Quiet for a thousand years since the marauding days of the Vikings, Norway often seems remote to outsiders, even mysterious – remarkable given its geographical position close to the heart of Europe. Beyond Oslo and the famous fjords, the rest of the country might as well be blank on the map for many visitors. Yet it’s out of the cities and off the major roadways that you’ll experience Norway at its most magical: vast stretches of serene, postcard-perfect landscapes where it is at times possible to travel for hours without seeing a single soul. There is nothing tame – and precious little tamed – in this wilderness where everything is on a grand scale, from the deep, blue-black fjords and rearing snowy peaks to jagged forested hills and seemingly limitless expanse of Arctic tundra.
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Norway stretches north in a long, slender band from the Skagerrak, the choppy channel that separates the country from Denmark, its coastline battered and buffeted by the Atlantic as it juts up towards the Arctic Sea. Behind this rough and rocky coast are spectacular mountain ranges, harsh upland plateaux, plunging river valleys, rippling glaciers, deep forests and mighty fjords of unsurmounted beauty – an exhilarating landscape begging to be explored by car, boat or bike, on skis or even husky-drawn sled. Perhaps inevitably, the fjords are the apple of the tourist industry’s eye – with the infrastructure to prove it – though when well-heeled English and German gentlemen travellers arrived here in the late nineteenth century on the hunt for the Scandinavian exotic, Norwegians were so poor that you could hire a gillie or two for next to nothing. It is this stark contrast – between a severely impoverished past and an astoundingly wealthy present – that, for locals at least, remains a salient characteristic of life up here. Since the country happened upon vast oil and gas reserves under the Norwegian Sea in the 1960s, Norway has managed to assemble one of the most civilized, educated and tolerant societies in the world – one that its population maintains a deep loyalty for and pride in.
Norway may have a clutch of attractive, cosmopolitan cities, appealing destinations in their own right, but where the country really shines is not in its urban culture, but rather in the low-key, amiable small-town feel that pervades throughout its settlements. This is not to say that Norway suffers from provincialism – Munch, Ibsen, Grieg and Amundsen, to name but four, were all Norwegians of international importance, to say nothing of the many millions of Norwegian descent today successfully making their way somewhere off in the greater world. But one thing is for certain: every Norwegian you will ever meet will at some point make their way back to this remarkable country, put on a pair of old hiking shoes and head off on foot for yonder mountain, reminding themselves how lucky they are to have one of the world’s most ravishing landscapes right at their back door.
Though for the most part its people live in small towns and villages, Norway’s five largest cities are the obvious – and the most popular – initial targets for a visit. They begin with urbane, vivacious Oslo, one of the world’s most prettily sited capitals, with a flourishing café scene and a clutch of outstanding museums. Beyond Oslo, in roughly descending order of interest, are Trondheim, with its superb cathedral and charming, antique centre; the beguiling port of Bergen, gateway to the western fjords; gritty, bustling Stavanger in the southwest; and northern Tromsø. All are likeable, walkable cities worthy of time in themselves, as well as being within comfortable reach of some startlingly handsome scenery. Indeed, each can serve as a starting point for further explorations or as a weekend destination in their own right. And wherever you arrive, the trains, buses and ferries of Norway’s finely tuned public transport system will take you almost anywhere you want to go, although services are curtailed in winter.
Outside of the cities, the perennial draw remains the western fjords – a must, and every bit as scenically stunning as the publicity suggests. Dip into the region from Bergen or Ålesund, both accessible by public transport from Oslo, or take more time to appreciate the subtle charms of the tiny, fjordside villages, among which Balestrand, Lofthus, Loen, Flåm, Ulvik and Mundal are especially appealing. This is great hiking country too, with a network of cairned trails and lodges (maintained by the nationwide hiking association DNT) threading along the valleys and over the hills. However, many of the country’s finest hikes are to be had further inland, within the confines of a trio of marvellous national parks: the Hardangervidda, a vast mountain plateau of lunar-like appearance; the Rondane, with its bulging mountains; and the Jotunheimen, famous for its jagged peaks. Nudging the Skagerrak, the south coast is different again. The climate is more hospitable, the landscape gentler and the coast is sprinkled with hundreds of little islands. Every summer, holidaying Norwegians sail down here to explore every nautical nook and cranny, popping into a string of pretty, pint-sized ports, the most inviting being Arendal and Mandal, the latter the proud possessor of the country’s finest sandy beach.
Hiking remains the most popular summer pastime in Norway, but there are alternatives galore, from whitewater rafting – for example at Voss – sea-kayaking at Flåm, and guided glacier walks on the Jostedalsbreen. In winter, it’s all change when the Norwegians take to cross-country skiing in their droves, shooting off across the Hardangervidda mountain plateau, for example, from Finse, though some prefer Alpine skiing and snowboarding at specialist ski resorts like Geilo and Oslo’s Holmenkollen.
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Away to the north, beyond Trondheim, Norway grows increasingly wild and austere – two traits that make it perfect for off-the-beaten-track adventurers – as it humps and lumps across the Arctic Circle on the way to the modern, workaday port of Bodø. From here, ferries shuttle over to the rugged Lofoten islands, which hold some of the most ravishing scenery in the whole of Europe – tiny fishing villages of ochre- and red-painted houses tucked in between the swell of the deep blue sea and the severest of grey-green mountains. Back on the mainland, it’s a long haul north from Bodø to the iron-ore town of Narvik, and on to Tromsø, a delightful little city huddled on an island and with plenty of Arctic charm. These towns are, however, merely the froth of a vast wilderness that extends up to Nordkapp (North Cape), one of the northernmost points of mainland Europe, and the spot where the principal tourist trail peters out. Yet Norway continues east for several hundred kilometres, round to remote Kirkenes near the Russian border, while inland stretches an immense and hostile upland plateau, the Finnmarksvidda, one of the last haunts of the Sámi reindeer-herders. And finally, a short flight away, there is the wondrous chill of Svalbard, rising remote in the Arctic seas, islands of rolling glaciers and ice-glazed mountains where the snowmobile or Zodiac is more useful than a car.