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In many ways
is still a land of unknowns. Quiet for a thousand years since the Vikings stamped their mark on Europe, the country nowadays often seems more than just geographically distant. Beyond Oslo and the famous fjords the rest of the country might as well be blank for all many visitors know - and, in a manner of speaking, large parts of it are. Vast stretches in the north and east are sparsely populated, and it is possible to travel for hours without seeing a soul.
Despite this isolation, Norway has had a pervasive influence. Traditionally its inhabitants were explorers, from the Vikings to more recent figures like Amundsen, Nansen and Heyerdahl, while Norse language and traditions are common to many other isolated fishing communities, not least northwest Scotland and the Shetlands. At home, too, the Norwegian people have striven to escape the charge of national provincialism, touting the disproportionate number of acclaimed artists, writers and musicians (most notably Munch, Ibsen and Grieg) who have made their mark on the wider European scene. It's also a pleasing discovery that the great outdoors - great though it is - harbours some lively historical towns.
, one of the world's most prettily sited capitals, the major cities of interest are medieval
, on the edge of the fjords, and hilly, northern
. None is exactly super-charged, but they are likeable, walkable cities, worth time for themselves as well as being on top of startlingly handsome countryside. The perennial draw is the
- every bit as scenically stunning as they're cracked up to be. Dip into the region from Bergen or Andalsnes, both accessible direct by train from Oslo, or take more time and appreciate the subtleties of the innumerable waterside towns and villages. Further north, the stunning Lofoten Islands are worth a trip for their calm atmosphere and sheer beauty. To the north of here, Norway grows increasingly barren, and the tourist trail focuses on the long journey to the North Cape, or
- the northernmost accessible point of mainland Europe. The route leads through the province of
, a vast, eerily bleak wilderness where the Arctic tundra rolls as far as the eye can see, and one of the last strongholds of the Sami and their herds of reindeer, which you'll see right across the region.
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