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Off the Beaten Path: Discovering Norway's Rural Idyll

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As we draw away from Oslo I watch the lights of the sprawling skyline flicker past like frames in a film reel. Within a matter of minutes the city is dissolved by forests, reduced to a road sign, a circled name on a map.

It brings home the topography of Norway, the reality that urban settlements make up a mere one per cent of the country. Venturing off the beaten path into the secret corners of Scandinavia, I begin to feel uneasy. My dog-eared guidebook now lies redundant at the bottom of my bag.

Free from the urban orchestra of car horns and tourist chatter, the stillness in Høysand is profound. This coastal village, in the county of Østfoldin South East Norway, is my home for the next few days. Tracing my way up the residential lanes, I feel like I’ve stumbled into the frame of a painting. The winding single-track road unfurls picturesque wooden houses with flowered windowsills and sweeping verandahs, shrouded in the canopies of trees. It’s nature in a way that’s almost extinct in Britain - no industrial fumes lace the horizon, no bypass groans through the fields. Here, the city is a whisper, heard only in TV news bulletins and in the black and white print of newspaper headlines.

Høysand

My head is bowed in conversation with my hosts while the sweet smoke of a barbeque lingers in the air. Discarded plates litter the table, remnants of a heavenly meal of barbequed salmon. I’m staying at the childhood home of my friend Frida, and her parents Annelise and Ragnar. If Oslo seemed distant, reserved perhaps, then Høysand is its antithesis. My hosts are warm, bright eyed and beaming smiles, mi casa, su casa. Their English is good, and my Norwegian is appalling, limited shamefully to the tourist necessity ‘takk’ (thank you) and the first word Frida taught me at university: ‘gele shots’ (jelly shots). Go figure.

Out on the deck, Frida points to the surrounding houses: her aunt’s, her cousin’s, her childhood friend’s. The fabric of these small villages is tightly bound. Its interwoven networks endure; Frida tells me of her sister’s anguish at moving ten minutes down the road. She gestures at two houses in the distance - they were there, at the shooting on the island.

Fours years ago, a terrorist attack in Oslo culminated in the tragic shooting of a youth summer camp on the island of Utøya. It was the deadliest attack in Norway since World War Two. While it’s easy to see Norway’s small population of five million as merely an abstract statistic, this is the reality: reverberations still resound in these small communities, a collective mourning that’s more than skin-deep, more than a detached, sorrowful shrug at the morning newspaper.

Below me the tide is a soft lull, rising and falling in breaths against the beach. As I climb the coastal path the sky is set alight in red and amber, a postcard sunset over the harbor of Høysand. Along the coast a wooden pier reaches a limb out into the sea. In the last light of the sun stands a lone fisherman, etched in silhouette. During the day the pier is swarmed with visitors and locals alike. It’s a monument to tradition and practicality; you catch the food you eat. No price tags, no prepackaging.

Høysand Pier

In England, seafront towns have an unabashed proclivity toward pulsating neon lights, fast food stands coughing grease and the garish facades of amusement arcades. There’s an inclination toward the artificial, perhaps to mask the grey drizzle of an English summer. But Høysand is a far cry from Blackpool, thankfully. Here nature is unadorned, functional and celebrated.

Breathing in the sea air I turn and look back at the tumult of waves surging in our wake. I’m clutching at a San Miguel as though it were a life belt as we race along the Skjeberkilen, a stretch of the North Sea. I’m five years old again, laughing gleefully as Ragnar floors the gas and the speedboat rears, skipping the waves like a stone (minus the sinking part). We pass castaway islands, harbor side petrol pumps and police boats, patrolling the sea as though it were a highway. In a small dinghy behind us, children take turns at steering the motor as casually as if they were learning to ride a bike. This is a hybrid space, a water metropolis. There are no barriers, no screaming red warning signs. Here the sea is a seamless part of everyday life.

Skjeberkilen

I wince as a branch catches my arm. Deep in the belly of the Børtevann woods I am clutching at a basket of blueberries, feeling unsettlingly like Little Red Riding Hood. Berry picking in Norway is popular in the summer months, when the fruit can be boiled down into jam for the winter. In my head the exercise was far more Sound-of-Music, skipping through the forest with an accordion. But the woods are dense with spruce and pine trees towering overhead, moody and enigmatic. These are not the Disney-esque landscapes à la Frozen. This is the country after all that set the brooding scene for many a Norwegian crime thriller. I hear a rustle in the bushes behind me and jump to a rational conclusion: serial killer. My foe emerges munching grass absentmindedly, a puzzled deer, wondering at the startled little blonde girl in his woods.

Børtevann Woods

The chatter of crickets resounds in the evening air as I sit triumphant, outside an arduously constructed, if unstable looking, tent. I’m not a camping girl, but Norway has a way of twisting you around its little finger with its panoramic sea views and countryside idylls. Here, wild camping is an enshrined right - you can sleep beneath the stars without the usual bureaucratic squabbling over land ownership. In a country of extortionate inflation, there's a quiet respect for nature, a refusal to add it to a long list of overpriced commodities. 

Rural Norway doesn't share its secrets lightly. Outside of Oslo and the Fjords, there's little mention of anything in-between. It's largely untouched by international tourism; muted in the pages of holiday brochures and travel itineraries. Out here, life is stripped back - these places of natural sublime are tied together with the bonds of community. I struck gold when I stumbled into Høysand. Sometimes, the best places are the ones you didn’t even know you were looking for.

With thanks to Eurolines




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