From the stunning Northern Lights of Lofoten, to the fjords of the western coast, scenic train journeys across the mountains, Viking history, and the culture of the cities, David Nikel evokes a country that has much to explore. In this pandemic year, I’m certainly dreaming of kayaking the fjords!
David Nikel is a British writer specializing in all things Scandinavia. Since moving to Norway in 2011, he’s traveled the length and breadth of the country producing the first and second editions of The Moon Norway Guidebook. He also runs a successful website and podcast Life in Norway where he talks about everything from relocation and travel advice to stories from the Viking age.
- Why fjords are such a feature of the Norwegian landscape
- The Northern Lights at Lofoten
- The different ways to explore Norway including by car and railway
- Places to visit in cities like Oslo
- On the New Nordic cuisine movement focused on simple, fresh ingredients
- Locations for authentic Viking experiences
- Aspects of Norwegian culture that are unique from the rest of Scandinavia
- How Norse mythology fits into present-day life in Norway
You can find David Nikel at LifeInNorway.net
Transcript of the interview
Joanna: David Nikel is a British writer specializing in all things Scandinavia. Since moving to Norway in 2011, he’s traveled the length and breadth of the country producing the first and second editions of The Moon Norway Guidebook. He also runs a successful website and podcast ‘Life in Norway’ where he talks about everything from relocation and travel advice to stories from the viking age. Welcome, David.
David: Hi Jo. Thanks for being here, I’m looking forward to introducing Norway to everyone.
Joanna: Oh, I’m very excited. And we have to start with the fjords because I have your guidebook, and of course, if you go on Google Maps, it’s really obvious that the fjords are a big thing about Norway. So, can you start there?
Why are fjords such a feature, geographically, and what are some of the highlights?
David: That’s actually a really interesting point and it’s something I tell everyone to look at is get out a map and you’ll see the fjords instantly. They are huge.
They were formed by giant glaciers, so huge heavy chunks of ice, in previous ice ages, literally carving away the rock. And an interesting fact about them, and I only found out this recently, is the reason they’re so calm, calm enough to kayak on and for big cruise ships to sail them, is they’re actually shallowest at the mouth, so where the ocean is, rather than further inland. They’re much much deeper further inland. And that of course facilitates tourism.
But their impact, it’s not just about how beautiful they are, although that does bring tourists into the country, it’s also had a big impact on the development of Norway. A lot of the early rural communities, they grew up along the fjords because of the access to fishing and the access to the mountains for farming in the summer. But they also kept a lot of Norway very remote for very many years.
And you even see that today, if you take a road trip through Norway, through the fjord region, you will have to take several ferries. They are in process of building tunnels and bridges and so on but ferries are still a very integral part of traveling around the region.
Joanna: So, a bigger question, because when we say, ‘Scandinavia,’ when we say, ‘Norway,’ I feel that sometimes people put that whole region together in their brain. So, just to be clear, Norway is the one on the western coast, if you’re looking at a map. Which is why the fjords are so important because they’re basically that whole western coast.
David: Exactly. The coastline is absolutely enormous. And it’s actually so long that nobody knows how long it is because measuring coastline with the fjords is so difficult. There are about 10 different official lengths of the coastline of Norway.
It’s the coastal part of Scandinavia. There are vast areas that are inland but that tends to be mountain plateaus and nobody really lives there. The vast majority of the 5 million, or so, people that live in Norway, they live around the coastline. That’s where all the main cities are.
Joanna: And you mentioned kayaking. And I’m standing here as we record this during the pandemic, thinking, ‘I would just love to go kayak in a fjord right now.‘ That just sounds idyllic. In fact, I was saying to my husband…we’ve never wanted to go on a cruise; I don’t want to go on one of those big cruise ships if they ever come back after this. But I know there are some little ones.
If people wanted to visit, and go through the fjord land of Norway, is it that you would get on a little boat?
Where would be some of the places you would recommend going to if you wanted to explore the fjords?
David: The fjords…they’re kind of for everyone in that you could have an active holiday in the fjords, go hiking, go kayaking, or you could have a very passive holiday and just sit on a boat and let the boat sail around. The choice really is up to you.
My own recommendation is to hire a car because you can get the best of both worlds there. You can see several fjords in one trip, maybe within 3 or 4 days, you can join a car ferry, which, some of these car ferries, they’re not tourist ferries, they’re not packed with tourists, but you’re still sailing along the fjord, you’ll still go past the waterfall and so on. And of course with the cars you can spend time in some of the small communities that still exist along the fjords as well.
