Norway—or the Kingdom of Norway as it is officially known—is a constitutional monarchy in Scandinavia with a population of about 5 million. With an area of nearly 150,000 square miles, it is the second least densely populated country in Europe. It shares a long border with Sweden; it is also adjacent to Finland and Russia and is separated from Denmark only by the Skagerrak Strait. Norway’s Western coast is one of its very best features—made much longer by its numerous scenic fjords. The country’s name means “northward route” or “northern way.”
Human settlement in the area began after the last Ice Age ended, some 10,000 years ago; stone tools have been found dating back to 9500–6000 B.C. Dwelling sites and petroglyphs testify to a way of life centered around hunting (deer, reindeer, elk, bears, birds, seals, whales) and fishing (salmon, halibut). Bronze Age settlers brought farming and kept cows and sheep; new shipbuilding techniques were developing as well. During the first four centuries A.D. there was contact with Roman-occupied Gaul, which brought new tools, new building techniques, new words and a knowledge of writing with runes. In the 5th century the Germanic tribes defeated the Romans and settled in the area for the next 400 years, developing a sort of federation of clans or tribes. In approximately 872 Harald Fairhair united all the tribes and became Norway’s first king. This ushered in the Viking Age of expansion and emigration. New ideas were brought back and slowly the ancient Norse traditions were replaced by Christian ones. Around the year 1000 A.D. the first Christian church was built in Norway.
During the succeeding centuries Norway allied itself with other Scandinavian countries, including Sweden and Denmark. The first such alliance came in the 14th century. Norway had suffered a terrible plague in 1349; the Black Death killed 50% to 60% of the population, which had only been about 500,000 to begin with. With no one left to work them, many farms lay fallow. Between 1397 and 1523 was the time of the Kalmar Union, a series of alliances between monarchs of Norway, Denmark and Sweden (which at the time included Finland). This Nordic union was a little like an early European Union—advantageous in some ways and not as much in others. There were economic benefits but the allies did not always agree with one another’s policies. In 1520, after Christian II of Denmark had reconquered Sweden, an incident known as the Stockholm Bloodbath took place. In 1521 the Swedes ousted the Danes once again. In 1536 the Danes declared Norway a Danish province—without having consulted the Norwegians—but the Kalmar Union was at an end. During the 19th century an alliance formed between Sweden and Norway but this was dissolved peacefully in 1905.
During World War I Norway remained technically neutral but they provided assistance under the British flag. It tried to remain neutral in World War II but was invaded by German forces in a surprise attack in 1940. Some Norwegians sided with the Nazis but most joined the Allied forces—the Merchant Marine were a particularly important part of the team—and there was an active resistance movement during the Nazi occupation.
Today Norway has a king, Harald V, as well as a prime minister and a parliament. About 625,000 people, or one-eighth of the total population, live in the capital city, Oslo. With substantial oil and gas reserves, the country’s economy is extremely healthy. With seven universities and a number of public and private colleges, Norway’s educational levels are outstanding. Social services are comprehensive and unemployment levels are very low. The country is a member of the United Nations, NATO, the European Union, the Council of Europe and the Nordic Council. Cultural contributions are numerous, particularly in the areas of literature, visual and performing arts and music, and Norway has been at the forefront on human rights issues. Many citizens are members of the Church of Norway, which is Lutheran.
Visitors to Norway enjoy visiting the capital, Oslo, the Olympic sites at Oslo (1952) and Lillehammer (1994), the charming university town of Bergen, formerly a fishing village; and of course the incredibly scenic area in and around the country’s fjords. In Oslo, the Viking Ship Museum is highly recommended, as is the adjacent Kon-Tiki Museum. The harbor area features the amazing new Oslo Opera House. There is an excellent museum devoted to the life and works of the artist Edvard Munch, whose best-known paintings are a series known as The Scream but whose works actually display an astonishing range. Cuisine is hearty, based on meat and fish. Like most Scandinavians, Norwegians love coffee. There are also excellent beers and liqueurs, including Aquavit.