The sixty mile passage upstream to Norway’s capital of Oslo is a fantastic procession. You glide past fussing little steamboats and rolling, patchwork meadows studded with grass roofed houses, many of them proudly flying the Norwegian flag. There are cows grazing nonchalantly by the water’s edge, and streams that resemble the strands of a spider’s web as they thread through deep, lush valleys down to the still, silent fjord below.
It is almost chocolate box pretty; a fable set in stone, water and sky. And, at the end of the journey, most ships tie up beneath the brooding, gothic ramparts of what looks like a vast, fairy tale castle straight out of the pages of Sleeping Beauty.
Akershus is Oslo’s equivalent to the Tower of London, and in certain light it is every bit as gaunt, awe inspiring, and forbidding. A vast expanse of grim grey battlements, it is festooned with towers sporting red tiled roofs. It looms above the entrance to the old town like some petrified, old stone guard dog. Huge and forbidding, it has cast a long shadow across the sparkling waters of the fjord since it was first built in the late thirteenth century.
The whole reason for its construction was to protect the city of Oslo from attack, primarily from neighbouring Sweden. In those days, Norway and Sweden were often at war, and the city of Oslo was the strategic lynch pin to the whole of Norway. And, to capture Oslo, you first had to nullify it’s grim gatekeeper, Akershus.
It was besieged several times between 1308 and 1716; but no one ever actually succeeded in conquering the fortress. In the seventeenth century, Akershus was remodelled extensively, giving it the scale, scope and stance of a gigantic renaissance castle. The attached Royal Mausoleum is also the burial site of several of Norway’s former kings and queens.
Akershus surrendered to the Germans without a fight on April 9th, 1940, after their sudden, stunning invasion of Norway. The occupying power behaved with unyielding brutality; during the war, several members of the Norwegian Resistance were shot by German firing squads in the courtyard of the fortress. The exact spot is marked today by a silent, hugely poignant memorial.
The Norwegians neither forgave, nor forgot.
On May 11th, 1945, the Germans surrendered Akershus to members of the Norwegian Resistance. After his trial, Vidkun Quisling, the former Nazi collaborator in chief, and several of his associates, were brought back to Akershus, and shot on the same spot as the executed resistance members.
A museum within the fortress walls commemorates the war years. Opened in 1970, it makes for sombre, compelling viewing.
Today, Akershus is still a military base. The fortress is also the focal point for state occasions, and a central point for entertaining any visiting foreign dignitaries. As well as the Resistance Museum, Akershus also houses the museum of the Norwegian armed forces.
Today, the old stone walls and ramparts of Akershus offer scintillating summertime views of the breathtakingly beautiful fjord that it commands so completely. But, while life and the world all around it has evolved with each new decade, Akershus itself remains like something frozen in time. A tangible link down through the centuries that is worth a few hours of anybody’s time.
Akershus is open to visitors until 21.00 daily.