So, whether you want to stand on a boat…and there are smaller passenger boats as well, they tend to be pretty crowded, especially in June, July, and August when the majority of people come to Norway.
Joanna: And what’s the weather like? I feel like, in my head, it would be very cold on that coast.
Is it good all year round or the particular times of year are good to go to that coastal region?
David: The weather in Scandinavia is definitely not good all year round. I wouldn’t say cold along the coastline, we have the benefit of the Gulf Stream, which actually brings the average temperature fairly higher than it would be at this latitude in other parts of the world.
The word I would use is wet. The coastline of Norway is defined by rain, Bergen, Stavanger, exceptionally rainy cities. It’s not that it rains all day, it’s not heavy rain, it’s just that, on any given day, the chances of it raining at some point is high.
But that also affects tourism because all the photos you see of the fjords, there’s never any clouds. Or if there are clouds, they’re lovely little fluffy white clouds. Realistically, it’s going to be gray, you’re going to get a bit of fog. All that, for me, that adds to the atmosphere of the fjords.
It’s fantastic sailing down a foggy fjord and then, all of a sudden, this mountain appears around the corner out of the fog. But for some people that’s a disappointment, they expect to see these bright blue skies. But the truth is those days are rare.
Joanna: It’s all about the water so of course it’s going to be in the air as well. Your guidebook also notes some scenic railways. For example, I haven’t owned a car for a number of years now and I don’t particularly like driving, so the idea of getting on a railway actually really appeals to me.
Tell us a bit about these scenic railways.
David: Sure. If you can’t drive, by the way, I do recommend hiring a car because the roads in Norway, they’re not the busiest. It’s nothing like driving down the M1 in the UK, for example. But, the railways are a great alternative and that’s because, to move between any of the big cities in Norway, you have to cross mountains.
From Oslo to Bergen is the most famous railway, it’s often voted the most beautiful journey in the world or at least in the top five in the articles that you see. And that’s with good a reason, it takes about 6 hours, maybe 6 and a half hours on the train, and it goes over the Hardangervidda mountain plateau, which is well above the sea level, I can’t remember the exact amount. But all year round there’s snow there, even in July you’ll see some snow. It’s absolutely stunning scenery.
But on that journey, you also have the opportunity to connect to the Flåm railway. And this railway starts at one of the highest points on the journey. It’s a railway station that you can’t actually access by road, there are no roads there. So you get off there at this station and there’s a couple of houses, and then, maybe a few wild reindeers wandering past.
And then, a 1-hour train journey that descends through a scenic valley, it’s getting greener and greener as you go down, and you end up in Flåm, which is a little village on the islands fjord, one of the country’s most picturesque fjords. So you have the opportunity, by using the train, to see Oslo and Bergen, the two biggest cities, mountain scenery and fjord scenery, potentially all in one day. Although I’d recommend 2 days to make the most of that journey.
Something else about the Bergen line by the way. There’s another remote station, again, that you can’t get to by road, Finse. It was actually where Hoth, the ice planet in Star Wars, was set back in the 70s or 80s. Whenever it was they filmed it. So the crew came to this very very remote part of the Norwegian mountains to shoot the scenes set in Hoth. And they didn’t actually have to do much computer work because it was a complete white out I believe when they were here.
Joanna: Wow, that’s cool. You mentioned reindeer and white outs, and in the book, there’s this section on…is it Lofoten? And the High North. And the High North made me think of sort of ‘Game of Thrones’ and that kind of thing. So, what’s up there?
Is the High North a winter destination for the northern lights or what’s up there in the High North?
David: You can visit at any time of year. If you want to visit for the northern lights, you are really restricted to September-October time or February-March time. I’d recommend February-March because, at that time, there’s almost guaranteed snow, so you have other things to do in the day whilst you’re waiting for the northern lights in the evening.
But Lofoten particularly, in the travel-writing world, ‘breathtaking’ is an overused word but breathtaking is absolutely what Lofoten is.
You just have to google the place and you’ll see these just breathtaking images of mountain scenery. And it really is something of a fairy tale.
Essentially what it is, it’s an archipelago of islands that juts right out into the North Atlantic. Again, it’s very easy to see on a map of Norway, you follow Norway north all the way up to sort of the top of the country and you’ll see this archipelago of islands jutting out west.
