazingly high, as are the prices. The climate can be pleasant in summer with temperatures of 20 degrees Celsius, and cool and snowy in winter, averaging minus 7 degrees in January and February. Not too cold for this latitude, because Oslo benefits from the warming Gulf Stream.
However, I got to learn some peculiarities of Oslo very quickly upon arrival. An essential thing one should know beforehand is that hiring a taxi in Oslo is a very expensive endeavour. The airport taxi driver, a tight-lipped man called Bernd, charged a whopping 92 euros (Dh487) for the 50-kilometre ride — in certain other countries you'd get a stretch limo with free beverages for this fare. Bernd told me airport taxis operate at a fixed discount rate and a metered taxi would have cost twice as much.
But downtown Oslo, with its home-away-from-home feeling, was an immediate consolation. The city was clean, quiet, relaxed, almost magical. I sat down at a street café and ordered a cup of the super-strong and delicious Thor house coffee blend, a locally roasted mix of five different beans.
Sitting there on the Karl Johans Gate boulevard, Oslo's fanciest, it suddenly occurred to me why I had this magic feeling and why people in this place prefer strong coffee. It was 10pm on a mild August evening and the evening sun was shining directly on my face. In summer, the sunlight lasts for up to 18 hours, the waitress told me. In winter, on the other hand, the day has only six hours, and the rest is darkness. Overseas visitors, mainly Japanese, have a hard time tackling jet lag in these conditions, she said.
I recalled the disturbing movie Insomnia, where Al Pacino is wandering around as a sleep-deprived detective in Alaska, kept from sleeping by the merciless arctic midnight sun. I went to my four-star Radisson Blu hotel (170 euros a night), closed the curtains and drifted off.
The next morning I woke early, not surprised to see the sun was already half way up the sky. So what to do on a great day in Oslo?
I decided to stroll down to the world-famous Vigeland Park, named after Gustav Vigeland. One of the best known Norwegian artists, he was a sculptor with exceptional ability, but obviously full of despair. Biographers say he suffered from a paranoid personality disorder, in short, he is considered to have been mad. The park is his masterpiece and features some 200 sculptures that together are a sort of artist's spiritual dream, with love, fear, death, melancholia, and anxiety all manifest in life-size bronze and granite statues and reliefs.
Is there something hidden in the Norwegian soul that is impenetrable to a stranger? I later stood in front of the famous painting byEdward Munch, The Scream, in the Munch Museum wondering why dark symbolism fellon such a fertile ground in this country's art.
However, everyone seems to like Norwegians. They are tall, open-minded, friendly and helpful, not very formal and not very religious. Some describe them as emotionless, but you may get that impression all over northern Europe, perhaps because of the climate or the Viking heritage.
Oslo, nevertheless, has its fair share of entertainment spots, restaurants and a growing bar culture, a lot of music venues ranging from world-class opera in the stunning Oslo Opera House or Operahuset, opened in 2008, to popular music, rock and jazz. If you go out, be warned that a humble beverage will set you back around eight euros for a domestic brand.
For sports enthusiasts, maybe go skiing. At the amazing Holmenkollen ski jump on Oslo's outskirts, you can learn a lot about the history of skiing in the nearby museum. You can also climb up the ski jump and enjoy breathtaking views over the city and its surroundings.
A glimpse into Norwegian history and heritage can be had at the Viking Ship Museum, which is part of the Museum of Cultural History and houses several archaeological finds.
And the Nobel Peace Centre would also certainly be of interest, a showcase for the Nobel Peace Prize and the ideals it represents. The awards ceremony takes place every December.
But if you want to move to Oslo, don't hesitate since you are very welcome. The government wants Oslo to be seen as multicultural, and some 25 per cent of people living here already come from abroad. But don't forget, you require a well-paying job or deep pockets to maintain a certain level of lifestyle here.
Swiss International Air Lines offers special fares to Oslo from Dh2415. Fares are per person for return travel and include all taxes and surcharges and are valid for sale upto May 19. For travellers going later in the year, watch for launch deals from Qatar Airways, which is scheduled to begin direct flights to the Norwegian capital from October.
Until October 15, the Radisson Blu Park Hotel, Oslo has a special deal for golfers. The hotel offers overnight accommodation, breakfast, one green fee at Holtsmark Golf, designed by Robert Trent Jones II, and one token for the driving range for 698 kroner per person on a twin-sharing basis.
To commemorate five years of its ladies' floor, the Grand Hotel Oslo offers special weekend deals at 2,245 kroner for two persons per night, inclusive of breakfast, free entrance to the spa and 10 per cent discount on treatments. In-room amenities include L'Occitane well-being products.