We are at 4,100 feet, considerably above the tree line somewhere between Lofthus, Norway, and the country’s capital city, Oslo. An icy rain pelts the back of my Gore-Tex jacket as our tour director and guide, Christiaan Dahl, pulls a large bottle of aquavit from a plastic bag.
She distributes 18 plastic shot glasses and doles out the apricot-colored liquid that is the national drink of Norway.
“Skol!” we say, toasting our guide, Norway and one another.
The aquavit warms us from the inside as we pile back onto the bus and settle in to watch the spectacularly rugged countryside roll by.
We are nearing the end of our 12-day visit to southern Norway and three-day visit to Denmark with Odysseys Unlimited, a small-group tour company based in Newton, Massachusetts. Dahl and our itinerary have left us with many impressions, the most indelible that Norway is a land of contrasts.
It’s a country of high-tech commerce, yet shepherds still tend flocks of sheep and goats high in mountainous meadows.
It’s a country of ancient stave churches and soaring, contemporary glass and marble edifices.
It’s a country with little arable land and a short growing season but produces an abundance of sweet berries, tree fruits and vegetables every summer. (You’ll never taste carrots like those grown in Norway.)
It’s a country whose people consume lots of meat and dairy but appear to have few problems with obesity.
It’s a country with a violent Viking history but today prides itself on being a social democracy “that looks out for everyone,” says Dahl. And yet … this nation of less than 5.5 million still supports and maintains its royal family.
It’s a country of ample bicycles and public transportation, but still must spend an average of $8,000 a foot to build roads that will survive harsh winters and copious rain. (Bergen sees rain 239 days a year.) These amazing byways — sometimes a single lane wide that runs high above the fjords — hug mountainsides and plunge deep inside them via a nationwide system of well-lighted tunnels.
And oh, those tunnels.
Somehow Norwegian engineers have managed to punch more than 1,350 tunnels (200 more under construction) through solid granite mountains, and to construct 25% of them hundreds of feet below the sea. Some tunnels are miles-long and so complex that they require roundabouts.
And finally, in a separate column marked “Spectacularly Impressive,” are Norway’s roaring rivers, trickling streams, thunderous waterfalls, panoramic fjords, crystalline glaciers, moss-covered landscapes and magic-like rainforests where you might spot a troll or two if you look carefully
Do not think Billy Goats Gruff-type trolls. Norway’s trolls can be big, small, scary or friendly and be immortalized in rock faces and tree trunks. The ones put forward by souvenir shops are likely to resemble one of the Seven Dwarfs with a sizable nose and bad teeth, but nonetheless, sporting a welcoming smile.
Throughout the trip, Dahl, a native Norwegian whose grandfather was Sami (Norway’s indigenous people) and who has a doctorate in early Viking history, maintained a continuous narrative on the country’s history and culture.
Salaries in Norway are high (average $62,000), but so are the cost of living and taxes (up to 60%). But Norwegians feel they get a lot in return: medical care, a year’s maternity leave at 80% of salary, paid paternity leave, subsidized day care, college educations and superior public transportation.
To encourage people to use that transportation, which keeps the country’s air clean, the purchase of a gas-powered car comes with a 100% tax, and gas runs about $10 a gallon. Electric cars and charging stations are abundant.
But like people everywhere, Dahl says, “some Norwegians tend to be negative. They are resistant to change. They’ll say, ‘I don’t recognize my city anymore.’ But I like the way Norway takes care of people. It’s a wealthy country and it distributes the wealth.”