But basically what they are is giant slabs of granite just in the middle of the ocean. And when you’re approaching there, whether you’re flying there or taking the ferry across from the mainland, it’s really imposing as these just giant slabs are going to get closer and closer and closer to you.
But when you’re on the islands, it’s just beautiful. They hide these really small picturesque fishing villages and beaches, some of the most beautiful beaches you will ever see as well. It really is a truly remarkable place.
Another really positive thing about Lofoten is it doesn’t get very cold there. It’s one of the places in the world with the largest temperature anomaly compared to how high or how high latitude it is. So I think I’m right in saying the average temperature doesn’t drop below freezing even in the winter. And we are a long way north of the Arctic circle in Lofoten, so it’s mild. But again, it’s, like most of the Norwegian coast, it’s very wet.
Joanna: Wow, that sounds so interesting. And how do you get there? Do you fly there or you drive? How far away is it from the bottom? It’s a very long country, isn’t it?
David: It’s many many hundreds of miles. So, you can drive, the problem with Norway is there’s a lot to do in the south, there’s a lot to do in the north, but from where I am, in Trondheim, for about a 6-hour drive north, the tourist board might disagree, but there isn’t a great deal to see in that distance.
So most people fly, most people fly to Bodø and take the ferry across to Lofoten. You can also fly, in normal times, you can fly directly from Oslo as well. Although those are small domestic flights on little propeller planes and they tend to be a bit more expensive.
Joanna: Yes, and sometimes a little scary. The natural side is clearly spectacular. You mentioned there Oslo, you mentioned Trondheim, what happens there? Are they worth visiting?
What’s going on culturally in the cities?
David: This is an interesting question because most people’s image of Norway I think is fjords, it’s hiking, it’s northern lights. And all of this is essentially a rural activity. And I think you’re not missing a great deal if you don’t go to the cities, but if you are a city person, there really is a lot to do in Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim, Stavanger, especially if you’re a museum person.
Joanna: Oh, I am. Yes, tell us about that.
David: I have a couple of recommendations I think you’re particularly going to like. In Oslo, you have to get away from downtown and head straight to the peninsula, it’s where some of the country’s best museums are all clustered. You have the Viking Ship Museum and these are three genuine viking ships that have been excavated and restored. They’re simply stunning.
There’s also the Folkemuseum. Now, I don’t necessarily recommend going there but, if you’re not going to travel around the country to see some of the old traditional wooden churches, there is one that’s actually been moved from rural Norway to that museum, so you have a chance of seeing some of the rural culture. And I suppose that’s a good museum to go to if you’re not planning to travel the country, so if you’re just heading to Oslo on a city break for example.
But another museum that I recommend there is the Kon-Tiki Museum. And that has the original balsa wood raft that Thor Heyerdahl used on the Kon-Tiki expedition in Polynesia in the 1950s I think it was. Thor Heyerdahl, a famous Norwegian explorer, he has a quote which I think listeners are really going to identify with, and that’s, ‘Borders? I have never seen one but I’ve heard that they exist in the minds of some people.’
Joanna: I love that. That is so good.
David: As for Trondheim, we have Nidaros Cathedral here, it’s the northernmost cathedral from the middle ages anywhere in the world.
The exterior, the stonework, is stunning. A lot of it has been renovated and improved over the years.
But my favorite bit, and something that a lot of people miss, is, inside the cathedral, you can take these really claustrophobic stairs down to the crypt where they have, on display, all these old fragments of marble gravestones that they found during the renovations. And these stones were incorporated into the walls of the cathedral, they were just reusing stone. And now they’re on display.
In some of them, you can still read the inscriptions and things like that. That’s a really spooky place. But definitely not recommended for anyone who’s claustrophobic.
Joanna: I love crypts in general I think but that sounds really cool. And then, what about food and drink? You mentioned reindeer and I immediately thought of venison. But then, other people think everything is pickled.
What should we be eating and drinking?
David: If everything was pickled here, Jo, I would not have been living here for almost 10 years, that’s for sure.
Salted seafood, that’s the traditional food in Norway. You do still find it in some tourist restaurants and some of the more traditional restaurants in cities but it’s not so much everyday food.
If you’re coming to Norway and eating in restaurants, the big thing these days is New Nordic. And what that is it’s actually really simple, it’s about fresh raw ingredients, cooking them very simply, and to allow the freshness and the natural qualities of those ingredients to come through.
