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Summer solstice in Norway: Fired up

Scandinavians have long celebrated the summer solstice in style. Tam Leach downs coffee and hotdogs and joins the 24-hour party people on the coast of southern Norway

Never let a national stereotype stand in the way of rigorous observation. Take the general consensus on Scandinavians, for example: naturally quiet, reserved, studiously intellectual and possibly a little shy. It's only at night (under the influence of hideously expensive alcohol) that inhibitions fly free and all hell breaks loose. To me this view has a fundamental flaw: it ignores obvious cause and effect. Perhaps Scandinavians aren't shy at all. It's just that, by day, they're knackered. And often extremely hungover.

There's no better time to test this theory than at midsummer. A raucous Northern European celebration, the night has spawned legendary tales of magic and mayhem. Blame the confusion over its exact date on the puritanical leanings of the early Christian church, who decided that it was terribly important to celebrate the birthday of John the Baptist (St Johannes, or Hans, to the Scandis), which fell – oh, what a coincidence! – on 24 June, the same day as the pagan celebration of the solstice. Unfortunately, the astronomical date has moved over the centuries and across conflicting calendars to be set at 21 June, leading to long-running over when midsummer celebrations should occur.

Sweden has decided to make the date a movable one, in the third week of June so that an entire weekend may mark the occasion. The Norwegians, however, stick to the eve of St Hans, or Sankthansaften. And it was in Norway that I found myself, on 22 June – the eve of the eve – wondering where the party was.

Down in Sørlandet, the Norwegian south coast, Grimstad is a pretty seaside village of small white houses and rose-filled gardens, whose greatest claim to fame is that Ibsen once worked in its pharmacy. The town is flanked by a rocky archipelago, and resides in a county responsible for producing most of the leisure boats in Norway. Accordingly, Grimstad is a place where everybody pootles around on the water, and where the midsummer tradition is to decorate boats with flowers and head out en masse to barbecue on the islands.

Only, nobody seems to be doing much of anything when I first arrive.

Ready to put my theory to the test, I almost fall into the trap of believing the silence of suppertime. Another Scandinavian phenomenon, this occurs when everyone disappears home to eat with their families – and to fill up with affordable alcohol before hitting the bars. Vorspiel, the Norwegians call it – literally, foreplay.

But by 9pm, the first escapees from Oslo have appeared, hauling elaborate pushchairs into their summer homes. Norwegian summer holidays begin in July; before then Sorlandet fills up only at weekends and holidays. By 11pm, I have company in the bar. And by the time I retire to bed, still on a British time schedule, little Grimstad is going for it. Noise from a neighbouring roof terrace streams through the open window of my hotel room, a fractured cacophony of music and microphoned voices that I first take to be bad DJ-ing, only to realise at some point way past midnight that I've been listening to a "name that tune" pub quiz.

Poetically, Midsummer's Eve begins in flowers and ends in fire. Well, more accurately, the flowers come after a lot of coffee, which the locals drink by the bucketload. Down in the tidy harbour, teenagers sell pancakes and strawberries in aid of the Red Cross; a band commences a noisy sound check on the side of the pier. Somehow I find myself on the M/S Osteroy, a classic old shrimping boat refitted by the local coastal preservation team. We drift through a log jam of bloom-bedecked vessels, from old wooden rowing boats laden with lupins and birch branches to grand yachts with small posies on their prows.

There is a competition for the best-dressed boat, but few seem to be paying attention. Instead, neighbours wave across the waves and exchange shouted fragments of news; with children and children of children returning to Grimstad for the first visit of summer, it's all gossip on the high seas. Competition over, the flotilla departs the shore for Hampholmen island, where people are already setting up deckchairs and grills for the evening barbecue.

"It gets so busy here later on!" exclaim the elders on the Osteroy, before turning back to shore early to join more sedate celebrations in town. Keen to support my research, however, I've been adopted by some of the younger passengers, who have planned a brief vorspeil pitstop on dry land. A few polser (hotdogs) and beers later and we're speeding back out to the archipelago, to where a towering inferno roars heavenwards from the middle of the sea.

This is the burning crux of St Hans. Across Norway fires blaze into the midsummer night, on mountain peaks and all along the shore. In Grimstad, the giant bonfire completely covers a rocky islet, so that the flames appear to shoot up from the waves. There are now even more boats than before; we circle like a fleet of pyromaniacal moths, bobbing now closer, now further from the flames, lulled by the heat, by the crackle and pop.

And then we greet midnight on an island shore, surrounded by Norwegians from across the globe, glowing in their summer idyll. And then? Drinks in the Apotekergarden, a restaurant and club staffed and owned by young Grimstaders looking for a way to remain throughout the year. Then, to a bar. Then, to another. And finally we greet a new day in time-honoured fashion; not rolling in midsummer dew, but eating kebabs as the sun comes up.

I've barely closed my eyes before it all starts again. St Hans is just the beginning of the long nights of summer in Sorlandet. There is the Hove Festivalen, possibly the only major music festival in the world where you can bring your own boat; the mellower Skral festival; bluegrass at Risor. And on my last evening, in another white-painted town just down the coast, they are celebrating the Lillesand Days. Judging from the turnout, this jazz, blues and country concert series is just another excuse for the entire community to drink together under midsummer skies.

As the sun starts to rise, we drift back to someone's home for nachspiel – the afterparty. The aroma of fresh coffee wafts through the morning stillness; in the kitchen, his father reads the paper.

I don't get it. My hypothesis seems sound, but begs another question. I saw this man, a respected local official, enjoying the music only hours ago. When do you all sleep? He stirs his coffee, slowly. "Sleep?" he says, quietly and reservedly, glancing out of the window to where dawn tinges the top of the fir trees tangerine and sea birds bob on the dark inland water. "We sleep during winter."

Traveller's Guide

Getting there

The closest airport is Kristiansand, which is around 30 miles south of Grimstad. Norwegian (020-8099 7254; www.norwegian.no) flies there from Edinburgh. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies to Oslo Torp, 100 miles north of Grimstad, from Stansted, Liverpool, Glasgow, Dublin and Birmingham. A bus service to Grimstad is available from both Kristiansand and Oslo.

Staying there

Rica Hotel Grimstad, Kirkegt 3, Grimstad (00 47 37 25 25 25; www.rica-hotels.com). Doubles start at NK1,250 (£130), including breakfast.

Homborsund lighthouse (00 47 37 04 64 50; www.fyr.no). You can also book through Grimstad Tourist Office.

More information

www.grimstad.net; 00 47 37 25 01 68. www.visitnorway.co.uk; 020-7389 8800.