Kids may spend their weekdays mornings studying in school, but their evenings are devoted to Vinterpark Tryvann, Oslo's largest ski resort, where they work on perfecting their downhill runs. And in the outskirts of the capital city you'll find people cross-country skiing, ice-fishing, and yes, even picnicking, morning, noon and night.
After leaving Lillehammer I made my way up to Norefjell, another alpine ski resort approximately a 1.5-hour drive north of Oslo. It's home to the ski-in/ski-out Quality Spa & Resort where I booked a room, as well as one of Scandinavia's greatest vertical drops. The slopes were overrun with Danes on winter holiday, visiting their northern neighbor for both its proximity and elevated terrain.
Still, the declaration among locals that Norwegians are “born with skis on their feet” has little to do with downhill (or alpine) skiing, a sport that didn't really gain traction in the area until the 1970s. “Alpine skiing first became popular [with Norwegians] because of the great Swedish champion Ingemar Stenmark, whom they watched on television,” says Jean-Francois Gehin, former marketing manager at Hafjell, as we sit sipping coffee in the resort's cafe. “Then as Norway's standard of living increased—and with the building of ski facilities for the '94 Olympics—alpine skiing has gotten a real push.”
Today, says Gehin, about 15 percent of Norwegians engage in alpine skiing, while approximately 75 percent ski cross-country at least once per year. But despite the sport's mainstream infancy in Norway, the country's alpine skiers remain some of the world's best. Norway's alpine skiers won four medals at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, with the ski team's rock-star athlete Aksel Lund Svindal even beating out U.S. favorite Bode Miller for gold in the Men's Super-G.
Norefjell's beginner runs were ideal for my novice skills, and I spent much of the day on the bunny slope (they also call it this in Norway) just outside the resort, using pull lifts to carry me to the top of the hill and then slowly snow plowing down as toddlers whizzed past me, raising their arms in victory as they went. Maybe it was that I was sporting multiple layers or thinking about the promise of an evening shot of aquavit to warm my throat, but I hardly noticed the cold.
In fact, the energy required to partake in friluftsliv during frigid months leads to one of the season's added bonuses: Norway's nurturing, hearty cuisine. That afternoon as I sat enjoying a bowl of Jerusalem artichoke and potato soup at the resort's Swiss-chalet-style Norefjellhytta Restaurant, which overlooks stunning Lake Noresund, I found myself thinking: winter may indeed be the best time to visit southern Norway.
Still, it wasn't until arriving in Oslo that I sampled one of the country's finest food offerings: torsketunger, or fried cod's tongue, an oyster-like delicacy that's only available during skrei season—roughly January through March. Though actually a small muscle from inside the fish's throat, these “tongues” were larger than I expected and surprisingly pleasing, their crispy breaded exteriors contrasting well with the briny, gelatinous substance inside.
I spent my final few days in Norway exploring its capital city, dining on open-faced sandwiches and slurping up bowls of milky fiskesuppe, or fish soup; perusing exhibits inside the Nobel Peace Center and the National Gallery (home to one of the two painted versions of Edvard Munch's The Scream) and spending even more time outdoors. I walked among Gustav Vigeland's snow-draped human sculptures in Oslo's Vigelandsparken as locals glided by on skis; took a death-defying toboggan ride down Korketrekkeren, a corkscrewing and tenacious track riddled with moguls and serviced by public transport that will carry intrepid souls right back up to the top; and sat around a mid-afternoon campfire beneath snow flurries in the woods, drinking mulled wine, frying hot dogs on sticks, and feeling as content as I'd been if it were bright skies and 80 degrees.
There's no doubt that winters in southern Norway are cold, but with centuries of biting temperatures beneath their belts, Norwegians have figured out how to not only cope with the weather, but also how to embrace it. In fact, it's an art they seem to have perfected.