LILLEHAMMER, Norway -- The visitors touring Maihaugen Heritage Village were itching with curiosity. They’d wandered the site’s narrow lanes and peered inside the 200-year-old log cabins. They’d explored the craft shops and traditional hand-hewn barns brought from far-flung farms and forests and reassembled here, under the trees. Now they wanted to know if any of Norway’s leading figures — statesmen, film makers, painters or artists — had their roots in these humble huts.
“What about Thor Heyerdahl, the anthropologist, who wrote Kon-Tiki? asked a bearded man in a brown sweater. “Is there a connection with Henrik Ibsen or Edvard Grieg?” said a woman with two teenagers.
Elsa, our guide, tall and blond, paused to think. A frown flitted across her brow. Then she brightened, remembering. “Grieg was here!” she told us. “He vacationed in Lillehammer in summer. The Gudbrandsdalen Valley folk tunes were an important influence on his music.” She adjusted her red-and-blue embroidered skirt and smiled. A half-dozen cameras clicked.
Elsa could be forgiven for wishful thinking. With Norway’s tourist season at hand, every rural hamlet with a legendary anecdote claims one of Norway’s native sons. From creators to cranks, Norway’s finest are familiar to most of us: the controversial playwright Henrik Ibsen; Edvard Munch, the eccentric painter; novelist and Nobel Prize-winning author Sigrid Undset, whose edgy themes are still current. But most often the halo spins over composer Edvard Grieg, whose plaintive melodies were born in these northern forests.
Plainly, deconstructing Norway was the key to the fertile genius of so many moody and eccentric prodigies. So we rented a car for 10 days and, after touring Oslo, headed north from the capital city through sunny farm country, eventually turning west across Norway’s mountain spine. Descending beside blue-green fiords, we ended our trip in Bergen, on the coast.
Along the way, as time allowed, we followed each beckoning back road in search of wood-timbered stave churches, lakeside villages and botanical gardens. Lunch, often bread, cheese and reindeer sausage, never tasted as good as when we picnicked in a wide spot with a view.
And what a land it is. Dark and brooding in winter, Norway awakens to the midnight sun. Snow-clad peaks feed rushing rivers. Swollen waterfalls careen over spongy tundra and trickle down steep ravines. Roses bloom. To the west, the coastline climbs out of the North Sea like a polar bear on the hunt, cold fiords probing the cliffs with slippery fingers.
And from May through September? Norwegians — and visitors — take to the outdoors, to pick blueberries, lie in the sun, tour manor houses and gardens, visit art exhibits and take in outdoor concerts, music recitals and craft fairs.
In Oslo, we strolled through Frogner Park to see sculptor Gustav Vigeland’s modernist sculptures, more than 200 in the one park. Over-sized, physical and stolid, they are arranged in a formal garden setting that creates a perfect contract to their sense of free space. Grouped as couples, families and children, their faces expressionless, they are all mankind at its core. Nearby was the Edvard Munch Museum, where not just one version of the painter’s famous work, The Scream, but many versions, a subject that obsessed the eccentric Munch.