It might seem strange for someone who is half-Norwegian to decide on Scandinavian studies at university. But having lived in the UK my whole life, I wanted a better understanding of Scandinavia, its language, and its culture. In four years, I learned plenty of useful skills, such as the ability to read fuþark runes and point out the Norwegian influences in Disney’s Frozen. All in all, time well spent.
But I always ummed and ahed when friends asked if they should pop over on a weekend break. As much as I love the country, I felt guilty about recommending it as a holiday destination. Norway is famously expensive.
Recently though, my attitude has started to change. For those used to London prices, the Norwegian capital isn’t that extortionate. Yes, eating out and alcohol aren’t cheap, but if you’re prepared for that, then a holiday here is well worth the short trip over the North Sea.
The two things that tend to attract visitors are the scenery and the Northern Lights. For many tourists the easiest (and the most famous) way to explore the fjords is with Hurtigruten, a Norwegian cruise company which has been ferrying passengers up and down the coast since 1893. The ships are used as passenger and freight vehicles as well as for cruising, and there are multiple options, from a fortnight’s round trip to shorter fjord trips and Northern Lights cruises.
Strangely enough, in 2011 NRK (the Norwegian version of the BBC) managed to break the Guinness world record for the world’s longest live television documentary with a 134-hour long broadcast of a Hurtigruten trip from Bergen in the southwest to Kirkenes in the north. Norway is now something of a ‘slow television’ pioneer, with programmes including an eight-hour broadcast of a burning fire. The first attempt by NRK at slow TV, however, was a live broadcast of the seven-hour train journey from Bergen to Oslo. As well as making for good TV, the trip is also a fantastic way to see the country.
It might sound obvious, but if you want to see the Northern Lights (or midnight sun), then it helps to go as far north as possible. Svalbard, the Norwegian island group within the Arctic Circle, is really the furthest north that you can go. Formerly a whaling and fishing station, the islands are now a base for mining, scientific research, tourism — and polar bears. If that sounds too cold and remote, then the spectacularly beautiful Lofoten Islands will serve you just as well, and offer far more dramatic scenery than Svalbard.
But Norway has even more to offer. My family are from the eastern part of the country, not far from the border with Sweden. This is potato country, where farming and forestry are the economic mainstays. But apart from potatoes, there are also mountains — and mountains mean skiing.
The outdoor lifestyle is very important here. There’s even a word to describe the ‘Scandinavian philosophy of outdoor life’: friluftsliv. Combine it with the Norwegian climate and it comes as no surprise that some of the world’s best cross-country skiers are Norwegian. Bjørn Dæhlie, one of the best in history, is practically a god here. In fact, if you look at the Olympic medals table for cross-country skiing, Norway has a 107 medals. (The next closest country is Finland, on 76, followed by Sweden, on 74.)
The more I think about it, the more I wonder whether failing to recommend Norway to my friends was simply a way of trying to keep the country a secret. If that was the case, my secret is well and truly out.