• A piano recital aboard the world's largest electric ferry served as a prelude to the previous staging of a biennial arts festival near Oslo that is back in 2023
  • We paired our visit with a journey to nearby Fredrikstad, northern Europe's best preserved fortress town and one of five hosts of the 2023 Tall Ships Race

Looking back from this side of the Covid-19 pandemic, my visit to Norway for the opening of the 11th Momentum arts festival was a surreal experience.

It was August 2021, and many borders around the world were still closed; flights within Europe could be taken only with a vaccine passport.

Norway was one of the few countries to have ditched its mask mandate and very few people on the streets still wore one. To arrive and be suddenly surrounded by maskless people was discombobulating.

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The strangeness was only heightened by the first act of the festival, which took place on the 4.20pm ferry from the small town of Moss to the equally small town of Horten, across the Oslofjord.

On the upper rear deck of the 140-metre-long Bastø Electric, the world's largest all-electric-powered ferry, octogenarian avant-garde pianist Charlemagne Palestine played an instrument valued at Euro200,000 (US$215,000) that had been winched aboard especially for the occasion.

The performance was split into two 25-minute parts to fit the outbound and return sailings.

Each passage began with the bearded New York legend swaying at the keys, his grey ponytail flowing from beneath two hats and the piano festooned with colourful strips of cloth and a menagerie of soft toys - his "divinities", as Palestine calls them.

His playing was accompanied by the wind whistling across the decks of the otherwise almost silent ferry.

The performance was mesmerising for those who had taken the sailing to hear Palestine play, but no doubt baffling for those passengers who were using Norway's busiest ferry connection as part of a regular journey and had stumbled on the spectacle.

The biennial Momentum festival takes place for the most part at Galleri 15, housed in a grand 1860s trader's house on Jeloya, an island to the east of Moss created by a canal dug in the 19th century.

In 2021, the work that greeted visitors was a video performance by Pia Arke, the artist crawling naked over, and slowly ripping up, a print of a Greenland landscape.

But the more appealing exhibits - especially for those who like to take their art with a good walk in a natural setting - were to be found outside, in the expansive, fjord-side grounds, three large wooden pavilions having been erected in the garden and clearings in the woods.

The most visible of these was the Cylinder Pavilion, in the middle of the lawn.

The space, with a small stage and unique acoustics, was taken over by a series of community groups and artists to present pop-up displays - even a political rally for the upcoming parliamentary elections - in adherence to the theme of the festival: House of Commons.

Apart from the festival, the rural attractions of Jeloya and the town's former industrial area, which has been turned into a restaurant, bar and leisure district, Moss, a 40-minute fjord-hugging train ride south from Oslo, has little for the visiting tourist. That is something that cannot be said for Fredrikstad, 25 minutes farther by train and deeper into Viken county.

Fredrikstad was built to repel the Swedes; Norway's border with Sweden is just 20km (12 miles) to the south.

The fortress town - the best preserved in northern Europe - was established in 1567, when Norway was in a union with Denmark. Danish king Frederick II gave his permission for its construction but only if it was named after him.

Fortifications were built and improved upon in the following centuries, but the only time the fortress came under attack was during the Swedish-Norwegian war of 1814.

This is an episode the staff at Fredrikstad's tourist information office would rather not dwell on, perhaps because the Norwegian forces capitulated.

A short walk from Fredrikstad's railway station and a ferry ride across the Glomma river is Gamlebyen, the old town.

Within the half-star-shaped fortress walls, still bristling with ancient cannon, Gamlebyen is thronged on Saturdays by visitors perusing its flea market and the many antique and knick-knack stores that line the cobbled streets.

Fredrick II takes pride of place - his statue standing almost at the centre of the grid of streets, close to the numerologically blessed old infantry barracks.

Built between 1773 and 1777, they comprise 52 rooms, each one representing one week in the calendar year; there are 12 chimneys, one for each month, 365 windows, one for each day, and 24 panes of glass in each window, representing the hours in a day. Count them if you can!

In summer 2023, Fredrikstad will join the unlikely quartet of Hartlepool and Lerwick (in the United Kingdom), Den Helder (the Netherlands) and Arendal (also in Norway) in hosting the Tall Ships Races.

At least 40 elegant sailing ships (including the Indonesian Navy training vessel Bima Suci) will tie up along the town's river banks between July 15 and 18, adding to the feeling that Fredrikstad exists centuries back in time. A busy schedule of complementary events is planned.

The summer is short in Norway, so a lot must be packed into a few months. Not long after the tall ships have set sail, the MAnefestivalen (The Moon Festival; on the last weekend of July), will bring a variety of Scandinavian rock music to the Gamlebyen.

Back in Moss, this year's Momentum Festival - curated by the Tenthaus Art Collective (among whose number are three Taiwanese expats who live in Oslo) - will "explore what intuitively comes out of gathering people, places and times" under the theme Together as to Gather. It begins on June 10 and runs until October 8.

The writer was hosted by the Momentum Festival

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

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