Carved by snow-topped mountains and serrated by Gulf Stream–warmed fjords, Norway has an abundance of magnificent views. No matter how or where you approach, if you fly above the clean ivory mountains of Tromsø in the winter, or tear by in a heart-stopping train north of Voss in the spring, getting there is often as eye-popping as arriving.
Just north of Lullehammer lives a Norwegian family on the banks of Mjøsa Lake. Every year they pack their bags and drive to their holiday retreat, where they bask in the warmth of the long, northern sun for four full weeks—then they pack up and drive the 300 ft back home again.
Although most Norwegians vacation a bit farther from home, their sentiments—attachment to, pride in, and reverence for their great outdoors—remain the same as the feelings of those who only journey across the street. Whether in the verdant dales of the interior, the brooding mountains of the north, or the carved fjords and archipelagoes of the coast, their ubiquitous hytter (cabins or cottages) dot even the most violent landscapes. It’s a question of perspective: to a Norwegian, it’s not a matter of whether to enjoy the land, but how to enjoy it at this very moment.
In any kind of weather, blasting or balmy, inordinate numbers are out of doors, to fish, bike, ski, hike, and, intentionally or not, strike the pose many foreigners regard as larger-than-life Norwegian: ruddy-faced, athletic, reindeer-sweatered. And all—from cherubic children to decorous senior citizens—are bundled up for just one more swoosh down the slopes, one more walk through the forest.
Although Norway is a modern, highly industrialized nation, vast areas of the country (up to 95%) remain forested or fallow, and Norwegians intend to keep them that way—in part by making it extremely difficult for foreigners, who may feel differently about the land, to purchase property.
Thanks to the Gulf Stream, the coastal regions enjoy a moderate, temperate climate in winter, keeping the country green, whereas the interior has a more typical northern climate. Of course, throughout the land, winter temperatures can dip far below zero, but that doesn’t thwart the activities of the Norwegians. As one North Caper put it, “We don’t have good weather or bad weather, only a lot of weather.”
Norwegians are justifiably proud of their native land and of their ability to survive the elements and foreign invasions. The first people to appear on the land were reindeer hunters and fisherfolk who were migrating north, following the path of the retreating ice. By the Bronze Age, settlements began to appear, and, as rock carvings show (and modern school children are proud to announce), the first Norwegians began to ski—purely as a form of locomotion—some 4,000 years ago.
The Viking Age has perhaps left the most indelible mark on the country. The Vikings’ travels and conquests took them to Iceland, England, Ireland (they founded Dublin in the 840s), and North America. Though they were famed as plunderers, their craftsmanship and fearlessness are revered by modern Norwegians, who place ancient Viking ships in museums, cast copies of thousand-year-old silver designs into jewelry, and adventure across the seas in sailboats to prove the abilities of their forefathers.
Harald I, better known as Harald the Fairhaired, swore he would not cut his hair until he united Norway, and in the 9th century he succeeded in doing both. But a millennium passed between that great era and Norwegian independence. Between the Middle Ages and 1905, Norway remained under the rule of either Denmark or Sweden, even after the constitution was written in 1814.
The 19th century saw the establishment of the Norwegian identity and a blossoming of culture. This romantic period produced some of the nation’s most famous individuals, among them composer Edvard Grieg, dramatist Henrik Ibsen, expressionist painter Edvard Munch, polar explorer Roald Amundsen, and explorer-humanitarian Fridtjof Nansen. Vestiges of nationalist lyricism spangle the buildings of the era with Viking dragonheads and scrollwork, all of which symbolize the rebirth of the Viking spirit.
Faithful to their democratic nature, Norwegians held a referendum to choose a king in 1905, when independence from Sweden became reality. Prince Carl of Denmark became King Haakon VII. His baby’s name was changed from Alexander to Olav, and he, and later his son, presided over the kingdom for more than 85 years. When King Olav V died in January 1991, the normally reserved Norwegians stood in line for hours to write in the condolence book at the Royal Palace. Rather than simply sign their names, they wrote personal letters of devotion to the man they called the “people’s king.” Thousands set candles in the snow outside the palace, transforming the winter darkness into a cathedral of ice and flame.
Harald V, Olav’s son, is now king, with continuity assured by his own young-adult son, Crown Prince Haakon. Norwegians continue to salute the royal family with flag-waving and parades on May 17, Constitution Day, a spirited holiday of independence that transforms Oslo’s main boulevard, Karl Johans Gate, into a massive street party as people of all ages, many in national costume, make a beeline to the palace.
During both world wars, Norway tried to maintain neutrality. World War I brought not only casualties and a considerable loss to the country’s merchant fleet but also financial gain through the repurchase of major companies, sovereignty over Svalbard (the islands near the North Pole), and the reaffirmation of Norway’s prominence in international shipping. At the onset of World War II, Norway once again proclaimed neutrality and appeared more concerned with Allied mine-laying on the west coast than with national security. A country of mostly fisherfolk, lumber workers, and farmers, it was just beginning to realize its industrial potential when the Nazis invaded. Five years of German occupation and a burn-and-retreat strategy in the north finally left the nation ravaged. True to form, however, the people who had been evacuated returned to the embers of the north to rebuild their homes and villages.
In 1968 oil was discovered in the North Sea, and Norway was transformed from a fishing and shipping outpost to a highly developed industrial nation. Though still committed to a far-reaching social system, Norway developed in the next 20 years into a wealthy country, with a per capita income and standard of living among the world’s highest, as well as long life expectancy.