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The hunt for Norway’s perfect Christmas tree

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Powered<span id= by Guardian.co.uk” width=”140″ height=”45″ />This article titled “The hunt for Norway’s perfect Christmas tree” was written by Christian House, for The Observer on Sunday 11th December 2016 07.00 UTC

High above me, veiled in a freezing mist, a woodsman is climbing up
a colossal spruce in the name of Anglo-Norwegian relations. I’m in the depths of Oslomarka, a network of coniferous forests on the edge of Oslo where, every year since 1947, a tree has been felled, to be shipped to London and presented as the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree. There it will stand, decorated in traditional Norwegian style, until 6 January. The “Queen of the Forest” (as locals call it) is given in gratitude for Britain’s assistance during the second world war. This year’s chosen one is 27 metres tall, weighs some 4 tonnes and is 95 years old. Oslo is surrounded by natural beauty; edged with woodland and a fjord, it is often described as “the blue, the green and the city in between.” It feels truly wild, populated with moose, lynx, roe deer and even the odd wolf. “Two wolves live out here now,” says Oslo mayor, Marianne Borgen. “They are not hunted, they are welcome.”

Locals love the proximity of the countryside. “In the winter, you can take your skis, get on the tram and be on the slopes in 20 minutes – and be back easily for city life in the evening,” says Borgen, as we warm ourselves with cups of Norwegian coffee. “You can walk around for hours without meeting anyone.”

Or try out a range of winter activities – hiking the many trails, mountain biking, ice skating, fishing, picnicking and, of course, skiing and tobogganing the timeworn runs. If you don’t want to head straight back to Oslo, you can stay in municipal sports cabins, very reasonably priced, and scattered throughout the woods.

Norwegian spruce Christmas tree lit up in Trafalgar Square.
Light fantastic … the Norwegian spruce all lit up in Trafalgar Square. Photograph: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

More than 80% of Oslo inhabitants visit the forest, says head forester Jon Christiansen. “My father used the forest, my grandfather, my great grandfather.” Christiansen’s team scours the area, talent-spotting trees for London: the chosen few are then groomed like X Factor hopefuls to encourage a strong and symmetrical growth. “We mark it and we tend them through the years,” he explains. “The most important thing is to clear the space around so it gets light from all angles.”

Standing on a snow-fringed track, we are surrounded by trees and ice. A half-frozen lake cracks and creaks, cubist rock forms jut out of the earth, and in every direction legions of pines dissolve into the white haze.

A 20-minute trip back into the city, and I’m sheltering from the rain in the National Gallery. I find familiar compositions of mossy boulders and sopping wet firs in the pen and watercolour works of 19th-century romantics Johan Christian Dahl and August Cappelen. The forest was also a muse to Edvard Munch, who created etchings and paintings of vampires creeping about in its shadows.

Holmenkollen Park Hotel, Norway
Dragon style … the remarkable Holmenkollen Park Hotel. Photograph: Getty Images

From the city the T-bane train takes me north. It’s like getting from the Strand to the Cairngorms in 10 tube stops. I arrive at the Holmenkollen Park Hotel, north-west of Oslo and the unofficial gatehouse to the forest. Built in 1894 as a sanitarium, this fairytale mansion typifies Dragestil – dragon style – which blends medieval stave church architecture and Viking woodcraft. The hotel’s planed-log interiors and pointed tower will soon feature in the film of Jo Nesbo’s The Snowman.

The following morning, the sky is cobalt blue and the air is sharp. Emboldened on a breakfast of rye toast and brunost – sweet brown cheese – I brave it to the top of the Holmenkollen ski jump. Looming dramatically behind the hotel, its launch platform is 200ft above the ground and delivers a knee-trembling panorama, from the crystal waters of the fjord to the rolling green woodland. Up in the Norse gods the view is humbling, almost spiritual.

Beneath the jump is the Ski Museum, which provides a good introduction to Norway’s national sport. There are skis made in 600AD, examples of trugers (snow shoes for ponies) that look like giant bagels, and a wind-force machine that can simulate the effect of a downhill slalom. And the museum’s stuffed elk is a masterpiece of taxidermy.

Frognerseteren in the snow
Forest retreat … Frognerseteren Photograph: Nancy Bundt/Visitnorway.com

Leaving Holmenkollen, I set off on a two-mile ramble towards Frognerseteren, once a mountain dairy farm and now a popular restaurant. This is where the forest really takes over. Decent walking boots and thick socks are essential. The few hikers I encounter are sporting some serious kit. An ice-runner darts past with a fleeting “Hei-hei” as I continue on, tentatively, up the hill. The constant tinkle of streams is the only other sound.

During the winter, walkers need to keep an eye on the time, as dusk sets in about 4pm. For Christiansen’s foresters, the challenge is to manage this terrain in a way that pleases the public. Visitors want a scar-free and diverse landscape, with trees of “all ages and all sizes at the same spot”, rather than the uniform vistas created by commercial forests.

Arriving at Frognerseteren, I look back over the treetops to Oslo’s outlying homes. There is constant pressure from property developers to impinge on these woods but
Mayor Borgen is determined it won’t happen. “We don’t want to build,” she says, simply. “We want to secure this for the people.”

Essentials

Norwegian flies from London to Oslo from £59 return (norwegian.com). Rooms at the Scandic Holmenkollen Park Hotel start at £89 per night (holmenkollenparkhotel.no). The National Gallery is open Tuesday to Sunday, entry £9, and the Holmenkollen Ski Jump and Ski Museum is open daily, joint entry £12 (visitoslo.com)

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