In the Footsteps of Henrik Ibsen

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Heard of Henrik Ibsen? The famous Norwegian dramatist of plays like The Wild Duck, Peer Gynt and A Doll’s House?

Well, listen up…

Ibsen spent his last 11 years and wrote his two last plays in Oslo.

The apartment is now restored to its original splendor with authentic interior and Ibsen’s furniture. The museum’s visitor center features an exhibit on Ibsen’s life and writing.

So if you’re in Oslo, we HIGHLY recommend a visit to these must-see Oslo attractions:

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1. Visit the Ibsen museum on Henrik Ibsensgate 26, Take bus or tram to Slottsparken, or enjoy a 5 min. walk from the National Theatre.

2. Watch Peer Gynt with new music by the Estonian composer Jüri Reinvere in the Norwegian Ballet and Opera House. Nine productions in the period November 29 to January 17. Performed in Norwegian with English subtitles.
Pop into the fine dining opera restaurant, Argent, for understated elegance and refinement.

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3. Walking in the footsteps of Henrik Ibsen
Ibsen had his regular morning trips in the period 1895 to 1906 from his residence in Arbinsgate 1 to the Grand Café!
He was one of the biggest tourist attractions in Christiania, the name of Oslo at that time. Precise twelve o’clock he climbed up the steep stairs that led into his regular café where he was expecting his daily snaps and tankard of beer. What did he see on his way?

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The starting point
Henrik Ibsen lived with his wife Suzannah in Arbinsgate 1. They moved into the apartment on the corner of Arbinsgate and Drammensveien (now Henrik Ibsens gate) autumn 1895, shortly after the apartment building was completed. The fashionable building had a total of four floors plus attic floor and basement floor.

When Ibsen left the city to live in Italy in 1864, Drammensveien was a rural area where the city’s distinguished citizens had their loops. Gradually a suburb emerged on what used to be looped and open spaces.

On the right side Ibsen had now a view to their previous residence in Victoria terrace – then the largest and finest tenement complex in Christiania.

From Victoria Terrace Ibsen tilted towards the University Square and the main street Karl Johans gate. He was then in the city’s most distinctive waterfront district, and it was all about to see and being seen. These days there were only persons belonging to the city’s bourgeoisie and the upper social strata that were seen in this area.

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The street in front of the University

This stretch of Karl Johansgate could be an ordeal to pass during spring and autumn. There were only a pavement of stone, gravel and crushed stone and nothing to limit the noise of hooves and carriage-wheels. It’s hard to imagine Henrik Ibsen, impeccably dressed, with walking stick and top hat, coming wading in the mud ocean on a rainy day.

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Ibsen was a punctual man. Every day he stopped by the clock that still hangs in the window of the university building. He fished up his own watch from his pocket to make sure it showed on time and to check that he was on track. The clock in the window of the principal’s meeting-room is the reason the building is nicknamed ‘Urbygningen’. (Ur is watch in Norwegian, hence the Watch-building).

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After passing the University, Ibsen came to Karl Johans gate 45. This was a building owned by state surveyor Christian H. Grosch. The stately corner tower with a spire made the building clearly visible in the street scene.

Maybe sometimes Ibsen met the author Bjornstjerne Bjornson in this area. Westend Hotel, which was Bjornson’s regular haunt during his visits to the capital, was located in this building.

In Karl Johansgate 43, you will find the Tanum bookstore just as in 1900 (a little modernized though). Johan Grundt Tanum took over the venue from Aschehougs bookstore that year, and has been there ever since.

We can envision that Ibsen slowed slightly as he passed the display windows of the store to see if there were any fresh releases in the windows. If he found something interesting, maybe he stopped for a moment, before continuing his journey on the way to the Grand Café.

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Karl Johansgate was (and is) the city’s parade street, and here were fashionable and magnificent buildings in a row. But the very finest was number 37; cavalry captain Thorvald Meyer’s residence, built after a fire in 1867. At number 33 Oluf Lorentzen had recently opened his grocery store (today bars and eateries have replaced the store).

After passing the Lorentzen shop with a wide selection of groceries, Ibsen stood at the foot of the stairs that led him to his regular café.

Reaching his goal
Why did Ibsen choose just Grand Café as his regular cafe? Was he ever tempted to surprise someone by paying one of the other of the city’s cafes a morning visit? The city had a wide variety of them. Engebret cafe was known as the city’s artists’ café and was also one of the venues for the Chistiania Bohemia. It was found in the Christiania Theater on the Bank Place. It is still a very popular restaurant.

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A little further up the Karl Johans gate, at no. 25, we find the Tostrup Building which also had a café at that time and until quite recently. But as far as we know, Grand was the only target of Ibsen’s walks. Of all the city’s cafes this was the most famous.

Here frequented painters, musicians, actors, writers and journalists. This was the haunt of personalities who liked to challenge the city’s conservative regime. The large windows in the cafe made the visitors clearly visible from the street. This was the place to see and be seen.

Guests who frequented here wanted to be a part of the city’s public. The regularity of Ibsen’s café visits built up an expectation that he would show up. Tourists visited the Grand solely to get a glimpse of the great writer.

So give the three attractions a try!

Text and photos: Tor Kjolberg