Over the years, we've watched Oslo, the capital of Norway, grow from a sprawling country town into the sophisticated metropolis it is today. Fueled by oil money from the "black gold" of the North Sea, Oslo today is permeated with a Nordic joie de vivre in contrast to its staid, dull reputation of yesteryear.

Along with population growth, urban sprawl has come to Oslo. But Oslo still manages, in spite of its growing numbers, to have more green belts than any other European capital. There are still virgin forests in Oslo and hundreds of hiking trails that lead you to fjords or mountains.

No slouch in the cultural department, either, Oslo has some of the greatest museums in all of northern Europe. The only problem is that Oslo is one of the most expensive cities in Europe. Proceed with caution if you're on a strict budget.

Oslo was founded in the mid-11th century by a Viking king and became the capital around 1300 under Haakon V. In the course of its history, the city burned down several times; fire destroyed it in 1624. The master builder Christian IV, king of Denmark and Norway, ordered the town rebuilt near the Akershus Castle. He named the new town Christiania (after himself), its official name until 1924, when the city reverted to its former name.

In 1814, Norway separated from Denmark and united with Sweden, a union that lasted until 1905. During that period, the Royal Palace, the House of Parliament, the old university, the National Theater, and the National Gallery were built.

After World War II, Oslo grew to 454 sq. km (177 sq. miles); it now has 530,000 inhabitants. That makes it one of the largest of world capitals in acreage -- not in population.

Oslo is also one of Europe's most heavily forested cities, and its citizens relish this standing. Oslovians love nature in both summer and winter. When the winter snows fall, they bundle up and take to their nearby ski slopes. During their brief summer, they're quick to shed their clothes and head to the pine-covered hills in the north for long hikes and picnics, or else for sails on the blue waters of Oslofjord to the south. After a long winter slumber, the fjord suddenly becomes clogged with hundreds of sailboats, motorboats, and windsurfers, and dozens of sunbathers stripped down on the rocks, taking in the few precious days of summer sun Oslovians are granted.