In a tamed and heavily populated continent, Norway remains a wilderness outpost. Everything here is on the grand scale, with some of Europe's finest and wildest land- and seascapes. From the Skagerrak - the choppy channel that separates the country from Denmark - Norway stretches north in a long, narrow band along the Atlantic seaboard, up across the Arctic Circle to the Barents Sea and the Russian border. Behind this rough and rocky coast are great mountain ranges, harsh upland plateaux, plunging river valleys, rippling glaciers, deep forests and, most famously, the mighty fjords which gash deep inland.
The fjords are the apple of the tourist industry's eye, and they are indeed magnificent, but except for the lively capital, Oslo, and perhaps historic Bergen, the rest of the country might as well be blank for all that many visitors know. Few seem aware of the sheer variety of the landscape or the lovely little towns that are sprinkled over it. Neither are the Norwegians given nearly enough credit for their careful construction of one of the most civilized, educated and tolerant societies in the world - one whose even-handed internationalism has set standards that few other European nations can approach. With every justification, the bulk of the population have a deep loyalty for - and pride in - their country, partly at least because independence was so long in coming: after the heady days of the Vikings, Norway was governed by the Danes for four centuries and was then passed to the Swedes, who only left in 1905.
It is the Vikings who continue to grab the historical headlines, prompting book after book and film upon film. These formidable warriors burst upon an unsuspecting Europe from the remoteness of Scandinavia in the ninth century. The Norwegian Vikings sailed west, raiding every seaboard from the Shetlands to Sicily, even venturing as far as Greenland and Newfoundland. Wherever they settled, the speed of their assimilation into the indigenous population was extraordinary - William the Conqueror, the archetypal Norman baron, was only a few generations removed from his Viking ancestors - and in the unpopulated Faroes and Iceland, the settlers could begin from scratch, creating societies which then developed in a similar fashion to that of their original homeland.
Norway's so-called "period of greatness" came to an abrupt end: in 1349, an English ship unwittingly brought the Black Death to the country, and in the next two years somewhere between half and two-thirds of the population was wiped out. The enfeebled country was easy meat for the Danes, who took control at the end of the fourteenth century and remained in command until 1814. As colonial powers go, the Danes were comparatively benign, but everything specifically "Norwegian" - from language to dress - became associated with the primitive and uncouth. To redress this state of affairs, Norway's bourgeois nationalists of the mid- and late nineteenth century sought to rediscover - and sometimes to reinvent - a national identity. This ambitious enterprise, enthusiastically undertaken, fuelled a cultural renaissance which formed the backdrop to the work of acclaimed painters, writers and musicians, most notably Munch, Ibsen and Grieg, and the endeavours of explorers like Amundsen and Nansen. Its reverberations can be felt to this day, for example in Norway's "No" vote on EU membership....Continua