A Winter's Tale: Lillehammer

So slow in Oslo, but New Year arrived with a bang

Spontaneity is not always a good thing. Spontaneity was the reason we were sitting in a terribly quiet bar in Lillehammer, Norway, at 20 to midnight on New Year's Eve, wondering where the party had gone.

It had seemed like such a good idea at first; instead of the typical "what are you doing tonight, then?", last-minute option-weighing of a typical New Year's Eve at home, we'd decided on snow and Scandinavia, a place fabled for its drinking and parties that last all night. We'd booked flights at the last minute, on a budget and a whim, some time between buying Christmas presents and wrapping them. And so, our company of three decidedly unwise travellers arrived in Norway on the dark, dying afternoon before New Year's Eve, with no hotel booked, no guidebook, and only the vaguest idea of what we were seeking: snow, Scandinavian small-town charm, and perhaps a party.

None of which, having taken the airport train to the centre of Oslo through bleak and decidedly unsnowy farmland, and walked past desolate shuttered shops, appeared to be on the agenda. Our exuberant plan to forgo advance planning in favour of a more spontaneous experience was further dampened on discovering that Oslo's tourist-information office was closed, and would remain so until after we left. After an abortive attempt to interpret the phone book, we discovered with relief that the train station stocked a couple of flimsy tourist leaflets; admittedly, most of the information was in Norwegian, but still, it was something.

After a night in a supposedly "young and lively" place that wasn't, and a pricey New Year's Eve breakfast of strong coffee, cold fish and onions, we plodded back through the now almost-deserted streets to the station, our spirits matching the grey skies, and did some option-weighing of our own.

It did not take long. Oslo wasn't making the grade. Lillehammer was the only other place-name that we recognised, thanks to its hosting the 1994 Winter Olympics. Though only two hours to the north, we reasoned that it must be in the mountains, and therefore was likely to have snow. At least one wish would be fulfilled.

The trains were on a holiday schedule, so, by the time we pulled into our new destination, it was dark yet again. But there was snow on the ground, on the trees, on the roofs, on the mountains above town.

The houses were wooden and properly quaint. Christmas lights twinkled at every corner. Church spires pointed up into an inky black, starry sky. All was not lost. It was still so quiet, though; tramping through the snow down Storgata, Lillehammer's pretty pedestrian street, our only companions were trolls, Norway's Christmas decoration of choice. Heading off along residential roads to an inexpensive ski hotel recommended in our leaflets, we finally discovered where the locals were hiding. We could see them all sitting round their dining tables, portraits of family bliss framed by candlelit windows. The Norwegians appeared too staid, too sedate, too sensible to fit in with our fantasy Nordic New Year's knees-up.

Perhaps they'll head for the pub later, we thought. But no. After checking in to our wooden bunkroom, admiring the sauna and throwing a few snowballs, at 20 minutes to midnight, in an intimate little bar on the town square, we still had our choice of tables. So we drank and chatted, and, in that peaceful and cosy place, slowly convinced ourselves that a quiet New Year's Eve was no bad thing – until, at midnight exactly, the explosions started. Outside, the town's entire population had suddenly converged on the square, the gentle diners of just a couple of hours ago replaced by fiery descendants of a nation once famed for its pillaging skills. This was no organised fireworks display, it was each Norwegian for himself. Lit rockets were flung skywards by brawny arms, Catherine wheels spun randomly through the air, bangers banged from floor to wall to sky; it contradicted everything learnt as a child about personal safety and responsibility towards others.

As a rocket whizzed past my ear, trailing red stars before exploding just a foot behind me, I could hear only the roar of unbridled high spirits. On New Year's Day, before we boarded the plane back to hungover London, these same Norwegians would introduce us to high-speed toboggan racing – convincing us further how misleading those first impressions of sedateness had been. Somehow, we had found a kind of Valhalla.

Birkebeineren Hotel: 00 47 61 26 47 00; www.birkebeineren.no.Lillehammer tourist information: 00 47 61 25 02 99; www.lillehammerturist.no

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