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.
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.