An ideal day-trip from the capital, it’s an hour-long, ninety-kilometre train journey south from Oslo to FREDRIKSTAD, a modest little town of around 70,000 people that fills out a thumb of land just across the river from a superbly preserved seventeenth-century fortress, now known as the Gamlebyen (Old Town).
Danish kings ruled Norway from 1387 to 1814 and, with rare exceptions, the country’s interests were systematically neglected in favour of Copenhagen. A major consequence was Norway’s involvement in the bitter rivalry between the Swedish and Danish monarchies, which prompted a seemingly endless and particularly pointless sequence of wars lasting from the early sixteenth century until 1720. The eastern approaches to Oslo (then Christiania), along the Oslofjord, were especially vulnerable to attack from Sweden, and to thwart the Swedes the Danish king Frederik II had a fortified town built here at the mouth of the River Glomma in 1567, modestly naming it after himself. In the event, Frederik II’s fort only lasted three years before it was burnt to the ground, though it didn’t take long for a replacement to be constructed – and for the whole process to be repeated again. Finally, in the middle of the seventeenth century, Fredrikstad’s fortifications were considerably strengthened: the central gridiron of cobbled streets was encircled on three sides by zigzag bastions, which allowed the defenders to fire across and into any attacking force. In turn, these bastions were protected by a moat, concentric earthen banks and outlying redoubts. Armed with 130 cannon, Fredrikstad was by 1685 the strongest fortress in all of Norway – and it long remained in military use, which partly accounts for its excellent state of preservation. The fort was also unaffected by the development of modern Fredrikstad, which grew up as a result of the timber industry: the new town was built on the west bank of the Glomma while the old fort is on the east. Fredrikstad’s other claim to fame is as the place where the last woman to be executed in Norway met her untimely end: the year was 1876 and the woman was a certain Sophie Johannesdatter, who had poisoned her husband.