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

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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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by Bob Brooke

For the Finns the sauna has always been important. In existence for at least a thousand years, there are about 1.5 million saunas in Finland today, and considering the Finland’s population is around five million, that’s a lot of saunas.

Originally the sauna was a place to bathe, but as it was the only available clean place with abundant water, it has also been a place for giving birth and healing the sick. ‘Sauna' is a Finnish-Sámi word. The heart of the sauna was a pile of heated rocks around which bathers sat under a temporary cover, just as Native Americans did in their sweat lodges. It’s possible early man used sweat baths similar to saunas as long ago as 6,000 years, during the Stone Age. However, the stoves in the dwellings at that time were round, shallow fire pits, with two or three layers of smallish stones at the bottom.

History of the Sauna
It’s generally believed that the Finns built the first wooden saunas in the 5th to 8th centuries. Originally single-room log buildings, they were initially heated by fire and smoke. In those early days the buildings served as both a dwelling and a sauna.

The basic principle of a sauna is one of dry heat–that’s why the body can withstand temperatures of 100̊C/212̊F and more. The heat comes from a stove in a corner of the sauna, nowadays usually heated electrically, but ideally by wood. Atop this is a pile of hot stones onto which the person taking the sauna throws a small amount of water from time to time, adding moisture to the air and giving the illusion of a sharp rise in temperature.

After sweating it out, the usual practice in a private sauna is to wash and shower or plunge into sea or lake, then repeat the process as often as desired, usually rounding off with quiet relaxation and a cold drink on the balcony overlooking the water. During the winter, hardy Finns roll in the snow or dip into a hole in the ice. Hotel or public saunas often impose a time limit. Usually, there’s a place to relax and take refreshment afterwards, an essential part of the process.. In the old days, farmers usually built their sauna before the living quarters of their house. They believed taking a sauna a cure for almost all imaginable ills.

Types of Saunas
History has seen a variety of types of sauna in Finland. The nomad people wandering around in what later became Finland already heated holes in the ground and covered them with a tarp to have a warm place for bathing. Later the sauna became a dedicated part of the house or often a separate building slightly apart from the main habitat.

The smoke sauna is the most traditional form of the sauna. It has a fireplace with no chimney; the smoke exits through a small hole just below the roof. The sauna builder piles stones, without using mortar, to create a fireplace, which takes several hours to warm up. People used these fireplaces as late as the 1920's. As inventors developed new types of stoves for sauna use, the fireplaces began to disappear. Today, heaters have a metal casing and a chimney, but still have stones to retain the heat. Saunas later received running water, and new building materials transformed the sauna into the kind of sauna known today.

Life Rituals and the Sauna
In Finland the sauna has always been a sacred place for cleansing the body, and above all the mind, during all the stages of human life from birth to washing the dead. Without exception it was the women who performed all the life-cycle rituals in the sauna. Generally, Finnish women gave birth to their children in the sauna right up to the Second World War. The sauna was a heatible, clean place, the most hygienic on a farm. The tradition of up to a week-long confinement in the sauna, followed by the newborn being ceremoniously carried into the house, lived on until the early part of the 20th century.

In bygone days the sauna was a sacred place to the Finns. Originally, farmers built their saunas within the enclosure surrounding their farm buildings. A sauna’s location by the lakeshore only goes back to the early 20th century following the fashion of the gentry and upper-class who built villas for recreation.

Heating a Sauna
Then, people usually heated their saunas only once a week. Heating a smoke sauna hot enough for several rounds of bathers took a whole day. The task of picking out the right wood, laying the fire and stocking it with wood went to a skilled fire tender, The key quality of a good fire tender was to have an unhurried attitude in the process.

In many modern Finnish houses the sauna is a main part of the bathroom. The heater is electrical but other aspects of bathing in a sauna remain mainly unchanged. The inner walls of a sauna are always made of wood–preferably pine. Wood is the only natural material that doesn’t feel too hot to the touch in high temperatures.

The feeling in a wood-heated sauna is somewhat different from that of an electric sauna. The wooden sauna has lately won new appreciation and the art of building wood-heated saunas, even smoke saunas has been revived. A short swim in a lake or cool Jacuzzi completes the perfect sauna experience.

Sauna Behavior
A Finnish proverb says that people should behave in the sauna as they do in church. Bathers are warned against shouting, cursing, telling tales, bad-mouthing and breaking wind in the sauna. Parents teach their children sauna manners though rules and warnings.

The widespread belief that mixed bathing is customary in Finland is unfounded, and runs counter to Finnish folk tradition. In a farming community, men and women took turns to bathe, and the joint family sauna is a later phenomenon. In the past, the farmer and his farmhands bathed first at the end of the day's work in the fields and the farmer's wife and farm women second, after they had milked the cows.

After taking a sauna there’s no hurry to go anywhere. The feeling is blissful. The sauna relaxes the body and soothes the mind. 'Re-created' best describes what the refreshed mind feels after bathing in the dry heat.

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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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