Background information for Norway, including geography, history and more.
Area: 385,155 square kilometres
Coastline: Norway's coastline stretches over 25,148 kilometres; without fjords and bays, the length would be only 2,532 kilometres
Largest lake: Mjøsa, 362 square kilometres
Longest river: Glomma, 600 kilometres
Highest peak: Galdhøpiggen 2,469 metres
Largest glacier (also mainland Europe's largest): Jostedalsbreen 487 square kilometres
Longest fjord: The Sognefjord 204 kilometres
Most famous waterfall: Vøringsfossen 182 metres
The Vikings have had a well-defined public image for centuries, and have even become a staple of comic book illustrations with colorful images of horned helmets, berserkers, longships, Valhalla, the one-eyed god Odin and men dying sword in hand or drinking out of skulls.
The Vikings were pirates who came to plunder and kill, and they spread terror along Europe's coasts. But their posthumous reputation is not entirely fair: They were not just ruthless warriors, but also skilled traders, administrators and craftsmen in metal and wood, producing beautiful jewellery and artefacts that survive to this day. They were also some of Europe's best storytellers and the Norse sagas continue to fascinate modern audiences.
In medieval Norway the basis for agriculture was poor. Vikings were experts in water transportation as their native fjords stretched for great distances into Norway's heartland. Their longships were narrow, light, wooden boats with a shallow-draft hull designed for speed and easy navigation in shallow waters. Light enough to be carried, the longship was also double-ended, allowing it to reverse direction without needing to turn around. This was a major advantage in a sea filled with concealed icebergs and sea ice. Longships had oars along almost the entire length of the boat, and later versions combined rowing power with sailing power. In good conditions, a longboat under sailing power could reach a speed of 15 knots.
This resulted in voyages of discovery, trade and opportunistic raiding of coastal cities, towns and settlements across Europe. The voyages began in the latter part of the eighth century and stretched from Greenland in the west to the Caspian Sea in the east. To begin with only a few made the voyages, but the fleets grew until there were hundreds of longships sailing to England, Scotland, France and Ireland.
How did such a small and scattered people conquer so much territory? Norwegian Vikings were courageous, cunning and had a fatalistic outlook which made them natural risk takers.
Viking raiding parties seem to have had an amazing ability to shrug off losses, whether in battle or in dangerous sea voyages. In 844 many Vikings were lost to King Ramiro in northern Spain. A few months later, another fleet took Córdoba, only to be chased off by Emir Abd al-Rahman II, with further heavy losses: 500 dead and 30 ships burned. They still came back a few years later to hit the Balearics and even northern Italy. According to the English Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, in 876 the Vikings lost as many as 4,000 men and 120 ships in a great storm off the south English coast. There was also much infighting between Danish and Norwegian Viking bands, especially in Ireland, where losses were extremely high in relation to the Viking population. Despite this, their appetite for conquest and exploration remained high.
Viking courage is probably also linked to their dark sense of humour, as expressed in the writing of their sagas. Being able to laugh in the face of death and danger somehow explains their resilience in battle and in pioneering sea voyages to far off lands. One of the distinguishing features of Old Norse poetry, legend and saga is a grim gallows humour. It is usually a bad sign when someone cracks a joke in a Viking saga, and the stories contain more jokes than you might think.
Cities and colonies
The Vikings founded a number of cities and colonies, including Dublin and Normandy. Dublin was held as a major settlement for more than three centuries. Between the years 879 and 920 they colonised Iceland, which in turn became the springboard for the colonisation of Greenland. The Vikings even reached North America, and remains of a Viking settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland have been carbon dated to around the year 1000.
By the 1100s the Vikings were weakened by domestic unrest. At the same time, many other European countries were becoming stronger and more difficult targets.
We date the end of the Viking Age from the fall of Harald Hardråde, when he unsuccessfully tried to conquer England in 1066.
The Sami people are sometimes referred to as Lapps, but prefer to be called Samis. Their culture has been developing in Northern Scandinavia since the arrival of the first people 11,000 years ago. The Sami were at one with nature, and lived in tents (lavvo) and turf huts whilst they followed the reindeer.
Reindeer herding is still central to Sami culture, even to this day, and crucial to the subsistence of the Sami, providing meat, fur and transportation. Reindeer sledding is popular in Finnmark in winter.
The first encounter with Sami culture for most travellers, however, often takes place by the roadside. Sami selling souvenirs, including colourful local costumes, shoes and hats, reindeer skins, wooden and leather handicrafts and the likes, are not an unusual sight in Northern Norway.