In terms of fish and seafood, arctic cod is particularly popular. But you’ll often find it served not with chips but with berries and mushrooms from the mountains for example. And that’s a very common method of cooking in the restaurants. Don’t get me wrong, not everyone eats like that. Inside a Norwegian home, you’re just as likely to find a frozen pizza as anywhere else in the world.
Joanna: And then, what about drinking? I do like a local tipple.
David: I would say beer is surprisingly popular here. I’m from the UK, so that might sound strange saying that, but pretty much everybody drinks beer when they go out in Norway. A big part of the reason for that is price. And if anyone has been to Norway, you know how expensive a beer is, it’s very expensive. But it’s much cheaper than the wine and the spirits and everything else.
So you’ll find even 75-year-old grannies when they’re out with the family, they’re having a beer as well. And that’s something I’m not used to seeing. So, beer is very popular.
There’s also the traditional spirit akvavit, which is popular across Scandinavia. And I’ve been told this is enjoying a renaissance in some of the trendy bars in New York and LA, but I’m not sure how true that is.
Joanna: Is that like a whiskey?
David: No, it’s kind of more like…it’s a spirit that’s…I think it’s dill that they use or caraway. So it’s a very fragrant spirit. Yeah, I don’t even know how to explain…
Joanna: You’re not really a fan?
David: I’m not a fan. I tried it once and that’s it, so it’s really not my thing. But again, you’ll often find it in the same places that serve the salted fish.
Joanna: Okay. And you mentioned the price there.
Is it an expensive country for tourists?
David: Absolutely. It’s an expensive country for tourists largely because of the economy here for Norwegians, we tend to have higher salaries here, so the prices reflect that. You’re stepping into a completely different economy when you’re visiting here as a tourist.
And what makes a huge difference is the exchange rate. This year, the exchange rate to the dollar has varied between 9 and 12. Now, that makes a huge difference on prices, so it’s difficult to give you an exact idea of how expensive the country is. But unless you’re coming from Japan, it is definitely going to be more expensive.
A couple of tips though, what makes prices especially expensive here is any human involvement because wages are so high. So, if you’re going to a restaurant, that’s going to be expensive. If you’re just buying a pre-made sandwich from a shop, that’s not quite so expensive.
Any time you’re interacting with a human or you’re paying for a service, such as a personal tour for example, those things are going to feel more expensive than perhaps you would like to pay.
Joanna: That’s pretty common in I think Scandinavia in general, isn’t it? Certainly, the quality of life I think is very high but that is reflected in the economy as well.
David: Yes, and we pay a lot of tax as well. Sweden, Finland, Denmark, they are perceived as expensive as well. However, here in Trondheim, we’re an hour away from the Swedish border, and many Norwegians drive across the border to buy meat, beer, and fuel, and then drive back again. So, there is a price difference, yeah.
Joanna: Wow, that’s really interesting. You’ve mentioned the Viking ships there in that museum.
What else is there in terms of Viking history that people are really into because of TV shows and things?
David: I’ve recently binge-watched ‘Vikings,’ which is just a sensational show, and I was disappointed to find out that, even though it’s supposed to be set in Norway, they actually filmed it in the one Fjord in Ireland, presumably because it was cheaper to film. So what you can’t do is come and see the set of ‘Vikings.’
But one plus point actually if you are into Vikings is there are Viking attractions pretty much in every part of the country. Anywhere where there was a significant Viking settlement, there’s now some kind of museum, or there’s the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo for example.
Even on Lofoten, way up in the north, there is a very famous old Viking settlement, they lived that far north back then. That’s where they got the fish from to trade with the rest of Europe. And you can go there and spend an evening in this reconstructed longhouse, have dinner with a chieftain and his wife, and so on. It’s a little bit touristy, but if you’re into that kind of thing and you want that experience, it’s a fun place to go.
Joanna: Any axe-throwing amongst that?!
David: No, but in some of these places now I’m thinking there’s a Viking village, and that is in Avaldsnes, which is near Halvorsen on the west coast. You can try archery. They’re dressed up as Vikings, they’ll talk to you as if they’re Vikings and they’ll say, ‘Oh, my husband’s away on a raid, but maybe you could help me shoot this arrow?’ or whatever. So it’s a very immersive experience, it’s great for kids. Archery but no axes, as far as I’m aware.
