Everywhere you go, children in traditional costumes are waving red, blue and white flags while uniformed marching bands play the national anthem. Welcome to Norway’s proudest day of the year: Constitution Day. May 17th has become an extraordinary colourful national holiday in this normally quiet and undemonstrative country. In the capital, Oslo, schoolchildren march past the Royal Palace en masse as the King and Queen wave, patiently, from the balcony. In Trondheim parades last all day too; and in Bergen processions culminate in a massive waterside celebration.
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When Simon Heptinstall captained the British travelwriters team on BBC TV’s Only Connect quiz show he humiliatingly scored no points at all. It was yet another memorable milestone in an award-winning writing career that has included being described by Private Eye as “a miserable little squirt”, repeatedly spelling ‘kangaroo’ wrong in a book for Australians and enthusiastically driving a high-speed dog-sled into a tree. In between Simon has become the only person to have worked for both BBC Countryfile… and BBC Top Gear.
All over the country, this day celebrates Norway’s independence which was granted in 1814. May 17th is the Nordic equivalent of Mardi Gras or Rio Carnival. And unlike many urban ‘festivals’ around the world, you’re unlikely to have your pockets picked or see loutish behaviour. Instead, you’ll probably be embraced by strangers and have a flag thrust in your hand. But you won’t be just waving a flag for a special party day – you’ll be helping to celebrate a special place too.
That’s because Norway has become one of the best countries in the world to visit. It has world-class scenery, Arctic extremes, stylish cities… and even its own beach resorts.
You can explore 16,000 miles of one of the world’s most wiggly coastlines, including the world’s longest fjord and the world’s strongest tide. Smart, historic waterside cities show it’s a very prosperous country with impressive social equality. Food is fresh and healthy, the countryside clean and unpolluted, and urban streets free of litter and vandalism.
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But with so many attractions in this long thin country, it’s hard to know where to visit. Mainland Norway is 1,500 miles long but less than two miles wide at its narrowest. Whether you arrive on National Day, during the 24-hour sun of midsummer, or in mid-winter darkness, it’s hard to visit both the Arctic north and the civilized south.
Oslo is a good place to start. One of the more relaxed European capitals is a compact city in Norway’s more sheltered south-eastern corner, surrounded by forested hills at the head of its own fjord. Oslo’s waterfront is particularly attractive: the shiny white marble opera house extends into the fjord like an iceberg. It’s a popular spot for sitting, chatting and people-watching. At the end of Karl Johans Gate, one of Europe’s poshest shopping streets, you’ll find the petite Royal Palace and gardens. A short walk away, Oslo’s most unique attraction is Frogner Park, packed with more than 200 of Gustav Vigeland’s human sculptures. The joyous figures make it a magical place that can’t fail to leave you feeling inspired.
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The mild southern coast is full of small beaches between smooth rocks and tiny islands. You’ll find genteel seaside resorts like Arendal and Kristiansand with seafood restaurants lining their harbours. Further west find Stavanger and some of the most photographed fjord views. Lonely Planet called the famous Pulpit Rock ‘the number one most breathtaking viewing platform in the world’.
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Norway’s second city, Bergen, in the far west, stands on another fjord, surrounded by mountains. Rows of old wooden quayside buildings have been declared a World Heritage Site and it’s a great place to wander old cobbled streets between brightly painted wooden houses, shops and restaurants.
The drive north along the coast from Bergen is one of the great European driving routes. If you’ve picked up a hire car in Norway you can drive across causeways between islands and mountains, spectacular bridges across fjords with hardly another vehicle in sight.
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Eventually, the amazing Atlantic Ocean Road reaches Trondheim, Norway’s third city. Yet again, there are wonderful old buildings lining waterways, waterfront restaurants and a clean, cultured atmosphere. The most northerly medieval cathedral served as a model for the palace in Disney’s Frozen. There’s also a grand Royal Palace here – made from wood.
Keep heading north and you’ll enjoy more fabulous driving. The main danger on these smooth quiet roads is you’ll be distracted by astonishing views. The Lofoten and Vesteralen Islands seem to be jagged mountains floating in the sea. Amid this maze of rocks, fjords and headlands, it’s often hard to tell which are islands and which is mainland.
Even further north you’ll find surprisingly cosmopolitan Arctic outposts like Bodo and Tromso – cities with fine restaurants, art galleries and lively nightlife despite their latitude. Around here every road is designated as ‘particularly scenic’. There are simply no boring driving routes.
Head inland at any point along Norway’s sensational coastline to find mountains, glaciers and deep wooded valleys. Everywhere, you’ll find picturesque farmsteads built of wood and painted red, blue or yellow and distinctive medieval wooden ‘stave churches’.
North or south, you’ll be inspired by the adventurous spirit of the locals. From spotting Northern Lights to a boat trip round fjords, there’s always something exciting to do.
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Norway’s adventure catalogue includes fishing, kayaking, biking, hiking, climbing, skiing, riding, snowmobiling and dog-sledding. I’d also add driving to that list. Wherever you are heading, Norway is one of the best countries in the world for simply taking a drive.