Scandinavia--Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and Finland--is blessed with five distinct, yet related, cultures.

Learn about the stories behind the legends, about the countries, and most of all about the people.


"We sailed our ships to any shore that offered the best hope of booty; we feared no fellow on earth..."
Saga of Arrow-Odd

What is Gjetost?
A town in Sweden.
Brown goat cheese.
The word for "hello" in

Roasted fish.
The word for ghost in

Correct answer?
OSLO - Norway

Clustered around the head of the 68-mile-long Oslofjord, Oslo is probably the most spacious city in the world. Its 175-square-mile metropolitan area consists of over 75 percent forests and five percent water. Its fine deep harbor, Pipervika, stretches into the heart of the city and from it leave ferries to Denmark and Germany.

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Feature: Stavanger
Featured City: Oslo
Food: The Great NordicDiet
          Swedish Semla
          Norwegian Cuisine
          Canned Sardines
History: The Round Tower
Arts:   Vigeland Park, Oslo
          Georg Jensen
People: Henrik Ibsen    
News: Happiest Countries          

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The Alvar Aalto Story
by Bob Brooke

Alvar Aalto, Finnish architectIf we accept the theory of design that the form of an article should be determined by its use we have gone some way towards appreciating the work of Finland's most distinguished architect, Alvar Aalto, but that simple definition of functionalism does not reveal the depth of Aalto's artistic achievement. Functionalism was a phase in his career, a step on the way to his expression of the organic relationship between man, nature and buildings. It was Aalto's ability to coordinate those three components that discloses the beauty of his work. Aalto spoke of his art (building art he called it) as a synthesis of life in materialized form.

Alvar Aalto, born Hugo Alvar Henrik Aalto in 1898 in the village of Kuortane, situated between the lake country of central Finland and the flat farmlands of the western province of Ostrobothnia, was the eldest of three children in a family that belonged to the middle class of municipal civil servants. His father was a surveyor. When Aalto was five the family moved to Jyväskylä, a town that will forever be associated with his name. It was to be his home for the next 24 years and contains more of his buildings than any other place in the world. He designed 70 buildings for the town and its surroundings, 37 of which were realised. After leaving school Aalto went on to study at the Helsinki University of Technology where he graduated with a degree in architecture in 1921. Back in Jyväskylä, he opened his first architectural office in 1923. The following year he married architect Aino Marsio. Their honeymoon journey to Italy sealed an intellectual bond with the culture of the Mediterranean region that was to remain important to Aalto for the rest of his life.

In Pursuit of Artistic Harmony
In 1927 the Aaltos moved to the southwestern city of Turku to carry out some important commissions and from there to the Finnish capital, Helsinki, in 1933. During his time in Turku Aalto's most significant design was for the Paimio Sanatorium, a building that quickly elevated him to the status of master of heroic functionalism, a genre that he was soon to walk away from in his pursuit of artistic harmony through a synergy encompassing people, their environment and the buildings in which they live.

"In artistic creation, conscious respect for the problems of our times includes a magnificent goal: that of taking industrialism step-by-step to where it will eventually have to arrive–at the status of a harmonious cultural factor," said Alvar Aalto in 1928.

This perception of organic links between people, nature and buildings matured in the late 1930s when he designed the Villa Mairea, one of the most admired private residences of modern architecture. "At its best, abstract art is, as it were, a result of a process of crystallisation," Aalto said. "That may explain why it can be understood purely and solely through emotion, although in it and behind it are constructive thoughts and a fabric of human tragedy."

Aalto's later masterpieces include the municipal building in Säynätsalo, completed in 1952, and the Vuoksenniska Church (1959).

Alvar Aalto, the Man
Exceptionally broad in scope, his work ranged from buildings and town plans to furniture, glassware, jewellery and other forms of art. He was a cosmopolitan whose skills in various languages made travelling abroad and public speaking easy. When he was about to leave home to study in Helsinki his father gave him a piece of advice that was good but perhaps superfluous: "Alvar, always be a gentleman." His children describe him as a man of even temper who avoided becoming annoyed, a man who was usually able to find a compromise solution when differences arose with clients. His tactfulness and charm would no doubt have resolved the controversy over the marble surfaces of Finlandia Hall, his last great building in Helsinki, an issue that arose nearly twenty years after his death.

Is there an essentially Finnish element in Aalto's architecture? Many who know Finland's cultural heritage would see one. They see in his work the same metaphors of nature and the Finnish experience as in the music of Jean Sibelius or the creations of designers such as Wirkkala, Sarpaneva and many others. But Aalto's importance as an architect goes beyond the borders of his homeland. Like all great art his has the power to evoke feelings and the right to its own place in the world's cultural heritage.

Aalto Live On
Aalto, who died in 1976, was one of the 20th Century's landmark figures in the renewal of architecture and interior decoration. More has been written about him and his work than about any other architect in the post-war period. He’s so unique and inimitable as an architect that no "Aalto School" ever had a chance of emerging. Yet he has left an indelible impression on contemporary architectural thinking and design.

"National distinctiveness is ultimately of no significance in this matter, because he who is great dares to be universal, but his own persona will show through in his work," said Aalto in 1929.

He later added, "I do not write, I build. The Creator made paper for drawing on. Everything else, at least to me, is an abuse."

Read more about Alvar Aalto designs.

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Every year about 95 000 people die in Sweden and, according to the law, everyone must be buried. There must be room for everyone in the cemeteries, therefore the future needs of space have to be predicted. Because of this funerals must be part of the planning process.

Read more about Swedish burials

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In the early Middle Ages, driven by famine at home and the promise of wealth to be had in other lands, the Vikings set out from Scandinavia to conquer parts of England, Ireland, France, Russia, and even Turkey. Bolstered by their successes, the Vikings pushed westward, eventually crossing the North Atlantic and founding settlements in Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland in Canada.
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