Joanna: There’s a renaissance in axe-throwing in the USA, I think, judging by some of the shows on Netflix. My husband is watching, in fact, at the moment, it’s a show called ‘Norse,’ I think. And it’s a Viking comedy, so there’s a lot of shooting and axe throwing and death but in a kind of funny way, sort of Scandinavian humor way, which is fascinating I think. Have you seen that one?
David: I have a little factoid about…it’s called ‘Norseman’ if it’s the one I’m thinking of. They actually filmed that show in two languages. They shot every scene in English and they shot every scene in Norwegian. So you can watch ‘Norsemen’ in English or you can watch ‘Vikingane’ in Norwegian.
It’s the same story, it’s the same characters, everything’s the same, they just shot the same scenes twice just so they didn’t have to dub or whatever. And I’m sure other shows have done that, I just don’t know of any and it’s just a fascinating concept.
Joanna: So those are all Norwegian actors because, obviously, most people can’t speak Norwegian?
David: Yes, I think so. Whereas in ‘Vikings,’ for example, there were a lot of Irish actors in ‘Vikings.’ Which you can tell in the early season actually with some of the accents, with Irish people trying to do a generic Scandinavian accent, which is quite amusing.
I think in Norseman everyone was Norwegian or at least Scandinavian because most people from Sweden and Denmark can do a possible Norwegian accent for sure.
Joanna: I’ve watched a bit of that show. And it does have this interesting gentle humor. And so, I wondered, you’re British obviously, you said you’ve been there almost a decade and you see Norway from this sort of ex-pat outsider perspective.
What are some of the aspects of the Norwegian culture that are different to the rest of Scandinavia?
David: Norwegians love to explain the differences between themselves and the rest of the Nordic region, especially the Swedes. However, they’re pretty much exactly the same.
It’s much like British actually. If you leave Britain, an English person, a Scotsman, or a Welsh person, they’re all pretty much the same to everybody else. Whereas we think we’re all wildly different. It’s kind of the same with Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes I think.
The language is pretty much identical. Again, they will disagree vehemently but I’ve spoken to linguists before and many of them consider the three Scandinavian languages to be one language, just three different dialects.
So, and actually, this goes for Nordic people as well. So, Finland, Iceland…and if people are interested, you can go and listen to the Finland episode of your podcast because that’s pretty much Norwegian people as well. Hard-to-know people, they’re introverted private people, and outdoorsy, it’s exactly with the Finns. And you find that across the whole Nordic region I think.
Joanna: Interesting. So, tell us why are you there?
What is your history and why are you in Norway and why do you love it there? Why haven’t you come back to England?
David: So, most people come to Norway…especially from Britain, they move for love and stay for the money or they come for money and stay for love.
And it’s a very typical ex-pat story, that you move to Norway, you get a well-paid job, and you fall in love with a Norwegian girl and you get married and live happily ever after. I didn’t do that.
I moved to Norway for a job opportunity but I fell in love with a boy from Mexico instead. I’ve spent the last 10 years learning Spanish alongside Norwegian and flying to Mexico once or twice a year. So I had a very unique experience. I think they sort of call it a third-culture experience when you have people from different countries living in a different third country.
I know we don’t have kids to add to that problem but it does mean I have this mix of culture and influence, it’s not just an Englishman living in Norway. I also have this whole other life as well, which makes things interesting.
Joanna: Wow. I think British people probably have quite a lot in common with Norwegians, like I feel like our culture has some things that are similar. Mexico seems almost diametrically opposite to Norway.
David: I can’t speak for my now husband but I do know that he feels incredibly safe in Norway and has no plans on returning to Mexico. And having been to Mexico, it’s all degrees. Isn’t it? You can’t say, ‘Mexico is unsafe and Norway’s safe,’ it’s perception and it’s degrees of safety.
I understand, it’s not just personal safety, it’s not just about gun crime and drug gangs and so on. Well, the government and the social security system and the welfare system, if you fall sick in Mexico, you’ll lose your job. And it’s like this in a lot of the world. You don’t know where you stand.
But if you fall sick or you lose your job in Norway, you have a safety net there. And that just takes away a lot of the stresses of life, a lot of the stresses of everyday life. And that means you can use your energies, your mental energies on other things that matter to you. And there’s a huge amount to be said for that.
