239km (148 miles) SW of Oslo; 69km (43 miles) E of Kristiansand S

"I have found heaven on earth," Harald Hagerup, a local painter, assured us on our first visit to Arendal. After spending some time here, we concur that it is a worthwhile little stopover.

Arendal, the government center of the Aust-Agder district, was once known as "the Venice of Scandinavia." At the time it was riddled with canals, but following a disastrous fire, these canals were filled in and turned into wide streets. That move took away a lot of the charm, but much remains to enchant.

For the best look at old Arendal, visit Tyholmen, in the center, with its handsomely preserved 18th-century wooden houses. Many artists and craftspeople have moved here from Oslo, taking over the wood-framed structures and restoring them. In summer, the harbor, Pollen, is filled with boats and people, as this is one of the most popular centers for domestic tourism in Norway. Many Norwegians come here to take boat trips among the neighboring rocks, and they also traverse the delta of the Nid River.

In addition to Ibsen, the region's second-most-famous son was Knut Hamsun, called the "Balzac of Norway." He won the Nobel Prize in 1918. His novels give a vivid portrait of 19th-century Norwegian values, and his works are still very popular in Germany, almost more so than they are in Norway.