Karasjok - the Sami capital
Experience the culture and history of the Sami people at Sápmi Culture Park. A great place to hear the Sami joik, eat Sami food, meet Sami people, purchase Sami souvenirs, visit Sami dwellings and get acquainted with the Sami’s best friend - the ubiquitous reindeer. Sápmi is located in Karasjok, at the edge of Finnmarksvidda.
With its recognised Sami institutions and living Sami culture, Karasjok is the Sami capital with almost 3,000 inhabitants. You will find a thriving Sami culture here, as well as the Sami Parliament of Norway… and some 60,000 reindeer spending the autumn and winter months in Karasjok. Karasjok's nearest airport is Lakselv, approximately 75 kilometers away (an hour's drive).
Kautokeino is the other big centre of Sami culture in Norway.
Sami National Day: The Sami celebrate their National Day on 6 February - the date the first Sami congress was held in 1917. The day is marked differently in different places. Sami week in Tromsø, for example, features reindeer racing, lasso throwing championship, a Sami market and more, while in Oslo, the carillon in Oslo City Hall plays the Sami national anthem as the Sami flag is raised. In Finnmark, the day is celebrated in schools and kindergartens during the day, followed by a church service and cultural activities, and of course Sami food.
The Easter Festival: Traditionally Easter was the time of year when the reindeer-herding Sami gathered in the towns of Karasjok and Kautokeino to celebrate the end of winter. Easter was also a time for weddings. Today celebrations are still religious in character, but Easter is also a time when Sami culture takes centre stage, with many events in both Karasjok and Kautokeino. The Sami Grand Prix and the annual reindeer race are two of the highlights, but other events include concerts, theatre performances and exhibitions.
Riddu Riddu Sami Festival: This Sami festival taking place in Kåfjord, Troms, every July puts on an extensive programme featuring music, film and art from around the world, attracting some 200 artists and 3,000 visitors every year. There are many activities for children too. A platform for various indigenous and non-indigenous people to meet, Riddu Riddu celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2011.
For a long time the Sami were an oppressed people and their culture was in danger of dying out. Today the Sami stand stronger than most other aboriginal people in the world. They have their independence day, and their own flag and parliament.
Other important elements of the Sami culture are its language (the various Sami languages are very distinct from Norwegian) and the joik, the Sami traditional song.
Mari Boine is a famous Norwegian artist of Sami descent who has helped to strengthen this trend. She is a proud symbol of Sami culture in urbane, modern Norway. She uses her Sami background and the folk music of Northern Scandinavia in creating her music.
Sami people live nowadays in an area which spreads from Jämtlands Län in Sweden through Northern Norway and Finland to the Kola Peninsula in Russia. There are some 100,000 Sami living here, about half of them in Norway.
Norway has the highest concentration of fjords in the world, and nowhere on earth are there more fjords than in Fjord Norway. Formed when the glaciers retreated, and seawater flooded the U-shaped valleys, the fjords have made Norway famous. Two of these, the Geirangerfjord and the Nærøyfjord, feature on the UNESCO World Heritage list. The Sognefjord, the longest, and the Hardangerfjord, famed for its cherry and apple trees, are among the most visited. But the Lysefjord just outside Stavanger (home to the famous Preikestolen or Pulpit Rock), and the Nordfjord further north are also very popular holiday destinations. National Geographic Magazine has named the fjords "the best unspoiled travel destinations in the world". And the respected American newspaper Chicago Tribune has included Norway's fjords on its list Seven Wonders of Nature.
Northern lights and midnight sun
The Northern lights (aurora borealis) are a common natural phenomenon, most commonly observed above the Arctic Circle between late autumn and early spring. The northern lights belt hits Northern Norway in the Lofoten Islands, and follows the coast all the way up to the North Cape. This means that no other place on earth offers better chances of spotting the lights, and one location in this area might be as good as another. Read more about the Northern lights.
Wildlife enthusiasts will be spoilt in Norway, where moose, reindeer, deer, lynx and foxes all roam freely. You might see wolves in the most remote areas of eastern Norway, black bears in the Pasvik Valley in Finnmark, Polar bears on Svalbard, and even musk ox, a descendant of the last ice age, in Dovre. Norway is also home to two of the world's best bird cliffs, Røst and Runde. The Varanger Peninsula in Northern Norway is another good spot for bird-watching, with lots of migratory birds in season. Whale-watching meanwhile is a popular activity off the coast of Vesterålen.