Now, a lot of people call Norway boring. And I understand that because you don’t really have the nightlife scene here that you have in many other countries. But you have the outdoors and you have that safety net that allows you to essentially choose what you want to do with your life. And there aren’t that many countries I think in the world where you can say that.
Joanna: No. And we’re in this turning point in history, maybe or maybe not, where people are talking about universal credit and providing much more of a safety net, certainly in the UK and maybe America. Who knows what the political environment will bring.
But it’s like you say about the high taxes, that allow the nation to support people in a way that many other cultures are not willing to do. And it is a really interesting social situation that, as you say, you and your husband feel, that’s protected.
And yet, in my head, these kind of stereotypes of Mexico versus Norway are probably true in many ways. And that’s not a bad thing, I guess there is a big difference between those cultures and that in itself is interesting.
David: I mean stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason. There’s a truth in most stereotypes. How much of a truth, that depends, but certainly there is.
Joanna: Interesting. You mentioned a folk museum and there are some interesting mythological aspects of Norway. I believe trolls are Norwegian, is that right?
Tell us about any mythological aspects you find interesting.
David: There are a lot of folk tales from the middle ages about trolls, especially in the rural areas. And if you visit some of the wooden churches around the country, you tend to hear those stories. And I’ve been told, even as recently as 100, 150 years ago, people used to ring church bells to ward off the trolls. So these are not ancient tales, they’re things that people actually believed in fairly recently.
But for me, when you talk about the mythological side of Norway, it’s all about Norse mythology. Because really, here it’s mythology. Norwegians learn it in school. It’s not a subject, you don’t study Norse mythology in a Norwegian school but it is incorporated into history, into social studies, into language of course.
I think most people know that Thursday, it has its root in Thor’s day. Whereas in Norway, Thursday is Tirsdag, which is literally Thor’s day. It’s still today is referred to as Thor’s day. And most of the other days of the week are named after Norse gods. It’s just everywhere in society, there’s still a very heavy influence on Norse mythology.
And actually, we were talking about TV shows earlier, and I know this is ‘The Books and Travel’ but I have another TV show recommendation, it’s called ‘Beforeigners.’ And I think it might be HBO, I can’t quite remember. But this is a tale of Vikings coming back into modern-day Norway by a supernatural occurrence.
So, all of a sudden, downtown Oslo has 100-200 Vikings appear. And that’s the premise, I’m not really spoiling anything there. The show is then about immigration and how the Vikings can adjust to modern-day society. And it’s a fascinating conflict between the old mythology and these Vikings still believe in the old Norse gods in modern Oslo. So that’s something to watch if you are interested in Norse mythology as well.
Joanna: ‘Beforeigners,’ that does sound fascinating. You said it’s still prevalent in the culture. Like in what way? Do people call their children after the gods? Or, you said it’s taught in schools. Does that mean Norse mythology is in other aspects of the culture?
David: I think it’s taught in schools in the same way as Christian history is taught in British schools, for example. Not necessarily as a religion but just as an important part of society.
In terms of children, I think it’s more common actually to call pets after the Norse gods. Mind you, Freya is a very common name now for girls, I think that’s made a comeback. And I don’t think Odin is a particularly common name but I do know there’s a professional footballer in Norway who has the first name Odin, so it’s not very uncommon. But their names, it’s difficult to explain, it underpins the society I guess.
Joanna: You mentioned the churches and how they might ring the bells for the trolls.
What’s the Christian prevalence versus a more secular sense that respects these things as history?
David: It’s a difficult question for me to answer. I have to say, to give some context to this, that I consider myself an atheist, so, I should say that to give some context to what I’m saying.
Back in the days of the Vikings, Norway was very much a Norse-god country. You can’t really call that a religion but it was certainly a belief system. And then, Christianity came in, which essentially signaled the end of the Viking era. Many hundreds of years, Norway was and really still is a Christian country.
In recent years, Norway’s undergone a split of church and state to sort of reform…just a couple of years ago, that revealed for the first time since they were doing the survey, that fewer Norwegians believed in god than didn’t. And that was the first time those figures had slipped.
Like a lot of Western Europe, it’s not really a move away from Christianity, it’s more just a move away from organized religion. I think people still have a personal faith and a personal belief system, it’s just that the numbers that are going to a church every week are dropping here just like they’re dropping everywhere else.
Joanna: I wonder how many still believe in Odin.
David: You never know. I think actually there are more Norwegian Americans that believe in the Norse gods than actual Norwegians living in Norway. The Viking culture over in the U.S., amongst the descendants of the Norwegians that moved over there, is immense.
Joanna: And then, of course, we’ve got…even here, in the Shetland Islands, the Up Helly Aa, which is a Viking festival…people love the Vikings. For all their blood and guts and things, people really still love them.
David: Yes. There’s a lot of misconceptions because really, at their absolute core, Vikings were farmers and fishermen really. And yes, they went on trading missions, and yes, there were some raids as well and there was an expansionist sort of element to them but what society hundreds of years ago didn’t have that expansionist mentality?
Look at the British Empire, for example, there’s nothing unusual about the Vikings back then. Primarily they were looking for farmland. Obviously, yes, they were looking for riches as well but I think there is a lot of misconceptions and Norway is a great place to sort of learn some of the context about the Vikings in terms of what they were like on a day-to-day basis.
In Britain, we learn the stories of the raid on Lindisfarne and the other raids, but in Norway, it’s more about how they lived their day-to-day lives.
Joanna: Interesting. Right.
You obviously have The Norway Guidebooks, you have your Life in Norway website and podcast.
Can you recommend a few other books, either about Norway or set in Norway?
David: Sure. I’m going to recommend fiction and that’s because I genuinely think you can learn a lot more about a place through fiction. Well-written fiction anyway.
I’m not really a fan of historical fiction but this book just blew me away, it’s called The Mercies and it’s by Kiran Millwood Hargrave who’s a British writer. Now, this is set in the 1600s in the very northeast of Norway, an island town called Vardo. It’s the easternmost part of Norway. And it’s based around the witch trials. Now everyone knows of witch trials in the U.S. but they also happened in Norway. And around 100 women were executed, accused of being witches.
This is a place populated by women and that’s because most of the men have been lost at sea up there. And that’s a true story. So this very remote place was left essentially entirely populated by women, like 50 women and maybe 4 or 5 men. And yeah, it’s a wonderful story, it’s historical fiction. But at its core, it’s a love story as well. And it’s a real eye-opener into life in rural Norway in like the 1600s when people believed in all kinds of different things.
And we were talking about the conflict earlier or the changing of religions, and this is actually a very good demonstration of Christianity and the Sami beliefs of the north, there’s that element to the story as well.
David: Okay. And I can’t talk about books in Norway without talking about crime fiction. The nation is obsessed with crime fiction, as is all of Scandinavia. Most people have heard of Jo Nesbø, he’s easily the most famous crime author internationally, well, in here in Norway as well. But I’m not going to recommend his stuff because it’s all a bit Hollywood for me.
Instead, I’m going to recommend Jørn Lier Horst, who is the man behind William Wisting, which is a TV series recently aired in the UK and around the world I think. The series was actually based on just two of the books, but I will recommend the first book, which is called Dregs. And that is the way his character began, it’s just a typical police procedural. It also has an element of World War II history, and there’s a lot of fiction in Norway that references World War II. It’s still very much in the nation’s psyche even today.
Last of all I’ll stick with crime. A lot of crime writers in Norway are former police, but one of them is actually a former minister of justice, Anne Holt. And she writes a lot of crime novels, the one I’m going to recommend is called ‘1222.‘ And it’s a locked-room mystery for fans of Agatha Christie but with one very important difference, it’s set in a remote hotel on the Oslo-to-Bergen railway during a whiteout.
There’s a train crash and everyone has to stay in this hotel. It’s actually at Finse, which is the place where Hoth was set that I mentioned earlier. So there’s no way in and there’s no way out. Everyone’s stuck in the hotel. And of course, the bodies start to fall and one of the people on the train is the series detective character and she has to piece together what goes on.
And again, really, it’s the mountain blizzard that is the main character in that story. If you’re visiting Norway, I actually recommend reading that book on the Oslo-to-Bergen train, it’s about the right length. It’s just a really nice experience as to what the remoteness and the power of nature in Norway is all about.
Joanna: Oh, some good recommendations. I’m going to go and check some of those out.
Where can people find you and your books and everything you do online?
David: My guidebook is Moon Norway, that’s available on Amazon and in most major book stores, especially in the U.S. and the UK. Everything else I do, my articles, my other books and all my podcast episodes about Norwegian life, that’s all on my website at lifeinnorway.net.
Joanna: Brilliant. Well, thanks so much for your time, David. That was great.
David: Thanks, Jo.